The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham


  'You don't remember me?' he said.

  'I've never set eyes on you in my life.'

  I was prepared to give him twenty francs, but I wasn't prepared to let him get away with the bluff that we knew one another.

  'Larry,' he said.

  'Good God! Sit down.' He chuckled, stepped forward and took the empty chair at my table. 'Have a drink.' I beckoned to the waiter. 'How could you expect me to recognize you with all that hair on your face?'

  The waiter came and he ordered an orangeade. Now that I looked at him I remembered the peculiarity of his eyes, which came from the black of the iris being as black as that of the pupil and which gave them at once intensity and opaqueness.

  'How long have you been in Paris?' I asked.

  'A month.'

  'Are you going to stay?'

  'For a while.'

  While I asked these questions my mind was busy. I noticed that the cuffs of his trousers were ragged and that there were holes in the elbows of his coat. He looked as destitute as any beachcomber I had ever met in an Eastern port. It was hard in those days to forget the depression and I wondered whether the crash of 'twenty-nine had left him penniless. I didn't much like the thought of that and not being a person to beat about the bush I asked outright:

  'Are you down and out?'

  'No, I'm all right. What makes you think that?'

  'Well, you look as if you could do with a square meal and the things you've got on are only fit for the garbage can.'

  'Are they as bad as all that? I never thought about it. As a matter of fact I have been meaning to get myself a few odds and ends, but I never seem able to get down to it.'

  I thought he was shy or proud and I didn't see why I should put up with that sort of nonsense.

  'Don't be a fool, Larry. I'm not a millionaire, but I'm not poor. If you're short of cash let me lend you a few thousand francs. That won't break me.'

  He laughed outright.

  'Thanks a lot, but I'm not short of cash. I've got more money than I can spend.'

  'Notwithstanding the crash?'

  'Oh, that didn't affect me. Everything I had was in government bonds. I don't know whether they went down in value, I never inquired, but I do know that Uncle Sam went on paying up on the coupons like the decent old party he is. In point of fact I've been spending so little during the last few years, I must have quite a bit in hand.'

  'Where have you come from now then?'

  'India.'

  'Oh, I heard you'd been there. Isabel told me. She apparently knows the manager of your bank in Chicago.'

  'Isabel? When did you last see her?'

  'Yesterday.'

  'She's not in Paris?'

  'She is indeed. She's living in Elliott Templeton's apartment.'

  'That's grand. I'd love to see her.'

  Though I was watching his eyes pretty closely while we were exchanging these remarks I could discern only a natural surprise and pleasure, but no feeling more complicated.

  'Gray's there too. You know they're married?'

  'Yes, Uncle Bob – Dr Nelson, my guardian – wrote and told me, but he died some years ago.'

  It occurred to me that with this break in what appeared his only link with Chicago and his friends there he probably knew nothing of what had happened. I told him of the birth of Isabel's two daughters, of the death of Henry Maturin and Louisa Bradley, of Gray's ruin and of Elliott's generosity.

  'Is Elliott here too?'

  'No.'

  For the first time in forty years Elliott was not spending the spring in Paris. Though looking younger he was now seventy and as usual with men of that age there were days when he felt tired and ill. Little by little he had given up taking any but walking exercise. He was nervous about his health and his doctor came to see him twice a week to thrust into an alternate buttock a hypodermic needle with the fashionable injection of the moment. At every meal, at home or abroad, he took from his pocket a little gold box from which he extracted a tablet which he swallowed with the reserved air of one performing a religious rite. His doctor had recommended him to take the cure at Montecatini, a watering-place in the north of Italy, and after this he proposed to go to Venice to look for a font of a design suitable to his Romanesque church. He was less unwilling to leave Paris unvisited since each year he found it socially more unsatisfactory. He did not like old people, and resented it when he was invited to meet only persons of his own age, and the young he found vapid. The adornment of the church he had built was now a main interest of his life and here he could indulge his ineradicable passion for buying works of art with the comfortable assurance that he was doing it to the glory of God. He had found in Rome an early altar of honey-coloured stone and had been dickering in Florence for six months for a triptych of the Siennese school to put over it.

