The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  “At any rate. Francis had an appointment with his lawyers, and the twins had some things to straighten out with the passport office. It takes more planning than you might think to pick up and leave the country, but everything was pretty much taken care of; we were leaving the next night and there seemed no way things could go wrong. We were a bit worried about the twins, but of course it wouldn’t have posed a problem even if they’d had to wait ten days or so and follow us down later. I had some things to do myself, but not many, and Francis had assured me that getting the money was a simple matter of going downtown and signing some papers. His mother would find out he’d taken it, but what could she do once he was gone?

  “But he wasn’t back when he said he would be, and three hours passed, then four. The twins came back, and the three of us had just ordered up some lunch from room service when Francis burst in, half-hysterical. The money for that year was all gone, you see. His mother had checked out every cent of the principal at the first of the year and hadn’t told him about it. It was a nasty surprise, but even nastier given the circumstances. He’d tried everything he could think of—to borrow money on the trust itself, even to assign his interests, which is, if you know anything about trusts, about the most desperate thing one can do. The twins were all for going ahead and taking our chances. But … It was a difficult situation. Once we left we couldn’t come back and anyway, what were we supposed to do when we got there? Live in a treehouse like Wendy and the Lost Boys?” He sighed. “So there we were, with our suitcases packed and passports ready, but no money. I mean, literally none. Between the four of us we had hardly five thousand dollars. There was quite a bit of discussion, but in the end we decided our only choice was to come back to Hampden. For the time being, at least.”

  He said this all quite calmly but I, listening to him, felt a lump growing in the pit of my stomach. The picture was still wholly obscure, but what I saw of it I didn’t like at all. I said nothing for a long time, only looked at the shadows the lamp cast on the ceiling.

  “Henry, my God,” I said at last. My voice was flat and strange even to my own ears.

  He raised an eyebrow and said nothing, empty glass in hand, face half in shadow.

  I looked at him. “My God,” I said. “What have you done?”

  He smiled wryly, and leaned forward out of the light to pour himself some more Scotch. “I think you already have a pretty good idea,” he said. “Now let me ask you something. Why have you been covering up for us?”


  “You knew we were leaving the country. You knew it all the time and you didn’t tell a soul. Why is that?”

  The walls had fallen away and the room was black. Henry’s face, lit starkly by the lamp, was pale against the darkness and stray points of light winked from the rim of his spectacles, glowed in the amber depths of his whiskey glass, shone blue in his eyes.

  “I don’t know,” I said.

  He smiled. “No?” he said.

  I stared at him and didn’t say anything.

  “After all, we hadn’t confided in you,” he said. His gaze on mine was steady, intense. “You could have stopped us any time you wanted and yet you didn’t. Why?”

  “Henry, what in God’s name have you done?”

  He smiled. “You tell me,” he said.

  And the horrible thing was, somehow, that I did know. “You killed somebody,” I said, “didn’t you?”

  He looked at me for a moment, and then, to my utter, utter surprise, he leaned back in his chair and laughed.

  “Good for you,” he said. “You’re just as smart as I thought you were. I knew you’d figure it out, sooner or later, that’s what I’ve told the others all along.”

  The darkness hung about our tiny circle of lamplight as heavy and palpable as a curtain. With a rush of what was almost motion sickness, I experienced for a moment both the claustrophobic feeling that the walls had rushed in toward us and the vertiginous one that they receded infinitely, leaving both of us suspended in some boundless expanse of dark. I swallowed, and looked back at Henry. “Who was it?” I said.

  He shrugged. “A minor thing, really. An accident.”

  “Not on purpose?”

  “Heavens, no,” he said, surprised.

  “What happened?”

  “I don’t know where to begin.” He paused, and took a drink. “Do you remember last fall, in Julian’s class, when we studied what Plato calls telestic madness? Bakcheia? Dionysiac frenzy?”

  “Yes,” I said, rather impatiently. It was just like Henry to bring up something like this right now.

  “Well, we decided to try to have one.”

  For a moment I thought I hadn’t understood him. “What?” I said.

  “I said we decided to try to have a bacchanal.”

  “Come on.”

  “We did.”

  I looked at him. “You must be joking.”


  “That’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard.”

  He shrugged.

  “Why would you want to do something like that?”

  “I was obsessed with the idea.”


  “Well, as far as I knew, it hadn’t been done for two thousand years.” He paused, when he saw he hadn’t convinced me. “After all, the appeal to stop being yourself, even for a little while, is very great,” he said. “To escape the cognitive mode of experience, to transcend the accident of one’s moment of being. There are other advantages, more difficult to speak of, things which ancient sources only hint at and which I myself only understood after the fact.”

  “Like what?”

