Set this house on fire, p.22
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       Set This House on Fire, p.22

           William Styron

  “I’m trying to, Celia,” I said.

  And yes—well, Carole too. His sex life. No, she wouldn’t pretend that it made her happy. It had caused her worry, pain—all right, then, real anguish. Sometimes at night she had gotten into such a lonely and frenzied state that she could barely stand it. And Carole wasn’t the first. There had been Anya and Nancy and Kathy and—oh, she couldn’t count them all. But wouldn’t it be some kind of poor excuse for a wife who, married to a man of such incredible animal magnetism, such vitality and genius, couldn’t put up with a thing like that? Yes, those parties—she knew about them, all right. They were disgusting. Childish even, to get right down to it. And those pictures. He’d made her look at them (O.K., it was blind of him to think that that would excite her, when, as anyone should know, dirty pictures don’t excite women—very much anyway) and they’d done nothing but make her squirm. But after all, he was a man, and a different kind of man, too; he had needed those kinds of things, as the expression of ambivalence—the good and the bad—that is bound to be mixed up in such—well, in such a really enormous personality. He was an adventurer in the arts, a discoverer, and he just needed to have this kind of release, that’s all… .

  I asked her how she knew he needed it. I had begun to pace the floor. Despite my passion for her, she was losing ground with me, steadily, each time she opened her mouth.

  She said he just needed it, that’s all. He had told her he needed it, explained it all very philosophically from the artist’s point of view. And she had understood. And she had complied. It wasn’t too much of a sacrifice to make, was it?

  Because otherwise he was so good to her. Oh, if I only knew how much he had taught her. And the places he’d taken her, and the books he’d made her read. Well, to be sure, it wasn’t all a bed of roses. What marriage ever was, really? Most of his friends bored her, especially the Village crowd, who were just a bunch of grownup babies, actually. And as for the rest—well, he had no real friends, she knew that. They were all dreadful spongers, mostly. Mason knew that, he’d told her sadly that a rich person has no real friend but himself… .

  And—well, yes, their tastes weren’t exactly the same. And he was difficult about it sometimes. Music. Ever since she was a child she had loved music. Brahms. Chopin. Wagner. Especially Brahms. How she loved that wondrous sad finale of the C-Minor Symphony, and the Academic Festival. They reminded her of far-off, dark, sweet, autumnal things—twilight and woods with falling leaves and mountain lakes covered with evening mists. Brahms. He must have been a man who knew how to grow old, who welcomed growing, and maturity, and even age. And Mason —well, no, sometimes she found it hard to take. He never let her play those kinds of records—oh, every now and then, yes. But never it seemed when she was in the mood. And she remembered one time when she longed to hear Brahms so that she took a taxi all the way to Thirty-fourth Street and sat smothered up in a recordstore booth for a whole summer afternoon, listening and listening… .

  No, sometimes things like that were hard to take. She would admit that. But didn’t I see how a wife had to defer to her husband in such matters? After all, it was the husband who was the—well, if you want to call it that, the guide. It was his career, not hers, that really mattered. And if he was so dedicated and devoted to his work (and it was going to be such a wonderful play, full of swagger and wit; no, she hadn’t read it but he’d told her about it—the Yugoslavian scene, the young American officer, the lovely Dalmatian girl), if he was so dedicated, then nothing mattered really, even if one wanted babies … She stopped talking.

  Outside, the weather had cleared again. Dawn was draining silver down the air shaft, and across the way the old men were setting up a noisy commotion in the plumbing. Along the avenues, far off, buses began to growl, and when I turned from the window I saw that Celia’s head was bent down, exposing the raw and sorry wound, and that she was weeping now, silently and hopelessly. I sat down beside her and took her in my arms and for a long time we remained there, amid the debris of departure, saying nothing.