  Then Larry asked me how Gray was liking Paris.

  'I'm afraid he's feeling rather lost here.'

  I tried to explain to him how Gray had struck me. He listened to me with his eyes fixed on my face in a meditative, unblinking gaze that suggested to me, I don't know why, that he was listening to me not with his ears, but with some inner more sensitive organ of hearing. It was queer and not very comfortable.

  'But you'll see for yourself,' I finished.

  'Yes, I'd love to see them. I suppose I shall find the address in the phone book.'

  'But if you don't want to scare them out of their wits and drive the children into screaming hysterics, I think you'd be wise to have your hair cut and your beard shaved.'

  He laughed.

  'I've been thinking of it. There's no object in making myself conspicuous.'

  'And while you're about it you might get yourself a new outfit.'

  'I suppose I am a bit shabby. When I came to leave India I found that I had nothing but the clothes I stand up in.'

  He looked at the suit I was wearing, and asked me who my tailor was. I told him, but added that he was in London and so couldn't be of much use to him. We dropped the subject and he began to talk again of Gray and Isabel.

  'I've been seeing quite a lot of them,' I said. 'They're very happy together. I've never had a chance of talking to Gray alone, and anyway I dare say he wouldn't talk to me about Isabel, but I know he's devoted to her. His face is rather sullen in repose and his eyes are harassed, but when he looks at Isabel such a gentle, kind look comes into them, it's rather moving. I have a notion that all through their trouble she stood by him like a rock and he never forgets how much he owes her. You'll find Isabel changed.' I didn't tell him she was beautiful as she had never been before. I wasn't sure he had the discernment to see how the pretty, strapping girl had made herself into the wonderfully graceful, delicate, and exquisite woman. There are men who are affronted by the aids that art can supply to feminine nature. 'She's very good to Gray. She's taking infinite pains to restore his confidence in himself.'

  But it was growing late and I asked Larry if he would come along the boulevard and dine with me.

  'No, I don't think I will, thanks,' he answered. 'I must be off.'

  He got up, nodded in a friendly way, and stepped out on to the pavement.

  4

  I saw Gray and Isabel next day and told them that I had seen Larry. They were as much surprised as I had been.

  'It'll be wonderful to see him,' said Isabel. 'Let's call him up at once.'

  Then I remembered that I hadn't thought of asking him where he was staying. Isabel gave me hell.

  'I'm not sure he'd have told me if I had,' I protested, laughing. 'Probably my subconscious had something to do with it. Don't you remember, he never liked telling people where he lived. It was one of his oddities. He may walk in at any moment.'

  'That would be like him,' said Gray. 'Even in the old days you could never count on his being where you expected him to be. He was here today and gone tomorrow. You'd see him in a room and think in a moment you'd go and say hello to him and when you turned round he'd disappeared.'

  'He always was
the most exasperating fellow,' said Isabel. 'It's no good denying that. I suppose we shall just have to wait till it suits him to turn up.'

  He didn't come that day, nor the next, nor the day after. Isabel accused me of having invented the story to annoy. I promised her I hadn't and sought to give her reasons why he hadn't shown up. But they were implausible. Within myself I wondered whether on thinking it over he hadn't made up his mind that he just didn't want to see Gray and Isabel and had wandered off somewhere or other away from Paris, I had a feeling already that he never took root anywhere, but was always prepared at a moment's notice, for a reason that seemed good to him or on a whim, to move on.

  He came at last. It was a rainy day and Gray hadn't gone to Mortefontaine. The three of us were together, Isabel and I drinking a cup of tea, Gray sipping a whisky and Perrier, when the butler opened the door and Larry strolled in. Isabel with a cry sprang to her feet and throwing herself into his arms kissed him on both cheeks. Gray, his fat red face redder than ever, warmly wrung his hand.

  'Gee, I'm glad to see you, Larry,' he said, his voice choked with emotion.

  Isabel bit her lip and I saw she was constraining herself not to cry.

  'Have a drink, old man,' said Gray unsteadily.

