The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  “You studied medicine for a while, didn’t you?” he said.

  I knew this to be a prelude to some health-related inquiry. My one year of pre-med had provided scanty knowledge at best, but the others, who knew nothing at all of medicine and regarded the discipline per se as less a science than a kind of sympathetic magic, constantly solicited my opinion on their aches and pains as respectfully as savages consulting a witch doctor. Their ignorance ranged from the touching to the downright shocking; Henry, I suppose because he’d been ill so often, knew more than the rest of them but occasionally even he would startle one with a perfectly serious question about humors or spleen.

  “Are you sick?” I said, one eye on his reflection in the mirror.

  “I need a formula for dosage.”

  “What do you mean, a formula for dosage? Dosage of what?”

  “There is one, isn’t there? Some mathematical formula which tells the proper dose to administer according to height and weight, that sort of thing?”

  “It depends on the concentration of the drug,” I said. “I can’t tell you something like that. You’d have to look it up in a Physicians’ Desk Reference.”

  “I can’t do that.”

  “They’re very simple to use.”

  “That’s not what I mean. It’s not in the Physicians’ Desk Reference.”

  “You’d be surprised.”

  For a moment there was no sound except the grinding of my scissors. At last he said: “You don’t understand. This isn’t something doctors generally use.”

  I brought down my scissors and looked at his reflection in the mirror.

  “Jesus, Henry,” I said. “What have you got? Some LSD or something?”

  “Let’s say I do,” he said calmly.

  I put down the mirror and turned to stare at him. “Henry, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I said. “I don’t know if I ever told you this but I took LSD a couple of times. When I was a sophomore in high school. It was the worst mistake I ever made in my—”

  “I realize that it’s hard to gauge the concentration of such a drug,” he said evenly. “But say we have a certain amount of empirical evidence. Let’s say we know, for instance, that x amount of the drug in question is enough to affect a seventy-pound animal and another, slightly larger amount is sufficient to kill it. I’ve figured out a rough formula, but still we are talking about a very fine distinction. So, knowing this much, how do I go about calculating the rest?”

  I leaned against my dresser and stared at him, my haircut forgotten. “Let’s see what you have,” I said.

  He looked at me intently for a moment or two, then reached into his pocket. When his hand opened, I couldn’t believe my eyes, but then I stepped closer. A pale, slender-stemmed mushroom lay across his open palm.

  “Amanita caesaria,” he said. “Not what you think,” he added when he saw the look on my face.

  “I know what an amanita is.”

  “Not all amanitae are poisonous. This one is harmless.”

  “What is it?” I said, taking it from his hand and holding it to the light. “A hallucinogen?”

  “No. Actually they are good to eat—the Romans liked them a great deal—but people avoid them as a rule because they are so easily confused with their evil twin.”

  “Evil twin?”

  “Amanita phalloides,” said Henry mildly. “Death cap.”

  I didn’t say anything for a moment.

  “What are you going to do?” I finally asked.

  “What do you think?”

  I got up, agitated, and walked to my desk. Henry put the mushroom back in his pocket and lit a cigarette. “Do you have an ashtray?” he said courteously.

  I gave him an empty soda can. His cigarette was nearly finished before I spoke. “Henry, I don’t think this is a good idea.”

  He raised an eyebrow. “Why not?”

  Why not, he asks me. “Because,” I said, a little wildly, “they can trace poison. Any kind of poison. Do you think if Bunny keels over dead, people won’t find it peculiar? Any idiot of a coroner can—”

  “I know that,” said Henry patiently. “Which is why I’m asking you about the dosage.”

