The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

'I never knew she wrote poetry,' said Isabel.

  'She kept it a secret, she was afraid you'd all laugh at her. She was very shy.'

  'She's not that now.'

  'When I came back from the war she was almost grown-up. She'd read a lot about the condition of the working classes and she'd seen something of it for herself in Chicago. She'd got on to Carl Sandburg and was writing savagely in free verse about the misery of the poor and the exploitation of the working classes. I dare say it was rather commonplace, but it was sincere and it had pity in it and aspiration. At that time she wanted to become a social worker. It was moving, her desire for sacrifice. I think she was capable of a great deal. She wasn't silly or mawkish, but she gave one the impression of a lovely purity and a strange loftiness of soul. We saw a lot of one another that year.'

  I could see that Isabel listened to him with growing exasperation. Larry had no notion that he was driving a dagger in her heart and with his every detached word twisting it in the wound. But when she spoke it was with a smile on her lips.

  'How did she come to choose you for her confidant?'

  Larry looked at her with his trustful eyes.

  'I don't know. She was a poor girl among all of you who had plenty of dough, and I didn't belong. I was there just because Uncle Bob practised at Marvin. I suppose she felt that gave us something in common.'

  Larry had no relations. Most of us have at least cousins whom we may hardly know, but who at least give us a sense that we are part of the human family. Larry's father had been an only son, his mother an only daughter; his grandfather on one side, the Quaker, had been lost at sea when a young man and his grandfather on the other side had neither brother nor sister. No one could be more alone in the world than Larry.

  'Did it ever occur to you that Sophie was in love with you?' asked Isabel.

  'Never,' he smiled.

  'When he came back from the war as a wounded hero half the girls in Chicago had a crush on Larry,' said Gray in his bluff way.

  'This was more than a crush. She worshipped you, my poor Larry. D'you mean to say you didn't know it?'

  'I certainly didn't and I don't believe it.'

  'I suppose you thought she was too high-minded.'

  'I can still see that skinny little girl with the bow in her hair and her serious face whose voice trembled with tears when she read that ode of Keats's because it was so beautiful. I wonder where she is now.'

  Isabel gave a very slight start and threw him a suspicious inquiring glance.

  'It's getting frightfully late and I'm so tired I don't know what to do. Let's go.'

  3

  On the following evening I took the Blue Train to the Riviera and two or three days later went over to Antibes to see Elliott and give him news of Paris. He looked far from well. The cure at Montecatini had not done him the good he expected, and his subsequent wanderings had exhausted him. He found a baptismal font in Venice and then went on to Florence to buy the triptych he had been negotiating for. Anxious to see these objects duly placed, he went down to the Pontine Marshes and put up at a miserable inn where the heat had been hard to bear. His precious purchases were a long time on the way, but determined not to leave till he had accomplished his purpose, he stayed on. He was delighted with the effect when at last everything was in order, and he showed me with pride the photographs he had taken. The church, though small, had dignity, and the restrained richness of the interior was proof of Elliott's good taste.

  'I saw an early Christian sarcophagus in Rome that took my fancy and I deliberated a long time about buying it, but in the end I thought better of it.'

  'What on earth did you want with an early Christian sarcophagus, Elliott?'

  'To put myself in it, my dear fellow. It was of a very good design, and I thought it would balance the font on the other side of the entrance, but those early Christians were stumpy little fellows and I shouldn't have fitted in. I wasn't going to lie there till the Last Trump with my knees doubled up to my chin like a foetus. Most uncomfortable.'

  I laughed, but Elliott was serious.

  'I had a better idea. I've made all arrangements, with some difficulty, but that was to be expected, to be buried in front of the altar at the foot of the chancel steps, so that when the poor peasants of the Pontine Marshes come up to take the Sacrament they'll clump over my bones with their heavy shoes. Rather chic, don't you think? Just a plain stone slab with my name on it and a couple of dates. Si monumentum quaeris, circumspice. If you seek his monument, look around, you know.'