  I was touched by their delight at seeing the wanderer. It must have been pleasant for him to perceive how much he meant to them. He smiled happily. It was plain to me that he was, however, completely self-possessed. He noticed the tea things.

  'I'll have a cup of tea,' he said.

  'Oh, gosh, you don't want tea,' cried Gray. 'Let's have a bottle of champagne.'

  'I'd prefer tea,' smiled Larry.

  His composure had on the others the effect he may have intended. They calmed down, but looked at him still with fond eyes. I don't mean to suggest that he responded to their natural exuberance with an ungracious coldness; on the contrary, he was as cordial and charming as one could wish; but I was conscious in his manner of something that I could only describe as remoteness and I wondered what it signified.

  'Why didn't you come and see us at once, you horror?' cried Isabel, with a pretence of indignation. 'I've been hanging out of the window for the last five days to see you coming and every time the bell rang my heart leapt to my mouth and I had all I could do to swallow it again.'

  Larry chuckled.

  'Mr M. told me I looked so tough that your man would never let me through the door. I flew over to London to get some clothes.'

  'You needn't have done that,' I smiled. 'You could have got a reach-me-down at the Printemps or the Belle Jardinière.'

  'I thought if I was going to do it at all, I'd better do the thing in style. I haven't bought any European clothes for ten years. I went to your tailor and said I wanted a suit in three days. He said it would take a fortnight, so we compromised on four. I got back from London an hour ago.'

  He wore a blue serge that nicely fitted his slim figure, a white shirt with a soft collar, a blue silk tie, and brown shoes. He had had his hair cut short and shaved off the hair on his face. He looked not only neat, but well-groomed. It was a transformation. He was very thin; his cheekbones were more prominent, his temples hollower, and his eyes in the deep sockets larger than I remembered them; but notwithstanding he looked very well; he looked, indeed, with his deeply sunburnt, unlined face, amazingly young. He was a year younger than Gray, they were both in their early thirties, but whereas Gray looked ten years more than his age, Larry looked ten years less. Gray's movements, owing to his great bulk, were deliberate and rather heavy; but Larry's were light and easy. His manner was boyish, gay, and debonair, but withal it had a serenity that I was peculiarly conscious of and that I did not recollect in the lad I had known before. And as the conversation proceeded, flowing without difficulty as was natural in old friends with so many common memories, with bits of news about Chicago thrown in by Gray and Isabel, trivial gossip, one thing leading to another, with airy laughter, my impression persisted that in Larry, though his laughter was frank and he listened with evident pleasure to Isabel's breezy chatter, there was a very singular detachment. I didn't feel that he was playing a part, he was too natural for that and his sincerity was obvious; I felt that there was something within him, I don't know whether to call it awareness or a sensibility or a force, that remained strangely aloof.

  The children were brought in and made known to Larry, and gave him their polite little knicks. He held out his hand, looking at them with an engaging tenderness in his soft eyes, and they took it, staring at him gravely. Isabel brightly told him they were getting on nicely with their lessons, gave them a cookie each, and sent them away.

  'I'll come and read to you for ten minutes when you're in bed.'

  She did not at that moment want to be interrupted in her pleasure at seeing Larry. The little girls went up to say good night to their father. It was charming to see the love that lit up the red face of that gross man as he took them in his arms and kissed them. No one could help seeing that he proudly adored them and when they were gone he turned to Larry and with a sweet slow smile on his lips said:

  'They're not bad kids, are they?'

  Isabel gave him an affectionate glance.

  'If I let Gray have his way he'd spoil them to death. He'd let me starve, that great brute would, to feed the children on caviare and pate de foie gras.'

  He looked at her with a smile and said: 'You're a liar and you know it. I worship the ground you tread on.'

  There was a responsive smile in Isabel's eyes. She knew that and was glad of it. A happy couple.

  She insisted that we should stay to dinner. I, thinking they would prefer to be by themselves, made excuses, but she would not listen to them.

  'I'll tell Marie to put another carrot in the soup and there'll be plenty for four. There's a chicken, and you and Gray can eat the legs while Larry and I eat the wings, and she can make the soufflé large enough for all of us.'

  Gray too seemed to want me to stay, so I let myself be persuaded to do what I wanted to.

