The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

'Well, there's no harm in that, is there? It's a very pleasant state and I'm quite satisfied with it.'

  'You're like two friends who want to take their holiday together, but one of them wants to climb Greenland's icy mountains while the other wants to fish off India's coral strand. Obviously it's not going to work.'

  'Anyway, I might get a sealskin coat off Greenland's icy mountains, and I think it's very doubtful if there are any fish off India's coral strand.'

  'That remains to be seen.'

  'Why d'you say that?' she asked, frowning a little. 'All the time you seem to be making some sort of mental reservation. Of course I know that I'm not playing the star part in this. Larry's got that. He's the idealist, he's the dreamer of a beautiful dream, and even if the dream doesn't come true, it's rather thrilling to have dreamt it. I'm cast for the hard, mercenary, practical part. Common sense is never very sympathetic, is it? But what you forget is that it's I who'd have to pay. Larry would sweep along, trailing clouds of glory, and all there'd be left for me would be to tag along and make both ends meet. I want to live.'

  'I don't forget that at all. Years ago, when I was young, I knew a man who was a doctor, and not a bad one either, but he didn't practise. He spent years burrowing away in the library of the British Museum and at long intervals produced a huge pseudo-scientific, pseudo-philosophical book that nobody read and that he had to publish at his own expense. He wrote four or five of them before he died and they were absolutely worthless. He had a son who wanted to go into the army, but there was no money to send him to Sandhurst, so he had to enlist. He was killed in the war. He had a daughter too. She was very pretty and I was rather taken with her. She went on the stage, but she had no talent and she traipsed around the provinces playing small parts in second-rate companies at a miserable salary. His wife, after years of dreary, sordid drudgery, broke down in health and the girl had to come home and nurse her and take on the drudgery her mother no longer had the strength for. Wasted, thwarted lives and all to no purpose. It's a toss-up when you decide to leave the beaten track. Many are called but few are chosen.'

  'Mother and Uncle Elliott approve of what I've done. Do you approve too?'

  'My dear, what can that matter to you? I'm almost a stranger to you.'

  'I look upon you as a disinterested observer,' she said, with a pleasant smile. 'I should like to have your approval. You do think I've done right, don't you?'

  'I think you've done right for you,' I said, fairly confident that she would not catch the slight distinction I made in my reply.

  'Then why have I a bad conscience?'

  'Have you?'

  With a smile still on her lips, but a slightly rueful smile now, she nodded.

  'I know it's only horse sense. I know that every reasonable person would agree that I've done the only possible thing. I know that from every practical standpoint, from the standpoint of worldly wisdom, from the standpoint of common decency, from the standpoint of what's right and wrong, I've done what I ought to do. And yet at the bottom of my heart I've got an uneasy feeling that if I were better, if I were more disinterested, more unselfish, nobler, I'd marry Larry and lead his life. If I only loved him enough I'd think the world well lost.'

  'You might put it the other way about. If he loved you enough he wouldn't have hesitated to do what you want.'

  'I've said that to myself too. But it doesn't help. I suppose it's more in woman's nature to sacrifice herself than in a man's.' She chuckled. 'Ruth and the alien corn and all that sort of thing.'

  'Why don't you risk it?'

  We had been talking quite lightly, almost as if we were having a casual conversation about people we both knew but in whose affairs we were not intimately concerned, and even when she narrated to me her talk with Larry, Isabel had spoken with a sort of breezy gaiety, enlivening it with humour, as if she did not want me to take what she said too seriously. But now she went pale.

  'I'm afraid.'

  For a while we were silent. A chill went down my spine as it strangely does when I am confronted with deep and genuine human emotion. I find it terrible and rather awe-inspiring.

  'Do you love him very much?' I asked at last.

  'I don't know. I'm impatient with him. I'm exasperated with him. I keep longing for him.'

