Set this house on fire, p.23
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       Set This House on Fire, p.23

           William Styron

  For a minute, without speaking, we drank champagne from paper cups at the rail. In the silence I was embarrassed, but I felt a slow, intolerable hardening of my heart toward Mason, not in spite of his generosity but almost because of it, and because now, singled out so uniquely for his grotesque affections, I felt no rare warmth or gratitude but only resentment, a soiled and debased feeling, as if I were the receiver of bribes. Anyway, something—my pride, or only an outraged sensibility—refused to let me speak, and it was Mason finally, in solemn, even sorrowful tones which surprised me, who broke the silence. “Well, Peter, I’m going to miss your homely face. Drop me a line every now and then, will you? I’m going to miss you, boy. I don’t know why. You’re really outrageously dull and prissy as an old biddy of seventy-two. But you know, I guess, how fond I’ve always been of you. Celia put her finger on it, I think. She said, ‘He understands people,’ whatever the hell that means. You probably conned her into that thought by nodding gravely and stroking your whiskers and nonchalantly scratching your ass at the right time. Anyway, Pierre—anyway, I’m going to miss you.”

  “What are you going to be doing now, Mason?” I said idly.

  He was silent for a moment. It was a peculiar and meaningful silence, one that I had learned to arm myself against. It involved an amount of deep rumination, a sparkle in the eye: and by now I felt I knew him so well that I could almost hear the crafty currents of his brain at work, regimenting those shamelessly naked falsehoods which when made vocal—made glib and honey-smooth by his expressive tongue—would wear the illustrious garb of truth. Inelegantly, he spat over the side. “Oh, I don’t know, Petesy. Finish the play, I guess. That’s first on the agenda. Whitehead’s about to go out of his mind, he wants me to finish it so badly. But, you know, a play isn’t something you can do right off the top of your head, like a Ford commercial. You’ve got to think and think and suffer and suffer and think. Then there’s that eternal problem of accuracy—verisimilitude, I should say. For instance, this play of mine—well, I might as well tell you. It’s about those experiences I had during the war in Yugoslavia. Did I tell you that? The fact just in itself slows me down from the very beginning. Because in order to get this—this verisimilitude I need so badly—well, for instance, details about the Serbian language, and certain street names in Dubrovnik, and various partisan passwords that I’ve forgotten, things like that—well, in order to get these things really down pat the way I should, I’ve been having to carry on this endlessly long correspondence with old Plaja. Remember the old guy I was telling you about—”

  “You mean that old hoax?” I said. “That old fraud?” To have to contain myself any longer, to continue to allow myself to be stuffed with his forgeries and fictions, with his crooked inventions, with all the other indigestible by-products of his peerless quackery, was a prospect which at this moment I couldn’t bear. I felt that at least he should have spared me the degradation of a final lie; but he hadn’t, and I was bursting to tell him so. “You mean that figment!” I said.

  He hadn’t caught on. “You remember old Plaja,” he said, “the old guy’s still hale and hearty. Plans to come over for a visit soon. He’s been sort of my technical advis—”

  “Look, Mason,” I said, “why do you feel you have to lie to me? Do you think I’m a—a fool or something? An idiot? Do you?”

  His face went pale. One shoulder pitched upward and he raised his hands, fingers outstretched placatingly toward me. “Now I don’t understand, Petesy. Don’t get me wrong. I haven’t said—”

  “What do you mean you haven’t!” I said. “You tell me these creepy cock-and-bull stories, standing there with a solemn look on your face like a Baptist deacon, and expect me to believe them! What’s the matter with you, anyway? You think I’m a moron? You think I wouldn’t eventually somehow learn what’s true? You call me your confidant, your pal, your dollbaby, and pull all this buddy-buddy stuff and every time I turn around you’re telling me a dreary lie! You were never in Yugoslavia! You were a draft dodger! That play of yours is a soap bubbler I was choking with fury, the dreadful callow American prep-school words ( “creepy,” “pal,” “buddy-buddy”) I uttered with the hysteric rage of a fifth-former, and, aware of all this even as I shouted at him—aware of how stupidly and impossibly and absurdly young we remain in this land—I thanked God I was leaving Mason and going to Europe, and I felt tears compounded of rheum, of indignation, and of an old weary worn-out pity and love for him brimming up in my eyes. I turned away from him. “What, Mason?” I cried, my voice growing loose and incoherent. “Do you think I’m that much of a fool? You’d better get your goddam head looked at!”