  When finally she raised her head, she said in a low voice, so faint that I could barely hear it: “Once when we were first married we had a house upstate, in the country. It was really a nice place, simple but comfortable, you see. I don’t know, Mason was somehow—different then. I mean, he believed in, well, simpler things. We were going to live there and we were going to have children, and he was going to write his plays. I’ll never forget when we moved in and that first night, when we stayed up until dawn. It was fall and it was cold—but that dawn, I remember how clear and beautiful it was outside. I remember how Mason went out to burn some trash and how I sood there beside him all bundled up, watching him, watching the quiet countryside getting light, and the cold with a sort of wonderful promise in it, and Mason standing there by the fire with the wind whipping his hair and the fire blazing up in the dawn. And then he put his arms around me, I remember, and we shivered and laughed and I remember thinking how happy I would be there in the country with him, having children and helping him while he wrote his plays. What more could a girl ask for? I thought. There were ducks flying across the sky. He hadn’t ever hit me then.”

  Once more she was silent, but now I felt a tremor run through her body. “He scares me when he hits me like that.” Her lips were trembling and I held her very close against my side, as I would a little girl. “But that’s all right,” she blurted out suddenly. “I’m mad for him, just positively mad for him!” Now she had begun to shake and twitch violently, all over, and she pulled away from me and gazed straight into my eyes. “He can do anything to me,” she said, her voice rising, “anything at all! I’m just mad for him!” And I too pulled away, for it seemed to me she was telling me something that lay deeper than her words.

  Can one detect in the eye—like a mote of dust or a beam of light—the peculiar glint of madness? I do not know. Perhaps it was only the echo of that word she used over and over, like an incantation. But now as she slid with incredible speed into hysteria, I did know that whatever Mason was doing to her, hitting her with plates was not necessarily his worst oppression.

  “He hasn’t made love to me in two years!” she cried. “But it’s all right! Because babies! His career, you see! I mean it’s all right if we don’t have children! Don’t you see! I mean as he says, bringing innocents into this hellish world! It’s all right! And for the best! Anything he does! I’m still just mad for him!”

  I finally had to take her around the corner to St. Vincent’s Hospital, where they were very sympathetic: they gave her a sedative and put her to bed. She would pull out of it in a while, they said, and they would send her home. But as I left there in the full light of day—with a kiss on her cheek, the saddest of my life—she was still babbling.

  Ask me why, after all this, I came to see Mason in Sambuco, and my answer would be a vague one. But maybe what happened on shipboard that same morning would partly explain it.

  I was quite without sensation when, four hours later, I entered my economy-sized cabin on the Queen Mary. And for a moment I thought I had gotten the wrong accommodations. Crammed into that tiny space was the most outlandish assortment of delicacies that I had ever seen: not a single bottle but a whole case of champagne, two enormous wicker baskets of fruit, a flat box of candy the size of a paving block, a high stack of books on the floor, a clutch of whiskey bottles neatly done up in a huge red ribbon, and several baskets of nodding flowers which, shoved together for want of space, had already begun to shed their soft fresh petals upon the floor. Other luxuries were heaped up: half a dozen cartons of cigarettes, a pile of magazines, and an iced tin of caviar. As my eyes took in this scene I was aware of the smoke which in rich blue swirls wreathed the room, and of its smell, which had a pungent herby fragrance that only for the briefest moment I couldn’t define. Then as I took one step forward, trying to penetrate the gloom, my eyes made out two huddled forms squatting on a bunk: a sallow young man, throttled by a turtle-neck sweater, with evasive,
foxy eyes, and a Negro boy of twenty or so who wore velvet ballet pants and a purple jersey and who, shifting now sluggishly in the darkness, leaned out toward me into the light of the porthole, which cast a bright oval of sunshine onto his thinly mustachioed, inky-blue, and cataleptic face. It was a den full of vipers, I knew, and I backed out in haste calling for the steward, who came on the run and in emphatic Cockney tones insisted that I had the right cabin. So I eased back in, introducing myself with as much hardiness as I could muster to the two youths on the bunk, and when I got no response except what sounded like a soft teehee—far-off, indistinct, almost ethereal, as if it came from outer space—I turned to examine the candy occupying my bunk, and saw by the card it was for me: “For Petesy from his old daddy.” Intently then, with anger and shame, with gathering resentment yet with some left-over feeling, too, of warm, degrading gratefulness, I went among the other gifts: they were all for me, to each one was attached a card—"For Petesy"—and in my chagrin I burst out into a fit of sneezing, to which the colored boy, in a voice softly modulated and faraway, said: “Gesundheit, man. You’re just gonna have to excuse this here fog.”

