Set this house on fire, p.14
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       Set This House on Fire, p.14

           William Styron

  I looked around for Mason but he was nowhere to be seen. As one last rippling chord brought the song to its conclusion, the trio on the couch made, each one, a fugitive gesture with his hands—Baer to stifle a yawn, Bell to straighten his spectacles, Dawn O’Donnell with nervous fingers uplifted to adjust her dangling earrings—so that for the most fleeting fraction of an instant they looked like those three little Oriental apes, mute, deaf, and blind to all evil; turning, I thought I saw Mason mopping his face, passing through the distant doorway to another room, and I raised my hand to beckon to him but he was gone. A roar of applause and hand-clapping went up from the gathering. As I wheeled about to face the piano again, Rosemarie handed me a bowlful of peanuts.

  “I’ve asked Giorgio to bring you something more substantial,” she whispered. “He should be along in a minute,” she added. “Isn’t Billy fabulous? I’ll swear he’s better than Noel Coward. He’s—But shh-h …” Silence fell over the house as Billy Raymond commenced singing again, this time the sad limpid words of “As Time Goes By.” I’m a fairly good judge in such matters, and it did seem to me that his rendition of the song was inferior to many I had heard, including those of some amateurs. Nonetheless, the people went into some sort of a modified trance as they stood there listening—some propped chin in hands, their elbows resting on the piano; the bare-necked and pretty girls with their eyes closed, arms crossed, caressing their own shoulders—and gradually only myself alert and so famished now I could hardly bear it, I picked out those among the group whom, after all, I had come here to see: the bewitching Alice Adair, slender and blond and with such an opalescent transparency of skin that around her gently dimpled temple, as in that frog’s tongue which as a boy I had peered at through a microscope, every capillary and vein was presented to the eye live and mortal and throbbing; Carleton Burns again of the sex-glutted and ugly and dissipated face, the mean demonic dream-incubus of how many millions of women even his employers had no way of reckoning; and finally Gloria Mangiamele, black-eyed and tranquil and exquisite, of a voluptu ousness of which all her pictures had provided only the merest suggestion, whose marvelous breasts seemed to call out for seizing and fondling, but who, as she moved back now swaying slightly to the music, revealed a figure somewhat short-waisted and shortlegged, like many Italian girls, and an important feature which, from the point of view of my own taste, at least, I can only describe as duck-butted. But I was very hungry. I looked around once more for Rosemarie and just then—perhaps because, worn-out as I was, I was the natural prey of a cold—I sneezed. I sneezed again and again, a wet and exhausting barrage over which I had no control.

  “Can that, will you, for Christ sake?” I heard a man’s voice say as the music limped and rattled to a stop. Billy Raymond’s lips hung open pink and tuneless, his tongue dancing in his mouth like the clapper of a bell. I heard the same anonymous voice again; it seemed addressed not precisely to me but to a world full of blockheads and fools, of which I was the major example. “For Christ sake!”

  “I’m sorry,” I murmured.

  “For Christ’s own sweet sake!” Someone tittered in the room, someone coughed; a tinkling chord of the piano broke the silence and the husky plaintive song once more filled the room.

  And I, rebuffed, sidled gradually away from the group to a cool shadowy place near one of the windows; here I sat with a cigarette between my twitching fingers, sulky, resentful, dreaming of steak.

  Yet now as I try to recall the events of that evening in their proper order, it occurs to me that it was along about here that something happened which was the first of a series of mysterious goings-on that got more and more baffling, more and more embarrassing and ugly, as evening wore into night, and night into morning. It did seem odd at the time, but not especially important, and so I have had trouble recalling all the details. Here is what happened, though, as well as I can remember it. As I sat there I saw the dignified old butler—Rosemarie had called him Giorgio—tiptoeing with a tray in his hands through the song-enthralled gathering and up to Rosemarie, who inclined her ear far down to hear what he whispered into it. A worried frown appeared on her face; she peered indecisively about the room until, catching sight of me, she walked over to the place where I was sitting. Giorgio trailed in her wake. Behind her the piano music died in a sort of wan, resigned flutter; the guests, unloosed from their cataleptic dream, broke into wild applause and shouts, apparently in vain, of “More, Billy, more!”—and then slowly dispersed themselves, buzzing, around the enormous room.

