The Razor’s Edge Chapter 5

WHEN ISABEL ENTERED the drawing-room she found that some people had dropped in to tea. There were two American women who lived in Paris, exquisitely gowned, with strings of pearls round their necks, diamond bracelets on their wrists, and costly rings on their fingers. Though the hair of one was darkly hennaed and that of the other unnaturally golden they were strangely alike. They had the same heavily mascaraed eyelashes, the same brightly painted lips, the same rouged cheeks, the same slim figures, maintained at the cost of extreme mortification, the same clear, sharp features, the same hungry restless eyes; and you could not but be conscious that their lives were a desperate struggle to maintain their fading charms. They talked with inanity in a loud, metallic voice without a moment’s pause, as though afraid that if they were silent for an instant the machine would run down and the artificial construction which was all they were would fall to pieces. There was also a secretary from the American Embassy, suave, silent, for he could not get a word in, and very much the man of the world, and a small dark Rumanian prince, all bows and servility, with little darting black eyes and a clean-shaven swarthy face, who was forever jumping up to hand a teacup, pass a plate of cakes, or light a cigarette, and who shamelessly dished out to those present the most flattering, the most gross compliments. He was paying for all the dinners he had received from the objects of his adulation and for all the dinners he hoped to receive.

Mrs. Bradley, seated at the tea table and dressed to please Elliott somewhat more grandly than she thought suitable to the occasion, performed her duties as hostess with her usual civil but rather indifferent composure. What she thought of her brother’s guests I can only imagine. I never knew her more than slightly and she was a woman who kept herself to herself. She was not a stupid woman; in all the years she had lived in foreign capitals she had met innumerable people of all kinds and I think she summed them up shrewdly enough according to the standards of the small Virginian town where she was born and bred. I think she got a certain amount of amusement from observing their antics, and I don’t believe she took their airs and graces any more seriously than she took the aches and pains of the characters in a novel which she knew from the beginning (otherwise she wouldn’t have read it) would end happily. Paris, Rome, Peking had had no more effect on her Americanism than Elliott’s devout Catholicism on her robust, but not inconvenient, Presbyterian faith.

Isabel, with her youth, her strapping good looks, and her vitality, brought a breath of fresh air into that meretricious atmosphere. She swept in like a young earth goddess. The Rumanian prince leapt to his feet to draw forward a chair for her and with ample gesticulation did his shift. The two American ladies, with shrill amiabilities on their lips, looked her up and down, took in the details of her dress, and perhaps in their hearts felt a pang of dismay at being confronted with her exuberant youth. The American diplomat smiled to himself as he saw how false and haggard she made them look. But Isabel thought they were grand; she liked their rich clothes and expensive pearls and felt a twinge of envy for their sophisticated poise. She wondered if she would ever achieve that supreme elegance. Of course the little Rumanian was quite ridiculous, but he was rather sweet and even if he didn’t mean the charming things he said it was nice to listen to them. The conversation which her entrance had interrupted was resumed, and they talked so brightly, with so much conviction that what they were saying was worth saying, that you almost thought they were talking sense. They talked of the parties they had been to and the parties they were going to. They gossiped about the latest scandal. They tore their friends to pieces. They bandied great names from one to the other. They seemed to know everybody. They were in on all the secrets. Almost in a breath they touched upon the latest play, the latest dressmaker, the latest portrait painter, and the latest mistress of the latest premier. One would have thought there was nothing they didn’t know. Isabel listened with ravishment. It all seemed to her wonderfully civilized. This really was life. It gave her a thrilling sense of being in the midst of things. This was real. The setting was perfect. That spacious room with the Savonnerie carpet on the floor, the lovely drawings on the richly paneled walls, the petit-point chairs on which they sat, the priceless pieces of marquetry, commodes and occasional tables, every piece worthy to go into a museum; it must have cost a fortune, that room, but it was worth it. Its beauty, its discretion struck her as never before because she had still so vividly in her mind the shabby little hotel room, with its iron bed and that hard, comfortless chair in which she had sat, that room that Larry saw nothing wrong in. It was bare, cheerless, and horrid. It made her shudder to remember it.

The party broke up and Isabel was left with her mother and Elliott.

“Charming women,” said Elliott when he came back from seeing the two poor painted drabs to the door. “I knew them when they first settled in Paris. I never dreamed they’d turn out as well as they have. It’s amazing, the adaptability of our women. You’d hardly know now they were Americans and Middle West into the bargain.”

Mrs. Bradley, raising her eyebrows, without speaking gave him a look which he was too quick-witted not to understand.

“No one could ever say that of you, my poor Louisa,” he continued half acidly and half affectionately. “Though heaven knows, you’ve had every chance.”

Mrs. Bradley pursed her lips.

“I’m afraid I’ve been a sad disappointment to you, Elliott, but to tell you the truth I’m very satisfied with myself as I am.”

“Tout les goûts sont dans la nature,” Elliott murmured.

“I think I ought to tell you that I’m no longer engaged to Larry,” said Isabel.

“Tut,” cried Elliott. “That’ll put my luncheon table out for tomorrow. How on earth am I going to get another man at this short notice?”

“Oh, he’s coming to lunch all right.”

“After you’ve broken off your engagement? That sounds very unconventional.”

Isabel giggled. She kept her gaze on Elliott, for she knew her mother’s eyes were fixed upon her and she didn’t want to meet them.

“We haven’t quarreled. We talked it over this afternoon and came to the conclusion we’d made a mistake. He doesn’t want to come back to America; he wants to stop on in Paris. He’s talking of going to Greece.”

“What on earth for? There’s no society in Athens. As a matter of fact I never thought so much of Greek art myself. Some of that Hellenistic stuff has a certain decadent charm that’s rather attractive. But Phidias: no, no.”

“Look at me, Isabel,” said Mrs. Bradley.

Isabel turned and with a faint smile on her lips faced her mother. Mrs. Bradley gave her a scrutinizing stare, but all she said was, “H’m.” The girl hadn’t been crying, that she saw; she looked calm and composed.

“I think you’re well out of it, Isabel,” said Elliott. “I was prepared to make the best of it, but I never thought it a good match. He wasn’t really up to your mark, and the way he’s been behaving in Paris is a pretty clear indication that he’ll never amount to anything. With your looks and your connections you can aspire to something better than that. I think you’ve behaved in a very sensible manner.”

Mrs. Bradley gave her daughter a glance that was not devoid of anxiety.

“You haven’t done this on my account, Isabel?”

Isabel shook her head decidedly.

“No, darling, I’ve done it entirely on my own.”