Set this house on fire, p.38
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       Set This House on Fire, p.38

           William Styron

  Then at ten in the morning, leaving Poppy with the babies (after another doctor had come with more penicillin, then departed), he went back to the hospital. There he discovered that Peggy had gone into convulsions; a spinal tap had been made, revealing a terrible complication: something with the sound of infamy in it, and doom—streptococcal meningitis. Not uncommon, the doctor said, in extreme cases. Cass stole into her room and took a look at her: she seemed barely to be breathing and beneath the lobster-red of her face there was a subtle quality of flesh—a consistency—like that of wax. “Oh, baby, don’t,” he whispered. The outlook, the doctor was grieved to tell him (they actually did shrug, the maddening Frogs!), the outlook, le prognostique, was definitely not hopeful.

  He went reeling out into the violent sunlight with a dry, rusty taste of fear in his mouth, and a clammy touch of mortality on his flesh and in his bones. Sleepless, and with splintery pain in both eyes, he could not tell how at last he found himself where he was —by a clamorous pier on the waterfront where the air was filled with a fine powdery grit from some ship’s hold, and the wind was odorous with salt and gasoline, and an unseen riveting hammer stitched bullets of pure noise across his eardrums. Less distraught, less exhausted and unhelmed, he later reasoned, he might not at that moment have been quite so fatalistic, but all things had conspired to make him think one thought: all my children are going to die. All my sons and daughters. The thought was so desolating as to be beyond the realm of sorrow. Try as he might to down the image, he could not get it out of his mind: of Peggy, his first-born, and of all the dear ones the dearest and the best, who, with lovelocks atangle, flower-face uptilted to celebrate her devotion, always kissed him like this: grabbing him by the ears and turning him around to face her, as if her adoring father’s head had been a jug. Chasing the intolerable vision from his mind, he lifted his eyes to the sky: two jet planes swooped in low over the harbor, screaming, skimmed ships and rooftops, were gone. Adoring? Of course he had adored them, but in his surpassing self-absorption how little real love he’d shown them in return. Had it not been Poppy who had brought them presents, who had cared for them and watched over them, who in her aimless and scatterwitted fashion had nonetheless taught them everything they had ever known, while he, content indulgently to pat their rumps and dandle them on his knee and smile with condescension at their tricks, had only taken them all for granted? God knows, it served him right. It served him right for the presumption. For his foolish, childish presumption. Because it was true, he knew: by some limp and witless Sunday School reflex—throwback, he supposed, to all of Poppy’s subtle pious influence—he had thought that his regeneration of the past few months, his temperance and his more or less sober habits might somehow quite erase his recent years of footlessness and laziness and dissipation, could atone for all the time—irrevocably, miserably lost now—when he had been drunk, when he had refused to work, when he had left undone those things he should have done, and the other way around. Why, by God, he thought with real anguish, he had behaved like a bleeding Catholic! Expecting to be shriven like that! Expecting to evade retribution through the unworthy simple-minded premise that an act of evil could be erased, like so much chalk-dust from a slate, by the easy expedient of replacing it by an act of good. Why, he’d forgotten his own upbringing—overlooked the fact that God was really not a gentle benign Christian who, as Poppy would have it, let you get by through honest penance, but was a mean old Jew with a dirty beard and flashing eyes and nostrils snorting smoke and hellfire who had graven upon Cass’ mind The Law in the same way that those mad-eyed foot-washing prophets with paint cans flapping through the low country of his youth had inscribed the blazing, merciless slogan on every barn and pillar and post: THOU SHALT NOT—! He would get you if you done wrong, and if He got you, you were doomed. That was the simple sum total of the whole situation. It did not matter that you cried out “Father!” or “Forgive!” or beat your head bloody in contrition against the nearest wall—He got you in the end. And finally, with the same magisterial wrath that made a hundred million Hebrews tremble at His very name, He fashioned the punishment to fit the crime. How fitting it was, Cass thought, that he himself, whose life until now had been dedicated to such senseless self-flagellation, should both more than half-believe in and yearn for a God who was such a sadistic monster. How fitting, really, that that God (had He had His gloating eye upon him that fearful night such a short time past?) should take it all in His own vengeful hands now and, as if to indicate His displeasure with one who had so clumsily and gropingly and vainly striven for some specious immortality, should snatch away all of him that was, in truth, immortal. Sons and daughters! It did not matter that they were as fragile and as lovely as flowers or that, in their brevity, they were hardly more than small eyewinks into the glory of His own sun. He would get them, too. “Take them then!” Cass heard himself whispering aloud, in fury and hopeless remorse. “Take them! Take them!”

