Set this house on fire, p.10
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       Set This House on Fire, p.10

           William Styron

  But I did not go to sleep then—not quite. I only half-dozed, and as I did so a lowland boyhood seascape formed in outline against my brain: a quiet blue waterway, boats, seas, gulls. Then Wendy, propped near me blank and lovely against the cork cushions of a sailboat whispering over foam-flecked Virginia waters, indolently murmuring: “What sunlight. What a divine day.” And Mason’s voice, merry from the helm: “Stand by to come about!” Then the stilted feminine voice again—”Mason, darling! I always get the spray!“—as the boat in ponderous swerve came up to meet the wind, trembled for an instant at standstill amid a flutter of sails, then caught the breeze and turned—gulls, trees, sky and distant riverside all turning too, slowly spinning, moving in languid panorama out of sight. And, “Mason darling,” the voice cajoled light-heartedly, “I always get wet. Let Peter sail, chéri.”

  “Don’t be silly, Wendy-dear,” I seemed to hear his reply. “Peter wouldn’t know a jib from a jibe.”

  “But darling, how uncuhteous to your guests.”

  “Shut up. I love you, angel.”

  “Angel-pie. My sweet adorable seventeen-year-old. Happy birthday, lover. And Peter, dear. Happy birthday, too.”

  It was not my birthday at all, but a half-dozen martinis had clouded many of her perceptions; when we docked she almost toppled from the boat but, svelte in slacks and nimble, recovered her balance and stood poised at the bow gleaming and joyful, stretching out her arms and whispering, “Youth, youth,” to an apricot-colored sunset. It was the day Mason was kicked out of St. Andrew’s, imprinted deep in my memory because the havoc wreaked upon Wendy-dear (I rarely heard him call his mother anything else) beginning at the moment that evening when, I think, she sensed the news (he tried to pick the most propitious moment, too, when liquored up, in chirrupy flattery still bestowing upon him garlands of chéris and angel-pies, she seemed most able to absorb the shock), sketched upon my mind such a cruel portrait of human turmoil that I often still wonder how, at that age, I survived it.

  St. Andrew’s was not much as a school, I suppose. Created for the sons of impecunious Virginia Episcopalians, threadbare and creaky, as frigid in December as Dotheboys Hall and chronically short of money, it had more than its share of misfits and nincompoops who could not find lodging elsewhere, and was a snug harbor for storm-driven scholars washed up from the academic sea. Our English master one year, I remember, was a young football star from an agricultural college somewhere who kept reading us verses by Grantland Rice; another year, some poor old derelict, a French instructor, was found dead in bed with a bottle of booze beside him. But what there was lacking in scholarship and learning was made up in something called “St. Andrew’s spirit”; the football team, clad in cast-off moth-eaten jersies, was regularly trampled by every institution in the state, but rowdily cheered; and the school’s situation—its bucolic setting in the lost Virginia tidelands, the surrounding blue and brooding sweep of river’s estuary and riverside and bay, nodding cedars around the windows close by where we slept, and pines in the woods, and willows at the water’s edge which at each morning’s tolling bell, I remember, let loose to the sun a flight of exultant birds—made it an agreeable place for a boy to live and grow. What is more, it was a tiny school—there were rarely more than forty of us—so that often I think we felt, though unconsciously, that we were more of a family than a school and that Dr. Thomas Jefferson Marston, the pious old minister who reigned over us, and so Virginian that it was almost heartbreaking just to hear him say “General Lee,” was more of a father to us than a headmaster. His voice was seraphic—a posthorn, a cello, a psaltery upon which each evening, with artless splendor, he played the liturgy’s ravishing song; now when I recall those musty twilights in chapel, and the old man’s luscious voice floating over our bowed, disheveled heads—Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord—and then let my mind rove to some other scene, to the river, blue, immaculate blue, where we sailed our leaky boats, and the surrounding crickety frog-filled woods lit at night by our stealthy, clandestine lamps and the hill sloping chaste and grassy to the bay, where we went digging for clams and the evening gulls would slant away in full cry eastward toward the sea—when, as I say, in impiety and yearning, in headlong rush toward some departed tranquillity and innocence, I think of those scenes, there soars above them in my memory that reverend voice still crying out in dusk like some celestial trumpet: O Lord, my strength and my redeemer!

