Set this house on fire, p.64
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       Set This House on Fire, p.64

           William Styron
 

  “Because that is just what Luigi had told me, you see, when I woke up in the police station. Gentle, kindly, lost Luigi—he raised the roof, he shackled me with handcuffs to the leg of a cot, and he gave me bloody hell. And as I sat there in the room with Poppy I began to know that what he said was true.

  “Because when I woke up in the police station I had one single thought left in my mind. And that was that I should be punished for what I had done as swiftly as possible. That I should be taken away and clapped in irons and made to serve out the years in retribution for this monstrous thing that I had done. Yet when I woke up I could not understand this calm of Luigi’s, this benign tolerance—as if I were a friendly guest instead of a murderer apprehended and done for. I was lying on a cot. The strength was all drained out of me, but the fever was gone and I was so hungry that I was chewing at the air. It must have been some time around midnight—there was a clock on the wall—though of what day I had no idea. There was just the two of us in this tiny little room. The place was badly lit and it had that dry musty smell about it of rat shit behind the walls and plain dirt and old crumbling plaster, a real Italian police station. And the first thing I saw was that face, not so much smiling down at me—Luigi almost never smiled—as radiating a sort of enormous and godawful solicitude which somehow always had the effect of a tender and wistful smile even when the face was as solemn as the face on a hanging judge. I asked him how long I had slept, and he told me a night and a day and part of another night. Then I asked him if Poppy and the kids were O.K., and he said yes, they were O.K., and he mentioned you and how you had watched out after them, and he told me to lie back and take it easy. So I did. Then he gave me some bread and cheese to eat and some mortadella and a bottle of that greasy orange soda they make in Naples which tastes like rancid butter. Right then, right after I’d finished gulping all this down, I asked him. I said: ‘Well, when do I go? When do you take me to Salerno?’ But he didn’t answer. He got up from the chair with his bandolier clicking and clacking and he walked over to the window. The night was still and dark, and I could hear a dog barking way off toward Scala, and it reminded me not of the midsummer that it was but of cold autumn nights at home, long ago. I asked him again and still he didn’t answer. Then I noticed something odd. I saw that on one of his sleeves the corporal’s chevron had been torn off and that in its place hung the chevron of a sergeant, dangling by a thread. And I said: ‘Why the sergeant’s stripes, Luigi?’ And he said: ‘I am a sergeant.’ Then I said: ‘Parrinello?’ And he said: ‘Finito. I am in charge of the carabinieri in Sambuco. In other words, I am in charge of myself.’ Then I said: ‘You really mean Parrinello is gone?’ And he said: ‘Transferred. Transferred I believe to Eboli.’ And he added: ‘They will remove some kilos off his gut there.’ To which I said: ‘Auguri.’ But he said: I need no congratulations. What is a couple of thousand more lire a month? Poco o nulla. But soon I’ll get a subordinate and I’ll be able to browbeat him. To dominate him. I’ll become a Parrinello. I’ll grow fat and surly, and the cycle will be complete.’

  “I asked him again when he was going to take me to Salerno and deliver me to the authorities. I can’t tell you my anguish to get this thing over and done with, now that I fully knew what I had done. There was nothing left. I felt as empty and as crushed as an old tin can at the dump and all I wanted was to be buried, covered up, entombed forever. I said: ‘Vieni, Luigi. Let us get started And it was then that he turned and came back and sat down in the most grave and meticulous way and told me what he had done—his lie and his cover-up for me, and all the rest. And he had even done more than that. Because at some time during the next day, after Francesca died, that detective, Di Bartolo, had begun to have his doubts about Francesca’s story. Not that he doubted Luigi—by then Luigi was his fair-haired boy—but it had occurred to him, as well it might, that the whole tale Luigi reported to him had been only a kind of wild fantasy in the head of a dying girl. But Luigi, mind you, had already counted on this, and late the night before what he had done to bolster his own lie was to locate and spirit away the shoes that the funeral people had taken off Mason’s body and he took these and with a flashlight he went up to the Villa Cardassi and there, by God, he erased every footprint he could find near the parapet, mine and Mason’s, and then carefully traced a line of Mason’s footprints from the brink straight backward to the villa and the path, erasing his own as he went. And for good measure, stumbling across the bloody stone I’d used on Mason, he heaved this away off into the brush where it wouldn’t ever be found. So that the next day when Luigi and Di Bartolo went up to the villa there was a perfect single running track of footprints leading right up to the exact spot where Mason went over. The track of a man bent on suicide. And the shoes from Mason’s body fit these tracks to the exact centimeter, right on down to the embossed design in the crepe soles. And as Luigi went through all this, telling me how Di Bartolo had finally closed the case off as murder and suicide, it occurred to me in the most desolate and creepy way that by these lies of his, all this mad deception, what he had done was to simultaneously allow me to escape into freedom and to trap himself as securely as if he had been a bug caught in the sticky gut of a pitcher plant. For now of course he couldn’t recant, he couldn’t alter his story; he was in as deep as he could get. Nor could I go to Salerno and give myself up, prove that I was the culprit without implicating Luigi and impaling him on a hook he’d never be able to wriggle off of. Yet as he told me these things and it dawned upon me the position we were both in, sheer crazy panic came over me: it was the idea of liberty. For here my only idea had been to give myself up, immure myself, entomb myself for my crime. And the notion of this awful and imminent liberty was as frightening to me as that terror that must overcome people who dread open spaces. The feeling was the same. Yearning for enclosure, for confinement, I was faced with nothing but the vista of freedom like a wide and empty plain. I shot up on that cot and I said: ‘Why did you he for me, Luigi? Why, in the name of God?’

