Set this house on fire, p.57
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       Set This House on Fire, p.57

           William Styron

  And afterwards, as she lay there dazed and hurting, fastidious Mason (taking the precaution to secrete the door key in the pocket of his dressing gown) had bathed and combed himself, returned, attired in silk, plastering with Band-Aids the gouged-out wounds she had inflicted upon his cheeks. He seemed contrite now, she said, and he tried to put things right as she lay weeping on the bed. For a while he was very sorry, muttering amends. She understood almost none of what he said, though he murmured to her much that hinted of emolument and recompense: the words he said were “dollars,” “molto lire” and “dinero,” a Spanish word which she comprehended. But his contrition, so honest, so sincere, dwindled with the passing minutes and turned to lust as, once again, slyly removing his dressing gown, he tried to take her. This time, however, she moved too swiftly for him and a universal trick, heard long ago from the lips of one of the loose female gossips of the village, served her in good stead: she rose up on her elbows as he nakedly mounted, lifting one leg sharply and driving her knee with all her force into that place which had caused him so much pleasure and her an extremity of pain. As she told Cass this, and despite her grief, a note of almost joyful vengeance crept into her voice. “I think I broke both of them,” she whispered fiercely, and even in his drunk heartbreak Cass verged near gruesome laughter. So, while Mason lay writhing on the bed, Francesca recaptured the key. “I unlocked the door and ran out,” she moaned. “And he got up and came after me, shouting. Oh, Cass, he was absolutely mad! I understood what he said. He said he was going to kill me. He picked up an ashtray and I thought he was going to hit me with it. I kill you!’ he said. But I ran out and down the stairs. And then I ran out on the street. I must have hurt him good, Cass, because he could not catch me. But—oh, Madonna!—what am I going to do? Cass, what will I do?”

  That was her story and it was, he knew (turning on the light to see her tear-stained face, shock-ravaged eyes), as close to the bare and bitter truth as modesty would permit her to tell. For a long while he held her in his arms, touched to the heart by a love for her which, curiously deepened by her misery, seemed so sweet and sharp as to be almost insupportable. For minutes she sobbed without letup, as if all the injustice and pain and cruelty in the world had come homing to her breast. Down below, the crashing chords of Mozart thundered without ceasing. At last Cass set her down upon the couch, where she lay crumpled, legs asprawl, still weeping, close to hysteria. Slowly, tenderly, he soothed her, and after a bit she lay still like one asleep. With a half-filled bottle of brandy he went to the window and looked out into the gray and lowering night. Now is the time, he thought, now I’ll have to deal with the scum face to face. Now. I can wait no longer. Yet even as he thought this he turned back and saw Francesca lying there and knew again in the midst of his fury that with each ticking of the clock Michele’s chance for life diminished and dimmed, and that revenge once more must be briefly postponed. I got to get that P.A.S., he thought, I got to get Michele rolling again. Mason can wait, and the revenge will be sweeter for the waiting. But now it occurred to him that at least he might be able to scare Mason; it seemed to him necessary to make Mason aware that he himself knew what had taken place, and it was for some reason the only honorable course—like a remnant from the dueling code—to prepare his adversary for the showdown to come. For a moment, he thought he was going to vomit. The spasm passed. He sat down at the littered table and with a pen spelled out the note: Youre in deep trouble, lm going turn you in to bait for buzards. And as he wrote, barely able to guide the pen with his shaking, intractable fingers, he knew that the skull-splitting pain in his head was the result no longer of booze, or of fatigue, but of a fury he had never thought it possible for one man alone to possess.

  He downed the brandy in the bottle to its dregs. After a few minutes Francesca stirred with a small cry; he went to her and helped her to her feet. He gave her the note to deliver to Giorgio for Mason on her way out of the palace. And he was somehow clearheaded enough to ask for Mason’s bedroom key. Then he told her to go home to the valley, that later he would join her there. “Vd” he said. “Go. Try not to cry any more.” Together they went to the door; holding her close, he pressed upon her lips a wild and despairing kiss. And then she was gone. Long after, he thought it strange that, taking leave of him, she whispered “Addio,” which means not “good-by” but “good-by forever.” Probably, he reasoned, it was only a sad, unconscious way of expressing the loss, so complete and irrevocable, of that part of her which Mason had taken instead of Cass himself. For in no way could she have known—any more than he—that when she pattered across the courtyard, and then vanished into the night, they would never lay eyes on one another again… .

