The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

  'He fell back dead. He was twenty-two. He was going to marry a girl in Ireland after the war.'

  The day after my talk with Isabel I left Chicago for San Francisco, where I was to take ship for the Far East.



  I did not see Elliott till he came to London towards the end of June in the following year. I asked him whether Larry had after all gone to Paris. He had. I was faintly amused at Elliott's exasperation with him.

  'I had a kind of sneaking sympathy for the boy. I couldn't blame him for wanting to spend a couple of years in Paris and I was prepared to launch him. I told him to let me know the moment he arrived, but it was only when Louisa wrote and told me he was there that I knew he'd come. I wrote to him care of the American Express, which was the address she gave me, and asked him to come and dine to meet some of the people I thought he ought to know; I thought I'd try him out first with the Franco-American set, Emily de Montadour and Gracie de Château-Gaillard and so on, and d'you know what he answered? He said he was sorry he couldn't come, but he hadn't brought any evening clothes with him.'

  Elliott looked me full in the face to see the stupefaction with which he expected this communication to fill me. He raised a supercilious eyebrow when he observed that I took it with calm.

  'He replied to my letter on a sheet of nasty paper with the heading of a cafe in the Latin Quarter and when I wrote back I asked him to let me know where he was staying. I felt I must do something about him for Isabel's sake, and I thought perhaps he was shy – I mean I couldn't believe that any young fellow in his senses could come to Paris without evening clothes, and in any case there are tolerable tailors there, so I asked him to lunch and said it would be quite a small party, and would you believe it, not only did he ignore my request to give me some other address than the American Express, but he said he never ate luncheon. That finished him as far as I was concerned.'

  'I wonder what he's been doing with himself.'

  'I don't know, and to tell you the truth I don't care. I'm afraid he's a thoroughly undesirable young man and I think it would be a great mistake for Isabel to marry him. After all, if he led a normal sort of life I'd have run across him at the Ritz bar or at Fouquet's or somewhere.'

  I go sometimes to these fashionable places myself, but I go to others also, and it happened that I spent several days in Paris early in the autumn of that year on my way to Marseilles, where I was proposing to take one of the Messagerie ships for Singapore. I dined one evening with friends in Montparnasse and after dinner we went to the Dome to drink a glass of beer. Presently my wandering eye caught sight of Larry sitting by himself at a little marble-topped table on the crowded terrace. He was looking idly at the people who strolled up and down enjoying the coolness of the night after a sultry day. I left my party and went up to him. His face lit up when he saw me and he gave me an engaging smile. He asked me to sit down, but I said I couldn't as I was with a party.

  'I just wanted to say how d'you do to you,' I said.

  'Are you staying here?' he asked.

  'Only for a very few days.'

  'Will you lunch with me tomorrow?'

  'I thought you never lunched.'

  He chuckled.

  'You've seen Elliott. I don't generally. I can't afford the time, I just have a glass of milk and a brioche, but I'd like you to lunch with me.'

  'All right.'

  We arranged to meet at the Dome next day to have an aperitif and eat at some place on the boulevard. I rejoined my friends. We sat on talking. When next I looked for Larry he had gone.


  I spent the next morning very pleasantly. I went to the Luxembourg and passed an hour looking at some pictures I liked. Then I strolled in the gardens, recapturing the memories of my youth. Nothing had changed. They might have been the same students who walked along the gravel paths in pairs, eagerly discussing the writers who excited them. They might have been the same children who trundled the same hoops under the watchful eyes of the same nurses. They might have been the same old men who basked in the sunshine, reading the morning paper. They might have been the same middle-aged women in mourning who sat on the free benches and gossiped with one another about the price of food and the misdeeds of servants. Then I went to the Odéon and looked at the new books in the galleries and I saw the lads who like myself thirty years before were trying under the petulant eyes of the smock-frocked attendants to read as much as they could of books they could not afford to buy. Then I strolled leisurely along those dear, dingy streets till I came to the Boulevard du Montparnasse and so to the Dome. Larry was waiting. We had a drink and walked along to a restaurant where he could lunch in the open air.

