Set this house on fire, p.11
Set This House on Fire,
“In the evening by the moonlight,
You could hear those darkies singing—”
we sang, floating past the mouths of tideland streams on the distant shore, sunny meadows on the slopes above, fish stakes in the water, and once an old Negro out tonging oysters, whose eyes rolled white and wonder-struck as we passed. An hour, two hours went by. “Look at him, Peter,” she murmured sleepily, “isn’t he the adorablest thing? Why, he has practically no hips at all.” To which Mason, inured to this kind of talk but flustered because of my presence, said, “Wendy-dear, sometimes you’re such a trial,” as the wind rose abruptly and whisked us homeward—sunburned, half-stupefied—trailing seaweed in our wake.
I had never been really drunk before that afternoon and I was just sixteen: everything, even my premonitory sense of doom, I remember as in a shimmery haze through which the visions of my mind glowed with beauty and with bright ineffable glamour. Far up its hill above the river Merryoaks stood solitary and colonnaded in imperial grandeur, its windless, porticoed façade serene in shadows above an emerald sweep of lawn where reflections from the swimming pool sent dancing oblong shapes of light against the grass. A Negro, white-jacketed, appeared briefly on the heights, then disappeared. Twilight was drawing in behind the pines, which cast stiltlike silhouettes across the rolling landscaped terraces and flagstone walks. As we approached the dock, closehauled and decks awash in one last windy sweep across the shore, I raised my bedazzled eyes in almost tearful gratitude to this place, and Wendy took my hand, squeezing it gently, as if to indicate, “Because you are Mason’s friend, this too is yours.” But again my exalted mood began to fade a little as we docked, when it occurred to me that still he hadn’t told her. We were met there by Richard, the thin-lipped, poker-faced Alsatian who was the Flaggs’ butler, chauffeur, and factotum, brought down from Rye; a burly fellow, he reminded me of a movie villain, and whenever he smiled, which was practically never, it was with a crude perfunctory smirk that was like a surgical incision. He always left me feeling cowed and intimidated—although this may have been because he was the first white manservant I had ever seen. The two Great Danes leashed to his wrist were as big as panthers and they strained for Wendy as she lurched ashore, whimpering their love as she embraced them and crooned baby talk into their ears, and vaulting finally with great savage groans into the back seat of the Cadillac, where they settled among the three of us licking their chops and shuddering with power.
On the drive up through the pinewoods to the house, Wendy fell softly and suddenly asleep on Mason’s shoulder. As for Mason, for the first time since I had known him he seemed despondent, and crestfallen. Drops of sweat stood out on his brow, and as he tenderly held Wendy against him he drew his mouth tautly down and sent me an abject look of dread. Possibly only then, the giddy voyage downriver finished, had he realized the consequences of the brainless thing he had done. Whatever, this pale glance and then his whispered words—“How am I going to tell her, for Jesus sake?”—made me feel a renewed misery, for Mason, but more now for Wendy—who I felt was the most glamorous mother on earth—and for all of her blasted hopes.
She was not drunk yet, not really drunk as I once had seen her; she was only, as she put it when we climbed out of the car, “fagged out from the sun, my dears,” and needed a nap. So we watched her weave across the portico, golden hair still in place, slacks still neat and trim around her thighs, but faltering as she walked, so that Richard with a murmured “Moddom” rushed to help her on her way, along with Richard’s wife, a parched, aproned little woman who crooked her arm under Wendy’s like a nurse with an invalid and led her into the shadows of the house and up the circular stairs in slow, stately, almost funereal procession, the two dogs prancing and bounding behind them. “If she gets good and drunk … if she gets reallv stoned,” Mason said solemnly, “maybe she can take it when I tell her.” But there was no trace of humor in his voice, and I thought I saw him shiver: he looked cold with panic and fear. In the fading twilight we tried to play a set of tennis, but Mason’s game, usually so expert and aggressive, was listless, and although fogged with beer I beat him for the first time, which made him more downcast than ever. Then over us—almost, it seemed, with a crash—night fell, sending a hot breeze through that grove of oaks whose sprightly, trembling leaves had named the whole plantation, scattering westward a flock of crows which squawked dismally in leaden flight toward the last pink glimmering streaks of dusk. In the darkness his racket clattered off the ground. “Ruined! Destroyed!” I heard him cry in about the only tone of self-reproach I had ever heard him use. “I guess I’ve screwed myself for life on account of a lousy two-bit pig!”
