The Razor’s Edge Chapter 5

I WAS HAVING A WASH and a brush-up before starting out to go to the luncheon Elliott had invited me to, when they rang up from the desk to say that he was below. I was a little surprised, but as soon as I was ready went down.

“I thought it would be safer if I came and fetched you,” he said as we shook hands. “I don’t know how well you know Chicago.”

He had the feeling I have noticed in some Americans who have lived many years abroad that America is a difficult and even dangerous place in which the European cannot safely be left to find his way about by himself.

“It’s early yet. We might walk part of the way,” he suggested.

There was a slight nip in the air, but not a cloud in the sky, and it was pleasant to stretch one’s legs.

“I thought I’d better tell you about my sister before you meet her,” said Elliott as we walked along. “She’s stayed with me once or twice in Paris, but I don’t think you were there at the time. It’s not a big party, you know. Only my sister and her daughter Isabel and Gregory Brabazon.”

“The decorator?” I asked.

“Yes. My sister’s house is awful, and Isabel and I want her to have it done over. I happened to hear that Gregory was in Chicago and so I got her to ask him to lunch today. He’s not quite a gentleman, of course, but he has taste. He did Raney Castle for Mary Olifant and St. Clement Talbot for the St. Erths. The duchess was delighted with him. You’ll see Louisa’s house for yourself. How she can have lived in it all these years I shall never understand. For the matter of that, how she can live in Chicago I shall never understand either.”

It appeared that Mrs. Bradley was a widow with three children, two sons and a daughter; but the sons were much older and married. One was in a government post in the Philippines, and the other, in the diplomatic service as his father had been, was at Buenos Aires. Mrs. Bradley’s husband had occupied posts in various parts of the world, and after being first secretary in Rome for some years was made minister to one of the republics on the west coast of South America and had there died.

“I wanted Louisa to sell the house in Chicago when he passed over,” Elliott went on, “but she had a sentiment about it. It had been in the Bradley family for quite a long while. The Bradleys are one of the oldest families in Illinois. They came from Virginia in 1839 and took up land about sixty miles from what is now Chicago. They still own it.” Elliott hesitated a little and looked at me to see how I would take it. “The Bradley who settled here was what I suppose you might call a farmer. I’m not sure whether you know, but about the middle of last century, when the Middle West began to be opened up, quite a number of Virginians, younger sons of good family, you know, were tempted by the lure of the unknown to leave the fleshpots of their native state. My brother-in-law’s father, Chester Bradley, saw that Chicago had a future and entered a law office here. At all events he made enough money to leave his son very adequately provided for.”

Elliott’s manner, rather than his words, suggested that perhaps it was not quite the thing for the late Chester Bradley to have left the stately mansion and the broad acres he had inherited to enter an office, but the fact that he had amassed a fortune at least partly compensated for it. Elliott was none too pleased when on a later occasion Mrs. Bradley showed me some snapshots of what he called their “place” in the country, and I saw a modest frame house with a pretty little garden, but with a barn and a cowhouse and hog pens within a stone’s throw, surrounded by a desolate waste of flat fields. I couldn’t help thinking that Mr. Chester Bradley knew what he was about when he abandoned this to make his way in the city.

Presently we hailed a taxi. It put us down before a brownstone house. Narrow and rather high, and you ascended to the front door by a flight of steep steps. It was in a row of houses, in a street that led off Lake Shore Drive, and its appearance, even on that bright autumn day, was so drab that you wondered how anyone could feel any sentiment about it. The door was opened by a tall and stout Negro butler with white hair, and we were ushered into the drawing-room. Mrs. Bradley got up from her chair as we came in and Elliott presented me to her. She must have been a handsome woman when young, for her features, though on the large side, were good, and she had fine eyes. But her sallowish face, almost aggressively destitute of make-up, had sagged, and it was plain that she had lost the battle with the corpulence of middle age. I surmised that she was unwilling to accept defeat, for when she sat down she sat very erect in a straight-backed chair which the cruel armor of her corsets doubtless made more comfortable than an upholstered one. She wore a blue gown, heavily braided, and her high collar was stiff with whalebone. She had a fine head of white hair tightly marcelled and intricately dressed. Her other guest had not arrived and while waiting for him we talked of one thing and another.

“Elliott tells me that you came over by the southern route,” said Mrs. Bradley. “Did you stop in Rome?”

“Yes, I spent a week there.”

“And how is dear Queen Margherita?”

Somewhat surprised by her question, I said I didn’t know.

