The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  “So you were at Renfrew,” he said chummily, turning to me and popping a handful of pistachios in his mouth.

  “Yes.”

  “When’d ya graduate?”

  I offered the date of my real high school graduation.

  “Ah,” he said, chomping busily on his nuts. “So you were there with Von Raumer.”

  “What?”

  “Alec. Alec Von Raumer. From San Fran. Friend of Cloke’s. He was in the room the other day and we got talking. Lots of old Renfrew boys at Hampden, he says.”

  I said nothing, hoping he’d leave it at that.

  “So you know Alec and all.”

  “Uh, slightly,” I said.

  “Funny, he said he didn’t remember you,” said Bunny, reaching over for another handful of pistachios without taking his eyes off me. “Not at all.”

  “It’s a big school.”

  He cleared his throat. “Think so?”

  “Yes.”

  “Von Raumer said it was tiny. Only about two hundred people.” He paused and threw another handful of pistachios into his mouth, and chewed as he talked. “What dormitory did you say you were in?”

  “You wouldn’t know it.”

  “Von Raumer told me to make a point of asking you.”

  “What difference does it make?”

  “Oh, it’s nothing, nothing at all, old horse,” said Bunny pleasantly. “Just that it’s pretty damn peculiar, n’est-ce pas? You and Alec being there together for four years, in a tiny place like Renfrew, and he never laid eyes on you even once?”

  “I was only there for two years.”

  “How come you’re not in the yearbook?”

  “I am in the yearbook.”

  “No you’re not.”

  The twins looked stricken. Henry had his back turned, pretending not to listen. Now he said, quite suddenly and without turning around: “How do you know if he was in the yearbook or not?”

  “I don’t think I’ve ever been in a yearbook in my life,” said Francis nervously. “I can’t stand to have my picture taken. Whenever I try to—”

  Bunny paid no attention. He leaned back in his chair.

  “Come on,” he said to me. “I’ll give you five dollars if you can tell me the name of the dorm you lived in.”

  His eyes were riveted on mine; they were bright with a horrible relish. I said something incoherent and then in consternation got up and went into the kitchen to get a glass of water. Leaning on the sink, I held the glass to my temple; from the living room, Francis whispered something indistinct but angry, and then Bunny laughed harshly. I poured the water down the sink and turned on the tap so I wouldn’t have to listen.

  How was it that a complex, a nervous and delicately calibrated mind like my own, was able to adjust itself perfectly after a shock like the murder, while Bunny’s eminently more sturdy and ordinary one was knocked out of kilter? I still think about this sometimes. If what Bunny really wanted was revenge, he could have had it easily enough and without putting himself at risk. What did he imagine was to be gained from this slow and potentially explosive kind of torture, had it, in his mind, some purpose, some goal? Or were his own actions as inexplicable to him as they were to us?

  Or perhaps they weren’t so inexplicable as that. Because the worst thing about all of this, as Camilla once remarked, was not that Bunny had suffered some total change of personality, some schizophrenic break, but rather that various unpleasant elements of his personality which heretofore we had only glimpsed had orchestrated and magnified themselves to a startling level of potency. Distasteful as his behavior was, we had seen it all before, only in less concentrated and vitriolic form. Even in the happiest times he’d made fun of my California accent, my secondhand overcoat and my room barren of tasteful bibelots, but in such an ingenuous way I couldn’t possibly do anything but laugh. (“Good Lord, Richard,” he would say, picking up one of my old wingtips and poking his finger through the hole in the bottom. “What is it with you California kids? Richer you are, the more shoddy you look. Won’t even go to the barber. Before I know it, you’ll have hair down to your shoulders and be skulking around in rags like Howard Hughes.”) It never occurred to me to be offended; this was Bunny, my friend, who had even less pocket money than I did and a big rip in the seat of his trousers besides. A good deal of my horror at his new behavior sprang from the fact that it was so similar to the old and frankly endearing way he used to tease me, and I was as baffled and enraged at his sudden departure from the rules as though—if we had been in the habit of doing a little friendly sparring—he had boxed me into the corner and beaten me half to death.

