The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  A cold draft was blowing in the window. I felt shaky but oddly refreshed. I ran myself a hot bath, throwing in a good handful of Judy’s bath salts, and when I got out and put on my clothes I felt quite myself again.

  Nihil sub sole novum, I thought as I walked back down the hall to my room. Any action, in the fullness of time, sinks to nothingness.

  They were all there when I arrived at the twins’ for dinner that night, gathered around the radio and listening to the weather forecast as if to some wartime bulletin from the front. “For the long-range outlook,” said an announcer’s spry voice, “expect cool weather on Thursday, with cloudy skies and a possibility of showers, leading into warmer weather for the—”

  Henry snapped off the radio. “If we’re lucky,” he said, “the snow will be gone tomorrow night. Where were you this afternoon, Richard?”

  “At home.”

  “I’m glad you’re here. I want you to do a little favor for me, if you don’t mind.”

  “What is it?”

  “I want to drive you downtown after dinner so you can see those movies at the Orpheum and tell us what they’re about. Do you mind?”

  “No.”

  “I know this is an imposition on a school night, but I really don’t think it’s wise for any of the rest of us to go back again. Charles has offered to copy out your Greek for you if you like.”

  “If I do it on that yellow paper you use,” said Charles, “with your fountain pen, he’ll never know the difference.”

  “Thanks,” I said. Charles had a rather startling talent for forgery which, according to Camilla, dated from early childhood—expert report-card signatures by the fourth grade, entire excuse notes by the sixth. I was always getting him to sign Dr. Roland’s name to my time sheets.

  “Really,” said Henry, “I hate to ask you to do this. I think they’re dreadful movies.”

  They were pretty bad. The first was a road movie from the early seventies, about a man who leaves his wife to drive cross-country. On the way he gets sidetracked into Canada and becomes involved with a bunch of draft dodgers; at the end he goes back to his wife and they renew their vows in a hippie ceremony. The worst thing was the soundtrack. All these acoustic guitar songs with the word “freedom” in them.

  The second film was more recent. It was about the Vietnam War and was called Fields of Shame—a big-budget movie with a lot of stars. The special effects were a bit realistic for my taste, though. People getting their legs blown off and so forth.

  When I got out, Henry’s car was parked down the street with the lights off. Upstairs at Charles and Camilla’s, everyone was sitting around the kitchen table with their sleeves rolled up, deep in Greek. When we came in they began to stir, and Charles got up and made a pot of coffee while I read my notes. Both movies were rather plotless and I had a hard time communicating the gist of them.

  “But these are terrible,” said Francis. “I’m embarrassed that people will think we went to see such bad movies.”

  “But wait,” said Camilla.

  “I don’t get it, either,” Charles said. “Why did the sergeant bomb the village where the good people lived?”

  “Yes,” Camilla said. “Why? And who was that kid with the puppy who just wandered up in the middle of it? How did he know Charlie Sheen?”

  Charles had done a beautiful job on my Greek, and I was looking it over before class the next day when Julian came in. He paused in the doorway, looked at the empty chair and laughed. “Goodness,” he said. “Not again.”

  “Looks like it,” said Francis.

  “I must say, I hope our classes haven’t become as tedious as all that. Please tell Edmund that, should he choose to attend tomorrow, I shall make an effort to be especially engaging.”

  By noon it was apparent that the weather forecast was in error. The temperature had dropped ten degrees, and more snow fell in the afternoon.

  The five of us were to go out to dinner that night, and when the twins and I showed up at Henry’s apartment, we found him looking especially glum. “Guess who just phoned me,” he said.

  “Who?”

  “Marion.”

  Charles sat down. “What did she want?”

  “She wanted to know if I’d seen Bunny.”

  “What’d you say?”

  “Well, of course I said I hadn’t,” Henry said irritably. “They were supposed to meet on Sunday night and she hasn’t seen him since Saturday.”

  “Is she worried?”

  “Not particularly.”

  “Then what’s the problem?”

