The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham


  I was silent for a moment, watching her, and I took my pleasure in the contemplation of her shapely nose and the exquisite line of her jaw.

  'Are you very much in love with Larry?'

  'God damn you, I've never loved anyone else in all my life.'

  'Why did you marry Gray?'

  'I had to marry somebody. He was mad about me and Mamma wanted me to marry him. Everybody told me I was well rid of Larry. I was very fond of Gray; I'm very fond of him still. You don't know how sweet he is. No one in the world could be so kind and so considerate. He looks as though he had an awful temper, doesn't he? With me he's always been angelic. When we had money, he wanted me to want things so that he could have the pleasure of giving them to me. Once I said it would be fun if we could have a yacht and go round the world, and if the crash hadn't come he'd have bought one.'

  'He sounds almost too good to be true,' I murmured.

  'We had a grand time. I shall always be grateful to him for that. He made me very happy.'

  I looked at her but did not speak.

  'I suppose I didn't really love him, but one can get on all right without love. At the bottom of my heart I hankered for Larry, but as long as I didn't see him it didn't really bother me. D'you remember saying to me that with three thousand miles of ocean between, the pangs of love become quite tolerable? I thought it a cynical remark then, but of course it's true.'

  'If it's a pain to see Larry, don't you think it would be wiser not to see him?'

  'But it's a pain that's heaven. Besides, you know what he is. Any day he may vanish like a shadow when the sun goes in and we may not see him again for years.'

  'Have you never thought of divorcing Gray?'

  'I've got no reason for divorcing him.'

  'That doesn't prevent your countrywomen from divorcing their husbands when they have a mind to.'

  She laughed.

  'Why d'you suppose they do it?'

  'Don't you know? Because American women expect to find in their husbands a perfection that English women only hope to find in their butlers.'

  Isabel gave her head such a haughty toss that I wondered she didn't get a crick in the neck.

  'Because Gray isn't articulate you think there's nothing to him.'

  'You're wrong there,' I interrupted quickly. 'I think there's something rather moving about him. He has a wonderful faculty of love. One has only to glance at his face when he's looking at you to see how deeply, how devotedly he's attached to you. He loves his children much more than you do.'

  'I suppose you're going to say now that I'm not a good mother.'

  'On the contrary I think you're an excellent mother. You see that they're well and happy. You watch over their diet and take care that their bowels act regularly. You teach them to behave nicely and you read to them and make them say their prayers. If they were sick you'd send for a doctor at once and nurse them with care. But you're not wrapped up in them as Gray is.'

  'It's unnecessary that one should be. I'm a human being and I treat them as human beings. A mother only does her children harm if she makes them the only concern of her life.'

  'I think you're quite right.'

  'And the fact remains that they worship me.'

  'I've noticed that. You're their ideal of all that's graceful and beautiful and wonderful. But they're not cosy and at their ease with you as they are with Gray. They worship you, that's true; but they love him.'

  'He's very lovable.'

  I liked her for saying that. One of her most amiable traits was that she was never affronted by the naked truth.

  'After the crash Gray went all to pieces. For weeks he worked at the office till midnight. I used to sit at home in an agony of fear, I was afraid he'd blow his brains out, he was so ashamed. You see, they'd been so proud of the firm, his father and Gray, they were proud of their integrity and the sureness of their judgement. It wasn't so much that we'd lost all our money, what he couldn't get over was that all those people who'd trusted him had lost theirs. He felt that he ought to have had more foresight. I couldn't get him to see that he wasn't to blame.'

  Isabel took a lipstick out of her bag and painted her lips.

