The Razor’s Edge Chapter 6

I HAD COME BACK from the East and was spending some time in London just then. It was perhaps a fortnight after the events I have just related that Elliott called me up one morning. I was not surprised to hear his voice, for I knew that he was in the habit of coming to England to enjoy the fag end of the season. He told me that Mrs. Bradley and Isabel were with him and if I would drop in that evening at six for a drink they would be glad to see me. They were, of course, staying at Claridge’s. I was at that time living not far from there, so I strolled down Park Lane and through the quiet, dignified streets of Mayfair till I came to the hotel. Elliott had his usual suite. It was paneled in brown wood like the wood of a cigar box and furnished with quiet sumptuousness. He was alone when I was ushered in. Mrs. Bradley and Isabel had gone shopping and he was expecting them at any minute. He told me that Isabel had broken her engagement to Larry.

Elliott with his romantic and highly conventional sense of how people should comport themselves under given circumstances had been disconcerted by the young people’s behavior. Not only had Larry come to lunch the very day after the break, but he had acted as though his position were unchanged. He was as pleasant, attentive, and soberly gay as usual. He treated Isabel with the same comradely affectionateness with which he had always treated her. He seemed neither harassed, upset, nor woe-begone. Nor did Isabel appear dispirited. She looked as happy, she laughed as lightly, she jested as merrily as though she had not just taken a decisive and surely searing step in her life. Elliott could not make head or tail of it. From such scraps of their conversation as he caught he gathered that they had no intention of breaking any of the dates they had made. On the first opportunity he talked it over with his sister.

“It’s not decent,” he said. “They can’t run around together as if they were still engaged. Larry really should have more sense of propriety. Besides, it damages Isabel’s chances. Young Fotheringham, that boy at the British Embassy, is obviously taken with her; he’s got money and he’s very well connected; if he knew the coast was clear I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he made her an offer. I think you ought to talk to her about it.”

“My dear, Isabel’s twenty and she has a technique for telling you to mind your own business without offensiveness which I’ve always found very difficult to cope with.”

“Then you’ve brought her up extremely badly, Louisa. And besides, it is your business.”

“That is a point on which you and she would certainly differ.”

“You’re trying my patience, Louisa.”

“My poor Elliott, if you’d ever had a grown-up daughter you’d know that by comparison a bucking steer is easy to manage. And as to knowing what goes on inside her—well, it’s much better to pretend you’re the simple, innocent old fool she almost certainly takes you for.”

“But you talked the matter over with her?”

“I tried to. She laughed at me and told me there was really nothing to tell.”

“Is she cut up?”

“I wouldn’t know. All I do know is that she eats well and sleeps like a child.”

“Well, take my word for it, if you let them go on like this they’ll go off one of these days and get married without saying a word to anybody.”

Mrs. Bradley permitted herself to smile.

“It must be a relief to you to think that at present we’re living in a country where every facility is afforded to sexual irregularity and every obstacle put in the way of marriage.”

“And quite rightly. Marriage is a serious matter on which rest the security of the family and the stability of the state. But marriage can only maintain its authority if extraconjugal relations are not only tolerated but sanctioned. Prostitution, my poor Louisa—”

“That’ll do, Elliott,” interrupted Mrs. Bradley. “I’m not interested in your views on the social and moral values of promiscuous fornication.”

It was then he put forward a scheme that would interrupt Isabel’s continued intercourse with Larry, which was so repugnant to his sense of what was fitting. The Paris season was drawing to a close and all the best people were arranging to go to watering places or to Deauville before repairing for the rest of the summer to their ancestral châteaux in Touraine, Anjou, or Brittany. Ordinarily Elliott went to London at the end of June, but his family feeling was strong and his affection for his sister and Isabel sincere; he had been quite ready to sacrifice himself and remain in Paris, if they wished it, when no one who was anyone was there; but he found himself now in the agreeable situation of being able to do what was best for others and at the same time what was convenient to himself. He proposed to Mrs. Bradley that the three of them should go to London immediately, where the season was still in full swing and where new interests and new friends would distract Isabel’s mind from her unfortunate entanglement. According to the papers the great specialist on Mrs. Bradley’s disease was then in the British capital, and the desirability of consulting him would reasonably account for their precipitate departure and override any disinclination to leave Paris that Isabel might have. Mrs. Bradley fell in with the plan. She was puzzled by Isabel. She could not make up her mind whether she was as carefree as she seemed or whether, hurt, angry, or heartsick; she was putting on a bold front to conceal her wounded feelings. Mrs. Bradley could only agree with Elliott that it would do Isabel good to see new people and new places.

Elliott got busy on the telephone and when Isabel, who had been spending the day at Versailles with Larry, came home, he was able to tell her that he had made an appointment for her mother to see the celebrated doctor three days from then, that he had engaged a suite at Claridge’s and that they were starting on the next day but one. Mrs. Bradley watched her daughter while this intelligence was being somewhat smugly imparted to her by Elliott, but she did not turn a hair.

“Oh, darling, I’m so glad you’re going to see that doctor,” she cried with her usual rather breathless impetuosity. “Of course, you mustn’t miss the chance. And it’ll be grand going to London. How long are we going to stay?”

“It would be useless to come back to Paris,” said Elliott. “There won’t be a soul here in a week. I want you to stay with me at Claridge’s for the rest of the season. There are always some good balls in July and of course there’s Wimbledon. And then Goodwood and Cowes. I’m sure the Ellinghams will be glad to have us on their yacht for Cowes and the Bantocks always have a large party for Goodwood.”

Isabel appeared to be delighted and Mrs. Bradley was reassured. It looked as though she were not giving Larry a thought.

Elliott had just finished telling me all this when mother and daughter came in. I had not seen them for more than eighteen months. Mrs. Bradley was a little thinner than before and more pasty-faced; she looked tired and none too well. But Isabel was blooming. With her high color, the rich brown of her hair, her shining hazel eyes, her clear skin, she gave an impression of such youth, of so much enjoyment of the mere fact of being alive, that you felt half inclined to laugh with delight. She gave me the rather absurd notion of a pear, golden and luscious, perfectly ripe and simply asking to be eaten. She radiated warmth so that you thought that if you held out your hands you could feel its comfort. She looked taller than when I had last seen her, whether because she wore higher heels or because the clever dressmaker had cut her frock to conceal her youthful plumpness I don’t know, and she held herself with the graceful ease of a girl who has played outdoor games since childhood. She was in short sexually a very attractive young woman. Had I been her mother I should have thought it high time she was married.

Glad of the opportunity to repay some of the kindness I had received from Mrs. Bradley in Chicago, I asked them all three to come to a play with me one evening. I arranged to give a luncheon for them.

“You’ll be wise to get in at once, my dear fellow,” said Elliott. “I’ve already let my friends know we’re here and I presume that in a day or two we shall be fixed up for the rest of the season.”

I understood by this that Elliott meant that then they would have no time for the likes of me and I laughed. Elliott gave me a glance in which I discerned a certain hauteur.

“But of course you’ll generally find us here about six o’clock and we shall always be glad to see you,” he said graciously, but with the evident intention of putting me, as an author, in my humble place.

But the worm sometimes turns.

“You must try to get in touch with the St. Olpherds,” I said. “I hear they want to dispose of their Constable of Salisbury Cathedral.”

“I’m not buying any pictures just now.”

“I know, but I thought you might dispose of it for them.”

A steely glitter came into Elliott’s eyes.

“My dear fellow, the English are a great people, but they have never been able to paint and never will be able to paint. I am not interested in the English school.”