  “Nothing.” He sighed. “I just hope the weather breaks tomorrow.”

  But it didn’t. Wednesday dawned bright and cold and two more inches of snow had accumulated in the night.

  “Of course,” said Julian, “I don’t mind if Edmund misses a class now and then. But three in a row. And you know what a hard time he has catching up.”

  “We can’t go on like this much longer,” said Henry at the twins’ apartment that night, as we were smoking cigarettes over uneaten plates of bacon and eggs.

  “What can we do?”

  “I don’t know. Except he’s been missing now for seventy-two hours, and it’ll start to look funny if we don’t act worried pretty soon.”

  “No one else is worried,” said Charles.

  “No one else sees as much of him as we do. I wonder if Marion’s home,” he said, glancing at the clock.

  “Why?”

  “Because maybe I should give her a call.”

  “For God’s sake,” said Francis. “Don’t drag her into it.”

  “I have no intention of dragging her into anything. I just want to make it plain to her that none of us have seen Bunny for three days.”

  “And what do you expect her to do about it?”

  “I hope she’ll call the police.”

  “Have you lost your mind?”

  “Well, if she doesn’t, we’re going to have to,” said Henry impatiently. “The longer he’s gone, the worse it will look. I don’t want a big ruckus, people asking questions.”

  “Then why call the police?”

  “Because if we go to them soon enough, I doubt there’ll be any ruckus at all. Perhaps they’ll send one or two people out here to poke around, thinking it’s probably a false alarm—”

  “If no one’s found him yet,” I said, “I don’t see what makes you think that a couple of traffic cops from Hampden will do any better.”

  “No one’s found him because no one’s looking. He’s not half a mile away.”

  It took whoever answered a long time to bring Marion to the telephone. Henry stood patiently, gazing down at the floor; gradually his eyes began to wander, and after about five minutes he made an exasperated noise and looked up. “My goodness,” he said. “What’s taking them so long? Let me have a cigarette, would you, Francis?”

  He had it in his mouth and Francis was lighting it for him when Marion came on the line. “Oh, hello, Marion,” he said, exhaling a cloud of smoke and turning his back to us. “I’m glad I caught you. Is Bunny there?”

  A slight pause. “Well,” said Henry, reaching for the ashtray, “do you know where he is, then?”

  “Well, frankly,” he said at last, “I was going to ask you the same thing. He hasn’t been in class for two or three days.”

  Another long silence. Henry listened, his face pleasantly blank. Then, all of a sudden, his eyes widened. “What?” he said, a little too sharply.

  All of us were jarred awake. Henry wasn’t looking at any of us but at the wall above our heads, his blue eyes round and glassy.

  “I see,” he said finally.

  More talk on the other end.

  “Well, if he happens to stop by, I’d appreciate it if you would ask him to call me. Let me give you my number.”

  When he hung up he had a strange look on his face. We all stared at him.

  “Henry?” said Camilla. “What is it?”

  “She’s angry. Not wor
ried a bit. Expecting him to walk in the door any moment. I don’t know,” he said, staring at the floor. “This is very peculiar, but she said that a friend of hers—a girl named Rika Thalheim—saw Bunny standing around outside the First Vermont Bank this afternoon.”

  We were too stunned to say anything. Francis laughed, a short, incredulous laugh.

  “My God,” said Charles. “That’s impossible.”

  “It certainly is,” Henry said dryly.

  “Why would somebody just make that up?”

  “I can’t imagine. People think they see all kinds of things, I suppose. Well, of course, she didn’t see him,” he added testily to Charles, who looked rather troubled. “But I don’t know what we should do now.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Well, we can’t very well call and report him missing when somebody saw him six hours ago.”

  “So what are we going to do? Wait?”

  “No,” said Henry, biting his lower lip. “I’ll have to think of something else.”

  “Where on earth is Edmund?” said Julian on Thursday morning. “I don’t know how long he plans on being absent, but it is very thoughtless of him not to have got in touch with me.”

