The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  I awaited Greek class, on Monday, with acute curiosity. I woke that morning at six. Not wanting to arrive insanely early, I sat around my room fully dressed for quite some time, and it was with something of a thrill that I looked at my watch and realized that if I didn’t hurry, I’d be late. I grabbed my books and dashed out; halfway to the Lyceum, I realized I was running, and forced myself to slow to a walk.

  I had caught my breath by the time I opened the back door. Slowly, I climbed the stairs, feet moving, mind oddly blank—the way I’d felt as a kid on Christmas morning when, after a night of almost insane excitement, I would walk down the hall to the closed door behind which my presents lay as if the day were nothing special, suddenly drained of all desire.

  They were all there, all of them: the twins, poised and alert in the windowsill; Francis, with his back to me; Henry beside him; and Bunny across the table, reared back in his chair. Telling a story of some sort. “So get this,” he said to Henry and Francis, turning his face sideways to glimpse the twins. Everyone’s eyes were riveted on him; no one had seen me come in. “The warden says, ‘Son, your pardon hasn’t come through from the governor and it’s already five after. Any last words?’ So the guy thinks for a minute, and as they’re leading him into the chamber—” he brought his pencil up close to his eyes and studied it for a moment—“he looks over his shoulder and says, ‘Well, Governor So-and-So has certainly lost my vote in the next election!’ ” Laughing, he tipped back even further in his chair; then he looked up and saw me standing like an idiot in the doorway. “Oh, come in, come in,” he said, bringing the front legs of the wooden chair down with a thump.

  The twins glanced up, startled as a pair of deer. Except for a certain tightness around the jaw, Henry was as serene as the Buddha, but Francis was so white he was almost green.

  “We’re just chucking around a couple jokes before class,” said Bunny genially, leaning back in his chair. He tossed the hair out of his eyes. “Okay. Smith and Jones commit an armed robbery and they both get death row. Of course, they go through all the usual channels of appeal but Smith’s runs out first and he’s slotted for the chair.” He made a resigned, philosophical gesture and then, unexpectedly, winked at me. “So,” he continued, “they let Jones out to see the execution and he’s watching them strap his buddy in”—I saw Charles, his eyes blank, biting down hard into his lower lip—“when the warden comes up. ‘Heard anything on your appeal, Jones?’ he says. “Not much, Warden,” says Jones. ‘Well, then,’ says the warden, looking at his watch, ‘hardly worth going back to your cell then, is it?’ ” He threw back his head and laughed, pleased as all get-out, but no one else even smiled.

  When Bunny started in again (“And then there’s the one about the Old West—this is when they still hung folks …”) Camilla edged over on the windowsill and smiled nervously at me.

  I went over and sat between her and Charles. She gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. “How are you?” she said. “Did you wonder where we were?”

  “I can’t believe we haven’t seen you,” said Charles quietly, turning towards me and crossing his ankle over his knee. His foot was trembling violently, as if it had a life of its own, and he put a hand on it to still it. “We had a terrible mishap with the apartment.”

  I didn’t know what I’d expected to hear from them, but this was not it. “What?” I said.

  “We left the key back in Virginia.”

  “Aunt Mary-Gray had to drive all the way to Roanoke to Federal Express it.”

  “I thought you had someone subletting,” I said suspiciously.

  “He left a week ago. Like idiots we told him to mail us the key. The landlady is in Florida. We’ve been in the country at Francis’s the whole time.”

  “Trapped like rats.”

  “Francis drove us out there and about two miles from the house something terrible happened to the car,” said Charles. “Black smoke and grinding noises.”

  “The steering went out. We ran into a ditch.”

  They were both talking very rapidly. For a moment, Bunny’s voice rose stridently above them. “… Now this judge had a particular system he liked to follow. He’d hang a cattle thief on a Monday, a card cheat on a Tuesday, murderers on Wednesday—”

  “… so after that,” Charles was saying, “we had to walk to Francis’s and for days we called Henry to come get us. But he wasn’t answering the phone—you know what it’s like to try to get in touch with him—”

  “There was no food at Francis’s house except some cans of black olives and a box of Bisquick.”

