The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  I still have this postcard. Characteristically, the writing is in pencil; over the years it’s become a bit smudged but it’s still quite legible. There is no signature, but there is no mistaking the authorship:

  Richard old Man

  are you Frozen? it is quite

  warm here. We live in a Penscione

  (sp.) I ordered Conche by mistake

  yesterday in a restaurant it was awful

  but Henry ate it. Everybody here is a

  damn Catholic. Arrivaderci see you soon.

  Francis and the twins had asked me, rather insistently, my address in Hampden. “Where are you living?” said Charles in black ink. “Yes, where?” echoed Camilla in red. (She used a particular morocco shade of ink that to me, missing her terribly, brought back in a rush of color all the thin, cheerful hoarseness of her voice.) As I had no address to give them, I ignored their questions and padded my replies with broad references to snow, and beauty, and solitude. I often thought how peculiar my life must look to someone reading those letters, far away. The existence they described was detached and impersonal, all-embracing yet indefinite, with large blanks that rose to halt the reader at every turn; with a few changes of date and circumstance they could have been as easily from the Gautama as myself.

  I wrote these letters in the mornings before work, in the library, during my sessions of prolonged loitering in Commons, where I remained every evening until asked to leave by the janitor. It seemed my whole life was composed of these disjointed fractions of time, hanging around in one public place and then another, as if I were waiting for trains that never came. And, like one of those ghosts who are said to linger around depots late at night, asking passersby for the timetable of the Midnight Express that derailed twenty years before, I wandered from light to light until that dreaded hour when all the doors closed and, stepping from the world of warmth and people and conversation overheard, I felt the old familiar cold twist through my bones again and then it was all forgotten, the warmth, the lights; I had never been warm in my life, ever.

  I became expert at making myself invisible. I could linger two hours over a coffee, four over a meal, and hardly be noticed by the waitress. Though the janitors in Commons rousted me every night at closing time, I doubt they ever realized they spoke to the same boy twice. Sunday afternoons, my cloak of invisibility around my shoulders, I would sit in the infirmary for sometimes six hours at a time, placidly reading copies of Yankee magazine (“Clamming on Cuttyhunk”) or Reader’s Digest (“Ten Ways to Help That Aching Back!”), my presence unremarked by receptionist, physician, and fellow sufferer alike.

  But, like the Invisible Man in H. G. Wells, I discovered that my gift had its price, which took the form of, in my case as in his, a sort of mental darkness. It seemed that people failed to meet my eye, made as if to walk through me; my superstitions began to transform themselves into something like mania. I became convinced that it was only a matter of time before one of the rickety iron steps that led to my room gave and I would fall and break my neck or, worse, a leg; I’d freeze or starve before Leo would assist me. Because one day, when I’d climbed the stairs successfully and without fear, I’d had an old Brian Eno song running through my head (“In New Delhi / And Hong Kong / They all know that it won’t be long …”), I now had to sing it to myself each trip up or down the stairs.

  And each time I crossed the footbridge over the river, twice a day, I had to stop and scoop around in the coffee-colored snow at the road’s edge until I found a decent-sized rock. I would then lean over the icy railing and drop it into the rapid current that bubbled over the speckled dinosaur eggs of granite which made up its bed—a gift to the river-god, maybe, for safe crossing, or perhaps some attempt to prove to it that I, though invisible, did exist. The water ran so shallow and clear in places that sometimes I heard the dropped stone click as it hit the bed. Both hands on the icy rail, staring down at the water as it dashed white against the boulders, boiled thinly over the polished stones, I wondered what it would be like to fall and break my head open on one of those bright rocks: a wicked crack, a sudden limpness, then veins of red marbling the glassy water.

  If I threw myself off, I thought, who would find me in all that white silence? Might the river beat me downstream over the rocks until it spat me out in the quiet waters, down behind the dye factory, where some lady would catch me in the beam of her headlights when she pulled out of the parking lot at five in the afternoon? Or would I, like the pieces of Leo’s mandolin, lodge stubbornly in some quiet place behind a boulder and wait, my clothes washing about me, for spring?

