The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

  I spent half an hour with him, and on my way out asked Joseph to let me know if Elliott had a relapse. I was astonished a week later when I went to lunch with one of my neighbours to find him there. Dressed for a party, he looked like death.

  'You oughtn't to be out, Elliott,' I told him.

  'Oh, what nonsense, my dear fellow. Frieda is expecting the Princess Mafalda. I've known the Italian royal family for years, ever since poor Louisa was en poste at Rome, and I couldn't let poor Frieda down.'

  I did not know whether to admire his indomitable spirit or to lament that at his age, stricken with mortal illness, he should still retain his passion for society. You would never have thought he was a sick man. Like a dying actor when he has the grease paint on his face and steps on the stage, who forgets for the time being his aches and pains, Elliott played his part of the polished courtier with his accustomed assurance. He was infinitely amiable, flatteringly attentive to the proper people, and amusing with that malicious irony at which he was an adept. I think I had never see him display his social gift to greater advantage. When the Royal Highness had departed (and the grace with which Elliott bowed, managing to combine respect for her exalted rank with an old man's admiration for a comely woman, was a sight to see) I was not surprised to hear our hostess tell him that he had been the life and soul of the party.

  A few days later he was in bed again and his doctor forbade him to leave his room. Elliott was exasperated.

  'It's too bad this should happen just now. It's a particularly brilliant season.'

  He reeled off a long list of persons of importance who were spending the summer on the Riviera.

  I went to see him every three or four days. Sometimes he was in bed, but sometimes he lay on a chaise longue in a gorgeous dressing-gown. He seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of them, for I do not remember that I ever saw him in the same one twice. On one of these occasions, it was the beginning of August by now, I found Elliott unusually quiet. Joseph had told me when he let me into the house that he seemed a little better so I was surprised that he was so listless. I tried to amuse him with such gossip of the coast as I had picked up, but he was plainly uninterested. There was a slight frown between his eyes, and a sullenness in his expression that was unusual with him.

  'Are you going to Edna Novemali's party?' he asked me suddenly.

  'No, of course not.'

  'Has she asked you?'

  'She's asked everybody on the Riviera.'

  The Princess Novemali was an American of immense wealth who had married a Roman prince, but not an ordinary prince such as go for two a penny in Italy, but the head of a great family and the descendant of a condottiere who had carved out a principality for himself in the sixteenth century. She was a woman of sixty, a widow, and since the Fascist regime demanded too large a slice of her American income to suit her, she had left Italy and built herself, on a fine estate behind Cannes, a Florentine villa. She had brought marble from Italy with which to line the walls of her great reception rooms and imported painters to paint the ceilings. Her pictures, her bronzes, were uncommonly fine and even Elliott, though he didn't like Italian furniture, was obliged to admit that hers was magnificent. The gardens were lovely and the swimming-pool must have cost a small fortune. She entertained largely and you never sat down less than twenty at table. She had arranged to give a fancy-dress party on the night of the August full moon, and although it was still three weeks ahead nothing else was being talked of on the Riviera. There were to be fireworks and she was bringing down a coloured orchestra from Paris. The exiled royalties were telling one another with envious admiration that it would cost her more than they had to live on for a year.

  'It's princely,' they said.

  'It's crazy,' they said.

  'It's in bad taste,' they said.

  'What are you going to wear?' Elliott asked me.

  'But I told you, Elliott, I'm not going. You don't think I'm going to dress myself up in fancy dress at my time of life.'

  'She hasn't asked me,' he said hoarsely.

  He looked at me with haggard eyes.

  'Oh, she will,' I said coolly. 'I dare say all the invitations haven't gone out yet.'

  'She's not going to ask me.' His voice broke. 'It's a deliberate insult.'

  'Oh, Elliott, I can't believe that. I'm sure it's an oversight.'

  'I'm not a man that people overlook.'

  'Anyhow, you wouldn't have been well enough to go.'

