The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham


  'You're trying my patience, Louisa.'

  'My poor Elliott, if you'd ever had a grown-up daughter you'd know that by comparison a bucking steer is easy to manage. And as to knowing what goes on inside her – well, it's much better to pretend you're the simple, innocent old fool she almost certainly takes you for.'

  'But you have talked the matter over with her?'

  'I tried to. She laughed at me and told me there was really nothing to tell.'

  'Is she cut up?'

  'I wouldn't know. All I do know is that she eats well and sleeps like a child.'

  'Well, take my word for it, if you let them go on like this they'll go off one of these days and get married without saying a word to anybody.'

  Mrs Bradley permitted herself to smile.

  'It must be a relief to you to think that at present we're living in a country where every facility is afforded to sexual irregularity and every obstacle put in the way of marriage.'

  'And quite rightly. Marriage is a serious matter on which rest the security of the family and the stability of the state. But marriage can only maintain its authority if extracon – jugal relations are not only tolerated but sanctioned. Prostitution, my poor Louisa –'

  'That'll do, Elliott,' interrupted Mrs Bradley. 'I'm not interested in your views on the social and moral values of promiscuous fornication.'

  It was then he put forward a scheme that would interrupt Isabel's continued intercourse with Larry, which was so repugnant to his sense of what was fitting. The Paris season was drawing to a close and all the best people were arranging to go to watering places or to Deauville before repairing for the rest of the summer to their ancestral chateaux in Touraine, Anjou, or Brittany. Ordinarily Elliott went to London at the end of June, but his family feeling was strong and his affection for his sister and Isabel sincere; he had been quite ready to sacrifice himself and remain in Paris, if they wished it, when no one who was anyone was there; but he found himself now in the agreeable situation of being able to do what was best for others and at the same time what was convenient to himself. He proposed to Mrs Bradley that the three of them should go to London immediately, where the season was still in full swing and where new interests and new friends would distract Isabel's mind from her unfortunate entanglement. According to the papers the great specialist on Mrs Bradley's disease was then in the British capital, and the desirability of consulting him would reasonably account for their precipitate departure and override any disinclination to leave Paris that Isabel might have. Mrs Bradley fell in with the plan. She was puzzled by Isabel. She could not make up her mind whether she was as carefree as she seemed or whether, hurt, angry, or heartsick, she was putting on a bold front to conceal her wounded feelings. Mrs Bradley could only agree with Elliott that it would do Isabel good to see new people and new places.

  Elliot got busy on the telephone and when Isabel, who had been spending the day at Versailles with Larry, came home, he was able to tell her that he had made an appointment for her mother to see the celebrated doctor three days from then, that he had engaged a suite at Claridge's and that they were starting on the next day but one. Mrs Bradley watched her daughter while this intelligence was being somewhat smugly imparted to her by Elliott, but she did not turn a hair.

  'Oh, darling, I'm so glad you're going to see that doctor,' she cried with her usual rather breathless impetuosity. 'Of course, you mustn't miss the chance. And it'll be grand going to London. How long are we going to stay?'

  'It would be useless to come back to Paris,' said Elliott. 'There won't be a soul here in a week. I want you to stay with me at Claridge's for the rest of the season. There are always some good balls in July and of course there's Wimbledon. And then Goodwood and Cowes. I'm sure the Ellinghams will be glad to have us on their yacht for Cowes and the Bantocks always have a large party for Goodwood.'

  Isabel appeared to be delighted and Mrs Bradley was reassured. It looked as though she were not giving Larry a thought.

