The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  I hung up, and stood staring at the paper. I was remembering, with some unease, the crack Bunny had made about Henry needing a lawyer. Then I picked up the phone again and dialed directory assistance for the information number of TWA.

  “This is Mr. Henry Winter,” I told the operator. “I’m calling, um, to confirm my reservation.”

  “Just a moment, Mr. Winter. Your reservation number?”

  “Uh,” I said, trying to think fast, pacing back and forth, “I don’t seem to have my information handy right now, maybe you could just—” Then I noticed the number in the upper right-hand corner. “Wait. Maybe this is it. 219?”

  There was the sound of keys being punched in on a computer. I tapped my foot impatiently and glanced out the window for Henry’s car. Then I remembered, with a shock, that Henry didn’t have his car. I hadn’t taken it back to him after I borrowed it on Sunday and it was still parked behind the tennis courts where I’d left it.

  In a panicky reflex, I nearly hung up—if Henry didn’t have his car I couldn’t hear him, he might be halfway up the walk that instant—but just then the operator came back on. “All set, Mr. Winter,” she said briskly. “Didn’t the agent who sold you the tickets tell you it wasn’t necessary to confirm on tickets purchased less than three days in advance?”

  “No,” I said impatiently, and was about to hang up when I was struck by what she’d said. “Three days?” I repeated.

  “Well, generally your reservations are confirmed at date of purchase, especially on non-refundable fares such as these. The agent should have informed you of this when you purchased the tickets on Tuesday.”

  Date of purchase? Non-refundable? I stopped pacing. “Let me make sure I have the correct information,” I said.

  “Certainly, Mr. Winter,” she said crisply. “TWA flight 401, departing Boston tomorrow from Logan Airport, gate 12, at 8:45 p.m., arriving Buenos Aires, Argentina, at 6:01 a.m. That’s with a stopover in Dallas. Four fares at seven hundred and ninety-five dollars one way, let’s see—” she punched in some more numbers on the computer—“that comes to a total of three thousand one hundred and eighty dollars plus tax, and you chose to pay for that with your American Express card, am I correct?”

  My head began to swim. Buenos Aires? Four tickets? One way? Tomorrow?

  “I hope you and your family have a pleasant flight on TWA, Mr. Winter,” said the operator cheerily, and hung up. I stood there, holding the receiver, until a dial tone came droning on the other end.

  Suddenly something occurred to me. I put down the telephone and went back to the bedroom and threw open the door. The books on the book shelf were gone; the padlocked closet stood open, empty; the unfastened lock swung open from the hasp. For a moment I stood staring at it, at the raised Roman capitals that said YALE across the bottom, and then went back to the spare bedroom. The closets there were empty, too, nothing but coat hangers jingling on the metal rod. I turned quickly and almost stumbled over two tremendous pigskin suitcases, strapped in black leather, just inside the doorway. I picked one of them up, and the weight nearly toppled me.

  My God, I thought, what are they doing? I went back to the hall, replaced the paper, and hurried out the front door with my book.

  Once out of North Hampden I walked slowly, extremely puzzled, an undertow of anxiety tugging at my thoughts. I felt as if I needed to do something, but I didn’t know what. Did Bunny know anything about this? Somehow, I thought not, and somehow I thought it better not to ask him. Argentina. What was in Argentina? Grasslands, horses, cowboys of some sort who wore flat-crowned hats with pom-poms hanging from the brim. Borges, the writer. Butch Cassidy, they said, had gone into hiding there, along with Dr. Mengele and Martin Bormann and a score of less pleasant characters.

  It seemed that I remembered Henry telling a story, one night at Francis’s house, about some South American country—maybe Argentina, I wasn’t sure. I tried to think. Something about a trip with his father, a business interest, an island off the coast … But Henry’s father traveled a good deal; besides, if there was a connection, what could it possibly be? Four tickets? One way? And if Julian knew about it—and he seemed to know everything about Henry, even more so than the rest—why had he been inquiring about everyone’s whereabouts only the day before?