  “Here, Peter,” said Rosemarie, “I hope this will do. It’s just what all of us had for dinner, and—” She made a vague motion with her hand at Giorgio, who set the tray down on a table beside me. “And it’s real American food and—I mean, it’s real.” Her voice sounded troubled and upset. “Peter, I can’t understand what else Giorgio was trying to tell me. I think—” she said hesitantly, “I think he’s trying to tell me that Mason was—cut, or something.”

  For a second her words didn’t sink in. Giorgio had presented his tray. In the center of it was the steak Rosemarie had promised—a thick rare cut of sirloin. Off to the side was a pitcher, white and foaming, of the first real milk I had seen in years. Like someone half-crazed I made a lunge for fork and napkin, only to be brought up short by the urgent plea in Rosemarie’s voice. “Peter, please try to figure out what he’s saying.”

  “Che è successo?” I asked the butler. He was a stooped and aristocratic-looking old man with white hair and a look of bleak concern. I wondered where Mason had dug him up, for he was obviously not a native of the coast. “What’s happened to Signor Flagg?”

  “He is all scratched around the face, signore. It is nothing serious, but he sent me to ask the signora where is what you call the mercurochromo and the Bond-Aids. It is nothing serious, but—”

  “But what happened to him?” I said between bites.

  “I do not exactly know, signore,” he said gravely and apologetically. “There is a certain difficulty of—of communication between myself and Signor Flagg. But I understood Signor Flagg, as well as I was able, to say that he fell into a rosebush.”

  “A rosebush?”

  “Si, signore.”

  I translated all of this for Rosemarie, telling her about the rosebush and about Mason’s need for medication; but just as I did—just as with round alarmed eyes and a startled “Oh!” Rosemarie began to hurry off—I was forced by Giorgio’s mumbled insistence as quickly to stop her. For Signor Flagg, according to Giorgio, had told him (and of this he was sure) that under no circumstances was the signora to come personally to his aid. It was nothing serious (and here he turned his sad eyes on Rosemarie, saying with a gentle smile, “Non è grave, signora”), nothing serious at all. The expression on his long bony face was now a single ache of embarrassment and apology, and his smile was one of such despairing insincerity that I could not help but feel that he was concealing something.

  “He says it’s nothing at all bad,” I told Rosemarie. “I just think maybe Mason doesn’t want to cause any furor, you know. Where are the Band-Aids?”

  “In the cabinet,” she said in a blank voice. “In the cabinet in the bathroom in the upstairs wing. Tell him that.”

  “Where did you find this Giorgio?” I asked, after the old man had hobbled off and I had again fallen to upon the steak. “How do you and Mason communicate with the old fellow?”

  For a long space there was no answer. I looked up at her. Distracted, with a deep despondent look in her eyes, she was gazing vacantly at the walls; at some time since we had entered the palace she had managed to cover her shiner with a flesh-hued cosmetic, but the bruise must have still hurt her because she was absently stroking it with her hand. “What?” she said finally. “Oh, Giorgio? Fausto got him for us in Naples. He used to work for the mayor or something. We have a maid who speaks English and she sort of acts as a go-between.” She paused, then added mournfully: “I do hope Muffin’s O.K. Oh, I do hope he’s O.K. How could he fa
ll into a rosebush, Peter?”

  “Maybe he had one too many,” I said, trying to cheer her up. “Why the hell doesn’t he join the party?” But it was as if she hadn’t heard me; without a word, the same blank look staring out from her troubled face, she moved away from me with slow shuffling reluctance toward the other guests.

  I was wondrously revived by the food; with the red meat and the American-style milk inside me I felt a peace of mind—the first of the entire day—so calm and relaxed that it was like a state of beatitude. Giorgio, returning from his mission with the Band-Aids, ever attentive, poured me a snifter full of syrup-smooth cognac. Encouraged by the cognac, not quite so overawed now by the movie stars (indeed, I had begun to feel a kind of brazen and totally unwarranted palship with them), I rose from my chair and with a shifty motion edged over toward one of the windows where Rosemarie, looming over all, was talking to Alice Adair. Next to them stood a stocky, red-faced, crew-cut young man with very good-looking features, and the calcimined Dawn O’Donnell.