  “Yes. We ate olives and Bisquick.”

  Could this be true? I wondered suddenly. Briefly I was cheered—my God, how silly I had been—but then I remembered the way Henry’s apartment had looked, the suitcases by the door.

  Bunny was working up to a big finish. “So the judge says, ‘Son, it’s a Friday, and I’d like to go on and hang you today, but I’m going to have to wait until next Tuesday because—”

  “There wasn’t any milk, even,” said Camilla. “We had to mix the Bisquick with water.”

  There was the slight sound of a throat being cleared and I looked up and saw Julian closing the door behind him.

  “Goodness, you magpies,” he said into the abrupt silence that fell. “Where have you all been?”

  Charles coughed, his eyes fixed on a point across the room, and began rather mechanically to tell the story of the apartment key and the car in the ditch and the olives and the Bisquick. The wintry sun, coming in at a slant through the window, gave everything a frozen, precisely detailed look; nothing seemed real, and I felt as though this were some complicated film I’d started watching in the middle and couldn’t quite get the drift of. Bunny’s jailhouse jokes had for some reason unsettled me, though I remembered him telling an awful lot of jokes like that, back in the fall. They had been met, then as now, with a strained silence, but then they were silly, bad jokes. I had always assumed the reason he told them was because he had some corny old Lawyer’s Joke Book up in his room or something, right up there on the shelf with Bob Hope’s autobiography, the Fu Manchu novels, and Men of Thought and Deed. (Which, as it eventually turned out, he did.)

  “Why didn’t you call me?” said Julian, perplexed and perhaps a little slighted, when Charles finished his story.

  The twins looked at him blankly.

  “We never thought of it,” Camilla said.

  Julian laughed and recited an aphorism from Xenophon, which was literally about tents and soldiers and the enemy nigh, but which carried the implication that in troubled times it was best to go to one’s own people for help.

  I walked home from class alone, in a state of bewilderment and turmoil. By now my thoughts were so contradictory and disturbing that I could no longer even speculate, only wonder dumbly at what was taking place around me; I had no classes for the rest of the day and the thought of going to back to my room was intolerable. I went to Commons and sat in an armchair by the window for maybe forty-five minutes. Should I go to the library? Take Henry’s car, which I still had, and go for a drive, maybe see if there was a matinee at the movie house in town? Should I go ask Judy Poovey for a Valium?

  I decided, finally, that the last of these would be a prerequisite for any other plan. I walked back to Monmouth house and up to Judy’s room, only to find a note in gold paint-marker on the door: “Beth—Come to Manchester for lunch with Tracy and me? I’m in the costume shop till eleven. J.”

  I stood staring at Judy’s door, which was adorned with photographs of automobile crashes, lurid headlines cut from the Weekly World News, and a nude Barbie doll hanging from the doorknob by a noose. By now it was one o’clock. I walked back to my pristine white door at the end of the hall, the only one in the suite unobscured by taped-up religious propaganda and posters of the Fleshtones and suicidal epithets from Artaud, and wondered how all these people were able to put up all this crap on their doors so fast and why they did it in the first place.

  I lay on my bed and looked at the ceiling, trying to guess when Judy would return, trying to think of what to do in the meantime, when there was a knock at the door.

  It was Henry. I opened the door a little wider and stared at him and said nothing.

  He gazed back at me with a fixed and patient unconcern. He was level-eyed and calm and had a book tucked under his arm.

  “Hello,” he said.

  There was another pause, longer than the first. “Hi,” I said, after a while.

  “How are you?”


  “That’s good.”

  There was another long silence.

  “Are you doing anything this afternoon?” he said politely.

  “No,” I said, taken aback.

  “Would you like to go on a drive with me?”

  I got my coat.

  Once well out of Hampden, we turned off the main highway and onto a stretch of gravel road that I had never seen. “Where are we going?” I said, rather uneasy.

  “I thought we might go out and take a look at an estate sale on the Old Quarry Road,” said Henry, unperturbed.

