Set this house on fire, p.61
Set This House on Fire, p.61William Styron
“Double murder? But the girl is not dead.”
“Yes, I said double murder!” He paused with a shrewd glint in his eye, a look of discovery. A full page spread in Il Mattino. And Luigi, as if in a dream, saw the fat sergeant waddling forward at some regional police parade, chest bloated and extended for the distinguished rosette. “The little wench had a lover. One of those cafe bums had been taking her into the weeds. A nice piece, too, and he didn’t want to let it go. Then this American she worked for began to fuck her, too. She got confused. She told her first boy friend, or he found out. He went really crazy. Flagg had to get her away from the palace to do it, away from his blond girl. So he took her up onto the valley path sometime last night. And he began to fuck her. But he hadn’t planned on a crazy lover. The boy friend tracked them there, and found them in the act. He took care of the girl and then went off after Flagg, and chased him up to the Villa. Then he threw him over the wall. You should see his head, it’s a bloody mess.”
For such, Luigi thought, for such I let myself become a policeman, to listen to a man who two meters from death can talk with a mouth like this. Bees hummed around them, amid the heavy sweet scent of roses. The impulse to punish, to obliterate the gross face was, for an instant, almost unbearable.
“You say she said nothing?” Parrinello said.
“Well, keep after her. If she says anything, let me know. I’ll be down at the station. One of those cafe bums. The fellow must be a big man—big and husky. If I could just get the name of the man who did it before Di Bartolo comes I’d be—” He paused, made a sullen grimace, as if understanding he’d revealed himself. “You’d better—”
But before he could deliver the order, Luigi had wheeled about, stalking away without a word as he entered the house again, crept quietly into the bedroom, and resumed his vigil at Francesca’s side. The girl, white as a bone, had sunk back into her profound repose, so still now that he thought for a moment she must be dead. But she clung if not to consciousness then at least to life, and he watched her, barely breathing himself. At around ten o’clock, the doctor returned, accompzinied by the woebegone gray-eyed priest whom Luigi had never seen before. Together they rigged a new jar of blood plasma on the metal hanger above the bed. The doctor—or maybe it was the priest—said that he was sending a nurse. The priest spoke another absolution, and again they were gone—to Amalfi this time, the doctor said—in quest of more blood. It was hot now, and Luigi took his jacket off, his bandolier and belt. Francesca seemed to sleep more peaceably, and faint color had returned to her cheeks, but still she breathed in her soft shallow breaths, and her eyes were closed as if in death, lids chalky white, and she uttered no sound. He kept looking down at the girl. He had never in his life given peasants much thought or consideration, neither despising them nor feeling for them pity, sympathy or anything, but accepting them only as one might accept the nagging presence of bad weather or an eternal headache or a pet dog so old and ugly that one no longer wished to give it food and water yet could not bear to destroy it or turn it away. His parents had been far from rich but not bitterly poor, and out of all that ordinary life from which he had grown in Salerno he had taken with him as little understanding or caring about pure, wicked, despairing poverty as he had the desire to become excessively rich. His schoolteacher father had wanted him to be a lawyer, but the war had come, shattering all; he had become instead a policeman, and life had reduced itself to a space of excruciating gray disappointment through which he drifted halfeducated, purposeless, feeling nothing, ready for any easy bribe, and paying lip-service to a political label of which he was, at heart, deeply ashamed. He tried to do his job well, but what was his job? What? He knew that in this country there was little chance of “becoming”; you were what you were, and that was that. Yet now as he looked down at Francesca he saw not the brutalized, defeated, life-corroded face which had existed like a wish in his mind since childhood but a face which was, even in dying, extraordinarily beautiful, and he felt anguish wrench at his heart. Though he had seen this girl before, he had never really looked at her. He realized with something of a shock that it was the first time he had ever looked directly into a peasant face. Felice. Happy. This is the word he had always heard about peasants. So poor. But really so happy. They have music. And love. Now, looking down at Francesca, he knew differently. No music at all, and very little love. She seemed to wake, and now to try to speak, and he bent forward, listening. She was beautiful. But only the shadow of a word passed across her lips. She sank back into sleep. He looked down at her, feeling sorrow to his depths. The knowledge of human distress, for the first time in years, washed in upon him like light. He thought of Cass and, in deep misery, wondered what demon had possessed him to attack this girl.
