The Razor’s Edge Chapter 4

ELLIOTT WAS OF opinion that breakfast was a meal that you should share only with total strangers, and then only if there was no help for it, so Mrs. Bradley, somewhat against her will, and Isabel, far from displeased, were obliged to have theirs in their bedrooms. But Isabel, when she awoke, sometimes told Antoinette, the grand maid Elliott had engaged for them, to take her café au lait into her mother’s room so that she could talk to her while she had it. In the busy life she led it was the only moment of the day in which she could be alone with her. One such morning, when they had been in Paris nearly a month, after Isabel had done narrating the events of the previous night, most of which she and Larry had spent going the rounds of the night clubs with a party of friends, Mrs. Bradley let fall the question she had had in mind to ask ever since their arrival.

“When is he coming back to Chicago?”

“I don’t know. He hasn’t spoken of it.”

“Haven’t you asked him?”


“Are you scared to?”

“No, of course not.”

Mrs. Bradley, lying on a chaise longue, in a modish dressinggown that Elliott had insisted on giving her, was polishing her nails.

“What do you talk about all the time when you’re alone?”

“We don’t talk all the time. It’s nice to be together. You know, Larry was always rather silent. When we talk I think I do most of the talking.”

“What has he been doing with himself?”

“I don’t really know. I don’t think anything very much. I suppose he’s been having a good time.”

“And where is he living?”

“I don’t know that either.”

“He seems very reticent, doesn’t he?”

Isabel lit a cigarette and, as she blew a cloud of smoke from her nostrils, looked coolly at her mother.

“What exactly do you mean by that, Mamma?”

“Your uncle Elliott thinks he has an apartment and is living there with a woman.”

Isabel burst out laughing.

“You don’t believe that, do you?”

“No. I honestly don’t.” Mrs. Bradley looked reflectively at her nails. “Don’t you ever talk to him about Chicago?”

“Yes, a lot.”

“Hasn’t he given any sort of indication that he intends to come back?”

“I can’t say he has.”

“He will have been gone two years next October.”

“I know.”

“Well, it’s your business, dear, and you must do what you think right. But things don’t get any easier by putting them off.” She glanced at her daughter, but Isabel would not meet her eyes. Mrs. Bradley gave her an affectionate smile. “If you don’t want to be late for lunch you’d better go and have your bath.”

“I’m lunching with Larry. We’re going to some place in the Latin Quarter.”

“Enjoy yourself.”

An hour later Larry came to fetch her. They took a cab to the Pont St. Michel and sauntered up the crowded boulevard till they came to a café they liked the look of. They sat down on the terrace and ordered a couple of Dubonnets. Then they took another cab and went to a restaurant. Isabel had a healthy appetite and she enjoyed the good things Larry ordered for her. She enjoyed looking at the people sitting cheek by jowl with them, for the place was packed, and it made her laugh to see the intense pleasure they so obviously took in their food; but she enjoyed above all sitting at a tiny table alone with Larry. She loved the amusement in his eyes while she chattered away gaily. It was enchanting to feel so much at home with him. But at the back of her mind was a vague disquiet, for though he seemed very much at home too, she felt it was not so much with her as with the surroundings. She had been faintly disturbed by what her mother had said, and though seeming to prattle so guilelessly she observed his every expression. He was not quite the same as when he had left Chicago, but she couldn’t tell in what the difference lay. He looked exactly as she remembered him, as young, as frank, but his expression was changed. It was not that he was more serious, his face in repose had always been serious, it had a calmness that was new to her; it was as though he had settled something with himself and were at ease in a way he had never been before.

When they had finished lunch he suggested that they should take a stroll through the Luxembourg.

“No, I don’t want to go and look at pictures.”

“All right then, let’s go and sit in the gardens.”

“No, I don’t want to do that either. I want to go and see where you live.”

“There’s nothing to see. I live in a scrubby little room in a hotel.”

“Uncle Elliott says you’ve got an apartment and are living in sin with an artist’s model.”

“Come on then and see for yourself,” he laughed. “It’s only a step from here. We can walk.”

He took her through narrow, tortuous streets, dingy notwithstanding the streak of blue sky that showed between the high houses, and after a while stopped at a small hotel with a pretentious façade.

“Here we are.”

