Set this house on fire, p.59
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       Set This House on Fire, p.59

           William Styron

  For a moment he had trouble locating the knobs of the French doors leading onto the balcony. Then he found them, and he pulled the shaded doors open, and the dawn fell on his eyes in an aureole of pearl-gray light. It was cooler now on the balcony, cool and still. Light filled the valley, defining the terraced slopes and the vineyards and the lemon groves and the great humpbacked barren peak, dominating all, that plunged a thousand feet into a sea peach-gold with dawning and as still as glass. Like water bugs, noiseless now, their fish-lure lights extinguished, a fleet of tiny boats scuttled homeward toward Salerno, trailing white scratches of foam. Birds began talking again, tentative at first in soft drowsy solitary chirrups and cheeps, and there was a feathery stir and rustle among the lemon trees. And now he heard the girl’s voice once more far down the slope, soft and sleepy and indistinct, singing words he could not understand, and for the briefest instant he had the notion that it was Francesca: he leaned forward over the rail as if to get a glimpse of her, realizing even as he did so that it was not, could not be Francesca at all. He shivered, haunted by a notion bleak, malign, beyond countenance; then this notion vanished as quickly as it had come as, distracted by a sudden flicker of white, he caught sight of the girl, far off, plump, laundry perched upon her head, roundly bobbing among the vines as her sweet cheery voice filled the dawn, diminished, faded against the hills. Then he turned his eyes up toward the end of the valley, knowing that from here he could not see Tramonti, yet half-hoping that something—a wisp of smoke from some hidden chimney—might give evidence of its presence there, secluded behind its sheltering pines. Nothing stirred. Somewhere behind those pines, he knew (or hoped now), Michele slept. Well, let him sleep, he thought. Though it won’t do him any good, I guess, at least he will know some kind of foretaste of the ease and oblivion that’s going to come. He took a cigar, slightly crumbled, from the breast pocket of his shirt and lit it, and gazed at the valley through a swirling blue cloud of smoke. He puffed on the cigar and gazed once more into the dawning valley. No, he thought, I guess all the wonder drugs on God’s green earth would never save him. Never … Let him sleep. In the distance, yet closer now, higher up the mountain, the bus horn hooted with its sound of muted perishing brass, its soft dying fall echoing across the hills in fading yellow notes of memory and desire. He champed down on the cigar and for a moment closed his eyes, listening to the falling echo. Who will remember Michele, anyhow? he thought. Slowly he opened his eyes, and gazed at the softly brightening sea, thinking: No, unless dust can feel suffering, there will be no one to remember his death. No one. But if dust can feel suffering maybe he will be blown about a while on the air and maybe this suffering dust will get in the eyes of men who feed too well, and maybe they will weep without knowing why, and maybe this dust will tell them how this man died. A lousy sack of pus … He looked away from the sea, smelling the smell of death—smelling Michele and his loathsome disease, hating both. For an instant he was aware that his sudden fury was like that of a child’s. That bleeding Michele and his bleeding T.B., he thought. Is it my fault? Is it my fault he’s started to piss blood? The whole thing—all—it is a stinking pesthole… .

  He went back through the French doors into the living room. In the corner there was an old wooden crate, and in it were a dozen phonograph records, their cardboard jackets frayed and smudged and taped against the ravages of his own hands. He pulled one out. There was no need to look at the label; he knew each by its own faded cover, its own peculiar shadow of greasyfingered stain and grime. He put the record on the battered phonograph, tested the needle with his thumb, set the record spinning along its course, slightly eccentric and wobbling. Then as the needle sputtered and hissed in the first worn gray grooves, he went over to the armchair and sat down. And as he sat there, the music crashed in upon him, aerial and impossible, and with a swift sudden unloosing and opening, as of a thousand magical and lovely windows, consecrating light.

  Mozart gives, he thought, giving more in one sweet singing cry than all the politicians since Caesar. A child gives, a shell or a weed that looks like a flower. Michele will die because I have not given. Which now explains a lot, Slotkin. Old father, old rabbi, hell is not giving… .

