Set this house on fire, p.62
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       Set This House on Fire, p.62

           William Styron

  Throughout all the interchange between Di Bartolo and the sergeant, Luigi had felt his heart begin to pound madly, and his mouth had gone so dry that the disgusting wad of chewing gum had rattled around inside it like a marble. He had wanted in some way, in any way possible, to divert suspicion from Cass, but until the sergeant had spoken Cass9 name he had had no intention of actually lying on his behalf. With Cass’ name still unmentioned, a lie would have been purposeless; besides, despite his inner conviction that Cass had slain the American, he could in no way be one hundred percent certain, past all risk, that Cass was connected with the crime. Parrinello’s startling gambit, however, changed all this. While the sergeant again spoke Cass’ name, Luigi coughed and, as subtly as he was able, intruded upon the conversation. He felt his scalp tighten in fear. Implicating Saverio would still lead to the problem of Flagg, and then to Cass; only an extravaganza would do. He knew that what he was about to say might be—was indeed very probably—the most important thing he ever said to anyone; if it failed, lacking plausibility in the ears of this illustrious detective, or if he betrayed by his manner the quality of fabrication which formed the very texture of this story he had so recklessly invented, he knew that he would not only not save Cass but send him that much more rapidly to prison, besides bringing total ruination, disgrace, and years of jail to himself. He thought of the jails he had seen—the filth and the slop buckets, the bugs in the beds and the weevils in the pasta, the sour wine or no wine at all, the gray and crushing years—and his mouth became so dry that he could barely speak. But he forced his lips open and, gagging back a sort of croak, said in a level and intelligent voice: “If it may please the captain, I do not think that it is necessary to go on with this list.”

  “What do you mean, Corporal?” said Di Bartolo.

  “I mean, sir, that the girl herself has told me what happened.”

  “And why did you not speak up before?” the investigator said impatiently.

  Luigi’s eyes roved meaningfully to the sergeant. “I tried, Captain, but—”

  “Well, go on with it! What did she say?”

  “She said this, Captain.” He thought a prayer of forgiveness for himself, for the shame he must bring to Francesca. “She implied that for several weeks she had been having an affair with her employer, Flagg. She had wished to break it off, for the disgrace it was causing to her soul. Flagg was insanely jealous of her and refused. They had been having many liaisons up on the valley path, away from Flagg’s other mistress. He took her up there last night, and she refused to submit to him. Once again she spoke of her determination to break off the affair. He tried to force her to submit, but she refused. He went insane with fury and hit her with something hard. He beat her repeatedly, her arms and head and legs. She of course lost consciousness but she came briefly to once, and he was standing over her, weeping with guilt and remorse. He must have understood then that she was dying. She told me that she remembered hearing him cry out—in English,’ of which she understands a little—‘Oh, I will kill myself! I will kill myself!’ And before she lost consciousness again she saw him run up the path toward the Villa Cardassi… .

  “This is what she told me, Captain, in God’s truth. It seems very plainly to be murder and suicide. I would respectfully venture to offer the captain my opinion that a fall from such a height might alone cause the head injuries—”

  Parrinello’s big mouth began to work. “A fiction!” he said. “A fantasy! It could not be! The girl’s in shock!”

  “Quiet, Parrinello!” the detective commanded. He turned back to Luigi. “Tell me, Corporal. Tell me. Did the girl appear to be lucid when she told you all this.”

  “She was of course quite weak, sir. But she was lucid. She was telling the truth. On that I would stake my life.”

  “A preposterous tale!” Parrinello said. “She was only covering up for her other lover. Women do that all the time. And the disgrace it was causing to her soul!” he mocked. “An American millionaire was getting into her little peasant crack, and it was the best thing she ever had in her life. The idea of—”

  If Di Bartolo had had at that moment any inclination toward doubts about Luigi’s story, certainly the fact that they were dissipated may be hung upon Sergeant Parrinello and the vileness of spirit which emanated from him at the moment like some wet ignoble mist. He would have scandalized a pimp. Di Bartolo wheeled on him savagely, and for an instant Luigi had the impression of some lean wild beast—a wolf, a mink, a weasel—all teeth and claws, unimaginably fierce. “Silence!” he said to the sergeant, in a voice like a whisper. “Silence! Not another word from you! Understand? Not another word! When I want your opinion I will ask for it. In the meantime, Parrinello, remember this. While you have done everything possible to be derelict in your duty, this corporal has been doing his job. Now keep your mouth shut!”

  Then they were gone, and Luigi sat down next to a camellia bush, head in his hands, trembling, weak as water… .

  Francesca died at ten o’clock that night. Luigi had other duties to perform during the day, but he kept coming back to her side as often as he could. He wished to be absolutely sure. Several times she roused from her deep sleep, and each time she was more troubled and distant than the last, but he came to understand, finally, exactly what had happened.

