Set this house on fire, p.58
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       Set This House on Fire, p.58

           William Styron

  “But the pills weren’t all. There was Francesca too, and by raping her he raped the two of us: that night I felt he had committed some filthy, unspeakable violation upon life itself. His timing was perfect. At that very moment when through Francesca I had conceived of life as having some vestige of a meaning, he tore that meaning limb from limb. Who knows why he did it? Because her beauty and her innocence drove him crazy? Because he knew she was mine? Because the sodden wreck he owned was struggling out of the mire, out of his grasp? Because in her terrible fright and distraction she called out, ‘Cass! Cass!’ when if she had stayed quiet, not shouting that name which must have been like anathema in his ears, he might have let her go?

  “Who knows why he did it, but he did it, and at last I smashed his fucking skull in.”

  With his head bowed, Cass fell silent, and he remained quiet for a long time. When at last he resumed, he said in a soft and gentle voice: “So I guess now the time has come to tell you how I killed him, and everything else.

  “Well, as for the rest of that night, of course, you know almost as much as I do. And for the circus act he made me go through up- stairs—about that I still draw a total blank, and perhaps it’s a blessing. It seems to me I have a dim memory of having gone through the same thing just a few nights before. Acting the clown, acting out drunkenly, helplessly, any role Mason dreamed up for me. Mason in charge, running me through my paces, and the movie creeps howling—that troglodyte Burns, and those vacant-faced actresses; and Cripps, that director, who sort of took care of me once, he seemed like a good egg, as I remember. But both times I was in the very heart of a coma. But about that night … Later, I recall going up the back stairs and lifting those pills from Mason’s bathroom. And ah yes—I forgot to tell you: on my way out I got that picture I’d painted for him. I went into the room where I knew he stored all of his beautiful blue art and I found that picture and on the way back down the stairs I ripped it up with my bare hands, frame and all, and stuffed it into an ashcan on the street. It was what, looking back on it, you might call strike one against the house of Flagg. And after that, of course, there was the trip with you to the valley to see Michele. And dragging back up through the valley in the dawn, sober now, but so beaten down with exhaustion that I felt all my nerve ends twitching as if on the verge of some fit or convulsion, and after that—after settling you down to sleep—going upstairs and pacing, and fighting sleep, fighting sleep, consumed even in my half-dead weariness by a fury which I knew would not let me sleep, which I knew would allow me no letup or peace until I had confronted Mason and exacted my just pound of flesh. It was all I wished—this you must understand—and it was not much, or so it seemed to me; nothing would right his wrong or restore Francesca’s loss, yet stretched to the very limit of all I understood that meant toleration and endurance, and for the sake of my manhood alone, or what was left of it, for the sake of whatever notion of honor I still honored, I knew I had to have some indication—something, some token, some mark, some sign—even if it was only a hand bloodied with his blood, or a fist bruised and broken where I had driven it into that smooth, peerless, polished, vainglorious face.

  “And that was all, you see. All. Nothing else was in my mind. Had you told me even then, even in the midst of all my foaming, infuriate craze for revenge, that I would be capable of killing him—that indeed, within an hour, I would kill him—I would have said that you exaggerated my hatred and rage. Hate him I did, and my rage was like some great snapping mad dog inside me, but no, murder was not in my mind. Only shortly after, when I got that news which turned my blood to water—just then I understood once and for all that it is, in fact, the easiest thing in the world to wish to kill a man, and then to kill him without a qualm, without hesitation or pause or delay… .”