  My head ached. Emerging from the woods near Hampden, into an expanse of snow-covered meadow that sparkled in the light, I saw twin threads of smoke coming from the age-blacked chimneys at either end of Commons. Everything was cold and quiet except for a milk truck that idled at the rear entrance as two silent, sleepy-looking men unloaded the wire crates and let them fall with a clatter on the asphalt.

  The dining halls were open, though at that hour of the morning there were no students, only cafeteria workers and maintenance men eating breakfast before their shifts began. I went upstairs and got myself a cup of coffee and a couple of soft-boiled eggs, which I ate alone at a table near a window in the empty main dining room.

  Classes started today, Thursday, but my first class with Julian wasn’t until the next Monday. After breakfast I went back to my room and began to work on the irregular second aorists. Not until almost four in the afternoon did I finally close my books, and when I looked out my window over the meadow, the light fading in the west and the ashes and yews casting long shadows on the snow, it was as if I’d just woken up, sleepy and disoriented, to find it was getting dark and I had slept through the day.

  It was the big back-to-school dinner that night—roast beef, green beans almondine, cheese soufflé and some elaborate lentil dish for the vegetarians. I ate dinner alone at the same table where I’d had my breakfast. The halls were packed, everyone smoking, laughing, extra chairs wedged in at full tables, people with plates of food roaming from group to group to say hello. Next to me was a table of art students, branded as such by their ink-grimed fingernails and the self-conscious paint spatters on their clothes; one of them was drawing on a cloth napkin with a black felt marker; another was eating a bowl of rice using inverted paintbrushes for chopsticks. I had never seen them before. As I drank my coffee and gazed around the dining room, it struck me that Georges Laforgue had been right, after all: I really was cut off from the rest of the college—not that I cared to be on intimate terms, by and large, with people who used paintbrushes for cutlery.

  There was a life-or-death attempt being made near my table by a couple of Neanderthals looking to collect money for a beer blast in the sculpture studio. Actually, I did know these two; it was impossible to attend Hampden and not to. One was the son of a famous West Coast racket boss and the other was the son of a movie producer. They were, respectively, president and vice-president of the Student Council, offices they utilized principally in order to organize drinking contests, wet-T-shirt competitions, and female mud-wrestling tournaments. They were both well over six feet—slack-jawed, unshaven, dumb dumb dumb, the sort who I knew would never go indoors at all after daylight savings in the spring but instead would lounge bare-chested on the lawn with the Styrofoam cooler and the tape deck from dawn till dusk. They were widely held to be good guys, and maybe they were decent enough if you lent them your car for beer runs or sold them pot or something; but both of them—the movie producer’s kid in particular—had a piggish, schizophrenic glitter about the eye that I did not care for at all. Party Pig, people called him, and not entirely with affection, either; but he liked this name and took a kind of a stupid pride in living up to it. He was always getting drunk and doing things like setting fires, or stuffing freshmen down chimneys, or throwing beer kegs through plate glass windows.

  Party Pig (a.k.a. Jud) and Frank were making their way to my table. Frank held out a paint can full of change and crumpled bills. “Hi, guy,” he said. “Keg party in the sculpture studio tonight. Want to give something?”

  I put down my coffee and fished in my jacket pocket and found a quarter and some pennies.

  “Oh, come on, man,” Jud said, rather menacingly I thought. “You can do better
than that.”

  Hoi polloi. Barbaroi. “Sorry,” I said, and pushed back from the table and got my coat and left.

  I went back to my room and sat at my desk and opened my lexicon, but I didn’t look at it. “Argentina?” I said to the wall.

  On Friday morning I went to my French class. Several students dozed in the back, overcome no doubt by the previous evening’s festivities. The odor of disinfectant and chalkboard cleaner, combined with vibrating fluorescents and the monotonous chant of conditional verbs, put me into kind of a trance, too, and I sat at my desk swaying slightly with boredom and fatigue, hardly aware of the passage of time.

  When I got out I went downstairs to a pay phone and called Francis’s number in the country and let the phone ring maybe fifty times. No answer.

  I walked back to Monmouth House through the snow and went to my room and thought, or, rather, didn’t think, but sat on my bed and stared out the window at the ice-rimed yews below. After a while I got up and went to my desk, but I couldn’t work, either. One-way tickets, the operator had said. Nonrefundable.

  It was eleven a.m. in California. Both my parents would be at work. I went downstairs to my old friend the pay phone and called the number of Francis’s mother’s apartment in Boston, reversing the charges to my father.

  “Well, Richard,” she said when she finally figured out who I was. “Darling. How nice of you to call us. I thought you were going to come spend Christmas with us in New York. Where are you, dear? Can I send somebody to pick you up?”

  “No, thank you. I’m in Hampden,” I said. “Is Francis there?”

  “Dear, he’s at school, isn’t he?”

  “Excuse me,” I said, suddenly flustered; it had been a mistake to call like this, without planning what to say. “I’m sorry. I think I’ve made a mistake.”

  “I beg your pardon?”

  “I thought he’d said something about going to Boston today.”

  “Well, if he’s here, sweetheart, I haven’t seen him. Where did you say you were? Are you sure you don’t want me to send Chris around to get you?”

  “No thank you. I’m not in Boston. I’m—”

  “You’re calling all the way from school?” she said, alarmed. “Is anything wrong, dear?”

  “No, ma’am, of course not,” I said; for a moment I had my customary impulse to hang up but it was too late for that now. “He came by last night while I was really sleepy, and I could’ve sworn he said he was going down to Boston—oh! Here he is now!” I said stupidly, hoping she wouldn’t call my bluff.

  “Where, dear? There?”

  “I see him coming across the lawn. Thank you so much, Mrs. er, Abernathy,” I said, badly flustered and unable to remember the name of her present husband.

  “Call me Olivia, dear. You give that bad boy a kiss for me and tell him to call me on Sunday.”

  I made my goodbyes quickly—by now I’d broken out in a sweat—and was just turning to go back up the stairs when Bunny, dressed in one of his smart new suits and chewing briskly on a large wad of gum, came striding down the rear hall towards me. He was the last person I was ready to talk to, but I couldn’t get away. “Hello, old man,” he said. “Where’s Henry got off to?”

  “I don’t know,” I said, after an uncertain pause.

  “I don’t either,” he said belligerently. “Haven’t seen him since Monday. Nor François or the twins, either. Say, who was that on the phone?”

  I didn’t know what to say. “Francis,” I said. “I was talking to Francis.”

  “Hmn,” he said, leaning back with his hands in his pockets. “Where was he calling from?”

  “Hampden, I guess.”

  “Not long distance?”

  My neck prickled. What did he know about this? “No,” I said. “Not that I know of.”

  “Henry didn’t say anything to you about going out of town, did he?”

  “No. Why?”

  Bunny was silent. Then he said: “There hasn’t been a single light on at his house the last few nights. And his car is gone. It’s not parked anywhere on Water Street.”

  For some strange reason, I laughed. I walked over to the back door, which had a window at the top that faced the parking lot behind the tennis courts. Henry’s car was there, right where I’d parked it, plain as day. I pointed it out to him. “There it is, right there,” I said. “See?”

  Bunny’s jaw slowed at its work, and his face clouded with the effort of thinking. “Well, that’s funny.”


  A thoughtful pink bubble emerged from his lips, grew slowly, and burst with a pop. “No reason,” he said briskly, resuming his chewing.

  “Why would they have gone out of town?”

  He reached up and flipped the hair out of his eyes. “You’d be surprised,” he said cheerily. “What are you up to now, old man?”

  We went upstairs to my room. On the way he stopped at the house refrigerator and peered inside, stooping down myopically to inventory the contents. “Any of this yours, old soak?” he said.


  He reached in and pulled out a frozen cheesecake. Taped to the box was a plaintive note: “Please do not steal this. I am on financial aid. Jenny Drexler.”

  “This’d hit the spot about now,” he said, glancing quickly up and down the hall. “Anybody coming?”


  He stuck the box underneath his coat and, whistling, walked ahead to my room. Once inside, he spat out his gum and stuck it on the inside rim of my garbage can with a quick, feinting motion, as if he hoped I wouldn’t see him do it, then sat down and began to eat the cheesecake straight from the box with a spoon he’d found on my dresser. “Phew,” he said. “This is terrible. Want some?”

