The Razor’s Edge Chapter 3

ISABEL WAS MARRIED to Gray Maturin early in the June of the year after the termination of her engagement to Larry. Though Elliott hated leaving Paris at a moment when the season was at its height and he must miss a number of grand parties, his family feeling was too strong to allow him to neglect what he thought a social duty. Isabel’s brothers were unable to leave their distant posts and so it behoved him to make the irksome journey to Chicago to give his niece away. Remembering that French aristocrats had gone to the guillotine in all their finery, he made a special journey to London to get himself a new morning coat, a dove-gray double-breasted waistcoat, and a silk hat. On his return to Paris he invited me to come and see them on. He was in a state of perturbation because the gray pearl he usually wore in his necktie would not make any sort of effect against the pale gray tie he had chosen as suitable to the festive occasion. I suggested his emerald-and-diamond pin.

“If I were a guest—yes,” he said. “But in the particular position I shall occupy I feel that a pearl is indicated.”

He was much pleased with the marriage, which concorded with all his ideas of propriety, and he spoke of it with the unctuousness of a dowager duchess expressing herself on the suitability of a union between a scion of the La Rochefoucaulds with a daughter of the Montmorencys. As a visible mark of his satisfaction he was taking over as a wedding present, sparing no expense, a fine portrait by Nattier of a princess of the House of France.

It appeared that Henry Maturin had bought for the young couple a house in Astor Street so that they should be close to where Mrs. Bradley lived and not too far from his own palatial residence on Lake Shore Drive. By a happy chance, in which I suspected the deft complicity of Elliott, Gregory Brabazon was in Chicago at the time the purchase was made and the decoration was entrusted to him. When Elliott returned to Europe and, throwing in his hand so far as the season in Paris was concerned, came straight to London, he brought photographs of the result. Gregory Brabazon had let himself go. In the drawing-room he had gone all George the Second and it was very grand. In the library, which was to be Gray’s den, he had been inspired by a room in the Amalienburg Palace at Munich, and except that there was no place in it for books it was perfect. Save for the twin beds, Louis Quinze visiting Madame de Pompadour would have found himself perfectly at home in the bedroom Gregory had provided for this young American couple, but Isabel’s bathroom would have been an eye-opener to him; it was all glass—walls, ceiling and bath—and on the walls silver fish meandered profusely among gilded aquatic plants.

“Of course it’s a tiny house,” said Elliott, “but Henry told me the decoration set him back a hundred thousand dollars. A fortune to some people.”

The ceremony was performed with such pomp as the Episcopalian church could afford.

“Not like a wedding at Notre Dame,” he told me complacently, “but for a Protestant affair it didn’t lack style.”

The press had behaved very handsomely and Elliott negligently tossed the cuttings to me. He showed me photographs of Isabel, hefty but handsome in her wedding-dress, and Gray, a massive but fine figure of a man, a trifle self-conscious in his formal clothes. There was a group of the young couple with bridesmaids and another group with Mrs. Bradley in a sumptuous garment and Elliott holding his new top-hat with a grace that only he could have achieved. I asked how Mrs. Bradley was.

“She’s lost a good deal of weight and I don’t like her color, but she’s pretty well. Of course the whole thing was a strain on her, but now it’s all over she’ll be able to rest up.”

A year later Isabel was delivered of a daughter, to whom, following the fashion of the moment, she gave the name of Joan; and after an interval of two years she had another daughter whom, following another fashion, she called Priscilla.

One of Henry Maturin’s partners died and the other two under pressure soon afterward retired, so that he entered into sole possession of the business over which he had always exercised despotic control. He realized the ambition he had long entertained and took Gray into partnership with him. The firm had never been so prosperous.

“They’re making money hand over fist, my dear fellow,” Elliott told me. “Why, Gray at the age of twenty-five is making fifty thousand a year, and that’s only a beginning. The resources of America are inexhaustible. It isn’t a boom, it’s just the natural development of a great country.”