  Cass fell silent again. Then he said: “But to kill a man, even in hatred, even in revenge, is like an amputation. Though this man may have done you the foulest injustice in the world, when you have killed him you have removed a part of yourself forever. For here was so-and-so. Here was some swine, some blackguard, some devil. But what made him tick? What made him do the things he did? What was his history? What went on in his mind? What, if you had let him live, would he have become? Would he have stayed a swine, unregenerate to the end? Or would he have become a better man? Maybe he could have imparted to you some secrets. You do not know. You have acted the role of God, you have judged him and condemned him. And by condemning him, by killing him, all the answers to those questions pass with him into oblivion. Only you remain—shorn of all that knowledge, and with as much pain as if somehow you had been dismembered. It is a pain that will stay with you as long as you live… . All the time I spent with Mason, I felt I never knew him, never could put my hands on him. He was like a gorgeous silver fish in a still pond: make a grab for him, and he has slithered away, and there you are with a handful of water. But maybe that was just the thing about him, you see? He was like mercury. Smoke. Wind. It was as if he was hardly a man at all, but a creature from a different race who had taken on the disguise of a man, an imperfect disguise, so that while you saw that he walked and talked and smelled like a man, you were nonetheless aware that here was a creature so strange, so new—so remote from the depths of your own experience, your own life, your own past—that there were times when you looked at him with your mouth wide-open, in awe, wondering that you could communicate with each other at all. For him there was no history, or, if there was, it began on the day he was born. Before that there was nothing, and out of that nothing sprang this creature, committed to nothingness because of the nothingness that informed all time before and after the hour of his birth. And it was impossible to understand a creature like this… . And so—

  “Once early that summer I was drinking with Mason, and I had a reverie—about America—one of those sharp pangs of homesickness that would come over me every now and then, no matter how hard I tried to push them down. It was evening and we were sitting on his terrace, looking over the sea. I listened to Mason talk about his play—about this new look in morals. It seemed to me then that suddenly I was carried back to a time many years before, when I had come up from the South and Poppy and I were starting out in New York, in a drab little apartment on the West Side, where I was trying to be a painter and Poppy would go out each day to work at some damn Catholic youth club or something. Yet, strange, it was not Poppy and me I was dreaming of, but something else—of others, of other young married people of whatever age and time, other young kids I had never known nor would ever know. Before the babies come. Pretty young wives named Cathy or Mary or Barbara, and guys named Tim and Al and Dave, all of them in these sort of cheerless little apartments all over America—and the percolator boiling, and a rainy Sunday morning, and the guy in his underdrawers and the girl in curlers, feeding the goldfish. Or the two of them nibbling each other’s ears and then going back to bed, mad with love, or then on the other hand just quarreling, or reading the newspapers while soggy, degrading music comes out of the radio. Why I had this vision I don’t know—it was a very sorry vision in many ways—but I had it and I remembered that wet gray light of New York on a winter morning and the butter melting in a dish on the table, but mainly—mainly just these brave and pretty girls, and the brave boys they married, all hurried toward the same weird impossible destiny. Young lovers, Stardust—piled up through unimaginable centuries. And suddenly, though I had never known them and never would know them, I loved them—I loved them all—and I wished them well.

  “Then I stirred a little and looked up and heard Mason say: ‘Let me tell you, dollbaby, do you know what the world’s going to be like in a hundred years?’ I’d lost track of the conversation but his eyes were gleaming—almost prophetic—as if he really knew. It was one of those moments when he was at his best, when I kind of liked him. He took a big puff out of this cigar he was smoking, and rared back, and for a moment, I swear, he looked so serene and knowing that you would have thought he had just planted his flagstaff
on Mars.

  “But I was still in that reverie of mine, and I didn’t answer. Come to think of it, I wish I had asked him to tell me what he thought the world was going to be like in a hundred years because now, you see, I’ll never know. It was a mystery he took with him.” That morning Cass remembered hearing the village clock strike five. On the sagging couch, still oozing with the cool damp of the night just passed, he lay with limp arms akimbo, palms upturned, breathing in shallow breaths as his eyes roved the ceiling, the shaded casement windows, the dingy walls carapaced with soot and spiderweb tracings and the wet gray accretions of mildew and time. The clutter of the room thrust up the specter-shapes around him in the graying darkness, the gathering light: the towering walnut wardrobe and the table still littered with indistinct objects (he made out a pipe, five empty wine bottles, a lava ashtray from the slopes of Vesuvius shaped like the head of death) and the ponderous easel with its dangling doll and white rectangular shape of canvas, chaste and untouched. He was a vessel. He sensed his own breathing and a dull throbbing ache along his rib cage and he felt too the slow inward-throbbing of his consciousness, but his thoughts made few connections with each other and, pliant as a strand of weed beneath streaming water, he lay there, inert, drained, exhausted, receiving all. Flies like winged blots, aroused by the heat, spun in eccentric paths somewhere far above him near the ceiling, mindlessly buzzing. And now other sounds of waking fell upon his ears—a bird call, and a girl’s sweet drowsy voice singing and, from afar, puttering and somnolent, fishing boats on the gulf, moving languidly to harbor through the dawn. Then these sounds, too, faded and died, and all was still again save for the dim buzzing of the flies in the ghostly space of air above him.