Isabel followed him into a narrow hall, on one side of which was a desk and behind it a man in shirt-sleeves, with a waistcoat in thin black and yellow stripes and a dirty apron, reading a paper. Larry asked for his key, and the man handed it to him from the rack immediately behind him. He gave Isabel an inquisitive glance that turned into a knowing smirk. It was clear that he thought she was going to Larry’s room for no honest purpose.

They climbed up two flights of stairs, on which was a threadbare red carpet, and Larry unlocked his door. Isabel entered a smallish room with two windows. They looked out on the gray apartment house opposite, on the ground floor of which was a stationer’s shop. There was a single bed in the room, with a night table beside it, a heavy wardrobe with a large mirror, an upholstered but straight-backed armchair, and a table between the windows on which were a typewriter, papers, and a number of books. The chimney-piece was piled with paper-bound volumes.

“You sit in the armchair. It’s not very comfortable, but it’s the best I can offer.”

He drew up another chair and sat down.

“Is this where you live?” asked Isabel.

He chuckled at the look on her face.

“It is. I’ve been here ever since I came to Paris.”

“But why?”

“It’s convenient. It’s near the Bibliothèque Nationale and the Sorbonne.” He pointed to a door she had not noticed. “It’s got a bathroom. I can get breakfast here and I generally dine at that restaurant where we had lunch.”

“It’s awfully sordid.”

“Oh no, it’s all right. It’s all I want.”

“But what sort of people live here?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Up in the attics a few students. Two or three old bachelors in government offices and a retired actress at the Odéon; the only other room with a bath is occupied by a kept woman whose gentleman friend comes to see her every other Thursday; I suppose a few transients. It’s a very quiet and respectable place.”

Isabel was a trifle disconcerted and because she knew Larry noticed it and was amused she was half inclined to take offense.

“What’s that great big book on the table?” she asked.

“That? Oh, that’s my Greek dictionary.”

“Your what?” she cried.

“It’s all right. It won’t bite you.”

“Are you learning Greek?”



“I thought I’d like to.”

He was looking at her with a smile in his eyes and she smiled back at him.

“Don’t you think you might tell me what you’ve been up to all the time you’ve been in Paris?”

“I’ve been reading a good deal. Eight or ten hours a day. I’ve attended lectures at the Sorbonne. I think I’ve read everything that’s important in French literature and I can read Latin, at least Latin prose, almost as easily as I can read French. Of course Greek’s more difficult. But I have a very good teacher. Until you came here I used to go to him three evenings a week.”

“And what is that going to lead to?”

“The acquisition of knowledge,” he smiled.

“It doesn’t sound very practical.”

“Perhaps it isn’t and on the other hand perhaps it is. But it’s enormous fun. You can’t imagine what a thrill it is to read the Odyssey in the original. It makes you feel as if you had only to get on tiptoe and stretch out your hands to touch the stars.”

He got up from his chair, as though impelled by an excitement that seized him, and walked up and down the small room.

“I’ve been reading Spinoza the last month or two. I don’t suppose I understand very much of it yet, but it fills me with exultation. It’s like landing from your plane on a great plateau in the mountains. Solitude, and an air so pure that it goes to your head like wine and you feel like a million dollars.”

“When are you coming back to Chicago?”

“Chicago? I don’t know. I haven’t thought of it.”

“You said that if you hadn’t got what you wanted after two years you’d give it up as a bad job.”

“I couldn’t go back now. I’m on the threshold. I see vast lands of the spirit stretching out before me, beckoning, and I’m eager to travel them.”

“What do you expect to find in them?”

“The answers to my questions.” He gave her a glance that was almost playful, so that except that she knew him so well, she might have thought he was speaking in jest. “I want to make up my mind whether God is or God is not. I want to find out why evil exists. I want to know whether I have an immortal soul or whether when I die it’s the end.”

Isabel gave a little gasp. It made her uncomfortable to hear Larry say such things, and she was thankful that he spoke so lightly, in the tone of ordinary conversation, that it was possible for her to overcome her embarrassment.

“But Larry,” she smiled. “People have been asking those questions for thousands of years. If they could be answered, surely they’d have been answered by now.”

Larry chuckled.

“Don’t laugh as if I’d said something idiotic,” she said sharply.

“On the contrary I think you’ve said something shrewd. But on the other hand you might say that if men have been asking them for thousands of years it proves that they can’t help asking them and have to go on asking them. Besides, it’s not true that no one has found the answers. There are more answers than questions, and lots of people have found answers that were perfectly satisfactory for them. Old Ruysbroek for instance.”