“Oh, didn’t you go and see her? Such a very nice woman. She was so kind to us when we were in Rome. Mr. Bradley was first secretary. Why didn’t you go and see her? You’re not like Elliott, so black that you can’t go to the Quirinal?”

“Not at all,” I smiled. “The fact is I don’t know her.”

“Don’t you?” said Mrs. Bradley as though she could hardly believe her ears. “Why not?”

“To tell you the truth authors don’t hobnob with kings and queens as a general rule.”

“But she’s such a sweet woman,” Mrs. Bradley expostulated, as though it were very hoity-toity of me not to know that royal personage. “I’m sure you’d like her.”

At this moment the door was opened and the butler ushered in Gregory Brabazon.

Gregory Brabazon, notwithstanding his name, was not a romantic creature. He was a short, very fat man, as bald as an egg except for a ring of black curly hair around his ears and at the back of his neck, with a red, naked face that looked as though it were on the point of breaking out into a violent sweat, quick gray eyes, sensual lips, and a heavy jowl. He was an Englishman and I had sometimes met him at bohemian parties in London. He was very jovial, very hearty, and laughed a great deal, but you didn’t have to be a great judge of character to know that his noisy friendliness was merely cover for a very astute man of business. He had been for some years the most successful decorator in London. He had a great booming voice and little fat hands that were wonderfully expressive. With telling gestures, with a spate of excited words he could thrill the imagination of a doubting client so that it was almost impossible to withhold the order he seemed to make it a favor to accept.

The butler came in again with a tray of cocktails.

“We won’t wait for Isabel,” said Mrs. Bradley as she took one.

“Where is she?” asked Elliott.

“She went to play golf with Larry. She said she might be late.”

Elliott turned to me.

“Larry is Laurence Darrell. Isabel is supposed to be engaged to him.”

“I didn’t know you drank cocktails, Elliott,” I said.

“I don’t,” he answered grimly, as he sipped the one he had taken, “but in this barbarous land of prohibition what can one do?” He sighed. “They’re beginning to serve them in some houses in Paris. Evil communications corrupt good manners.”

“Stuff and nonsense, Elliott,” said Mrs. Bradley.

She said it good-naturedly enough, but with a decision that suggested to me that she was a woman of character, and I suspected from the look she gave him, amused but shrewd, that she had no illusions about him. I wondered what she would make of Gregory Brabazon. I had caught the professional look he gave the room as he came in and the involuntary lifting of his bushy eyebrows. It was indeed an amazing room. The paper on the walls, the cretonne of the curtains and on the upholstered furniture were of the same pattern; on the walls were oil paintings in massive gold frames that the Bradleys had evidently bought when they were in Rome. Virgins of the school of Raphael, Virgins of the school of Guido Reni, landscapes of the school of Zuccarelli, ruins of the school of Pannini. There were trophies of their sojourn in Peking, blackwood tables too profusely carved, huge cloisonné vases, and there were the purchases they had made in Chile or Peru, obese figures in hard stone and earthenware vases. There was a Chippendale writing-table and a marquetry vitrine. The lamp-shades were of white silk on which some ill-advised artist had painted shepherds and shepherdesses in Watteau costumes. It was hideous and yet, I don’t know why, agreeable. It had a homely, lived-in air, and you felt that that incredible jumble had a significance. All those incongruous objects belonged together because they were part of Mrs. Bradley’s life.

We had finished our cocktails when the door was flung open and a girl came in, followed by a boy.

“Are we late?” she asked. “I’ve brought Larry back. Is there anything for him to eat?”

“I expect so,” smiled Mrs. Bradley. “Ring the bell and tell Eugene to put another place.”

“He opened the door for us. I’ve already told him.”

“This is my daughter, Isabel,” said Mrs. Bradley, turning to me. “And this is Laurence Darrell.”

Isabel gave me a rapid handshake and turned impetuously to Gregory Brabazon.

“Are you Mr. Brabazon? I’ve been crazy to meet you. I love what you’ve done for Clementine Dormer. Isn’t this room terrible? I’ve been trying to get Mamma to do something about it for years and now you’re in Chicago it’s our chance. Tell me honestly what you think of it.”

I knew that was the last thing Brabazon would do. He gave Mrs. Bradley a quick glance, but her impassive face told him nothing. He decided that Isabel was the person who counted and broke into a boisterous laugh.

“I’m sure it’s very comfortable and all that,” he said, “but if you ask me point-blank, well, I do think it’s pretty awful.”