  Into this dutiful Christian atmosphere Mason burst like some debauched cheer in the midst of worship, confounding and fascinating us all. He came out of the North (to all of us a mysterious place; Rye, New York, was where he had lived until the age of twelve), enunciating his “r’s” with a brisk, sophisticated lilt, draped in a cashmere blazer, and loaded down with Tootsie Rolls, golf clubs, and contraceptives. Already, he told us with some pride, he had been kicked out of two schools. He was seductively glib, winning, quick-witted and beautiful. And at first he bewitched all of us.

  Once he told us that he had been only thirteen when he lost his virginity—one summer week end at his father’s recently acquired estate on the York River—to a no longer young but still lovely and still celebrated Hollywood actress. The story was outlandish but somehow plausible. We all knew Mason’s family moved in movie circles. And considering other tales about this lady (one of them, having something to do with a scandalous act beneath a night-club table, had been powerful enough to unhinge the imagination of a whole generation of schoolboys), I guess we at first believed it. Mason was only sixteen at the time, and he unfolded the story with all the dreamy richness of detail of some rancid old libertine. Yet it was typical of Mason even then to undermine his own credibility, and to ruin a good thing: in later accounts that early seduction was only the first of many skirmishes, and the insatiable movie queen became his mistress for three summers running. There were steamy liaisons in Richmond or Washington, love-bouts in the backs of cars, in swimming pools, on boats; once, he claimed, standing up in a hammock—all these even at our gullible, lascivious age were flights of desire beyond reason and the whole wonderful erotic edifice crumbled finally, broken by Mason’s preposterous embellishments. I think our disbelief honestly hurt Mason; later I found out from his mother that the actress had indeed visited the Flaggs—once in Rye when Mason was very young—and had brought him a teddy bear and dandled him on her knee.

  His wealth, his glamorous connections, his premature ease with the things of the flesh—they worked on me a profound fascination. Why he in turn should have been attracted to me I have never known for certain. My background, for example, is almost triumphantly middle-class. I have a feeling that Mason’s interest in me was largely based on the fact that—at least then—I laughed unfailingly at his jokes, nodded amiably at his lies, and in my sycophant’s role mirrored some desperately needed approval for all his greedy desires. Actually I always felt that he somehow admired me—for whatever sentimental altruism I possess that allowed me to tolerate his own excesses. It has taken me years to learn how to reproach people to their faces.

  At any rate, Mason at sixteen was more worldly—or gave the impression of being so—than many young men who look wan and deflated at thirty. He dressed in sleek trim suits tailored in New York, smoked English cigarettes, and though he had never left America his voice was the exhausted querulous vibrato of a man who had savored a score of exotic coasts. Already he had outstripped his own adolescence and was lean and handsome, with a supremely becoming suggestion of whiskers and a horrible turn of mind that could cause him to whisper, as he did to me one morning in chapel: “I try to pray but all I can think about is getting laid.” It shocked me, for my belief in God, though fading, was still alive and suffered few fleshly intrusions. But my bulwarks were breaking up. I continued to be beguiled by Mason while the other boys were losing interest in him. They were less susceptible to his wealth, became tired of his endless stories, and were finally outraged when Mason, who had the makings of a good athlete, counterfeited something
sprained and sat out the whole football season. Of all the boys I think I alone regarded that act as something other than cowardice. In the end I was the only friend he had left—which as I look at it now may well have been a measure of my corruptibility.

