Set this house on fire, p.12
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       Set This House on Fire, p.12

           William Styron
 

  For a moment I thought Mason too was going to weep, seeing his mother in such extremity. But he recovered, saying smoothly, almost jauntily: “Nothing you’d be ashamed of, lover. At least this time it wasn’t my grades. I got caught playing leapfrog with some dame.”

  “Sex!” she cried. “Intercourse? Oh, angel! Why couldn’t you have waited? No! No! No!”

  “Wendy, lover,” he said plaintively, “goddammit, I’m sorry as hell. I really am—”

  “But what’ll you do? What’ll you do? Oh, angel, how could you disappoint me so? What’s going to happen to you now? You can’t ever go to Princeton now. Without graduating. They won’t take you anywhere! How could you disillusion me like this?” Tears in rivulets streamed down her desolate face; she was shaking as if with a violent chill, for an instant I thought she was going to founder. “How could you, when you’re all I have? When all my hopes have been pinned on you? When I said, oh so many times, remember, ‘Always be good, my adorable one. Always be bright. Manly. Proud and poised. Oh, you are the bright star in Wendy’s crown!’” She paused, shaking and racked by hoarse, relentless sobs. A knife clattered to the floor. In the darkness of the room the birthday candles flickered and glowed, playing a blowzy light over her quivering lips, her tear-streaked face, her grief-disordered hair. Then I saw a remarkable thing happen. Mason, with suavity born of a communion with his mother so intricate that each impulse, each vagrant gesture, was freighted with a meaning like that of poetry, stuck two cigarettes in his mouth, lit them, and casually but tenderly placed one of them between her lips. Instantly her grief seemed to dissolve; she became placid, soothed. Whether this gift alone turned the trick or whether, so full of gin and wine, she had lost all touch with what was going on, I couldn’t tell; whatever, it was like sticking a lollipop in the mouth of a child: her tears stopped, she gently burped, and she turned to Mason with a dreamlike look of concern. “But angel,” she said, “what about all your clothes?”

  “The old bastard wouldn’t let me go back to the dormitory. He made me sleep on a cot in the gym. He said I’d contaminate the rest of the guys. Oh, Wendy, really, the whole goddam thing is so puerile that I don’t even want to think about it. Really, honey—I mean I got my ashes hauled, that’s all. Jesus sake, it wasn’t any mortal sin. I was just too stupid not to be more discreet. I mean—Jesus sake—that’s all.”

  “But angel, still, what about all your clothes? That Burberry—”

  “Oh, he told me he’d get one of the niggers to pack them up and send—”

  “Who did? Who said that?” she asked sharply.

  “Dr. Marston.”

  “You mean you weren’t even allowed to take away your own personal possessions?”

  “Oh, Wendy,” he said wearily, “don’t capsize yourself. It’s all so tedious. It was a rotten little dump anyway. They couldn’t teach you to spell cat.”

  “I will be heard! Oh, I will!” she cried angrily. “Do you mean to tell me that that old man! I mean that dirty old sanctimonious parson! That Morrison—”

  “Marston,” he corrected.

  “That he can just dismiss a boy like that! Without one word of why or wherefore or anything to me! A parent!”

  “Oh, sit down, Wendy-dear.”

  “I will not sit down. Does he think that he can just dismiss you without any kind of a trial at all? I mean reason? Or wherefore? To the parent, I mean. Or justice! And then talk about contaminating and all? And then not let you have the simple obligation of your clothes! That sanctimonious old man? Oh no!” She staggered from the table, a bedraggled scarecrow of a woman now, muttering vengeance and yelling for her car. “Reeshard! Where is that dummy?”

  “Wendy,” Mason cried. “For Christ sake, sit down!”

  She floundered across the room. “Oh no! Not on this night! Where’s the Pontiac? If that old man doesn’t think he’s going to answer—”

  “Wendy,” he shouted, rising now. “You can’t drive up there!”

  But she might have done so—at least she might have tried—had it not been for the commotion that arose at that moment from the hallway, and the five minutes’ chaotic events that followed. For as I watched her retreating back, watched Mason now too in hot pursuit behind her, I heard a tremendous hubbub outside, a banging sound, a man’s voice yelling, and the noise of barking dogs—all muffled at first and in fuzzy confusion, until Wendy, on her way out, threw open the door and let in the whole baleful, troubled racket. I heard the Great Danes at the door, roaring. Then the male howls again, not one voice now, but two or three, and the noise of scuffling feet and the lumpish sound of flesh bouncing off timber—all of these projected upon the balmy evening like the sound track alone in some tumultuous scene in a movie. I followed Mason out of the dining room and into the lofty foyer. Here at the entrance to the house I saw Richard, in full livery embattled at the door jamb, bawling in French and in English. and tugging passionately at the Great Danes, who, leashed and foaming, their toenails skidding and chattering against the tiles, made great ferocious lunges toward whoever it was standing on the portico below.