  Above us at the funnel’s mouth a plume of steam exploded forth, followed by the whistle’s horrendous blast. As it went off, booming thunder around us, I felt his hand on my shoulder and turned, deafened, to see his gray, stricken face and his lips mouthing the contours of words. Around us, people with fingers in their ears moved slowly forward toward the gangways. “—hurts me!” he cried, in a sudden silence that was profound and astounding. “That hurts me, to hear you say stuff like that.” His lips trembled; he looked on the verge of tears. “Stuff like that,” he said bitterly, “stuff like that is—it’s irremediable. I mean, to think that you—you of all people—can’t make the subtle distinction between a lie—between an out-and-out third-rate lie meant maliciously—between that, and a jazzy kind of bullshit extravaganza like the one I was telling you, meant with no malice at all, but only with the intent to edify and entertain.” His shoulder was twitching badly now, a wide arching seesawing movement; I could almost hear the ligaments snapping with the strain. “Jesus sake, Peter!” he burst out in a voice that was indeed hurt—hurt and aggrieved. “Don’t you have enough prescience to see that I was telling it all to you under the guise of truth only to see your reactions? To see if it would stand up as a play? To see if it was convincing to, say, someone like you whose sympathies I trust and whose aesthetic orientation—”

  “And that dear, fantastic wife of yours!” I broke in. “What’s the matter with you? Lay off her! Lay off her, God damn you!” And then I stopped, my mouth agape, rattled by the sudden knowledge that this was the first time I had ever really talked back to Mason—my first outburst, my only reprimand. For a moment I had no words. Then after a breath, I went on more amiably, “Really, Mason, maybe we’re all a bit neurotic and all that, but for heaven’s sake—”

  He was not to be deflected. In shaken tones he added: “If I can’t have any faith in your reactions, Peter, then the Lord knows —” But then he made a futile gesture with his hand, turning back toward the rail, and wrenched from his throat a few awkward words that hurt me to the core. “Lord knows I’ve tried hard to be decent and sociable enough. But every time I open my mouth it seems I turn into a great pile of …” He paused, lips trembling. It was awful. “I just always end up with everybody using me. Or hating my guts.”

  “I don’t hate—” I began, turning, but another blast from the whistle nearly lifted us from the deck. Far off in the lower depths sounded a carillon of jangling bells. “Well, Mason,” I said instead, “it looks like it’s time to break up our party.” I stuck out my hand, feeling like hell. “Many thanks for all the nice presents. Thanks really, Mason.”

  He moved toward me with a somber little smile, reaching for my hand. “Bon voyage, old dollbaby,” he said, “don’t get clutched up. Down one for me, will you, every now and then?”

  It was the last I heard him say. His shoulder still heaving as if with palsy, he took my hand, turning that simple gesture of farewell into the sorriest act of loneliness, of naked longing, I think I have ever known.

  For like that forsaken boy—his face unremembered now, even his name—who lingers dimly in my memory of childhood, the rich little neighbor boy who—so it was long after told to me—warped or crippled or ugly, perhaps all three, when asked one day by his elders why and how and whither all his nickels and his quarters and his dimes had so sw
iftly vanished, burst out the confession that they had gone, each one, not for candy or toys or Eskimo pies, but to pay for the companionship of other children —five cents for an hour, twenty for an afternoon, a small fistful of nickels for a whole summer day: like this lost child’s, Mason’s gesture was one of recompense and hire, and laden with the anguish of friendlessness. Before I could say another word, or recover my wits long enough to really understand what he had given me, he was gone, swallowed up in the shorebound throng, leaving my hand clutched around a wad of French money he had got from somewhere, all notes of ten thousand francs—enough to buy a solid-gold Swiss watch if I had wanted one, or a suit of Harris tweeds, or bottles of brandy without number. Mortified, I tried to call out after him, but already he was lost from sight—except for one last brief glimpse I had of him at the top of a distant stairway: with his head bent down there seeking the steps he looked curiously clumsy and inept; not the old breezy magician but vulnerable, bumbling and for an instant wildly confused—future’s darling, a man with one foot poised in the thinnest of air.

