The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  “It’s unthinkable,” said Henry. “I’d rather have any job, six jobs, than beg from people. Look at you,” he said to me. “Your parents aren’t particularly generous with you, are they? But you’re so scrupulous about not borrowing money that it’s rather silly.”

  I said nothing, embarrassed.

  “Heavens. I think you might have died in that warehouse rather than wire one of us for a couple of hundred dollars.” He lit a cigarette and blew out an emphatic plume of smoke. “That’s an infinitesimal sum. I’m sure we shall have spent two or three times that on Bunny by the end of next week.”

  I stared. “You’re kidding,” I said.

  “I wish I were.”

  “I don’t mind lending money either,” Francis said, “if I’ve got it. But Bunny borrows beyond all reason. Even in the old days he thought nothing of asking for a hundred dollars at the drop of a hat, for no reason at all.”

  “And never a word of thanks,” said Henry irritably. “What can he spend it on? If he had even a shred of self-respect he’d go down to the employment office and get himself a job.”

  “You and I may be down there in a couple of weeks if he doesn’t let up,” said Francis glumly, pouring himself another glass of Scotch and sloshing a good deal of it on the table. “I’ve spent thousands on him. Thousands,” he said to me, taking a careful sip from the trembling brim of his glass. “And most of it on restaurant bills, the pig. It’s all very friendly, why don’t we go out to dinner and that sort of thing, but the way things are, how can I say no? My mother thinks I’m on drugs. I don’t suppose there’s much else she can think. She’s told my grandparents not to give me any money and since January I haven’t gotten a damn thing except my dividend check. Which is fine as far as it goes, but I can’t be taking people out for hundred-dollar dinners every night.”

  Henry shrugged. “He’s always been like this,” he said. “Always. He’s amusing; I liked him; I felt a little sorry for him. What was it to me, to lend him money for his schoolbooks and know he wouldn’t pay it back?”

  “Except now,” Francis said, “it’s not just money for schoolbooks. And now we can’t say no.”

  “How long can you keep this up?”

  “Not forever.”

  “And when the money’s gone?”

  “I don’t know,” said Henry, reaching up behind his spectacles to rub his eyes again.

  “Maybe I could talk to him.”

  “No,” said Henry and Francis, one on top of the other, with an alacrity that surprised me.

  “Why—?”

  There was an awkward pause, finally broken by Francis.

  “Well, you may or may not know this,” he said, “but Bunny is a little jealous of you. Already he thinks we’ve all ganged up on him. If he gets the impression you’re siding with the rest of us …”

  “You mustn’t let on you know,” said Henry. “Ever. Unless you want to make things worse.”

  For a moment no one spoke. The apartment was blue with smoke, through which the broad expanse of white linoleum was arctic, surreal. Music from a neighbor’s stereo was filtering through the walls. The Grateful Dead. Good Lord.

  “It’s a terrible thing, what we did,” said Francis abruptly. “I mean, this man was not Voltaire we killed. But still. It’s a shame. I feel bad about it.”

  “Well, of course, I do too,” said Henry matter-of-factly. “But not bad enough to want to go to jail for it.”

  Francis snorted and poured himself another shot of whiskey and drank it straight off. “No,” he said. “Not that bad.”

  No one said anything for a moment. I felt sleepy, ill, as if this were some lingering and dyspeptic dream. I had said it before, but I said it again, mildly surprised at the sound of my own voice in the quiet room. “What are you going to do?”

  “I don’t know what we’re going to do,” said Henry, as calmly as if I’d asked him his plans for the afternoon.

  “Well, I know what I’m going to do,” said Francis. He stood up unsteadily and pulled with his forefinger at his collar. Startled, I looked at him, and he laughed at my surprise.

  “I want to sleep,” he said, with a melodramatic roll of his eye, “ ‘dormir plutôt que vivre’!”

  “ ‘Dans un sommeil aussi doux que la mort …’ ” said Henry with a smile.

  “Jesus, Henry, you know everything,” said Francis, “you make me sick.” He turned unsteadily, loosening his tie as he did it, and swayed out of the room.

