The dining-room at Quesnay is a pretty work of the second of those three Louises who made so much furniture. It was never a proper setting for a rusty, out-of-doors painter-man, nor has such a fellow ever found himself complacently at ease there since the day its first banquet was spread for a score or so of fine-feathered epigram jinglers, fiddling Versailles gossip out of a rouge-and-lace Quesnay marquise newly sent into half-earnest banishment for too much king-hunting. For my part, however, I should have preferred a chance at making a place for myself among the wigs and brocades to the Crusoe’s Isle of my chair at Miss Elizabeth’s table.
I learned at an early age to look my vanities in the face; I outfaced them and they quailed, but persisted, surviving for my discomfort to this day. Here is the confession: It was not until my arrival at the chateau that I realised what temerity it involved to dine there in evening clothes purchased, some four or five or six years previously, in the economical neighbourhood of the Boulevard St. Michel. Yet the things fitted me well enough; were clean and not shiny, having been worn no more than a dozen times, I think; though they might have been better pressed.
Looking over the men of the Quesnay party—or perhaps I should signify a reversal of that and say a glance of theirs at me—revealed the importance of a particular length of coat-tail, of a certain rich effect obtained by widely separating the lower points of the waistcoat, of the display of some imagination in the buttons upon the same garment, of a doubled-back arrangement of cuffs, and of a specific design and dimension of tie. Marked uniformity in these matters denoted their necessity; and clothes differing from the essential so vitally as did mine must have seemed immodest, little better than no clothes at all. I doubt if I could have argued in extenuation my lack of advantages for study, such an excuse being itself the damning circumstance. Of course eccentricity is permitted, but (as in the Arts) only to the established. And I recall a painful change of colour which befell the countenance of a shining young man I met at Ward’s house in Paris: he had used his handkerchief and was absently putting it in his pocket when he providentially noticed what he was doing and restored it to his sleeve.
Miss Elizabeth had the courage to take me under her wing, placing me upon her left at dinner; but sprightlier calls than mine demanded and occupied her attention. At my other side sat a magnificently upholstered lady, who offered a fine shoulder and the rear wall of a collar of pearls for my observation throughout the evening, as she leaned forward talking eagerly with a male personage across the table. This was a prince, ending in “ski”: he permitted himself the slight vagary of wearing a gold bracelet, and perhaps this flavour of romance drew the lady. Had my good fortune ever granted a second meeting, I should not have known her.