Isabel was a tall girl with the oval face, straight nose, fine eyes, and full mouth that appeared to be characteristic of the family. She was comely though on the fat side, which I ascribed to her age, and I guessed that she would fine down as she grew older. She had strong, good hands, though they also were a trifle fat, and her legs, displayed by her short skirt, were fat too. She had a good skin and a high color, which exercise and the drive back in an open car had doubtless heightened. She was sparkling and vivacious. Her radiant health, her playful gaiety, her enjoyment of life, the happiness you felt in her were exhilarating. She was so natural that she made Elliott, for all his elegance, look rather tawdry. Her freshness made Mrs. Bradley, with her pasty, lined face, look tired and old.

We went down to lunch. Gregory Brabazon blinked when he saw the dining-room. The walls were papered with a dark red paper that imitated stuff and hung with portraits of grim, sour-faced men and women, very badly painted, who were the immediate forebears of the late Mr. Bradley. He was there, too, with a heavy moustache, very stiff in a frock coat and a white starched collar. Mrs. Bradley, painted by a French artist of the nineties, hung over the chimney-piece in full evening dress of pale blue satin with pearls around her neck and a diamond star in her hair. With one bejeweled hand she fingered a lace scarf so carefully painted that you could count every stitch and with the other negligently held an ostrich-feather fan. The furniture, of black oak, was overwhelming.

“What do you think of it?” asked Isabel of Gregory Brabazon as we sat down.

“I’m sure it cost a great deal of money,” he answered.

“It did,” said Mrs. Bradley. “It was given to us as a wedding present by Mr. Bradley’s father. It’s been all over the world with us. Lisbon, Peking, Quito, Rome. Dear Queen Margherita admired it very much.”

“What would you do if it was yours?” Isabel asked Brabazon, but before he could answer, Elliott answered for him.

“Burn it,” he said.

The three of them began to discuss how they would treat the room. Elliott was all for Louis Quinze, while Isabel wanted a refectory table and Italian chairs. Brabazon thought Chippendale would be more in keeping with Mrs. Bradley’s personality.

“I always think that’s so important,” he said, “a person’s personality.” He turned to Elliott. “Of course you know the Duchess of Olifant?”

“Mary? She’s one of my most intimate friends.”

“She wanted me to do her dining-room and the moment I saw her I said George the Second.”

“How right you were. I noticed the room the last time I dined there. It’s in perfect taste.”

So the conversation went on. Mrs. Bradley listened, but you could not tell what she was thinking. I said little, and Isabel’s young man, Larry, I’d forgotten his surname, said nothing at all. He was sitting on the other side of the table between Brabazon and Elliott and every now and then I glanced at him. He looked very young. He was about the same height as Elliott, just under six feet, thin and loose-limbed. He was a pleasant-looking boy, neither handsome nor plain, rather shy and in no way remarkable. I was interested in the fact though, so far as I could remember, he hadn’t said half a dozen words since entering the house, he seemed perfectly at ease and in a curious way appeared to take part in the conversation without opening his mouth. I noticed his hands. They were long, but not large for his size, beautifully shaped and at the same time strong. I thought that a painter would be pleased to paint them. He was slightly built but not delicate in appearance; on the contrary I should have said he was wiry and resistant. His face, grave in repose, was tanned, but otherwise there was little color in it, and his features, though regular enough, were undistinguished. He had rather high cheekbones and his temples were hollow. He had dark brown hair with a slight wave in it. His eyes looked larger than they really were because they were deep set in the orbits and his lashes were thick and long. His eyes were peculiar, not of the rich hazel that Isabel shared with her mother and her uncle, but so dark that the iris made one color with the pupil, and this gave them a peculiar intensity. He had a natural grace that was attractive and I could see why Isabel had been taken by him. Now and again her glance rested on him for a moment and I seemed to see in her expression not only love but fondness. Their eyes met and there was in his a tenderness that was beautiful to see. There is nothing more touching than the sight of young love, and I, a middle-aged man then, envied them, but at the same time, I couldn’t imagine why, I felt sorry for them. It was silly because, so far as I knew, there was no impediment to their happiness; their circumstances seemed easy and there was no reason why they should not marry and live happily ever afterward.

Isabel, Elliott, and Gregory Brabazon went on talking of the redecoration of the house, trying to get out of Mrs. Bradley at least an admission that something should be done, but she only smiled amiably.

“You mustn’t try to rush me. I want to have time to think it over.” She turned to the boy. “What do you think of it all, Larry?”

He looked round the table, a smile in his eyes.

“I don’t think it matters one way or the other,” he said.

“You beast, Larry,” cried Isabel. “I particularly told you to back us up.”

