The Razor’s Edge Chapter 5

I CONTINUED TO SEE Suzanne Rouvier from time to time until an unexpected change in her condition caused her to leave Paris and she too went out of my life. One afternoon, roughly two years after the events that I have just related, having spent an hour pleasantly browsing over the books in the galleries of the Odéon and with nothing to do for a while, I thought I would call on Suzanne. I had not seen her for six months. She opened the door, a palette on her thumb and a paintbrush between her teeth, clad in a smock covered with paint.

“Ah, c’est vous, cher ami. Entrez, je vous en prie.”

I was a little surprised at this formal address, for generally we spoke to one another in the second person singular, but I stepped into the small room that served both as living-room and studio. There was a canvas on the easel.

“I’m so busy, I don’t know which way to turn, but sit down and I will go on with my work. I haven’t a moment to waste. You wouldn’t believe it, but I’m giving a one-man show at Meyerheim’s, and I have to get thirty canvases ready.”

“At Meyerheim’s? That’s wonderful. How on earth have you managed that?”

For Meyerheim is not one of those fly-by-night dealers in the Rue de la Seine who have a small shop that is always on the verge of closing for lack of money to pay the rent. Meyerheim has a fine gallery on the moneyed side of the Seine and he has an international reputation. An artist whom he takes up is well on the way to fortune.

“Monsieur Achille brought him to see my work and he thinks I have a lot of talent.”

“A d’autres, ma vieille,” I replied, which I think can best be translated by: “Tell that to the marines, old girl.”

She threw me a glance and giggled.

“I’m going to be married.”

“To Meyerheim?”

“Don’t be an idiot.” She put down her brushes and her palette. “I’ve been working all day and I deserve a rest. Let us have a little glass of porto and I’ll tell you all about it.”

One of the less agreeable features of French life is that you are apt to be pressed to drink a glass of vinegary port at an unseasonable hour. You must resign yourself to it. Suzanne fetched a bottle and two glasses, filled them, and sat down with a sigh of relief.

“I’ve been standing for hours and my varicose veins are aching. Well, it’s like this. Monsieur Achille’s wife died at the beginning of this year. She was a good woman and a good Catholic, but he did not marry her from inclination, he married her because it was good business, and though he esteemed and respected her it would be an exaggeration to say that her death left him inconsolable. His son is suitably married and is doing well in the firm and now a marriage has been arranged between his daughter and a count. Belgian it is true, but authentic, with a very pretty château in the neighborhood of Namur. Monsieur Achille thought his poor wife would not wish the happiness of two young people to be deferred on her account, so the marriage, notwithstanding that they are in mourning, is to take place as soon as the financial arrangements are completed. Evidently Monsieur Achille will be lonely in that large house at Lille, and needs a woman not only to minister to his comfort, but also to run the important establishment necessary to his position. To cut a long story short, he has asked me to take the place of his poor wife, for as he very reasonably said: ‘I married for the first time to eliminate competition between two rival firms, and I do not regret it, but there is no reason why I should not marry the second time to please myself.’ ”

“I congratulate you,” said I.

“Evidently I shall miss my liberty. I have enjoyed it. But one has to think of the future. Between ourselves, I don’t mind telling you that I shall never see forty again. Monsieur Achille is at a dangerous age; where should I be if he suddenly took it into his head to run after a girl of twenty? And then there is my daughter to think of. She is now sixteen and promises to be as beautiful as her father. I have given her a good education. But it is no good denying facts that stare you in the face; she has neither the talent to be an actress nor the temperament to be a whore like her poor mother: I ask you then, what has she to look forward to? A secretaryship or a job in the post office. Monsieur Achille has very generously agreed that she should live with us and has promised to give her a handsome dot so that she can make a good marriage. Believe me, my dear friend, people can say what they like, but marriage still remains the most satisfactory profession a woman can adopt. Obviously when my daughter’s welfare was concerned I could not hesitate to accept a proposition even at the cost of certain satisfactions which in any case, as the years go by, I should find it more difficult to obtain; for I must tell you that when I am married I propose to be of a ferocious virtue (d’une vertu farouche), for my long experience has convinced me that the only basis of a happy marriage is complete fidelity on both sides.”

“A highly moral sentiment, my pretty,” I said. “And will Monsieur Achille continue to make his fortnightly visits to Paris on business?”

