The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Silence. Then Henry began to talk, too indistinctly for me to hear.

  “You don’t like it? You?” said Francis. “What about me?”

  His voice dropped suddenly and then resumed, too quietly for me to hear.

  I walked quietly back to the kitchen and put on water for tea. I was still thinking about what I’d heard when, several minutes later, there were footsteps and Francis emerged in the kitchen, edging his way around the ironing board to gather his gloves and scarf.

  “Sorry to run,” he said. “I’ve got to unpack the car and start cleaning my apartment. That cousin of mine tore it all to pieces. I don’t believe he took out the garbage once the whole time he was there. Let me see your head wound.”

  I pulled back the hair on my forehead and showed him the place. I’d had the stitches out long ago and it was nearly gone.

  He leaned forward to peer at it though his pince-nez. “Goodness, I must be blind, I can’t see a thing. When do classes start? Wednesday?”

  “Thursday, I think.”

  “See you then,” he said, and he was gone.

  I put my shirt on a hanger and then went into the bedroom and started to pack my things. Monmouth House opened that afternoon; maybe Henry would drive me to school with my suitcases later on.

  I was just about finished when Henry called me from the back of the apartment. “Richard?”

  “Yes?”

  “Would you come here for a moment, please?”

  I went back to his room. He was sitting on the side of the fold-out bed, his sleeves rolled up to the elbows and a game of solitaire spread out on the blanket at the foot. His hair had fallen to the wrong side and I could see the long scar at his hairline, all dented and puckered, with ridges of white flesh cutting across it to the browbone.

  He looked up at me. “Will you do a favor for me?” he said.

  “Sure.”

  He took a deep breath through the nostrils and pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose. “Will you call Bunny and ask him if he’d like to come over for a few minutes?” he said.

  I was so surprised that I didn’t say anything for half a second. Then I said: “Sure. Fine. I’ll be glad to.”

  He closed his eyes and rubbed his temple with his fingertips. Then he blinked at me. “Thank you,” he said.

  “No, really.”

  “If you want to take some of your things back to school this afternoon, you’re more than welcome to borrow the car,” he said evenly.

  I got his drift. “Sure,” I said, and it was only after I’d loaded my suitcases in the car and driven them to Monmouth and got Security to unlock my room that I called Bunny from the pay phone downstairs, a safe half hour later.

  CHAPTER

  4

  SOMEHOW I thought that when the twins returned, when we were settled in again, when we were back at our Liddell and Scotts and had suffered through two or three Greek Prose Composition assignments together, we would all fall back into the comfortable routine of the previous term and everything would be the same as it had been before. But about this I was wrong.

  Charles and Camilla had written to say they would arrive in Hampden on the late train, around midnight on Sunday, and on Monday afternoon, as students began to straggle back to Monmouth House with their skis and their stereos and their cardboard boxes, I had some idea that they might come to see me, but they didn’t. On Tuesday I didn’t hear from them either, or from Henry or anybody but Julian, who had left a cordial little note in my post-office box welcoming me back to school and asking me to translate an ode of Pindar’s for our first class.

  On Wednesday I went to Julian’s office to ask him to sign my registration cards. He seemed happy to see me. “You look well,” he said, “but not as well as you ought. Henry’s been keeping me up to date on your recovery.”

  “Oh?”

  “It was a good thing, I suppose, that he came back early,” said Julian, glancing through my cards, “but I was surprised to see him, too. He showed up at my house straight from the airport, in the middle of a snowstorm, in the middle of the night.”

  This was interesting. “Did he stay with you?” I said.

  “Yes, but only a few days. He’d been ill himself, you know. In Italy.”

  “What was the matter?”

  “Henry’s not as strong as he looks. His eyes bother him, he has terrible headaches, sometimes he has a difficult time.… I didn’t think he was in a proper condition to travel, but it was lucky he didn’t stay on or he wouldn’t have found you. Tell me. How did you end up in such a dreadful place? Wouldn’t your parents give you money, or didn’t you want to ask?”

  “I didn’t want to ask.”

  “Then you are more of a stoic than I am,” he said, laughing. “But your parents do not seem very fond of you, am I correct?”

  “They’re not that crazy about me, no.”

  “Why is that, do you suppose? Or is it rude of me to ask? I should think that they would be quite proud, yet you seem more an orphan than our real orphans do. Tell me,” he said, looking up, “why is it that the twins haven’t been in to see me?”

  “I haven’t seen them, either.”

  “Where can they be? I haven’t even seen Henry. Only you and Edmund. Francis telephoned but I only spoke to him for a moment. He was in a hurry, he said he would stop by later, but he hasn’t.… I don’t think Edmund’s learned a word of Italian, do you?”

  “I don’t speak Italian.”

  “Nor do I, not anymore. I used to speak it rather well. I lived in Florence for a while but that was nearly thirty years ago. Will you be seeing any of the others this afternoon?”

  “Maybe.”

  “Of course, it’s a matter of small importance, but the registration slips should be at the Dean’s office this afternoon and he will be irritated that I haven’t sent them. Not that I care, but he is certainly in a position to make things unpleasant for any of you, if he chooses.”

  I was somewhat annoyed. The twins had been in Hampden three days and hadn’t called once. So when I left Julian’s I stopped by their apartment, but they weren’t home.

  They weren’t at dinner that night, either. Nobody was. Though I had expected at least to see Bunny, I stopped by his room on the way to the dining hall and found Marion locking his door. She told me, rather officiously, that the two of them had plans and would not be in until late.

  I ate alone and walked back to my room in the snowy twilight, with a sour, humorless feeling as if I were the victim of a practical joke. At seven I called Francis, but there was no answer. There was no answer at Henry’s, either.

  I read Greek till midnight. After I’d brushed my teeth and washed my face and was almost ready for bed, I went downstairs and called again. Still no answer anywhere. I got my quarter back after the third call and tossed it up in the air. Then, on a whim, I called Francis’s number in the country.

  There was no answer there, either, but something made me hold the line longer than I should have and finally, after about thirty rings, there was a click and Francis said gruffly into the receiver, “Hullo?” He was making his voice deep in an attempt to disguise it but he didn’t fool me; he couldn’t bear to leave a phone unanswered, and I had heard him use that silly voice more than once before.

  “Hullo?” he said again, and the forced deepness of his voice broke into a quaver at the end. I pressed the receiver hook and heard the line go dead.

  I was tired but I couldn’t sleep; my irritation and perplexity were growing stronger, kept in motion by a ridiculous sense of unease. I turned on the lights and looked through my books until I found a Raymond Chandler novel I had brought from home. I had read it before, and thought that a page or two would put me to sleep, but I had forgotten most of the plot and before I knew it I’d read fifty pages, then a hundred.

  Several hours passed and I was wide awake. The radiators were on full blast and the air in my room was hot and dry. I began to feel thirsty. I read until the end of a chapter, and then I got up and
put my coat on over my pajamas and went to get a Coke.

  Commons was spotless and deserted. Everything smelled of fresh paint. I walked through the laundry room—pristine, brightly lit, its creamy walls alien without the tangle of graffiti which had accumulated during the term before—and bought a can of Coke from the phosphorescent bank of machines which hummed at the end of the hall.

  Walking around the other way, I was startled to hear a hollow, tinny music coming from the common rooms. The television was on; Laurel and Hardy, obscured by a blizzard of electronic snow, were trying to move a grand piano up a great many flights of stairs. At first I thought they were playing to an empty room, but then I noticed the top of a shaggy blond head, lolling against the back of the lone couch that faced the set.

  I walked over and sat down. “Bunny,” I said. “How are you?”

  He looked over at me, eyes glazed, and it took him a second or two to recognize me. He stank of liquor. “Dickie boy,” he said thickly. “Yes.”

  “What are you doing?”

  He burped. “Feeling pretty sick, to tell you the God’s honest truth.”

  “Drink too much?”