  While we waited Isabel told Larry at length what I had already told him in brief. Though she narrated the lamentable story as gaily as possible Gray's face assumed an expression of sullen melancholy. She tried to cheer him up.

  'Anyhow, it's all over now. We've fallen on our feet and we've got the future before us. As soon as things improve, Cray's going to get a splendid job and make millions.'

  Cocktails were brought in and a couple did something to raise the poor fellow's spirits. I saw that Larry, though he took one, scarcely touched it, and when Gray, unobservant, offered him another he refused. We washed our hands and sat down to dinner. Gray had ordered a bottle of champagne, but when the butler began to fill Larry's glass he told him he didn't want any.

  'Oh, but you must have some,' cried Isabel. 'It's Uncle Elliott's best and he only gives it to very special guests.'

  'To tell you the truth I prefer water. After having been in the East so long it's a treat to drink water that's safe.'

  'This is an occasion.'

  'All right, I'll drink a glass.'

  The dinner was excellent, but Isabel noticed, as I did too, that Larry ate very little. It struck her, I suppose, that she had been doing all the talking and that Larry had had no chance to do more than listen, so now she began to question him on his actions during the ten years since she had seen him. He answered with his cordial frankness, but so vaguely as not to tell us much.

  'Oh, I've been loafing around, you know. I spent a year in Germany and some time in Spain and Italy. And I knocked about the East for a bit.'

  'Where have you just come from now?'

  'India.'

  'How long were you there?'

  'Five years.'

  'Did you have fun?' asked Gray. 'Shoot any tigers?'

  'No,' Larry smiled.

  'What on earth were you doing with yourself in India for five years?' said Isabel.

  'Playing about,' he answered, with a smile of kindly mockery.

&nb
sp; 'What about the Rope Trick?' asked Gray. 'Did you see that?'

  'No, I didn't.'

  'What did you see?'

  'A lot'

  I put a question to him then.

  'Is it true that the Yogis acquire powers that would seem to us supernatural?'

  'I wouldn't know. All I can tell you is that it's commonly believed in India. But the wisest don't attach any importance to powers of that sort; they think they're apt to hinder spiritual progress. I remember one of them telling me of a Yogi who came to the bank of a river; he hadn't the money to pay the ferryman to take him across and the ferryman refused to take him for nothing, so he stepped on the water and walked upon its surface to the other side. The Yogi who told me shrugged his shoulders rather scornfully. "A miracle like that," he said "is worth no more than the penny it would have cost to go on the ferryboat."'

  'But d'you think the Yogi really walked over the water?' asked Gray.

  'The Yogi who told me believed it implicitly.'

  It was a pleasure to hear Larry talk, because he had a wonderfully melodious voice; it was light, rich without being deep, and with a singular variety of tone. We finished dinner and went back to the drawing-room to have our coffee. I had never been to India and was eager to hear more of it.

  'Did you come in contact with any writers and thinkers?' I asked.

  'I notice that you make a distinction between the two,' said Isabel to tease me.

  'I made it my business to,' Larry answered.

  'How did you communicate with them? In English?'

  'The most interesting, if they spoke at all, didn't speak it very well and understood less. I learnt Hindustani. And when I went south I picked up enough Tamil to get along pretty well.'

  'How many languages d'you know now, Larry?'

  'Oh, I don't know. Half a dozen or so.'

  'I want to know more about the Yogis,' said Isabel. 'Did you get to know any of them intimately?'

  'As intimately as you can know persons who pass the best part of their time in the Infinite,' he smiled. 'I spent two years in the Ashrama of one.'

  'Two years? What's an Ashrama?'

  'Well, I suppose you might call it a hermitage. There are holy men who live alone, in a temple, in the forest, or on the slopes of the Himalayas. There are others who attract disciples. A charitable person to acquire merit builds a room, large or small, to lodge a Yogi whose piety has impressed him, and the disciples live with him, sleeping on the veranda or in the cookhouse if there is one or under the trees. I had a tiny hut in the compound just big enough for my camp bed, a chair and a table, and a bookshelf.'

 
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