Set this house on fire, p.17
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       Set This House on Fire, p.17

           William Styron

  “Holy God,” said Cass one day, as I recalled that evening for him, “was I as bad as all that?”

  “I wouldn’t say bad,” I replied. “Not bad. As I recall it you were even quite eloquent, in a soggy way. But—well yes, you were blind, all right.”

  He reflected silently for a long time on what I had told him. “That piano,” he said finally. “Falling all over that piano. I don’t remember a thing about it. I swear.”

  “If you’d done that sober, you’d have been in the hospital for a week.”

  “And that string music. Jesus, I’ve still got it somewhere, down underneath the Buxtehude. ‘What’s the Matter with This World?’ Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper. I got that record up in Petersburg, Virginia, right after the war when I was visiting my cousin up there. Carted it all around Europe with me, too. But I’ll swear I can’t remember ever playing it over there. And that night—”

  “You played it all right. Boy, you played it.”

  “Holy God.” He fell silent for a while, then he said: “What time do you suppose that was? What time of the evening?”

  “Morning, I’d say. Somewhere around one o’clock.”

  He wrinkled his brow and then looked at me intently. “All right then, that was the last time you saw Mason before—before he was dead. When you saw him chasing off after Francesca. Is that right?”

  “That was Francesca, then?” I countered. “The girl he killed?”

  His face for a moment seemed unutterably weary and somber. It was his first reaction of this kind since I had come to Charleston; partly through me, I suppose, he had begun to live it all again, and at this moment I could only vaguely sense how much he had cared for the girl. “It was her,” he said rather despondently, “it couldn’t have been anyone else. Did you see her again?”

  “I don’t think it was too long afterwards. With you.”

  “Where, for God sake?”

  “Down in that courtyard. You—” I paused. It was an awkward thing to say, and I didn’t know if he wanted to hear it. “You kissed her. Or she kissed you. Believe me, I wasn’t spying,” I added, “I happened to be—”

  “No, of course not. But—” With puzzlement all over his face, he ran his fingers through his hair. Then after a moment he said: “Wow, you know it is all coming back now. In bits and pieces and little flickers, you see.” He fell silent again, then his eyes slowly lit up, and he arose from his chair and began to pace around the cluttered fishing shack. It was raining, and the roof leaked, and water dripped down the back of my neck. “Like what you just said, for instance. I’d forgotten that, too. A total and complete blank. Of course! I did see her. I did see her. And—” His voice trailed off.

  “And what?”

  He scratched his chin. “And she—Look,” he said, “this is important. Try to be as accurate as you can. How long do you think you were at that party? That is, before you saw Mason and he hollered at you.”

  I brooded, straining to be exact. “It must have been eleven-thirty or so when I came in with Rosemarie.” I paused. “And about—oh, sometime after one when Mason came downstairs after Francesca. A little less than two hours, I’d say. But why—”

  “Wait a minute, wait a minute,” he said, gesturing for silence. Then after a bit he turned to me with a wan sad grin, and said: “Now tell me this, will you. When was the last time you saw Mason?”

  I started to tell him, again with some embarrassment. “Well, at least that’s an easy one. It was when he made you go into your trained-seal act. When he made you—” I faltered, horribly.

  “Oh Jesus, yes,” he blurted, “Poppy once told me a little about that. It got so awful I didn’t ever let her finish.” He paused, somewhat agitated now, stroking his bare arms. “That was when—when you rescued me, I guess. I don’t remember that, but I do remember it afterwards, when you were sobering me up. And after this exhibition I put on you never saw Mason again?”

  “Only when he was stiff and cold.”

