Set this house on fire, p.19
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       Set This House on Fire, p.19

           William Styron
 

  “God, Mason,” I breathed, “it’s unbelievable.”

  “You don’t believe it?”

  “Of course I do.” (And didn’t I really? It must be remembered that, four years before Sambuco, I still possessed a larger streak of gullibility.) “It’s just that—it’s just that it’s so—so incredibly romantic. I mean, young Mason Flagg of Gloucester Landing, Virginia.”

  “I know,” he said, musing. “It was really like something out of a book. Sometimes there I thought I was living in a dream.”

  It was a dream shattered soon, however, for Mason found himself borne away from this beatific seclusion on the winds of violence. A servant in the villa betrayed their presence one night to the Germans. Only by a matter of minutes had he and Stancik managed to make their getaway: a brief fumbling embrace with the girl, a kiss, a farewell—and Mason was gone, together with Stancik, racing and floundering across fields, through olive groves, in a nightmare of confusion and indirection stumbling toward the rescuing British launch that awaited them on the shore, while like avenging and inescapable fury the Germans came on hotly after, inflaming the sky with the pitiless white light of their flares. “The flares were bad enough,” Mason said, “I think they must have been firing them out of knee-mortars, or maybe they were using riflegrenades. Anyway, we’d hear this loud crack! and this was the sign to get down—I mean belly-down—and stay down, without breathing. Then in about five or ten seconds we’d hear this little muffled report—pootf—way up in the sky, and suddenly, even though we were lying out in this filthy wet field, eyes closed tight, we could feel a tremendous hard brilliance floating down from the sky like brightest daylight, covering us. It was strange. Though I couldn’t really see it because my eyes were closed, I could actually feel this light stealing into my bones and I just waited there—praying, I guess—waiting for them to blast us. But as I say, that wasn’t the worst part, somehow. It was these goddam dogs they had. They had these goddam big Dalmatian dogs that they’d taken from the Serbs and trained as sort of bloodhounds. I’d seen them before, patrolling with the Krauts on the road in front of the villa—these great hungry beasts with red-rimmed eyes and liver-spots on their haunches. Anyway, that night they turned them loose after us. We could hear them snarling and groaning and howling in the hedgerows, trying to get our scent. And once when a flare lit up the field I peeked out under my arm and saw one of the bastards, way off but still close enough, standing at the edge of some woods beside some big Kraut with an automatic rifle. I swear I felt my blood turn to piss just looking at him: this great monstrous beast with his fangs glinting there in the light and these big round eyes shining like a couple of silver dollars. He was trained to kill, and he’d chop through your spinal cord like it was so much cottage cheese.”

  Yet by the grace of heaven or by luck they managed to get away; at least Mason did, for his companion Stancik (they were on the beach by now, hiding behind boulders, sliding and slipping down sheer rock faces in one last foot-weary, bone-tired burst of desperation scrambling toward the Diesel launch whose signal, already seeming to flicker and dim as if with the hopelessness of their plight, beckoned to them from the shore’s edge), Stancik fell, slipping into a sort of crevasse in the rock and uttering a wild cry of pain which gave away their position. Mason said he could hear the snap of his leg bone as it broke and, turning to help the corporal, was confronted—with a feeling of despair such as he had never known—by the blinding glare of a Nazi searchlight shining full upon them. Pinioned there, helpless and in terrible pain, Stancik tried to stir, but his predicament was fatal. As Mason moved toward him in the excruciating light, a blast of machine-gun fire stitched across the rocks, scattering upon the wind a gritty debris of shale and limestone, sending a bullet through the corporal’s belly: Mason said he saw the fount of blood spurt forth like tar from some mortal arterial hemorrhage, heard the corporal sigh, or whisper, in one long last diminishing utterance of his identity and being, and then Mason tumbled himself, pierced through the calf of his leg with pain like a blade of fire. “Well, I dragged myself out of there to the boat,” he said. “I still don’t know how I did it. But Stancik, the poor sweet little bastard, he didn’t have a chance. All he whispered was, ‘Go on, Lieutenant. Don’t tell anybody that this acrobat fell.’ And then he died.” Mason drew back one cuff of his jeans, revealing above his ankle an ugly round scar, bluish in hue and a little larger than a nickel. “So that,” he added, “is my memento of the war. To be frank, Pierre, I think I’m pretty lucky. And this is a nice little token to have around, because whenever it itches, which it does on damp, horrible New York days, I think of Plaja’s daughter and the sunshine and the blue water.”

  “Wow, Mason,” I said, sincerely impressed, “that’s one hell of a story.”

  “Yeah,” he said, in an offhand manner, “yeah, I suppose it does have all the dramatic elements about it.” He paused and looked at his watch. “Well, I guess you’d better get back to the party, dollbaby. Look,” he said, “I’m going to hang around back here for a while. I’m getting tired of all those freeloaders. If you want me, come on back.”

  Since this was Mason during what I suppose you might call his Bohemian period, there were, to my intense disappointment, few movie people in evidence; he had gathered instead a curious and mingled crew. Solitary as ever, I took up my accustomed position, mooring myself in a windless alcove where with practiced hermitical eye I could watch the ebb and flow of the party. There were floaters of various sexes from the Village bars, including the Penny-packers, who cruised in later, giggling, fragrant with marijuana; several middling-to-prominent abstract expressionist painters; an editor of the Hudson Review; a famous playwright; a Broadway director whose wife, Mason had earlier breathed into my ear, was an incurable nymphomaniac; three rather hairy young literary critics from N.Y.U., who stood by the buffet and soberly stoked themselves with turkey; an art critic; a critic of jazz; a drama critic; half a dozen sleepy-looking jazz musicians; and a shoal of young and pretty models who zigzagged swishing about the room, or postured in corners, highball glasses clamped before their noses like smelling salts. A bright, frenetic sound of jazz boomed from some concealed source, buoying it all up: whenever the music paused, with a scratchy flutter, the young models seemed to pout ever so perceptibly, and they sagged in their chic spring dresses like wilting bouquets. “That Mason,” a hoarse voice spoke at my side, “now there’s a boy for you.” This proved to be a Mr. Garfinkel, a bald, corpulent small man who like myself was either ill-at-ease or neglected, and had dropped anchor in my alcove. He said he was “with Republic,” which I assumed was a steel company until he explained to me with strangled guffaws that he was connected with the movies. “No, my boy. I only been to Pittsburgh once in my life.” Then he repeated: “That Mason. Now there’s a boy for you. A genius. Figure everything he’s got. The eyes. The nose. The expression. Everything. It’s uncanny, I tell you. Just like his dad.” He paused. “Taller, maybe.”

  “Did you know Mr. Flagg?” I asked.

  “Did I know Justin Flagg? My boy, I suckled him. I was a mother to him. Hah!” He drew back his lips in a grin, revealing a row of mottled incisors. “It’s the Jew in me,” he said with a nudge. “In each Jew resides a frustrated mother.”

  I began to fidget and looked around, and at this moment there passed by us one of the loveliest girls I had ever seen. She was a stunning girl with soft coppery hair: finely spun whorls of it made a fringe of halos around her head. And she had an inward warmth and gentleness that seemed to radiate from her as she moved. “Hello, Marty, having a good time?” she said to Garfinkel, briefly clutching his hand; it was definitely not a show-business voice, being devoid of flimflam and coming from some place other than her sinuses, her throat, to be exact, and with a warm and womanly intonation. Best of all, she didn’t call him “darling.”

  “Hi, Celia,” said Garfinkel, as she moved off among the crowd, “where have you been, darling?”

  “Who is that—
I started to say to Garfinkel, but again he was talking about Mason. “I see,” I said. “So you’ve known Mason for a long time?”

  “Years. The boy’s a genius. Just like his dad. Only he’s going to be a genius in the field of playwrighting.” He was a nice little man, Garfinkel, with a look of stoical lonesomeness. For some reason, I saw him doing the mambo on countless Grace Line cruises to Brazil, with women forever taller than himself.

  “You’ve read his play?” I asked.

  “No,” said Garfinkel, “but he’s told me about it. It can’t miss, I tell you. It’s a natural. The boy’s a genius.”

  “I see.”

  “I mean, think of the advantages he’s had, being born the son of Justin Flagg.” His eyes grew dreamy and remote. “Flagg. That’s a name with which to conjure—” And he looked up at me significantly. “In certain circles, that is.”

