Set this house on fire, p.32
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       Set This House on Fire, p.32

           William Styron
 

  “Seddow,” he said, releasing me.

  “What!”

  “Set down!” he commanded.

  And I sat, transfixed.

  “Well, he went and done it, didn’t he?” he said, breathing hard. “At long last he went and done it.”

  I began to say something but he cut me off, swaying, let loose a tremendous belch, and then spat on the floor. “You’d think the bugger’d known better, wouldn’t you?” He began to say something else, then came to a halt, his eyes wide and wild, lips apart. Then very slowly he said: “He couldn’t die but once, and that’s the bleeding pity of the matter. One time—”

  “Take it easy,” I mumbled, rubbing my wrist. I got up. “Loosen up, Cass. Just take it easy, will you?” Gingerly I patted him on the shoulder, trying to calm him, but he pulled away from me with a jerk and then slowly sank into a chair. He thrust his head into one hand and for a while was silent and still; squatting rigid and immobile, his muscles tightly contorted beneath his wet stained shirt, he looked almost as if he were sculpted there, a great aching lowering figure like Rodin’s “Thinker,” caught in an attitude not of meditation but grief. I listened to his breath escape whistling and tortured through his nostrils; far off beyond the walls the tolling bells rose muffled, clangorous, doleful.

  “What happened to the flicker creeps?” he said.

  “They’re gone.”

  I thought he grinned. “When the old boat founders it’s the rats that’s first to go.”

  Then again he fell silent. When at last he spoke, in a dull, hoarse monotone, his words made so little sense to me that I felt that it was not wine which had so bested his mind, but something far more unhinging and profound: “Exeunt omnes. Exit the whole lousy bunch. Enter Parrinello, gut throbbing, with a fat theory. Gentilissimi signori, tutto è chiaro! With his own remorse he slew himself. Mother of God! A brain stuffed with mohair soaked in piss. Show me a smart policeman and I’ll show you a girl named Henry.” His shoulders began to heave with laughter, only I could see—as he slowly raised his face—that it was not laughter at all; his convulsions were those of a man who was weeping, if it is possible to weep without shedding tears. Dry-eyed, racked by spasms of grief, he arose and cast me such a look of envenomed wrath that I flexed myself once more for quick flight from the room.

  “Longer’n I can remember,” he said in a whisper, “I been hungering for my own end. Longer’n I can remember! Now there’s a justification. Give me odds, boy. Give me odds! Listen. Tell me. Tell me that ten million times I got to die, to find beyond the grave only darkness, and then be born again to live out ten million wretched lives, then die again and so on, to find ten million darknesses. Listen, boy! Tell me this! But tell me that once in ten million deaths I’ll find no darkness past the grave, but him, standing there in the midst of eternity, grinning if you please like some shit-eating dog and ready for the fury of these hands, then I’ll take your bet, boy, straight off, and be done with living in half a minute. Oh, I should not have let him off so easy! Oh!” he repeated. “I should not have let him off so easy!”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Nossir,” he said, in a remote voice now. “Can’t get to the bugger. Old Mason’s dead as a smelt.”

  He staggered to his feet. He made a curious, importuning gesture with his hand, as if beckoning me toward him, then clapped it against his brow. His voice as he stood swaying there remained distant, ruminative: “You know, it seems to me that today sometime I was laying on the high slopes above Tramonti, up there where the cool winds blow and the earth is full of columbine. And streams of water, boy—streams of cool water coming down from the hills! And I dreamt that my love was in my arms and we was all home at last. Then along came this here doctor, rousing me out of sleep, this doctor with a long bush of a beard and a boutonniere and a red nose. And do you know what he said to me as I lay there, this old doc? Know what he said?

  I couldn’t speak.

  “Said he: Have you heard that your lady, who was so fair, is slain? And he put ice on my brow and he cooled my fever, and I said to him: Estimable Signor Doctor, do not fool with old Cass. Bleeding doctor! Say that his lady still lives, she whose solitary footprint in the dust was more precious than all the treasures of the world! But it seems to me that then he said: No, it is true, your lady is truly dead. And then I knew it was true enough.”