  Elliott had just finished telling me all this when mother and daughter came in. I had not seen them for more than eighteen months. Mrs Bradley was a little thinner than before and more pasty-faced; she looked tired and none too well. But Isabel was blooming. With her high colour, the rich brown of her hair, her shining hazel eyes, her clear skin, she gave an impression of such youth, of so much enjoyment of the mere fact of being alive, that you felt half inclined to laugh with delight. She gave me the rather absurd notion of a pear, golden and luscious, perfectly ripe and simply asking to be eaten. She radiated warmth so that you thought that if you held out your hands you could feel its comfort. She looked taller than when I had last seen her, whether because she wore higher heels or because the clever dressmaker had cut her frock to conceal her youthful plumpness I don't know, and she held herself with the graceful ease of a girl who has played outdoor games since childhood. She was in short sexually a very attractive young woman. Had I been her mother I should have thought it high time she was married.

  Glad of the opportunity to repay some of the kindness I had received from Mrs Bradley in Chicago, I asked them all three to come to a play with me one evening. I arranged to give a luncheon for them.

  'You'll be wise to get in at once, my dear fellow,' said Elliott. 'I've already let my friends know we're here and I presume that in a day or two we shall be fixed up for the rest of the season.'

  I understood by this that Elliott meant that then they would have no time for the likes of me and I laughed. Elliott gave me a glance in which I discerned a certain hauteur.

  'But of course you'll generally find us here about six o'clock and we shall always be glad to see you,' he said graciously, but with the evident intention of putting me, as an author, in my humble place.

  But the worm sometimes turns.

  'You must try to get in touch with the St Olpherds,' I said. 'I hear they want to dispose of their Constable of Salisbury Cathedral.'

  'I'm not buying any pictures just now.'

  'I know, but I thought you might dispose of it for them.'

  A steely glitter came into Elliott's eyes.

  'My dear fellow, the English are a great people, but they have never been able to paint and never will be able to paint. I am not interested in the English school.'

  7

  During the next four weeks I saw little of Elliott and his relations. He did them proud. He took them for a week-end to a grand house in Sussex and for another week-end to an even grander one in Wiltshire. He took them to the royal box at the opera as guests of a minor princess of the House of Windsor. He took them to lunch and dine with the great. Isabel went to several balls. He entertained at Claridge's a series of guests whose names made a fine show in the paper next day. He gave supper parties at Ciro's and the Embassy. In fact he did all the right things and Isabel would have had to be much more sophisticated than she was not to have been a trifle dazzled by the splendour and elegance he provided for her delectation. Elliott could flatter himself that he was taking all this trouble from the purely unselfish motive of distracting Isabel's mind from an unfortunate love affair; but I had a notion he got besides a good deal of satisfaction out of letting his sister see with her own eyes how familiar he was with the illustrious and fashionable. He was an admirable host and he took a delight in displaying his virtuosity.

  I went to one or two of his parties myself and now and again I dropped in at Claridge's at six o'clock. I found Isabel surrounded by strapping young men in beautiful clothes who were in the Household Brigade or by elegant young men in less beautiful clothes from the Foreign Office. It was on one of these occasions that she drew me aside.

  'I want to ask you something,' she said. 'Do you remember that evening we went to a drugstore and had an icecream soda?'

  'Perfectly.'

  'You were very nice and helpful then. Will you be nice and helpful again?'

  'I'll do my best.'

  'I want to talk to you about something. Couldn't we lunch one day?'

&nb
sp; 'Almost any day you like.'

  'Somewhere quiet.'

  'What d'you say to driving down to Hampton Court and lunching there? The gardens should be at their best just now and you could see Queen Elizabeth's bed.'

  The notion suited her and we fixed a day. But when the day came the weather, which had been fine and warm, broke; the sky was grey and a drizzling rain was falling. I called up and asked her if she wouldn't prefer to lunch in town.

  'We shouldn't be able to sit in the gardens and the pictures will be so dark, we shan't see a thing.'

  'I've sat in lots of gardens and I'm fed to the teeth with old masters. Let's go anyway.'

  'All right.'

