Set this house on fire, p.31
Set This House on Fire, p.31William Styron
“If you ask me,” murmured Maggie confidentially as she moved away after her, “the jerk deserved it. He must have been a monster. They say that girl didn’t have one unbroken bone left in her body.”
I lingered long enough outside to watch the movie folk go. Their escape was hasty and frantic; no military unit forced into sudden retreat could have made such a determined exit from the scene. In vans and trucks, in station wagons, on motorscooters, in Fiats, in Alfa Romeos and in Buick convertibles, they rumbled in caravan fashion like refugees from disaster past the palace door. At some point I remember feeling sorry that I would not see Cripps again. A bus full of technicians was the next to the last to pull out, trailed by an open car in which sat Gloria Mangiamele, still giggling over something, and Carleton Burns, whose haggard hound-dog face was upturned, taking a tremendous belt out of a bottle of Scotch. Not one of them had any kinship whatever with tragedy, and it was evident, for in less than a minute they were all past sight, leaving the street with its gleaming fireflies and flickering bats as quiet and serene as it had been under good King Roger of Sicily, a thousand years before.
At the end of this day, then, I came back to the Kinsolvings’. For God knows what obscure motives I closed the big wooden doors behind me: perhaps only to shut out the far-off incessant doom-tolling bell, perhaps to insulate myself, no matter with what tem-porariness, from the town itself with its hovering commingled burden of gloom, of fright, of menace. The courtyard lay deserted and still, littered with paper and cartons and other debris of leave-taking. My eyes automatically searched the ceiling: high in the air the imprisoned bird still sought freedom through the moonlit fleur-de-lis of glass, yet with a less frantic fluttering of its wings now, almost feebly, and soon it would plummet down to these gouged-out and desecrated tiles, where it would die. Its plight, which had touched me before, moved me not at all now. I felt as drained of emotion as if there had been piped away from my bones and tissues all strength and all will; I was as limp and as pliant as a green reed beneath the streaming water. I heard the sound of feet tramping above: Am I accurate in recalling that I expected Mason to appear on the balcony, flapping at me his lean long arm, with a querulous “Petesy” on his lips insisting that I join him in a drink? As a matter of fact, for a deranged moment I did think it was he—they were of the same height—but it was only a local workman, one of Fausto’s minions, who came out through Mason’s door, pitching downstairs a boxload of rubbish with an inane, instinctive “Prego,” and casting me a lip-curled glance of disdain.
I went through the green door, where in the glow of a single dim light Cass’ living room lay untouched and silent in its squalid disarray. It was quiet; no one was at home. Not a thing had altered since the night before: soggy clothesline, easel with its dangling doll, scattered comic books, cigar butts, bottles—each occupied still its own grubby disordered place. The smell of the place was riper, gamier; as I switched on the overhead light three big fat mice catapulted like fuzzy musketballs from the table, making sharp separate reports as they hit the floor then scuttled for shelter behind the wainscoting. Nothing here, though, discouraged my hunger; remembering that somewhere around I had glimpsed a room that looked like a kitchen, I began to prowl around on the top floor, barking my shins, lighting matches as I went. Finally I saw an ancient icebox in the hallway and opened it: the ice had long since melted and the interior was warm and damp and sour-smelling, harboring within its gummy, unclean shelves a single tepid Coca-Cola, a bottle of infants’ vitamin solution, and a desiccated piece of cheese. I squeezed out a few drops of the vitamins into the Coca-Cola and took this, together with the cheese, back into the living room. There I unearthed half a loaf of bread; it was bone-stale, but I ate it, too, as I sat there sunk in a condition of pulpy, emotionless inertia. For a long while I sat, wondering what to do next.
At last—it was dead of nightfall by then, close to nine it must have been—I heard the sound of voices down past the garden and beyond the swimming pool. Remote at first, they sounded like the voices of shrill and quarreling women, but as they came nearer the high piping notes defined themselves as the noise of children. I heard feet below tumbling across the flagstone walks of the garden, there was a swishing in the bushes and a patter and a sound of banging doors. Then on the stairway I heard their strident calls, in English and Italian, ascending, until at last with a noisy scuffle on the hallway landing they burst into the living room like children everywhere on a summer night—panting and damp-browed, scratching mosquito bites. Trailing hard behind them was Poppy, holding in her arms the youngest little boy, who was fast asleep, heedless of the racket.