  To compound this—all these unpleasant recollections to the contrary—so much remained of the old Bunny, the one I knew and loved. Sometimes when I saw him at a distance—fists in pockets, whistling, bobbing along with his springy old walk—I would have a strong pang of affection mixed with regret. I forgave him, a hundred times over, and never on the basis of anything more than this: a look, a gesture, a certain tilt of his head. It seemed impossible then that one could ever be angry at him, no matter what he did. Unfortunately, these were often the moments when he chose to attack. He would be amiable, charming, chatting in his old distracted manner when, in the same manner and without missing a beat, he would lean back in his chair and come out with something so horrendous, so backhanded, so unanswerable, that I would vow not to forget it, and never to forgive him again. I broke that promise many times. I was about to say that it was a promise I finally had to keep, but that’s not really true. Even today I cannot muster anything resembling anger for Bunny. In fact, I can’t think of much I’d like better than for him to step into the room right now, glasses fogged and smelling of damp wool, shaking the rain from his hair like an old dog and saying: “Dickie, my boy, what you got for a thirsty old man to drink tonight?”

  One likes to think there’s something in it, that old platitude amor vincit omnia. But if I’ve learned one thing in my short sad life, it is that that particular platitude is a lie. Love doesn’t conquer everything. And whoever thinks it does is a fool.

  Camilla he tormented simply because she was a girl. In some ways she was his most vulnerable target—through no fault of her own, but simply because in Greekdom, generally speaking, women are lesser creatures, better seen than heard. This prevailing sentiment among the Argives is so pervasive that it lingers in the bones of the language itself; I can think of no better illustration of this than the fact that in Greek grammar, one of the very first axioms I learned is that men have friends, women have relatives, and animals have their own kind.

  Bunny, through no impulse towards Hellenic purity but simply out of mean-spiritedness, championed this view. He didn’t like women, didn’t enjoy their company, and even Marion, his self-proclaimed raison d’être, was tolerated as grudgingly as a concubine. With Camilla he was forced to assume a slightly more paternalistic stance, beaming down at her with the condescension of an old papa towards a dimwit child. To the rest of us he complained that Camilla was out of her league, and a hindrance to serious scholarship. We all found this pretty funny. To be honest, none of us, not even the brightest of us, were destined for academic achievement in subsequent years, Francis being too lazy, Charles too diffuse, and Henry too erratic and generally strange, a sort of Mycroft Holmes of classical philology. Camilla was no different, secretly preferring, as I did, the easy delights of English literature to the coolie labor of Greek. What was laughable was that poor Bunny should display concern about anyone else’s intellectual capacities.

  Being the only female in what was basically a boys’ club must have been difficult for her. Miraculously, she didn’t compensate by becoming hard or quarrelsome. She was still a girl, a slight lovely girl who lay in bed and ate chocolates, a girl whose hair smelled like hyacinth and whose white scarves fluttered jauntily in the breeze; a girl as bewitching, and clever, as any girl who ever lived. But strange and marvelous as she was, a wisp of silk in a forest of black wool
, she was not at all the fragile creature one would have her seem. In many ways she was as cool and competent as Henry; tough-minded and solitary in her habits, and in many ways as aloof. Out in the country it was not uncommon to discover that she had slipped away, alone, out to the lake, maybe, or down to the cellar, where once I found her sitting in the big marooned sleigh, reading, her fur coat thrown over her knees. Things would have been terribly strange and unbalanced without her. She was the Queen who finished out the suit of dark Jacks, dark King, and Joker.

