The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  “You’re crazy.”

  “No, they are. Look at the next sentence. We need a dative.”

  “Are you sure?”

  More rustling of papers.

  “Absolutely. Epi tō karchidona.”

  “I don’t see how,” said Bunny. He sounded like Thurston Howell on “Gilligan’s Island.” “Ablative’s the ticket. The hard ones are always ablative.”

  A slight pause. “Bunny,” said Charles, “you’re mixed up. The ablative is in Latin.”

  “Well, of course, I know that,” said Bunny irritably, after a confused pause which seemed to indicate the contrary, “but you know what I mean. Aorist, ablative, all the same thing, really …”

  “Look, Charles,” said Camilla. “This dative won’t work.”

  “Yes it will. They’re sailing to attack, aren’t they?”

  “Yes, but the Greeks sailed over the sea to Carthage.”

  “But I put that epi in front of it.”

  “Well, we can attack and still use epi, but we have to use an accusative because of the first rules.”

  Segregation. Self. Self-concept. I looked down at the index and racked my brains for the case they were looking for. The Greeks sailed over the sea to Carthage. To Carthage. Place whither. Place whence. Carthage.

  Suddenly something occurred to me. I closed the book and put it on the shelf and turned around. “Excuse me?” I said.

  Immediately they stopped talking, startled, and turned to stare at me.

  “I’m sorry, but would the locative case do?”

  Nobody said anything for a long moment.

  “Locative?” said Charles.

  “Just add zde to karchido,” I said. “I think it’s zde. If you use that, you won’t need a preposition, except the epi if they’re going to war. It implies ‘Carthage-ward,’ so you won’t have to worry about a case, either.”

  Charles looked at his paper, then at me. “Locative?” he said. “That’s pretty obscure.”

  “Are you sure it exists for Carthage?” said Camilla.

  I hadn’t thought of this. “Maybe not,” I said. “I know it does for Athens.”

  Charles reached over and hauled the lexicon towards him over the table and began to leaf through it.

  “Oh, hell, don’t bother,” said Bunny stridently. “If you don’t have to decline it and it doesn’t need a preposition it sounds good to me.” He reared back in his chair and looked up at me. “I’d like to shake your hand, stranger.” I offered it to him; he clasped and shook it firmly, almost knocking an ink bottle over with his elbow as he did so. “Glad to meet you, yes, yes,” he said, reaching up with the other hand to brush the hair from his eyes.

  I was confused by this sudden glare of attention; it was as if the characters in a favorite painting, absorbed in their own concerns, had looked up out of the canvas and spoken to me. Only the day before Francis, in a swish of black cashmere and cigarette smoke, had brushed past me in a corridor. For a moment, as his arm touched mine, he was a creature of flesh and blood, but the next he was a hallucination again, a figment of the imagination stalking down the hallway as heedless of me as ghosts, in their shadowy rounds, are said to be heedless of the living.

  Charles, still fumbling with the lexicon, rose and offered his hand. “My name is Charles Macaulay.”

  “Richard Papen.”

  “Oh, you’re the one,” said Camilla suddenly.


  “You. You came by to ask about the Greek class.”

  “This is my sister,” said Charles, “and this is—Bun, did you tell him your name already?”

  “No, no, don’t think so. You’ve made me a happy man, sir. We had ten more like this to do and five minutes to do them in. Edmund Corcoran’s the name,” said Bunny, grasping my hand again.

  “How long have you studied Greek?” said Camilla.

  “Two years.”

  “You’re rather good at it.”

  “Pity you aren’t in our class,” said Bunny.

  A strained silence.

  “Well,” said Charles uncomfortably, “Julian is funny about things like that.”

  “Go see him again, why don’t you,” Bunny said. “Take him some flowers and tell him you love Plato and he’ll be eating out of your hand.”

  Another silence, this one more disagreeable than the first. Camilla smiled, not exactly at me—a sweet, unfocused smile, quite impersonal, as if I were a waiter or a clerk in a store. Beside her Charles, who was still standing, smiled too and raised a polite eyebrow—a gesture which might have been nervous, might have meant anything, really, but which I took to mean Is that all?