  No one answered him. He looked up from his book, amused at our silence.

  “What’s wrong?” he said teasingly. “All these shameful faces. Perhaps,” he said more coolly, “some of you are ashamed at how insufficiently you were prepared for yesterday’s lesson.”

  I saw Charles and Camilla exchange a look. For some reason, this week of all weeks, Julian had loaded us down with work. We’d all managed, somehow or other, to bring in the written assignments; but no one had kept up with the reading, and in class the day before there had been several excruciating silences which not even Henry had been able to break.

  Julian glanced down at his book. “Perhaps, before we begin,” he said, “one of you should go call Edmund on the telephone and ask him to join us if he’s at all able. I don’t mind if he hasn’t read his lesson, but this is an important class and he ought not to miss it.”

  Henry stood up. But then Camilla said, quite unexpectedly, “I don’t think he’s at home.”

  “Then where is he? Out of town?”

  “I’m not sure.”

  Julian lowered his reading glasses and looked at her over the tops of them. “What do you mean?”

  “We haven’t seen him for a couple of days.”

  Julian’s eyes widened with childish, theatrical surprise; not for the first time, I thought how much he was like Henry, that same strange mixture of chill and warmth. “Indeed,” he said. “Most peculiar. And you have no idea where he might be?”

  The mischievous, open-ended note in his voice made me nervous. I stared at the aqueous, rippling circles of light that the crystal vase cast over the tabletop.

  “No,” said Henry. “We’re a bit puzzled.”

  “I should think so.” His eyes met Henry’s, for a long, strange moment.

  He knows, I thought, with a rush of panic. He knows we’re lying. He just doesn’t know what we’re lying about.

  After lunch, after my French class, I sat on the top floor of the library with my books spread across the table in front of me. It was a strange, bright, dreamlike day. The snowy lawn—peppered with the toylike figures of distant people—was as smooth as sugar frosting on a birthday cake; a tiny dog ran, barking, after a ball; real smoke threaded from the dollhouse chimneys.

  This time, I thought, a year ago. What had I been doing? Driving a friend’s car up to San Francisco, standing around in the poetry sections of bookstores worrying about my application to Hampden. And now here I was, sitting in a cold room in strange clothes and wondering if I might go to prison.

  Nihil sub sole novum. A pencil sharpener complained loudly somewhere. I put my head down on my books—whispers, quiet footsteps, the smell of old paper in my nostrils. Several weeks earlier, Henry had become angry when the twins were voicing moral objections at the idea of killing Bunny. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he snapped.

  “But how,” said Charles, who was close to tears, “how can you possibly justify cold-blooded murder?”

  Henry lit a cigarette. “I prefer to think of it,” he had said, “as redistribution of matter.”

  I woke, with a start, to find Henry and Francis standing over me.

  “What is it?” I said, rubbing my eyes and looking up at them.

  “Nothing,” said Henry. “Will you come with us to the car?”

  Sleepily I followed them downstairs, where the car was parked in front of the bookstore.

  “What’s the matter?” I said after we had got in.

  “Do you know where Camilla is?”

  “Isn’t she at home?”

  “No. Julian hasn’t seen her, either.”

  “What do you want with her?”

  Henry sighed. It was cold inside the car, and his breath came out white. “Something’s up,” he said. “Francis and I saw Marion at the guard booth with Cloke Rayburn. They were talking to some people from Security.”

  “When?”

  “About an hour ago.”

  “You don’t think they’ve done anything, do you?”

  “We shouldn’t jump to conclusions,” said Henry. He was looking out at the roof of the bookstore, which was sheeted in ice and glittered in the sun. “What we want is for Camilla to drop in on Cloke and see if she can find out what’s going on. I’d go myself, except I hardly know him.”

  “And he hates me,” said Francis.

  “I know him a little.”

  “Not well enough. He and Charles are on fairly good terms, but we can’t find him, either.”

  I unwrapped a Rolaids tablet from a roll in my pocket and began to chew on it.

