The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  Stepping outside, I slipped on an icy step and pitched, face-forward, into more than a foot of snow. I lay still for a moment, then raised myself to my knees and looked about in disbelief. A few snowflakes were one thing, but I had not thought it possible for weather to change as suddenly and violently as this. The flowers were buried, and the lawn; everything had disappeared. An expanse of clean, unbroken snow stretched blue and twinkling as far as I could see.

  My hands were raw and my elbow felt bruised. With some effort, I got to my feet. When I turned to see where I’d come from, I was horrified to realize I’d just walked out of Bunny’s own dorm. His window, on the ground floor, stared back at me black and silent. I thought of his spare glasses lying on the desk; the empty bed; the family photographs smiling in the dark.

  When I got back to my room—by a confused, circular route—I fell on my bed without taking off my coat or shoes. The lights were on, and I felt weirdly exposed and vulnerable but I didn’t want to turn them off. The bed was rocking a little, like a raft, and I kept a foot on the floor to steady it.

  Then I fell asleep, and slept very soundly for a couple of hours until I was awakened by a knock at the door. Seized by fresh panic, I fought to sit up in the tangle of my coat, which had somehow got twisted around my knees and seemed to be attacking me with the force of a living creature.

  The door creaked open. Then no sound at all. “What the hell is wrong with you?” said a sharp voice.

  Francis was in the doorway. He stood with one black-gloved hand on the knob, looking at me like I was a lunatic.

  I stopped struggling and fell back on my pillow. I was so glad to see him I felt like laughing, and I was so doped up I probably did. “François,” I said idiotically.

  He shut the door and came over to my bed, where he stood looking down at me. It was really him—snow in his hair, snow on the shoulders of his long black overcoat. “Are you okay?” he said, after a long, derisive pause.

  I rubbed my eyes and tried again. “Hi,” I said. “I’m sorry. I’m fine. Really.”

  He stood looking at me with no expression and did not answer. Then he took off his coat and laid it over the back of a chair. “Do you want some tea?” he said.

  “No.”

  “Well, I’m going to go make some, if you don’t mind.”

  By the time he was back I was more or less myself. He put the kettle on the radiator and helped himself to some tea bags from my bureau drawer. “Here,” he said. “You can have the good teacup. There wasn’t any milk in the kitchen.”

  It was a relief to have him there. I sat up and drank my tea and watched him take off his shoes and socks. Then he put them by the radiator to dry. His feet were long and thin, too long for his slim, bony ankles; he flexed his toes, looked up at me. “It’s an awful night,” he said. “Have you been outside?”

  I told him a little about my night, omitting the part about the girl.

  “Gosh,” he said, reaching up to loosen his collar. “I’ve just been sitting in my apartment. Giving myself the creeps.”

  “Heard from anyone?”

  “No. My mother called around nine; I couldn’t talk to her. Told her I was writing a paper.”

  For some reason my eyes strayed to his hands, fidgeting unconsciously on the top of my desk. He saw that I saw, forced them down, palms flat. “Nerves,” he said.

  We sat for a while without saying anything. I put my teacup on the windowsill and leaned back. The Demerol had set off some kind of weird Doppler effect in my head, like the whine of car tires speeding past and receding in the distance. I was staring across the room in a daze—how long, I don’t know—when gradually I became aware that Francis was looking at me with an intent, fixed expression on his face. I mumbled something and got up and went to the bureau to get an Alka-Seltzer.

  The sudden movement made me feel light-headed. I was standing there dully, wondering where I’d put the box, when all of a sudden I became aware that Francis was immediately behind me, and I turned around.

  His face was very close to mine. To my surprise he put his hands on my shoulders and leaned forward and kissed me, right on the mouth.

  It was a real kiss—long, slow, deliberate. He’d caught me off balance and I grabbed his arm to keep from falling; sharply, he drew in his breath and his hands went down to my back and before I knew it, more from reflex than anything else, I was kissing him, too. His tongue was sharp. His mouth had a bitter, mannish taste, like tea and cigarettes.