  “Naah,” he said crossly. “Stomach flu.”

  Poor Bunny. He never would own up to being drunk; he’d always say he had a headache or needed to get the prescription for his glasses readjusted. He was like that about a lot of things, actually. One morning after he’d had a date with Marion, he showed up at breakfast with his tray full of milk and sugar doughnuts and when he sat down I saw that there was a big purple hickey on his neck above the collar. “How’d you get that, Bun?” I asked him. I was only joking, but he was very offended. “Fell down some stairs,” he said brusquely, and ate his doughnuts in silence.

  I played along with the stomach-flu ruse. “Maybe it’s something you picked up overseas,” I said.

  “Maybe.”

  “Been to the infirmary?”

  “Nope. Nothing they can do. Got to let it run its course. Better not sit so close to me, old man.”

  Though I was all the way at the opposite end of the couch, I shifted down even further. We sat looking at the television for a while without saying anything. The reception was terrible. Ollie had just pushed Stan’s hat down over his eyes; Stan was wandering in circles, bumping into things, tugging desperately at the brim with both hands. He ran into Ollie and Ollie smacked him on the head with the heel of his palm. Glancing over at Bunny, I saw that he was gripped by this. His gaze was fixed and his mouth slightly open.

  “Bunny,” I said.

  “Yeah?” he said without looking away.

  “Where is everybody?”

  “Asleep, probably,” he said irritably.

  “Do you know if the twins are around?”

  “I guess.”

  “Have you seen them?”

  “No.”

  “What’s wrong with everybody? Are you mad at Henry or something?”

  He didn’t answer. Looking at the side of his face, I saw that it was absolutely blank. For a moment I was unnerved and I glanced back at the television. “Did you have a fight in Rome, or what?”

  All of a sudden, he cleared his throat noisily, and I thought he was going to tell me to mind my own business, but instead he pointed at something and cleared his throat again. “Are you going to drink that Coke?” he said.

  I had forgotten all about it. It lay sweating and unopened on the sofa. I handed it to him and he cracked it open and took a large greedy drink and burped.

  “Pause that refreshes,” he said, and then: “Let me give you a little tip about Henry, old man.”

  “What?”

  He took another swig and turned back to the TV. “He’s not what you think he is.”

  “What does that mean?” I said after a long pause.

  “I mean, he’s not what you think,” he said, louder this time. “Or what Julian thinks or anybody else.” He took another slug of the Coke. “For a while there he had me fooled but good.”

  “Yeah,” I said uncertainly, after another long moment. The uncomfortable assumption had begun to dawn on me that maybe this was all some sex-related thing I was better off not knowing. I looked at the side of his face: petulant, irritable, glasses low on the tip of his sharp little nose and the beginnings of jowls at his jawline. Might Henry have made a pass at him in Rome? Incredible, but a possible hypothesis. If he had, certainly, all hell would have broken loose. I could not think of much else that would involve this much whispering and secrecy, or that would have so strong an effect on Bunny. He was the only one of us who had a girlfriend and I was pretty sure he slept with her, but at the same time he was incredibly prudish—touchy, easily offended, at root hypocritical. Besides, there was something unquestionably odd about the way Henry was constantly shelling out money to him: paying his tabs, footing his bills, doling out cash like a husband to a spendthrift wife. Perhaps Bunny had allowed his greed to get the better of him, and was angry to discover that Henry’s largesse had strings attached.

  But did it? There were certainly strings somewhere, though—easy as it seemed on the face of it—I wasn’t sure that this was where those particular strings led. There was of course that thing with Julian in the hallway; still, that had been very different. I had lived with Henry for a month, and there hadn’t been the faintest hint of that sort of tension, which I, being rather more disinclined that way than not, am quick to pick up on. I had caught a strong breath of it from Francis, a whiff of it at times from Julian; and even Charles, who I knew was interested in women, had a sort of naive, prepubescent shyness of them that a man like my father would have interpreted alarmingly—but with Henry, zero. Geiger counters dead. If anything, it was Camilla he seemed fondest of, Camilla he bent over attentively when she spoke, Camilla who was most often the recipient of his infrequent smiles.