“If Aunt Louisa is happy with what she’s got, what is the object of changing?”

His question was so much to the point and so sensible that it made me laugh. He looked at me then and smiled.

“And don’t grin like that just because you’ve made a very stupid remark,” said Isabel.

But he only grinned the more, and I noticed then that he had small and white and regular teeth. There was something in the look he gave Isabel that made her flush and catch her breath. Unless I was mistaken she was madly in love with him, but I don’t know what it was that gave me the feeling that in her love for him there was also something maternal. It was a little unexpected in so young a girl. With a soft smile on her lips she directed her attention once more to Gregory Brabazon.

“Don’t pay any attention to him. He’s very stupid and entirely uneducated. He doesn’t know anything about anything except flying.”

“Flying?” I said.

“He was an aviator in the war.”

“I should have thought he was too young to have been in the war.”

“He was. Much too young. He behaved very badly. He ran away from school and went to Canada. By lying his head off he got them to believe he was eighteen and got into the air corps. He was fighting in France at the time of the armistice.”

“You’re boring your mother’s guests, Isabel,” said Larry.

“I’ve known him all my life, and when he came back he looked lovely in his uniform, with all those pretty ribbons on his tunic, so I just sat on his doorstep, so to speak, till he consented to marry me just to have a little peace and quiet. The competition was awful.”

“Really, Isabel,” said her mother.

Larry leant over toward me.

“I hope you don’t believe a word she says. Isabel isn’t a bad girl really, but she’s a liar.”

Luncheon was finished and soon after Elliott and I left. I had told him before that I was going to the museum to look at the pictures and he said he would take me. I don’t particularly like going to a gallery with anyone else, but I could not say I would sooner go alone, so I accepted his company. On our way we spoke of Isabel and Larry.

“It’s rather charming to see two young things so much in love with one another,” I said.

“They’re much too young to marry.”

“Why? It’s such fun to be young and in love and to marry.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. She’s nineteen and he’s only just twenty. He hasn’t got a job. He has a tiny income, three thousand a year Louisa tells me, and Louisa’s not a rich woman by any manner of means. She needs all she has.”

“Well, he can get a job.”

“That’s just it. He’s not trying to. He seems to be quite satisfied to do nothing.”

“I dare say he had a pretty rough time in the war. He may want a rest.”

“He’s been resting for a year. That’s surely long enough.”

“I thought he seemed a nice sort of boy.”

“Oh, I have nothing against him. He’s quite well born and all that sort of thing. His father came from Baltimore. He was assistant professor of Romance languages at Yale or something like that. His mother was a Philadelphian of old Quaker stock.”

“You speak of them in the past. Are they dead?”

“Yes, his mother died in childbirth and his father about twelve years ago. He was brought up by an old college friend of his father’s who’s a doctor at Marvin. That’s how Louisa and Isabel knew him.”

“Where’s Marvin?”

“That’s where the Bradley place is. Louisa spends the summer there. She was sorry for the child. Dr. Nelson’s a bachelor and didn’t know the first thing about bringing up a boy. It was Louisa who insisted that he should be sent to St. Paul’s and she always had him out here for his Christmas vacation.” Elliott shrugged a Gallic shoulder. “I should have thought she would foresee the inevitable result.”

We had now arrived at the museum and our attention was directed to the pictures. Once more I was impressed by Elliott’s knowledge and taste. He shepherded me around the rooms as though I were a group of tourists, and no professor of art could have discoursed more instructively than he did. Making up my mind to come again by myself when I could wander at will and have a good time, I submitted; after a while he looked at his watch.

“Let us go,” he said. “I never spend more than one hour in a gallery. That is as long as one’s power of appreciation persists. We will finish another day.”

I thanked him warmly when we separated. I went my way perhaps a wiser but certainly a peevish man.

When I was saying good-bye to Mrs. Bradley she told me that next day Isabel was having a few of her young friends in to dinner and they were going on to dance afterward, and if I would come Elliott and I could have a talk when they had gone.

“You’ll be doing him a kindness,” she added. “He’s been abroad so long, he feels rather out of it here. He doesn’t seem able to find anyone he has anything in common with.”

I accepted and before we parted on the museum steps Elliott told me he was glad I had.

“I’m like a lost soul in this great city,” he said. “I promised Louisa to spend six weeks with her, we hadn’t seen one another since 1912, but I’m counting the days till I can get back to Paris. It’s the only place in the world for a civilized man to live. My dear fellow, d’you know how they look upon me here? They look upon me as a freak. Savages.”

I laughed and left.