Set this house on fire, p.13
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       Set This House on Fire, p.13
 

           William Styron

  “I’m sorry I didn’t come and wake you sooner,” she said as we walked along, “but you looked like you needed sleep so badly, poor boy. Mason agreed with me. I hope you didn’t mind.”

  “Not at all,” I said. “Thanks for coming for me.”

  “I’ll bet you could stand a drink.”

  “I could do more with some food,” I said. I was famished. I had had nothing to eat all day, except for the bun in Formia, and that seemed years ago. “I wonder if you all have anything, or if I should try to get something at—”

  “Oh, Peter, how absurd!” she broke in. “Of course we have just oodles of things to eat. You must be famished! And Mason drove over to the PX in Naples today, and just brought back literally tons of provisions. Oh, steaks and chopped meat and packages and packages of frozen foods. And milk, Peter, real honest-to-God milk in bottles! Mason says it’s flown down from Germany. I drank a whole quart this evening in place of cocktails. Really.”

  “The PX?” I began. “But how—”

  “Oh, you know he was a pilot during the war. He established PX privileges in Naples as soon as we got here.”

  “A pilot? But what—” Once again I halted, perplexed for an instant but quickly perplexed no longer as a horde of recollections about Mason came tumbling back. I think I must have suppressed a groan. “I mean I didn’t know being an ex—an expilot gave you PX privileges. Unless you were still in. He must have some kind of deal, doesn’t he?”

  “Oh, I wouldn’t know, Peter,” she said in a faraway tone. “Those things are so complicated to me. Anyway,” she said, her voice brightening, “we have just everything to eat. Just God’s own quantity. How would a nice sirloin steak appeal to you?”

  I was about to reply with enthusiasm when out from a dimly lit alleyway hopped a crouched and ragged figure that approached us with a husky snuffling noise—a series of rich, porcine grunts that caused Rosemarie to stop and grow rigid in her tracks, clutching my wrist in a sudden powerful grip as she uttered a gasp of alarm. But the subhuman noise, I could tell, came only from my dragoman of the afternoon, Saverio, as he grappled with speech: his flat red face bobbed toward us, fat tongue wagging in the lacuna between his snaggled teeth, and he managed to roar out a phrase in incomprehensible dialect, his features all smiles and glowing, like some inebriate Halloween pumpkin.

  “Oh, it’s that idiot!” Rosemarie gasped. “Tell him to go away.”

  “He’s harmless,” I said. “Besides, I can’t understand him. Speak slowly, Saverio.”

  “Buonasera, signora!” he howled at Rosemarie. “Buonasera, padrone! Look there, signora, I have polished your Cadillac machine!”

  Rosemarie shuddered as we moved on. “Ugh! He reminds me of a Charles Addams cartoon. What on earth is he saying?”

  Beside us, parked against a wall bordering the shadowy and narrow street, was a convertible Cadillac so red and vulgar and immense that for a moment, although I must have once or twice seen its prototype in Rome, I could hardly believe my eyes. Around it, as around us now, hung the damp and ancient smell of the village, yet the car clearly exuded its own smell—of new paint and plastic and rubber, of volatile newness, of all of the witchery of Michigan—and Saverio had labored until it sparkled in the night like some mountainous ruby.

  “He said he has polished your car,” I told Rosemarie. “Is it really yours?”

  “Well, it’s Mason’s,” she replied, with what sounded like a note of apology. “The color really is—frightening, isn’t it? And it is too large,” she added thoughtfully. As we passed on by the car she gave a gentle caress to one of the fenders; the machine was so enormous that it seemed capable, through some weird mechanical parturition, of having given birth to the midget Italian car parked at its side. “Mason’s right about it, you know. He said that when we drive through some of the country villages the peasants couldn’t be more startled if we had rolled down the main street on the Queen Elizabeth” She made a self-conscious giggle.

