Set this house on fire, p.63
Set This House on Fire, p.63William Styron
The limousine nosed its way slowly up the drive, came to a halt in its asphalt berth at the side of the house. “Uncle Frank,” he heard the girl say, “did you eat up all the panettone?” Beyond, the gulf was still and serene. The people got out of the car with empty picnic baskets and went into the house. Presently the boy named Kenny came out onto the veranda, stretching himself. He felt the muscles of his arms and yawned. Over his breast, inscribed in blue on a white T-shirt, were the words iona college. In a moment the man they called Bruno emerged from the house, carrying a bag of golf clubs, and soon he began chipping white balls across the lawn in Cass’ direction. Some of the balls went too far, burying themselves among the weeds below the ledge upon which Cass was lying; when he came to retrieve the balls he was puffing, short of breath, and Cass could see the hair in long bristles on his legs and the sweat in blue half-moons plastering his blue shirt against his armpits.
The sun had long since passed its summit, but the day had grown hotter. Cass gazed up at the sun, focusing his eyes at a point near the periphery of its blaze. It was definitely, unnaturally hotter and larger; it seemed nearly twice the size it should be, a burgeoning super-nova. He turned his eyes away, for the first time that day touched with the presentiments of an enormity of fear. The people at the villa seemed faintly to sense this too. They did not look up at the sun, but now Kenny returned to the veranda, followed by the woman Bruno had called Shirley, who seemed to be Bruno’s wife; she loosened her halter and Cass heard her say: “It’s like an oven.” She sat down on a chrome and canvas glider, fanning her face; she was a small woman in beach shorts, and her thighs had gone to fat. Kenny took off his T-shirt and began to chin himself on a bar separating two pillars of the veranda. He was smoothly and strongly muscled and he must have risen to the bar thirty times before dropping gracefully on his toes to the porch floor. With his fingertips on his hips then, he walked around the veranda, eying the floor. He scratched the collie behind its ears. He began walking again, paused, ran a comb through his hair. Then he looked out toward the sea and yawned. The bald fat man whom Cass had heard Linda call Uncle Frank came out on the veranda, a portable radio dangling from a thick fist. “Anybody want a pizza?” he said. But there was no answer. The woman called Shirley had gone to sleep. Now Cass heard the sound of a saxophone, borne away instantly on a gust of wind; caught by this same gust, a golf ball soared sideways, floated downwind before his vision and was lost among the weeds.
The sea was placid, held in momentary abeyance, but the sun had grown hotter still, hung in the sky fiery, huge and, like some dead weight, oppressively heavy and near. The bugger is exploding, Cass thought as he edged back into a shadowed place, it’s going to swell up and shrivel us like a bunch of gnats in a flame. He mopped his brow. It must be the reason for the sea boiling up like that. Then why hadn’t the people seemed to notice the sun? The sea. He gazed toward the man named Bruno, who had sat down, with an air of tedium, in an aluminum chair. The man surveyed the lawn strewn with golf balls and he leaned forward slightly with his lips moving, as if reproaching himself. Then he too lay back and went to sleep. Faint from inside the house came Linda’s voice: “Kenny!” And Kenny turned and said: “What?” “Do you think just Gerda Rumbaugh, Lodi, New Jersey will get there? I’m writing her about the murder!” And Kenny said: “I can’t hear you!” “Kenneth Falco, if you don’t—” But the words were blown away, and he saw the boy stroll sullenly into the house as Bruno and his wife, supine and motionless in their metal chairs, lay beneath the blazing sun, and Uncle Frank twiddled the dials of the radio. The sea was still… .
