The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham


  The press had behaved very handsomely and Elliott negligently tossed the cuttings to me. He showed me photographs of Isabel, hefty but handsome in her wedding-dress, and Gray, a massive but fine figure of a man, a trifle self-conscious in his formal clothes. There was a group of the young couple with bridesmaids and another group with Mrs Bradley in a sumptuous garment and Elliott holding his new top-hat with a grace that only he could have achieved. I asked how Mrs Bradley was.

  She's lost a good deal of weight and I don't like her colour, but she's pretty well. Of course the whole thing was a strain on her, but now it's all over she'll be able to rest up.'

  A year later Isabel was delivered of a daughter, to whom, following the fashion of the moment, she gave the name of Joan; and after an interval of two years she had another daughter whom, following another fashion, she called Priscilla.

  One of Henry Maturin's partners died and the other two under pressure soon afterwards retired, so that he entered into sole possession of the business over which he had always exercised despotic control. He realized the ambition he had long entertained and took Gray into partnership with him. The firm had never been so prosperous.

  'They're making money hand over fist, my dear fellow,' Elliott told me. 'Why, Gray at the age of twenty-five is making fifty thousand a year, and that's only a beginning. The resources of America are inexhaustible. It isn't a boom, it's just the natural development of a great country.'

  His chest swelled with an unwonted patriotic fervour.

  'Henry Maturin can't live for ever, high blood pressure, you know, and by the time Gray's forty he should be worth twenty million dollars. Princely, my dear fellow, princely.'

  Elliott kept up a fairly regular correspondence with his sister and from time to time as the years went on passed on to me what she told him. Gray and Isabel were very happy, and the babies were sweet. They lived in a style that Elliott gladly admitted was eminently suitable; they entertained lavishly and were lavishly entertained; he told me with satisfaction that Isabel and Gray hadn't dined by themselves once in three months. Their whirl of gaiety was interrupted by the death of Mrs Maturin, that colourless, highborn lady whom Henry Maturin had married for her connexions when he was making a place for himself in the city to which his father had come as a country bumpkin; and out of respect for her memory for a year the young couple never entertained more than six people to dinner.

  'I've always said that eight was the perfect number,' said Elliott, determined to look on the bright side of things. 'It's intimate enough to permit of general conversation and yet large enough to give the impression of a party.'

  Gray was wonderfully generous to his wife. On the birth of their first child he gave her a square-cut diamond ring and on the birth of her second a sable coat. He was too busy to leave Chicago much, but such holidays as he could take they spent at Henry Maturin's imposing house at Marvin. Henry could deny nothing to the son whom he adored and one Christmas gave him a plantation in South Carolina so that he could get a fortnight's duck-shooting in the season.

  'Of course our merchant princes correspond to those great patrons of the arts of the Italian Renaissance who made fortunes by commerce. The Medici, for instance. Two kings of France were not too proud to marry the daughters of that illustrious family and I foresee the day when the crowned heads of Europe will seek the hands of our dollar princesses. What was it Shelley said? "The world's great age begins anew, the golden years return."'

  Henry Maturin had for many years looked after Mrs Bradley's and Elliott's investments and they had a well-justified confidence in his acumen. He had never countenanced speculation and had put their money into sound securities, but with the great increase in values they found their comparatively modest fortunes increased in a manner that both surprised and delighted them. Elliott told me that, without stirring a finger, he was nearly twice as rich in 1926 as he had been in 1918. He was sixty-five, his hair was grey, his face lined, and there were pouches under his eyes, but he bore his years gallantly; he was as slim and held himself as erectly as ever; he had always been moderate in his habits and taken care of his appearance. He had no intention of submitting to the ravages of time so long as he could have his clothes made by the best tailor in London, his hair dressed and his face shaved by his own particular barber, and a masseur to come in every morning to keep his elegant body in perfect condition. He had long forgotten that he had ever so far demeaned himself as to engage in a trade, and without ever saying so outright, for he was not so stupid as to tell a lie that might be found out, he was inclined to suggest that in his youth he had been in the diplomatic service. I must admit that if I had ever had occasion to draw a portrait of an ambassador I should without hesitation have chosen Elliott as my model.

