Set this house on fire, p.25
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       Set This House on Fire, p.25

           William Styron
 

  “Come on,” Mason repeated impatiently, “come on, Cass. Let’s have the old pedigree.”

  Cass hesitated for a second, scratching his head. “In answer to your application, my parentage and age, et cetera,” he said finally, in a thick voice, “my mother was a bus horse … my father a cab driver … my sister a rough rider over the arctic regions … and my brothers were all gallant sailors on a steamroller.” It took no time at all to say. He said it mechanically, dreamily, as if by rote, and when he had finished he grinned again at Mason, in search of approval. It was a look that seemed so automatic, so predetermined, that I almost expected Mason to throw him a fish, or a hunk of meat. For a moment there was a complete silence—a silence you could touch, fraught with an overwhelming, general bafflement and uneasiness. I felt myself tensing up and sweating. No one uttered a sound. And then as Mason, still smiling, fixed upon Cass his intense, magisterial gaze, someone on the other side of me laughed. It was a hoarse, masculine laugh—raw and sidesplitting—and it had the instant quality of contagion: someone next to me began to guffaw, then another, then another, until the whole crowd was let loose upon a flood of whooping, hysterical laughter which rebounded from the ceiling and the walls and washed around us in wave on senseless wave. They laughed and laughed; and they laughed, I suppose, because they were at that stage in drunkenness, or inertia, or boredom, where they were ready to laugh at anything. In the midst of it all Cass stood with the sweat glistening from the bristles of a stubbly beard, dreamy and remote, oblivious of the racket, grinning and swaying as if upon his far-off and desolate street corner. There was a quality about him so totally spent, so defeated, that it was almost repellent. All of his vigor and manhood seemed drained away, and his big muscular hands fell limp and flaccid at his sides; he grinned, giggled a bit, gave a sudden lurch sideways, righted himself. Then finally the laughter diminished, died. Mangiamele, who I was sure had not understood half of Cass’ brief speech, still wheezed and trembled with convulsive laughter, breasts heaving, hands upthrust in helpless mirth to her lovely empurpled face. Between spasms she paused to stare at Cass with a look of simple idiocy, and I suddenly realized that she had no more of a brain than a gnat. Mason disengaged her arm from his waist, stepping forward.

  “Well done, Cass boy,” he said. “Now how about the Honest Abe bit?”

  “Sho’, man,” Cass replied sluggishly. “Sho’. Anything you say.”

  “Billy,” Mason said to the colored piano player, “how about a few bars of ‘Old Black Joe’?” He turned and addressed the gathering. “This, good people, is a song about Honest Abe Lincoln. For the benefit of the non-Americans present, Lincoln was a president of the U.S.A., the Great Emancipator, also something of a liar and a slob, though you’d never know it.” There was an appropriate titter as Mason once again retired, pushing Cass forward, and the piano, maestoso, set loose the first chords of “Old Black Joe.” Cass sang, in a thick glutinous voice.

  “I’m Honest Abe,

  With whiskers on my chin …

  I freed the slabe,

  My face is … on … the … fin …”

  The tempo was excruciatingly slow. I thought he would never get the words out. Worse, he had no voice at all, so that as he stood there with his eyes squinted shut and strove to track the gentle melody down its labyrinthine way, he hit no note at all on key but hoarsely blurted out each word almost at random, and was several beats behind everywhere. His voice was almost drowned out in the hoots and wails of merriment.

  “I nev-er tole

  No-thin but … the … truth …

  Howcome you pulled the trigger on me,

  John … Wilkes … Booth?”

  The laughter showered around him, wave on wave. He stood with his eyes closed, as if dreaming, grinning his sleepy grin, deaf to all. “Now the Rebel yell!” Mason shouted above the uproar. “Don’t forget the Rebel yell!” And at this Cass, much as if he had been shocked out of some profound and amnesic sleep, came suddenly alive. He threw back his head and cupped his hands around his mouth and let out an ear-splitting, screeching noise which sent shivers running up and down my back.