“Who was he?”

“Oh, just a guy I didn’t know at college,” Larry answered flippantly.

Isabel didn’t know what he meant, but passed on.

“It all sounds so adolescent to me. Those are the sort of things sophomores get excited about and then when they leave college they forget about them. They have to earn a living.”

“I don’t blame them. You see, I’m in the happy position that I have enough to live on. If I hadn’t I’d have had to do like everybody else and make money.”

“But doesn’t money mean anything to you?”

“Not a thing,” he grinned.

“How long d’you think all this is going to take you?”

“I wouldn’t know. Five years. Ten years.”

“And after that? What are you going to do with all this wisdom?”

“If I ever acquire wisdom I suppose I shall be wise enough to know what to do with it.”

Isabel clasped her hands passionately and leant forward in her chair.

“You’re so wrong, Larry. You’re an American. Your place isn’t here. Your place is in America.”

“I shall come back when I’m ready.”

“But you’re missing so much. How can you bear to sit here in a backwater just when we’re living through the most wonderful adventure the world has ever known? Europe’s finished. We’re the greatest, the most powerful people in the world. We’re going forward by leaps and bounds. We’ve got everything. It’s your duty to take part in the development of your country. You’ve forgotten, you don’t know how thrilling life is in America today. Are you sure you’re not doing this because you haven’t the courage to stand up to the work that’s before every American now? Oh, I know you’re working in a way, but isn’t it just an escape from your responsibilities? Is it more than just a sort of laborious idleness? What would happen to America if everyone shirked as you’re shirking?”

“You’re very severe, honey,” he smiled. “The answer to that is that everyone doesn’t feel like me. Fortunately for themselves, perhaps, most people are prepared to follow the normal course; what you forget is that I want to learn as passionately as—Gray, for instance, wants to make pots of money. Am I really a traitor to my country because I want to spend a few years educating myself? It may be that when I’m through I shall have something to give that people will be glad to take. It’s only a chance, of course, but if I fail I shall be no worse off than a man who’s gone into business and hasn’t made a go of it.”

“And what about me? Am I of no importance to you at all?”

“You’re of very great importance. I want you to marry me.”

“When? In ten years?”

“No. Now. As soon as possible.”

“On what? Mamma can’t afford to give me anything. Besides, she wouldn’t if she could. She’d think it wrong to help you to live without doing anything.”

“I wouldn’t want to take anything from your mother,” said Larry. “I’ve got three thousand a year. That’s plenty in Paris. We could have a little apartment and a bonne à tout faire. We’d have such a lark, darling.”

“But, Larry, one can’t live on three thousand a year.”

“Of course one can. Lots of people live on much less.”

“But I don’t want to live on three thousand a year. There’s no reason why I should.”

“I’ve been living on half that.”

“But how!”

She looked at the dingy little room with a shudder of distaste.

“It means I’ve got a bit saved up. We could go down to Capri for our honeymoon and then in the fall we’d go to Greece. I’m crazy to go there. Don’t you remember how we used to talk about traveling all over the world together?”

“Of course I want to travel. But not like that. I don’t want to travel second-class on steamships and put up at third-rate hotels, without a bathroom, and eat at cheap restaurants.”

“I went all through Italy last October like that. I had a wonderful time. We could travel all over the world on three thousand a year.”

“But I want to have babies, Larry.”

“That’s all right. We’ll take them along with us.”

“You’re so silly,” she laughed. “D’you know what it costs to have a baby? Violet Tomlinson had one last year and she did it as cheaply as she could and it cost her twelve hundred and fifty. And what d’you think a nurse costs?” She grew more vehement as one idea after another occurred to her. “You’re so impractical. You don’t know what you’re asking me to do. I’m young, I want to have fun. I want to do all the things that people do. I want to go to parties, I want to go to dances, I want to play golf and ride horseback. I want to wear nice clothes. Can’t you imagine what it means to a girl not to be as well dressed as the rest of her crowd? D’you know what it means, Larry, to buy your friends’ old dresses when they’re sick of them and be thankful when someone out of pity makes you a present of a new one? I couldn’t even afford to go to a decent hairdresser to have my hair properly done. I don’t want to go about in street-cars and omnibuses; I want to have my own car. And what d’you suppose I’d find to do with myself all day long while you were reading at the Library? Walk about the streets window-shopping or sit in the Luxembourg Garden seeing that my children didn’t get into mischief? We wouldn’t have any friends.”