  'I do know enough Latin to understand a hackneyed quotation, Elliott,' I said tartly.

  'I beg your pardon, my dear fellow. I'm so accustomed to the crass ignorance of the upper classes, I forgot for the moment that I was talking to an author.'

  He scored.

  'But what I wanted to say to you was this,' he continued. 'I've left proper instructions in my will, but I want you to see they're carried out. I will not be buried on the Riviera among a lot of retired colonels and middle-class French people.'

  'Of course I'll do what you wish, Elliott, but I don't think we need plan for anything like that for many years to come.'

  'I'm getting on, you know, and to tell you the truth I shan't be sorry to go. What are those lines of Landor's? "I've warmed both hands . . ."'

  Though I have a bad verbal memory, the poem is very short and I was able to repeat it.

  'I strove with none, for none was worth my strife. Nature I loved, and. next to Nature, Art; I warmed both hands before the fire of Life; It sinks and I am ready to depart.'

  'That's it,' he said.

  I could not but reflect that it was only by a violent stretch of the imagination that Elliott could fit the epigram to himself.

  'It expresses my sentiments exactly,' he said, however. 'The only thing I could add to it is that I've always moved in the best society in Europe.'

  'It would be difficult to squeeze that into a quatrain.'

  'Society is dead. At one time I had hopes that America would take the place of Europe and create an aristocracy that the hoi polloi would respect, but the depression has destroyed any chance of that. My poor country is becoming hopelessly middle-class. You wouldn't believe it, my dear fellow, but last time I was in America a taxi driver addressed me as brother.'

  But though the Riviera, still shaken by the crash of 'twenty-nine, was not what it had been, Elliott continued to give parties and go to parties. He had never frequented Jews, making an exception only for the family of Rothschild, but the grandest parties were being given now by members of the chosen race, and when there was a party Elliott could not bear not to go to it. He wandered through these gatherings, graciously shaking the hand of one or kissing that of another, but with a kind of forlorn detachment like an exiled royalty who felt a trifle embarrassed to find himself in such company. The exiled royalties, however, had the time of their lives, and to meet a film star seemed the height of their ambitions. Nor had Elliott ever looked with approval on the modern practice of treating members of the theatrical profession as persons whom you met socially; but a retired actress had built herself a sumptuous residence in his immediate neighbourhood and kept open house. Cabinet ministers, dukes, great ladies stayed with her for weeks on end. Elliott became a constant visitor.

  'Of course it's a very mixed crowd,' he told me, 'but one doesn't have to talk to people one doesn't want to. She's a compatriot of mine and I feel I ought to help her out. It must be a relief to her house guests to find someone who can talk their own language.'

  Sometimes he was obviously so far from well that I asked him why he didn't take things more easily.

  'My dear fellow, at my age one can't afford to fall out. You don't think I've moved in the highest circles for nearly fifty years without realizing that if you're not seen everywhere you're forgotten.'

  I wondered if he realized what a lamentable confession he was then making. I had not the heart to laugh at Elliott any more; he seemed to me a profoundly pathetic object
. Society was what he lived for, a party was the breath of his nostrils, not to be asked to one was an affront, to be alone was a mortification; and, an old man now, he was desperately afraid.

  So the summer passed. Elliott spent it scurrying from one end of the Riviera to the other, lunching in Cannes, dining in Monte Carlo, and exercising all his ingenuity to fit in a tea party here and a cocktail party there; and however tired he felt, taking pains to be affable, chatty, and amusing. He was full of gossip and you could trust him to know the details of the latest scandal before anyone but the parties immediately concerned. He would have stared at you with frank amazement had you suggested to him that his existence was futile. He would have thought you distressingly plebeian.

