The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  Brusquely he asked me, since I didn’t have anything to do, would I come over and help him pack? I said I would, and arrived to find him dumping the contents of entire drawers into suitcases, clothes everywhere. I reached up and carefully took a framed Japanese print from the wall and lay it down on his desk: “Don’t touch that,” he shouted, dropping his nightstand drawer on the floor with a bang and darting over to snatch up the print. “That thing’s two hundred years old.” As a matter of fact, I knew that it was no such thing, since I happened a few weeks before to have seen him carefully razoring it from a book in the library; I said nothing, but I was so irritated that I left immediately, amidst what gruff excuses his pride permitted him. Later, after he had gone, I found an awkward note of apology in my mailbox, wrapped around a paperback copy of the poems of Rupert Brooke and a box of Junior Mints.

  Henry departed quickly and quietly. One night he told us he was leaving and the next day he was gone. (To St. Louis? ahead to Italy? none of us knew.) Francis left the day after that and there were many elaborate and prolonged goodbyes—Charles, Camilla, and I standing by the side of the road, noses raw and ears half-frozen, while Francis shouted at us with the window rolled down and the motor idling and great clouds of white smoke billowing all around the Mustang for what must have been a good forty-five minutes.

  Perhaps because they were the last to leave, I hated to see the twins go most of all. After Francis’s horn honks had faded into the snowy, echoless distance, we walked back to their house, not saying much, taking the path through the woods. When Charles turned on the light, I saw that the place was heartbreakingly neat—sink empty, floors waxed, and a row of suitcases by the door.

  The dining halls had closed at noon that day; it was snowing hard and getting dark and we didn’t have a car; the refrigerator, freshly cleaned and smelling of Lysol, was empty. Sitting around the kitchen table we had a sad, makeshift dinner of canned mushroom soup, soda crackers, and tea without sugar or milk. The main topic of conversation was Charles and Camilla’s itinerary—how they would manage the baggage, what time they should call the taxi in order to make a six-thirty train. I joined in this travel-talk but a deep melancholy that would not lift for many weeks had already begun to settle around me; the sound of Francis’s car, receding and then disappearing in the snowy, muffled distance, was still in my ears, and for the first time I realized how lonely the next two months would really be, with the school closed, the snow deep, everyone gone.

  They’d told me not to bother seeing them off the next morning, they were leaving so early, but all the same I was there again at five to tell them goodbye. It was a clear, black morning, encrusted with stars; the thermometer on the porch of Commons had sunk to zero. The taxi, idling in a cloud of fume, was already waiting in front. The driver had just slammed the lid on a trunkful of luggage and Charles and Camilla were locking the door behind them. They were too worried and preoccupied to take much pleasure at my presence. Both of them were nervous travelers: their parents had been killed in a car accident, on a weekend drive up to Washington, and they were edgy for days before they had to go anywhere themselves.

  They were running late, as well. Charles put down his suitcase to shake my hand. “Merry Christmas, Richard. You will write, won’t you?” he said, then ran down the walk to the cab. Camilla—struggling with two enormous carpetbags—dropped them both in the snow and said: “Damm it, we’ll never get all this luggage on the train.”

  She was breathing hard, and deep circles of red burned high on her bright cheeks; in all my life I had never seen anyone so maddeningly beautiful as she was at that moment. I stood blinking stupidly at her, the blood pounding in my veins, and my carefully rehearsed plans for a goodbye kiss forgotten, when unexpectedly she flew up and threw her arms around me. Her hoarse breath was loud in my ear and her cheek was like ice when she put it against mine a moment later; when I took her gloved hand, I felt the quick pulse of her slender wrist beneath my thumbs.

  The taxi honked and Charles put his head out the window. “Come on,” he shouted.

  I carried her bags down to the sidewalk and stood under the street lamp as they pulled away. They were turned around in the back seat and waving to me through the rear window and I stood watching them, and the ghost of my own distorted reflection receding in the curve of the dark glass, until the cab turned a corner and disappeared.

