The Razor’s Edge Chapter 1

FOR TEN YEARS after this I saw neither Isabel nor Larry. I continued to see Elliott, and indeed, for a reason that I shall tell later, more frequently than before, and from time to time I learned from him what was happening to Isabel. But of Larry he could tell me nothing.

“For all I know he’s still living in Paris, but I’m not likely to run across him. We don’t move in the same circles,” he added, not without complacency. “It’s very sad that he should have gone so completely to seed. He comes of a very good family. I’m sure I could have made something of him if he’d put himself in my hands. Anyhow it was a lucky escape for Isabel.”

My circle of acquaintance was not so restricted as Elliott’s and I knew a number of persons in Paris whom he would have thought eminently undesirable. On my brief but not infrequent sojourns I asked one or other of them whether he had run across Larry or had news of him; a few knew him casually, but none could claim any intimacy with him and I could find nobody to give me news of him. I went to the restaurant at which he habitually dined, but found he had not been there for a long time, and they thought he must have gone away. I never saw him at any of the cafés on the Boulevard du Montparnasse which people who live in the neighborhood are apt to go to.

His intention, after Isabel left Paris, was to go to Greece, but this he abandoned. What he actually did he told me himself many years later, but I will relate it now because it is more convenient to place events as far as I can in chronological order. He stayed on in Paris during the summer and worked without a break until autumn was well advanced.

“I thought I needed a rest from books then,” he said, “I’d been working from eight to ten hours a day for two years. So I went to work in a coal mine.”

“You did what?” I cried.

He laughed at my astonishment.

“I thought it would do me good to spend a few months in manual labor. I had a notion it would give me an opportunity to sort my thoughts and come to terms with myself.”

I was silent. I wondered whether that was the only reason for this unexpected step or whether it was connected with Isabel’s refusal to marry him. The fact was, I didn’t know at all how deeply he loved her. Most people when they’re in love invent every kind of reason to persuade themselves that it’s only sensible to do what they want. I suppose that’s why there are so many disastrous marriages. They are like those who put their affairs in the hands of someone they know to be a crook, but who happens to be an intimate friend because, unwilling to believe that a crook is a crook first and a friend afterward, they are convinced that, however dishonest he may be with others, he won’t be so with them. Larry was strong enough to refuse to sacrifice for Isabel’s sake the life that he thought was the life for him, but it may be that to lose her was bitterer to endure than he had expected. It may be that like most of us he wanted to eat his cake and have it.

“Well, go on,” I said.

“I packed my books and my clothes in a couple of trunks and got the American Express to store them. Then I put an extra suit and some linen in a grip and started off. My Greek teacher had a sister who was married to the manager of a mine near Lens and he gave me a letter to him. D’you know Lens?”


“It’s in the North of France, not far from the Belgian border. I only spent a night there, at the station hotel, and next day I took a local to the place where the mine was. Ever been to a mining village?”

“In England.”

“Well, I suppose it’s much the same. There’s the mine and the manager’s house, rows and rows of trim little two-story houses, all alike, exactly alike, and it’s so monotonous it makes your heart sink. There’s a newish, ugly church and several bars. It was bleak and cold when I got there and a thin rain was falling. I went to the manager’s office and sent in my letter. He was a little, fat man with red cheeks and the look of a guy who enjoys his food. They were short of labor, a lot of miners had been killed in the war, and there were a good many Poles working there, two or three hundred, I should think. He asked me one or two questions, he didn’t much like my being an American, he seemed to think it rather fishy, but his brother-in-law’s letter spoke well of me and anyhow he was glad to have me. He wanted to give me a job on the surface, but I told him I wanted to work down below. He said I’d find it hard if I wasn’t used to it, but I told him I was prepared for that, so then he said I could be helper to a miner. That was boy’s work really, but there weren’t enough boys to go around. He was a nice fellow; he asked me if I’d done anything about finding a lodging, and when I told him I hadn’t he wrote an address on a piece of paper and said that if I went there the woman of the house would let me have a bed. She was the widow of a miner who’d been killed and her two sons were working in the mine.

