The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  I was gazing at the sparks flying from the garbage can when suddenly I was struck by a harrowing thought. Why had Bunny decided to come to my room instead of Cloke’s, or Marion’s? As I looked out the windows the answer was so obvious it gave me a chill. It was because my room was by far the closest. Marion lived in Roxburgh, on the other end of campus, and Cloke’s was on the far side of Durbinstall. Neither place was readily apparent to a drunk stumbling out into the night. But Monmouth was scarcely thirty feet away, and my own room, with its conspicuously lighted window, must have loomed in his path like a beacon.

  I suppose it would be interesting to say that at this point I felt torn in some way, grappled with the moral implications of each of the courses available to me. But I don’t recall experiencing anything of the sort. I put on a pair of loafers and went downstairs to call Henry.

  The pay phone in Monmouth was on a wall by the back door, too exposed for my taste, so I walked over to the Science Building, my shoes squelching on the dewy grass, and found a particularly isolated booth on the third floor near the chemistry labs.

  The phone must’ve rung a hundred times. No answer. Finally, in exasperation, I pressed down the receiver and dialed the twins. Eight rings, nine; then, to my relief, Charles’s sleepy hello.

  “Hi, it’s me,” I said quickly. “Something happened.”

  “What?” he said, suddenly alert. I could hear him sitting up in bed.

  “He told me. Just now.”

  There was a long silence.

  “Hello?” I said.

  “Call Henry,” said Charles abruptly. “Hang up the phone and call him right now.”

  “I already did. He’s not answering the phone.”

  Charles swore under his breath. “Let me think,” he said. “Oh, hell. Can you come over?”

  “Sure. Now?”

  “I’ll run down to Henry’s and see if I can get him to the door. We should be back by the time you get here. Okay?”

  “Okay,” I said, but he’d already hung up.

  When I got there, about twenty minutes later, I met Charles coming from the direction of Henry’s, alone.

  “No luck?”

  “No,” he said, breathing hard. His hair was rumpled and he had a raincoat on over his pajamas.

  “What’ll we do?”

  “I don’t know. Come upstairs. We’ll think of something.”

  We had just got our coats off when the light in Camilla’s room came on and she appeared in the doorway, blinking, cheeks aflame. “Charles? What are you doing here?” she said when she saw me.

  Rather incoherently, Charles explained what had happened. With a drowsy forearm she shielded her eyes from the light and listened. She was wearing a man’s nightshirt, much too big for her, and I found myself staring at her bare legs—tawny calves, slender ankles, lovely, dusty-soled boy-feet.

  “Is he there?” she said.

  “I know he is.”

  “You sure?”

  “Where else would he be at three in the morning?”

  “Wait a second,” she said, and went to the telephone. “I just want to try something.” She dialed, listened for a moment, hung up, dialed again.

  “What are you doing?”

  “It’s a code,” she said, the receiver cradled between shoulder and ear. “Ring twice, hang up, ring again.”

  “Code?”

  “Yes. He told me once—Oh, hello, Henry,” she said suddenly, and sat down.

  Charles looked at me.

  “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said quietly. “He must have been awake the whole time.”

  “Yes,” Camilla was saying; she stared at the floor, bobbing the foot of her crossed leg idly up and down. “That’s fine. I’ll tell him.”

  She hung up. “He says to come over, Richard,” she said. “You should leave now. He’s waiting for you. Why are you looking at me like that?” she said crossly to Charles.

  “Code, eh?”

  “What about it?”

  “You never told me about it.”

  “It’s stupid. I never thought to.”

  “What do you and Henry need a secret code for?”

  “It’s not a secret.”

  “Then why didn’t you tell me?”

  “Charles, don’t be such a baby.”

  Henry—wide awake, no explanations—met me at the door in his bathrobe. I followed him into the kitchen, and he poured me a cup of coffee and sat me down. “Now,” he said, “tell me what happened.”

