Set this house on fire, p.24
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       Set This House on Fire, p.24

           William Styron
 
“Francesca?” Mason exclaimed, his eyes growing wide. “Where is she?”

  “Dov’è, signore? Non lo so. Ma credo che sia giù, nella strada”

  “Speak up!” he said excitedly, then to me: “What’s he saying, for Christ sake?”

  “He said he believes she was downstairs, on the street.”

  “What does he mean, ‘believes’?” he said, tearing open the note. “Doesn’t the old fool know?”

  “Se n’èandata” Giorgio said with a shrug, spreading his hands wide. “Finish.”

  “She’s gone, Mason,” I said.

  “Well, tell him to go find her.”

  I told him. More knowledgeable, apparently, than Mason knew, he shuffled away, mumbling resentfully that he was nobody’s fool. I began to fidget. Mason in the meantime, digesting the message in a glance, had turned scarlet; puckering his lips up as if to spit, or to blurt out some blasphemy, his face became redder and redder, and he let the note fall to the floor, his eyes bugging out and looking wild as, finally, he found words to speak. “The little slut,” he said in a low, mean voice, “the unspeakable, filthy dago slut.”

  “Mason,” I said hastily. “I think I’ll go on up to the Bella Vista. I’m really quite beat and—”

  “They’ve got the minds of criminals, I’ll swear to God,” he said. “Every goddam one of them are filthy, sneaking thieves. It’s born in them, I’ll swear, Peter, with the same predestination that makes the Germans born with blood-lust. They’ve got robbery and embezzlement in their bones. No wonder they’re so goddam poor. They must rob each other blind!” As of yore, he had begun to gyrate his miserable shoulder.

  “Look, Mason,” I said, “all this is very well and good, but it’s not true and I don’t want to talk about it. I’m dead tired and I want to go to bed—”

  “Jesus Christ!” he said, paying me no attention. “To think that filching little bitch would promenade right under my nose for two —no, three whole months, robbing me baldheaded—at the wages I pay her, too!—robbing me with no more compunction than if she thought I was a gibbering idiot. Wiggling her criminal little twat around the house as if she owned the place—” And as he stood before me there in the steaming, grandiloquent kitchen, he sailed away upon a harangue so absurd and so mad that I actually thought for a brief moment he was joking: had I not heard, for Jesus sake, of Willie Morelli and Tough Tony Anastasia and such thugs as The Dasher Abbandando and Bow-legs Sarto—not to speak, for Jesus sake, of Luciano and Costello and Capone? Was that not proof enough, if proof was needed, that the principal contribution of the Italian people to America if not to all humanity (and please, Peter, he knew all about the Renaissance) was a thievish and corrupt criminality so murderous, so immoral, that it was unrivaled in history? “Jesus sake, Peter!” he said angrily, as if he sensed my silent rebuke. “Use your head!” Didn’t I know that Murder, Incorporated—that vicious mob of professional assassins —was made up almost wholly of Italians and that moreover gangsterism in America was totally controlled by a wicked pack of dope-sellers and connivers in Italy? (Dear old Italy.) I had heard that, but I didn’t see that—’Jesus!” he cried. “Use your head!” And then he indulged himself in one final, flamboyant, pathetic lie (the last of his I was ever to hear): about a young friend of his, a Harvard-bred assistant district attorney so brilliant that his name had been bruited about New York as candidate for mayor, who, having declared a personal war on the mobsters, went out bravely incognito among them, only to be found slain one night in a vacant lot in Rego Park, Queens, mutilated so horribly that even he, Mason, was loath to tell about it (but he would: a hot poker rammed up his bowel; his genitalia … etc.). I made my mind a blank. “And the Mafia had branded their mark on his chest!” he concluded, shaking with fury. “A bunch of miserable Italian thugs with the mentality of beasts. Look, you know I’m not a—a xenophobe, of the lunatic fringe. But isn’t that proof enough that the Italians have become degraded to the point of bestiality? Do you see why I might be peeved,” he asked, with a heavy load of sarcasm, “when this dirty little twat of a housemaid has the temerity—the gall—to walk out beneath my nose with practically everything I own? Can’t you see how I might be vexed, to say the least? Well, can’t you?”

