The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham


  'Look here, why shouldn't we cut this lousy party and us three go and have a slap-up dinner at the Tour d'Argent by ourselves?'

  'Oh, darling, we can't do that. They're giving the party for us.'

  'Anyhow, I couldn't come now,' I interrupted. 'When I heard you were fixed up this evening I called up Suzanne Rouvier and arranged to take her out.'

  'Who's Suzanne Rouvier?' asked Isabel.

  'Oh, one of Larry's gals,' I said to tease her.

  'I always suspected Larry had a little floozie tucked away somewhere,' said Gray, with a fat chuckle.

  'Nonsense,' snapped Isabel. 'I know all about Larry's sex life. There isn't any.'

  'Well, let's have one more drink before we part,' said Gray.

  We had it and then I said good-bye to them. They came into the hall with me and while I was putting on my coat Isabel slipped her arm through Gray's and, nestling up to him, looked into his eyes with an expression that imitated very well the tenderness I had accused her of lacking.

  Tell me, Gray – frankly – do you think I'm hard-boiled?'

  'No, darling, far from it. Why, has anybody been saying you were?'

  'No.'

  She turned her head away so that he shouldn't see, and in a manner that Elliott would certainly have thought very unladylike put out her tongue at me.

  'It's not the same thing,' I murmured as I stepped out of the door and closed it behind me.

  4

  When I passed through Paris again the Maturins had gone and other people lived in Elliott's apartment. I missed Isabel. She was good to look at and easy to talk to. She was quick on the uptake and bore no malice. I have never seen her since. I am a poor and dilatory correspondent and Isabel was no letter writer. If she could not communicate with you by telephone or telegram she did not communicate with you. I had a Christmas card from her that Christmas with a pretty picture on it of a house with a Colonial portico surrounded by live oaks, which I took to be the house of the plantation that they had been unable to sell when they wanted the money and which now they were probably willing to keep. The postmark showed that it had been posted at Dallas, So I concluded that the deal had gone through satisfactorily and they were settled there.

  I have never been to Dallas, but I suppose that, like other American cities I know, it has a residential district within easy motoring distance of the business section and the country club where the affluent have fine houses in large gardens with a handsome view of hill or dale from the living-room windows. In such a district and in such a house, furnished from cellar to attic in the latest mode by the most fashionable decorator in New York, Isabel certainly dwells. I can only hope that her Renoir, her flower piece by Manet, her landscape by Monet, and her Gauguin do not look too dated. The dining-room is doubtless of a convenient size for the women's luncheons which she gives at frequent intervals and at which the wine is good and the food superlative. Isabel learnt a great deal in Paris. She would not have settled on the house unless she had seen at a glance that the living-room would do very well for the sub-deb dances which it would be her pleasant duty to give as her daughters grew older. Joan and Priscilla must be now of a marriageable age. I am sure that they have been admirably brought up; they have been sent to the best schools and Isabel has taken care that they should acquire the accomplishments that must make them desirable in the eyes of eligible young men. Though I suppose Gray by now is still a little redder in the face, more jowly, balder, and a good deal heavier, I can't believe that Isabel has changed. She is still more beautiful than her daughters. The Maturins must be a great asset to the community and I have little doubt that they are as popular as they deserve to be. Isabel is entertaining, gracious, complaisant, and tactful; Gray, of course, is the quintessence of the Regular Guy.

  5

  I continued to see Suzanne Rouvier from time to time until an unexpected change in her condition caused her to leave Paris and she too went out of my life. One afternoon, roughly two years after the events that I have just related, having spent an hour pleasantly browsing over the books in the galleries of the Odéon and with nothing to do for a while, I thought I would call on Suzanne. I had not seen her for six months. She opened the door, a palette on her thumb and a paintbrush between her teeth, clad in a smock covered with paint.

  'Ah, c'est vous, cher ami. Entrez, je vous en prie.'