  I did. He sat across the table, smoking cigarette after cigarette with his dark blue eyes fastened on mine. He interrupted with questions only once or twice. Certain parts he asked me to repeat. I was so tired that I rambled a bit, but he was patient with my digressions.

  By the time I finished, the sun was up and the birds were singing. Spots were swimming in front of my eyes. A damp, cool breeze shifted in the curtains. Henry switched off the lamp and went to the stove and began, rather mechanically, to make some bacon and eggs. I watched him move around the dim, dawn-lit kitchen in his bare feet.

  While we ate, I looked at him curiously. He was pale, and his eyes were tired and preoccupied, but there was nothing in his expression that gave me any indication what he might be thinking.

  “Henry,” I said.

  He started. It was the first time either of us had said a word for half an hour or more.

  “What are you thinking about?”

  “Nothing.”

  “If you’ve still got the idea of poisoning him—”

  He glanced up with a quick flash of anger that surprised me. “Don’t be absurd,” he snapped. “I wish you’d shut up a minute and let me think.”

  I stared at him. Abruptly he stood up and went to pour himself some more coffee. For a moment he stood with his back to me, hands braced on the counter. Then he turned around.

  “I’m sorry,” he said wearily. “It’s just not very pleasant to look back on something that one has put so much effort and thought into, only to realize it’s completely ridiculous. Poisoned mushrooms. The whole idea is like something from Sir Walter Scott.”

  I was taken aback. “But I thought it was kind of a good idea,” I said.

  He rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. “Too good,” he said. “I suppose that when anyone accustomed to working with the mind is faced with a straightforward action, there’s a tendency to embellish, to make it overly clever. On paper there’s a certain symmetry. Now that I’m faced with the prospect of executing it I realize how hideously complicated it is.”

  “What’s wrong?”

  He adjusted his glasses. “The poison is too slow.”

  “I thought that’s what you wanted.”

  “There are half a dozen problems with it. Some of them you pointed out. Control of the dose is risky, but time, I think, is the real concern. From my standpoint the longer the better, but still … A person can do an awful lot of talking in twelve hours.” He was quiet for a moment. “It’s not as if I haven’t seen this all along. The idea of killing him is so repellent that I haven’t been able to think of it as anything but a chess-problem. A game. You have no idea how much thought I’ve put into this. Even to the strain of poison. It’s said to make the throat swell, do you know that? Victims are said to be struck dumb, unable to name their poisoner.” He sighed. “Too easy to beguile myself with the Medicis, the Borgias, all those poisoned rings and roses … It’s possible to do that, did you know? To poison a rose, then present it as a gift? The lady pricks her finger, then falls dead. I know how to make a candle that will kill if burned in a closed room. Or how to poison a pillow, or a prayer book …”

  I said: “What about sleeping pills?”

  He glanced at me, annoyed.

  “I’m serious. People die from them all the time.”

  “Where are we going to get sleeping pills?”

  “This is Hampden College. If we want sleeping pills, we can get them.”

  We looked at each other.

&
nbsp; “How would we give them?” he said.

  “Tell him they’re Tylenol.”

  “And how do we get him to swallow nine or ten Tylenol?”

  “We could break them open in a glass of whiskey.”

  “You think Bunny is likely to drink a glass of whiskey with a lot of white powder at the bottom?”

  “I think he’s just as apt to do that as eat a dish of toadstools.”

  There was a long silence, during which a bird trilled noisily outside the window. Henry closed his eyes for a long moment and rubbed his temple with his fingertips.

  “What are you going to do?” I said.

  “I think I’m going to go out and run a few errands,” he said. “I want you to go home and go to sleep.”

  “Do you have any ideas?”

  “No. But there’s something I want to look into. I’d drive you back to school, but I don’t think it’s a good idea for us to be seen together just now.” He began to fish in the pocket of his bathrobe, pulling out matches, pen nibs, his blue enamel pillbox. Finally he found a couple of quarters and lay them on the table. “Here,” he said. “Stop at the newsstand and buy a paper on your way home.”

  “Why?”

  “In case anyone should wonder why you’re wandering around at this hour. I may have to talk to you tonight. If I don’t find you in, I’ll leave a message that a Doctor Springfield called. Don’t try to get in touch with me before then, unless of course you have to.”

  “Sure.”

  “I’ll see you later, then,” he said, starting out of the kitchen. Then he turned in the door and looked at me. “I’ll never forget this, you know,” he said matter-of-factly.

  “It’s nothing.”

  “It’s everything and you know it.”

  “You’ve done me a favor or two yourself,” I said, but he had already started out and didn’t hear me. At any rate, he didn’t answer.

  I bought a newspaper at the little store down the street and walked back to school through the dank, verdant woods, off the main path, stepping over the boulders and rotting logs that occasionally blocked my way.

  It was still early when I got to campus. I went in the back door of Monmouth and, pausing at the top of the stairs, I was startled to see the house chairperson and a flock of girls in housecoats, huddled around the broom closet and conversing in varying tones of shrill outrage. When I tried to brush past them. Judy Poovey, clad in a black kimono, grabbed my arm. “Hey,” she said. “Somebody puked in this broom closet.”

  “It was one of those goddamned freshmen,” said a girl at my elbow. “They get stinking drunk and come to the upperclass suites to barf.”

  “Well, I don’t know who did it,” the house chairperson said, “but whoever it was, they had spaghetti for dinner.”

  “Hmnn.”

  “That means they’re not on the meal ticket, then.”

  I pushed through them to my room, locking the door behind me, and went, almost immediately, to sleep.

  I slept all day, face down in the pillow, a comfortable dead-man’s float only remotely disturbed by a chill undertow of reality—talk, footsteps, slamming doors—which threaded fitfully through the dark, blood-warm waters of dream. Day ran into night, and still I slept, until finally the rush and rumble of a flushing toilet rolled me on my back and up from sleep.

  The Saturday night party had already started, in Putnam house next door. That meant dinner was over, the snack bar was closed, and I’d slept at least fourteen hours. My house was deserted. I got up and shaved and took a hot bath. Then I put on my robe and, eating an apple I’d found in the house kitchen, walked downstairs in my bare feet to see if any messages had been left for me by the phone.

  There were three. Bunny Corcoran, at a quarter to six. My mother, from California, at eight-forty-five. And a Dr. H. Springfield, D.D.S., who suggested I visit at my earliest convenience.

  I was famished. When I got to Henry’s, I was glad to see that Charles and Francis were still picking at a cold chicken and some salad.

  Henry looked as if he hadn’t slept since I’d seen him last. He was wearing an old tweed jacket with sprung elbows, and there were grass stains on the knees of his trousers; khaki gaiters were laced over his mud-caked shoes. “The plates are in the sideboard, if you’re hungry,” he said, pulling out his chair and sitting down heavily, like some old farmer just home from the field.

  “Where have you been?”

  “We’ll talk about it after dinner.”

  “Where’s Camilla?”

  Charles began to laugh.

  Francis put down his chicken leg. “She’s got a date,” he said. “You’re kidding. With who?”

  “Cloke Rayburn.”

  “They’re at the party,” Charles said. “He took her out for drinks before and everything.”

  “Marion and Bunny are with them,” Francis said. “It was Henry’s idea. Tonight she’s keeping an eye on you-know-who.”

  “You-know-who left a message for me on the telephone this afternoon,” I said.

  “You-know-who has been on the warpath all day long,” said Charles, cutting himself a slice of bread.

  “Not now, please,” said Henry in a tired voice.

  After the dishes were cleared Henry put his elbows on the table and lit a cigarette. He needed a shave and there were dark circles under his eyes.

  “So what’s the plan?” said Francis.

  Henry tossed the match into the ashtray. “This weekend,” he said. “Tomorrow.”

  I paused with my coffee cup halfway to my lips and stared at him.

  “Oh my God,” said Charles, disconcerted. “So soon?”

  “It can’t wait any longer.”

  “How? What can we do on such short notice?”

  “I don’t like it either, but if we wait we won’t have another chance until next weekend. If it comes to that, we may not have another chance at all.”

  There was a brief silence.

  “This is for real?” said Charles uncertainly. “This is, like, a definite thing?”

  “Nothing is definite,” said Henry. “The circumstances won’t be entirely under our control. But I want us to be ready should the opportunity present itself.”

  “This sounds sort of indeterminate,” said Francis.

  “It is. It can’t be any other way, unfortunately, as Bunny will be doing most of the work.”

  “How’s that?” said Charles, leaning back in his chair.

  “An accident. A hiking accident, to be precise.” Henry paused. “Tomorrow’s Sunday.”

  “Yes.”

  “So tomorrow, if the weather’s nice, Bunny will more likely than not go for a walk.”

  “He doesn’t always go,” said Charles.

  “Say he does. And we have a fairly good idea of his route.”

  “It varies,” I said. I had accompanied Bunny on a good many of those walks the term before. He was apt to cross streams, climb fences, make any number of unexpected detours.

  “Yes, of course, but by and large we know it,” said Henry. He took a piece of paper from his pocket and spread it on the table. Leaning over, I saw it was a map. “He goes out the back door of his house, circles behind the tennis courts, and when he reaches the woods, heads not towards North Hampden but east, towards Mount Cataract. Heavily wooded, not much hiking out that way. He keeps on till he hits that deer path—you know the one I mean, Richard, the trail marked with the white boulder—and bears hard southeast. That runs for three-quarters of a mile and then forks—”

  “But you’ll miss him if you wait there,” I said. “I’ve been with him on that road. He’s as apt to turn west here as to keep heading south.”

  “Well, we may lose him before then if it comes to that,” said Henry. “I’ve known him to ignore the path altogether and keep heading east till he hits the highway. But I’m counting on the likelihood he won’t do that. The weather’s nice—he won’t want such an easy walk.”

  “But the second fork? You can’
t say where he’ll go from there.”

  “We don’t have to. You remember where it comes out, don’t you? The ravine.”

  “Oh,” said Francis. There was a long silence.

  “Now, listen,” said Henry, taking a pencil from his pocket. “He’ll be coming in from school, from the south. We can avoid his route entirely and come in on Highway 6, from the west.”

  “We’ll take the car?”

  “Partway, yes. Just past that junkyard, before the turnoff to Battenkill, there’s a gravel road. I’d thought it might be a private way, in which case we’d have to avoid it, but I went down to the courthouse this afternoon and found that it’s just an old logging road. Comes to a dead end in the middle of the woods. But it should take us directly to the ravine, within a quarter mile. We can walk the rest of the way.”

  “And when we get there?”

  “Well, we wait. I made Bunny’s walk to the ravine from school twice this afternoon, there and back, and timed it both ways. It’ll take him at least half an hour from the time he leaves his room. Which gives us plenty of time to go around the back way and surprise him.”

  “What if he doesn’t come?”

  “Well, if he doesn’t, we’ve lost nothing but time.”

  “What if one of us goes with him?”

  He shook his head. “I’ve thought of that,” he said. “It’s not a good idea. If he walks into the trap himself—alone, of his own volition—there’s not much way it can be traced to us.”

  “If this, if that,” said Francis sourly. “This sounds pretty haphazard to me.”

  “We want something haphazard.”

  “I don’t see what’s wrong with the first plan.”

  “The first plan is too stylized. Design is inherent in it through and through.”

  “But design is preferable to chance.”

  Henry smoothed the crumpled map against the table with the flat of his palm. “There, you’re wrong,” he said. “If we attempt to order events too meticulously, to arrive at point X via a logical trail, it follows that the logical trail can be picked up at point X and followed back to us. Reason is always apparent to a discerning eye. But luck? It’s invisible, erratic, angelic. What could possibly be better, from our point of view, than allowing Bunny to choose the circumstances of his own death?”

 
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