  Then within minutes I felt a throbbing beneath my feet and the boat began to move. Propped against the rail with the money still in my hand—feeling even at this terminal moment that my virtue had been pre-empted, that somehow, irretrievably, I had been bought and procured—I slipped seaward toward Europe with all Manhattan aglitter in my eyes, its cenotaphs and spires exorbitant and heaven-yearning.

  With my cabinmates I got along very well: they were really gentle, accommodating fellows—somewhat hard to get next to, maybe, but far less depraved than Mason, it seemed to me, and a lot better adjusted. In Paris I got a letter from Mason, telling me that Celia had gone to Reno. I remember one characteristic phrase, which seemed—as with so much of Mason—to emerge from some insubstantial shadowland unacquainted either with sorrow or joy: “Weep, weep for Mason and Celia, Peter, we’ve gone to Splitsville.” And it was not long after this that Mason faded from my mind. Yet I wish now I could recall the details of that shipboard dream I had, far out in mid-ocean, when I shot erect in my bunk and listened in a sweat to my fellow voyagers snoring in the dark, and smelled the sweet scent of those blossoms, slowly dying, that he had given me, and was touched all over with the somehow-knowledge of Mason’s certain doom.


  When Mason, clattering down the hallway in his shower clogs, left me vibrating on that marble bench in Sambuco, I found it hard to get a decent grip on all my emotions. I was furious, God knows. Yet my anger, mixed as it was with a bewildering and indefinable fear of Mason, had the quality of anxiety; flight—from the palace, from Sambuco—seemed essential, and I sat there nursing the insult I felt, and pondered the ways in which I could make a decorous, unseen escape from the whole neighborhood. Two or three minutes must have passed. I was about to get up then, when I heard Mason’s wooden clogs click-clocking slowly back down the hallway. He entered, still walking with his strange bentover hobbled gait, but he stood a bit more erect now and he was looking at me with such grinning, callous good humor that my fear of him instantly vanished. No longer my Polaroid monster, he was himself, desperately plausible from top to toe. “Bet I gave you quite a start,” he said. “How about a drink, Petesy? I haven’t had time to—”

  “Go to hell!” I retorted. “Who do you think you are, talking to me like that! We aren’t back at St. Andrew’s, and by God if you think—I’m not just another one of your crummy freeloaders!”

  “Petesy, Petesy, Petesy,” he murmured in his old plaintive cajoling voice. He sat down beside me and gave me a slap of palship on the shoulder. “Old Petesy with the tissue-paper skin. Look, I want to tell you—”

  “You look!” I exclaimed, getting briskly to my feet. “I don’t know what the hell’s going on around here, but I can tell you I’ve had it! Do you think I’m some lousy contadino—some peasant you can push around? You invited me down here as your guest and I’ve felt about as welcome as a case of typhoid! If it hadn’t been for Rosemarie, understand, I wouldn’t even have gotten fed! I think I’ll take a raincheck. Mille grazie! Wise guy! Jerk!” I shouted miserably as I began to shuffle off. “Invite me back sometime when I won’t be such a strain on your resources!”

  He leaped to his feet and caught my wrist. He was still panting from his recent pursuit, still sweating, and he wore an expression about as close to being shamefaced as he could ever approach. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I really am. I didn’t know what I was saying. I was—well, I was hacked, upset. Please forgive me, Peter. Please do.”

  “Well, I’m going, Mason,” I said faint-heartedly. “See you around the campus.”

  “You’ll do nothing of the kind,” he replied. “You’re going to forgive me for being a bastard. And you’re going to stay here with your old pal.”

  “What did you mean, saying you were going to stomp me?” I said. “What’s gotten into you, Mason? What have I done? I’m not a criminal, a bum you can talk to like—”

  He ran one hand nervously over his brow. “I—I don’t know, Peter. I’m sorry. That girl. She’s been robbing me blind. Just lifted a pair of Rosemarie’s earrings. I was upset, that’s all. I dunno, I got so exasperated I thought everybody was trying to side with her. Crazy of me! Look,” he pleaded, “say you forgive me! I really didn’t mean it, I swear. Soon as I said it I felt like a worm.”