  He jerked erect. Because now, through and across the music’s swift and sudden ecstasy, above the notched hissing and sputtering of the record itself, he heard—or thought he heard—a voice. It was familiar—so familiar, indeed, that, knowing just whose it was, he thought his ears were tricking him—and he waited, head cocked, for the voice to call again. For moments he heard nothing. Then once more he heard the voice, faint yet distinct from somewhere out in the courtyard: “Hey, Cass, buddy, come on up and have a drink!” He sat bolt upright in his chair. Mason! he thought. Triple bleeding God! But it couldn’t be Mason, at this hour of the morning, inviting him for the ten thousandth time to booze it up. Impossible! It could not be Mason, who not only aware that he, Cass, knew what he had done to Francesca, but aware too that he must be, at long last, laying for him—it could not be Mason now, playing right into his hands! He listened. Save for the music, there was no sound. Again he leaned back in the chair, and again the voice floated dimly through the music: “Cass! Dollbaby! A drink!”

  Heart pumping, he arose from the chair, stood there facing the courtyard door fuzzily defined, ajar. He went to the phonograph and turned the volume down, stood erect, waiting. Once more no sound. He turned the volume up again: the sweet wailing viola reached its crescendo, the violin joining it, and at that instant of wild junction the voice called from the courtyard again, loud and clear, rather petulant now, and demanding: “Cass!” His eyes moved toward the table, fell upon the Vesuvian skull-shaped ashtray, and he stepped forward and picked it up, waiting again, hefting the smooth lava in his hand. Then he put the ashtray back down on the table, thinking: No, that won’t do, that won’t do at all. I might hurt the bastard in a way I’ll regret. If I take him I’ll take him with my two bare hands. And he plunged toward the door, hurled it open with a crash, and stood blinking at the dusky courtyard: there was not a soul in sight. Among the movie equipment—the cameras and the booms and the arc lights—nothing stirred. And high above on Mason’s balcony the door—the same door he had tried to force open only minutes before—was still closed, still firmly locked. My God, he thought, I must be going bughouse. I would have swore on a stack of Bibles … Cautiously, carefully, he gazed around him, but there was no stir or sound. And in a moment he turned and went back into the living room, sat down. He pounded at his head, as if to dislodge the ringing and the echo in his ears: as he did so he heard the voice again, nattering and querulous and insistent, slyly suggestive now above the flutes and strings, and seeming to emanate not from the outside but from a point much closer, close to his ear. Let me tell you something Cash, old Cassius my boy … He cautiously turned. His eyes searched the gloom. Nothing moved there, save the flies, crisscrossing in drowsy flight against the ceiling. And again slowly he turned back. And again the voice came, with its strange quality of proximity and distance, suggestive, lewd, and with a soft lubricious lilt: Let me tell you something, old Cash, virgin tail can be the very best in … As if on a car radio tuned to a fading wave length, the voice dimmed and became still. He waited, listening. And as once more he sank back, the voice returned, abruptly and with raw insulting loudness, as if the phantom car had emerged from some sound-smothering tunnel: I’ve had French stuff and I’ve had Spanish stuff in fact you might say I’ve sampled the whole broad spectrum pole to pole but they say that until you get yourself between the thighs of one of the little guinea girls and by guinea I only mean the joking generic term for … For what? Again the voice disappeared. He lowered his head and for a moment shut out the dawn, pressing his knotted fists tightly against his eyelids. / mean you know my orientation is essentially liberal … Stars darted here in the darkness, crumbs and pinpoints of fire, blue whirlpools and globes white with glistery incandescence, and all seemed touched with hints of lunacy. Great God almighty,
he thought, the bastard’s spooking me.

  But then another sound possessed his ears, and he raised his head to listen. Faint at first, then swiftly louder, it came from the walls of the town; its initial notes seemed that of a siren or a highpitched horn, then quickly redefined themselves as he recognized the noise, knew what it was—a woman’s wavering cry of alarm, hoarse, heedless, wild. Another cry joined the first one, then another, then another, all crying in unison—then the voices fell silent at once, as if abruptly gagged and muffled. And for a long moment there was only dead silence in the town. Then the cries recommenced, nearer now, and he heard another noise, strange, which made a pattering, steady, percussive rhythm beneath the cries, and this sound, too, defined itself as it became louder and closer—footsteps on the cobblestones outside, rowdy, stumbling, mad with haste. There was a dazzling cling-clang as the feet struck a sewer grating; then the sound was repeated, quickly, followed by the screams. And another cling-clang like a short sharp collision of iron bars, and now a man’s voice which let out bull-like sounds in a succession of hoarse bellows each of which terminated in a low, quavering, aspirated moan, curiously feminine. And then for a moment the cries, which had been bunched together like the calls of a flock of crows in flight, became dispersed and straggled out and again grew fainter, and all he could hear was the frantic patter of feet going downhill past the palace in a skidding slick pandemonium of shoe leather, and one final stray bringing up the rear in a reticent dogtrot, heavily gasping for air.