“Oh, Isabel,” he interrupted.

“Not the sort of friends I’m used to. Oh yes, Uncle Elliott’s friends would ask us now and then for his sake, but we couldn’t go because I wouldn’t have the clothes to go in, and we wouldn’t go because we couldn’t afford to return their hospitality. I don’t want to know a lot of scrubby, unwashed people; I’ve got nothing to say to them and they’ve got nothing to say to me. I want to live, Larry.” She grew suddenly conscious of the look in his eyes, tender as it always was when fixed on her, but gently amused. “You think I’m silly, don’t you? You think I’m being trivial and horrid.”

“No, I don’t. I think what you say is very natural.”

He was standing with his back to the fireplace, and she got up and went up to him so that they were face to face.

“Larry, if you hadn’t a cent to your name and got a job that brought you in three thousand a year I’d marry you without a minute’s hesitation. I’d cook for you, I’d make the beds, I wouldn’t care what I wore, I’d go without anything, I’d look upon it as wonderful fun, because I’d know that it was only a question of time and you’d make good. But this means living in a sordid beastly way all our lives with nothing to look forward to. It means that I should be a drudge to the day of my death. And for what? So that you can spend years trying to find answers to questions that you say yourself are insoluble. It’s so wrong. A man ought to work. That’s what he’s here for. That’s how he contributes to the welfare of the community.”

“In short it’s his duty to settle down in Chicago and enter Henry Maturin’s business. Do you think that by getting my friends to buy the securities that Henry Maturin is interested in I should add greatly to the welfare of the community?”

“There must be brokers and it’s a perfectly decent and honorable way of earning a living.”

“You’ve drawn a very black picture of life in Paris on a moderate income. You know, it isn’t really like that. One can dress very nicely without going to Chanel. And all the interesting people don’t live in the neighborhood of the Arc de Triomphe and the Avenue Foch. In fact few interesting people do, because interesting people generally don’t have a lot of money. I know quite a number of people here, painters and writers and students, French, English, American, and what not, whom I think you’d find much more amusing than Elliott’s seedy marquises and long-nosed ducheses. You’ve got a quick mind and a lively sense of humor. You’d enjoy hearing them swap ideas across the dinner table even though the wine was only vin ordinare and you didn’t have a butler and a couple of footmen to wait on you.”

“Don’t be stupid, Larry. Of course I would. You know I’m not a snob. I’d love to meet interesting people.”

“Yes, in a Chanel dress. D’you think they wouldn’t catch on to it that you looked upon it as a sort of cultured slumming? They wouldn’t be at their ease, any more than you would, and you wouldn’t get anything out of it except to tell Emily de Montadour and Gracie de Château-Gaillard afterward what fun you’d had meeting a lot of weird bohemians in the Latin Quarter.”

Isabel slightly shrugged her shoulders.

“I dare say you’re right. They’re not the sort of people I’ve been brought up with. They’re not the sort of people I have anything in common with.”

“Where does that leave us?”

“Just where we started. I’ve lived in Chicago ever since I can remember. All my friends are there. All my interests are there. I’m at home there. It’s where I belong and it’s where you belong. Mamma’s ill and she’s never going to get any better. I couldn’t leave her even if I wanted to.”

“Does that mean that unless I’m prepared to come back to Chicago you don’t want to marry me?”

Isabel hesitated. She loved Larry. She wanted to marry him. She wanted him with all the power of her senses. She knew that he desired her. She couldn’t believe that when it came to a showdown he wouldn’t weaken. She was afraid, but she had to risk it.

“Yes, Larry, that’s just what it does mean.”

He struck a match on the chimney-piece, one of those old-fashioned French sulphur matches that fill your nostrils with an acrid odor, and lit his pipe. Then, passing her, he went over and stood by one of the windows. He looked out. He was silent for what seemed an endless time. She stood as she had stood before, when she was facing him, and looked in the mirror over the chimney-piece, but she did not see herself. Her heart was beating madly and she was sick with apprehension. He turned at last.

