The servant announced: "Dinner is served, Madame," and they passed into the dining-room.
Duroy found himself seated between Madame de Marelle and her daughter.
He again felt ill at ease, being afraid of making some mistake in the conventional handling of forks, spoons, and glasses.
There were four of these, one of a faint blue tint.
What could be meant to be drunk out of that?
Nothing was said while the soup was being consumed, and then Norbert de Varenne asked:
"Have you read the Gauthier case?
What a funny business it is."
After a discussion on this case of adultery, complicated with blackmailing, followed.
They did not speak of it as the events recorded in newspapers are spoken of in private families, but as a disease is spoken of among doctors, or vegetables among market gardeners.
They were neither shocked nor astonished at the facts, but sought out their hidden and secret motives with professional curiosity, and an utter indifference for the crime itself.
They sought to clearly explain the origin of certain acts, to determine all the cerebral phenomena which had given birth to the drama, the scientific result due to an especial condition of mind.
The women, too, were interested in this investigation.
And other recent events were examined, commented upon, turned so as to show every side of them, and weighed correctly, with the practical glance, and from the especial standpoint of dealers in news, and vendors of the drama of life at so much a line, just as articles destined for sale are examined, turned over, and weighed by tradesmen.
Then it was a question of a duel, and Jacques Rival spoke.
This was his business; no one else could handle it.
Duroy dared not put in a word.
He glanced from time to time at his neighbor, whose full bosom captivated him.
A diamond, suspended by a thread of gold, dangled from her ear like a drop of water that had rolled down it.
From time to time she made an observation which always brought a smile to her hearers' lips.
She had a quaint, pleasant wit, that of an experienced tomboy who views things with indifference and judges them with frivolous and benevolent skepticism.
Duroy sought in vain for some compliment to pay her, and, not finding one, occupied himself with her daughter, filling her glass, holding her plate, and helping her.
The child, graver than her mother, thanked him in a serious tone and with a slight bow, saying:
"You are very good, sir," and listened to her elders with an air of reflection.
The dinner was very good, and everyone was enraptured.
Monsieur Walter ate like an ogre, hardly spoke, and glanced obliquely under his glasses at the dishes offered to him.
Norbert de Varenne kept him company, and from time to time let drops of gravy fall on his shirt front.
Forestier, silent and serious, watched everything, exchanging glances of intelligence with his wife, like confederates engaged together on a difficult task which is going on swimmingly.
Faces grew red, and voices rose, as from time to time the man-servant murmured in the guests' ears:
"Corton or Chateau-Laroze."
Duroy had found the Corton to his liking, and let his glass be filled every time.
A delicious liveliness stole over him, a warm cheerfulness, that mounted from the stomach to the head, flowed through his limbs and penetrated him throughout.
He felt himself wrapped in perfect comfort of life and thought, body and soul.
A longing to speak assailed him, to bring himself into notice, to be appreciated like these men, whose slightest words were relished.
But the conversation, which had been going on unchecked, linking ideas one to another, jumping from one topic to another at a chance word, a mere trifle, and skimming over a thousand matters, turned again on the great question put by Monsieur Morel in the Chamber respecting the colonization of Algeria.
Monsieur Walter, between two courses, made a few jests, for his wit was skeptical and broad.
Forestier recited his next day's leader.
Jacques Rival insisted on a military government with land grants to all officers after thirty years of colonial service.
"By this plan," he said, "you will create an energetic class of colonists, who will have already learned to love and understand the country, and will be acquainted with its language, and with all those grave local questions against which new-comers invariably run their heads."
Norbert de Varenne interrupted him with:
"Yes; they will be acquainted with everything except agriculture.
They will speak Arabic, but they will be ignorant how beet-root is planted out and wheat sown.
They will be good at fencing, but very shaky as regards manures.
On the contrary, this new land should be thrown entirely open to everyone.
Intelligent men will achieve a position there; the others will go under.
It is the social law."
A brief silence followed, and the listeners smiled at one another.
George Duroy opened his mouth, and said, feeling as much surprised at the sound of his own voice as if he had never heard himself speak: "What is most lacking there is good land.
The really fertile estates cost as much as in France, and are bought up as investments by rich Parisians.
The real colonists, the poor fellows who leave home for lack of bread, are forced into the desert, where nothing will grow for want of water."