The Razor’s Edge Chapter 2

TO GIVE THE READER a moment’s rest I am starting here upon a new section, but I am doing it only for his convenience; the conversation was uninterrupted. I may take this opportunity to say that Larry spoke without haste, often choosing his words with care, and though of course I do not pretend to report them exactly, I have tried to reproduce not only the matter, but the manner of his discourse. His voice, rich in tone, had a musical quality that was grateful to the ear; and as he talked without gesticulation of any kind, puffing away at his pipe and stopping now and again to relight it, he looked you in the face with a pleasant, often whimsical expression in his dark eyes.

“Then the spring came, late in that flat, dismal part of the country, cold and rainy still; but sometimes a fine warm day made it hard to leave the world above ground and go down hundreds of feet in a rickety elevator, crowded with miners in their grimy overalls, into the bowels of the earth. It was spring all right, but it seemed to come shyly in that grim and sordid landscape as though unsure of a welcome. It was like a flower, a daffodil or a lily, growing in a pot on the window-sill of a slum dwelling and you wondered what it did there. One Sunday morning we were lying in bed, we always slept late on Sunday morning, and I was reading, when Kosti said to me out of a blue sky:

“ ‘I’m getting out of here. D’you want to come with me?’

“I knew a lot of the Poles went back to Poland in the summer to get the harvest in, but it was early for that, and besides, Kosti couldn’t go back to Poland.

“ ‘Where are you going?’ I asked.

“ ‘Tramping. Across Belgium and into Germany and down the Rhine. We could get work on a farm that would see us through the summer.’

“It didn’t take a minute to make up my mind.

“ ‘It sounds fine,’ I said.

“Next day we told the foreman we were through. I found a fellow who was willing to take my grip in exchange for a rucksack. I gave the clothes I didn’t want or couldn’t carry on my back to the younger of Madame Leclerc’s sons who was about my size. Kosti left a bag, packed what he wanted in his rucksack and the day after, as soon as the old girl had given us our coffee, we started off.

“We weren’t in any hurry as we knew we couldn’t get taken on at a farm at least until the hay was ready to cut, and so we dawdled along through France and Belgium by way of Namur and Liège and got into Germany through Aachen. We didn’t do more than ten or twelve miles a day. When we liked the look of a village we stopped there. There was always some kind of an inn where we could get beds and an alehouse where we could get something to eat and beer to drink. On the whole we had fine weather. It was grand to be out in the open air after all those months in the mine. I don’t think I’d ever realized before how good a green meadow is to look at and how lovely a tree is when the leaves aren’t out yet, but the branches are veiled in a faint green mist. Kosti started to teach me German and I believe he spoke it as well as he spoke French. As we trudged along he would tell me the German for the various objects we passed, a cow, a horse, a man and so on, and then make me repeat simple German sentences. It made the time pass and by the time we got into Germany I could at least ask for the things I wanted.

“Cologne was a bit out of our way, but Kosti insisted on going there, on account of the Eleven Thousand Virgins, he said, and when we got there he went on a bat. I didn’t see him for three days and when he turned up at the room we’d taken in a sort of workmen’s rooming-house he was very surly. He’d got in a fight and he had a black eye and a cut on his lip. He wasn’t a pretty object, I can tell you. He went to bed for twenty-four hours, and then we started to walk down the valley of the Rhine toward Darmstadt, where he said the country was good and we stood the best chance of getting work.

“I never enjoyed anything more. The fine weather held and we wandered through towns and villages. When there were sights to see we stopped off and looked at them. We put up where we could and once or twice we slept in a loft on the hay. We ate at wayside inns, and when we got in the wine country we turned from beer to wine. We made friends with the people in the taverns we drank in. Kosti had a sort of rough joviality that inspired them with confidence and he’d play skat with them, that’s a German card game, and skin them with such bluff good humor, with the earthy jokes they appreciated, that they hardly minded losing their pfennigs to him. I practiced my German on them. I’d bought a little English-German conversation grammar at Cologne and I was getting on pretty well. And then at night, when he’d got a couple of liters of white wine inside him, Kosti would talk in a morbid way of the flight from the Alone to the Alone, of the Dark Night of the Soul and of the final ecstasy in which the creature becomes one with the Beloved. But when in the early morning, as we walked through the smiling country, with the dew still on the grass, I tried to get him to tell me more, he grew so angry that he could have hit me.