  I was a little surprised at this formal address, for generally we spoke to one another in the second person singular, but I stepped into the small room that served both as living-room and studio. There was a canvas on the easel.

  'I'm so busy, I don't know which way to turn, but sit down and I will go on with my work. I haven't a moment to waste. You wouldn't believe it, but I'm giving a one-man show at Meyerheim's, and I have to get thirty canvases ready.'

  'At Meyerheim's? That's wonderful. How on earth have you managed that?'

  For Meyerheim is not one of those fly-by-night dealers in the Rue de la Seine who have a small shop that is always on the verge of closing for lack of money to pay the rent. Meyerheim has a fine gallery on the moneyed side of the Seine and he has an international reputation. An artist whom he takes up is well on the way to fortune.

  'Monsieur Achille brought him to see my work and he thinks I have a lot of talent.'

  'À d'autres, ma vieille,' I replied, which I think can best be translated by: 'Tell that to the marines, old girl.'

  She threw me a glance and giggled.

  'I'm going to be married.'

  'To Meyerheim?'

  'Don't be an idiot.' She put down her brushes and her palette. 'I've been working all day and I deserve a rest. Let us have a little glass of porto and I'll tell you all about it.'

  One of the less agreeable features of French life is that you are apt to be pressed to drink a glass of vinegary port at an unseasonable hour. You must resign yourself to it. Suzanne fetched a bottle and two glasses, filled them, and sat down with a sigh of relief.

  'I've been standing for hours and my varicose veins are aching. Well, it's like this. Monsieur Achille's wife died at the beginning of this year. She was a good woman and a good Catholic, but he did not marry her from inclination, he married her because it was good business, and though he esteemed and respected her it would be an exaggeration to say that her death left him inconsolable. His son is suitably married and is doing well in the firm and now a marriage has been arranged between his daughter and a count. Belgian it is true, but authentic, with a very pretty chateau in the neighbourhood of Namur. Monsieur Achille thought his poor wife would not wish the happiness of two young people to be deferred on her account, so the marriage, notwithstanding that they are in mourning, is to take place as soon as the financial arrangements are completed. Evidently Monsieur Achille will be lonely in that large house at Lille, and needs a woman not only to minister to his comfort, but also to run the important establishment necessary to his position. To cut a long story short, he has asked me to take the place of his poor wife, for as he very reasonably said: "I married for the first time to eliminate competition between two rival firms, and I do not regret it, but there is no reason why I should not marry the second time to please myself."'

  'I congratulate you,' said I.

  'Evidently I shall miss my liberty. I have enjoyed it. But one has to think of the future. Between ourselves, I don't mind telling you that I shall never see forty again. Monsieur Achille is at a dangerous age; where should I be if he suddenly took it into his head to run after a girl of twenty? And then there is my daughter to think of. She is now sixteen and promises to be as beautiful as her father. I have given her a good education. But it is no good denying facts that stare you in the face; she has neither the talent to be an actress nor the temperament to be a whore like her poor mother: I ask you then, what has she to look forward to? A secretaryship or a job in the post office. Monsieur Achille has very generously agreed that she should live with us and has promised to give her a handsome dot so that she can make a good marriage. Believe
me, my dear friend, people can say what they like, but marriage still remains the most satisfactory profession a woman can adopt. Obviously when my daughter's welfare was concerned I could not hesitate to accept a proposition even at the cost of certain satisfactions which in any case, as the years go by, I should find it more difficult to obtain; for I must tell you that when I am married I propose to be of a ferocious virtue (d 'une vertu farouche), for my long experience has convinced me that the only basis of a happy marriage is complete fidelity on both sides.'

  'A highly moral sentiment, my pretty,' I said. 'And will Monsieur Achille continue to make his fortnightly visits to Paris on business?'