  “What’s that you’re eating?” said Francis.

  “Rolaids.”

  “I’ll have one of those, if you don’t mind,” Henry said. “I guess we should drive by the house again.”

  This time Camilla came to the door, opening it only a crack and looking out warily. Henry started to say something, but she gave him a sharp warning glance. “Hello,” she said. “Come in.”

  We followed her inside without a word, down the dark hall into the living room. There, with Charles, was Cloke Rayburn.

  Charles stood up nervously; Cloke stayed where he was and looked at us with sleepy, inscrutable eyes. He had a sunburn and he needed a shave. Charles raised his eyebrows at us and mouthed the word “stoned.”

  “Hello,” said Henry after a pause. “How are you?”

  Cloke coughed—a deep, nasty-sounding rasp—and shook a Marlboro from a pack on the table before him. “Not bad,” he said. “You?”

  “Fine.”

  He stuck the cigarette in the corner of his mouth, lit it, coughed again. “Hey,” he said to me. “How’s it going.”

  “Pretty good.”

  “You were at that party at Durbinstall on Sunday.”

  “Yes.”

  “Seen Mona?” he said without any inflection whatever.

  “No,” I said brusquely, and was suddenly aware that everyone was looking at me.

  “Mona?” said Charles, after a puzzled silence.

  “This girl,” Cloke said. “Sophomore. Lives in Bunny’s house.”

  “Speaking of whom,” said Henry.

  Cloke leaned back in his chair and fixed Henry with a bloodshot, heavy-lidded gaze. “Yeah,” he said. “We were just talking about Bun. You haven’t seen him the last couple days, have you?”

  “No. Have you?”

  Cloke didn’t say anything for a moment. Then he shook his head. “No,” he said hoarsely, reaching for an ashtray. “I can’t figure out where the hell he is. Last time I saw him was Saturday night, not that I thought about it or anything until today.”

  “I talked to Marion last night,” Henry said.

  “I know,” said Cloke. “She’s kind of worried. I saw her in Commons this morning and she told me he hasn’t been i
n his room for like five days. She thought maybe he was at home or something, but she called his brother Patrick. Who says he ain’t in Connecticut. And she talked to Hugh, too, and he says he’s not in New York, either.”

  “Did she speak to his parents?”

  “Well, shit, she wasn’t trying to get him in trouble.”

  Henry was silent for a moment. Then he said: “Where do you think he is?”

  Cloke looked away, shrugged uneasily.

  “You’ve known him longer than I have. He’s got a brother at Yale, doesn’t he?”

  “Yeah. Brady. Business school. But Patrick said he’d just talked to Brady, you know?”

  “Patrick lives at home, right?”

  “Yeah. He’s got some kind of business thing he’s working on, a sporting goods store or something, trying to get it off the ground.”

  “And Hugh’s the lawyer.”

  “Yes. He’s the oldest. He’s at Milbank Tweed in New York.”

  “What about the other brother—the married one?”

  “Hugh’s the married one.”

  “But isn’t there another one who’s married, too?”

  “Oh. Teddy. I know he’s not there.”

  “Why?”

  “The T-man lives with his in-laws. I don’t think they get along too well.”

  There was a long silence.

  “Can you think of anyplace he might be?” said Henry.

  Cloke leaned forward, his long, dark hair falling in his face, and knocked the ash off his cigarette. He had a troubled, secretive expression, and after a few moments he looked up. “Have you noticed,” he said, “that Bunny’s had an awful lot of cash around the last two or three weeks?”

  “What do you mean?” said Henry, a trifle sharply.

  “You know Bunny. He’s broke all the time. Lately, though, he’s had all this money. Like, a lot. Maybe his grandmother sent it to him or something, but you can be damn sure he didn’t get it from his parents.”

  There was another long silence. Henry bit his lip. “What are you trying to get at,” he said.

  “You have noticed it, then.”

  “Now that you mention it, I have.”

  Cloke shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “This is off the record, now,” he said.

 
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