  I stood in the deserted street until I could no longer hear the sound of the motor, only the hiss of the powdery snow that the wind kicked up in little eddies on the ground. Then I started back to campus, hands deep in pockets and the crunch of my feet unbearably loud. The dorms were black and silent, and the big parking lot behind the tennis court was empty except for a few faculty cars and a lone green truck from Maintenance. In my dorm the hallways were littered with shoe boxes and coat hangers, doors ajar, everything dark and quiet as the grave. I was as depressed as I have ever been in my life. I pulled down the shades and lay down on my unmade bed and went back to sleep.

  I had so few belongings it was possible to take them in one trip. When I woke again, around noon, I packed my two suitcases and, dropping my key off at the security booth, hauled them down the deserted, snowy road into town and to the address the hippie had given me over the telephone.

  It was a longer walk than I’d expected, and it soon took me off the main road and through some particularly desolate country near Mount Cataract. My way ran parallel to a rapid, shallow river—the Battenkill—spanned by covered bridges here and there along its course. There were few houses, and even those grim, terrifying house trailers one frequently sees in the backwoods of Vermont, with tremendous piles of wood to the side and black smoke pouring out the stovepipes, were few and far between. There were no cars at all, except for the occasional derelict vehicle propped on cinderblocks in someone’s front yard.

  It would have been a pleasant, if demanding walk even in the summertime but in December, in two feet of snow and with two heavy suitcases to carry, I found myself wondering if I would make it at all. My toes and fingers were cramped with cold, and more than once I had to stop to rest, but gradually the countryside began to look less and less deserted and finally the road came out where I had been told it would: Prospect Street in East Hampden.

  It was a part of town I had never seen, and worlds away from the part I knew—maple trees and clapboard storefronts, village green and courthouse clock. This Hampden was a bombed-out expanse of water towers, rusted railroad tracks, sagging warehouses and factories with the doors boarded up and the windows broken out. All of it looked as though it had stood abandoned since the Depression, except for a seedy little bar at the end of the street, which, judging from the scrum of trucks out front, was doing a good brisk business, even this early in the afternoon. Strings of Christmas lights and plastic holly hung above the neon beer lights; glancing inside, I saw a line of men in flannel shirts at the bar, all with shot glasses or beers before them, and—towards the back—a younger set running more to baseball caps and fat clustered around a pool table. I stood outside the red, padded-vinyl door and looked in through the porthole at the top for an instant longer. Should I go in and ask directions, have a drink, get warm? I decided I should, and my hand was on the greasy brass door handle when I saw the name of the place in the window: Boulder Tap. As I had heard of the Boulder Tap from the local news, it was the epicenter of what little crime there was in Hampden—knifings, rapes, never a single witness. It was not the type of place where you’d want to stop in alone for a drink if you were a lost college boy from up on the hill.

  But it wasn’t so hard to find where the hippie lived, after all. One of the warehouses, right on the river, was painted bright purple.

  The hippie looked angry, as though I’d woken him up, when he finally came to the door. “Just let yourself in next time, man,” he said sullenly. He was a short fat man with a sweat-stained T-shirt and a red beard, who looked as if he’d spent many fine evenings with his friends around the pool t
able at the Boulder Tap. He pointed out the room where I was to live, at the top of a flight of iron stairs (no railing, naturally), and disappeared without a word.

  I found myself in a cavernous, dusty room with a plank floor and high, exposed rafters. Besides a broken dresser, and a high chair standing in the corner, it was completely unfurnished except for a lawn mower, a rusted oil drum, and a trestle table which was scattered with sandpaper and carpentry tools and a few curved pieces of wood which were perhaps the exoskeletons of mandolins. Sawdust, nails, food wrappers and cigarette butts, Playboy magazines from the 1970s littered the floor; the many-paned windows were furry with frost and grime.

