The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  Everything was still. Outside, the crickets shrieked with rhythmic, piercing monotony.

  Francis—his face moist and very pale—bit his lower lip. “Let me get this straight. We wait at the ravine and just hope he happens to stroll by. And if he does, we push him off—right there in broad daylight—and go back home. Am I correct?”

  “More or less,” said Henry.

  “What if he doesn’t come by himself? What if somebody else wanders by?”

  “It’s no crime to be in the woods on a spring afternoon,” Henry said. “We can abort at any time, up to the moment he goes over the edge. And that will only take an instant. If we happen across anybody on the way to the car—I think it improbable, but if we should—we can always say there’s been an accident, and we’re going for help.”

  “But what if someone sees us?”

  “I think that extremely unlikely,” said Henry, dropping a lump of sugar into his coffee with a splash.

  “But possible.”

  “Anything is possible, but probability will work for us here if only we let it,” said Henry. “What are the odds that some previously undetected someone will stumble into that very isolated spot, during the precise fraction of a second it will take to push him over?”

  “It might happen.”

  “Anything might happen, Francis. He might be hit by a car tonight, and save us all a lot of trouble.”

  A soft, damp breeze, smelling of rain and apple blossoms, blew through the window. I had broken out in a sweat without realizing it and the wind on my cheek made me feel clammy and light-headed.

  Charles cleared his throat and we turned to look at him.

  “Do you know …” he said. “I mean, are you sure it’s high enough? What if he—”

  “I went out there today with a tape measure,” Henry said. “The highest point is forty-eight feet, which should be ample. The trickiest part will be to get him there. If he falls from one of the lower points, he’ll end up with nothing worse than a broken leg. Of course, a lot will rest on the fall itself. Backwards seems better than forward for our purposes.”

  “But I’ve heard of people falling from airplanes and not dying,” said Francis. “What if the fall doesn’t kill him?”

  Henry reached behind his spectacles and rubbed an eye. “Well, you know, there’s a little stream at the bottom,” he said. “There’s not much water, but enough. He’ll be stunned, no matter what. We’d have to drag him there, hold him face-down for a bit—shouldn’t think that’d take more than a couple of minutes. If he was conscious, maybe a couple of us could even go down and walk him over.…”

  Charles passed a hand over his damp, flushed forehead. “Oh, Jesus,” he said. “Oh my God. Just listen to us.”

  “What’s the matter?”

  “Are we insane?”

  “What are you talking about?”

  “We’re insane. We’ve lost our minds. How can we possibly do this?”

  “I don’t like the idea any more than you do.”

  “This is crazy. I don’t even know how we can talk about this. We’ve got to think of something else.”

  Henry took a sip of his coffee. “If you can think of anything,” he said, “I’d be delighted to hear it.”

  “Well—I mean, why can’t we just leave? Get in the car tonight and drive away?”

  “And go where?” Henry said flatly. “With what money?”

  Charles was silent.

  “Now,” said Henry, drawing a line on the map with a pencil. “I think it will be fairly easy to get away without being seen, though we should be especially careful about turning into the logging road and coming out of it onto the highway.”

  “Will we use my car or yours?” said Francis.

  “Mine, I think. People tend to look twice at a car like yours.”

  “Maybe we should rent one.”

  “No. Something like that might ruin everything. If we keep it as casual as possible, no one will give us a second glance. People don’t pay attention to ninety percent of what they see.”

  There was a pause.

  Charles coughed slightly. “And after?” he said. “We just go home?”

  “We just go home,” said Henry. He lit a cigarette. “Really, there’s nothing to worry about,” he said, shaking out the match. “It seems risky, but if you look at it logically it couldn’t be safer. It won’t look like a murder at all. And who knows we have reason to kill him? I know, I know,” he said impatiently when I tried to interrupt. “But I should be extremely surprised if he’s told anyone else.”

  “How can you say what he’s done? He could have told half the people at the party.”