  He ran a limp hand slowly across his eyes. Suddenly his arm snaked out for a wine bottle on the table, an awkward motion which, unbalancing him, set him teetering against the chair, where for a split second he swam with his legs out in mid-space at an impossible gravity-defying angle before coming down hard upon the floor, legs and arms asprawl and upsetting the ponderous easel with a crash. He lay inert and motionless on the floor in a spreading, shimmering cloud of dust. Rigid with horror, I could not move to help him, stood there wondering if indeed at last he had killed himself. After a time, though, he stirred and with great effort, still prone and akimbo, composed his limbs and slowly pried himself up into a sitting position on the floor. He shook his head dazedly, pressing his hand to his brow, where, through his open splayed-out fingers, I could see trickling a tiny stream of blood. I spoke to him: he said nothing. Behind me I could hear a slow clumsy patter of feet, and I turned: aroused, I suppose, by the crashing easel, two children came into the room with frightened eyes. “It’s Daddy. Oh look, he hurt himself!” They stood watching him for a moment. Then silently, ghostlike, as if wafted toward him by the breeze which suddenly blew up the slope and set some shade or blind to chattering in a remote corner of the room, they crept weightlessly into his arms.

  Bloody, with dazed and glassy eyes, he drew the children next to him in a smothering embrace. “Press close to me on either side—” he began, then ceased. Abruptly, gently, he pushed them aside and struggled to his feet. He looked at me but he no longer saw me, I’m sure, his eyes fixed instead through me and beyond me upon some vista mysterious and distant and sufficient unto itself. His lips moved, but made no sound.

  Then as swiftly as his lurching gait could move him, he shouldered past me to the door. There, ignoring Poppy, who had just returned, ignoring both her shrill squeal of anguish—“Oh, Cass! You’ve changed!”—and her tumbling collapse as she fell forward toward him, swooning, in a crumpled heap upon the floor, he staggered past her through the courtyard and out of sight. And it was only seconds later, bending over Poppy (watching her eyelids slowly part as she murmured to me, “Oh, Cass, you’ve changed"), that I realized at last that all this time his face had been a face which, in the space of a day, had aged a dozen years.

  PART TWO

  This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.

  What falls away is always. And is near.

  I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

  I learn by going where I have to go.

  THEODORE ROETHKE

  V

  One day on our riverbank in South Carolina, Cass said to me: “I always figured you knew I had killed him. Not that it worried me too much, for some reason. I remember blabbing to you that night, running off at the mouth, but I never could remember just how much I said. I thought I’d given myself away, though. The funny thing is that it really didn’t bother me. Maybe it was because I knew the Italians had closed up the case, it was a suicide, and that was that. You couldn’t much blame them. Two people found dead like that—almost at the same time, you know—and there sure wasn’t much reason to look around for a culprit, much less to pin it on the Deacon Kinsolving, who was the soul of rectitude.” He paused. “Anyway, I didn’t ever have any worry about your going and spilling the beans. Put that out of your mind. Maybe the simpie fact of the matter is that when it was all over nothing really mattered any more. I’d gone the limit, and what anybody might do or say meant nothing. See this gray old head?” He stroked the side of his brow and there was neither pride nor self-pity in the gesture. “I guess it was kind of small of me to keep up the pretense with you down here for so lo
ng. Somehow I knew you knew. But it’s a tough thing to come out and say. To admit. It puts you in the position of having to explain the whole bleeding miserable business, and that hurts. Do you understand?”

  “Of course I understand,” I said. “But one thing. I didn’t ever know. I suspected it. You had said some rather odd things. So I suspected it. And those few days there, when you didn’t come back, and I stayed and—well, helped out Poppy and the kids, it really weighed heavy on my mind. You were suffering, and—well, if this doesn’t sound too embarrassing, I cared for you. You’d done something to me, opened my eyes about a lot of things, and I just didn’t want you to drift out of sight. So when I left Poppy and the kids finally and came back to New York without having seen you again, without ever having known what the real story was—how you stayed alive and all, much less stayed out of jail—I just kept wondering about you, that’s all, wondering how the hell you made out. And wondering what the real story was. Yet it’s strange how one rationalizes. When I wrote you, when I invited myself down here that first time, it was really I thought just out of the hugest curiosity, about Mason and what he’d done that summer to bring himself to such a—a godawful end, and knowing that you’d probably be able to tell me something about him. Still saying to myself that it was a suicide, after all. Yet I know that part of my reason was—well—” I found it difficult to say the word, or words.