  Silence again fell upon us. I didn't know what to say. The coffee-room in which we sat was small, and heavy lace curtains over the window shut out the light. On the walls, covered with yellow marbled paper, were old sporting prints. With its mahogany furniture, its shabby leather chairs, and its musty smell, it was strangely reminiscent of a coffee-room in a Dickens novel. I poked the fire and put more coal on it. Isabel suddenly began to speak.

  'You see, I thought when it came to a showdown he'd knuckle under. I knew he was weak.'

  'Weak?' I cried. 'What made you think that? A man who for a year withstood the disapproval of all his friends and associates because he was determined to go his own way.'

  'I could always do anything I wanted with him. I could turn him round my little finger. He was never a leader in the things we did. He just tagged along with the crowd.'

  I had lit a cigarette and watched the smoke ring I had made. It grew larger and larger and then faded away into the air.

  'Mamma and Elliott thought it very wrong of me to go about with him afterwards as though nothing had happened, but I didn't take it very seriously. I kept on thinking up to the end that he'd yield. I couldn't believe that when he'd got it into his thick head that I meant what I said he wouldn't give in.' She hesitated and gave me a smile of roguish, playful malice. 'Will you be awfully shocked if I tell you something?'

  'I think it very unlikely.'

  'When we decided to come to London I called Larry and asked him if we couldn't spend my last evening in Paris together. When I told them, Uncle Elliott said it was most improper and Mamma said she thought it unnecessary. When Mamma says something is unnecessary it means she thoroughly disapproves. Uncle Elliott asked me what the idea was and I said we were going to dine somewhere and then make a tour of the night clubs. He told Mamma she ought to forbid me to go. Mamma said, "Will you pay any attention if I forbid you to go?" "No, darling," I said, "none." Then she said, "That is what I imagined. In that case there doesn't seem to be much point in my forbidding it."'

  'Your mother appears to be a woman of enormous sense.'

  'I don't believe she misses much. When Larry called for me I went into her room to say good night to her. I'd made up a bit; you know, you have to in Paris or else you look so naked, and when she saw the dress I had on, I had an uneasy suspicion from the way she took me in from top to toe that she had a pretty shrewd idea what I was after. But she didn't say anything. She just kissed me and said she hoped I'd have a good time.'

  'What were you after?'

  Isabel looked at me doubtfully, as though she couldn't quite decide how frank she was prepared to be.

  'I didn't think I was looking too bad and it was my last chance. Larry had reserved a table at Maxim's. We had lovely things to eat, all the things I particularly liked, and we had champagne. We talked our heads off, at least I did, and I made Larry laugh. One of the things I've liked about him is that I can always amuse him. We danced. When we'd had enough of that we went on to the Château de Madrid. We found some people we knew and joined them and we had more champagne. Then we all went to the Acacia. Larry dances quite well, and we fit. The heat and the music and the wine – I was getting a bit light-headed. I felt absolutely reckless. I danced with my face against Larry's and I knew he wanted me. God knows I wanted him. I had an idea. I suppose it had been at the back of my mind all the time. I thought I'd get him to come home with me and once I'd got him there, well, it was almost inevitable that the inevitable should happen.'

  'Upon my word you couldn't put it more delicately.'

  'My room was quite a way from Uncle Elliott's and Mamma's, so I knew there was no risk. When we were back in America I thought I'd write and say I was going to have a ba
by. He'd be obliged to come back and marry me, and when I'd got him home I didn't believe it would be hard to keep him there, especially with Mamma ill. "What a fool I am not to have thought of that before," I said to myself. "Of course that'll settle everything." When the music stopped I just stayed there in his arms. Then I said it was getting late and we had to take the train at noon, so we'd better go. We got into a taxi. I nestled close to him and he put his arms around me and kissed me. He kissed me, he kissed me – oh, it was heaven. It hardly seemed a moment before the taxi stopped at the door. Larry paid it.

  '"I shall walk home," he said.

  'The taxi rattled off and I put my arms round his neck.

  '"Won't you come up and have one last drink?" I said.

  '"Yes, if you like," he said.

