The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  “You’re up early,” I said.

  “I always rise early. The morning is the best time for me to work.”

  I glanced at the books. “What are you doing, Greek?”

  Henry set the cup back into its saucer. “A translation of Paradise Lost.”

  “Into what language?”

  “Latin,” he said solemnly.

  “Hmm,” I said. “Why?”

  “I am interested to see what I will wind up with. Milton to my way of thinking is our greatest English poet, greater than Shakespeare, but I think in some ways it was unfortunate that he chose to write in English—of course, he wrote a not inconsiderable amount of poetry in Latin, but that was early, in his student days; what I’m referring to is the later work. In Paradise Lost he pushes English to its very limits but I think no language without noun cases could possibly support the structural order he attempts to impose.” He lay his cigarette back in the ashtray. I stared at it burning. “Will you have some coffee?”

  “No, thank you.”

  “I hope you slept well.”

  “Yes, thanks.”

  “I sleep better out here than I usually do,” said Henry, adjusting his glasses and bending back over the lexicon. There was a subtle evidence of fatigue, and strain, in the slope of his shoulder which I, a veteran of many sleepless nights, recognized immediately. Suddenly I realized that this unprofitable task of his was probably nothing more than a method of whiling away the early morning hours, much as other insomniacs do crossword puzzles.

  “Are you always up this early?” I asked him.

  “Almost always,” he said without looking up. “It’s beautiful here, but morning light can make the most vulgar things tolerable.”

  “I know what you mean,” I said, and I did. About the only time of day I had been able to stand in Plano was the very early morning, almost dawn, when the streets were empty and the light was golden and kind on the dry grass, the chain-link fences, the solitary scrub-oaks.

  Henry looked up from his books at me, almost curiously. “You’re not very happy where you come from, are you?” he said.

  I was startled at this Holmes-like deduction. He smiled at my evident discomfiture.

  “Don’t worry. You hide it very cleverly,” he said, going back to his book. Then he looked up again. “The others really don’t understand that sort of thing, you know.”

  He said this without malice, without empathy, without even much in the way of interest. I was not even sure what he meant, but, for the first time, I had a glimmer of something I had not previously understood: why the others were all so fond of him. Grown children (an oxymoron, I realize) veer instinctively to extremes; the young scholar is much more a pedant than his older counterpart. And I, being young myself, took these pronouncements of Henry’s very seriously. I doubt if Milton himself could have impressed me more.

  I suppose there is a certain crucial interval in everyone’s life when character is fixed forever; for me, it was that first fall term I spent at Hampden. So many things remain with me from that time, even now: those preferences in clothes and books and even food—acquired then, and largely, I must admit, in adolescent emulation of the rest of the Greek class—have stayed with me through the years. It is easy, even now, for me to remember what their daily routines, which subsequently became my own, were like. Regardless of circumstance they lived like clockwork, with surprisingly little of that chaos which to me had always seemed so inherent a part of college life—irregular diet and work habits, trips to the laundromat at one a.m. There were certain times of the day or night, even when the world was falling in, when you could always find Henry in the all-night study room of the library, or when you knew it would be useless to even look for Bunny, because he was on his Wednesday date with Marion or his Sunday walk. (Rather in the way that the Roman Empire continued in a certain fashion to run itself even when there was no one left to run it and the reason behind it was entirely gone, much of this routine remained intact even during the terrible days after Bunny’s death. Up until the very end there was always, always, Sunday-night dinner at Charles and Camilla’s, except on the evening of the murder itself, when no one felt much like eating and it was postponed until Monday.)

  I was surprised by how easily they managed to incorporate me into their cyclical, Byzantine existence. They were all so used to one another that I think they found me refreshing, and they were intrigued by even the most mundane of my habits: by my fondness for mystery novels and my chronic movie-going; by the fact that I used disposable razors from the supermarket and cut my own hair instead of going to the barber; even by the fact that I read papers and watched news on television from time to time (a habit which seemed to them an outrageous eccentricity, peculiar to me alone; none of them were the least bit interested in anything that went on in the world, and their ignorance of current events and even recent history was rather astounding. Once, over dinner, Henry was quite startled to learn from me that men had walked on the moon. “No,” he said, putting down his fork.