  But things were changing. Such of the great ladies who had advanced Elliott's career as were still alive were well along in years. The English peeresses, having lost their lords, had been forced to surrender their mansions to daughters-in-law, and had retired to villas at Cheltenham or to modest houses in Regent's Park. Stafford House was turned into a museum, Curzon House became the seat of an organization, Devonshire House was for sale. The yacht on which Elliott had been in the habit of staying at Cowes had passed into other hands. The fashionable persons who occupied the stage had no use for the elderly man that Elliott now was. They found him tiresome and ridiculous. They were still willing to come to his elaborate luncheon parties at Claridge's but he was quick-witted enough to know that they came to meet one another rather than to see him. He could no longer pick and choose among the invitations that once had littered his writing-table, and much more often than he would have liked anyone to know he suffered the humiliation of dining by himself in the privacy of his suite. Women of rank in England, when a scandal has closed the doors of society to them, develop an interest in the arts and surround themselves with painters, writers and musicians. Elliott was too proud thus to humiliate himself.

  'The death duties and the war profiteers have ruined English society,' he told me. 'People don't seem to mind who they know. London still has its tailors, its bootmakers, and its hatters, and I trust they'll last my time, but except for them it's finished. My dear fellow, do you know that the St Erth's have women to wait at table?'

  This he said when we were walking away from Carlton House Terrace after a luncheon party at which an unfortunate incident had occurred. Our noble host had a well-known collection of pictures, and a young American who was there, Paul Barton by name, expressed a desire to see them.

  'You've got a Titian, haven't you?'

  'We had. It's in America now. Some old Jew offered us a packet of money for it and we were damned hard up at the time, so my governor sold it.'

  I noticed that Elliott, bristling, threw a venomous glance at the jovial marquess, and guessed that it was he who had bought the picture. He was furious at hearing himself, Virginian born and the descendant of a signatory of the Declaration, thus described. He had never in his life suffered so great an affront. And what made it worse was that Paul Barton was the object of his virulent hatred. He was a young man who had appeared in London soon after the war. He was twenty-three, blond, very good-looking, charming, a beautiful dancer, and had an ample fortune. He had brought a letter of introduction to Elliott, who with the kindness of heart natural to him had presented him to several of his friends. Not content with this he had given him some valuable hints on conduct. Delving back into his own experience, he had shown him how it was possible, by paying small attentions to old ladies and by lending a willing ear to distinguished men, however tedious, for a stranger to make his way in society.

  But it was a different world that Paul Barton entered from that into which, a generation before, Elliott Temple-ton had penetrated by means of dogged perseverance. It was a world bent on amusing itself. Paul Barton's high spirits, pleasing exterior, and engaging manner did for him in a few weeks what Elliott had achieved only after years of industry and determination. Soon he no longer needed
Elliott's help and took small pains to conceal the fact. He was pleasant to him when they met, but in an offhand way that deeply offended the older man Elliott did not ask people to a party because he liked them, but because they helped to make it go, and since Paul Barton was popular he continued to invite him on occasion to his weekly luncheons; but the successful young man was generally engaged and twice he threw Elliott over at the last moment. Elliott had done this himself too often not to know it was because he had just had a more tempting invitation.

  'I don't ask you to believe it,' Elliott told me, fuming, 'but it's God's truth that when I see him now he patronizes me. ME. Titian. Titian,' he spluttered. 'He wouldn't know a Titian if he saw one.'

  I had never seen Elliott so angry and I guessed his wrath was caused by his belief that Paul Barton had asked about the picture maliciously, having somehow learnt that Elliott had bought it, and would make a funny story at his expense out of the noble lord's reply.

  'He's nothing but a dirty little snob, and if there's one thing in the world I detest and despise it's snobbishness. He'd have been nowhere except for me. Would you believe it, his father makes office furniture. Office furniture.' He put withering scorn into the two words. 'And when I tell people he simply doesn't exist in America, his origins couldn't be more humble, they don't seem to care. Take my word for it, my dear fellow, English society is as dead as the dodo.'