  'Of course I should. The best party of the season! If I were on my deathbed I'd get up for it. I've got the costume of my ancestor, the Count de Lauria, to wear.'

  I did not quite know what to say and so remained silent.

  'Paul Barton was in to see me just before you came,' Elliott said suddenly.

  I cannot expect the reader to remember who this was, since I had to look back myself to see what name I had given him. Paul Barton was the young American whom Elliott had introduced into London society and who had aroused his hatred by dropping him when he no longer had any use for him. He had been somewhat in the public eye of late, first because he had adopted British nationality and then because he had married the daughter of a newspaper magnate who had been raised to the peerage. With this influence behind him and with his own adroitness it was evident that he would go far. Elliott was very bitter.

  'Whenever I wake up in the night and hear a mouse scratching away in the wainscoat I say: "That's Paul Barton climbing." Believe me, my dear fellow, he'll end up in the House of Lords. Thank God I shan't be alive to see it.'

  'What did he want?' I asked, for I knew as well as Elliott that this young man did nothing for nothing.

  'I'll tell you what he wanted,' said Elliott, snarling. 'He wanted to borrow my Count de Lauria costume.'


  'Don't you see what it means? It means he knew Edna hadn't asked me and wasn't going to ask me. She put him up to it. The old bitch. She'd never have got anywhere without me. I gave parties for her. I introduced her to everyone she knows. She sleeps with her chauffeur; you knew that of course. Disgusting! He sat there and told me that she's having the whole garden illuminated and there are going to be fireworks. I love fireworks. And he told me that Edna was being pestered by people who were asking for invitations, but she had turned them all down because she wanted the party to be really brilliant. He spoke as though there were no question of my being invited.'

  'And are you lending him the costume?'

  'I'd see him dead and in hell first. I'm going to be buried in it.' Elliott, sitting up in bed, rocked to and fro like a woman distraught. 'Oh, it's so unkind,' he said. 'I hate them, I hate them all. They were glad enough to make a fuss of me when I could entertain them, but now I'm old and sick they have no use for me. Not ten people have called to inquire since I've been laid up, and all this week only one miserable bunch of flowers. I've done everything for them. They've eaten my food and drunk my wine. I've run their errands for them. I've made their parties for them. I've turned myself inside out to do them favours. And what have I got out of it? Nothing, nothing, nothing. There's not one of them who cares if I live or die. Oh, it's so cruel.' He began to cry. Great heavy tears trickled down his withered cheeks. 'I wish to God I'd never left America.'

  It was lamentable to see that old man, with the grave yawning in front of him, weep like a child because he hadn't been asked to a party: shocking and at the same time almost intolerably pathetic.

  'Never mind, Elliott,' I said, 'it may rain on the night of the party. That'll bitch it.'

  He caught at my words like the drowning man we've all heard about at a straw. He began to giggle through his tears.

  'I've never thought of that. I'll pray to God for rain as I've never prayed before. You're quite right; that'll bitch it.'

  I managed to divert his frivolous mind into another channel and left him, if not cheerful, at least composed. But I was not willing to let the matter rest, so on getting home I called up Edna Novemali and, saying I had to
come to Cannes next day, asked if I could lunch with her. She sent a message that she'd be pleased but there'd be no party. Nevertheless when I arrived I found ten people there besides herself. She was not a bad sort, generous and hospitable, and her only grave fault was her malicious tongue. She could not help saying beastly things about even her intimate friends, but she did this because she was a stupid woman and knew no other way to make herself interesting. Since her slanders were repeated she was often not on speaking terms with the objects of her venom, but she gave good parties and most of them found it convenient after a while to forgive her. I did not want to expose Elliott to the humiliation of asking her to invite him to her big do, so waited to see how the land lay. She was excited about it and the conversation at luncheon was concerned with nothing else.

  'Elliott will be delighted to have an opportunity to wear his Philip the Second costume,' I said as casually as I could.

  'I haven't asked him,' she said.

  'Why not?' I replied, with an air of surprise.

  'Why should I? He doesn't count socially any more. He's a bore and a snob and a scandalmonger.'