It was the optimism of my youth, I suppose, that led me to hope for a while that Wendy might be unaffected by the news which Mason had to tell her. So blithe and carefree, so understanding—such a sport—surely her sympathies would encompass Mason’s awful blunder, and she’d shrug it off, and laugh merrily, and indulge him as she always had. Mason, however, knew better. As the evening wore on he grew more and more dejected and at cocktail hour when Wendy, enfolded in organdy and smoke-colored tulle, joined us in the library, he pressed upon her a whole jugful of martinis with the hopeful, hangdog, solemn expression of someone propitiating a goddess. But something had happened to her: though still weaving slightly she seemed chastened, somber even, as if in her nap or somewhere in the upper reaches of the house she had received a sign or signal, a hint that something terrible was being concealed from her, and she flopped down on the couch, saying: “Oh God, this place is such a bore.”
“Wendy-dear,” Mason began, “I got something—”
“Hush, junior-pie, let Wendy talk. Sit down here. Who’s that on the radio? That awful Kay Kyser. Get something sweet, angel.” A gray sullen look had possessed her features; her skin sagged in places and those two muscles at the neck which turn the head were firmly outlined. To me, suddenly, much of her beauty had faded—though perhaps it was only the shadows—and I realized she must be old, very old, perhaps as old as thirty-five. “I hate to sound like such a drip at your birthday party, chéri, but this place just bores me to tears. If you just realized how lonesome this place is, with no one around, and no one but Denise and that horrible Richard to talk to. As for the servants—those darkies—I haven’t ever been able to understand a word they say. What do they speak in—Brazilian? Oh Gawd,” she yawned. “Oh, who’s that? Sammy Kaye? Leave that on, angel.”
The library itself was a visitation from the eighteenth century, with its glittering chandeliers and opulent walnut paneling and glossy parquet floors, a vessel of antique elegance set down, as if by magic, into an age of chrome, and demanding almost palpably some saving grace of glowing tapers or of cocked hats and a harpsichord’s splashing keys, instead of ourselves, so anachronistic, with beer cans and the sound of squalling horns and trombones. Yet I felt positively embowered in luxury, inflamed by a sad, nostalgic fever. I watched in fascination as Wendy got drunker and drunker. “Your father,” she said once to Mason, stroking his hair and gazing dreamily out through the open French doors, “your father has taken flight from Wendy. Your father is now romancing with—No! No names. Where? Tell me, angel-pie. Where’s Father? Out on the coast? You won’t fly away from Wendy, will you, chéri?”
“What coast?” I asked innocently.
“What coast! Jesus Christ, listen,” said Mason, laughing for the first time in hours.
“Let’s ask Peter, darling,” she went on, draining her glass. “No, angel, Wendy doesn’t want another drinkle. All right, just a little bit. There. Let’s ask Peter, because he loves us and we love him. Peter, sweet, what do you think about fathers who go running around with other girls?”
“It’s for the birds,” I said, trying to affect Mason’s detachment, but I grew hot with confusion.
“See there? Peter knows. Peter can tell what’s right.” She paused, and I thought I heard a sob, far back in her throat. Then, caught up in some reverie, she began
And so the forlorn business continued; the self-absorption of her misery, so omnivorous, seemed to have swallowed up all thought of Mason’s birthday and it was way past ten when—still talking and clutching at the two of us for support—she accompanied us to dinner. “I mean, really,” she was saying bitterly, as Mason shoved a chair under her. “Reeshard, that wine! Really, after all, young as you are, can’t you boys see that it’s just a matter of simple ordinary human decency? Really, it’s not as if I were some Hollywood tart he had picked up somewhere. I mean, after all, Daddy Bob and Mummy and I were in the Social Register back then, you know, and the Van Camps were on Long Island two hundred years before the Flaggs even landed. McKeesport, P.A.! Phoo-ee!” She gave a scornful laugh, made an ambiguous gesture with her hand—I thought, just for an instant, that she was about to thumb her nose at Richard, who at the moment moved noiselessly in from the wings—and in so doing sent flying a water tumbler which fell in splintery ruin at Mason’s feet.
“Did you call, moddom?” Richard murmured.
“Of course I called,” she said. “Don’t bother about that glass. Bring that wine. The rose. Did I call?” she added loudly in a simpering voice to his back. “Did I call!”
In the space between drink and drink she had become, it seemed to me, almost dangerously agitated; her fingers drummed nervously on the table and her voice, customarily so silken and tender, had taken on a gravelly, slurred, barmaid’s tone. I was by then faint with discomfort. I looked to Mason for solace, found none: holding Wendy’s hand in his he peered intently into her eyes as she rambled off again, solicitously kept her supplied with wine, then with gentle admonishments carved her chicken when, stumped by the perplexities of knife and fork, she made motions to gobble it wholesale, and throughout the rest of the whole sad, stricken monologue remained grimly alert and as grave as an archbishop. “One miserable, single horse. That’s all. You’d think I’d asked him for a stable. And that’s it! Listen, angel, you aren’t listening to Wendy!”