  “He said nothing. He turned again and went to the window. I kept raving at him. I called him names. I called him a swine and a dog and a bleeding sentimentalist. I asked him what had possessed him to do such an idiotic thing. But he was silent, and presently I asked him about Saverio. I asked him how, again, in the name of God, he pretended to carry out this incredible, enormous deception with Saverio still at large. Surely the cretin in one way or another would tip his hand, I said, and the true story would be out. ‘Eccolo là! I said. ‘The cop goes to jail. One peep out of the half-wit and they’ll bury you, Luigi!’ But Luigi was forbearing, considering this treatment I was handing him. ‘Nonsense,’ he said. ‘Even if he were to talk, do you think they would believe the half-wit instead of me?’ Beyond that, Saverio would be dealt with in the way he should have been fifteen years before. It would be the simplest thing in the world, he said, for the new sergente to make the appropriate move, subtly and in good time, toward placing the poor fool in the Salerno madhouse, where by all rights he should have lived these many years. As for Saverio himself, Luigi had seen him not twenty-four hours before in the house of this relative of his near the Villa Costanza. He was babbling happily and didn’t seem to have any knowledge or recollection of what he had done. And Luigi fell silent again and looked at me with that grave earnest expression, and then turned away.

  “I was monstrous. I don’t know how he put up with me. I kept baiting him, you see. ‘So it is to save your own skin,’ I said. ‘You lied for me and now you are afraid that by that lie you may hang yourself. Isn’t that true, Luigi? Isn’t that true?’ I kept at him like this, and finally he said: ‘Put it any way you wish.’ I couldn’t get a rise out of him. And I seemed to be halfway out of my head with fury at the fact that he had put me in this position, put me in a place where I couldn’t give myself up. Suddenly he seemed to be just as guilty as I was in every way. And I said again: ‘Why did you lie for me, Luigi? I did not ask that favor of you. Why did you do it, in the name o
f God?’ And he was quiet for a while, and then he turned and said: ‘I have given some thought to that, Cass, and still I do not exactly know. At first I thought it was because of my liking for you, and that I pitied you. I thought that perhaps I was performing an act of compassion by delivering you from a prison sentence. But now I am not so sure. My liking for you has not changed but I do not think any longer that it was an act of pity.’ Then he paused for a bit and said: ‘I think it was an act of correction. It was to keep you from the luxury of any more guilt. Capito?’ And I said, ‘Non capisco,’ and I think it was then that I must have gotten up from that cot, raging and cursing, hurling myself toward the door and saying that by God, he could hang, he could rot in jail until the end of time, but that I was catching the first bus to Salerno. A crime was a crime, I shouted, and I would suffer for it! I would suffer for it even if it meant I would have to drag him down in the bargain.

  “And it was then that this own rage of his came on him—the first time I ever saw him explode. He leaped toward the door, too, and he fetched me a solid blow across the chest with his fist. I couldn’t struggle, I was too weak and worn-out. And before I knew it I was flat down on my back again with one wrist manacled to the leg of the cot and he was standing over me, red-faced, just beside himself with outrage, shouting those words at me: ‘Tu pecchi nell’avere tanto senso di colpa! You sin in your guilt!’ And he raised general hell.

  “We calmed down, both of us. Neither of us said anything for a while. Then Luigi sat down beside the cot. He was silent for a long time, then he looked into my eyes and said: ‘I would like to tell you a story.’ And I said, calm now: ‘A story about what, Luigi?’ And he said: ‘A story about how it is that I am a grown man and how I have only wept three times since I was a child. An Italian who has wept only three times since he was a child is neither much of an Italian nor much of a man. But I must tell you this story.’ And I told him to go ahead. And he said this to me. He said: The first time was in Salerno during the war. I was only a boy then, and I had two baby brothers and three sisters. We lived in the back of the city, up near the hills, and when the British and the Americans made their landings on the beach my father thought we would be safe. We did not leave. The battle went on for several days, and presently the Germans withdrew. They withdrew through our part of the city and the Allies pursued them. A building near our house was used by the Germans as a command post. Only then, with the battle very near us, did my father decide to leave. He left first with my mother and four of my brothers and sisters. We had a dog which my mother loved very much and this dog had become lost, and I stayed behind with one of my baby brothers to search for the dog. We could not find the dog and the battle was coming nearer and so I decided to leave quickly. As we ran through the streets my baby brother, who was six, thought he saw the dog in a vacant lot and he called out to it and then ran back to fetch it. This was several blocks away from the German command post. Just as my brother ran into the vacant lot a British plane came over and dropped a bomb which must have been intended for the command post. I ducked, I could see the British target mark on the side of the plane. The bomb fell far short, into a building next to the vacant lot. There was some sort of fuel, oil or gasoline, stored in that building, for when the bomb hit it I saw a tremendous sheet of flame. I was knocked to the pavement by the concussion, but I was not hurt, and when I got up I heard a screaming. I looked into the lot and I saw my little brother running toward me, clothed in flame. He was on fire! He ran toward me, all ablaze, screaming in a way that I never knew a child to scream. It seemed as if the whole city were filled with the sound of his screams. It was like angels screaming. And then he fell to the street in front of me, blazing like a torch. He died right away. He was no more than a blackened little cinder. I wept.