“Peggy!” Poppy commanded sternly. “Timothy! Felicia! Everybody to bed! I’m not going to have any arguments!” I arose and coughed. “Oh, Mr. Leverett, it’s you!” she exclaimed. A faded bandanna covered her hair; she looked worn and haggard and unhappy. Her pretty little face was of that fragile and transparent sort which like litmus paper responds to every mood: the shadows of weariness beneath her eyes were like smudges of soot. “Have you seen Cass?” she cried, wide-mouthed. In her voice was an anguished plea, a wail, with no nonsense about it and no refinements; she was like a three-year-old who had lost her doll. “Have you seen him? I’ve looked for him everywhere! I haven’t seen him since last night!”
One of the children began to howl. “Mommy, I want some cioccolato!” Another took up the cry. “Cioccolato!” And in the space of a wink, right there before my eyes, a general tantrum ensued, all but the oldest girl—who sat gravely and primly in a chair—shrieking for chocolate at the top of their voices, joined by the baby in Poppy’s arms, who, terrified out of sleep, turned anabrupt and pullulating crimson and commenced screaming. I have always been reduced to bald despair by screaming children; I took out a cigarette and lit it, obscuring the sight in a cloud of smoke.
“Stop it!” Poppy shrilled. “Stop it, children! Blazes!” Her chest and shoulders heaved, and she was on the brink of tears. “Just stop it now,” she implored, as the children quieted down. “You can’t have any chocolate. There isn’t any. There just isn’t any. I’ve told you. Now you’ve got to go to bed.” She began to whimper herself as she rocked the crying baby in her arms. “Haven’t you seen Cass?” she said, turning back to me, beseeching me in a way that made me feel she thought I really had seen him.
“No, I haven’t,” I said. “Can I—”
“Did you hear what happened today?” she said with an awed, frightened look. “Isn’t it awful? Isn’t it just the awfulest thing you ever heard of in your life?”
“What happened, Mommy?” said Timothy. He was running his hand around in an empty sardine can, licking off gobs of congealed green olive oil from his fingers; he looked so famished I could hardly blame him. “Tell me what happened, Mommy,” he persisted in a casual, artless voice.
“I know what happened,” said Peggy from her dangle-legged perch on the chair. One eyebrow was raised, her lips turned down in sly superiority: she was a jewel of a little girl, with sparkling eyes and resplendent golden hair. “Old Nasty-face Flagg jumped—”
“Taci!” Poppy commanded. “You just close up your mouth, Peggy Kinsolving! Just for that you’re all going to bed right now, you hear! Downstairs, right away!” With a blandly probing finger stuck up inside, she checked the condition of the baby’s diaper. “Oh dear, he’s got full pants again. I just changed you,” she crooned to the little boy, “and now you’ve gone and done it again, Nicky. You little pumpkin pie.” She pressed her nose against the child’s, smilingly clucking and fussing. Her voice was a brief sweet carol of delight. “Yes ’urn did, I just changed you,” she cooed, wiping her finger on her skirt, her distress drowned in the fount of maternal love. Then all of a sudden she herded the children together and, with the baby on her shoulder blinking drowsily at me over pink jowls, marched the brood downstairs, caroling sweetly all the way as if nothing had ever troubled her.
But when she returned ten minutes later she seemed a
“Call me Peter,” I said. “What do you mean?”
“Didn’t you hear me? When I came into the room and woke you up? I thought you were Cass. He sleeps there sometimes when he’s been up late and doesn’t want to wake me. I shook you and you rolled over and groaned. I was greatly taken aback, I will say.” She paused, twisting a damp handkerchief in her fists. “Of course, we’re delighted to have you,” she said politely.
“Where did it all happen?” I put in.