  I mumbled something and was about to turn away when Bunny—who was staring in the opposite direction—shot out an arm and grabbed me by the wrist. “Wait,” he said.

  Startled, I looked up. Henry had just come in the door—dark suit, umbrella, and all.

  When he got to the table he pretended not to see me. “Hello,” he said to them. “Are you finished?”

  Bunny tossed his head at me. “Look here, Henry, we’ve got someone to meet you,” he said.

  Henry glanced up. His expression did not change. He shut his eyes and then reopened them, as if he found it extraordinary that someone such as myself should stand in his path of vision.

  “Yes, yes,” said Bunny. “This man’s name is Richard—Richard what?”


  “Yes, yes. Richard Papen. Studies Greek.”

  Henry brought his head up to look at me. “Not here, surely,” he said.

  “No,” I said, meeting his gaze, but his stare was so rude I was forced to cut my eyes away.

  “Oh, Henry, look at this, would you,” said Charles hastily, rustling through the papers again. “We were going to use a dative or an accusative here but he suggested locative?”

  Henry leaned over his shoulder and inspected the page. “Hmm, archaic locative,” he said. “Very Homeric. Of course, it would be grammatically correct but perhaps a bit off contextually.” He brought his head back up to scrutinize me. The light was at an angle that glinted off his tiny spectacles, and I couldn’t see his eyes behind them. “Very interesting. You’re a Homeric scholar?”

  I might have said yes, but I had the feeling he would be glad to catch me in a mistake, and that he would be able to do it easily. “I like Homer,” I said weakly.

  He regarded me with chill distaste. “I love Homer,” he said. “Of course we’re studying things rather more modern, Plato and the tragedians and so forth.”

  I was trying to think of some response when he looked away in disinterest.

  “We should go,” he said.

  Charles shuffled his papers together, stood up again; Camilla stood beside him and this time she offered me her hand, too. Side by side, they were very much alike, in similarity less of lineament than of manner and bearing, a correspondence of gesture which bounced and echoed between them so that a blink seemed to reverberate, moments later, in a twitch of the other’s eyelid. Their eyes were the same color of gray, intelligent and calm. She, I thought, was very beautiful, in an unsettling, almost medieval way which would not be apparent to the casual observer.

  Bunny pushed his chair back and slapped me between the shoulder blades. “Well, sir,” he said, “we must get together sometime and talk about Greek, yes?”

  “Goodbye,” Henry said, with a nod.

  “Goodbye,” I said. They strolled off and I stood where I was and watched them go, walking out of the library in a wide phalanx, side by side.

  When I went by Dr. Roland’s office a few minutes later to drop off the Xeroxes, I asked him if he could give me an advance on my work-study check.

  He leaned back in his chair and trained his watery, red-rimmed eyes on me. “Well, you know,” he said, “for the past ten years, I’ve made it my practice not to do that. Let me tell you why that is.”

  “I know, sir,” I said hastily. Dr. Roland’s discourses on his “practices” could sometim
es take half an hour or more. “I understand. Only it’s kind of an emergency.”

  He leaned forward again and cleared his throat. “And what,” he said, “might that be?”

  His hands, folded on the desk before him, were gnarled with veins and had a bluish, pearly sheen around the knuckles. I stared at them. I needed ten or twenty dollars, needed it badly, but I had come in without first deciding what to say. “I don’t know,” I said. “Something has come up.”

  He furrowed his eyebrows impressively. Dr. Roland’s senile manner was said to be a facade; to me it seemed quite genuine but sometimes, when you were off your guard, he would display an unexpected flash of lucidity, which—though it frequently did not relate to the topic at hand—was evidence that rational processes rumbled somewhere in the muddied depths of his consciousness.

  “It’s my car,” I said, suddenly inspired. I didn’t have a car. “I need to get it fixed.”