  “‘For a long time after that I never wept again. I grew older and I became what I am, a policeman, cold and impersonal, with few emotions. I never married, mistrusting and hating my own emotions, and their coldness. I never could escape the memory of my little brother, burning, nor did I believe in a God who could create a universe in which it would be possible for a single innocent child to suffer like that. Neither did I forget the British, who had dropped that bomb. Once you asked me why I became a Fascist, and I think I must have evaded your question, for it could not have been simple expediency that led to this choice. Rather I believe that part of it was my hatred of the British, if anything, though I possibly didn’t realize it. Deep down I think I knew it was not rational of me to hate the British so. It had been an accident, no worse than a thousand others in the war, but often I could not help but think of that pilot and what he looked like, and after the war when the tourists came again I would see some young Englishman with his gray eyes and his casual arrogant manner and I would say to myself that it was he who had flown over Salerno and cremated my brother. I hated them, their arrogance and their smugness and their affected good manners, and I often vowed that in some way I would avenge myself on some Englishman for what he and his country had done to my brother.

  “‘Then once not too long ago after I was stationed up here in Sambuco, there came a certain Englishwoman to the Bella Vista. She lived there for a whole spring and summer. She seemed to personify all that was mean and despicable in the Anglo-Saxon race. She was a hysteric little virgin in the menopause—stupid, ugly, rude, demanding, and parsimonious. She was the terror of the help at the hotel. She never tipped. There was something small and bitter about her that made people actually shy away from her in the streets. Her voice was harsh and strident. She was also very religious—an abstainer—and her tongue never once tasted Sambuco wine. She demanded much and gave nothing. I think she must have been slightly crazy. The people in the town despised her. What she was doing in this sunlight I shall never know. I always will remember her in the piazza, screeching in loud English, accusing some poor devil of a taxi driver of cheating her. Well, one morning when Parrinello was off duty, I was called to the hotel by Windgasser. He was terrified. He thought the Englishwoman was dead. After several days with the door locked one of the maids had gone in and had tried to rouse her from her bed, but she had not moved. Windgasser was afraid to look. I went upstairs and found her in her bed. She was dead, all right, cold as stone. I thought at first it was probably a heart attack. I sent one of the maids for the doctor, and while she was gone I looked around the room and after a bit I found a small empty bottle with its cap off. It was a bottle of sleeping pills, and so quite correctly I assumed she had committed suicide. It served her right, I thought. I remember looking down at her as she lay there, at the pinched, mean little face which even death had not softened, and I was filled with hatred and loathing. She had been a menace and a nuisance in life, and in death she was still, at least, a nuisance. She disgusted me. She had lain in that hot room for three days. She had begun to stink. And she was British. I hated her. Then I looked down and I saw a piece of paper crumpled up in her hand. I unclenched her fingers and removed the paper, and I saw that there were some words in English written on it that I could not understand. I called to Windgasser and he came, and I asked him to read the words to me. And he read them. And can you guess what they said? Can you guess what they said, Cass?’ he said again.

  “I looked up at Luigi and I said, ‘No, I could not ever guess, Luigi.’ And he said, in a sort of transliterated Italian which I didn’t recognize at first: ‘Certamente la bontà e la misericordia mi seguiranno per il resto delta mia vita, …’ And I suddenly understood and said to Luigi, breaking in in English: ‘Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the rest of the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.’

  “And Luigi said: ‘Yes, those were the words that were written on the paper. And I asked Windgasser to go away and when he had left I turned around and gazed down at the Englishwoman again. She still looked the same, ugly and ill-natured. But for some reason that I will never be able to explain I found myself weeping. I found myself weeping helplessly,
and this was the first time since that day long ago when I saw my brother burning. I do not know why I wept. Perhaps it was because of the terrible loneliness that seemed to hover over that little room. Perhaps it was because I knew that goodness and mercy had never followed this woman, ever, and there was something in this awful faith of hers that moved me, shabby as she was. Anyway, I suddenly thought of my baby brother and all the Englishmen I had hated for so many years and, still hating them, I sat down beside the body of this miserable little woman and I wept until I could weep no longer.’

 
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