  “It’s true,” chorused the rest, who had somehow managed to pick this up along the way.

  “I don’t believe it.”

  “I saw it,” said Bunny. “It was on television.”

  “How did they get there? When did this happen?”).

  They were still overwhelming as a group, and it was on an individual basis that I really got to know them. Because he knew I kept late hours, too, Henry would sometimes stop by late at night, on his way home from the library. Francis, who was a terrible hypochondriac and refused to go to the doctor alone, frequently dragged me along and it was, oddly enough, during those drives to the allergist in Manchester or the ear-nose-and-throat man in Keene that we became friends. That fall, he had to have a root canal, over about four or five weeks; each Wednesday afternoon he would show up, white-faced and silent, at my room, and we would go together to a bar in town and drink until his appointment, at three. The ostensible purpose of my coming was so I could drive him home when he got out, woozy with laughing gas, but as I waited for him at the bar while he went across the street to the dentist’s office, I was generally in no better condition to drive than he was.

  I liked the twins most. They treated me in a happy, offhand manner which implied I’d known them much longer than I had. Camilla I was fondest of, but as much as I enjoyed her company I was slightly uneasy in her presence; not because of any lack of charm or kindness on her part, but because of a too-strong wish to impress her on mine. Though I looked forward to seeing her, and thought of her anxiously and often, I was more comfortable with Charles. He was a lot like his sister, impulsive and generous, but more moody; and though he sometimes had long gloomy spells, he was very talkative when not suffering from these. In either mood, I got along with him well. We borrowed Henry’s car, drove to Maine so he could have a club sandwich in a bar he liked there; went to Bennington, Manchester, the greyhound track in Pownal, where he ended up bringing home a dog too old to race, in order to save it from being put to sleep. The dog’s name was Frost. It loved Camilla, and followed her everywhere: Henry quoted long passages about Emma Bovary and her greyhound: “Sa pensée, sans but d’abord, vagabondait au hasard, comme sa levrette, qui faisait des cercles dans la campagne.…” But the dog was weak, and highly strung, and suffered a heart attack one bright December morning in the country, leaping from the porch in happy pursuit of a squirrel. This was by no means unexpected; the man at the track had warned Charles that she might not live the week; still, the twins were upset, and we spent a sad afternoon burying her in the back garden of Francis’s house, where one of Francis’s aunts had an elaborate cat cemetery, complete with headstones.

  The dog was fond of Bunny, too. It used to go with Bunny and me on long, grueling rambles through the countryside every Sunday, over fences and streams, through bogs and pastures. Bunny was himself as fond of walks as an old mutt—his hikes were so exhausting, he had a hard time finding anyone to accompany him except me and the dog?
??but it was because of those walks that I became familiar with the land around Hampden, the logging roads and hunter’s trails, all his hidden waterfalls and secret swimming holes.

  Bunny’s girlfriend, Marion, was around surprisingly little; partially, I think, because he didn’t want her there but also, I think, because she was even less interested in us than we were in her. (“She likes to be with her girlfriends a lot,” Bunny would say boastfully to Charles and me. “They talk about clothes and boys and all that kind of malarkey. You know.”) She was a small, petulant blonde from Connecticut, pretty in the same standard, round-faced way in which Bunny was handsome, and her manner of dress was at once girlish and shockingly matronly—flowered skirts, monogrammed sweaters with bags and shoes to match. From time to time I would see her at a distance in the playground of the Early Childhood Center as I walked to class. It was some branch of the Elementary Education department at Hampden; kids from the town went to nursery school and kindergarten there, and there she would be with them, in her monogrammed sweaters, blowing a whistle and trying to make them all shut up and get in line.

