Set this house on fire, p.43
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       Set This House on Fire, p.43

           William Styron

  “Perciò,” the sergeant was still needling the girl, “you will have a lot of money. It is a matter of using only that nice well-built part of yours. As it is”—and here the lilting soft lubricity faded from his voice—“as it is you cannot afford to steal. Do you know what the fine is for stealing?”

  “No,” the girl said hopelessly.

  “In your case, it will be one thousand lire. Do you have it?”


  “Of course not. Then do you know what we must do?”


  Cass saw the sergeant’s face go pink again, winding up. “We take that big sweet behind of yours—”

  Rage, possible to give voice to only in his native tongue, burst inside Cass’ head like a ball of insanity. “Lay off her, you miserable sonofabitch!” he roared. “Lay off her, hear me? Lay off her or I’ll stomp your teeth out! Lay off her!”

  Alarmed, pale, the sergeant let his hand go back to his holster, where it rested caressing with nervous sausage fingers the grip of a Mauser automatic. “What does he say, Corporal? Che cosa significa layofer?”

  Luigi made a helpless expression. “I don’t know. I have no English, Sergeant.” And as Luigi spoke, Cass calmed himself, though still quivering and with some difficulty. Heedless of the commotion, the flaneur rat meandered in from the other room, halted sniffing, plunged back into his hole. Through the window Cass smelled flowers. He was sweating. The warmth in the air was not of spring but of eternal summer; outside through the doorway, around the blooms of immense white camellias, bumblebees droned, mnemonic with the sound of South and home. The sergeant stared at Cass, momentarily daunted, fidgeting.

  “I’ll pay for the thing,” Cass said to the storekeeper. Then to Parrinello, in a crucifixion of restraint and decency: “Forgive me for my outburst, Vossignoria. But if it may please your lordship, I have a very personal difficulty. I am subject to fits often—harmless.”

  The sergeant relaxed.

  “I should also like to pay the fine, if I may.” The sergeant shrugged his acquiescence. Cass took out his wallet. “Here is two thousand lire for everything. I hope this amount will suffice.”

  Then he turned and made his way from the room, into the spring air outside.

  It was late in the afternoon. Bells were chiming through the bright translucent air. A flight of pigeons thundered up as if from nowhere, bedecking the air above the fountain with tumultuous slate-colored wings. As he walked up the cobbled street to the hotel he turned, and he thought he saw the girl, head hunched down in her baggy coat, hurrying from the police station, and he started to call out to her but already she had vanished down an alleyway. He turned again and was walking on when he heard a voice.

  “How does the head feel?” It was the corporal, Luigi. Reserved, cool, remote, very unlike an Italian, he seemed at the same time longing, even desperate, to communicate, and he fell in beside Cass as he climbed the hill. “I was sent by Parrinello to make sure that you pay for the vase.”

  “The head is better,” Cass said. “You Italians run a strange police force.”

  The corporal was silent for a moment. “I suspect that it is no better or no worse than anywhere else.”

  “It is a wonder that someone has not eliminated that chief of yours. He is the grandfather of all reptiles.”

  “Yes,” Luigi said, “he is—troublesome. Tell me, you are an educated man, are you not?”

  “No,” said Cass, “I have no education. I have read books but I have no education. Why do you ask?”

  The corporal had stopped walking, and now Cass paused too, looking into the grave, earnest, somewhat humorless face. “I do not know why I ask,” he said. “I do not know. Perhaps you will pardon me. But I so rarely see an American like you. That is, your little joke with Parrinello, your command of this language. Then—what you did for that girl, who was simply a poor peasant, of no account whatever. That appealed to me. That was a humanist gesture, I thought. What an educated man would do. That appealed to me.”

  “I liked her looks,” Cass replied, faintly annoyed. “She was of some account. She was a very good-looking female. Why? Aren’t you an educated man?”

