The Razor’s Edge Chapter 3

I MET LARRY BY chance. I had asked Isabel about him and she told me that since their return from La Baule they had seen little of him. She and Gray had by now made a number of friends for themselves, people of their own generation, and they were more often engaged than during the pleasant weeks when the four of us were so much together. One evening I went to the Théâtre Français to see Bérénice. I had read it of course, but had never seen it played, and since it is seldom given I was unwilling to miss the opportunity. It is not one of Racine’s best plays, for the subject is too tenuous to support five acts, but it is moving and contains passages that are justly famous. The story is founded on a brief passage in Tacitus: Titus, who loved Bérénice, Queen of Palestine, with passion and who had even, as was supposed, promised her marriage, for reasons of state sent her away from Rome during the first days of his reign in despite of his desires and in despite of hers. For the Senate and the people of Rome were violently opposed to their Emperor’s alliance with a foreign queen. The play is concerned with the struggle in his breast between love and duty, and when he falters, it is Bérénice who in the end, assured that he loves her, confirms his purpose and separates herself from him forever.

I suppose only a Frenchman can appreciate to the full the grace and grandeur of Racine and the music of his verse, but even a foreigner, once he has accustomed himself to the periwigged formality of the style, can hardly fail to be moved by his passionate tenderness and by the nobility of his sentiment. Racine knew as few have done how much drama is contained in the human voice. To me at all events the roll of those mellifluous Alexandrines is a sufficient substitute for action, and I find the long speeches, worked up with infinite skill to the expected climax, every bit as thrilling as any hair-raising adventure of the movies.

There was an interval after the third act and I went out to smoke a cigarette in the foyer over which presides Houdon’s Voltaire with his toothless, sardonic grin. Someone touched me on the shoulder. I turned around, perhaps with a slight movement of annoyance, for I wanted to be left with the exaltation with which those sonorous lines had filled me, and saw Larry. As always, I was glad to see him. It was a year since I had set eyes on him, and I suggested that at the end of the play we should meet and have a glass of beer together. Larry said he was hungry, for he had had no dinner, and proposed that we should go to Montmartre. We found one another in due course and stepped out into the open. The Théâtre Français has a musty fug that is peculiar to it. It is impregnated with the body odor of those unnumbered generations of sour-faced, unwashed women called ouvreuses who show you to your seat and domineeringly await their tip. It was a relief to get into the fresh air, and since the night was fine we walked. The arc lamps in the Avenue de l’Opéra glared so defiantly that the stars above, as though too proud to compete, shrouded their brightness in the dark of their infinite distance. As we walked we spoke of the performance we had just seen. Larry was disappointed. He would have liked it to be more natural, the lines spoken as people naturally speak and the gestures less theatrical. I thought his point of view mistaken. It was rhetoric, magnificent rhetoric, and I had a notion that it should be spoken rhetorically. I liked the regular thump of the rhymes; and the stylized gestures, handed down in a long tradition, seemed to me to suit the temper of that formal act. I could not but think that that was how Racine would have wished his play to be played. I had admired the way in which the actors had contrived to be human, passionate, and true within the limitations that confined them. Art is triumphant when it can use convention as an instrument of its own purpose.

We reached the Avenue de Clichy and went into the Brasserie Graf. It was not long past midnight and the room was crowded, but we found a table and ordered ourselves eggs and bacon. I told Larry I had seen Isabel.

“Gray will be glad to get back to America,” he said. “He’s a fish out of water here. He won’t be happy till he’s at work again. I dare say he’ll make a lot of money.”

“If he does it’ll be due to you. You not only cured him in body, but in spirit as well. You restored his confidence in himself.”

“I did very little. I merely showed him how to cure himself.”

“How did you learn to do that little?”

