The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  “Just bring the whole bottle in, why don’t you,” Henry said.

  After they left, I lay on Francis’s couch, smoking his cigarettes and drinking his Scotch, and watched “Jeopardy.” One of the contestants was from San Gilberto, which is really close to where I grew up, only five or six miles away. All those suburbs tend to run into one other out there, so you can’t always tell where one ends and the next begins.

  After that came a made-for-television movie. It was about the threat of the earth colliding with another planet and how all the scientists in the world united to avert the catastrophe. A hack astronomer, who is constantly on talk shows and whose name you would probably recognize, played himself in a cameo role.

  For some reason, I felt uneasy about watching the news alone when it came on at eleven, so I turned to PBS and watched something called “History of Metallurgy.” It was actually quite interesting, but I was tired and a bit drunk, and I fell asleep before it ended.

  When I awoke, a blanket had been thrown over me, and the room was blue with a cold dawn light. Francis sat in the windowsill with his back to me; he was wearing his clothes from the night before and he was eating maraschino cherries from a jar balanced on his knee.

  I sat up. “What time is it?”

  “Six,” he said without turning around, his mouth full.

  “Why didn’t you wake me up?”

  “I didn’t get in until four-thirty. Too drunk to drive you home. Want a cherry?”

  He was still drunk. His collar was open and his clothes disordered; his voice was flat and toneless.

  “Where were you all night?”

  “With the Corcorans.”

  “Not drinking.”

  “Of course.”

  “Till four?”

  “They were still going at it when we left. There were five or six cases of beer in the bathtub.”

  “I didn’t know it was going to be a frivolous occasion.”

  “It was donated by the Food King,” said Francis. “The beer, I mean. Mr. Corcoran and Brady got hold of some of it and brought it to the hotel.”

  “Where are they staying?”

  “I don’t know,” he said dully. “Terrible place. One of those big flat motels with a neon sign and no room service. All the rooms were connected. Hugh’s children screaming and throwing potato chips, the television going in every room. It was hell.… Really,” he said humorlessly as I started to laugh, “I think I could get through anything after last night. Survive a nuclear war. Fly a plane. Somebody—one of those damned toddlers, I guess—got my favorite scarf off the bed and wrapped up part of a chicken leg in it. That nice silk one with the pattern of clocks on it. It’s just ruined.”

  “Were they upset?”

  “Who, the Corcorans? Of course not. I don’t think they even noticed.”

  “I don’t mean about the scarf.”

  “Oh.” He got another cherry from the jar. “They were all upset I suppose, in a way. Nobody talked about much else but they didn’t seem out of their minds or anything. Mr. Corcoran would act all sad and worried for a while, then the next thing you knew he’d be playing with the baby, giving everybody beer.”

  “Was Marion there?”

  “Yes. Cloke, too. He went for a drive with Brady and Patrick and came back reeking of pot. Henry and I sat on the radiator all night and talked to Mr. Corcoran. I guess Camilla went over to say hello to Hugh and his wife and got trapped. I don’t even know what happened to Charles.”

  After a moment or so, Francis shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said. “Does it ever strike you, in a horrible sort of way, how funny this is?”

  “Well, it’s not all that funny really.”

  “I guess not,” he said, lighting a cigarette with shaky hands. “And Mr. Corcoran said the National Guard is coming up today, too. What a mess.”

  For some time I had been staring at the jar of cherries without realizing fully what they were. “Why are you eating those?” I said.

  “I don’t know,” he said, staring down at the jar. “They taste really bad.”

  “Throw them away.”

  He struggled with the window sash. It sailed up with a grinding noise.

  A blast of icy air hit me in the face. “Hey,” I said.

  He threw the jar out the window and then leaned on the sash with all his weight. I went over to help him. Finally, it crashed down, and the draperies floated down to rest placidly by the windows. The cherry juice had left a spattered red trajectory on the snow.

