The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

  We had finished our cocktails when the door was flung open and a girl came in, followed by a boy.

  'Are we late?' she asked. 'I've brought Larry back. Is there anything for him to eat?'

  'I expect so,' smiled Mrs Bradley. 'Ring the bell and tell Eugene to put another place.'

  'He opened the door for us. I've already told him.'

  'This is my daughter Isabel,' said Mrs Bradley, turning to me. 'And this is Laurence Darrell.'

  Isabel gave me a rapid handshake and turned impetuously to Gregory Brabazon.

  'Are you Mr Brabazon? I've been crazy to meet you. I love what you've done for Clementine Dormer. Isn't this room terrible? I've been trying to get Mamma to do something about it for years and now you're in Chicago it's our chance. Tell me honestly what you think of it.'

  I knew that was the last thing Brabazon would do. He gave Mrs Bradley a quick glance, but her impassive face told him nothing. He decided that Isabel was the person who counted and broke into a boisterous laugh.

  'I'm sure it's very comfortable and all that,' he said, 'but if you ask me point-blank, well, I do think it's pretty awful.'

  Isabel was a tall girl with the oval face, straight nose, fine eyes, and full mouth that appeared to be characteristic of the family. She was comely though on the fat side, which I ascribed to her age, and I guessed that she would fine down as she grew older. She had strong, good hands, though they also were a trifle fat, and her legs, displayed by her short skirt, were fat too. She had a good skin and a high colour, which exercise and the drive back in an open car had doubtless heightened. She was sparkling and vivacious. Her radiant health, her playful gaiety, her enjoyment of life, the happiness you felt in her were exhilarating. She was so natural that she made Elliott, for all his elegance, look rather tawdry. Her freshness made Mrs Bradley, with her pasty, lined face, look tired and old.

  We went down to lunch. Gregory Brabazon blinked when he saw the dining-room. The walls were papered with a dark red paper that imitated stuff and hung with portraits of grim, sour-faced men and women, very badly painted, who were the immediate forebears of the late Mr Bradley. He was there, too, with a heavy moustache, very stiff in a frock coat and a white starched collar. Mrs Bradley, painted by a French artist of the nineties, hung over the chimney-piece in full evening dress of pale blue satin with pearls around her neck and a diamond star in her hair. With one bejewelled hand she fingered a lace scarf so carefully painted that you could count every stitch and with the other negligently held an ostrich-feather fan. The furniture, of black oak, was overwhelming.

  'What do you think of it?' asked Isabel of Gregory Brabazon as we sat down.

  'I'm sure it cost a great deal of money,' he answered.

  'It did,' said Mrs Bradley. 'It Was given to us as a wedding present by Mr Bradley's father. It's been all over the world with us. Lisbon, Peking, Quito, Rome. Dear Queen Margherita admired it very much.'

  'What would you do if it was yours?' Isabel asked Brabazon, but before he could answer, Elliott answered for him.

  'Burn it,' he said.

  The three of them began to discuss how they would treat the room. Elliot was all for Louis Quinze, while Isabel wanted a refectory table and Italian chairs. Brabazon thought Chippendale would be more in keeping with Mrs Bradley's personality.

  'I always think that's so important,' he said, 'a person's personality.' He turned to Elliott. 'Of course you know the Duchess of Olifant?'

  'Mary? She's one of my most intimate friends.'

  'She wanted me to do her dining-room and the moment I saw her I said George the Second.'

  'How right you were. I noticed the room the last time I dined there. It's in perfect taste.'

