The Razor’s Edge Chapter 5

MY LITTLE PARTY did not go too badly. Gray and Isabel arrived first; Larry and Sophie Macdonald five minutes later. Isabel and Sophie kissed each other warmly and Isabel and Gray congratulated her on her engagement. I caught the appraising sweep of the eyes with which Isabel took in Sophie’s appearance. I was shocked at it. When I saw her in that dive in the Rue de Lappe, outrageously painted, with hennaed hair, in the bright green coat, though she looked outrageous and was very drunk, there was something provocative and even basely alluring in her; but now she looked drab and, though certainly a year or two younger than Isabel, much older. She still had that gallant tilt of her head, but now, I don’t know why, it was pathetic. She was letting her hair go back to its natural color and it had the slatternly look that hair has when it has been dyed and left to grow. Except for a streak of red on her lips she had no make-up on. Her skin was rough and it had an unhealthy pallor. I remembered how vividly green her eyes had looked, but now they were pale and gray. She wore a red dress, obviously brand-new, with hat, shoes, and bag to match; I don’t pretend to know anything about women’s clothes, but I had a feeling that it was fussy and too elaborate for the occasion. On her breast was a piece of showy artificial jewelery such as you buy in the Rue de Rivoli. Beside Isabel, in black silk, with a string of cultured pearls round her neck and in a very smart hat, she looked cheap and dowdy.

I ordered cocktails, but Larry and Sophie refused them. Then Elliott arrived. His progress through the vast foyer was, however, impeded by the hands he had to shake and the hands he had to kiss as he saw one person after the other whom he knew. He behaved as though the Ritz were his private house and he were assuring his guests of his pleasure that they had been able to accept his invitation. He had been told nothing about Sophie except she had lost her husband and child in a motor accident and was now going to marry Larry. When at last he reached us he congratulated them both with the elaborate graciousness of which he was a master. We went in to the dining-room and since we were four men and two women I placed Isabel and Sophie opposite one another at the round table, with Sophie between Gray and myself; but the table was small enough for the conversation to be general. I had already ordered the luncheon and the wine waiter came along with the wine card.

“You don’t know anything about wine, my dear fellow,” said Elliott. “Give me the wine card, Albert.” He turned over the pages. “I drink nothing but Vichy myself, but I can’t bear to see people drink wine that isn’t perfect.”

He and Albert, the wine waiter, were old friends and after an animated discussion they decided on the wine I should give my guests. Then he turned to Sophie.

“And where are you going for your honeymoon, my dear?”

He glanced at her dress and an almost imperceptible raising of his eyebrows showed me that he had formed an unfavorable opinion of it.

“We’re going to Greece.”

“I’ve been trying to get there for ten years,” said Larry, “but somehow I’ve never been able to manage it.”

“It ought to be lovely at this time of the year,” said Isabel, with a show of enthusiasm.

She remembered, as I remembered, that that was where Larry proposed to take her when he wanted her to marry him. It seemed to be an idée fixe with Larry to go to Greece on a honeymoon.

The conversation flowed none too easily and I should have found it a difficult row to hoe if it hadn’t been for Isabel. She was on her best behavior. Whenever silence seemed to threaten us and I racked my brain for something fresh to talk about, she broke in with facile chatter. I was grateful to her. Sophie hardly spoke except when she was spoken to and then it seemed an effort to her. The spirit had gone out of her. You would have said that something had died in her and I asked myself if Larry wasn’t putting her to a strain greater than she could support. If as I suspected she had doped as well as drunk, the sudden deprivation must have worn her nerves to a frazzle. Sometimes I intercepted a look between them. In his I saw tenderness and encouragement, but in hers an appeal that was pathetic. It may be that Gray with his sweetness of disposition instinctively felt what I thought I saw, for he began to tell her how Larry had cured him of the headaches that had incapacitated him and went on to say how much he had depended on him and how much he owed him.

“Now I’m fit as a flea,” he continued. “As soon as ever I can get a job I’m going back to work. I’ve got several irons in the fire and I’m hoping to land something before long. Gosh, it’ll be good to be back home again.”

