Set this house on fire, p.37
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       Set This House on Fire, p.37

           William Styron

  Then one morning early in August, as he sat reading in a cafe on the Boulevard St. Germain (and the logic of the whole sequence of impressions, as he later recollected it, seemed beautiful, reading as he had been that great chorus from Oedipus at Colonus, which begins: Stranger, in this land of goodly steeds thou hast come to earth’s fairest home, where the nightingale, a constant guest, trills her clear note in the covert of green glades, dwelling amid the wine-dark ivy and the gods’ inviolate bowers, rich in berries and fruit, etc.) he heard a woman’s voice, shrill against his right ear, which, both meaningless and meaningful, had the effect of a cheese grater scraping against all his senses and caused him to look up wild-eyed, letting fall to the floor as he did Volume One of Oates’ and O’Neill’s Complete Greek Drama. “I will not pay!” said the voice, in the purest accents of America’s prairie hinterland. “If you ’spect us to pay seven hunnerd francs for tha-yut, you’re just outa your head!” And as Cass looked around, it suddenly struck him that, save for the browbeaten waiter who stood shrugging automatically at the woman’s elbow, there was not a Frenchman in sight. As if, while deep in Sophocles he had not seen the bad fairy enter and cast some malign hocus-pocus over all, the place had been whisked two thousand miles across the sea. And although the phenomenon, he knew, should not have left him so wonder-struck, he could not repress a feeling of awe as his eyes roved around and searched in vain for one Gallic eye to return his glance. Mother of God, he thought, I’m in a Howard Johnson’s. He was hemmed round by a sea of camera lenses and sport shirts; the noise of his compatriots assailed his ears like the fractious harangue of starlings on a fence. “Willard!” the voice persisted. “Tell him off! In French, I mean!” No, he thought, you couldn’t even caricature it. Shakily, he retrieved the book, opening it: And, fed of heavenly dew, the narcissus blooms morn by morn with fair clusters, crown of the Great Goddesses from of yore. … As he recalled it later, it must have been, as they say, a simple concatenation of circumstances, the only question remaining being why, after all, it had not come sooner: like a great wild dolphin exploding from the depths of a murky sea, the memory of the dream he’d had—the blue southern waters, the carrousel, the laughing girls—vaulted into his consciousness, no longer just a promise and a hope, but a command, rather, and an exhortation. It was as simple as that: Why, he wondered, feeling an inner joy, had it taken so long to move him? Paying for his wine, he arose and sauntered over to the benighted couple from Baraboo, or wherever. “Pardon me, madam,” he said without rancor, almost courtly in his softest Carolina voice, as he clamped his beret down over one eye, “when we are the guests of somebody we don’t shout. We positively do not holler.” Her eyes grew wide as saucers; a broomstraw would have toppled her to the floor.

  “Well, never in my entire—Willard—” But Cass, wheeling about, had gained the open boulevard, and he hurried homeward to tell Poppy that they were bound for the sunny south.

  “The town’s full of Americans!” he shouted. “Go down to St. Germain and see for yourself. Morticians, beauticians, matrons! All sorts of riffraff. Bleeding Saviour! Take a look, Poppy! We’ve got to get out of here! We’re going to Italy!”

  Poppy was forlorn. All the time they had been in France she had pined for America, for the sandy coast of Delaware, for home and mother; she had, however, grown accustomed to Paris, even fond of it, as Cass well knew, and his proposal—or rather his insistence—sent her into a flood of tears. “Just when I was getting to like it, Cass!” she wailed. “And speak a little French and all, and now you just want to bust it all up and take the children into a new environment and everything!” She turned crimson; he hadn’t seen her so honestly bereft since the day her father died. “Oh why, Cass?” she implored him. “If we’ve got to go somewhere, why can’t we go back to the U.S.A.? Why, Cass? Oh why are you so anti-U.S.A.?”

  “Because,” he raved, a little damaged by the Beaujolais. “Because—You want to know why? Because it’s the land where the soul gets poisoned out of pure ugliness. It’s because in the U.S.A. everything looks like a side street near the bus station in Poughkeepsie, New York! Lord love me, Poppy, do I have to go through all this again? It’s because whenever I think of stateside I can’t picture nothing else but a side street in Poughkeepsie, New York, where I got lost one night when I came to see you, and whenever I think of it I get consumed with such despair over its sheer ugliness that I feel great waves of anguish rolling over me, and I want to cry. You don’t want me to start crying too, do you?”