A smell of cooking meat, blown up toward the cliff upon an evening breeze, aroused him when, several hours later, he lay in his last siege of delirium. It was very late in the afternoon. The sun, sunk to the west over Capri, was like a flaming discus, enormous, threatening, crimson. And again the sea had begun to heave and tremble, casting up silently from the depths of the gulf fountains of itself, mountainous and terrible. Far out, black tornadoes crisscrossed the horizon beneath a lowering rack of black cloud; closer, white combers of oceanic surf crashed without ceasing against the shore, in their noiselessness producing an effect of strange delicacy. The only sound was from below, on the lawn, where the peo- ple had gathered in the early evening light. Cass stirred, drenched and aflame. There were steaks cooking on a half-moon-shaped outdoor barbecue. The boy and the girl were again playing badminton; he heard the faint guitar-plunk as shuttlecock met racket, saw the rise and fall of the girl’s breasts, the plump bounce of buttock and thigh. From the veranda, lost in shadows now, came a muted tropical rhythm of maracas, marimbas, castanets, while at the edge of the veranda sat the old man of the villa, the patriarch Emilio—it could be no other—swarthy and gray-haired, in a magenta beach gown, benignly smiling as he watched the family at play. Bruno approached the old man with deference, said something that Cass was unable to hear. Cass raised his eyes toward the heavens: the sun blazed intolerably near. A gust of wind pitched a scrap of newspaper high over the villa; pinwheeling madly, it skidded across the roof’s edge, bounded in and out among the denuded flagpoles and whirled away from the exploding, tormented sea. A cloud of paper napkins swept across the lawn, and someone cried out: “Oh my God! Oh!” The Venetian blinds clashed and clattered in the upper rooms. From somewhere came the tremendous slamming of a wind-blown door; the swarthy old man turned his head in the fading light, still benignly smiling, and the smell of burning meat was suddenly sweet in the air like a pestilence. Then the breeze died out, Linda retrieved the shuttlecock from the place where it had blown and all was silent, save for the soft tropical rattle and scratch of maracas, and all was still, except for the storm, nearer now, convulsing the black waters of the gulf.
It was then that Cass, sick with terror to the bottom of his soul, arose from the mouth of the cave and fled back along the cliffside path toward the town. He does not know whether he was seen by Narduzzo and his clan; possibly, for when he got up he remembers that his feet dislodged from the ledge a shower of rattling stones. He would have been, at any rate, a barbarous apparition with wild disheveled hair and blazing skin, and perhaps in West Englewood they still wonder at the sick and terrified face of this compatriot rising in the fading light above their lawn.
Nor does Cass know now whether, had he not met that priest on the way back up through the valley, and somewhere near the town, he might not have slaughtered Poppy and the children and himself, just as he had intended but failed to do in Paris long before. For that was what—to save them from this storm, this exploding sun of his own guilt—he was planning to accomplish. To remove from this earth (as once he said) all mark and sign and stain of himself, his love and his vain hopes and his pathetic creations and his guilt… .
But not far from the town the path upon which he hastened home converged with another, and it was at this junction that he fell into procession with the priest, a runty, graying, big-nosed little man in cassock and yellowing white chasuble. Upon his face there was a look of profound and mortal worry. Behind him, leaning forward in the long-limbed and awkward gait of adolescence, trailed a hulking acolyte with a pimply face and underslung jaw, who carried the vessels of the mass against his breast with an air of great gravity and concern, as if he had let them slip from his hands in the past and had suffered for his clumsiness. Because there was no choice Cass fell in beside the priest as they walked up the slope toward Sambuco.
“La pace sia con vol” said the priest. “It is hot, is it not? I should not be surprised if we had a thunderstorm.” The priest smelled unwashed and the breath escaped from his lips in small whispery gasps as he labored up the hill. Cass did not answer, for the sun seemed to hover nearer, immeasurable and blazing.
“It has been a very tragic time for Sambuco,” the priest went on, creating conversation. “You are American, are you not? I think I have seen you before. Were you not acquainted with the American suicida, the man who killed himself?”
Suddenly Cass was forced to sit down at the side of the path. He felt his limbs tremble and a shudder, icy cold, passed through him as he thrust his face into his hands, shutting out from sight the terrible impending sun.
“You look ill,” he heard the priest say. “You’re shivering. Do you suffer from malaria? These parts are often very bad—”
“Non è niente” Cass replied, getting up. “It is the heat. I have come a long way.”
