The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  “What does she say?”

  “ ‘Baby. Chris and I are so concerned about you,’ ” Francis read in a deadpan voice. “ ‘Now I do not pretend to be an authority on Young People and maybe you are going through something I am too old to understand but I have always hoped you would be able to go to Chris with your problems.’ ”

  “Chris has a lot more problems than you do, it seems to me,” I said. The character that Chris played on “The Young Doctors” was sleeping with his brother’s wife and involved in a baby-smuggling ring.

  “I’ll say Chris has problems. He’s twenty-six years old and married to my mother, isn’t he? ‘Now I even hate to bring this up,’ ” he read, “ ‘and I wouldn’t have suggested it had not Chris insisted but you know, dear, how he loves you and he says he has seen this type of thing so often before in show business you know. So I phoned the Betty Ford Center and precious, what do you think? They have a nice little room waiting just for you, dear’—no, let me finish,” he said, when I started to laugh, “ ‘Now I know you’ll hate the idea but really you needn’t be ashamed, it’s a Disease, baby, that’s what they told me when I went and it made me feel so much better you cannot imagine. Of course I don’t know what it is you’re taking but really, darling, let’s be practical, whatever it is it must be frightfully expensive mustn’t it and I have to be quite honest with you and tell you that we simply cannot afford it, not with your grandpa the way he is and the taxes on the house and everything …’ ”

  “You ought to go,” I said.

  “Are you kidding? It’s in Palm Springs or someplace like that and besides I think they lock you up and make you do aerobics. She watches too much television, my mother,” he said, glancing at the letter again.

  The telephone began to ring.

  “Goddammit,” he said in a tired voice.

  “Don’t answer it.”

  “If I don’t she’ll call the police,” he said, and picked up the receiver.

  I let myself out (Francis pacing back and forth: “Funny? What do you mean, I sound funny?”) and walked to the post office, where in my box I found, to my surprise, an elegant little note from Julian asking me to lunch the next day.

  Julian, on special occasions, sometimes had lunches for the class; he was an excellent cook and, when he was a young man living off his trust fund in Europe, had the reputation of being an excellent host as well. This was, in fact, the basis of his acquaintance with most of the famous people in his life. Osbert Sitwell, in his diary, mentions Julian Morrow’s “sublime little fêtes,” and there are similar references in the letters of people ranging from Charles Laughton to the Duchess of Windsor to Gertrude Stein; Cyril Connolly, who was notorious for being a hard guest to please, told Harold Acton that Julian was the most gracious American that he had ever met—a double-edged compliment, admittedly—and Sara Murphy, no mean hostess herself, once wrote him pleading for his recipe for sole véronique. But though I knew that Julian frequently invited Henry for lunches à deux, I had never before received an invitation to dine alone with him, and I was both flattered and vaguely worried. At that time, anything even slightly out of the ordinary seemed ominous to me, and, pleased as I was, I could not but feel that he might have an objective other than the pleasure of my company. I took the invitation home and studied it. The airy, oblique style in which it was written did little to dispel my feeling that there was more in it than met the eye. I phoned the switchboard and left a message for him to expect me at one the next day.

  “Julian doesn’t know anything about what happened, does he?” I asked Henry when next I saw him alone.

  “What? Oh, yes,” said Henry, glancing up from his book. “Of course.”

  “He knows you killed that guy?”

  “Really, you needn’t be so loud,” said Henry sharply, turning in his chair. Then, in a quieter voice: “He knew what we were trying to do. And approved. The day after it happened, we drove out to his house in the country. Told him what happened. He was delighted.”

  “You told him everything?”

  “Well, I saw no point in worrying him, if that’s what you mean,” said Henry, adjusting his glasses and going back to his book.

  Julian, of course, had made the lunch himself, and we ate at the big round table in his office. After weeks of bad nerves, bad conversation, and bad food in the dining hall, the prospect of a meal with him was immensely cheering; he was a charming companion and his dinners, though deceptively simple, had a sort of Augustan wholesomeness and luxuriance which never failed to soothe.