  “The suspicion that I’d killed him,” he said, somewhat morosely. “Don’t be bashful, my friend. Say it. It’s not as hard for you to say it as it is for me.”

  “All right, that you’d killed him. Understand,” I began to explain, “I wasn’t snooping. I wasn’t being any bloodhound. You could have done away with five hundred Masons, for what he did, and as far as my moral position in the matter—”

  “God sake, boy, you don’t have to tell me. I knew you weren’t after anything.” He paused. “On the other hand, maybe you can understand why I didn’t send an answer to that other letter of yours. There’s some things you’d just as soon forget.”

  “I shouldn’t have stuck my big—”

  “Don’t get yourself in a sling about it,” he put in. “I shouldn’t have said that. These things you’ve told me. They’ve made me mighty glad we’ve thrashed this out after all. You’ve lightened some dark spots.”

  “Like what?”

  “Oh, about Mason, for one thing—what kind of a man he was, and so on. Outside of Sambuco, that is. And then—as I’ve said—about that night. What was going on in the midst of my black, blind, grizzly, suffocating darkness. It’s made me see things that I really didn’t know before. Wild things.” He halted for an instant. “Terrible things, really,” he added in a bleak unhappy voice. “Things that shift it around somehow. Things I’ve always suspected, had hints about, but never really knew—due to the aforesaid darkness. Whoo!” He shivered a little and rubbed his eyes. “Not that anything can really be changed,” he went on, “being so completely over. But you might say it’s fascinating.”

  “What, for instance?”

  “Oh, like when I came up and fell over the piano and you and Cripps salvaged me. You see, it comes back to me now. It came back to me when you told me about it. Remember that drug—that bleeding wonder-drug antibiotic? That’s what I’d come up there for that time; it sure wasn’t to babble any Sophocles. That’s what was on my mind.”

  “So—”

  “Well, so if I’d managed my slick little bit of thievery then, the whole crazy evening would have been changed. I’d have gotten down to the valley and gotten back and—” But he stopped and threw up a hand. “Bugger it, you just can’t trifle with fate, I guess.”

  “Lord, if I had known—”

  “Forget it. How the hell could you have known?” He gazed at me gently, with a sort of sad benign tolerance all over his face, “You’d think that you had something to do with it all. I’ve got enough guilt about it to equip a regiment of sinners and now you want to horn in with your own. What’s the matter with you, boy, anyway?”

  “Nothing,” I said. “Nothing much. Small clues. Little items like the fact that I knew something mean and ugly was going on between you and Mason. That note of yours for one thing. That was one of those things that was in the back of my mind for months. And—oh, I don’t know—some of the things you said. I should have gotten Cripps or someone—That is, somewhere along the line there I should have just waked up and taken hold of myself and tried to get you strapped down in some position where you couldn’t do anybody any harm.” I paused. “I’m working on the assumption, of course, that you wish it hadn’t happened, in spite of what Mason did. Right?”

  “You’re right,” he said, and the look of sorrow on his face was abruptly so total and painful that I turned my eyes away. “Boy, you’re sure right.”

  “Tell me something, Cass,” after we were both silent for a long time. “What was it between you and Mason?” I hesitated for a moment. “I don’t mean to sound stupid. All right, there was the girl. Francesca and—You—well, you know what I mean. He ravished her, killed her. And for that you finished him off. All that’s evident and plain. But what were these other things? That horrible act he made you go through, and—”

  “Ahhh!” he said. “How do you know? How can you ever tell? How can you ever know where the blame lies? What part was Mason’s and what part was mine and what part was God’s. Sometimes I’ve had nightmares about it—or I used to, before I got ahold of myself—and in these nightmares someone or something told me that it wasn’t Mason who was the culprit—wasn’t Mason who was the wicked party—but only your old friend the preacher here, who was the evilest man who ever walked. Sometime I’ll let you look at my journal, and read the story as she is writ. It didn’t start in Sam-buco, either, if you really want to know. It started—a lot of it any-way—in my own heart, on the day I was born. It started—” He paused for a long while, then rose up on his elbow and looked into my eyes. “I’m going to ask you a funny question. Do you believe in —well, what they call the supernatural? I know that’s a queer word.”