“You must be careful with malaria,” said the priest. “It is rarely any longer a fatal disease, but it must be treated with care. There is the bark of a certain wild juniper bush that grows on the high slopes which certain people use—”
“Atabrino,” Cass said, wondering why he spoke. “Atabrine. Atabrine takes care of it.”
“I have never heard of that bark. Do you use it? Is it like quinine?”
“It is the heat, Father,” Cass replied, “with me it’s the heat. I have come a long way.”
Now as they resumed their way toward town the dry little priest, lighting up a cigarette, said: “Dico davvero. You may be sure that God will judge him. But what sins he must account for before the Lord! What sorrow he brought to so many people! What pain and anguish! Che devastatore era!”
“What a despoiler he was,” Cass murmured in echo. “Yes, but —” Yes, but what?
“And you must understand,” the priest added hastily, “I do not say that because he was an American. I am deeply fond of Americans. When I was a seminarian we had a friendship correspondence club with other seminarians in all parts of the world. It was my great pleasure to correspond with a young seminarian in the town of, I think it is pronounced, Milwaukee, America. And when he was a priest—his name was Father Switzer; are you from Milwaukee? Perhaps you have encountered him—he paid me a visit in Sorrento, just after the war. A fine jolly man, immensely fat, and very generous too. He gave me a canned ham. Even now we send cards to each other at Eastertime.” Behind them the altar boy stumbled, pitched forward against the wall of the path, then righted himself, mumbling apologies. “Guarda quel ragazzo! Pa-squale, what a colt you are! No, my dear sir, I am extremely fond of Americans. It does not matter what country this man was from. But the things he must account for before the seat of the Lord! His own life—to take it was a mortal, and I might say cowardly, sin. But to have taken the life of that innocent girl, that virgin! And that is not all. For wickedness begets an infinity of sorrow. The girl’s father, for example. Who knows? To be sure, he must have been desperately ill. But who knows? Without having had to suffer the extreme shock of his daughter’s death he might still be alive. I do not know. None of us here below knows enough about such matters to truly say. But I ask you, my dear sir, would it be un-Christian to judge that he was responsible for that death, too?” He paused and, when Cass made no reply, said: “Yes, I suspect that it is. Un-Christian I mean.”
They had reached a rise in the path, and from this place the town could be seen above them, timeless and golden in the evening light, riding like an old ship ravaged but serene above all in the benign twilit glow of its antiquity, and a bell from the church tower rang out even as they gained the rise, one single silver chime descending upon the lemon groves and the terraced vineyards and the walled paths zigzagging like the brown blasted trails of lightning toward the sea. Smoke from the priest’s cigarette fumed about them; the acolyte, sidling up beside Cass, made an unspeakable sound in the back of his throat, spat against the wall, and clapped the holy vessels to his breast. “What is that?” said Cass, halting. “What is that, Father? What did you say?”
“Un-Christian,” the priest replied, looking up with curiosity into Cass’ eyes. “I only said that it is doubtless un-Christian to judge a man when he is only indirectly the cause of—”
“No,” Cass said, “the man himself. The other one. Her father. You say he is dead.”
“Indeed, he died only a few hours ago. I have just come from his side.”
“Yes, that was his given name. His patronymic was Ricci, a strange irony considering his circumstances. I do not know who told him of his daughter’s death. I suspect it was his wife, who seems very stupid, like most peasant women. A shame. He might have lived. But this afternoon when I arrived his will to live was quite obviously gone. Oh, what sorrow in our town!”
Cass sat down on the edge of the wall. “And so he is dead,” he said to the priest.