  Since these accusations could with equal truth be brought against her, I thought this a bit thick. She was a fool.

  'Besides,' she added, 'I want Paul to wear Elliott's costume. He'll look simply divine in it.'

  I said nothing more, but determined by hook or by crook to get poor Elliott the invitation he hankered after. After luncheon Edna took her friends out into the garden. That gave me the chance I was looking for. On one occasion I had stayed in the house for a few days and knew its arrangement. I guessed that there would still be a number of invitation cards left over and that they would be in the secretary's room. I whipped along there, meaning to slip one in my pocket, write Elliott's name on it, and post it. I knew he was much too ill to go, but it would mean a great deal to him to receive it. I was taken aback when I opened the door to find Edna's secretary at her desk. I had expected her to be still at lunch. She was a middle-aged Scotch woman, called Miss Keith, with sandy hair, a freckled face, pince-nez, and an air of determined virginity. I collected myself.

  'The Princess is taking the crowd around the garden, so I thought I'd come in and smoke a cigarette with you.'

  'You're welcome.'

  Miss Keith spoke with a Scotch burr and when she indulged in the dry humour which she reserved for her favourites she so broadened it as to make her remarks extremely amusing, but when you were overcome with laughter she looked at you with pained surprise as though she thought you daft to see anything funny in what she said.

  'I suppose this party is giving you a hell of a lot of work, Miss Keith,' I said.

  'I don't know whether I'm standing on my head or on my heels.'

  Knowing I could trust her, I went straight to the point.

  'Why hasn't the old girl asked Mr Templeton?'

  Miss Keith permitted a smile to cross her grim features.

  'You know what she is. She's got a down on him. She crossed his name out on the list herself.'

  'He's dying, you know. He'll never leave his bed again. He's awfully hurt at being left out.'

  'If he wanted to keep in with the Princess he'd have been wiser not to tell everyone that she goes to bed with her chauffeur. And him with a wife and three children.'

  'And does she?'

  Miss Keith looked at me over her pince-nez.

  'I've been a secretary for twenty-one years, my dear sir, and I've made it a rule to believe all my employers as pure as the driven snow. I'll admit that when one of my ladies found herself three months gone in the family way when his lordship had been shooting lions in Africa for six, my faith was sorely tried, but she took a little trip to Paris, a very expensive little trip it was too, and all was well. Her ladyship and I shared a deep sigh of relief.'

  'Miss Keith, I didn't come here to smoke a cigarette with you, I came to snitch an invitation card and send it to Mr Templeton myself.'

  'That would have been a very unscrupulous thing to do.'

  'Granted. Be a good sport, Miss Keith. Give me a card. He won't come and it'll make the poor old man happy. You've got nothing against him, have you?'

  'No, he's always been very civil to me. He's a gentleman, I will say that for him, and that's more than you can say for most of the people who come here and fill their fat bellies at the Princess's expense.'

  All important persons have about them someone in a subordinate position who has their ear. These dependents are very susceptible to slights, and, when they are not treated as they think they should be, will by well-directed shafts, constantly repeated, poison the minds of their patrons against those who have provoked their animosity. It is well to keep in with them. This Elliott knew better than anybody and he had always a friendly word and a cordial smile for the poor relation, the old maidservant, or the trusted secretary. I was sure he had often exchanged pleasant badinage with Miss Keith and at Christmas had not forgotten to send her a box of chocolates, a vanity case, or a handbag.

  'Come on, Miss Keith, have a heart.'

  Miss Keith fixed her pince-nez more firmly on her prominent nose.

  'I am sure you wish me to do nothing disloyal to my employer, Mr Maugham, besides which the old cow would fire me if she found out I'd disobeyed her. The cards are on the desk in their envelopes. I am going to look out of the window, partly to stretch my legs which are cramped from sitting too long in one position and also to observe the beauty of the prospect. What happens when my back is turned neither God nor man can hold me responsible for.'