His chest swelled with an unwonted patriotic fervor.

“Henry Maturin can’t live forever, high blood pressure, you know, and by the time Gray’s forty he should be worth twenty million dollars. Princely, my dear fellow, princely.”

Elliott kept up a fairly regular correspondence with his sister and from time to time as the years went on passed on to me what she told him. Gray and Isabel were very happy, and the babies were sweet. They lived in a style that Elliott gladly admitted was eminently suitable; they entertained lavishly and were lavishly entertained; he told me with satisfaction that Isabel and Gray hadn’t dined by themselves once in three months. Their whirl of gaiety was interrupted by the death of Mrs. Maturin, that colorless, highborn lady whom Henry Maturin had married for her connections when he was making a place for himself in the city to which his father had come as a country bumpkin; and out of respect for her memory for a year the young couple never entertained more than six people to dinner.

“I’ve always said that eight was the perfect number,” said Elliott, determined to look on the bright side of things. “It’s intimate enough to permit of general conversation and yet large enough to give the impression of a party.”

Gray was wonderfully generous to his wife. On the birth of their first child he gave her a square-cut diamond ring and on the birth of her second a sable coat. He was too busy to leave Chicago much, but such holidays as he could take they spent at Henry Maturin’s imposing house at Marvin. Henry could deny nothing to the son whom he adored and one Christmas gave him a plantation in South Carolina so that he could get a fortnight’s duck-shooting in the season.

“Of course our merchant princes correspond to those great patrons of the arts of the Italian Renaissance who made fortunes by commerce. The Medici, for instance. Two kings of France were not too proud to marry the daughters of that illustrious family and I foresee the day when the crowned heads of Europe will seek the hands of our dollar princesses. What was it Shelley said? ‘The world’s great age begins anew, the golden years return.’ ”

Henry Maturin had for many years looked after Mrs. Bradley’s and Elliott’s investments and they had a well-justified confidence in his acumen. He had never countenanced speculation and had put their money into sound securities, but with the great increase in values they found their comparatively modest fortunes increased in a manner that both surprised and delighted them. Elliott told me that, without stirring a finger, he was nearly twice as rich in 1926 as he had been in 1918. He was sixty-five, his hair was gray, his face lined, and there were pouches under his eyes, but he bore his years gallantly; he was as slim and held himself as erectly as ever; he had always been moderate in his habits and taken care of his appearance. He had no intention of submitting to the ravages of time so long as he could have his clothes made by the best tailor in London, his hair dressed and his face shaved by his own particular barber, and a masseur to come in every morning to keep his elegant body in perfect condition. He had long forgotten that he had ever so far demeaned himself as to engage in a trade, and without ever saying so outright, for he was not so stupid as to tell a lie that might be found out, he was inclined to suggest that in his youth he had been in the diplomatic service. I must admit that if I had ever had occasion to draw a portrait of an ambassador I should without hesitation have chosen Elliott as my model.

But things were changing. Such of the great ladies who had advanced Elliott’s career as were still alive were well along in years. The English peeresses, having lost their lords, had been forced to surrender their mansions to daughters-in-law, and had retired to villas at Cheltenham or to modest houses in Regent’s Park. Stafford House was turned into a museum, Curzon House became the seat of an organization, Devonshire House was for sale. The yacht on which Elliott had been in the habit of staying at Cowes had passed into other hands. The fashionable persons who occupied the stage had no use for the elderly man that Elliott now was. They found him tiresome and ridiculous. They were still willing to come to his elaborate luncheon parties at Claridge’s but he was quick-witted enough to know that they came to meet one another rather than to see him. He could no longer pick and choose among the invitations that once had littered his writing-table, and much more often than he would have liked anyone to know he suffered the humiliation of dining by himself in the privacy of his suite. Women of rank in England, when a scandal has closed the doors of society to them, develop an interest in the arts and surround themselves with painters, writers, and musicians. Elliott was too proud thus to humiliate himself.