  Gut churning with fear, somehow forewarned as he leaped from the chair and raced outside, Cass reached the street door of the courtyard and had thrown it open before the straggler had passed the palace, calling out “Aspett’!” even as he recognized who it was—Windgasser, his face aflame with exertion and with the look in his sleep-swollen eyes of a man who has heard his own death sentence. Dazed, haggard, doomed, he stood plumply gowned in a bathrobe, his hairless shanks trembling in the chill and peach-hued dawn, and as Cass approached him he drew from his pocket an outsized linen handkerchief and passed it miserably and tremulously across his jowls. “Merthiful heaven,” he said, “oh, Mr. K.!”

  “What happened!” he cried, grasping the little man’s sleeve. “What happened? Speak up, Fausto, tell me!”

  “That Ricci girl. That peasant girl from Tramonti. Who used to work for you! Mr. Flagg’s maid! She has been found—” He began to blubber.

  “Speak up, dammit!”

  “She has been found—She was found on the path to Tramonti! Beaten! Ravished! My dear sir! Dying!”

  “Then how is she!” He was faintly aware that, clutching Fausto’s sleeve, pinioning beneath his hand a rubbery band of flesh, he was making the hotelkeeper wince, and also now that he was roaring at the top of his voice. “How is she!” he repeated, releasing his grip. “How is she, for Christ sake? Tell me! Dying you said! Dying?”

  “Oh, Mr. K.,” he wept, and his voice died to a whisper, “she is still alive—but the horror! It was only an hour ago that they found her on the upper path—so they do not know. She is unconscious. But the doctor told me—just now—he told me that she cannot live out the day! But the horror of—”

  “Who did it!”

  “No one knows. Some beast of a person! Someone so totally lacking in any sense of decency—” He paused, as if to collect his scattered wits. “I mean—Oh, I just cannot bear to tell you. I mean, her skull fwactured in two places, bones bwoken all over. I ask you, what sort of a murderous beast is it who would do such a vile and abominable thing, in a quiet town like this which for these past years has enjoyed such unpawalleled peace! With the cinema here! Surely they will leave now! Just when—”

  “Scum,” Cass murmured, in a voice partaking of the grief which had swamped him. “Filthy Swiss little faggot.” He raised his arm, saw Windgasser flinch and shrink from him even as he wheeled away from the man and trotted back toward the palace. He felt ice water flowing in his veins. Several more townspeople, rapt, open-mouthed in the hysteria of crisis, rushed past him. A barefooted woman with a baby in her arms stumbled downhill toward the piazza, uttering between white parted lips a series of frustrated shrieks, bubbling forth in weak gasps. And now as he turned toward the door to Mason’s stairs he saw Dr. Caltroni, spectacles reflecting ovals of pink light, astride a rackety motorscooter veering up the hill toward the walls; mounted on the seat behind, a bald young priest swayed, peering with a worried look heavenward while clapping like a chalice to his breast a bottle containing, unmistakably, human blood. Cass turned away, hurried ten short steps down a dark alleyway odorous with garbage, and pulled violently at the doorknob with both hands, nearly collapsing himself back upon the cobblestones as the door—to his vague surprise unlocked—flung itself open with a clatter. Regaining balance, he plunged forward. The stone stairs were slippery with damp, and a musty gray smell as of mice and their excrement hovered over all; he took the steps two at a time, stumbling down once without pain in the half-dark. At the top of the stairs there was another door; this too was now unlocked and he hurled it open, taking a step into Mason’s kitchen. The room was deserted. There was no sound here, save for the steady drip from a leaking faucet. For a moment he stood with his ear cocked, peering through the gloom. Noise from the street rose up through the walls, muffled and indistinct. A clock ticked somewhere and now, from far down the hallway where in their rooms the movie people slept, he heard a prodigious snore, tentative and choked, like the faulty initial burst of an outboard motor. He kept listening, heard springs creak once as the sleeper stirred, then again all was silent. He stepped forward, moving with cautious soundless footfall past the sleepers, past closed doors and doors ajar: through one he caught sight of a short, naked, recumbent Jew, the newspaper snoop whose name he had forgotten, with a hairy abdomen and an enormous ap- pendectomy scar, mindlessly scratching his ribs as he slumbered beneath a buzzing electric fan. Cass moved on. In the windowless hallway it was humid—humid and close; he felt himself sweating, and a prickly chill ran up his back and then up his neck, making his scalp feel suddenly as tight as a drumhead. Yet, sweating, he felt parched, juiceless, dehydrated; his eyes were gritty and dry, as was his throat—a gorge full of sand—and abruptly with a hawking noise, loudly, too loudly, he tried to moisten it. He stopped in his tracks, waiting, listening, expecting someone to stir. Across the hall past a half-opened door three clothed male sleepers lay comatose across a double bed, the mouths of each agape, sprawled together like toppled mannequins.