  No one would talk about it much, but I gathered that earlier, abortive attempts to include Marion in the activities of the group had ended in disaster. She liked Charles, who was generally polite to everyone and had the unflagging capacity to carry on conversations with anyone from little kids to the ladies who worked in the cafeteria; and she regarded Henry, as did most everyone who knew him, with a kind of fearful respect; but she hated Camilla, and between her and Francis there had been some catastrophic incident which was so frightful that no one would even talk about it. She and Bunny had a relationship the likes of which I had seldom seen except in couples married for twenty years or more, a relationship which vacillated between the touching and the annoying. In her dealings with him she was very bossy and businesslike, treating him in much the same way she handled her kindergarten pupils; he responded in kind, alternately wheedling, affectionate, or sulky. Most of the time he bore her nagging patiently, but when he did not, terrible fights ensued. Sometimes he would knock on my door late at night, looking haggard and wild-eyed and more rumpled than usual, mumbling, “Lemme in, old man, you gotta help me, Marion’s on the warpath.…” Minutes later, there would be a neat report of sharp knocks at the door: rat-a-tat-tat. It would be Marion, her little mouth tight, looking like a small, angry doll.

  “Is Bunny there?” she would say, stretching up on tiptoe and craning to look past me into the room.

  “He’s not here.”

  “Are you sure?”

  “He’s not here, Marion.”

  “Bunny!” she would call out ominously.

  No answer.

  “Bunny!”

  And then, to my acute embarrassment, Bunny would emerge sheepishly in the doorway. “Hello, sweetie.”

  “Where have you been?”

  Bunny would hem and haw.

  “Well, I think we need to talk.”

  “I’m busy now, honey.”

  “Well—” she would look at her tasteful little Carrier watch—“I’m going home now. I’ll be up for about thirty minutes and then I’m going to sleep.”

  “Fine.”

  “I’ll see you in about twenty minutes, then.”

  “Hey, wait just a second there. I never said I was going to—”

  “See you in a little while,” she would say, and leave.

  “I’m not going,” Bunny would say.

  “No, I wouldn’t.”

  “I mean, who does she think she is.”

  “Don’t go.”

  “I mean, gotta teach her a lesson sometime. I’m a busy man. On the move. My time’s my own.”

  “Exactly.”

  An uneasy silence would fall. Finally Bunny would get up. “Guess I better go.”

  “All right, Bun.”

  “I mean, I’m not gonna go over to Marion’s, if that’s what you think,” he’d say defensively.

  “Of course not.”

  “Yes, yes,” Bunny would say distractedly, and bluster away.

  The next day, he and Marion would be having lunch together or walking down by the playground. “So you and Marion got everything straightened out, huh?” one of us would ask when next we saw him alone.

  “Oh, yeah,” Bunny would say, embarrassed.

  The weekends at Francis’s house were the happiest times. The trees turned early that fall but the days stayed warm well into October, and in the country we spent most of our time outside. Apart from the occasional, half-hearted game of tennis (overhead volley going out of court; poking dispiritedly in the tall grass with the ends of our rackets for the lost ball) we never did anything very athletic; something about the place inspired a magnificent laziness I hadn’t known since childhood.

  Now that I think about it, it seems while we were out there we drank almost constantly—never very much at once, but the thin trickle of spirits which began with the Bloody Marys at breakfast would last until bedtime, and that, more than anything else, was probably responsible for our torpor. Bringing a book outside to read, I would fall asleep almost immediately in my chair; when I took the boat out I soon tired of rowing and allowed myself to drift all afternoon. (That boat! Sometimes, even now, when I have trouble sleeping, I try to imagine that I am lying in that rowboat, my head pillowed on the cross-slats of the stern, water lapping hollow through the wood and yellow birch leaves floating down to brush my face.) Occasionally, we would attempt something a little more ambitious. Once, when Francis found a Beretta and ammunition in his aunt’s night table, we went through a brief spate of target practice (the greyhound, jumpy from years of the starting gun, had to be secluded in the cellar), shooting at mason jars that were lined on a wicker tea-table we’d dragged into the yard. But that came to a quick end when Henry, who was very nearsighted, shot and killed a duck by mistake. He was quite shaken by it and we put the pistol away.