  “Well, it’s not called a mystery for nothing,” said Henry sourly. “Take my word for it. But one mustn’t underestimate the primal appeal—to lose one’s self, lose it utterly. And in losing it be born to the principle of continuous life, outside the prison of mortality and time. That was attractive to me from the first, even when I knew nothing about the topic and approached it less as potential mystes than anthropologist. Ancient commentators are very circumspect about the whole thing. It was possible, with a great deal of work, to figure out some of the sacred rituals—the hymns, the sacred objects, what to wear and do and say. More difficult was the mystery itself: how did one propel oneself into such a state, what was the catalyst?” His voice was dreamy, amused. “We tried everything. Drink, drugs, prayer, even small doses of poison. On the night of our first attempt, we simply overdrank and passed out in our chitons in the woods near Francis’s house.”

  “You wore chitons?”

  “Yes,” said Henry, irritated. “It was all in the interests of science. We made them from bed sheets in Francis’s attic. At any rate. The first night nothing happened at all, except we were hung over and stiff from having slept on the ground. So the next time we didn’t drink as much, but there we all were, in the middle of the night on the hill behind Francis’s house, drunk and in chitons and singing Greek hymns like something from a fraternity initiation, and all at once Bunny began to laugh so hard that he fell over like a ninepin and rolled down the hill.

  “It was rather obvious that drink alone wasn’t going to do the trick. Goodness. I couldn’t tell you all the things we tried. Vigils. Fasting. Libations. It depresses me even to think about it. We burned hemlock branches and breathed the fumes. I knew the Pythia had chewed laurel leaves, but that didn’t work either. You found those laurel leaves, if you recall, on the stove in Francis’s kitchen.”

  I stared at him. “Why didn’t I know about any of this?” I said.

  Henry reached into his pocket for a cigarette. “Well, really,” he said, “I think that’s kind of obvious.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Of course we weren’t going to tell you. We hardly knew you. You would have thought we were crazy.” He was quiet for a moment. “You see, we had almost nothing to go on,” he said. “I suppose in a certain way I was misled by accounts of the Pythia, the pneuma enthusiastikon, poisonous vap
ors and so forth. Those processes, though sketchy, are more well documented than Bacchic methods, and I thought for a while that the two must be related. Only after a long period of trial and error did it become evident that they were not, and that what we were missing was something, in all likelihood, quite simple. Which it was.”

  “And what might that have been?”

  “Only this. To receive the god, in this or any other mystery, one has to be in a state of euphemia, cultic purity. That is at the very center of bacchic mystery. Even Plato speaks of it. Before the Divine can take over, the mortal self—the dust of us, the part that decays—must be made clean as possible.”

  “How is that?”

  “Through symbolic acts, most of them fairly universal in the Greek world. Water poured over the head, baths, fasting—Bunny wasn’t so good about the fasting nor about the baths, either, if you ask me but the rest of us went through the motions. The more we did it, though, the more meaningless it all began to seem, until, one day, I was struck by something rather obvious—namely, that any religious ritual is arbitrary unless one is able to see past it to a deeper meaning.” He paused. “Do you know,” he said, “what Julian says about the Divine Comedy?”

  “No, Henry, I don’t.”

  “That it’s incomprehensible to someone who isn’t a Christian? That if one is to read Dante, and understand him, one must become a Christian if only for a few hours? It was the same with this. It had to be approached on its own terms, not in a voyeuristic light or even a scholarly one. At the first, I suppose, it was impossible to see it any other way, looking at it as we did in fragments, through centuries. The vitality of the act was entirely obsfucated, the beauty, the terror, the sacrifice.” He took one last drag of his cigarette and put it out. “Quite simply,” he said, “we didn’t believe. And belief was the one condition which was absolutely necessary. Belief, and absolute surrender.”

  I waited for him to continue.

  “At this point, you must understand, we were on the verge of giving up,” he said calmly. “The enterprise had been interesting, but not that interesting; and besides, it was a good deal of trouble. You don’t know how many times you almost stumbled on us.”


  “No.” He took a drink of his whiskey. “I don’t suppose you remember coming downstairs one night in the country, about three in the morning,” he said. “Down to the library to get a book. We heard you on the stairs. I was hidden behind the draperies; I could have reached out and touched you if I’d wanted. Another time you woke up before we even got home. We had to slip around to the back door, sneak up the stairs like cat burglars—it was very tiresome, all that creeping around barefoot in the dark. Besides, it was getting cold. They say that the oreibasia took place in midwinter, but I daresay the Peloponnesus is considerably milder that time of year than Vermont.

  “We’d worked on it so long, though, and it seemed senseless, in light of our revelation, not to try once more before the weather turned. Everything got serious all of a sudden. We fasted for three days, longer than we ever had before. A messenger came to me in a dream. Everything was going beautifully, on the brink of taking wing, and I had a feeling that I’d never had, that reality itself was transforming around us in some beautiful and dangerous fashion, that we were being driven by a force we didn’t understand, towards an end I did not know.” He reached for his drink again. “The only problem was Bunny. He didn’t grasp, in some fundamental way, that things had changed significantly. We were closer than we’d ever been, and every day counted; already it was terribly cold, and if it snowed, which it might have any day, we’d have had to wait till spring. I couldn’t bear the thought that, after everything we’d done, he’d ruin it at the last minute. And I knew he would. At the crucial moment he’d start to tell some asinine joke and ruin everything. By the second day I was having my doubts, and then, on the afternoon of the night itself, Charles saw him in Commons having a grilled cheese sandwich and a milk shake. That did it. We decided to slip away without him. To go out on the weekends was too risky, since you’d almost caught us several times already, so we’d been driving out late on Thursday and getting back about three or four the next morning. Except this time we left early, before dinner, and didn’t say a word to him about it.”