  “Go away! You hear!” cried Richard. “Allez donc! Quick!”

  “Richard!” Wendy shrieked.

  “Je vais appeler la police, madame!”

  “What do they want?” she cried.

  “I reckon you know what we want!” said the voice from below, It was a countrified voice, guttural, faintly Negroid—almost Elizabethan—the lazy archaic voice of the southern Chesapeake, one now accented heavily with menace; I felt my scalp prickle as, drawing near the door with suspicion, then certainty, I saw whose voice it was: a rawboned oysterman in overalls, his face like a blade, eyes implanted deep beneath his brows like shiny buckshot and reflecting intolerable outrage and injury. Next to him stood a younger, shorter oysterman, with a square, very red, disconsolate face and a huge club in his hand. “I reckon you know all right,” the first man said. “We just want that boy of your’n, to learn him a lesson or two.” He shot a warning glance at the smaller man, “Don’t aidge up on them dogs, Buddy.”

  “What are they talking about?” she wailed. “Richard, get Fritzi and Bingo inside! I can’t hear!”

  “I’ll tell you what we’re talking about,” he said. “Let me lay hands on that boy of your’n and you’ll know what I’m talking about! Seems like they don’t teach nothin’ to ’em at that school, nor nothin’ home wise neither! Holt still, Buddy, them dogs’ll chaw yo’ laigs off. Missus, we druv all the way from Tappahannock tonight and don’t aim to go back without bruisin’ that boy’s dirty hide.”

  Mouth agape, hair astray and tangled around her face, Wendy stood clinging to the door gazing at them in groggy alarm. Mason, along with Richard and the dogs, still bucking and snarling, moved back hastily into the shadows of the hallway. “Wendy,” I heard him say in a panicky voice, “shut the goddam door!”

  “But I don’t understand—”

  “Missus, I’m right sorry for you,” he said. “If I had a boy like that I reckon I’d go drown myself. Anyways, if you want to know what he done, here’s what he done: he tuk my girl Doris—she ain’t but thirteen, by God, and not real bright in the head, nohow —he tuk her and—missus, I sure hate to say this to you—he tuk her and he got her drunk there, and then by God he had her. Right up in that church at St. Andrew’s school! He tuk that poor little girl of mine, that little thirteen-years-old tyke, and he knowed her. By the flesh I mean he knowed her!”

  Wendy began to sob and moan again, but whether over this recital I couldn’t tell.

  Piety and retribution glittered from the oysterman’s eyes. “Missus, I ain’t never been no man to take the law in my own hands. I never had no cause to, anyways. Ask anybody around the river from Essex County all the way to Deltaville and they’ll tell you that Groover Floyd is a law-abidin’ man. But missus, I’ll tell you one thing.” Here for a second he paused, grimly clenching his knotted fists, and sent a russet jet of tobacco juice into the boxwood. “I’ll t
ell you one thing, missus. Ain’t no law nor statute in this state goin’ to stop me from undoin’ what that boy of your’n done. Warn’t no iniquity of Sodom any worse than he done, and right there in the plain sight of God, too, in His holy temple, to a pore little tyke but half out of her didy-drawers. Missus,” he said, stepping forward with Buddy now at his heels, the club cocked in mid-air, menacingly, “I don’t aim to cause you no hurt. Just step aside, now, because we means to git that boy!”

  It seemed then, as I too retreated in alarm, that a dozen things occurred to me at once: I saw Wendy first, thrown back against the door as if upon the full blast of his advancing wrath, her arms outstretched against the portal so that, spread-eagled now, her eyes tightly closed and mumbling unintelligible terror to the heavens, she looked like some swooning martyr awaiting upon the fagots her last agony and combustion; the two overalled men, hot-eyed and unrelenting, pressing forward up the steps toward us with stony resolution and slab-handed brawn, the older man now unlimbering from some rear pocket a length of cast-iron pipe which he brandished before him as he moved past Wendy and gained the doorstep; Mason, cowering pale behind Richard and the howling dogs, in abrupt crablike retreat scuttling across the hallway, slipping down, getting up, pleading for help in a shrill child’s voice as he raced for the stairs: Richard, himself too frightened to move or to release the dogs, paralyzed, brainlessly yelling, “Moddom, moddom!”—I heard and saw these things all in the briefest fraction of an instant. They passed across my mind in mesmeric slow parade as I stood there groping for a cigarette and until I realized with warm sinking panic in my entrails that the two men, their eyes now level upon me, thought that I was Mason. I tried to cry out, to move, but I was rooted there. And for all I know they might have grabbed me had there not at that moment issued from somewhere in the house behind me an outraged “Hold!”