  “No, I am not,” he went on in his formal, meticulous way. “Like you I have read many books but I had no opportunity to continue my education. I wished to become a lawyer, but circumstances forced me to—” He paused. “I became what I am. Most people do not get much education in this country. They must work too hard, so they do not read anything.”

  “Also in America they do not get much education,” Cass said. “They do not work hard, and they do not read anything either.” Cass resumed walking.

  “It is sad that they do not read, missing so much. One of the great revelations of my life was reading The World as Will and Idea by the great German philosopher Schopenhauer. More than anyone I have read he points the way toward what I have come to regard as a creative pessimism. Have you read Schopenhauer?”

  “Never,” Cass said shortly, with rather more rudeness than he meant or intended. His head had begun to throb mercilessly. “No, I haven’t.”

  “I’m sorry,” said the corporal sensitively. “If I have intruded, forgive me. I find it so rare a thing these days to be able to talk to a kindred spirit. Your little joke with Parrinello. That was delightful! How I wish—” But his voice trailed off, and now, coming to a rise in the street, Cass caught a glimpse again of the sea, far below, and the orange and lemon groves and vineyards terraced against the gigantic plunging hills. From distant gutters and drains there was a steady trickling and gushing; earth and sky seemed burnished, brushed, cleansed, and there was a sound of water everywhere as the debris of winter was swept gurgling seaward. The sun was going down, crescents of fading light glowed on distant barren hills. “Madonna! Che bello!” some woman’s voice shouted, celebrant, as at the light of the Second Coming. For no reason at all, Cass felt himself shivering.

  “That girl,” he said, turning to the corporal, “that girl in the station. What is her name?”

  “I do not know,” Luigi said with a shrug. “A peasant from the valley. I cannot say that I have seen her before.”

  “She was beautiful. Do they all come that way?”

  “It is rare that peasants are born with beauty. When they are, it is almost never that they keep it past childhood. I did not notice this peasant’s beauty.”

  “Corporal, you must be blind.”

  “I did not look at her carefully. Peasants do not interest me. They are a scummy lot for the most part, hopelessly inbred like animals. Most of them are mentally defective.” He shook his head solemnly. “It comes from eating nothing but bread. Sometimes I think that they should all be exterminated.”

  “Why, Corporal,” Cass said with good humor, “you talk like some sort of Fascist.”

  “I am a Fascist,” Luigi said in a bleak matter-of-fact voice, though adding as if in extenuation: “Please do not misunderstand me. Insofar as extermination is concerned, I do not mean that cruelly. Fascism is not Naziism. I only mean it—” And he paused for an instant, and clenched his fists together as if struggling for articulation, for reason. Then in a voice which would have sounded foolishly pompous had it not at the same time been resonant with conviction, he said: “We are all damned, you see! All of us! But somehow we get along. They”—jerking his hand sideways, toward some invisible peasant host— “they are damned forever. They do not get along. They are less than animals. They should be exterminated. They should be put out of their suffering.”

  “Creative pessimism,” said Cass, blinking.

  The corporal for the first time made the suggestion of a smile and then he looked at his watch. “It has been a pleasure talking to you,” he said. “I hope I have not offended you. Life is strange, is it not?”

  “How do you mean?” said Cass, in honest wonder.

  “Existence, I mean. Do you not sometimes wake up from a long sleep and for those few moments before you are completely awake feel t
he terror and the mystery of existence? It lasts but for a few seconds but it is the only time when one moves close to eternity. And do you know something? I do not believe in God. Yet for me the awful part is that in a twinkling I am fully awake, and I do not know whether it was that in that movement toward eternity I have come closer to God—or nothingness.”

  Cass blinked again, and for a moment he wondered whether the corporal was not slightly loony. Fascist-humanist, intellectual, scourge of the peasantry, creative pessimist, metaphysician, with long sideburns poking down from beneath his visored cap, mustached and honey-eyed like some borghese matron’s movie dreamboat, he had nonetheless communed lonesomely with his soul; suddenly the words—and were they as true as they seemed, and as terrible?—came through to Cass like vibrations from a titanic gong. He looked straight into Luigi’s eyes, realizing that the corporal, whatever else odd he might be, was as sane as they come.