“ ‘Shut up, you fool,’ he said. ‘What do you want with all that stuff and nonsense? Come, let’s get on with our German.’

“You can’t argue with a man who’s got a fist like a steam hammer and wouldn’t think twice about using it. I’d seen him in a rage. I knew he was capable of laying me out cold and leaving me in a ditch and I wouldn’t have put it past him to empty my pockets while I was out. I couldn’t make head or tail of him. When wine had loosened his tongue and he spoke of the Ineffable, he shed the rough obscene language that he ordinarily used, like the grimy overalls he wore in the mine, and he was well spoken and even eloquent. I couldn’t believe he wasn’t sincere. I don’t know how it occurred to me, but I got the idea somehow that he’d taken on that hard, brutal labor of the mine to mortify his flesh. I thought he hated that great, uncouth body of his and wanted to torture it, and that his cheating and his bitterness and his cruelty were the revolt of his will against—oh, I don’t know what you’d call it—against a deep-rooted instinct of holiness, against a desire for God that terrified and yet obsessed him.

“We’d taken our time, the spring was pretty well over and the trees were in full leaf. The grapes in the vineyards were beginning to fill out. We kept to the dirt roads as much as we could and they were getting dusty. We were in the neighborhood of Darmstadt, and Kosti said we’d better start looking for a job. Our money was getting short. I had half a dozen travelers’ checks in my pocket, but I’d made up my mind not to use them if I could possibly help it. When we saw a farmhouse that looked promising we stopped and asked if they wanted a couple of hands. I dare say we didn’t look very inviting. We were dusty and sweaty and dirty. Kosti looked a terrible ruffian and I don’t suppose I looked much better either. We were turned down time after time. At one place the farmer said he’d take Kosti but couldn’t do with me and Kosti said we were buddies and wouldn’t separate. I told him to go ahead, but he wouldn’t. I was surprised. I knew Kosti had taken a fancy to me, though I couldn’t imagine why, as I didn’t begin to be the kind of guy he had any use for, but I would never have thought he liked me well enough to refuse a job on my account. I felt rather conscience-stricken as we walked on, because I didn’t really like him, in fact I found him rather repulsive, but when I tried to say something to show I was pleased with what he’d done, he bit my head off.

“But at last our luck turned. We’d just gone through a village in a hollow and we came to a rambling farmhouse that didn’t look so bad. We knocked at the door and a woman opened it. We offered ourselves as usual. We said we didn’t want any wages, but were willing to work for our board and lodging, and to my surprise instead of slamming the door in our face, she told us to wait. She called to someone inside the house and presently a man came out. He had a good stare at us and asked us where we came from. He asked to see our papers. He gave me another stare when he saw I was American. He didn’t seem to like it very much, but anyhow he asked us to come in and have a glass of wine. He took us into the kitchen and we sat down. The woman brought a flagon and some glasses. He told us that his hired man had been gored by a bull and was in hospital and wouldn’t be fit for anything till after the harvest was in. With so many men killed, and others going into the factories that were springing up along the Rhine, it was the devil’s own job to get labor. We knew that and had been counting on it. Well, to make a long story short he said he’d take us. There was plenty of room in the house, but I suppose he didn’t fancy having us there; anyway he told us there were two beds in the hayloft and that was where we were to sleep.

“The work wasn’t hard. There were the cows to look after and the hogs; the machinery was in a bad way, and we had to do something about that; but I had some leisure. I loved the sweet-smelling meadows and in the evenings I used to wander about and dream. It was a good life.