  He pulled away, breathing hard, and leaned to kiss my throat. I looked rather wildly around the room. God, I thought, what a night.

  “Look, Francis,” I said, “cut it out.”

  He was undoing the top button of my collar. “You idiot,” he said, chuckling. “Did you know your shirt’s on inside-out?”

  I was so tired and drunk I started to laugh. “Come on, Francis,” I said. “Give me a break.”

  “It’s fun,” he said. “I promise you.”

  Matters progressed. My jaded nerves began to stir. His eyes were magnified and wicked behind his pince-nez. Presently he took them off and dropped them on my bureau with an absent clatter.

  Then, quite unexpectedly, there was another knock at the door. We sprang apart. His eyes were wide. We stared at each other, and then the knock came again.

  Francis swore under his breath, bit his lip. I, panic-stricken, buttoning my shirt as fast as my numb fingers would go, started to say something but he made a quick, shushing gesture at me with his hand.

  “But what if it’s—?” I whispered.

  I had been about to say “What if it’s Henry?” But what I was actually thinking was “What if it’s the cops?” Francis, I knew, was thinking the same thing.

  More knocking, more insistent this time.

  My heart was pounding. Bewildered with fear, I crossed to my bed and sat down.

  Francis ran a hand through his hair. “Come in,” he called.

  I was so upset that it took me a moment to realize it was only Charles. He was leaning with one elbow against the door frame, his red scarf slung into great careless loops around his neck. When he stepped in my room I saw immediately that he was drunk. “Hi,” he said to Francis. “What the hell are you doing here?”

  “You scared us to death.”

  “I wish I’d known you were coming. Henry called and got me out of bed.”

  The two of us looked at him, waiting for him to explain. He jostled off his coat and turned to me with a watery, intense gaze. “You were in my dream,” he said.

  “What?”

  He blinked at me. “I just remembered,” he said. “I had a dream tonight. You were in it.”

  I stared at him. Before I had a chance to tell him he was in my dream, too, Francis said impatiently: “Come on, Charles. What’s the matter?”

  Charles ran a hand through his windblown hair. “Nothing,” he said. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a sheaf of papers folded lengthwise. “Did you do your Greek for today?” he asked me.

  I rolled my eyes. Greek had been the about the last thing on my mind.

  “Henry thought you might have forgot. He called and asked me to bring mine for you to copy, just in case.”

  He was very drunk. He wasn’t slurring his words, but he smelled of whiskey and he was extremely unsteady on his feet. His face was flushed and radiant as an angel’s.

  “You talked to Henry? Has he heard anything?”

  “He’s very annoyed about this weather. Nothing’s turned up that he knows of. Gosh, it’s hot in here,” he said, shouldering off his jacket.

  Francis, sitting in his chair by the window with an ankle balanced upon the opposite kneecap and his teacup balanced on his bare ankle, was looking at Charles rather narrowly.

  Charles turned, reeling slightly. “What are you looking at?” he said.

  “Do you have a bottle in your pocket?”

  “No.”

  “Nonsense, Charles, I can hear it sloshing.”


  “What difference does it make?”

  “I want a drink.”

  “Oh, all right,” said Charles, irritated. He reached into the inside pocket of the jacket and brought out a flat pint bottle. “Here,” he said. “Don’t be a pig.”

  Francis drank the rest of his tea and reached for the bottle. “Thanks,” he said, pouring the remaining inch or so into his teacup. I looked at him—dark suit, sitting very straight with his legs now crossed at the knee. He was the picture of respectability except that his feet were bare. All of a sudden I found myself able to see him as the world saw him, as I myself had seen him when I first met him—cool, well-mannered, rich, absolutely beyond reproach. It was such a convincing illusion that even I, who knew the essential falseness of it, felt oddly comforted.