  “I believe he is rather drunk,” said Henry, as a door slammed somewhere and we heard taps running furiously in the bathroom. “It’s early still. Do you want to play a hand or two of cards?”

  I blinked at him.

  He reached over and got a deck of cards from a box on the end table—Tiffany cards, with sky-blue backs and Francis’s monogram on them in gold—and began to shuffle through them expertly. “We could play bezique, or euchre if you’d rather,” he said, the blue and gold dissolving from his hands in a blur. “I like poker myself—of course, it’s rather a vulgar game, and no fun at all with two—but still, there’s a certain random element in it which appeals to me.”

  I looked at him, at his steady hands, the whirring cards, and suddenly an odd memory leapt to mind: Tojo, at the height of the war, forcing his top aides to sit up and play cards with him all night long.

  He pushed the deck over to me. “Do you want to cut?” he said, and lit a cigarette.

  I looked at the cards, and then at the flame of the match burning with an unwavering clarity between his fingers.

  “You’re not too worried about this, are you?” I said.

  Henry drew deeply on the cigarette, exhaled, shook out the match. “No,” he said, looking thoughtfully at the thread of smoke that curled from the burnt end. “I can get us out of it, I think. But that depends on the exact opportunity presenting itself and for that we’ll have to wait. I suppose it also depends to a certain extent on how much, in the end, we are willing to do. Shall I deal?” he said, and he reached for the cards again.

  I awoke from a heavy, dreamless sleep to find myself lying on Francis’s couch in an uncomfortable position, and the morning sun streaming through the bank of windows at the rear. For a while I lay motionless, trying to remember where I was and how I had come to be there; it was a pleasant sensation which was abruptly soured when I recalled what had happened the previous night. I sat up and rubbed the waffled pattern the sofa cushion had left on my cheek. The movement made my head ache. I stared at the overflowing ashtray, the three-quarters-empty bottle of Famous Grouse, the game of poker solitaire laid out upon the table. So it had all been real; it wasn’t a dream.

  I was thirsty. I went to the kitchen, my footsteps echoing in the silence, and drank a glass of water standing at the sink. It was seven a.m. by the kitchen clock.

  I filled my glass again and took it to the living room with me and sat on the couch. As I drank, more slowly this time—bolting the first glass had made me slightly nauseous—I looked at Henry’s solitaire poker game. He must have laid it out while I was asleep. Instead of going all out for flushes in the columns, and full houses and fours on the rows, which was the prudent thing to do in this game, he’d tried for a couple of straight flushes on the rows and missed. Why had he done that? To see if he could beat the odds? Or had he only been tired?

  I picked up the cards and shuffled them and laid them out again one by one, in accordance with the strategic rules that he himself had taught me, and beat his score by fifty points. The cold, jaunty faces stared back at me: jacks in black and red, the Queen of Spades with her fishy eye. Suddenly a wave of fatigue and nausea shuddered over me, and I went to the closet, got my coat, and left, closing the door quietly behind me.

  The hall, in the morning light, had the feel of a hospital corridor. Pausing unsteadily on the stairs, I looked back at Francis’s door, indistinguishable from the others in the long faceless row.

  I suppose if I had a moment of doubt at all it was the
n, as I stood in that cold, eerie stairwell looking back at the apartment from which I had come. Who were these people? How well did I know them? Could I trust any of them, really, when it came right down to it? Why, of all people, had they chosen to tell me?

  It’s funny, but thinking back on it now, I realize that this particular point in time, as I stood there blinking in the deserted hall, was the one point at which I might have chosen to do something very different from what I actually did. But of course I didn’t see this crucial moment then for what it was; I suppose we never do. Instead, I only yawned, and shook myself from the momentary daze that had come upon me, and went on my way down the stairs.

  Back in my room, dizzy and exhausted, I wanted more than anything to pull the shades and lie down on my bed—which seemed suddenly the most enticing bed in the world, musty pillow, dirty sheets, and all. But that was impossible. Greek Prose Composition was in two hours, and I hadn’t done my homework.

  The assignment was a two-page essay, in Greek, on any epigram of Callimachus that we chose. I’d done only a page and I started to hurry through the rest in impatient and slightly dishonest fashion, writing out the English and translating word by word. It was something Julian asked us not to do. The value of Greek prose composition, he said, was not that it gave one any particular facility in the language that could not be gained as easily by other methods but that if done properly, off the top of one’s head, it taught one to think in Greek. One’s thought patterns become different, he said, when forced into the confines of a rigid and unfamiliar tongue. Certain common ideas become inexpressible; other, previously undreamt-of ones spring to life, finding miraculous new articulation. By necessity, I suppose, it is difficult for me to explain in English exactly what I mean. I can only say that an incendium is in its nature entirely different from the feu with which a Frenchman lights his cigarette, and both are very different from the stark, inhuman pur that the Greeks knew, the pur that roared from the towers of Ilion or leapt and screamed on that desolate, windy beach, from the funeral pyre of Patroklos.

  Pur: that one word contains for me the secret, the bright, terrible clarity of ancient Greek. How can I make you see it, this strange harsh light which pervades Homer’s landscapes and illumines the dialogues of Plato, an alien light, inarticulable in our common tongue? Our shared language is a language of the intricate, the peculiar, the home of pumpkins and ragamuffins and bodkins and beer, the tongue of Ahab and Falstaff and Mrs. Gamp; and while I find it entirely suitable for reflections such as these, it fails me utterly when I attempt to describe in it what I love about Greek, that language innocent of all quirks and cranks; a language obsessed with action, and with the joy of seeing action multiply from action, action marching relentlessly ahead and with yet more actions filing in from either side to fall into neat step at the rear, in a long straight rank of cause and effect toward what will be inevitable, the only possible end.

  In a certain sense, this was why I felt so close to the others in the Greek class. They, too, knew this beautiful and harrowing landscape, centuries dead; they’d had the same experience of looking up from their books with fifth-century eyes and finding the world disconcertingly sluggish and alien, as if it were not their home. It was why I admired Julian, and Henry in particular. Their reason, their very eyes and ears were fixed irrevocably in the confines of those stern and ancient rhythms—the world, in fact, was not their home, at least not the world as I knew it—and far from being occasional visitors to this land which I myself knew only as an admiring tourist, they were pretty much its permanent residents, as permanent as I suppose it was possible for them to be. Ancient Greek is a difficult language, a very difficult language indeed, and it is eminently possible to study it all one’s life and never be able to speak a word; but it makes me smile, even today, to think of Henry’s calculated, formal English, the English of a well-educated foreigner, as compared with the marvelous fluency and self-assurance of his Greek—quick, eloquent, remarkably witty. It was always a wonder to me when I happened to hear him and Julian conversing in Greek, arguing and joking, as I never once heard either of them do in English; many times, I’ve seen Henry pick up the telephone with an irritable, cautious ‘Hello,’ and may I never forget the harsh and irresistible delight of his “Khairei!” when Julian happened to be at the other end.

  I was a bit uncomfortable—after the story I’d just heard—with the Callimachean epigrams having to do with flushed cheeks, and wine, and the kisses of fair-limbed youths by torchlight. I’d chosen instead a rather sad one, which in English runs as follows: “At morn we buried Melanippus; as the sun set the maiden Basilo died by her own hand, as she could not endure to lay her brother on the pyre and live; and the house beheld a twofold woe, and all Cyrene bowed her head, to see the home of happy children made desolate.”

  I finished my composition in less than an hour. After I’d gone through it and checked the endings, I washed my face and changed my shirt and went, with my books, over to Bunny’s room.

  Of the six of us, Bunny and I were the only two who lived on campus, and his house was across the lawn on the opposite end of Commons. He had a room on the ground floor, which I am sure was inconvenient for him since he spent most of his time upstairs in the house kitchen: ironing his pants, rummaging through the refrigerator, leaning out the window in his shirtsleeves to yell at passers-by. When he didn’t answer his door I went to look for him there, and I found him sitting in the windowsill in his undershirt, drinking a cup of coffee and leafing through a magazine. I was a little surprised to see the twins there, too: Charles, standing with his left ankle crossed over his right, stirring moodily at his coffee and looking out the window; Camilla—and this surprised me, because Camilla wasn’t much of one for domestic tasks—ironing one of Bunny’s shirts.

  “Oh, hello, old man,” said Bunny. “Come on in. Having a little kaffeeklatsch. Yes, women are good for one or two things,” he added, when he saw me looking at Camilla and the ironing board, “though, being a gentleman—” he winked broadly—“I don’t like to say what the other thing is, mixed company and all. Charles, get him a cup of coffee, would you? No need to wash it, it’s clean enough,” he said stridently, as Charles got a dirty cup from the drain board and turned on the tap. “Do your prose composition?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Which epigram?”

  “Twenty-two.”

  “Hmn. Sounds like everybody went for the tearjerkers. Charles did that one about the girl who died, and all her friends missed her, and you, Camilla, you picked—”

  “Fourteen,” said Camilla, without looking up, pressing rather savagely on the collar band with the tip of the iron.

  “Hah. I picked one of the racy ones myself. Ever been to France, Richard?”

  “No,” I said.

  “Then you better come with us this summer.”

  “Us? Who?”

  “Henry and me.”

  I was so taken aback that all I could do was blink at him.

  “France?” I said.

  “May wee. Two-month tour. A real doozy. Have a look.” He tossed me the magazine, which I now saw was a glossy brochure.

  I glanced through it. It was a lollapalooza of a tour, all right—a “luxury hotel barge cruise” which began in the Champagne country and then went, via hot air balloon, to Burgundy for more barging, through Beaujolais, to the Riviera and Cannes and Monte Carlo—it was lavishly illustrated, full of brightly colored pictures of gourmet meals, flower-decked barges, happy tourists popping champagne corks and waving from the basket of their balloon at the disgruntled old peasants in the fields below.

  “Looks great, doesn’t it?” said Bunny.

  “Fabulous.”

  “Rome was all right but actually it was kind of a sinkhole when you get right down to it. Besides, I like to gad about a little more myself. Stay on the move, see a few of the native customs. Just between you and me, I bet Henry’s going to have a ball with this.”

  I bet he will, too,
I thought, staring at a picture of a woman holding up a stick of French bread at the camera and grinning like a maniac.

  The twins were studiously avoiding my eye, Camilla bent over Bunny’s shirt, Charles with his back to me and his elbows on the sideboard, looking out the kitchen window.

  “Of course, this balloon thing’s great,” Bunny said conversationally, “but you know, I’ve been wondering, where do you go to the bathroom? Off the side or something?”

  “Look here, I think this is going to take several minutes,” said Camilla abruptly. “It’s almost nine. Why don’t you go ahead with Richard, Charles. Tell Julian not to wait.”

  “Well, it’s not going to take you that much longer, is it?” said Bunny crossly, craning over to see. “What’s the big problem? Where’d you learn how to iron, anyway?”

  “I never did. We send our shirts to the laundry.”

  Charles followed me out the door, a few paces behind. We walked through the hall and down the stairs without a word, but once downstairs he stepped close behind me and, catching my arm, pulled me into an empty card room. In the twenties and thirties, there had been a bridge fad at Hampden; when the enthusiasm faded, the rooms were never subsequently put to any function and no one used them now except for drug deals, or typing, or illicit romantic trysts.

  He shut the door. I found myself looking at the ancient card table—inlaid at its four corners with a diamond, a heart, a club and a spade.

  “Henry called us,” said Charles. He was scratching at the raised edge of the diamond with his thumb, his head studiously down.

  “When?”

  “Early this morning.”

  Neither of us said anything for a moment.

  “I’m sorry,” said Charles, glancing up.

  “Sorry for what?”

  “Sorry he told you. Sorry for everything. Camilla’s all upset.”

  He seemed calm enough, tired but calm, and his intelligent eyes met mine with a sad, quiet candor. All of a sudden I felt terribly upset. I was fond of Francis and Henry but it was unthinkable that anything should happen to the twins. I thought, with a pang, of how kind they had always been; of how sweet Camilla was in those first awkward weeks and how Charles had always had a way of showing up in my room, or turning to me in a crowd with a tranquil assumption—heartwarming to me—that he and I were particular friends; of walks and car trips and dinners at their house; of their letters—frequently unacknowledged on my part—which had come so faithfully over the long winter months.

 
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