  I said nothing. I couldn’t even bring myself to look at him, as he stood there panting and heaving. Then all of a sudden he smacked one fist into the palm of his hand, startling me, forcing me to look up at his face. And as I stared at him, he muttered beneath his breath something which made no sense to me at all: “So it’s a lot of lowbrow diddling, that’s what it is. A cheap smelly roll in the hay.” Then he paused again, the sweat pouring off his face, smacking his palm. “Well, we’ll see about that!” he exclaimed. He turned on his heels then and charged back through the door past the fire extinguisher, his shorts flapping around his knees as he hotfooted it down the hallway.

  I picked up the note he had let fall to the floor. It was in English, but in a messy, lacerated scrawl so splintered that it was barely legible. Youre in deep trouble, it read, Im going turn you in to bait for buzards. C. I thought it some sort of joke.

  I pocketed the note, then I trailed after Mason, despondent but curious. I followed his gaunt and hustling vision, multi-reflected, down the mirrored corridor; breezing into the foyer, past the marble bench upon which I had so lately tumbled, he made no sign or word of recognition to the scattering of guests returned from the pool, who had gathered there, but threw open the door to the stairway of the courtyard and raced out onto the balcony. I followed in his wake, passing through the foyer too, where I had a brief glimpse in the distance of several people dancing and the black indefatigable face of Billy Raymond as he pounded the piano. And when I reached the balcony I saw that Mason was leaning over the stone parapet, bawling down into the courtyard.

  “Cass!” he shouted. “Hey, Cass! Come on up!”

  But from the green door down in the shadows below there was no stir, no answer.

  “Cass!” he yelled again. “Hey, Cass! Come on up here!” His voice, oddly, had none of the anger nor the agitation his recent movements would have led me to expect; it was instead only rather blunt, peremptory, as if it expected to be heard, and obeyed, and it echoed in hollow waves around the dark and lofty courtyard. “Cass!” he cried again, but there was still no answer from the door; he turned to me with an exasperated look, saying, “Now where the hell has he gone to?”

  “I wouldn’t know, Mason,” I said, utterly baffled.

  Some emotion shivered and shook him as he stood there—God knows what emotion it was. He trembled, ran his hand again across his sweaty brow. I thought he was going to burst into tears. “The jerk!” he said in a choked voice. “The miserable jerk!” And then, brushing past me, saying in a voice that was almost like a gasp for air, “I’ll bet Giorgio knows!” he flung himself back through the doors and into the palace.

  My mystification was complete.

  Now was the time to go. And I would have done so, no doubt—my foot even then poised in liberating descent upon the stairs—had not the green door opened at that very moment down below, sending a shaft of light across the courtyard and causing me to draw back like some hooligan (such was the infection of Mason’s personality) into the shadows of the balcony. Two figures emerged from the door—Cass Kinsolving and a girl. I heard a soft sobbing noise from the girl, exhausted, infinitely touched with grief, and saw Cass half-stumble against the wall; then, as they moved on slowly out into the rectangle of light, I saw that the girl was none other than the black-clad servant girl who had fallen to her knees before me in the salone. I heard them talking in low unhappy tones—indistinctly, spiritlessly—their voices rising and falling alternately and then in unison in a curious, small threnody of distress, and rent at intervals by the girl’s soft, remorseless, heartbroken sobs. Irresistibly, I leaned out over the parapet. I saw Cass stagger and slump against the wall, almost toppling down, and heard the girl’s voice again, as she appeared to clutch out for him, in a
renewed surge of half-hysteric grief. For a long moment, leaning there against the wall, they melted together in a tormented embrace. At last I heard the single word Basta! Then one of them said Ssss-ss, and their voices died to whispers, and for a long minute I heard no more until with a soft pitipat of bare feet the girl scampered across the courtyard, still weeping, and was gone.

  Alone, Cass stood at the doorway, swaying back and forth. At last with a sudden clumsy motion he turned about and pressed his cheek against the wall, clutching at the gray stone with his hands, as if trying to embrace it. I thought I heard him groan; then the sound died and all I could hear was his heavy breathing as he stood there, the noise sibilant and greedy and agonized like that of a distance runner at the end of a race. And at this moment the door burst open once again behind me, and Mason flew to the parapet, leaning over.

  “Cass!” he cried. “Come on up here! Come on up and have a drink!”

