The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

  'He couldn't understand it and he rang up her apartment, but there was no reply, so he said he'd go down there. They held dinner up as long as they could, but neither of them turned up and so they had dinner by themselves. Of course you know what Sophie's life was before you ran into her in the Rue de Lappe; that was a most unfortunate idea of yours to take them down there. Well, Larry spent all night going around her old haunts, but couldn't find her anywhere. He went to the apartment after time, but the concierge said she hadn't been in. He spent three days hunting for her. She'd just vanished. Then on the fourth day he went to the apartment again and the concierge told him she'd been in and packed a bag and gone away in a taxi.'

  'Was Larry awfully upset?'

  'I didn't see him. Isabel tells me he was rather.'

  'She didn't write or anything?'


  I thought it over.

  'What do you make of it?' I said.

  'My dear fellow, exactly what you make of it. She couldn't stick it out. She went on the booze again.'

  That was obvious, but for all that it was strange. I couldn't see why she had chosen just that moment to skip.

  'How is Isabel taking it?'

  'Of course she's sorry, but she's a sensible girl and she told me she always thought it would be a disaster if Larry married a woman like that.'

  'And Larry?'

  'Isabel's been very kind to him. She says that what makes it difficult is that he won't discuss it. He'll be all right, you know; Isabel says he was never in love with Sophie. He was only marrying her out of a sort of misguided chivalry.'

  I could see Isabel putting a brave face on a turn of events that was certainly causing her a great deal of satisfaction. I well knew that next time I saw her she would not fail to point out to me that she had known all along what would happen.

  But it was nearly a year before I saw her again and though by that time I could have told her something about Sophie that would have set her thinking, the circumstances were such that I had no inclination to. I stayed in London till nearly Christmas and then, wanting to get home, went straight down to the Riviera without stopping in Paris. I set to work on a novel and for the next few months lived in retirement. I saw Elliott now and then. It was obvious that his health was failing, and it pained me that he persisted notwithstanding in leading a social life. He was vexed with me because I would not drive thirty miles to go to the constant parties he continued to give. He thought it very conceited of me to prefer to sit at home and work.

  'It's an unusually brilliant season, my dear fellow,' he told me. 'It's a crime to shut yourself up in your house and miss everything that's going on. And why you had to choose a part of the Riviera to live in that's completely out of fashion I shan't be able to understand if I live to be a hundred.'

  Poor nice silly Elliott; it was very clear that he would live to no such age.

  By June I had finished the rough draft of my novel and thought I deserved a holiday, so, packing a bag, I got on the cutter from which in summer we used to bathe in the Baie des Fosses and set sail along the coast towards Marseilles. There was only a fitful breeze and for the most part we chugged along with the motor auxiliary. We spent a night in the harbour at Cannes, another at Sainte Maxime, and a third at Sanary. Then we got to Toulon. That is a port I have always had an affection for. The ships of the French fleet give it an air at once romantic and companionable, and I am never tired of wandering about its old streets. I can linger for hours on the quay, watching the sailors on shore leave strolling about in pairs or with their girls, and the civilians who saunter back and forth as though they had nothing in the world to do but enjoy the pleasant sunshine. Because of all these ships and the ferryboats that take the bustling crowd to various points of the vast harbour, Toulon gives you the effect of a terminal on which all the ways of the wide world converge; and as you sit in a cafe, your eyes a little dazzled by the brightness of sea and sky, your fancy takes golden journeys to the uttermost parts of the earth. You land in a longboat on a coral beach, fringed with coconut palms, in the Pacific; you step off the gangway on to the dock at Rangoon and get into a rickshaw; you watch from the upper deck the noisy, gesticulating crowd of Negroes as your ship is made fast to the pier at Port au Prince.