  “Kind of a Jean Cocteau touch, isn’t it?” Francis said. “I’m exhausted. If you don’t mind, I’m going to have a bath now.”

  He was running the water and I was on my way out when the phone rang.

  It was Henry. “Oh,” he said. “I’m sorry. I thought I dialed Francis.”

  “You did. Hold on a second.” I put down the phone and called for him.

  He came in in his trousers and undershirt, his face half-lathered, a razor in his hand. “Who is it?”


  “Tell him I’m in the bath.”

  “He’s in the bath,” I said.

  “He is not in the bath,” said Henry. “He is standing in the room with you. I can hear him.”

  I gave Francis the telephone. He held it away from his face so he wouldn’t get any soap on the receiver.

  I could hear Henry talking indistinctly. After a moment, Francis’s sleepy eyes widened.

  “Oh, no,” he said. “Not me.”

  Henry’s voice again, curt and businesslike.

  “No. I mean it, Henry. I’m tired and I’m going to sleep and there’s no way—”

  Suddenly, his face changed. To my great surprise he cursed loudly and slammed down the receiver so hard that it jangled.

  “What is it?”

  He was staring at the phone. “God damn him,” he said. “He hung up on me.”

  “What’s the matter?”

  “He wants us to go out with that damn search party again. Now. I’m not like he is. I can’t just stay up for five or six days at a—”

  “Now? But it’s so early.”

  “It started an hour ago, so he says. Damn him. Doesn’t he ever sleep?”

  We had not spoken about the incident in my room several nights before and, in the drowsy silence of the car, I felt the need to make things plain.

  “You know, Francis,” I said.


  It seemed the best thing was just to come right out and say it. “You know,” I said, “I’m really not attracted to you. I mean, not that—”

  “Isn’t that interesting,” he said coolly. “I’m really not attracted to you, either.”


  “You were there.”

  We drove the rest of the way to school in a not very comfortable silence.

  Unbelievably, things had escalated even more during the night. There now were hundreds of people: people in uniforms, people with dogs and bullhorns and cameras, people buying sweet rolls from the concessions truck and trying to peek into the dark windows of the news vans—three of them, one from the station in Boston—parked on Commons lawn, along with the overflow of vehicles from the parking lot.

  We found Henry on the front porch of Commons. He was reading, with absorbed interest, a tiny, vellum-bound book written in some Near Eastern language. The twins—sleepy, red-nosed, rumpled—were sprawled on a bench like a couple of teenagers, passing a cup of coffee back and forth.

  Francis half nudged, half kicked the toe of Henry’s shoe.

  Henry started. “Oh,” he said. “Good morning.”

  “How can you even say that. I haven’t had a wink of sleep. I haven’t eaten anything in about three days.”

  Henry marked his place with a ribbon and slipped the book in his breast pocket. “Well,” he said amiably, “go get a doughnut, then.”

  “I don’t have any money.”

  “I’ll give you the money, then.”

  “I do
n’t want a goddamn doughnut.”

  I went over and sat down with the twins.

  “You missed quite a time last night,” said Charles to me.

  “So I hear.”

  “Hugh’s wife showed us baby pictures for an hour and a half.”

  “Yes, at least,” said Camilla. “And Henry drank a beer from a can.”


  “So what did you do,” Charles said.

  “Nothing. Watched a movie on TV.”

  They both perked up. “Oh, really? The thing about the planets colliding?”

  “Mr. Corcoran had it on but somebody switched channels before it was over,” said Camilla.

  “How’d it end?”

  “What’s the last part you saw?”

  “They were in the mountain laboratory. The young enthusiastic scientists had all ganged up on that cynical old scientist who didn’t want to help.”

  I was explaining the dénouement when Cloke Rayburn abruptly shouldered through the crowd. I stopped talking, thinking he was headed for the twins and me, but instead he only nodded to us and walked up to Henry, who now was standing on the edge of the porch.