  There are these women, whose special beauty is such that it is able to break down the reserve of the most unadventurous of men. Celia was one. She fascinated me, and now, as she stood in the center of the noisy room, I was determined to meet her. I coughed and began to drift away from Garfinkel, who was saying: “Levitt. Are you a member of the Long Island and Levittown, P.A., housing firm Levitts?” There must be something basically unsound about the structure of my name; I said I was, and let it go at that, and moved out toward Celia. But as I worked my way across the room in her direction I found myself in a cross-current of bodies and was soon marooned near the buffet table, where I fell into shallow talk with the Hudson Review fellow, who did not exactly wince when I mentioned the college I had gone to but made an owlish adjustment with his eyes as if suddenly he were able to see right through my head. I think it must have been then that I decided to go. Celia was inaccessible to me by now, shunted into one corner of the room where, as around some bright blossom, several young men had gathered murmuring like bees. She was lovely, but she would never be mine and now, besides, the Hudson man, who had been talking about middle-brow culture, was as tired of me as I was of him. Yawning almost in unison, we bade each other a relieved good night, and I went to tell Mason I was leaving.

  Now, was it some exhibitionistic streak in Mason (part of that whole hysteric craze for sex, that incessant hee-haw and jabber about the carnal side of love which was like a hot breath blowing down the neck when you listened to him, which is fine at fifteen or sixteen, but which in a man you expect to become muted—not less hysteric, just muted) that kept him from locking the bedroom door? He knew that I was aware where he was; indeed, he had said that he would be expecting me. If he had bolted that door when he had his chat with me, you would think he might doublebolt it when settling down to doing what I was luckless enough to surprise him at. But this was Mason, alas, not you or me, and I cannot pretend to know what he was always up to. I do know I got the shock of my life when my knock went unanswered and, opening the door, I saw the two of them in the blazing light, Mason and Carole, naked as pullets and frenziedly abed, locked in that entangled embrace all pink flesh and pounding posteriors and arms which I wish I could say fulfilled the fantasist, the Peeping Tom in me, but which instead, in terms of sex or aesthetics or anything you can name, had the effect of a huge shot of novocaine. It seemed somehow so obviously staged that I stood there and watched for a moment with the fascination of one who is witnessing his first autopsy and then, recovering my wits, uttered an inane “Good night, Mason,” slammed the door like a startled hotel maid and tramped back down the hallway, cheeks blazing, marveling at the terrible potency of conjugal love which could cause a man to take his wife to bed, drunk as she was, in the midst of his own party.

  The point being, of course, that Carole was not his wife at all. (Could I be blamed if, short years removed from Virginia, I assumed that when a man said “love of my life” he meant his wife? Probably.) Because as I started to leave the place, Garfinkel was near the door, and with him was my impossible vision of the evening, the fair and glowing Celia.

  “Levitt,” said Garfinkel. “You aren’t leaving, are you? I’d like you to meet Mason’s wife. Celia, this is Peter Levitt.”

  “Oh, you must be Peter Leverett!” she said with a smile, all warmth and animation. “Mason’s told me so much about you and those wonderful years you had together in Virginia. That crazy school you went to! Why, I had no idea you were here!”

  “Leverett, then. Sorry, my boy,” said Garfinkel. “Anyway, I want you to know that right here, right in this little doll here, resides a great deal of credit for Mason’s genius.”

  Mason’s wife? Too many emotions crowded in at once (Carole, “the love of my life,” life: wife, what an idiot!); I looked at Celia and found I could not speak. She was a flute-sound, a bell, a reed; Carole was a moo. And at that very moment Mason and Carole … I have rarely felt such squirmy distress, such disenchantment with anything, or everything.

  “Art is dead, Peter,” Mason said to me at one point or another during that week in New York. “Well, if not dead yet, then put it this way—the dear old Muse is slowly dying, and in a couple more decades we’ll watch her as she gasps her last. Science is the new Muse—it’s as plain as the nose on your face. Couple science with a general leveling of taste everywhere, and the demise is inevitable. But there’s no need to weep, you know. You can’t weep over the determinism of history. Facts are facts. By the end of the century art—painting, music, poetry, drama—all of them, they’ll be as dead as the labyrinthodont.”

