The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  The emergency room doctor told me that Henry had saved my life. This was a dramatic and gratifying thing to hear—and one which I repeated to a number of people—but secretly I thought it was an exaggeration. In subsequent years, however, I’ve come to feel that he might well have been right. When I was younger I thought that I was immortal. And though I bounced back quickly, in a short-term sense, in another I never really quite got over that winter. I’ve had problems with my lungs ever since, and my bones ache at the slightest chill, and I catch cold easily now, whereas I never used to.

  I told Henry what the doctor had said. He was displeased. Frowning, he made some curt remark—actually, I’m surprised I’ve forgotten it, I was so embarrassed—and I never mentioned it again. I think he did save me, though. And someplace, if there is a place where lists are kept, and credit given, I am sure there is a gold star by his name.

  But I am getting sentimental. Sometimes, when I think about these things, I do.

  On Monday morning I was able to leave at last, with a bottle of antibiotics and an arm full of pinpricks. They insisted on pushing me to Henry’s car in a wheelchair, though I was perfectly able to walk and humiliated at being rolled out like a parcel.

  “Take me to the Catamount Motel,” I told him as we pulled into Hampden.

  “No,” he said. “You’re coming to stay with me.”

  Henry lived on the first floor of an old house on Water Street, in North Hampden, just around the block from Charles and Camilla’s and closer to the river. He didn’t like to have people over and I had been there only once, and then for a minute or two. It was much larger than Charles and Camilla’s apartment, and a good deal emptier. The rooms were big and anonymous, with wide-plank floors and no curtains on the windows and plaster walls painted white. The furniture, while obviously good, was scarred and plain and there wasn’t much of it. The whole place had a ghostly, unoccupied look; and some of the rooms had nothing in them at all. I had been told by the twins that Henry disliked electric lights, and here and there I saw kerosene lamps in the windowsills.

  His bedroom, where I was to stay, had been closed off rather pointedly during my previous visit. In it were Henry’s books—not as many as you might think—and a single bed, and very little else, except a closet with a large, conspicuous padlock. Tacked on the closet door was a black and white picture from an old magazine—Life, it said, 1945. It was of Vivien Leigh and, surprisingly, a much younger Julian. They were at a cocktail party, glasses in hand; he was whispering something in her ear, and she was laughing.

  “Where was that taken?” I said.

  “I don’t know. Julian says he can’t remember. Every now and then one runs across a photograph of him in an old magazine.”

  “Why?”

  “He used to know a lot of people.”

  “Who?”

  “Most of them are dead now.”

  “Who?”

  “I really don’t know, Richard.” Then, relenting: “I’ve seen pictures of him with the Sitwells. And T. S. Eliot. Also—there’s rather a funny one of him with that actress—I can’t remember her name. She’s dead now.” He thought for a minute. “She was blond,” he said. “I think she was married to a baseball player.”

  “Marilyn Monroe?”

  “Maybe. It wasn’t a very good picture. Only newsprint.”

  Some time during the past three days, Henry had gone over and moved my things from Leo’s. My suitcases stood at the foot of the bed.

  “I don’t want to take your bed, Henry,” I said. “Where are you going to sleep?”

  “One of the back rooms has a bed that folds out from the wall,” said Henry. “I can’t think what they’re called. I’ve never slept in it before.”

  “Then why don’t you let me sleep there?”

  “No. I am rather curious to see what it is like. Besides, I think it’s good to change the place where one sleeps from time to time. I believe it gives one more interesting dreams.”

  I was only planning on spending a few days with Henry—I was back at work for Dr. Roland the following Monday—but I ended up staying until school started again. I couldn’t understand why Bunny had said he was hard to live with. He was the best roommate I’ve ever had, quiet and neat, and usually off in his own part of the house. Much of the time he was gone when I got home from work; he never told me where he went, and I never asked. But sometimes when I got home he would have made dinner—he wasn’t a fancy cook like Francis and only made plain things, broiled chickens and baked potatoes, bachelor food—and we would sit at the card table in the kitchen and eat it and talk.

  I had learned better by then than to pry into his affairs, but one night, when my curiosity had got the better of me, I asked him: “Is Bunny still in Rome?”

  It was several moments before he answered. “I suppose so,” he said, putting down his fork. “He was there when I left.”

  “Why didn’t he come back with you?”

  “I don’t think he wanted to leave. I’d paid the rent through February.”

  “He stuck you with the rent?”

  Henry took another bite of his food. “Frankly,” he said, after he had chewed and swallowed, “no matter what Bunny tells you to the contrary, he hasn’t a cent and neither does his father.”

  “I thought his parents were well off,” I said, jarred.

  “I wouldn’t say that,” said Henry calmly. “They may have had money once, but if so they spent it long ago. That terrible house of theirs must have cost a fortune, and they make a big show of yacht clubs and country clubs and sending their sons to expensive schools, but that’s got them in debt to the eyebrows. They may look wealthy, but they haven’t a dime. I expect Mr. Corcoran is about bankrupt.”