  Later, in a waterfront bar, he tried to get drunk on Pernod, but for some reason he couldn’t. Long, long afterwards he was willing to admit that something essentially honest in himself saved him from this sort of last failure. But at the time the feeling of being a worthless derelict was almost insupportable: sensing that in some vague, secret, hopeless, irremediable fashion he was the slayer of his own children, and that God, whoever He was—He who like some uneasy phantom kept changing shape and form within him —had abetted the crime, he walked back to the hotel to tell Poppy the news about Peggy, bitterly weeping the whole way. Bawling out loud, in fact.

  But one of the exciting things about life is that some of our worst trials have miraculously kindly endings. There is no way out! This is the very end! I am dying, Egypt, dying! Then all of a sudden we are relaxing by the fire, talkative, immodest, faces all aglow as we tell of the horrible ordeal safely maneuvered, its details still bright but already dimming. The point being in this case that the children began to recover completely within thirty-six hours. Peggy, after huge injections of penicillin, rallied, shouting at the top of her voice for de la glace au chocolat, while Timothy and Felicia, similarly filled with the almighty drug, having had mild cases anyway, lost their rashes and their fever and by the end of the second day had crept from their beds to disturb the hotel corridors with rowdy cries. As for the littlest one, he was protected by the immunity of his age, and had not got sick at all. There was a week of convalescence for Peggy, during which time it was made fairly certain that she had suffered no permanent ill effects, and there were big bills to pay, but in less than ten days—all of them swatting mosquitoes on the rocky beach at Hyères, where they had rented a cottage—one might have scarcely known (save for the towels on a clothesline which each bore the legend Clinique de Provence Toulon) that the household had been ravaged by disease. Poppy, wet, brown, slippery-looking in a polka-dotted Bikini the size of an eye-patch, would call from the foaming shore: “There’s Daddy! Cass, come in and take a swim!” But Cass—sneaker-shod and in a baggy sweatshirt, sucking at the licorice candy which tasted like Pernod and took the place of booze, and aggravated by athlete’s foot he had picked up God knows where—would retreat into the shadows of the cottage. He alone still remained somber, detached, subdued… .

