Set this house on fire, p.60
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       Set This House on Fire, p.60

           William Styron

  He turned to search the closet when, at this instant, something told him where Mason was. And he jerked round then and stood there, waiting. A shout rose up from the distant street, a motorscooter sputtered in an alleyway. Then for a long moment all was quiet. Did Mason really believe he would overlook his farcical hiding place? Ensconced within the classic refuge of miscreants, Mason had given himself away: the barest patch of a pair of green Bermuda shorts had moved—no more than a centimeter—but it was enough, and Cass slowly crouched low until he was eye to eye with his prey, who was cowering belly-down underneath the bed. For long seconds, like a hound dog in quizzical encounter with a trapped coon, he gazed at Mason, his own nose inches from the floor. No words passed between them; they breathed heavily, simultaneously, and when he blinked, Mason blinked, out of a face leached of blood and misshapen with terror. Then Cass spoke. “Mason,” he said again, in a voice soft and even, somewhat tutorial, almost disciplinary. “Mason, you’re going to die.” Cass heard a shudder, a prolonged expiring breath like wind through a pine tree, and very slowly now he put forth his hand to grasp Mason’s wrist, drawing back partly when Mason essayed his first move, whimpered slightly, and shimmied sideways out of reach. “Look here, Mason,” he heard himself saying, in those strange level laconic tones, “you might as well just come on out of there. I can’t move this here bed. I’m going to kill you, see? Now that’s the bleeding fact of the matter. So come on out of there, hear?” There was another whimper, though now, mingled with some different sound—a sob, or a savage gulp for air—and at this point, too late, Cass realized he had made a crucial miscalculation. For in his coon-dog stance—rump upended, nose to the ground, one paw still outstretched in its vain foray beneath the mattress—he was considerably off-balance; dominating the situation from no substantial eminence, attacking weakly from the flank instead of from the center (the foot of the bed, where he could have swiftly extracted him by the heels), he was at a clumsy disadvantage, and it was while he was pondering a new angle that Mason seized the bit and from the other side suddenly rose like a rocket in the narrow space between the bed and the wall. “Buh-WAH!” he cried as Cass heaved to his feet. “WAH!” The sound echoed out of all childhood, a fearful, exacerbated, stricken wail—the cry of a four-year-old, terrified by dragons, thunder, or the dark. And before Cass, lunging across the huge playground of a bed, could get to him, he had bolted through the open door and out into the hallway, speeded by that same terror which had drained all color from his flesh, and which had made all his outcries congeal like faint bird calls in his throat as he scuttled along the corridor past the oblivious sleepers. He ran downstairs and out the back door, away from all help.

  Outside in the garden, lumbering far behind Mason, Cass came to a halt and regained his breath. There was not a soul in sight. The town, save for those first few heralds of disaster he had seen on the street, was still sleeping. The garden was empty; beyond it, the valley stretched sleeping and misted in the dawn, devoid of life or motion. Yet as he looked at the wide trampled-down swath cut through the iris and poppies he could tell the direction of Mason’s flight as easily as if he had seen it charted, and plunged wetly through the flower banks heedless of the crowd of fat honeybees which stormed up angrily in his path. He reached the end of the garden; here a high, white, wooden picket fence barred his way, and as he mounted it with a single leap, two things occurred almost at once: he saw a bottle-green scrap of cloth where his quarry, moments before, had impaled himself and, dreamily trying to gain altitude in flight so that he might avoid the same mishap, found himself impaled, skewered through the pants upon the identical paling. He struggled for a moment, wriggling loose, saw Mason far up the valley path even as with a ripping noise at the seat of his pants he freed himself and dropped to the stony ground below, hard, sending a shock of pain from his toes to his knees. He was puffing and heaving; not nearly Mason’s equal in general vigor, he was dimly conscious that that fact alone might prevent him from doing what he had set out to do, yet even as this occurred to him he felt his legs and thighs moving powerfully beneath him in a resistless gallop, impelled as if by the urgency of some tightly wound clockwork beyond his control. As he ran he sensed the dawn lifting, a new lightness, shadows fading from their cups and hollows on the slopes. Lizards darted near him along the walls, skittering dryly among the dewy vines and lichen. The last dwellings of the town passed above and behind him; along this unpopulated cliffside, in the dust of the path, Mason’s footprints were fresh and clear, and now several hundred yards ahead he saw once again the bottle-green flash as Mason, emerging from behind a stretch of wall, slid to a stop at a fork in the path and stood there for an instant, wildly hesitant, elbows working from side to side in indecision. A palace-dweller, he was ignorant of these outskirts; his ignorance was costing him seconds, and it was the right-hand path he must take, Cass knew, the right-hand path, the one which went lazily down then up—up the cliff toward the Villa Cardassi—not the left one sloping formidably but briefly up then down again to the safety of the town. He would take the right-hand path, because it looked easier. Sweating, sighing, heart thundering, Cass stumbled and sprawled out against the wall, canceling out his second’s gain. As he found his balance and recaptured momentum he saw the green of Mason’s shorts receding off to the right, into the deceptive, the proper path.

