The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  “And you gave him money for clothes and all those useless Italian books.”

  “Yes. All in all it was a considerable outlay of money but it seemed like a good investment. I even thought it might be a bit of fun. But never, in my wildest dreams.… Really, I don’t know where to begin. I remember when he saw our rooms—actually, they were quite charming, with a frescoed ceiling, beautiful old balcony, glorious view, I was rather proud of myself for having found them—he was incensed, and began to complain that it was shabby, that it was too cold and the plumbing was bad; and, in short, that the place was completely unsuitable and he wondered how I had been duped into taking it. He’d thought I knew better than to stumble into a lousy tourist trap, but he guessed that he was wrong. He insinuated that our throats would be cut in the night. At that point, I was more amenable to his whims. I asked him, if he didn’t like the rooms, where would he prefer to stay? and he suggested why didn’t we just go down and get a suite—not a room, you understand, but a suite—in the Grand Hotel?

  “He kept on, and finally I told him we would do nothing of the sort. For one thing, the exchange rate was bad and the rooms—besides being paid in advance, and with my money—were already rather more than I could afford. He sulked for days, feigning asthma attacks, moping around and honking at his inhaler and nagging me constantly—accusing me of being cheap, and so forth, and when he traveled he liked to do it right—and finally I lost my temper. I told him that if the rooms were satisfactory to me, they were certainly better than what he was used to—I mean, my God, it was a palazzo, it belonged to a countess, I’d paid a fortune for it—and, in short, there was no possibility of my paying 500,000 lire a night for the company of American tourists and a couple of sheets of hotel stationery.

  “So we stayed on at the Piazza di Spagna, which he proceeded to transform into a simulacrum of Hell. He needled me ceaselessly—about the carpet, about the pipes, about what he felt was his insufficient supply of pocket money. We were living just a few steps from the Via Condotti, the most expensive shopping street in Rome. I was lucky, he said. No wonder I was having such a good time, since I could buy whatever I wanted, while all he could do was lie wheezing in the garret like a poor stepchild. I did what I could to placate him, but the more I bought him, the more he wanted. Besides which, he would hardly let me out of his sight. He complained if I left him alone for even a few minutes; but if I asked him to come along with me, to a museum or a church—my God, we were in Rome—he was dreadfully bored and kept at me constantly to leave. It got so I couldn’t even read a book without his sailing in. Goodness. He’d stand outside the door and jabber at me while I was having my bath. I caught him going through my suitcase. I mean—” he paused delicately—“it’s slightly annoying to have even an unobtrusive person sharing such close quarters with one. Perhaps I’d only forgotten what it was like when we lived together freshman year, or perhaps I’ve simply become more accustomed to living alone, but after a week or two of this I was a nervous wreck. I could hardly bear the sight of him. And I was worried about other things as well. You know, don’t you,” he said abruptly to me, “that sometimes I get headaches, rather bad ones?”

  I did know. Bunny—fond of recounting his own illnesses and those of others—had described them in an awed whisper: Henry, flat on his back in a dark room, ice packs on his head and a handkerchief tied over his eyes.

  “I don’t get them so often as I once did. When I was thirteen or fourteen I had them all the time. But now it seems that when they do come—sometimes only once a year—they’re much worse. And after I’d been a few weeks in Italy, I felt one coming on. Unmistakable. Noises get louder; objects shimmer; my peripheral vision darkens and I see all sorts of unpleasant things hovering at its edges. There’s a terrible pressure in the air. I’ll look at a street sign and not be able to read it, not understand the simplest spoken sentence. There’s not much that can be done when it comes to that but I did what I could—stayed in my room with the shades pulled, took medicine, tried to keep quiet. At last I realized I would have to cable my doctor in the States. The drugs they give me are too powerful to dispense in prescription form; generally I go to the emergency room for a shot. I wasn’t sure what an Italian doctor would do if I showed up gasping at his office, an American tourist, asking for an injection of phenobarbital.

