“What is? Sittin’ round a table, eatin’ and drinkin’?”
“Ah, lovely skeptic!” She looked at him strangely, but he continued with growing enthusiasm: “I mean to sit at such a table as this, with such a chef, with such wines—to know one crowded hour like this is to live! Not a thing is missing; all this swagger furniture, the rich atmosphere of smartness about the whole place; best of all, the company. It’s a great thing to have the real people around you, the right sort, you know, socially; people you’d ask to your own table at home. There are only seven, but every one distingue, every one—”
She leaned both elbows on the table with her hands palm to palm, and, resting her cheek against the back of her left hand, looked at him steadily.
“And you—are you distinguished, too?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t be much known over here,” he said modestly.
“Do you write poetry?”
“Oh, not professionally, though it is published. I suppose”—he sipped his champagne with his head a little to one side as though judging its quality—“I suppose I ’ve been more or less a dilettante. I’ve knocked about the world a good bit.”
“Helene says you’re one of these leisure American billionaires like Mr. Cooley there,” she said in her tired voice.
“Oh, none of us are really quite billionaires.” He laughed deprecatingly.
“No, I suppose not—not really. Go on and tell me some more about life and this distinguished company.”
“Hey, folks!” Mr. Pedlow’s roar broke in upon this dialogue. “You two are gittin’ mighty thick over there. We’re drinking a toast, and you’ll have to break away long enough to join in.”
“Queen! That’s what she is!” shouted Cooley.
Mellin lifted his glass with the others and drank to Madame de Vaurigard, but the woman at his side did not change her attitude and continued to sit with her elbows on the table, her cheek on the back of her hand, watching him thoughtfully.
VI. Rake’s Progress
Many toasts were uproariously honored, the health of each member of the party in turn, then the country of each: France and England first, out of courtesy to the ladies, Italy next, since this beautiful and extraordinary meeting of distinguished people (as Mellin remarked in a short speech he felt called upon to make) took place in that wonderful land, then the United States. This last toast the gentlemen felt it necessary to honor by standing in their chairs.
[Song: The Star-Spangled Banner—without words—by Mr. Cooley and chorus.]
When the cigars were brought, the ladies graciously remained, adding tiny spirals of smoke from their cigarettes to the layers of blue haze which soon overhung the table. Through this haze, in the gentle light (which seemed to grow softer and softer) Mellin saw the face of Helene de Vaurigard, luminous as an angel’s. She was an angel—and the others were gods. What could be more appropriate in Rome? Lady Mount-Rhyswicke was Juno, but more beautiful. For himself, he felt like a god too, Olympic in serenity.