The Razor’s Edge Chapter 5

IT WAS GETTING late. The crowd had thinned out and only a few tables were occupied. The people who had been sitting there because they had nothing else to do had gone home. Those who had been to a play or a picture and had come to have a drink or a bite to eat had left. Now and then latecomers straggled in. I saw a tall man, evidently an Englishman, come in with a young rough. He had the long, washed-out face with thinning wavy hair of the British intellectual and evidently suffered from the delusion common to many that when you are abroad no one you know at home can possibly recognize you. The young rough greedily ate a great plate of sandwiches while his companion watched him with amused benevolence. What an appetite! I saw one man whom I knew by sight because he went to the same barber’s at Nice. He was stout, elderly, and gray-haired, with a puffy red face and heavy pouches under his eyes. He was a Middle Western banker who had left his native city after the crash rather than face an investigation. I do not know whether he had committed any crime; if he had, he was perhaps too small fry to put the authorities to the trouble of getting him extradited. He had a pompous manner and the false heartiness of a cheap politician, but his eyes were frightened and unhappy. He was never quite drunk and never quite sober. He was always with some harlot who was obviously getting all she could out of him, and he was now with two painted middle-aged women who treated him with a mockery they didn’t trouble to conceal while he, only half understanding what they said, giggled fatuously. The gay life! I wondered if he wouldn’t have done better to stay at home and take his medicine. One day his women would have squeezed him dry and then there would be nothing left for him but the river or an overdose of veronal.

Between two and three there was a slight increase of custom and I supposed that the night clubs were closing their doors. A bunch of young Americans strolled in, very drunk and noisy, but they didn’t stay long. Not far from us two fat, somber women, tightly fitted into mannish clothes, sat side by side, drinking whiskies and sodas in gloomy silence. A party in evening dress put in an appearance, what they call in French gens du monde, who had evidently been doing the rounds and now wanted a spot of supper to finish up with. They came and went. My curiosity had been excited by a little man, quietly dressed, who had been sitting there for an hour or more with a glass of beer in front of him reading the paper. He had a neat black beard and wore pince-nez. At last a woman came in and joined him. He gave her a nod devoid of friendliness and I conjectured that he was annoyed because she had kept him waiting. She was young, rather shabby, but heavily painted, and looked very tired. Presently I noticed her take something out of her bag and hand it to him. Money. He looked at it and his face darkened. He addressed her in words I could not hear, but from her manner I guessed they were abusive, and she seemed to be making excuses. Suddenly he leant over and gave her a resounding smack on the cheek. She gave a cry and began to sob. The manager, drawn by the disturbance, came up to see what was the matter. It looked as if he were telling them to get out if they couldn’t behave. The girl turned on him and shrilly, so that one heard every word, told him in foul language to mind his own business.

“If he slapped my face it’s because I deserved it,” she cried.

Women! I had always thought that to live on a woman’s immoral earnings you must be a strapping flashy fellow with sex appeal, ready with your knife or your gun; it was astonishing that such a puny creature, who might have been a lawyer’s clerk from his appearance, could get a footing in such an overcrowded profession.