The Razor’s Edge Chapter 7

I HAD BEEN PUT UP for the length of my stay at a club which possessed a good library, and next morning I went there to look at one or two of the university magazines that for the person who does not subscribe to them have always been rather hard to come by. It was early and there was only one other person there. He was seated in a big leather chair absorbed in a book. I was surprised to see it was Larry. He was the last person I should have expected to find in such a place. He looked up as I passed, recognized me, and made as if to get up.

“Don’t move,” I said, and then almost automatically: “What are you reading?”

“A book,” he said, with a smile, but a smile so engaging that the rebuff of his answer was in no way offensive.

He closed it and looking at me with his peculiarly opaque eyes held it so that I couldn’t see the title.

“Did you have a good time last night?” I asked.

“Wonderful. Didn’t get home till five.”

“It’s very strenuous of you to be here so bright and early.”

“I come here a good deal. Generally I have the place to myself at this time.”

“I won’t disturb you.”

“You’re not disturbing me,” he said, smiling again, and now it occurred to me that he had a smile of great sweetness. It was not a brilliant, flashing smile, it was a smile that lit his face as with an inner light. He was sitting in an alcove made by jutting-out shelves and there was a chair next to him. He put his hand on the arm. “Won’t you sit down for a minute?”

“All right.”

He handed me the book he was holding.

“That’s what I was reading.”

I looked at it and saw it was William James’s Principles of Psychology. It is, of course, a standard work and important in the history of the science with which it deals; it is moreover exceedingly readable; but it is not the sort of book I should have expected to see in the hands of a very young man, an aviator, who had been dancing till five in the morning.

“Why are you reading this?” I asked.

“I’m very ignorant.”

“You’re also very young,” I smiled.

He did not speak for so long a time that I began to find the silence awkward and I was on the point of getting up and looking for the magazines I had come to find. But I had a feeling that he wanted to say something. He looked into vacancy, his face grave and intent, and seemed to meditate. I waited. I was curious to know what it was all about. When he began to speak it was as though he were continuing the conversation without awareness of that long silence.

“When I came back from France they all wanted me to go to college. I couldn’t. After what I’d been through I felt I couldn’t go back to school. I learned nothing at my prep school anyway. I felt I couldn’t enter into a freshman’s life. They wouldn’t have liked me. I didn’t want to act a part I didn’t feel. And I didn’t think the instructors would teach me the sort of things I wanted to know.”

“Of course I know this is no business of mine,” I answered, “but I’m not convinced you were right. I think I understand what you mean and I can see that, after being in the war for two years, it would have been rather a nuisance to become the sort of glorified schoolboy an undergraduate is during his first and second years. I can’t believe they wouldn’t have liked you. I don’t know much about American universities, but I don’t believe American undergraduates are very different from English ones, perhaps a little more boisterous and a little more inclined to horse-play, but on the whole very decent, sensible boys, and I take it that if you don’t want to lead their lives they’re quite willing, if you exercise a little tact, to let you lead yours. I never went to Cambridge as my brothers did. I had the chance, but I refused it. I wanted to get out into the world. I’ve always regretted it. I think it would have saved me a lot of mistakes. You learn more quickly under the guidance of experienced teachers. You waste a lot of time going down blind alleys if you have no one to lead you.”

“You may be right. I don’t mind if I make mistakes. It may be that in one of the blind alleys I may find something to my purpose.”

“What is your purpose?”

He hesitated a moment.

“That’s just it. I don’t quite know it yet.”

I was silent, for there didn’t seem to be anything to say in answer to that. I, who from a very early age have always had before me a clear and definite purpose, was inclined to feel impatient, but I chid myself; I had what I can only call an intuition that there was in the soul of that boy some confused striving, whether of half-thought-out ideas or of dimly felt emotions I could not tell, which filled him with a restlessness that urged him he did not know whither. He strangely excited my sympathy. I had never before heard him speak much and it was only now that I became conscious of the melodiousness of his voice. It was very persuasive. It was like balm. When I considered that, his engaging smile, and the expressiveness of his very black eyes I could well understand that Isabel was in love with him. There was indeed something very lovable about him. He turned his head and looked at me without embarrassment, but with an expression in his eyes that was at once scrutinizing and amused.

“Am I right in thinking that after we all went off to dance last night you talked about me?”

“Part of the time.”

“I thought that was why Uncle Bob had been pressed to come to dinner. He hates going out.”

“It appears that you’ve got the offer of a very good job.”

“A wonderful job.”

“Are you going to take it?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t want to.”

I was butting into an affair that was no concern of mine, but I had a notion that just because I was a stranger from a foreign country Larry was not disinclined to talk to me about it.

“Well, you know when people are no good at anything else they become writers,” I said, with a chuckle.

“I have no talent.”

“Then what do you want to do?”

He gave me his radiant, fascinating smile.

“Loaf,” he said.

I had to laugh.

“I shouldn’t have thought Chicago the best place in the world to do that in,” I said. “Anyhow, I’ll leave you to your reading. I want to have a look at the Yale Quarterly.”

I got up. When I left the library Larry was still absorbed in William James’s book. I lunched by myself at the club and since it was quiet in the library went back there to smoke my cigar and idle an hour or two away, reading and writing letters. I was surprised to see Larry still immersed in his book. He looked as if he hadn’t moved since I left him. He was still there when about four I went away. I was struck by his evident power of concentration. He had neither noticed me go nor come. I had various things to do during the afternoon and did not go back to the Blackstone till it was time to change for the dinner party I was going to. On my way I was seized with an impulse of curiosity. I dropped into the club once more and went into the library. There were quite a number of people there then, reading the papers and what not. Larry was still sitting in the same chair, intent on the same book. Odd!