  I had not expected him to inquire further but instead he perked up noticeably. “What’s the trouble?”

  “Something with the transmission.”

  “Is it dual-pathed? Air-cooled?”

  “Air-cooled,” I said, shifting to the other foot. I did not care for the conversational turn. I don’t know a thing about cars and am hard-pressed to change a tire.

  “What’ve you got, one of those little V-6 numbers?”


  “I’m not surprised. All the kids seem to crave them.”

  I had no idea how to respond to this.

  He pulled out his desk drawer and began to pick things up and bring them close to his eyes and put them back in again. “Once a transmission goes,” he said, “in my experience the car is gone. Especially on a V-6. You might as well take that vehicle to the junk heap. Now, myself, I’ve got a 98 Regency Brougham, ten years old. With me, it’s regular checkups, new filter every fifteen hundred miles, and new oil every three thousand. Runs like a dream. Watch out for these garages in town,” he said sharply.


  He’d found his checkbook at last. “Well, you ought to go to the Bursar but I guess this’ll be all right,” he said, opening it and beginning to write laboriously. “Some of these places in Hampden, they find out you’re from the college, they’ll charge you double. Redeemed Repair is generally the best—they’re a bunch of born-agains down there but they’ll still shake you down pretty good if you don’t keep an eye on them.”

  He tore out the check and handed it to me. I glanced at it and my heart skipped a beat. Two hundred dollars. He’d signed it and everything.

  “Don’t you let them charge you a penny more,” he said.

  “No sir,” I said, barely able to conceal my joy. What would I do with all this money? Maybe he would even forget he had given it to me.

  He pulled down his glasses and looked at me over the tops of them. “That’s Redeemed Repair,” he said. “They’re out on Highway 6. The sign is shaped like a cross.”

  “Thank you,” I said.

  I walked down the hall with spirits soaring, and two hundred dollars in my pocket, and the first thing I did was to go downstairs to the pay phone and call a cab to take me into Hampden town. If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s lying on my feet. It’s sort of a gift I have.

  And what did I do in Hampden town? Frankly, I was too staggered by my good fortune to do much of anything. It was a glorious day; I was sick of being poor, so, before I thought better of it, I went into an expensive men’s shop on the square and bought a couple of shirts. Then I went down to the Salvation Army and poked around in bins for a while and found a Harris tweed overcoat and a pair of brown wingtips that fit me, also some cufflinks and a funny old tie that had pictures of men hunting deer on it. When I came out of the store I was happy to find that I still had nearly a hundred dollars. Should I go to the bookstore? To the movies? Buy a bottle of Scotch? In the end, I was so swarmed by the flock of possibilities that drifted up murmuring and smiling to crowd about me on the bright autumn sidewalk that—like a farm boy flustered by a bevy of prostitutes—I brushed right through them, to the pay phone on the corner, to call a cab to take me to school.

  Once in my room, I spread the clothes on my bed. The cufflinks were beaten up and had someone else’s initials on them, but they looked like real gold, glinting in the drowsy autumn sun which poured through the window and soaked in yellow pools on the oak floor—voluptuous, rich, intoxicating.

  I had a feeling of déjà vu when, the next afternoon, Julian answered the door exactly as he had the first time, by opening it only a crack and looking through it warily, as if there were something wonderful in his office that needed guarding, something that he was careful not everyone should see. It was a feeling I would come to know well in the next months. Even now, years later and far away, sometimes in dreams I find myself standing before that white door, waiting for him to appear like the gatekeeper in a fairy story: ageless, watchful, sly as a child.

  When he saw it was me, he opened the door slightly wider than he had the first time. “Mr. Pepin again, isn’t it?” he said. I didn’t bother to correct him. “I’m afraid so.”

  He looked at me for a moment. “You have a wonderful name, you know,” he said. “There were kings of France named Pepin.”

  “Are you busy now?”

  “I am never too busy for an heir to the French throne if that is in fact what you are,” he said pleasantly.

  “I’m afraid not.”

  He laughed and quoted a little Greek epigram about honesty being a dangerous virtue, and, to my surprise, opened the door and ushered me in.

  It was a beautiful room, not an office at all, and much bigger than it looked from outside—airy and white, with a high ceiling and a breeze fluttering in the starched curtains. In the corner, near a low bookshelf, was a big round table littered with teapots and Greek books, and there were flowers everywhere, roses and carnations and anemones, on his desk, on the table, in the windowsills. The roses were especially fragrant; their smell hung rich and heavy in the air, mingled with the smell of bergamot, and black China tea, and a faint inky scent of camphor. Breathing deep, I felt intoxicated. Everywhere I looked was something beautiful—Oriental rugs, porcelains, tiny paintings like jewels—a dazzle of fractured color that struck me as if I had stepped into one of those little Byzantine churches that are so plain on the outside; inside, the most paradisal painted eggshell of gilt and tesserae.

  He sat in an armchair by the window and motioned for me to sit, too. “I suppose you’ve come about the Greek class,” he said.


  His eyes were kind, frank, more gray than blue. “It’s rather late in the term,” he said.

  “I’d like to study it again. It seems a shame to drop it after two years.”

  He arched his eyebrows—deep, mischievous—and looked at his folded hands for a moment. “I’m told you’re from California.”

  “Yes, I am,” I said, rather startled. Who had told him that?

  “I don’t know many people from the West,” he said. “I don’t know if I would like it there.” He paused, looking pensive and vaguely troubled. “And what do you do in California?”

  I gave him the spiel. Orange groves, failed movie stars, lamplit cocktail hours by the swimming pool, cigarettes, ennui. He listened, his eyes fixed on mine, apparently entranced by these fraudulent recollections. Never had my efforts met with such attentiveness, such keen solicitude. He seemed so utterly enthralled that I was tempted to embroider a little more than perhaps was prudent.

  “How thrilling,” he said warmly when I, half-euphoric, was finally played out. “How very romantic.”

  “Well, we’re all quite used to it out there, you see,” I said, trying not to fidget, flushed with the brilliance of my success.

  “And what does a person with such a romantic temperament seek in the study of the classics?” he asked this as if, having had the good fortune to catch such a rare bird as myself, he was anxious to extract my
opinion while I was still captive in his office.

  “If by romantic you mean solitary and introspective,” I said, “I think romantics are frequently the best classicists.”

  He laughed. “The great romantics are often failed classicists. But that’s beside the point, isn’t it? What do you think of Hampden? Are you happy here?”

  I provided an exegesis, not as brief as it might have been, of why at the moment I found the college satisfactory for my purposes.

  “Young people often find the country a bore,” said Julian.

  “Which is not to say that it isn’t good for them. Have you traveled much? Tell me what it was that attracted you to this place. I should think a young man such as yourself would be at a loss outside the city, but perhaps you feel tired of city life, is that so?”

  So skillfully and engagingly that I was quite disarmed, he led me deftly from topic to topic, and I am sure that in this talk, which seemed only a few minutes but was really much longer, he managed to extract everything about me he wanted to know. I did not suspect that his rapt interest might spring from anything less than the very richest enjoyment of my own company, and though I found myself talking with relish on a bewildering variety of topics—some of them quite personal, and with more frankness than was customary—I was convinced that I was acting of my own volition. I wish I could remember much of what was said that day—actually, I do remember more of what I said, most of it too fatuous for me to recall with pleasure. The only point at which he differed (aside from an incredulous eyebrow raised at my mention of Picasso; when I came to know him better I realized that he must have thought this an almost personal affront) was on the topic of psychology, which was, after all, heavy on my mind, working for Dr. Roland and everything. “But do you really think,” he said, concerned, “that one can call psychology a science?”

  “Certainly. What else is it?”

  “But even Plato knew that class and conditioning and so forth have an inalterable effect on the individual. It seems to me that psychology is only another word for what the ancients called fate.”

  “Psychology is a terrible word.”

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