  4

  The autumn came and Elliott decided to go to Paris for a while, partly to see how Isabel, Gray, and the children were getting on, and partly to make what he called acte de presence in the capital. Then he meant to go to London to order some new clothes and incidentally to look up some old friends. My own plan was to go straight to London, but he asked me to drive up with him to Paris, and since that is an agreeable thing to do I consented and, having done so, saw no reason why I should not spend at least a few days in Paris myself. We made the journey by easy stages, stopping at places where the food was good; Elliott had something the matter with his kidneys and drank nothing but Vichy, but always insisted on choosing my half-bottle of wine for me and, too good-natured to grudge me a pleasure he could not share, got a genuine satisfaction out of my enjoyment of a fine vintage. He was so generous that I had difficulty in persuading him to let me pay my share of the expenses. Though I grew a little tired of his stories of the great whom he had known in the past I liked the trip. Much of the country we drove through, just touched with the beginning of its autumn beauty, was very lovely. Having lunched at Fontainebleau, we did not arrive in Paris till afternoon. Elliott dropped me at my modest, old-fashioned hotel and went round the corner to the Ritz. We had warned Isabel of our arriving, so I was not surprised to find a note from her awaiting me, but I was surprised at its contents:

  Come round the moment you get in. Something terrible has happened. Don't bring Uncle Elliott. for God's sake come as soon as you can.

  I am not less curious than anyone else, but I had to have a wash and put on a clean shirt; then I took a taxi and went round to the apartment in the Rue St Guillaume. I was shown into the drawing-room. Isabel sprang to her feet.

  'Where have you been all this time? I've been waiting for hours.'

  It was five o'clock and, before I could answer, the butler brought in the tea-things. Isabel, her hands clenched, watched him with impatience. I couldn't imagine what was the matter.

  'I've only just arrived. We dawdled over lunch at Fontainebleau.'

  'God, how slow he is. Maddening!' said Isabel.

  The man placed the salver with the teapot and the sugar basin and the cups on the table and with what really was exasperating deliberation arranged around it plates of bread and butter, cakes, and cookies. He went out and closed the door behind him.

  'Larry's going to marry Sophie Macdonald.'

  'Who's she?'

  'Don't be so stupid,' cried Isabel, her eyes flashing with anger. 'That drunken slut we met at that filthy cafe you took us to. God knows why you took us to a place like that. Gray was disgusted.'

  'Oh, you mean your Chicago friend?' I said, ignoring her unjust reproach. 'How d'you know?'

  'How should I know? He came and told me himself yesterday afternoon. I've been frantic ever since.'

  'Supposing you sat down, gave me a cup of tea, and told me all about it.'

  'Help yourself.'

  She sat behind the tea-table and watched me irritably while I poured myself out a cup. I made myself comfortable on a small sofa by the fireplace.

  'We haven't seen so much of him lately, since we came back from Dinard, I mean; he came up there for a few days, but wouldn't stay with us, he stayed at a hotel. He used to come down to the beach and play with the children. They're crazy about him. We played golf at St Briac. Gray asked him one day if he'd seen Sophie again.

  '"Yes, I've seen her several times," he said.

  '"Why?" I asked.

  '"She's an old friend," he said.

  '"If I were you I wouldn't waste my time on her," I said.

  'Then he smiled. You know how he smiles, as though he thought what you'd said funny, though it isn't funny at all.

  '"But you're not me," he said.

  'I shrugged my shoulders and changed the conversation. I never gave the matter another thought. You can imagine my horror when he came here and told me they were going to be married.

  '"You can't, Larry," I said. "You can't."

  '"I'm going to," he said as calmly as if he was going to have a second helping of potatoes. "And I want you to be very nice to her, Isabel."

  '"That's asking too much," I said. "You're crazy. She's bad, bad, bad.'"

  'What makes you think that?' I interrupted.

  Isabel looked at me with flashing eyes.

  'She's soused from morning till night. She goes to bed with every tough who asks her.'

  'That doesn't mean she's bad. Quite a number of highly respected citizens get drunk and have a liking for rough trade. They're bad habits, like biting one's nails, but I don't know that they're worse than that. I call a person bad who lies and cheats and is unkind.'

  'If you're going to take her part I'll kill you.'

  'How did Larry meet her again?'