  Somber, absorbed, he gazed for a long while through the streaming windows. “Somewhere,” he said slowly, “at one point along in there somewhere she told me something.” He struck his head shortly with his hand, as if to dislodge the memory. “She told me something …”

  I was utterly baffled about all this, and my silence must have betrayed my bafflement, for in a moment he turned and said in an even voice: “You’ve got to excuse this, you know. I’m not pulling your leg, really.” He ran some water in a pan and, sitting down beside me, began to eviscerate a large croaker. “I’m going to level with you about something,” he went on. “It’s not something I’ve ever wanted to think about, much less talk about. Maybe it’s better this way—get it out of the system. But—well, it’s like this, you see. That trained-seal act, as you call it. Mason had me coming and going down there that summer. It started out O.K., we were even sort of buddies at first. But then—something went wrong. What with the booze and the weird condition I was in he began to stomp me —I mean really stomped me, and I let him—and it got so bad I was paying him for the time of day. A regular peon I was, if you want to know the truth.” He paused. “I’ve never known anyone in my life I ever hated so much.” He became silent, sweating over the fish.

  “So—” I said.

  “I’ll tell you about that sometime. But now—Anyway, the point is this: a while back you said something about how it shocked you, Mason doing what he did and all. How though you could credit him with an ordinary red-white-and-blue Americanstyle rape you couldn’t see him doing it in the all-out monstrous way he did it. Well, when you said that, it rang a bell. Because there in Sambuco, when it was all over, that was the way I felt too. I hated his guts, he was the biggest son of a bitch I had ever run across; but later I couldn’t see him doing that. What he did took something Mason didn’t have. His cruelty and his meanness was a different kind. Only—” He fell silent again, the cords of his arms standing out as he strained away with the knife. “Bleeding croaker,” he said at last, as if wishing to banish the subject for good. “Hardly worth the trouble. Skin on a croaker’s like—”

  I may have been mistaken, but I thought for a moment he was going to weep.

  “Only what?” I persisted. “Look, Cass, like you say, you can level with me. I’m not trying to worm something out of you that you don’t want—”

  “Only this,” he said, turning calmly to face me. “Only I think now that, by God, I was wrong about all that. Maybe he had it in him, after all. Everything you say—all of this stuff I was blind to —makes it plain that rape was on his mind from the word go. She wouldn’t give in to him, so he would take it. That afternoon, for instance; what he said there to Rosemarie that time, just before he belted her. And then this thing you told me about—chasing after her down the stairs. He said, I’ll kill her.’ Isn’t that what you said? And then—”

  “Then what?”

  “Nothing much,” he said in a bemused voice. He turned to me again. “Put it this way,” he said. “Maybe I’m just being a scoundrel. Maybe I’m just being un-Christian. Maybe I just want to make sure that he really was a monster.”

  “Monster?” I said. Cass appeared to have lost his reticence about Mason, and I was eager to press this slight advantage. “Tell me,” I said, “he really gave you a rough time down there, didn’t he?”

  He seemed to ponder the question for a long moment, turning over all the angles, absorbed. “Yes, I reckon he did. But how much of all that was due to my own corruption, this old corruption of mine—how much of the whole ruination was my blame I’d like to know. Maybe I’ll tell you about that too sometime, when I’m able to be sensible about it and recollect it.” He halted to wipe the wet scales off his knife, and dried his hands. “It’s really curious, you know,” he went on, now in a somber monotone, “this business about evil—what it is, where it is, whether it’s a reality, or just a figment of the mind. Whether it’s a sickness like cancer, something that can be cut out and destroyed, with maybe some head docto
r acting as the surgeon, or whether it’s something you can’t cure at all, but have to stomp on like you would a flea carrying bubonic plague, getting rid of the disease and the carrier all at once. Not too long ago, as time goes—you’re a lawyer, you know all this—they’d hang a ten-year-old for stealing a nickel’s worth of candy. Right there in Merrie England, France too. This was the plague theory, I guess. Stomp on the evil, crush it out. Now a kid goes out on the streets—he’s not even ten, most likely he’s twenty and he goddam well knows better—and he commits some senseless and vicious crime, murder maybe, and they call him sick and send for the head doctor, on the theory that the evil is—well, nothing much more than a temporary resident in the brain. And both of these theories are as evil as the evil they are intended to destroy and cure. At least that’s what I’ve come to believe. Yet for the life of me I don’t know of any nice golden mean between the two.”

  “How does all of this apply to Mason?”