  This was, I should say, about the third week in January. The thermometer was dropping; my life, which before had been only solitary and miserable, became unbearable. Every day, in a daze, I walked to and from work, sometimes during weather that was ten or twenty below, sometimes during storms so heavy that all I could see was white, and the only way I made it home at all was by keeping close to the guard rail on the side of the road. Once home, I wrapped myself in my dirty blankets and fell on the floor like a dead man. All my moments which were not consumed with efforts to escape the cold were absorbed with morbid Poe-like fancies. One night, in a dream, I saw my own corpse, hair stiff with ice and eyes wide open.

  I was at Dr. Roland’s office every morning like clockwork. He, an alleged psychologist, noticed not one of the Ten Warning Signs of Nervous Collapse or whatever it was that he was educated to see, and qualified to teach. Instead, he took advantage of my silence to talk to himself about football, and dogs he had had as a boy. The rare remarks he addressed to me were cryptic and incomprehensible. He asked, for example, since I was in the Drama department, why hadn’t I been in any plays? “What’s wrong? Are you shy, boy? Show them what you’re made of.” Another time he told me, in an offhand manner, that when he was at Brown he had roomed with the boy who lived down the hall from him. One day, he said he didn’t know my friend was in Hampden for the winter.

  “I don’t have any friends here for the winter,” I said, and I didn’t.

  “You shouldn’t push your friends away like that. The best friends you’ll ever have are the ones you’re making right now. I know you don’t believe me, but they start to fall away when you get to be my age.”

  When I walked home at night, things got white around the edges and it seemed I had no past, no memories, that I had been on this exact stretch of luminous, hissing road forever.

  I don’t know what exactly was wrong with me. The doctors said it was chronic hypothermia, with bad diet and a mild case of pneumonia on top of it; but I don’t know if that accounts for all the hallucinations and mental confusion. At the time I wasn’t even aware I was sick: any symptom, any fever or pain, was drowned by the clamor of my more immediate miseries.

  For I was in a bad fix. It was the coldest January on record for twenty-five years. I was terrified of freezing to death but there was absolutely nowhere I could go. I suppose I might’ve asked Dr. Roland if I could stay in the apartment he shared with his girlfriend, but the embarrassment of that was such that death, to me, seemed preferable. I knew no one else, even slightly, and short of knocking on the doors of strangers there was little I could do. One bitter night I tried to call my parents from the pay phone outside the Boulder Tap; sleet was falling and I was shivering so violently I could hardly get the coins in the slot. Although I had some desperate, half-baked hope that they might send money or a plane ticket, I didn’t know what I wanted them to say to me; I think I had some idea that I, standing in the sleet and winds of Prospect Street, would feel better simply by hearing the voices of people far away, in a warm place. But when my father picked up the telephone on the sixth or seventh ring, his voice, beery and irritated, gave me a hard, dry feeling in my throat and I hung up.

  Dr. Roland mentioned my imaginary friend again. He’d seen him uptown this time, walking on the square late at night as he was driving home.

  “I told you I don’t have any friends here,” I said.
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  “You know who I’m talking about. Great big boy. Wears glasses.”

  Someone who looked like Henry? Bunny? “You must be mistaken,” I said.

  The temperature plummeted so low that I was forced to spend a few nights at the Catamount Motel. I was the only person in the place, besides the snaggle-toothed old man who ran it; he was in the room next to mine and kept me awake with his loud hacking and spitting. There was no lock on my door, only the antique sort that can be picked with a hairpin; on the third night I woke from a bad dream (nightmare stairwell, steps all different heights and widths; a man going down ahead of me, really fast) to hear a faint, clicking noise. I sat up in bed and, to my horror, saw my doorknob turning stealthily in the moonlight: “Who’s there?” I said loudly, and it stopped. I lay awake in the dark for a long time. The next morning, I left, preferring a quieter death at Leo’s to being murdered in my bed.

  A terrible storm came around the first of February, bringing with it downed power lines, stranded motorists, and, for me, a bout of hallucinations. Voices spoke to me in the roar of the water, in the hissing snow: “Lie down,” they whispered, and “Turn left. You’ll be sorry if you don’t.” My typewriter was by the window of Dr. Roland’s office. Late one afternoon, as it was getting dark, I looked down into the empty courtyard and was startled to see that a dark, motionless figure had materialized under the lamp, standing with its hands in the pockets of its dark overcoat and looking up at my window. It was shadowy and heavy snow was falling: “Henry?” I said, and squeezed my eyes shut until I saw stars. When I opened them again, I saw nothing but snow whirling in the bright cone of emptiness beneath the light.