  “But I’m willing to bank on the odds he hasn’t. Bunny’s unpredictable, of course, but at this point his actions still make a kind of rudimentary horse sense. I had very good reason to think he’d tell you first.”

  “And why’s that?”

  “Surely you don’t think it an accident that, of all the people he might have told, he chose to come to you?”

  “I don’t know, except that I was handier than anyone else.”

  “Who else could he tell?” said Henry impatiently. “He’d never go to the police outright. He stands to lose as much as we do if he did. And for the same reason he doesn’t dare tell a stranger. Which leaves an extremely limited range of potential confidants. Marion, for one. His parents for another. Cloke for a third. Julian as an outside possibility. And you.”

  “And what makes you think he hasn’t told Marion, for instance?”

  “Bunny might be stupid, but not that stupid. It would be all over school by lunch the next day. Cloke’s a poor choice for different reasons. He isn’t quite so apt to lose his head but he’s untrustworthy all the same. Skittish and irresponsible. And very much out for his own interests. Bunny likes him—admires him too, I think—but he’d never go to him with something like this. And he wouldn’t tell his parents, not in a million years. They’d stand behind him, certainly, but without a doubt they’d go right to the police.”

  “And Julian?”

  Henry shrugged. “Well, he might tell Julian. I’m perfectly willing to concede that. But he hasn’t told him yet, and I think the chances are he won’t, at least not for a while.”

  “Why not?”

  Henry raised an eyebrow at me. “Because who do you think Julian would be more apt to believe?”

  No one said a thing. Henry drew deeply on his cigarette. “So,” he said, and exhaled. “Process of elimination. He hasn’t told Marion or Cloke, for fear of their telling other people. He hasn’t told his parents, for the same reason, and probably won’t except as a last resort. So what possibilities does that leave him? Only two. He could tell Julian—who wouldn’t believe him—or you, who might believe him and wouldn’t repeat it.”

  I stared at him. “Surmise,” I said at last.

  “Not at all. Do you think, if he’d told anyone else, we’d be sitting here now? Do you think now, once he’s told you, that he’d be foolhardy enough to tell a third party before he even knows what your response will be? Why do you suppose he called you this afternoon? Why do you suppose he’s pestered the rest of us all day?”

  I didn’t answer him.

  “Because,” said Henry, “he was testing the waters. Last night he was drunk, full of himself. Today he’s not quite sure what you think. He wants another opinion. And he’ll look to your response for the cue.”

  “I don’t understand,” I said.

  Henry took a sip of his coffee. “What don’t you understand?”

  “Why you’re in such a goddamned rush to kill him if you think he won’t tell anyone but me.”

  He shrugged. “He hasn’t told anyone yet. Which is not to say he won’t, very soon.”

  “Maybe I could dissuade him.”

  “That’s frankly not a chance I’m willing to take.”

  “In my opinion, you’re talking about taking a much greater one.”

  “Look,” said Henry ev
enly, raising his head and fixing me with a bleary gaze. “Forgive me for being blunt, but if you think you have any influence over Bunny you’re sadly mistaken. He’s not particularly fond of you, and, if I may speak plainly, as far as I know he never has been. It would be disastrous if you of all people tried to intercede.”

  “I was the one he came to.”

  “For obvious reasons, none of them very sentimental.” He shrugged. “As long as I was sure he hadn’t told anyone, we might have waited indefinitely. But you were the alarm bell, Richard. Having told you—nothing happened, he’ll think, it wasn’t so bad—he’ll find it twice as easy to tell a second person. And a third. He’s taken the first step on a downward slope. Now that he has, I feel that we’re in for an extremely rapid progression of events.”

  My palms were sweating. In spite of the open window, the room seemed close and stuffy. I could hear everybody breathing; quiet, measured breaths that came and went with awful regularity, four sets of lungs, eating at the thin oxygen

  Henry folded his fingers and flexed them, at arm’s length, until they cracked. “You can go now, if you like,” he said to me.