“I wish I could make you see how much fuller the life I offer you is than anything you have a conception of. I wish I could make you see how exciting the life of the spirit is and how rich in experience. It’s illimitable. It’s such a happy life. There’s only one thing like it, when you’re up in a plane by yourself, high, high, and only infinity surrounds you. You’re intoxicated by the boundless space. You feel such a sense of exhilaration that you wouldn’t exchange it for all the power and glory in the world. I was reading Descartes the other day. The ease, the grace, the lucidity. Gosh!”

“But Larry,” she interrupted him desperately, “don’t you see you’re asking something of me that I’m not fitted for, that I’m not interested in and don’t want to be interested in? How often have I got to repeat to you that I’m just an ordinary, normal girl. I’m twenty, in ten years I shall be old, I want to have a good time while I have the chance. Oh, Larry, I do love you so terribly. All this is trifling. It’s not going to lead you anywhere. For your own sake I beseech you to give it up. Be a man, Larry, and do a man’s work. You’re just wasting the precious years that others are doing so much with. Larry, if you love me you won’t give me up for a dream. You’ve had your fling. Come back with us to America.”

“I can’t, darling. It would be death to me. It would be the betrayal of my soul.”

“Oh, Larry, why d’you talk in that way? That’s the way hysterical, highbrow women talk. What does it mean? Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.”

“It happens to mean exactly what I feel,” he answered, his eyes twinkling.

“How can you laugh? Don’t you realize this is desperately serious? We’ve come to the cross-roads and what we do now is going to affect our whole lives.”

“I know that. Believe me, I’m perfectly serious.”

She sighed.

“If you won’t listen to reason there’s nothing more to be said.”

“But I don’t think it’s reason. I think you’ve been talking the most terrible nonsense all the time.”

“I?” If she hadn’t been so miserable she would have laughed. “My poor Larry, you’re as crazy as a coot.”

She slowly slipped her engagement ring off her finger. She placed it on the palm of her hand and looked at it. It was a square-cut ruby set in a thin platinum band and she had always liked it.

“If you loved me you wouldn’t make me so unhappy.”

“I do love you. Unfortunately sometimes one can’t do what one thinks is right without making someone else unhappy.”

She stretched out her hand on which the ruby was resting and forced a smile to her trembling lips.

“Here you are, Larry.”

“It’s no good to me. Won’t you keep it as a memento of our friendship? You can wear it on your little finger. Our friendship needn’t stop, need it?”

“I shall always care for you, Larry.”

“Then keep it. I should like you to.”

She hesitated for an instant, then put it on the finger of her right hand.

“It’s too large.”

“You can have it altered. Let’s go to the Ritz bar and have a drink.”

“All right.”

She was a trifle taken aback that it had all gone so easily. She had not cried. Nothing seemed to be changed except that now she wasn’t going to marry Larry. She could hardly believe that everything was over and done with. She resented a little the fact that they hadn’t had a terrific scene. They had talked it all over almost as coolly as though they had been discussing the taking a house. She felt let down, but at the same time was conscious of a slight sense of satisfaction because they had behaved in such a civilized way. She would have given a lot to know exactly what Larry was feeling. But it was always difficult to know that; his smooth face, his dark eyes were a mask that she was aware even she, who had known him for so many years, could not penetrate. She had taken off her hat and laid it on the bed. Now, standing before the mirror, she put it on again.

“Just as a matter of interest,” she said, arranging her hair, “did you want to break our engagement?”


“I thought it might be a relief to you.” He made no reply. She turned around with a gay smile on her lips. “Now I’m ready.”

Larry locked the door behind him. When he handed the key to the man at the desk he enveloped them both in a look of conniving archness. It was impossible for Isabel not to guess what he thought they had been up to.

“I don’t believe that old fellow would bet much on my virginity,” she said.

They took a taxi to the Ritz and had a drink. They spoke of indifferent things, without apparent constraint, like two old friends who saw one another every day. Though Larry was naturally silent, Isabel was a talkative girl, with an ample fund of chit-chat, and she was determined that no silence should fall between them that might be hard to break. She wasn’t going to let Larry think she felt any resentment toward him and her pride constrained her to act so that he should not suspect that she was hurt and unhappy. Presently she suggested that he should drive her home. When he dropped her at the door she said to him gaily:

“Don’t forget that you’re lunching with us tomorrow.”

“You bet your life I won’t.”

She gave him her cheek to kiss and passed through the porte cochère.