The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

  It was on that night that we met Sophie Macdonald.


  Isabel had conceived the desire to make a tour of the tough joints, and because I had some acquaintance with them she asked me to be their guide. I did not much like the notion, because in places of that sort in Paris they are apt to make their disapproval of sightseers from another world unpleasantly obvious. But Isabel insisted. I warned her that it would be very boring and begged her to dress plainly. We dined late, went to the Folies-Bergère for an hour, and then set out. I took them first to a cellar near Notre Dame frequented by gangsters and their molls where I knew the proprietor, and he made room for us at a long table at which were sitting some very disreputable people, but I ordered wine for all of them and we drank one another's healths. It was hot, smoky, and dirty. Then I took them to the Sphynx where women, naked under their smart, tawdry evening dresses, their breasts, nipples and all, exposed, sit in a row on two benches opposite one another and when the band strikes up dance together listlessly with their eyes on the lookout for the men who sit round the dance hall at marble-topped tables. We ordered a bottle of warm champagne. Some of the women gave Isabel the eye as they passed us and I wondered if she knew what it meant.

  Then we went on to the Rue de Lappe. It is a dingy, narrow street, and even as you enter it you get the impression of sordid lust. We went into a cafe. There was the usual young man, pale and dissipated, playing the piano, while another man, old and tired, scraped away on a fiddle, and a third made discordant noises on a saxophone. The place was packed and it looked as though there wasn't a vacant table, but the patron, seeing that we were customers with money to spend, unceremoniously turned a couple out, making them take seats at a table already occupied, and settled us down. The two persons who were hustled away did not take it well, and they made remarks about us that were far from complimentary. A lot of people were dancing, sailors with the red pompon on their hats, men mostly with their caps on and handkerchiefs round their necks, women of mature age, and young girls, painted to the eyes, bareheaded, in short skirts and coloured blouses. Men danced with podgy boys with made-up eyes; gaunt, hard-featured women danced with fat women with dyed hair; men danced with women. There was a frowst of smoke and liquor and of sweating bodies. The music went on interminably and that unsavoury mob proceeded round the room, the sweat shining on their faces, with a solemn intensity in which there was something horrible. There were a few big men of brutal aspect, but for the most part they were puny and ill-nourished. I watched the three who were playing. They might have been robots, so mechanical was their performance, and I asked myself if it was possible that at one time, when they were setting out, they had thought they might be musicians whom people would come from far to hear and to applaud. Even to play the violin badly you must take lessons and practise: did that fiddler go to all that trouble just to play fox-trots till the small hours of the morning in that stinking squalor? The music stopped and the pianist wiped his face with a dirty handkerchief. The dancers slouched or sidled or squirmed back to their tables. Suddenly we heard an American voice:

  'For Christ's sake.'

  A woman got up from one of the tables across the room. The man she was with tried to stop her, but she pushed him aside and staggered across the floor. She was very drunk. She came up to our table and stood in front of us, swaying a little and grinning stupidly. She seemed to find the sight of us vastly amusing. I glanced at my companions. Isabel was staring at her blankly, Gray had a sullen frown on his face, and Larry gazed as though he couldn't believe his eyes.

  'Hello,' she said.

  'Sophie,' said Isabel.

  'Who the hell did you think it was?' she gurgled. She grabbed the waiter who was passing. 'Vincent, fetch me a chair.'

  'Fetch one yourself,' he said, snatching himself away.

  'Salaud,' she cried, spitting at him.

  'Ten fais pas, Sophie,' said a big fat fellow with a great head of greasy hair, who was sitting next to us in his shirt-sleeves. 'Here's a chair.'

  'Fancy meeting you all like this,' she said, still swaying. 'Hello, Larry. Hello, Gray.' She sank into the chair which the man who had spoken placed behind her. 'Let's all have a drink. Patron,' she screamed.

  I had noticed that the proprietor had his eye on us and now he came up.

  'You know these people, Sophie?' he asked, addressing her in the familiar second person singular.