  We got in lateish in the morning and towards the middle of the afternoon I landed and walked along the quay, looking at the shops, at the people who passed me, and at the people sitting under the awning in the cafes. Suddenly I saw Sophie and at the same moment she saw me. She smiled and said hello. I stopped and shook hands with her. She was by herself at a small table with an empty glass before her.

  'Sit down and have a drink,' she said.

  'You have one with me,' I replied, taking a chair.

  She wore the striped blue-and-white jersey of the French sailor, a pair of bright red slacks, and sandals through which protruded the painted nails of her big toes. She wore no hat, and her hair, cut very short and curled, was of so pale a gold that it was almost silver. She was as heavily made up as when we had run across her at the Rue de Lappe. She had had a drink or two as I judged from the saucers on the table, but she was sober. She did not seem displeased to see me.

  'How are all the folks in Paris?' she asked.

  'I think they're all right. I haven't seen any of them since that day we all lunched together at the Ritz.'

  She blew a great cloud of smoke from her nostrils and began to laugh.

  'I didn't marry Larry after all.'

  'I know. Why not?'

  'Darling, when it came to the point I couldn't see myself being Mary Magdalen to his Jesus Christ. No, sir.'

  'What made you change your mind at the last moment?'

  She looked at me mockingly. With that audacious tilt of the head, with her small breasts and narrow flanks, in that get-up, she looked like a vicious boy; but I must admit that she was much more attractive than in the red dress, with its dismal air of provincial smartness, in which I had last seen her. Face and neck were deeply burnt by the sun, and though the brownness of her skin made the rouge on her cheeks and the black of her eyebrows more aggressive, the effect in its vulgar way was not without lure.

  'Would you like me to tell you?'

  I nodded. The waiter brought the beer I had ordered for myself and the brandy and seltzer for her. She lit a caporal from one she had just finished.

  'I hadn't had a drink for three months. I hadn't had a smoke.' She saw my faint look of surprise and laughed. 'I don't mean cigarettes. Opium. I felt awful. You know, sometimes when I was alone I'd shriek the place down; I'd say, "I can't go through with it, I can't go through with it." It wasn't so bad when I was with Larry, but when he wasn't there it was hell.'

  I was looking at her and when she mentioned opium I scanned her more sharply; I noticed the pin-point pupils that showed she was smoking it now. Her eyes were startlingly green.

  'Isabel was giving me my wedding dress. I wonder what's happened to it now. It was a peach. We'd arranged that I should pick her up and we'd go to Molyneux's together. I will say this for Isabel, what she doesn't know about clothes isn't worth knowing. When I got to the apartment their man said she'd had to take Joan to the dentist's and had left a message that she'd be in directly. I went into the living-room. The coffee things were still on the table and I asked the man if I could have a cup. Coffee was the only thing that kept me going. He said he'd bring me some and took the empty cups and the coffee-pot away. He left a bottle on the tray. I looked at it, and it was that Polish stuff you'd all talked about at the Ritz.'

  'Zubrovka. I remember Elliott saying he'd send Isabel some.'

  'You'd all raved how good it smelt and I was curious. I took out the cork and had a sniff. You were quite right; it smelt damned good. I lit a cigarette and in a few minutes the man came in with the coffee. That was good too. They talk a lot about French coffee, they can have it; give me American coffee. That's the only thing I miss here. But Isabel's coffee wasn't bad, I was feeling lousy, and
after I'd had a cup I felt better. I looked at that bottle standing there. It was a terrible temptation, but I said, "To hell with it, I won't think of it," and I lit another cigarette. I thought Isabel would be in any minute, but she didn't come. I got frightfully nervous; I hate being kept waiting and there was nothing to read in the room. I started walking about and looking at the pictures, but I kept on seeing that damned bottle. Then I thought I'd just pour out a glass and look at it. It had such a pretty colour.'

  'Pale green.'