  He was perhaps a little paler than I remembered him and this made his very dark eyes, in their deep orbits, more striking; but he had the same self-possession, curious in one so young, and the same ingenuous smile. When he ordered his lunch I noticed that he spoke French fluently and with a good accent. I congratulated him on it.

  'I knew a certain amount of French before, you know,' he explained. 'Aunt Louisa had a french governess for Isabel, and when they were at Marvin she used to make us talk French with her all the time.'

  I asked him how he liked Paris.

  'Very much.'

  'D'you live in Montparnasse?'

  'Yes,' he said, after a moment's hesitation which I interpreted into a disinclination to tell exactly where he lived.

  'Elliott was rather put out that the only address you gave was the American Express.'

  Larry smiled but did not answer.

  'What do you do with yourself all the time?'

  'I loaf.'

  'And you read?'

  'Yes, I read.'

  'Do you ever hear from Isabel?'

  'Sometimes. We're neither of us great letter-writers. She's having a grand time in Chicago. They're coming over next year to stay with Elliott.'

  'That'll be nice for you.'

  'I don't believe Isabel's ever been to Paris. It'll be fun taking her around.'

  He was curious to know about my journey in China and listened attentively to what I told him; but when I tried to get him to talk about himself, I failed. He was so uncommunicative that I was forced to the conclusion that he had asked me to lunch with him merely to enjoy my company. I was pleased, but baffled. We had no sooner finished our coffee than he called for the bill, paid it, and got up.

  'Well, I must be off,' he said.

  We parted. I knew no more of what he was up to than before. I did not see him again.


  I was not in Paris in the spring when, sooner than they had planned, Mrs Bradley and Isabel arrived to stay with Elliott; and again I have to eke out my knowledge of what passed during the few weeks they spent there by the exercise of my imagination. They landed at Cherbourg, and Elliott, always considerate, went to meet them. They passed through the customs. The train started. Elliott with some complacency told them that he had engaged a very good lady's maid to look after them and when Mrs Bradley said that was quite unnecessary, since they didn't need one, he was very sharp with her.

  'Don't be tiresome the moment you arrive, Louisa. No one can be well turned out without a maid, and I've engaged Antoinette not only for your sake and Isabel's but for mine. It would mortify me that you shouldn't be perfectly dressed.'

  He gave the clothes they were wearing a disparaging glance.

  'Of course you'll want to buy some new frocks. On mature consideration I've come to the conclusion that you can't do better than Chanel.'

  'I always used to go to Worth,' said Mrs Bradley.

  She might as well not have spoken, for he took no notice.

  'I've talked to Chanel myself and I've made an appointment for you tomorrow at three. Then there are hats. Obviously Reboux.'

  'I don't want to spend a lot of money, Elliott.'

  'I know. I am proposing to pay for everything myself. I'm determined that you shall be a credit to me. Oh, and Louisa, I've arran
ged several parties for you and I've told my French friends that Myron was an ambassador, which, of course, he would have been if he'd lived a little longer, and it makes a better effect. I don't suppose it'll come up, but I thought I'd better warn you.'

  'You're ridiculous, Elliott.'

  'No, I'm not. I know the world. I know that the widow of an ambassador has more prestige than the widow of a minister.'

  As the train steamed into the Gare du Nord, Isabel, who was standing at the window, called out:

  'There's Larry.'

  It had hardly stopped when she sprang out and ran to meet him. He threw his arms around her.

  'How did he know you were coming?' Elliott asked his sister acidly.

  'Isabel wirelessed him from the ship.'

  Mrs Bradley kissed him affectionately, and Elliott gave him a limp hand to shake. It was ten o'clock at night.

  'Uncle Elliott, can Larry come to lunch tomorrow?' cried Isabel, her arm in the young man's, her face eager and her eyes shining.

  'I should be charmed, but Larry has given me to understand that he doesn't eat lunch.'

