The Razor’s Edge Chapter 7

DURING THE NEXT four weeks I saw little of Elliott and his relations. He did them proud. He took them for a week-end to a grand house in Sussex and for another week-end to an even grander one in Wiltshire. He took them to the royal box at the opera as guests of a minor princess of the House of Windsor. He took them to lunch and dine with the great. Isabel went to several balls. He entertained at Claridge’s a series of guests whose names made a fine show in the paper next day. He gave supper parties at Ciro’s and the Embassy. In fact he did all the right things and Isabel would have had to be much more sophisticated than she was not to have been a trifle dazzled by the splendor and elegance he provided for her delectation. Elliott could flatter himself that he was taking all this trouble from the purely unselfish motive of distracting Isabel’s mind from an unfortunate love affair; but I had a notion he got besides a good deal of satisfaction out of letting his sister see with her own eyes how familiar he was with the illustrious and fashionable. He was an admirable host and he took a delight in displaying his virtuosity.

I went to one or two of his parties myself and now and again I dropped in at Claridge’s at six o’clock. I found Isabel surrounded by strapping young men in beautiful clothes who were in the Household Brigade or by elegant young men in less beautiful clothes from the Foreign Office. It was on one of these occasions that she drew me aside.

“I want to ask you something,” she said. “Do you remember that evening we went to a drugstore and had an ice-cream soda?”


“You were very nice and helpful then. Will you be nice and helpful again?”

“I’ll do my best.”

“I want to talk to you about something. Couldn’t we lunch one day?”

“Almost any day you like.”

“Somewhere quiet.”

“What d’you say to driving down to Hampton Court and lunching there? The gardens should be at their best just now and you could see Queen Elizabeth’s bed.”

The notion suited her and we fixed a day. But when the day came the weather, which had been fine and warm, broke; the sky was gray and a drizzling rain was falling. I called up and asked her if she wouldn’t prefer to lunch in town.

“We shouldn’t be able to sit in the gardens and the pictures will be so dark, we shan’t see a thing.”

“I’ve sat in lots of gardens and I’m fed to the teeth with old masters. Let’s go anyway.”

“All right.”

I fetched her and we drove down. I knew a small hotel where one ate tolerably and we went straight there. On the way Isabel talked with her usual vivacity of the parties she had been to and the people she had met. She had been enjoying herself, but her comments on various acquaintances she had made suggested to me that she had shrewdness and a quick eye for the absurd. The bad weather kept visitors away and we were the only occupants of the dining-room. The hotel specialized in homely English fare and we had a cut off a leg of excellent lamb with green peas and new potatoes and a deepdish apple pie with Devonshire cream to follow. With a tankard of pale ale it made an excellent lunch. When we had finished I suggested that we should go into the empty coffee-room where there were armchairs in which we could sit in comfort. It was chilly in there, but the fire was laid, so I put a match to it. The flames made the dingy room more companionable.

“That’s that,” I said. “Now tell me what you want to talk to me about.”

“It’s the same as last time,” she chuckled. “Larry.”

“So I guessed.”

“You know that we’ve broken off our engagement.”

“Elliott told me.”

“Mamma’s relieved and he’s delighted.”

She hesitated for a moment and then embarked upon the account of her talk with Larry of which I have done my best faithfully to inform the reader. It may surprise the reader that she should have chosen to tell so much to someone whom she knew so little. I don’t suppose I had seen her a dozen times and, except for that one occasion at the drugstore, never alone. It did not surprise me. For one thing, as any writer will tell you, people do tell a writer things that they don’t tell others. I don’t know why, unless it is that having read one or two of his books they feel on peculiarly intimate terms with him; or it may be that they dramatize themselves and, seeing themselves as it were as characters in a novel, are ready to be as open with him as they imagine the characters of his invention are. And I think that Isabel felt that I liked Larry and her, and that their youth touched me, and that I was sympathetic to their distresses. She could not expect to find a friendly listener in Elliott who was disinclined to trouble himself with a young man who had spurned the best chance a young man ever had of getting into society. Nor could her mother help her. Mrs. Bradley had high principles and common sense. Her common sense assured her that if you wanted to get on in this world you must accept its conventions, and not to do what everybody else did clearly pointed to instability. Her high principles led her to believe that a man’s duty was to go to work in a business where by energy and initiative he had a chance of earning enough money to keep his wife and family in accordance with the standards of his station, give his sons such an education as would enable them on reaching man’s estate to make an honest living, and on his death leave his widow adequately provided for.