  “Bunny seems to live pretty well.”

  “Bunny’s never had a cent of pocket money the entire time I’ve known him,” said Henry tartly. “And he has expensive tastes. That is unfortunate.”

  We resumed eating in silence.

  “If I were Mr. Corcoran,” said Henry after a long while, “I would have set Bunny up in business or had him learn a trade after high school. Bunny has no business being in college. He couldn’t even read until he was about ten years old.”

  “He draws well,” I said.

  “I think so, too. He certainly has no gift for scholarship. They should’ve apprenticed him to a painter when he was young instead of sending him to all those expensive schools for learning disabilities.”

  “He sent me a very good cartoon of you and he standing by a statue of Caesar Augustus.”

  Henry made a sharp, exasperated sound. “That was in the Vatican,” he said. “All day long he made loud remarks about Dagos and Catholics.”

  “At least he doesn’t speak Italian.”

  “He spoke it well enough to order the most expensive thing on the menu every time we went to a restaurant,” said Henry curtly, and I thought it wise to change the subject and did.

  On the Saturday before school was to begin, I was lying on Henry’s bed reading a book. Henry had been gone since before I woke up. Suddenly I heard a loud banging at the front door. Thinking Henry had forgotten his key, I went to let him in.

  It was Bunny. He was wearing sunglasses and—in contrast to the shapeless, tweedy rags he generally wore—a sharp and very new Italian suit. He had also gained about ten or twenty pounds. He seemed surprised to see me.

  “Well, hello there, Richard,” he said, shaking my hand heartily. “Buenos días. Good to see ya. Didn’t see the car out front but just got into town and thought I’d stop by anyway. Where’s the man of the house?”

  “He’s not home.”

  “Then what are you doing? Breaking and entering?”

  “I’ve been staying here for a while. I got your postcard.”

  “Staying here?’ he said, looking at me in a peculiar way. “Why?”

  I was surprised he didn’t know. “I was sick,” I said, and I explained a little of what had happened.

 
“Hmnpf,” said Bunny.

  “Do you want some coffee?”

  We walked through the bedroom to get to the kitchen. “Looks like you’ve made quite a little home for yourself,” he said brusquely, looking at my belongings on the night table and my suitcases on the floor. “American coffee all you have?”

  “What do you mean? Folger’s?”

  “No espresso, I mean?”

  “Oh. No. Sorry.”

  “I’m an espresso man myself,” he said expansively. “Drank it all the time over in Italy. They have all kind of little places where you sit around and do that, you know.”

  “I’ve heard.”

  He took off his sunglasses and sat down at the table. “You don’t have anything decent in there to eat, do you?” he said, peering into the refrigerator as I opened the door to take out the cream. “Haven’t had my lunch yet.”

  I opened the door wider so he could see.

  “That cheese’ll be all right,” he said.

  I cut some bread and made him a cheese sandwich, as he showed no inclination of getting up and making anything himself. Then I poured the coffee and sat down. “Tell me about Rome,” I said.

  “Gorgeous,” he said through his sandwich. “Eternal City. Lots of art. Churches every which way.”

  “What’d you see?”

  “Tons of things. Hard to remember all the names now, you know. Was speaking the lingo like a native by the time I left.”

  “Say something.”

  He obliged, pinching his thumb and forefinger together and shaking them in the air for emphasis, like a French chef on a TV commercial.

  “Sounds good,” I said. “What does it mean?”

  “It means ‘Waiter, bring me your local specialties,’ ” he said, going back to his sandwich.

  I heard the slight sound of a key being turned in the lock and then I heard the door shut. Footsteps went quietly toward the other end of the apartment.

  “Henry?” bellowed Bun. “That you?”

  The footsteps stopped. Then they came very rapidly towards the kitchen. When he got to the door he stood in it and stared down at Bunny, with no expression on his face. “I thought that was you,” he said.

  “Well, hello to you, too.” Bunny, his mouth full, reared back in his chair. “How’s the boy?”

  “Fine,” said Henry. “And you?”

  “I hear you’ve been taking in the sick,” said Bunny, winking at me. “Conscience been hurting you? Thought you’d better rack up a couple good deeds?”

  Henry didn’t say anything, and I’m sure that at that moment he would have looked perfectly impassive to anyone who didn’t know him, but I could tell he was quite agitated. He pulled out a chair and sat down. Then he got up again and went to pour himself a cup of coffee.

  “I’ll have some more, thanks, if you don’t mind,” Bunny said. “Good to be back in the good old U.S. of A. Hamburgers sizzling on an open grill and all that. Land of Opportunity. Long may she wave.”

  “How long have you been here.”

  “Flew into New York late last night.”

  “I’m sorry I wasn’t here when you arrived.”

  “Where were you?” said Bunny suspiciously.

  “At the market.” This was a lie. I didn’t know where he’d been but certainly he hadn’t been grocery shopping for four hours.

  “Where are the groceries?” said Bunny. “I’ll help you bring them in.”