  'Ta gueule,' she laughed drunkenly. 'They're my childhood friends. I'm buying a bottle of champagne for them. And don't you bring us any wine de cheval. Bring us something one can swallow without vomiting.'

  'You're drunk, my poor Sophie,' he said.

  'To hell with you.'

  He went off, glad enough to sell a bottle of champagne – we for safety's sake had been drinking brandy and soda – and Sophie stared at me dully for a moment.

  'Who's your friend, Isabel?'

  Isabel told her my name.

  'Oh? I remember, you came to Chicago once. Bit of a stuffed shirt, aren't you?'

  'Maybe,' I smiled.

  I had no recollection of her, but that was not surprising, since I had not been to Chicago for more than ten years and had met a great many people then and a great many since.

  She was quite tall and, when standing, looked taller still, for she was very thin. She wore a bright green silk blouse, but it was crumpled and spotted, and a short black skirt. Her hair, cut short and loosely curled, but tousled, was brightly hennaed. She was outrageously made up, her cheeks rouged to the eyes, and her eyelids, upper and lower, heavily blued; her eyebrows and eyelashes were thick with mascara and her mouth scarlet with lipstick. Her hands, with their painted nails, were dirty. She looked more of a slut than any woman there and I had a suspicion that she was not only drunk but doped. But one couldn't deny that there was a certain vicious attractiveness about her; she held her head with an arrogant tilt and her makeup accentuated the startling greenness of her eyes. Sodden with drink as she was, she had a bold-faced shamelessness that I could well imagine appealed to all that was base in men. She embraced us in a sardonic smile.

  'I can't say you seem so terribly pleased to see me,' she said.

  'I heard you were in Paris,' said Isabel lamely, a chilly smile on her face.

  'You might have called me. I'm in the phone-book.'

  'We haven't been here very long.'

  Gray came to the rescue.

  'Are you having a good time over here, Sophie?'

  'Fine. You went bust, Gray, didn't you?'

  His face flushed a deeper red.


  'Tough on you. I guess it's pretty grim in Chicago right now. Lucky for me I got out when I did. For Christ's sake why doesn't that bastard bring us something to drink?'

  'He's just coming,' I said, seeing the waiter threading his way through the tables with glasses and wine on a tray.

  My remark drew her attention to me.

  'My loving in-laws kicked me out of Chicago. Said I was gumming up their f — reputations.' She giggled savagely. 'I'm a remittance man.'

  The champagne came and was poured out. With a shaking hand she raised a glass to her lips.

  'To hell with stuffed shirts,' she said. She emptied the glass and glanced at Larry. 'You don't seem to have much to say for yourself, Larry.'

  He had been looking at her with an impassive face. He had not taken his eyes off her since she had appeared. He smiled amiably.

  'I'm not a very talkative guy.'

  The music struck up again and a man came over to us. He was a tallish fellow and well built, with a great hooked nose, a mat of shining black hair, and great sensual lips. He looked like an evil Savonarola. Like most of the men there he wore no collar and his tight-fitting coat was closely buttoned to give him a waist.

  'Come on, Sophie. We're going to dance.'

  'Go away. I'm busy. Can't you see I'm with friends?'

  'J' m'en fous de tes amis. To hell with your friends. You're dancing.'

sp; He took hold of her arm but she snatched it away.

  'Fous-moi la paix, espèce de con,' she cried, with sudden violence.



  Gray did not understand what they were saying, but I saw that Isabel, with that strange knowledge of obscenity that the most virtuous woman seems to possess, understood perfectly, and her face went hard with a frown of disgust. The man raised his arm with his hand open, the horny hand of a workman, and was about to slap her, when Gray half raised himself from his chair.

  'Allaiz vous ong,' he shouted, with his execrable accent.

  The man stopped and threw Gray a furious glance.

  'Take care, Coco,' said Sophie, with a bitter laugh. 'He'll lay you out cold.'

  The man took in Gray's great height and weight and strength. He shrugged his shoulders sullenly and, throwing a filthy word at us, slunk off. Sophie giggled drunkenly. The rest of us were silent. I refilled her glass.