  “Well, no,” she said, drying her eyes, “but jiminy, Cass, you know yourself it’s not all like that. You’ve said yourself—”

  “Don’t misquote me! Whatever I’ve said in—in mitigation of the horror America afflicts me with, strike it out. Strike it out! I was just being sentimental. Why,” he said, improvising, “there was a woman I saw from Racine, Wisconsin—Racine, imagine, isn’t that ironic?—and she had a great jowly husband named Willard who looked exactly like that Daumier caricature called Monsieur Pot-de-Naz, and this woman, Poppy, I’ll swear, when I gazed into her eyes she had dollar signs there, as if they’d been glazed on in twin shining symbols of avarice and venality and greed. Why—”

  “Good gravy, Cass!” Poppy cried. “You’ve said yourself that the French were just about the most money-mad people on earth! How can you be so—so prejudiced! I’ve seen these Americans in Paris myself. They’re not so bad. Some of them aren’t nearly so mean-looking or money-mad as some French people I’ve run into. You’re just prejudiced, that’s all. And I think it’s just a sin to be prejudiced against your own flesh and blood!”

  “Flesh and blood? Flesh and blood my eye! Those horrible—those marmosets my flesh and blood? Lady Willard, maybe? That great big rude midwestern blob of a woman with her squashed breadfruit of a face, that auxiliary Elk? Why, by damn, Poppy, sometimes you try me to the limit! How can you say that? Shit-house mouse! What’s the matter with you, anyway! That’s the trouble with you bleeding Irish Catholics. Talk about prejudice! You’re a curse and a plague on the human race! The whole miserable lot of you!” He found himself waving a schoolmasterish finger in front of her face. “You’re a bunch of superstitious, nosepicking peasants who swept down like a blight on the U.S. and A. when it still might have become something great, when it had hope and promise and a chance for glory, and with your larcenous aldermen and bigoted priests and bishops and other monstrous witch doctors you helped turn it into the nation it became, and is —an ashheap of ignorance and sordid crappy materialism and ugliness! God’s own eyesore! The whole lot of you is nothing but a bunch of rummies and fat-assed cops and ward-heelers—brainless scum! St. Patrick’s Day in New York! Christalmighty! A whole city at the mercy of a bunch of garbage collectors and bartenders! And that religion of yours! That mealy-mouthed, bigoted, puritanical, unbeauteous religion! Why, by God, I wouldn’t trade one of Vincent Van Gogh’s farts for a fistful of certified whiskers from the beard of St. Patrick hisself! What do you people really know about God! What do you—”

  “You just shuddup about my religion, Cass Kinsolving!” she squealed. “Thank goodness the children aren’t here to hear such talk! My great-granddaddy was starving! The Irish were destitute when they went to America! They had to fight against your kind of prejudice! Quit talking about rummies, you rummy! I’ve never seen such an unhappy man! Maybe,” she said tearfully again, preparing to leave, “maybe if you had some of that religion you’d be happier. Maybe you wouldn’t drink so much and could work and wouldn’t be in such torment all the time! Just maybe,” she called over her shoulder as she sailed out of the door, “you’d start in making the people who love you just a little bit happier! And that’s the truth!” Slam!

  “Maybe"—poking her outraged rosy little face back through the door—”just maybe you’d begin to see that America is a great country and you have no right to criticize it for—”

  “I have every goddam right to criticize!” he heard himself bellowing, with a touch of self
-pity. “I came close to dying for it! I left half of my brains and my peace and my composure rotting in the jungle for it! If I don’t have a right to criticize, who the hell has! As for the Irish being poor, so were the Italians! So were the Jews! But they had enough heart and humanity to—”

  “Go peel a grape!” Slam!