  'But that's not what I wanted to tell you. The one thing we had left was the plantation and I felt that the only chance for Gray was to get away, so we parked the children with Mamma and went down there. He'd always liked it, but we'd never been there by ourselves; we'd taken a crowd with us and had a grand time. Gray's a good shot, but he hadn't the heart to shoot then. He used to take a boat and go out on the marsh by himself for hours at a time and watch the birds. He'd wander up and down the canals with the pale rushes on each side of him and only the blue sky above. On some days the canals are as blue as the Mediterranean. He used not to say much when he came back. He'd say it was swell. But I could see what he felt. I knew that his heart was moved by the beauty and the vastness and the stillness. There's a moment just before sunset when the light on the marsh is lovely. He used to stand and look at it and it filled him with bliss. He took long rides in those solitary, mysterious woods; they're like the woods in a play of Maeterlinck's, so grey, so silent, it's almost uncanny; and there's a moment in spring – it hardly lasts more than a fortnight – when the dogwood bursts into flower, and the gum trees burst into leaf, and their young fresh green against the grey Spanish moss is like a song of joy; the ground is carpeted with great white lilies and wild azalea. Gray couldn't say what it meant to him, but it meant the world. He was drunk with the loveliness of it. Oh, I know I don't put it well, but I can't tell you how moving it was to see that great hulk of a man uplifted by an emotion so pure and so beautiful that it made me want to cry. If there is a God in heaven Gray was very near Him then.'

  Isabel had grown a trifle emotional while she told me this and taking a tiny handkerchief she carefully wiped away a tear that glistened at the corner of each eye.

  'Aren't you romanticizing?' I said, smiling. 'I have a notion that you're ascribing to Gray thoughts and emotions that you would have expected him to have.'

  'How should I have seen them if they hadn't been there? You know what I am. I'm never really happy unless I feel the cement of a sidewalk under my feet and there are large plateglass windows all along the street with hats to look at and fur coats and diamond bracelets and gold-mounted dressing cases.'

  I laughed and we were silent for a moment. Then she went back to what we had been talking of before.

  'I'd never divorce Gray. We've been through too much together. And he's absolutely dependent upon me. It's rather flattering, you know, and it gives you a sense of responsibility. And besides . . .'

  'Besides what?'

  She gave me a sidelong glance and there was a roguish twinkle in her eyes. I had a notion she didn't quite know how I would' take what she had in mind to say.

  'He's wonderful in bed. We've been married for ten years and he's as passionate a lover as he was at the beginning. Didn't you say in a play once that no man wants the same woman longer than five years? Well, you didn't know what you were talking about. Gray wants me as much as when we were first married. He's made me very happy in that way. Although you wouldn't think it to look at me, I'm a very sensual woman.'

  'You're quite wrong, I would think it.'

  'Well, it's not an unattractive trait, is it?'

  'On the contrary.' I gave her a searching look. 'Do you regret you didn't marry Larry ten years ago?'

  'No. It would have been madness. But of course if I'd known then what I know now I'd have gone away and lived with him for three months, and then I'd have got him out of my system for good and all.'

  'I think it's lucky for you you didn't make the experiment; you might have found yourself bound to him by bonds you couldn't break.'

  'I don't think so. It was merely a physical attraction. You know, often the best way to overcome desire is to satisfy it.'

  'Has it ever struck you that you're a very possessive woman? You've told me that Gra
y has a deep strain of poetic feeling and you've told me that he's an ardent lover; and I can well believe that both mean a lot to you; but you haven't told me what means much more to you than both of them put together – your feeling that you hold him in the hollow of that beautiful but not so small hand of yours. Larry would always have escaped you. D'you remember that Ode of Keats's? "Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss, though winning near the goal."'

  'You often think you know a great deal more than you do,' she said, a trifle acidly. 'There's only one way a woman holds a man and you know it. And let me tell you this: it's not the first time she goes to bed with him that counts, it's the second. If she holds him then she holds him for good.'

  'You do pick up the most extraordinary bits of information.'

  'I get around and I keep my eyes and ears open.'

  'May I inquire how you acquired that one?'

  She gave me her most teasing smile.

  'From a woman I made friends with at a dress show. The vendeuse told me she was the smartest kept woman in Paris, so I made up my mind I'd get to know her. Adrienne de Troye. Ever heard of her?'


  'How your education has been neglected! She's forty-five and not even pretty, but she looks much more distinguished than any of Uncle Elliott's duchesses. I sat down beside her and put on my impulsive little-American-girl act. I told her I had to speak to her because I'd never seen anyone more ravishing in my life. I told her she had the perfection of a Greek cameo.'

  'The nerve you've got.'