  “Thanks,” I said.

  There was a long pause before he spoke again. “Great big tall cat brought all that stuff in here. Said he’d be back tout de suite.”

  Another faint titter came from his companion. “Let’s cut out, Johnson. Let’s do the poop deck.”

  “Jesus Christ,” I said aloud in disgust.

  “Naw,” the colored boy giggled. “Not J.C. A big tall cat with a real groovy yellow-headed chick. Said he—”

  Just then Mason, with a be-orchided Carole in his wake, burst into my cabin and fell about my shoulders with loud brutal cries of greeting.

  “Allons-y, Petesy!” he yelled into my ear. “Pour chercher la twat française. I got half a mind to ship on board with you for this cruise and flush out some of that quail on the Rue Bonaparte. What’s the matter, Pierre? You look rather down in the mouth for a man who’s going to clash head-on with the choicest flesh in Christendom.” He drew back, his fingertips on my shoulders, and surveyed me with a mild, reproachful look. I must have groaned, or something; at any rate, I know he sensed my resentment—that whole-hearted disapproval of him which had made me stiff as a board at his touch and had kept my eyes averted and downcast. Oddly, though, still burning with anger as I was over what he had done to Celia, I could not bring myself to say a word to him.

  “Let me tell you, Peter,” he went on, “I’ve cased this tub from stem to stern and although about half of them are a bunch of randy-looking Limeys who look like they take it in the elbow, or somewhere, I saw a couple of broads, American girls, who look ready for anything. ’Course, I had a couple of pals in England during the war said these British dames are positive cormorants, jazz you till your ears drop off. But I don’t know. Chacun à son gout.”

  Another giggle floated up from the shadows. “Man, dig that crazy Frenchman.”

  Mason wheeled about, looking down at the colored boy, upon whose blue eroded features now dreamed a sleepy smile. “Well, look here now, Petesy,” he said very loudly, grinning. “I thought when I smelled that tea burning I’d discover a couple of lotus eaters.” He began to laugh at the top of his voice. “Leverett in Bopland!”

  Turning to my shipmates he said: “Boys, you’ve got a square on board, but he’s a good man. Don’t put him down. Where you off to? What are you going to do—set the Left Bank on fire? Where the hell’s your beret?”

  “Right here, man,” said the colored boy, pulling drowsily from his pocket a floppy Basque headpiece the size of a pie plate, which he set in rakish slant on his brow, all but obscuring his eyes. “Groovy, n’est-ce pas?”

  “Look at it,” his companion giggled. “Like, man, it’s the absolute most.”

  Mason burst out in a roar of rollicking amusement. “Bless your bulletproof head,” he cried. “Give my regards to Sidney Bechet. Come on, Peter, it smells like swampfire in here. Let’s go up topside and get some air. In the meantime, boys, keep your fingers out of that caviar. My friend here is Prince Peter of Yugoslavia and he eats hipsters for breakfast.” Clutching my arm with one hand, and a champagne bottle in the other, he propelled me toward the door, where Carole—forgotten by me for these past moments—now stood with a forlorn, distraught look on her creamy face, and with a pinkish hue around her eyes, as if she had just stopped weeping and was about to begin again. She gave me a wan, apologetic smile and her lips parted on the breath of a greeting. But before I could reply Mason said, “Excuse me a second, Peter,” and moved her briskly aside to the end of the companionway, where I watched him for a moment deep in agitated colloquy with her, his words muffled but clearly annoyed, his head pressed down close to hers, his arms buttressed against the wall and hemming her in like those of a top sergeant as he chewed out a fractious recruit. Escape was high in my mind; I felt rotten enough as it was, and with a kind of insane clarity I knew that if I had to participate, this morning, even as a bystander, in one of Mason’s delirious scenes I would surely end up babbling and sobbing myself. Yet something held me there, and I watched in fascination as his face grew red as an apple, the veins like tiny throbbing pipes rampant at his brow, and as finally, with an outraged toss of his hair, he bellowed: “Then go, you lousy bitch! Back the hell to Coney Island … or whatever dump—” I thought for an instant that now with his hand drawn back he was going to strike her, but he didn’t, allowing his palm as if carried forward by the momentum of an arrested then rejected idea to fall with a sharp crack against the wall. “Go!” I heard him say again. “Go!” And then Carole simply collapsed. She gazed up at Mason in dismay, with piteous amazement.