  'Oh, la la, for whom do you take me, my little one? The first thing I said to Monsieur Achille when he asked for my hand was: "Now listen, my dear, when you come to Paris for your board meetings it is understood that I come too. I am not going to trust you here by yourself." "You cannot imagine that I am capable of committing follies at my age," he answered. "Monsieur Achille," I said to him, "you are a man in the prime of life and no one knows better than I that you have a passionate temperament. You have a fine presence and a distinguished air. You have everything to please a woman; in short I think it better that you should not be exposed to temptation." In the end he agreed to give up his place on the board to his son, who will come to Paris instead of his father. Monsieur Achille pretended to think me unreasonable, but he was in point of fact enormously flattered.' Suzanne gave a sigh of satisfaction. 'Life would be even harder for us poor women than it is if it were not for the unbelievable vanity of men.'

  'All that is very fine, but what has it got to do with your having a one-man show at Meyerheim's?'

  'You are a little stupid today, my poor friend. Have I not told you for years that Monsieur Achille is a highly intelligent man? He has his position to think of and the people of Lille are censorious. Monsieur Achille wishes me to take the place in society which as the wife of a man of his importance it will be my right to occupy. You know what these provincials are, they love to poke their long noses in other people's affairs, and the first thing they will ask is: who is Suzanne Rouvier? Well, they will have their answer. She is the distinguished painter whose recent show at the Meyerheim Gallery had a remarkable and well-deserved success. "Madame Suzanne Rouvier, the widow of an officer in the colonial infantry, has with the courage characteristic of our Frenchwomen for some years supported herself and a charming daughter deprived too soon of a father's care by means of her talent, and we are happy to know that the general public will soon have the opportunity to appreciate the delicacy of her touch and the soundness of her technique at the galleries of the ever perspicacious Monsieur Meyerheim.'"

  'What gibberish is that?' I said, pricking up my ears.

  'That, my dear, is the advance publicity that Monsieur Achille is putting out. It will appear in every paper in France of any consequence. He has been magnificent. Meyerheim's terms were onerous, but Monsieur Achille accepted them as if they were a bagatelle. There will be a champagne d'honneur at the private view and the Minister of Fine Arts, who is under an obligation to Monsieur Achille, will open the exhibition with an eloquent speech in which he will dwell upon my virtues as a woman and my talent as a painter and which he will end with the declaration that the state, whose duty and privilege it is to reward merit, has bought one of my pictures for the national collections. All Paris will be there and Meyerheim is looking after the critics himself. He has guaranteed that their notices will be not only favourable but lengthy. Poor devils, they earn so little, it is a charity to give them an opportunity of making something on the side.'

  'You've deserved it all, my dear. You've always been a good sort.'

  'Et ta sœur,' she replied, which is untranslatable. 'But that's not all. Monsieur Achille has bought in my name a villa on the coast at St Rafael, so I shall take my place in Lille society not only as a distinguished artist, but as a woman of property. In two or three years he is going to retire and we shall live on the Riviera like gentlefolks (comme des gens bien). He can paddle in the sea and catch shrimps while I devote myself to my art. Now I will show you my pictures.'

  Suzanne had been painting for several years and she had worked through the manner of her various lovers to arrive at a style of her own. She still could not draw, but she had acquired a pretty sense of colour. She showed me landscapes that she had painted while staying with her mother in the province of Anjou, bits of the gardens at Versailles and the forest at Fontainebleau, street scenes that had taken her fancy in the suburbs of Paris. Her painting was vaporous and unsubstantial, but it had a flowerlike grace and even a certain careless elegance.

  There was one picture that took my fancy and because I thought she would be pleased I offered to buy it. I cannot remember whether it was called A Glade in the Forest or The White Scarf and subsequent examination has left me uncertain to this day. I asked the price, which was reasonable, and said I would take it.

  'You're an angel,' she cried. 'My first sale. Of course you can't have it till after the show, but I'll see that it gets into the papers that you've bought it. After all, a little publicity can do you no harm. I'm glad you've chosen that one, I think it's one of my best.' She took a hand mirror and looked at the picture in it. 'It has charm,' she said, screwing up her eyes. 'No one can deny that. Those greens – how rich they are and yet how delicate! And that white note in the middle, that is a real find; it ties the picture together, it has distinction. There's talent there, there can be no doubt of it, there's real talent.'