  Nor did Elliott find France much better. There the great ladies of his youth, if still alive, were given over to bridge (a game he loathed), piety, and the care of their grandchildren. Manufacturers, Argentines, Chileans, American women separated or divorced from their husbands, inhabited the stately houses of the aristocracy and entertained with splendour, but at their parties Elliott was confounded to meet politicians who spoke French with a vulgar accent, journalists whose table manners were deplorable, and even actors. The scions of princely families thought it no shame to marry the daughters of shopkeepers. It was true Paris was gay, but with what a shoddy gaiety! The young, devoted to the mad pursuit of pleasure, thought nothing more amusing than to go from one stuffy little night club to another, drinking champagne at a hundred francs a bottle and dancing close-packed with the riff-raff of the town till five o'clock in the morning. The smoke, the heat, the noise made Elliott's head ache. This was not the Paris that he had accepted thirty years before as his spiritual home. This was not the Paris that good Americans went to when they died.

  4

  But Elliott had a flair. An inner monitor suggested to him that the Riviera was on the point of becoming once more the resort of rank and fashion. He knew the coast well from having often spent a few days in Monte Carlo at the Hotel de Paris on his way back from Rome, whither his duties at the papal court had called him, or at Cannes in the villa of one or the other of his friends. But that was in the winter, and of late rumours had reached him that it was beginning to be well spoken of as a summer resort. The big hotels were remaining open; their summer visitors were listed in the social columns of the Paris Herald and Elliott read the familiar names with approval.

  'The world is too much with me,' he said. 'I have now reached a time of life when I am prepared to enjoy the beauties of nature.'

  The remark may seem obscure. It isn't really. Elliott had always felt that nature was an impediment to the social life, and he had no patience with people who could bother to go to see a lake or a mountain when they had before their eyes a Regency commode or a painting by Watteau. He had at the time a considerable sum of money to spend. Henry Maturin, urged by his son and exasperated by the sight of his friends on the stock exchange who were making fortunes overnight, had surrendered at last to the current of events and, abandoning little by little his old conservatism, had seen no reason why he too should not get on the band wagon. He wrote to Elliott that he was as much opposed to gambling as he had ever been, but this was not gambling, it was an affirmation of his belief in the inexhaustible resources of the country. His optimism was based on common sense. He could see nothing to halt the progress of America. He ended by saying that he had bought on margin a number of sound securities for dear Louisa Bradley and was glad to be able to tell Elliott that she now had a profit of twenty thousand dollars. Finally, if Elliott wanted to make a little money and would allow him to act according to his judgement, he was confident that he would not be disappointed. Elliott, apt to use hackneyed quotations, remarked that he could resist anything but temptation; the consequence of which was that from then on, instead of turning to the social intelligence as he had done for many years when the Herald was brought him with his breakfast, he gave his first attention to the reports of the stock market. So successful were Henry Maturin's transactions on his behalf that now Elliott found himself with the tidy sum of fifty thousand dollars which he had done nothing to earn.

  He decided to take his profit and buy a house on the Riviera. As a refuge from the world he chose Antibes, which held a strategic position between Cannes and Monte Carlo so that it could be conveniently reached from either; but whether it was the hand of Providence or his own sure instinct that led him to choose a spot that was soon to become the centre of fashion, it is impossible to say. To live in a villa with a garden had a suburban vulgarity that revolted his fastidious taste, so he acquired two houses in the old town looking on the sea, knocked them into one, and installed central heating, bathrooms, and the sanitary conveniences that American example has forced on a recalcitrant Europe. Pickling was all the rage just then, so he furnished the house with old Provençal furniture duly pickled and, surrendering discreetly to modernity, with modern fabrics. He was still unwilling to accept such painters as Picasso and Braque – 'horrors, my dear fellow, horrors' – whom certain misguided enthusiasts were making such a fuss about, but felt himself at long last justified in extending his patronage to the Impressionists and so adorned his walls with some very pretty pictures. I remember a Monet of people rowing on a river, a Pissaro of a quay and a bridge on the Seine, a Tahitian landscape by Gauguin, and a charming Renoir of a young girl in profile with long yellow hair hanging down her back. His house when finished was fresh and gay, unusual, and simple with that simplicity that you knew could only have been achieved at great expense.