  “YAIHeeeeeeee!” he howled. “YAHOO-eeeeeeee!” Over and over he roared the pointless, bloodcurdling phrase, screeching like a banshee or like one demented, while the crowd around me, convulsed, visibly wilting beneath the onslaught, clutched one another, grinning as they averted their faces and clapped their hands against their ears. Cass howled on, like some ferocious horn or whistle running wild, unstoppered by Mason’s perverse and unfathomable will. “YAIHeeeeeeee!” Senselessly he kept bellowing his outlandish cry, until I thought it would bring the plaster crumbling from the walls. The two scullery maids, trailed by Giorgio, popped out into the hallway wringing their hands, eyes rolling white with terror, and a Persian cat sprang from nowhere, its fuzz raised in stiff alarm, and sailed like a rocket out through the door. And then other people appeared. Like a churchyard transfigured by the trump of Judgment Day, the palace began to disgorge its slumberers, who with dressing gowns and bathrobes wound around them came forth squinting, barefooted, and with the aspects of those who foresee unspeakable horror. Pasty-white, Dawn O’Donnell was first, followed by Alice Adair, and then a couple of wild-haired Italian men in their underdrawers, and finally Alonzo Cripps, looking tense and insomniac and with a cigarette twitching upon his lips. It was he—when Cass’ screams finally subsided—who approached Mason with an air of incredulity, and became the first to speak up. “What the hell’s going on, Mason?” he said.

  “Just having a little fun, Alonzo. Cass here’s entertaining the folks. He’s what in show business we call a laugh riot. Isn’t that right, Cass?”

  “Sho’, boy,” Cass replied in an empty voice, between wheezes. “Sho’, boy, anything you say. How’s about a little nip of that Jack Dan—”

  “We thought someone was being murdered,” said Dawn O’Don-nell.

  “Well, how about keeping it down a bit,” Cripps said. “Some of us have to work tomorrow.” He was in a spot: he was obviously raging but he kept himself in check, I’m sure, because Mason was his host. He turned then, and his eyes fell on Cass, registering pain. “Why don’t you lay off him, Mason?” he said quietly. “I don’t think this sort of thing is particularly funny any more. What’s the point, anyway? I’d think you’d had enough by now. Look at him.”

  Cass turned groggily, and made a slow military salute, Britishstyle, palm turned out over his eyebrow. “Good evening, Director. Glad to have you aboard.”

  “Leave him alone, why don’t you?” Cripps said almost amiably, holding himself back. “Don’t you ever get enough, Mason?” It was a moment which should have been tenser than it was: what Cripps had said, after all, had been in the nature of a challenge, and a public one at that. But the guests—harmoniously convivial, well soused, and desperately bored—echoed none of Cripps’ feeling. They buzzed and chortled: “Go on back to bed, Alonzo,” I heard someone say; their cheeks were red and their armpits were wet and they were out for entertainment—or blood. Even the roused sleepers joined in the happy mood—Alice and Dawn, moving in closer for a better view, and the two Italians who in their jockey shorts looked as poised and unruffled as a couple of ambassadors and scratched their hairy bellies, sniggering, and relaxed.

  “Don’t be a hard-nose, Alonzo,” said Mason airily. “Jesus sake, get yourself some sleep. The party’s just begun.”

  And then Mason made Cass recite a long series of limericks. Everyone came very close to collapse. If they had been amused before, they were now nearly helpless, and in their merriment they got careless with their elbows and stepped on each other’s feet, and my own, and sloshed whiskey all down their wrists.

  “The director of the American Academy,” Cass recited in his solemn lethargic tone.

  “Has a most peculiar anatomy …”

  His eyes were glazed, and he was no longer smiling; all the blood had drained from his face and the sweat seemed to have evaporated from
his brow, leaving him looking parched and dry and accentuating that expression he had had at first, on the stairs, of pale sickness or of poison. He finished the verse in a husky, broken voice, tinged and tired with melancholy. The laughter crashed around him.

  “Hoo! … hoo! … hoo!” The voice of the French dressmaker was shrill in my ear, and I suddenly realized that it had been steady and constant all along—an unwavering high-pitched squeal.

  “Now the one, Cass,” said Mason, chuckling, patting him on the back. “Now the one about the maiden from Nassau. And then the one about the lewd Prioress—Chatham, or you know what.”