  “Everything here like Cezanne’s paintings of L’Estaque,” he wrote in his notebook one day, marked Friday le 24 août, “which is to say blazing sub-tropical light, and greens & blues so riotously mixed that one feels one MUST, at any cost, discover the mystery behind this spectrum. Yet I cannot lift a hand. (Note en passant, how this journal or carnet or whatever moves in cycles, i.e., this being the first entry since long time ago when in Paris the gut blockage & the paralysis was just as hot and heavy as it is now). Yesterday, armed with implements of the trade, feeling oddly un-pusilanimous for a change went by ferry alone, to Porquerolles expecting to find crouched among the honeysuckle a handful of ripe bacchae and a passel of niaids (sp?) and a clutch of watersprites in assorted colors. Found instead several hundred Bu
ick dealers from Geneva, convening, so sat on a rock by the sea & went fast asleep. This place is NOT the dream. Have had no recurrence yet—possibly Im too healthy lacking the shredded nerves and sick liver I had in Paris. Would almost risk the OTHER part to get it all straight in my mind again. Poppy & kids happy as clams but here I feel like I’m at Daytona Beach, hemmed around by motels and barbarousness. Frenchmen on vacation surpass all people on earth for flashy loud mouthed vulgarity including my fellow-citizens on the Cape in summer, or at Myrtle Beach, S.C. which I never would have believed. All possibly a reflection though of whatever it is thats biting me and wont let go. Nonetheless I must approach P. calmly but firmly telling her that mans only salvation lies in Rome (the TOWN), from whence after all she came and perhaps that will do the trick. In the meantime I am astonished and overwhelmed at my will-power vis a vis the murderous grape. First dim sign of regeneration. Very dim. Eyes as bright as prisms, scent like a blood hound, appetite would shame a stock-yard full of pigs, & havent heard a peep out of Leopold in three whole months—though at that I shouldnt be surprised since sawbones in Paris said simple abstinence would cure an ulcer straight off. How fiercely keen the senses can get! The sea shore beyond loops in a long white arc out toward Corsica, & the gulls above are like petals adrift on a pure ocean of aquamarine, and the greens, the shocking shaggy almost self-radiant yet oddly tender greens of the land hemming it all in, are beyond imagining. It is a Cezanne in truth. A KINSOLVING rather, purely visualized. Yet somehow the joy is out of it—the JOY is not there—and I cannot lift a hand. Poppy has something hideous smoking on the stove. I see her splashing with the children in the waves. A fish jumps from the blue water far out flashing like quick-silver. A kind of haze over all too, stealthily and belatedly observed which encompasses all—shore-line & blooming greens & petal gulls and makes somewhat indistinct (like Turner’s approach to Venice) and dingy the whole seascape including the Porquerolles ferry which lumbers tub-like to sea, puffing out smudges of black smoke. Formidable! I cannot raise a hand. Remember an essay I read—was it Montaigne?—which said that a man should pursue no goal the pursuing of which does not give him the greatest un-selfish joy. Which pegs me for a looney, alright. At least I have in a manner of speaking accepted it—though—which is to say that it is removed anyway you look at it from ignorance. For no reason at all (maybe the warm air, maybe the sonofabitchery in me which I guess is unregenerate?) I find myself with a hard-on. In less than 10 minutes I can draw a picture of two luscious 15 year olds screwing that would peel the scalp off the moldiest old pornographer in Montmartre. It might be a good thing to fall back on. But something stops me now. I steel my spine. L’après-midi d’un crapaud. In the empty Acadia of our souls we still have left to us our lust. Who said that.??

  “(Later. Dusk.) A ‘peintre manqué’ like me I suppose can always at least try to write notes, like Delacroix who made a damn good job of it besides being a fabulous painter to boot or in his own way, like Berlioz who as someone said did a greater service to literature than he did to music. Who said painters not articulate?? Anyway its a fair rationalization. Anyway to Hell with it. Funny thing going into town this afternoon on the bus, to get something for my supurating toes how it occurred to me, that in less than a week I’d be turning 30, and how it shocked me—though I suppose the shock of being 30 is the corniest thing in the world. Dans le trentiême an de mon age, etc. etc. I kept wondering if it is really true as Ive heard it said, if a man at thirty has not through his own blood & sweat & toil seen the first glimmering light of success & acheivement he never will. Suspect that theres more than a little truth to that—especially in regards to the world outside of affairs & business—art that is—but again literally to Hell with it. At least I understand the quality & the quantity of what I do possess which is a mysterious self-hatred so prideless & engulfing it would turn a Hitler or a Himler purple with envy and which I at least understand enough to keep it (roughly speaking) within the bounds of reason. Perhaps I will plumb it some day. Until then I will try to be not too ashamed of it but will humor and tolerate it much as I might tolerate a cold in the head that I knew was going to last a lifetime. And even though it is as Montaigne said the most bestial emotion that can afflict a man. It is mine. Let me suffer it. (Timmy came in just now screaming bloody murder, saying he’d been bit in the nose by a crab. I kissed the wound and made it well and he departed saying happily he had the crabs. Don’t know where he got that.) The dusk here is magnificent. It seems appropriate to the sea which is like a gentle lake & needs muted goodbys and untroubled endings—whereas dawn is for the ocean & the ocean alone which needs tumultuous beginnings and sunrise like a trumpet blast. Perhaps its the air here, the clarity, some relative restlessness or falling off of humidity at twilight—I dont know. The colors are already a kind of model arche-type for impressionism, ready made—no wonder the boys did what they did. All running together the sky already jet and sprinkled with stars yet not really discrete at all but merging, melting, partaking of both the final ribbon of sunlight at the horizons edge and the water, blue, astoundingly blue at this late hour. All of a piece. And nearer—Poppy and the children on the pebbled shore no bigger than mites there, still playing and calling in the dusk. Were I only half a man Id be worthy of it. And I mean it. Not to believe in some salvation, to have disbelief rolled over on top of ones head like an un-removable stone yet at times like this (soberly, calmly too) to see such splendour and glory writ across the heavens & upon the quiet sand and to see all certitude & sweetness in ones own flesh & seed scampering tireless & timeless on the shore, and then still not believe, is something that sickens me to my heart and center. I should have been brought up north in N.Y. suburbs Scarsdale or somewhere on that order, where I might never have learned the quality of desire or thirst or yearning & would have ended up on Madison Ave. designing deodorant jars, with no knowledge or comprehension of the freezing solitude of the bereft and prodigal son. Meantime I just thirst and my thirst is like the thirst of a dying man who sees streams of cool water flowing down from the high Himalayas thousands & thousands & thousands of miles beyond his maddest dreams, I would sell my soul for one single drop of it. Poppy the wicked little nymph has it all taped up with no fuss or bother. Sometimes I think our relationship is what it must be for a fairy to be married to a lady wrestler. All harmonious dis-harmony. Last night I mentioned the Toulon business to her. It was a casual & trivial thing. The children looked brown & healthy & happy & I said how marvelous how wonderful, something like that, and how for a long terrible moment there I had thought they were all goners for sure. Why Cass she said with a sort of nonchalant sniff, what on earth made you think that. Why I just knew all the while they were going to get well. And I said, how did she know. And she said—why I had FAITH, thats all, silly. And then I blew my top-saying something on the order of Faith my ass, it was a man named Alexander Fleming who did it you idiot, and penicillin & 75,000 francs worth of medical care product not of faith in some dis-embodied gaseous vertebrate, and an hermaphrodite triply-damned incestuous one at that, but of mans own faith vain perhaps, but nontheless faith in his hardwon decency & perfecta-bility & his own compassionate concern with his mortal, agonizing plight on a half burnt out cinder that he didnt ask to be set down on in the first place. Not a SPOOK I told her. It didnt phase her a bit. She just yawned and called me an intellectual bully which is about the only polysyllabic phrase she knows. Then she said again quite firmly & finally: I had faith. Then she primed the pump squeezing some milk out of her little tit and stuck it in the babys mouth and rolled over & went to sleep there, still nursing. Theyd all be dead if it werent for that, I shouted but she didnt stir. What can you do. She gives & loves & I take & thats that.