  Still he waited. Off in the distance someone groaned. He prowled on, turning at last into a corridor toward Mason’s bedroom. With swift silent steps now he reached the door, suddenly drew back, thinking of Rosemarie, thinking that though he might handle Mason easily it would be impossible madness to deal with Mason in combination with his lofty, shrieking consort. But almost at that identical instant, recollecting the numberless times that summer when he had seen Rosemarie, rejected, cast out from Mason’s favor, emerge red-eyed in the morning from some separate boudoir, he knew he must now take a chance on her being absent from his side, and once more he approached the door. As he did so, pressing down on the squeaking handle and groping simultaneously into his pocket, he realized with vexation (this he recalled later: his coolness, his calmness, his grief in abeyance—his passion for retribution dominating him so that even such possibly fateful missteps as this one caused him, instead of panic and anxiety, only a flicker of annoyance) that he had forgotten the key. It was on the table downstairs. But it was too late to go back. Inside he heard a stirring, then the voice, already apprehensive, alert, knowing: “Who’s there?” Pressing his cheek against the door, he listened. The voice spoke again, louder now: “Who’s there?” Still he did not answer, aware now of two lucidly apparent yet baffling and contradictory facts. The first of these was that he was in basic command of the situation, that after months and days of limp and ineffectual bondage when he was unable to break through to prick the cowardice at Mason’s core, he wa
s at last on top—he felt Mason’s fear of his vengeance now even before grappling with him—and he knew that by that terror alone he could imprison Mason within the room. The door was three inches thick, the walls many times thicker, the long corridor iso- lated; let Mason squeal for help at the top of his lungs and nowhere on the sleeping floor would he be heard. Yet time was running out; the whole accursed palace would soon be astir, and he had no key. The other fact, then, which he calmly and coolly considered, was that though he might be able to trap Mason he could not get at him—he could not, furthermore, risk going downstairs to retrieve the key—and it was up to him at this moment to find some satisfactory solution to the problem. After a few seconds he spoke in a flat, literal voice through the door: “Mason, you’re going to die.” He paused, then spoke again: “You might as well open up now, Mason, because I’m going to kill you.” And at this point, as if his words substantiated what he did not need to know, he was aware that he was going to kill him. Even as he spoke he was quietly removing his shoes (there was a crack beneath the door; if you were some intended victim, separated from your pursuer by this door, and, after calling out “Who’s there?” and hearing only silence, you wished to ascertain if the marauder had gone away, allowing you to flee by the door, would you not bend down and peer through the crack, in order to tell whether you could see his feet? That was Cass’ chill immaculate reasoning.) and silently placed them toes foremost against the thin space of light between door and step. He listened. There was only silence in the room. Wheeling without sound, sprinting in his stocking feet up the corridor, he raced through the deserted, party-littered salone and out onto the balcony and down the courtyard stairs, conscious of a slight skidding, sideslipping motion in his forward and downward flight but aware too of almost effortless speed as he hit the courtyard on the balls of his feet and bounded in two or three long strides into his living room, where he snatched up the key from the table, lost momentum, reversed motion, wheeled again and traveled noiselessly back across the courtyard and up the marble stairs in swift, choppy, silent steps regaining the corridor and the door—pausing there only to put on his shoes again, which he managed to do with one hand while with the other he turned open the bolt with a soft chunking sound. The whole thing could not have taken more than a minute. He threw back the door, his eyes blinking in the sudden eastward flush of rosy light. No one was in the room. No Mason, no Rosemarie. Nobody. The immense Hollywood bed—sheets an obscene tangle still from Mason’s plunder of the night just past—was empty.

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