  For she had indeed encountered Saverio on the path sometime during the early morning, in the brightest part of the valley when the clouds had passed from the moon. She knew him well, and was not in the least afraid of him, but what Mason had done to her just that same evening clung to her flesh like some loathsome disease which she was fated to endure forever. So it was that when she met Saverio in the shadows and he put out his fingers harmlessly—perhaps no more than as a simple greeting—to stroke her, the intense male hand on her arm brought back, like horror made touchable, the touch and the feel and the actuality, and she found herself shrieking. She shrieked, and she scratched madly out at the flat lopsided face which now itself was stricken with panic. He began wailing like an old man bereft. Then he drew back and hit her, and she fell, yet still she heard herself shrieking, unaware now that this was Saverio, or anyone, aware of nothing save that the whole earth’s stiff, protuberant and insatiate masculinity had descended upon her in the space of one summer night. Still she screamed, and the frenzied half-wit clouted her again, this time with a rock, or with the weight of all the firmament, and she must have kept screaming then as she lay broken among the weeds, and long after Saverio had gone away, for even in her delirium she screamed, and she gave one last scream which was in truth only the faintest of sighs, when the two farmers happened upon her in the dawn.

  Crickets danced about her head among the weeds. She lay next to a bed of wild roses. And that is how Francesca met the light of a new day.

  There was the day following the morning that he killed Mason, and then the night after that. Of this time Cass can recall almost nothing. He is certain that (for the last time in his life) he got drunk, and he has the vague recollection of a seedy little cantina on the outskirts of town, where he bought two bottles of wine. Now he is certain too that he convinced himself, despite all intuition that told him otherwise, that Mason had killed Francesca ( “Remember this,” he told me, “remember how often you read in the newspaper some such line as slayer shows no remorse, or perhaps feels no regret for his crime, and you can be sure that this is true. Because something has happened inside, the same thing that must have happened to me that day. He isn’t necessarily cold-blooded or callous. Instead the chances are that he has been rocked to his very foundations. And he begins to believe in the lie he must tell himself in order to preserve his sanity or maybe even his life. He convinces himself that he is in the right, and that whoever it was that he did in had it coming to him like no one since Judas Iscariot.”), because that night, after a day spent somewhere in the hills where he stalked alone in drunken rage and sorrow, he had a witness. Would I ever forget that moment when he staggered into the palace, ravaged
by ten years of age, seized me by the arm as if I were the Wedding Guest, and with holy vengeance in his eye spoke of Mason standing there grinning in the midst of eternity, fatally beyond reach of more and deserved punishment? Madness was skulking after him at that moment, of this he is sure, and now he knows something else. He knows that when he went forth from the palace, past a swooning Poppy (he does not recall even seeing her, though he does remember his tirade to me), he was headed for the pharmacist’s house, for it must have occurred to him that Francesca might still be living after all, and that he might see her before she died. But he was half an hour too late. Luigi told him this, standing alone in the shadows of the house. She had already been taken away. Was it then that, turning his eyes from Luigi’s dark face, he looked past the house and saw fires burning mysteriously and strangely far down on the surface of the sea? He can no longer be sure. He knows that Luigi, comforting him, was trying to tell him something else, drew him aside secretly into the garden, in his soft melancholy voice fumbled for words to tell him that truth which he had allowed himself to know only at the instant of Mason’s death: his victim was not the killer. Then who was it, Luigi? he must have asked. And when Luigi spoke of the idiot, conjuring the image of the harmless flat-faced lout he had seen almost every day—that must have been the instant when, again, gazing down through the sultry night, he saw the fires quicken and blaze up there in the very bosom of the sea, and saw smoke rise toward the stars, as if from some dark titanic pyre, and knew that he was utterly deranged.

  He heard Luigi shout, but it was too late; already he had begun to plunge downhill through the streets of town, running not from punishment but as if from the last shred and vestige of the self with which he had been born, and running until the sensation was not that of running at all but of falling feet first through miles of hot black air.

  And when he awoke the next morning, sober now, the sea was still boiling. He saw this from the entrance of the cave into which he had stumbled—a large grotto smelling of goats, somewhere not far from the shore. Outside a stream trickled, forming on the ledge of the cave a stagnant pool. In the morning light he stood halferect from the damp ground upon which he had fitfully slept, and blinked, and saw the sea as if through the filmiest of gauze. A flock of shrieking sea birds, wings windmilling madly as they fled landward from the gulf, announced the first explosions. Headlong up the valley they flew, their frantic shadows streaking across the land; behind them, as if in pursuit, rose a muffled booming. A hot blast of wind passed through the sun-parched vegetation on the slopes. And now upon the surface of the gulf—far out yet, it seemed, all too threatfully close—there was a roiling and a churning; foam flecked the waters and a stormy turbulence seemed to jar the sea from its very depths, as if shivered from some fathomless volcano. More birds squawked overhead, and across the cloudless morning a shadow interposed itself between earth and sun. For a long while all sound died. Then the sea rose up in torment and spasm; a titanic geyser exploded forth from the uttermost bowels of the gulf, and another, and still another, filling the whole sky from Salerno to Capri with a mountainous dark cloudscape. This melted soon and sank away. But again, closer now, more geysers erupted from the depths, without sound, lathery gray-green masses of sea and lava which rose up still higher, mounting unbelievably toward a benign blue sky. Then back into the womb of the gulf the storm sank fitfully and slowly, without a murmur.

