The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  Of course, I can see traces of what went on—to their credit, quite small traces—in retrospect; in the way they would sometimes disappear, very mysteriously, and hours later be vague about their whereabouts; in private jokes, asides in Greek or even Latin which I was well aware were meant to go over my head. Naturally, I disliked this, but there seemed nothing alarming or unusual about it; though some of those casual remarks and private jokes assumed a horrific significance much later. Towards the end of that term, for instance, Bunny had a maddening habit of breaking out into choruses of “The Farmer in the Dell”; I found it merely annoying and could not understand the violent agitation to which it provoked the rest of them: not knowing then, as I do now, that it must have chilled them all to the bone.

  Of course I noticed things. I suppose, being around them as much as I was, it would have been impossible not to. But they were mostly quirks, discrepancies, most of them so minor that it will perhaps show you how little reason I had to imagine that anything was wrong. For instance: All five of them seemed unusually accident-prone. They were always getting scratched by cats, or cutting themselves shaving, or stumbling over footstools in the dark—reasonable explanations, certainly, but for sedentary people they had an odd excess of bruises and small wounds. There was also a strange preoccupation with the weather; strange, to me, because none of them seemed to be involved in activity which might be aided or impeded by weather of any sort. And yet they were obsessed with it, Henry in particular. He was concerned, primarily, with rapid drops in temperature; sometimes, in the car, he would punch around as frantically on the radio as a sea captain before a storm, searching for barometric readings, long-range forecasts, data of any sort. The news that the mercury was sinking would plunge him into a sudden, inexplicable gloom. I wondered what he would do when winter came; but by the first snowfall, the preoccupation had vanished, never to return.

  Little things. I remember waking up once in the country at six o’clock, while everyone was still in bed, and going downstairs to find the kitchen floors freshly washed, still wet, immaculate except for the bare, mysterious footprint of a Man Friday in the clean sandbank between water heater and porch. Sometimes I woke nights out there, half-dreaming, but vaguely conscious of something; muffled voices, movement, the greyhound whining softly and pawing at my bedroom door.… Once I heard a muttered exchange between the twins about some bed sheets. “Silly,” Camilla was whispering—and I caught a glimpse of ragged, fluttering cloth, streaked with mud—“you took the wrong ones. We can’t bring them back like this.”

  “We’ll substitute the others.”

  “But they’ll know. The Linen Service ones have a stamp. We’ll have to say we lost them.”

  Though this exchange did not remain in my mind for long, I was puzzled, and even more so by the twins’ unsatisfactory manner when I asked about it. Another oddity was my discovery, one afternoon, of a large copper pot bubbling on the back burner of the stove, a peculiar smell emanating from it. I lifted the lid and a cloud of pungent, bitter steam hit me in the face. The pot was filled with limp, almond-shaped leaves, boiling away in about half a gallon of blackish water. What in God’s name, I thought, perplexed but also amused, and when I asked Francis he said, curtly, “For my bath.”

  It is easy to see things in retrospect. But I was ignorant then of everything but my own happiness, and I don’t know what else to say except that life itself seemed very magical in those days: a web of symbol, coincidence, premonition, omen. Everything, somehow, fit together; some sly and benevolent Providence was revealing itself by degrees and I felt myself trembling on the brink of a fabulous discovery, as though any morning it was all going to come together—my future, my past, the whole of my life—and I was going to sit up in bed like a thunderbolt and say oh! oh! oh!

