The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  I sat up in bed and switched on the light.

  “You don’t care about a goddamn thing, do you?” I heard Bunny scream; this was followed by a crash, as if of books being swept from desk to floor. “Not a thing but your own fucking self, you and all the rest of them—I’d like to know just what Julian would think, you bastard, if I told him a couple of—Don’t touch me,” he shrieked, “get away—!”

  More crashing, as of furniture overturned, and Henry’s voice, quick and angry. Bunny’s rose above it. “Go ahead!” he shouted, so loudly I’m sure he woke the house. “Try and stop me. I’m not scared of you. You make me sick, you fag, you Nazi, you dirty lousy cheapskate Jew—”

  Yet another crash, this time of splintering wood. A door slammed. There were rapid footsteps down the hall. Then the muffled noise of sobs—gasping, terrible sobs which went on for a long while.

  About three o’clock, when everything was quiet and I was just about to go back to sleep, I heard soft footsteps in the hall and, after a pause, a knock at my door. It was Henry.

  “Goodness,” he said distractedly, looking around my room, at the unmade four-poster bed and my clothes scattered on the rug beside it. “I’m glad you’re awake. I saw your light.”

  “Jesus, what was all that about?”

  He ran a hand through his rumpled hair. “What do you suppose?” he said, looking up at me blankly. “I don’t know, really. I must have done something to set him off, though for the life of me I don’t know what. I was reading in my room, and he came in and wanted a dictionary. In fact, he asked me to look something up, and—You wouldn’t happen to have an aspirin, would you?”

  I sat on the side of my bed and rustled through the drawer of the night table, through the tissues and reading glasses and Christian Science leaflets belonging to one of Francis’s aged female relatives. “I don’t see any,” I said. “What happened?”

  He sighed and sat down heavily in an armchair. “There’s aspirin in my room,” he said. “In a tin in my overcoat pocket. Also a blue enamel pillbox. And my cigarettes. Will you go get them for me?”

  He was so pale and shaken I wondered if he was ill. “What’s the matter?” I said.

  “I don’t want to go in there.”

  “Why not?”

  “Because Bunny’s asleep on my bed.”

  I looked at him. “Well, Jesus,” I said. “I’m not going to—”

  He waved away my words with a tired hand. “It’s all right. Really. I’m just too upset to go myself. He’s fast asleep.”

  I went quietly out of my room and down the hall. Henry’s door was at the end. Pausing outside with one hand on the knob, I heard distinctly from within the peculiar huffing noise of Bunny’s snores.

  In spite of what I’d heard earlier, I was unprepared for what I saw: books were scattered in a frenzy across the floor; the night table was knocked over; against the wall lay the splay-legged remains of a black Malacca chair. The shade of the pole lamp was askew and cast a crazy irregular light over the room. In the middle of it was Bunny, his face resting on the tweed elbow of his jacket and one foot, still in its wing-tipped shoe, dangling off the edge of the bed. Mouth open, his eyes swollen and unfamiliar without their spectacles, he snuffed and grumbled in his sleep. I grabbed up Henry’s things and left as fast as I could.

  Bunny came down late the next morning, puff-eyed and sullen, while Francis and the twins and I were eating our breakfasts. He ignored our awkward greetings and went straight to the cabinet and made himself a bowl of Sugar Frosted Flakes and sat down wordlessly at the table. In the abrupt silence which had fallen, I heard Mr. Hatch come in the front door. Francis excused himself and hurried away, and I heard the two of them murmuring in the hall as Bunny crunched morosely at his cereal. A few minutes passed. I was looking, obliquely, at Bunny slumped over his bowl when all of a sudden, in the window behind his head, I saw the distant figure of Mr. Hatch, walking across the open field beyond the garden, carrying the dark, curlicued ruins of the Malacca chair to the rubbish heap.