  The voice sounded again: “Hold!” It was Mr. Flagg. Barefooted and in pajamas he emerged from a corridor—it seemed miles away across the hall—and padded noiselessly toward us. Was it that baritone parade-ground voice which alone was so commanding? Or indeed some pure presence, some compelling quality of power and authority which transmitted itself almost instantly to everyone in the place and caused each to stop, transfixed petrified in separate attitudes of anguish and wrath and flight? Whatever the case, as he spoke and came across those infinite distances toward us it was as if by sudden legerdemain we had all been frozen like statues in our tracks: Wendy crucified against the door, her eyes bulging in disbelief—“Justin, I thought—” I heard her murmur; the two oystermen stock-still where they halted at the doorstep, weapons upheld in motionless, powerless frieze against the night; even the dogs became still, struck dumb in a silence that seemed almost more deafening than all their roars; and finally I saw Mason on the staircase looking wildly down, one leg still poised in panicky ascent. And as we watched, Flagg came on. “Hold!” he cried. Bald and short, bespectacled, wearing a foppish sprig of a mustache, he came gliding toward us like a wound-up toy soldier on a drumhead, his fly open, looking neither left nor right, negotiating corners and pillars with precise right-angle turns. I felt I could almost hear a click at the corners, and the whir of toy machinery, but as he brushed past me with his face set grimly forward toward the door, I smelled the odor of bath-lotion, still lingering about me as he boomed at the men: “Get out of my house!”

  It was a display of sheer annihilating authority, of will; it was almost regal; the two men seemed to shrivel and bend before his fury like willows in a gale. Flustered, sheepish, now alarmed, the older man began to croak out again his affliction. “Well look, mister,” he started, “ ’twas only that boy of your’n there tuk my little girl—”

  “Drop that pipe!” Flagg snapped. “I heard everything already. I’ll pay you well for whatever you’ve suffered. Now get out of my house. Get out of my house before I shoot both of you!” He had no gun with him, but I would not have been astonished had he materialized one from the air.

  The pipe clattered to the floor. “She warn’t but thirteen years old,” the man began to blubber. “I swear ’fore God she come to me, mister, and she had a babydoll in her arms. A babydoll she had, the pore little tyke—”

  “I’m sorry for what you’ve suffered,” Flagg cut in. “But it’s no cause to enter someone’s home with weapons as you have done in the middle of the night. Now you get out of here, do you understand? Leave your name with my man and I’ll contact you tomorrow. Now both of you get out of here!”

  Standing barefooted at the door, he watched them turn and shuffle silently down the steps.

  “Justin—” I heard Wendy say. She took a step toward him. “Justin, I didn’t know you were here! Where have you—”

  “Shut up!” he said, whirling upon her. “Richard, call Denise in here, and have her put madame to bed.”

  “Justin,” she cried, “oh, Justin darling, where have you been?”

  “Shut up,” he repeated. “That’s no longer any concern of yours, Gwendolyn. Where I go and what I do is my concern and it will be that way, do you understand? It will be that way. It will be that way! And it will stay that way forever, while I have a common drunk for a wife—a common drunk, a common drunk and a moron—you are a moron, do you know that?—and a contemptible swine for a son!”

  Then, padding swiftly again across the gleaming floor—a short little man, stiffly erect—he was gone, leaving behind him, amid the shambles of the room and upon the hectic evening, the strange girlish scent of gardenias.

  Much later, still shaken, unable to sleep, I sat in the library with the radio turned down low and leafed half-blindly through a copy of Town & Country, Through the windows blew the faint smell of bloom and fern and flowers, the sound of frogs in the meadow and katydids, and in the woods a whippoorwill, broadcasting sweet, piercing word of impending summer. Mason came in after a while wearing an ornately figured bathrobe and a broad, derisive grin.

  “Well, it was quite a show, wasn’t it, Pierre?” he said.