“Wendy-dear, my heart at thy sweet voice—or something or other.” Tensely watching her, he jerked his shoulder convulsively. “Roll on, lover.”
“Sweetness. Angel. Where was I? Oh, that’s just it! I mean, after all, who was it that gave him a start in the first place? Who was it? Answer me that. I’ll answer it! None other than Robert Sargent Van Camp the Second! Do you think Daddy Bob balked one instant when your father came to him back then and asked him for enough means to get started out in life? Do you think Daddy Bob balked? No, he didn’t. Not Daddy Bob. Daddy Bob—that’s Mason’s grandfather, Peter, I mean my father—Daddy Bob had a heart as big as all outdoors.” She began to sniffle again, her brow propped on her palm in sudden meditation, a forkful of food in mid-air, gravy trickling slowly down her chin. I was on the verge of panic.
“Everybody came to see us then. I mean just everybody. Before Mummy died. Parties. Dancing. Moonlight sails. I mean it was a—a way of life that was—oh, free and wonderful. And just after I got out of Foxcroft, Daddy Bob had the most marvelous coming-out party for me. With just zillions and zillions of people and two bands and everything. And there was this boy that was just mad for me. This boy named Amory Phelps. Poor thing, he got drowned at Bar Harbor. I mean, he was such a wonderful boy, all full of spirit and everything, with this wonderful soft voice. Oh, why am I talking this way?” she blurted suddenly. “I’m such a drip, angel, I know. Please forgive me. And Peter—forgive me, please forgive me. It’s just that—oh, I don’t know—it’s just that I’m so proud of my handsome grown-up boy but knowing you’ll be going far away from me now—I mean, on your wonderful way up, up toward the stars, really all those wonderful proud things you’re going to do. It’s just so hard thinking you’ll be so far away, and yet—and yet—oh, it’s just all so tragic! I’ve asked for so little. So little.” Her head sank to the table upon her folded arms; in spasms she began to sob, her shoulders heaving. At this moment the swinging doors flapped open, propelling toward us on a hot gust of kitchen air the nightmarish Richard, his face flaming red from the glow of seventeen candles on a cake. I had no idea what to do, knowing that tradition demanded a song. I began to sing “Happy Birthday” in a peepish voice, only to feel the words congeal soundless in my throat. In silence I stared at Wendy. I could barely make out those words she was mumbling so inconsolably and with such raw, tormented grief into the crook of her arm. “—will take me, chéri” she seemed to say. “Take me with you … our background … chéri.” Then “famous” and “man” and “good.”
“Wendy-dear,” Mason said. “I’ve got news for you.”
“It happened again.”
“Don’ speak, angel.”
“I ain’t going to college, lover.”
“Angel, my heart is breaking.”
“Wendy, listen, I said I’m not going to college.”
He seized her roughly by the shoulders, shaking her. “Wendy, I got kicked out of school! Listen, I got booted out. Can’t you understand?”
“Angel-pie, always poking fun at Wendy.”
I think I would have fled at that instant had I not felt rooted helplessly to my chair. In the minute’s dead silence coming after, gongs and chimes went off all over the vast house, crying midnight, midnight in a clashing, outlandish counterpoint of tortured clockwork and jangling bells. “Excuse me—” I tried to say, but only my mind departed from the scene, winging outward over moonlit water, pines, and sleeping fields, toward safety, toward home—in swift flight seeking refuge for one blessed instant from all this incomprehensible sorrow and wretchedness, before that awful moment when Wendy, like a swimmer struggling up through asphyxiating depths, drew her face slowly upward from the table and now in grasp of it all, let out a deafening yell.
“Oh no! Oh no!” she cried, staring at him. “Oh no! Oh no! No! No! No! No! No!”
“Wendy, don’t take on like that—” Mason began in a fainthearted tone.
“No! No! No!”
He grasped her trembling hand. “Look, Wendy-dear, it’s not the end of the universe. After all, it’s not as if I hadn’t emerged unscathed.”
She shoved her face into her hands and began rocking to and fro, like some pitiable mourner. “You promised,” she moaned. “You said you’d be good. You said you wouldn’t disillusion me again. Oh no, no! I can’t believe it! I can’t stand it any more! What did you do, darling? What did you do?”
Set This House on Fire by William Styron / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes