The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  Late that afternoon, Charles and I were sitting on the porch. It had turned suddenly cold; the sky was brilliantly sunny but the wind was up. Mr. Hatch had come inside to start a fire, and I smelled a faint tang of wood smoke. Francis was inside, too, starting dinner; he was singing, and his high, clear voice, slightly out of key, floated out the kitchen window.

  Camilla’s cut hadn’t been a serious one. Francis drove her to the emergency room—Bunny went, too, because he was annoyed at having slept through the excitement—and in an hour she was back, with six stitches in her foot, a bandage, and a bottle of Tylenol with codeine. Now Bunny and Henry were out playing croquet and she was with them, hopping around on her good foot and the toe of the other with a skipping gait that, from the porch, looked oddly jaunty.

  Charles and I were drinking whiskey and soda. He had been trying to teach me to play piquet (“because it’s what Rawdon Crawley plays in Vanity Fair”) but I was a slow learner and the cards lay abandoned.

  Charles took a sip of his drink. He hadn’t bothered to dress all day. “I wish we didn’t have to go back to Hampden tomorrow,” he said.

  “I wish we never had to go back,” I said. “I wish we lived here.”

  “Well, maybe we can.”


  “I don’t mean now. But maybe we could. After school.”

  “How’s that?”

  He shrugged. “Well, Francis’s aunt won’t sell the house because she wants to keep it in the family. Francis could get it from her for next to nothing when he turns twenty-one. And even if he couldn’t, Henry has more money than he knows what to do with. They could go in together and buy it. Easy.”

  I was startled by this pragmatic answer.

  “I mean, all Henry wants to do when he finishes school, if he finishes, is to find some place where he can write his books and study the Twelve Great Cultures.”

  “What do you mean, if he finishes?”

  “I mean, he may not want to. He may get bored. He’s talked about leaving before. There’s no reason he’s got to be here, and he’s surely never going to have a job.”

  “You think not?” I said, curious; I had always pictured Henry teaching Greek, in some forlorn but excellent college out in the Midwest.

  Charles snorted. “Certainly not. Why should he? He doesn’t need the money, and he’d make a terrible teacher. And Francis has never worked in his life. I guess he could live with his mother, except he can’t stand that husband of hers. He’d like it better here. Julian wouldn’t be far away, either.”

  I took a sip of my drink and looked out at the faraway figures on the lawn. Bunny, hair falling into his eyes, was preparing to make a shot, flexing the mallet and shifting back and forth on his feet like a professional golfer.

  “Does Julian have any family?” I said.

  “No,” said Charles, his mouth full of ice. “He has some nephews but he hates them. Look at this, would you,” he said suddenly, half rising from his chair.

  I looked. Across the lawn, Bunny had finally made his shot; the ball went wide of the sixth and seventh arches but, incredibly, hit the turning stake.

  “Watch,” I said. “I bet he’ll try for another shot.”

  “He won’t get it, though,” said Charles, sitting down again, his eyes still on the lawn. “Look at Henry. He’s putting his foot down.”

  Henry was pointing at the neglected arches and, even at that distance, I could tell he was quoting from the rule book; faintly, we could hear Bunny’s startled cries of protest.

  “My hangover’s about gone,” Charles said presently.

  “Mine, too,” I said. The light on the lawn was golden, casting long velvety shadows, and the cloudy, radiant sky was straight out of Constable; though I didn’t want to admit it, I was about half-drunk.

  We were quiet for a while, watching. From the lawn I could hear the faint pock of mallet against croquet ball; from the window, above the clatter of pots and the slamming of cabinets, Francis was singing, as though it was the happiest song in the world: “ ‘We are little black sheep who have gone astray … Baa baa baa …’ ”

  “And if Francis buys the house?” I said finally. “Think he’d let us live here?”

  “Sure. He’d be bored stiff if it was just him and Henry. I guess Bunny might have to work in the bank but he could always come up on weekends, if he leaves Marion and the kids at home.”

  I laughed. Bunny had been talking the night before about how he wanted eight children, four boys and four girls; which had prompted a long, humorless speech from Henry about how the fulfillment of the reproductive cycle was, in nature, an invariable harbinger of swift decline and death.