  There was roasted lamb, new potatoes, peas with leeks and fennel; a rich and almost maddeningly delicious bottle of Château Latour. I was eating with better appetite than I had had in ages when I noticed that a fourth course had appeared, with unobtrusive magic, at my elbow: mushrooms. They were pale and slender-stemmed, of a type I had seen before, steaming in a red wine sauce that smelled of coriander and rue.

  “Where did you get these?” I said.

  “Ah. You’re quite observant,” he said, pleased. “Aren’t they marvelous? Quite rare. Henry brought them to me.”

  I took a quick swallow of my wine to hide my consternation.

  “He tells me—may I?” he said nodding at the bowl.

  I passed it to him, and he spooned some of them onto his plate. “Thank you,” he said. “What was I saying? Oh, yes. Henry tells me that this particular sort of mushroom was a great favorite of the emperor Claudius. Interesting, because you remember how Claudius died.”

  I did remember. Agrippina had slipped a poisoned one into his dish one night.

  “They’re quite good,” said Julian, taking a bite. “Have you gone with Henry on any of his collecting expeditions?”

  “Not yet. He hasn’t asked me to.”

  “I must say, I never thought I cared very much for mushrooms, but everything he’s brought me has been heavenly.”

  Suddenly I understood. This was a clever piece of groundwork on Henry’s part. “He’s brought them to you before?” I said.

  “Yes. Of course I wouldn’t trust just anyone with this sort of thing, but Henry seems to know an amazing lot about it.”

  “I believe he probably does,” I said, thinking of the boxer dogs.

  “It’s remarkable how good he is at anything he tries. He can grow flowers, repair clocks like a jeweler, add tremendous sums in his head. Even if it’s something as simple as bandaging a cut finger he manages to do a better job of it.” He poured himself another glass of wine. “I gather that his parents are disappointed that he’s decided to concentrate so exclusively on the classics. I disagree, of course, but in a certain sense it is rather a pity. He would have made a great doctor, or soldier, or scientist.”

  I laughed. “Or a great spy,” I said.

  Julian laughed too. “All you boys would be excellent spies,” he said. “Slipping about in casinos, eavesdropping on heads of state. Really, won’t you try some of these mushrooms? They’re glorious.”

  I drank the rest of my wine. “Why not,” I said, and reached for the bowl.

  After lunch, when the dishes had been cleared away and we were talking about nothing in particular, Julian asked, out of the blue, if I’d noticed anything peculiar about Bunny recently.

  “Well, no, not really,” I said, and took a careful sip of tea.

  He raised an eyebrow. “No? I think he’s behaving very strangely. Henry and I were talking only yesterday about how brusque and contrary he’s become.”

  “I think he’s been in kind of a bad mood.”

  He shook his head. “I don’t know. Edmund is such a simple soul. I never thought I’d be surprised at anything he did or said, but he and I had a very odd conversation the other day.”

  “Odd?” I said cautiously.

  “Perhaps he’d only read something that disturbed him. I don’t know. I am worried about him.”

  “Why?”

  “Frankly, I’m afraid he might be on the verge of some disastrous religious conv
ersion.”

  I was jarred. “Really?” I said.

  “I’ve seen it happen before. And I can think of no other reason for this sudden interest in ethics. Not that Edmund is profligate, but really, he’s one of the least morally concerned boys I’ve ever known. I was very startled when he began to question me—in all earnestness—about such hazy concerns as Sin and Forgiveness. He’s thinking of going into the Church, I just know it. Perhaps that girl has something to do with it, do you suppose?”

  He meant Marion. He had a habit of attributing all of Bunny’s faults indirectly to her—his laziness, his bad humors, his lapses of taste. “Maybe,” I said.

  “Is she a Catholic?”

  “I think she’s Presbyterian,” I said. Julian had a polite but implacable contempt for Judeo-Christian tradition in virtually all its forms. He would deny this if confronted, citing evasively his affection for Dante and Giotto, but anything overtly religious filled him with a pagan alarm; and I believe that like Pliny, whom he resembled in so many respects, he secretly thought it to be a degenerate cult carried to extravagant lengths.