  Shame. For a while he felt bitter shame. He had no cause at all to talk to Poppy like that. And he became glum and downcast. And remorseful, feeling in an access of imagination the old guilt-ridden fear. (Wringing his hands and thinking: What if something should happen to her? A truck or something. God, I love that girl.) But since it was a scene that had been enacted many times before—since, like some subtle antitoxin, a thousand household battles had inured him finally to too much guilt—he absorbed the shame easily and let the whole thing pass from his mind. Later that day, when Poppy came back from the playground with the children, there was a gentle adjustment of feelings. Still later at night, when they were in bed together, Poppy said: “Oh, Cass, I do love you so, darling, and I’ll just go with you anywhere you want in the world.” Stroking his belly. “How is your stummick feeling, darling?”

  “What’s that I smell?”

  “Oh dear.” Half-asleep. “Felicia made a poopy in her pants and I left them on—”

  “Oh Jesus.”

  “I’ll get up—”

  “Forget it. Forget it, Poppy. Forget it, sweetheart.”

  She was like a pretty child. He did love her deeply, in his fashion, and sometimes he thought that the knowledge of the pain he often caused her was his own single greatest pain. How could he tell her that it was not, after all, a plague of Americans which was causing him to flee southward, but only this indescribably innocent yet all too voluptuous and seductive fantasy? In his mind he tried but couldn’t, and so he fell asleep.

  The next day he counted up their money, cashed some traveler’s checks with the talkative Jew near the Hotel de Ville, and began to pack up their baggage. Such junk a family piles together in a year! Then, working awkwardly and somewhat haphazardly, he mapped out an itinerary. First he’d treat Poppy to a taste of the Riviera—it was not his dream at all, but it was south —then on to Italy, almost anywhere would do… .

  Somewhere along the left breast of the Rhone valley, on the railroad route leading south to the Cote d’Azur, there is a lonely, humble grave. A solitary oak sapling, transplanted from its native soil nearby, marks the isolated spot; perhaps now even the sapling has perished, or has been blown away by the winds, so that the searcher for some mortuary relic will find nothing there at all save the tangled anomalous weeds, and the wind and sunshine, and the far, bleak, sun-swept cliffs standing sentinel over the immemorial flood. There was a gnarled apple tree too, though, Cass remembered, and a time-roughened fence, so that, triangulating upon a line of poplars which stood erect like a file of green soldiers upon the horizon, he might still, if he ever wanted to, find the sad and forsaken place. It was south of Lyon and north of Valence and it was the place where, when the train halted for a long inexplicable hour, they all debarked from the stifling and noisome third-class compartment to bury Ursula, the Flemish-speaking parrot. It had been an astonishingly speedy ending. From the moment in the draughty halls of the Gare de Lyon when Ursula had ceased her healthy, piercing harangue and had shuddered, greenly wilting, and had begun to fuss and grumble in a feeble, senile plaint and then withdrew nodding to a far corner of her cage, where her feathers became tacky and plucked-out and lusterless right before their eyes, to the moment when with rheumy eyeballs and a final croupy hack, she expired, toppling from her perch with a feather-duster plop and without—as Peggy, who was of all of them the least sentimental, put it—"even saying good-by,” the time elapsed could not have been more than two or three hours. It was an evil omen, Cass knew. The two middle children, Timothy and Felicia, filled the train with wild heartbroken cries of lamentation; even Peggy was affected, even he was. The baby wailed sympathetically from his basket, and Poppy—Poppy was the worst of all, leaking ceaseless tears, trying to control herself for the children’s sake, and with trembling lips, as if by words alone she might ward off grief, telling the baffled, perspiring countrywoman who shared their compartment that the “pauv petit perroquet” had had at least “a very happy life.”

