Set this house on fire, p.21
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       Set This House on Fire, p.21

           William Styron

  We danced for quite some time, close together, monogamously welded. There was a lot of stirring and groaning behind us and when at last we decided to go I turned to see Mason, standing fully illuminated in the doorway to the bedroom, his arm around a glassy-eyed and now unbodiced Mrs. Glansner, the two figures obscuring all except the face of Glansner himself, propped against the headboard of an enormous bed, and wearing (to my surprise, for I had expected something more mellow) the impotent, sepulchral look of a man separated by five minutes from the gallows.

  As for Mason’s own expression: I think I must have anticipated the smoldering lust that one reads about in romantic novels, but all that was there—or so it seemed to me—was a kind of miserable and forsaken innocence.

  “What’s the matter, Petesy?” he said. “You aren’t leaving, are you?” If there was not what one might call anguish in his voice, there was a sudden broken sense of loneliness, of abandonment, and as he said these words again, his voice rising—“You aren’t leaving, are you?”—I realized that he was honestly hurt by my defection. “Come on now, dollbaby,” he said cajolingly, though the hurt was still there, “you’re not going to chicken out, really,”

  “Lila’s not feeling well, Mason,” I lied.

  I do not want to say which of us, Mason or I, was right or wrong; the question, if there is a question, is not a matter of either. But at the moment, aflame though I was with desire for Lila, I felt that it was exceedingly thick of Mason to fail to understand why I might not wish to take down my trousers and in harsh light, sweating cheek by jowl with the whole crowd—their eyes on me and mine on them—despairingly perform the joyous rites of love.

  “O.K., Peter,” Mason said. “Back to Squaresville.”

  Next morning, breakfasting with Lila after a full night, I think we discerned the most fitting irony of all when it occurred to us that though Mason might have had Mrs. Glansner, and Glansner Carole, the Pennypackers—like an abbreviated Paolo and Fran-cesca—had most probably had only each other. But then Lila grew sad. “Gee,” she said. “What do you suppose is eating Mason? With that wife of his—you know her?—a real doll. I think he must be flipping his lid, if you want to know the honest to God’s truth.”

  There are gestures that linger in the mind. One bright day as Mason and Celia and I were driving to Long Island for lunch, Celia’s hand went up to the back of his head. “Look at his hair,” she said. “Look how it shines in the sunlight. Isn’t it just beautiful, Peter?” I cannot help but remark upon this characteristic that Celia shared with Wendy: the most outrageous flattery of their darling boy. But here the resemblance ends. Celia was something apart and by herself.

  If Carole remains in my memory a large nocturnal blur, Celia was leaf, cloud, light, a daytime creature who had no part at all in Mason’s night-crawling. Indeed, so separate were Mason’s evenings and days, his life with Carole and his life with Celia, that except for one or two instances I cannot remember Celia except in daylight, as in that photograph, her face upturned toward Mason’s, as toward the sun. How she adored him! And with what inner restlessness I watched the casual fashion in which he accepted her adoration, her tenderness, her flattery. Not just because I had fallen for her myself, in a distant hopeless way, but because like Lila I could not understand how he could reject this haute cuisine in favor of Carole’s slumgullion.

  Yet to give Mason credit, he was courteous and even gentle with Celia—at least when I was around; in conspiracy with the sunlight she seemed to be able to alter his character, subdue him, tenderize him. She was as soft as silk; she had a kitteny way about her that was not in the least coy or undesirable, and in her splendid voice there were all sorts of warm, delectable modulations, all of them sexy, and all of them fine. She had dignity, too, and that kind of radiant poise, so rare in beautiful women, which comes from the consciousness that one’s beauty is meant to please men, and not oneself. I suspect that the single thing she lacked was the small streak of bitchiness that even the most angelic of women can muster, given the provocation: there are some men who despise a good woman even more than a virago, and I would be inclined to guess that it was Celia’s decency, generosity, and goodness that drove Mason into Carole’s swollen embrace, were it not for the fact that Mason would always find his Carole, no matter what.