  We had so many happy days in the country that fall that from this vantage they merge into a sweet and indistinct blur. Around Halloween the last, stubborn wildflowers died away and the wind became sharp and gusty, blowing showers of yellow leaves on the gray, wrinkled surface of the lake. On those chill afternoons when the sky was like lead and the clouds were racing, we stayed in the library, banking huge fires to keep warm. Bare willows clicked on the windowpanes like skeleton fingers. While the twins played cards at one end of the table, and Henry worked at the other, Francis sat curled in the window seat with a plate of little sandwiches in his lap, reading, in French, the Mémoires of the Duc de Saint-Simon, which for some reason he was determined to get through. He had gone to several schools in Europe and spoke excellent French, though he pronounced it with the same lazy, snob accent as his English; sometimes I got him to help me with my own lessons in first-year French, tedious little stories about Marie and Jean-Claude going to the tabac, which he read aloud in a languishing, hilarious drawl (“Marie a apporté des légumes à son frère”) that sent everyone into hysterics. Bunny lay on his stomach on the hearth rug, doing his homework; occasionally he would steal one of Francis’s sandwiches or ask a pained question. Though Greek gave him so much trouble, he’d actually studied it far longer than any of the rest of us, since he was twelve, a circumstance about which he perpetually boasted. He suggested slyly that this had simply been a childish whim of his, a manifestation of early genius à la Alexander Pope; but the truth of the matter (as I learned from Henry) was that he suffered from fairly severe dyslexia and the Greek had been a mandatory course of therapy, his prep school having theorized it was good to force dyslexic students to study languages like Greek, Hebrew and Russian, which did not utilize the Roman alphabet. At any rate, his talent as a linguist was considerably less than he led one to believe, and he was unable to wade through even the simplest assignments without continual questions, complaints, and infusions of food. Towards the end of term he had a flare-up of asthma and wandered wheezing around the house in pajamas and bathrobe, hair standing on end, gasping theatrically at his inhaler. The pills he took for it (I was informed, behind his back) made him irritable, kept him up at night, made him gain weight. And I accepted this explanation for much of Bunny’s crabbiness at the end of the term, which subsequently I was to find was due to entirely different reasons.

  What should I tell you? About the Saturday in December that Bunny ran around the house at five in the morning, yelling “First snow!” and pouncing on our beds? Or the time Camilla tried to teach me the box step; or the time Bunny turned the boat over—with Henry and Francis in it—because he thought he saw a water snake? About Henry’s birthday party, or about the two instances when Francis’s mother—all red hair and alligator pumps and emeralds—turned up on her way to New York, trailing the Yorkshire terrier and the second husband? (She was a wild card, that mother of his; and Chris, her new husband, was a bit player in a soap opera, barely older than Francis. Olivia was her name. At the time I first met her, she had just been released from the Betty Ford Center after having been cured of alcoholism and an unspecified drug habit, and was launching merrily down the path of sin again. Charles once told me that she had knocked on his door in the middle of the night and asked if he would care to join her and Chris in bed. I still get cards from her at Christmas.)

  One day, however, remains particularly vivid, a brilliant Saturday in October, one of the last summery days we had that year. The night before—which had been rather cold—we’d stayed up drinking and talking till almost dawn, and I woke late, hot and vaguely nauseated, to find my blankets kicked to the foot of the bed and sun pouring through the window. I lay very still for a long time. The sun filtered through my eyelids a bright, painful red, and my damp legs prickled with the heat. Beneath me, the house was silent, shimmering and oppressive.

  I made my way downstairs, my feet creaking on the steps. The house was motionless, empty. Finally I found Francis and Bunny on the shady side of the porch. Bunny had on a T-shirt and a pair of Bermuda shorts; Francis, his face flushed a blotchy albino pink, and his eyelids closed and almost fluttering with pain, was wearing a ratty terry-cloth robe that was stol
en from a hotel.

  They were drinking prairie oysters. Francis pushed his over to me without looking at it. “Here, drink this,” he said, “I’ll be sick if I look at it another second.”

  The yolk quivered, gently, in its bloody bath of ketchup and Worcestershire. “I don’t want it,” I said, and pushed it back.

  He crossed his legs and pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. “I don’t know why I make these things,” he said. “They never work. I have to go get some Alka-Seltzer.”

  Charles closed the screen door behind him and wandered listlessly onto the porch in his red-striped bathrobe. “What you need,” he said, “is an ice-cream float.”

  “You and your ice-cream floats.”