  So the conversation went on. Mrs Bradley listened, but you could not tell what she was thinking. I said little, and Isabel's young man, Larry, I'd forgotten his surname, said nothing at all. He was sitting on the other side of the table between Brabazon and Elliott and every now and then I glanced at him. He looked very young. He was about the same height as Elliott, just under six feet, thin and loose-limbed. He was a pleasant-looking boy, neither handsome nor plain, rather shy and in no way remarkable. I was interested in the fact that though, so far as I could remember, he hadn't said half a dozen words since entering the house, he seemed perfectly at ease and in a curious way appeared to take part in the conversation without opening his mouth. I noticed his hands. They were long, but not large for his size, beautifully shaped and at the same time strong. I thought that a painter would be pleased to paint them. He was slightly built but not delicate in appearance; on the contrary I should have said he was wiry and resistant. His face, grave in repose, was tanned, but otherwise there was little colour in it, and his features, though regular enough, were undistinguished. He had rather high cheekbones and his temples were hollow. He had dark brown hair with a slight wave in it. His eyes looked larger than they really were because they were deep set in the orbits and his lashes were thick and long. His eyes were peculiar, not of the rich hazel that Isabel shared with her mother and her uncle, but so dark that the iris made one colour with the pupil, and this gave them a peculiar intensity. He had a natural grace that was attractive and I could see why Isabel had been taken by him. Now and again her glance rested on him for a moment and I seemed to see in her expression not only love but fondness. Their eyes met and there was in his a tenderness that was beautiful to see. There is nothing more touching than the sight of young love, and I, a middle-aged man then, envied them, but at the same time, I couldn't imagine why, I felt sorry for them. It was silly because, so far as I knew, there was no impediment to their happiness; their circumstances seemed easy and there was no reason why they should not marry and live happily ever afterwards.

  Isabel, Elliott, and Gregory Brabazon went on talking of the redecoration of the house, trying to get out of Mrs Bradley a least an admission that something should be done, but she only smiled amiably.

  'You mustn't try to rush me. I want to have time to think it over.' She turned to the boy. 'What do you think of it all, Larry?'

  He looked round the table, a smile in his eyes.

  'I don't think it matters one way or the other,' he said.

  'You beast, Larry,' cried Isabel. 'I particularly told you to back us up.'

  'If Aunt Louisa is happy with what she's got, what is the object of changing?'

  His question was so much to the point and so sensible that it made me laugh. He looked at me then and smiled.

  'And don't grin like that just because you've made a very stupid remark,' said Isabel.

  But he only grinned the more, and I noticed then that he had small and white and regular teeth. There was something in the look he gave Isabel that made her flush and catch her breath. Unless I was mistaken she was madly in love with him, but I don't know what it was that gave me the feeling that in her love for him there was also something maternal. It was a little unexpected in so young a girl. With a soft smile on her lips she directed her attention once more to Gregory Brabazon.

  'Don't pay any attention to him. He's very stupid and entirely uneducated. He doesn't know anything about anything except flying.'

  'Flying?' I said.

  'He was an aviator in the war.'

  'I should have thought he was too young to have been in the war.'

  'He was. Much too young. He behaved very badly. He ran away from school and went to Canada. By lying his head off he got them to believe he was eighteen and got into the air corps. He was fighting in France at the time of the armistice.'

  'You're boring your mother's guests, Isabel,' said Larry.

  'I've known him all my life, and when he came back he looked lovely in his uniform, with all those pretty ribbons on his tunic, so I just sat on his doorstep, so to speak, till he consented to marry me just to have a little peace and quiet. The competition was awful.'

  'Really, Isabel,' said her mother.

  Larry leant over towards me.

  "I hope you don't bel
ieve a word she says. Isabel isn't a bad girl really, but she's a liar.'

  Luncheon was finished and soon after Elliott and I left. I had told him before that I was going to the museum to look at the pictures and he said he would take me. I don't particularly like going to a gallery with anyone else, but I could not say I would sooner go alone, so I accepted his company. On our way we spoke of Isabel and Larry.

  'It's rather charming to see two young things so much in love with one another,' I said.

  'They're much too young to marry.'

  'Why? It's such fun to be young and in love and to marry.'

  'Don't be ridiculous. She's nineteen and he's only just twenty. He hasn't got a job. He has a tiny income, three thousand a year Louisa tells me, and Louisa's not a rich woman by any manner of means. She needs all she has.'

  'Well, he can get a job.'

  'That's just it. He's not trying to. He seems to be quite satisfied to do nothing.'

  'I dare say he had a pretty rough time in the war. He may want a rest.'

  'He's been resting for a year. That's surely long enough.'

  'I thought he seemed a nice sort of boy.'