  I fetched her and we drove down. I knew a small hotel where one ate tolerably and we went straight there. On the way Isabel talked with her usual vivacity of the parties she had been to and the people she had met. She had been enjoying herself, but her comments on various acquaintances she had made suggested to me that she had shrewdness and a quick eye for the absurd. The bad weather kept visitors away and we were the only occupants of the dining-room. The hotel specialized in homely English fare and we had a cut off a leg of excellent lamb with green peas and new potatoes and a deep-dish apple pie with Devonshire cream to follow. With a tankard of pale ale it made an excellent lunch. When we had finished I suggested that we should go into the empty coffee-room where there were armchairs in which we could sit in comfort. It was chilly in there, but the fire was laid, so I put a match to it. The flames made the dingy room more companionable.

  'That's that,' I said. 'Now tell me what you want to talk to me about.'

  'It's the same as last time,' she chuckled. 'Larry.'

  'So I guessed.'

  'You know that we've broken off our engagement.'

  'Elliott told me.'

  'Mamma's relieved and he's delighted.'

  She hesitated for a moment and then embarked upon the account of her talk with Larry of which I have done my best faithfully to inform the reader. It may surprise the reader that she should have chosen to tell so much to someone whom she knew so little. I don't suppose I had seen her a dozen times and, except for that one occasion at the drugstore, never alone. It did not surprise me. For one thing, as any writer will tell you, people do tell a writer things that they don't tell others. I don't know why, unless it is that having read one or two of his books they feel on peculiarly intimate terms with him; or it may be that they dramatize themselves and, seeing themselves as it were as characters in a novel, are ready to be as open with him as they imagine the characters of his invention are. And I think that Isabel felt that I liked Larry and her, and that their youth touched me, and that I was sympathetic to their distresses. She could not expect to find a friendly listener in Elliott who was disinclined to trouble himself with a young man who had spurned the best chance a young man ever had of getting to society. Nor could her mother help her. Mrs Bradley had high principles and common sense. Her common sense assured her that if you wanted to get on in this world you must accept its conventions, and not to do what everybody else did clearly pointed to instability. Her high principles led her to believe that a man's duty was to go to work in a business where by energy and initiative he had a chance of earning enough money to keep his wife and family in accordance with the standards of his station, give his sons such an education as would enable them on reaching man's estate to make an honest living, and on his death leave his widow adequately provided for.

  Isabel had a good memory and the various turns of the long discussion had engraved themselves upon it. I listened in silence till she had finished. She only interrupted herself once to ask me a question.

  'Who was Ruysdael?'

  'Ruysdael? He was a Dutch landscape painter. Why?'

  She told me that Larry had mentioned him. He had said that Ruysdael at least had found an answer to the questions he was asking, and she repeated to me his flippant reply when she had inquired who he was.

  'What d'you suppose he meant?'

  I had an inspiration.

  'Are you sure he didn't say Ruysbroek?'

  'He might have. Who was he?'

  'He was a Flemish mystic who lived in the fourteenth century.'

  'Oh,' she said with disappointment.

  It meant nothing to her. But it meant something to me. That was the first indication I had of the turn Larry's reflection was taking, and while she went on with her story, though still listening attentively, part of my mind busied itself with the possibilities that reference of his had suggested. I did not want to make too much of it, for it might be that he had only mentioned the name of the Ecstatic Teacher to make an argumentative point; it might also have a significance that had escaped Isabel. When he answered her question by saying Ruysbroek was just a guy he hadn't known in college he evidently meant to throw her off the scent.

  'What do you make of it all?' she asked when she had come to an end.

  I paused before replying.

  'D'you remember his saying that he was just going to loaf? If what he tells you is true his loafing seems to involve some very strenuous work.'

  'I'm sure it's true. But don't you see that if he'd worked as hard at any productive form of work he'd be earning a decent income?'

  'There are people who are strangely constituted. There are criminals who'll work like beavers to contrive schemes that land them in prison and they no sooner get out than they start all over again and again land in prison. If they put as much industry, as much cleverness, resource, and patience into honest practices they could make a handsome living and occupy important positions. But they're just made that way. They like crime.'