  And now it was getting lighter, the peach and rose glow fading from the sky, and as he himself reached the fork and plunged to the right onto the path with its general disuse and its weedy outcropping of mustard and sow thistle and stunted daisies and crumbled litter underfoot of fallen rock and goat droppings and dust, he knew that Mason was sealed up, bottled, fleeing into a cul-desac not only unpeopled but decisively confined and bounded—a long slope with a fixed terminal at the summit’s edge where the one choice short of suicide must be to turn and give battle. And as Cass galloped on, the slope getting steeper now, he heard the breath again coming from his lungs in long, amazingly delicate sighs, like the sighs of a man in the embrace of love, and it occurred to him with brief surprise how soft and glowing and gentle was the morning, how serene were these heights and the blue and shining sea below, and how deeply curious was his own fury—so free of passion, of delirium—which could yet push him on toward slaughter with the urgency and certitude of something already destined, preordained, inscribed in time. Yet even as this flashed through his mind, he thought of Francesca, and a swift, infernal vision of her mutilated beauty rose up before his eyes; blood and horror streamed against the sky, gushed heavenward, vanished in a sucking vortex, and for the briefest particle of an instant all went black as his pace slackened, and he let out a single brutish and inhuman roar, his soul transfigured, one and the same with that of his remotest ancestor. Light broke again, instantly; he saw Mason, nearer now—near the summit—pounding up the cliffside. For a second the figure paused, winded, hands on his knees as he bent low, gulping for breath, then stood erect and in a precipitate burst of speed, hair bouncing crazily like a wig askew, ran forward a dozen yards, hurled himself off the path and began to scramble up the slanting face of the cliff. Cass reached the place where Mason had begun his ascent half a minute after the ascent began; hand on his hips, regaining wind, he stood looking up at the pink patch of buttock protruding from the shorts, tanned legs flailing at the rocky slope. It was a distinct advantage thus to pause and watch him; it allowed his own lungs to rest while Mason scrambled up a nonexistent short cut: no matter how he reached the summit, he was imprisoned there, with a drop on the other side of a quarter of a mile, straight down. He may as well have taken the path.

  As Cass turned then and galloped on up the path, he removed his glasses in mid-stride, thought better of it, replaced them, cast a glance over his shoulder and saw that Mason, sending down an avalanche of rubble and dust, had nearly gained the promontory. And as he increased his pace once more the breath began to tear itself from his lungs in racking gasps; he stumbled again, righted himself, plunged on u
p past the abandoned villa with its sagging façade and blasted columns, the marble portico inscription in the morning shade sweeping backward across his vision like the hallucinated glimpse of some impenetrable alphabet—spero, spiro dum—vanishing, the smell of damp and fern and rotted stone enveloping him as now. near the summit, short-cutting too, he vaulted a low wall, hurtled forward without breaking stride across darkened spongy ground where an arena of tiny whitefaced mushrooms scattered and exploded like people beneath his feet. He gained the peak. Sunshine like a scream; below, the blue sea suddenly came up to meet his eyes, half-blinding him as he leaped up from the ground to the encircling wall and stood balanced there, looking for his victim. Trapped, hemmed in, Mason was fifty yards opposite in the bramble-choked field, head down as he sat propped against a withered, wind-bent olive tree, shuddering for breath. Unable to see his face, Cass could see his neck, which was the scarlet hue of blood itself, and he jumped down from the wall, prepared to hurl himself forward again and upon his prey when at this instant something in his lungs gave a harsh involuntary whooping noise, and fingers of pain encircling his heart caused him to sink to earth like a stricken deer, gasping, helpless, puking, and nearly blind.

  For a long while he crouched in the weeds on his knees. His retching stopped. Sight came slowly back. Far off on the still sea a dark cruise ship plowed through the dawn, past a smaller, lighter craft moving south toward Sicily. From the black-hulled ship a plume of smoke went up in salute against the blue; Cass watched, blinked his eyes, heard the roar of the whistle, deep-throated, drowsy, sonorous, floating up faint but clear through light like a pearl. Presently he saw Mason lie down in the weeds, one leg up, one arm thrown over his eyes; Cass lay down too, on his side, drinking the air. The dark ship surged westward, high-prowed, majestic, silent, its slumbering voyagers oblivious of all, its running lights still aglow, but now, even as he watched, winking out one by one. At last he saw Mason draw himself half-erect. With guarded movements he too raised himself partly up, and now Mason seemed to be trying to say something to him, calling out across the field—but what was he saying, what were the words he was forming with his lips? I didn’t? I don’t? I’d die? He seemed to be weeping. Again Mason tried to speak. It wasn’t? It was? Why didn’t he come out with it? Why did he mouth those words, as if imploring him to understand? Foolish Mason flopped back in the weeds once more, Cass flopped back, too, for one brief and final rest, and though he has no recollection of how long they lay there—perhaps five minutes, perhaps less, perhaps more—he does recall that a thirst such as he had never known before swelled in his throat, and that as he lay in his doze, half-conscious, with the noise of cool, delectable waters rushing through his brain, he was carried swift as memory back to the very light of his own beginning, and there in some slumberous southern noon heard his first baby-squall in the cradle, and knew it to be the sound of history itself, all error, dream, and madness.

  But he rose, with a stone in his hand, and Mason rose with a knobby club, pale, to confront him, and at that instant, as if from nowhere, one single pigeon shot toward them, then veered aslant in fright with the faintest snapping of its wings. But even as Cass saw the pigeon skim away seaward he had charged, roaring, and he fell upon Mason, who fought savagely, furiously, for the few seconds allotted him. Cass would remember that moment’s bravery—the club and the ruthless solid blows it landed on his ribs: it gave to that brief meeting a thrill of unexpected triumph and honor. But as Mason’s arms boldly struck out, Cass brought the stone across between them in one roundhouse sweep of his shoulder, and Mason dropped like a bag of sand, murmuring, “Dollbaby.” “Dollbaby,” he whispered again, in a child’s voice, but it was the last word he said, for Cass was atop the prostrate form and he drove the stone again, and again, and still once more into the skull which made a curious popping noise and split open on one side like a coconut, extruding a grayish-white membrane slimy with blood.

  Perhaps it was then that he drew back, understanding where he was, and what he had done. He does not recall. Perhaps it was only the “Dollbaby,” echoing belatedly in his mind, that caused him to halt and look down and see that the pale dead face, which was so soft and boyish, and in death as in life so tormented, might be the face of almost anything, but was not the face of a killer.