  'You living in Paris, Larry?' she asked after she had drained it.

  'For the present.'

  It's always difficult to make conversation with a drunk, and there's no denying it, the sober are at a disadvantage with him. We went on talking for a few minutes in a dreary, embarrassed way. Then Sophie pushed back her chair.

  'If I don't go back to my boy friend he'll be as mad as hell. He's a sulky brute, but Christ, he's a good screw.' She staggered to her feet. 'So long, folks. Come again. I'm here every night.'

  She pushed her way through the dancers and we lost sight of her in the crowd. I almost laughed at the icy scorn on Isabel's classic features. None of us said a word.

  'This is a foul place,' said Isabel suddenly. 'Let's go.'

  I paid for our drinks and for Sophie's champagne and we trooped out. The crowd was on the dance floor and we got out without remark. It was after two, and to my mind time to go to bed, but Gray said he was hungry, so I suggested that we should go to Graf's in Montmartre and get something to eat. We were silent as we drove up. I sat beside Gray to direct him. We reached the garish restaurant. There were still people sitting on the terrace. We went in and ordered bacon and eggs and beer. Isabel, outwardly at least, had regained her composure. She congratulated me, somewhat ironically perhaps, on my acquaintance with the more disreputable parts of Paris.

  'You asked for it,' I said.

  'I've thoroughly enjoyed myself. I've had a grand evening.'

  'Hell,' said Gray. 'It stank. And Sophie.'

  Isabel shrugged an indifferent shoulder.

  'D'you remember her at all?' she asked me. 'She sat next to you the first night you came to dinner with us. She hadn't got that awful red hair then. Its natural colour is dingy beige.'

  I threw my mind back. I had a recollection of a very young girl with blue eyes that were almost green and an attractive tilt to her head. Not pretty, but fresh and ingenuous with a mixture of shyness and pertness that I found amusing.

  'Of course I remember. I liked her name. I had an aunt called Sophie.'

  'She married a boy called Bob Macdonald.'

  'Nice fellow,' said Gray.

  'He was one of the best-looking boys I ever saw. I never understood what he saw in her. She married just after I did. Her parents were divorced and her mother married a Standard Oil man in China. She lived with her father's people at Marvin and we used to see a lot of her then, but after she married she dropped out of our crowd somehow. Bob Macdonald was a lawyer, but he wasn't making much money, and they had a walk-up apartment on the North Side. But it wasn't that. They didn't want to see anybody. I never saw two people so crazy about one another. Even after they'd been married two or three years and had a baby they'd go to the pictures and he'd sit with his arm round her waist and she with her head on his shoulder just like lovers. They were quite a joke in Chicago.'

  Larry listened to what Isabel said, but made no comment. His face was inscrutable.

  'What happened then?' I asked.

  'One night they were driving back to Chicago in a little open car of theirs, and they had the baby with them. They always had to take the baby along because they hadn't any help. Sophie did everything herself, and, anyway, they worshipped it. And a bunch of drunks in a great sedan driving at eighty miles an hour crashed into them head on. Bob and the baby were killed outright, but Sophie only had concussion and a rib or two broken. They kept it from her as long as they could that Bob and the baby were dead, but at last they had to tell her. They say it was awful. She nearly went crazy. She shrieked the place down. They had to watch her night and day and once she nearly succeeded in jumping out of the window. Of course we did all we could, but she seemed to hate us. After she came out of the hospital they put her in a sanatorium and she was there for months.'

  'Poor thing.'

  'When they let her go she started to drink, and when she was drunk she'd go to bed with anyone who asked her. It was terrible for her in-laws. They're very nice quiet people and they hated the scandal. At first we all tried to help her, but it was impossible; if you asked her to dine she'd arrive plastered and she was quite likely to pass out before the evening was over. Then she got in with a rotten crowd and we had to drop her. She was arrested once for driving a car when she was drunk. She was with a dago she'd picked up in a speak-easy and it turned out that he was wanted by the cops.'