“By accident. It was when I was in India. I’d been suffering from insomnia and happened to mention it to an old Yogi I knew and he said he’d soon settle that. He did just what you saw me do with Gray and that night I slept as I hadn’t slept for months. And then, a year later it must have been, I was in the Himalayas with an Indian friend of mine and he sprained his ankle. It was impossible to get a doctor and he was in great pain. I thought I’d try to do what the old Yogi had done, and it worked. You can believe it or not, he was completely relieved of the pain.” Larry laughed. “I can assure you, no one was more surprised than I. There’s nothing to it really; it only means putting the idea into the sufferer’s mind.”

“Easier said than done.”

“Would it surprise you if your arm raised itself from the table without any volition of yours?”

“Very much.”

“It will. My Indian friend told people what I’d done when we got back to civilization and he brought others to see me. I hated doing it, because I couldn’t quite understand it, but they insisted. Somehow or other I did them good. I found I was able to relieve people not only of pain but of fear. It’s strange how many people suffer from it. I don’t mean fear of closed spaces and fear of heights, but fear of death and, what’s worse, fear of life. Often they’re people who seem in the best of health, prosperous, without any worry, and yet they’re tortured by it. I’ve sometimes thought it was the most besetting humor of men, and I asked myself at one time if it was due to some deep animal instinct that man had inherited from that primeval something that first felt the thrill of life.”

I was listening to Larry with expectation, for it was not often that he spoke at any length, and I had an inkling that for once he felt communicative. Perhaps the play we had just seen had released some inhibition and the rhythm of its sonorous cadences, as music will, had overcome his instinctive reserve. Suddenly I realized that something was happening to my hand. I had not given another thought to Larry’s half-laughing question. I was conscious that my hand no longer rested on the table, but was raised an inch above it without my willing it. I was taken aback. I looked at it and saw that it trembled slightly. I felt a queer tingling in the nerves of my arm, a little jerk, and my hand and forearm lifted of themselves, I to the best of my belief neither aiding nor resisting, until they were several inches from the table. Then I felt my whole arm being raised from the shoulder.

“This is very odd,” I said.

Larry laughed. I made the slightest effort of will and my hand fell back on to the table.

“It’s nothing,” he said. “Don’t attach any importance to it.”

“Were you taught that by the Yogi you spoke to us about when you first came back from India?”

“Oh no, he had no patience with that kind of thing. I don’t know whether he believed that he possessed the powers that some Yogis claim to have, but he would have thought it puerile to exercise them.”

Our eggs and bacon arrived and we ate them with good appetite. We drank our beer. Neither of us spoke. Larry was thinking of I knew not what and I was thinking of him. We finished. I lit a cigarette and he lit a pipe.

“What made you go to India in the first place?” I asked abruptly.

“Chance. At least I thought so at the time. Now I’m inclined to think it was the inevitable outcome of my years in Europe. Almost all the people who’ve had most effect on me I seem to have met by chance, yet looking back it seems as though I couldn’t but have met them. It’s as if they were waiting there to be called upon when I needed them. I went to India because I wanted a rest. I’d been working very hard and wished to sort out my thoughts. I got a job as a deck hand on one of those pleasure-cruise ships that go around the world. It was going to the East and through the Panama Canal to New York. I hadn’t been to America for five years and I was homesick. I was depressed. You know how ignorant I was when we first met in Chicago all those years ago. I’d read an awful lot in Europe and seen a lot, but I was no nearer than when I started to what I was looking for.”

I wanted to ask him what that was, but had a feeling that he’d just laugh, shrug his shoulders, and say it was a matter of no consequence.

“But why did you go as a deck hand?” I asked instead. “You had money.”

“I wanted the experience. Whenever I’ve got water-logged spiritually, whenever I’ve absorbed all I can for the time, I’ve found it useful to do something of that sort. That winter, after Isabel and I broke off our engagement, I worked in a coal-mine near Lens for six months.”

It was then that he told me of those incidents that I have narrated in the previous chapter.

“Were you sore when Isabel threw you over?”

Before he answered he looked at me for some time with those strangely black eyes of his that seemed then to look inward rather than out.