  Children! he thought, standing erect over the twitching body. Children! My Christ! All of us!

  Then in his last grief and rage he wrestled Mason’s body to the parapet, and wearily heaved it up in his arms and kept it for a moment close to his breast. And then he hurled it into the void.

  Except for the doctor and the priest (Luigi later told Cass this), Luigi himself was the first person that morning to hurry to Fran-cesca’s side. Sergeant Parrinello, who went off pompously to the valley path, “the scene of the crime,” sent him there… . She lay on a bed in the house of Ivella the pharmacist, just outside the town walls; the farmers who found her on the valley path had dared not take her any further. She had lost an enormous amount of blood—so much blood, in fact, that the doctor ventured no hope that even the transfusion he might give her would suffice for more than half a day of life. She was unconscious, her breathing slow and shallow. Yes, she might be questioned, Caltroni said, if and when she became aroused; no disturbance or exertion seemed likely to alter the course of her mortal injuries. The doctor and the priest departed (the rite of Estrema Unzione had already been administered); they set off in search of more blood, and said they would return. In crisis, Caltroni was performing nobly. The corporal sat by Francesca’s side. An hour passed. A terrific clamor arose outside, and Luigi bade the pharmacist to go out on the street and shut the people up. For a long while there was silence, and Luigi sat there as light flooded the clean white room, watching the dying girl. Once she moaned and her eyelids flickered, and a flush came to rouge the pallor of her cheeks. Then again she went pale, and sank back into her coma, barely breathing. A half-hour passed, and another hour. But, still later, at about nine o’clock, her eyes opened and she breathed a great sigh as she looked around her; then, trying to move one of her shattered arms, she cried out in pain, and the tears started from her eyes. Luigi bent forward and placed another cool damp rag against her brow, as the doctor had instructed. He moved his lips close to her ear then, and very softly said: “Chi e stato?” For a long while she was unable to reply. She bit her lip in pain, and for a moment he thought she was going to sink back into oblivion. “Who, Francesca?” he repeated softly. And the girl whispered, “Cass.”

  He drew slowly back in his chair, with a sudden mingling of emotions. He was, as he recalled later, shocked but not surprised, if such a combination of feelings can really exist. Because already he was almost certain who had done it. He had not thought of Cass. And yet when she murmured his name he realized she could be speaking the truth.

  Bending down over the dying girl, he recalled the walks which even Cass had not been able to hide. Walks hand in hand in the valley, an American and a poor peasant girl—they were not disguisable, any more than the trips in the Cadillac to Naples. Luigi spoke gently to Francesca. “Chi?” he said once more. “Tell me again. Who did this to you?” The girl tried to speak. It was not Cass, it must not be Cass, and yet again, it could be Cass. Take a borderline mental case (an American at that) and combine this with some unbearable oppression—and finally love—and anything might happen. “Who, Francesca?” Now she seemed unable to answer.

  There was a rap on the door and the pharmacist’s distraught wife appeared at the threshold, to tell him that Parrinello was outside and wished to talk to him. He got up from Francesca’s side and went into the rose-fragrant garden, where the sergeant was waiting. It was after nine o’clock. Parrinello was beside himself, slapping a glove against his fat thigh, his face shiny with sweat.

  “Has she spoken?” the sergeant asked. “Has she said anything?” His expression was solemn, but he seemed visibly to thrill with excitement.

  “She has said nothing, Sergeant.”
  “She must speak. She must speak.”

  Luigi sensed something. “What now, Sergeant?”

  “Flagg. The American from the Palazzo d’Affitto. The man the girl worked for. He has been found dead at the bottom of the cliff below the Villa Cardassi. His head a bloody mess.”

  Luigi felt the tips of his fingers go numb. “So it was—” For a moment he found it impossible to move his lips. “That is—”

  “I’ve called Salerno. It is a clear case of doppio delitto. Captain Di Bartolo is on his way with a squad. Now you must—”

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