Set this house on fire, p.29
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       Set This House on Fire, p.29

           William Styron

  I heard his feet tramping back and forth on the floor above me as I tried to sleep. Unconsciousness seemed a long time coming; I was stiff and sore and nagged by fugitive sorrows and regrets. First I wondered about Cass: who was this tormented, sad, extraordinary character? I worried about Cass for a long time. Soon I began to wonder if di Lie to was still among the living; then try as I might I could not force from my mind the vision of that hut, doomed in its lovely glade. With the muddled irrationality that goes with complete exhaustion, I remembered the pornographic pictures that Mason had asked me to bring him, and I kept trying to decide whether I should somehow see that he got them, or, as a last gesture of my defection, throw them away. I began to scratch and fidget and I yearned for a cigarette, for I had smoked my last. Then I began to think of a girl I once had made love to in Rome, which made me sweaty and earnest with desire, and I got up and drank a glass of cold water. The feet above me finally ceased their pacing. Cass Kinsolving! Who was he? At last, with the sunlight streaming down upon me through the rustling blinds, I slipped off fretfully into sleep, listening to the shrill cheery chorale of birds among the vines, and the clip-clop of a horsecart, and a girl’s velvety sweet voice, somewhere far off, singing “Caro nome” I woke up sopping with perspiration how many hours later I could not tell; in the room it was almost completely dark, and my watch read a few minutes past noon, but it had stopped. I thought it must be night again. For a while I lay there still, thankful that I was alive and breathing, for the dream-landscape I had visited seemed now more grim and malignant than any I had ever known: a nightmare at the beginning so fearful that I could not recall it, which was in itself an abomination—a curtain, dropping straight down like a shutter in my mind, which seemed to be made of the interlocking black wings of ravens crawling and loathsome with parasites, and which shivered and rustled as it sealed off the nightmare from recollection. Then all the rest, for all the hours I had slept, was nothing but a huge and barren place where I stood and witnessed a country in cataclysm and upheaval—a land of insurrection and barbarous acts and slaughter, where across the naked countryside wild hairy men ran with torches, and women gathered shrieking children to their breasts, and strange-looking dwellings flickered and burned, sending fetid clouds of smoke into a boiling, overcast sky. And throughout it all, through the unnumbered hours I stirred and tossed and groaned, I seemed to hear remote screams and yells, and wails of terror, and the anguish of the flayed and the crucified, until finally, without respite or calm, I woke up drenched, and with an outcry of supplication half-spoken on my lips. And as I lay there on the bed collecting my senses, watching the last pale glimmerings of light fade from the room, I was assured that it was not all a dream. Sambuco seemed windlessly, intolerably still. Not a sound came from outside, where there should have been that chuckle and buzz and tintinnabulation of Italian towns: it was as silent as a churchyard. Yet as I lay there listening to the slow leakage of water somewhere in the depths of the palace, I heard something in the distance which echoed from and explained my nightmare: a woman’s single cry—a high-pitched, caterwauling sound of grief which wavered on the still hot air, soared higher and higher, then ceased, abruptly, as if shut off by a bullet through the head. Then all became as it had been—deathly still. After a time, puzzled and depressed, I got up, feeling a sharp pain in my neck where I had twisted it. I wiped the sweat off me with the bedclothes. And all the while, as I got dressed in the shadows in a troubled, dopey fashion, I heard other separate and isolated cries of lamentation, some close by, some indistinct, which like the cries in my dream sounded like those of souls in immortal torment. I expected to walk outdoors and find the town in siege or ablaze; no, I didn’t know what to expect—least of all, as I left the room, to find that it was not night but late afternoon. There was daylight now, and a clock ticking in the hallway told me it was five o’clock, which meant I must have slept nearly twelve hours.