“I took up my grip and went on my way. I found the house, and the door was opened for me by a tall, gaunt woman with graying hair and big, dark eyes. She had good features and she must have been nice-looking once. She wouldn’t have been bad then in a haggard way except for two missing front teeth. She told me she hadn’t a room, but there were two beds in a room she’d let to a Pole and I could have the other one. Her two sons had one of the upstairs rooms and she had the other. The room she showed me was on the ground floor and supposed, I imagined, to be the living-room; I should have liked a room to myself, but I thought I’d better not be fussy; and the drizzle had turned into a steady, light rain and I was wet already. I didn’t want to go farther and get soaked to the skin. So I said that would suit me and I settled in. They used the kitchen as a living-room. It had a couple of rickety armchairs in it. There was a coal shed in the yard which was also the bath-house. The two boys and the Pole had taken their lunch with them, but she said I could eat with her at midday. I sat in the kitchen afterwards smoking and while she went on with her work she told me all about herself and her family. The others came in at the end of their shift. The Pole first and then the two boys. The Pole passed through the kitchen, nodded to me without speaking when our landlady told him I was to share his room, took a great kettle off the hob and went off to wash himself in the shed. The two boys were tall good-looking fellows notwithstanding the grime on their faces, and seemed inclined to be friendly. They looked upon me as a freak because I was American. One of them was nineteen, off to his military service in a few months, and the other eighteen.

“The Pole came back and then they went to clean up. The Pole had one of those difficult Polish names, but they called him Kosti. He was a big fellow, two or three inches taller than me, and heavily built. He had a pale fleshy face with a broad short nose and a big mouth. His eyes were blue and because he hadn’t been able to wash the coal dust off his eyebrows and eyelashes he looked as if he was made up. The black lashes made the blue of his eyes almost startling. He was an ugly, uncouth fellow. The two boys after they’d changed their clothes went out. The Pole sat on in the kitchen, smoking a pipe and reading the paper. I had a book in my pocket, so I took it out and began reading too. I noticed that he glanced at me once or twice and presently he put his paper down.

“ ‘What are you reading?’ he asked.

“I handed him the book to see for himself. It was a copy of the Princesse de Clèves that I’d bought at the station in Paris because it was small enough to put in my pocket. He looked at it, then at me, curiously, and handed it back. I noticed an ironical smile on his lips.

“ ‘Does it amuse you?’

“ ‘I think it’s very interesting—even absorbing.’

“ ‘I read it at school at Warsaw. It bored me stiff.’ He spoke very good French, with hardly a trace of Polish accent. ‘Now I don’t read anything but the newspaper and detective stories.’

“Madame Leclerc, that was our old girl’s name, with an eye on the soup that was cooking for supper, sat at the table darning socks. She told Kosti that I had been sent to her by the manager of the mine and repeated what else I had seen fit to tell her. He listened, puffing away at his pipe, and looked at me with brilliantly blue eyes. They were hard and shrewd. He asked me a few questions about myself. When I told him I had never worked in a mine before his lips broke again into an ironical smile.

“ ‘You don’t know what you’re in for. No one would go to work in a mine who could do anything else. But that’s your affair and doubtless you have your reasons. Where did you live in Paris?’

“I told him.

“ ‘At one time I used to go to Paris every year, but I kept to the Grands Boulevards. Have you ever been to Larue’s? It was my favorite restaurant.’

“That surprised me a bit because, you know, it’s not cheap.

“Far from it.

“I fancy he saw my surprise, for he gave me once more his mocking smile, but evidently didn’t think it necessary to explain further. We went on talking in a desultory fashion and then the two boys came in. We had supper and when we’d finished Kosti asked me if I’d like to come to the bistro with him and have a beer. It was just a rather large room with a bar at one end of it and a number of marble-topped tables with wooden chairs around them. There was a mechanical piano and someone had put a coin in the slot and it was braying out a dance tune. Only three tables were occupied besides ours. Kosti asked me if I played belote. I’d learnt it with some of my student friends, so I said I did and he proposed that we should play for the beer. I agreed and he called for cards. I lost a beer and a second beer. Then he proposed that we should play for money. He had good cards and I had bad luck. We were playing for very small stakes, but I lost several francs. This and the beer put him in a good humor and he talked. It didn’t take me long to guess both by his way of expressing himself and by his manners, that he was a man of education. When he spoke again of Paris it was to ask me if I knew So-and-so and So-and-so, American women I had met at Elliott’s when Aunt Louisa and Isabel were staying with him. He appeared to know them better than I did and I wondered how it was that he found himself in his present position. It wasn’t late, but we had to get up at the crack of dawn.

