The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  From somewhere overhead I heard the shriek and groan of water pipes. We looked at each other.

  “What are you going to do?” I said. It seemed the only question I had asked of anyone for the last twenty-four hours, and yet no one had given me a satisfactory answer.

  He shrugged, a funny little one-shouldered shrug, a mannerism he and his sister had in common. “Search me,” he said wearily. “I guess we should go.”

  When we got to Julian’s office, Henry and Francis were already there. Francis hadn’t finished his essay. He was scratching rapidly at the second page, his fingers blue with ink, while Henry proofread the first one, dashing in subscripts and aspirants with his fountain pen.

  He didn’t look up. “Hello,” he said. “Close the door, would you?”

  Charles kicked at the door with his foot. “Bad news,” he said.

  “Very bad?”

  “Financially, yes.”

  Francis swore, in a quick hissing underbreath, without pausing in his work. Henry dashed in a few final marks, then fanned the paper in the air to dry it.

  “Well for goodness’ sakes,” he said mildly. “I hope it can wait. I don’t want to have to think about it during class. How’s that last page coming, Francis?”

  “Just a minute,” said Francis, laboriously, his words lagging behind the hurried scrawl of his pen.

  Henry stood behind Francis’s chair and leaned over his shoulder and began to proofread the top of the last page, one elbow resting on the table. “Camilla’s with him?” he said.

  “Yes. Ironing his nasty old shirt.”

  “Hmnn.” He pointed at something with the end of his pen. “Francis, you need the optative here instead of the subjunctive.”

  Francis reached up quickly from his work—he was nearly at the end of the page—to change it.

  “And this labial becomes pi, not kappa.”

  Bunny arrived late, and in a foul temper. “Charles,” he snapped, “if you want this sister of yours to ever get a husband, you better teach her how to use an iron.” I was exhausted and ill prepared and it was all I could do to keep my mind on the class. I had French at two, but after Greek I went straight back to my room and took a sleeping pill and went to bed. The sleeping pill was an extraneous gesture; I didn’t need it, but the mere possibility of restlessness, of an afternoon full of bad dreams and distant plumbing noises, was too unpleasant to even contemplate.

  So I slept soundly, more soundly than I should have, and the day slipped easily away. It was almost dark when somewhere, through great depths, I became aware that someone was knocking at my door.

  It was Camilla. I must have looked terrible, because she raised an eyebrow and laughed at me. “All you ever do is sleep,” she said. “Why is it you’re always sleeping when I come to see you?”

  I blinked at her. My shades were down and the hall was dark and to me, half-drugged and reeling, she seemed not at all her bright unattainable self but rather a hazy and ineffably tender apparition, all slender wrists and shadows and disordered hair, the Camilla who resided, dim and lovely, in the gloomy boudoir of my dreams.

  “Come in,” I said.

  She did, and closed the door behind her. I sat on the side of the unmade bed, feet bare and collar loose, and thought how wonderful it would be if this really were a dream, if I could walk over to where she sat and put my hands on either side of her face and kiss her, on the eyelids, on the mouth, on the place at her temple where the honey-colored hair graded into silky gold.

  We looked at each other for a long time.

  “Are you sick?” she said.

  The gleam of her gold bracelet in the dark. I swallowed. It was hard to think what to say.

  She stood up again. “I’d better go,” she said. “I’m sorry to have bothered you. I came to ask if you wanted to go on a drive.”

  “What?”

  “A drive. It’s all right, though. Some other time.”

  “Where?”

  “Somewhere. Nowhere. I’m meeting Francis at Commons in ten minutes.”

  “No, wait,” I said. I felt sort of marvelous. A narcotic heaviness still clung deliciously to my limbs and I imagined what fun it would be to wander with her—drowsy, hypnotized—up to Commons in the fading light, the snow.

  I stood up—it took forever to do it, the floor receding gradually before my eyes as if I were simply growing taller and taller by some organic process—and walked to my closet. The floor swayed as gently beneath me as the deck of an airship. I found my overcoat, then a scarf. Gloves were too complicated to bother with.