  Anyway, we had a fine time, the three of us, during the last four or five days before I sailed to Europe. I had to some extent moved in on Mason, using my apartment only to sleep in; I breakfasted with Mason and Celia, had lunch with them, and with the two of them I spent long and lazy afternoons. A rather sedate and platonic ménage à trois it was, come to think of it; we felt very close, warm, familial. Mason curbed his tongue when around Celia, I noticed; the nagging, compulsive smuttiness in his talk was gone, as was all the leering cabala about le nouveau libertinage, and every now and then, when he would tell an amusing story, and as I stole a glance at Celia and watched her gay charming face crinkle up in delicious merriment, with the innocent and wonder-struck delight of a child who has seen some strange new animal, some clown, some fresh marvel, I had a difficult time envisioning her as a helpmate sharing Mason’s interest in pyramidal arrangements of naked Turks, or having anything to do with Glansner’s stews. Though naturally I need not have concerned myself on this account because, as I have said, Mason kept his nights and days distinctly apart: toward the end of the afternoon I would leave them and when, later, I joined Mason, it would be in some smoky Village pad thronged with people who, it seemed to me, were always in a state of desperate lethargy and hunched-up near-collapse (though, “Peter, these cats are crazy,” Mason told me once. “Kicks and excitement are all they want, they’re the last rebels left.”) and where there was always Carole, slow and sleepylidded, asking for another Scotch.

  “What are they rebelling against?” I asked.

  “Against the H-bomb. A world they never made.”

  “But, Mason, look here. If they just seemed to be having any fun, I’d—”

  “Fun?” he said. “They’re too desperate for fun. They understand the legacy that’s been left us.”

  I let it go at that.

  Indeed, the more I saw of Mason in this dual role of daytime squire and nighttime nihilist, the more I saw working in him the antinomy of Carole-Celia, the more it became apparent to me that here was a truly distinctive young American—able in a time of hideous surfeit, and Togetherness’ lurid mist, to revolt from conventional values, to plunge into a chic vortex of sensation, dope, and fabricated sin, though all the while retaining a strong grip on his two million dollars. At the time it seemed to me not entirely unadmirable: at least it took more flair, more imagination than most rich boys have, or use.

  The day before I left for Europe has a recollected purity that some rare summer skies have—hazeless, cloudless, with a flagrant immensity of blue that, at least for a moment, allays all the painful mistakes of the past and promises rewarding things to come. Never before or since has New York had such a magnanimous day, and as we drove out to Long Island even the dismal boulevards of Queens seemed odorous with spring. But it was not only the weather that made it so fine. It was Celia, fragile and mild, with a scarf around her hair, in broad daylight glowing like a candle. It was in the sports car, a Ferrari which Mason—always in the vanguard—had bought only the day before; such machines still attracted curiosity then, and as we drew up at stoplights (Mason and Celia in front, myself crouched behind, in a kind of nest of jacks and wrenches, much as I had been years before when I sat curled up in the luggage behind Mason and Wendy) we were the cynosure of Forest Hills. But more than anything, almost, it was in Mason; he was in command of the day: as we zoomed toward the far green reaches of the island he talked his head off, and with a sorcerer’s charm. Jokes tumbled from his lips, and witty wicked allusions, and airy ballooning puns; his spoofery was a marvel, so wild and preposterous that Celia, rosy with laughter, had to implore him to stop, put her head down in his lap and cried, “Stop! Stop it!” while
I collapsed in merriment among the wrenches. The night-creature, the psychologist, the solemn apostle of the groin—he was no longer any of these. He seemed three times as alive as any other mortal could hope to be, brimful with warmth and wit, playing to the hilt that role which God alone knows why he did not work at harder, so much pleasure did it give to the people around him. Suddenly, as if aware of this gift to the two of us, and perhaps aware also of the source behind it, he wrapped his arm around Celia and held her close against him, purring gratefully—which gave me a spasm of envious pain.