  “It’s terrible,” said Charles. “Really, I can just see him. Standing out in a yard wearing some kind of stupid apron.”

  “Cooking hamburgers on the grill.”

  “And about twenty kids running around him and screaming.”

  “Kiwanis picnics.”

  “La-Z-Boy recliners.”


  A sudden wind rustled through the birches; a gust of yellow leaves came storming down. I took a sip of my drink. If I had grown up in that house I couldn’t have loved it more, couldn’t have been more familiar with the creak of the swing, or the pattern of the clematis vines on the trellis, or the velvety swell of land as it faded to gray on the horizon, and the strip of highway visible—just barely—in the hills, beyond the trees. The very colors of the place had seeped into my blood: just as Hampden, in subsequent years, would always present itself immediately to my imagination in a confused whirl of white and green and red, so the country house first appeared as a glorious blur of watercolors, of ivory and lapis blue, chestnut and burnt orange and gold, separating only gradually into the boundaries of remembered objects: the house, the sky, the maple trees. But even that day, there on the porch, with Charles beside me and the smell of wood smoke in the air, it had the quality of a memory; there it was, before my eyes, and yet too beautiful to believe.

  It was getting dark; soon it would be time for dinner. I finished my drink in a swallow. The idea of living there, of not having to go back ever again to asphalt and shopping malls and modular furniture; of living there with Charles and Camilla and Henry and Francis and maybe even Bunny; of no one marrying or going home or getting a job in a town a thousand miles away or doing any of the traitorous things friends do after college; of everything remaining exactly as it was, that instant—the idea was so truly heavenly that I’m not sure I thought, even then, it could ever really happen, but I like to believe I did.

  Francis was working up to a big finish on his song. “ ‘Gentlemen songsters off on a spree … Doomed from here to eternity …’ ”

  Charles looked at me sideways. “So, what about you?” he said.

  “What do you mean?”

  “I mean, do you have any plans?” He laughed. “What are you doing for the next forty or fifty years of your life?”

  Out on the lawn, Bunny had just knocked Henry’s ball about seventy feet outside the court. There was a ragged burst of laughter; faint, but clear, it floated back across the evening air. That laughter haunts me still.



  FROM THE FIRST moment I set foot in Hampden, I had begun to dread the end of term, when I would have to go back to Plano, and flat land, and filling stations, and dust. As the term wore on, and the snow got deeper and the mornings blacker and every day brought me closer to the date on the smeared mimeograph (“December 17—All Final Papers Due”) taped inside my closet door, my melancholy began to turn into something like alarm. I did not think I could stand a Christmas at my parents’ house, with a plastic tree and no snow and the TV going constantly. It was not as if my parents were so anxious to have me, either. In recent years they had fallen in with a gabby, childless couple, older than they were, called the MacNatts. Mr. MacNatt was an auto-parts salesman; Mrs. MacNatt was shaped like a pigeon and sold Avon. They had got my parents doing things lik
e taking bus trips to factory outlets and playing a dice game called “bunko” and hanging around the piano bar at the Ramada Inn. These activities picked up considerably around holidays and my presence, brief and irregular as it was, was regarded as a hindrance and something of a reproach.

  But the holidays were only half the trouble. Because Hampden was so far north, and because the buildings were old and expensive to heat, the school was closed during January and February. Already I could hear my father complaining beerily about me to Mr. MacNatt, Mr. MacNatt slyly goading him on with remarks insinuating that I was spoiled and that he wouldn’t allow any son of his to walk all over him, if he had one. This would drive my father into a fury; eventually he would come busting dramatically into my room and order me out, his forefinger trembling, rolling his eyes like Othello. He had done this several times when I was in high school and in college in California, for no reason really except to display his authority in front of my mother and his coworkers. I was always welcomed back as soon as he tired of the attention and allowed my mother to “talk some sense” into him, but what about now? I didn’t even have a bedroom anymore; in October, my mother had written to say that she had sold the furniture and turned it into a sewing room.

