Set this house on fire, p.16
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       Set This House on Fire, p.16

           William Styron

  “Hiya,” I said. I will have to be honest about my feelings toward Cass at this point: I thought he was a disagreeable lush and an all-around pain in the neck.

  He turned to Cripps before I had a chance to reply. “Good evening, Signor Regista, come va? How’s everything in the flicker business? Making pots and pots and pots?”

  “Va bene, Cass,” said Cripps. “Come state? Un po’ troppo vino stassera?” He regarded Cass with a smile, but the smile seemed sad, and a trifle worried.

  Cass fell against the balcony railing, making it sing and tremble. He gazed at us with drowned hot eyes and a wet lippy grin, panting and heaving while a tic worked nervously at his brow. “Tell me this, Signor Regista,” he said, still grinning. “What said the chorus when old Oedipus was at Colonus"—he seemed fearfully close to pitching backward over the rail—“and old Theseus dragged his poor old bones off—”

  “Watch it there, Cass,” said Cripps, reaching out.

  “ ‘For the long days lay up full many things nearer unto grief than joy,’” he cried, and picked up my glass and downed it in a gulp. “Stand back there, old Buster Brown, old dollbaby!” With one hand he sliced the air in front of him, as if with an invisible cutlass, threateningly, causing Cripps to halt. “Stand back there, old great gray cinematic magician, whilst I keen my song! ‘For the long days lay up full many things nearer unto greet’—’scuse me—’grief than joy, but as for thy delights, their place shall know them no more, when a man’s life has lapsed beyond a fitting term’ … whoo!” His arm slid off the railing, recovered itself; drawing himself erect he thrust his wrist into the neck of his T-shirt and stood, weaving slightly, in the hot-eyed declamatory pose of an old-time ham tragedian. “Stand back there, I say! The Deliverer—the Deliverer,’ to continue, ‘comes at last to all alike, when the doom of Hades is suddenly revealed without marriage-song or lyre or dance, even Death at last!’” He paused, took a breath. “Now for the bleeding beautiful antistrophe. ‘Not to be born is, past all prizing, best, but when a man hath seen the light this is the next best by far, that with all speed he should go thither, whence he hath come. For when he hath seen—’”

  “Hold it there, Cass,” said Cripps, going up to him. “Hold it there, boy. You’re going to land in the garden.”

  “‘—youth go by …’” He halted. Neck bent back now at right angles he was trying to drain the glass of its last drop; it was a wide-mouthed glass and the ice cubes perched bizarrely on his eyeglasses and water trickled down around his ears. “Io mi sazio presto di vino,” he said with a gasp finally. “This here Scotch of Mason’s just dandy. Make tears come to your eyes.” He took a step back toward the salone, clutching the glass with two hands before him, like a chalice. “I think I’ll just get me—”

  “Hold on, Cass,” Cripps said. “Don’t you think you’ve had about enough?” As he said this a dry laugh, almost as if in spite of himself, escaped his lips and I heard him whisper the words nursemaid to drunks. “Why don’t you—”

  “How ’bout that?” Cass said, suddenly whirling around. “How ’bout that, old sweet gray wizard of the cinematic art? Did you catch the faultless phrasing, the accent, the intonation, I mean the simple pure ordinary bleeding poignancy of it all? Each syllable like a shiny round little nugget blooped out from the divine lips of Garrick hisself! Put me on! Put me on, by God! With my talent and this here profile and your noodle we won’t have no trouble at all. The girls’ll cram the flicker palaces from sea to shining sea. There won’t be a dry pair of pants in the house. How ’bout that, old Regista?” He placed a thick arm on Cripps’ shoulder. “Take my advice, get rid of these here second-raters, these hand-me-downs from vaudeville, these jugglers and chuckleheads and such trash. Hire you a man, a man like me that could bring forth sobs from a cast-iron jockey—”

  “Cass,” Cripps said, “let me take you—”

