Set this house on fire, p.56
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       Set This House on Fire, p.56

           William Styron

  “You’re lucky you didn’t end up in the guardhouse, dollbaby,” he recalled Mason saying some hours later, as they drove back by way of Sorrento. It was a ride full of lights and darks, strange shifting shadows, and a half-sleep composed of abstruse and per- plexing dreams. Totally worn out, he spoke not a word to Mason, even to respond to such singular remarks (though he was careful to store them up in his memory, for future reference and action) as: “You can thank heaven that I got you off the hook, I think you can see how utterly dependent upon me you’ve become.” Even when, somewhere above Positano, he regained strength and sobriety enough to open his eyes drowsily and look at Mason, hearing him say this: “In the complete wreck you’ve become, dollbaby, I don’t think you can fail to understand why I might be determined to get into her pants. Of what earthly use is a lush to her? After all, someone’s got to give her a good workout—” He kept silent, biding his time. He would have his day. He closed his eyes again and slept all the way to Amalfi, where he was to meet Poppy at the festa.

  Yet curiously, inexplicably—not to say unforgivably—Mason at last did hold out on him: he did not have the drug in his possession after all. As Cass got out of the car in Amalfi and made a motion to pluck the bottle out of a carton in the back seat, Mason slammed the door abruptly and gazed at him coldly from his place behind the wheel, gunning the motor in savage, sharp bursts. “Hands off, Buster Brown,” he said curtly, with venom in his voice. “I’m going to keep that stuff until you come to your senses. Look me up tonight.” And he stared at Cass with an expression filled with such inchoate, mingled emotions that Cass thought that Mason, too, was about to take leave of his wits. “Look me up tonight,” he repeated in a queer choked voice, “maybe we’ll be able to strike some sort of bargain.” “But for Christ sake, Mason, you said—” Cass began. But suddenly the Cadillac slid away into the dusky afternoon, and vanished up the road toward Sambuco. What sort of bargain had he in mind? Cass never found out, but as he stood there that afternoon on the piazza in Amalfi, swaying slightly, stunned by what Mason had done and by the abruptness of his departure, he was aware that this last look of Mason’s, composed in part of such hatred, was made up in at least equal part of something else not quite love but its loathsome resemblance.

  I guess now I’ll really have to rob the son of a bitch, he thought, as he went into a drogheria and bought a bottle of wine. Then after all of this is over I’ll sober up. I’ll sober up and give him a fat lip.

  He was really quite ill. When he met Poppy and the children at the seaside festa, she peered at him closely, observed that he looked “gruesome,” and insisted that they go up to Sambuco at once. Through the carnival dust he looked at her: her brow was beaded with sweat, and she was quite agitated, and as he listened to her she seemed extraordinarily pretty; what she was saying he barely heard but he knew that every word she spoke was expressing nothing but concern for him. And with sorrow he realized that for a longer time than was morally or humanly reasonable she might as well never have existed.

  He was somewhat more sober now—sober enough, at least, to make an accounting of their joint resources, and to discover that they had not enough cash for the bus. “But you bought that bottle of wine!” Poppy wailed. “Creepers! So now we’ll have to walk up five miles!” Indignant, close to tears, she and the three youngest went on ahead, while he and Peggy trailed after. Hand in hand they walked up the shore, up the road among the lemon groves through the closing lavender light. For a while as they scuffed along Peggy was solemn and subdued, glum, chewing noisily on sugar almonds. Then she said: “Daddy, why are you trying to kill yourself? Mummy says she thinks you’re trying to kill yourself, drinking so much and everything and going without sleep. She’s just been crying and crying. For just days. Are you, Daddy?” There was a distant sound of oars on the water, and from somewhere music, sweet and indistinct, touched with longing. “She told Timmy that you have a sweetheart. Do you have a sweetheart, Daddy?” He paused to light a cigar, saying nothing, thinking: My darling, my dearest little girl, if I could just tell you what—“You know what?” Peggy said. “She told Timmy that you were nothing but an old goat who would never learn. Then she cried again. She just cried and cried.” He took her hand and they went up the hill. Jesus, he thought, she knows. Then after this he realized how foolish it was for him to think that she had not known all along, and so he ceased worrying. Peggy chattered about glamour, magic, movie stars. He thought once more of Michele.

  It would not be an entirely easy matter, he knew, to wrest that drug from Mason’s hands; but suddenly he had such a powerful and mysterious convulsion of joy that it was almost like terror. Then, when Peggy asked him to “invent a movie-star song” he took a gulp of wine and burst out singing:

  “Oh, we went to the animal fair,

  All the birds and the beasts were there;

  Carleton Burns was drunk by turns

  And so was Alice Adair….”

  And it was not long after this—while talking quite incoherently to a haggard, ill-tempered young American who had somehow smashed up his car—that darkness and oblivion once again began to crowd in around him.


