The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  “But that was going to be the big surprise, you see. Jumping out at us from the dark.”

  “We walked in and turned on the light, and then it was too late. He woke up instantly. And there we were—”

  “—all white robes and bloody like something from Edgar Allan Poe,” Francis said gloomily.

  “Jesus, what did he do?”

  “What do you think? We scared him half to death.”

  “It served him right,” said Henry.

  “Tell him about the ice cream.”

  “Really, this was the last straw,” Henry said crossly. “He took a quart of ice cream out of my freezer to eat while he waited—he couldn’t bother to get a bowl of it, you understand, he had to have the whole quart—and when he fell asleep it melted all over him and on my chair and on that nice little Oriental rug I used to have. Well. It was quite a good antique, that rug, but the dry cleaners said there was nothing they could do. It came back in shreds. And my chair.” He reached for a cigarette. “He screamed like a banshee when he saw us—”

  “—and he would not shut up,” said Francis. “Remember, it was six o’clock in the morning, the neighbors sleeping …” He shook his head. “I remember Charles taking a step towards him, trying to talk to him, and Bunny yelling bloody murder. After a minute or two—”

  “It was only a few seconds,” Henry said.

  “—after a minute, Camilla picked up a glass ashtray and threw it at him and hit him square in the chest.”

  “It wasn’t a hard blow,” said Henry thoughtfully, “but it was quite judiciously timed. Instantly he shut up and stared at her and I said to him, ‘Bunny, shut up. You’ll wake the neighbors. We’ve hit a deer in the road on the way home.’ ”

  “So then,” said Francis, “he wiped his brow and rolled his eyes and went through the whole Bunny routine—boy you guys scared me and must’ve been half-asleep and just on and on and on—”

  “And meanwhile,” Henry said, “the four of us were standing there in the bloody sheets, the lights on, no curtains, in full view of anyone who might happen to drive by. He was talking so loudly, and the lights were so bright, and I felt so faint with exhaustion and shock that I couldn’t do much more than stare at him. My God—we were covered with this man’s blood, we’d tracked it into the house, the sun was coming up, and here, to top it all off, was Bunny. I couldn’t force myself to think what to do. Then Camilla, quite sensibly, flicked off the light and all of a sudden I realized no matter how it looked, no matter who was there, we had to get out of our clothes and wash up without losing another second.”

  “I practically had to rip the sheet off,” said Francis. “The blood had dried and it was stuck to me. By the time I’d managed that, Henry and the others were in the bathroom. Spray was flying; the water in the bathtub was backed up red; rusty splashes on the tile. It was a nightmare.”

  “I can’t tell you how unfortunate it was that Bunny happened to be there,” said Henry, shaking his head. “But for heaven’s sake, we couldn’t just stand around and wait for him to leave. There was blood everywhere, the neighbors would soon be up, for all I knew the police would be pounding at the door any second.…”

  “Well, it was too bad we alarmed him, but then, it wasn’t like we thought we were doing this in front of J. Edgar Hoover, either,” said Francis.

  “Exactly,” said Henry. “I don’t want to convey the impression that Bunny’s presence seemed like a tremendous menace at that point. It was just a nuisance, because I knew he wondered what was going on, but at the moment he was the least of our troubles. If there’d been time, I would have sat him down and explained things to him the instant we got in. But there wasn’t time.”

  “Good God,” Francis said, and shuddered. “I still can’t go in Henry’s bathroom. Blood smeared on the porcelain. Henry’s straight razor swinging from a peg. We were bruised and scratched to pieces.”

  “Charles was the worst by far.”

  “Oh, my God. Thorns stuck all over him.”

  “And that bite.”

  “You’ve never seen anything like it,” said Francis. “Four inches around and the teeth marks just gouged in. Remember what Bunny said?”

  Henry laughed. “Yes,” he said. “Tell him.”

  “Well, there we all were, and Charles was turning to get the soap—I didn’t even know Bunny was there, I suppose he was looking in the door—when all of a sudden I heard him say, in this weird businesslike way, ‘Looks like that deer took a plug out of your arm, Charles.’ ”

  “He was standing there for part of the time, making comments of various sorts,” said Henry, “but the next thing I knew he wasn’t. I was disturbed by how suddenly he’d left but glad he was out of the way. We had a great deal to do and not too much time.”

