The Razor’s Edge Chapter 9

A WEEK OR SO AFTER I had so unexpectedly run into Larry, Suzanne and I one night, having dined together and gone to a movie, were sitting in the Sélect on the Boulevard du Montparnasse, having a glass of beer, when he strolled in. She gave a gasp and to my surprise called out to him. He came up to the table, kissed her, and shook hands with me. I could see that she could hardly believe her eyes.

“May I sit down?” he said. “I haven’t had any dinner and I’m going to have something to eat.”

“Oh, but it’s good to see you, mon petit,” she said, her eyes sparkling. “Where have you sprung from? And why have you given no sign of life all these years? My God, how thin you are! For all I knew you might have been dead.”

“Well, I wasn’t,” he answered, his eyes twinkling. “How is Odette?”

That was the name of Suzanne’s daughter.

“Oh, she’s growing a big girl. And pretty. She still remembers you.”

“You never told me you knew Larry,” I said to her.

“Why should I? I never knew you knew him. We’re old friends.”

Larry ordered himself eggs and bacon. Suzanne told him all about her daughter and then about herself. He listened in his smiling, charming way while she chattered. She told him that she had settled down and was painting. She turned to me.

“I’m improving, don’t you think? I don’t pretend I’m a genius, but I have as much talent as many of the painters I’ve known.”

“D’you sell any pictures?” asked Larry.

“I don’t have to,” she answered airily. “I have private means.”

“Lucky girl.”

“No, not lucky: clever. You must come and see my pictures.”

She wrote down her address on a piece of paper and made him promise to go. Suzanne, excited, went on talking nineteen to the dozen. Then Larry asked for his bill.

“You’re not going?” she cried.

“I am,” he smiled.

He paid and with a wave of the hand left us. I laughed. He had a way that always amused me of being with you one moment and without explanation gone the next. It was so abrupt; it was almost as if he had faded into the air.

“Why did he want to go away so quickly?” said Suzanne, with vexation.

“Perhaps he’s got a girl waiting for him,” I replied mockingly.

“That’s an idea like another.” She took her compact out of her bag and powdered her face. “I pity any woman who falls in love with him. Oh la, la.”

“Why do you say that?”

She looked at me for a minute with a seriousness I had not often seen in her.

“I very nearly fell in love with him myself once. You might as well fall in love with a reflection in the water or a ray of sunshine or a cloud in the sky. I had a narrow escape. Even now when I think of it I tremble at the danger I ran.”

Discretion be blowed. It would have been inhuman not to want to know what this was all about. I congratulated myself that Suzanne was a woman who had no notion of reticence.

“How on earth did you ever get to know him?” I asked.

“Oh, it was years ago. Six years, seven years, I forget. Odette was only five. He knew Marcel when I was living with him. He used to come to the studio and sit while I was posing. He’d take us out to dinner sometimes. You never knew when he’d come. Sometimes not for weeks and then two or three days running. Marcel used to like to have him there; he said he painted better when he was there. Then I had my typhoid. I went through a bad time when I came out of the hospital.” She shrugged her shoulders. “But I’ve already told you all that. Well, one day I’d been round the studios trying to get work and no one wanted me, and I’d had nothing but a glass of milk and a croissant all day and I didn’t know how I was going to pay for my room, and I met him accidentally on the Boulevard Clichy. He stopped and asked me how I was and I told him about my typhoid, and then he said to me: “You look as if you could do with a square meal.” And there was something in his voice and in the look of his eyes that broke me; I began to cry.

“We were next door to La Mère Mariette and he took me by the arm and sat me down at a table. I was so hungry I was ready to eat an old boot, but when the omelette came I felt I couldn’t eat a thing. He forced me to take a little and he gave me a glass of burgundy. I felt better then and I ate some asparagus. I told him all my troubles. I was too weak to hold a pose. I was just skin and bone and I looked terrible; I couldn’t expect to get a man. I asked him if he’d lend me the money to go back to my village. At least I’d have my little girl there. He asked me if I wanted to go, and I said of course not, Mamma didn’t want me, she could hardly live on her pension with prices the way they were, and the money I’d sent for Odette had all been spent, but if I appeared at the door she would hardly refuse to take me in, she’d see how ill I looked. He looked at me for a long time, and I thought he was going to say he couldn’t lend me anything. Then he said:

“ ‘Would you like me to take you down to a little place I know in the country, you and the kid? I want a bit of a holiday.’