Because at this moment he was certain that Cass had done it. It was no cafe lounger who was the culprit; Cass was the betrayed lover, the double killer whom Parrinello sought. It was a fierce and terrible thing, but it seemed perfectly true. Why question the girl any longer? Go out and find a bespectacled American in dirty khaki with a look in his eyes of the fixity of doom. It should not be too hard, unless he had already added himself to the gruesome list… .
Yet now the nursing sister, a horse-faced nun in white from the convent, glided silently and sternly into the room, without even a nod, planted herself between him and Francesca, starched and pleated rump aslant before his face, and as she did so, and as he moved his chair, something suddenly opened in his mind, like a gust of wind and sunlight blowing open a blind. It could not be Cass. And if it was not Cass it could only be the one he had thought of at first. … He brooded for a long time while the nun fussed silently over the girl, and shortly after this he saw that Francesca had opened her eyes, wide, and was staring up into space. He asked the nun to leave the room. She refused, scowling. He asked her again, irritably, moving his chair toward the bed and feeling queasy with excitement. Again she refused. Again he asked her. And she refused. “Vada via! Via!” he snarled. “Out of here, damn you!” And she vanished, scared, in a swirl of pleats.
He bent down to the girl. “Francesca,” he said, “tell me now. Carefully. Who was it that hurt you? It was not Cass, was it?”
“No,” she said in a faint weak voice. “Not Cass.”
“Who was it then?”
Puzzlement and confusion. This, he knew, simply could not be. The American with the vacant face like a pretty little boy?
“What did Signor Flagg do to you?”
“He took me—” She began to weep, which caused her breath to heave violently, hurting her, and she cried out in pain. Then she ceased crying and her eyes fell shut and he thought that once again she was slipping back into darkness. But she stirred awake and she looked at Luigi with great staring, frightened eyes. “He took me in his room.”
“He took you in his room?”
“Yes.” She halted. “Oh, am I going to die?”
“What did he do to you?”
“I—” Weakly, she turned her head. “I cannot say.” And by not saying, said it.
“He did not take you on the path?”
She was silent, except for the steady, labored breathing.
“He did not take you on the path?” he asked again, gently.
“I don’t know,” she whispered, after a long wait. “Nothing. All. I don’t forget.” She was out of touch, speaking stunned opposites.
“Do you remember what happened on the path?”
“I don’t forget.”
“Francesca, do you remember? Tell me, do you remember someone hurting you on the path?”
“I don’t forget.”
“Francesca. Tell me this. Was it Saverio?”
The brief space of time before her reply was like a roaring noise in his ears. Then, “Yes! My God, it was Saverio!” she cried in a hoarse tormented voice. “My God, yes! My God! My God! M,” God!”
He called for the nurse, bu
“You’re going to kill her!” the nun hissed.
“Non importa. She’s going to die anyway.”
“You monstrous policemen! Have you no feeling when—”
“Shut your face, Sister.” He paused. “Forgive me.”