  'She was rather stiff at first and stand-offish, but I ran on in my simple naïve way and she thawed. Then we had quite a nice little chat. When the show was over I asked her if she wouldn't come to lunch with me at the Ritz one day. I told her I'd always admired her wonderful chic.'

  'Had you ever seen her before?'

  'Never. She wouldn't lunch with me, she said they had such malicious tongues in Paris, it would compromise me, but she was pleased that I'd asked her, and when she saw my mouth quiver with disappointment she asked me if I wouldn't come and lunch with her in her house. She patted my hand when she saw I was simply overwhelmed by her affability.'

  'And did you go?'

  'Of course I went. She has a dear little house off the Avenue Foch and we were waited on by a butler who's the very image of George Washington. I stayed till four o'clock. We took our hair down and our stays off, and had a thorough girls' gossip. I learnt enough that afternoon to write a book.'

  'Why don't you? It's just the sort of thing to suit the Ladies' Home Journal.'

  'You fool,' she laughed.

  I was silent for a moment. I pursued my thoughts.

  'I wonder if Larry was ever really in love with you,' I said presently.

  She sat up. Her expression lost its amenity. Her eyes were angry.

  'What are you talking about? Of course he was in love with me. D'you think a girl doesn't know when a man's in love with her?'

  'Oh, I dare say he was in love with you after a fashion. He didn't know any girl so intimately as he knew you. You'd played around together since you were children. He expected himself to be in love with you. He had the normal sexual instinct. It seemed such a natural thing that you should marry. There wouldn't have been any particular difference in your relations except that you lived under the same roof and went to bed together.'

  Isabel, to some exent mollified, waited for me to go on and, knowing that women are always glad to listen when you discourse upon love, I went on.

  'Moralists try to persuade us that the sexual instinct hasn't got so very much to do with love. They're apt to speak of it as if it were an epiphenomenon.'

  'What in God's name is that?'

  'Well there are psychologists who think that consciousness accompanies brain processes and is determined by them, but doesn't itself exert any influence on them. Something like the reflection of a tree in water; it couldn't exist without the tree, but it doesn't in any way affect the tree. I think it's all stuff and nonsense to say that there can be love without passion; when people say love can endure after passion is dead they're talking of something else, affection, kindliness, community of taste and interest, and habit. Especially habit. Two people can go on having sexual intercourse from habit in just the same way as they grow hungry at the hour they're accustomed to have their meals. Of course there can be desire without love. Desire isn't passion. Desire is the natural consequence of the sexual instinct and it isn't of any more importance than any other function of the human animal. That's why women are foolish to make a song and dance if their husbands have an occasional flutter when the time and the place are propitious.'

  'Does that apply only to men?'

  I smiled.

  'If you insist I'll admit that what is sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose. The only thing to be said against it is that with a man a passing connexion of that sort has no emotional significance, while with a woman it has.'

  'It depends on the woman.'

  I wasn't going to let myself be interrupted.

  'Unless love is passion, it's not love, but something else; and passion thrives not on satisfaction, but on impediment. What d'you suppose Keats meant when he told the lover on his Grecian urn not to grieve? "Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!" Why? Because she was unattainable, and however madly the lover pursued she still eluded him. For they were both imprisoned in the marble of what I suspect was an indifferent work of art. Your love for Larry and his for you were as simple and natural as the love of Paolo and Francesca or Romeo and Juliet. Fortunately for you it didn't come to a bad end. You made a rich marriage and Larry roamed the world to find out what song the Sirens sang. Passion didn't enter into it.'

  'How d'you know?'

  'Passion doesn't count the cost. Pascal said that the heart has its reasons that reason takes no account of. If he meant what I think, he meant that when passion seizes the heart it invents reasons that seem not only plausible but conclusive to prove that the world is well lost for love. It convinces you that honour is well sacrificed and that shame is a cheap price to pay. Passion is destructive. It destroyed Antony and Cleopatra, Tristan and Isolde, Parnell and Kitty O'Shea. And if it doesn't destroy it dies. It may be then that one is faced with the desolation of knowing that one has wasted the years of one's life, that one's brought disgrace upon oneself, endured the frightful pang of jealousy, swallowed every bitter mortification, that one's expended all one's tenderness, poured out all the riches of one's soul on a poor drab, a fool, a peg on which one hung one's dreams, who wasn't worth a stick of chewing gum.'