Gray meant well, but what he had said was perhaps not very tactful if, as I supposed, Larry to cure Sophie of her aggravated alcoholism had used with her the same method of suggestion—for that to my mind was what it was—that had been successful with Gray.

“You never have headaches now, Gray?” asked Elliott.

“I haven’t had one for three months and if I think one’s coming on I take hold of my charm and I’m all right.” He fished out of his pocket the ancient coin Larry had given him. “I wouldn’t sell it for a million dollars.”

We finished luncheon and coffee was served. The wine waiter came up and asked whether we wanted liqueurs. We all refused except Gray, who said he would have a brandy. When the bottle was brought Elliott insisted on looking at it.

“Yes, I can recommend it. That’ll do you no harm.”

“A little glass for Monsieur?” asked the waiter.

“Alas, it’s forbidden me.”

Elliott told him at some length that he was having trouble with his kidneys and that his doctor would not allow him to drink alcohol.

“A tear of zubrovka could do Monsieur no harm. It’s well known to be very good for the kidneys. We have just received a consignment from Poland.”

“Is that true? It’s hard to get nowadays. Let me have a look at a bottle.”

The wine waiter, a portly, dignified creature with a long silver chain round his neck, went away to fetch it, and Elliott explained that it was the Polish form of vodka but in every way superior.

“We used to drink it at the Radziwills when I stayed with them for the shooting. You should have seen those Polish princes putting it away; I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that they’d drink it by the tumbler without turning a hair. Good blood, of course; aristocrats to the tips of their fingers. Sophie, you must try it, and you too, Isabel. It’s an experience no one can afford to miss.”

The wine waiter brought the bottle. Larry, Sophie, and I refused to be tempted, but Isabel said she would like to try it. I was surprised, for habitually she drank very little and she had had two cocktails and two or three glasses of wine. The waiter poured out a glass of pale green liquid and Isabel sniffed it.

“Oh, what a lovely smell.”

“Hasn’t it?” cried Elliott. “That’s the herbs they put in it; it’s they that give it its delicate taste. Just to keep you company I’ll have a drop. It can’t hurt me for once.”

“It tastes divine,” said Isabel. “It’s like mother’s milk. I’ve never tasted anything so good.”

Elliott raised his glass to his lips.

“Oh, how it brings back the old days! You people who never stayed with the Radziwills don’t know what living is. That was the grand style. Feudal, you know. You might have thought yourself back in the Middle Ages. You were met at the station by a carriage with six horses and postilions. And at dinner a footman in livery behind every person.”

He went on to describe the magnificence and luxury of the establishment and the brilliance of the parties; and the suspicion, doubtless unworthy, occurred to me that the whole thing was a put-up job between Elliott and the wine waiter to give Elliott an opportunity to discourse upon the grandeur of this princely family and the host of Polish aristocrats he hobnobbed with in their castle. There was no stopping him.

“Another glass, Isabel?”

“Oh, I daren’t. But it is heavenly. I’m so glad to know about it; Gray, we must get some.”

“I’ll have some sent round to the apartment.”

“Oh, Uncle Elliott, would you?” cried Isabel enthusiastically. “You are so kind to us. You must try it, Gray; it smells of freshly mown hay and spring flowers, of thyme and lavender, and it’s soft on the palate and so comfortable, it’s like listening to music by moonlight.”

It was unlike Isabel to gush inordinately and I wondered if she was a trifle tight. The party broke up. I shook hands with Sophie.

“When are you going to be married?” I asked her.

“The week after next. I hope you’ll come to the wedding.”

“I’m afraid I shan’t be in Paris. I’m leaving for London tomorrow.”

While I was saying good-bye to the rest of my guests Isabel took Sophie aside and talked to her for a minute, then turned to Gray.

“Oh, Gray, I’m not coming home just yet. There’s a dress show at Molyneux’s and I’m taking Sophie to it. She ought to see the new models.”

“I’d love to,” said Sophie.

We parted. I took Suzanne Rouvier out to dinner that night and next morning started for England.