“Yes. I was very young. I’d made up my mind that we were going to marry. I’d made plans for the life that we were going to lead together. I expected it to be lovely.” He laughed faintly. “But it takes two to make a marriage just as it takes two to make a quarrel. It had never occurred to me that the life I offered Isabel was a life that filled her with dismay. If I’d had any sense I’d never have suggested it. She was too young and ardent. I couldn’t blame her. I couldn’t yield.”

It’s just possible that the reader will remember that on his flight from the farm, after that grotesque encounter with the farmer’s widowed daughter-in-law, he had gone to Bonn. I was anxious to get him to continue, but knew I must be careful not to ask more direct questions than I could help.

“I’ve never been to Bonn,” I said. “When I was a boy I spent some time as a student at Heidelberg. It was, I think, the happiest time of my life.”

“I liked Bonn. I spent a year there. I got a room in the house of the widow of one of the professors at the university who took in a couple of boarders. She and her two daughters, both of them middle-aged, did the cooking and the house-work. I found my fellow boarder was a Frenchman and I was disappointed at first because I wanted to speak nothing but German; but he was an Alsatian and he spoke German, if not more fluently, with a better accent than he spoke French. He was dressed like a German pastor and I was surprised to find out after a few days that he was a Benedictine monk. He’d been granted leave of absence from his monastery to make researches at the university library. He was a very learned man, but he didn’t look it any more than he looked like my idea of a monk. He was a tall, stout fellow, with sandy hair, prominent blue eyes, and a red, round face. He was shy and reserved and didn’t seem to want to have anything much to do with me, but he was very polite in a rather elaborate way and always took a civil part in the conversation at table; I only saw him then; as soon as we had finished dinner he went back to work at the library, and after supper, when I sat in the parlor improving my German with whichever of the two daughters wasn’t washing up, he retired to his room.

“I was surprised when one afternoon, after I’d been there at least a month, he asked me if I’d care to take a walk with him. He said he could show me places in the neighborhood that he didn’t think I’d be likely to discover for myself. I’m a pretty good walker, but he could outwalk me any day. We must have covered a good fifteen miles on that first walk. He asked me what I was doing in Bonn, and I said I’d come to learn German and get to know something about German literature. He talked very intelligently. He said he’d be glad to help me in any way he could. After that we went for walks two or three times a week. I discovered that he’d taught philosophy for some years. When I was in Paris I’d read a certain amount, Spinoza and Plato and Descartes, but I hadn’t read any of the great German philosophers and I was only too glad to listen while he talked about them. One day, when we’d made an excursion across the Rhine and were sitting in a beer-garden drinking a glass of beer, he asked me if I was a Protestant.

“ ‘I suppose so,’ I said.

“He gave me a quick look and I thought I saw in his eyes the glimmer of a smile. He began to talk about Aeschylus; I’d been learning Greek, you know, and he knew the great tragedians as I could never hope to know them. It was inspiring to hear him. I wondered why he’d suddenly asked me that question. My guardian, Uncle Bob Nelson, was an agnostic, but he went to church regularly because his patients expected it of him and sent me to Sunday school for the same reason. Martha, our help, was a rigid Baptist and she used to frighten my childhood by telling me of the hell fire to which the sinner would be condemned to all eternity. She took a real delight in picturing to me the agonies that would be endured by the various people in the village whom for some reason or other she had had it in for.

“By winter I’d got to know Father Ensheim very well. I think he was rather a remarkable man. I never saw him vexed. He was good-natured and kindly, far more broad-minded than I would have expected, and wonderfully tolerant. His erudition was prodigious and he must have known how ignorant I was, but he used to talk to me as though I were as learned as he. He was very patient with me. He seemed to want nothing but to be of service to me. One day, I don’t know why, I had an attack of lumbago, and Frau Grabau, my landlady, insisted on putting me to bed with hot-water-bottles. Father Ensheim, hearing I was laid up, came into my room to see me, after supper. Except that I was in a good deal of pain I felt perfectly well. You know what bookish people are, they’re inquisitive about books, and as I put down the book I was reading when he came in, he took it up and looked at the title. It was a book about Meister Eckhart that I’d found at a bookseller’s in the town. He asked me why I was reading it, so I said that I’d been going through a certain amount of mystical literature and told him about Kosti and how he’d aroused my interest in the subject. He surveyed me with his prominent blue eyes and there was a look in them that I can only describe as amused tenderness. I had the feeling that he found me rather ridiculous, but felt so much loving-kindness toward me that he didn’t like me any the less. Anyhow, I’ve never much minded if people thought me a bit of a fool.