  “I often feel very lonely too,” Cass said. “Very lonely. Very terrified.”

  “Then you understand what I mean?”


  “I’m sorry that I have talked to you in this way,” Luigi said after a pause, and then put out his hand. “I hope you will come back here sometime. You are going to pay for that vase?”

  “I’ll pay for it, Luigi,” Cass said, “many thanks. Many thanks.” And then the corporal was gone.

  It was easier than he thought it would be to get into Windgasser’s good graces. Cleaning himself up in the bathroom of a cafe, quite sober now, he put on his courtliest manner and presented himself at the hotel, apologizing elaborately for breaking the vase. At first cool and forbidding, Windgasser broke down and became surprisingly sympathetic, even warm, and listened with anxiety on his face, and understanding, as Cass described the diabetic condition he had been forced to live with since adolescence, and the insulin shock he was sometimes precipitated into, accidentally, and without warning, causing him to acquire the thick speech and the inhibited powers of locomotion and, yes—most abominably!—even the loose-lipped coarseness of a drunkard. “My stars, I had no idea!” said Windgasser, offering his own apologies while perhaps sensing a client, and he mentioned his own affliction, a fistula in ano, inoperable these many years despite consultations with doctors in Geneva, Zurich, and Basel. Getting back to the issue at hand, Cass said that as for money he was somewhat reduced, and he was on the point of offering to pay in installments when Windgasser, a brick of a man, allayed all Cass’ distress: the vase, he said, like all his furniture, was insured by a solid Swiss firm which (unlike the Italians) always paid off, and there was a satisfied tone in his voice which indicated that the vase was possibly even better off in splinters. Cass went to the window. It was almost dark. On the gulf, against the softest aquamarine of an evening sky, fishing boats with lights aglow moved seaward; the lights glittered and twinkled, a tiny galaxy of drifting vivacious stars. The air was warm and a scent of orange blossoms was heavy all around him. “It is beautiful here,” he said aloud. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it.” Windgasser behind him, eagerly breathing, allowed that it was beautiful, indeed just the place for an American to live, especially a painter, especially an American, so unlike the Italian tenants of years past, so raucous, so uncouth, whose children wrote obscenities all over the walls. The palace annex, the famous Palazzo d’Affitto, owned by the Windgasser family for three generations … There was an apartment, commodious, most engaging … Perhaps Mr. Kinsolving would like to take a look?

  A wild cry came up from the valley, a cry passionate and young and wild, and darkness came quickly and heavily, odorous with spring and the scent of oranges. Cass stood for a long time at the window, like Richard Wagner before him ( “Parthifal was written here,” Windgasser lisped), filled with lust and longing and tawdry romantic urges.

  I think I could work here, he told himself that night, I think I could really get cracking. He lay in a bed upstairs in the Bella Vista, unable to sleep. His head ached. Thirty years old and I haven’t even stuck my toe in the bleeding door. He thought of the peasant girl in the police station (Assunta? Paola? Desideria? Laura?) and he dozed off with a sense of trouble, hungry with tenderness and desire.

  The next morning, he recalls, he had completely forgotten the girl. But the spring weather was like an ecstasy. Inspecting the palace apartment with Windgasser he found it much to his liking. He decided to go up to Rome and bring the family down right away. He paid two months’ advance rent with a check on his and Poppy’s joint bank account, and left for Rome—without the realization, however, that he had just paid out almost the last cent either of them had.

  Another move! Poppy was less than pleased.

  “Just when I’ve learned to speak a little Italian and all, now you want to move again! Jiminy, Cass! I like Rome!”

  “They speak Italian in Sambuco, Poppy, for pity’s sake! This city gives me claustrophobia! We’re moving out on Friday. You’ll love it, Poppy. Sea and mountains and sunlight! My God, it’s a bleeding paradise!” He paused. “I’ve got to get some new paints, new brushes. I’ve got to stock up because I’m going to do a lot of work down there. I’ll need some dough.” He paused again. “Speaking of which, how about telling me where our little kitty has gone to?”