  'Poor Larry,' she giggled. 'You're not going to suggest that he's learning Greek to cook up a bank robbery.'

  I laughed too.

  'No, I'm not. What I'm trying to tell you is that there are men who are possessed by an urge so strong to do some particular thing that they can't help themselves, they've got to do it. They're prepared to sacrifice everything to satisfy their yearning.'

  'Even the people who love them?'

  'Oh, yes.'

  'Is that anything more than plain selfishness?'

  'I wouldn't know,' I smiled.

  'What can be the possible use of Larry's learning dead languages?'

  'Some people have a disinterested desire for knowledge. It's not an ignoble desire.'

  'What's the good of knowledge if you're not going to do anything with it?'

  'Perhaps he is. Perhaps it will be sufficient satisfaction merely to know, as it's a sufficient satisfaction to an artist to produce a work of art. And perhaps it's only a step towards something further.'

  'If he wanted knowledge why couldn't he go to college when he came back from the war? It's what Dr Nelson and Mamma wanted him to do.'

  'I talked to him about that in Chicago. A degree would be of no use to him. I have an inkling that he had a definite idea of what he wanted and felt he couldn't get it at a university. You know, in learning there's the lone wolf as well as the wolf who runs in the pack. I think Larry is one of those persons who can go no other way than their own.'

  'I remember once asking him if he wanted to write. He laughed and said he had nothing to write about.'

  'That's the most inconclusive reason for not writing that I've ever heard,' I smiled.

  Isabel made a gesture of impatience. She was in no mood even for the mildest jest.

  'What I can't make out is why he should have turned out like this. Before the war he was just like everybody else. You wouldn't think it, but he plays a very good game of tennis and he's quite a decent golfer. He used to do all the things the rest of us did. He was a perfectly normal boy and there was no reason to suppose he wouldn't become a perfectly normal man. After all you're a novelist, you ought to be able to explain it.'

  'Who am I to explain the infinite complexities of human nature?'

  'That's why I wanted to talk to you today,' she added, taking no notice of what I said.

>   'Are you unhappy?'

  'No, not exactly unhappy. When Larry isn't there I'm all right; it's when I'm with him that I feel so weak. Now it's just a sort of ache, like the stiffness you get after a long ride when you haven't been on a horse for months; it's not pain, it's not at all unbearable, but you're conscious of it. I shall get over it all right. I hate the idea of Larry making such a mess of his life.'

  'Perhaps he won't. It's a long, arduous road he's starting to travel, but it may be that at the end of it he'll find what he's seeking.'

  'What's that?'

  'Hasn't it occurred to you? It seems to me that in what he said to you he indicated it pretty plainly. Cod.'

  'God!' she cried. But it was an exclamation of incredulous surprise. Our use of the same word, but in such a different, sense, had a comic effect, so that we were obliged to laugh. But Isabel immediately grew serious again and I felt in her whole attitude something like fear. What on earth makes you think that?'

  'I'm only guessing. But you asked me to tell you what I thought as a novelist. Unfortunately you don't know what experience he had in the war that so profoundly moved him. I think it was some sudden shock for which he was unprepared. I suggest to you that whatever it was that happened to Larry filled him with a sense of the transiency of life, and an anguish to be sure that there was a compensation for the sin and sorrow of the world.'

  I could see that Isabel didn't like the turn I had given the conversation. It made her feel shy and awkward.

  'Isn't all that awfully morbid? One has to take the world as it comes. If we're here, it's surely to make the most of life.'

  'You're probably right.'

  'I don't pretend to be anything but a perfectly normal, ordinary girl. I want to have fun.'

  'It looks as though there were complete incompatibility of temper between you. It's much better that you should have found it out before marriage.'

  'I want to marry and have children and live –'

  'In that state of life in which a merciful Providence has been pleased to place you,' I interrupted, smiling.

 
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