“You mean what—Oh dear—” She flushed and a look of pain came over her face. “Oh dear, it’s so awful. I just couldn’t find out anything. But I saw Mr. Alonzo Cripps just before he left, and he said that it occurred on the path going to Tramonti, just outside of town. There’s an upper path and a lower path, and I think he said it occurred on the upper—no, maybe it was the lower. Anyway, some peasants found her on this path this morning and they lifted her up and took the poor creature to a house just inside the walls.” Her voice broke off, a tremor passed through her, and two tears slid slowly down her cheeks. “Oh it’s so awful! Jiminy Christmas, it’s like out of the Dark Ages or something. I mean, Mason and all. I mean he was an evil cruel man and all, and he persecuted and took advantage of Cass’ condition and everything but, golly, Mr.—Peter—it’s just so hard to believe that. He must have become crazed.” All at once she broke down and fell to sobbing into the tiny handkerchief, helplessly and weakly.
“How is the girl, Poppy?” I said. “Francesca. How is she? Do you know?”
“She’s going to die,” she said with a moan, still sobbing. “That’s what they all say up the street. Oh, I wish I could find Cass!” She wore blue jeans now, there was a charm bracelet of yellow gold around her wrist; frail, hipless, with baggy socks and a smear of grease on her cheek, she looked like a pretty teen-ager who had fallen off a bicycle and was nursing her humiliation. My heart was wrung with sympathy for her. I glanced around at the proliferating mess of the room, which, I supposed, she tried somehow to cope with: that she should be a mother four times over touched me with awe and bafflement. I put my hand on her shoulder. “Take it easy, Poppy,” I said, “he’ll be back soon.”
She raised her tear-stained face. “But where could he be?” she cried. “I’ve looked just everywhere. In the piazza, up by the Villa Constanza, in the market—everywhere! He’s never gone away like this before! Never! Oh—” Her face lit up suddenly, inspired. “Oh yes, I forgot. I know where he might be! He might have gone to Salerno with Luigi. They often—”
“I saw Luigi. He said he hadn’t seen Cass,” I had to tell her.
“Oh golly Moses,” she whispered, her face falling, looking desperate and scared. “Listen, Peter, I just know he’s mixed up in it all somehow.”
“What do you mean?” I said.
She was ashen-faced, and as she rose slowly from the chair I could have sworn I saw her teeth chattering. “Oh, I wish I could tell you! He’s so sick and all, you know. I mean, he’s an alcoholic as you doubtless know, and he’s got this ulcer and all and he shouldn’t drink, and then he’s been having these dizzy spells. What I mean is—”
“What do you mean, Poppy?” I insisted. “How could he be mixed up in anything—”
“I don’t know!” she blurted suddenly and tearfully. “Yes I do!” She had gone to the wall and pulled down a yellow rain slicker (it was not raining), and this, three sizes too large, she wrapped around her. “Women have premonitions, that’s all. I mean—” she said with quivering mouth, “I mean, I know Cass! It was probably a profound shock to him, knowing Mason and knowing Francesca, who worked for us and all. So knowing Cass, what he has doubtless done is to get drunk and raving, and has gone and said some ugly, insulting things to the carabinieri about their conduct of the case, and they’ve locked him up in jail! He hates that Sergeant Parrinello! Phooey!” she said, stamping her foot, adjusting her bandanna. “He’s so irresponsible, that Cass Kinsolving. Maybe,” she added, drying her tears and staring at me with an air of haughty, worn-out patience, “you know, just maybe he should be committed to the Alcoholics Anonymous or something.” She went to the door. “If the children should holler or anything, I’ll be back in venti minuti. I’m going down to see if I can’t get Cass out of jail. Just look in the icebox if you get hungry or anything. Ciao!” And with all her tender strength she slammed the door behind her. Her rapid queer reasoning, her motivation, left me flabbergasted, powerless to move: it suddenly occurred to me that she might be somewhat backward.
I went downstairs and got my luggage together. I could hear the children brawling in a bedroom: to hell with them, I thought, they could take care of themselves. I felt sticky and begrimed; as I sponged myself off in the bathroom I laid out for myself a plan for withdrawal. Money for me at that point was a minor concern; from a schedule I recalled seeing in the hotel lobby I knew the last bus to Naples had left, but I was certain that for the equivalent of ten dollars or so I could easily hire a car and driver to get me there. My boat to America, to be sure, did not leave until five days later, but I felt that it would not be unpleasant to mooch around Naples for a while, revisit the museum, go to Capri and Ischia and Ponza. And so I started to leave Sambuco. As I prepared to go upstairs I remembered the Austin: junk heap that it was, it had cost me thirteen hundred dollars, second hand, and I was not prepared to sacrifice it to the elements or to marauding Italians. But in the end I really didn’t care. Perhaps I would wangle out of Windgasser a hundred thousand lire for the wreck—enough to pay for my Naples sojourn; failing that, I would let it stay parked where it was forever, shat upon by pigeons.