  There was not a sound in the house; the upstairs living room lay as depraved and messy as it had the night before, and abandoned. It occurred to me then that the disturbance outside might be only a contribution on the part of Alonzo Cripps and his crew of moviemakers, but when I stepped out into the courtyard I saw that all the movie equipment had been dismantled and taken away. In its place there was a huge stack of suitcases, golf clubs, and other luggage, prepared as if for evacuation. Standing guard over the pile was a tacky-looking old townsman who tipped his cap and mumbled something mournful and unintelligible as I passed. There was no other sign of life here save for the trapped swallow I had seen the night before, which swooped down among the fluted columns, then upward, and still beat its wings against the skylight in flight toward the inaccessible sun. At the top of the stairs I had climbed—it seemed so many days before—Mason’s door stood ajar beneath its frieze of dingy nymphs. No one came or left: the silence was appalling.

  Outdoors I stood blinking at the deserted street. It was still a bright clear day, hot but tempered by a breeze from the sea. The shops across the way were barred up and shuttered; not a soul was in sight. For long moments I stood there. Then I heard a woman’s cry, doleful, high-pitched, and piteous. Turning, I saw her rushing toward me down the street, a white-haired old woman in billowing black, keening grief at the top of her voice: all in a slant she came past me, tears running in rivulets down her ancient face—’Disonorata! A sangue freddo!” I heard her gabble—her black tempestuous skirts held up around her ankles, still keening and in miraculous slant as like a witch on a broomstick she sailed around the corner and vanished, leaving behind her an eddying whirlpool of dust. Suddenly I realized that I had been holding my stiff neck at an angle, causing woman, street, and sky to slant, and I painfully untilted it. I gazed after the woman, stupidly expecting some kind of explanation, but the street remained deserted and silent as before, calcimine-white in the Tyrrhenian sun and looking as shuttered and withdrawn as if once again the town were being beleaguered by the Saracens. Violated, as the woman had said, in cold blood.

  In bewilderment I strolled up the street toward the hotel: there was a sort of terrace restaurant there, where I knew I could get an orange and a sandwich and a pot of coffee. But in the gardens at the entrance to the hotel no one was about—only a big bobtailed tomcat, a mouse trapped between his jaws, who eyed me discreetly and edged out of sight beneath a camellia bush. The terrace, too, was devoid of life; feeling footless and now creepily abandoned, I wandered through a sea of tenantless chairs and white tablecloths to a place near the edge of the terrace where I could watch the well-advertised panorama. It was a spectacular day: the sea, cellophane-clear, seemed to allow the eye to plumb the very limits of its blue cool depths; the green humpbacked mountains all around had the sunny, three-dimensional quality of stereopticon slides. With only a small straining of the vision, I felt I could see all the way to Africa. Yet why, I kept asking myself, was everything so totally, absurdly quiet? Far down the slope on the coast I watched a truck, no bigger than a pea, begin its winding ascent up the mountains: although I should have been able to hear the coughing of its engine, I heard no noise at all. Sound seemed drained from the whole visible world around me, as from a vessel. For what must have been ten minutes I sat there waiting for service, but no one came. At last belatedly, thick-headedly aware that something somewhere was seriously wrong, I made a motion to get up and leave, when I saw approaching me from the gardens an agitated figure, pitched between a fast walk and a trot. ‘Non c’è thervizio oggi!” he cried, and then I saw that it was my erstwhile padrone Fausto Windgasser. “There’s no thervice today!” he lisped in English, recognizing me; he came on at a gallop, halted, beckoning me with frantic gestures out of his preserve. And I arose and sauntered toward him, touched already by the contagion of his hysteria and feeling an abysmal premonition. “What’s wrong?” I said as I neared him.

  The dapper little man was all but frothing at the mouth: his eyes seemed glazed, and the silky strands of hair on his balding pate had sprung erect,
like those of a terrified and cornered animal, and fluttered in the breeze. “Yes, it’s you, Mr. Leverett! Fortunate you checked out. Fortunate you are leaving!” All suavity abandoned, he clutched me by the arm. “Quelle horreur,” he gasped, in a lapse of tongue, “quelle tragédie, oh my God, have you ever heard of such a thing!” As if aware of what must have been a strange prickling at his scalp, he took out a silver comb and, releasing my arm, began to run it through his hair. His eyes were swimming with tears, his lower lip drooped and quivered; I thought at any moment he might collapse in my arms.

  “What in God’s name has happened!” I demanded. I began to jabber too: his aspect of horror was so consuming that I felt my own strength fail, and the blood draining away; for a second I had the insane notion that another world war had begun. “I’ve been asleep all day!” I cried. “Tell me what’s happened! I don’t know!”