  The Flaggs were the only people I ever knew who were millionaires. Mason’s father was a New Yorker, an investor who had made some sort of a fabulous killing in the distributing end of the movie industry (“About the only one in the business,” Mason used to say rather proudly, “who isn’t a Jew or a Greek.”) and had come down to the fashionable part of Gloucester County to set himself up as a Virginia gentleman. He was a success at it, buying an enormous estate called Merryoaks, which was a Colonial plantation manor authentic in every respect—at least until the addition of a swimming pool, tennis courts, and a stainless-steel boathouse. That year I went there with Mason many times—it was only an hour or so’s drive from the school. In the early fall there were often parties for the grownups, New York celebrities going and coming in Cadillacs, and a grove of pastel paper lanterns sprouting each dusk upon the lawn. Once a ball-bearing mogul from Sweden named Aarvold landed his airplane on the grassy meadow which was the Flaggs’ back yard. In those antebellum days this was an exploit of spectacular dash, and it took me a long while to get over it. That was the same week end, I recall, that Mr. Flagg hired a whole choir of Richmond Negroes to sing spirituals for the guests, and I remember Mason remarking that the entire proceedings were “impossibly vulgar.” “Old Cuh-nel Flagg,” he said scornfully, with that pained awareness he always had that he was not really a southerner, and that his family were Johnny-come-lately Virginians. That week end, too, I remember everyone was waiting for Greta Garbo to show up but for some reason she never came. Lionel Barrymore was there, though, and Carole Lombard, and a very young starlet of about seventeen—she never amounted to much in the movies—with whom I was feverishly smitten, and who teased me so unmercifully about my tidewater drawl that I eradicated it on the spot. To this day, because of her, my accent has remained as amorphous and orderly as a radio announcer’s. My very breath turned to dust around her, and I suspected that she loathed me for the soft patina of acne that hovered rosily about my nose. But I felt blessed just to walk where her shadow fell and would willingly have died after the ecstasy of that night, when doggedly, sweatily, and stricken mute as stone I danced with her until dawn, and until the last of the hired musicians began packing their horns and violins, and the renovated castle in the morning mists loomed with drowsy parvenu splendor amid its garland of extinguished lanterns.

  I never got to talk to the elder Flagg at all. He always seemed oddly removed from Mason. I was constantly aware of some unspoken resentment between them which Mason, on his part, would relieve by stealing the old man’s liquor. He was a bald, mustachioed, freckled little man with an adjutant’s strut and a bearing which I couldn’t help but associate with spurs and jodhpurs, rather than with the soft effeminate flannels and sandals in which he was usually decked out. Young as I was and diminutive as he was, I could sniff when I was near him a tremendous power and affluence. It was easy to tell he liked the presence of celebrities, who in turn flocked like famished, irrepressible moths around his opulent flame. He dropped dead later during the war, in South America, where he was financing a huge new chain of theaters. I only realized his eminence—specialized as it might have been—when I saw his obituaries everywhere, making him out as something of a mystery man who had always shunned personal publicity. Resentment, ill-will, whatever, he nonetheless left Mason a trust fund which amounted to nearly two million dollars.

  Wendy-dear, however, I knew much better, for she worshiped Mason, and with the blind constancy of some devout communicant, seemed always to be hovering near the image of her adoration. Mason had already been expelled from two New England prep schools and it is doubtful that he would have been admitted to a school less hard up for money than St. Andrew’s; even so, it was not hard to tell that she sent him there mainly in order to be close to him, and that those dark moods of apprehension which flickered from time to time across her lovely face expressed a fear, constantly jangling and discordant, that he would get booted out again. She was a marvel to me. Rich flaxen hair brushed with electric perfume and a high flush of rouge at her cheeks, inch-long vermilion fingernails and a jangle and bangle of brass at wrists and ears—these were attributes I had never connected with mothers, who in Port Warwick tended to be portly and subdued, and she seemed to me a fantastic apparition, irresistibly, almost alarmingly beautiful. However, she smoked a lot, and drank; in fact, she was the first lady lush I had ever seen. Three bourbon old-fashioneds after dinner (this was always when Flagg, Senior, was away, which had become more and more frequent toward the spring of that year) made her diction almost as impenetrable as something croaked out by a deaf-mute; she began to weep and fawn over Mason, telling him that for her sake, for his future’s sake, for Princeton, he must be a good boy at school, suggesting now with a hoarse sob, now with a martyred shrug or a final haggard grimace, that since his father was seeking another woman’s bed, he, Mason, was the only thing she had left on earth. I had lofty southern notions about ladies at the time, and scenes like these left me flabbergasted and depressed.