  He drank the whiskey down in a swallow. “We need to sober you up, Charles,” he said. “We’ve got class in a couple of hours.”

  Charles sighed and sat on the foot of my bed. He looked very tired, a regard which manifested itself not in dark circles, or pallor, but a dreamy and bright-cheeked sadness. “I know,” he said. “I hoped the walk might do the trick.”

  “You need some coffee.”

  He wiped his damp forehead with the heel of his hand. “I need more than coffee,” he said.

  I smoothed out the papers and went over to my desk and began to copy out my Greek.

  Francis sat down on the bed next to Charles. “Where’s Camilla?”

  “Asleep.”

  “What’d you two do tonight? Get drunk?”

  “No,” said Charles tersely. “Cleaned house.”

  “No. Really.”

  “I’m not kidding.”

  I was still so dopey that I couldn’t make any sense of the passage I was copying, only a sentence here and there. Being weary from the march, the soldiers stopped to offer sacrifices at the temple. I came back from that country and said that I had seen the Gorgon, but it did not make me a stone.

  “Our house is full of tulips, if you want any,” said Charles inexplicably.

  “What do you mean?”

  “I mean, before the snow got too deep, we went outside and brought them in. Everything’s full of them. The water glasses, even.”

  Tulips, I thought, staring at the jumble of letters before me. Had the ancient Greeks known them under a different name, if they’d had tulips at all? The letter psi, in Greek, is shaped like a tulip. All of a sudden, in the dense alphabet forest of the page, little black tulips began to pop up in a quick, random pattern like falling raindrops.

  My vision swam. I closed my eyes. I sat there for a long time, half-dozing, until I became aware that Charles was saying my name.

  I turned in my chair. They were leaving. Francis was sitting on the side of my bed, lacing his shoes.

  “Where are you going?” I said.

  “Home to dress. It’s getting late.”

  I didn’t want to be alone—quite the contrary—but I felt, unaccountably, a strong desire to be rid of them both. The sun was up. Francis reached over and turned off the lamp. The morning light was sober and pale and made my room seem horribly quiet.

  “We’ll see you in a little while,” he said, and then I heard their footsteps dying on the stair. Everything was faded and silent in the dawn—dirty teacups, unmade bed, snowflakes floating past the window with an airy, dangerous calm. My ears rang. When I turned back to my work, with trembling, ink-stained hands, the scratch of my pen on the paper rasped loud in the stillness. I thought of Bunny’s dark room and of the ravine, miles away; of all those layers of silence on silence.

  “And where is Edmund this morning?” said Julian as we opened our grammars.

  “At home, I suppose,” said Henry. He’d come in late and we hadn’t had a chance to talk. He seemed calm, well rested, more than he had any right to be.

  The others were surprisingly calm as well. Even Francis and Charles were well dressed, freshly shaven, very much their unconcerned old selves. Camilla sat between them, with her elbow propped negligently on the table and her chin in her hand, tranquil as an orchid.

  Julian arched an eyebrow at Henry. “Is he ill?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “This weather may have slowed him a bit. Perhaps we should wait a few minutes.”

  “I think that’s a good idea,” said Henry, going back to his book.

  After class, once we were away from the Lyceum and near the birch grove, Henry glanced around to make sure that no one was within earshot; we all leaned close to hear what he was going to say but at just that moment, as we were standing in a huddle and our breath was coming out in clouds, I heard someone call my name and there, at a great distance, was Dr. Roland, tottering through the snow like a lurching corpse.

  I disengaged myself and went to meet him. He was breathing hard and, with a good deal of coughing and hawing, he began to tell me about something he wanted me to have a look at in his office.

  There was nothing I could do but go with him, adjusting my pace to his leaden shuffle. Once inside, he paused several times on the stair to remark upon scraps of debris that the janitor had missed, feebly kicking at them with his foot. He kept me for half an hour. When I finally escaped, with my ears ringing and an armful of loose papers struggling to fly away in the wind, the birch grove was empty.