  So it was that for the longest time after the night itself was done Cass could remember almost nothing. As for all that went on between the time he saw me on the road and the moment, many hours later when, relatively sober, he set out with me down into the valley, his memory was as profound and complete a blank as that of a man who has spent long hours under anesthesia. Yet there often came times when—as he tried to break down the dam which held walled-in all those momentous recollections—he felt he was on the verge of discovering something; the fact, the thing was there, like that infuriating name which remains on the tip of the tongue yet in the end refuses to divulge itself. And this elusive fact was to Cass of raging importance. Because with proof of this fact (which was not so much proof as the final calm certitude that Mason did rape Francesca) he could take some comfort in the notion that he had acted, at least, out of honest and purposeful motives of revenge. And finally, no less importantly, to get at this single reality would, he knew, lead to some understanding of everything else that took place that night and the next morning and the days that followed. For, as he told me on our riverbank in South Carolina, Francesca’s death and his own murder of Mason had the effect on him of obliterating from his mind all but the barest outlines of the events themselves, in the exact manner of shell shock or any other catastrophe which lays memory to rest amnesically, traumatically, mercifully.

  Yet Cass did not want this enduring mercy. He wanted to know, at no matter what renewed pain. And so it was that—in the same way that Cass, telling me of himself, and of Mason and all the rest, somehow allowed me to view recesses of my own self that I had never known before—I was able with my knowledge of at least part of what went on that night to lead Cass to a place where he could see all those events with new clarity, and together we tore down the walls which had long shut in his recollection.

  They must have hitched a ride up the mountain—he and Poppy and the children—for he could never in his condition have made it on foot, but that part would remain hidden forever, because Poppy had simply forgotten and the kids were too young to remember. Then at the palace he had fallen asleep, into a slumber which by all rights should have lasted round the clock, so heavy was his exhaustion, but which instead was tormented by such dreams of stress and urgency (these he remembered: Michele calling to him, Francesca weeping, an appalling foretaste of death in which he felt the precious bottle floating away from his grasp upon the black waters of some storm-swept gulf) that he awoke wailing aloud, sopping in sweat, and while the room circled around him listened to the movie people yawping and cackling in their descent down the stairway toward the pool. It was pitch-dark outside. The air was so humid that it seemed to lap against his skin like a huge tongue. Don Giovanni was blaring in his ear, in queer elongated chords and phrases. When had he turned the phonograph on? He did
not know, but he did know that it must have been playing for hours, automatically click-clacking its stack of records, and that the distortion was not in the music but in the fever raging in his brain. He turned the music up louder—its very volume seemed to give him confidence, to lend support to the theft he knew he must perform without delay—and then, staggering about and colliding with every accursed object that littered the blacked-out room, he managed to douse his head in a basin full of water, which did not sober him but soothed his headache some and brought momentary coolness to his throbbing brow and face. He heard Poppy talking softly to Peggy in the other bedroom, the rest of the children were asleep. At this point, he recalled, he had forgotten about Francesca, had forgotten about Mason’s implied threat against her in the car, or that he might even try to make good that threat this very night; all these things had been pushed to the back of his mind in favor of one single overwhelming thought now which had taken on the quality of a paranoid obsession or a raging runaway lust: I’ve got to get those pills down to Michele. I’ve just got to. For already there had been the gap of a day and a half in the treatment, and his intuition (which later he discovered was a correct one) told him that too long a lapse between the cessation of one drug and the beginning of another would allow the disease to make savage, renewed, perhaps final inroads upon a system already ruinously weakened and depressed. And he thought: Well at least I won’t have to refrigerate these buggers. At least maybe once I get this started I’ll be able to get some sleep.

  So he padded through the dark upstairs and out into the courtyard and then up the stairway to Mason’s balcony. He recalled that at the time it did not bother him how he would get the drug. He neither had a prevision of Mason refusing him the bottle, nor, if Mason did refuse him, of how he would deal with the situation and face Mason down. He only knew that by agreement the bottle was his prerogative and his right, and he was out to take it. He was reasonably sure where the bottle was—in the upstairs bathroom where Mason had kept some of the streptomycin for a while, along with the rest of his medications—and not for a second did it cross his mind that anything would intervene to prevent him from getting it; the fixity of drunken obsession at this point governed his every act and impulse. So it was with all the more impotence and desolation that, minutes later, he found himself downstairs again in the dark bedroom, empty-handed. He had gone up, and he had come down, and the miracle drug was still in Mason’s bathroom. What had happened? He did not know. He was only dimly aware of having entered Mason’s place with a great show of authority and strength—to find the salone deserted except for the benevolent director, Cripps, and the pale young American he had encountered hours before on the road. Then as usual, horrid, humiliating, self-defeating things had happened. He had fallen somehow—was it against a piano? Now a great C-major chord strummed in his brain, and his ribs ached mercilessly. He could still hear himself running off at the mouth—though what he had said he no longer knew—and his failure, his inability to cope with the situation brought him to such a pitch of rage that he leaned from the window and began to howl madly into the night. “What’s the matter?” he remembered Poppy crying, breathless, red-eyed, rushing to him in her nightgown. “Those movie stars, they’ll think you’re batty ! Oh, Cass!” she screamed. “What’s the matter with you? You’re turning into a maniac! Be quiet! You’re going crazy! You’re driving all of us crazy!” But she was off down the hallway on the full blast of his advancing wrath. “God damn you, Poppy, you think I don’t know … all crazy … and furthermore, the bleeding Micks … and who was it … when Hitler croaked was the only country outside Japan that sent their sympathy … who was it, by God … the Republic of Ireland or Erah or however the bloody hell you pronounce it!” And then once again he was in the dark prison of the room, trembling, chilled, head in his hands as he listened to some heartless, lost, wailing hillbilly music—“It was only because they hated the English!” he heard Poppy’s faint voice in the distance—and forced his reeling brain to work out a new stratagem.