“ ‘What are you looking for in these books?’ he asked me.

“ ‘If I knew that,’ I answered, ‘I’d at least be on the way to finding it.’

“ ‘Do you remember my asking you if you were a Protestant? You said you supposed so. What did you mean by that?’ ”

‘I was brought up as one,’ I said.”

‘Do you believe in God?’ he asked.

“I don’t like personal questions and my first impulse was to tell him that was no business of his. But there was so much goodness in his aspect that I felt it impossible to affront him. I didn’t know what to say; I didn’t want to answer yes and I didn’t want to answer no. It may have been the pain I was suffering that enabled me to speak or it may have been something in him. Anyhow, I told him about myself.”

Larry hesitated for a moment, and when he went on I knew he wasn’t speaking to me but to the Benedictine monk. He had forgotten me. I don’t know what there was in the time or the place that enabled him to speak, without my prompting, of what his natural reticence had so long concealed.

“Uncle Bob Nelson was very democratic and he sent me to the high school at Marvin. It was only because Louisa Bradley nagged him into it that when I was fourteen he let me go to St. Paul’s. I wasn’t very good at anything, either at work or games, but I fitted in all right. I think I was an entirely normal boy. I was crazy about aviation. Those were the early days of flying and Uncle Bob was as excited about it as I was. He knew some of the airmen, and when I said I wanted to learn to fly he said he’d fix it for me. I was tall for my age and when I was sixteen I could easily pass for eighteen. Uncle Bob made me promise to keep it a secret, because he knew everyone would be down on him like a ton of bricks for letting me go, but as a matter of fact he helped me to get over to Canada and gave me a letter to someone he knew, and the result was that by the time I was seventeen I was flying in France.

“They were terrible gimcrack planes we flew in then, and you practically took your life in your hands each time you went up. The heights we got to were absurd, judged by present standards, but we didn’t know any better and thought it wonderful. I loved flying. I couldn’t describe the feeling it gave me, I only knew I felt proud and happy. In the air, ’way up, I felt that I was part of something very great and very beautiful. I didn’t know what it was all about, I only knew that I wasn’t alone any more, by myself as I was, two thousand feet up, but that I belonged. I can’t help it if it sounds silly. When I was flying above the clouds and they were like an enormous flock of sheep below me I felt that I was at home with infinitude.”

Larry paused. He gazed at me from the caverns of his impenetrable eyes, but I did not know whether he saw me.

“I’d known that men had been killed by the hundred thousand, but I hadn’t seen them killed. It didn’t mean very much to me. Then I saw a dead man with my own eyes. The sight filled me with shame.”

“Shame?” I exclaimed involuntarily.

“Shame, because that boy, he was only three or four years older than me, who’d had such energy and daring, who a moment before had had so much vitality, who’d been so good, was now just mangled flesh that looked as if it had never been alive.”

I didn’t say anything. I had seen dead men when I was a medical student and I had seen many more during the war. What had dismayed me was how trifling they looked. There was no dignity in them. Marionettes that the showman had thrown into the discard.

“I didn’t sleep that night. I cried. I wasn’t frightened for myself; I was indignant; it was the wickedness of it that broke me. The war came to an end and I went home. I’d always been keen on mechanics, and if there was nothing doing in aviation, I’d intended to get into an automobile factory. I’d been wounded and had to take it easy for a while. Then they wanted me to go to work. I couldn’t do the sort of work they wanted me to do. It seemed futile. I’d had a lot of time to think. I kept on asking myself what life was for. After all it was only by luck that I was alive; I wanted to make something of my life, but I didn’t know what. I’d never thought much about God. I began to think about Him now. I couldn’t understand why there was evil in the world. I knew I was very ignorant; I didn’t know anyone I could turn to and I wanted to learn, so I began to read at haphazard.