  Then began the most splendid period of Elliott's life. He brought his excellent chef down from Paris and it was soon acknowledged that he had the best cuisine on the Riviera. He dressed his butler and his footman in white with gold straps on their shoulders. He entertained with a magnificence that never overstepped the bounds of good taste. The shores of the Mediterranean were littered with royalties from all parts of Europe: some lured there on account of the climate, some in exile, and some because a scandalous past or an unsuitable marriage made it more convenient for them to inhabit a foreign country. There were Romanoffs from Russia, Hapsburgs from Austria, Bourbons from Spain, the two Sicilys, and Parma; there were princes of the House of Windsor and princes of the House of Bragança; there were Royal Highnesses from Sweden and Royal Highnesses from Greece: Elliott entertained them. There were princes and princesses not of royal blood, dukes and duchesses, marquesses and marchionesses, from Austria, Italy, Spain, Russia, and Belgium: Elliott entertained them. In winter the King of Sweden and the King of Denmark made sojourns on the coast; now and then Alfonso of Spain paid a hurried visit: Elliott entertained them. I never ceased to admire the way in which, while he bowed with courtly grace to those exalted personages, he managed to maintain the independent demeanour of the citizen of a country where all men are said to be born equal.

  I had then, after some years of travel, bought a house on Cap Ferrat and thus saw a good deal of Elliott. I had risen so high in his good graces that sometimes he invited me to his very grandest parties.

  'Come as a favour to me, my dear fellow,' he would say. 'Of course I know just as well as you do that royalties ruin a party. But other people like to meet them and I think one owes it to oneself to show the poor things some attention. Though heaven knows they don't deserve
it. They're the most ungrateful people in the world; they'll use you, and when they have no further use for you they'll cast you aside like a frayed shirt; they'll accept innumerable favours from you, but there's not one of them who'd cross the road to do the smallest thing for you in return.'

  Elliott had taken pains to get on good terms with the local authorities, and the prefect of the district and the bishop of the diocese, accompanied by his vicar general, often graced his table. The bishop had been a cavalry officer before entering the Church and in the war had commanded a regiment. He was a rubicund, stoutish man, who affected the rough-and-ready language of the barracks, and his austere, cadaverous vicar general was always on pins and needles lest he should say something scandalous. He listened with a deprecating smile when his superior told his favourite stories. But the bishop conducted his diocese with remarkable competence, and his eloquence in the pulpit was no less moving than his sallies at the luncheon table were amusing. He approved of Elliott for his pious generosity to the Church and liked him for his amiability and the good food he provided; and the two became good friends. Elliott could thus flatter himself that he was making the best of both worlds and, if I may venture so to put it, effecting a very satisfactory working arrangement between God and Mammon.

  Elliott was house-proud and he was anxious to show his new house to his sister; he had always felt a certain reserve in her approval of him and he wanted her to see the style in which he now lived and the friends he hobnobbed with. It was the definitive answer to her hesitations. She would have to admit that he had made good. He wrote and asked . her to come over with Gray and Isabel, not to stay with him, for he had no room, but to stay as his guests at the near-by Hotel du Cap. Mrs Bradley replied that her travelling days were over, for her health was indifferent and she thought she was better off at home; and in any case it was impossible for Gray to absent himself from Chicago; business was booming and he was making a great deal of money and had to stay put. Elliott was attached to his sister and her letter alarmed him. He wrote to Isabel. She replied by cable that, though her mother was so far from well that she had to stay in bed one day a week, she was in no immediate danger and indeed with care might be expected to live a long time yet; but that Gray needed a rest and, with his father there to look after things, there was no reason why he should not take a holiday; so, not that summer but the next, she and Gray would come over.

 
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