  Then he realized he must have dozed off again, drowsing fitfully on the sour bed, only to wake up twenty minutes or half an hour later in the flat harsh light, his heart thumping wildly. He staggered to his feet and went upstairs. For a moment he stood swaying in the dark and odorous living room, hand pressed against his sweating brow, listening to the chatter at the edge of the swimming pool. It had begun to drizzle outside. He saw rainspecks drifting stickily against the windowpanes, at the same time saw the figures around the pool rise and disband and begin to ascend Indian-file back up through the garden toward the palace. Around the pool the floodlights blinked out one by one. He stood in pitchdarkness then, listening to the voices of the movie people approaching nearer, trying to make his brain work, trying frantically to make his head work and figure out a way in which he might steal up to Mason’s and take the drug without detection. Suddenly, with maddening belatedness, there occurred to him a way, the way—why did these solutions reveal themselves so coyly, after such a perilous long delay? Because, of course, the back stairway was the answer. By the dark back stairway (the same servants’ stairs up which he had so often heaved and shoul- dered boxes of Mason’s groceries) he could make a quick entry into the rear of Mason’s quarters, creep down the hall past the kitchen and into the bathroom, take off with the bottle and, barring some awkward encounter, escape notice. With Mason and the movie people in the salone, only the possibility of encountering old Giorgio or one of the scullery maids would stand in his way—and this would be a simple matter to deal with. The drug, he knew, was all but in the bag. He tightened his belt. There was a ringing in his ears, and now a plunging vertigo, which caused him to wobble dangerously and to propel himself across the black room listing heavily to starboard in a kind of limping, one-sided shuffle, like a man favoring a game leg. He cracked his head against the side of the easel, and was still cursing beneath his breath when at last, with great effort, he located the door and threw it open. Here at the threshold he stood for a moment, regaining his balance, acquainting his eyes with the light. For a long moment he heard nothing, save for the fluttering swoop and patter of a bird which tried to gain exit from the courtyard through a skylight. He had slowly lifted his eyes, trying to catch sight of the bird, when the outer door of the courtyard swung open and in from the street burst Francesca—barefoot, hair atangle, covering her ripped bodice as she scampered across the tiles toward him, and sobbing as if her heart would break. And somehow he knew what had happened even before she told him. Yes, he’s done it, he thought, the bastard went and done it like he said.

  In the dark living room, holding her close to his breast, stroking her hair as her tears streamed warm against his cheek, he listened and did not say a word as she told him what Mason had done. “Porco,” she sobbed, “he is the devil! Oh, Cass, I must kill myself!” He patted her steadily, gently on the arm. “I was ready to go home. So I could meet you like you said this morning. The people had gone to the pool. I was in the pantry. I had some things in a bag for Papa. Some eggs, some tomatoes, a cardboard bottle of American milk, and that is all. He came into the pantry and he turned on the light. I had unbuttoned the top of my dress, you see —to change—and he—he was watching. I mean, he stood there and watched me. And I tried to turn, to cover myself, but before I could do anything he clutched me—grasped hold of my arm. I tried to make him stop, to make him let go. I cried out, and he twisted my arm and hurt me. Then he said to me: ‘What have you in the bag?’ In English, which I mainly understood. And I said: ‘Nothing.’ Then he said something else in English, very angry, which I could not understand. He was very angry, very red in the face, and he kept saying these angry words in English that I could not understand. He kept twisting my arm, then finally he said, ‘Dove the earrings?’ Which is something I understood. And I said I did not know where the earrings were, I did not know what he was talking about. Then he said some more in English, very, very angry, and he said the word thief over and over, which I u
nderstood. Then I started to cry, and I said I was not a ladra, that I had not thieved from him anything but the milk and the tomatoes and the eggs. Which were for my Papa. And I tried to give him the bag back, but then he began to shout, and then all of a sudden he became quiet and looked at me in a strange way—here. And then he took his other hand and stroked me—here. And I began to turn away from him but he twisted my arm and then—” She fell silent, weeping softly, terribly, without restraint against Cass’ shoulder. “He kept twisting my arm, and oh it hurt so, Cass! I tried to call out—I called for you, ‘Cass! Cass!—but there was too much noise, the music in the salone, the machines in the kitchen. And then he did a fierce, quick thing. Still twisting my arm, he pushed me down the back hallway. And he took me to his bedroom and pushed me down on the big bed and locked the door. I tried to get up but he pushed me down again and ripped my dress. Then he said in English, This is what we do to a thief,’ which I understood. Then he came to me on the bed. I scratched him! I scratched his face! But yet he—Oh, Cass, I must kill myself!”


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