  “Hold on! Let me tell you what we’ll do. Together you and me we’ll pull a Prometheus on ’em. We’ll bring back tragedy to the land of the Pepsi-Cola and the peanut brittle and the Modess Because. That’s what we’ll do, by God! And we’ll make the ignorant little buggers like it. No more popcorn, no more dreamboats, no more Donald Ducks, no more wet dreams in the mezzanine. Tragedy, by God, that’s what we’ll give ’em! Something to stiffen their spines and firm up their joints and clean out their tiny little souls. What’ll you have? Ajax? Alcestis? Electra? Iphigenia? Hoo-boy!” Once more his hand plunged into the neck of his T-shirt. “ ‘I would not be the murderer of my mother, and of thee too. Sufficient is her blood. No, I will share thy fortune, live with thee, or with thee die: to Argos I will lead thee …’”

  “Cass,” said Cripps, “what you need I think is a nice long snooze. Now if I were you—”

  “Hold on!” said Cass again. But then he abruptly fell silent. He scratched his brow. “Plumb forgot what it was I came for.” For a moment he wore a puzzled look; then suddenly breaking out into a smile, he clapped his thigh and said: “Now, by God, we’ll work a bit of subtle thievery! Ssst!” he whispered, bending forward toward Cripps’ ear. “You won’t tell a soul, will you? You won’t breathe a loving word?”

  “I don’t read you,” said Cripps, with his melancholy grin.

  “Is the illustrious proprietor away? Old Mason, has he gone away?” He giggled a little, ceased, his face becoming mysterious and grave. “When the rat is away, Regista,” he said in a hoarse stage whisper, “old tomcat will play. Now to go fetch the bleeding cure!” At this he pulled loose from Cripps, turned about, and staggered off away from the balcony. Cripps and I both made quick involuntary motions to stop him, but seconds too late: like a blind and incapacitated bull he blundered straight into the piano bench, pitched forward with the crumpled knees and supplicating arms of a man shot in the back, and came down flush upon the keyboard in a thunderous uproar of flats and sharps; for a split instant he lay outspread there like some disheveled virtuoso gone raving mad and then slid to the floor with a groan, one arm trailing a flashy glissando along the keys.

  “Sweet heaven!” Cripps gasped as we went to his aid. But even before we reached his side he was on his feet, listlessly probing for broken bones. “No harm done, Regista,” he said. He gazed dazedly at the piano. “I think I might have sprung that—”

  “Come on, Cass,” Cripps said. “Downstairs with you now.” Together, with Cripps on one side and me on the other, we maneuvered him back toward the open door. His breath came in short gasps, and he reeked of wine and sweat.

  “Take my advice,” Cripps said. “Hit the sack.”

  Cass, still prodding himself, halted at the edge of the steps. “Yeah,” he said in a distant voice. “Yeah. O.K.” Then with great care, hugging the marble banister, he descended to the courtyard, and Cripps and I were alone.

  “That boy is slowly killing himself,” Cripps said, shaking his head. “I’ve never seen anyone put away so much sauce in all my life, and that includes my old pal Burnsey.”

  “What’s wrong with him?”

  We moved back toward the balcony, “I’d never laid eyes on him before we came up here the other day. I don’t know who the hell he is but he’s quite a character. Mason’s got him on some sort of hook.” His face turned bitter and grim. “I saw something so low and contemptible” he blurted, “so disgusting, really, that you wouldn’t believe me if—” His voice trailed off.

  “How do you mean?” I said. There seemed to be a lot of mysterious goings-on around this weird palace, and I wanted to be let in on them.

  “Oh nothing,” he said. He cast a glance at his watch. Then for no reason at all, or as if the watch had allowed him a sudden private insight, he said: “It’s the age of the slob. If we don’t watch out they’re going to drag us under, you know.” Delivered of this, he fell gloomily silent. Back in the village the clock struck the hour. As Cripps turned again, brooding silently on the far hovering lights, I felt I had never seen a man in whom resided such bitterness, such gloom. The chime’s single v
ibrating note died and became still: it was one, it was morning. Out of some window now on the level directly below us Don Giovanni came again, impassioned, alluring, boisterous, also very loud, as if someone had turned it loose full-blast in outrage. Rinfrescatevi! I heard Leporello boom above the flutes and strings. Bei giovinotti! And out across the starless night it went, rebounding from the moon-patched slopes across the valley, so far and still so close, and down across the coast above the boats and the twinkling lights—Ehi caffé! Cioccolatte! —and on and on, for all I knew, to Calabria and to Sicily. And at this upsurge of sound the golden people near the pool started, turned with puzzled questing faces like a herd of beasts around a water hole, frozen in stiff alarm.