He went out into the garden, into the high clear light of late morning. He found himself cursing Parrinello more bitterly than ever before. For if the sergeant had acted, would all of this have happened? No. Only Luigi himself had thought it right to put Saverio away. This was Italy for you. A countryside roaming with lunatics. A madhouse with the inmates in charge. He had long ago passed on his feelings to Parrinello, asking him if he too didn’t feel it wise to bring Saverio to the attention of the authorities of the comune, who in turn might bring pressure on the defective’s nearest relative—an aging half-sister—to have him committed. But Parrinello had scoffed, dismissing the idea as quickly as he had any other sign of initiative on the part of his subordinate. He was a wretched jealous man, with no imagination. He was also fat and lazy, and he wanted no part of any scheme or maneuver outside his province, which was to enforce the law, not to complicate it. Besides, he asked Luigi, what proof had he that Saverio was anything other than the harmless simpleton that he seemed to be? Which was to some extent true, and Luigi had conceded to himself the difficulty of the situation. The evidence, the proof, was meager and vague indeed: several middle-aged Nordic ladies, debarking from the tourist buses, had upon various occasions complained of being “rubbed” or “brushed”; three or four times a washed-out and formless visage—which may or may not have been Saverio’s —had appeared night-peeping at the Bella Vista’s windows, to vanish at the sound of the invariable scream. Once, two or three summers before, a lady visitor from Strasbourg claimed that the demented clod, while carrying her luggage to the hotel, had exposed his private parts to her, in an alleyway behind the church. This, the most serious indication of all, might have developed into a substantial charge against Saverio, had the investigation not been handled by Parrinello, who had fought against the French in the late war and hated them, and who, observing that the woman seemed a parched, hysteric type anyway, was inclined to accept Saverio’s blabbered protestations that he had merely been attending to a call of nature. So that was all there was, on the surface at least. Fifteen years before—during the war and long before Luigi had come to Sambuco—a shepherd girl had been found dead, horribly mutilated, among the rocks on the mountain slope in an area even more remote from the town than Tramonti. This was a lax and confused period. The war was on and nobody really seemed to care. Word of the slaying seeped down to the town days after the girl had been buried. Disinterment and an autopsy were ordered, but for some reason neither was carried out. The mountain people, a benighted lot and more superstitious than Africans, murmured darkly of evil spirits. Others talked of wolves. Still others spoke of a deserter from the German army who had been seen lurking in the woods. And the whole incident was fairly well forgotten by everybody. Luigi, who of course learned of all this long after the event, had always been struck by the fact—which he discovered quite accidentally—that not only had Saverio, who was a huge mad boy of seventeen, been living in the same place at the time, but under the same roof. Obviously there was no proof after all these years. But often it is the most bizarre, familial sort of crime which goes for a long time (perhaps forever) unsolved, even in the midst of city sophisticates. It would perhaps have been unusual for those simple peasants to cast an eye of suspicion on the girl’s own brother… .
But tell me, Luigino, he began to ask himself, if now it is true that Saverio attacked the girl, how is it this Flagg is at the bottom of the Cardassi precipice with his head squashed in? Surely it was not stinking Saverio who was a betrayed lover. Nor was it he who avenged himself on the girl and then threw the American over the cliff. The lout might have ambushed the girl, alone, but never would he have been able to manage a twosome. Then could Flagg have committed suicide? Was that it? Possibly. But if so, why? Remorse? Guilt? He had ravished the girl that night, Francesca herself said that. There was no mistaking the force and brutality of his attack; had not Francesca instantly murmured the American’s name, rather than Saverio’s? A sign in itself of the savage way he must have gone about it. Was it not thinkable that a man might be so bedeviled by such a deed that he would become impelled to end his life? Yes, it was thinkable. But it was not likely, given the shady nature of this particular American. Quite certainly not a suicidal type, in any case not a man to allow a simple ravishment to torment him. Had he done what Saverio had done—most possibly yes. A man who might in frenzy or passion smash a girl’s bones, then rise to see that she was dying—this man might out of guilt or fear hurl himself from a cliff. But it was Saverio who had broken the girl’s body, not the American.
The American. But of course: there was the other American. And now suddenly it became clear to him that the two crimes, though possibly linked together in a fashion beyond his power at the moment to divine, were independent of each other, and that it could only be Cass who had killed Flagg. Cass was the lover Parrinello had suggested, after all. For Cass had been Francesca’s lover, plain as the nose on your face. Flagg had ravished her, and Cass had taken his vengeance. And of all the participants—Flagg, who was dead; Francesca, who was dying; Saverio, a blank mindless space beyond reach of pain or punishment; and Cass himself—only Cass remained to endure or suffer more.
It was at that moment, when a clanging at the garden gate aroused him and he turned to see Parrinello trundle forward in company with the august Captain Di Bartolo, that he recalled the tenderness in Francesca’s voice as she first murmured “Cass,” and that he decided that there had been in Sambuco this day entirely too much suffering. He sucked wind into his lungs, senselessly, trying to rid himself of a feeling of insanity.