  At night I lay shivering on the floor, watching the illuminated snowflakes sift in a column through the hole in the ceiling. On the margin of stupefaction, as I was sliding off the steep roof of unconsciousness, something would tell me at the last instant that if I went to sleep I might never wake: with a struggle I would force my eyes open and all of a sudden the column of snow, standing bright and tall in its dark corner, would appear to me in its true whispering, smiling menace, an airy angel of death. But I was too tired to care; even as I looked at it I would feel my grasp slackening, and before I knew it I had tumbled down the slanted edge, and into the dark abyss of sleep.

  Time was beginning to blur. I still dragged myself to the office, but only because it was warm there, and I somehow performed the simple tasks that I had to do, but I honestly do not know how much longer I would have been able to keep this up had not a very surprising thing happened.

  I’ll never forget this night as long as I live. It was Friday, and Dr. Roland was going to be out of town until the following Wednesday. For me, that meant four days in the warehouse, and even in my clouded state it was clear I might freeze to death for real.

  When Commons closed I started for home. The snow was deep, and before long my legs to the knees were prickling and numb. By the time the road came around into East Hampden I was wondering seriously if I could make it to the warehouse, and what I would do when I got there. Everything in East Hampden was dark and deserted, even the Boulder Tap; the only light for miles around seemed to be the light shimmering around the pay phone in front. I made my way towards it as though it were a mirage in the desert. I had about thirty dollars in my pocket, more than enough to call a taxi to take me to the Catamount Motel, to a nasty little room with an unlocked door and whatever else might await me there.

  My voice was slurred and the operator wouldn’t give me the number of a taxi company. “You have to give me the name of a specific taxi service,” she said. “We’re not allowed to—”

  “I don’t know the name of a specific taxi service,” I said thickly. “There’s not a phone book here.”

  “I’m sorry, sir, but we’re not allowed to—”

  “Red Top?” I said desperately, trying to guess at names, make them up, anything. “Yellow Top? Town Taxi? Checker?”

  Finally I guess I got one right, or maybe she just felt sorry for me. There was a click, and a mechanical voice came on and gave me a number. I dialed it quickly so I wouldn’t forget, so quickly that I got it wrong and lost my quarter.

  I had one more quarter in my pocket; it was my last one. I took off my glove and groped in my pocket with my numbed fingers. Finally I found it, and I had it in my hand and was about to bring it up to the slot, when suddenly it slipped from my fingers and I pitched forward after it, hitting my forehead on the sharp corner of the metal tray beneath the phone.

  I lay face down in the snow for a few minutes. There was a rushing noise in my ears; in falling, I had grabbed for the phone and knocked it off the hook, and the busy signal the receiver made as it swung back and forth sounded as if it were coming from a long way off.

  I managed to get up on all fours. Staring at the place where my head had been, I saw a dark spot on the snow. When I touched my forehead with my ungloved hand the fingers came away red. The quarter was gone; besides, I had forgotten the number. I would have to come back later, when the Boulder Tap was open and I could get change. Somehow I struggled to my feet, leaving the black receiver dangling from its cord.

  I made it up the stairs half walking, half on my hands and knees. Blood was trickling down my forehead. At the landing I stopped to rest and felt my surroundings slide out of focus: static, between stations, everything snowy for a moment or two before the black lines wavered and the picture snapped back; not quite clear, but recognizable. Jerky camera, nightmare commercial. Leo’s Mandolin Warehouse. Last stop, down by the river. Low rates. Remember us, too, for all your meat-locker needs.

  I pushed the workshop door open with my shoulder and began to fumble for the light switch when suddenly I saw something by the window that made me reel with shock. A figure in a long black overcoat was standing motionless across the room by the windows, hands clasped behind the back; near one of the hands I saw the tiny glow of a cigarette coal.

  The lights came on with a crackle and a hum. The shadowy figure, now solid and visible, turned around. It was Henry. He seemed on the verge of making some joking remark, but when he saw me his eyes got wide and his mouth fell open into a small round o.

  We stood staring at each other across the room for a moment or two.

  “Henry?” I said at last, my voice scarcely more than a whisper.

  He let the cigarette fall from his fingers and took a step towards me. It really was him—damp, ruddy cheeks, snow on the shoulders of his overcoat. “Good God, Richard,” he said, “what’s happened to you?”

  It was as much surprise as I ever saw him show. I stood where I was, staring, unbalanced. Things had got too bright, white around the edges. I reached for the door frame, and the next thing I knew I was falling, and Henry had jumped forward to catch me.

  He eased me onto the floor and took off his coat and spread it over me like a blanket. I squinted up at him and wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. “Where did you come from?” I said.

  “I left Italy early.” He was brushing the hair back from my forehead, trying to get a look at my cut. I saw blood on his fingertips.

  “Some little place I’ve got here, huh?” I said, and laughed.

  He glanced up at the hole in the ceiling. “Yes,” he said brusquely. “Not unlike the Pantheon.” Then he bent to look at my head again.

  I remember being in Henry’s car, and lights and people bending over me, and having to sit up when I didn’t want to, and I also remember someone trying to take my blood, and me complaining sort of feebly about it; but the first thing I remember with any clarity was sitting up and finding myself in a dim, white room, lying in a hospital bed with an IV in my arm.

  Henry was sitting in a chair by my bed, reading by the table lamp. He put down his book when he saw me stir. “Your cut wasn’t serious,” he said. “It was very clean and shallow. They gave you a few stitches.”

  “Am I in the infirmary?”

  “You’re in Montpelier. I brought you to the hospital.”


  “What’s this IV for?”

  “They say you have pneumonia. Would you like something to read?” he said courteously.

  “No thank you. What time is it?”

  “One in the morning.”

  “But I thought you were in Rome.”

  “I came back about two weeks ago. If you want to go back to sleep I’ll call the nurse to give you a shot.”

  “No thanks. Why haven’t I seen you before now?”

  “Because I didn’t know where you lived. The only address I had for you was in care of the college. This afternoon I asked around at the offices. By the way,” he said, “what’s the name of the town where your parents live?”

  “Plano. Why?”

  “I thought you might want me to call them.”

  “Don’t bother,” I said, sinking back into my bed. The IV was like ice in my veins. “Tell me about Rome.”

  “All right,” he said, and he began to talk very quietly about the lovely Etruscan terra-cottas in the Villa Giulia, and the lily pools and the fountains in the nymphaeum outside it; about the Villa Borghese and the Colosseum, the view from the Palatine Hill early in the morning, and how beautiful the Baths of Caracalla must have been in Roman times, with the marbles and the libraries and the big circular calidarium, and the frigidarium, with its great empty pool, that was there even now, and probably a lot of other things besides but I don’t remember because I fell asleep.

  I was in the hospital for four nights. Henry stayed with me almost the whole time, bringing me sodas when I asked for them, and a razor and a toothbrush, and a pair of his own pajamas—silky Egyptian cotton, cream-colored and heavenly soft, with HMW (M for Marchbanks) embroidered in tiny scarlet letters on the pocket. He also brought me pencils and paper, for which I had little use but which I suppose he would have been lost without, and a great many books, half of which were in languages I couldn’t read and the other half of which might as well have been. One night—head aching from Hegel—I asked him to bring me a magazine; he looked rather startled, and when he came back it was with a trade journal (Pharmacology Update) he had found in the lounge. We talked hardly at all. Most of the time he read, with a concentration that astonished me; six hours at a stretch, scarcely glancing up. He paid me almost no attention. But he stayed up with me on the bad nights, when I had a hard time breathing and my lungs hurt so I couldn’t sleep; and once, when the nurse on duty was three hours late with my medicine, he followed her expressionless into the hall and there delivered, in his subdued monotone, such a tense and eloquent reprimand that the nurse (a contemptuous, hard-bitten woman, with dyed hair like an aging waitress, and a sour word for everyone) was somewhat mollified; and afterwards she—who ripped off the bandages around my IV with such callousness, and poked me black and blue in her desultory search for veins—was much gentler in her handling of me, and once, while taking my temperature, even called me “hon.”

 
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