  “But by then it was too late. The headache was on me in a matter of hours and after that, I was quite incapable either of finding my way to a doctor or making myself understood if I had. I don’t know if Bunny tried to get me one or not. His Italian is so bad that when he tried to speak to anyone he would generally just end up insulting them. The American Express office was not far from where we lived, and I’m sure they could have given him the name of an English-speaking doctor, but of course that’s not the sort of thing that would occur to Bunny.

  “I hardly know what happened for the next few days. I lay in my room with the shades down and sheets of newspaper taped over the shades. It was impossible even to have any ice sent up-all one could get were lukewarm pitchers of acqua semplice—but then I had a hard time talking in English, much less Italian. God knows where Bunny was. I have no memory of seeing him, nor much of anything else.

  “Anyway. For a few days I lay flat on my back, hardly able to blink without feeling like my forehead was splitting open, and everything sick and black. I swung in and out of consciousness until finally I became aware of a thin seam of light burning at the edge of the shade. How long I’d been looking at it I don’t know, but gradually I became aware that it was morning, that the pain had receded somewhat, and that I could move around without awful difficulty. I also realized that I was extraordinarily thirsty. There was no water in my pitcher, so I got up and put on my dressing gown and went to get a drink.

  “My room and Bunny’s opened from opposite ends to a rather grand central room—fifteen-foot ceilings, with a fresco in the manner of Carracci; glorious sculptured-stuccoed framework; French doors leading to the balcony. I was almost blinded by the morning light, but I made out a shape which I took to be Bunny, bent over some books and papers at my desk. I waited until my eyes cleared, one hand on the doorknob to steady myself, and then I said, ‘Good morning, Bun.’

  “Well, he leapt up as if he’d been scalded, and scrabbled in the papers as if to hide something, and all of a sudden I realized what he had. I went over and snatched it from him. It was my diary. He was always nosing around trying to get a look at it; I’d hidden it behind a radiator but I suppose he’d come digging in my room while I was ill. He’d found it once before, but since I write in Latin I don’t suppose he was able to make much sense of it. I didn’t even use his real name. Cuniculus molestus, I thought, denoted him quite well. And he’d never figure that out without a lexicon.

  “Unfortunately, while I was ill, he’d had ample chance to avail himself of one. A lexicon, that is. And I know we make fun of Bunny for being such a dreadful Latinist, but he’d managed to eke out a pretty competent little English translation of the more recent entries. I must say, I never dreamed he was capable of such a thing. It must have taken him days.

  “I wasn’t even angry. I was too stunned. I stared at the translation—it was sitting right there—and then at him, and then, all of a sudden, he pushed back his chair and began to bellow at me. We had killed that fellow, he said, killed him in cold blood and didn’t even bother to tell him about it, but he knew there was something fishy all along, and where did I get off calling him Rabbit, and he had half a mind to go right down to the American consulate and have them send over some police.… Then—this was foolish of me—I slapped him in the face, hard as I could.” He sighed. “I shouldn’t have done that. I didn’t even do it from anger, but frustration. I was sick and exhausted; I was afraid someone would hear him; I just didn’t think I could stand it another second.

  “And I’d hit him harder than I meant to. His mouth fell open. My hand had left a big white mark across his cheek. All of a sudden the blood rush
ed back into it, bright red. He began to shout at me, cursing, quite hysterical, throwing wild punches at me. There were rapid footsteps on the stairs, followed by a loud banging at the door and a delirious burst of Italian. I grabbed the diary and the translation and threw them in the stove—Bunny went for them, but I held him back until they started to go up—and then I yelled for whoever it was to come in. It was the chambermaid. She flew into the room, screaming in Italian so fast I couldn’t understand a word she said. At first I thought she was angry about the noise. Then I understood it wasn’t it at all. She’d known I was ill; there’d been hardly a sound from the room for days and then, she said excitedly, she’d heard all the screaming; she had thought I’d died in the night, perhaps, and the other young signor had found me, but as I was standing now in front of her, that was obviously not the case; did I need a doctor? An ambulance? Bicarbonato di soda?