  “Are you kidding?”

  “Neither do I,” said he, “not one bit. But do you want to know something? When I look back on it—or at least take it back as far as I can, to Paris, say, where you know Poppy and the kids and I were before we went to Italy—when I look back there and try to get a perspective on it, I can’t help but believe that something forced me to go to Sambuco. These nightmares I had. I put them in my journal, too. Strange ones. Half out of the devil, half out of paradise. They forced me, drug me there—do you understand what I mean? It was as if I had to go there—and that what happened there, to be fancy, was some sort of logical end-product of what had been prefigured in these dreams. Shithouse mouse! This is hard to get at. Do you follow me?”

  “I don’t know if I do or not,” I said. “Things that are not strictly of this world tend to give me the creeps. Tell me this. Did you like Mason at first? I mean when you first met him down in Sambuco, did he—”

  “It didn’t start with Mason, I’m telling you,” he insisted, emphatic now, earnest. “It started in me, early, way back. I suppose it started on the day I was born, like I say. But it really started in Paris the year before, when I was sick and these here nightmares began to come upon me. It began then, and without knowing about that you couldn’t know how and why it ended with Mason. Do you understand?”

  “I don’t really—” I began. I only dimly realized that he was prompting me for a blast.

  “Get this clear,” he said. He had risen to his feet, I thought somewhat agitated; his voice even more than before was heavy with emphasis, urgency. “This has got to be made clear, because, Peter, I don’t really think you quite understand about Mason. Beast, bastard, crook, and viper. But the guilt is not his! I been asking and asking and asking it from you, hoping you would show me he was evil. But no. He’s still just scum. Don’t you see? Nossir! The guilt is not his!”

  “No, I don’t see,” I sa
id positively.

  There was a long silence. Then he said, more gently now: “No, there’s really no reason why you should. There’s just no reason why you should at all.” And he stopped, then said: “He didn’t kill Francesca, that’s what I’m trying to tell you.”

  It came as quick as that.

  “No, goddammit,” he said, “don’t look at me like that. Straighten up, boy. Do you want to get the facts now? Or the truth?”

  “The truth,” I managed to say, somehow, straightening up.

  “Well, visualize the Kinsolvings in Paris, if you please.” (In the fishing shack again, another night, after my mind had slowly adjusted itself to a lot of things.) “We’d been there a year, I guess. We were cramped together enough, God knows, in the palace, but what we had in Paris wouldn’t have accommodated a proper clutch of dwarfs. Two only halfway-big rooms for the six of us—Nicky had just been born—and a two-by-four John and a huge big window that covered the entire wall. Sometimes I think if it hadn’t been for that goddam window I really would have gone nuts. What I mean is, a big elephant vine had grown up on the outside and it covered the entire window, so that in the spring and summer and fall when the light streamed through, it passed through these huge green translucent leaves and filled the whole room with a kind of shimmering jade light. That sounds like it might be annoying but it wasn’t: it was quite marvelous in a way and sometimes it kept my mind off of—well, off these fleas of life that were constantly biting my back. You know what I mean: Poppy, bless her heart—for-ever blameless Poppy—and Nicky’s colic and not painting and lack of money, and so on et cetera. And my miserable ulcer, though it was fairly quiet at the time. Sometimes when I think back I wonder which flea was the biggest—lack of money, I suppose. Well, Poppy had some money coming in from Delaware, from some trust fund her father had set up, but it wasn’t a hell of a lot, for my type of menage. And I had a little coming in from that disability pension—not much, either, but altogether we got along somehow. No, I don’t guess that was the big flea after all. I guess the real monster was—well, my condition at the time, if you want to put it that way.

 
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