  The confusion, the grief, the noise became almost intolerable. Yearning for a drink—a stiff one, hating his hard-won self-discipline, and oppressed by a life in which certain insupportable moments, such as now, could only be made bearable by an elixir which he himself could not support, he drew a funereal cloth across the parrot’s cage (actually it was a species of parakeet), loudly told the mourning assembly to shut up, and with a pillow wrapped around his head went to sleep. But the sense of it all being an evil omen persisted in his dreams. When the train stopped, and when, waking, he learned from the conductor that there would be a long delay, he followed Poppy and the family into the lovely field. It was a sparkling, meridional day, dry and hot and cloudless, blindingly blue, and humming with the jittery noise of insects in the underbrush. Poppy carried the still-warm Ursula in a shroud of green cloth which had served to cover her cage. Each for the occasion had his solemn role: Poppy was the parrot’s mother, Timothy her beloved husband, Felicia her little sister; Peggy, somewhat removed from it all as usual (she had never forgiven Ursula for biting her, two months before), chose only to be “a friend, kind of a bird friend,” while he himself, through no choosing of his own, became both grave digger and priest. How could he be a priest, for Christ sake, Poppy? he asked. But she said he could, for a bird. It was, he thought, as with a stone he sweatily hacked a hole in the parched ground, a soft and sickening thing, the limits to which Poppy would carry the poetry of her faith—and perhaps even blasphemous—but priest he was chosen, and priest he was, reading the Mass for the Dead from her prayer book in orotund phonetic Latin, while Poppy and the children stood about with bowed heads and the listless passengers on the train, fanning themselves, gaped at the scene in quiet dismay. At last it was over. Into the hole they all cast handfuls of dust. Cass planted the sapling, and as floral tribute Poppy picked a bluebonnet for Felicia, who in sisterly fashion—at the time she was two—stuck it in her mouth. Good-by, Ursula, adieu, sweet oiseau, good-by, good-by… . Cass felt gladly shut of the blabber-mouthed bird. But in spite of all the stickiness, he thought as the cortege filed back toward the train, he had been oddly and obscurely moved: his children, good Catholics all, who would be saved, patient with heads bowed and as fresh and as fragile as the wildflowers they stood among. It was then, he recollected long afterwards, that he felt Peggy falter and stagger against him and, looking down, saw how wild-eyed the child was and saw fever glowing on her cheeks like flamboyant rouge. The omen, he knew, was fulfilled. Psittacosis! he thought. Monstrous bird! Parrot fever, fatal to man! Triple bleeding God!

  His diagnosis was not correct, but the child was horribly sick, and it gave him as rough a time as any he could remember. The port city of Toulon, where they arrived after several racking hours, is almost identical in size and aspect to Norfolk, Virginia, presenting to the eye a similar unsightly waterfront of jagged cranes and shipyards and an oily harbor and a general atmosphere of transient and maritime busyness. It is no place to take a vacation or to sightsee around or to bring a sick child, and Peggy, they knew long before they got there, was about as sick as a child could possibly get. She had puked all over the train and she throbbed with fever and her pretty blond hair was plastered wetly against her neck and brow and, in less time than it took to traverse the two hundred miles or so across the suffocating landscape of Provence, she had gone quite out of her head with delirium. In foolish headlong panic, and instead of going straight to a hospital, they went to a hotel—a barnlike place with potted palms, reminiscent of quick liaisons and commerical travelers. At an outlandish price (“La saison, vous savez,” said the manager, as if Toulon had a season) they took two connecting rooms and put the younger children in one and th
emselves and Peggy in the other. Then right before their eyes, at dusk, lying moist and disheveled on a pillow, the child’s face turned a blazing crimson, except for a circumferential pallor around the mouth, chalky white, which gave her the horrible aspect of a painted clown. “C’est la scarla-tine” said the pleasant young doctor, finally summoned, who needed only one glance to tell. Then, explaining that this case of scarlet fever seemed exceptionally severe, he ordered her taken to the hospital. Somehow, in all the confusion, the manager managed to find an old woman, who looked responsible, to take care of the children, and then, haggard and wretched and numb, not speaking, they wrapped Peggy in a blanket and took her to the hospital down palm-lined streets in a careering taxi driven by an eager and conscientious maniac. Sometimes life, Cass thought during the drive, holding the hot child in his arms, sometimes life is even worse than war. In a cavernous hallway of the hospital, smelling of carbolic, lowering and mysterious with cream-colored, flapping, soft-footed nuns, they waited until morning. Neither he nor Poppy said a word. At dawn the doctor’s face was drawn and grave. She was not responding well to the penicillin. It might, though, be still too early to tell. Go home and get some rest. Come back at ten o’clock. At their hotel room the old baby sitter met them with trouble and worry on her face like a mask. “Les autres aussi,” she whispered. “Ils ont la fièvre!” More bleeding scarlet fever!

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