The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham


  So easy is it to make a woman see reason if you only tell her the truth.

  'There are moments when I don't positively dislike you,' said Isabel.

  She came and sat on the sofa beside me and, slipping her arm through mine, leant over to kiss me. I withdrew my cheek.

  'I will not have my face smeared with lipstick,' I said. 'If you want to kiss me, kiss me on the lips, which is what merciful Providence intended them for.'

  She giggled and, her hand turning my head towards her, with her lips pressed a thin layer of paint on mine. The sensation was far from unpleasant.

  'Now you've done that, perhaps you'll tell me what it is you want.'

  'Advice.'

  'I'm quite willing to give you that, but I don't think for a moment you'll take it. There's only one thing you can do and that is to make the best of a bad job.'

  Flaring up again, she snatched her arm away and, getting up, flung herself into a chair on the other side of the fireplace.

  'I'm not going to sit by and let Larry ruin himself. I'll stick at nothing to prevent him from marrying that slut.'

  'You won't succeed. You see, he's enthralled by one of the most powerful emotions that can beset the human breast.'

  'You don't mean to say you think he's in love with her?'

  'No. That would be trifling in comparison.'

  'Well?'

  'Have you ever read the New Testament?'

  'I suppose so.'

  'D 'you remember how Jesus was led into the wilderness and fasted forty days? Then, when he was a-hungered, the devil came to him and said: If thou be the son of God, command that these stones be made bread. But Jesus resisted the temptation. Then the devil set him on a pinnacle of the temple and said to him: If thou be the son of God, cast thyself down. For angels had charge of him and would bear him up. But again Jesus resisted. Then the devil took him into a high mountain and showed him the kingdoms of the world and said that he would give them to him if he would fall down and worship him. But Jesus said: Get thee hence, Satan. That's the end of the story according to the good simple Matthew. But it wasn't. The devil was sly and he came to Jesus once more and said: If thou wilt accept shame and disgrace, scourging, a crown of thorns and death on the cross, thou shalt save the human race, for greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Jesus fell. The devil laughed till his sides ached, for he knew the evil men would commit in the name of their redeemer.'

  Isabel looked at me indignantly.

  'Where on earth did you get that?'

  'Nowhere. I've invented it on the spur of the moment.'

  'I think it's idiotic and blasphemous.'

  'I only wanted to suggest to you that self-confidence is a passion so overwhelming that beside it even lust and hunger are trifling. It whirls its victim to destruction in the highest affirmation of his personality. The object doesn't matter; it may be worth while or it may be worthless. No wine is so intoxicating, no love so shattering, no vice so compelling. When he sacrifices himself man for a moment is greater than God, for how can God, infinite and omnipotent, sacrifice himself? At best he can only sacrifice his only begotten son.'

  'Oh, Christ, how you bore me,' said Isabel.

  I paid no attention.

  'How can you suppose that common sense or prudence will have any effect on Larry when he's in the grip of a passion like that? You don't know what he's been seeking all these years. I don't know either, I only suspect. All these years of labour, all these experiences he garnered weigh nothing in the balance now they're set against his desire – oh, it's more than a desire, his urgent, clamorous need to save the soul of a wanton woman whom he'd known as an innocent child. I think you're right, I think he's undertaking a hopeless job; with his acute sensibility he'll suffer the tortures of the damned; his life's work, whatever it may be, will remain undone. The ignoble Paris killed Achilles by shooting an arrow in his heel. Larry lacks just that touch of ruthlessness that even the saint must have to win his halo.'

  'I love him,' said Isabel. 'God knows, I ask nothing of him. I expect nothing. No one could love anyone more unselfishly than I love him. He's going to be so unhappy.'

  She began to cry and, thinking it would do her good, I let her be. I diverted myself idly with the idea that had sprung so unexpectedly into my mind. I played with it. I couldn't but surmise that the devil, looking at the cruel wars that Christianity has occasioned, the persecutions, the tortures Christian has inflicted on Christian, the un-kindness, the hypocrisy, the intolerance, must consider the balance sheet with complacency. And when he remembers that it has laid upon mankind the bitter burden of the sense of sin that has darkened the beauty of the starry night and cast a baleful shadow on the passing pleasures of a world to be enjoyed, he must chuckle as he murmurs: give the devil his due.

  Presently Isabel took a handkerchief from her bag and a mirror and, looking at herself, carefully wiped the comer of her eyes.

  'Damned sympathetic, aren't you?' she snapped.

  I looked at her pensively, but did not answer. She powdered her face and painted her lips.

  'You said just now you suspected what he's been after all these years. What did you mean?'

  'I can only guess, you know, and I may be quite wrong. I think he's been seeking for a philosophy, or maybe a religion, and a rule of life that'll satisfy both his head and his heart.'

  Isabel considered this for a moment. She sighed.

  'Don't you think it's very strange that a country boy from Marvin, Illinois, should have a notion like that?'

  'No stranger than that Luther Burbank who was born on a farm in Massachusetts should have produced a seedless orange or that Henry Ford who was born on a farm in Michigan should have invented a Tin Lizzie.'

  'But those are practical things. That's in the American tradition.'

  I laughed.

  'Can anything in the world be more practical than to learn how to live to best advantage?'

  Isabel gave a gesture of lassitude.

  'You don't want to lose Larry altogether, do you?'

  She shook her head.

  'You know how loyal he is: if you won't have anything to do with his wife he won't have anything to do with you. If you've got any sense you'll make friends with Sophie. You'll forget the past and be as nice to her as you can be when you like. She's going to be married and I suppose she's buying some clothes. Why don't you offer to go shopping with her? I think she'd jump at it.'

  Isabel listened to me with narrowed eyes. She seemed intent upon what I was saying. For a moment she pondered, but I could not guess what was passing through her mind. Then she surprised me.

  'Will you ask her to lunch? It would be rather awkward for me after what I said to Larry yesterday.'

  'Will you behave if I do?'

  'Like an angel of light,' she answered with her most engaging smile.

  'I'll fix it up right away.'

  There was a phone in the room. I soon found Sophie's number, and after the usual delay which those who use the French telephone learn to put up with patiently, I got her. I mentioned my name.

  'I've just arrived in Paris,' I said, 'and heard that you and Larry are going to be married. I want to congratulate you. I hope you'll be very happy.' I smothered a cry as Isabel, who was standing by me, gave the soft of my arm a vicious pinch. 'I'm only here for a very short time and I wonder if you and Larry will come and lunch with me the day after tomorrow at the Ritz. I'm asking Gray and Isabel and Elliott Templeton.'

  'I'll ask Larry. He's here now.' There was a pause. 'Yes, we shall be glad to.'

  I fixed an hour, made a civil remark, and replaced the receiver on its stand. I caught an expression in Isabel's eyes that caused me some misgiving.

  'What are you thinking?' I asked her. 'I don't quite like the look of you.'

  'I'm sorry; I thought that was the one thing about me you did like.'

  'You haven't got some nefarious scheme that you're hatching, Isabel?'

 
; She opened her eyes very wide.

  'I promise you I haven't. As a matter of fact I'm terribly curious to see what Sophie looks like now Larry has reformed her. All I hope is that she won't come to the Ritz with a mask of paint on her face.'

  5

  My little party did not go too badly. Gray and Isabel arrived first; Larry and Sophie Macdonald five minutes later. Isabel and Sophie kissed each other warmly and Isabel and Cray congratulated her on her engagement. I caught the appraising sweep of the eyes with which Isabel took in Sophie's appearance. I was shocked at it. When I saw her in that dive in the Rue de Lappe, outrageously painted, with hennaed hair, in the bright green coat, though she looked outrageous and was very drunk, there was something provocative and even basely alluring in her; but now she looked drab and, though certainly a year or two younger than Isabel, much older. She still had that gallant tilt of her head, but now, I don't know why, it was pathetic. She was letting her hair go back to its natural colour and it had the slatternly look that hair has when it has been dyed and left to grow. Except for a streak of red on her lips she had no make-up on. Her skin was rough and it had an unhealthy pallor. I remembered how vividly green her eyes had looked, but now they were pale and grey. She wore a red dress, obviously brand-new, with hat, shoes, and bag to match; I don't pretend to know anything about women's clothes, but I had a feeling that it was fussy and too elaborate for the occasion. On her breast was a piece of showy artificial jewellery such as you buy in the Rue de Rivoli. Beside Isabel, in black silk, with a string of cultured pearls round her neck and in a very smart hat, she looked cheap and dowdy.

  I ordered cocktails, but Larry and Sophie refused them. Then Elliott arrived. His progress through the vast foyer was, however, impeded by the hands he had to shake and the hands he had to kiss as he saw one person after the other whom he knew. He behaved as though the Ritz were his private house and he were assuring his guests of his pleasure that they had been able to accept his invitation. He had been told nothing about Sophie except she had lost her husband and child in a motor accident and was now going to marry Larry. When at last he reached us he congratulated them both with the elaborate graciousness of which he was a master. We went in to the dining-room and since we were four men and two women I placed Isabel and Sophie opposite one another at the round table, with Sophie between Gray and myself; but the table was small enough for the conversation to be general. I had already ordered the luncheon and the wine waiter came along with the wine card.

  'You don't know anything about wine, my dear fellow,' said Elliott. 'Give me the wine card, Albert.' He turned over the pages. 'I drink nothing but Vichy myself, but I can't bear to see people drink wine that isn't perfect.'

  He and Albert, the wine waiter, were old friends and after an animated discussion they decided on the wine I should give my guests. Then he turned to Sophie.

  'And where are you going for your honeymoon, my dear?'

  He glanced at her dress and an almost imperceptible raising of his eyebrows showed me that he had formed an unfavourable opinion of it.

  'We're going to Greece.'

  'I've been trying to get there for ten years,' said Larry, 'but somehow I've never been able to manage it.'

  'It ought to be lovely at this time of the year,' said Isabel, with a show of enthusiasm.

  She remembered, as I remembered, that that was where Larry proposed to take her when he wanted her to marry him. It seemed to be an idée fixe with Larry to go to Greece on a honeymoon.

  The conversation flowed none too easily and I should have found it a difficult row to hoe if it hadn't been for Isabel. She was on her best behaviour. Whenever silence seemed to threaten us and I racked my brain for something fresh to talk about, she broke in with facile chatter. I was grateful to her. Sophie hardly spoke except when she was spoken to and then it seemed an effort to her. The spirit had gone out of her. You would have said that something had died in her and I asked myself if Larry wasn't putting her to a strain greater than she could support. If as I suspected she had doped as well as drunk, the sudden deprivation must have worn her nerves to a frazzle. Sometimes I intercepted a look between them. In his I saw tenderness and encouragement, but in hers an appeal that was pathetic. It may be that Gray with his sweetness of disposition instinctively felt what I thought I saw, for he began to tell her how Larry had cured him of the headaches that had incapacitated him and went on to say how much he had depended on him and how much he owed him.

  'Now I'm fit as a flea,' he continued. 'As soon as ever I can get a job I'm going back to work. I've got several irons in the fire and I'm hoping to land something before long. Gosh, it'll be good to be back home again.'

  Gray meant well, but what he had said was perhaps not very tactful if, as I supposed, Larry to cure Sophie of her aggravated alcoholism had used with her the same method of suggestion – for that to my mind was what it was – that had been successful with Gray.

  'You never have headaches now, Gray?' asked Elliott.

  'I haven't had one for three months and if I think one's coming on I take hold of my charm and I'm all right.' He fished out of his pocket the ancient coin Larry had given him. 'I wouldn't sell it for a million dollars.'

  We finished luncheon and coffee was served. The wine waiter came up and asked whether we wanted liqueurs. We all refused except Gray, who said he would have a brandy. When the bottle was brought Elliott insisted on looking at it.

  'Yes, I can recommend it. That'll do you no harm.'

  'A little glass for Monsieur?' asked the waiter.

  'Alas, it's forbidden me.'

  Elliott told him at some length that he was having trouble with his kidneys and that his doctor would not allow him to drink alcohol.

  'A tear of zubrovka could do Monsieur no harm. It's well known to be very good for the kidneys. We have just received a consignment from Poland.'

  'Is that true? It's hard to get nowadays. Let me have a look at a bottle.'

  The wine waiter, a portly, dignified creature with a long silver chain round his neck, went away to fetch it, and Elliott explained that it was the Polish form of vodka but in every way superior.