  'He'd rung the bell and the door swung open. He switched on the light as we stepped in. I looked into his eyes. They were so trusting, so honest, so – so guileless; he so obviously hadn't the smallest idea that I was laying a trap for him; I felt I couldn't play him such a dirty trick. It was like taking candy off a child. D'you know what I did? I said, "Oh well, perhaps you'd better not. Mamma's not very well tonight and if she's fallen asleep I don't want to wake her up. Good night." I put my face up for him to kiss and pushed him out of the door. That was the end of that.'

  'Are you sorry?' I asked.

  'I'm neither pleased nor sorry. I just couldn't help myself. It wasn't me that did what I did. It was just an impulse that took possession of me and acted for me.' She grinned. 'I suppose you'd call it my better nature.'

  'I suppose you would.'

  'Then my better nature must take the consequences. I trust in the future it'll be more careful.'

  That was in effect the end of our talk. It may be that it was some consolation to Isabel to have been able to speak to someone with entire freedom, but that was all the good I had been able to do her. Feeling I had been inadequate, I tried to say at least some small thing that would give her comfort.

  'You know, when one's in love,' I said, 'and things go all wrong, one's terribly unhappy and one thinks one won't ever get over it. But you'll be astounded to learn what the sea will do.'

  'What do you mean?' she smiled.

  'Well, love isn't a good sailor and it languishes on a sea voyage. You'll be surprised when you have the Atlantic between you and Larry to find how slight the pang is that before you sailed seemed intolerable.'

  'Do you speak from experience?'

  'From the experience of a stormy past. When I suffered from the pangs of unrequited love I immediately got on an ocean liner.'

  The rain showed no sign of letting up, so we decided that Isabel could survive without seeing the noble pile of Hampton Court or even Queen Elizabeth's bed, and drove back to London. I saw her two or three times after that, but only when other people were present, and then, having had enough of London for a while, I set off for the Tyrol.



  For ten years after this I saw neither Isabel nor Larry. I continued to see Elliott, and indeed, for a reason that I shall tell later, more frequently than before, and from time to time I learnt from him what was happening to Isabel. But of Larry he could tell me nothing.

  'For all I know he's still living in Paris, but I'm not likely to run across him. We don't move in the same circles,' he added, not without complacency. 'It's very sad that he should have gone so completely to seed. He comes of a very good family. I'm sure I could have made something of him if he'd put himself in my hands. Anyhow it was a lucky escape for Isabel.'

  My circle of acquaintance was not so restricted as Elliott's and I knew a number of persons in Paris whom he would have thought eminently undesirable. On my brief but not infrequent sojourns I asked one or other of them whether he had run across Larry or had news of him; a few knew him casually, but none could claim any intimacy with him and I could find nobody to give me news of him. I went to the restaurant at which he habitually dined, but found he had not been there for a long time, and they thought he must have gone away. I never saw him at any of the cafes on the Boulevard du Montparnasse which people who live in the neighbourhood are apt to go to.

  His intention, after Isabel left Paris, was to go to Greece, but this he abandoned. What he actually did he told me himself many years later, but I will relate it now because it is more convenient to place events as far as I can in chronological order. He stayed on in Paris during the summer and worked without a break till autumn was well advanced.

  'I thought I needed a rest from books then,' he said, 'I'd been working from eight to ten hours a day for two years. So I went to work in a coal mine.'

  'You did what?' I cried.

  He laughed at my astonishment.

  'I thought it would do me good to spend a few months in manual labour. I had a notion it would give me an opportunity to sort my thoughts and come to terms with myself.'

  I was silent. I wondered whether that was the only reason for this unexpected step or whether it was connected with Isabel's refusal to marry him. The fact was, I didn't know at all how deeply he loved her. Most people when they're in love invent every kind of reason to persuade themselves that it's only sensible to do what they want. I suppose that's why there are so many disastrous marriages. They are like those who put their affairs in the hands of someone they know to be a crook, but who happens to be an intimate friend because, unwilling to believe that a crook is a crook first and a friend afterwards, they are convinced that, however dishonest he may be with others, he won't be so with them. Larry was strong enough to refuse to sacrifice for Isabel's sake the life that he thought was the life for him, but it may be that to lose her was bitterer to endure than he had expected. It may be that like most of us he wanted to eat his cake and have it.