“When I told Father Ensheim all this he asked me: ‘Then you’ve been reading for four years? Where have you got?’

“ ‘Nowhere,’ I said.

“He looked at me with such an air of radiant benignity that I was confused. I didn’t know what I’d done to arouse so much feeling in him. He softly drummed his fingers on the table as though he were turning a notion over in his mind.

“ ‘Our wise old Church,’ he said then, ‘has discovered that if you will act as if you believed belief will be granted to you; if you pray with doubt, but pray with sincerity, your doubt will be dispelled; if you will surrender yourself to the beauty of that liturgy the power of which over the human spirit has been proved by the experience of the ages, peace will descend upon you. I am returning to my monastery in a little while. Why don’t you come and spend a few weeks with us? You can work in the fields with our lay brothers; you can read in our library. It will be an experience no less interesting than working in a coal mine or on a German farm.’

“ ‘Why do you suggest it?’ I asked.

“ ‘I’ve been observing you for three months,’ he said. ‘Perhaps I know you better than you know yourself. The distance that separates you from faith is no greater than the thickness of a cigarette paper.’

“I didn’t say anything to that. It gave me a funny sort of feeling, as though someone had got hold of my heartstrings and were giving them a tug. At last I said I’d think about it. He dropped the subject. For the rest of Father Ensheim’s stay in Bonn we never spoke of anything connected with religion again, but as he was leaving he gave me the address of his monastery and told me if I made up my mind to come I had only to write him a line and he’d make arrangements. I missed him more than I expected. The year wore on and it was mid-summer. I liked it well enough in Bonn. I read Goethe and Schiller and Heine. I read Hölderlin and Rilke. Still I wasn’t getting anywhere. I thought a lot of what Father Ensheim had said, and at last I decided to accept his offer.

“He met me at the station. The monastery was in Alsace and the country was pretty. Father Ensheim presented me to the abbot and then showed me to the cell that had been assigned to me. It had a narrow iron bed, a crucifix on the wall, and by way of furniture only the barest necessities. The dinner bell rang and I made my way to the refectory. It was a huge vaulted chamber. The abbot stood at the door with two monks, one of whom held a basin and the other a towel, and the abbot sprinkled a few drops of water on the hands of the guests by way of washing them and dried them with the towel one of the two monks handed him. There were three guests besides myself, two priests who were passing that way and had stopped off for dinner and an elderly, grouchy Frenchman who was making a retreat.

“The abbot and the two priors, senior and junior, sat at the head of the room, each at his separate table; the fathers along two sides of the walls, while the novices, the lay brothers, and the guests sat at tables in the middle. Grace was said and we ate. A novice took up his position near the refectory door and in a monotonous voice read from an edifying work. When we had finished grace was said again. The abbot, Father Ensheim, the guests, and the monk in charge of them went into a small room where we had coffee and talked of casual things. Then I went back to my cell.

“I stayed there three months. I was very happy. The life exactly suited me. The library was good and I read a great deal. None of the fathers tried in any way to influence me, but they were glad to talk to me. I was deeply impressed by their learning, their piety, and their unworldliness. You mustn’t think it was an idle life they led. They were constantly occupied. They farmed their own land and worked it themselves and they were glad to have my help. I enjoyed the splendor of the services, but the one I liked best of all was Matins. It was at four in the morning. It was wonderfully moving to sit in the church with the night all around you while the monks, mysterious in their habits, their cowls drawn over their heads, sang with their strong male voices the plain-song of the liturgy. There was something reassuring in the regularity of the daily round, and notwithstanding all the energy that was displayed, notwithstanding the activity of thought, you had an abiding sense of repose.”

Larry smiled a trifle ruefully.

