The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  “Charles tells a different story. He remembers seeing me by the body. But he says he also has a memory of struggling with something, pulling as hard as he could, and all of a sudden becoming aware that what he was pulling at was a man’s arm, with his foot braced in the armpit. Francis—well, I can’t say. Every time you talk to him, he remembers something different.”

  “And Camilla?”

  Henry sighed. “I suppose we’ll never know what really happened,” he said. “We didn’t find her until a good bit later. She was sitting quietly on the bank of a stream with her feet in the water, her robe perfectly white, and no blood anywhere except for her hair. It was dark and clotted, completely soaked. As if she’d tried to dye it red.”

  “How could that have happened?”

  “We don’t know.” He lit another cigarette. “Anyway, the man was dead. And there we were in the middle of the woods, half-naked and covered with mud with this body on the ground in front of us. We were all in a daze. I was fading in and out, nearly went to sleep; but then Francis went over for a closer look and had a pretty violent attack of the dry heaves. Something about that brought me to my senses. I told Charles to find Camilla and then I knelt down and went through the man’s pockets. There wasn’t much—I found something or other that had his name on it—but of course that wasn’t any help.

  “I had no idea what to do. You must remember that it was getting cold, and I hadn’t slept or eaten for a long time, and my mind wasn’t at its clearest. For a few minutes—goodness, how confusing this was—I thought of digging a grave but then I realized that would be madness. We couldn’t linger around all night. We didn’t know where we were, or who might happen along, or even what time it was. Besides, we had nothing to dig a grave with. For a moment I nearly panicked—we couldn’t just leave the body in the open, could we?—but then I realized it was the only thing we could do. My God. We didn’t even know where the car was. I couldn’t picture dragging this corpse over hill and dale for goodness knows how long; and even if we got it to the car, where would we take it?

  “So when Charles came back with Camilla, we just left. Which, in retrospect, was the smartest thing we could have done. It’s not as if teams of expert coroners are crawling all over upstate Vermont. It’s a primitive place. People die violent natural deaths all the time. We didn’t even know who the man was; there was nothing to tie us to him. All we had to worry about was finding the car and then making our way home without anyone seeing us.” He leaned over and poured himself some more Scotch. “Which is exactly what we did.”

  I poured myself another glass, too, and we sat without speaking for a minute or more.

  “Henry,” I said at last. “Good God.”

  He raised an eyebrow. “Really, it was more upsetting than you can imagine,” he said. “Once I hit a deer with my car. It was a beautiful creature and to see it struggling, blood everywhere, legs broken … And this was even more distressing but at least I thought it was over. I never dreamed we’d hear anything else about it.” He took a drink of his Scotch. “Unfortunately, that is not the case,” he said. “Bunny has seen to that.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “You saw him this morning. He’s driven us half mad over this. I am very nearly at the end of my rope.”

  There was the sound of a key being turned in the lock. Henry brought up his glass and drank the rest of his whiskey in a long swallow. “That’ll be Francis,” he said, and turned on the overhead light.



  WHEN THE LIGHTS came on, and the circle of darkness leaped back into the mundane and familiar boundaries of the living room—cluttered desk; low, lumpy sofa; the dusty and modishly cut draperies that had fallen to Francis after one of his mother’s decorating purges—it was as if I’d switched on the lamp after a long bad dream; blinking, I was relieved to discover that the doors and windows were still where they were supposed to be and that the furniture hadn’t rearranged itself, by diabolical magic, in the dark.

  The bolt turned. Francis stepped in from the dark hall. He was breathing hard, pulling with dispirited jerks at the fingertips of a glove.

  “Jesus, Henry,” he said. “What a night.”

  I was out of his line of vision. Henry glanced at me and cleared his throat discreetly. Francis wheeled around.

  I thought I looked back at him casually enough, but evidently I didn’t. It must have been all over my face.

  He stared at me for a long time, the glove half on, half off, dangling limply from his hand.

  “Oh, no,” he said at last, without moving his eyes away from mine. “Henry. You didn’t.”

  “I’m afraid I did,” Henry said.

  Francis squeezed his eyes tight shut, then reopened them. He had got very white, his pallor dry and talcumy as a chalk drawing on rough paper. For a moment I wondered if he might faint.

  “It’s all right,” said Henry.

  Francis didn’t move.

  “Really, Francis,” Henry said, a trifle peevishly, “it’s all right. Sit down.”

  Breathing hard, he made his way across the room and fell heavily into an armchair, where he rummaged in his pocket for a cigarette.

  “He knew,” said Henry. “I told you so.”

  Francis looked up at me, the unlit cigarette trembling in his fingertips. “Did you?”

  I didn’t answer. For a moment I found myself wondering if this was all some monstrous practical joke. Francis dragged a hand down the side of his face.

  “I suppose everybody knows now,” he said. “I don’t even know why I feel bad about it.”

  Henry had stepped into the kitchen for a glass. Now he poured some Scotch in it and handed it to Francis. “Deprendi miserum est,” he said.

  To my surprise Francis laughed, a humorless little snort.

  “Good Lord,” he said, and took a long drink. “What a nightmare. I can’t imagine what you must think of us, Richard.”

  “It doesn’t matter.” I said this without thinking, but as soon as I had, I realized, with something of a jolt, that it was true; it really didn’t matter that much, at least not in the preconceived way that one would expect.

  “Well, I guess you could say we’re in quite a fix,” said Francis, rubbing his eyes with thumb and forefinger. “I don’t know what we’re going to do with Bunny. I wanted to slap him when we were standing in line for that damned movie.”

  “You took him to Manchester?” Henry said.

  “Yes. But people are so nosy and you never do really know who might be sitting behind you, do you? It wasn’t even a good movie.”

  “What was it?”

  “Some nonsense about a bachelor party. I just want to take a sleeping pill and go to bed.” He drank off the rest of his Scotch and poured himself another inch. “Jesus,” he said to me. “You’re being so nice about this. I feel awfully embarrassed by this whole thing.”

  There was a long silence.

  Finally I said: “What are you going to do?”

  Francis sighed. “We didn’t mean to do anything,” he said. “I know it sounds kind of bad, but what can we do about it now?”

  The resigned note in his voice simultaneously angered and distressed me. “I don’t know,” I said. “Why for God’s sake didn’t you go to the police?”

  “Surely you’re joking,” said Henry dryly.

  “Tell them you don’t know what happened? That you found him lying out in the woods? Or, God, I don’t know, that you hit him with the car, that he ran out in front of you or something?”

  “That would have been a very foolish thing to do,” Henry said. “It was an unfortunate incident and I am sorry that it happened, but frankly I do not see how well either the taxpayers’ interests or my own would be served by my spending sixty or seventy years in a Vermont jail.”

  “But it was an accident. You said so yourself.”

  Henry shrugged.

  “If you’d gone right in, you could’ve got off on some minor charge. Maybe
nothing would have happened at all.”

  “Maybe not,” Henry said agreeably. “But remember, this is Vermont.”

  “What the hell difference does that make?”

  “It makes a great deal of difference, unfortunately. If the thing went to trial, we’d be tried here. And not, I might add, by a jury of our peers.”


  “Say what you like, but you can’t convince me that a jury box of poverty-level Vermonters would have the remotest bit of pity for four college students on trial for murdering one of their neighbors.”

  “People in Hampden have been hoping for years that something like this would happen,” said Francis, lighting a new cigarette off the end of the old one. “We wouldn’t be getting off on any manslaughter charges. We’d be lucky if we didn’t go to the chair.”

  “Imagine how it would look,” Henry said. “We’re all young, well educated, reasonably well off; and, perhaps most importantly, not Vermonters. And I suppose that any equitable judge might make allowances for our youth, and the fact that it was an accident and so forth, but—”

  “Four rich college kids?” said Francis. “Drunk? On drugs? On this guy’s land in the middle of the night?”