  Now athwart the place where the waters disappeared, Cass discerned, a sailboat rode placidly upon the blue, untouched, unharmed, striped white and blue spinnaker belling in a stiff wind… .

  The people in the villa down below seemed unaware of this commotion on the sea or, if they did perceive it, paid it no heed. They came out on the lawn to play badminton. The grass, carefully trimmed, began at the veranda of the villa, a concrete blockhouse around which each vagrant breeze set a six-fold Old Glory fluttering at its peak, and started at every window a brisk plashing of Venetian blinds. The lawn extended to a place fifty yards beneath him, where began the ragged growth of weeds and buckthorn and thistle, and the edge of the valley wilderness upon which he lay, a silent hidden watcher. On the asphalt driveway, partly concealed by the villa, was a glistening black Cadillac limousine. Below this driveway, emblazoned in paint against the restraining wall of the coast road, was the sign:






  As the people played badminton that first morning, he heard them talk about the murder. Sometimes, to be sure, he could not hear them, or if he heard them at all it was in fragments of words that became harder to understand because of their ceaseless muffled laughter. But when the wind had become stilled or, more often, when the breeze shifted and blew past them toward him from the sea, their words rang out as clearly as chimes from a bell buoy borne across still water. “He was nuts over the kid,” he heard the boy named Kenny say, in plainest English. “He was just nuts over the kid and when she said she was going to leave he gave her a good licking. Only he killed her by accident. And that’s why he jumped off the cliff.” But, “No,” he heard one of the older ones say. This was a bald, hawk-nosed man in tennis shorts, who looked like a gangster. His legs were very hairy. The girl named Linda called him Daddy; to the others he was known as Bruno. “No, Kenny, if you look at it realistically. She was cheating on him. That’s why he took it out on her. Only you might say he went a bit too far.” There was laughter then and a gust of wind blew their words away and all Cass could hear was a high humorous shriek of dismay as the feathered cork bounded high over the net and the girl named Linda brought her lovely sunburned arm back against her bouncing breasts, too late, and swung her racket into the morning’s empty air.

  That is funny, Cass thought. It is very funny indeed. For if I have killed a man, why and how is it understood that he killed himself. Very curious … Beyond the villa now, pacified, the sea lay as still as glass. He dozed off. When he awoke again it was high noon, and the people had vanished from the lawn. The limousine had disappeared, too. A large collie prowled the shadowy veranda, muttering to itself. Cass saw one of the serv- ants come out from the kitchen and pretend to offer the dog something to eat, then rap it sharply across the nose. He heard the two servants talking softly to one another in the noon stillness. They had stolen a wrist watch from one of the family, and were worried. The man’s name was Guido, hers was Assunta. After a moment they went back into the kitchen and the collie, still nursing its insult, slouched away into the lee of the villa and out of sight. Cass touched his brow, drew his hand back from the wet skin, aware that he was boiling with fever. Crabwise on his side, he inched toward the stagnant pool and drank from his cupped hand. He shivered as the fever raged within. A horned toad skittered down the sandy bank, paused, gazing at him with beady malevolent eyes.

  He slept. When he awoke, he knew that the sun had passed its zenith. The light of full afternoon blazed down, yet the shadow of the rocky outcropping against which he reclined enveloped him, and into the shadows the mosquitoes were swarming, chewing his face and arms. He moved slowly out closer to the stream where there were no mosquitoes. Recumbent, he propped his head against his hand, gazing again at the sea. And sluggishly now, the gulf once more began its upheaval. He watched intently, without blinking, watched the geysers heave up in soundless convulsion, yet now farther out, poised against the horizon, lacking quite the same imminent threat as before. Bells had begun clanging far off up the mountain, in the town, raising an antiphony of peril and alarm. People seemed to be shouting somewhere, in terror. Was it for this? For this weird, silent, volcanic upheaval, presaging the world’s end? Or was what he heard only the echo of something which had assailed his ears before? Watching the sea in its mute cataclysm, he dozed off again, shot stiffly erect even as his head plunged earthward from his hand. Cassio. His eyes roved upward along the cliffside, searching for the owner of that miraculous, fami
liar voice. But there. There only feet away beside the pool, perched on a rock above it with an air of timid curiosity, Francesca knelt, gazing not at him but into the shadowy waters. And why was she looking into the pool in such a fashion? Why should she call to him, and then only dream away, peering down with such a diffident, hesitant, even mournful expression, as if searching in the water for some drowned shadow of her former self? He half-rose, in an agony of longing calling out to her with lips and tongue which, strive as they might, could utter not even the whisper of a sound; now, even as he tried to speak to her, she sprouted gossamer wings, faded utterly from sight, no more substantial than that fatuous “September Morn” which had been summoned up, God knew why, out of that drumming household of his childhood, and for which he had mistaken her.

  Consumed by fever, he fell back once more and slept. Sorrow prowled through his dreams like an enormous beast, allowing him no rest or ease. When he awoke again it was midafternoon; the sea, now calm again, was dotted with boats, birds, sails. How dared they venture forth on such treacherous waters?

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