Then he saluted. The expression on the investigator’s face was businesslike, grim.
“The girl still lives, Corporal?”
“She is still living, Captain. At this moment she is—asleep. The nurse—”
“Has she spoken?” Di Bartolo said, cutting him off. There was something moderately thrilling and auspicious about this at- tenuated, priestlike man, with his raked-down fedora and belted trench coat. He had doubtless seen many films about Scotland Yard, which accounted for much of his manner; his record, though, had been spectacular, and more than made up for his professional style, which inclined toward an elaborate and stagy casualness. He withdrew a small yellow pack from his pocket, holding it out to his two inferiors.
“Wrigley?” he said.
The sergeant accepted a stick of gum, as did Luigi, and for a moment the three of them stood there in the garden, gratefully yet rather uneasily masticating.
“Well you see, Captain,” Luigi temporized, “she started to tell me that—” In desperation, so as to gain command over his galloping thoughts, he tried to stall for time.
But providentially the captain interrupted, slanting an eye skyward as he said with a thin smile: “È proprio strano. But you may always expect it. Lombroso had the theory that the most violent of crimes will occur at early morning, in fine weather—spring or early summer. What a day!” He turned to Parrinello. “What did you find at the place where the girl was attacked?”
The sergeant stirred uneasily within his elephantine self, and shrugged, and looked at the investigator. “I beg your pardon, my Captain. But I do not seem to understand what you mean by—”
The investigator’s expression became impatient and stern. “Tell me, Parrinello,” he said in a voice already icy with censure. “You mean you did not go carefully over the ground where the girl was attacked?”
“No, my Captain,” the sergeant b
“And you posted no guard over the place?”
“Why no, Captain, you see—”
“And in other words that means that at this very moment every gawk and hayseed and souvenir hunter in the comune is now on the spot, carefully obliterating any footprint the attacker might have left, pocketing any personal item he might have dropped. Eliminating any valuable clue. Had this not occurred to you at all? Did you take the General Course for security officers, Parrinello?”
“Why yes, my Captain, I mean—” The sergeant’s face was as red as a rose; his jaw trembled and, like some gargantuan infant, he seemed to verge already on tears. “It had occurred to me—”
“It had occurred to you nothing,” Di Bartolo snapped. “Overlook a fundamental like that and I can only say that you are demonstrating incompetence.”
“Oh, my Captain!” the sergeant began to protest.
“Quiet!” Di Bartolo commanded. “Look. Time is passing. Where is that list you made?”
“What list, my Captain?” the sergeant groaned.
“The list of suspects, names and addresses. The list I told you to make.”
Fumbling in his breast pockets, Parrinello brought forth only his fingers. He seemed close to disintegration. “I left it in the office,” he muttered hopelessly.
“Very well,” the captain said, removing pencil and notebook from his coat. The inflection in his voice was cool, noncommittal, yet at the same time, for Parrinello, somehow freighted with disaster. “Very well,” he repeated, “give me the names.”
“The addresses I don’t have, Captain,” he said with misery in his voice.
“Give me the names!”
Feverishly, the sergeant tried to regain his lost ground. “Well first, my Captain, there is Emilio Giovanelli. He comes from Atrani. A tough character with a record. A big loud-mouth. He has had a lot of woman trouble. I would venture to say that he is the prime suspect. You have his name down, sir? Then these three. Salvatore Marzano. Nicola Cosenza. Vincenzo Torregrossa. All three are bums. Cosenza served time in Avellino for assault upon a woman. The other two are general no-goods. Torregrossa is a wife-beater. Marzano used to procure in Nocera. So, my Captain, I would say those four. Also, there is this fact. The girl Francesca is on what you might call good terms with the other American who lives in the lower part of the palace. She used to work for him before Flagg. I have heard that he has taken great interest in her father, who is dying of consumption in the valley; also, that he and the girl were seen together several times in what might be—how would you say it?—a friendly relationship. I do not think this lead could amount to much, my Captain, but it is perhaps worth looking into. His name is Kinsolvin. C-h-i-n-s-o-l-v-i-n—”
Set This House on Fire by William Styron / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes