The Razor’s Edge Chapter 7

I MENTIONED SUZANNE ROUVIER at the beginning of this book. I had known her for ten or twelve years and at the date which I have now reached she must have been not far from forty. She was not beautiful; in fact she was rather ugly. She was tall for a Frenchwoman, with a short body, long legs, and long arms, and she held herself gawkily as though she didn’t know how to cope with the length of her limbs. The color of her hair changed according to her whim, but most often it was a reddish brown. She had a small square face, with very prominent cheekbones vividly rouged, and a large mouth with heavily painted lips. None of this sounds attractive, but it was; it is true that she had a good skin, strong white teeth, and big, vividly blue eyes. They were her best feature, and she made the most of them by painting her eyelashes and her eyelids. She had a shrewd, roving, friendly look and she combined great good nature with a proper degree of toughness. In the life she had led she needed to be tough. Her mother, the widow of a small official in the government, had on his death returned to her native village in Anjou to live on her pension, and when Suzanne was fifteen she apprenticed her to a dressmaker in the neighboring town, which was near enough for her to be able to come home on Sundays. It was during her fortnight’s holiday, when she had reached the age of seventeen, that she was seduced by an artist who was spending his summer in the village to paint landscape. She already knew very well that without a penny to bless herself with her chance of marriage was remote and when the painter, at the end of the summer, proposed taking her to Paris she consented with alacrity. He took her to live with him in a rabbit-warren of studios in Montmartre, and she spent a very pleasant year in his company.

At the end of this he told her that he had not sold a single canvas and could no longer afford the luxury of a mistress. She had been expecting the news for some time and was not disconcerted by it. He asked her if she wanted to go home and when she said she didn’t, told her that another painter in the same block would be glad to have her. The man he named had made a pass at her two or three times and though she had rebuffed him it had been with so much good humor that he was not affronted. She did not dislike him and so accepted the proposition with placidity. It was convenient that she did not have to go to the expense of taking a taxi to transport her trunk. Her second lover, a good deal older than the first, but still presentable, painted her in every conceivable position, clothed and in the nude; and she passed two happy years with him. She was proud to think that with her as a model he had made his first real success and she showed me a reproduction cut out of an illustrated paper of the picture that had brought it about. It had been purchased by an American gallery. It was a nude, life-size, and she was lying in something of the same position as Manet’s Olympe. The artist had been quick to see that there was something modern and amusing in her proportions, and, fining down her thin body to emaciation, he had elongated her long legs and arms, he had emphasized her high cheekbones and made her blue eyes extravagantly large. From the reproduction I naturally could not tell what the color was like, but I was sensible of the elegance of the design. The picture brought him sufficient notoriety to enable him to marry an admiring widow with money, and Suzanne, well aware that a man had to think of his future, accepted the rupture of their cordial relations without acrimony.

For by now she knew her value. She liked the artistic life, it amused her to pose, and after the day’s work was over she found it pleasant to go to the café and sit with painters, their wives and mistresses, while they discussed art, reviled dealers, and told bawdy stories. On this occasion, having seen the break coming, she had made her plans. She picked out a young man who was unattached and who, she thought, had talent. She chose her opportunity when he was alone at the café, explained the circumstances, and without further preamble suggested that they should live together.

“I’m twenty and a good housekeeper. I’ll save you money there and I’ll save you the expense of a model. Look at your shirt, it’s a disgrace, and your studio is a mess. You want a woman to look after you.”

He knew she was a good sort. He was amused at her proposal and she saw he was inclined to accept.

“After all, there’s no harm in trying,” she said. “If it doesn’t work we shall neither of us be worse off than we are now.”

He was a non-representative artist and he painted portraits of her in squares and oblongs. He painted her with one eye and no mouth. He painted her as a geometrical arrangement in black and brown and gray. He painted her in a criss-cross of lines through which you vaguely saw a human face. She stayed with him for a year and a half and left him of her own accord.

“Why?” I asked her. “Didn’t you like him?”

“Yes, he was a nice boy. I didn’t think he was getting any further. He was repeating himself.”

She found no difficulty in discovering a successor. She remained faithful to artists.

“I’ve always been in painting,” she said. “I was with a sculptor for six months, but I don’t know why, it said nothing to me.”

She was pleased to think that she had never separated from a lover with unpleasantness. She was not only a good model, but a good housewife. She loved working about the studio she happened for a while to be living in and took pride in keeping it in apple-pie order. She was a good cook and could turn out a tasty meal at the smallest possible cost. She mended her lovers’ socks and sewed buttons on their shirts.

“I never saw why because a man was an artist he shouldn’t be neat and tidy.”

She only had one failure. This was a young Englishman who had more money than anyone she had known before and he had a car.

“But it didn’t last long,” she said. “He used to get drunk and then he was tiresome. I wouldn’t have minded that if he’d been a good painter, but, my dear, it was grotesque. I told him I was going to leave him and he began to cry. He said he loved me.

“ ‘My poor friend,’ I said to him. ‘Whether you love me or not isn’t of the smallest consequence. What is of consequence is that you have no talent. Return to your own country and go into the grocery business. That is all you’re fit for.’ ”

“What did he say to that?” I asked.

“He flew into a passion and told me to get out. But it was good advice I gave him, you know. I hope he took it, he wasn’t a bad fellow; only a bad artist.”

Common sense and good nature will do a lot to make the pilgrimage of life not too difficult to a light woman, but the profession Suzanne had adopted had its ups and downs like any other. There was the Scandinavian for instance. She was so imprudent as to fall in love with him.

“He was a god, my dear,” she told me. “He was immensely tall, as tall as the Eiffel Tower, with great broad shoulders and a magnificent chest, a waist that you could almost put your hands around, a belly flat, but flat like the palm of my hand, and muscles like a professional athlete’s. He had golden, wavy hair and a skin of honey. And he didn’t paint badly. I liked his brush work, it was bold and dashing, and he had a rich vivid palette.”

She made up her mind to have a child by him. He was against it, but she told him she would take the responsibility.

“He liked it well enough when it was born. Oh, such a lovely baby, rosy, fair-haired and blue-eyed like her papa. It was a girl.”

Suzanne lived with him for three years.

“He was a little stupid and sometimes he bored me, but he was very sweet and so beautiful that I didn’t really mind.”

Then he got a telegram from Sweden to say his father was dying and he must come back at once. He promised to return, but she had a premonition that he never would. He left her all the money he had. She didn’t hear from him for a month and then she got a letter from him saying that his father had died, leaving his affairs in confusion, and that he felt it his duty to remain by his mother and go into the lumber business. He enclosed a draft for ten thousand francs. Suzanne was not the woman to give way to despair. She came to the conclusion very quickly that a child would hamper her activities, so she took the baby girl down to her mother’s and left her, along with the ten thousand francs, in her care.

“It was heart-rending, I adored that child, but in life one has to be practical.”

“What happened then?” I asked.

“Oh, I got along. I found a friend.”

But then came her typhoid. She always spoke of it as “my typhoid” as a millionaire might speak of “my place at Palm Beach” or “my grouse moor.” She nearly died of it and was in the hospital for three months. When she left she was nothing but skin and bone, as weak as a rat, and so nervous that she could do nothing but cry. She wasn’t much use to anyone then, she wasn’t strong enough to pose and she had very little money.

“Oh la, la,” she said, “I passed through some hard times. Luckily I had good friends. But you know what artists are, it’s a struggle for them to make both ends meet, anyway. I was never a pretty woman, I had something of course, but I wasn’t twenty any more. Then I ran into the cubist I’d been with; he’d been married and divorced since we lived together, he’d given up cubism and become a surrealist. He thought he could use me and said he was lonely; he said he’d give me board and lodgings and I promise you, I was glad to accept.”

Suzanne stayed with him till she met her manufacturer. The manufacturer was brought to the studio by a friend on the chance that he might buy one of the ex-cubist’s pictures, and Suzanne, anxious to effect a sale, set herself out to be as agreeable to him as she knew how. He could not make up his mind to buy on the spur of the moment, but said he would like to come and see the pictures again. He did, a fortnight later, and this time she received the impression that he had come to see her rather than works of art. When he left, still without buying, he pressed her hand with unnecessary warmth. Next day the friend who had brought him waylaid her when she was on her way to market to buy the day’s provisions and told her that the manufacturer had taken a fancy to her and wanted to know if she would dine with him next time he came to Paris, because he had a proposition to make to her.

“What does he see in me, d’you suppose?” she asked.

“He’s an amateur of modern art. He’s seen portraits of you. You intrigue him. He’s a provincial and a businessman. You represent Paris to him, art, romance, everything that he misses in Lille.”

“Has he money?” she asked in her sensible way.


“Well, I’ll dine with him. There’s no harm hearing what he’s got to say.”

He took her to Maxim’s, which impressed her; she had dressed very quietly, and she felt as she looked at the women around her that she could pass very well for a respectable married woman. He ordered a bottle of champagne, and this persuaded her that he was a gentleman. When they came to coffee he put his proposition before her. She thought it very handsome. He told her that he came to Paris regularly once a fortnight to attend a board meeting, and it was tiresome in the evening to dine alone and if he felt the need of feminine society to go to a brothel. Being a married man with two children, he thought that an unsatisfactory arrangement for a man in his position. Their common friend had told him all about her and he knew she was a woman of discretion. He was no longer young and he had no wish to get entangled with a giddy girl. He was something of a collector of the modern school and her connection with it was sympathetic to him. Then he came down to brass tacks. He was prepared to take an apartment for her and furnish it and provide her with an income of two thousand francs a month. In return for this he wished to enjoy her company for one night every fourteen days. Suzanne had never had the spending of so much money in her life, and she quickly reckoned that on such a sum she could not only live and dress as such an advancement in the world evidently demanded, but provide for her daughter and put away something for a rainy day. But she hesitated for a moment. She had always been “in painting,” as she put it, and there was no doubt in her mind that it was a comedown to be the mistress of a businessman.

“C’est à prendre ou à laisser,” he said. “You can take it or leave it.”

He was not repulsive to her and the rosette of the Legion of Honor in his buttonhole proved that he was a man of distinction. She smiled.

“Je prends,” she replied. “I’ll take it.”