  One thing remained supreme: he must not sleep. He must not, could not, sleep, though a horde of unseen forces seemed to impel him toward it. In a moment of total lassitude he allowed his eyes to close; it took the whole of his strength and will to open them again, and his eyelids came apart with an aching flutter, fighting to erase the gray light. He must not sleep, he thought painfully, he could not sleep; and now, as if viewing himself through the eyes of some drowsy stranger he saw himself pushing back sleep, with leaden feet and faltering steps forcing back the door of sleep, that titanic oaken door as lofty and as ponderous as the entry to some medieval keep, which pressed open against all his puny efforts to close it, and behind which, it seemed, all the demons of slumber howled for his soul with a noise like that of a thousand hysteric pipes. Yet now, wonder of wonders, he was closing it. Drowsily he watched himself shouldering back the prodigious door, saw the space of darkness diminish as he filled the breach between the door’s edge and the stony jamb, saw the massive hinges quiver with the strain; but then, in an instant, fantasy became dream; sound asleep for what seemed hours, he had indeed forced the door back, forced back sleep (or so a small and treacherous voice murmured in his ear), yet behind the door there was a lovely quattrocento castle—was there not?—and here he strolled amid a crowd of lords and ladies, halberds and masked falcons, wan lovers, and squads of murmuring nuns, in a place where courtyards blossomed with almond trees, and psalteries and lutes played exquisitely and invisibly, and over all was the scent of almond and lemon and balsam. … He awoke with a start, choked upon the fragment of a snore. All was quiet. The light was still dim and gray. Only seconds had passed.

  Downstairs now he heard a cry—a small high tormented wail which arose in ascending quavering tones and then ceased abruptly, as if garroted—and even as the noise was strangled off he rose up on one elbow, heart pounding and nerves aflame and in a sudden panic of jittery apprehension yet almost simultaneously aware that it was only one of the children, crying out in sleep. For long moments he lay there propped on his elbow, ear cocked, listening, but there was no sound from below. He lay back again. At least I am sober, he thought, at least I will be able to handle the bastard with the calm forbearance and sobriety that he don’t deserve but will get… . His eyes searched the ceiling. In languid dizzy loopings the flies traced thin black rubbery patterns in the air; one, emboldened by the gathering light, disengaged itself from the swarm, darted out and lit upon the wall, stickily fidgeting. Another removed itself from the mass, and then another; one lit upon his arm. In a half-hour, he thought, the nasty little buggers’ll be all over the room, poking their noses in everything. He brushed the fly away. It returned almost instantly, lighting upon his ear, gummily buzzing. He groaned, slapped at it, halfdeafening himself. I must do something, he thought. I got to do something about those flies at Michele’s. They’ll poison everybody in the place, the kids, Ghita, Francesca. … He shot erect abruptly on the couch. Francesca! Merciful God, he thought, where was she? The same sweaty and abominable fear he had had two hours before in the valley, when he learned that she had not shown up there at all, engulfed him now: not only had Mason once taken her at some point in the midst of the evening just past, not only had he—the word lay in his mind like something scabrous and diseased—raped her, but now at this very moment she wai still upstairs with him, wrapped in his unspeakable embrace. Droplets of sweat stood out upon his brow. He found himself trembling violently, and he felt goose pimples break out in a cool rash up and down his arms. Then, almost as quickly as it came, the panic subsided, receded, and passed firmly away: he must not let himself get so out of hand.