  “Look at them,” Cripps said slowly. “You know, that boy isn’t too far off, after all. Look at them, will you? The greatest art form ever devised by man, and what do you get? A void … cosa da nulla … nothing … We are not even barbarians. We are mountebanks.” He yawned. “Well, I guess I’ll try to go to bed. Did you ever have insomnia?”

  “Not often,” I said.

  “Let me give you some advice. Form regular habits, don’t try too hard for anything, forget about—well, honesty, or effort, or it’ll all get you like it’s got me. You know, I lie there and doze off into something that’s not quite sleep and I have a dream. In this dream I am always a victim. A golf pro and a crooner and a drum majorette are all contesting for my soul. Night after night. Sometimes it’s the crooner who wins out, sometimes the golf pro. But more often it’s the drum majorette. She just stands there and wiggles her behind, and then she stomps me to death.” He paused. “Listen—”

  Don Giovanni had ceased. Now wild and woeful and with scandalous spine-chilling beauty, a hillbilly song had erupted on the night, athrob with shrill messianic voices, male and female, and the strumming of steel guitars. Perhaps it was pure volume alone, or some left-over nostalgia for this music from my native shires, but I thought I had never heard anything at once so lovely and so horrible, and my mind began to swarm with southern weather, southern voices, southern scenes:

  This question we daily hear, no one seems to know …

  Wha-a-at’s the matter with this world …

  Country beer joints, pinewoods, dusty back roads and red earth and swamp water and sweet-fragrant summer dusks: my mind was smothered, overwhelmed by memory. “My Lord,” I said to Cripps, “what’s that—”

  “Shh-h,” he said. “Listen—”

  Now this rumor we hear: another war we fear,

  Revelations is being fulfilled …

  “Wonderful,” Cripps whispered.

  Your soul’s on sinking sand, the end is drawing near:

  That’s what’s the matter with this world …

  Pale faces turned toward the source of this anathema, the people below attended to the horrendous noise: a sport-shirted Italian mouthed a voiceless imprecation, another joined him, red-faced; La Mangiamele clapped her hands over her ears.

  The precious ol’ Bahble says: Sin will have to go—

  Wha-a-at’s the matter with this world …

  Across all Italy the music seemed to stream, filled with dolor and distress, jangling guitars and wild apocalyptic voices joined in one long throbbing lament—bathos brought full circle and back into a kind of crippled majesty. I listened until shameful tears swam in my eyes. And then abruptly, and with the jagged uproar of a phonograph needle scraping like a raw blade across the evening, the music was strangled off, perished, and we heard drunken muffled shouts in the room below.

  “Scum!” It was Cass’ voice. “Swine! Scum of the earth!”

  Then after a pause, more quietly now, Don Giovanni filled the night, and the people around the pool relaxed, resumed their murmurous chatter amid the shadowy swoopings of the giant moths.

  “That boy is killing himself,” said Cripps. “What can you do? He could stop Mason in his tracks, and all his breed. But look at him. He’s killing himself.” Then he said good night to me, and then he was gone.