  “You were on his land?”

  “Well, apparently,” said Henry. “That’s where the papers said his body was found.”

  I hadn’t been in Vermont very long, but I’d been there long enough to know what any Vermonter worth his salt would think of that. Trespassing on someone’s land was tantamount to breaking into his house. “Oh, God,” I said.

  “That’s not the half of it, either,” said Francis. “For Christ’s sake, we were wearing bed sheets. Barefoot. Soaked in blood. Stinking drunk. Can you imagine if we’d trailed down to the sheriff’s office and tried to explain all that?”

  “Not that we were in any condition to explain,” Henry said dreamily. “Really. I wonder if you understand what sort of state we were in. Scarcely an hour before, we’d all been really, truly out of our minds. And it may be a superhuman effort to lose oneself so completely, but that’s nothing compared to the effort of getting oneself back again.”

  “It certainly wasn’t as if something snapped and there we were, our jolly old selves,” said Francis. “Believe me. We might as well have had shock treatments.”

  “I really don’t know how we got home without being seen,” Henry said.

  “No way could we have patched together a plausible story from this. Good Lord. It was weeks before I got over it. Camilla couldn’t even talk for three days.”

  With a small chill, I remembered: Camilla, her throat wrapped in a red muffler, unable to speak. Laryngitis, they’d said.

  “Yes, that was very strange,” said Henry. “She was thinking clearly enough, but the words wouldn’t come out right. As if she’d had a stroke. When she started to speak again, her high-school French came back before her English or her Greek. Nursery words. I remember sitting by her bed, listening to her count to ten, watching her point to la fenêtre, la chaise …”

  Francis laughed. “She was so funny,” he said. “When I asked her how she felt she said, ‘Je me sens comme Hélène Keller, mon vieux.’ ”

  “Did she go to the doctor?”

  “Are you kidding?”

  “What if she hadn’t got any better?”

  “Well, the same thing happened to all of us,” said Henry. “Only it more or less wore off in a couple of hours.”

  “You couldn’t talk?”

  “Bitten and scratched to pieces?” Francis said. “Tongue-tied? Half mad? If we’d gone to the police they would have charged us with every unsolved death in New England for the last five years.” He held up an imaginary newspaper. “ ‘Crazed Hippies Indicted for Rural Thrill-Killing.’ ‘Cult Slaying of Old Abe So-and-So.’ ”

  “Teen Satanists Murder Longtime Vermont Resident,” said Henry, lighting a cigarette.

  Francis started to laugh.

  “It would be one thing if we had even a chance at a decent hearing,” said Henry. “But we don’t.”

  “And I personally can’t imagine much worse than being tried for my life by a Vermont circuit-court judge and a jury box full of telephone operators.”

  “Things aren’t marvelous,” said Henry, “but they could certainly be worse. The big problem now is Bunny.”

  “What’s wrong with him?”

  “Nothing’s wrong with him.”

  “Then what’s the problem?”

  “He just can’t keep his mouth shut, that’s all.”

  “Haven’t you talked to him?”

  “About ten million times,” Francis said.

  “Has he tried to go to the police?”

  “If he goes on like this,” said Henry, “he won’t have to. They’ll come right to us. Reasoning with him does no good. He just doesn’t grasp what a serious business this is.”

  “Surely he doesn’t want to see you go to jail.”

  “If he thought about it, I’m sure he’d realize he didn’t,” said Henry evenly. “And I’m sure he’d realize that he doesn’t particularly want to go to jail himself, either.”

  “Bunny? But why—?”

  “Because he’s known about this since November and he hasn’t gone to the police,” Francis said.