“Like Rolla, I’ve come too late into a world too old. I should have been born in the Middle Ages when faith was a matter of course; then my way would have been clear to me and I’d have sought to enter the order. I couldn’t believe, I wanted to believe, but I couldn’t believe in a God who wasn’t better than the ordinary decent man. The monks told me that God had created the world for his glorification. That didn’t seem to me a very worthy object. Did Beethoven create his symphonies for his glorification? I don’t believe it. I believe he created them because the music in his soul demanded expression and then all he tried to do was to make them as perfect as he knew how.

“I used to learn to the monks repeating the Lord’s Prayer; I wondered how they could continue to pray without misgiving to their heavenly father to give them their daily bread. Do children beseech their earthly father to give them sustenance? They expect him to do it, they neither feel nor need to feel gratitude to him for doing it, and we have only blame for a man who brings children into the world that he can’t or won’t provide for. It seemed to me that if an omnipotent creator was not prepared to provide his creatures with the necessities of existence, material and spiritual, he’d have done better not to create them.”

“Dear Larry,” I said, “I think it’s just as well you weren’t born in the Middle Ages. You’d undoubtedly have perished at the stake.”

He smiled.

“You’ve had a great deal of success,” he went on. “Do you want to be praised to your face?”

“It only embarrasses me.”

“That’s what I should have thought. I couldn’t believe that God wanted it either. We didn’t think much in the air corps of a fellow who wangled a cushy job out of his C.O. by buttering him up. It was hard for me to believe that God thought much of a man who tried to wangle salvation by fulsome flattery. I should have thought the worship most pleasing to him was to do your best according to your lights.

“But that wasn’t the chief thing that bothered me: I couldn’t reconcile myself with that preoccupation with sin which, so far as I could tell, was never entirely absent from the monks’ thoughts. I’d known a lot of fellows in the air corps. Of course they got drunk when they got a chance, and had a girl whenever they could, and used foul language; we had one or two bad hats: one fellow was arrested for passing rubber checks and was sent to prison for six months; it wasn’t altogether his fault; he’d never had any money before, and when he got more than he’d ever dreamt of having, it went to his head. I’d known bad men in Paris, and when I got back to Chicago I knew more, but for the most part their badness was due to heredity, which they couldn’t help, or to their environment, which they didn’t choose: I’m not sure that society wasn’t more responsible for their crimes than they were. If I’d been God I couldn’t have brought myself to condemn one of them, not even the worst, to eternal damnation. Father Ensheim was broad-minded; he thought that hell was the deprivation of God’s presence, but if that is such an intolerable punishment that it can justly be called hell, can one conceive that a good God can inflict it? After all, He created men: if He so created them that it was possible for them to sin, it was because He willed it. If I trained a dog to fly at the throat of any stranger who came into my back yard, it wouldn’t be fair to beat him when he did so.

“If an all-good and all-powerful God created the world, why did He create evil? The monks said, so that man by conquering the wickedness in him, by resisting temptation, by accepting pain and sorrow and misfortune as the trials sent by God to purify him, might at long last be made worthy to receive His grace. It seemed to me like sending a fellow with a message to some place and just to make it harder for him you constructed a maze that he had to get through, then dug a moat that he had to swim, and finally built a wall that he had to scale. I wasn’t prepared to believe in an all-wise God who hadn’t common sense. I didn’t see why you shouldn’t believe in a God who hadn’t created the world, but had to make the best of the bad job he’d found, a being enormously better, wise, and greater than man, who strove with the evil he hadn’t made and who you hoped might in the end overcome it. But on the other hand, I didn’t see why you should.

“Those good fathers had no answers that satisfied either my head or my heart to the questions that perplexed me. My place was not with them. When I went to say good-bye to Father Ensheim he didn’t ask me whether I had profited by the experience in the way he had been so sure I would. He looked at me with inexpressible kindness.

“ ‘I’m afraid I’ve been a disappointment to you, Father,’ I said.

“ ‘No,’ he answered. ‘You are a deeply religious man who doesn’t believe in God. God will seek you out. You’ll come back. Whether here or elsewhere only God can tell.’ ”