“ ‘Let’s have one more beer before we go,’ said Kosti.

“He sipped it and peered at me with his shrewd little eyes. I knew what he reminded me of then, an ill-tempered pig.

“ ‘Why have you come here to work in this rotten mine?’ he asked me.

“ ‘For the experience.’

“ ‘Tu es fou, mon petit,’ he said.

“ ‘And why are you working in it?’

“He shrugged his massive, ungainly shoulders.

“ ‘I entered the nobleman’s cadet school when I was a kid, my father was a general under the Czar and I was a cavalry officer in the last war. I couldn’t stand Pilsudski. We arranged to kill him, but someone gave us away. He shot those of us he caught. I managed to get across the frontier just in time. There was nothing for me but the Foreign Legion or a coal mine. I chose the lesser of two evils.’

“I had already told Kosti what job I was to have in the mine and he had said nothing, but now, putting his elbow on the marble-topped table, he said:

“ ‘Try to push my hand back.’

“I knew the old trial of strength and I put my open palm against his. He laughed. ‘Your hand won’t be as soft as that in a few weeks.’ I pushed with all my might, but I could make no effect against his huge strength and gradually he pressed my hand back and down to the table.

“ ‘You’re pretty strong,’ he was good enough to say. ‘There aren’t many men who keep up as long as that. Listen, my helper’s no good, he’s a puny little Frenchman, he hasn’t got the strength of a louse. You come along with me tomorrow and I’ll get the foreman to let me have you instead.’

“ ‘I’d like that,’ I said. ‘D’you think he’ll do it?’

“ ‘For a consideration. Have you got fifty francs to spare?’

“He stretched out his hand and I took a note out of my wallet. We went home and to bed. I’d had a long day and I slept like a log.”

“Didn’t you find the work terribly hard?” I asked Larry.

“Back-breaking at first,” he grinned. “Kosti worked it with the foreman and I was made his helper. At that time Kosti was working in a space about the size of a hotel bathroom and one got to it through a tunnel so low that you had to crawl through it on your hands and knees. It was as hot as hell in there and we worked in nothing but our pants. There was something terribly repulsive in that great white fat torso of Kosti’s; he looked like a huge slug. The row of the pneumatic cutter in that narrow space was deafening. My job was to gather the blocks of coal that he hacked away and load a basket with them and drag the basket through the tunnel to its mouth, where it could be loaded into a truck when the train came along at intervals on its way to the elevators. It’s the only coal mine I’ve ever known, so I don’t know if that’s the normal practice. It seemed amateurish to me and it was damned hard work. At half time we knocked off for a rest and ate our lunch and smoked. I wasn’t sorry when we were through for the day, and gosh, it was good to have a bath. I thought I’d never get my feet clean; they were as black as ink. Of course my hands blistered and they got as sore as the devil, but they healed. I got used to the work.”

“How long did you stick it out?”

“I was only kept on that job for a few weeks. The trucks that carried the coal to the elevators were hauled by a tractor and the driver was a poor mechanic and the engine was always breaking down. Once he couldn’t get it going and he didn’t seem to know what to do. Well, I’m a pretty good mechanic, so I had a look at it and in half an hour I got it working. The foreman told the manager and he sent for me and asked me if I knew about cars. The result was that he gave me the mechanic’s job; of course it was monotonous, but it was easy, and because they didn’t have any more engine trouble they were pleased with me.

“Kosti was as sore as hell at my leaving him. I suited him and he’d got used to me. I got to know him pretty well, working with him all day, going to the bistro with him after supper, and sharing a room with him. He was a funny fellow. He was the sort of man who’d have appealed to you. He didn’t mix with the Poles and we didn’t go to the cafés they went to. He couldn’t forget he was a nobleman and had been a cavalry officer and he treated them like dirt. Naturally they resented it, but they couldn’t do anything about it; he was as strong as an ox, and if it had ever come to a scrap, knives or no knives, he’d have been a match for half a dozen of them together. I got to know some of them all the same, and they told me he’d been a cavalry officer all right in one of the smart regiments, but it was a lie about his having left Poland for political reasons. He’d been kicked out of the Officers’ Club at Warsaw and cashiered because he’d been caught cheating at cards. They warned me against playing with him. They said that was why he fought so shy of them, because they knew too much about him and wouldn’t play with him.

