The Razor’s Edge Chapter 3

IN ALL BIG CITIES there are self-contained groups that exist without intercommunication, small worlds within a greater world that lead their lives, their members dependent upon one another for companionship, as though they inhabited islands separated from each other by an unnavigable strait. Of no city, in my experience, is this more true than of Paris. There high society seldom admits outsiders into its midst, the politicians live in their own corrupt circle, the bourgeoisie, great and small, frequent one another, writers congregate with writers (it is remarkable in André Gide’s Journal to see with how few people he seems to have been intimate who did not follow his own calling), painters hobnob with painters and musicians with musicians. The same thing is true of London, but in a less marked degree; there birds of a feather flock much less together, and there are a dozen houses where at the same table you may meet a duchess, an actress, a painter, a member of Parliament, a lawyer, a dressmaker, and an author.

The events of my life have led me at one time and another to dwell transitorily in pretty well all the worlds of Paris, even (through Elliott) in the closed world of the Boulevard St. Germain; but that which I liked best, better than the discreet circle that has its center in what is now called the Avenue Foch, better than the cosmopolitan crew that patronize Larue’s and the Café de Paris, better than the noisy sordid gaiety of Montmartre, is that section of which the artery is the Boulevard du Montparnasse. In my youth I spent a year in a tiny apartment near the Lion de Belfort, on the fifth floor, from which I had a spacious view of the cemetery. Montparnasse has still for me the tranquil air of a provincial town that was characteristic of it then. When I pass through the dingy narrow Rue d’Odessa I remember with a pang the shabby restaurant where we used to foregather to dine, painters and illustrators and sculptors, I, but for Arnold Bennett on occasion, the only writer, and sit late discussing excitedly, absurdly, angrily, painting and literature. It is still a pleasure to me to stroll down the boulevard and look at the young people who are as young as I was then and invent stories for myself about them. When I have nothing better to do I take a taxi and go and sit in the old Café du Dôme. It is no longer what it was then, the meeting place exclusively of Bohemia; the small tradesmen of the neighborhood have taken to visiting it, and strangers from the other side of the Seine come to it in the hope of seeing a world that has ceased to exist. Students come to it still, of course, painters and writers, but most of them are foreigners; and when you sit there you hear around you as much Russian, Spanish, German, and English as French. But I have a notion that they are saying very much the same sort of things as we said forty years ago, only they speak of Picasso instead of Manet and of André Breton instead of Guillaume Apollinaire. My heart goes out to them.

When I had been in Paris about a fortnight I was sitting one evening at the Dôme and since the terrace was crowded I had been forced to take a table in the front row. It was fine and warm. The plane trees were just bursting into leaf and there was in the air that sense of leisure, lightheartedness, and alacrity that was peculiar to Paris. I felt at peace with myself, but not lethargically, with exhilaration rather. Suddenly a man walking past me stopped, and with a grin that displayed a set of very white teeth said: “Hello!” I looked at him blankly. He was tall and thin. He wore no hat and he had a mop of dark brown hair that badly needed cutting. His upper lip and his chin were concealed by a thick brown beard. His forehead and his neck were deeply tanned. He wore a frayed shirt, without a tie, a brown, threadbare coat, and a pair of shabby gray slacks. He looked a bum and to the best of my belief I had never seen him before. I put him down for one of those good-for-nothings who have gone to the devil in Paris and I expected him to pull a hard-luck story to wheedle a few francs out of me for a dinner and a bed. He stood in front of me, his hands in his pockets, showing his white teeth, with a look of amusement in his dark eyes.

“You don’t remember me?” he said.

“I’ve never set eyes on you in my life.”

I was prepared to give him twenty francs, but I wasn’t prepared to let him get away with the bluff that we knew one another.

“Larry,” he said.

“Good God! Sit down.” He chuckled, stepped forward and took the empty chair at my table. “Have a drink.” I beckoned to the waiter. “How could you expect me to recognize you with all that hair on your face?”

The waiter came and he ordered an orangeade. Now that I looked at him I remembered the peculiarity of his eyes, which came from the black of the iris being as black as that of the pupil and which gave them at once intensity and opaqueness.

“How long have you been in Paris?” I asked.

“A month.”

“Are you going to stay?”

“For a while.”

While I asked these questions my mind was busy. I noticed that the cuffs of his trousers were ragged and that there were holes in the elbows of his coat. He looked as destitute as any beachcomber I had ever met in an Eastern port. It was hard in those days to forget the depression and I wondered whether the crash of ’twenty-nine had left him penniless. I didn’t much like the thought of that and not being a person to beat about the bush I asked outright:

“Are you down and out?”

“No, I’m all right. What makes you think that?”

“Well, you look as if you could do with a square meal and the things you’ve got on are only fit for the garbage can.”

“Are they as bad as all that? I never thought about it. As a matter of fact I have been meaning to get myself a few odds and ends, but I never seem able to get down to it.”

I thought he was shy or proud and I didn’t see why I should put up with that sort of nonsense.

“Don’t be a fool, Larry. I’m not a millionaire, but I’m not poor. If you’re short of cash let me lend you a few thousand francs. That won’t break me.”

He laughed outright.

“Thanks a lot, but I’m not short of cash. I’ve got more money than I can spend.”

“Notwithstanding the crash?”

“Oh, that didn’t affect me. Everything I had was in government bonds. I don’t know whether they went down in value, I never inquired, but I do know that Uncle Sam went on paying up on the coupons like the decent old party he is. In point of fact I’ve been spending so little during the last few years, I must have quite a bit in hand.”

“Where have you come from now then?”


“Oh, I heard you’d been there. Isabel told me. She apparently knows the manager of your bank in Chicago.”

“Isabel? When did you last see her?”


“She’s not in Paris?”

“She is indeed. She’s living in Elliott Templeton’s apartment.”

“That’s grand. I’d love to see her.”

Though I was watching his eyes pretty closely while we were exchanging these remarks I could discern only a natural surprise and pleasure, but no feeling more complicated.

“Gray’s there too. You know they’re married?”

“Yes, Uncle Bob—Dr. Nelson, my guardian—wrote and told me, but he died some years ago.”

It occurred to me that with this break in what appeared his only link with Chicago and his friends there he probably knew nothing of what had happened. I told him of the birth of Isabel’s two daughters, of the death of Henry Maturin and Louisa Bradley, of Gray’s ruin and of Elliott’s generosity.

“Is Elliott here too?”


For the first time in forty years Elliott was not spending the spring in Paris. Though looking younger he was now seventy and as usual with men of that age there were days when he felt tired and ill. Little by little he had given up taking any but walking exercise. He was nervous about his health and his doctor came to see him twice a week to thrust into an alternate buttock a hypodermic needle with the fashionable injection of the moment. At every meal, at home or abroad, he took from his pocket a little gold box from which he extracted a tablet which he swallowed with the reserved air of one performing a religious rite. His doctor had recommended him to take the cure at Montecatini, a watering-place in the north of Italy, and after this he proposed to go to Venice to look for a font of a design suitable to his Romanesque church. He was less unwilling to leave Paris unvisited since each year he found it socially more unsatisfactory. He did not like old people, and resented it when he was invited to meet only persons of his own age, and the young he found vapid. The adornment of the church he had built was now a main interest of his life and here he could indulge his ineradicable passion for buying works of art with the comfortable assurance that he was doing it to the glory of God. He had found in Rome an early altar of honey-colored stone and had been dickering in Florence for six months for a triptych of the Siennese school to put over it.

Then Larry asked me how Gray was liking Paris.

“I’m afraid he’s feeling rather lost here.”

I tried to explain to him how Gray had struck me. He listened to me with his eyes fixed on my face in a meditative, unblinking gaze that suggested to me, I don’t know why, that he was listening to me not with his ears, but with some inner more sensitive organ of hearing. It was queer and not very comfortable.

“But you’ll see for yourself,” I finished.

“Yes, I’d love to see them. I suppose I shall find the address in the phone book.”

“But if you don’t want to scare them out of their wits and drive the children into screaming hysterics, I think you’d be wise to have your hair cut and your beard shaved.”

He laughed.

“I’ve been thinking of it. There’s no object in making myself conspicuous.”

“And while you’re about it you might get yourself a new outfit.”

“I suppose I am a bit shabby. When I came to leave India I found that I had nothing but the clothes I stand up in.”

He looked at the suit I was wearing, and asked me who my tailor was. I told him, but added that he was in London and so couldn’t be of much use to him. We dropped the subject and he began to talk again of Gray and Isabel.

“I’ve been seeing quite a lot of them,” I said. “They’re very happy together. I’ve never had a chance of talking to Gray alone, and anyway I dare say he wouldn’t talk to me about Isabel, but I know he’s devoted to her. His face is rather sullen in repose and his eyes are harassed, but when he looks at Isabel such a gentle, kind look comes into them, it’s rather moving. I have a notion that all through their trouble she stood by him like a rock and he never forgets how much he owes her. You’ll find Isabel changed.” I didn’t tell him she was beautiful as she had never been before. I wasn’t sure he had the discernment to see how the pretty, strapping girl had made herself into the wonderfully graceful, delicate, and exquisite woman. There are men who are affronted by the aids that art can supply to feminine nature. “She’s very good to Gray. She’s taking infinite pains to restore his confidence in himself.”

But it was growing late and I asked Larry if he would come along the boulevard and dine with me.

“No, I don’t think I will, thanks,” he answered. “I must be off.”

He got up, nodded in a friendly way, and stepped out on to the pavement.