  I was as surprised as I’ve ever been at anything in my life when the road finally did bring us out, about an hour later, to a large house with a sign in front that said ESTATE SALE.

  Though the house itself was magnificent, the sale turned out not to be much: a grand piano covered with a display of silver and cracked glassware; a grandfather clock; several boxes full of records, kitchen implements, and toys; and some upholstered furniture badly scratched by cats, all out in the garage.

  I leafed through a stack of old sheet music, keeping Henry in the corner of my eye. He poked around unconcernedly in the silver; played a disinterested bar of “Träumerei” on the piano with one hand; opened the door of the grandfather clock and had a look at the works; had a long chat with the owner’s niece, who had just come down from the big house, about when was the best time to put out tulip bulbs. After I had gone through the sheet music twice, I moved to the glassware and then the records; Henry bought a garden hoe for twenty-five cents.

  “I’m sorry to have dragged you all the way out here,” he said on the way home.

  “That’s all right,” I said, slouched down in my seat very close to the door.

  “I’m a bit hungry. Are you hungry at all? Would you like to have something to eat?”

  We stopped at a diner on the outskirts of Hampden. It was virtually deserted this early in the evening. Henry ordered an enormous dinner—pea soup, roast beef, a salad, mashed potatoes with gravy, coffee, pie—and ate it silently and with a great deal of methodical relish. I picked erratically at my omelet and had a hard time keeping my eyes off him as we ate. I felt as though I were in the dining car of a train and had been seated by the steward with another solitary male traveler, some kindly stranger, someone who didn’t even speak my language, perhaps, but who was still content to eat his dinner with me, exuding an air of calm acceptance as if he’d known me all his life.

  When he’d finished he took his cigarettes out of his shirt pocket (he smoked Lucky Strikes; whenever I think of him I think of that little red bull’s-eye right over his heart) and offered me one, shaking a couple out of the pack and raising an eyebrow. I shook my head.

  He smoked one and then another, and over our second cup of coffee he looked up. “Why have you been so quiet this afternoon?”

  I shrugged.

  “Don’t you want to know about our trip to Argentina?”

  I set my cup in its saucer and stared at him. Then I began to laugh.

  “Yes,” I said. “Yes, I do. Tell me.”

  “Don’t you wonder how I know? That you know, I mean?”

  That hadn’t occurred to me, and I guess he saw it in my face because now he laughed. “It’s no mystery,” he said. “When I called to cancel the reservations—they didn’t want to do it, of course, non-refundable tickets and all that, but I think we’ve got it worked out now—anyway, when I called the airline they were rather surprised, as they said I’d called to confirm only the day before.”

  “How did you know it was me?”

  “Who else could it have been? You had the key. I know, I know,” he said when I tried to interrupt him. “I left you that key on purpose. It would have made things easier later on, for various reasons, but by sheer chance you happened in at just the wrong time. I had only left the apartment for a few hours, you see, and I never dreamed that you’d happen in between midnight and seven a.m. I must have missed you by only a few minutes. If you’d happened in an hour or so later everything would have been gone.”

  He took a sip of his coffee. I had so many questions it was useless to try to sort them into any coherent order. “Why did you leave me the key?” I said at last.

  Henry shrugged. “Because I was pretty sure you wouldn’t use it unless you had to,” he said. “If we’d actually gone, someone would eventually have had to open the apartment for the landlady, and I would have sent you instructions on who to contact and how to dispose of the things I’d left, but I forgot all about that damned Liddell and Scott. Well, I won’t say that. I knew you’d left it there, but I was in a hurry and somehow I never thought you’d come back for it bei Nacht und Nebel, as it were. But that was silly of me. You have as much trouble sleeping as I do.”

  “Let me get this straight. You didn’t go to Argentina at all?”

  Henry snorted, and motioned for the check. “Of course not,” he said. “Would I be here if we had?”

  Once he’d paid the check he asked me if I wanted to go to Francis’s. “I don’t think he’s there,” he said.