  There was no movement from the figure below: only the steady, laborious breathing. Mason called again, still not harshly but with rising impatience and with a blunt imperative tone, like that of a military person to a slow-thinking or half-deaf subordinate. “Sonofabitch,” I heard him mutter fretfully. Then he turned abruptly and clattered down the stairway, taking the steps two at a time and landing flat-footedly in the courtyard, where he paused for an instant, arms flailing about as he regained his balance and then sprinted past all the movie machines across the tiles to Cass’ side. I heard them mumbling to one another, first Mason’s voice, affable and insincere, saying, “Come on up, pal, and join the fun,” then Cass’ mumbled unintelligible reply, and Mason’s voice again, growing more and more impatient but still under control as he gave Cass a big swat between the shoulder blades—"Don’t be a miserable spoilsport!” I heard him say, louder—and turned him around, half-supporting him about the waist, and led him slowly back across the courtyard to the stairway. Cass was drunker than he had been an hour before, if that was possible. He looked now like a man pitched on the edge of total ruin, his eyes making comic-strip X’s behind his glasses, his arms limp and powerless at his sides. At one point, as he climbed the stairs, I thought he was going to topple over the balustrade. Mason steadied him, grimly. Then when he finally lurched up to the balcony where I was standing, Cass’ eyes floated to a point several inches from my face, and I thought for an instant that he winked at me but because of the condition of his eyes I could not be sure.

  Mason, panting and excited, released his hold around Cass’ waist. “Come on have a drink,” he said to him sharply. Then to me: “Cass is going to put on a little show. Cass is a real actor, when he’s had one or two under his belt. I might even get Alonzo to get him to turn professional. Is that O.K. with you, Cass?” He tried to smile.

  Cass stood before us swaying, hair still in his face, grinning now—slackly and rather stupidly. “Sho’, boy, anything you say, anything you say.” A crazy, witless chuckle emanated from the back of his throat. “ ’M a real actor. Melpomene and Thalia. The sweet goddesses for which—for whom, I should say—old Unc Kinsolving would die. Willingly.” He paused and hiccupped. “Willingly. No bullshit, boy. Born to the buskin. Thespis me middle name. Unc’ll do anything for a drink.” Sweating wildly, he looked up at Mason through his befogged glasses. “Anything for a drink, man. None of this old cookin’ whiskey, either. None of this ol’ rotgut that’d burn the craw out of a turkey buzzard. Sippin’ whiskey! That’s what Mason serves. Gentry whiskey! Good sour mash what never saw the light of day for eight whole years. Tell me, old Mason buddy,” he said, laying a big hand on Mason’s shoulder, hiccupping again, “tell me, boy, you got any that Jack Daniel’s we picked up at the PX today? Any left for old Unc Kinsolving?” From the eloquent, warm-natured, animated person I had encountered that afternoon he had changed into a played-out lush, wheedling and foolish. I felt undermined, disappointed. He was just another one of Mason’s sycophants.

  “Sure, Cass,” said Mason. “You can have all you want. Soon as we put on our little show.” And he laughed as he once more grabbed Cass by the arm and propelled him toward the door, but there was a mean glint in his eye. The back of his neck was the color of a boiled lobster; he was seething, and I knew that I could expect the worst. “Come on, lover man,” he said sarcastically, pushing Cass along with soft pokes at his shoulder. “Come on, boy. Let’s show the folks some real entertainment.”

  Just then—just as we were about to enter the foyer—I heard a small shrill cry from below and another patter of feet crossing the courtyard. I drew back several steps and looked down. It was Poppy. Dressed in a flowered kimono and socks, her yellow hair now most unbeautifully cemented to her head by curlers and bobby pins, she mounted the steps pell-mell, gasping, puffing as she reached the top, where, with small fists clenched and her face red with pouty outrage like a child’s, she fell on Mason and began to tug furiously at his arm. “Mason Flagg!” she yelled. “I heard you! I heard what you’re up to, you mean person! You let Cass alone! Do you hear me? You let him alone!” In her faded kimono, she looked worn and poor, but she was lovely.

  Mason turned on her. “Go on away!” he snapped. Then he added more temperately, with his forced smile: “Take it easy, Poppy. We’re just going to have us a little fun. Isn’t that right, Cass?”

  “Don’t say anything to him, Cass!” Poppy shrilled, in a frenzied, broken voice. “He’s going to mistreat you! He’s just going to shame and humiliate you like he did before!” She glared up at Mason—bristling with fury, her eyes brimful with tears and hugely round —still tugging at his arm. “Why are you such a mean, evil person!” she cried. “Why do you want to do this to him! Can’t you see the condition he’s in? Don’t you know he loses all command of himself when he’s like this? Oh please,” she wailed, with a despairing, imploring gaze, “please leave him alone and let me put him to bed! Don’t shame him any more!” She glared at me, pleading. “Please, Mr. Leverett, please make him stop. He’s so sick, Cass is! And now Mason wants to put him on display!” She wheeled again on Mason and stamped her foot. “You brute! It’s not funny any more, Mason! It’s horrible. Oh, I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!” And she put her face in her hands and began to cry.