  “No,” Cass said to me, “I never made love to Francesca, ever. I wanted to, God knows. So did she, I know. We would have sooner or later, I know. But we never made love. I don’t know what it was that held me back. It wasn’t breaking the marriage vows, or anything like that—I was too far gone to worry about a thing like that. No, it was something else, something I find it hard to put my finger on. Maybe it was because she was so young… . No, it wasn’t that either, really. Maybe just her beauty—this sweetness and radiance she had which made me simply want to contemplate her, to sit in this light of hers, so that the thought of knowing her, of possessing her, of loving her utterly and completely became a kind of daydream which was all the more mad and glorious because of the anticipation. It was somehow as if I knew that if I waited long enough it would just happen, and it would be a thousand times dearer to both of us because of all the hours and days spent brooding and dreaming about it. And you might think it had something to do with some notion of purity or chastity, but it really wasn’t that a bit. No, I found some kind of joy in her, you see—not just pleasure—this joy I felt I’d been searching for all my life, and it was almost enough to preserve my sanity all by itself. Joy, you see—a kind of serenity and repose that I never really knew existed. I even almost stopped drinking several times there. I reckon I just—I just cared for her, that’s all. I loved her. I loved her crazily, it was that simple—the bleeding beginning and end of the matter.

  “And—well, she did finally pose for me. In the nude, I mean. Remember I told you how at first she thought I was going to get my hands on her that way? Funny thing, now that I look back on it, about the only two things I did in the way of work there in Sambuco was this dirty painting I turned out for Mason, and these sketches of Francesca, which I’ve still got. You might say that combination sort of made up the two extremes of the sacred and profane. Anyway, there was a place down in the valley where I’d take her—one marvelous little secluded grove where there were willows and a grassy bank and a stream flowing through. I’d pose her there—she wasn’t in the least self-conscious. We’d sit there in the afternoon and I’d sketch away. She’d chatter on about this and that and grab for flowers—I had a hell of a time making her keep still—and finally she’d settle down and grin a bit and then look gravely toward the sea, and we wouldn’t say a word, just sit there sketching and posing and listening to the water flowing over the rocks and the crickets in the grass and the cowbells on the slopes. She’d have taken off her clothes and let her hair down—fantastic hair, it came down to her waist. Anyway, we’d sit there and it seemed as if we were under a spell—as if all my madness had been washed away for the moment, clean, and all her toil and misery, too, her sorrow over Michele had vanished into the air, and there we were in the pure sunshine, untouched by anything except this momentary, fabulous, bountiful peace. Then she’d get restless again and start chattering away, and teasing me about this and that, and so I’d have to close up shop, and we’d walk away from the place wrapped around each other, shaking with desire. God knows we should have gone on and done it. But—” He paused. “Anyway, I’ll never forget that grove, with the rocks and the cowbells ringing on the hills and the willows, and her in the middle of it, giggling, with her hair like a wild lovely cloud around her, trying to keep still… .

nbsp; “That night in the palace, you see, after she left—I don’t know—it was as if dynamite had gone off inside me and exploded me to bits. To think that Mason had done it—in actuality, that is—had taken her, no joke, had made good on this threat of his which I’d thought was only another bit of his blowhard nonsense about sex—it left me shattered right down to my heels. It wasn’t just the horror over what he’d done to Francesca, though that was most of it. It was the fact that I just didn’t think he was capable of it. I mean I had foolishly let my guard down. You see, after being around him so long, after being exposed each day to this man who had sex in the head like a tumor, I had just finally assumed that he couldn’t get it up. I really had. That he just couldn’t get it up, and that was that. I mean, it’s no secret, really. Forever distrust a man who celebrates anything too much. Get a man who’s got sex on the brain, one of these types who’s always whooping it up about enormous thighs and mystical copulations and frenzied orgasms and such, and then as in Mason’s case combine that with an overripe interest in such distractions as dirty pictures, and you’ve got a man who is without a doubt hard put to be of real service to a woman. He’d probably be much happier if he’d just go on and admit he prefers sailors. And when such a man don’t produce any offspring—like Mason—you’ve got to be especially suspicious; men that claim to get that much in the sack would be bound to slip up once in a while, just out of pure statistics. There’s not much difference between this type and a bleeding little prude, really; both of them basically think of a good screw as something as cataclysmic as Judgment Day.

  “Well, I had pretty much pegged Mason as this kind of character. I remember Rosemarie, for instance, and something that happened one night. I never got to know her very well. She was always up on the roof sunbathing, or morosely flip-flopping around the palace in her sandals with her nose stuck in the New Yorker or Time magazine. Lord, I can hear her now: ‘Oh, Muffin, I read the most fascinating profile on old Ding Dong the Dahlia King!’ or, ‘Muffin, Time magazine has the most devastating article on the Italian Communists! I mean, it really makes you see the incredible evil of it all!’ she’d say. Well, she actually was a goodhearted girl, all right, but her mind seemed to be a bit circumscribed, you might say. So, to come to the point: as I said, I didn’t know her too well, but one night he got me to fix a leak in his bathtub—I met her coming down. She was fairly well loaded up on martinis—I smelled the juniper on her breath—and I guess I paused to say hello or something, when before I knew it, there on those dark stairs, she had made a lunge for me and was all over me like glue. One great big shuddering Ingres odalisque, eight feet tall, all pelvis and groin. She could have bent me like a pretzel. Then just as quickly she pulled away from me—she was crying, her daily fight with Mason, I guess—and mumbled that she was fearfully sorry and went on down into the garden. I had both my paws out, but I was clutching at air. Well, you know, I wasn’t terribly irresistible in those days. A girl like Rosemarie, unless she was just plain horny, she wouldn’t make a pass at the bespectacled degenerate who lives in the basement.