“The household consisted of old Becker, his wife, his widowed daughter-in-law, and her children. Becker was a heavy, gray-haired man in his late forties; he’d been through the war and still limped from a wound in the leg. It hurt him a lot and he drank to kill the pain. He was generally high by the time he got to bed. Kosti got on with him fine and they used to go down to the inn together after supper to play skat and swill wine. Frau Becker had been a hired girl. They’d got her out of an orphanage and Becker had married her soon after his wife’s death. She was a good many years younger than he was, rather handsome in a way, full-blown, with red cheeks and fair hair and a hungry sensual look. It didn’t take Kosti long to come to the conclusion that there was something doing there. I told him not to be a fool. We had a good job and we didn’t want to lose it. He only jeered at me; he said Becker wasn’t satisfying her and she was asking for it. I knew it was useless to appeal to his sense of decency, but I told him to be careful; it might be that Becker wouldn’t see what he was after, but there was his daughter-in-law, and she wasn’t missing anything.

“Ellie, that was her name, was a thickset, big young woman, well under thirty, with black eyes and black hair, a sallow square face and a sullen look. She still wore mourning for her husband killed at Verdun. She was very devout and on Sunday mornings trudged down to the village to early Mass and again in the afternoon to vespers. She had three children, one of whom had been born after her husband’s death, and she never spoke at meals except to scold them. She did little work on the farm, but spent most of her time looking after the kids, and in the evening sat by herself in the sitting-room, with the door open so that she could hear if one of them was crying, and read novels. The two women hated one another. Ellie despised Frau Becker because she was a foundling and had been a servant, and bitterly resented her being the mistress of the house and in a position to give orders.

“Ellie was the daughter of a prosperous farmer and had brought a good dowry with her. She hadn’t gone to the village school, but to Zwingenberg, the nearest town, where there was a girls’ gymnasium, and she’d got quite a good education. Poor Frau Becker had come to the farm when she was fourteen and if she could read and write that’s about all she could do. That was another cause of discord between the two women. Ellie lost no opportunity of showing off her knowledge, and Frau Becker, red in the face with anger, would ask what use it was to a farmer’s wife. Then Ellie would look at her husband’s identification disc which she wore on a steel chain round her wrist and with a bitter look on her sullen face say:

“ ‘Not a farmer’s wife. Only a farmer’s widow. Only the widow of a hero who gave his life for his country.’

“Poor old Becker had his work cut out to keep the peace between them.”

“But what did they make of you?” I interrupted Larry.

“Oh, they thought I’d deserted from the American Army and couldn’t go back to America or I’d be put in jail. That’s how they explained that I didn’t care to go down to the inn and drink with Becker and Kosti. They thought I didn’t want to attract attention to myself and have the village constable asking questions. When Ellie found out I was trying to learn German she brought out her old schoolbooks and said she’d teach me. So after supper she and I would go into the sitting-room, leaving Frau Becker in the kitchen, and I’d read aloud to her while she corrected my accent and tried to make me understand words I couldn’t get the sense of. I guessed she was doing it not so much to help me as to put something over on Frau Becker.

“All this time Kosti was trying to make Frau Becker and wasn’t getting anywhere. She was a jolly, merry woman and quite prepared to joke and laugh with him, and he had a way with him with women. I guess she knew what he was after and I dare say she was flattered, but when he started pinching her she told him to keep his hands to himself and smacked his face. And I bet it was a good hard smack.”

Larry hesitated a little and smiled rather shyly.