  'He found her address in the phone-book. He went to see her. She was sick, and no wonder, with the life she leads. He got a doctor and had someone in to look after her. That's how it started. He says she's given up drink; the damned fool thinks she's cured.'

  'Have you forgotten what Larry did for Gray? He's cured him, hasn't he?'

  'That's different. Gray wanted to be cured. She doesn't.'

  'How d'you know?'

  'Because I know women. When a woman goes to pieces like that she's done for; she can never get back. If Sophie's what she is, it's because she was like that always. D'you think she'll stick to Larry? Of course not. Sooner or later she'll break out. It's in her blood. It's a brute she wants, that's what excites her, and it's a brute she'll go after. She'll lead Larry a hell of a life.'

  'I think it's very probable, but I don't know what you can do about it. He's going into this with his eyes open.'

  'I can do nothing about it, but you can.'

  'I?'

  'Larry likes you and he listens to what you say. You're the only person who has any influence over him. You know the world. Go to him and tell him that he can't make such a fool of himself. Tell him that it'll ruin him.'

  'He'll only tell me that it's no business of mine and he'll be quite right.'

  'But you like him, at least you're interested in him, you can't sit by and let him make a hopeless mess of his life.'

  'Gray's his oldest and most intimate friend. I don't think it'll do any good, but I should have thought Gray was the best person to speak to him.'

  'Oh, Gray, she said impatiently.

  'You know it may not turn out so badly as you think. I've known two or three fellows, one in Spain and two in the East, who married whores, and they made them very good wives. They were grateful to their husbands, for the security they gave them, I mean, and they of course knew what pleases a man.'

  'You make me tired. D'you think I sacrificed myself to let Larry fall into the hands of a raging nymphomaniac?'

  'How did you sacrifice yourself?'

  'I gave Larry up for the one and only reason that I didn't want to stand in his way.'

  'Come off it, Isabel. You gave him up for a square-cut diamond and a sable coat.'

  The words were hardly out of my mouth when a plate of bread and butter came flying at my head. By sheer luck I caught the plate, but the bread and butter was scattered on the floor. I got up and put the plate back on the table.

  'Your uncle Elliott
wouldn't have thanked you if you'd broken one of his Crown Derby plates. They were made for the third Duke of Dorset and they're almost priceless.'

  'Pick up the bread and butter,' she snapped.

  'Pick it up yourself,' I said, seating myself again on the sofa.

  She got up and, fuming, picked up the scattered pieces.

  'And you call yourself an English gentleman,' she exclaimed, savagely.

  'No, that's a thing I've never done in all my life.'

  'Get the hell out of here. I never want to see you again. I hate the sight of you.'

  'I'm sorry for that, because the sight of you always gives me pleasure. Have you ever been told that your nose is exactly like that of the Psyche in the museum of Naples, and that's the loveliest representation of virginal beauty that ever existed. You've got exquisite legs, so long and shapely, and I never cease to be surprised at them, because they were thick and lumpy when you were a girl. I can't imagine how you've managed it.'

  'An iron will and the grace of God,' she said angrily.

  'But of course your hands are your most fascinating feature. They're so slim and so elegant.'

  'I was under the impression you thought them too big.'

  'Not for your height and build. I'm always amazed at the infinite grace with which you use them. Whether by nature or by art you never make a gesture without imparting beauty to it. They're like flowers sometimes and sometimes like birds on the wing. They're more expressive than any words you can say. They're like the hands of El Greco's portraits; in fact, when I look at them I'm inclined to believe Elliott's highly improbable story of your having an ancestor who was a Spanish grandee.'

  She looked up crossly.

  'What are you talking about? That's the first I've heard of it.'

  I told her about the Count de Lauria and Queen Mary's maid of honour from whose issue in the female line Elliott traced his descent. Meanwhile Isabel contemplated her long fingers and her manicured painted nails with complacency.

  'One must be descended from someone,' she said. Then with a tiny chuckle, giving me a mischievous look in which no trace of rancour remained, she added: 'You lousy bastard.'

 
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