  Later, after a fine lunch with wine at a North Shore restaurant we sat far into the afternoon on a terrace splashed with dappled, leafy sunlight. Riders on horseback cantered past us; somehow again I thought of Wendy. Thoughtful, contented, stripped of the nighttime’s high frenzy, and holding Celia’s hand in his own, Mason told me what to expect in Europe—he’d been there, after all, and I hadn’t. “You won’t find it all pleasant, Peter, it’s still recovering from the war. And there’s a dead, dead feeling everywhere. Art really has come to a finish over there, and that’s why—though I love to travel—I could never live anywhere for very long, except in America. I don’t mean to sound platitudinous, but we are the nation of the future and anybody who cares, really, and who casts his lot with Europe—permanently, that is—is simply missing out, in my opinion. The so-called treasures of the past are all very well—a necessary experience, in fact, for anyone who pretends to culture—but significant form, as Clive Bell calls it, is dependent upon constant change, constant renewal from the resources of the present, a perpetual shaking-up and reordering, and this it is beyond the powers of Europe ever to do again. Which is why without any embarrassment at all I’m proud to call myself unswervingly modern.” Yet, relieved of this—about his only heavy statement of the day—he went on to describe the fine things I would find in Europe ( “If you look at it as a kind of stillenchanted playground, you won’t go wrong.”)—Paris and the sunny delights of the Midi and the Cote d’Azur, the fantastic beauty of the Alps, the Costa Brava, the Balearics. And I sat studiously, rapt, listening to this travelogue; he made magic of the scenes he described, the people he knew ( “Here, I’ll write a little note to Papa Albert. The greatest coquilles St. Jacques in Lyon, which is to say in all the world. A one-legged little fellow …”), the sanctums and hideaways, the cafes and beaches, the sheltered inlets unbeknownst to any American save himself… .

  He made magic of these, and infused it all again with his own brand of bright hilarity; Celia would gaze at him with longing, tickled half to death, her teeth biting down charmingly over her lower lip, repressing laughter. Then out it would come, and all of us would laugh, and as we sat there in the lengthening shade of this gay spring day, with its smell of salt air and its white sails aslant against the distant blue and the nearby graveled spatter and crunching of riders along the paths, I thought how fortunate I was, after all, to know this vivid and inexhaustible young man, and count him as a friend. Rich, gloriously handsome, erudite, witty, gifted, a hero of the war, with a wife over whom the goddesses must grind their teeth in rage—what else could a man wish to be? Could the earth hold more youthful promise? Beside him that day, suddenly, I felt pitifully small, and I gloomed over all that was so paltry and commonplace in myself—that forbade me to see all that I disapproved of in him as a superb Renaissance spilling-over, manly as a stud horse, instead of corruption.

  Of course—to mention only one thing that allowed me to view him somewhat less poetically—he was not a hero of the war at all. To be more exact, he was a draft dodger (the scar on his leg he picked up as the result of a bicycle collision at Princeton during his luckless semester), and as for Yugoslavia, he had come no closer to it than an enthusiastic reading of Rebecca West’s Black Lamb, Grey Falcon—from which he had acquired enough color and historical minutiae to gull far less credulous souls than myself. How did I know all this? Celia told me.

  She told me that same night, during what I suppose you might call a visit to me. It was morning, rather—it must have been past three, while I was still packing for my trip, when it happened: a frantic rapping at the door, the door itself flung open without a pause, and there was Celia. It had been raining outside. Her hair was plastered down around her forehead and her cheeks. She stood there for a moment and gazed at me with a most stricken look of pain and anguish; her lips parted as if to speak, then her hand went up to the back of her head, came down again, covered with blood. She said nothing at all. After a moment she stared at her red and trembling fingers, once more opened her mouth as if to say a word, and then collapsed in a heap upon the floor. Sweet Celia. I was shocked.