  “Okay,” I said. “Ready.”

  She raised an eyebrow. “It’s sort of cold out,” she said. “Don’t you think you should wear some shoes?”

  We walked to Commons through slush and cold rain, and when we got there Charles, Francis, and Henry were waiting for us. The configuration struck me as significant, in some way that was not entirely clear, everyone except for Bunny—“What’s going on?” I said, blinking at them.

  “Nothing,” said Henry, tracing a pattern on the floor with the sharp, glinting ferrule of his umbrella. “We’re just going for a drive. I thought it might be fun—” he paused delicately—“if we got away from school for a while, maybe had some dinner …”

  Without Bunny, that is the subtext here, I thought. Where was he? The tip of Henry’s umbrella glittered. I glanced up and noticed that Francis was looking at me with lifted eyebrows.

  “What is it?” I said irritably, swaying slightly in the doorway.

  He exhaled with a sharp, amused sound. “Are you drunk?” he said.

  They were all looking at me in kind of a funny way. “Yes,” I said. It wasn’t the truth, but I didn’t feel much like explaining.

  The chill sky, misty with fine rain near the treetops, made even the familiar landscape around Hampden seem indifferent and remote. The valleys were white with fog and the top of Mount Cataract was entirely obscured, invisible in the cold haze. Not being able to see it, that omniscient mountain which grounded Hampden and its environs in my senses, I found it difficult to get my bearings, and it seemed as if we were heading into strange and unmarked territory, though I had been down this road a hundred times in all weathers. Henry drove, rather fast as he always did, the tires whining on the wet black road and water spraying high on either side.

  “I looked at this place about a month ago,” he said, slowing as we approached a white farmhouse on a hill, forlorn bales of hay dotting the snowy pasture. “It’s still for sale, but I think they want too much.”

  “How many acres?” said Camilla.

  “A hundred and fifty.”

  “What on earth would you do with that much land?” She raised her hand to clear the hair from her eyes and again I caught the gleam of her bracelet: blown hair is sweet, brown hair over the mouth blown.… “You wouldn’t want to farm it, would you?”

  “To my way of thinking,” Henry said, “the more land the better. I’d love to have so much land that from where I lived I couldn’t see a highway or a telephone pole or anything I didn’t want to see. I suppose that’s impossible, this day and age, and that place is practically on the road. There was another farm I saw, over the line in New York State …”

  A truck shot past in a whine of spray.

  Everyone seemed unusually calm and at ease and I thought I knew why. It was because Bunny wasn’t with us. They were avoiding that topic with a deliberate unconcern; he must be somewhere now, I thought, doing something, what I didn’t want to ask. I leaned back and looked at the silvery, staggering paths the raindrops made as they blew across my window.

  “If I bought a house anywhere I’d buy one here,” said Camilla. “I’ve always liked the mountains better than the seashore.”

  “So have I,” said Henry. “I suppose in that regard my tastes are rather Hellenistic. Landlocked places interest me, remote prospects, wild country. I’ve never had the slightest bit of interest in the sea. Rather like what Homer says about the Arcad
ians, you remember? With ships they had nothing to do.…”

  “It’s because you grew up in the Midwest,” Charles said.

  “But if one follows that line of reasoning, then it follows that I would love flat lands, and plains. Which I don’t. The descriptions of Troy in the Iliad are horrible—all flat land and burning sun. No. I’ve always been drawn to broken, wild terrain. The oddest tongues come from such places, and the strangest mythologies, and the oldest cities, and the most barbarous religions—Pan himself was born in the mountains, you know. And Zeus. In Parrhasia it was that Rheia bore thee,” he said dreamily, lapsing into Greek, “where was a hill sheltered with the thickest brush.…”

  It was dark now. Around us, the countryside lay veiled and mysterious, silent in the night and fog. This was remote, untraveled land, rocky and thickly wooded, with none of the quaint appeal of Hampden and its rolling hills, its ski chalets and antique shops, but high and perilous and primitive, everything black and desolate even of billboards.

  Francis, who knew this territory better than we did, had said there was an inn nearby but it was hard to believe there was anything habitable for fifty miles around. Then we rounded a bend and our headlights swept across a rusted metal sign pockmarked with shotgun pellets, that informed us that the Hoosatonic Inn, straight ahead, was the original birthplace of Pie à la Mode.

  The building was ringed by a rickety porch—sagging rockers, peeling paint. Inside, the lobby was an intriguing jumble of mahogany and moth-eaten velvet, interspersed with deer heads, calendars from filling stations, and a large collection of Bicentennial commemorative trivets, mounted and hung upon the wall.

  The dining room was empty except for a few country people eating their dinners, all of whom looked up at us with innocent, frank curiosity as we came in, at our dark suits and spectacles, at Francis’s monogrammed cufflinks and his Charvet tie, at Camilla with her boyish haircut and sleek little Astrakhan coat. I was a bit surprised at this collective openness of demeanor—neither stares nor disapproving looks—until it occurred to me that these people probably didn’t realize we were from the college. Closer in, we would have been pegged instantly as rich kids from up on the hill, kids likely to make a lot of noise and leave a bad tip. But here we were only strangers, in a place where strangers were rare.

  No one even came by to take an order. Dinner appeared with instantaneous magic: pork roast, biscuits, turnips and corn and butternut squash, in thick china bowls that had pictures of the presidents (up to Nixon) around their rims.

  The waiter, a red-faced boy with bitten nails, lingered for a moment. Finally he said, shyly: “You folks from New York City?”

  “No,” said Charles, taking the plate of biscuits from Henry, “From here.”

  “From Hoosatonic?”

  “No. Vermont, I mean.”

  “Not New York?”

  “No,” said Francis cheerily, carving at the roast. “I’m from Boston.”

  “I went there,” said the boy, impressed.

  Francis smiled absently and reached for a dish.

  “You folks must like the Red Sox.”

  “Actually I do,” said Francis. “Quite a bit. But they never seem to win, do they?”

  “Some of the time they do. I guess we’ll never see ’em win the Series, though.”

  He was still loitering, trying to think of something else to say, when Henry glanced up at him.

  “Sit down,” he said unexpectedly. “Have some dinner, won’t you?”

  After a bit of awkward demurral, he pulled up a chair, though he refused to eat anything; the dining room closed at eight, he told us, and it wasn’t likely that anyone else would come in. “We’re off the highway,” he said. “Most folks go to bed pretty early around here.” His name, we discovered, was John Deacon; he was my age—twenty—and had graduated from Equinox High School, over in Hoosatonic proper, only two years before. Since graduation, he said, he’d been working on his uncle’s farm; the waiter’s job was a new thing, something to fill the winter hours. “This is only my third week,” he said. “I like it here, I reckon. Food’s good. And I get my meals free.”

  Henry, who generally disliked and was disliked by hoi polloi—a category which in his view expanded to include persons ranging from teenagers with boom boxes to the Dean of Studies of Hampden, who was independently wealthy and had a degree in American Studies from Yale—nonetheless had a genuine knack with poor people, simple people, country folk; he was despised by the functionaries of Hampden but admired by its janitors, its gardeners and cooks. Though he did not treat them as equals—he didn’t treat anyone as an equal, exactly—neither did he resort to the condescending friendliness of the wealthy. “I think we’re much more hypocritical about illness, and poverty, than were people in former ages,” I remember Julian saying once. “In America, the rich man tries to pretend that the poor man is his equal in every respect but money, which is simply not true. Does anyone remember Plato’s definition of Justice in the Republic? Justice, in a society, is when each level of a hierarchy works within its place and is content with it. A poor man who wishes to rise above his station is only making himself needlessly miserable. And the wise poor have always known this, the same as do the wise rich.”

  I’m not entirely sure now that this is true—because if it is, where does that leave me? still wiping down windshields in Plano—? but there is no doubt that Henry was so confident of his own abilities and position in the world, and so comfortable with them, that he had the strange effect of making others (including myself) feel comfortable in their respective, lesser positions, whatever they might happen to be. Poor people for the most part were unimpressed by his manner, except in the most hazy and admiring fashion; and as a consequence they were able to see past it to the real Henry, the Henry I knew, taciturn, polite, in many respects as simple and straightforward as they themselves were. It was a knack he shared with Julian, who was greatly admired by the country people who lived around him, much as one likes to imagine that kindly Pliny was held in affection by the poor folk of Comum and Tifernum.

  Through most of the meal, Henry and the boy talked in the most intimate and, to me, baffling terms, about the land around Hampden and Hoosatonic—zoning, developments, price per acre, uncleared land and titles and who owned what—as the rest of us ate our dinners and listened. It was a conversation one might overhear at any rural filling station or feed store; but hearing it made me feel curiously happy, and at ease with the world.

  In retrospect, it is odd how little power the dead farmer exercised over an imagination as morbid and hysterical as my own. I can well imagine the extravagance of nightmares such a thing might provoke (opening the door to a dream-classroom, the flannel-shirted figure without a face propped ghoulishly at a desk, or turning from its work at the blackboard to grin at me), but I suppose it is rather telling that I seldom thought of it at all and then only when I was reminded in some way. I believe the others were troubled by it as little as or less than I was, as evidenced by the fact that they all had carried on so normally and in such good humor for so long. Monstrous as it was, the corpse itself seemed little more than a prop, something brought out in the dark by stagehands and laid at Henry’s feet, to be discovered when the lights came up; the picture of it, staring and dumb in all its gore, never failed to provoke an anxious little frisson but still it seemed relatively harmless compared to the very real and persistent menace which I now saw that Bunny presented.

  Bunny, for all his appearance of amiable, callous stability, was actually a wildly erratic character. There were any number of reasons for this, but primary among them was his complete inability to think about anything before he did it. He sailed through the world guided only by the dim lights of impulse and habit, confident that his course would throw up no obstacles so large that they could not be plowed over with sheer force of momentum. But his instincts had failed him in the new set of circumstances presented by the murder. Now that the old trusted channel-markers had, so to sp
eak, been rearranged in the dark, the automatic-pilot mechanism by which his psyche navigated was useless; decks awash, he floundered aimlessly, running on sandbars, veering off in all sorts of bizarre directions.

  To the casual observer, I suppose, he seemed pretty much his jolly old self—slapping people on the back, eating Twinkies and HoHos in the reading room of the library and dropping crumbs all down in the bindings of his Greek books. But behind that bluff facade some distinct and rather ominous changes were taking place, changes of which I was already dimly aware but which made themselves more evident as time went on.

  In some respects, it was as if nothing had happened at all. We went to our classes, did our Greek, and generally managed to pretend among one another and everybody else that things were all right. At the time it heartened me that Bunny, in spite of his obviously disturbed state of mind, nonetheless continued to follow the old routine so easily. Now, of course, I see that the routine was all that held him together. It was his one remaining point of reference and he clung to it with a fierce Pavlovian tenacity, partly through habit and partly because he had nothing with which to replace it. I suppose the others sensed that the continuation of the old rituals was in some respects a charade for Bunny’s benefit, kept up in order to soothe him, but I did not, nor did I have any idea how disturbed he really was until the following event took place.

  We were spending the weekend at Francis’s house. Aside from the barely perceptible strain which manifested itself in all dealings with Bunny at that time, things seemed to be going smoothly and he’d been in a good mood at dinner that night. When I went to bed he was still downstairs, drinking wine left from dinner and playing backgammon with Charles, to all appearances his usual self; but some time in the middle of the night I was awakened by a loud, incoherent bellowing, from down the corridor in Henry’s room.

 
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