  When Miss Keith resumed her seat the invitation was in my pocket.

  'It's been nice to see you, Miss Keith,' I said, holding out my hand. 'What are you wearing at the fancy-dress party?'

  'I am a minister's daughter, my dear sir,' she replied. 'I leave such foolishness to the upper classes. When I have seen that the representatives of the Herald and the Mail get a good supper and a bottle of our second-best champagne, my duties will be terminated and I shall retire to the privacy of my bedchamber with a detective story.'


  A couple of days later, when I went to see Elliott, I found him beaming.

  'Look,' he said, 'I've had my invitation. It came this morning.'

  He took the card out from under his pillow and showed it to me.

  'It's what I told you,' I said. 'You see, your name begins with a T. The secretary has evidently only just reached you.'

  'I haven't answered yet. I'll do it tomorrow.'

  I had a moment's fright at that.

  'Would you like me to answer it for you? I could post it when I leave you.'

  'No, why should you? I'm quite capable of answering invitations myself.'

  Fortunately, I thought, the envelope would be opened by Miss Keith and she would have the sense to suppress it. Elliott rang the bell.

  'I want to show you my costume.'

  'You're not thinking of going, Elliott?'

  'Of course I am. I haven't worn it since the Beaumont's ball.'

  Joseph answered the bell and Elliott told him to bring the costume. It was in a large flat box, wrapped in tissue paper. There were long white silk hose, padded trunks of cloth of gold slashed with white satin, a doublet to match, a cloak, a ruff to wear round the neck, a flat velvet cap, and a long gold chain from which hung the order of the Golden Fleece. I recognized it as a copy of the gorgeous dress worn by Philip the Second in Titian's portrait at the Prado, and when Elliott told me it was exactly the costume the Count de Lauria had worn at the wedding of the King of Spain with the Queen of England I could not but think that he was giving rein to his imaginatiion.

  On the following morning while I was having breakfast I was called to the telephone. It was Joseph to tell me that Elliott had had another bad attack during the night and the doctor, hurriedly summoned, doubted whether he would last through the day. I sent for the car and drove over to Antibes. I found Elliott unconscious. He had resolutely refused to have a nurse, but I f
ound one there, sent for by the doctor from the English hospital between Nice and Beaulieu, and was glad to see her. I went out and telegraphed to Isabel. She and Gray were spending the summer with the children at the inexpensive seaside resort of La Baule. It was a long journey and I was afraid they would not get to Antibes in time. Except for her two brothers, whom he had not seen for years, she was Elliott's only living relative.

  But the will to live was strong in him, or it may be that the doctor's medicaments were effective, for during the course of the day he rallied. Though shattered, he put on a bold front and amused himself by asking the nurse indecent questions about her sex life. I stayed with him most of the afternoon, and next day, on going to see him again, found him, though very weak, sufficiently cheerful. The nurse would only let me stay with him a short time. I was worried at not having received an answer to my telegram. Not knowing Isabel's address at La Baule I had sent it to Paris and feared that the concierge had delayed to forward it. It was not till two days later that I got a reply to say that they were starting at once. As ill luck would have it, Gray and Isabel were on a motor trip in Brittany and had only just had my wire. I looked up the trains and saw that they could not arrive for at least thirty-six hours.

  Early next morning Joseph called me again to tell me that Elliott had had a very bad night and was asking for me. I hurried over. When I arrived Joseph took me aside.

  'Monsieur will excuse me if I speak to him on a delicate subject,' he said to me. 'I am of course a freethinker and believe all religion is nothing but a conspiracy of the priests to gain control over the people, but Monsieur knows what women are. My wife and the chambermaid insist that the poor gentleman should receive the last sacraments and evidently the time is growing short.' He looked at me in rather a shamefaced way. 'And the fact remains, one never knows, perhaps it is better, if one's got to die, to regularize one's situation with the Church.'

  I understood him perfectly. However freely they mock, most Frenchmen, when the end comes, prefer to make their peace with the faith that is part of their blood and bones.

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