“Oh, la la, for whom do you take me, my little one? The first thing I said to Monsieur Achille when he asked for my hand was: ‘Now listen, my dear, when you come to Paris for your board meetings it is understood that I come too. I am not going to trust you here by yourself.’ ‘You cannot imagine that I am capable of committing follies at my age,’ he answered. ‘Monsieur Achille,’ I said to him, ‘you are a man in the prime of life and no one knows better than I that you have a passionate temperament. You have a fine presence and a distinguished air. You have everything to please a woman; in short I think it better that you should not be exposed to temptation.’ In the end he agreed to give up his place on the board to his son, who will come to Paris instead of his father. Monsieur Achille pretended to think me unreasonable, but he was in point of fact enormously flattered.” Suzanne gave a sigh of satisfaction. “Life would be even harder for us poor women than it is if it were not for the unbelievable vanity of men.”

“All that is very fine, but what has it got to do with your having a one-man show at Meyerheim’s?”

“You are a little stupid today, my poor friend. Have I not told you for years that Monsieur Achille is a highly intelligent man? He has his position to think of and the people of Lille are censorious. Monsieur Achille wishes me to take the place in society which as the wife of a man of his importance it will be my right to occupy. You know what these provincials are, they love to poke their long noses in other people’s affairs, and the first thing they will ask is: who is Suzanne Rouvier? Well, they will have their answer. She is the distinguished painter whose recent show at the Meyerheim Gallery had a remarkable and well-deserved success. ‘Madame Suzanne Rouvier, the widow of an officer in the colonial infantry, has with the courage characteristic of our Frenchwomen for some years supported herself and a charming daughter deprived too soon of a father’s care by means of her talent, and we are happy to know that the general public will soon have the opportunity to appreciate the delicacy of her touch and the soundness of her technique at the galleries of the ever perspicacious Monsieur Meyerheim.’ ”

“What gibberish is that?” I said, pricking up my ears.

“That, my dear, is the advance publicity that Monsieur Achille is putting out. It will appear in every paper in France of any consequence. He has been magnificent. Meyerheim’s terms were onerous, but Monsieur Achille accepted them as if they were a batagelle. There will be a champagne d’honneur at the private view and the Minister of Fine Arts, who is under an obligation to Monsieur Achille, will open the exhibition with an eloquent speech in which he will dwell upon my virtues as a woman and my talent as a painter and which he will end with the declaration that the state, whose duty and privilege it is to reward merit, has bought one of my pictures for the national collections. All Paris will be there and Meyerheim is looking after the critics himself. He has guaranteed that their notices will be not only favorable but lengthy. Poor devils, they earn so little, it is a charity to give them an opportunity of making something on the side.”

“You’ve deserved it all, my dear. You’ve always been a good sort.”

“Et ta sœur,” she replied, which is untranslatable. “But that’s not all. Monsieur Achille has bought in my name a villa on the coast at St. Rafael, so I shall take my place in Lille society not only as a distinguished artist, but as a woman of property. In two or three years he is going to retire and we shall live on the Riviera like gentlefolks (comme des gens bien). He can paddle in the sea and catch shrimps while I devote myself to my art. Now I will show you my pictures.”

Suzanne had been painting for several years and she had worked through the manner of her various lovers to arrive at a style of her own. She still could not draw, but she had acquired a pretty sense of color. She showed me landscapes that she had painted while staying with her mother in the province of Anjou, bits of the gardens at Versailles and the forest at Fontainebleau, street scenes that had taken her fancy in the suburbs of Paris. Her painting was vaporous and unsubstantial, but it had a flowerlike grace and even a certain careless elegance. There was one picture that took my fancy and because I thought she would be pleased I offered to buy it. I cannot remember whether it was called A Glade in the Forest or The White Scarf and subsequent examination has left me uncertain to this day. I asked the price, which was reasonable, and said I would take it.

“You’re an angel,” she cried. “My first sale. Of course you can’t have it till after the show, but I’ll see that it gets into the papers that you’ve bought it. After all, a little publicity can do you no harm. I’m glad you’ve chosen that one, I think it’s one of my best.” She took a hand mirror and looked at the picture in it. “It has charm,” she said, screwing up her eyes. “No one can deny that. Those greens—how rich they are and yet how delicate! And that white note in the middle, that is a real find; it ties the picture together, it has distinction. There’s talent there, there can be no doubt of it, there’s real talent.”

I saw that she was already a long way on the road to being a professional painter.

“And now, my little one, we’ve gossiped long enough, I must get back to work.”

“And I must be going,” I said.

“À propos, is that poor Larry still among the Redskins?”

For that was the disrespectful way in which she was accustomed to refer to the inhabitants of God’s Own Country.

“So far as I know.”

“It must be hard for someone like him who is so sweet and gentle. If one can believe the movies life is terrible over there with all those gangsters and cowboys and Mexicans. Not that those cowboys haven’t physical attraction which says something to you. Oh, la la! But it appears that it is excessively dangerous to go out into the streets of New York without a revolver in your pocket.”

She came to the door to see me out and kissed me on both cheeks.

“We’ve had some good times together. Keep a good recollection of me.”