  “I’m having them delivered.”

  “The Food King has delivery?” said Bunny, startled.

  “I didn’t go to the Food King,” said Henry.

  Uneasily, I got up and headed back to the bedroom.

  “No, no, don’t go,” said Henry, taking a long gulp of his coffee and putting the cup in the sink. “Bunny, I wish I’d known you were coming. But Richard and I have got to leave in a few minutes.”

  “Why?”

  “I have an appointment in town.”

  “With a lawyer?” Bunny laughed loudly at his own joke.

  “No. With the optometrist. That’s why I came by,” he said to me. “I hope you don’t mind. They’re going to put drops in my eyes and I can’t see to drive.”

  “No, sure,” I said.

  “I won’t be long. You don’t have to wait, just drop me off and come back to get me.”

  Bunny walked us out to the car, our footsteps crunching in the snow. “Ah, Vermont,” he said, breathing deep and slapping his chest, like Oliver Douglas in the opening sequence of “Green Acres.” “Air does me good. So when d’ya think you’ll be back, Henry?”

  “I don’t know,” said Henry, handing me the keys and walking over to the passenger’s side.

  “Well, I’d like to have a little chat with you.”

  “Well, that’s fine, but really, I’m a little late now, Bun.”

  “Tonight, then?”

  “If you like,” said Henry, getting in the car and slamming the door.

  Once in the car, Henry lit a cigarette and didn’t say a word. He’d been smoking a lot since he got back from Italy, almost a pack a day, which was rare for him. We started into town, and it wasn’t until I pulled in at the eye doctor’s office that he shook himself and looked at me blankly. “What is it?”

  “What time should I come back to get you?”

  Henry looked out, at the low gray building, at the sign in front that said OPTOMETRY GROUP OF HAMPDEN.

  “Good God,” he said, with a snort and a surprised, bitter little laugh. “Keep driving.”

  I went to bed early that night, around eleven; at twelve I was awakened by a loud persistent banging at the front door. I lay in bed and listened for a minute, then got up to see who it was.

  In the dark hallway I met Henry, in his bathrobe, fumbling with his glasses; he was holding one of his kerosene lanterns and it cast long, weird shadows on the narrow walls. When he saw me, he put a finger to his lips. We stood in the hall, listening. The lamplight was eerie, and, standing there motionless in our bathrobes, sleepy, with shadows flickering all around, I felt as though I had woken from one dream into an even more remote one, some bizarre wartime bomb shelter of the unconscious.

  We stood there for a long time, it seemed, long after the banging stopped and we heard footsteps crunching away. Henry looked over at me, and we were quiet for a bit longer. “It’s all right now,” he said at last, and he turned away abruptly, the lamplight bobbing crazily about him as he went back to his room. I waited a moment or two longer in the dark, and then went back to my own room and to bed.

  The next day, around three in the afternoon, I was ironing a shirt in the kitchen when there was another knock at the door. I went into the hall and found Henry standing there.

  “Does that sound like Bunny to you?” he said quietly.

  “No,” I said. This knock was fairly light; Bunny always beat on the door as if to bash it in.

  “Go around to the side window and see if you can see who it is.”

  I went to the front room and advanced cautiously to the side; there were no curtains and it was hard to get to the far windows without exposing oneself to view. They were at an odd angle and all I could see was the shoulder of a black coat, with a silk scarf blown out in the wind behind it. I crept back through the kitchen to Henry. “I can’t really see, but it might be Francis,” I said.

  “Oh, you can let him in, I suppose,” said Henry, and he turned and went back towards his part of the house.

  I went to the front room and opened the door. Francis was looking back over his shoulder, wondering, I suppose, if he should leave. “Hi,” I said.

  He turned around and saw me. “Hello!” he said. His face seemed to have got much thinner and sharper since I’d seen him last. “I thought nobody was home. How are you feeling?”

  “Fine.”

  “You look pretty bad to me.”

  “You don’t look so good yourself,” I said, laughing.

  “I drank too much last night and gave myself a stomach ache. I wan
t to see this tremendous head wound of yours. Are you going to have a scar?”

  I led him into the kitchen and shoved aside the ironing board so he could sit down. “Where’s Henry?” he said, pulling off his gloves.

  “In the back.”

  He began to unwind his scarf. “I’ll just run say hello to him and I’ll be right back,” he said briskly, and slid away.

  He was gone a long time. I had got bored and had almost finished ironing my shirt when suddenly I heard Francis’s voice rise, with a hysterical edge. I got up and went into the bedroom so I could hear better what he was saying.

  “—thinking about? My God, but he’s in a state. You can’t tell me you know what he might—”

  There was a low murmur now, Henry’s voice, then Francis’s voice came back to me again.

  “I don’t care,” he said hotly. “Jesus, but you’ve done it now. I’ve been in town two hours and already—I don’t care,” he said in reply to another murmur from Henry. “Besides, it’s a bit late for that, isn’t it?”

 
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