“I could hardly believe my ears. I’d known him for ages and he’d never made a pass at me.

“ ‘In the condition I’m in?’ I said. I couldn’t help laughing. ‘My poor friend,’ I said, ‘I’m no use to any man just now.’

“He smiled at me. Have you ever noticed what a wonderful smile he’s got? It’s as sweet as honey.

“ ‘Don’t be so silly,’ he said. ‘I’m not thinking of that.’

“I was crying so hard by then, I could hardly speak. He gave me money to fetch the child and we all went to the country together. Oh, it was charming, the place he took us to.”

Suzanne described it to me. It was three miles from a little town the name of which I have forgotten, and they took a car out to the inn. It was a ramshackle building on a river with a lawn that ran down to the water. There were plane trees on the lawn and they had their meals in their shade. In summer artists came there to paint, but it was early for that yet and they had the inn to themselves. The fare was famous, and on Sundays people used to drive from here and there to lunch with abandon, but on week-days their peace was seldom disturbed. With the rest and the food and wine, Suzanne grew stronger, and she was happy to have her child with her.

“He was sweet with Odette and she adored him. I had to prevent her from making a nuisance of herself, but he never seemed to mind how much she pestered him. It used to make me laugh, they were like two children together.”

“What did you do with yourselves?” I asked.

“Oh, there was always something to do. We used to take a boat and fish and sometimes we’d get the patron to lend us his Citroën and we’d go into town. Larry liked it. The old houses and the place. It was so quiet that your footsteps on the cobblestones were the only sound you heard. There was a Louis Quatorze hôtel de ville and an old church, and at the edge of the town was the château with a garden by Le Nôtre. When you sat at the café on the place you had the feeling that you had stepped back three hundred years and the Citroën at the curb didn’t seem to belong to this world at all.”

It was after one of these outings that Larry told her the story of the young airman which I narrated at the beginning of this book.

“I wonder why he told you,” I said.

“I haven’t an idea. They’d had a hospital in the town during the war and in the cemetery there were rows and rows of little crosses. We went to see it. We didn’t stay long, it gave me the creeps—all those poor boys lying there. Larry was very silent on the way home. He never ate much, but at dinner he hardly touched a thing. I remember so well, it was a beautiful, starry night and we sat on the riverbank, it was pretty with the poplars silhouetted against the darkness, and he smoked his pipe. And suddenly, à propos de bottes, he told me about his friend and how he died to save him.” Suzanne took a swig of beer. “He’s a strange creature. I shall never understand him. He used to like to read to me. Sometimes in the daytime, while I sewed things for the little one, and in the evening after I’d put her to bed.”

“What did he read?”

“Oh, all sorts of things. Letters of Madame de Sévigné and bits of Saint-Simon. Imagine-toi, I who’d never read anything before but the newspaper and now and then a novel when I heard them talk about it in the studios and didn’t want them to think me a fool! I had no idea reading could be so interesting. Those old writers weren’t such fatheads as one would think.”

“Who would think?” I chuckled.

“Then he made me read with him. We read Phèdre and Bérénice. He took the men’s parts and I took the women’s. You can’t think how amusing it was,” she added naïvely. “He used to look at me so strangely when I cried at the pathetic parts. Of course it was only because I hadn’t got my strength. And you know, I’ve still got the books. Even now I can’t read some of the letters of Madame de Sévigné that he read to me without hearing his lovely voice and without seeing the river flowing so quietly and the poplars on the opposite bank, and sometimes I can’t go on, it gives me such a pain in my heart. I know now that those were the happiest weeks I ever spent in my life. That man, he’s an angel of sweetness.”

Suzanne felt she was growing sentimental and feared (wrongly) that I should laugh at her. She shrugged her shoulders and smiled.

“You know, I’ve always made up my mind that when I’ve reached the canonical age and no man wants to sleep with me any more I shall make my peace with the Church and repent of my sins. But the sins I committed with Larry nothing in the world will ever induce me to repent of. Never, never, never!”

“But as you’ve described it I can see nothing you can possibly have to repent of.”

“I haven’t told you the half of it yet. You see, I have a naturally good constitution and being out in the air all day, eating well, sleeping well, with not a care in the world, in three or four weeks I was as strong as ever I’d been. And I was looking well; I had color in my cheeks and my hair had recovered its sheen. I felt twenty. Larry swam in the river every morning and I used to watch him. He has a beautiful body, not an athlete’s like my Scandinavian, but strong and of an infinite grace.

