The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  “Of course not.”

  “My position is delicate with the Dean, you understand.”

  “I’m a bit tired,” Henry said later, in the car, “but there’s nothing to worry about.”

  “What’d they want to know?”

  “Nothing much. How long had I known him, was he acting strangely, did I know any reason why he might have decided to leave school. Of course, he has been acting strangely the last few months, and I said so. But I also said I hadn’t seen very much of him lately, which is true.” He shook his head. “Honestly. Two hours. I don’t know if I could’ve made myself go through with this if I’d known what nonsense we were letting ourselves in for.”

  We stopped by the twins’ apartment and found Charles asleep on the couch, sprawled on his stomach in his shoes and overcoat, one arm dangling over the edge so that three or four inches of wrist and an equal amount of cuff were exposed.

  He woke with a start. His face was puffy and the ridged pattern from the sofa cushions was printed deeply on his cheek.

  “How did it go?” said Henry.

  Charles sat up a bit and rubbed his eyes. “All right, I guess,” he said. “They wanted me to sign some thing that said what happened yesterday.”

  “They visited me as well.”

  “Really? What’d they want?”

  “The same questions.”

  “Were they nice to you?”

  “Not particularly.”

  “God, they were so nice to me down at the police station. They even gave me breakfast. Coffee and jelly doughnuts.”

  This was a Friday, which meant no classes, and that Julian was not in Hampden but at home. His house was not far from where we were—halfway to Albany, where we’d driven to have pancakes at a truck stop—and after lunch Henry suggested, quite out of the blue, that we drive by and see if he was there.

  I had never been in Julian’s house, had never even seen it, though I assumed the rest of them had been there a hundred times. Actually—Henry being of course the notable exception—Julian did not allow many visitors. This was not so surprising as it sounds; he kept a gentle but firm distance between himself and his students; and though he was much more fond of us than teachers generally are of their pupils, it was not, even with Henry, a relationship of equals, and our classes with him ran more along the lines of benevolent dictatorship than democracy. “I am your teacher,” he once said, “because I know more than you do.” Though on a psychological level his manner was almost painfully intimate, superficially it was businesslike and cold. He refused to see anything about any of us except our most engaging qualities, which he cultivated and magnified to the exclusion of all our tedious and less desirable ones. While I felt a delicious pleasure in adjusting myself to fit this attractive if inaccurate image—and, eventually, in finding that I had more or less become the character which for a long time I had so skillfully played—there was never any doubt that he did not wish to see us in our entirety, or see us, in fact, in anything other than the magnificent roles he had invented for us: genis gratus, corpore glabellus, arte multiscius, et fortuna opulentus—smooth-cheeked, soft-skinned, well-educated, and rich. It was his odd blindness, I think, to all problems of a personal nature which made him able at the end to transmute even Bunny’s highly substantive troubles into spiritual ones.

  I knew then, and know now, virtually nothing about Julian’s life outside of the classroom, which is perhaps what lent such a tantalizing breath of mystery to everything he said or did. No doubt his personal life was as flawed as anyone’s, but the only side of himself he ever allowed us to see was polished to such a high gloss of perfection that it seemed when he was away from us he must lead an existence too rarefied for me to even imagine.

  So naturally, I was curious to see where he lived. It was a large stone house, set on a hill, miles off the main road and nothing but trees and snow as far as one could see—imposing enough, but not half so Gothic and monstrous as Francis’s. I had heard marvelous tales of his garden, also of the inside of the house—Attic vases, Meissen porcelain, paintings by Alma-Tadema and Frith. But the garden was covered with snow, and Julian, apparently, was not at home; at least he didn’t answer the door.

  Henry looked back down the hill to where we waited in the car. He reached into his pocket for a piece of paper and scribbled a note that he folded and wedged in the crack of the door.