  'But had she money?' I asked.

  'There was Bob's insurance; the people who owned the car that smashed into them were insured and she got something from them. But it didn't last long. She spent it like a drunken sailor and in two years she was broke. Her grandmother wouldn't have her back at Marvin. Then her in-laws said they'd make her an allowance if she'd go and live abroad. I suppose that's what she's living on now.'

  'The wheel comes full circle,' I remarked. 'There was a time when the black sheep of the family was sent from my country to America; now apparently he's sent from your country to Europe.'

  'I can't help feeling sorry for her,' said Gray.

  'Can't you?' said Isabel coolly. 'I can. Of course it was a shock and no one could have sympathized with Sophie more than I did. We'd known one another always. But a normal person recovers from a thing like that. If she went to pieces it's because there was a rotten streak in her. She was naturally unbalanced; even her love for Bob was exaggerated. If she'd had character she'd have been able to make something of life.'

  'If pots and pans . . . Aren't you very hard, Isabel?' I murmured.

  'I don't think so. I have common sense and I see no reason to be sentimental about Sophie. God knows, no one could be more devoted to Gray and the babes than I am, and if they were killed in a motor accident I should go out of my mind, but sooner or later I'd pull myself together. Isn't that what you'd wish me to do, Gray, or would you prefer me to get blind every night and go to bed with every apache in Paris?'

  Gray then came as near to making a humorous remark as I ever heard him.

  'Of course I'd prefer you to hurl yourself on my funeral pyre in a new Molyneux dress, but as that's not done any more, I guess the best thing you could do would be to take the bridge. And I'd like you to remember not to go an original no-trump on less than three and a half to four quick tricks.'

  It was not the occasion for me to point out to Isabel that her love for her husband and her children, though sincere enough, was scarcely passionate. Perhaps she read the thought that was passing through my mind, for she addressed me somewhat truculently.

  'What have you got to say?'

  'I'm like Gray, I'm sorry for the girl.'

  'She's not a girl. She's thirty.'

  'I suppose it was the end of the world for her when her husband and her baby were killed. I suppose she didn't care what became of her and flung herself into the horrible degradation of drink and promiscuous copulation to get even with life that had treated her so cruelly. She'd lived in heaven and when she lost it she couldn't put up with the common earth of common men, but in despair plunged headlong into hell. I can imagine that if she couldn't dr
ink the nectar of the gods any more she thought she might as well drink bathroom gin.'

  'That's the sort of thing you say in novels. It's nonsense and you know it's nonsense. Sophie wallows in the gutter because she likes it. Other women have lost their husbands and children. It wasn't that that made her evil. Evil doesn't spring from good. The evil was there always. When that motor accident broke her defences it set her free to be herself. Don't waste your pity on her; she's now what at heart she always was.'

  All this time Larry had remained silent. He seemed to be in a brown study and I thought he hardly heard what we were saying. Isabel's words were followed by a brief silence. He began to speak, but in a strange, toneless voice, as though not to us, but to himself; his eyes seemed to look into the dim distance of past time.

  'I remember her when she was fourteen with her long hair brushed back off her forehead and a black bow at the back, with her freckled, serious face. She was a modest, high-minded, idealistic child. She read everything she could get hold of and we used to talk about books.'

  'When?' asked Isabel, with a slight frown.

  'Oh, when you were out being social with your mother. I used to go up to her grandfather's and we'd sit under a great elm they had there and read to one another. She loved poetry and wrote quite a lot herself.'

  'Plenty of girls do that at that age. It's pretty poor stuff.'

  'Of course it's a long time ago and I dare say I wasn't a very good judge.'

  'You couldn't have been more than sixteen yourself.'

  'Of course it was imitative. There was a lot of Robert Frost in it. But I have a notion it was rather remarkable for so young a girl. She had a delicate ear and a sense of rhythm. She had a feeling for the sounds and scents of the country, the first softness of spring in the air and the smell of the parched earth after rain.'

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