“I’ve never been the sort who thinks women are after me, but it occurred to me that—well, that Frau Becker had fallen for me. It made me rather uncomfortable. For one thing she was a lot older than me, and then old Becker had been very decent to us. She dished out the food at table and I couldn’t help noticing that she helped me more liberally than the others, and she seemed to me to look for opportunities of being alone with me. She’d smile at me in what I suppose you’d call a provocative manner. She’d ask me if I had a girl, and say that a young fellow like me must suffer for the want of it in a place like that. You know the sort of thing. I only had three shirts and they were pretty well worn. Once she said it was a disgrace that I should wear such rags and if I’d bring them along she’d mend them. Ellie heard her and next time we were alone said that if I had anything to mend she’d do it. I said it didn’t matter. But a day or two later I found that my socks had been darned and my shirts patched and put back on the bench in the loft on which we kept our things; but which of them had done it I don’t know. Of course I didn’t take Frau Becker seriously; she was a good-natured old soul and I thought it might be just motherliness on her part; but then one day Kosti said to me:

“ ‘Listen, it’s not me she wants; it’s you. I haven’t got a chance.’

“ ‘Don’t talk such nonsense,’ I said to him. ‘She’s old enough to be my mother.’

“ ‘What of it? You go ahead my boy, I won’t stand in your way. She’s not so young as she might be, but she’s a fine figure of a woman.’

“ ‘Oh, shut up.’

“ ‘Why d’you hesitate? Not on my account, I hope. I’m a philosopher and I know there are as good fish in the sea as ever came out. I don’t blame her. You’re young. I’ve been young too. Jeunesse ne dure qu’un moment.’ ”

“I wasn’t too pleased that Kosti was so sure of what I didn’t want to believe. I didn’t quite know how to deal with the situation, and then I recalled various things that hadn’t struck me at the time. Things said by Ellie that I hadn’t paid much attention to. But now I understood them and I was pretty sure that she too knew what was happening. She’d turn up suddenly in the kitchen when Frau Becker and I happened to be alone. I got the impression that she was watching us. I didn’t like it. I thought she was out to catch us. I knew she hated Frau Becker, and if she had half a chance she’d make trouble. Of course I knew she couldn’t catch us, but she was a malevolent creature and I didn’t know what lies she mightn’t invent and pour into old Becker’s ears. I didn’t know what to do except to pretend I was such a fool I didn’t see what the old girl was up to. I was happy at the farm and enjoying the work and I didn’t want to go till after we’d got the harvest in.”

I couldn’t help smiling. I could imagine what Larry had looked like then, in his patched shirt and shorts, his face and neck burnt brown by the hot sun of the Rhine valley, with his lithe slim body, and his black eyes in their deep sockets. I could well believe that the sight of him set the matronly Frau Becker, so blonde, so full-breasted, all of a flutter with desire.

“Well, what happened?” I asked.

“Well, the summer wore on. We worked like demons there. We cut and stacked the hay. Then the cherries were ripe, Kosti and I got up on ladders and picked them, and the two women put them in great baskets and old Becker took them into Zwingenberg and sold them. Then we cut the rye. And of course there were always the animals to look after. We were up before dawn and we didn’t stop until nightfall. I supposed Frau Becker had given me up as a bad job; as far as I could without offending her, I kept her at arm’s length. I was too sleepy to read much German in the evenings and soon after supper I’d take myself off to our loft and fall into bed. Most evenings Becker and Kosti went to the inn down in the village, but I was fast asleep by the time Kosti came back. It was hot in the loft and I slept naked.

“One night I was awakened. At the first moment I couldn’t make out what it was; I was only half awake. I felt a hot hand on my mouth and I realized somebody was in bed with me. I tore the hand away and then a mouth was pressed to mine, two arms were thrown round me, and I felt Frau Becker’s great breasts against my body.

“ ‘Sei still,’ she whispered. ‘Be quiet.’

“She pressed up against me and kissed my face with hot full lips and her hands traveled over my body and she twined her legs in mine.”

Larry stopped. I giggled.

“What did you do?”

He gave me a deprecating smile. He even flushed a little.

“What could I do? I could hear Kosti breathing heavily in his sleep in the bed next to mine. The situation of Joseph has always seemed to me faintly ridiculous. I was only just twenty-three. I couldn’t make a scene and kick her out. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. I did what was expected of me.