  She was sitting by the window in a bright splash of sunlight, working on her stamp collection. Some years before she had acquired a big album and a dollar’s worth of stamps from a mailorder house ( “1000 assorted, all countries “). Everybody should have a hobby, he remembered her saying, and since then she had built up a sizable collection, largely through the habit of hoarding duplicates of any and all stamps, no matter how common the issue, and depressing even the infinitesimal value of these by scorning detachable cellophane hinges and pasting them into the book with glue.

  As he walked toward her he saw her placidly stick a small brush into a paste pot. Then she looked up and said: “What kitty?”

  “What kitty do you think?” he said. “Where you keep the dough. The tea can. I stuck my hand in there just now and all you had in it was tea.”

  “Oh, Cass!” she said. “How did you know I hide it there? Peggy must have told you!” Her lips quivered a little, quivering at his knowledge of her secret, which had been no secret to him since a month after their wedding. “How did you know, darling?” she said despondently.

  “A bird told me,” he replied. “Look, baby, I’ve got to have five thousand lire to buy some paint and some brushes. Hasn’t your check come this month?”

  “What check?”

  “You know, Poppy, the check”

  And then it happened. She said she hadn’t received any check. When he asked her why, she hedged a bit, bent over and stuck a stamp in the album and screwed up her mouth, saying she really didn’t know but maybe “those letters” would explain it. What letters? Why, those letters that came with the checks from the bank. And where did she keep those letters? Why, there in the kitchen drawer, of course. And there he found the appalling answer, in half a dozen syrup-sticky envelopes from the trust department of the bank in New Castle, Delaware, which he dredged up out of a hell of rusted knives and unwashed eggbeaters and hair ribbons and coffee grounds. One of them contained the key to the whole thing:

  We wrote you time and time again [this is the way it began, without preliminaries; Cass could see some thin-lipped old small-town banker snapping his Dictaphone on and off as he tried to master his chagrin and outrage] but received no answer to our repeated requests that you allow us to dispose of your properties. Under the terms of your father’s will, as you know, you have been receiving approximately $400.00 a month from these two properties, known most recently as the OK Motel and Winnie Winkle Burger Bar & Drive-In, both located in the Second Tax Dist. of New Castle Co., Del. At the time when the construction of the Delaware Memorial Bridge and Highway Approach was still theoretical we felt certain that we could sell these properties for a sum which when invested would still yield you a substantial monthly r
eturn. Since we failed to receive your permission, however [italics Cass’], as stipulated in the terms of the trust, we had no alternative but to hold on to these properties. With the final construction of the Delaware Memorial Bridge and Highway Approach these properties, having been by-passed and the road they are on cut off to thru traffic, have become virtually worthless and since the present lessees have failed to renew their leases we have to inform you that the check deposited to your account in the Bankers Trust Company, New York, on or about March 1 next, will be your last… .

  The rest of the letter, compounding insult with injury, had to do with the matter of taxes that Poppy would be liable for.

  “You didn’t give them permission,” he whispered, with wonder in his voice, and grief.

  “Well, yes—” she began.

  “Well, no!” he said, his voice rising. “And why not?”

  “Well, because—Because I didn’t read them!”

  “And why the hell didn’t you read them!” he began to shout.

  “Because—I don’t know. Because I couldn’t understand them, Cass! I tried—”

  “Didn’t you think I could understand those letters? Didn’t you think that / might be able to divine their secrets? Why by damn, Poppy, you haven’t got the brains God gave to a mushmelon! How could you? How could you throw away four hundred dollars a month, just like that! Just when we got to the place where we might decently live off it—Sambuco, I mean. Do you realize what this means? Do you realize, Poppy! Who the hell are we going to borrow from? St. Peter? Who? Who! Answer me that!”

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