  I let one suitcase and then the other fall from my numb hands; for a moment my mind was numb, too, agreeably registering these impressions without comment. Then, all at once, I became aware of an overwhelming roaring, rushing noise. I went over and looked out the back windows behind the trestle table and was startled to see an expanse of water, hardly three feet below. Farther down, I could see it pounding over a dam, and the spray flying. As I tried to clear a circle on the window with my hand so I could see better, I noticed that my breath was still white, even then, indoors.

  Suddenly, something that I can only describe as an icy blast swept over me, and I looked up. There was a large hole in the roof; I saw blue sky, a swift cloud moving from left to right, through the jagged black edge. Below it was a thin powdery dusting of snow, stenciled perfectly on the wooden floor in the shape of the hole above it, and undisturbed except for the sharp line of a solitary footprint, my own.

  A good many people asked me later if I had realized what a dangerous thing this was, attempting to live in an unheated building in upstate Vermont during the coldest months of the year; and to be frank, I hadn’t. In the back of my mind were the stories I’d heard, of drunks, of old people, of careless skiers freezing to death, but for some reason none of this seemed to apply to me. My quarters were uncomfortable, certainly, they were foully dirty and bitterly cold; but it never occurred to me that they were actually unsafe. Other students had lived there; the hippie lived there himself; a receptionist at the Student Referral Office had told me about it. What I didn’t know was that the hippie’s own quarters were properly heated, and that the students who had lived there in the past had come there well armed with space heaters and electric blankets. The hole in the roof, moreover, was a recent development, unknown to the Student Referral Office. I suppose anyone who knew the whole story would have warned me off, but the fact was, nobody did know. I was so embarrassed at having such living quarters that I had told no one where I was staying, not even Dr. Roland; the only person who knew all was the hippie, and he was supremely unconcerned with anyone’s welfare but his own.

  Early in the morning, while it was still dark, I would wake up in my blankets on the floor (I slept in two or three sweaters, long underwear, wool trousers and overcoat) and walk just as I was to Dr. Roland’s office. It was a long walk and, if it was snowing or the wind was up, sometimes a harrowing one. I would arrive at Commons, chilled and exhausted, just as the janitor was unlocking the building for the day. I would then go downstairs and shave and shower in the cellar, in a disused and rather sinister-looking room—white tiles, exposed piping, a drain in the middle of the floor—that had been part of a makeshift infirmary during World War II. The janitors used the taps to fill the wash buckets, so the water was still on and there was even a gas heater; I kept a razor, soap, an inconspicuously folded towel towards the back of one of the empty, glass-fronted cabinets. Then I would go make myself a can of soup and some instant coffee on the hot plate in the Social Science office, and by the time Dr. Roland and the secretaries arrived, I already had quite a start on the day’s work.

  Dr. Roland, accustomed as he was by this time to my truancy and my frequent excuses and my failure to complete tasks by the deadline, was startled and rather suspicious of this abrupt spurt of industry. He praised my work, questioned me closely; on several occasions I heard him in the hall discussing my metamorphosis with Dr. Cabrini, the head of the psychology department, the only other teacher in the building who hadn’t left for the winter. At the first, no doubt, he thought it was all some new trick of mine. But as the weeks rolled by and each new day of enthusiastic labor added another gold star to my shining record he began to believe: timidly at first but at last triumphantly. Around the first of February he even gave me a raise. Perhaps he was hoping in his Behavioralist way that this would spur me to even greater heights of motivation. He came to regret this mistake, however, when the winter term ended and I went back to my comfortable little room in Monmouth House and all my old incompetent ways.

  I worked as late at Dr. Roland’s as I decently could and then went to the snack bar in Commons for dinner. On certain fortunate nights there were even places to go afterwards, and I scanned the bulletin boards eagerly for these meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, these performances of Brigadoon by the local high school. But usually there was nothing at all, and Commons closed at seven, and I was left my long walk home in the snow and dark.