  “Well first—Let me explain a little something. I don’t mean to be blowing my own horn, or singing the blues, either, but—well, I’ve come up where I am—I’ll admit it isn’t very far—pretty much the hard way, as I guess you know. I didn’t get past the second year up there in this miserable little high school in North Carolina, even now I have the toughest time writing and punctuating and so on. But I did learn to read and I’ve read a lot on my own hook, and I guess I’ve read ten times what the average American has, although God knows that could mean only one book. Anyway, I guess one of the big turning points in my life was right after the war, when I got discharged from the psycho ward of that naval hospital I was telling you about, in California. There was this chief noodle specialist there—one hell of a guy. He was a Navy captain, name of Slotkin. I’d told him about my schoolboy interest in painting, and he got me in one of these therapy painting classes, and I reckon I was a painter from then on out. That’s how I ended up after the war in New York instead of back in Carolina, I guess. Anyway, we couldn’t come to any agreement whatsoever about my melancholia or whatever it was, with its manic-depressive overtones, but I had a lot of long talks with him, and there was some patient gentle quality the guy had that almost swung me out of my blues, and just before I left the place—uncured—he gave me a two-volume edition of Greek drama. It was quite irregular and all, I guess, this gift from a full Navy captain to a buck private in the Marines, but I guess he saw something in me, even if I wasn’t about to buy any of his Freud. I remember he told me this: ‘Read this when you’re down and out.’ Something like: ‘The fact of the matter is this, you know, we haven’t advanced any farther than the Greeks, after all.’ Which you’ve got to admit is pretty cool talk, coming from a reverend brain doctor. He was quite a sweet guy, old Slotkin.

  “Anyway, when you mentioned how I started quoting at length from Sophocles that night, it all came back to me. The sweat and the horror and this bleeding awful view into the abyss. Long before I ended up in Sambuco I’d memorized great hunks and sections. out of those two volumes. And when you saw me that night I was really in a bad way—as blind-drunk off of Oedipus as I was off of booze.” He paused and fingered ruminatively at the edge of the knife. “Yet here’s the thing, you see. Let me explain if I can.” He paused again and closed his eyes, almost prayerfully, as if coaxing reluctant memories from the confusion of the past. “I was so completely blind. Stoned. Something you said … which has to do with this evil I was talking about.” His eyelids parted, and he turned. “Yes, I think I’m getting some of it. More of it’s coming back now. I do remember just in the dimmest way going upstairs. The piano, no. But Oedipus, and Cripps, and you—yes, a little.” He shook his head. “No, there’s some connection I can’t make yet. Jesus Christ, you’d think we were having a bleeding seance. I was trying to search for something that night … But now it’s all gone again. Do you think it could be that I had come up there to chew Mason’s ass out with a little Oedipus? No, I doubt it.” He shook his head again, violently. “All I know now is that I had some sort of drunken truth that I’d dredged up out of that play, and that it sure as hell had to do with evil, and that Mason…”

  He stopped and, very calmly, lit a cigar. “But I might be mistaken,” he added. “What did you really think of Mason?” he said then, turning.

  “Oh I just don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know how to explain him, I never have known. He was a jerk. A big spoiled baby with too much money and a lot of pretensions. He was the world’s worst liar. He hated women. He was a lousy mess. And yet—”

  “Yet what?”

  “Yet he was great fun to be with sometimes. He was entertaining as hell. But he was more than an entertainer. Remove all the other stuff and he might have been quite a guy.”

  “How long did you know him, really?”

  “That’s an odd thing,” I said. “I knew him a couple of years at school. And then for a week or so in New York, right after the war. I can’t recall how long exactly. Ten days. Maybe a couple of weeks. We’ll call it a week. And then that day in Sambuco. And that was all. But—” I paused. “But still and all there was something about him. I mean you could see him for twenty-four hours and he would reveal more about himself than most people do in a lifetime. He was a—” I halted. I really didn’t know what he was.

  “Tell me about him,” Cass said.

  “Well, it’s not really a whole lot,” I said. “I don’t think I could exactly—”

  “Tell me anyway,” he said.