  “Are there students out with the search parties?” Henry asked on the way back to Hampden. “I don’t want to go down there if we’ll be making ourselves conspicuous. But on the other hand, it does seem rather callous, don’t you think, to just go home?”

  He was quiet a moment, thinking. “Maybe we should have a look,” he said. “Charles, you’ve done quite enough for one day. Maybe you should just go home.”

  After we dropped the twins off, the three of us went on to campus. I had expected that by now the search party would have grown tired and gone home but I was surprised to find the enterprise busier than ever. There were policemen, college administrators, boy scouts, maintenance workers and security guards, about thirty Hampden students (some in an official, student-councily-looking group, the rest just along for the ride), and mobs of townspeople. It was a large assembly, but as the three of us looked down at it from the top of the rise, it seemed oddly muffled and small in the great expanse of snow.

  We went down the hill—Francis, sulky because he hadn’t wanted to come, followed two or three paces behind—and wandered through the crowd. No one paid us the least bit of attention. Behind me I heard the indistinct, aborted garble of a walkie-talkie; and, startled, I walked backward into the Chief of Security.

  “Watch it,” he shouted. He was a squat, bulldoggish man with liver spots on his nose and jowls.

  “Sorry,” I said hastily. “Can you tell me what—”

  “College kids,” he muttered, turning his head away as if to spit. “Stumbling around, getting in the way, don’t know what the hell you’re suppose to do.”

  “Well, that’s what we’re trying to find out,” snapped Henry.

  The guard turned quickly, and somehow his gaze landed not on Henry but on Francis, who was standing staring into space. “So it’s you, is it?” he said with venom. “Mr. Off-Campus who thinks he can park in the faculty parking lot.”

  Francis started, a wild look in his eye.

  “Yes, you. You know how many unpaid violations you’re carrying? Nine. I turned your registration in to the Dean just last week. They can put you on probation, hold your transcripts, what have you. Suspend your library privileges. If it was up to me they’d put you in jail.”

  Francis gaped at him. Henry caught him by the sleeve and pulled him away.

  A long, straggly line of townspeople was crunching through the snow, some of them swiping listlessly at the ground with sticks. We walked to the end of the queue, then fell into step with them.

  The knowledge that Bunny’s body actually lay about two miles to the southwest did not lend much interest or urgency to the search, and I plodded along in a daze, my eyes on the ground. At the front of the rank an authoritative cluster of state troopers and policemen marched ahead, heads bent, talking in low voices as a barking German shepherd dog circled around them at a trot. The air had a heavy quality and the sky over the mountains was overcast and stormy. Francis’s coat whipped out behind him in theatrical billows; he kept glancing furtively around to see if his inquisitor was anywhere nearby and from time to time he emitted a faint, self-pitying cough.

  “Why the hell haven’t you paid those parking tickets?” Henry whispered to him.

  “Leave me alone.”

  We crept through the snow for what seemed like hours, until the energetic needle pricks in my feet subsided to an uncomfortable numbness; heavy boots of policemen, crunching black in the snow, night sticks swinging ponderously from heavy belts. A helicopter overhead swooped in with a roar over the trees, hovered above us for a moment, then darted back the way it had come. The light was th
inning and people were trailing up the trampled hillside towards home.

  “Let’s go,” said Francis, for the fourth or fifth time.

  We were starting away at last when a strolling policeman stopped in front of our path. “Had enough?” he said, smiling, a big red-faced guy with a red moustache.

  “I believe so,” said Henry.

  “You kids know that boy?”

  “As a matter of fact, we do.”

  “No ideas where he might of went off to?”

  If this was a movie, I thought, looking pleasantly into the pleasant beefy face of the policeman—if this was a movie, we’d all be fidgeting and acting really suspicious.

  “How much does a television cost?” said Henry on the way home.

  “Why?”

  “Because I’d like to see the news tonight.”

  “I think they’re kind of expensive,” said Francis.

  “There’s a television in the attic of Monmouth,” I said.

  “Does it belong to anyone?”

  “I’m sure it does.”

  “Well,” said Henry, “we’ll take it back when we’re finished with it.”

  Francis kept watch while Henry and I went up to the attic and searched through broken lamps, cardboard boxes, ugly Art I oil paintings. Finally we found the television behind an old rabbit hutch and carried it down the stairs to Henry’s car. On the way over to Francis’s, we stopped by for the twins.

  “The Corcorans have been trying to get in touch with you this afternoon,” said Camilla to Henry.

  “Mr. Corcoran’s called half a dozen times.”

  “Julian called, too. He’s very upset.”

  “And Cloke,” said Charles.

  Henry stopped. “What did he want?”

  “He wanted to make sure that you and I hadn’t said anything about drugs when we talked to the police this morning.”

  “What did you tell him?”

  “I said I hadn’t, but I didn’t know about you.”

  “Come on,” said Francis, glancing at his watch. “We’re going to miss it if you don’t hurry.”

  We put the television on Francis’s dining room table and fooled around with it until we got a decent picture. The final credits of “Petticoat Junction” were rolling past, over shots of the Hooterville water tower, the Cannonball express.

  The news was next. As the theme song died away, a small circle appeared in the left-hand corner of the newscaster’s desk; within it was a stylized picture of a policeman shining a flashlight and holding a straining dog back by a leash and, underneath, the word MANHUNT.

  The newscaster looked at the camera. “Hundreds search and thousands pray,” she said, “as the hunt for Hampden College student Edmund Corcoran begins in the Hampden area.”

  The picture shifted to a pan of a thickly wooded area; a line of searchers, filmed from behind, beat in the underbrush with sticks, while the German shepherd dog we had seen earlier laughed and barked at us from the screen.

  “Where are you guys?” said Camilla. “Are you in there somewhere?”

  “Look,” said Francis. “There’s that horrible man.”

  “One hundred volunteers,” said the voice-over, “arrived this morning to help Hampden College students in the search for their classmate, who has been missing since Sunday afternoon. Until now there have been no leads in the search for the twenty-four-year-old Edmund Corcoran, of Shady Brook, Connecticut, but ActionNews Twelve has just received an important phone tip which authorities think may provide a new angle in the case.”

  “What?” said Charles, to the television set.

  “We go now to Rick Dobson, live on the scene.”

  The picture switched to a man in a trench coat, holding a microphone and standing in front of what appeared to be a gas station.

  “I know that place,” said Francis, leaning forward. “That’s Redeemed Repair on Highway 6.”

  “Ssh,” somebody said.

  The wind was blowing hard. The microphone shrieked, then died down with a sputtering noise. “This afternoon,” the reporter said, chin low, “at one-fifty-six p.m., ActionNews Twelve received an important piece of information which may provide a break for police in the recent Hampden missing-persons case.”

  The camera pulled back to reveal an old man in coveralls, a woolen cap, and a greasy dark windbreaker. He was staring to the side in a fixed manner; his head was round and his face as bland and untroubled as a baby’s.

  “I am now with William Hundy,” the reporter said, “co-owner of Redeemed Repair in Hampden, a member of the Hampden County Rescue Squad who has just come forward with this information.”

  “Henry,” said Francis. I was startled to see that his face had all of a sudden got very white.

  Henry reached in his pocket for a cigarette. “Yes,” he said tersely. “I see.”

  “What’s the matter?” I said.

  Henry tamped the cigarette down on the side of the pack. He didn’t take his eyes from the screen. “That man,” he said, “fixes my car.”

  “Mr. Hundy,” said the reporter, “will you tell us what you saw on Sunday afternoon?”

  “Oh, my God,” said Charles.

  “Hush,” said Henry.