  “That has nothing to do with it. Even a tiny amount can be—”

  “—enough to make one extremely ill,” Henry said, lighting another cigarette. “But not necessarily lethal.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “I mean,” he said, pushing his glasses up on the bridge of his nose, “that strictly in terms of virulence there are any number of excellent poisons, most of them far superior to this. The woods will be soon full of foxglove and monkshood. I could get all the arsenic I needed from flypaper. And even herbs that aren’t common here—good God, the Borgias would have wept to see the health-food store I found in Brattleboro last week. Hellebore, mandrake, pure oil of wormwood.… I suppose people will buy anything if they think it’s natural. The wormwood they were selling as organic insect repellent, as if that made it safer than the stuff at the supermarket. One bottle could have killed an army.” He toyed with his glasses again. “The problem with these things—excellent though they are—is one, as you said, of administration. Amatoxins are messy, as poisons go. Vomiting, jaundice, convulsions. Not like some of the little Italian comfortives, which are relatively quick and kind. But, on the other hand, what could be easier to give? I’m not a botanist, you know. Even mycologists have a hard time telling amanitae apart. Some handpicked mushrooms … a few bad ones get mixed in the lot … one friend gets dreadfully ill and the other …?” He shrugged.

  We looked at each other.

  “How can you be sure you won’t get too much yourself?” I asked him.

  “I suppose I can’t be, really,” he said. “My own life must be plausibly in danger, so you can see I have a delicate margin to work with. But still, chances are excellent that I can bring it off. All I have to worry about is myself, you know. The rest will take care of itself.”

  I knew what he meant. The plan had several grave flaws, but it was brilliant at its heart: if anything could be relied upon with almost mathematical certainty, it was that Bunny, at any given meal, would somehow manage to eat almost twice as much as anyone else.

  Henry’s face was pale and serene through the haze of his cigarette. He put his hand in his pocket and produced the mushroom again.

  “Now,” he said. “A single cap, roughly this size, of A. phalloides is enough to make a healthy seventy-pound dog quite ill. Vomiting, diarrhea, no convulsions that I saw. I don’t think there was anything as severe as liver dysfunction but I suppose we will have to leave that to the veterinarians. Evidently—”

  “Henry, how do you know this?”

  He was silent for a moment. Then he said: “Do you know those two horrible boxer dogs who belong to the couple who live upstairs?”

  It was dreadful but I had to laugh, I couldn’t help it. “No,” I said. “You didn’t.”

  “I’m afraid I did,” he said dryly, mashing out his cigarette. “One of them is fine, unfortunately. The other one won’t be dragging garbage up on my front porch anymore. It was dead in twenty hours, and only of a slightly larger dose—the difference perhaps of a gram. Knowing this, it seems to me that I should be able to prescribe how much poison each of us should get. What worries me is the variation in concentration of poison from one mushroom to the next. It’s not as if it’s measured out by a pharmacist. Perhaps I’m wrong—I’m sure you know more about it than I do—but a mushroom that weighs two grams might well have just as much as one that weighs three, no? Hence my dilemma.”

  He reached into his breast pocket and took out a sheet of paper covered with numbers. “I hate to involve you in this, but no one else knows a thing about math and I’m far from reliable myself. Will you have a look?”

  Vomiting, jaundice, convulsions. Mechanically, I took the sheet of paper from him. It was covered with algebraic equations, but at the moment algebra was frankly the last thing on my mind. I
shook my head and was on the point of handing it back when I looked up at him and something stopped me. I was in the position, I realized, to put an end to this, now, right here. He really did need my help, or else he wouldn’t have come to me; emotional appeals, I knew, were useless but if I pretended that I knew what I was doing I might be able to talk him out of it.

  I took the paper to my desk and sat down with a pencil and forced myself through the tangle of numbers step by step. Equations about chemical concentration were never my strong point in chemistry, and they are difficult enough when you are trying to figure a fixed concentration in a suspension of distilled water; but this, dealing as it did with varying concentrations in irregularly shaped objects, was virtually impossible. He had probably used all the elementary algebra he knew in figuring this, and as far as I could follow him he hadn’t done a bad job; but this wasn’t a problem that could be worked with algebra, if it could be worked at all. Someone with three or four years of college calculus might have been able to come up with something that at least looked more convincing; by tinkering, I was able to narrow his ratio slightly but I had forgotten most of the little calculus I knew and the answer I wound up with, though probably closer than his own, was far from correct.

  I put down my pencil and looked up. The business had taken me about half an hour. Henry had got a copy of Dante’s Purgatorio from my bookshelf and was reading it, absorbed.


  He glanced up absently.

  “Henry, I don’t think this is going to work.”

  He closed the book on his finger. “I made a mistake in the second part,” he said. “Where the factoring begins.”

  “It’s a good try, but just by looking at it I can tell that it’s insolvable without chemical tables and a good working knowledge of calculus and chemistry proper. There’s no way to figure it otherwise. I mean, chemical concentrations aren’t even measured in terms of grams and milligrams but in something called moles.”

  “Can you work it for me?”

  “I’m afraid not, though I’ve done as much as I can. Practically speaking, I can’t give you an answer. Even a math professor would have a tough time with this one.”

  “Hmn,” said Henry, looking over my shoulder at the paper on the desk. “I’m heavier than Bun, you know. By twenty-five pounds. That should count for something, shouldn’t it?”

  “Yes, but the difference of size isn’t large enough to bank on, not with a margin of error potentially this wide. Now, if you were fifty pounds heavier, maybe …”

  “The poison doesn’t take effect for at least twelve hours,” he said. “So even if I overdose I’ll have a certain advantage, a grace period. With an antidote on hand for myself, just in case …”

  “An antidote?” I said, jarred, leaning back in my chair. “Is there such a thing?”

  “Atropine. It’s in deadly nightshade.”

  “Well, Jesus, Henry. If you don’t finish yourself off with one you will with the other.”

  “Atropine’s quite safe in small amounts.”

  “They say the same about arsenic but I wouldn’t like to try it.”

  “They are exactly opposite in effect. Atropine speeds the nervous system, rapid heartbeat and so forth. Amatoxins slow it down.”

  “That still sounds fishy, a poison counteracting a poison.”

  “Not at all. The Persians were master poisoners, and they say—”

  I remembered the books in Henry’s car. “The Persians?” I said.

  “Yes. According to the great—”

  “I didn’t know you read Arabic.”

  “I don’t, at least not well, but they’re the great authorities on the subject and most of the books I need haven’t been translated. I’ve been going through them as best I can with a dictionary.”

  I thought about the books I had seen, dusty, bindings crumbled with age. “When were these things written?”

  “Around the middle of the fifteenth century, I should say.”

  I put down my pencil. “Henry.”


  “You should know better than that. You can’t rely on something that old.”

  “The Persians were master poisoners. These are practical handbooks, how-tos if you will. I don’t know of anything quite like them.”

  “Poisoning people is quite a different matter from curing them.”

  “People have used these books for centuries. Their accuracy is beyond dispute.”

  “Well, I have as much respect for ancient learning as you do, but I don’t know that I’d want to stake my life on some home remedy from the Middle Ages.”

  “Well, I suppose I can check it somewhere else,” he said, without much conviction.

  “Really. This is too serious a matter to—”

  “Thank you,” he said smoothly. “You’ve been a great help.” He picked up my copy of Purgatorio again. “This isn’t a very good translation, you know,” he said, leafing through it idly. “Singleton is the best if you don’t read Italian, quite literal, but you lose all the terza rima, of course. For that you should read the original. In very great poetry the music often comes through even when one doesn’t know the language. I loved Dante passionately before I knew a word of Italian.”

  “Henry,” I said, in a low, urgent voice.

  He glanced over at me, annoyed. “Anything I do will be dangerous, you know,” he said.

  “But nothing is any good if you die.”

  “The more I hear about luxury barges, the less terrible death begins to seem,” he said. “You’ve been quite a help. Good night.”

  Early the next afternoon, Charles dropped by for a visit. “Gosh, it’s hot in here,” he said, shouldering off his wet coat and throwing it over the back of a chair. His hair was damp, his face flushed and radiant. A drop of water trembled at the end of his long, fine nose. He sniffed and wiped it away. “Don’t go outside, whatever you do,” he said. “It’s terrible out. By the way, you haven’t seen Francis, have you?”

  I ran a hand through my hair. It was a Friday afternoon, no class, and I hadn’t been out of my room all day, nor had I slept much the night before. “Henry stopped by last night,” I said.

  “Really? What did he have to say? Oh, I almost forgot.” He reached in the pocket of his overcoat and pulled out a bundle wrapped in napkins. “I brought you a sandwich since you weren’t at lunch. Camilla said the lady in the dining hall saw me stealing it and she made a black mark by my name on a list.”

  It was cream cheese and marmalade, I knew without looking. The twins were fanatical about them but I didn’t like them much. I unwrapped a corner of it and took a bite, then set it down on my desk. “Have you talked to Henry recently?” I said.

  “Just this morning. He drove me to the bank.”

  I picked up the sandwich and took another bite. I hadn’t swept, and my hair still lay in clumps on the floor. “Did he,” I said, “say anything about—”

  “About what?”

  “About asking Bunny to dinner in a couple of weeks?”

  “Oh, that,” said Charles, lying back on my bed and propping his head up with pillows. “I thought you knew about that already. He’s been thinking about that for a while.”

  “What do you think?”

  “I think he’s going to have a hell of a hard time finding enough mushrooms to even make him sick. It’s just too early. Last week he made Francis and me go out and help him, but we hardly found a thing. Francis came back really excited, saying, ‘Oh, my God, look, I found all these mushrooms,’ but then we looked in his bag and it was just a bunch of puffballs.”

  “So you think he’ll be able to find enough?”

  “Sure, if he waits a while. I know you don’t have a cigarette, do you?”


  “I wish you smoked. I don’t know why you don’t. You weren’t an athlete in high school or anything, were you?”


  “That’s why Bun doesn’t smoke. Some clean-living type
of football coach got to him at an impressionable age.”

  “Have you seen Bun lately?”

  “Not too much. He was at the apartment last night, though, and stayed forever.”

  “This isn’t just hot air?” I said, looking at him closely. “You’re really going to go through with it?”

  “I’d rather go to jail than know that Bunny was going to be hanging around my neck for the rest of my life. And I’m not too keen on going to jail, either, now that I think about it. You know,” he said, sitting up on my bed and bending over double, as if from a pain in his stomach, “I really wish you had some cigarettes. Who’s that awful girl who lives down the hall from you—Judy?”

  “Poovey,” I said.

  “Go knock on her door, why don’t you, and ask her if she’ll give you a pack. She looks like the sort who keeps cartons in her room.”

  It was getting warmer. The dirty snow was pockmarked from the warm rain, and melting in patches to expose the slimy, yellowed grass beneath it; icicles cracked and plunged like daggers from the sharp peaks of the roofs.

  “We might be in South America now,” Camilla said one night while we were drinking bourbon from teacups in my room and listening to rain dripping from the eaves. “That’s funny, isn’t it?”

  “Yes,” I said, though I hadn’t been invited.

  “I didn’t like the idea then. Now I think we might’ve got by all right down there.”

  “I don’t see how.”

  She leaned her cheek on her closed fist. “Oh, it wouldn’t have been so bad. We could have slept in hammocks. Learned Spanish. Lived in a little house with chickens in the yard.”

  “Got sick,” I said. “Been shot.”

  “I can think of worse things,” she said, with a brief sideways glance that pierced me to the heart.

  The windowpanes rattled in a sudden gust.

  “Well,” I said, “I’m glad you didn’t go.”

  She ignored this remark and, looking out the dark window, took another sip from the teacup.

  It was by now the first week of April, not a pleasant time for me or anyone. Bunny, who had been relatively calm, was now on a rampage because Henry refused to drive him down to Washington, D.C., to see an exhibit of World War I biplanes at the Smithsonian. The twins were getting calls twice daily from an ominous B. Perry at their bank, and Henry from a D. Wade at his; Francis’s mother had discovered his attempt to withdraw money from the trust fund, and each day brought a fresh volley of communication from her. “Good God,” he muttered, having torn open the latest arrival and scanned it with disgust.

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