  At my prompting, then, Rosemarie handed Saverio a few lire (“I didn’t ask him to polish it,” she said at first, but seemed genuinely regretful when, after telling her that it was the custom for Americans to take such minor extortions with good grace, I added a solemn commentary on the poverty of this southern land); the creature flapped away into the shadows, and a few steps later we arrived at the doorway to Mason’s palace just as a church bell deep within the town sounded the last half-hour before midnight. As I pushed against the massive door, a large enclosed courtyard presented itself to view: its vaulted ceiling, supported by graceful fluted columns, disappeared into the shadows high above us where a trapped swallow swooped and fluttered and a skylight in the shape of a fleur-de-lis allowed a vestige of sudden moonlight to pass through. “The tiles,” I said, looking toward the floor, “they’re beautiful.” And they were: the entire surface of the floor was emblazoned with a remarkable pattern of interlocking circles of red and blue that gave an effect of receding perspective at once colorful, slightly dizzying, and resplendent; yet as I accustomed my eyes to the place I could tell that something was wrong here and then saw that it was only the tangle of cameras and arc lamps and booms which emerged from the shadows. “They were shooting here today,” Rosemarie explained as we walked across the courtyard. “I can tell,” I replied. Wide streaks crisscrossed the tiles where the wheels of the spidery machines had rolled back and forth, gouging out ugly channels in the clay. “You know Fausto owns this palace, too, and he was furious when he saw what they had done to the tiles,” said Rosemarie, as if she had sensed my dismay, “but when Herb Wingate—he’s the unit manager—told him they would pay for it, he was just like a happy little dog.”

  Now as we approached the balustrade which led, I gathered, to Mason’s living quarters high above, the courtyard became a resonant sounding board; a hell of a racket broke loose. From the regions upstairs, muffled yet distinct behind the alabaster walls, came the noise of a tinkling piano, feet thumping, a high falsetto voice singing above it all, then wave upon wave of hysterical laughter. Close by us, from a doorway at the level at which we were standing and so loud that each crashing bass note had the effect of the tread of elephants, a phonograph erupted the opening bars from the overture to Don Giovanni. Together, none of the sounds made any sense; I felt deafened, and I had the childish urge to stick my fingers in my ears. But Rosemarie clutched me by the hand then and, as we climbed the stairs up and away from the acoustical trap, the music all around became discreet and reasonable, as if someone had jumped up to turn the volume down.

  “That’s where the Kinsolvings live,” she said, pointing down past the forest of movie equipment to the doorway we had just passed. “They were there when we arrived last spring. It was Cass—didn’t you say you met him?—who was the first American we met when we got here. He’s—” She hesitated. “Well, he’s—he’s really quite odd.”

  “You mean that guy—that drunk I met this afternoon on the road? The guy with the Tarheel accent that runs off at the mouth?”

  “Oh, Peter, he’s a mess. He’s—” She paused, made a strained little laugh. “Forget it,” she said.

  I would have forgotten it, too, except for the honest concern, the worry in her voice, which made me say: “What’s the trouble? Outside of the booze, that is.”

  “Oh nothing,” she said. Then she nervously grasped my wrist. “He is such a terrible drunkard. And—well, he’s sort of southern and odd and, oh, I don’t know, lower class, if you know what I mean. A real—well, a real psychopathic, I think. Then there’s—there’s this girl, an Italian girl that he and Mason—” Abruptly she flushed, turning a bright crimson, and chewed her lip. “Oh nothing,” she said hoarsely, shaking her head. “Nothing. Nothing, Peter. Just forget it.”

  “You can tell me if—” I began.

  “No,” she said quickly. “Please. Just forget it.”

  For a moment she seemed so agitated that I shared a bit of her concern. But she obviously was determined to drop t
he matter—and she tried to.

  Yet she was unable to stop brooding. “It’s the funniest thing, when we first met him he tried to make himself out as a famous painter. Imagine!” She mentioned a notorious young expatriate artist of whom I had heard. “Imagine! When he’s nothing but—” Her voice trailed off and she gave a shudder.

  “Watch that wire,” I said.