  “So why go there?”

  “Because my apartment is a mess and I’m staying with him until I can get somebody in to clean it up. Do you happen to know of a good maid service? Francis said the last time he had someone from the employment office in town, they stole two bottles of wine and fifty dollars from his dresser drawer.”

  On the way into North Hampden, it was all I could do to keep from deluging Henry with questions, but I kept my mouth shut until we got there.

  “He isn’t here, I’m sure,” he said as he unlocked the front door.

  “Where is he?”

  “With Bunny. He took him to Manchester for dinner and then I think to some movie that Bunny wanted to see. Would you like some coffee?”

  Francis’s apartment was in an ugly 1970s building owned by the college. It was roomier and more private than the old oak-floored houses we lived in on campus, and as a consequence was much in demand; as a trade-off there were linoleum floors, ill-lit halls, and cheap, modern fixtures like at a Holiday Inn. Francis didn’t seem to mind it much. He had his own furniture there, brought out from the country house, but he’d chosen it carelessly and it was an atrocious mix of styles, upholstery, light and dark woods.

  A search revealed that Francis had neither coffee nor tea (“He needs to go to the grocery store,” said Henry, looking over my shoulder into yet another barren cabinet), only a few bottles of Scotch and some Vichy water. I got some ice and a couple of glasses and we took a fifth of Famous Grouse with us into the shadowy living room, our shoes clicking across the ghastly wilderness of white linoleum.

  “So you didn’t go,” I said, after we’d sat down and Henry had poured us each a glass.


  “Why not?”

  Henry sighed, and reached into his breast pocket for a cigarette. “Money,” he said, as the match flared brightly in the dim. “I don’t have a trust like Francis, you see, only a monthly allowance. It’s much more than I generally need to live on, and for years I’ve put most of it into a savings account. But Bunny’s just about cleaned that out. There was no way I could put my hands on more than thirty thousand dollars, even if I sold my car.”

  “Thirty thousand dollars is a lot of money.”


  “Why would you need that much?”

  Henry blew a smoke ring half into the yellowy c
ircle of light beneath the lamp, half into the surrounding dark. “Because we weren’t coming back,” he said. “None of us have work visas. Whatever we took would’ve had to last the four of us for a long time. Incidentally,” he said, raising his voice as if I’d tried to interrupt him—actually, I hadn’t, I was only making a sort of inarticulate noise of stupefaction—“incidentally, Buenos Aires wasn’t our destination at all. It was only a stop along the way.”


  “If we’d had the money, I suppose we would have flown to Paris or London, some gateway city with plenty of traffic, and once there to Amsterdam and eventually on to South America. That way we’d have been more difficult to trace, you see. But we didn’t have that kind of money, so the alternative was to go to Argentina and from there take a roundabout course to Uruguay—a dangerous and unstable place in its own right, to my way of thinking, but suitable for our purposes. My father has an interest in some developing property down there. We’d have had no problem finding a place to live.”

  “Did he know about this,” I said, “your father?”

  “He would have eventually. As a matter of fact I was hoping to ask you to get in touch with him once we were there. Had something unforeseen happened he would’ve been able to help us, even get us out of the country if need be. He knows people down there, people in the government. Otherwise, no one would know.”

  “He would do that for you?”

  “My father and I are not close,” said Henry, “but I am his only child.” He drank the rest of his Scotch and rattled the ice around in his glass. “But anyway. Even though I didn’t have much ready cash, my credit cards were more than adequate, leaving only the problem of raising a sum large enough to live on for a while. Which is where Francis came in. He and his mother live off the income of a trust, as I expect you know, but they also have the right to withdraw as much as three percent of the principal per year, which would amount to a sum of about one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Generally this isn’t touched when it turns up, but in theory either of them can take it out whenever they like. A law firm in Boston serves as the trustees, and on Thursday morning we left the country house, came into Hampden for a few minutes so the twins and I could get our things, and then we all went to Boston and checked into the Parker House. That’s a lovely hotel, do you know it? No? Dickens used to stay there when he came to America.

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