Isabel had a good memory and the various turns of the long discussion had engraved themselves upon it. I listened in silence till she had finished. She only interrupted herself once to ask me a question.

“Who was Ruysdael?”

“Ruysdael? He was a Dutch landscape painter. Why?”

She told me that Larry had mentioned him. He had said that Ruysdael at least had found an answer to the questions he was asking, and she repeated to me his flippant reply when she had inquired who he was.

“What d’you suppose he meant?”

I had an inspiration.

“Are you sure he didn’t say Ruysbroek?”

“He might have. Who was he?”

“He was a Flemish mystic who lived in the fourteenth century.”

“Oh,” she said with disappointment.

It meant nothing to her. But it meant something to me. That was the first indication I had of the turn Larry’s reflection was taking, and while she went on with her story, though still listening attentively, part of my mind busied itself with the possibilities that reference of his had suggested. I did not want to make too much of it, for it might be that he had only mentioned the name of the Ecstatic Teacher to make an argumentative point; it might also have a significance that had escaped Isabel. When he answered her question by saying Ruysbroek was just a guy he hadn’t known in college he evidently meant to throw her off the scent.

“What do you make of it all?” she asked when she had come to an end.

I paused before replying.

“D’you remember his saying that he was just going to loaf? If what he tells you is true his loafing seems to involve some very strenuous work.”

“I’m sure it’s true. But don’t you see that if he’d worked as hard at any productive form of work he’d be earning a decent income?”

“There are people who are strangely constituted. There are criminals who’ll work like beavers to contrive schemes that land them in prison and they no sooner get out than they start all over again and again land in prison. If they put as much industry, as much cleverness, resource, and patience into honest practices they could make a handsome living and occupy important positions. But they’re just made that way. They like crime.”

“Poor Larry,” she giggled. “You’re not going to suggest that he’s learning Greek to cook up a bank robbery.”

I laughed too.

“No, I’m not. What I’m trying to tell you is that there are men who are possessed by an urge so strong to do some particular thing that they can’t help themselves, they’ve got to do it. They’re prepared to sacrifice everything to satisfy their yearning.”

“Even the people who love them?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Is that anything more than plain selfishness?”

“I wouldn’t know,” I smiled.

“What can be the possible use of Larry’s learning dead languages?”

“Some people have a disinterested desire for knowledge. It’s not an ignoble desire.”

“What’s the good of knowledge if you’re not going to do anything with it?”

“Perhaps he is. Perhaps it will be sufficient satisfaction merely to know, as it’s a sufficient satisfaction to an artist to produce a work of art. And perhaps it’s only a step toward something further.”

“If he wanted knowledge why couldn’t he go to college when he came back from the war? It’s what Dr. Nelson and Mamma wanted him to do.”

“I talked to him about that in Chicago. A degree would be of no use to him. I have an inkling that he had a definite idea of what he wanted and felt he couldn’t get it at a university. You know, in learning there’s the lone wolf as well as the wolf who runs in the pack. I think Larry is one of those persons who can go no other way than their own.”

“I remember once asking him if he wanted to write. He laughed and said he had nothing to write about.”

“That’s the most inconclusive reason for not writing that I’ve ever heard,” I smiled.

Isabel made a gesture of impatience. She was in no mood even for the mildest jest.

“What I can’t make out is why he should have turned out like this. Before the war he was just like everybody else. You wouldn’t think it, but he plays a very good game of tennis and he’s quite a decent golfer. He used to do all the things the rest of us did. He was a perfectly normal boy and there was no reason to suppose he wouldn’t become a perfectly normal man. After all you’re a novelist, you ought to be able to explain it.”