  I would like to have answered but the words, whatever they were to be, refused to leave my lips. I kept looking at the magazine. It was the first of its kind I had ever seen, and it seemed to be full of pale, scrawny people propped on shooting sticks or studying horses. I was close to tears.

  “Mason,” I said finally, with a strained effort at levity, “why doesn’t Wendy get something somebody can read?”

  But then I saw that he was face-down on a couch sobbing desperately into the pillows, and so, not knowing what else to say, I let him go on weeping.

  After a while I dozed off. There was a sound in my ears, it seemed, of ten thousand alpine horns—slumberous, dim, muted from afar—while in a distant airy room of the mansion populated by whispers, by the footsteps of people I could not name, there came an incessant shuffling and rustling, as of someone packing for immediate flight. “Always love your mother,” I thought I heard Wendy murmur, but then, “Peter Leverett! Oh, Peter! Peter Leverett!” a voice called far above me. “Wake up! It’s way past time!” And I forced my eyelids apart, dreaming for a while that it was Wendy’s face hovering over me, until, pushing off the shroud of slumber, I blinked, still half-dozing, and felt the hands of Rosemarie de Laframboise urging me awake, in the dead of night, in Sambuco.

  “Don’t feel too bad about it, Peter,” Rosemarie was saying, “perhaps the poor man will get all right. You know, I’ve read about people who lie in a coma for just years and years …” She faltered, as if with the sudden knowledge that this was no consolation to me at all. “… and still live.” We were standing at the front entrance of the Bella Vista, where she had waited for me while I hurriedly bathed and shaved and put on my best suit. She had waited patiently, too, while I telephoned the hospital at Naples and learned from whom I took to be some nursing sister, a frosty tight-lipped woman, that di Lieto, still sunk in his dark unflagging slumber, his broken skull packed in ice, was in that condition whose outcome only the Heavenly Father Himself could fathom
or influence. As a parting shot—something steely in her voice told me she knew I was an Episcopalian—she enjoined me to prayer, and it was the look on my face, I suppose, prayerful and disconsolate, that caused Rosemarie with all the good will in the world to implant in my mind the vision of di Lieto lying supine, his hair slowly graying, oblivious of all, fed through some miserable tube until doomsday. “I mean,” she added hastily then, “what I mean is that this doesn’t mean he’s necessarily going to die, you know.”

  “I know,” I said forlornly.

  “Just try to forget about it, Peter,” she went on. “I know it must have been a horrible shock to you, but if you—if you can just for a moment conceive of it not as something so personal, but as only a—oh, I don’t know, a tiny little thing in the great working-out of the universe. Did you ever read The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran?” Her voice was very sad.

  “Oh Jesus, no,” I said. We paused to light cigarettes at the bottom of the steps that led into the front courtyard of the Bella Vista. Roses were in bloom here; the night was fragrant and warm and starless. Mild clouds drifted over the moon, leaving a hint in the air of reluctant and improbable rain. It would be sunny and hot again tomorrow. I felt wobbly, depleted still, as if in my recent half-hearted, muddled sleep I had not slept at all, but had walked endless distances, hefted huge burdens, battled giants. Yet as Rosemarie’s face, vast and beautiful, moved downward toward the flame in my cupped palm, obscuring the scent of roses with some strong sweet perfume of her own, it seemed that my mind was oddly keen and alert—that old beaten and buffaloed sensitivity again—and with a stab of recognition I knew I had seen her face before: it was of course Wendy’s, about which I was in no hurry to draw any Freudian parallels, but even more so it was an exact replica in composite of all of the faces of those at last fetched-up virgins gazing out at me impassive and gentle from a thousand Sunday society pages, their features all but indistinguishable one from another by the soft standardized look in their eyes, so completely American, of conventional morals and moneyed security. The Prophet. It was indeed a Finch College notion of poetry, and I could have laughed aloud, except for the fact that now, as she drew back her head, it occurred to me why Rosemarie seemed so sad. She was Mason’s “mistress” (I felt she would be the first to put quotation marks around the word), and something abstracted, insecure, and fumbling about her, despite all her smooth big beauty, made me sense that she had come to feel ashamed of the role, or perhaps afraid of it, and yearned for that lost, irretrievable image of herself, gazing out chastely from the engagement pages of the New York Times. Was I indulging in unfair prejudgment? I don’t think so. Besides, as she turned to take my arm and as we stepped out into the cobbled village road, light from a street lamp fell full upon her and I could see for the first time the shiny blue bruise beneath her eye, where Mason had socked her.

 
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