  If I found the twins so fascinating, I think it was because there was something a tiny bit inexplicable about them, something I was often on the verge of grasping but never quite did. Charles, kind and slightly ethereal soul that he was, was something of an enigma but Camilla was the real mystery, the safe I could never crack. I was never sure what she thought about anything, and I knew that Bunny found her even harder to read than I did. In good times he’d often offended her clumsily, without meaning to; as soon as they turned bad, he tried to insult and belittle her in a variety of ways, most of which struck wide of the mark. She was impervious to slights about her appearance; met his eye, unblinking, as he told the most vulgar and humiliating jokes; laughed if he attempted to insult her taste or intelligence; ignored his frequent discourses, peppered with erudite misquotations he must have gone to great trouble to dig up, all to the effect that all women were categorically inferior to himself: not designed—as he was—for Philosophy, and Art, and Higher Reasoning, but to attract a husband and to Tend the Home.

  Only once did I ever see him get to her. It was over at the twins’ apartment, very late. Charles, fortunately, was out with Henry getting ice; he’d had a lot to drink and if he’d been around things would almost certainly have gotten out of hand. Bunny was so drunk he could hardly sit up. For most of the evening, he’d been in a passable mood, but then, without warning, he turned to Camilla and said: “How come you kids live together?”

  She shrugged, in that odd, one-shouldered way the twins had.

  “Huh?”

  “It’s convenient,” said Camilla. “Cheap.”

  “Well, I think it’s pretty damned peculiar.”

  “I’ve lived with Charles all my life.”

  “Not much privacy, is there? Little place like this? On top of each other all the time?”

  “It’s a two-bedroom apartment.”

  “And when you get lonesome in the middle of the night?”

  There was a brief silence.

  “I don’t know what you’re trying to say,” she said icily.

  “Sure you do,” said Bunny. “Convenient as hell. Kinda classical, too. Those Greeks carried on with their brothers and sisters like nobody’s—whoops,” he said, retrieving the whiskey glass which was about to fall off the arm of his chair. “Sure, it’s against the law and stuff,” he said. “But what’s that to you. Break one, you might as well break ’em all, eh?”

  I was stunned. Francis and I gaped at him as he unconcernedly drained his glass and reached for the bottle again.

  To my utter, utter surprise, Camilla said tartly: “You mustn’t think I’m sleeping with my brother just because I won’t sleep with you.”

  Bunny laughed a low, nasty laugh. “You couldn’t pay me to sleep with you, girlie,” he said. “Not for all the tea in China.”

  She looked at him with absolutely no expression in her pale eyes. Then she got up and went into the kitchen, leaving Francis and me to one of the more tortuous silences I have ever experienced.

  Religious slurs, temper tantrums, insults, coercion, debt: all petty things, really, irritants—too minor, it would seem, to move five reasonable people to murder. But, if I dare say it, it wasn’t until I had helped to kill a man that I realized how elusive and complex an act a murder can actually be, and not necessarily attributable to one dramatic motive. To ascribe it to such a motive would be easy enough. There was one, certainly. But the instinct for self-preservation is not so compelling an instinct as one might think. The danger which he presented was, after all, not immediate but slow and simmering, a sort which can, at least in the abstract, be postponed or diverted in any number of ways. I can easily imagine us there, at the appointed time and place, anxious suddenly to reconsider, perhaps even to grant a disastrous last-minute reprieve. Fear for our own lives might have induced us to lead him to the gallows and slip the noose around his neck, but a more urgent impetus was necessary to make us actually go ahead and kick out the chair.

  Bunny, unawares, had himself supplied us with such an impetus. I would like to say I was driven to what I did by some overwhelming, tragic motive. But I think I would be lying if I told you that; if I led you to believe that on that Sunday afternoon in April, I was actually being driven by anything of the sort.

  An interesting question: what was I thinking, as I watched his eyes widen with startled incredulity (“come on, fellas, you’re joking, right?”) for what would be the very last time? Not of the fact that I was helping to save my friends, certainly not; nor of fear; nor guilt. But little things. Insults, innuendos, petty cruelties. The hundreds of small, unavenged humiliations which had been rising in me for months. It was of them I thought, and nothing more. It was because of them that I was able to watch him at all, without the slightest tinge of pity or regret, as he teetered on the cliff’s edge for one long moment—arms flailing, eyes rolling, a silent-movie comedian slipping on a banana peel—before he toppled backwards, and fell to his death.

  Henry, I believed, had a plan. What it was I didn’t know. He was always disappearing on mysterious errands, and perhaps these were only more of the same; but now, anxious to believe that someone, at least, had the situation in hand, I imbued them with a certain hopeful significance. Not infrequently he refused to answer his door, even late at night when a light was burning and I knew he was at home; more than once he appeared late for dinner with wet shoes, and windblown hair, and mud on the cuffs of his neat dark trousers. A stack of mysterious books, in a Near Eastern language which looked like Arabic and bearing the stamp of the Williams College Library, materialized in the back seat of his car. This was doubly puzzling, as I did not think he read Arabic; nor, to my knowledge, did he have borrowing privileges at the Williams College Library. Glancing surreptitiously at the back pocket of one of them, I found the card was still in it, and that the last person to check it out was an F. Lockett, back in 1929.

  Perhaps the oddest thing of all, though, I saw one afternoon when I’d hitched a ride into Hampden with Judy Poovey. I wanted to take some clothes to the cleaners and Judy, who was going into town, offered to drive me; we’d done our errands, not to mention an awful lot of cocaine in the parking lot of Burger King, and we were stopped in the Corvette at a red light, listening to terrible music (“Free Bird”) on the Manchester radio station, and Judy rattling on, like the senseless cokehead she was, about these two guys she knew who’d had sex in the Food King (“Right in the store! In the frozen food aisle!”), when she glanced out her window and laughed. “Look,” she said. “Isn’t that your friend Four Eyes over there?”

  Startled, I leaned forward. There was a tiny head shop directly across the street—bongs, tapestries, canisters of Rush, and all sorts of herbs and incense behind the counter. I’d never seen anyone in it before except the sad old hippie in granny glasses, a Hampden graduate, who owned it. But now to my astonishment I saw Henry—black suit, umbrella and all—among the celestial maps and unicorns. He was standing at the counter looking at a sheet of paper. The hippie started to say something but Henry, cutting him short, pointed to something behind the counter. The hippie shrugged and took a little bottle off the shelf. I watched them, half-breathless.

  “What do you think he’s doing in there, trying to harass that poor old Deadhead? That’s a shitty store, by the way. I went in there once for a pair of scales and they didn’t even have any, just a bunch of crystal balls and shit. You know that set of green plastic scales I—Hey, you’re not listening,” she whined wh
en she saw I was still staring out the window. The hippie had leaned down and was rummaging under the counter. “You want me to honk or something?”

  “No,” I shouted, edgy from the cocaine, and pushed her hand away from the horn.

  “Oh, God. Don’t scare me like that.” She pressed her hand to her chest. “Shit. I’m speeding my brains out. That coke was cut with meth or something. Okay, okay,” she said irritably, as the light turned green and the gas truck behind us began to honk.

  Stolen Arabic books? A head shop in Hampden town? I couldn’t imagine what Henry was doing, but as disconnected as his actions seemed, I had a childlike faith in him and, as confidently as Dr. Watson observing the actions of his more illustrious friend, I waited for the design to manifest itself.

  Which it did, in a certain fashion, in a couple of days.

  On a Thursday night, around twelve-thirty, I was in my pajamas and attempting to cut my own hair with the aid of a mirror and some nail scissors (I never did a very good job; the finished product was always very thistly and childish, à la Arthur Rimbaud) when there was a knock at the door. I answered it with scissors and mirror in hand. It was Henry. “Oh, hello,” I said. “Come in.”

  Stepping carefully over the tufts of dusty brown hair, he sat down at my desk. Inspecting my profile in the mirror, I went back to work with the scissors. “What’s up?” I said, reaching over to snip off a long clump by my ear.

 
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