  'He will tomorrow, won't you, Larry?'

  'I will,' he smiled.

  'I shall look forward to seeing you at one o'clock then.'

  He stretched out his hand once more, intending to dismiss him, but Larry grinned at him impudently.

  'I'll help with the luggage and get a cab for you.'

  'My car is waiting and my man will see to the luggage,' said Elliott with dignity.

  'That's fine. Then all we've got to do is to go. If there's room for me I'll come as far as your door with you.'

  'Yes, do, Larry,' said Isabel.

  They walked down the platform together, followed by Mrs Bradley and Elliott. Elliott's face bore a look of frigid disapproval.

  'Quelles manières,' he said to himself, for in certain circumstances he felt he could express his sentiments more forcibly in French.

  Next morning at eleven, having finished dressing, for he was not an early riser, he sent a note to his sister, via his man Joseph and her maid Antoinette, to ask her to come to the library so that they could have a talk. When she appeared he closed the door carefully and, putting a cigarette into an immensely long agate holder, lit it and sat down.

  'Am I to understand that Isabel and Larry are still engaged?' he asked.

  'So far as I know.'

  'I'm afraid I haven't a very good account to give you of the young man.' He told her then how he had been prepared to launch him in society and the plans he had made to establish him in a fit and proper manner. 'I even had my eye on a rez-de-chaussée that would have been the very thing for him. It belongs to the young Marquis de Rethel and he wanted to sublet it because he'd been appointed to the embassy at Madrid.'

  But Larry had refused his invitations in a manner that made it quite clear that he did not want his help.

  'What the object of coming to Paris is if you're not going to take advantage of what Paris has to give you is beyond my comprehension. I don't know what he does with himself. He doesn't seem to know anybody. Do you know where he lives?'

  'The only address we've ever had is the American Express.'

  'Like a travelling salesman or a school-teacher on vacation. I shouldn't be surprised if he was living with some little trollop in a studio in Montmartre.'

  'Oh, Elliott.'

  'What other explanation can there be for the mystery he's making of his dwelling place and for his refusal to consort with people of his own class?'

  'It doesn't sound like Larry. And last night, didn't you get the impression that he was just as much in love with Isabel as ever? He couldn't be so false.'

  Elliott by a shrug of the shoulders gave her to understand that there was no limit to the duplicity of men.

  'What about Gray Maturin? Is he still in the picture?'

  'He'd marry Isabel tomorrow if she'd have him.'

  Mrs Bradley told him then why they had come to Europe sooner than they had at first intended. She had found herself in ill-health, and the doctors had informed her that she was suffering from diabetes. It was not serious, and by attention to her diet and taking moderate doses of insulin there was no reason why she should not live for a good many years, but the knowledge that she had an incurable disease made her anxious to see Isabel settled. They had talked the matter over. Isabel was sensible. She had agreed that if Larry refused to come back to Chicago at the end of the two years in Paris they had agreed upon and get a job, there was only one thing to do and that was to break with him. But it offended Mrs Bradley's sense of personal dignity that they should wait till the appointed time and then come to fetch him, like a fugitive from justice, back to his own country. She felt that Isabel would put herself in a humiliating position. But it was very natural that they should spend the summer in Europe, where Isabel had not been since she was a child. After their visit in Paris they could go to some watering-place suitable to Mrs Bradley's complaint, then on to the Austrian Tyrol for a while and from there travel slowly through Italy. Mrs Bradley's intention was to ask Larry to accompany them, so that he and Isabel could see whether the long separation had left their feelings unchanged. It would be manifest in due course whether Larry, having had his fling, was prepared to accept the responsibilities of life.

  'Henry Maturin was sore with him for turning down the position he offered him, but Gray has talked him round, and he can go into the business the moment he comes back to Chicago.'

  'Gray's a very nice fellow.'

  'He certainly is.' Mrs Bradley sighed. 'I know he'd make Isabel happy.'