  Incorrigible to the end, I allowed nostalgia and sentimentality to win out. I averted my eyes and gripped his hand, saying: “Well, O.K., Mason, O.K.” All my life I’ve been addicted, in such situations, to weird self-implication. I added: “I’m sorry, too. It was half my fault, I guess.”

  This seemed vaguely to cheer him up. “Right,” he said vacantly, “let’s call it bygones and to hell with it. We all make mistakes. Look, wait here a minute while I go up and put some clothes on, and I’ll show you around the plant.” And as I stood waiting there while he vanished up the stairway I was left feeling—like one bamboozled in an old familiar con game—that it was he who had pocketed my apology.

  He was gone for five or ten minutes. During that time I wandered aimlessly around the deserted room, puffing at a cigarette; I still felt nervous and rattled, especially troubled over the girl he had chased down the hallway, and whom he had obviously molested in one way or another. I think that for a while it must have drizzled outside, for as I lingered, peering again up at the melee on the ceiling (the Huntress this time, harpooned squarely through the navel by a latter-day electrical conduit) I heard voices buzzing below as the poolside crowd began to disband and made their way back up through the garden and into the palace.

  When Mason returned he had on a white jacket and freshly creased Bermuda shorts, and he wore a preoccupied look. “Come on, Petesy, let’s look over the plant.” His voice and manner were terse; nonetheless, he was trying hard to please and impress me. In the next half-hour or so he showed me his den, a leathery relaxed place done up like a whiskey ad, with elephant guns, books, bullfight posters, an ottoman made from the foreleg of a rhinoceros, and the head of an African buffalo he claimed to have slain —a rather pathetic beast that gazed down from the wall with the sweet, dumb, glassy expression of a Brown Swiss cow. This was a new phase of Mason’s, I reflected—the sporting life—and here in the den we lingered for a while, drinking brandy, while he told me of his friendship with various flashy matadors, showed me his great bullhide-bound volumes on tauromachy, which is the word he used, and, lastly, with an effrontery and shamelessness advanced even for him, described in detail the safari he had made through Kenya with a sensitive Canadian blonde. She had taken her Ph.D. at the University of Toronto, on Baudelaire’s imagery … but I won’t go into it: such a rich amalgam of jackals howling in the night, and nerve-racking trails of blood spoors down draws and gullies, and bwanas and memsahibs, and petrifying waits for a wounded beast to come plunging from the brush, or bush—all of this laced with Fleurs du mal and strong draughts of fornication on the veldt—a romance the likes of which you never heard. I th
ink I must have feigned interest but my mind was far away; all I wanted to do was to make an escape from this palace and go to sleep somewhere. Next he took me through the rest of the “plant,” showed the basement with its General Electric oil furnace—trucked over from Naples, he said, at great expense and effort—the frozen food locker, and then the stainless-steel kitchen complete with Frigidaire, an expanse of cabinets, ovens, and ranges whose buttons, controls, and indicators glittered in multicolored ranks. I looked around. At a gleaming sink two local scullery maids toiled in a cloud of steam, scraping plates for the nearby dishwasher, which grumbled and hummed like an idling Diesel engine; beyond them in one corner old Giorgio, stripped to his galluses, was moodily amusing himself with an electric knife sharpener that sent a spine-chilling wail through the air.

  “I got everything wholesale at the PX,” Mason said. “Well, what do you think of it?”

  “Mason,” I said, “I think it’s just grand. But tell me something —how did you get PX privileges?”

  “There are ways,” he said inscrutably. And then he led me into a nearby alcove and showed me a newly developed American fire extinguisher, the extinguishing element of which—a type of gluey foam—he claimed you could actually eat.

  “Fantastic, Mason,” I said. Culturally he had shifted his poles, that was plain to see; he seemed no more self-conscious over this sudden display of pelf than he had been before over his forays into the demimonde. “Tell me,” I went on, “how come you’ve got a Cadillac now? Isn’t that rather square?”

  “Oh, sports cars,” he said. “They’ve become such a cliche.” I should have known.

  Then we returned to the kitchen and were confronted by Giorgio, looking this time sour and mournful as he gave Mason what appeared to be some kind of note. “Da Francesca,” said Giorgio.


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