  “They work, I tell you. It’s very scientific. Cold things are good for nausea and—”

  “You’re always saying that, Charles, but I just don’t think it’s true.”

  “Would you just listen to me for a second? The ice cream slows down your digestion. The Coke settles your stomach and the caffeine cures your headache. Sugar gives you energy. And besides, it makes you metabolize the alcohol faster. It’s the perfect food.”

  “Go make me one, would you?” said Bunny.

  “Go make it yourself,” said Charles, suddenly irritable.

  “Really,” Francis said, “I think I just need an Alka-Seltzer.”

  Henry—who had been up, and dressed, since the first wink of dawn—came down shortly, followed by a sleepy Camilla, damp and flushed from her bath, and her gold chrysanthemum of a head curled and chaotic. It was almost two in the afternoon. The greyhound lay on its side, drowsing, one chestnut-colored eye only partly closed and rolling grotesquely in the socket.

  There was no Alka-Seltzer, so Francis went in and got a bottle of ginger ale and some glasses and ice and we sat for a while as the afternoon got brighter and hotter. Camilla—who was rarely content to sit still but was always itching to do something, anything, play cards, go for a picnic or a drive—was bored and restless, and made no secret of it. She had a book, but she wasn’t reading; her legs were thrown over the arm of her chair, one bare heel kicking, with obstinate, lethargic rhythm, at the wicker side. Finally, as much to humor her as anything, Francis suggested a walk to the lake. This cheered her instantly. There was nothing else to do, so Henry and I decided to go along. Charles and Bunny were asleep, and snoring in their chairs.

  The sky was a fierce, burning blue, the trees ferocious shades of red and yellow. Francis, barefoot and still in his bathrobe, stepped precariously over rocks and branches, balancing his glass of ginger ale. Once we got to the lake he waded in, up to his knees, and beckoned dramatically like Saint John the Baptist.

  We took off our shoes and socks. The water near the bank was a clear, pale green, cool over my ankles, and the pebbles at the bottom were dappled with sunlight. Henry, in coat and tie, waded out to where Francis stood, his trousers rolled to the knee, an old-fashioned banker in a surrealist painting. A wind rustled through the birches, blowing up the pale undersides of the leaves, and it caught in Camilla’s dress and billowed it out like a white balloon. She laughed, and smoothed it down quickly, only to have it blow out again.

  The two of us walked near the shore, in the shallows barely covering our feet. The sun shimmered off the lake in bright waves—it didn’t look like a real lake but a mirage in the Sahara. Henry and Francis were further out: Francis talking, gesticulating wildly in his white robe and Henry with his hands clasped behind his back, Satan listening patiently to the rantings of some desert prophet.

  We walked a good distance around the lake’s edge, she and I, then started back. Camilla, one hand shading her light-dazzled eyes, was telling me a long story about something the dog had done—chewing up a sheepskin rug that belonged to the landlord, their efforts to disguise and finally to destroy the evidence—but I wasn’t following her very closely: she looked so much like her brother, yet his straightforward, uncompromising good looks were almost magical when repeated, with only slight variations, in her. She was a living reverie for me: the mere sight of her sparked an almost infinite range of fantasy, from Greek to Gothic, from vulgar to divine.

  I was looking at the side of her face, listening to the sweet, throaty cadences of her voice, when I was jolted from my musing by a sharp exclamation. She stopped.

  “What is it?”

  She was staring down at the water. “Look.”

  In the water, a dark plume of blood blossomed by her foot; as I blinked, a thin red tendril spiraled up and curled over her pale toes, undulating in the water like a thread of crimson smoke.

  “Jesus, what did you do?”

  “I don’t know. I stepped on something sharp.” She put a hand on my shoulder and I held her by the waist. There was a shard of green glass, about three inches long, stuck in her foot just above the arch. The blood pulsed thickly with her heartbeat; the glass, stained with red, glittered wickedly in the sun.

  “What is it?” she said, trying to lean over to see. “Is it bad?”

  She had cut an artery. The blood was spurting out strong and fast.

  “Francis?” I yelled. “Henry?”