  Then we reached the balcony. Over the grimy marble portico a frieze of dryads cried out voicelessly to be cleaned. She turned and paused for an instant. “I—I wouldn’t talk about Cass to Mason if I were you. It’s nothing important. It’s just that tonight —oh, I don’t know.”

  “I hardly even know the guy,” I said.

  Her face lightened up as at this moment the sound of the jazzy piano once more fell on our ears. “Oh, I’ll bet you didn’t know,” she said. “Guess who came down from Rome and is playing that really fabulous piano? Billy Raymond!” Almost as if upon this incantation, then, the doors swung open and we entered Mason’s home.

  I was charmed, staggered. In spite of my recollection of Mason’s fondness for display, I could see that here he had outdone himself. The room was one in which a grand duke would have felt perfectly at ease—a salon of such spacious dimensions that I felt it would not be unnatural to be ushered in by page boys and a fanfare of bugles. On the lofty groined ceiling some nineteenth-century artist with a flamboyant gift had applied his brush, filling the air with a fresco of clouds and lush vegetation and hues ranging from the clear green of the sea to voluptuous purple; the scenes were mythological and obscure, but I did make out what seemed f o be Demeter, and Persephone clad in the fashion of a mid-Victorian maiden, her clothes billowing around her as she floated on high and chewed dreamily at a pomegranate. Spaced around the walls of the room, holding up the cornices, were handsome ornamental pilasters, straight out of the Renaissance, which had been polished until they glittered like the purest gold; for all I know they may have been gold, and in any case I was speculating upon this notion when Rosemarie, having paused to exchange a few words in sign language with an impressive, formally attired old man whom I took to be the butler, grasped my arm and led me across the room. “I heard Alonzo tell Mason that it was the most pretentious place he had ever seen,” she said, as if reading my thoughts. “And he’s seen them all. But Peter, you have no idea; it’s so cheap. It used to belong to a baron or something, before Fausto took it over.”

  I walked alongside my towering chatelaine toward the score or so people arranged in sofas and on chairs and around a black grand piano in the distance. Behind them, French windows each half as high as a house gave onto the somber and moonless sea; a faint breeze disturbed the crimson draperies, causing them to move limply in the shadows. There was a babble of voices—vehement, loud, and alcoholic. A confusing amber light played over the scene; perhaps too, tired as I was, my eyes lacked the power to focus. At any rate, what for an instant seemed to my eyes to be a round, jug-eared black vase perched on the piano top proved, as we neared the group, to be the head of a young Negro, whose eyes and mouth sprang whitely open in a kind of paroxysm as he burst once again into song.

  “That’s Billy Raymond,” Rosemarie whispered. “He’s perfectly fabulous.” Silently we moved in toward the group around the piano. It was a naughty tune he sang; it had to do with bananas and other elongated objects, and as he lewdly anatomized the names of people famous in the world of stage and screen, using the banana motif as a key, his voice crooned lubriciously and he winked at the gathering, and grimaced, or made his eyes disappear altogether, clenching his lids tight as he hunched down and elicited wicked little arpeggios from the keys. But his references, obvious in intent as they were, were for the most part too parochial for me; ill-at-ease, I found myself eying Mason’s guests, who, sweating in sport clothes, had bent all their attention upon the raucous Negro and—except for a striking tall man with gray hair who stood propped aloof and sullen in one corner—had collapsed into various stages of laughter. Most of them were persons who by virtue of their position in my own hierarchical scheme of movie values made little impression upon me—what, after all, is an assistant producer, a unit manager, a publicity man?