  “Listen,” I heard him say. “I didn’t get a chance to talk to you last night. I got hold of those guys in New York and Bunny hasn’t been there.”

  Henry didn’t say anything for a moment. Then he said: “I thought you said you couldn’t get in touch with them.”

  “Well, it’s possible, it’s just like a big headache. But they hadn’t seen him, anyway.”

  “How do you know?”


  “I thought you said you couldn’t believe a word they said.”

  He looked startled. “I did?”


  “Hey, listen to me,” said Cloke, taking off his sunglasses. His eyes were bloodshot and pouchy. “These guys are telling the truth. I didn’t think of this before—well, I guess it hasn’t been that long—but anyway, the story’s all over the New York papers. If they really did something to him, they wouldn’t be sticking around their apartment taking phone calls from me.… What is it, man?” he said nervously when Henry didn’t respond. “You didn’t say anything to anybody, did you?”

  Henry made an indistinct noise in the back of his throat, which might have meant anything.


  “No one has asked,” said Henry.

  There was no expression on his face. Cloke, his discomfiture evident, waited for him to continue. Finally, he put on his sunglasses again in a slightly defensive manner.

  “Well,” he said. “Um. Okay, then. See you later.”

  After he’d gone Francis turned to Henry, a bemused look on his face. “What on earth are you up to?” he said.

  But Henry didn’t answer.

  The day passed like a dream. Voices, dogs barking, the whap of a helicopter overhead. The wind was strong and the roar of it in the trees was like an ocean. The helicopter had been sent from the New York State Police headquarters in Albany; it had, we were told, a special infrared heat sensor. Someone had also volunteered something called an “ultra-light” aircraft which swooped overhead, barely clearing the tops of the trees. There were real ranks now, squadron leaders with bullhorns, we marched over the snowy hills wave upon wave.

  Cornfields, pastures, knolls heavy with undergrowth. As we approached the base of the mountain the land took a downward slope. A thick fog lay in the valley below, a smoldering cauldron of white from which only the treetops protruded, stark and Dantesque. By degrees, we descended, and the world sank from view. Charles, beside me, stood out sharp and almost hyper-realistic with his ruddy cheeks and labored breaths but further down, Henry had become a wraith, his large form light and strangely insubstantial in the mist.

  When the ground rose several hours later, we came up on the rear of another, smaller party. In it were some people I was surprised and somehow touched to see. There was Martin Hoffer, an old and distinguished composer on the music faculty; the middle-aged lady who checked IDs in the lunch line, looking inexplicably tragic in her plain cloth coat; Dr. Roland, the blares of his nose-blowing audible even at a distance.

  “Look,” said Charles. “That’s not Julian, is it?”


  “Surely not,” said Henry.

  But it was. Rather characteristically, he pretended not to see us until we were so close it was impossible for him to ignore us any longer. He was listening to a tiny, fox-faced lady whom I knew to be a housekeeper in the dorms.

  “Goodness,” he said, when she had finished talking, drawing back in mock surprise. “Where did you come from? Do you know Mrs. O’Rourke?”

  Mrs. O’Rourke smiled shyly. “I seen all of you before,” she said. “The kids think the maids don’t notice them, but I know you all by sight.”

  “Well, I should hope so,” said Charles. “You haven’t forgotten me, have you? Bishop House, number ten?”

  He said this so warmly that she flushed with pleasure.

  “Sure,” she said. “I remember you. You was the one was always running off with my broom.”

  During this exchange Henry and Julian were talking softly. “You should have told me before now,” I heard Julian say.

  “We did tell you.”

  “Well, you did, but still. Edmund’s missed class before,” said Julian, looking distressed. “I thought he was playing sick. People are saying that he’s been kidnapped but I think that’s rather silly, don’t you?”

  “I’d rather one of mine be kidnapped than out in this snow for six days,” said Mrs. O’Rourke.

  “Well, I certainly hope that nothing has happened to him. You know, don’t you, that his family is here? Have you seen them?”