  “I thanked her and said no, I was perfectly all right, and then I sort of dunque-dunqued around, trying to think of some explanation for the disturbance, but she seemed perfectly satisfied and went away to fetch our breakfast. Bunny looked rather stunned. He had no idea what it had been about, of course. I suppose it seemed rather sinister and inexplicable. He asked me where she was going, and what she’d said, but I was too sick and angry to answer. I went back to my bedroom and shut the door, and stayed there until she came back with our breakfast. She laid it out on the terrace, and we went outside to eat.

  “Curiously, Bunny had little to say. After a bit of a tense silence, he inquired about my health, told me what he’d done while I was ill, and said nothing about what had just happened. I ate my breakfast, and realized all I could do was try to keep my head. I had hurt his feelings, I knew—really, there were several very unkind things in the diary—so I resolved to be as pleasant to him from then on out as I could, and to hope no more problems would arise.”

  He paused to take a drink of his whiskey. I looked at him.

  “You mean, you thought problems might not arise?” I said.

  “I know Bunny better than you do,” Henry said crossly.

  “But what about what he said—about the police?”

  “I knew he wasn’t prepared to go to the police, Richard.”

  “If it were simply a question of the dead man, things would be different, don’t you see?” said Francis, leaning forward in his chair. “It’s not that his conscience bothers him. Or that he feels any compelling kind of moral outrage. He thinks he’s been somehow wronged by the whole business.”

  “Well, frankly, I thought I was doing him a favor by not telling him,” Henry said. “But he was angry—is angry, I should say—because things were kept from him. He feels injured. Excluded. And my best chance was to try to make amends for that. We’re old friends, he and I.”

  “Tell him about those things Bunny bought with your credit cards while you were sick.”

  “I didn’t find out about that until later,” said Henry gloomily. “It doesn’t make much difference now.” He lit another cigarette. “I suppose, right after he found out, he was in a kind of shock,” he said. “And, too, he was in a strange country, unable to speak the language, without a cent of his own. He was all right for a little while. Nonetheless, once he caught on to the fact—and it didn’t take him long—that, circumstances to the contrary, I was actually pretty much at his mercy, you can’t imagine what torture he put me through. He talked about it all the time. In restaurants, in shops, in taxicabs. Of course, it was the off season, and not many English around, but for all I know there are entire families of Americans back home in Ohio wondering if … Oh, God. Exhaustive monologues in the Hosteria dell’Orso. An argument in the Via dei Cestari. An abortive re-enactment of it in the lobby of the Grand Hotel.

  “One afternoon at a cafe, he was going on and on and I noticed that a man at the next table was hanging on every word. We got up to leave. He got up too. I wasn’t sure what to think. I knew he was German, because I’d heard him talking to the waiter, but I had no idea if he had any English or if he’d been able to hear Bunny distinctly enough to understand. Perhaps he was only a homosexual, but I didn’t want to take any chances. I led the way home through the alleys, turning this way and that, and I felt quite certain we’d lost him but apparently not, because when I woke up the next morning and looked out the window he was standing by the fountain. Bunny was elated. He thought it was just like a spy picture. He wanted to go out and see if this fellow would try to follow us, and I had practically to restrain him by force. All morning I watched from the window. The German stood around, had a few cigarettes, and drifted away after a couple of hours; but it wasn’t until about four o’clock when Bunny, who’d been complaining steadily since noon, began to raise such a ruckus that we finally went to get something to eat. But we were only a few blocks from the piazza when I thought I saw the German again, walking behind us at quite a distance. I turned and started back, in hopes of confronting him; he disappeared, but in a few minutes I turned around and he was there again.