  'We used to drink it at the Radziwills when I stayed with them for the shooting. You should have seen those Polish princes putting it away; I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that they'd drink it by the tumbler without turning a hair. Good blood, of course; aristocrats to the tips of their fingers. Sophie, you must try it, and you too, Isabel. It's an experience no one can afford to miss.'

  The wine waiter brought the bottle. Larry, Sophie, and I refused to be tempted, but Isabel said she would like to try it, I was surprised, for habitually she drank very little and she had had two cocktails and two or three glasses of wine. The waiter poured out a glass of pale green liquid and Isabel sniffed it.

  'Oh, what a lovely smell.'

  'Hasn't it?' cried Elliott. 'That's the herbs they put in it; it's they that give it its delicate taste. Just to keep you company I'll have a drop. It can't hurt me for once.'

  'It tastes divine,' said Isabel. 'It's like mother's milk. I've never tasted anything so good.'

  Elliott raised his glass to his lips.'

  'Oh, how it brings back the old days! You people who never stayed with the Radziwills don't know what living is. That was the grand style. Feudal, you know. You might have thought yourself back in the Middle Ages. You were met at the station by a carriage with six horses and postilions. And at dinner a footman in livery behind every person.'

  He went on to describe the magnificence and luxury of the establishment and the brilliance of the parties; and the suspicion, doubtless unworthy, occurred to me that the whole thing was a put-up job between Elliott and the wine waiter to give Elliott an opportunity to discourse upon the grandeur of this princely family and the host of Polish aristocrats he hobnobbed with in their castle. There was no stopping him.

  'Another glass, Isabel?'

  'Oh, I daren't. But it is heavenly. I'm so glad to know ab
out it; Gray, we must get some.'

  'I'll have some sent round to the apartment.'

  'Oh, Uncle Elliott, would you?' cried Isabel enthusiastically. 'You are so kind to us. You must try it, Gray; it smells of freshly mown hay and spring flowers, of thyme and lavender, and it's soft on the palate and so comfortable, it's like listening to music by moonlight.'

  It was unlike Isabel to gush inordinately and I wondered if she was a trifle tight. The party broke up. I shook hands with Sophie.

  'When are you going to be married?' I asked her.

  'The week after next. I hope you'll come to the wedding.'

  'I'm afraid I shan't be in Paris. I'm leaving for London tomorrow.'

  While I was saying good-bye to the rest of my guests Isabel took Sophie aside and talked to her for a minute, then turned to Gray.

  'Oh, Gray, I'm not coming home just yet. There's a dress show at Molyneux's and I'm taking Sophie to it. She ought to see the new models.'

  'I'd love to,' said Sophie.

  We parted. I took Suzanne Rouvier out to dinner that night and next morning started for England.

  6

  Elliott arrived at Claridge's a fortnight later and shortly afterwards I dropped in to see him. He had ordered himself several suits of clothes and at what I thought excessive length told me in detail what he had chosen and why. When at last I could get a word in I asked him how the wedding had gone off.

  'It didn't go off,' he answered grimly.

  'What do you mean?'

  'Three days before it was to take place Sophie disappeared. Larry hunted everywhere for her.'

  'What an extraordinary thing! Did they have a row?'

  'No. Far from it. Everything had been arranged. I was going to give her away. They were taking the Orient Express immediately after the wedding. If you ask me, I think Larry's well out of it.'

  I guessed that Isabel had told Elliott everything.

  'What exactly happened?' I asked.

  'Well, you remember that day we lunched at the Ritz with you. Isabel took her to Molyneux's. D'you remember the dress Sophie wore? Deplorable. Did you notice the shoulders? That's how you tell if a dress is well made, by the way it fits over the shoulders. Of course, poor girl, she couldn't afford Molyneux's prices, and Isabel, you know how generous she is, and after all they've known one another since they were children, Isabel offered to give her a dress so that at least she'd have something decent to be married in. Naturally she jumped at it. Well, to cut a long story short, Isabel asked her to come to the apartment one day at three so that they could go together for the final fitting. Sophie came all right, but unfortunately Isabel had to take one of the children to the dentist's and didn't get in till after four and by that time Sophie had gone. Isabel thought she'd got tired of waiting and had gone on to Molyneux's, so she went there at once, but she hadn't come. At last she gave her up and went home again. They were all going to dine together and Larry came along at dinner-time and the first thing she asked him was where Sophie was.

 
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