  Henry and Bunny were going to Italy over the winter vacation, to Rome. I was surprised at this announcement, which Bunny had made at the beginning of December, especially since the two of them had been out of sorts for over a month, Henry in particular. Bunny, I knew, had been hitting him hard for money in the past weeks, but though Henry complained about this he seemed oddly incapable of refusing him. I was fairly sure that it wasn’t the money per se, but the principle of it; I was also fairly sure that whatever tension existed, Bunny was oblivious of it.

  The trip was all Bunny talked about. He bought clothes, guidebooks, a record called Parliamo Italiano which promised to teach the listener Italian in two weeks or less (“Even to those who’ve never had luck with other language courses!” boasted the jacket) and a copy of Dorothy Sayers’s translation of Inferno. He knew I had nowhere to go for the winter vacation and enjoyed rubbing salt in my wounds. “I’ll be thinking of you while I’m drinking Campari and riding the gondolas,” he said, winking. Henry had little to say about the trip. As Bunny rattled on he would sit smoking with deep, resolute drags, pretending not to understand Bun’s fallacious Italian.

  Francis said he’d be happy to have me to Christmas in Boston and then travel on with him to New York; the twins phoned their grandmother in Virginia and she said she’d be glad to have me there, too, for the entire winter break. But there was the question of money. For the months until school began I would have to have a job. I needed money if I wanted to come back in the spring, and I couldn’t very well work if I was gallivanting around with Francis. The twins would be clerking, as they always did during holidays, with their uncle the lawyer, but they had quite a time stretching the job to fit the two of them, Charles driving Uncle Orman to the occasional estate sale and to the package store, Camilla sitting around the office waiting to answer a phone that never rang. I am sure it never occurred to them that I might want a job, too—all my tales of Californian richesse had hit the mark harder than I’d thought. “What’ll I do while you’re at work?” I asked them, hoping they would get my drift, but of course they didn’t. “I’m afraid there’s not much to do,” said Charles apologetically. “Read, talk to Nana, play with the dogs.”

  My only choice, it seemed, was to stay in Hampden town. Dr. Roland was willing to keep me on, though at a salary that wouldn’t cover a decent rent. Charles and Camilla were subletting their apartment and Francis had a teenaged cousin staying in his; Henry’s, for all I knew, was standing empty, but he didn’t offer its use and I was too proud to ask. The house in the country was empty, too, but it was an hour from Hampden and I didn’t have a car. Then I heard about an old hippie, an ex–Hampden student, who ran a musical-instrument workshop in an abandoned warehouse. He would let you live in the warehouse for free if you carved pegs or sanded a few mandolins now and again.

  Partly because I did not wish to be burdened with anyone’s pity or contempt, I concealed the true circumstances of my stay. Unwanted during the holidays by my glamorous, good-for-nothing parents, I had decided to stay alone in Hampden (at an unspecified location) and work on my Greek, spurning, in my pride, their craven offers of financial help.

  This stoicism, this Henrylike dedication to my studies and general contempt for the things of this world, won me admiration from all sides, particularly from Henry himself. “I wouldn’t mind being here myself this winter,” he said to me one bleak night late in November as we were walking home from Charles and Camilla’s, our shoes sunk to the ankles in the sodden leaves that covered the path. “The school is boarded up and the stores in town close by three in the afternoon. Everything’s white and empty and there’s no noise but the wind. In the old days the snow would drift up to the eaves of the roofs, and people would be trapped in their houses and starve to death. They wouldn’t be found until spring.” His voice was dreamy, quiet, but I was filled with uncertainty; in the winters where I lived it did not even snow.

  The last week of school was a flurry of packing, typing, plane reservations and phone calls home, for everybody but me. I had no need to finish my papers early because I had nowhere to go; I could pack at my leisure, after the dorms were empty. Bunny was the first to leave. For three weeks he had been in a panic over a paper he had to write for his fourth course, something called Masterworks of English Literature. The assignment was twenty-five pages on John Donne. We’d all wondered how he was going to do it, because he was not much of a writer; though his dyslexia was the convenient culprit the real problem was not that but his attention span, which was as short as a child’s. He seldom read the required texts or supplemental books for any course. Instead, his knowledge of any given subject tended to be a hodgepodge of confused facts, often strikingly irrelevant or out of context, that he happened to remember from classroom discussions or believed himself to have read somewhere. When it was time to write a paper he would supplement these dubious fragments by cross-examination of Henry (whom he was in the habit of consulting, like an atlas) or with information from either The World Book Encyclopedia or a reference work entitled Men of Thought and Deed, a six-volume work by E. Tipton Chatsford, Rev., dating from the 1890s, consisting of thumbnail sketches of great men through the ages, written for children, full of dramatic engravings.