  'Well, go on,' I said.

  'I packed my books and my clothes in a couple of trunks and got the American Express to store them. Then I put an extra suit and some linen in a grip and started off. My Greek teacher had a sister who was married to the manager of a mine near Lens and he gave me a letter to him. D'you know Lens?'


  'It's in the North of France, not far from the Belgian border. I only spent a night there, at the station hotel, and next day I took a local to the place where the mine was. Ever been to a mining village?'

  'In England.'

  'Well, I suppose it's much the same. There's the mine and the manager's house, rows and rows of trim little two-storey houses, all alike, exactly alike, and it's so monotonous it makes your heart sink. There's a newish, ugly church and several bars. It was bleak and cold when I got there and a thin rain was falling. I went to the manager's office and sent in my letter. He was a little, fat man with red cheeks and the look of a guy who enjoys his food. They were short of labour, a lot of miners had been killed in the war, and there were a good many Poles working there, two or three hundred, I should think. He asked me one or two questions, he didn't much like my being an American, he seemed to think it rather fishy, but his brother-in-law's letter spoke well of me and anyhow he was glad to have me. He wanted to give me a job on the surface, but I told him I wanted to work down below. He said I'd find it hard if I wasn't used to it, but I told him I was prepared for that, so then he said I could be helper to a miner. That was boy's work really, but there weren't enough boys to go round. He was a nice fellow; he asked me if I'd done anything about finding a lodging, and when I told him I hadn't he wrote an address on a piece of paper and said that if I went there the woman of the house would let me have a bed. She was the widow of a miner who'd been killed and her two sons were working in the mine.

  'I took up my grip and went on my way. I found the house, and the door was opened for me by a tall, gaunt woman with greying hair and big, dark eyes. She had good features and she must have been nice-looking once. She wouldn't have been bad then in a haggard way except for two missing front teeth. She told me she hadn't a room, but there were two beds in a room she'd let to a Pole and I could
have the other one. Her two sons had one of the upstairs rooms and she had the other. The room she showed me was on the ground floor and supposed, I imagined, to be the living-room; I should have liked a room to myself, but I thought I'd better not be fussy; and the drizzle had turned into a steady, light rain and I was wet already. I didn't want to go farther and get soaked to the skin. So I said that would suit me and I settled in. They used the kitchen as a living-room. It had a couple of rickety armchairs in it. There was a coal shed in the yard which was also the bath-house. The two boys and the Pole had taken their lunch with them, but she said I could eat with her at midday. I sat in the kitchen afterwards smoking and while she went on with her work she told me all about herself and her family. The others came in at the end of their shift. The Pole first and then the two boys. The Pole passed through the kitchen, nodded to me without speaking when our landlady told him I was to share his room, took a great kettle off the hob and went off to wash himself in the shed. The two boys were tall good-looking fellows notwithstanding the grime on their faces, and seemed inclined to be friendly. They looked upon me as a freak because I was American. One of them was nineteen, off to his military service in a few months, and the other eighteen.

  'The Pole came back and then they went to clean up. The Pole had one of those difficult Polish names, but they called him Kosti. He was a big fellow, two or three inches taller than me, and heavily built. He had a pale fleshy face with a broad short nose and a big mouth. His eyes were blue and because he hadn't been able to wash the coal dust off his eyebrows and eyelashes he looked as if he was made up. The black lashes made the blue of his eyes almost startling. He was an ugly, uncouth fellow. The two boys after they'd changed their clothes went out. The Pole sat on in the kitchen, smoking a pipe and reading the paper. I had a book in my pocket, so I took it out and began reading too. I noticed that he glanced at me once or twice and presently he put his paper down.

  '"What are you reading?" he asked.

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