The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham


  'Next morning I started down the mountain and the day after arrived at the Ashrama. Shri Canesha was surprised to see me in European clothes. I'd put them on at the forestry officer's bungalow when I started uphill because it was colder there and hadn't thought to change them.

  '"I've come to bid you farewell, master," I said. "I am going back to my own people."

  'He did not speak. He was sitting, as ever, cross-legged on the tiger skin on the dais. A stick of incense burnt in the brazier before it and scented the air with its faint fragrance. He was alone as he had been on the first day I saw him. He looked at me with an intensity so piercing that I had the impression he saw into the deepest recesses of my being. I know he knew what had happened.

  '"It is well," he said. "You have been gone long enough."

  'I went down on my knees and he gave me his blessing. When I rose to my feet my eyes were filled with tears. He was a man of noble and saintly character. I shall always look upon it as a privilege to have known him. I said good-bye to the devotees. Some had been there for years; some had come after me. I left my few belongings and my books, thinking they might be useful to someone, and with my knapsack on my back, in the same old slacks and brown coat I had arrived in, a battered topee on my head, I trudged back to the town. A week later I boarded a ship at Bombay and landed at Marseilles.'

  Silence fell upon us as we pursued our separate reflections; but, tired though I was, there was one more point which I very much wanted to put to him, and it was I who finally spoke.

  'Larry, old boy,' I said, 'this long quest of yours started with the problem of evil. It was the problem of evil that urged you on. You've said nothing all this time to indicate that you've reached even a tentative solution of it.'

  'It may be that there is no solution or it may be that I'm not clever enough to find it. Ramakrishna looked upon the world as the sport of God. "It is like a game," he said. "In this game there are joy and sorrow, virtue and vice, knowledge and ignorance, good and evil. The game cannot continue if sin and suffering are altogether eliminated from the creation." I would reject that with all my strength. The best I can suggest is that when the Absolute manifested itself in the world evil was the natural correlation of good. You could never have had the stupendous beauty of the Himalayas without the unimaginable horror of a convulsion of the earth's crust. The Chinese craftsman who makes a vase in what they call eggshell porcelain can give it a lovely shape, ornament it with a beautiful design, stain it a ravishing colour, and give it a perfect glaze, but from its very nature he can't make it anything but fragile. If you drop it on the floor it will break into a dozen fragments. Isn't it possible in the same way that the values we cherish in the world can only exist in combination with evil?'

  'It's an ingenious notion, Larry. I don't think it's very satisfactory.'

  'Neither do I,' he smiled. 'The best to be said for it is that when you've come to the conclusion that something is inevitable all you can do is to make the best of it.'

  'What are your plans now?'

  'I've got a job of work to finish here and then I shall go back to America.'

  'What to do?'

  'Live.'

  'How?'

  He answered very coolly, but with an impish twinkle in his eyes, for he knew very well how little I expected such a reply.

  'With calmness, forbearance, compassion, selflessness, and continence.'

  'A tall order,' I said. 'And why continence? You're a young man; is it wise to attempt to suppress what with hunger is the strongest instinct of the human animal?'

  'I am in the fortunate position that sexual indulgence with me has been a pleasure rather than a need. I know by personal experience that in nothing are the wise men of India more dead right than in their contention that chastity intensely enhances the power of the spirit.'

  'I should have thought that wisdom consisted in striking a balance between the claims of the body and the claims of the spirit.'

  'That is just what the Indians maintain that we in the West haven't done. They think that we with our countless inventions, with our factories and machines and all they produce, have sought happiness in material things, but that happiness rests not in them, but in spiritual things. And they think the way we have chosen leads to destruction.'

  'And are you under the impression that America is a suitable place to practise the particular virtues you mentioned?'

  'I don't see why not. You Europeans know nothing about America. Because we amass large fortunes you think we care for nothing but money. We care nothing for it; the moment we have it we spend it, sometimes well, sometimes ill, but we spend it. Money is nothing to us; it's merely the symbol of success. We are the greatest idealists in the world; I happen to think that we've set our ideal on the wrong objects; I happen to think that the greatest ideal man can set before himself is self-perfection.'

  'It's a noble one, Larry.'

  'Isn't it worth while to try to live up to it?'

  'But can you for a moment imagine that you, one man, can have any effect on such a restless, busy, lawless, intensely individualistic people as the people of America? You might as well try to hold back the waters of the Mississippi with your bare hands.'

  'I can try. It was one man who invented the wheel. It was one man who discovered the law of gravitation. Nothing that happens is without effect. If you throw a stone in a pond the universe isn't quite the same as it was before. It's a mistake to think that those holy men of India lead useless lives. They are a shining light in the darkness. They represent an ideal that is a refreshment to their fellows; the common run may never attain it, but they respect it and it affects their lives for good. When a man becomes pure and perfect the influence of his character spreads so that they who seek truth are naturally drawn to him. It may be that if I lead the life I've planned for myself it may affect others; the effect may be no greater than the ripple caused by a stone thrown in a pond, but one ripple causes another, and that one a third; it's just possible that a few people will see that my way of life offers happiness and peace, and that they in their turn will teach what they have learnt to others.'