  “(Later—much. After mid-night). Quiet now. Only the mosquitoes, & a beacon flashing out among the islands and what looks over to the East like distant sheet lightning a thunder storm out of Italy or somewhere. Its so quiet I can hear my watch ticking. Should keep this carnet with
some degree of consistency. Funny how sometime this evening for the first time since I was a boy I remembered what old Uncle said to me once—which was if somethings eating you, if you cant seem to get straightened out about a thing, then go out in the woods and chop down a tree. Which is fine I thought as long as your still a boy in a state of cleanliness & grace & innocence, before that time when suddenly you are a man, at 30, with no tree to cut down in the desert & no axe or hatchet for the cutting even if there was a single bleeding tree. Which in turn reminded me of when I came to N.Y. after the war all full of piss & vinegar & ready to tear out my guts or die or anything for art—an un-educated Carolina clod-hopper with the lint still in his hair & that in spite of four years marine corps etc., & then after all the sweat & toil it gradually dawning that no one gave a god dam. That jewish boy too—Dorman? Dorfman?—standing in the rain on 14th street with his hair prickled out & paint all over his hands & murder in his eye shouting—I want nothing, all I want to do is to give of myself & the swine are too blind to even see much less receive, they will go un-recorded & they deserve it. They are a race of blind ciphers, he shouted & three days later they found him in his hole in the wall hanging from the gas meter. I dont know maybe the paralysis began way back there even. What has happened I dont know. Maybe they deserve us and we deserve them & the guilt & the blame is split right down the middle. Sleepy now. I risked a ‘marc’ grape tasting, after supper and didnt seem to hurt any or lead me on so maybe Im getting better & some day will be able to shore up my foundations if not for my own glory then for the sake of those gentler & sweeter & dearer who have already come after. So tomorrow or the next day Ill tell Poppy that we are going on to Italy where the earth is milk & honey & well load down some slow train with fat legged babies & orange peels & melted chocolate & rubber dollies and off well go again hanging from all the windows, saying goodby France, adieu beau pays, goodby beautiful land… .”

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