  He lit a cigarette. There was a long pause.

  “So?” I said. “What happened?”

  He laughed. “I don’t know what to say.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “I mean that it worked.”

  “It worked?”


  “But how could—?”

  “It worked.”

  “I don’t think I understand what you mean when you say ‘it worked.’ ”

  “I mean it in the most literal sense.”

  “But how?”

  “It was heart-shaking. Glorious. Torches, dizziness, singing. Wolves howling around us and a bull bellowing in the dark. The river ran white. It was like a film in fast motion, the moon waxing and waning, clouds rushing across the sky. Vines grew from the ground so fast they twined up the trees like snakes; seasons passing in the wink of an eye, entire years for all I know.… I mean we think of phenomenal change as being the very essence of time, when it’s not at all. Time is something which defies spring and winter, birth and decay, the good and the bad, indifferently. Something changeless and joyous and absolutely indestructible. Duality ceases to exist; there is no ego, no “I,” and yet it’s not at all like those horrid comparisons one sometimes hears in Eastern religions, the self being a drop of water swallowed by the ocean of the universe. It’s more as if the universe expands to fill the boundaries of the self. You have no idea how pallid the workday boundaries of ordinary existence seem, after such an ecstasy. It was like being a baby. I couldn’t remember my name. The soles of my feet were cut to pieces and I couldn’t even feel it.”

  “But these are fundamentally sex rituals, aren’t they?”

  It came out not as a question but as a statement. He didn’t blink, but sat waiting for me to continue.

  “Well? Aren’t they?”

  He leaned over to rest his cigarette in the ashtray. “Of course,” he said agreeably, cool as a priest in his dark suit and ascetic spectacles. “You know that as well as I do.”

  We sat looking at each other for a moment.

  “What exactly did you do?” I said.

  “Well, really, I think we needn’t go into that now,” he said smoothly. “There was a certain carnal element to the proceedings but the phenomenon was basically spiritual in nature.”

  “You saw Dionysus, I suppose?”

  I had not meant this at all seriously, and I was startled when he nodded as casually as if I’d asked him if he’d done his homework.

  “You saw him corporeally? Goatskin? Thyrsus?”

  “How do you know what Dionysus is?” said Henry, a bit sharply. “What do you think it was we saw? A cartoon? A drawing from the side of a vase?”

  “I just can’t believe you’re telling me you actually saw—”

  “What if you had never seen the sea before? What if the only thing you’d ever seen was a child’s picture—blue crayon, choppy waves? Would you know the real sea if you only knew the picture? Would you be able to recognize the real thing even if you saw it? You don’t know what Dionysus looks like. We’re talking about God here. God is serious business.” He leaned back in his chair and scrutinized me. “You don’t have to take my word for any of this, you know,” he said. “There were four of us. Charles had a bloody bite-mark on his arm that he had no idea how he’d got, but it wasn’t a human bite. Too big. And strange puncture marks instead of teeth. Camilla said that during part of it, she’d believed she was a deer; and that was odd, too, because the rest of us remember chasing a deer through the woods, for miles it seemed. Actually, it was miles. I know that for a fact. Apparently we ran and ran and ran, because when we came to ourselves we had no idea where we were. Later we figured out tha
t we had got over at least four barbed-wire fences, though how I don’t know, and were well off Francis’s property, seven or eight miles into the country. This is where I come to the rather unfortunate part of my story.

  “I have only the vaguest memory of this. I heard something behind me, or someone, and I wheeled around, almost losing my balance, and swung at whatever it was—a large, indistinct, yellow thing—with my closed fist, my left, which is not my good one. I felt a terrible pain in my knuckles and then, almost instantly, something knocked the breath right out of me. It was dark, you understand; I couldn’t really see. I swung out again with my right, hard as I could and with all my weight behind it, and this time I heard a loud crack and a scream.

  “We’re not too clear on what happened after that. Camilla was a good deal ahead, but Charles and Francis were fairly close behind and had soon caught up with me. I have a distinct recollection of being on my feet and seeing the two of them crash through the bushes—God. I can see them now. Their hair was tangled with leaves and mud and their clothes virtually in shreds. They stood there, panting, glassy-eyed and hostile—I didn’t recognize either of them, and I think we might have started to fight had not the moon come from behind a cloud. We stared at each other. Things started to come back. I looked down at my hand and saw it was covered with blood, and worse than blood. Then Charles stepped forward and knelt at something at my feet, and I bent down, too, and saw that it was a man. He was dead. He was about forty years old and he had on a yellow plaid shirt—you know those woolen shirts they wear up here—and his neck was broken, and, unpleasant to say, his brains were all over his face. Really, I do not know how that happened. There was a dreadful mess. I was drenched in blood and there was even blood on my glasses.

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