  “Oh, have you met Peter Leverett?” Rosemarie said. Her spirits seemed to have been somewhat restored. She introduced me to Alice Adair, whose fingers I took between my own, holding my breath, and to Dawn, and to the crew-cut young mesomorph, whose name I didn’t catch, whose function was a mystery to me, and who, extending for some reason his left hand instead of right, like a Hungarian, gave my palm a squeeze and without looking at me said: “Hiya.” His was the voice, I could suddenly tell, which had told me to shut up.

  “But darling,” Rosemarie was saying to Alice Adair, “I don’t care what Jacques said. I think the lavender thing is adorable.”

  “Sol does, too,” said Alice Adair. Her voice was incredibly sweet, beautifully modulated, and mellow, too, like a note in the middle register on a cello, and for an instant I could almost understand why people might stand in line for hours, in driving rain, to hear it. “I called Sol tonight, and he thinks the lavender thing is great, too. What Jacques is afraid of is that it will look fuzzy in Cinemascope. Or bleed, or something.”

  “It looks adorable on you though,” said Rosemarie.

  “It looks terrific on you, Alice,” said the young man. “Terrific.”

  “I think it does, too,” she replied, “but Sol said to stick by Jacques’ decision. Sol said he really knows color backwards and forwards.”

  “Too bad,” the young man said, “it’s a great gown, Alice. A great little gown.”

  “Sol has wonderful confidence in Jacques,” Alice Adair said.

  “Are you a Boston Leverett?” Dawn O’Donnell said, startling me.

  “Well no,” I said, “actually I was born in Port Warwick, Vir—”

  “My family was from Boston, and I went to school there,” she burst out. “I just love Boston, don’t you? We lived on Chestnut Street, in a house with violet windows. My family was very rich. Do you like cats?”

  “Well, yes and no,” I began to improvise. “It depends—”

  “I love cats. I have a Persian cat in Rome with hair the color of my eyes. Blue-gray like the sea. Do you think I’m beautiful?”

  “Can that, will you, baby, for God sake?” The young man broke in, playfully grabbing her arm. “Of course you’re beautiful.” He turned back to Alice Adair, saying: “The pink thing looks terrific on you, too, Alice. Absolutely great.”

  “Sol thinks so, too,” said Alice Adair. “I guess I’ll have to wear it after all.”

  “I’m going to cry,” Dawn O’Donnell said. “I’m going to cry any minute now. Where’s Burnsey?”

  “I wore a pink thing like that in Going Steady,” Alice Adair said. “Sol thought it was beautiful.”

  “It was terrific,” the young man said. “Really terrific, Alice.”

  “I thought you looked adorable in that,” Rosemarie murmured.

  “Do you mind if I cry?” said Dawn O’Donnell, to no one in particular.

  Like a swimmer treading water, I strove to keep my nose above the surface, but soon succumbed to the depths of a dreamy, brandy-hazed wool-gathering. Then in a moment Alice Adair wandered off, wrapped in a kind of golden nimbus of loveliness, and Rosemarie—as if she sensed my sudden distress at being trapped alone with the crew-cut young man and Dawn O’Donnell—led me away and across the room. “I’m so glad you feel better,” she said. “You really looked quite ashen this afternoon.”

  “Where on earth is Mason?” I asked. But before she could reply we blundered into Dr. Bell, who had adjusted a wicker beach cap on his head and, grinning from ear to ear as if to invisible parishioners, was making his exit with an air of rakish sanctity.

  “Oh, Dr. Bell, are you going so soon?” Rosemarie exclaimed.

  “I told you to call me Irvin, my dear,” he said with a smile, seizing her hand and patting it. “Yes, I’ve got to be up and away to Paestum early in the morning. Please tell young Mason how much I enjoyed his hospitality. I’ve got Sol Kirschorn to thank for many things but nothing, pleasure-wise, so much as being put in touch with”—and here I thought I saw him wink up at her through his bifocals—“with such beauty. Good-by, my dear, and I hope the good Lord allows our paths to cross again.”

  “ ’By,” said Rosemarie.

  “Good night all, and God love you.” And then he was gone, trailing behind him an odor of bay rum and sweat.

  “He gave me his book, autographed,” Rosemarie said. “He writes such—such drivel. But he is—well, he is famous,” she added after a thoughtful pause. And then she told me how he came to be here. “It was really sort of creepy at dinner,” she said. “Everybody was on good behavior for Sol’s sake. I thought Burnsey’d have apoplexy, holding back. You know he is the foulest-mouthed person on earth. And he gets so drunk.”