“Yes, my dear sir, and saved from damnation by the closest margin. Because when I came to him he was in a frenzy, shrieking curses at me like a madman. A demon! But as I say, his will to live was over and so finally he settled down and I administered to him the last rites. He slept for a while and then I thought he was gone. But after a bit he woke up, grinding his teeth and weeping. Mistaught wretch. He kept cursing our Saviour, and he called out over and over again for his daughter. You seem to have an interest in this man. Can you tell me what it was he was suffering from? Was it some form of cancer? I have never seen anything like it before, and I have watched so many people die. Because he lay there for a while and he stopped weeping and he closed his eyes again and he became weaker and weaker, and this time I thought surely he was gone. Believe me, I have watched so many people die. But my dear sir, listen to this. Presently he awoke again and I observed that he had both hands grasped around his root. Though he was not in the virile state, of course. I thought for a moment that this was only some childish peasant gesture that he had gone back to in his extremity. But now his eyes opened and I heard him cry out: ‘Animo! Animo! Courage!’ he cried. And then, as God is my witness, from that root of his burst forth the most stupendous fountain of blood I have ever seen! And in the midst of this terrible stream of blood I heard him cry out again: ‘Animo! Courage!’ Such blood! It was everywhere! And then his hands fell limp, and then his eyes closed. And he lay back and died. Do you suppose this was some form of—”
Cass rose to his feet, fever-swept by the sun, storm-hunted, amid the flood of ancient groaning seas.
“Tutto!” he whispered. “All, then? All?” He stepped toward the priest. “Help me.”
But the priest, who was helpless, took one step away as Cass took another step forward and then collapsed unconscious in the dust.
“But I came back,” Cass said to me, “I came back home. Not that night or the next day or even the next night, but early in the morning of the day after that, before the dawn came up. I was not alone. Luigi walked me from the police station; I had been there all that time. He shook hands with me at the palace door, and then he said good-by to me. I remember how still and dark the streets were. And I stood there for a minute in the chill of the morning, watching Luigi as he walked back up the deserted street with that slow, ambling, flat-footed policeman’s gait of his and then disappear into the darkness. The madness was not quite over… .
“I went into the courtyard. There was a light burning and I could see where the movie people had wrecked the tiles, the long streaks gouged out in the floor. The place was a mess and I remember pausing, looking up at Mason’s balcony as if I half-expected some sound, some stir, perhaps good old Rosemarie to come mincing out as she used to do, primping, stroking that hair of hers and puckering up her mouth in boredom as she waited for Mason, and indeed for an instant I somehow thought I heard Mason’s voice far-off and muffled in that tired and peevish vi- brato, but it was only some other voice I heard, close by the town, calli
“I felt drained of strength and will, past thought of grief, past thought of anything except for that old vast gnawing hunger which began to grow and grow in me like a flower. And as I sat there, with the hunger growing and blossoming inside me, I knew that I had come to the end of the road and had found there nothing at all. There was nothing. There was a nullity in the universe so great as to encompass and drown the universe itself. The value of a man’s life was nothing, and his destiny nothingness. What more proof did I need than that I had traveled halfway across the earth in search of some kind of salvation, and had found it, only to have it shattered in my fingertips? What more proof did I need than that in the bargain I had slain a man wrongly, had taken a man’s life for a crime he did not commit? The hunger persisted. I looked out at the sea, almost expecting to see the terrible storm and the boiling and churning again, the fire and the tornadoes, but my brain was clear and the hallucinations were gone. I thought of being. I thought of nothingness. I put my head into my hands, and for a moment the sharp horror of being seemed so enormous as to make the horror of nothingness less than nothing by its side, and I began to tremble, and for long minutes I sat there, wondering if now at last wasn’t the moment to take Poppy and the kids in a single swift hell of blood and butchery, and be done with it all forever. It began to prey on me, this thought, obsess me, and it must have gotten me so worked up that I made a noise in my throat, because I heard Poppy stir and give a sigh, and I turned in the chair and gazed toward the bed. She was still sleeping. It would be easy. But right then I heard Luigi’s voice, adamant and outraged as it had been not more than an hour before: “Tu pecchi nell’avere tanto senso di colpa! You sin in this guilt of yours! You sin in your guilt!’ And suddenly I ceased trembling and became calm as if like some small boy on the verge of a tantrum I had been halted, the childish fit arrested by some almighty parental voice. I sat back again and gazed out at the dark gulf, and the spell of anxiety vanished, as quickly as it had come.
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