  “You dunno?” he said incredulously. “You dunno, Mr. Leverett? About this devvistation in our town? We are ruined! The town is veritably in ashes! After this eventuality there will be no more turismo in Thambuco for ten—no, my God, for twenty years. Overpowering twagedy, my God. It’s like the Gweeks, I tell you, but far worse!”

  “Well, tell me!”

  “A young girl, a peasant girl,” he said in low wretched tones. “A peasant girl from the valley. She was found ravished and dying on the valley road this morning. She is not expected to live out the day.” A great racking sob wrenched itself from his chest. “I tell you, it’s the first mortal act of violence in this town since the last thentury. Before my own father—”

  “Go on!” I commanded.

  “I demur, my God, because—” He was weeping now, blubbering, a soft fluid mess of a little man, turned to water. “Because—Because, it is so twagic, I tell you! Mr. Flagg—”

  “What the hell has he got to do with it?”

  “Oh, Mr. Leverett,” he sobbed, not entirely heedless of some innate dramatic flair. In his voice were all the echoed intonations of that strange dead hotel library of flamboyant gestures and fevered diction—Mrs. Humphry Ward and Bulwer-Lytton and Lorna Doone and other swooning, improbable chronicles left behind by drowsy English gentlewomen—which, I suppose, were the only books he had ever known. “Oh, Mr. Leverett, Mr. Flagg is dead. He lies even now beneath the precipice at the Villa Cardassi, where they say he threw himself, in remorse over the—the deed he committed.”

  For a long moment I had no notion at all of what Windgasser was trying to convey to me: who was this soft, foolish, soggy little man, combing his wind-blown hair? Make him repeat it, my mind said, you misunderstood. I grabbed him by the arm.

  “Yes, I mean it,” he said, sobbing. “Mr. Flagg lies below the Villa Cardassi. Dead, dead, dead.” He blew into his handkerchief. “He was such a kind, decent, generous man, too. It is difficult to believe. So big-hearted, so courteous, so affluent—”

  I waited to hear no more, tearing myself from him and out of the garden and into the street again. I had no idea which way to go but I headed down the slope toward the square. Presently I increased my pace and soon I was running, my feet stumbling and sliding on the cobblestones. On the run I passed clots of people who stood in open doorways, some silent, some wildly gesticulating, all looking wide-eyed and stunned. I galloped on in the warm windy sunlight, half-overturning a boy on a bicycle, dodging a stray goat, in dreamlike flight through empty space vaulting down over half a dozen precipitously pitched stone steps; at last, gasping, I debouched in flapping seersucker from the cobbled street and found myself in the buzzing, people-crowded square. Everyone had gathered here, it seemed: townsfolk, tourists, peasants, policemen, movie stars. In groups of four and five and six they were solemnly talking—the townspeople in the center of the square, the tourists in seamy, be-Kodaked clusters near their buses beside the fountain, the movie folk at cafe tables, gloomily drinking. A squad of carabinieri entered in a riot truck, stage right, with groaning, descending siren, scattering a flock of geese in obese waddle. Save for one or two anachronistic details, the cluttered piazza might have been a set out of Il Trovatore. Above this jam-packed mob a hum and murmur of conversation floated like a black cloud—speculative, lugubrious, flecked with nervous laughter that bordered on hysteria. And as I stood there trying to gather my wits about me, I heard a church bell begin a jangling, discordant requiem, high in the air where pigeons wheeled about in the gusty sunlight—no more melodic than falling dishpans yet heavy and plaintive with woe. CLANGBONG! DING? BANG!

  “Che rovina!” spoke a voice at my elbow. It was old Giorgio, the butler: huddled up in an American Navy pea jacket, though the day was sultry, he gazed with blue watery eyes into space, tugging at the folds of his neck and looking miserable.

  “Is it true, Giorgio?” I said. “Is Signor Flagg really—”

  “Si, signore,” he said listlessly, still gazing into space. “He is truly dead. By his own hand.”

  LACRIME! the bells clang-clattered.