  “Do you want me to?” I said rather sharply.

  “You can stay or not,” he said. “But there’s no reason why you must. I wanted to give you a rough idea, but in a certain sense the fewer details you know, the better.” He yawned. “There were some things you had to know, I suppose, but I feel I’ve done you a disservice by involving you this far.”

  I stood up and looked around the table.

  “Well,” I said. “Well well well.”

  Francis raised an eyebrow at me.

  “Wish us luck,” said Henry.

  I clapped him awkwardly on the shoulder. “Good luck,” I said.

  Charles—out of Henry’s line of vision—caught my eye. He smiled and mouthed the words: I’ll call you tomorrow, okay?

  Suddenly, and without warning, I was overcome by a rush of emotion. Afraid I would say or do something childish, something I’d regret, I got into my coat and drank the rest of my coffee in a long gulp and left, without even the most perfunctory of goodbyes.

  On my way home through the dark woods, my head down and my hands in my pockets, I ran virtually headlong into Camilla. She was very drunk and in an exhilarated mood.

  “Hello,” she said, linking her arm though mine and leading me back in the direction from which I’d just come. “Guess what. I had a date.”

  “So I heard.”

  She laughed, a low, sweet chortle that warmed me to my heart. “Isn’t that funny?” she said. “I feel like such a spy. Bunny just went home. Now the problem is, I think Cloke kind of likes me.”

  It was so dark I could hardly see her. The weight of her arm was wonderfully comfortable, and her gin-sweet breath was warm on my cheek.

  “Did Cloke behave himself?” I said.

  “Yes, he was very nice. He bought me dinner and some red drinks that tasted like Popsicles.”

  We emerged from the woods into the deserted, blue-lit streets of North Hampden. Everything was silent and strange in the moonlight. A faint breeze tinkled in the wind chimes on someone’s porch.

  When I stopped walking, she tugged at my arm. “Aren’t you coming?” she said.


  “Why not?”

  Her hair was tousled, and her lovely mouth was stained dark by the Popsicle drink, and just by looking at her I could tell she didn’t have the faintest idea what was going on at Henry’s.

  She would go with them tomorrow. Somebody would probably tell her that she didn’t have to go, but she would end up going with them anyway.

  I coughed. “Look,” I said.


  “Come home with me.”

  She lowered her eyebrows. “Now?”



  The wind chimes tinkled again; silvery, insidious.

  “Because I want you to.”

  She gazed at me with vacant, drunken composure, standing colt-like on the outer edge of her black-stockinged foot so the ankle was twisted inward in a startling, effortless L.

  Her hand was in mine. I squeezed it hard. Clouds were racing across the moon.

  “Come on,” I said.

  She raised up on tiptoe and gave me a cool, soft kiss that tasted of Popsicles. Oh, you, I thought, my heart beating fast and shallow.

  Suddenly, she broke away. “I’ve got to go,” she said.

  “No. Please don’t.”

  “I’ve got to. They’ll wonder where I am.”

  She gave me a quick kiss, then turned and started down the street. I watched her until she reached the corner, then dug my hands in my pockets and started back home.

  I woke the next day with a start, to chill sunlight and the thump of a stereo down the hall. It was late, noon, or maybe even afternoon; I reached for my watch on the night table and started again, more violently this time. It was a quarter of three. I jumped out of bed and began to dress, in great haste, without bothering to shave or even comb my hair.

  Pulling on my jacket in the hall, I saw Judy Poovey walking briskly toward me. She was all dressed up, for Judy, and she had her head to the side attempting to fasten an earring.

  “You coming?” she said when she saw me.

  “Coming where?” I said, puzzled, my hand still on the doorknob.

  “What is it with you? Do you live on Mars or what?”

  I stared at her.

  “The party,” she said impatiently. “Swing into Spring. Up behind Jennings. It started an hour ago.”