  And even if there was a side of him of which I was unaware (which was possible) was it possible that he was attracted to Bunny? The answer to this seemed, almost unquestionably, No. Not only did he behave as if he wasn’t attracted to Bunny, he acted as if he were hardly able to stand him. And it seemed that he, disgusted by Bunny in what appeared to be virtually all respects, would be far more disgusted in that particular one than even I would be. It was possible for me to recognize, in a general sort of way, that Bunny was handsome, but if I brought the lens any closer and tried to focus on him in a sexual light, all I got was a repugnant miasma of sour-smelling shirts and muscles gone to fat and dirty socks. While girls didn’t seem to mind that sort of thing, to me he was about as erotic as an old football coach.

  All at once I felt very tired. I stood up. Bunny stared at me, his mouth open.

  “I’m getting sleepy, Bun,” I said. “See you tomorrow, maybe.”

  He blinked at me. “Hope you’re not coming down with this damn bug, old man,” he said curtly.

  “Me, too,” I said, feeling sorry for him, unaccountably so. “Good night.”

  I awoke at six on Thursday morning, intending to do some Greek, but my Liddell and Scott was nowhere to be found. I looked and looked and, with a sinking feeling, remembered: it was at Henry’s house. I had noticed its absence while I was packing; for some reason it wasn’t with my other books. I had made a hurried but diligent search which I finally abandoned, telling myself I’d be back for it later. This put me in a fairly serious fix. My first Greek class wasn’t till Monday, but Julian had given me a good deal of work and the library was still closed, as they were changing the catalogues from Dewey decimal to Library of Congress.

  I went downstairs and dialed Henry’s number, and got, as I expected, no answer. Radiators clanged and hissed in the drafty hall. As I listened to the phone ring for about the thirtieth time, suddenly it occurred to me: why not just run up to North Hampden and get it? He wasn’t there—at least I didn’t think he was— and I had the key. It would be a long drive for him from Francis’s. If I hurried I could be there in fifteen minutes. I hung up and ran out the front door.

>   In the chilly morning light, Henry’s apartment looked deserted, and his car was neither in the drive nor in any of the places up and down the street where he liked to park when he didn’t want anyone to know he was home. But just to make sure I knocked. Pas de réponse. Hoping I wouldn’t find him standing in the front hall in his bathrobe, peering around a door at me, I turned the key gingerly and stepped inside.

  No one was there, but the apartment was a mess—books, papers, empty coffee cups and wineglasses; there was a slight film of dust on everything, and the wine in the glasses had dried to a sticky purplish stain at the bottom. The kitchen was full of dirty dishes and the milk had been left out of the refrigerator and turned bad. Henry, generally, was clean as a cat, and I’d never even seen him take off his coat without hanging it up immediately. A dead fly floated in the bottom of one of the coffee cups.

  Nervous, feeling as if I’d stumbled on the scene of a crime, I searched the rooms quickly, my footsteps ringing loud in the silence. Before long I saw my book, lying on the hall table, one of the most obvious places I could have left it. How could I have missed it? I wondered; I’d looked all over the day I’d left; had Henry found it, left it out for me? I grabbed it up quickly and had started out—jittery, anxious to leave—when my eye was caught by a scrap of paper also on the table.

  The handwriting was Henry’s:

  TWA 219

  795 × 4

  A telephone number with a 617 area code had been added in Francis’s hand, at the bottom. I picked the sheet up and studied it. It was written on the back of an overdue notice from the library dated only three days before.

  Without quite knowing why, I set down my Liddell and Scott and took the paper with me to the telephone in the front room. The area code was Massachusetts, probably Boston; I checked my watch and then dialed the number, reversing the charges to Dr. Roland’s office.

  A wait, two rings, a click. “You have reached the law offices of Robeson Taft on Federal Street,” a recording informed me. “Our switchboard is now closed. Please call within the hours of nine to—”

 
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