  “What happened, what did he do, where can I see him?” I said all at once.

  The old man was like one drugged. Blindly he plucked at his neck, snuffling, quietly mourning. “He who lives by violence shall die by violence,” he mumbled sententiously. Then he paused, all aflounder in his unhappiness. “That one so fair and kind should meet such a bitter end,” he said finally, “is the greatest tragedy in the world.” And it took me a moment to realize then that it was not Mason, around whom all my thoughts had been revolving, he had been talking about, but the ravished and dying girl. Beneath the canopy of clashing bells I tore myself away from Giorgio’s side, plunging and sidestepping my way through the crowd toward the edge of the square. Here between two buildings was the entrance to a shadowy alleyway and down upon it were galloping the recently arrived carabinieri, who were armed to the teeth and blackly scowling and began to muscle their way through a crowd of gawking peasants, sending up bright flares of profanity and working their elbows like pistons. I stood there for a moment feeling shaky and rattled; then, undaunted, I pushed through the crowd of peasants, cursing too, and hustled after the cops up the alleyway. Very shortly the alley became a cobbled little street, the street a labyrinth winding narrowly between rows of dank, deserted houses, and the labyrinth finally a walled path which straggled away from the center of the town and mounted gradually the side of a dizzying precipice so vertical and so smooth that it was as bare of vegetation—even of moss or lichen—as a crag in the remotest north. Along this path I made my way, following the track of the cops whom I could hear clumping and toiling up ahead. People were coming down—spectators, I presumed, of the aftermath of tragedy: natives of the town, ragged peasants from the valley, several crestfallen dogs, and even two German tourists, a dough-faced fat couple sporting alpenstocks and green Bavarian hats, who edged past me with a strange glow of satisfaction and left the air echoing with soft chortles of eerie succulent laughter. I trudged along. The waning day was gold and green and summery, viewed as if through the clearest pane of glass. Lizards preceded me up the protecting wall, unloosing in their iridescent scramble bits and pieces of crumbling stone. Unnerving heights rose up and fell away on either side of me: I was at the level of a cloud which was plump and fleecy, its underside a dissolving pink, floating over the valley like cotton candy. Back in the town the bell ceaselessly tolled its jangling lament. Of the rest of that half-hour’s climb I remember nothing save that somewhere along the way I encountered Dawn O’Donnell coming down the path. She was making a weak-kneed descent, and her carrot-colored head was bent tragically low upon a wad of shredded Kleenex, and she was escorted by the crew-cut young man of the night before, who as he passed, I swear, was saying, ‘Can that, baby, will you?” He looked at me but whether he saw me I couldn’t tell.

  Halfway up the steep hill which led to the base of the cliff the path widened out, joining here a spacious, grassy ledge perhaps a hundred yards across which several scores of people had collected—townspeople, more tourists, more dogs, and at lea
st two dozen policemen. Above the ledge the precipice rose heroic and dizzying to the Villa Cardassi: by craning my neck I could see the Moorish roof floating on high in the slanting sunset, and the stunted, wind-bent cedars which clung to the villa’s fortressed walls. It was a sickening drop. A few yards away near the base of the precipice a rope had been strung, one end secured with a metal hook in a crevice of a rock, the other end tied to a pole in the ground fifty feet away. It was against this rope that most of the onlookers were pressing, filling the air with soft morbid whispers of rumor, of conjecture and speculation; behind the rope stood half a dozen carabinieri, most of them looking solemn and self-important, and sweeping the crowd with beady-eyed glances of contempt. One of them was Cass’ friend, Luigi. I pushed toward him through the humid mob, signaling to him with my fingers. His sleepy eyes parted wide in a look of recognition; as he did this, a gap of space appeared between two craning, brilliantined heads and I saw Mason at last—my heart giving a huge lurch of misery as I saw his long familiar outline beneath a blanket, covered up all but for the lower part of his white pathetic legs which stuck out shoeless and fly-covered and slew-footed. And at the sight, incongruously, I thought that the legs were still no doubt wearing a pair of Bermuda shorts, bottle-green and sharply pressed.

  “Buongiorno,” I said to Luigi.


  “Come sta?”

  “Bene, grazie, e lei?”


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