  The edges of her nostrils were inflamed and rabbity, and she reached up to wipe her nose with a red-taloned hand.

  “Let me guess what you’ve been doing,” I said.

  She laughed. “I have lots more. Jack Teitelbaum drove to New York last weekend and came back with a ton. And Laura Stora has Ecstasy, and that creepy guy in Durbinstall basement—you know, the chemistry major—just cooked up a big batch of meth. You’re trying to tell me you didn’t know about this?”


  “Swing into Spring is a big deal. Everybody’s been getting ready for months. Too bad they didn’t have it yesterday, though, the weather was so great. Did you go to lunch?”

  She meant had I been outside yet that day. “No,” I said.

  “Well, I mean, the weather’s okay, but it’s a little cold. I walked outside and went, like, oh shit. Anyway. You coming?”

  I looked at her blankly. I’d run out of my room without the slightest idea where I was going. “I need to get something to eat,” I said at last.

  “That’s a good idea. Last year I went and I didn’t eat anything before and I smoked pot and drank, like, thirty martinis. I was all right and everything but then I went to Fun O’Rama. Remember? That carnival they had—well, I guess you weren’t here then. Anyway. Big mistake. I’d been drinking all day and I had a sunburn and I was with Jack Teitelbaum and all those guys. I wasn’t going to go, you know, on a ride and then I thought, okay. The Ferris wheel. I can go on the Ferris wheel no problem.…”

  I listened politely to the rest of her story which ended, as I knew it would, with Judy being pyrotechnically ill behind a hotdog stand.

  “So this year, I was like, no way. Stick with coke. Pause that refreshes. By the way, you ought to get that friend of yours—you know, what’s his name—Bunny, and make him come with you. He’s in the library.”

  “What?” I said, suddenly all ears.

  “Yeah. Drag him out. Make him do some bong hits or something.”

  “He’s in the library?”

  “Yeah. I saw him through the window of the reading room a little while ago. Doesn’t he have a car?”


  “Well, I was thinking, maybe he could drive us. Long walk to Jennings. Or I don’t know, maybe it’s just me. I swear, I’m so out of shape, I have to start doing Jane Fonda again.”

  By now it was three. I locked the door and walked
to the library, nervously jangling my key in my pocket.

  It was a strange, still, oppressive day. The campus seemed deserted—everyone was at the party, I supposed—and the green lawn, the gaudy tulips, were hushed and expectant beneath the overcast sky. Somewhere a shutter creaked. Above my head, in the wicked black claws of an elm, a marooned kite rattled convulsively, then was still. This is Kansas, I thought. This is Kansas before the cyclone hits.

  The library was like a tomb, illumined from within by a chill fluorescent light that, by contrast, made the afternoon seem colder and grayer than it was. The windows of the reading room were bright and blank; bookshelves, empty carrels, not a soul.

  The librarian—a despicable woman named Peggy—was behind the desk reading a copy of Women’s Day, and didn’t look up. The Xerox machine hummed quietly in the corner. I climbed the stairs to the second floor and went around behind the foreign language section to the reading room. It was empty, just as I’d thought, but at one of the tables near the front there was an eloquent little nest of books, wadded paper, and greasy potato-chip bags.

  I went over for a closer look. It had the air of fairly recent abandonment; there was a can of grape soda, three-quarters drunk, still sweating and cool to the touch. For a moment I wondered what to do—perhaps he’d only gone to the bathroom, perhaps he’d be back any second—and was about to leave when I saw the note.

  Lying on top of a volume of the World Book Encyclopedia, a grubby piece of lined paper was folded in half, with “Marion” written on the outer edge in Bunny’s tiny, crabbed hand. I opened it and read it quickly:

  old Gal

  Bored stiff. Walked down to the

  party to get a brewski. See ya later.


  I refolded the note and sat down hard on the arm of Bunny’s chair. Bunny went on his walks, when he went, around one in the afternoon. It was now three. He was at the Jennings party. They’d missed him.

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