  'That's right. It's funny, its colour is just like its smell. It's like that green you sometimes see in the heart of a white rose. I had to see if it tasted like that, I thought just a taste couldn't hurt me; I only meant to take a sip and then I heard a sound, I thought it was Isabel coming in and I swallowed the glassful because I didn't want her to catch me. But it wasn't Isabel after all. Gosh, it made me feel good, I hadn't felt like that since I'd gone on the wagon. I really began to feel alive again. If Isabel had come in then I suppose I'd be married to Larry now. I wonder how it would have turned out.'

  'And she didn't come in?'

  'No, she didn't. I was furious with her. Who did she think she was, keeping me waiting like that? And then I saw that the liqueur glass was full again; I suppose I must have poured it out without thinking, but, believe it or not, I didn't know I had. It seemed silly to pour it back again, so I drank it. There's no denying it, it was delicious. I felt a different woman; I felt like laughing and I hadn't felt like that for three months. D'you remember that old cissie saying he'd seen fellas in Poland drink it by the tumbler without turning a hair? Well, I thought I could take what any Polish son of a bitch could take and you may as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, so I emptied the dregs of my coffee in the fireplace and filled the cup to the brim. Talk of mother's milk – my arse. Then I don't quite know what happened, but I don't believe there was much left in the bottle by the time I was through. Then I thought I'd get out before Isabel came in. She nearly caught me. Just as I got out of the front door I heard Joanie's voice. I ran up the stairs and waited till they were safely in the apartment and then I dashed down and got into a taxi. I told the driver to drive like hell and when he asked where to I burst out laughing in his face. I felt like a million dollars.'

  'Did you go back to your apartment?' I asked, though I knew she hadn't.

  'What sort of a damn fool d'you take me for? I knew Larry would come and look for me. I didn't dare go to any of the places I used to go to, so I went to Hakim's. I knew Larry'd never find me there. Besides, I wanted a smoke.'

  'What's Hakim's?'

  'Hakim's? Hakim's an Algerian and he can always get you opium if you've got the dough to pay for it. He was quite a friend of mine. He'll get you anything you want, a boy, a man, a woman, or a nigger. He always has half a dozen Algerians on tap. I spent three days there. I don't know how many men I didn't have.' She began to giggle. 'All shapes, sizes, and colours. I made up for lost time all right. But you know, I was scared. I didn't feel safe in Paris, I was afraid Larry'd find me, besides I hadn't got any money left, those bastards you have to pay them to go to bed with you, so I got out, I went back to the apartment and gave the concierge a hundred francs and told her if anyone came and asked for me to say I'd gone away. I packed my things and that night I took the train to Toulon. I didn't feel really safe till I got here.'

  'And have you been here ever since?'

  'You betcha, and I'm going to stay here. You can get all the opium you want, the sailors bring it back from the East, and it's good stuff, not that muck they sell you in Paris. I've got a room at the hotel. You know, the Commerce et la Marine. When you go in there at night the corridors just reek of it.' She sniffed voluptuously. 'Sweet and acrid, and you know they're smoking in their rooms, and it gives you a nice homey feeling. And they don't mind who you take in with you. They come and thump at your door at five in the morning to get the sailors up to go back to their ships, so you don't have to worry about that.' And then, without transition: 'I saw a book of yours in the store just along the quay; if I'd known I was going to see you I'd have bought it and got you to sign it.'

  When passing the bookshop I had stopped to look in the window and had noticed among other new books the translation of a novel of mine that had recently appeared.

  'I don't suppose it would have amused you much,' I said.

  'I don't know why it shouldn't. I can read, you know.'

  'And you can write too, I believe.'

  She gave me a rapid glance and began to laugh.

  'Yeah, I used to write poetry when I was a kid. I guess it was pretty terrible, but I thought it fine. I suppose Larry told you.' She hesitated for a moment. 'Life's hell anyway, but if there is any fun to be got out of it, you're only a god-damn fool if you don't get it.' She threw back her head defiantly. 'If I buy that book will you write in it?'

