The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  Julian was uninvolved in Isrami politics despite his fondness for the princess and his sympathy—on principle—with royalists instead of revolutionaries. But he refused to travel by airplane or accept packages COD, lived in fear of unexpected visitors, and had not been abroad in eight or nine years. Whether these were reasonable precautions or excessive ones I do not know, but his connection with the princess did not seem a particularly strong one and I, for one, suspected that the Isramic jihad had better things to do than hunting down Classics tutors in New England.

  “Of course, they weren’t from the State Department at all but they were connected with the government in some way. I have a sixth sense about such things, isn’t that curious? One of the men was an Italian, very charming, really … courtly, almost, in a funny sort of way. I was rather puzzled by it all. They said that Edmund was on drugs.”

  “What?”

  “Do you think that odd? I think it very odd.”

  “What did you say?”

  “I said certainly not. I may be flattering myself, but I do think I know Edmund rather well. He’s really quite timid, puritanical, almost.… I can’t imagine him doing anything of the sort and besides, young people who take drugs are always so bovine and prosaic. But do you know what this man said to me? He said that with young people, you can never tell. I don’t think that’s right, do you? Do you think that’s right?”

  We walked through Commons—I could hear the crash of plates overhead in the dining hall—and, on the pretext of having business on that end of campus, I walked on with Julian to the Lyceum.

  That part of school, on the North Hampden side, was usually peaceful and desolate, the snow trackless and undisturbed beneath the pines until spring. Now it was trampled and littered like a fairgrounds. Someone had run a Jeep into an elm tree-broken glass, twisted fender, horrible splintered wound gaping yellow in the trunk; a foul-mouthed group of townie kids slid and shrieked down the hillside on a piece of cardboard.

  “Goodness,” said Julian, “those poor children.”

  I left him at the back door of the Lyceum and walked to Dr. Roland’s office. It was a Sunday, he wasn’t there; I let myself in and locked the door behind me and spent the afternoon in happy seclusion: grading papers, drinking muddy drip coffee from a mug that said RHONDA, and half-listening to the voices from down the hall.

  I have the idea that those voices were in fact audible, and that I could have understood what they were saying if I’d paid any attention, but I didn’t. It was only later, after I’d left the office and forgotten all about them, that I learned whom they belonged to, and that maybe I hadn’t been quite so safe that afternoon as I’d thought.

  The FBI men, said Henry, had set up a temporary headquarters in an empty classroom down the hall from Dr. Roland’s office, and that was where they talked to him. They hadn’t been twenty feet from where I sat, were even drinking the same muddy coffee from the same pot I’d made in the teacher’s lounge. “That’s odd,” said Henry. “The first thing I thought of when I tasted that coffee was you.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “It tasted strange. Burnt. Like your coffee.”

  The classroom (Henry said) had a blackboard covered with quadratic equations, and two full ashtrays, and a long conference table at which the three of them sat. There was also a laptop computer, a litigation bag with the FBI insignia in yellow, and a box of maple sugar candies—acorns, wee pilgrims, in fluted paper cups. They belonged to the Italian. “For my kids,” he said.

  Henry, of course, had done marvelously. He didn’t say so, but then he didn’t have to. He, in some senses, was the author of this drama and he had waited in the wings a long while for this moment, when he could step onto the stage and assume the role he’d written for himself: cool but friendly; hesitant; reticent with details; bright, but not as bright as he really was. He’d actually enjoyed talking to them, he told me. Davenport was a Philistine, not worth mentioning but the Italian was somber and polite, quite charming. (“Like one of those old Florentines Dante meets in Purgatory.”) His name was Sciola. He was very interested in the trip to Rome, asked a lot of questions about it, not so much as investigator as fellow tourist. (“Did you boys happen to go out to the, what do you call it, San Prassede, out there around the train station? With that little chapel out on the side?”) He spoke Italian, too, and he and Henry had a brief and happy conversation which was cut short by the irritated Davenport, who didn’t understand a word and wanted to get down to business.