  “Weren’t you afraid he’d tell somebody?”

  Henry looked at me blankly. “Who?”

  “Me. Marion. Anybody.”

  “No. At that point I had no reason to think he’d do anything of the sort. He’d been with us on previous tries, you understand, so our appearance didn’t seem as extraordinary to him as it might have to you. The whole thing was deadly secret. He’d been involved in it with us for months. How could he have told anyone without explaining the whole thing and making himself look foolish? Julian knew what we were trying to do, but I was still pretty certain Bunny wouldn’t talk to him without checking it with us first. And, as it happened, I was right.”

  He paused and lit a cigarette. “It was almost daybreak, and things were still a dreadful mess—bloody footprints on the porch, the chitons lying where we’d dropped them. The twins put on some old clothes of mine and went out to take care of the porch and the inside of the car. The chitons, I knew, should be burnt, but I didn’t want to start a big fire in the back yard; nor did I want to burn them inside and risk setting off the fire alarm. My landlady is constantly warning me not to use the fireplace, but I’d always suspected it worked. I took a chance and as luck would have it, it did.”

  “I was no help at all,” said Francis.

  “No, you certainly weren’t,” said Henry crossly.

  “I couldn’t help it. I thought I was going to throw up. I went back to Henry’s room and went to sleep.”

  “I think we all would have liked to go to sleep but somebody had to clean up,” Henry said. “The twins came in around seven. I was still having a terrible time with the bathroom. Charles’s back was stuck full of thorns like a pincushion. For a while Camilla and I worked on him with a pair of tweezers; then I went back in the bathroom to finish up. The worst of it was over, but I was so tired I couldn’t keep my eyes open. The towels weren’t so bad—we’d pretty much avoided using them—but there were stains on some of them so I put them in the washing machine and dumped in some soap. The twins were asleep, on that fold-out bed in the back room, and I shoved Charles over and was out like a light.”

  “Fourteen hours,” said Francis. “I’ve never slept that long in my life.”

  “Nor have I. Like a dead man. No dreams.”

  “I can’t tell you how disorienting this was,” Francis said. “The sun was coming up when I went to sleep, and it seemed like I’d just closed my eyes when I opened them again, and it was dark, and a phone was ringing, and I had no idea where I was. It kept ringing and ringing, and finally I got up and found my way into the hall. Somebody said don’t answer it but—”

  “I’ve never seen anybody like you for answering a phone,” said Henry. “Even in somebody else’s house.”

  “Well, what am I supposed to do? Just let it ring? Anyway, I picked it up, and it was Bunny, cheery as a lark. Boy, the four of us had really been messed up, and were we turning into a bunch of nudists or what, and how about if we all went to the Brasserie and had some dinner?”

  I sat up in my chair. “Wait,” I said. “Was that the night—?”

  Henry nodded. “You came too,” he said. “Remember?”

  “Of course,” I said, unaccountably excited
that the story was at last beginning to dovetail with my own experience. “Of course. I met Bunny on his way to your place.”

  “If you don’t mind my saying so, we were all a little surprised when he showed up with you,” said Francis.

  “Well, I suppose eventually he wanted to get us alone and find out what happened, but it was nothing that couldn’t wait,” said Henry. “You’ll recall that our appearance wouldn’t have seemed so odd to him as it might. He’d been with us before, you know, on nights very nearly as—what is the word I’m looking for?”

  “—when we’d been sick all over the place,” said Francis, “and fallen in mud, and didn’t get home till dawn. There was the blood—he might have wondered exactly how we’d killed that deer—but still.”

  Uncomfortably, I thought of the Bacchae: hooves and bloody ribs, scraps dangling from the fir trees. There was a word for it in Greek: omophagia. Suddenly it came back to me: walking into Henry’s apartment, all those tired faces, Bunny’s snide greeting of “Khairei, deerslayers!”

  They’d been quiet that evening, quiet and pale, though not more than seemed remarkable for people suffering particularly bad hangovers. Only Camilla’s laryngitis seemed unusual. They’d been drunk the night before, they told me, drunk as bandicoots; Camilla had left her sweater at home and caught cold on the walk back to North Hampden. Outside, it was dark and raining hard. Henry gave me the car keys and asked me to drive.

  It was a Friday night, but the weather was so bad the Brasserie was nearly deserted. We ate Welsh rarebits and listened to the rain beating down in gusts on the roof. Bunny and I drank whiskey and hot water; the others had tea.

  “Feeling queasy, bakchoi?” said Bunny slyly after the waiter took our drink orders.

  Camilla made a face at him.

  When we went out to the car after dinner Bunny walked around it, inspected the headlights, kicked at the tires. “This the one you were in last night?” he said, blinking in the rain.


  He brushed the damp hair from his eyes and bent to examine the fender. “German cars,” he said. “Hate to say it but I think the Krauts have got Detroit metal beat. I don’t see a scratch.”

  I asked him what he meant.

  “Aw, they were driving around drunk. Making a nuisance of themselves on the public road. Hit a deer. Did you kill it?” he asked Henry.

  Walking around to the passenger’s side, Henry looked up. “What’s that?”

  “The deer. Didja kill it?”

  Henry opened the door. “It looked pretty dead to me,” he had said.

  There was a long silence. My eyes were smarting from all the smoke. A thick gray haze of it hung near the ceiling.

  “So what’s the problem?” I said.

  “What do you mean?”

  “What happened? Did you tell him about it or not?”

  Henry took a deep breath. “No,” he said. “We might have, but obviously the fewer people who knew the better. When I first saw him alone, I broached it carefully, but he seemed satisfied with the deer story and I let it go at that. If he hadn’t figured it out on his own there was certainly no reason to tell him. The fellow’s body was found, an article ran in the Hampden Examiner, no problem at all. But then—by some rotten stroke of luck—I suppose in Hampden they don’t get many stories like this—they published a follow-up story two weeks later. ‘Mysterious Death in Battenkill County.’ And that was the one Bunny saw.”

  “It was the stupidest thing,” Francis said. “He never reads the newspaper. None of this would have happened if it wasn’t for that blasted Marion.”

  “She has a subscription, something to do with the Early Childhood Center,” said Henry, rubbing his eyes. “Bunny was with her in Commons before lunch. She was talking to one of her friends—Marion, that is—and Bunny I suppose had got bored and started to read her paper. The twins and I went up to say hello and the first thing he said, practically across the room, was ‘Look here, you guys, some chicken farmer got killed out by Francis’s house.’ Then he read a bit of the article out loud. Fractured skull, no murder weapon, no motive, no leads. I was trying to think of some way to change the subject when he said: ‘Hey. November tenth? That’s the night you guys were out at Francis’s. The night you ran over that deer.’ ”

  “ ‘I don’t see,’ I said, ‘how that could be right.’

  “ ‘It was the tenth. I remember because it was the day before my mom’s birthday. That’s really something, isn’t it?’

  “ ‘Why yes,’ we said, ‘it certainly is.’

  “ ‘If I had a suspicious mind,’ he said, ‘I’d guess you’d done it, Henry, coming back from Battenkill County that night with blood from head to toe.’ ”

  He lit another cigarette. “You have to remember that it was lunch time, Commons was packed, Marion and her friend were listening to every word, and besides, you know how his voice carries.… We laughed, naturally, and Charles said something funny, and we’d just managed to get him off the topic when he looked at the paper again. ‘I can’t believe this, guys,’ he said. ‘An honest-to-God murder, out in the woods too, not three miles from where you were. You know, if the cops had pulled you over that night, you’d probably be in jail right now. There’s a phone number to call if anybody’s got any information. If I wanted to, I bet I could get you guys in a heck of a lot of trouble …’ et cetera, et cetera.