  I brought her around easily enough, with cold water on the brow and instant coffee, hastily made. As for the wound at the back of her head, there was a lump the size of an egg but the cut itself was small and shallow; soon the bleeding stopped of its own accord, and she lay back with a soft moan against the pillow, breathing heavily, and with one arm flung across her eyes.

  “What happened?” I said.

  “Oh, my head hurts!”

  “What in God’s name happened?”

  “He hit me with a plate,” she said.

  “A plate? What kind of plate?”

  “A Lowestoft plate. A kind of platter. Oh, my head hurts!”

  I gave her a couple of aspirin tablets and now (for she had begun to tremble violently) covered her with a blanket, insisting that we call a doctor. But she would have none of this: she would be all right—he had, after all, hit her before, and harder than this, much harder.

  “The bastard,” I said. “The swine. Why did he do it? Has he hit you often?”

  “Oh, I don’t know why he hit me, Peter.” She made a move beneath the blanket, as if to rise; I gently pushed her down. Now she opened her eyes and I saw how red they were from weeping. “I shouldn’t have come here, Peter,” she said. “I’m really terribly sorry. But I get so terrified of him sometimes. And you were so—well, you were close and I just didn’t know …” Her voice trailed off. “No, he doesn’t hit me often.” (A wifely remark, loyal even in extremis, if I ever heard one; you either hit your wife often, or not at all.) “I’m really very sorry, Peter,” she said again.

  “Don’t be sorry, Celia,” I said. “Don’t be. I just wish I’d known about it sooner.” Inside I had begun to feel a great helpless stormy torment of outrage: that someone should do violence to this warm, gentle little lark of a girl seemed, at least then, in the midst of my distant infatuation, the foulest of all foul sins. “Where is he now?” I said bitterly. “Where is the bastard? I’ll lay him out.” I would have, too, or tried.

  She had come around a bit and now, after easing herself up on her elbows, sat propped with her legs curled beneath her and with her head pillowed against the wall. In this pose—smeared hair, dirty bloodstained fingers, red-rimmed eyes and all—she looked both lovely and cruelly hurt, a flower upon which has been impressed the print of a dirty boot. For an instant I came very close to throwing my arms around her and telling her how madly and completely I adored her, but I was brought up short by her words, which mingled incredulity and desolation within me in equal parts.

  “Don’t call him those names,” she said gently. “I love him, Peter. I love him, you see. So you mustn’t call him things like that. Please don’t. I love him.”

  “You what?”

  “Yes, I do,” she said placidly.

  “After that?”


  “Why, for God sake?”

  It was simple, she said. She loved him because he was funny (it certainly wasn’t money, her Long Island family was terribly well fixed), because he made her laugh, because he had taught her so much. And not the least—would you believe it?—because he was so good-looking! And she would go on loving him, no matter what. “I’m just mad for him,” she said. There was a preposterous, avid, debutante tone in her voice which for an instant made me want to show her the door. But of course I did nothi
ng like that. I sat listening instead; for two hours or more I sat listening while she told me of her life with Mason—of what it was, and what it had been, and what even now (a shadow passed across her face, and her fingers went up lightly, though still trembling, to the place where he had struck her) she hoped that life could be. No, she was not going to whitewash him; she knew his faults as well as anyone. He was a liar, yes, that she knew; the Yugoslavia business was an example of that, and he had used—well, some kind of influence—to escape Army service. That scar on his leg? Oh, it was just some kind of traffic accident. But really, didn’t I see? Didn’t I see how all of his wild lying was only a part of that breadth and vastness of his whole personality, part of his vision of life, which was so broad and encompassing that it just had to include exaggeration and stretchings of the truth? Didn’t I see that? Didn’t I see how necessary it was for him to tell these things—they were harmless, after all, they could hurt no one but himself —if only because they represented left-over energy, expansion of his whole terrific imagination? Didn’t I understand that?

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