“I’d been losing to him consistently, not much, you know, just a few francs a night, but when he won he always insisted on paying for drinks, so it didn’t amount to anything really. I thought I was just having a run of bad luck or that I didn’t play as well as he did. But after that I kept my eyes skinned and I was dead sure he was cheating, but d’you know, for the life of me I couldn’t see how he did it. Gosh, he was clever. I knew he simply couldn’t have the best cards all the time. I watched him like a lynx. He was as cunning as a fox and I guess he saw I’d been put wise to him. One night, after we’d been playing for a while, he looked at me with that rather cruel, sarcastic smile of his which was the only way he knew how to smile, and said:

“ ‘Shall I show you a few tricks?’

“He took the pack of cards and asked me to name one. He shuffled them and he told me to choose one; I did, and it was the card I’d named. He did two or three more tricks and then he asked me if I played poker. I said I did and he dealt me a hand. When I looked at it I saw I’d got four aces and a king.

“ ‘You’d be willing to bet a good deal on that hand, wouldn’t you?’ he asked.

“ ‘My whole stack,’ I answered.

“ ‘You’d be silly.’ He put down the hand he’d dealt himself. It was a straight flush. How it was done I don’t know. He laughed at my amazement. ‘If I weren’t an honest man I’d have had your shirt by now.’

“ ‘You haven’t done so badly as it is,’ I grinned.

“ ‘Chicken feed. Not enough to buy a dinner at Larue’s.’

“We continued to play pretty well every night. I came to the conclusion that he cheated not so much for the money as for the fun of it. It gave him a queer satisfaction to know that he was making a fool of me, and I think he got a lot of amusement out of knowing that I was on to what he was doing and couldn’t see how it was done.

“But that was only one side of him and it was the other side that made him so interesting to me. I couldn’t reconcile the two. Though he boasted he never read anything but the paper and detective stories he was a cultivated man. He was a good talker, caustic, harsh, cynical, but it was exhilarating to listen to him. He was a devout Catholic and had a crucifix hanging over his bed, and he went to Mass every Sunday regularly. On Saturday nights he used to get drunk. The bistro we went to was crammed jammed full then, and the air was heavy with smoke. There were quiet, middle-aged miners with their families, and there were groups of young fellows kicking up a hell of a row, and there were men with sweaty faces around tables playing belote with loud shouts, while their wives sat by, a little behind them, and watched. The crowd and the noise had a strange effect on Kosti and he’d grow serious and start talking—of all unlikely subjects—of mysticism. I knew nothing of it then but an essay of Maeterlinck’s on Ruysbroek that I’d read in Paris. But Kosti talked of Plotinus and Denis the Areopagite and Jacob Boehme the shoemaker and Meister Eckhart. It was fantastic to hear that great hulking bum, who’d been thrown out of his own world, that sardonic, bitter down-and-out, speaking of the ultimate reality of things and the blessedness of union with God. It was all new to me and I was confused and excited. I was like someone who’s lain awake in a darkened room and suddenly a chink of light shoots through the curtains and he knows he only has to draw them and there the country will be spread before him in the glory of the dawn. But if I tried to get him on the subject when he was sober he got mad at me. His eyes were spiteful.

“ ‘How should I know what I was talking about when I didn’t know what I was saying?’ he snapped.

“But I knew he was lying. He knew perfectly well what he was talking about. He knew a lot. Of course he was soused, but the look in his eyes, the rapt expression on his ugly face, weren’t due only to drink. There was more to it than that. The first time he talked in that way he said something that I’ve never forgotten, because it horrified me; he said that the world isn’t a creation, for out of nothing nothing comes; but a manifestation of the eternal nature; well, that was all right, but then he added that evil is as direct a manifestation of the divine as good. They were strange words to hear in that sordid, noisy café, to the accompaniment of dance tunes on the mechanical piano.”