  As troubling as they were, these eruptions of hysteria were infrequent. But they made it plain how upset Bunny was, and how disagreeable he might make himself if provoked. It was Henry he was angriest at, Henry who had betrayed him, and Henry who was always the subject of these outbursts. Yet in a funny way, it was Henry he was best able to tolerate on a daily basis. He was more or less constantly irritated with everyone else. He might explode at Francis, say, for making some remark he found pretentious, or become inexplicably enraged if Charles offered to buy him an ice-cream; but he did not pick these petty fights with Henry in quite the same trivial, arbitrary way. This was in spite of the fact that Henry did not take nearly the pains to placate him that everyone else did. When the subject of the barge tour came up—and it came up fairly often—Henry played along in only the most perfunctory way, and his replies were mechanical and forced. To me, Bunny’s confident anticipation was more chilling than any outburst; how could he possibly delude himself into thinking that the trip would come about, that it would be anything but a nightmare if it did? But Bunny, happy as a mental patient, would rattle for hours about his delusions of the Riviera, oblivious to a certain tightness about Henry’s jaw, or to the empty, ominous silences which fell when he was talked out and sat, chin in hand, staring dreamily into space.

  It seemed, for the most part, that he sublimated his anger toward Henry into his dealings with the rest of the world. He was insulting, rude, quick to start a quarrel with virtually everyone he came in contact with. Reports of his behavior drifted back to us through various channels. He threw a shoe at some hippies playing Hackysack outside his window; he threatened to beat up his neighbor for playing the radio too loudly; he called one of the ladies in the Bursar’s office a troglodyte. It was fortunate for us, I suppose, that his wide circle of acquaintance included few people whom he saw on a regular basis. Julian saw as much of Bunny as anyone, but their relation did not extend much beyond the classroom. More troublesome was his friendship with his old schoolmate Cloke Rayburn; and most troublesome of all, Marion.

  Marion, we knew, recognized the difference in Bunny’s behavior as clearly as we did, and was puzzled and angered by it. If she’d seen the way he was around us, she doubtless would have realized that she was not the cause; but as it was she saw only the broken dates, the mood swings, the sullenness and the quick irrational angers which apparently were directed solely at her—Was he seeing another girl? Did he want to break up? An acquaintance at the Early Childhood Center told Camilla that one day at work Marion had called Bunny six times, and the last time he had hung up on her.

  “God, please God, let her give him the old heave-ho,” said Francis, turning his eyes to heaven, when he heard this bit of intelligence. Nothing more was said of it, but we watched them carefully and prayed that it would be so. If he had his wits about him Bunny surely would keep his mouth shut; but now, with his subconscious mind knocked loose from its perch and flapping in the hollow corridors of his skull as erratically as a bat, there was no way to be sure of anything he might do.

  Cloke he saw rather less frequently. He and Bunny had little in common besides their prep school, and Cloke—who ran with a fast crowd, and took a lot of drugs besides—was fairly self-preoccupied, not likely to concern himself with Bunny’s behavior or even to take much notice of it. Cloke lived in the house next door to mine, Durbinstall (nicknamed, by campus wags, “Dalmane Hall,” it was the bustling center of what the administration chose to refer to as “narcotics-related activity” and one’s visits there were occasionally punctuated with explosions and small fires, incurred by lone free-basers or the student chemists who worked in the basement) and, fortunately for us, he lived in the front, on the ground floor. Since his shades were always up and there were no trees in the immediate area, it was possible to sit safely on the porch of the library, some fifty feet away, and enjoy a luxurious and unobscured view of Bunny, framed in a bright window as he gazed open-mouthed at comic
books or talked, arms waving, with an invisible Cloke.

  “I just like to have an idea,” Henry explained, “where he goes.” But actually it was quite simple to keep tabs on Bunny: I think because he, too, was unwilling to let the others, and Henry in particular, out of his sight for long.

  If he treated Henry with deference, it was the rest of us who were forced to bear the wearing, day-to-day brunt of his anger. Most of the time he was simply irritating: for example, in his ill-informed and frequent tirades against the Catholic Church. Bunny’s family was Episcopalian, and my parents, as far as I knew, had no religious affiliation at all; but Henry and Francis and the twins had been reared as Catholics; and though none of them went to church much, Bunny’s ignorant, tireless stream of blasphemies enraged them. With leers and winks he told stories about lapsed nuns, sluttish Catholic girls, pederastic priests (“So then, this Father What’s-His-Name, he said to the altar boy—this kid is nine years old, mind you, he’s in my Cub Scout troop—he says to Tim Mulrooney, ‘Son, would you like to see where me and all the other fathers sleep at night?’ ”). He invented outrageous stories of the perversions of various Popes; informed them of little-known points of Catholic doctrine; raved about Vatican conspiracies, ignoring Henry’s bald refutations and Francis’s muttered asides about social-climbing Protestants.

  What was worse was when he chose to zero in on one person in particular. With some preternatural craftiness he always knew the right nerve to touch, at exactly the right moment, to wound and outrage most. Charles was good-natured, and slow to anger, but he was sometimes so disturbed by these anti-Catholic diatribes that his very teacup would clatter upon its saucer. He was also sensitive to remarks about his drinking. As a matter of fact, Charles did drink a lot. We all did: but still, though he didn’t indulge in any very conspicuous excess, I’d frequently had the experience of smelling liquor on his breath at odd hours or dropping by unexpectedly in the early afternoon to find him with a glass in his hand—which was perhaps understandable, things being what they were. Bunny made a show of fraudulent, infuriating concern, peppered with snide comments about drunkards and sots. He kept exaggerated tallies of Charles’s cocktail consumption. He left questionnaires (“Do you sometimes feel you need a drink to get through the day?”) and pamphlets (freckle-faced child gazing plaintively at parent, asking, “Mommy, what’s ‘drunk’?”) anonymously in Charles’s box, and once went so far as to give his name to the campus chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous, whereupon Charles was deluged with tracts and phone calls and even a personal visit from a well-meaning Twelfth-Stepper.

  With Francis, on the other hand, things were more pointed and unpleasant. Nobody said anything about it, ever, but we all knew he was gay. Though he was not promiscuous, every so often he would disappear quite mysteriously at a party and once, very early in our acquaintance, he’d made a subtle but unmistakable pass at me one afternoon when we were drunk and by ourselves in the rowboat. I’d dropped an oar, and in the confusion of retrieving it I felt his fingertips brush in a casual yet deliberate fashion along my cheek near the jawbone. I glanced up, startled, and our eyes met in that way that eyes will, and we looked at each other for a moment, the boat wobbling around us and the lost oar forgotten. I was dreadfully flustered; embarrassed, I looked away; when suddenly, and to my great surprise, he burst out laughing at my distress.

  “No?” he said.

  “No,” I said, relieved.

  It might seem that this episode would have imposed a certain coolness upon our friendship. While I don’t suppose that anyone who has devoted much energy to the study of Classics can be very much disturbed by homosexuality, neither am I particularly comfortable with it as it concerns me directly. Though I liked Francis well enough, I had always been nervous around him; oddly, it was this pass of his that cleared the air between us. I suppose I knew it was inevitable, and dreaded it. Once it was out of the way I was perfectly comfortable being alone with him even in the most questionable situations—drunk, or in his apartment, or even wedged in the back seat of a car.

  With Francis and Bunny it was a different story. They were happy enough to be together in company, but if one was around either of them for too long it became obvious that they seldom did things with each other and almost never spent time alone. I knew why this was; we all did. Still, it never occurred to me that they weren’t genuinely fond of each other on some level, nor that Bunny’s gruff jokes concealed, however beguilingly, a keen and very pointed streak of malice toward Francis in particular.

  I suppose the shock of recognition is one of the nastiest shocks of all. I’d never considered, though I should have, that these crackpot prejudices of Bunny’s which I found so amusing were not remotely ironic but deadly serious.

  Not that Francis, in normal circumstances, wasn’t perfectly able to take care of himself. He had a quick temper, and a sharp tongue, and though he could’ve put Bunny in his place pretty much any time he chose, he was understandably apprehensive about doing so. We were all of us painfully aware of that metaphoric vial of nitroglycerine which Bunny carried around with him day and night, and which, from time to time, he allowed us a glimpse of, unless anyone forget it was always with him, and he had the power to dash it to the floor whenever he pleased.

  I don’t really have the heart to recount all the vile things he said and did to Francis, the practical jokes, the remarks about faggots and queers, the public, humiliating stream of questions about his preference and practices: clinical and incredibly detailed ones, having to do with such things as enemas, and gerbils, and incandescent light bulbs.

  “Just once,” I remember Francis hissing, through clenched teeth. “Just once I’d like to …”

  But there was absolutely nothing that anyone could say or do.

  One might expect that I, being at that time perfectly innocent of any crime against either Bunny or humanity, would not myself be a target of this ongoing sniper fire. Unfortunately I was, perhaps more unfortunately for him than for me. How could he have been so blind as not to see how dangerous it might be for him to alienate the one impartial party, his one potential ally? Because, as fond as I was of the others, I was fond of Bunny, too, and I would not have been nearly so quick to cast in my lot with the rest of them had he not turned on me so ferociously. Perhaps, in his mind, there was the justification of jealousy; his position in the group had started to slip at roughly the same time I’d arrived; his resentment was of the most petty and childish sort, and doubtless would never have surfaced had he not been in such a paranoid state, unable to distinguish his enemies from his friends.

  By stages I grew to abhor him. Ruthless as a gun dog, he picked up with rapid and unflagging instinct the traces of everything in the world I was most insecure about, all the things I was in most agony to hide. There were certain repetitive, sadistic games he would play with me. He liked to entice me into lies: “Gorgeous necktie,” he’d say, “that’s a Hermès, isn’t it?”—and then, when I assented, reach quickly across the lunch table and expose my poor tie’s humble lineage. Or in the middle of a conversation he would suddenly bring himself up short and say: “Richard, old man, why don’t you keep any pictures of your folks around?”

  It was just the sort of detail he would seize upon. His own room was filled with an array of flawless family memorabilia, all of them perfect as a series of advertisements: Bunny and his brothers, waving lacrosse sticks on a luminous black-and-white playing field; family Christmases, a pair of cool, tasteful parents in expensive bathrobes, five little yellow-haired boys in identical pajamas rolling on the floor with a laughing spaniel, and a ridiculously lavish train set, and the tree rising sumptuous in the background; Bunny’s mother at her debutante ball, young and disdainful in white mink.

  “What?” he’d ask with mock innocence. “No cameras in California? Or can’t you have your friends seeing Mom in polyester pantsuits? Where’d your parents go to school anyway?” he’d say, interrupting before I could interject. “Are they Ivy League
material? Or did they go to some kind of a State U?”

  It was the most gratuitous sort of cruelty. My lies about my family were adequate, I suppose, but they could not stand up under these glaring attacks. Neither of my parents had finished high school; my mother did wear pants suits, which she purchased at a factory outlet. In the only photograph I had of her, a snapshot, she squinted blurrily at the camera, one hand on the Cyclone fence and the other on my father’s new riding lawn mower. This, ostensibly, was the reason that the photo had been sent me, my mother having some notion that I would be interested in the new acquisition; I’d kept it because it was the only picture I had of her, kept it tucked inside a Webster’s dictionary (under M for Mother) on my desk. But one night I rose from my bed, suddenly consumed with fear that Bunny would find it while snooping around my room. No hiding place seemed safe enough. Finally I burned it in an ashtray.

  They were unpleasant enough, these private inquisitions, but I cannot find words to adequately express the torments I suffered when he chose to ply this art of his in public. Bunny’s dead now, requiescat in pace, but so long as I live I will never forget a particular interlude of sadism to which he subjected me at the twins’ apartment.

  A few days earlier, Bunny had been grilling me about where I’d gone to prep school. I don’t know why I couldn’t just have admitted the truth, that I’d gone to the public school in Plano. Francis had gone to any number of wildly exclusive schools in England and Switzerland, and Henry had been at correspondingly exclusive American ones before he dropped out entirely in the eleventh grade; but the twins had only gone to a little country day school in Roanoke, and even Bunny’s own hallowed Saint Jerome’s was really only an expensive remedial school, the sort of place you see advertised in the back of Town and Country as offering specialized attention for the academic underachiever. My own school was not particularly shameful in this context, yet I evaded the question long as I could till finally, cornered and desperate, I had told him I’d gone to Renfrew Hall, which is a tennis-y, indifferent sort of boys’ school near San Francisco. That had seemed to satisfy him, but then, to my immense discomfort, and in front of everybody, he brought it up again.

 
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