The Razor’s Edge Chapter 8

A COUPLE OF DAYS later, when I went to see Elliott, I found him beaming.

“Look,” he said, “I’ve had my invitation. It came this morning.”

He took the card out from under his pillow and showed it to me.

“It’s what I told you,” I said. “You see, your name begins with a T. The secretary has evidently only just reached you.”

“I haven’t answered yet. I’ll do it tomorrow.”

I had a moment’s fright at that.

“Would you like me to answer it for you? I could post it when I leave you.”

“No, why should you? I’m quite capable of answering invitations myself.”

Fortunately, I thought, the envelope would be opened by Miss Keith and she would have the sense to suppress it. Elliott rang the bell.

“I want to show you my costume.”

“You’re not thinking of going, Elliott?”

“Of course I am. I haven’t worn it since the Beaumonts’ ball.”

Joseph answered the bell and Elliott told him to bring the costume. It was in a large flat box, wrapped in tissue paper. There were long white silk hose, padded trunks of cloth of gold slashed with white satin, a doublet to match, a cloak, a ruff to wear round the neck, a flat velvet cap, and a long gold chain from which hung the order of the Golden Fleece. I recognized it as a copy of the gorgeous dress worn by Philip the Second in Titian’s portrait at the Prado, and when Elliott told me it was exactly the costume the Count de Lauria had worn at the wedding of the King of Spain with the Queen of England I could not but think that he was giving rein to his imagination.

On the following morning while I was having breakfast I was called to the telephone. It was Joseph to tell me that Elliott had had another bad attack during the night and the doctor, hurriedly summoned, doubted whether he would last through the day. I sent for the car and drove over to Antibes. I found Elliott unconscious. He had resolutely refused to have a nurse, but I found one there, sent for by the doctor from the English hospital between Nice and Beaulieu, and was glad to see her. I went out and telegraphed to Isabel. She and Gray were spending the summer with the children at the inexpensive seaside resort of La Baule. It was a long journey and I was afraid they would not get to Antibes in time. Except for her two brothers, whom he had not seen for years, she was Elliott’s only living relative.

But the will to live was strong in him, or it may be that the doctor’s medicaments were effective, for during the course of the day he rallied. Though shattered, he put on a bold front and amused himself by asking the nurse indecent questions about her sex life. I stayed with him most of the afternoon, and next day, on going to see him again, found him, though very weak, sufficiently cheerful. The nurse would only let me stay with him a short time. I was worried at not having received an answer to my telegram. Not knowing Isabel’s address at La Baule I had sent it to Paris and feared that the concierge had delayed to forward it. It was not till two days later that I got a reply to say that they were starting at once. As ill luck would have it, Gray and Isabel were on a motor trip in Brittany and had only just had my wire. I looked up the trains and saw that they could not arrive for at least thirty-six hours.

Early next morning Joseph called me again to tell me that Elliott had had a very bad night and was asking for me. I hurried over. When I arrived Joseph took me aside.

“Monsieur will excuse me if I speak to him on a delicate subject,” he said to me. “I am of course a freethinker and believe all religion is nothing but a conspiracy of the priests to gain control over the people, but Monsieur knows what women are. My wife and the chambermaid insist that the poor gentleman should receive the last sacraments and evidently the time is growing short.” He looked at me in rather a shamefaced way. “And the fact remains, one never knows, perhaps it is better, if one’s got to die, to regularize one’s situation with the Church.”

I understood him perfectly. However freely they mock, most Frenchmen, when the end comes, prefer to make their peace with the faith that is part of their blood and bones.

“Do you want me to suggest it to him?”

“If Monsieur would have the goodness.”

It was not a job I much fancied, but after all Elliott had been for many years a devout Catholic, and it was fitting that he should conform to the obligations of his faith. I went up to his room. He was lying on his back, shriveled and wan, but perfectly conscious. I asked the nurse to leave us alone.

“I’m afraid you’re very ill, Elliott,” I said. “I was wondering, I was wondering if you wouldn’t like to see a priest?”

He looked at me for a minute without answering.

“D’you mean to say I’m going to die?”

“Oh, I hope not. But it’s just as well to be on the safe side.”

“I understand.”

He was silent. It is a terrible moment when you have to tell someone what I had just told Elliott. I could not look at him. I clenched my teeth because I was afraid I was going to cry. I was sitting on the edge of the bed, facing him, with my arm outstretched for support.

He patted my hand.

“Don’t be upset, my dear fellow. Noblesse oblige, you know.”

I laughed hysterically.

“You ridiculous creature, Elliott.”

“That’s better. Now call up the bishop and say that I wish to make my confession and receive Extreme Unction. I would be grateful if he’d send the Abbé Charles. He’s a friend of mine.”

The Abbé Charles was the bishop’s vicar general whom I had occasion to mention before. I went downstairs and telephoned. I spoke to the bishop himself.

“Is it urgent?” he asked.


“I will attend to it at once.”

The doctor arrived and I told him what I had done. He went up with the nurse to see Elliott and I waited on the ground floor in the dining-room. It is only twenty minutes’ drive from Nice to Antibes and little more than half an hour later a black sedan drew up at the door. Joseph came to me.

“C’est Monseigneur en personne, Monsieur,” he said in a flurry. “It’s the bishop himself.”

I went out to receive him. He was not as usual accompanied by his vicar general, but, why I did not know, by a young abbé who bore a basket that contained, I supposed, the utensils needed to administer the sacrament. The chauffeur followed with a shabby black valise. The bishop shook hands with me and presented his companion.

“How is our poor friend?”

“I’m afraid he’s very ill, Monseigneur.”

“Will you be so obliging as to show us into a room where we can enrobe?”

“The dining-room is here, Monseigneur, and the drawing-room is on the next floor.”

“The dining-room will do very well.”

I ushered him in. Joseph and I waited in the hall. Presently the door opened and the bishop came out, followed by the abbé holding in both hands the chalice surmounted by a little platter on which lay the consecrated wafer. They were covered by a cambric napkin so fine that it was transparent. I had never seen the bishop but at a dinner or luncheon party, and a very good trencherman he was, who enjoyed his food and a glass of good wine, telling funny and sometimes ribald stories with verve. He had struck me then as a sturdy, thickset man of no more than average height. Now, in surplice and stole, he looked not only tall, but stately. His red face, puckered as a rule with malicious yet kindly laughter, was grave. There was in his appearance nothing left of the cavalry officer he had once been; he looked, what indeed he was, a great dignitary of the Church. I was hardly surprised to see Joseph cross himself. The bishop inclined his head in a slight bow.

“Conduct me to the sick man,” he said.

I made way for him to ascend the stairs before me, but he bade me precede him. We went up in solemn silence. I entered Elliott’s room.

“The bishop has come himself, Elliott.”

Elliott struggled to raise himself to a sitting position.

“Monseigneur, this is an honor I did not venture to expect.”

“Do not move, my friend.” The bishop turned to the nurse and me. “Leave us.” And then to the abbé: “I will call you when I am ready.”

The abbé glanced around and I guessed that he was looking for a place to set down the chalice. I pushed aside the tortoiseshell-backed brushes on the dressing table. The nurse went downstairs and I led the abbé into the adjoining room which Elliott used as a study. The windows were open to the blue sky and he went over and stood by one of them. I sat down. A race of Stars was in progress and their sails gleamed dazzling white against the azure. A big schooner with a black hull, her red sails spread, was beating up against the breeze toward the harbor. I recognized her for a lobster boat, bringing a catch from Sardinia to supply the gala dinners at the casinos with a fish course. Through the closed door I could hear the muffled murmur of voices. Elliott was making his confession. I badly wanted a cigarette, but feared the abbé would be shocked if I lit one. He stood motionless, looking out, a slender young man, and his thick waving black hair, his fine dark eyes, his olive skin revealed his Italian origin. There was the quick fire of the South in his aspect and I asked myself what urgent faith, what burning desire had caused him to abandon the joys of life, the pleasures of his age, and the satisfaction of his senses, to devote himself to the service of God.

Suddenly the voices in the next room were still and I looked at the door. It was opened and the bishop appeared.

“Venez,” he said to the priest.

I was left alone. I heard the bishop’s voice once more and I knew he was saying the prayers that the Church has ordained should be said for the dying. Then there was another silence and I knew that Elliott was partaking of the body and the blood of Christ. From I know not what feeling, inherited, I suppose, from far-away ancestors, though not a Catholic I can never attend Mass without a sense of tremulous awe when the little tinkle of the servitor’s bell informs me of the Elevation of the Host; and now, similarly, I shivered as though a cold wind ran through me, I shivered with fear and wonder. The door was opened once more.

“You may come in,” said the bishop.

I entered. The abbé was spreading the cambric napkin over the cup and the little gilt plate on which the consecrated wafer had lain. Elliott’s eyes shone.

“Conduct Monseigneur to his car,” he said.

We descended the stairs. Joseph and the maids were waiting in the hall. The maids were crying. There were three of them and one after the other they came forward and, dropping to their knees, kissed the bishop’s ring. He blessed them with two fingers. Joseph’s wife nudged him and he advanced, fell to his knees too, and kissed the ring. The bishop smiled faintly.

“You are a freethinker, my son?”

I could see Joseph making an effort over himself.

“Yes, Monseigneur.”

“Do not let it trouble you. You have been a good and faithful servant to your master. God will overlook the errors of your understanding.”

I went out into the street with him and opened the door of his car. He gave me a bow as he stepped in and smiled indulgently.

“Our poor friend is very low. His defects were of the surface; he was generous of heart and kindly toward his fellow men.”