  And then, as Cass began to croak out another limerick and as I gazed at him, keeping Mason in the corner of my eye, all of those feelings and suspicions and apprehensions which had been stirring about at the back of my consciousness suddenly jerked into place in the forefront of my mind, made vividly clear.

  Mason had Cass, had him securely in hand, just as in an entirely different but no less impregnable way—up until this night, at least—he had had me. And as I looked at Cass, and as then I looked at Mason—at that slick, arrogant, sensual, impenitently youthful, American and vainglorious face to which I had paid for so long my guilt-laden fealty—I shuddered at the narrowness of my escape, and at my ignorance. And I felt sorry indeed for Cass. The Prioress of Chatham wound up upon a thunderous hullabaloo, surpassing all yet for hysteria, and now it occurred to me that stranger, even more abominable things were taking place. “This’ll shatter you,” I heard Mason say, in what seemed a remote and unreal voice—only half-heard because my attention was now fixed upon two babies in nightgowns who had crept wide-eyed through the door. They were Cass’—the oldest boy and the oldest girl—and they gazed with searching, lovely, bewildered eyes around the room until they spied Poppy and hand in hand marched swiftly to her side. Deep silent sobs racked her gentle frame, and she bit in anguish at the sleeve of her kimono, and with one hand gathered her children to her as she watched the scene. Rosemarie, I noticed, had vanished from the room. “O.K. O.K., Cass,” I heard Mason say, his back turned now. “You’ll get something to drink. After the exhibition bit.”

  “Oh, stop him someone, please!” Poppy’s thin wail soared above the hubbub. “Stop—”

  “This is an authentic re-creation of a Paris exhibition, as practiced only in the highest-class establishments of Montmartre. Proceed, Cass, old dollbaby.”

  And in cold horror I saw Cass get down onto his knees. “Messieurs, dames, c’est comme-ci que l’on fait l’amour en Norvège.” He leered up drunkenly at the bemused guests, amber disks of light glinting from his glasses. As big and as hulking as he was, hunched over like a great desolate animal in this ignoble posture, his voice with its flawless accent was a simper, a prissy obscene lilt at once high-pitched and vacuous and dripping over with apathy —a perfect imitation of a Paris whore. “In Norway, the way they do it …” And then, stupidly licking his lips, adjusting his feet, his long maniac’s hair dangling down over his face, he poised himself to duplicate in parody that act which even the Paphian gods above—had they had the eyes—would have mourned to see brought to such degradation. “En Norvège …” But he never made it, and the crowd had no more time to laugh. For an instant I saw myself in that same position—clownish, prostrate, and dishonored. I sprang to his side—beaten there by Alonzo Cripps, who, pulling Cass to his feet, supporting him, looked at Mason with black loathing.

  “That’ll be enough of this, do you hear?” Cripps said.

  “But Jesus, Alonzo—” Mason began in a whine.

  “That’ll be enough, I said.”

  Poppy pushed through the crowd toward Cass and fell on his shoulder, sobbing. His head was lolling on his chest. “Sorry, my little girl,” I heard him say in a muffled, stricken voice. “Oh Christ, I’m sorry.”

  I suppose Cripps sensed in me an ally. “Why don’t you help get him downstairs?” he murmured. I was holding Cass up with all my might. “I never saw such a disgusting business in all my life.” This was an aside from Cripps, but I know that Mason heard it.

  “Jesus sake, Alonzo,” Mason began, “it was only fun and games—” But Cripps had already vanished down the hallway. An admirable man, above sordid involvements.

  The guests dispersed quietly, melting into the night. I have no clear idea what their reactions were, being too busy with Cass to tell or care, but they were silent, and the silence seemed to be an unregenerate one, full of sulkiness and disappointment rather than shame. Together with Poppy, and with the children tagging after, I tugged and labored Cass toward the door.

  “Why are you up, children?” Poppy said, sniffling. Then she turned back and looked at Mason, standing alone with a baffled, unhappy expression in the foyer. “Mason Flagg!” she cried. “You’re a dirty, wicked man!” He made no reply.

  “You and your goddam phony buffalo!” I added, as we staggered out the door. Since they were the last words I said to him ever, they have caused me more than one twinge of remorse, in spite of all he did.