  “Ah please,” I moaned aloud and turned away.

  “I’m fed up!” I heard him say behind me, and again I awaited the sound of his clobbering hand. But when I turned back now, Carole was beating a sinuous, big-hipped retreat down the corridor, keening like a Hindu, sending through the bowels of the ship ponderous, contralto moos of despair which brought heads popping out from a dozen doors. When these sounds diminished, finally dying out, I turned back to Mason. His brow was propped against the wall, and the single word he uttered—over the celebrant noise of tourists and the distant throbbing of engines—seemed laden with a burden of ten thousand years. “Women!” he said.

  “Now what’s the matter, Mason?” I asked impatiently, as he came near me.

  “I don’t know,” he said with a grunt. “I don’t know!” he repeated, looking seriously into my eyes. “I seem to have a run on woman trouble recently. Carole! The bitch. Oh, she’ll be back. She’ll be back. I’m not worried about that. Peter, I’ll tell you, women are another race! They’re like cannibals. Turn your back and they’re ready to eat you alive.”

  “What happened, Mason?” Again, it was none of my business but I couldn’t think of anything else to say. He seemed to me ineffably tiresome.

  “Come on,” he said, steering me down the companionway, “let’s go topside. Oh nothing. Nothing, really. We’ll be mooning at each other by noontime. She’s got the curse or something and she decided to take it out on me. Yak, yak. Wants me to make her a movie star. Wants me to buy her a Jaguar or something. Thinks I’m Darryl Zanuck. I don’t know, every time she gets the rag on she gets positively moon-struck. It’s the worst thing about women —that really screwed-up plumbing of theirs. A big jumbo sewer flowing through the Garden of Eden.”

  To this sort of poetry I am the type of person who usually mutters a complaisant “Yeah.” That’s what I said. “Yeah.” And still, for the life of me, I could not bring myself to mention Celia.

  But, “Really, Peter,” he blurted suddenly. “I’m sorry as hell.” His voice as we bustled along became worried and solicitous, almost beseeching. “Really I am. About last night, I mean. You must think I’d gone absolutely bobo after last night with Celia and all. She came home just a while ago. We made it up all right. Mean trick of hers, making you patch her up li
ke that. On the other hand, I sure as hell should have kept my paws off her. I was all nerves, that’s all, with the play. And she was yammering about kids. I’ll give her kids some day, but can’t she understand that the play comes first? First time I ever laid hands on her! I don’t know what made me do a thing like that!” There was a lack of conviction in his voice, as if he realized I knew better. “Anyway, I sure didn’t expect to impose on you something like just now. Oh, Peter, women! Sometimes I think I’ll switch to beavers. Or moose. Or Rotarians. I don’t know. Or maybe go back to Merryoaks and have Wendy rub me down with Baume Ben-Gay.”

  But when, gaining the outside deck, we pushed up toward the bow through a tourist group of Portland Oregonians, he had recovered from his depression and chattered away at me with jolly gusto. It was a balmy day with a hazeless and sapphire sky across which two planes had sketched straight white trails of vapor, like scratches from phantom fingernails. Erect against the blue, the towers of Manhattan rose up in monolithic glitter, and before this backdrop Mason posed me, talking the whole time as he fiddled with his Leica. “What seized you, to go tourist class?” he said. “I mean for kicks a couple of guys like that are fine, but a week in the same room—murder. Oh, Peter! I can tell you already just who you’re going to share a table with. I saw the list. A chiropodist from Jackson Heights and a hideous old Lesbian with a hearingaid. Why didn’t you fly?”

  “I’m trying to save dough, Mason,” I said. “What do you mean you saw the list?”

  He snickered and clicked the camera. “I was just kidding, doll-baby. Don’t worry. The trip’s going to be a dream.”

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