  “What’s that?”

  “A prehistoric amphibian, late Permian period.”

  “Well then, tell me, Mason, why do you keep on with this play you’re doing?”

  “Oh I don’t know,” he said, “ a sort of diehardism, I suppose. A sailor with any sort of guts doesn’t abandon ship even when the rails are awash. Besides, there’s always the faint possibility—I mean a really faint one, but a possibility—that history will give a lurch, as history sometimes does, and we’ll have a renaissance instead of a burial. There are a couple of things already that make me think that might happen.”

  “Like what?”

  “Well, in painting, abstract expressionism. And in music, jazz. There’s a tremendous freedom and vitality in both of them, a fantastic throwing-off of restraint and the dreadful constipating formalism and all the traditional crap that’s been such a hindrance to art. So—well, I’ll admit it’s a dim hope, but if these two ever get really going, we might have that renaissance and of course, as history has shown, all the rest of the arts will start booming, too. Do you see what I mean?”

  “Well, I know nothing about painting, Mason,” I said. “But as for music, I think some of that early Dixieland is quite marvelous, and Bessie Smith, but after all—”

  “After all, what?”

  Since I like to express myself exactly, I grope, lose time and ground, and eventually lose out in most discussions.

  “After all,” he put in, “there is always J. S. Bach. Isn’t that what you were going to say?”

  “More or less, Mason,” I replied. “Though somewhat more elaborately.”

  “De gustibus, Peter,” he said amiably. “I’ll let you keep your corpse if you let me keep my sexy dollbaby, all alive and singing.”

  “De gustibus, Mason,” I said.

  “Once a square always a square. But everybody has to have a complement. I think it’s because you’re so square that I love you.” And things like this he would say with such a sweet smile, with such true and honest affection, that there would dissipate as if into the air about him all that, seconds before, I had considered offensive, pretentious, and banal.

  We had several weighty discussions that week, about art and related matters. Though college may have rejected him—or he it—he seemed on his own to have read everything, to have absorbed most of it, and he wore his really rather amazing erudition flashily and blatantly, like a man outfitted for a costume ball. If it would please you to know the antique origins of Rosicrucianism; the existence of the Kuria Mu
ria Islands, guano atolls off the coast of Aden; the difference between absolute and apparent magnitudes in the measurement of stars; the origin of female circumcision among the tribes of the Kalahari; of the influence of Ranulf de Glanvill upon law ("You mean you studied law, Peter, and never heard of Glanvill?”); of the high tolerance of sexual perversion, and the modes employed, among the Huron Indians; the difference between fibromyoma and chondroma in the classification of benign tumors; the reasons for German scholarship assigning undue influence of Thomas Kyd upon Shakespeare; the Roman use of the mechanical dildo—Mason could fill you in about all these matters, richly and eloquently, these and a thousand more. Most curiously, too—perhaps though only because, a child of my time, I am a sucker for facts—Mason almost never bored me with his knowledge; he made fanciful play with these useless items, setting them loose in the midst of some joke or story in the way that a magician brings forth from his sleeve rabbits, roses, startling doves. Once more would arise his Yugoslavian experience, which he never tired of telling and which I never minded hearing, if only because new insights, new characters kept intruding—the jovial mayor of the town, an Italian deserter (the victim of epilepsy, and given to murderous rampages through the night), the S.S. commandant who had paid a frightening visit to the villa one day—and from this substructure now arose the most dazzling edifice of fact, history, lore, and legend. “Of course old Plaja was really a full-blooded Dalmatian,” he would tell me. “Which is to say that he had a warrior’s heart. You see, his ancestors had all fought against the Venetians in the Middle Ages when a real scoundrel of a king they had, Ladislas of Naples, sold out to Venice for a hundred thousand ducats, I think it was. A fantastic gory period! Let me tell you …” And off he would go. And somehow, during the telling, I would learn that the chief enemy of the common orchard plum is the curculio, a repulsive small beetle; that the codpiece was proscribed by Pope Sixtus V as a universal threat to chastity; and that the word “falcon” derives from the Latin falx, meaning sickle and describing the bird’s curved talons. A striking fact about Mason is that, despising the past as he did, he yet knew so much about it.

 

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