  The cold in the warehouse was like nothing I’ve known before or since. I suppose if I’d had any sense I’d have gone out and bought an electric heater, but only four months before I had come from one of the warmest climates in America and I had only the dimmest awareness that such appliances existed. It never occurred to me that half the population of Vermont wasn’t experiencing pretty much what I put myself through every night—bone-cracking cold that made my joints ache, cold so relentless I felt it in my dreams: ice floes, lost expeditions, the lights of search planes swinging over whitecaps as I floundered alone in black Arctic seas. In the morning, when I woke, I was as stiff and sore as if I’d been beaten. I thought it was because I was sleeping on the floor. Only later did I realize that the true cause of this malady was hard, merciless shivering, my muscles contracting as mechanically as if by electric impulse, all night long, every night.

  Amazingly, the hippie, whose name was Leo, was quite angry that I didn’t spend more time carving mandolin struts or warping boards or whatever it was I was supposed to be doing up there. “You’re taking advantage, man,” he would say threateningly whenever he happened to see me. “Nobody burns Leo like this. Nobody.” He had some idea that I had studied instrument building and was in fact able to do all sorts of complex, technical work, though I had never told him any such thing. “Yes, you did,” he said, when I pled my ignorance. “You did. You said you lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains one summer and made dulcimers. In Kentucky.”

  I had nothing to say to this. I am not unused to being confronted with my own lies, but those of others never fail to throw me for a loop. I could only deny it and say, quite honestly, that I didn’t even know what a dulcimer was. “Carve pegs,” he said insolently. “Sweep up.” To which I replied, in so many words, that I could hardly carve pegs in rooms too cold for me to take my gloves off. “Cut the fingertips off them, man,” said Leo, unperturbed. These occasional collarings in the front hall were as far as my contact with him went. It eventually became evident to me that Leo, for all his professed love for mandolins, never actually set foot in the workshop and had apparently not done so for months before I came to live there. I began to wonder if perhaps he was even unaware of the hole in the roof; one day I made so bold as to mention it to him. “I thought that was one of the things you could fix around the place,” he said. It stands as a testimony to my misery that one Sunday I actually attempted to do this, with a few odd scraps of mandolin wood that I found around, and nearly lost my life in the attempt; the grade of the roof was wickedly sharp and I lost my balance and nearly fell into the dam, catching myself only at the last moment on a length of tin drainpipe which, mercifully, held. I managed with effort to save myself—my hands were cut on the rusted tin, and I had to get a tetanus shot—but Leo’s hammer and saw and the pieces of mandolin wood tumbled into the dam. The tools all sank and Leo probably does not know to this day that they are missi
ng, but unfortunately the mandolin pieces floated and managed to lodge themselves in a cluster at the top of the spillway, right outside Leo’s bedroom window. Of course he had plenty to say about this, and about college kids who didn’t care about other people’s things, and everybody trying to rip him off all the time.

  Christmas came and went without notice, except that with no work and everything closed there was no place to go to get warm except, for a few hours, to church. I came home afterwards and wrapped myself in my blanket and rocked back and forth, ice in my very bones, and thought of all the sunny Christmases of my childhood—oranges, bikes and hula-hoops, green tinsel sparkling in the heat.

  Mail arrived occasionally, in care of Hampden College. Francis sent me a six-page letter about how bored he felt, and how sick he was, and virtually everything he’d had to eat since I’d seen him last. The twins, bless them, sent boxes of cookies their grandmother had made and letters written in alternating inks-black for Charles, red for Camilla. Around the second week of January I got a postcard from Rome, no return address. It was a photograph of the Primaporta Augustus; beside it, Bunny had drawn a surprisingly deft cartoon of himself and Henry in Roman dress (togas, little round eyeglasses) squinting off curiously in the direction indicated by the statue’s outstretched arm. (Caesar Augustus was Bunny’s hero; he had embarrassed us all by cheering loudly at the mention of his name during the reading of the Bethlehem story from Luke 2 at the literature division’s Christmas party. “Well, what of it,” he said, when we tried to shush him. “All the world shoulda been taxed.”)

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