  Before I finished this harangue I knew very well that Isabel wasn't paying any attention to me, but was occupied with her own reflections. But her next remark surprised me.

  'Do you think Larry is a virgin?'

  'My dear, he's thirty-two.'

  'I'm certain he is.'

  'How can you be?'

  'That's the kind of thing a woman knows instinctively.'

  'I knew a young man who had a very prosperous career for some years by convincing one beautiful creature after another that he'd never had a woman. He said it worked like a charm.'

  'I don't care what you say. I believe in my intuition.'

  It was growing late, Gray and Isabel were dining with friends, and she had to dress. I had nothing to do, so I walked in the pleasant spring evening up the Boulevard Raspail. I have never believed very much in women's intuition; it fits in too neatly with what they want to believe to persuade me that it is trustworthy; and as I thought of the end of my long talk with Isabel I couldn't help but laugh. It put me in mind of Suzanne Rouvier and it occurred to me that I hadn't seen her for several days. I wondered if she was doing anything. If not, she might like to dine with me and go to a movie. I stopped a prowling taxi and gave the address of her apartment.


  I mentioned Suzanne Rouvier at the beginning of this book. I had known her for ten or twelve years and at the date which I have now reached she mu
st have been not far from forty. She was not beautiful; in fact she was rather ugly. She was tall for a Frenchwoman, with a short body, long legs, and long arms, and she held herself gawkily as though she didn't know how to cope with the length of her limbs. The colour of her hair changed according to her whim, but most often it was a reddish brown. She had a small square face, with very prominent cheekbones vividly rouged, and a large mouth with heavily-painted lips. None of this sounds attractive, but it was; it is true that she had a good skin, strong white teeth, and big, vividly blue eyes. They were her best feature, and she made the most of them by painting her eyelashes and her eyelids. She had a shrewd, roving, friendly look and she combined great good nature with a proper degree of toughness. In the life she had led she needed to be tough. Her mother, the widow of a small official in the government, had on his death returned to her native village in Anjou to live on her pension, and when Suzanne was fifteen she apprenticed her to a dressmaker in the neighbouring town, which was near enough for her to be able to come home on Sundays. It was during her fortnight's holiday, when she had reached the age of seventeen, that she was seduced by an artist who was spending his summer in the village to paint landscape. She already knew very well that without a penny to bless herself with her chance of marriage was remote and when the painter, at the end of the summer, proposed taking her to Paris she consented with alacrity. He took her to live with him in a rabbit-warren of studios in Montmartre, and she spent a very pleasant year in his company. At the end of this he told her that he had not sold a single canvas and could no longer afford the luxury of a mistress. She had been expecting the news for some time and was not disconcerted by it. He asked her if she wanted to go home and when she said she didn't, told her that another painter in the same block would be glad to have her. The man he named had made a pass at her two or three times and though she had rebuffed him it had been with so much good humour that he was not affronted. She did not dislike him and so accepted the proposition with placidity. It was convenient that she did not have to go to the expense of taking a taxi to transport her trunk. Her second lover, a good deal older than the first, but still presentable, painted her in every conceivable position, clothed and in the nude; and she passed two happy years with him. She was proud to think that with her as a model he had made his first real success and she showed me a reproduction cut out of an illustrated paper of the picture that had brought it about. It had been purchased by an American gallery. It was a nude, life-size, and she was lying in something of the same position as Manet's Olympe. The artist had been quick to see that there was something modern and amusing in her proportions, and, fining down her thin body to emaciation, he had elongated her long legs and arms, he had emphasized her high cheekbones and made her blue eyes extravagantly large. From the reproduction I naturally could not tell what the colour was like, but I was sensible of the elegance of the design. The picture brought him sufficient notoriety to enable him to marry an admiring widow with money, and Suzanne, well aware that a man had to think of his future, accepted the rupture of their cordial relations without acrimony.

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