  “Maybe you’d better let him alone like she says,” I suggested. “Maybe you’d better, Mason.”

  “You keep out of this, Buster Brown,” he retorted, throwing me a look of contempt. I think it was at this moment (and it came with staggering belatedness, considering what had passed between us since I landed in Sambuco) that I realized for the first time that Mason, in the midst of all his gross and preposterous dissimulation, actually disliked me as much as I did him. Each of us had changed, at last, beyond recapture. His eyes lingered on me. “You keep out of this, hear?” he repeated, and he turned briefly to Poppy, casting her a look of amusement and disdain. Then, “Come on, Lochinvar,” he said brusquely to Cass, “in we go.”

  Cass stumbled heavily against the door. “Thass all right, my girl, my little girl,” he said in a thick garbled voice to Poppy, regaining his balance. “Don’t you cry for me. Me an’ ol’ Mason gonna have us a ball, isn’t we, pal? Fun and games, like always. How’s about a little tiny nip of that Jack Daniel’s, Mason, just to start everything off right?”

  Mason said nothing and pushed Cass forward. Poppy trailed in their wake, tears streaming down her face.

  “Quiet, everybody! Quiet, please!” Mason clapped his hands, and his voice boomed through the huge room, bringing the music to a stop and causing the dancers to halt in their tracks. “Quiet, please!” Mason shouted again. He was grinning broadly but his jacket was drenched in sweat: he seemed eaten up by some furious inner agitation. “Quiet!” he cried. “Will the ladies and gentlemen present please gather around for the evening’s special attraction! Kindly step forward in this direction if you will!” Slowly the guests edged forward to the place where Mason and Cass were standing in the foyer. The party had thinned out considerably. It must have been close to tw
o, and many of the people had retired, I supposed, to the Bella Vista or to their rooms in the palace. Alice Adair was gone, as were Morton Baer and Dawn O’Donnell, but I saw Gloria Mangiamele undulating toward us and, among the others, Rosemarie and the crew-cut young man, who had become cross-eyed drunk, and my other bête-noire, the assistant director Van Rensselaer Rappaport. In all, I imagine a dozen people were left, and while Mason shouted and clapped his hands they gathered in a cluster around him.

  “Wot happen your pretty face, darlings?” said Gloria Mangiamele with a giggle, sidling up to Mason and putting an arm around him.

  “I fell into a thicket,” he replied abstractedly. “Will all you people—”

  “Ticket?” said Mangiamele, puzzled. “How can one fall into a ticket?” J glanced at Rosemarie: she was a pale portrait of misery.

  “Will all you people please come closer? Thank you. Tonight we have for you a special surprise attraction,” he said, gesturing toward Cass. His voice had become rich and magniloquent, like that of a circus ringmaster, and his face still wore the stiff, absurd, almost painted smile. “I want to present to you ladies and gentle men Cass Kinsolving, the greatest personality, the greatest one-man show since the days of the great departed Jolson. Isn’t that right, Cass? Speak up, Cass. Let’s have your pedigree.”

  For an instant in the background I saw Poppy, biting her lip and fighting back tears, reach out to clutch at Cass, but he was lurching forward now, grinning his foolish grin, and with lumbering steps he moved up and came to a standstill next to Mason, where he remained weaving and grinning like some shambling burly bear in the center, so to speak, of the stage. His T-shirt hung sloppily out around his hips, his pants were stained, his glasses askew upon his flushed and perspiring face; standing there yawing precariously he looked husky and vaguely professorial and afflicted by some profound, voiceless melancholy, despite his grin, like a lost and drunken scholar on a Bowery corner, contemplating his inward ruin. Among these suavely varnished people, he did indeed look as out of place as a Skid Row bum. I heard Mangiamele giggle, then someone else laughed. There was a stir of anticipation in the crowd, a rustle of dresses. “He’s simply priceless,” I heard a French accent murmur, and turned to see the neck of an elderly fairy craning over my shoulder. Rosemarie had pointed him out to me earlier: a celebrated couturier—Jacques Something-or-other—of whom I should have heard, but hadn’t. His neck was a pinkish neck, and wattled, like a vulture’s. “Where on earth did Mason find him?”

 
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