  Now as we proceeded across the room, I noticed that the man I had observed before standing aloof in one corner had detached himself with a shrug both from the wall and from an importuning Rappaport (the same assistant director who had bawled me out that afternoon) and, throwing the phrase, “Figure it out yourself, Rense,” languidly over his shoulder, was making his way in our general direction. There was an indescribable grace and attractiveness about this man, and there is hardly any way I can outline these qualities without feeling that I am being stale and pedestrian. Forty-five or so, with hair turned almost white, he had a face which fell just short of being too handsome; what I guess saved him from a matinee idol’s flawlessness of line were his eyes, which were frosty blue and looked intensely outward instead of dreamily inward—like the eyes of most beautiful men—and surveyed the world with caution, with curiosity, and with pessimism. He was a tallish man, rather gangling. As he walked toward us he ambled in the fashion of an amateur champion tennis player—a slovenly gait redeemed by a natural athletic gracefulness. His shoes squeaked; a cigarette holder drooped, cigaretteless, from his skeptical lips. There was something powerfully sensual about him (I felt Rosemarie come electrically alive at his approach, somewhat, I should say, like a mare) but this quality too was cautious and in restraint, as if having seen all, done all, tasted almost all there is to taste, he had gone into semi-retirement from the fray, as a wise man of forty-five should. He did not look jaded, merely passionately and bitterly experienced. I was surprised by his voice; it was softer, higher-pitched than his build would lead one to imagine, and it did not say, “Hiya,” but murmured a restrained, perfectly affable “I’m very glad to meet you,” as with the merest whisper of a smile he shook my hand.

  “Oh, Alonzo!” Rosemarie exclaimed. “You’re not going to bed so soon.”

  “I’m going to try, darling,” he said.

  “But there’s no need, you know, Alonzo dear. You said you won’t be shooting until tomorrow afternoon.”

  “I won’t be doing even that if the weather stays like this.” He took a deep breath, as if to sniff the overcast.

  “Everybody’s going swimming down at the pool. Please stay, Alonzo. You know, you’re just my favorite person alive. Come on over with Peter and me an
d let’s have a drink.”

  “My dear,” he said in his soft pleasant voice, “for twenty years I’ve been fighting a war with insomnia. I tried alcohol, until it threatened to land me on Skid Row. I tried sleeping pills until they became such a burden that the cure was worse than the sickness. Now all I can do is go to bed and lie there staring at the ceiling until dawn, but there’s an outside chance, as always, that I’ll sink into slumber. You wouldn’t want to deny me that chance, would you, by luring me again into these nocturnal, meretricious ways?”

  “Well—” she began. “Well of course not, Alonzo.” But the look on her face was one of such disappointment that, relenting, he sighed: “O.K., I’m weak, darling.” He took her by the arm. “Fetch me a plain glass of soda with ice. With a twist of lemon. But mind you, Rosemarie,” he added, with a smile at me, “if this night-owl business starts me off on what they call a depressive cycle, I’m going to lay the blame right on your doorstep.”

  Drifting toward the bar, where a white-jacketed waiter from the Bella Vista held forth, Cripps inquired if I was the friend of Mason who had had the accident on the road. When I said that I was, he shook his head sympathetically. “Rosemarie told me about it. It’s a hellish thing to have happen. I’ve been lucky in Europe so far, but during the war, in Algeria, I was in a jeep that hit a child. It didn’t kill the boy but it broke him all up. I know how you must feel. It makes you sick to your soul. Are you insured, by the way?”

  “Yes, I am,” I said.

  “Then you’re fortunate. You can’t blame them for suing, of course, but the sad fact of the matter is—as you probably know —that an American is considered tender game in Italian courts, even if he’s in the right. I hope your boy gets well, poor bastard.” He sighed again as he took the drink Rosemarie held out to him. “I love Italy and Italians—most of them. My favorite wife was Italian, as a matter of fact. But the truth is, you know, contrary to popular belief, that they’re the sickest people on earth. Except maybe for Americans. Every one of them harbors a suicidal mania. A death-wish. That’s why they make such rip-roaring racing drivers and high-wire artists and trapeze stars. And end up like your boy. Well, cheers.”


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