  “But that’s beside the point,” said Henry. “Even he has sense enough not to turn us in. He doesn’t have much of an alibi for the night of the murder, and if it ever came to prison for the rest of us I think he must know that I, at least, would do everything in my power to see he came along with us.” He stubbed out his cigarette. “The problem is he’s just a fool, and sooner or later he’s going to say the wrong thing to the wrong person,” he said. “Perhaps not intentionally, but I can’t pretend to be too concerned with motive at this point. You heard him this morning. He’d be in quite a spot himself if this got back to the police but of course he thinks those ghastly jokes are all terribly subtle and clever and over everyone’s head.”

  “He’s only just smart enough to realize what a mistake turning us in would be,” said Francis, pausing to pour himself another drink. “But we can’t seem to pound it into him that it’s even more in his own self-interest not to go around talking like he does. And, really, I’m not at all sure he won’t just come out and tell someone, when he’s in one of these confessional moods.”

  “Tell someone? Like who?”

  “Marion. His father. The Dean of Studies.” He shuddered. “Gives me the creeps just to think about it. He’s just the sort who always stands up in the back of the courtroom during the last five minutes of Terry Mason.’ ”

  “Bunny Corcoran, Boy Detective,” said Henry dryly.

  “How did he find out? He wasn’t with you, was he?”

  “As a matter of fact,” said Francis, “he was with you.” He glanced at Henry, and to my surprise the two of them began to laugh.

  “What? What’s so funny?” I said, alarmed.

  This sent them into fresh peals of laughter. “Nothing,” said Francis at last.

  “Really, it is nothing,” said Henry, with a bemused little sigh. “The oddest things make me laugh these days.” He lit another cigarette. “He was with you that night, early in the evening, anyway. Remember? You went to the movies.”

  “The Thirty-Nine Steps,” Francis said.

  With something of a start, I did remember: a windy autumn night, full moon obscured by dusty rags of cloud. I’d worked late in the library and hadn’t gone to dinner. Walking home, a sandwich from the snack bar in my pocket, and the dry leaves skittering and dancing on the path before me, I’d run into Bunny on his way to the Hitchcock series, which the Film Society was showing in the auditorium.

  We were late and there were no seats left so we sat on the carpeted stairs, Bunny leaning back on his elbows with his legs stretched in front of him, cracking pensively with his rear molars at a little Dum-Dum sucker. The high wind rattled the flimsy walls; a door banged open and shut until somebody propped it o
pen with a brick. On the screen, locomotives screaming across a black-and-white nightmare of iron-bridged chasms.

  “We had a drink afterwards,” I said. “Then he went to his room.”

  Henry sighed. “I wish he had,” he said.

  “He kept asking if I knew where you were.”

  “He knew himself, very well. We’d threatened half a dozen times to leave him at home if he didn’t behave.”

  “So he got the bright idea of coming around to Henry’s to scare him,” said Francis, pouring himself another drink.

  “I was so angry about that,” said Henry abruptly. “Even if nothing had happened, it was a sneaky thing to do. He knew where the spare key was, and he just got it and let himself in.”

  “Even so, nothing might have happened. It was just a horrible string of coincidences. If we’d stopped in the country to get rid of our clothes, if we’d come here or to the twins’, if Bunny only hadn’t fallen asleep …”

  “He was asleep?”

  “Yes, or otherwise he would have got discouraged and left,” Henry said. “We didn’t get back to Hampden until six in the morning. It was a miracle we found our way to the car, over all those fields and things in the dark.… Well, it was foolish to drive to North Hampden in those bloody clothes. The police could have pulled us over, we could have had a wreck, anything. But I felt ill, and I wasn’t thinking clearly, and I suppose I drove to my own apartment by instinct.”

  “He left my room around midnight.”

  “Well, then, he was alone in my apartment from about twelve-thirty to six a.m. And the coroner reckoned the time of death between one and four. That’s one of the few decent cards fate dealt us in the whole hand. Though Bunny wasn’t with us, he’d have a hard time proving he wasn’t. Unfortunately, that’s not a card we can play except in the direst circumstances.” He shrugged. “If only he’d left the lamp on, anything to tip us off.”

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