  “I’d been worried before, but then I began to feel really afraid. Immediately we went off into a side street, and made our way home by a roundabout route—Bunny never did get his lunch that day, he almost drove me crazy—and I sat by the window until it got dark, telling Bunny to shut up and trying to think what to do. I didn’t think he knew exactly where we lived—otherwise, why roam around the piazza, why not come directly to our apartment if he had something to say? At any rate. We left our rooms pretty much in the middle of the night and checked into the Excelsior, which was fine with Bunny. Room service, you know. I watched quite anxiously for him the rest of my time in Rome—goodness, I dream about him still—but I never saw him again.”

  “What do you suppose he wanted? Money?”

  Henry shrugged. “Who knows. Unfortunately at that point I had very little money to give him. Bunny’s jaunts to the tailors and so forth had just about cleaned me out, and then having to move to this hotel—I didn’t care about the money, really I didn’t, but he was nearly driving me crazy. Never once was I alone. It was impossible to write a letter or even to make a telephone call without Bunny lurking somewhere in the background, arrectis auribus, trying to listen in. While I was having a bath, he’d go in my room and root through my things; I’d come out to find my clothes all wadded up in the bureau and crumbs in the pages of my notebooks. Everything I did made him suspicious.

  “I stood it as long as I could but I was beginning to feel desperate and, frankly, rather unwell too. I knew that leaving him in Rome might be dangerous but it seemed every day that things got worse and eventually it became obvious that staying on was no solution. Already I knew that the four of us could under no circumstances go back to school as usual in the spring-though look at us now—and that we’d have to devise a plan, probably a rather Pyrrhic and unsatisfactory one. But I needed time, and quiet, and a few weeks’ grace period in the States if I was to do anything of the sort. So one night at the Excelsior when Bunny was drunk and sleeping soundly I packed my clothes—leaving him his ticket home and two thousand American dollars and no note—and took a taxi to the airport and got on the first plane home.”

  “You left him two thousand dollars?” I said, aghast.

  Henry shrugged. Francis shook his head and snorted. “That’s nothing,” he said.

  I stared at them.

  “Really, it is nothing,” said Henry mildly. “I can’t tell you how much that trip to Italy cost me. And my parents are generous, but they’re not that generous. I’ve never had to ask for money in my life until the last few months. As it is, my savings are virtually gone and I don’t know how much longer I can keep feeding them these stories about elaborate car repairs and so forth. I mean, I was prepared to be reasonable with Bunny, but he doesn’t seem to understand that after all I’m just a student on an allowance and not some bottomless well of money.… And the horrible thing is, I don’t see an end to it. I don’t know what would happen if my parents got disgusted and cut
me off, which is extremely likely to happen at some point in the near future if things go on as they are.”

  “He’s blackmailing you?”

  Henry and Francis looked at each other.

  “Well, not exactly,” said Francis.

  Henry shook his head. “Bunny doesn’t think of it in those terms,” he said wearily. “You’d have to know his parents to understand. What the Corcorans did with their sons was to send them all to the most expensive schools they could possibly get into, and let them fend for themselves once they were there. His parents don’t give him a cent. Apparently they never have. He told me when they sent him off to Saint Jerome’s they didn’t even give him money for his schoolbooks. Rather an odd child-rearing method, in my opinion—like certain reptiles who hatch their young and abandon them to the elements. Not surprisingly, this has inculcated in Bunny the notion that it is more honorable to live by sponging off other people than it is to work.”

  “But I thought his folks were supposed to be such blue-bloods,” I said.

  “The Corcorans have delusions of grandeur. The problem is, they lack the money to back them up. No doubt they think it very aristocratic and grand, farming their sons off on other people.”

  “He’s shameless about it,” said Francis. “Even with the twins, and they’re nearly as poor as he is.”

  “The bigger the sums, the better, and never a thought of paying it back. Of course, he’d rather die than get a job.”

  “The Corcorans would rather see him dead,” said Francis sourly, lighting his cigarette and coughing as he exhaled. “But this squeamishness about work wears a bit thin when one is forced to assume his upkeep oneself.”

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