“Who am I to explain the infinite complexities of human nature?”

“That’s why I wanted to talk to you today,” she added, taking no notice of what I said.

“Are you unhappy?”

“No, not exactly unhappy. When Larry isn’t there I’m all right; it’s when I’m with him that I feel so weak. Now it’s just a sort of ache, like the stiffness you get after a long ride when you haven’t been on a horse for months; it’s not pain, it’s not at all unbearable, but you’re conscious of it. I shall get over it all right. I hate the idea of Larry making such a mess of his life.”

“Perhaps he won’t. It’s a long, arduous road he’s starting to travel, but it may be that at the end of it he’ll find what he’s seeking.”

“What’s that?”

“Hasn’t it occurred to you? It seems to me that in what he said to you he indicated it pretty plainly. God.”

“God!” she cried. But it was an exclamation of incredulous surprise. Our use of the same word, but in such a different sense, had a comic effect, so that we were obliged to laugh. But Isabel immediately grew serious again and I felt in her whole attitude something like fear. “What on earth makes you think that?”

“I’m only guessing. But you asked me to tell you what I thought as a novelist. Unfortunately you don’t know what experience he had in the war that so profoundly moved him. I think it was some sudden shock for which he was unprepared. I suggest to you that whatever it was that happened to Larry filled him with a sense of the transiency of life, and an anguish to be sure that there was a compensation for the sin and sorrow of the world.”

I could see that Isabel didn’t like the turn I had given the conversation. It made her feel shy and awkward.

“Isn’t all that awfully morbid? One has to take the world as it comes. If we’re here, it’s surely to make the most of life.”

“You’re probably right.”

“I don’t pretend to be anything but a perfectly normal, ordinary girl. I want to have fun.”

“It looks as though there were complete incompatibility of temper between you. It’s much better that you should have found it out before marriage.”

“I want to marry and have children and live—”

“In that state of life in which a merciful Providence has been pleased to place you,” I interrupted, smiling.

“Well, there’s no harm in that, is there? It’s a very pleasant state and I’m quite satisfied with it.”

“You’re like two friends who want to take their holiday together, but one of them wants to climb Greenland’s icy mountains while the other wants to fish off India’s coral strand. Obviously it’s not going to work.”

“Anyway, I might get a sealskin coat off Greenland’s icy mountains, and I think it’s very doubtful if there are any fish off India’s coral strand.”

“That remains to be seen.”

“Why d’you say that?” she asked, frowning a little. “All the time you seem to be making some sort of mental reservation. Of course I know that I’m not playing the star part in this. Larry’s got that. He’s the idealist, he’s the dreamer of a beautiful dream, and even if the dream doesn’t come true, it’s rather thrilling to have dreamt it. I’m cast for the hard, mercenary, practical part. Common sense is never very sympathetic, is it? But what you forget is that it’s I who’d have to pay. Larry would sweep along, trailing clouds of glory, and all there’d be left for me would be to tag along and make both ends meet. I want to live.”

“I don’t forget that at all. Years ago, when I was young, I knew a man who was a doctor, and not a bad one either, but he didn’t practice. He spent years burrowing away in the library of the British Museum and at long intervals produced a huge pseudo-scientific, pseudo-philosophical book that nobody read and that he had to publish at his own expense. He wrote four or five of them before he died and they were absolutely worthless. He had a son who wanted to go into the army, but there was no money to send him to Sandhurst, so he had to enlist. He was killed in the war. He had a daughter too. She was very pretty and I was rather taken with her. She went on the stage, but she had no talent and she traipsed around the provinces playing small parts in second-rate companies at a miserable salary. His wife, after years of dreary, sordid drudgery, broke down in health and the girl had to come home and nurse her and take on the drudgery her mother no longer had the strength for. Wasted, thwarted lives and all to no purpose. It’s a toss-up when you decide to leave the beaten track. Many are called but few are chosen.”