  “Mother of God,” said Francis when he got close enough to see, and started splashing towards us, holding the skirt of his robe out of the water with one hand. “What have you done to yourself? Can you walk? Let me see,” he said, out of breath.

  Camilla tightened her grip on my arm. The bottom of her foot was glazed with red. Fat droplets ticked off the edge, spreading and dispersing like drops of ink in the clear water.

  “Oh, God,” said Francis, closing his eyes. “Does it hurt?”

  “No,” she said briskly, but I knew it did; I could feel her trembling and her face had gone white.

  Suddenly Henry was there, too, leaning over her. “Put your arm around my neck,” he said; deftly he whisked her up, as lightly as if she were made of straw, one arm under her head and the other beneath her knees. “Francis, run get the first-aid kit out of your car. We’ll meet you halfway.”

  “All right,” said Francis, glad to be told what to do, and started splashing for the bank.

  “Henry, put me down. I’m bleeding all over you.”

  He didn’t pay any attention to her. “Here, Richard,” he said, “get that sock and tie it around her ankle.”

  It was the first time I had even thought of a tourniquet; some kind of doctor I would have made. “Too tight?” I asked her.

  “That’s fine. Henry, I wish you’d put me down. I’m too heavy for you.”

  He smiled at her. There was a slight chip in one of his front teeth I’d never noticed before; it gave his smile a very engaging quality. “You’re light as a feather,” he said.

  Sometimes, when there’s been an accident and reality is too sudden and strange to comprehend, the surreal will take over. Action slows to a dreamlike glide, frame by frame; the motion of a hand, a sentence spoken, fills an eternity. Little things—a cricket on a stem, the veined branches on a leaf—are magnified, brought from the background in achingly clear focus. And that was what happened then, walking over the meadow to the house. It was like a painting too vivid to be real—every pebble, every blade of grass sharply defined, the sky so blue it hurt me to look at it. Camilla was limp in Henry’s arms, her head thrown back like a dead girl’s, and the curve of her throat beautiful and lifeless. The hem of her dress fluttered abstractly in the breeze. Henry’s trousers were spattered with drops the size of quarters, too red to be blood, as if he’d had a paintbrush slung at him. In the overwhelming stillness, between our echoless footsteps, the pulse sang thin and fast in my ears.

  Charles skidded down the hill, barefoot, still in his bathrobe, Francis at his heels. Henry knelt and set her on the grass, and she raised herself on her elbows.

  “Camilla, are you dead?” said Charles, breathless, as he dropped to the ground to look at the wound.

  “Somebody,” said Francis, unrolling a length of bandage, “is
going to have to take that glass out of her foot.”

  “Want me to try?” said Charles, looking up at her.

  “Be careful.”

  Charles, her heel in his hand, caught the glass between thumb and forefinger and pulled gently. Camilla caught her breath in a quick, wincing gasp.

  Charles drew back like he’d been scalded. He made as if to touch her foot again, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to do it. His fingertips were wet with blood.

  “Well, go on,” said Camilla, her voice fairly steady.

  “I can’t do it. I’m afraid I’ll hurt you.”

  “It hurts anyway.”

  “I can’t,” Charles said miserably, looking up at her.

  “Get out of the way,” said Henry impatiently, and he knelt quickly and took her foot in his hand.

  Charles turned away; he was almost as white as she was, and I wondered if that old story was true, that one twin felt pain when the other was injured.

  Camilla flinched, her eyes wide; Henry held up the curved piece of glass in one bloody hand. “Consummatum est,” he said.

  Francis set to work with the iodine and the bandages.

  “My God,” I said, picking up the red-stained shard and holding it to the light.

  “Good girl,” said Francis, winding the bandages around the arch of her foot. Like most hypochondriacs, he had an oddly soothing bedside manner. “Look at you. You didn’t even cry.”

  “It didn’t hurt that much.”

  “The hell it didn’t,” Francis said. “You were really brave.”

  Henry stood up. “She was brave,” he said.

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