I did not see Cass at first when I reached the top of the stairs and went back through the living room. He must have come in quietly, or maybe his entrance had been drowned out by the scuffling children: I was almost to the door when, startled, I heard a noise behind me and whirled around to confront him. I didn’t know what there was about Cass that made him seem at my first glimpse of him another—a different—person. It was Cass—he was dressed the same, in disheveled filthy khaki, and the beret was still cocked in fierce slant above his gleaming glasses—but it didn’t quite look like Cass, an indefinable weird displacement of himself, rather, as if he were his own twin brother. Otherwise all was familiar: he was drunk, as I had first seen him. A bottle of wine dangled from one limp big paw, and he could scarcely stand erect, propping his hip for support against the table, just perceptibly and limply swaying. In his other hand he held the butt of a shredded and beslobbered black cigar. Very plainly in the stillness I could hear his deep and heavy breathing. At first I thought there was menace in his eyes, so constant and searching was his gaze upon me, but then I realized that, profoundly discomposed by alcohol, they were striving merely to focus. Finally when he spoke his voice was thick-tongued, hoarse, barely articulate. “Well, by God,” he said slowly and deliberately, trying to master his tongue. “You caught me red-handed. Saw Poppy go out just now. Thought I could sneak in here and tend to my own business, unbeknownst to man or monster. Only I forgot all about you. I guess I’ll have to put you out of the way, like they do in the flicks. You know too much, buddy. Where you off to so fast? You look like you just robbed a race track.”
The suitcases slipped from my hands and clattered to the floor. “I—I don’t know,” I began “I was just—”
He cut me off with a wave of the wine bottle. “By God, it’s good to see you, Pete,” he said with a flabby-mouthed grin. “Man I can trust. Man I can talk to. Thought you was one of those wise movie-boys for a while. Southern boy, ain’t you? Georgia? Loosiana? Ole Virginia? Knew I could tell by that sweet corrupt look you got around the jowls. But then—ah, loving God!”
He recovered himself momentarily, focusing upon me his hot drowned eyes. “Yes, I’ll tell you how you can help old Cass,” he said somberly. “Now I’ll tell you, my bleeding dark angel. Fetch him the machine, fetch him the wherewithal—a dagger, see, a dirk, well honed around the edges—and bring it here, and place it on his breastbone, and then with all your muscle drive it to the core.” He paused, swaying slightly from side to side, never removing his gaze from my face. “No bullshit, Pete. I’ve got a lust to be gone from this place. Make me up a nice potion, see? Make it up out of all these bitter-tasting, deadly things and pour it down my gullet. Ole Cass has had a hard day. He’s gone the full stretch and his head aches and his legs are weary, and there’s no more weeping in him.” He held out his arms. “These limbs are plumb wore out. Look at them, boy. Look how they shake and tremble! What was they made for, I ast you. To wrap lovely ladies about? To make monuments? To enfold within them all the beauty of the world? Nossir! They was made to destroy and now they are plumb wore out, and my head aches, and I yearn for a long long spell of darkness.”
I tried to speak but my tongue clung to the roof of my mouth as slowly and ponderously he shuffled toward me, dropping the wine bottle which broke in splinters on the floor. He jammed the cigar butt into his mouth; his glasses made shiny half-dollars of reflected light. And as he came near me he seemed so full of clumsy sodden threat that I poised myself on the balls of my feet, ready for precipitate escape. But with astounding speed, quick as the strike of a rattlesnake, his arm went out and I felt my wrist go numb in the engulfing, savage grip of his hand. Reeking of sweat, pressing close, he held me more now by his grasp than by his wild drink-demented gaze.
Set This House on Fire by William Styron / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes