The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  “Then why are you just getting back?”

  “I’m coming to that. I didn’t want to run into anybody on the way home, so I cut across the back of campus, down behind the faculty offices. That was a big mistake. I hadn’t even got to the birch grove when that troublemaker from Student Services—the lady who started the fight—saw me from out the window of the Dean’s office and called for me to come in.”

  “What was she doing in the Dean’s office?”

  “Using the WATS line. They had Bunny’s father on the telephone—he was yelling at everybody, threatening to sue. The Dean of Studies was trying to calm him down, but Mr. Corcoran kept asking to talk to someone he knew. They’d tried to get you on another line, Henry, but you weren’t home.”

  “Had he asked to talk to me?”

  “Apparently. They were about to send someone up to the Lyceum for Julian, but then this lady saw me out the window. There were about a million people there—the policeman, the Dean’s secretary, four or five people from down the hall, that nutty lady who works in Records. Next door, in the admissions office, somebody was trying to get hold of the President. There were some teachers hanging around, too. I guess the Dean of Studies was in the middle of a conference when the lady from Student Services came bursting in with the policeman. Your friend was there, Richard. Doctor Roland.

  “Anyway. The crowd parted when I came in and the Dean of Studies handed me the telephone. Mr. Corcoran calmed down when he realized who I was. Got all confidential and asked me if this wasn’t some type of frat stunt.”

  “Oh, God,” said Francis.

  Charles looked at him out of the corner of his eye. “He asked about you. ‘Where’s the old Carrot-Top,’ he said.”

  “What else did he say?”

  “He was very nice. Asked about you all, really. Said to tell everybody that he said hi.”

  There was a long, uncomfortable pause.

  Henry bit his lower lip and went to the liquor cabinet to pour himself a drink. “Did anything,” he said, “come up about that bank business?”

  “Yes. Marion gave them the girl’s name. By the way—” when he looked up, his eyes were distracted, blank—“I forgot to tell you earlier, but Marion gave your name to the police. Yours too, Francis.”

  “Why?” said Francis, alarmed. “What for?”

  “Who were his friends? They wanted to know.”

  “But why me?”

  “Calm down, Francis.”

  The light in the room was gone. The skies were lilac-colored and the snowy streets had a surreal, lunar glow. Henry turned on the lamp. “Do you think they’ll start looking tonight?”

  “They’ll look for him, certainly. Whether they’ll look in the right place is something else.”

  No one said anything for a moment. Charles, thoughtfully, rattled the ice in his glass. “You know,” he said, “we’ve done a terrible thing.”

  “We had to, Charles, as we have all discussed.”

  “I know, but I can’t stop thinking about Mr. Corcoran. The holidays we’ve spent at his house. And he was so sweet on the telephone.”

  “We’re all a lot better off.”

  “Some of us are, you mean.”

  Henry smiled acidly. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “”

  This was something to the effect that, in the Underworld, a great ox costs only a penny, but I knew what he meant and in spite of myself I laughed. There was a tradition among the ancients that things were very cheap in Hell.

  When Henry left, he offered to drive me back to school. It was late, and when we pulled up behind the dormitory I asked him if he wanted to come to Commons and have some dinner.

  We stopped in the post office so Henry could check his mail. He went to his mailbox only about every three weeks so there was quite a stack waiting for him; he stood by the trash can, going through it indifferently, throwing half the envelopes away unopened. Then he stopped.

  “What is it?”

  He laughed. “Look in your mailbox. It’s a faculty questionnaire. Julian’s up for review.”

  They were closing the dining hall by the time we arrived, and the janitors had already started to mop the floor. The kitchen was closed, too, so I went to ask for some peanut butter and bread while Henry made himself a cup of tea. The main dining room was deserted. We sat at a table in the corner, our reflections mirrored in the black of the plate-glass windows. Henry took out a pen and began to fill out Julian’s evaluation.

  I looked at my own copy while I ate my sandwich. The questions were ranked from one—poor to five—excellent: Is this faculty member prompt? Well-prepared? Ready to offer help outside the classroom? Henry, without the slightest pause, had gone down the list and circled all fives. Now I saw him writing the number 19 in a blank.

  “What’s that for?”

  “The number of classes I’ve taken with Julian,” he said, without looking up.

  “You’ve taken nineteen classes with Julian?”

  “Well, that’s tutorials and everything,” he said, irritated.

  For a moment there was no sound except the scratching of Henry’s pen and the distant crash of dish racks in the kitchen.

  “Does everybody get these, or just us?” I said.

  “Just us.”

  “I wonder why they even bother.”

  “For their records, I suppose.” He had turned to the last page, which was mostly blank. Please elaborate here on any additional compliments or criticisms you may have of this teacher. Extra sheets of paper may be attached if necessary.

  His pen hovered over the paper. Then he folded the sheet and pushed it aside.

  “What,” I said, “aren’t you going to write anything?”

  Henry took a sip of his tea. “How,” he said, “can I possibly make the Dean of Studies understand that there is a divinity in our midst?”

  After dinner, I went back to my room. I dreaded the thought of the night ahead, but not for the reasons one might expect—that I was worried about the police, or that my conscience bothered me, or anything of the sort. Quite the contrary. By that time, by some purely subconscious means, I had developed a successful mental block about the murder and everything pertaining to it. I talked about it in select company but seldom thought of it when alone.

  What I did experience when alone was a sort of general neurotic horror, a common attack of nerves and self-loathing magnified to the power of ten. Every cruel or fatuous thing I’d ever said came back to me with an amplified clarity, no matter how I talked to myself or jerked my head to shake the thoughts away: old insults and guilts and embarrassments stretching clear back to childhood—the crippled boy I’d made fun of, the Easter chick I’d squeezed to death—paraded before me one by one, in vivid and mordant splendor.

  I tried to work on Greek but it wasn’t much good. I would look up a word in the lexicon only to forget it when I turned to write it down; my noun cases, my verb forms, had left me utterly. Around midnight I went downstairs and called the twins. Camilla answered the phone. She was sleepy, a little drunk and getting ready for bed.

  “Tell me a funny story,” I said.

  “I can’t think of any funny stories.”

  “Any story.”

  “Cinderella? The Three Bears?”

  “Tell me something that happened to you when you were little.”

  So she told me about the only time she remembered seeing her father, before he and her mother were killed. It was snowing, she said, and Charles was asleep, and she was standing in her crib looking out the window. Her father was out in the yard in an old gray sweater, throwing snowballs against the side of the fence. “It must have been about the middle of the afternoon. I don’t know what he was doing there. All I know is that I saw him, and I wanted to go out so bad, and I was trying to climb out of my crib and go to him. Then my grandmother came in and put the bars up so I couldn’t get out, and I started to cry. My uncle Hilary—he was my grandmother’s brother, he lived with us when we were little—ca
me in the room and saw me crying. ‘Poor little girl,’ he said. He rummaged around in his pockets, and finally he found a tape measure and gave it to me to play with.”

  “A tape measure?”

  “Yes. You know, the ones that snap in when you push a button. Charles and I used to fight over it all the time. It’s still at home somewhere.”

  Late the next morning I woke with an unpleasant start to a knock at my door.

  I opened it to find Camilla, who looked as if she’d dressed in a hurry. She came in and locked the door behind her while I stood blinking sleepily in my bathrobe. “Have you been outside today?” she said.

  A spider of anxiety crawled up the back of my neck. I sat down on the side of my bed. “No,” I said. “Why?”

  “I don’t know what’s going on. The police are talking to Charles and Henry, and I don’t even know where Francis is.”

  “What?”

  “A policeman came by and asked for Charles around seven this morning. He didn’t say what he wanted. Charles got dressed and they went off together and then, at eight, I got a call from Henry. He asked if I’d mind if he was a little late this morning? And I asked what he was talking about, because we hadn’t planned to meet. ‘Oh, thanks,’ he said, ‘I knew you’d understand, the police are here about Bunny, you see, and they want to ask some questions.’ ”

  “I’m sure it’ll be all right.”

  She ran a hand through her hair, in an exasperated gesture reminiscent of her brother. “But it’s not just that,” she said. “There are people all over the place. Reporters. Police. It’s like a madhouse.”

  “Are they looking for him?”

  “I don’t know what they’re doing. They seem to be headed up towards Mount Cataract.”

  “Maybe we should leave campus for a while.”

  Her pale, silvery glance skittered anxiously around my room. “Maybe,” she said. “Get dressed and we’ll decide what to do.”

  I was in the bathroom scraping a quick razor over my face when Judy Poovey came in and rushed over so fast I cut my cheek. “Richard,” she said, her hand on my arm. “Have you heard?”

  I touched my face and looked at the blood on my fingertips, then glanced at her, annoyed. “Heard what?”

  “About Bunny,” she said, her voice hushed and her eyes wide.

  I stared at her, not knowing what she was going to say.

  “Jack Teitelbaum told me. Cloke was talking to him about it last night. I never heard of anybody just, like, vanishing. It’s too weird. And Jack was saying, well, if they haven’t found him by now.… I mean, I’m sure he’s all right and everything,” she said when she saw the way I was looking at her.

  I couldn’t think of anything to say.

  “If you want to stop by or anything, I’ll be at home.”

  “Sure.”

  “I mean, if you want to talk or something. I’m always there. Just stop by.”

  “Thanks,” I said, a little too abruptly.

  She looked up at me, her eyes large with compassion, with understanding of the solitude and incivility of grief. “It’ll be okay,” she said, giving my arm a squeeze, and then she left, pausing in the door for a sorrowful backwards glance.

  Despite what Camilla had said, I was unprepared for the riot of activity outside. The parking lot was full and people from Hampden town were everywhere—factory workers mostly, from the looks of them, some with lunch boxes, others with children-beating the ground with sticks and making their way towards Mount Cataract in broad, straggling lines as students milled about and looked at them curiously. There were policemen, deputies, a state trooper or two; on the lawn, parked beside a couple of official-looking vehicles, was a remote radio-station hookup, a concessions truck, and a van from ActionNews Twelve.

  “What are all these people doing here?” I said.

  “Look,” she said. “Is that Francis?”

  Far away, in the busy multitude, I saw a flash of red hair, the conspicuous line of muffled throat and black greatcoat. Camilla stuck up her hand and yelled to him.

  He shouldered his way through a bunch of cafeteria workers who had come outside to see what was going on. He was smoking a cigarette; there was a newspaper tucked under his arm. “Hello,” he said. “Can you believe this?”

  “What’s going on?”

  “A treasure hunt.”

  “What?”

  “The Corcorans put up a big reward in the night. All the factories in Hampden are closed. Anybody want some coffee? I have a dollar.”

  We picked our way to the concessions truck, through a sparse, gloomy gathering of janitors and maintenance men.

  “Three coffees, two with milk, please,” said Francis to the fat woman behind the counter.

  “No milk, just Cremora.”

  “Well, then, just black, I guess.” He turned to us. “Have you seen the paper this morning?”

  It was a late edition of the Hampden Examiner. In a column on the first page was a blurry, recent photograph of Bunny and under it this caption: POLICE, KIN, SEEK YOUTH, 24, MISSING IN HAMPDEN.

  “Twenty-four?” I said, startled. The twins and I were twenty years old, and Henry and Francis were twenty-one.

  “He failed a grade or two in elementary school,” said Camilla. “Ahh.”

  Sunday afternoon Edmund Corcoran, a Hampden College student known to his family and friends as “Bunny,” attended a campus party which he apparently left some time in the middle of the afternoon in order to meet his girlfriend Marion Barnbridge of Rye, New York, also a student at Hampden. That was the last that anyone has seen of Bunny Corcoran.

  The concerned Barnbridge, along with friends of Corcoran’s, yesterday alerted state and local police, who put out a Missing Persons Bulletin. Today the search begins in the Hampden area. The missing youth is described as

  (See p. 5)

  “Are you finished?” I asked Camilla.

  “Yes. Turn the page.”

  being six-feet, three inches tall, weighing 190 pounds, with sandy blond hair and blue eyes. He wears glasses, and when last seen was wearing a gray tweed sports coat, khaki pants, and a yellow rain slicker.

  “Here’s your coffee, Richard,” said Francis, turning gingerly with a cup in either hand.

  At St. Jerome’s preparatory school in College Falls, Massachusetts, Corcoran was active in varsity sports, lettering in hockey, lacrosse and crew and leading his football team, the Wolverines, to a state championship when he captained during senior year. At Hampden Corcoran served as a volunteer fire marshall. He studied literature and languages, with a concentration in Classics, and was described by fellow students as “a scholar.”

  “Ha,” said Camilla.

  Cloke Rayburn, a school friend of Corcoran’s and one of those who first notified police, said that Corcoran “is a real straight guy—definitely not mixed up in drugs or anything like that.”

  Yesterday afternoon, after growing suspicious, he broke into Corcoran’s dormitory room, and subsequently notified police.

  “That’s not right,” Camilla said. “He didn’t call them.”

  “There’s not a word about Charles.”

  “Thank God,” she said, in Greek.

  Corcoran’s parents, Macdonald and Katherine Corcoran of Shady Brook, Connecticut, arrive in Hampden today to assist in the search for the youngest of their five children. (See “A Family Prays,” p. 10.) In a telephone interview Mr. Corcoran, who is president of the Bingham Bank and Trust Company and a member of the Board of Directors of the First National Bank of Connecticut, said, “There’s not much we can do down here. We want to assist if we can.” He said that he had spoken to his son by telephone a week before the disappearance and had noticed nothing unusual.

  Of her son, Katherine Corcoran said: “Edmund is a very family-oriented type person. If anything was wrong I know he would have told Mack or myself.”

  A reward of fifty thousand dollars is being offered for information leading to the whereabouts of Edmund Corcoran
, provided through contributions from the Corcoran family, the Bingham Bank and Trust Company, and the Highland Heights Lodge of the Loyal Order of the Moose.

  The wind was blowing. With Camilla’s help, I folded the newspaper and handed it back to Francis. “Fifty thousand dollars,” I said. “That’s a lot of money.”

  “And you wonder why you see all these people from Hampden town up here this morning?” said Francis, taking a sip of his coffee. “Gosh, it’s cold out here.”

  We turned and started back towards Commons. Camilla said to Francis: “You know about Charles and Henry, don’t you?”

  “Well, they told Charles they might want to talk to him, didn’t they?”

  “But Henry?”

  “I wouldn’t waste my time worrying about him.”

  Commons was overheated and surprisingly empty. The three of us sat on a clammy, black vinyl couch and drank our coffee. People drifted in and out, bringing blasts of cold air from outdoors; some of them came over to ask if there was any news. Jud “Party Pig” MacKenna, as Vice-president of the Student Council, came over with his empty paint can to ask if we would like to donate to an emergency search fund. Between us, we contributed a dollar in change.

  We were talking to Georges Laforgue, who was telling us enthusiastically and at great length about a similar disappearance at Brandeis when suddenly, from nowhere, Henry appeared behind him.

  Laforgue turned. “Oh,” he said coldly when he saw who it was.

  Henry inclined his head slightly. “Bonjour, Monsieur Laforgue,” he said. “Quel plaisir de vous revoir.”

  Laforgue, with a flourish, took a handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose for what seemed about five minutes; then, refolding the handkerchief into fussy little squares, he turned his back on Henry and resumed his story. It happened, in this case, that the student had simply gone off to New York City on the bus without telling anybody.

  “And this boy—Birdie, is it?”

  “Bunny.”

  “Yes. This boy has been away for far less long. He will appear again, of his own accord, and everyone will feel very foolish.” He lowered his voice. “I believe that the school is afraid of a lawsuit, and that perhaps is why they lost their sense of proportion, no? Please do not repeat me.”

 
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