  The others liked croquet, but Bunny and I didn’t; neither of us ever quite got the hang of it, and we always hacked and sliced at the ball as if we were playing golf. Every now and then, we roused ourselves sufficiently to go on a picnic. We were always too ambitious at the outset—the menu elaborate, the chosen spot distant and obscure—they invariably ended with all of us hot and sleepy and slightly drunk, reluctant to start the long trudge home with the picnic things. Usually we lay around on the grass all afternoon, drinking martinis from a thermos bottle and watching the ants crawl in a glittering black thread on the messy cake plate, until finally the martinis ran out, and the sun went down, and we had to straggle home for dinner in the dark.

  It was always a tremendous occasion if Julian accepted an invitation to dinner in the country. Francis would order all kinds of food from the grocery store and leaf through cookbooks and worry for days about what to serve, what wine to serve with it, which dishes to use, what to have in the wings as a backup course should the soufflé fall. Tuxedos went to the cleaners; flowers came from the florists; Bunny put away his copy of The Bride of Fu Manchu and started carrying around a volume of Homer instead.

  I don’t know why we insisted on making such a production of these dinners, because by the time Julian arrived we were invariably nervous and exhausted. They were a dreadful strain for everyone, the guest included, I am sure—though he always behaved with the greatest good cheer, and was graceful, and charming, and unflaggingly delighted with everyone and everything—this despite the fact that he only accepted on the average about one of every three such invitations. I found myself less able to conceal the evidences of stress, in my uncomfortable borrowed tuxedo, and with my less-than-extensive knowledge of dining etiquette. The others were more practiced at this particular dissimulation. Five minutes before Julian arrived, they might be slouched in the living room—curtains drawn, dinner simmering on chafing dishes in the kitchen, everyone tugging at collars and dull-eyed with fatigue—but the instant the doorbell rang their spines would straighten, conversation would snap to life, the very wrinkl
es would fall from their clothes.

  Though, at the time, I found those dinners wearing and troublesome, now I find something very wonderful in my memory of them: that dark cavern of a room, with vaulted ceilings and a fire crackling in the fireplace, our faces luminous somehow, and ghostly pale. The firelight magnified our shadows, glinted off the silver, flickered high upon the walls; its reflection roared orange in the windowpanes as if a city were burning outside. The whoosh of the flames was like a flock of birds, trapped and beating in a whirlwind near the ceiling. And I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if the long mahogany banquet table, draped in linen, laden with china and candles and fruit and flowers, had simply vanished into thin air, like a magic casket in a fairy story.

  There is a recurrent scene from those dinners that surfaces again and again, like an obsessive undercurrent in a dream. Julian, at the head of the long table, rises to his feet and lifts his wineglass. “Live forever,” he says.

  And the rest of us rise too, and clink our glasses across the table, like an army regiment crossing sabres: Henry and Bunny, Charles and Francis, Camilla and I. “Live forever,” we chorus, throwing our glasses back in unison.

  And always, always, that same toast. Live forever.

  I wonder now that I was around them so much and yet knew so little of what was happening at the end of that term. Physically, there was very little indication that anything was happening at all—they were too clever for that—but even the tiny discrepancies that squeaked through their guard I met with a kind of willful blindness. That is to say: I wanted to maintain the illusion that their dealings with me were completely straightforward; that we were all friends, and no secrets, though the plain fact of it was that there were plenty of things they didn’t let me in on and would not for some time. And though I tried to ignore this I was aware of it all the same. I knew, for instance, that the five of them sometimes did things—what, exactly, I didn’t know—without inviting me, and that if put on the spot they would all stick together and lie about it, in a casual and quite convincing fashion. They were so convincing, in fact, so faultlessly orchestrated in the variations and counterpoint of falsehood (the twins’s unblinking carelessness striking a bright true note against Bunny’s tomfoolery, or Henry’s bored irritation at rehashing a trivial sequence of events) that I usually found myself believing them, often against evidence to the contrary.

 
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