  'Oh, I have nothing against him. He's quite well born and all that sort of thing. His father came from Baltimore. He was assistant professor of Romance languages at Yale or something like that. His mother was a Philadelphian of old Quaker stock.'

  'You speak of them in the past. Are they dead?'

  'Yes, his mother died in childbirth and his father about twelve years ago. He was brought up by an old college friend of his father's who's a doctor at Marvin. That's how Louisa and Isabel knew him.'

  'Where's Marvin?'

  'That's where the Bradley place is. Louisa spends the summer there. She was sorry for the child. Dr Nelson's a bachelor and didn't know the first thing about bringing up a boy. It was Louisa who insisted that he should be sent to St Paul's and she always had him out here for his Christmas vacation.' Elliott shrugged a Gallic shoulder. 'I should have thought she would foresee the inevitable result.'

  We had now arrived at the museum and our attention was directed to the pictures. Once more I was impressed by Elliott's knowledge and taste. He shepherded me around the rooms as though I were a group of tourists, and no professor of art could have discoursed more instructively than he did. Making up my mind to come again by myself when I could wander at will and have a good time, I submitted; after a while he looked at his watch.

  'Let us go,' he said. 'I never spend more than one hour in a gallery. That is as long as one's power of appreciation persists. We will finish another day.'

  I thanked him warmly when we separated. I went my way perhaps a wiser but certainly a peevish man.

  When I was saying good-bye to Mrs Bradley she told me that next day Isabel was having a few of her young friends in to dinner and they were going on to dance afterwards, and if I would come Elliott and I could have a talk when they had gone.

  'You'll be doing him a kindness,' she added. 'He's been abroad so long, he feels rather out of it here. He doesn't seem able to find anyone he has anything in common with.'

  I accepted and before we parted on the museum steps Elliott told me he was glad I had.

  'I'm like a lost soul in this great city,' he said. 'I promised Louisa to spend six weeks with her, we hadn't seen one another since 1912, but I'm counting the days till I can get back to Paris. It's the only place in the world for a civilized man to live. My dear fellow, d'you know how they look upon me here? They look upon me as a freak. Savages.'

  I laughed and left.


  The following evening, having refused Elliott's telephoned offer to fetch me, I arrived quite safely at Mrs Bradley's house. I had been delayed by someone who had come to see me and was a trifle late. So much noise came from the sitting-room as I walked upstairs that I thought it must be a large party and I was surprised to find that there were, including myself, only twelve people. Mrs Bradley was very grand in green satin with a dog-collar of seed pearls round her neck, and Elliott in his well-cut dinner jacket looked elegant as he alone could look. When he shook hands with me my nostrils were assailed by all the perfumes of Arabia. I was introduced to a stoutish, tall man with a red face who looked somewhat ill at ease in evening clothes. He was a Dr Nelson, but at the moment that meant nothing to me. The rest of the party consisted of Isabel's friends, but their names escaped me as soon as I heard them. The girls were young and pretty and the men young and upstanding. None of them made any impression on me except one boy and that only because he was so tall and so massive. He must have been six foot three or four and he had great broad shoulders. Isabel was looking very pretty; she was dressed in white silk, with a long, hobbled skirt that concealed her fat legs; the cut of her frock showed that she had well-developed breasts; her bare arms were a trifle fat, but her neck was lovely. She was excited and her fine eyes sparkled. There was no doubt about it, she was a very pretty and desirable young woman, but it was obvious that unless she took care she would develop an unbecoming corpulence.

  At dinner I found myself placed between Mrs Bradley and a shy drab girl who seemed even younger than the others. As we sat down, to make the way easier Mrs Bradley explained that her grandparents lived at Marvin and that she and Isabel had been at school together. Her name, the only one I heard mentioned, was Sophie. A lot of chaff was bandied across the table, everyone talked at the top of his voice and there was a great deal of laughter. They seemed to know one another very well. When I was not occupied with my hostess I attempted to make conversation with my neighbour, but I had no great success. She was quieter than the rest. She was not pretty, but she had an amusing face, with a little tilted nose, a wide mouth, and greenish blue eyes; her hair, simply done, was of a sandy brown. She was very thin and her chest was almost as flat as a boy's. She laughed at the badinage that went on, but in a manner that was a little forced so that you felt she wasn't as much amused as she pretended to be. I guessed that she was making an effort to be a good sport. I could not make out if she was a trifle stupid or only painfully timid and, having tried various topics of conversation only to have them dropped, for want of anything better to say I asked her to tell me who all the people at table were.

  'Well, you know Dr Nelson,' she said, indicating the middle-aged man who was opposite me on Mrs Bradley's other side. 'He's Larry's guardian. He's our doctor at Marvin. He's very clever, he invents gadgets for planes that no one will have anything to do with, and when he isn't doing that he drinks.'

  There was a gleam in her pale eyes as she said this that made me suspect that there was more in her than I had at first supposed. She went on to give me the names of one young thing after another, telling me who their parents were, and in the case of the men what college they had been to and what work they did. It wasn't very illuminating.

  'She's very sweet,' or: 'He's a very good golfer.'

  'And who is that big fellow with the eyebrows?'

  'That? Oh, that's Gray Maturin. His father's got an enormous house on the river at Marvin. He's our millionaire. We're very proud of him. He gives us class. Maturin, Hobbes, Rayner, and Smith. He's one of the richest men in Chicago and Gray's his only son.'

  She put such a pleasant irony into that list of names that I gave her an inquisitive glance. She caught it and flushed.

  'Tell me more about Mr Maturin.'

  'There's nothing to tell. He's rich. He's highly respected. He built us a new church at Marvin and he's given a million dollars to the University of Chicago.'

  'His son's a fine-looking fellow.'

  'He's nice. You'd never think his grandfather was shanty Irish and his grandmother a Swedish waitress in an eating house.'

  Gray Maturin was striking rather than handsome. He had a rugged, unfinished look; a short blunt nose, a sensual mouth, and the florid Irish complexion; a great quantity of raven black hair, very sleek, and under heavy eyebrows clear, very blue eyes. Though built on so large a scale he was finely proportioned, a
nd stripped he must have been a fine figure of a man. He was obviously very powerful. His virility was impressive. He made Larry who was sitting next to him, though only three or four inches shorter, look puny.

  'He's very much admired,' said my shy neighbour. 'I know several girls who would stop at nothing short of murder to get him. But they haven't a chance.'

  'Why not?'

  'You don't know anything, do you?'

  'How should I?'

  'He's so much in love with Isabel, he can't see straight, and Isabel's in love with Larry.'

  'What's to prevent him from setting to and cutting Larry out?'

  'Larry's his best friend.'

  'I suppose that complicates matters.'

  'If you're as high-principled as Gray is.'

  I was not sure whether she said this in all seriousness or whether there was in her tone a hint of mockery. There was nothing saucy in her manner, forward or pert, and yet I got the impression that she was lacking neither in humour nor in shrewdness. I wondered what she was really thinking while she made conversation with me, but that I knew I should never find out. She was obviously unsure of herself and I conceived the notion that she was an only child who had lived a secluded life with people a great deal older than herself. There was a modesty, an unobtrusiveness about her that I found engaging, but if I was right in thinking that she had lived much alone I guessed that she had quietly observed the older persons she lived with and had formed decided opinions upon them. We who are of mature age seldom suspect how unmercifully and yet with what insight the very young judge us. I looked again into her greenish blue eyes.

  'How old are you?' I asked.


  'Do you read much?' I asked at a venture.

  But before she could answer, Mrs Bradley, attentive to her duties as a hostess, drew me to her with some remark and before I could disengage myself dinner was at an end. The young people went off at once to wherever they were going and the four of us who were left went up to the sitting-room.

  I was surprised that I had been asked to this party, for after a little desultory conversation they began to talk of a matter that I should have thought they would have preferred to discuss in private. I could not make up my mind whether it would be more discreet in me to get up and go or whether, as a disinterested audience of one, I was useful to them. The question at issue was Larry's odd disinclination to go to work, and it had been brought to a point by an offer from Mr Maturin, the father of the boy who had been at dinner, to take him into his office. It was a fine opportunity. With ability and industry Larry could look forward to making in due course a great deal of money. Young Gray Maturin was eager for him to take it.

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]