  “No thanks.”

  He licked thoughtfully at the spoon. “Too lemony, is what the problem is. And not enough cream cheese.” He paused—thinking, I believed, about this handicap—and then said abruptly: “Tell me. You and Henry spent a lot of time together last month, huh?”

  I was suddenly watchful. “I guess.”

  “Do much talking?”


  “He tell you much about when we were in Rome?” he said, looking at me keenly.

  “Not a whole lot.”

  “He say anything about leaving early?”

  At last, I thought, relieved. At last we were going to get to the bottom of this business. “No. No, he didn’t tell me much at all,” I said, which was the truth. “I knew he’d left early when he showed up here. But I didn’t know you were still there. Finally I asked him about it one night, and he said you were. That’s all.”

  Bunny took a jaded bite of the cheesecake. “He say why he left?”

  “No.” Then, when Bunny didn’t respond, I added: “It had something to do with money, didn’t it?”

  “Is that what he told you?”

  “No.” And then, since he had gone mute again: “But he did say you were short on cash, that he had to pay the rent and stuff. Is that right?”

  Bunny, his mouth full, made a brushing, dismissive motion with one hand.

  “That Henry,” he said. “I love him, and you love him, but just between the two of us I think he’s got a little bit of Jew blood.”

  “What?” I said, startled.

  He had just taken another big bite of cheesecake, and it took him a moment to answer me.

  “I never heard anybody complain so much about helping out a pal,” he finally said. “I tell you what it is. He’s afraid of people taking advantage of him.”

  “How do you mean?”

  He swallowed. “I mean, somebody probably told him when he was little, ‘Son, you have a load of money, and someday people are going to try to weasel it out of you.’ ” His hair had fallen over one eye; like an old sea captain, he squinted at me shrewdly through the other. “It’s not a question of the money, y’see,” he said. “He don’t need it himself, it’s the principle of the thing. He wants to know that people like him not for
his money, you know, but for himself.”

  I was surprised by this exegesis, which was at odds with what I knew to be Henry’s frequent and—by my standards of reckoning—extravagant generosity.

  “So it’s not about money?” I said at last.


  “Then what is it about, if you don’t mind my asking?”

  Bunny leaned forward, his face thoughtful, and for a moment almost transparently frank; and when he opened his mouth again I thought he was going to come right out and say what he meant; but instead, he cleared his throat and said, if I didn’t mind, would I go make him a pot of coffee?

  That night, as I was lying on my bed reading Greek, I was startled by a flash of remembrance, almost as if a hidden spotlight had been trained without warning on my face. Argentina. The word itself had lost little of its power to startle and had, due to my ignorance of the physical place it occupied on the globe, assumed a peculiar life of its own. There was the harsh Ar at the beginning, which called up gold, idols, lost cities in the jungle, which in turn led to the hushed and sinister chamber of Gen, with the bright interrogative Tina at the end—all nonsense, of course, but then it seemed in some muddled way that the name itself, one of the few concrete facts available to me, might itself be a cryptogram or clue. But that wasn’t what made me bolt upright, but the sudden realization of what time it must be—nine-twenty, I saw, when I looked at my watch. So they were all on the plane now (or were they?) hurtling towards the bizarre Argentina of my imagination through the dark skies.

  I put down my book and went over and sat in a chair by the window, and didn’t work for the rest of the night.

  The weekend passed, as they will do, and for me it went by in Greek, solitary meals in the dining hall, and more of the same old puzzlement back in my room. My feelings were hurt, and I missed them more than I would have admitted. Bunny was behaving oddly besides. I saw him around a couple of times that weekend, with Marion and her friends, talking importantly as they stared in goony admiration (they were Elementary Education majors, for the most part, who I suppose thought him terribly erudite because he studied Greek and wore some little wire-rimmed glasses). Once I saw him with his old friend Cloke Rayburn. But I didn’t know Cloke well, and I was hesitant to stop and say hello.

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