  Elliott then told her what parties he had arranged for them. He was giving a big luncheon on the following day and at the end of the week a grand dinner party. He was taking them to a reception at the Château-Gaillards and he had got cards for them to a ball that the Rothschilds were giving.

  'You'll ask Larry, won't you?'

  'He tells me he hasn't any evening clothes,' Elliott sniffed.

  'Well, ask him all the same. After all, he is a nice boy, and it wouldn't help to give him the cold shoulder. It would only make Isabel obstinate.'

  'Of course I'll ask him if you wish it.'

  Larry came to lunch at the appointed time, and Elliott, whose manners were admirable, was pointedly cordial to him. It was not difficult, since Larry was so gay, in such high spirits that it would have needed a much more ill-natured man than Elliott not to be charmed with him. The conversation dealt with Chicago and their common friends there, so that there was not much for Elliott to do other than to look amiable and pretend to be interested in the concerns of persons whom he thought of no social consequence. He did not mind listening; indeed, he thought it rather touching to hear them tell of this young couple's engagement, that young couple's marriage, and another young couple's divorce. Who had ever heard of them? He knew that the pretty little Marquise de Clinchant had tried to poison herself because her lover, the Prince de Colombey, had left her to marry the daughter of a South American millionaire. That was something to talk about. Looking at Larry, he was obliged to admit that there was something peculiarly attractive in him; with his deep-set strangely black eyes, his high cheekbones, pale skin, and mobile mouth he reminded Elliott of a portrait by Botticelli, and it occurred to him that if he were dressed in the costume of the period he would look extravagantly romantic. He remembered his notion of getting him off with a distinguished Frenchwoman and he smiled slyly on reflecting that he was expecting at dinner on Saturday Marie Louise de Florimond, who combined irreproachable connexions with notorious immorality. She was forty, but looked ten years younger; she had the delicate beauty of her ancestress painted by Nattier which, owing to Elliott himself, now hung in one of the great American collections; and her sexual voracity was insatiable. Elliott decided to put Larry next to her. He knew she would waste no time in making her desires clear to him. He had already invited a young attaché at the British embassy whom he thought Isabel might like. Isabel was very pretty,
and as he was an Englishman, and well off, it wouldn't matter that she had no fortune. Mellowed by the excellent Montrachet with which they had started lunch and by the fine Bordeaux that followed, Elliott thought with tranquil pleasure of the possibilities that presented themselves to his mind. If things turned out as he thought they very well might, dear Louisa would have no more cause for anxiety. She had always slightly disapproved of him; poor dear, she was very provincial; but he was fond of her. It would be a satisfaction to him to arrange everything for her by help of his knowledge of the world.

  To waste no time, Elliott had arranged to take his ladies to look at clothes immediately after lunch, so as they got up from table he intimated to Larry with the tact of which he was a master that he must make himself scarce, but at the same time he asked him with pressing affability to come to the two grand parties he had arranged. He need hardly have taken so much trouble, since Larry accepted both invitations with alacrity.

  But Elliott's plan failed. He was relieved when Larry appeared at the dinner party in a very presentable dinner-jacket, for he had been a little nervous that he would wear the same blue suit that he had worn at lunch; and after dinner, getting Marie Louise de Florimond into a corner, he asked her how she had liked his young American friend.

  'He has nice eyes and good teeth.'

  'Is that all? I put you beside him because I thought he was just your cup of tea.'

  She looked at him suspiciously.

  'He told me he was engaged to your pretty niece.'

  'Voyons, ma chère, the fact that a man belongs to another woman has never prevented you from taking him away from her if you could.'

  'Is that what you want me to do? Well, I'm not going to do your dirty work for you, my poor Elliott.'

  Elliott chuckled.

  'The meaning of that, I presume, is that you tried your stuff and found there was nothing doing.'

  'Why I like you, Elliott, is that you have the morals of a bawdy-house keeper. You don't want him to marry your niece. Why not? He is well bred and quite charming. But he's really too innocent. I don't think he had the least suspicion of what I meant.'

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