  But when sober, such talk from a mother! Such enchanting, indiscreet, worldly-wise chatter I had never heard.

  “But chéri, you have so much to learn. You’re really so young yet, darling. Sex—I mean the physical union between man and woman—is a beautiful experience, not something foul-mouthed and vile. You’ll learn. No wonder Dr. Morrison lectured you. You say he overheard you telling that perfectly horrible joke?”

  Still unwitting, still unaware that Mason had been sacked only the night before, she drove us in her convertible down to Merryoaks on that fatal birthday week end, her gorgeous hair flying out behind her in streams of undulating gold. Like his silent pimply equerry I reclined on the back seat behind Mason (it had been no simple joke the headmaster had reckoned with, but some carnal embrace in which the old doctor, fumbling around and with palsied fingers lighting matches in the chapel basement, had ambushed Mason stark naked with the weak-minded daughter of a local oysterman, both of them clutching bottles of sacramental wine; and no lecture—“He whaled the hell out of me,” Mason later said—but a public proclamation cast in the form of such black anathema that Istill recall how the last part of it read: “… a stench and a rottenness in the Nostrils of Almighty God, and I am grieved to say that it is no lingering fragment of Christian forbearance, but only the law of the Commonwealth of Virginia, which prevents my exacting a retribution more severe than silent and expeditious banishment.”); Mason, unperturbed and elegant in a camel’s-hair jacket beside his mother, would turn his luxurious profile toward her from time to time and lightly peck her cheek, the two of them lost in tender banter, gazing long at one another while the car, swaying from side to side and under no control at all, hurtled down dusty country roads like a runaway rocket.

  “Yes, Wendy-dear, the joke about the duchess and the poodle.”

  “Well, no wonder, it’s perfectly vile.”

  “How else then, dear heart, is an unmarried man going to get his kicks? In France—”

  “Oh, I’m sorry I ever talked to you about France. You’re not a man. I hate to tell you this, dear, but when you get to Princeton they’ll consider you the merest boy.”

  “Wendy, sometimes you’re such a trial. Besides, remember your promise.”

  “What promise, angel?”

  “That when I’m eighteen you’ll take me to—what do you call it?—one of those bordellos.”

  “Darling! Peter, don’t listen to him! Darling, you’re absolutely vile!”

  I was unhappy for Mason’s sake that day, fidgety with apprehension over the scene I knew must come, but Mason and his mother were all high spirits and merriment. Before noon the three of us went sailing in the Flaggs’ trim little sloop, landing across the river at Yorktown, where we spread a picnic
lunch upon one of the grassy breastworks so lucklessly defended by Lord Cornwallis. To me Wendy had never looked so devastating as she did that day, all sheen and gold and radiance; with a saucy wink for me, prankishly tousling Mason’s hair, breathing soft phrases of flattery and devotion to both of us, she seemed hardly a mother at all but some grown-up Dulcinea possessing both sexual allure and incalculable wisdom. It was a hot spring day and we had drinks—for Mason and me beer, for Wendy martinis, which with fetching nonchalance she poured from a Thermos bottle. “Certainly not, my pet,” she said to Mason, with a bright little grin, “young lips that touch martinis shall never touch mine. Drink your beer like a nice boy. In a year you can drink anything you like.” Later on, recrossing the river, we met a flat calm which set the sails flappily sagging. “Who cares?” cried Wendy, throwing her arms around the two of us. “It’s birthday time! Oh Gawd, to be seventeen again! Let’s drift away, away to the sea!” Even I in my anxiety found her spirit contagious; we all began to sing songs, sprawled out on the deck in sodden contentment while the boat, unhelmed and sideslipping gently downriver, edged out into wide waters toward the sea.

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