  I don’t know what I’d expected, but the world certainly hadn’t been kicked out of its orbit overnight. People were hurrying to and fro, on their way to class, everything business as usual. The sky was gray and an icy wind was blowing off Mount Cataract.

  I bought a milk shake at the snack bar and then went home. I was walking down the hall to my suite when I ran headlong into Judy Poovey.

  She glared at me. She looked like she had an evil hangover and there were black circles under her eyes.

  “Oh, hello,” I said, edging past. “Sorry.”

  “Hey,” she said.

  I turned around.

  “So you went home with Mona Beale last night?”

  For a second I didn’t know what she meant. “What?”

  “How was it?” she said bitchily. “Was she good?”

  Taken aback, I shrugged and started down the hall.

  To my annoyance she followed and caught me by the arm. “She’s got a boyfriend, do you know that? You better hope nobody tells him.”

  “I don’t care.”

  “Last term he beat up Bram Guernsey because he thought Bram was hitting on her.”

  “She was the one who was hitting on me.”

  She gave me a catty, sideways look. “Well, I mean, she’s kind of a slut.”

  Just before I woke up, I had a terrible dream.

  I was in a large, old-fashioned bathroom, like something from a Zsa Zsa Gabor movie, with gold fixtures and mirrors and pink tile on the walls and floor. A bowl of goldfish stood on a spindly pedestal in the corner. I went over to look at them, my footsteps echoing on the tile, and then I became aware of a measured plink plink plink, coming from the faucet of the tub.

  The tub was pink, too, and it was full of water, and Bunny, fully clad, was lying motionless at the bottom of it. His eyes were open and his glasses were askew and his pupils were different sizes—one large and black, the other scarcely a pinpoint. The water was clear, and very still. The tip of his necktie undulated near the surface.

  Plink, plink, plink. I couldn’t move. Then, suddenly, I heard footsteps approaching, and voices. With a rush of terror I realized I had to hide the body somehow, where I didn’t know; I plunged my hands into the icy water and grasped him beneath the arms and tried to pull him out, but it was no good, no good; his head lolled back uselessly and his open mouth was filling with water.…

  Struggling against his weight, reeling backward, I knocked the fishbowl from its pedestal and it crashed to the floor. Goldfish flopping all around my feet, amidst the shards of broken glass. Someone banged on the door. In my terror I let go of the body and it fell back into the tub with a hideous slap and a spray of w
ater and I woke up.

  It was almost dark. There was a horrible, erratic thumping in my chest, as if a large bird were trapped inside my ribcage and beating itself to death. Gasping, I lay back on my bed.

  When the worst of it was over I sat up. I was trembling all over and drenched in sweat. Long shadows, nightmare light. I could see some kids playing outside in the snow, silhouetted in black against the dreadful, salmon-colored sky. Their shouts and laughter had, at that distance, an insane quality. I dug the heels of my hands hard into my eyes. Milky spots, pinpoints of light. Oh, God, I thought.

  Bare cheek on cold tile. The roar and rush of the toilet was so loud I thought it would swallow me. It was like all the times I’d ever been sick, all the drunken throw-ups I’d ever had in the bathrooms of gas stations and bars. Same old bird’s-eye view: those odd little knobs at the base of the toilet that you never notice at any other time; sweating porcelain, the hum of pipes, that long burble of water as it spirals down.

  While I was washing my face, I began to cry. The tears mingled easily with the cold water, in the luminous, dripping crimson of my cupped fingers, and at first I wasn’t aware that I was crying at all. The sobs were regular and emotionless, as mechanical as the dry heaves which had stopped only a moment earlier; there was no reason for them, they had nothing to do with me. I brought my head up and looked at my weeping reflection in the mirror with a kind of detached interest. What does this mean? I thought. I looked terrible. Nobody else was falling apart; yet here I was, shaking all over and seeing bats like Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend.

 
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