  'I'm leaving tomorrow. If you really want it, I'll get you a copy and leave it at your hotel.'

  'That'd be swell.'

  Just then a naval launch came up to the quay and a crowd of sailors tumbled out of it. Sophie embraced them with a glance.

  'That'll be my boy friend.' She waved her arm at someone. 'You can stand him a drink and then you better scram. He's a Corsican and as jealous as our old friend Jehovah.'

  A young man came up to us, hesitated when he saw me, but on a beckoning gesture came up to the table. He was tall, swarthy, clean-shaven, with splendid dark eyes, an aquiline nose, and raven black, wavy hair. He did not look more than twenty. Sophie introduced me as an American friend of her childhood.

  'Dumb but beautiful,' she said to me.

  'You like 'em tough, don't you?'

  'The tougher the better.'

  'One of these days you'll get your throat cut.'

  'I wouldn't be surprised,' she grinned. 'Good riddance to bad rubbish.'

  'One's going to speak French, isn't one?' the sailor said sharply.

  Sophie turned upon him a smile in which there was a trace of mockery. She spoke a fluent and slangy French, with a strong American accent, but this gave the vulgar and obscene colloquialisms that she commonly used a comic tang, so that you could not help but laugh.

  'I was telling him that you were beautiful, but to spare your modesty I was saying it in English.' She addressed me. 'And he's strong. He has the muscles of a boxer. Feel them.'

  The sailor's sullenness was dispelled by the flattery and with a complacent smile he flexed his arm so that the biceps stood out.

  'Feel it,' he said. 'Go on, feel it.'

  I did so and expressed a proper admiration. We chatted for a few minutes. I paid for the drinks and got up.

  'I must be going.'

  'It's nice to have seen you. Don't forget the book.'

  'I won't.'

  I shook hands with them both and strolled off. On my way I stopped at the bookshop, bought the novel, and wrote Sophie's name and my own. Then, because it suddenly occurred to me I could think of nothing else, I wrote the first line of Ronsard's lovely little poem which is in all the anthologies:

  Mignonne, allons voir si la rose . . .

  I left it at the hotel. It is on the quay and I have often stayed there because when you are awakened at dawn by the clarion that calls the men on night leave back to duty the sun rising mistily over the smooth water of the harbour invests the wraithlike ships with a shrouded loveliness. Next day we sailed for Cassis, where I wanted to buy some wine, and then to Marseilles to take up a new sail that we had ordered. A week later I got home.


  I found a message from Joseph, Elliott's manservant, to tell me that Elliott was ill in bed and would be glad to see me, so next day I drove over to Antibes. Joseph, before taking me up to see his master, told me that Elliott had had an attack of uraemia and that his doctor took a grave view of his condition. He had come through it and was getting better, but his kidneys were diseased and it was impossible that he should ever completely recover. Joseph had been with Elliott for
forty years and was devoted to him, but though his manner was regretful it was impossible not to notice the inner satisfaction with which, like so many members of his class, catastrophe in the house filled him.

  'Ce pauvre monsieur, he sighed. 'Evidently he had his manias but at bottom he was good. Sooner or later he must die.'

  He spoke already as though Elliott were at his last gasp.

  'I'm sure he's provided for you, Joseph,' I said grimly.

  'One must hope it,' he said mournfully.

  I was surprised when he ushered me into the bedroom to find Elliott very spry. He was pale and looked old, but was in good spirits. He was shaved and his hair was neatly brushed. He wore pale blue silk pyjamas, on the pocket of which were embroidered his initials surmounted by his count's crown. These, much larger and again with the crown, were heavily embroidered on the turned-down sheet.

  I asked him how he felt.

  'Perfectly well,' he said cheerfully. 'It's only a temporary indisposition. I shall be up and about again in a few days. I've got the Grand Duke Dimitri lunching with me on Saturday, and I've told my doctor he must put me to rights by then at all costs.'

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