“He’d been very patient while I was so weak, but now that I was perfectly well I saw no reason to keep him waiting any longer. I gave him a hint or two that I was ready for anything, but he didn’t seem to understand. Of course you Anglo-Saxons are peculiar, you’re brutal and at the same time you’re sentimental; there’s no denying it, you’re not good lovers. I said to myself, ‘Perhaps it’s his delicacy, he’s done so much for me, he’s let me have the child here, it may be that he hasn’t the heart to ask me for the return that is his right.’ So one night, as we were going to bed, I said to him, ‘D’you want me to come to your room tonight?’ ”

I laughed.

“You put it a bit bluntly, didn’t you?”

“Well, I couldn’t ask him to come to mine, because Odette was sleeping there,” she answered ingenuously. “He looked at me with those kind eyes of his for a moment, then he smiled. ‘D’you want to come?’ he said.

“ ‘What do you think—with that fine body of yours?’

“ ‘All right, come then.’

“I went upstairs and undressed and then I slipped along the passage to his room. He was lying in bed reading and smoking a pipe. He put down his pipe and his book and moved over to make room for me.”

Suzanne was silent for a while and it went against my grain to ask her questions. But after a while she went on.

“He was a strange lover. Very sweet, affectionate and even tender, virile without being passionate, if you understand what I mean, and absolutely without vice. He loved like a hot-blooded schoolboy. It was rather funny and rather touching. When I left him I had the feeling that I should be grateful to him rather than he to me. As I closed the door I saw him take up his book and go on reading from where he had left off.”

I began to laugh.

“I’m glad it amuses you,” she said a trifle grimly. But she was not without a sense of humor. She giggled. “I soon discovered that if I waited for an invitation I might wait indefinitely, so when I felt like it I just went into his room and got into bed. He was always very nice. He had in short natural human instincts, but he was like a man so preoccupied that he forgets to eat, yet when you put a good dinner before him he eats it with appetite. I know when a man’s in love with me, and I should have been a fool if I’d believed that Larry loved me, but I thought he’d get into the habit of me. One has to be practical in life and I said to myself that it would suit me very well if when we went back to Paris he took me to live with him. I knew he’d let me have the child and I should have liked that. My instinct told me I’d be silly to fall in love with him, you know women are very unfortunate, so often when they fall in love they cease to be lovable, and I made up my mind to be on my guard.”

Suzanne inhaled the smoke of her cigarette and blew it out through her nose. It was growing late and many of the tables were now empty, but there was still a group of people hanging around the bar.

“One morning, after breakfast, I was sitting on the riverbank sewing, and Odette was playing with some bricks he’d bought her when Larry came up to me.

“ ‘I’ve come to say good-bye to you,’ he said.

“ ‘Are you going somewhere?’ I said, surprised.

“ ‘Yes.’

“ ‘Not for good?’ I said.

“ ‘You’re quite well now. Here’s enough money to keep you for the rest of the summer and to start you off when you get back to Paris.’

“For a moment I was so upset I didn’t know what to say. He stood in front of me, smiling in that candid way of his.

“ ‘Have I done something to displease you?’ I asked him.

“ ‘Nothing. Don’t think that for a moment. I’ve got work to do. We’ve had a lovely time down here. Odette, come and say good-bye to your uncle.’

“She was too young to understand. He took her up in his arms and kissed her; then he kissed me and walked back into the hotel; in a minute I heard the car drive away. I looked at the banknotes I had in my hand. Twelve thousand francs. It came so quickly I hadn’t time to react. ‘Zut alors,’ I said to myself. I had at least one thing to be thankful for, I hadn’t allowed myself to fall in love with him. But I couldn’t make head or tail of it.”

I was obliged to laugh.

“You know, at one time I made quite a little reputation for myself as a humorist by the simple process of telling the truth. It came as such a surprise to most people that they thought I was being funny.”

“I don’t see the connection.”

“Well, Larry is, I think, the only person I’ve ever met who’s completely disinterested. It makes his actions seem peculiar. We’re not used to persons who do things simply for the love of God whom they don’t believe in.”

Suzanne stared at me.

“My poor friend, you’ve had too much to drink.”