  Anything Bunny wrote was bound to be alarmingly original, since he began with such odd working materials and managed to alter them further by his befuddled scrutiny, but the John Donne paper must have been the worst of all the bad papers he ever wrote (ironic, given that it was the only thing he ever wrote that saw print. After he disappeared, a journalist asked for an excerpt from the missing young scholar’s work and Marion gave him a copy of it, a laboriously edited paragraph of which eventually found its way into People magazine).

  Somewhere, Bunny had heard that John Donne had been acquainted with Izaak Walton, and in some dim corridor of his mind this friendship grew larger and larger, until in his mind the two men were practically interchangeable. We never understood how this fatal connection had established itself: Henry blamed it on Men of Thought and Deed, but no one knew for sure. A week or two before the paper was due, he had started showing up in my room about two or three in the morning, looking as if he had just narrowly escaped some natural disaster, his tie askew and his eyes wild and rolling. “Hello, hello,” he would say, stepping in, running both hands through his disordered hair. “Hope I didn’t wake you, don’t mind if I cut on the lights, do you, ah, here we go, yes, yes.…” He would turn on the lights and then pace back and forth for a while without taking off his coat, hands clasped behind his back, shaking his head. Finally he would stop dead in his tracks and say, with a desperate look in his eye: “Metahemeralism. Tell me about it. Everything you know. I gotta know something about metahemeralism.”

??m sorry. I don’t know what that is.”

  “I don’t either,” Bunny would say brokenly. “Got to do with art or pastoralism or something. That’s how I gotta tie together John Donne and Izaak Walton, see.” He would resume pacing. “Donne. Walton. Metahemeralism. That’s the problem as I see it.”

  “Bunny, I don’t think ‘metahemeralism’ is even a word.”

  “Sure it is. Comes from the Latin. Has to do with irony and the pastoral. Yeah. That’s it. Painting or sculpture or something, maybe.”

  “Is it in the dictionary?”

  “Dunno. Don’t know how to spell it. I mean”—he made a picture frame with his hands—“the poet and the fisherman. Parfait. Boon companions. Out in the open spaces. Living the good life. Metahemeralism’s gotta be the glue here, see?”

  And so it would go, for sometimes half an hour or more, with Bunny raving about fishing, and sonnets, and Heaven knew what, until in the middle of his monologue he would be struck by a brilliant thought and bluster off as suddenly as he had descended.

  He finished the paper four days before the deadline and ran around showing it to everyone before he turned it in.

  “This is a nice paper, Bun—,” Charles said cautiously.

  “Thanks, thanks.”

  “But don’t you think you ought to mention John Donne more often? Wasn’t that your assignment?”

  “Oh, Donne,” Bunny had said scoffingly. “I don’t want to drag him into this.”

  Henry refused to read it. “I’m sure it’s over my head, Bunny, really,” he said, glancing over the first page. “Say, what’s wrong with this type?”

  “Triple-spaced it,” said Bunny proudly.

  “These lines are about an inch apart.”

  “Looks kind of like free verse, doesn’t it?”

  Henry made a funny little snorting noise through his nose. “Looks kind of like a menu,” he said.

  All I remember about the paper was that it ended with the sentence “And as we leave Donne and Walton on the shores of Metahemeralism, we wave a fond farewell to those famous chums of yore.” We wondered if he would fail. But Bunny wasn’t worried: the approaching trip to Italy, now close enough to cast the dark shadow of the Tower of Pisa over his bed at night, had thrown him in a state of high agitation and he was anxious to leave Hampden as soon as possible and dispense with his familial obligations so that he could embark.

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