  I saw that she was already a long way on the road to being a professional painter.

  'And now, my little one, we've gossiped long enough, I must get back to work.'

  'And I must be going,' I said.

  'À propos, is that poor Larry still among the Redskins?'

  For that was the disrespectful way in which she was accustomed to refer to the inhabitants of God's Own Country.

  'So far as I know.'

  'It must be hard for someone like him who is so sweet and gentle. If one can believe the movies life is terrible over there with all those gangsters and cowboys and Mexicans. Not that those cowboys haven't physical attraction which says something to you. Oh, la la! But it appears that it is excessively dangerous to go out into the streets of New York without a revolver in your pocket.'

  She came to the door to see me out and kissed me on both cheeks.

  'We've had some good times together. 'Keep a good recollection of me.'

  6

  This is the end of my story. I have heard nothing of Larry, nor indeed did I expect to. Since he generally did what he proposed, I think it likely that on his return to America he got a job in a garage and then drove a truck till he had acquired the knowledge he wanted of the country from which he had for so many years absented himself. When he had done that he may very well have carried out his fantastic suggestion of becoming a taxi driver: true, it was only a random idea thrown across a cafe table in jest, but I shouldn't be altogether surprised if he had put it into effect; and I have never since taken a taxi in New York without glancing at the driver on the chance that I might meet Larry's gravely smiling, deep-set eyes. I never have. War broke out. He would have been too old to fly, but he may be once more driving a truck, at home or abroad; or he may be working in a factory. I should like to think that in his leisure hours he is writing a book in which he is trying to set forth whatever life has taught him and the message he has to deliver to his fellow-men; but if he is, it may be long before it is finished. He has plenty of time, for the years have left no mark on him and to all intents and purposes he is still a young man.

  He is without ambition and he has no desire for fame; to become anything of a public figure would be deeply distasteful to him; and so it may be that he is satisfied to lead his chosen life and be no more than just himself. He is too modest to set himself up as an example to others; but it may be he thinks that a few uncertain souls, drawn to him like moths to a candle, will be
brought in time to share his own glowing belief that ultimate satisfaction can only be found in the life of the spirit, and that by himself following with selflessness and renunciation the path of perfection he will serve as well as if he wrote books or addressed multitudes.

  But this is conjecture. I am of the earth, earthy; I can only admire the radiance of such a rare creature, I cannot step into his shoes and enter into his innermost heart as I sometimes think I can do with persons more nearly allied to the common run of men. Larry has been absorbed, as he wished, into that tumultuous conglomeration of humanity, distracted by so many conflicting interests, so lost in the world's confusion, so wishful of good, so cocksure on the outside, so diffident within, so kind, so hard, so trustful, and so cagey, so mean and so generous, which is the people of the United States. That is all I can tell of him: I know it is very unsatisfactory; I can't help it. But as I was finishing this book, uneasily conscious that I must leave my reader in the air and seeing no way to avoid it, I looked back with my mind's eye on my long narrative to see if there was any way in which I could devise a more satisfactory ending; and to my intense surprise it dawned upon me that without in the least intending to I had written nothing more or less than a success story. For all the persons with whom I have been concerned got what they wanted: Elliott social eminence; Isabel an assured position backed by a substantial fortune in an active and cultured community; Gray a steady and lucrative job, with an office to go to from nine till six every day; Suzanne Rouvier security; Sophie death; and Larry happiness. And however superciliously the highbrows carp, we the public in our heart of hearts all like a success story; so perhaps my ending is not so unsatisfactory after all.

  THE HISTORY OF VINTAGE

  The famous American publisher Alfred A. Knopf (1892-1984) founded Vintage Books in the United States in 1954 as a paperback home for the authors published by his company. Vintage was launched in the United Kingdom in 1990 and works independently from the American imprint although both are part of the international publishing group, Random House.

 
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