“Then she slipped out of bed and tiptoed out of the loft. I can tell you, I heaved a sigh of relief. You know, I’d been scared. ‘Gosh,’ I said, ‘what a risk to take!’ I thought it likely that Becker had come home drunk and fallen asleep in a stupor, but they slept in the same bed, and it might be that he’d woken up and seen his wife wasn’t there. And there was Ellie. She always said she didn’t sleep well. If she’d been awake she’d have heard Frau Becker go downstairs and out of the house. And then, suddenly, something struck me. When Frau Becker was in bed with me I’d felt a piece of metal against my skin. I’d paid no attention, you know one doesn’t in those circumstances, and I’d never thought of asking myself what the devil it was. And now it flashed across me. I was sitting on the side of my bed thinking and worrying about the consequences of all this and it was such a shock that I jumped up. The piece of metal was Ellie’s husband’s identification disc that she wore round her wrist and it wasn’t Frau Becker that had been in bed with me. It was Ellie.”

I roared with laughter. I couldn’t stop.

“It may seem funny to you,” said Larry. “It didn’t seem funny to me.”

“Well, now you look back on it, don’t you think there is just a faint element of the humorous about it?”

An unwilling smile played on his lips.

“Perhaps. But it was an awkward situation. I didn’t know what it was going to lead to. I didn’t like Ellie. I thought her a most unpleasant female.”

“But how could you mistake one for the other?”

“It was pitch dark. She never said a word except to tell me to keep my trap shut. They were both big stout women. I thought Frau Becker had her eye on me. It never occurred to me for a moment that Ellie gave me a thought. She was always thinking of her husband. I lit a cigarette and thought the position over and the more I thought of it the less I liked it. It seemed to me that the best thing I could do was to get out.

“I’d often cursed Kosti because he was so hard to wake. When we were at the mine I used to have to shake the life out of him to get him up in time to go to work. But I was thankful now that he slept so heavily. I lit my lantern and dressed, bundled my things into my rucksack—I hadn’t got much, so it didn’t take a minute—and slipped my arms through the straps. I walked across the loft in my stocking feet and didn’t put my shoes on till I got to the bottom of the ladder. I blew out the lantern. It was a dark night, with no moon, but I knew my way to the road and I turned in the direction of the village. I walked fast as I wanted to get through it before anyone was up and about. It was only twelve miles to Zwingenberg and I got there just as it was stirring. I shall never forget that walk. There wasn’t a sound except my footsteps on the road and now and then the crowing of a cock in a farm. Then the first grayness when it wasn’t yet light and not quite dark, and the first hint of dawn, and the sunrise with the birds all starting to sing, and that lush green country, meadows and woods and the wheat in the fields silvery gold in the cool light of the beginning day. I got a cup of coffee at Zwingenberg and a roll, then I went to the post office and sent a wire to the American Express to have my clothes and my books sent to Bonn.”

“Why Bonn?” I interrupted.

“I’d taken a fancy to it when we stopped off there on our tramp down the Rhine. I liked the way the light shone on the roofs and the river, and its old narrow streets, and its villas and gardens and avenues of chestnut trees and the rococo buildings of the university. It struck me then it wouldn’t be a bad place to stay in for a bit. But I thought I’d better present a respectable appearance when I got there, I looked like a tramp and I didn’t think I’d inspire much confidence if I went to a pension and asked for a room, so I took a train to Frankfurt and bought myself a grip and a few clothes. I stayed in Bonn off and on for a year.”

“And did you get anything out of your experience, at the mine, I mean, and on the farm?”

“Yes,” said Larry, nodding his head and smiling.

But he didn’t tell me what it was and I knew him well enough by then to know that when he felt like telling you something he did, but when he didn’t he would turn off questions with a cool pleasantry that made it useless to insist. For I must remind the reader that he narrated all this to me ten years after it happened. Till then, when I once more came in contact with him, I had no notion where he was or how he was engaged. For all I knew he might be dead. Except for my friendship with Elliott, who kept me posted with the course of Isabel’s life and so reminded me of Larry, I should doubtless have forgotten his existence.