“Mother and Uncle Elliott approve of what I’ve done. Do you approve too?”

“My dear, what can that matter to you? I’m almost a stranger to you.”

“I look upon you as a disinterested observer,” she said, with a pleasant smile. “I should like to have your approval. You do think I’ve done right, don’t you?”

“I think you’ve done right for you,” I said, fairly confident that she would not catch the slight distinction I made in my reply.

“Then why have I a bad conscience?”

“Have you?”

With a smile on her lips, but a slightly rueful smile now, she nodded.

“I know it’s only horse sense. I know that every reasonable person would agree that I’ve done the only possible thing. I know that from every practical standpoint, from the standpoint of worldly wisdom, from the standpoint of common decency, from the standpoint of what’s right and wrong, I’ve done what I ought to do. And yet at the bottom of my heart I’ve got an uneasy feeling that if I were better, if I were more disinterested, more unselfish, nobler, I’d marry Larry and lead his life. If I only loved him enough I’d think the world well lost.”

“You might put it the other way about. If he loved you enough he wouldn’t have hesitated to do what you want.”

“I’ve said that to myself too. But it doesn’t help. I suppose it’s more in woman’s nature to sacrifice herself than in a man’s.” She chuckled. “Ruth and the alien corn and all that sort of thing.”

“Why don’t you risk it?”

We had been talking quite lightly, almost as if we were having a casual conversation about people we both knew but in whose affairs we were not intimately concerned, and even when she narrated to me her talk with Larry, Isabel had spoken with a sort of breezy gaiety, enlivening it with humor, as if she did not want me to take what she said too seriously. But now she went pale.

“I’m afraid.”

For a while we were silent. A chill went down my spine as it strangely does when I am confronted with deep and genuine human emotion. I find it terrible and rather awe-inspiring.

“Do you love him very much?” I asked at last.

“I don’t know. I’m impatient with him. I’m exasperated with him. I keep longing for him.”

Silence again fell upon us. I didn’t know what to say. The coffee-room in which we sat was small, and heavy lace curtains over the window shut out the light. On the walls, covered with yellow marbled paper, were old sporting prints. With its mahogany furniture, its shabby leather chairs, and its musty smell, it was strangely reminiscent of a coffee-room in a Dickens novel. I poked the fire and put more coal on it. Isabel suddenly began to speak.

“You see, I thought when it came to a showdown he’d knuckle under. I knew he was weak.”

“Weak?” I cried. “What made you think that? A man who for a year withstood the disapproval of all his friends and associates because he was determined to go his own way.”

“I could always do anything I wanted with him. I could turn him round my little finger. He was never a leader in the things we did. He just tagged along with the crowd.”

I had lit a cigarette and watched the smoke ring I had made. It grew larger and larger and then faded away into the air.

“Mamma and Elliott thought it very wrong of me to go about with him afterward as though nothing had happened, but I didn’t take it very seriously. I kept on thinking up to the end that he’d yield. I couldn’t believe that when he’d got it into his thick head that I meant what I said he wouldn’t give in.” She hesitated and gave me a smile of roguish, playful malice. “Will you be awfully shocked if I tell you something?”

“I think it very unlikely.”

“When we decided to come to London I called Larry and asked him if we couldn’t spend my last evening in Paris together. When I told them, Uncle Elliott said it was most improper and Mamma said she thought it unnecessary. When Mamma says something is unnecessary it means she thoroughly disapproves. Uncle Elliott asked me what the idea was and I said we were going to dine somewhere and then make a tour of the night clubs. He told Mamma she ought to forbid me to go. Mamma said, ‘Will you pay any attention if I forbid you to go?’ ‘No, darling,’ I said, ‘none.’ Then she said, ‘That is what I imagined. In that case there doesn’t seem to be much point in my forbidding it.’ ”

“Your mother appears to be a woman of enormous sense.”