  Of the rest, aside from the stars, three stood out in my mind, and it was these three, cramped side by side on a small gilt settee, who caught my attention as my spirit wandered restlessly away from Billy Raymond. The first was a young woman named Dawn O’Donnell, a slim carrot-haired girl who sat sipping a crème de menthe, and whose complexion for a moment I hardly believed, so chalky white it was, until I realized that it had been painted on —out of some obscure need to shock her beholders—with artful care. She was not pretty; neither was she badly made; she could have been quite attractive, actually, but with her orange hair contrasting so starkly with her ghostly white skin she had succeeded in her desire—and desire it must have been, lacking only a false rubber nose to complete the make-up—to look exactly like a clown. I remembered having heard about her and had seen her from a distance in Rome. Dawn O’Donnell was not her real name —so I had read somewhere—but then little about her at all was real. There had been a period when she had been a minor actress, she had had a one-man show of paintings, had published a small volume of verse. In none of her endeavors, including several marriages, had she shown a molecule of talent, but being the heiress to a vast American mercantile fortune had allowed her to persist in her trifling labors, all the while presuming, I suppose, as Thomas Mann once put it, that one may pluck a single leaf from the laurel tree of art without paying for it with his life. At the moment I gathered she was interested in the art of the film and tagged along all over Europe after the movie-makers, who because of her enormous wealth on the one hand, and her eccentric, childish mannerisms on the other, treated her with a strange combination of deference and indulgence, and called her “Little Carrot-Top” and replied in passionate affirmatives to her never-ending “Do you think I’m beautiful?” I heard all this that night. Rosemarie told me she was sleeping off and on with Carleton Burns.

  Now sitting next to Dawn O’Donnell on the settee was a sleepy-eyed, smiling man named Morton Baer, a well-known recorder of gossip for the newspapers whose every word, syndicated in the American-language paper in Rome, I had read with the same intense interest and delight I had once reserved for Keats. I knew him from his photographs. Baer was the only person present outside myself not dressed as if for an outing to the shore; he wore a fine flannel suit over his small, truncated, slightly hunched form, and a checkered yellow waistcoat, too, and he looked gentle and sheepish, sad even, as he tried dutifully to smile at Billy Raymond’s song, which he must have heard a dozen times before, and I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for his boredom, over and above the sneaking and mortifying admiration I had for the man—a celebrity in his own right—who hobnobbed almost on terms of blood kinship with movie stars on five continents, and knew J. Edgar Hoover and Herbert Bayard Swope, and had even dined several times at the White House.

  The third member of the trio, finally, was a face so familiar from his photographs that I had the impulse to go up and slap him on the back as I would a long-lost friend. But when at last it registered upon me who he was, flabbergasted, unable to tell whether I was struck more by the incongruity of his being a part of this worldly throng, or by a subtly unpleasant reasonableness, I could only gaze and gaze at him as if he were something at a zoo. For this was the Reverend Dr. Irvin Franklin Bell, the exemplary, prolific, and optimistic Protestant clergyman known and loved doubtless by more Americans than any man of the cloth since Henry Ward Beecher. I was, to be sure, prepared for anything that night but not for this ecclesiastical glamour, so offbeat, so rare, and I pieced together from Rosemarie later how it must have come about: Bell, confidant of potentates in industry and business, while on a vacationing, non-evangelical tour of Europe had encountered at the Hotel Hassler in Rome his old friend Sol Kirschorn, the producer. Kirschorn was an admirer of Bell, as were many highly placed American men of
substance who found the doctor’s simple moral equation of wealth and virtue, virtue and wealth, as easy to abide by as to understand. Learning, then, that Sambuco was on Bell’s itinerary, Kirschorn accommodatingly got in touch with his wife, Alice Adair, and told her on behalf of the unit of which he was the producer and she the star, to offer the famous preacher (he was staying at the Bella Vista, too) every hospitality. What I saw at this moment was the result: portly, amiable, mightily sweating, his eyelids visibly wincing behind his bifocals at each one of Billy Raymond’s lascivious groans, he tried nonetheless to hold on to his renowned sleek and jovial composure and, like a banker caught with his hand in the till, kept his cheeks plumped up in a sickly, illicit smile. I felt sorry for him in a way. Looking, in his floppy matching slacks and shirt of jade-green silk, like a print I had once seen of the dowager empress of China, his wet under-lip poised as if to receive a gumdrop, or to emit yet another platitude, he was in an ecstasy of discomfort, and I felt that it was unfortunate that a solitary dirty song should intrude so upon his enjoyment of this sumptuous rich world, by which he yearned to be ravished. Billy Raymond came to the end of his song.

 
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