  'I wonder if you have any idea what you're up against, Larry. You know, the Philistines have long since discarded the rack and stake as a means of suppressing the opinions they feared: they've discovered a much more deadly weapon of destruction – the wisecrack.'

  'I'm a pretty tough guy,' smiled Larry.

  'Well, all I can say is that it's damned lucky for you that you have a private income.'

  'It's been of great use to me. Except for that I shouldn't have been able to do all I've done. But my apprenticeship is over. From now on it can only be a burden to me. I shall rid myself of it.'

  'That would be very unwise. The only thing that may make the kind of life you propose possible is financial independence.'

  'On the contrary, financial independence would make the life I propose meaningless.'

  I couldn't restrain a gesture of impatience.

  'It may be all very well for the wandering mendicant in India; he can sleep under a tree and the pious are willing enough to acquire merit by filling his begging-bowl with food. But the American climate is far from suitable for sleeping out in the open, and though I don't pretend to know much about America, I do know that if there's one thing your countrymen are agreed upon it is that if you want to eat you must work. My poor Larry, you'd be sent to the workhouse as a vagrant before ever you got into your stride.'

  He laughed.

  'I know. One must adapt oneself to one's environment and of course I'd work. When I get to America I shall try to get a job in a garage. I'm a pretty good mechanic and I don't think it ought to be difficult.'

  'Wouldn't you then be wasting energy that might be more usefully employed in other ways?'

  'I like manual labour. Whenever I've got waterlogged with study I've taken a spell of it and found it spiritually invigorating. I remember reading a biography of Spinoza and thinking how silly the author was
to look upon it as a terrible hardship that in order to earn his scanty living Spinoza had to polish lenses. I'm sure it was a help to his intellectual activity, if only because it diverted his attention for a while from the hard work of speculation. My mind is free when I'm washing a car or tinkering with a carburettor and when the job's done I have the pleasant sensation of having accomplished something. Naturally I wouldn't want to stay in a garage indefinitely. It's many years since I was in America and I must learn it afresh. I shall try to get work as a truck driver. In that way I should be able to travel from end to end of the country.'

  'You've forgotten perhaps the most important use of money. It saves time. Life is so short, and there's so much to do, one can't afford to waste a minute; and just think how much you waste, for instance, in walking from place to place instead of going by bus and in going by bus instead of by taxi.'

  Larry smiled.

  'True enough and I hadn't thought of it, but I could cope with that difficulty by having my own taxi.'

  'What d'you mean by that?'

  'Eventually I shall settle in New York, among other reasons because of its libraries; I can live on very little, I don't mind where I sleep and I'm quite satisfied with one meal a day; by the time I've seen all I want to of America I should be able to have saved enough to buy a taxi and become a taxi driver.'

  'You ought to shut up, Larry. You're as crazy as a loon.'

  'Not at all. I'm very sensible and practical. As an owner-driver I would need to work only for as many hours as would provide for my board and lodging and for the depreciation on the car. The rest of my time I could devote to other work and if I wanted to go anywhere in a hurry I could always go in my taxi.'

  'But, Larry, a taxi is just as much of a possession as a government bond,' I said, to tease him. 'As an owner-driver you'd be a capitalist'

  He laughed.

  'No. My taxi would be merely the instrument of my labour. It would be an equivalent to the staff and the begging-bowl of the wandering mendicant.'

  On this note of banter our conversation ended. I had noticed for some time that people were coming into the café with greater frequency. One man in evening dress sat down not far from us and ordered himself a substantial breakfast. He had the tired but satisfied mien of one who looks back with complacency upon a night of amorous dalliance. A few old gentlemen, early risers because old age needs little sleep, were drinking their café au lait with deliberation while through thick-lensed spectacles they read the morning paper. Younger men, some of them neat and spruce, others in threadbare coats, hurried in to devour a roll and swallow a cup of coffee on their way to a shop or an office. An old crone entered with a pile of newspapers and went round offering them for sale, vainly as far as I could see, at the various tables. I looked out of the great plate glass windows and saw that it was broad daylight. A minute or two later the electric light was turned off except at the rear of the huge restaurant. I looked at my watch. It was past seven o'clock.

  'What about a spot of breakfast?' I said.

  We had croissants, all crisp and hot from the baker's, and café au lait. I was tired and listless, and felt certain I looked like the wrath of God, but Larry seemed as fresh as ever. His eyes were shining, there wasn't a line on his smooth face, and he didn't look a day more than twenty-five. The coffee revived me.

  'Will you allow me to give you a piece of advice, Larry? It's not a thing I give often.'

  'It's not a thing I take often,' he answered with a grin.

  'Will you think very carefully before you dispossess yourself of your very small fortune? When it's gone, it's gone for ever. A time may come when you'll want money very badly, either for yourself or for somebody else, and then you'll bitterly regret that you were such a fool.'

  There was a glint of mockery in his eyes as he answered, but it was devoid of malice.

  'You attach more importance to money than I do.'

  'I can well believe it,' I answered tartly. 'You see, you've always had it and I haven't. It's given me what I value almost more than anything else in life – independence. You can't think what a comfort it's been to me to think that if I wanted to I could tell anyone in the world to go to hell.'

  'But I don't want to tell anyone in the world to go to hell, and if I did the lack of a bank balance wouldn't prevent me. You see, money to you means freedom; to me it means bondage.

  'You're an obstinate brute, Larry.'

  'I know. I can't help it. But in any case I have plenty of time to change my mind if I want to. I'm not going back to America till next spring. My friend Auguste Cottet, the painter, has lent me a cottage at Sanary and I'm going to spend the winter there.'

  Sanary is an unpretentious seaside resort on the Riviera, between Bandol and Toulon, and it is frequented by artists and writers who do not care for the garish mummery of St Tropez.

  'You'll like it if you don't mind its being as dull as ditchwater.'

  'I have work to do. I've collected a lot of material and I'm going to write a book.'

  'What's it about?'

  'You'll see when it comes out,' he smiled.

  'If you'd like to send it to me when it's finished I think I can get it published for you.'

  'You needn't bother about that. I have some American friends who run a small press in Paris and I've arranged with them to print it for me.'

  'But you can't expect a book brought out like that to have any sale and you won't get any reviews.'

  'I don't care if it's reviewed and I don't expect it to sell. I'm only printing enough copies to send to my friends in India and the few people I know in France who might be interested in it. It's of no particular importance. I'm only writing it to get all that material out of the way, and I'm publishing it because I think you can only tell what a thing's like when you see it in print.'

  'I see the point of both those reasons.'

  We had finished our breakfast by now and I called the waiter for the bill. When it came I passed it over to Larry.

  'If you're going to chuck your money down the drain you can damn well pay for my breakfast.'

  He laughed and paid. I was stiff from sitting so long and as we walked out of the restaurant my sides ached. It was good to get into the fresh clean air of the autumn morning. The sky was blue, and the Avenue de Clichy, a sordid thoroughfare by night, had a mild jauntiness, like a painted, haggard woman walking with a girl's springy step, that was not displeasing. I signalled a passing taxi.

  'Can I give you a lift?' I asked Larry.

  'No. I shall walk down to the Seine and have a swim at one of the baths, then I must go to the Bibliothéque, I've got some research to do there.'

  We shook hands and I watched him cross the road with his loose, long-legged stride. I, being made of stuff less stern, stepped into a taxi and returned to my hotel. When I got into my sitting-room I noticed that it was after eight.

  'This is a nice hour for an elderly gentleman to get home,' I remarked disapprovingly to the nude lady (under a glass case) who had since the year 1813 been lying on top of the clock in what I should have thought was a position of extreme discomfort.

  She continued to look at her gilt bronze face in a gilt bronze mirror, and all the clock said was: tick, tick. I turned on a hot bath. When I had lain in it till it was tepid, I dried myself, swallowed a sleeping-tablet, and taking to bed with me Valéry's Le Cimetière marin, which happened to be on the night table, read till I fell asleep.

  PART SEVEN

  1

  One morning, six months later, in April, I was busy writing in my study on the roof of my house at Cap Ferrat when a servant came up to say that the police of St Jean (my neighbouring village) were below and wished to see me. I was vexed at being interrupted and could not imagine what they wanted. My conscience was at ease and I had already given my subscription to the Benevolent Fund. In return I had received a card, which I kept in my car so that if I was stopped for exceeding the speed limit or found parked on the wrong side of a street I could un
ostentatiously let it be seen while producing my driving licence and so escape with an indulgent caution. I thought it more likely then that one of my servants had been the victim of an anonymous denunciation, that being one of the amenities of French life, because her papers were not in order; but being on good terms with the local cops, whom I never allowed to leave my house without a glass of wine to speed them on their way, I anticipated no great difficulty. But they, for they worked in pairs, had come on a very different errand.

  After we had shaken hands and inquired after our respective healths, the senior of the two – he was called a brigadier and had one of the most imposing moustaches I ever saw – fished a notebook out of his pocket. He turned over the pages with a dirty thumb.

  'Does the name Sophie Macdonald say something to you?' he asked.

  '1 know a person of that name,' I replied cautiously.

  'We have just been in telephonic communication with the police station at Toulon and the chief inspector requests you to betake yourself there (vous prie de vous y rendre) without delay.'

  'For what reason?' I asked. 'I am only slightly acquainted with Mrs Macdonald.'

  I jumped to the conclusion that she had got into trouble, probably connected with opium, but I didn't see why I should be mixed up in it.

  'That is not my affair. There is no doubt that you have had dealings with this woman. It appears that she has been missing from her lodgings for five days and a body has been fished out of the harbour which the police have reason to believe is hers. They want you to identify it.'

 
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