  “Not today,” said Henry.

  “Of course, of course,” said Julian hastily. He disliked the Corcorans. “I haven’t been to see them either, it’s really not the time to intrude.… This morning I did run into the father quite by accident, and one of the brothers as well. He had a baby with him. Riding it on his shoulders as if they were on their way to a picnic.”

  “Little one like him had no business being out in this weather,” said Mrs. O’Rourke. “Hardly three years old.”

  “Yes, I’m afraid I agree. I can’t imagine why anyone would have a baby along on something like this.”

  “I certainly wouldn’t have let one of mine yell and carry on like that.”

  “Perhaps it was cold,” murmured Julian. The tone he used was a delicate cue that he had tired of the subject and wished to stop talking about it.

  Henry cleared his throat. “Did you talk to Bunny’s father?” he said.

  “Only for a moment. He—well, I suppose we all have different ways of handling these things.… Edmund looks a great deal like him, doesn’t he?”

  “All the brothers do,” said Camilla.

  Julian smiled. “Yes! And so many of them! Like something from a fairy story.…” He glanced at his watch. “Goodness,” he said, “it’s late.”

  Francis started from his morose silence. “Are you leaving now?” he asked Julian anxiously. “Do you want me to drive you?”

  This was a blatant attempt at escape. Henry’s nostrils flared, not so much in anger as in a kind of exasperated amusement: he gave Francis a dirty look, but then Julian, who was gazing into the distance and quite unaware of the drama which hinged on his reply, shook his head.

  “No, thank you,” he said. “Poor Edmund. I’m really quite worried, you know.”

  “Just think how his parents must feel,” said Mrs. O’Rourke.

  “Yes,” said Julian, in a tone of voice which managed to convey at once both sympathy with and distaste for the Corcorans.

  “I’d be wild if it was me.”

  Unexpectedly, Julian shuddered and turned up the collar of his coat. “Last night I was so upset I could hardly sleep,” he said. “He’s such a sweet boy, so silly; I’m really very fond of him. If anything should have happened to him I don’t
know if I could bear it.”

  He was looking over the hills, at all that grand cinematic expanse of men and wilderness and snow that lay beneath us; and though his voice was anxious there was a strange dreamy look on his face. The business had upset him, that I knew, but I also knew that there was something about the operatic sweep of the search which could not fail to appeal to him and that he was pleased, however obscurely, with the aesthetics of the thing.

  Henry saw it, too. “Like something from Tolstoy, isn’t it?” he remarked.

  Julian looked over his shoulder, and I was startled to see that there was real delight on his face.

  “Yes,” he said. “Isn’t it, though?”

  At about two in the afternoon, two men in dark overcoats walked up to us from nowhere.

  “Charles Macaulay?” said the shorter of the two. He was a barrel-chested fellow with hard, genial eyes.

  Charles, beside me, stopped and looked at him blankly.

  The man reached in his breast pocket and flipped out a badge. “Agent Harvey Davenport, Northeast Regional Division, FBI.”

  For a moment I thought Charles might lose his composure. “What do you want?” he said, blinking.

  “We’d like to talk to you, if you don’t mind.”

  “It won’t take long,” said the taller man. He was an Italian with stooped shoulders and a sad, doughy nose. His voice was soft and pleasant.

  Henry, Francis, Camilla had all stopped and were staring at the strangers with varying degrees of interest and alarm.

  “Besides,” said Davenport snappily. “Good to get out of the cold for a minute or two. Bet you’re freezing your balls off, huh?”

  After they left, the rest of us were bristling with anxiety, but of course we couldn’t talk and so we continued to shuffle along, eyes on the ground and half afraid to look up. Soon it was three o’clock, then four. Things were far from over, but at the first premature signs that the day’s search was breaking up we headed rapidly and silent for the car.

  “What do you suppose they want with him?” said Camilla for about the tenth time.

  “I don’t know,” said Henry.

  “He gave them a statement already.”

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