“I don’t believe she misses much. When Larry called for me I went into her room to say good night to her. I’d made up a bit; you know, you have to in Paris or else you look so naked, and when she saw the dress I had on, I had an uneasy suspicion from the way she took me in from top to toe that she had a pretty shrewd idea what I was after. But she didn’t say anything. She just kissed me and said she hoped I’d have a good time.”

“What were you after?”

Isabel looked at me doubtfully, as though she couldn’t quite decide how frank she was prepared to be.

“I didn’t think I was looking too bad and it was my last chance. Larry had reserved a table at Maxim’s. We had lovely things to eat, all the things I particularly liked, and we had champagne. We talked our heads off, at least I did, and I made Larry laugh. One of the things I’ve liked about him is that I can always amuse him. We danced. When we’d had enough of that we went on to the Château de Madrid. We found some people we knew and joined them and we had more champagne. Then we all went to the Acacia. Larry dances quite well, and we fit. The heat and the music and the wine—I was getting a bit light-headed. I felt absolutely reckless. I danced with my face against Larry’s and I knew he wanted me. God knows I wanted him. I had an idea. I suppose it had been at the back of my mind all the time. I thought I’d get him to come home with me and once I’d got him there, well, it was almost inevitable that the inevitable should happen.”

“Upon my word you couldn’t put it more delicately.”

“My room was quite a way from Uncle Elliott’s and Mamma’s, so I knew there was no risk. When we were back in America I thought I’d write and say I was going to have a baby. He’d be obliged to come back and marry me, and when I’d got him home I didn’t believe it would be hard to keep him there, especially with Mamma ill. ‘What a fool I am not to have thought of that before,’ I said to myself. ‘Of course that’ll settle everything.’ When the music stopped I just stayed there in his arms. Then I said it was getting late and we had to take the train at noon, so we’d better go. We got into a taxi. I nestled close to him and he put his arms around me and kissed me. He kissed me, he kissed me—oh, it was heaven. It hardly seemed a moment before the taxi stopped at the door. Larry paid it.

“ ‘I shall walk home,’ he said.

“The taxi rattled off and I put my arms around his neck.

“ ‘Won’t you come up and have one last drink?’ I said.

“ ‘Yes, if you like,’ he said.

“He’d rung the bell and the door swung open. He switched on the light as we stepped in. I looked into his eyes. They were so trusting, so honest, so—so guileless; he so obviously hadn’t the smallest idea that I was laying a trap for him; I felt I couldn’t play him such a dirty trick. It was like taking candy off a child. D’you know what I did? I said, ‘Oh well, perhaps you’d better not. Mamma’s not very well tonight and if she’s fallen asleep I don’t want to wake her up. Good night.’ I put my face up for him to kiss and pushed him out of the door. That was the end of that.”

“Are you sorry?” I asked.

“I’m neither pleased nor sorry. I just couldn’t help myself. It wasn’t me that did what I did. It was just an impulse that took possession of me and acted for me.” She grinned. “I suppose you’d call it my better nature.”

“I suppose you would.”

“Then my better nature must take the consequences. I trust in the future it’ll be more careful.”

That was in effect the end of our talk. It may be that it was some consolation to Isabel to have been able to speak to someone with entire freedom, but that was all the good I had been able to do her. Feeling I had been inadequate, I tried to say at least some small thing that would give her comfort.

“You know, when one’s in love,” I said, “and things go all wrong, one’s terribly unhappy and one thinks one won’t ever get over it. But you’ll be astounded to learn what the sea will do.”

“What do you mean?” she smiled.

“Well, love isn’t a good sailor and it languishes on a sea voyage. You’ll be surprised when you have the Atlantic between you and Larry to find how slight the pang is that before you sailed seemed intolerable.”

“Do you speak from experience?”

“From the experience of a stormy past. When I suffered from the pangs of unrequited love I immediately got on an ocean liner.”

The rain showed no sign of letting up, so we decided that Isabel could survive without seeing the noble pile of Hampton Court or even Queen Elizabeth’s bed, and drove back to London. I saw her two or three times after that, but only when other people were present, and then, having had enough of London for a while, I set off for the Tyrol.