  The mechanic glanced shyly at the camera, and then away. “Sunday afternoon,” he said, in a nasal Vermont voice, “there was a cream-colored LeMans, few years old, pulled up to that pump over there.” Awkwardly, as an afterthought, he raised his arm and pointed somewhere off camera. “It was three men, two in the front seat, one in the back. Out-of-towners. Seemed in a hurry. Wouldn’t have thought a thing of it except that boy was with them. I recognized him when I saw his picture in the paper.”

  My heart had nearly stopped—three men, white car—but then the details registered. We were four, with Camilla, too, and Bunny hadn’t been anywhere near the car on Sunday. And Henry drove a BMW, which was far from a Pontiac.

  Henry had stopped tapping the unlit cigarette on the side of the pack; it dangled loosely between his fingers.

  “Although no ransom note has been received by the Corcoran family, authorities have not yet ruled out the possibility of kidnapping. This is Rick Dobson, reporting live from ActionNews Twelve.”

  “Thank you, Rick. If any of our viewers have further information on this or any other story, they are urged to call our Tips Line, 363-TIPS, between the hours of nine and five.…

  “Today the Hampden County School Board took a vote on what may be the most controversial …”

  We stared at the television in astonished silence for what seemed several minutes. Finally the twins looked at each other and started to laugh.

  Henry shook his head, still looking incredulously at the screen. “Vermonters,” he said.

  “Do you know this man?” said Charles.

  “I’ve taken my car to him for the last two years.”

  “Is he crazy?”

  He shook his head again. “Crazy, lying, out for the reward. I don’t know what to say. He always seemed sane enough, though he did drag me off in a corner once and start talking about Christ’s kingdom on earth.”

  “Well, for whatever reason,” said Francis, “he’s done us a tremendous favor.”

  “I don’t know,” said Henry. “Kidnapping is a serious crime. If this turns into a criminal investigation they may stumble across something we’d rather they didn’t know.”

  “How could they? What does any of this have to do with us?”

  “I don’t mean anything big. But there are a great many little things which would be just as damning if anyone took the trouble to add them up. I was a fool to put those plane tickets on my credit card, for instance. We’d have a difficult time explaining that. And your trust fund, Francis? And our bank accounts? Massive withdrawals over the last six months, and nothing to show for it. Bunny’s got an awful lot of new clothes hanging in his closet that he couldn’t possibly have paid for himself.”

  “Somebody would have to dig pretty deep to find that.”
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  “Someone would only have to make two or three well-placed phone calls.”

  Just then the telephone rang.

  “Oh, God,” Francis wailed.

  “Don’t answer it,” said Henry.

  But Francis picked it up anyway, as I knew he would. “Yes,” he said carefully. Pause. “Well, hello to you too, Mr. Corcoran,” he said, sitting down and giving us the OK signal with thumb and forefinger. “Have you heard anything?”

  A very long pause. Francis listened attentively for some minutes, looking at the floor and nodding; after a while he began to bob his foot up and down impatiently.

  “What’s going on?” Charles whispered.

  Francis held the phone away from his ear and made a gabby mouth sign with his hand.

  “I know what he wants,” Charles said bleakly. “He wants us to come over to his hotel and have dinner.”

  “Actually, sir, we’ve already had our dinner,” Francis was saying. “… No, of course not.… Yes. Oh, yes sir, I’ve been trying to get in touch with you, but you know how confused things are.… Certainly.…”

  Finally he hung up. We stared at him.

  He shrugged. “Well,” he said, “I tried. He’s expecting us at the hotel in twenty minutes.”

  “Us?”

  “I’m not going by myself.”

  “Is he alone?”

  “No.” Francis had drifted into the kitchen; we could hear him opening and shutting cabinets. “It’s the whole crew except for Teddy, and they’re expecting him any minute.”

  There was a slight pause.

  “What are you doing in there?” said Henry.

  “Making myself a drink.”

  “Make me one, too,” said Charles.

  “Scotch all right?”

  “I’d rather bourbon if you’ve got it.”

  “Make that two,” said Camilla.

 
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