  So I tried to tell him. I tried to tell him everything I could remember. I told him how at first I had lost track of Mason after that dismal week end down in Virginia and how, though we wrote each other for a while (he was in Palm Beach, Havana, Beverly Hills, New York, usually with Wendy; his letters were lewd and comical), our correspondence petered out and he dropped from sight altogether. I told him, too, how ten years—to the month—passed before I ran into him after the war, quite by accident, in a New York bar…

  No doubt it is too easy to say that had I not met Mason again things would have turned out differently, that, having lost touch with one another, we would not have restored our old communion of spirit—a dignified phrase for “palship” or some other term equally American and specious, but which, once re-established, allowed him to invite me down to Sambuco. Most of our existence, though, is made up of such imponderables; the important thing is that we met again. It was in the late spring, a week or so before I got the Agency job and sailed for Europe. I had very little money at that time but a job with a veteran’s counseling service allowed me to eat after a fashion and to rent a tiny cardboard apartment on West Thirteenth Street. It was a humid season, with muggy twilights crowned high with thunderheads and a grumble of storms that never came, wilted faces along the avenues, and windows thrown open on the heat-blown air erupting blurred music and voices ballyhooing war, cold war, threats of war. Evenings I tried to read uplifting books in my apartment, but my soul was illequipped for the stress of loneliness. My room was a place of subterranean murk with a view of an airshaft and an adjoining hotel where old men constantly shambled by, scratching themselves, flushing remote toilets. But it was only in part because of my surroundings that this time of my life was not a very satisfactory one. There are certain periods in youth which are not touched by even a trace of nostalgia, one’s conduct at that time seems so regrettable. Never very fastidious anyway, I became wholly unkempt, and was sour and spiteful to the girls I tried to pick up in Village hangouts. And to top it all, Mason came into my life—in a jammed bar on Sheridan Square during an evening’s prowl that had left me more than usually lonesome and disheveled, and with my carcass burdened with mean-spirited lusts.

  Except that he had taken on a little bit more weight, he had not changed at all. He was dressed in an elegant turtle-neck jersey and blue jeans, looking very much the artist from top to toe—though an artist with money—and he seemed to be enjoying himself. I saw his grinning face through the smoke of the room, one hand held high, flouri
shing a schooner of beer. Even now I remember how our eyes met in the flicker of a glance, my sudden shock of delight darkened by a half-hope that he had not recognized me—both of these feelings almost simultaneous and in such confusion that I had no time to make up my mind whether to rise and shout hello or to steal silently out, before he was on top of me, thumping me on the back—“Hey, Petesy, let’s flap off on a wild one!” he cried—and falling around my shoulders with loud hoots of recognition.

  “What an absolutely fabulous coincidence,” he said, when he had quieted down. “At a dinner I was at last night I was talking to this guy—a very fine painter—and we got to talking about the people we had known at school. I said I couldn’t speak for Princeton, having been eased out my first year. Do you know, I got booted out for the most undistinguished reason. Petesy, dollbaby, let’s face it, I’m a brilliant man but as far as education goes I’m simply a horsefly on the ass of progress.”

  I would have had to be a more stolid individual than I am not to have been warmed by his energy, his big grin, and by the note in his voice, as he clapped me on the shoulder, of honest affection. I must have smiled, saying: “But, Mason, how did you get in?”

  “You mean after I got kicked out of St. A.’s? Oh, Wendy pulled some wires through one of her relatives and got me into a chic reform school up in Rhode Island. They drilled you with rifles and all that crap but I bore down hard—you know, for the glory of Wendy-dear—and I got good grades. That, though, Petesy, is what they call a non sequitur. Because I didn’t get booted out of college for boffing or drinking or anything sordid. But for my grades! Grades! Can you imagine anything so absurd? And I tested out with an I.Q. of 156! This gluttonous widow I was week-ending with on Sutton Place just kept me away from the books. Poor Wendy. The old man had kicked in with I don’t know how many bushels of dough to the library, and when she came up to Princeton I thought she was going to take the place apart …”

  “Look out, Mason, you’re spilling beer on your pants. How is Wendy, by the way?”

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