  “A Presbyterian? Really?” he said, dismayed.

  “I believe so.”

  “Well, whatever one thinks of the Roman Church, it is a worthy and powerful foe. I could accept that sort of conversion with grace. But I shall be very disappointed indeed if we lose him to the Presbyterians.”

  In the first week of April the weather turned suddenly, unseasonably, insistently lovely. The sky was blue, the air warm and windless, and the sun beamed on the muddy ground with all the sweet impatience of June. Toward the fringe of the wood, the young trees were yellow with the first tinge of new leaves; woodpeckers laughed and drummed in the copses and, lying in bed with my window open, I could hear the rush and gurgle of the melted snow running in the gutters all night long.

  In the second week of April everyone waited anxiously to see if the weather would hold. It did, with serene assurance. Hyacinth and daffodil bloomed in the flower beds, violet and periwinkle in the meadows; damp, bedraggled white butterflies fluttered drunkenly in the hedgerows. I put away my winter coat and overshoes and walked around, nearly light-headed with joy, in my shirtsleeves.

  “This won’t last,” said Henry.

  In the third week of April, when the lawns were green as Heaven and the apple blossoms had recklessly blown, I was reading in my room on a Friday night, with the windows open and a cool, damp wind stirring the papers on my desk. There was a party across the lawn, and laughter and music floated through the night air. It was long after midnight. I was nodding, half-asleep over my book, when someone bellowed my name outside my window.

  I shook myself and sat up, just in time to see one of Bunny’s shoes flying through my open window. It hit the floor with a thud. I jumped up and leaned over the sill. Far below, I saw his staggering, shaggy-headed figure, attempting to steady itself by clutching at the trunk of a small tree.

  “What the hell’s wrong with you?”

  He didn’t reply, only raised his free hand in a gesture half wave, half salute, and reeled out of the light. The back door slammed, and a few moments later he was banging on the door of my room.

  When I opened it he came limping in, one shoe off and one shoe on, leaving a muddy trail of macabre, unmatched footprints behind him. His spectacles were askew and he stank of whiskey. “Dickie boy,” he mumbled.

  The outburst beneath my window seemed to have exhausted him and left him strangely uncommunicative. He tugged off his muddy sock and tossed it clumsily away from him. It landed on my bed.

  By degrees, I managed to extricate from him the evening’s events. The twins had taken him to dinner, afterwards to a bar in town for more drinks; he’d then gone alone to the party across the lawn, where a Dutchman had tried to make him smoke pot and a freshman girl had given him tequila from a thermos. (“Pretty little gal. Sort of a Deadhead, though. She was wearing clogs, you know those things? And a tie-dyed T-shirt. I can’t stand them. ‘Honey,’ I said, ‘you’re such a cutie, how come you want to get yourself up in that nasty stuff?’ ”) Then, abruptly, he broke off this narrative and lurched away—leaving the door of my room open behind him—and I heard the sound of noisy, athletic vomiting.

  He was gone a long time. When he returned he smelled sour, and his face was damp and very pale; but he seemed composed. “Whew,” he said, collapsing in my chair and mopping his forehead with a red bandanna. “Musta been something I ate.”

  “Did you make it to the bathroom?” I asked uncertainly. The vomiting had sounded ominously near my own door.

  “Naw,” he said, breathing heavily. “Ran in the broom closet. Get me a glass of water, wouldja.”

  In the hall, the door to the service closet hung partly open, providing a coy glimpse of the reeking horror within. I hurried past it to the kitchen.

  Bunny looked at me glassily when I came back in. His expression had changed entirely, and something about it made me uneasy. I gave him the water and he took a large, greedy gulp.

  “Not too quick,” I said, alarmed.

  He paid no attention and drank the rest in a swallow, then set the glass on the desk with a trembling hand. Beads of sweat stood out on his forehead.

  “Oh, my God,” he said. “Sweet Jesus.”

  Uneasily, I crossed to my bed and sat down, trying to think of some neutral subject, but before I could say anything he spoke again.

  “Can’t stomach it any longer,” he mumbled. “Just can’t. Sweet Italian Jesus.”

  I didn’t say anything.

  Shakily, he passed a hand over his forehead. “You don’t even know what the devil I’m talking about, do you?” he said, with an oddly nasty tone in his voice.

  Agitated, I recrossed my legs. I’d seen this coming, seen it coming for months and dreaded it. I had an impulse to rush from the room, just leave him sitting there, but then he buried his face in his hands.

  “All true,” he mumbled. “All true. Swear to God. Nobody knows but me.”

  Absurdly, I found myself hoping it was a false alarm. Maybe he and Marion had broken up. Maybe his father had died of a heart attack. I sat there, paralyzed.

  He dragged his palms down over his face, as if he were wiping water from it, and looked up at me. “You don’t have a clue,” he said. His eyes were bloodshot, uncomfortably bright. “Boy. You don’t have a fucking clue.”

  I stood up, unable to bear it any longer, and looked around my room distractedly. “Uh,” I said, “do you want an aspirin? I meant to ask you earlier. If you take a couple now you won’t feel so bad in the—”

  “You think I’m crazy, don’t you?” Bunny said abruptly.

  Somehow I’d always known it was going to happen this way, the two of us alone, Bunny drunk, late at night.… “Why no,” I said. “All you need is a little—”

  “You think I’m a lunatic. Bats in the belfry. Nobody listens to me,” he said, his voice rising.

  I was alarmed. “Calm down,” I said. “I’m listening to you.”

  “Well, listen to this,” he said.

  It was three in the morning when he stopped talking. The story he told was drunken and garbled, out of sequence and full of vituperative, self-righteous digressions; but I had no problem understanding it. It was a story I’d already heard. For a while we sat there, mute. My desk light was shining in my eyes. The party across the way was still going strong and a faint but boisterous rap song throbbed obtrusively in the distance.

  Bunny’s breathing had become loud and asthmatic. His head fell on his chest, and he woke with a start. “What?” he said, confused, as if someone had come up behind him and shouted in his ear. “Oh. Yes.”

  I didn’t say anything.

  “What do you think about that, eh?”

  I was unable to answer. I’d hoped, faintly, that he might have blacked it all out.

  “Damndest thing. Fact truer than fiction, boy. Wait, that’s not right. How’s it go?”

  “Fact stranger than fi
ction,” I said mechanically. It was fortunate, I suppose, that I didn’t have to make an effort to look shaken up or stunned. I was so upset I was nearly sick.

  “Just goes to show,” said Bunny drunkenly. “Could be the guy next door. Could be anybody. Never can tell.”

  I put my face in my hands.

  “Tell anybody you want,” Bunny said. “Tell the goddamn mayor. I don’t care. Lock ’em right up in that combination post office and jail they got down by the courthouse. Thinks he’s so smart,” he muttered. “Well, if this wasn’t Vermont he wouldn’t be sleeping so well at night, let me tell you. Why, my dad’s best friends with the police commissioner in Hartford. He ever finds out about this—geez. He and Dad were at school together. Used to date his daughter in the tenth grade.…” His head was drooping and he shook himself again. “Jesus,” he said, nearly falling out of his chair.

  I stared at him.

  “Give me that shoe, would you?”

  I handed it to him, and his sock too. He looked at them for a moment, then stuffed them in the outside pocket of his blazer. “Don’t let the bedbugs bite,” he said, and then he was gone, leaving the door of my room open behind him. I could hear his peculiar limping progress all the way down the stairs.

  The objects in the room seemed to swell and recede with each thump of my heart. In a horrible daze, I sat on my bed, one elbow on the windowsill, and tried to pull myself together. Diabolical rap music floated from the opposite building, where a couple of shadowy figures were crouched on the roof, throwing empty beer cans at a disconsolate band of hippies huddled around a bonfire in a trash can, trying to smoke a joint. A beer can sailed from the roof, then another, which hit one of them on the head with a tinny sound. Laughter, aggrieved cries.

 
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