  “I’ve got to get sober, I’ve got to get sober,” he muttered beneath his breath, over and over. “Got things to do. Thanks, Leverett. Poppy, make me a whole lot of hot coffee. I’ve got to get sober.” We pushed and pulled Cass through the cable-tangled courtyard.

  “Well, for heaven’s sake, Cass,” said Poppy in her small childish voice, panting as she tugged him along. “Heaven’s sakes alive! I told you to get sober this morning. You just won’t listen to me! You’re just a—a reprobrate, that’s all.”

  “Reprobate,” he mumbled. “I’ve got to get sober.”

  “You’re so obstinate, Cass,” she mourned, still sniffling. “Think of the children! They saw you doing that disgusting thing!”

  “We saw you!” the children chimed in from behind. Slim in their nightgowns, their eyes dark and grave, they looked as bright and beautiful and fresh as a couple of daisies. “We saw you, Daddy!”

  “Oh, Mama!” Cass groaned, stumbling over a cable. “Did I really do what I think I did?”

  “Think of your ulcer!” Poppy said.

  “Jesus God, I’m a lunatic. Sober me up!”

  We entered through the green door and into the Kinsolvings’ part of the palace. This—or at least as much of it as I could discover at first glance—was a cavernous, dimly lit room with large French doors at the far end which, like Mason’s, gave out upon the somber, twinkling sea. Otherwise there was no resemblance to Mason’s dwelling, and perhaps it was just the comedown, or letdown, from the magnetic grandeur above which fortified my sense here of anarchic housekeeping and grubby disorder. Or perhaps it was the diaper on the floor at the entranceway, which made a wet sloshing noise beneath my feet. Whatever, as Cass lurched forward and fell face downward on a ratty couch and as Poppy hurried off with the children into another room, I was certain, as I stood there blinking, that I had never seen such squalor. Dishes and coffee cups were everywhere. In the air hovered a troublesome, gamy, enigmatic odor not precisely, but not far removed from, decay, as of a place where garbage cans languish days on end in unfulfillment. The piled-up stumps of cigars protruded from half a dozen ashtrays, or had been squashed down into empty wine and Coca-Cola bottles, one of which still fulminated with greenish, greasy smoke. Comic books in Italian littered the floor, where Mickey Mouse had suffered a change to Topolino, along with Stefano Canyon and II Piccolo Abner and Superuomo. Across one half of the room a bediapered clothesline sagged damp-looking and redolent, while from the only hopefullooking object in the room—a large wooden easel—a tattered rag doll grotesquely dangled with stricken button eyes, as from a gallows. Upon his couch Cass called out loudly and hoarsely to Poppy for coffee. Then as I accustomed my eyes to the haze in this benighted room, I saw what at first I was certain was the wraith of Pancho Villa come out from the distant shadows—a young, round-faced, mustachioed carabiniere, bandoliered to the neck and flashing his white front teeth in a yawn, who clanked and rattled obscurely as he approached
through a swarm of flies and greeted me with a melancholy “Buonase’I”

  I fairly expected, in the morbid state I was in, to be arrested, but the cop—languidly picking his teeth as he strolled past me—paid me no attention as he sauntered over to the couch and laid his hand on Cass“ shoulder. “Povero Cass,” he sighed. “Sempre ubriaco. Sempre sbronzo. Come va, amico mio? O.K.?” His voice was subdued, sad, almost tender.

  For a moment Cass said nothing. Then I heard his muffled voice from the pillow, in lazy, fluid Italian: “Not so O.K., Luigi. Uncle’s had a bad night. Sober me up, Luigi. I’ve got things to do.”

  Bending over him, the cop spoke in his gentle tones. “You got to go to bed, Cass. Sleep. That’s the best thing for you. Sleep. What you’ve got to do can wait till morning.”

  Cass rolled over with a groan, laying his forearm over his eyes, breathing hoarsely. “Jesus,” he said, “it’s all going round and round. I’m a lunatic, Luigi. What time is it? What in God’s name are you doing here at this hour?”

  “Parrinello put me on night duty. The swine. Again I’ll swear it’s because I’m an intellectual, and he’s an unreasoning block head who despises thought.” (An intellectual policeman! I could hardly believe my ears.) “I more than half-expected it. You remember my telling you—”

 
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