  “Of course, I didn’t know what to think. Was he joking, did he really suspect? Eventually I got him to drop it but still I had an awful feeling that he’d felt how uneasy he’d made me. He knows me so well—he has a sixth sense about that kind of thing. And I was uneasy. Goodness. It was right before lunch, all these security guards were standing around, half of them are connected with the police force in Hampden … I mean, there was no way our story could stand up to even peremptory examination and I knew it. Obviously we hadn’t hit a deer. There wasn’t a scratch on either of the cars. And if anyone made even a casual connection between us and the dead man … So, as I say, I was glad when he dropped it. But even then I had a feeling we hadn’t heard the last of it. He teased us about it—quite innocently, I believe, but in public as well as private—for the rest of the term. You know how he is. Once he gets something like that on the brain he won’t give it up.”

  I did know. Bunny had an uncanny ability to ferret out topics of conversation that made his listener uneasy and to dwell upon them with ferocity once he had. In all the months I’d known him he’d never ceased to tease me, for instance, about that jacket I’d worn to lunch with him that first day, and about what he saw as my flimsy and tastelessly Californian style of dress. To an impartial eye, my clothes were in fact not at all dissimilar from his own but his snide remarks upon the subject were so inexhaustible and tireless, I think, because in spite of my good-natured laughter he must have been dimly aware that he was touching a nerve, that I was in fact incredibly self-conscious about these virtually imperceptible differences of dress and of the rather less imperceptible differences of manner and bearing between myself and the rest of them. I am gifted at blending myself into any given milieu—you’ve never seen such a typical California teenager as I was, nor such a dissolute and callous pre-med student—but somehow, despite my efforts, I am never able to blend myself in entirely and remain in some respects quite distinct from my surroundings, in the same way that a green chameleon remains a distinct entity from the green leaf upon which it sits, no matter how perfectly it has approximated the subtleties of the particular shade. Whenever Bunny, rudely and in public, accused me of wearing a shirt which contained a polyester blend, or remarked critically that my perfectly ordinary trousers, indistinguishable from his own, bore the taint of something he called a “Western cut,” a large portion of the pleasure this sport afforded him was derived from his unerring and bloodhoundish sense that this, of all topics, was the one which made me most truly uncomfortable. He could not have failed to notice what a sore spot his mention of the murder had touched in Henry; no
r, once he sensed its existence, could he have restrained himself from continuing to jab at it.

  “Of course, he didn’t know a thing,” Francis said. “Really, he didn’t. It was all a big joke to him. He liked to throw out references to that farmer we’d gone and murdered, just to see me jump. One day he told me he’d seen a policeman out in front of my house, asking my landlady questions.”

  “He did that to me, too,” said Henry. “He was always joking about calling the tips number in the newspaper, and the five of us splitting the reward money. Picking up the telephone. Pretending to dial.”

  “You can understand how thin that wore after a time. My God. Some of the things he said in front of you—The terrible thing was, you could never tell when it was coming. Right before school let out he stuck a copy of that newspaper article under the windshield wiper of my car. ‘Mysterious Death in Battenkill County.’ It was horrible to know that he’d saved it in the first place, and kept it all that time.”

  “Worst of all,” said Henry, “there was absolutely nothing we could do. For a while we even thought of telling him outright, throwing ourselves on his mercy so to speak, but then we realized, at that late date, it was impossible to predict how he’d react. He was grouchy, and sick, and worried about his grades. And the term was nearly over too. It seemed that the best thing to do was to stay on his good side until the Christmas break—take him places, buy him things, pay a lot of attention to him—and hope it would blow over during the winter.” He sighed. “At the end of virtually every school term I’ve been through with Bunny, he’s suggested that the two of us go on a trip, meaning by this that we go to some place of his choosing and that I pay for it. He hasn’t the money to get to Manchester on his own. And when the subject came up, as I knew it would, about a week or two before school was out, I thought: why not? In this way, at least, one of us could keep an eye on him over the winter; and perhaps a change of scenery might prove beneficial. I should also note that it didn’t seem to be such a bad thing if he were to feel a bit under obligation to me. He wanted to go to either Italy or Jamaica. I knew I couldn’t bear Jamaica, so I bought two tickets for Rome and arranged for some rooms not far from the Piazza di Spagna.”

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