“The death duties and the war profiteers have ruined English society,” he told me. “People don’t seem to mind who they know. London still has its tailors, its bootmakers, and its hatters, and I trust they’ll last my time, but except for them it’s finished. My dear fellow, do you know that the St. Erth’s have women to wait at table?”

This he said when we were walking away from Carlton House Terrace after a luncheon party at which an unfortunate incident had occurred. Our noble host had a well-known collection of pictures, and a young American who was there, Paul Barton by name, expressed a desire to see them.

“You’ve got a Titian, haven’t you?”

“We had. It’s in America now. Some old Jew offered us a packet of money for it and we were damned hard up at the time, so my governor sold it.”

I noticed that Elliott, bristling, threw a venomous glance at the jovial marquess, and guessed that it was he who had bought the picture. He was furious at hearing himself, Virginian born and the descendent of a signatory of the Declaration, thus described. He had never in his life suffered so great an affront. And what made it worse was that Paul Barton was the object of his virulent hatred. He was a young man who had appeared in London soon after the war. He was twenty-three, blond, very good-looking, charming, a beautiful dancer, and had an ample fortune. He had brought a letter of introduction to Elliott, who with the kindness of heart natural to him had presented him to several of his friends. Not content with this he had given him some valuable hints on conduct. Delving back into his own experience, he had shown him how it was possible, by paying small attentions to old ladies and by lending a willing ear to distinguished men, however tedious, for a stranger to make his way in society.

But it was a different world that Paul Barton entered from that into which, a generation before, Elliott Templeton had penetrated by means of dogged perseverance. It was a world bent on amusing itself. Paul Barton’s high spirits, pleasing exterior, and engaging manner did for him in a few weeks what Elliott had achieved only after years of industry and determination. Soon he no longer needed Elliott’s help and took small pains to conceal the fact. He was pleasant to him when they met, but in an offhand way that deeply offended the older man. Elliott did not ask people to a party because he liked them, but because they helped to make it go, and since Paul Barton was popular he continued to invite him on occasion to his weekly luncheons; but the successful young man was generally engaged and twice he threw Elliott over at the last moment. Elliott had done this himself too often not to know it was because he had just had a more tempting invitation.

“I don’t ask you to believe it,” Elliott told me, fuming, “but it’s God’s truth that when I see him now he patronizes me. ME. Titian. Titian,” he spluttered. “He wouldn’t know a Titian if he saw one.”

I had never seen Elliott so angry and I guessed his wrath was caused by his belief that Paul Barton had asked about the picture maliciously, having somehow learned that Elliott had bought it, and would make a funny story at his expense out of the noble lord’s reply.

“He’s nothing but a dirty little snob, and if there’s one thing in the world I detest and despise it’s snobbishness. He’d have been nowhere except for me. Would you believe it, his father makes office furniture. Office furniture.” He put withering scorn into the two words. “And when I tell people he simply doesn’t exist in America, his origins couldn’t be more humble, they don’t seem to care. Take my word for it, my dear fellow, English society is as dead as the dodo.”

Nor did Elliott find France much better. There the great ladies of his youth, if still alive, were given over to bridge (a game he loathed), piety, and the care of their grandchildren. Manufacturers, Argentines, Chileans, American women separated or divorced from their husbands, inhabited the stately houses of the aristocracy and entertained with splendor, but at their parties Elliott was confounded to meet politicians who spoke French with a vulgar accent, journalists whose table manners were deplorable, and even actors. The scions of princely families thought it no shame to marry the daughters of shopkeepers. It was true Paris was gay, but with what a shoddy gaiety! The young, devoted to the mad pursuit of pleasure, thought nothing more amusing than to go from one stuffy little night club to another, drinking champagne at a hundred francs a bottle and dancing close-packed with the riff-raff of the town until five o’clock in the morning. The smoke, the heat, the noise made Elliott’s head ache. This was not the Paris that he had accepted thirty years before as his spiritual home. This was not the Paris that good Americans went to when they died.