  It was not long after Cripps left that a really rather distressing thing occurred. What happened was this: after watching Cripps walk away, I lingered on the balcony for a while, brooding over the people around the pool. I listened—I should say I was belabored by the music: once again it became raucous and loud, and the voices of Elvira and Masetto and Ottavio, screeching like alleycats while the detestable grandee went about his seduction, boomed up and around me, and washed away the sounds from the pool below. I watched the lights floating out upon the sea, ravished by their beauty, but at the same time sunk in the profoundest gloom—primarily because of Cripps, who in an odd and oblique way had so mutilated my happy expectation of America that, if memory serves me right, I concocted all sorts of alternatives: another job in Rome, marriage to a princess somewhere, headlong flight to Greece. I was mired in despondency, my throat was itchy and sore. But after a short time my sadness diminished: to hell with Cripps, I thought, and I turned to make my lonesome way back down among the movie stars. It was several moments later, after I had passed through the long room, that a door burst open a few feet away from me, exposing a glimpse of an ascending stairway, and a girl of eighteen or twenty, who came skidding out into the room as if upon glass, slipped to the floor in a heap, and then leaped up and rubbed her elbow, sobbing as if her heart would break. She was almost faultlessly lovely; even the brief glimpse I had of her, as she stood there indecisively with her brown eyes round with hurt and terror, wrung my heart with yearning. I put out my hand to steady her, for she seemed to be on the verge of toppling once more, but she drew back instantly and threw a hunted, despairing look toward the staircase. Her dress was black and of poor quality, such as that which servants wear; through a rip in the bodice practically all of one of her full, heavy, and handsome breasts was laid bare, and for the entire ten seconds that she stood there, paralyzed, it seemed, by panic and indecision, I too felt rooted there and speechless, torn both by a futile, gallant desire to help and by the beast inside which drew my eyes down to that delectable, troubled bosom. Then, suddenly covering herself, still furiously sobbing, she struck herself in the face. “Dio mio!” she cried in a frenzy. “Questa è la fine! Non c’è rimedio!”

  “Can I help—” I began.

  “Ah my God, please,” she exclaimed in English. “No, please, don’t—”

  And then, recovering control, breathless, she pushed past me with a little groan of anguish, her brown hair in a scattered, lovely tangle about her face as she took to her heels again, bare feet pattering in diminishing terrified flight down the hallway. She had spun me around like a top, and I came to rest on a marble bench, still vibrating. Before I could rise, I heard a thunderous noise once more on the stairs, as of trunks and boxes tumbling down. It was a hell of a racket; the whole palace seemed to be in eruption. Then Mason burst forth, skidding too on the glassy floor, throwing out his arms wildly and righting himself as he slid to a stop before me. Three Band-Aids plastered his face. His hair flew out in all directions. He was clad in a silk dressing gown both too short for him and put on in obvious haste, for his chest was bare, exposing a thicket of reddish sweating hair, and I could see, below, his knobby knees. Rather incongruously, his feet were shod in wooden shower clogs, which is what accounted for all the noise.

  “Where is she!” he snarled at me, his face red and ugly.

  “Who?” I said. I had drawn back nervously on the bench. I had never seen him quite like this before: he wore a brutish, wild expression, and with his red-rimmed eyes and arm cocked threateningly I thought he was going to paste me one where I sat.

  “Where did she go!” he yelled. “Tell me, you bastard! I’ll kill her!”

  “I’ll swear to God, Mason,” I said, “I just do not know.”

  “You’re lying!” And then with a strange, painful, bowlegged gait, infinitely stiff and slow, he moved toward the hallway down which the girl had disappeared. “You wait right there, Petesy boy, because when I come back I exp
ect to stomp out of you a fat amount of your yellow and treacherous shit.” There was a kind of a smile on my host’s face but pure malice and venom were in his voice, and hatred… .

  Maybe you recollect that dream of betrayal which I described early in this story—of the murderous friend who came tapping at my window. Somehow when again I recall that dream and then remember Mason at this moment, I am made conscious of another vision—half-dream, half-fantasy—which has haunted me ever since I left Sambuco.

  It goes like this: I have taken a picture of a friend with one of those Polaroid cameras. While waiting for the required minute to elapse I have wandered into another room, and there I pull out the print all fresh and glossy. “Ha!” or “Well!” or “Look!” I call out expectantly to the other room. Yet as I bend down to examine the picture, I find there, not my friend at all but the face of some baleful and unearthly monster. And there is only silence from the other room.


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