  No, Michele must have been right, he thought with relief again, as he sank back on the couch. Because though say the slimy bastard had the insolence and swinishness in him to do what he done once, he would neither have the guts or the chance to get her and do it again, so Michele must have been right and she is not up there but staying with that gardener’s daughter. … He lay there blinking in the somber light, touching his tongue now to a sore cut place on his upper lip, some raw wound acquired God knows when during the chaotic blundering evening that resided in his mind less a space of time possessing even the vaguest semblance of sequence and order than a scrambled collection of tilted, disordered impressions, like a scrapbook pasted together by a baby or an idiot. The piano. Yes, a little—no, it could not have been a piano he had fallen over; then if not, how could he still have the dim but certain memory of a keyboard flashing up to meet his jaw and his teeth biting down on ivory? He rubbed the cut again with his tongue, drowsily pondering. I’ll swear to Christ right now, he thought, not another bleeding drop of booze ever again. A scrap of music went through his mind like a butterfly, tender, innocent, aching, sweet, somehow bruised, hurt, promising love and assuring repose. Batti, batti … pace o vita mia. Fair barelegged barefooted Zerlina imploring her country lover patience, patience, asking him to forgive. The music returned again, a fragile translucent wing. Bat … ti … bat … ti … Why did it haunt him now? He closed his eyes, opened them again, listened; far down the slope a bus horn trumpeted faintly, faded out with a sound of perishing mnemonic brass, alloying scattered fragments of hunger and memory and desire. Merciful God, he thought. Sweet bleeding Father of us all, I have come to this. Come to the point where I know I should forgive him for everything, the miserable snake, only to find that there are some things that cannot be forgiven. So now I will simply have to stomp his face in or something, but no … I do not know. And he did not know. He did not know what, when he finally gained access to Mason (not long now, he knew, for Giorgio would be unlocking the doors), he would do: he only knew that he would do something, that Mason would be calmly and simply and inflexibly dealt with at last. A sour, corrosive taste came to his mouth, as if he had been sucking on a piece of brass.

  So I guess what I will have to do, he thought, is go up there and get him alone somehow and give him a good talking to. Then without much further ado I’ll have to kick his teeth out. The bus horn sounded, far and faint in the valley, and he let his eyelids close. The vexation and the rage and the trembling diminished and faded out. And again the horn blew in a tremulous sad alto like the soft decrescendo of dying trombones and once more, stealthily, between sleep and waking, the titani
c doors seemed to open and surround him, allowing him brief swift terminable vistas of time past, irretrievable: his uncle’s voice, amid the green tobacco heat and stillness of a summer noon, and the smell of goats and somewhere a washpail sloshing, and the green phantom forests, tattered with morning mist, of palmetto and cypress and pine; a rowboat foundered upon the mud of some sluggish southern river, and the scent of dockweed, and a buzzard circling high over smoky swampland, and a Negro voice round soft round, female and chuckling. Then the horn blew again, and he halfawoke, sank back into an instant’s dream, like the barest breath of the syllable of a word: swallows wheeled over him in some blue forgotten evening, and there was a swing and a girl—and high, high they went!—and someone’s voice was saying, “Son, oh, son, it’s late, it’s time.” And at this sound he almost awoke, stirred, flexed his knees and for a second, dreaming of France, dreamed of poplars on a sun-mad hill, blackbirds beneath them as big as hawks, and of Francesca, his Francesca there. … He felt his eyelids flutter. I’ve got to wake up, he thought, but now to a parade-ground or drill-field he was beckoned, long ago at dusk in some southern encampment where white barracks stretched in shadeless ranks to the far horizon and men marching shouldered rifles in the twilight and, wild, triumphant, a band tarantaraed beneath a grove of pines—oh how long away!

  He awoke to the sound of his heart thudding; the light was still gray in the room, dusty and fugitive. Softly he stirred, feeling the itchy sweat and clinging of his shirt against his back. No, I cannot go to sleep, he thought again, and now pressing his elbows deep into the sagging couch he gradually arose, sat up, blinking, and eased his feet slowly onto the floor. He stood erect then, stroking and massaging his ribs. He yawned, a gulping inspiration of breath that set a sharp pain snapping through his jaws. And he yawned again, helplessly and loudly, with a shuddering roar. And once more he yawned, bawling like a calf, and the silence afterwards was like a sudden noise in his ears. Merciful God, he thought, I’m a bleeding somnambulist. I got to snap out of it. He turned and moved through the clutter of the room.

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