  “So, Mason the poor bugger can’t speak for himself. If you could drag him back from the grave maybe he could say why he did such a thing that night. God knows, I’ve thought it over and over and it hasn’t made much sense. Often I’ve thought it was bound up with what I’ve just been trying to get at—with this difficulty I always suspected him of having, this failing which must be one of the most agonizing things that can afflict a man, this raging constant desire with no outlet, a starvation with no chance of fulfillment, which must fever and shake and torment a man until he can only find a release in violence. Maybe the only way Mason could be satisfied with a woman was through violence. Who knows?

  “Sex meant a lot to Mason—more than any human being I ever laid eyes on. That pornography of his, for instance. What he always was talking about was the new look in morals—that’s what he called it—and this business about sex being the last frontier. We had a lot of talks about that; this was along about the time he finally got me to do that picture for him. He wanted all the arts to embrace complete, explicit sexual expression—I’m quoting him. He said that pornography was a liberating force, épater le bourgeois, and all that crap—though Mason was deep down the most dyed-in-the-wool bourgeois who ever walked. Anyway, I tried to tell him—without offending him, of course, and losing my liquor supply—how half-cocked all this was. I said naturally pornography excited the glands—that’s what it was for. It was fantasy made real. I’d had fantasies like that myself until I broke out into a sweat. Even a Baptist missionary has those kind of daydreams—or something like them—and people who say that they don’t have them themselves are simply lying. Hence the prevalence of pornography, which must fill some need—else it wouldn’t exist. And there’s nothing particularly sinful about getting your desires aroused once in a while. But I asked Mason why, if this was true, pornography had been frowned on and shunned by all cultures since the beginning of time. Why? I asked. It wasn’t really a moral issue at all. A dirty book can’t corrupt, or a dirty picture either. Anybody who wants to get corrupted is going to get corrupted, even if they have to write or draw their own. Then why had there always been rules against it? It was simple. First, it was to keep sex the seductive and wonderful mystery that it is. And it was to keep the fun in it, too—because most pornographers are so solemn about it. But mainly—mainly it was to keep sex from becoming commonplace, cheap, and therefore a merciless, catastrophic, almighty bleeding bore.

  “Well, Mason pretended to chew over these notions, but it was clear that he thought I was hopelessly naive. If not a hick and a clodhopper in most ways, with the soul of a licensed embalmer. But all that’s aside. He had sex on the brain, and I guess you might say that more than anything else it led to his undoing. He went one step too far. He tried rape and he succeeded.

  “But why did Mason do it in this case, right then, that night, right there? He didn’t exactly lack resources, you know. There are whorehouses in Naples that specialize in his kind of itch, if itch it was, and for a couple thousand lire he could have bought himself a nice authentic rape, complete with locked unwilling thighs and frantic hands and Neapolitan screams, and he wouldn’t have even gotten scratched if he hadn’t wanted to. But no, he had something else in mind, I know. So that that night, if you discount the business about the earrings and his rage over Francesca’s alleged thievery—which was just a cover-up for something deeper —and put aside for a moment this theory about his impotence—which must be only part of the story—then you come up with one answer: he was raping me. No, God knows I don’t want to make it look like I’m transferring to myself any of that final and degrading suffering which Francesca endured alone. I just mean this, you see: he must have understood what was happening. He must have seen how things were shaping up. Because for more time than I care to think about I had allowed him to own me—out of spinelessness at first, out of whiskey-greed and desolation of the spirit, but at last out of necessity. And the paradox is that this slavish contact with Mason that I had to preserve in order to save Michele freed me to come into that knowledge of selflessness I had thirsted for like a dying man, and into a state where such a thing as dependence on the likes of Mason would be unheard-of, an impossibility. And Mason must have understood this, too, and not so dimly either. I think he must have understood it a lot more than I did. He knew that for a while he had the pluperfect victim—a man he could own completely, and who lay back and slopped up his food and his drink, and who was so close to total corruption himself that he gloried in being owned. But he sensed, too, that his victim had changed now, had found something—some focus, some strength, some reality—and this was a dangerous situation for a man who wished to keep a firm grip on his property: bum that I still remained, each hour I strove to bring Michele back to health, each day I sweated and strained to regain my sanity by taking on this burden which God alone knows why I accepted—save that to shirk it would have been to die—I
moved closer to a condition of freedom, and Mason knew it even if I didn’t, and this he couldn’t bear.

  “So that night he held out on me. I don’t think—scoundrel that he was—he had any conscious intention of hurting Michele by keeping those pills. But he kept them, no doubt waiting for that moment when, as he told me, I would ‘come to my senses’—which is to say the moment when by some act of fealty, some cheap bargain, through some humiliation, I would repudiate this new independence of mine, renounce any ideas I might have expressed about getting out of Sambuco, leaving him without a lap dog—and so put him into the driver’s seat again. Then and only then the bastard planned to give me the pills back, I guess.

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