  Henry was none too forthcoming, with me at least, about what that business actually was. But he did say that whatever track they were on, he was pretty sure it wasn’t the right one. “What’s more,” he said, “I think I’ve figured out what it is.”

  “What?”

  “Cloke.”

  “They don’t think Cloke killed him?”

  “They think Cloke knows more than he’s telling. And they think his behavior is questionable. Which, as a matter of fact, it is. They know all kinds of things that I’m sure he didn’t tell them.”

  “Like what?”

  “The logistics of his drug business. Dates, names, places. Things that happened before he even came to Hampden. And they seemed to be trying to tie some of it up with me, which of course they weren’t able to do in any kind of satisfactory way. Goodness. They even asked about my prescriptions, painkillers I got from the infirmary in my freshman year. There were file folders all over the place, data that no single person has access to—medical histories, psychological evaluations, faculty comments, work samples, grades.… Of course, they made a point of letting me see they had all these things. Trying to intimidate me, I suppose. I know pretty much exactly what my records say, but Cloke’s … bad grades, drugs, suspensions—I’d be willing to bet he’s left quite a little trail of paper behind him. I don’t know if it’s the records per se that have made them curious, or if it was something Cloke himself had said when he talked to them; but mostly what they wanted from me—and from Julian, and from Brady and Patrick Corcoran, to whom they spoke last night-were details of Bunny’s association with Cloke. Julian, of course, didn’t know anything about it. Brady and Patrick apparently told them plenty. And I did, too.”

  “What are you talking about?”

  “Well, I mean, Brady and Patrick were out in the parking lot of the Coachlight Inn smoking pot with him night before last.”

  “But what did you tell them?”

  “What Cloke told us. About the drug business in New York.”

  I leaned back in my chair. “Oh, my God,” I said. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

  “Of course,” said Henry serenely. “It was what they wanted to hear. They’d been circling around it all afternoon, when finally I decided to let it slip, they pounced.… I expect Cloke is in for an uncomfortable day or two but really, I think this is very fortunate for us. We couldn’t have asked for anything better to keep them busy until the snow melts—and have you noticed how bright it’s been the last couple of days? I think the roads are already starting to clear.”

  My black eye was the source of much interest, speculation, and debate—I told Francis that the FBI men had done it just to watch his eyes get round—but not nearly so much as was an article in the Boston Herald. They’d sent a reporter up the day before, as had the New York Post and the New York Daily News, but the Herald reporter had scooped them all.

  DRUGS MAY BE INVOLVED

  IN VERMONT DISAPPEARANCE

  Federal agents investigating the April 24 disappearance of Edmund Corcoran, a twenty-four-year-old Hampden College student who has been the subject of an intensive manhunt in Vermont for the past three days, have found that the missing youth may have been involved with drugs. Federal authorities who searched Corcoran’s room discovered drug paraphernalia and heavy cocaine residue. Though Corcoran had no known history of drug abuse, sources close to the boy say that the normally extroverted Corcoran had become moody and withdrawn in the months p
rior to the disappearance. (See “What Your Child Won’t Tell You,” p. 6.)

  We were puzzled by this account, though everyone else on campus seemed to know all about it. I got the story from Judy Poovey.

  “You know what it was they found in his room? It was, like, this mirror that belonged to Laura Stora. I bet everybody in Durbinstall has done coke off that thing. Really old, with little grooves carved in the side, Jack Teitelbaum used to call it the Snow Queen because you could always scrape up a line or two if you were desperate or something. And sure, I guess it’s technically her mirror, but really it’s kind of public property and she said she hadn’t even seen it in about a million years, somebody took it from a living room in one of the new houses in March. Bram Guernsey said that Cloke said it wasn’t in Bunny’s room when he was there before, that the Feds had planted it, but then Bram said that Cloke thought this whole thing was some kind of a set-up. A frame. Like in ‘Mission: Impossible,’ he meant, or one of those paranoia books by Philip K. Dick. He told Bram he thought the Feebies had a hidden camera planted somewhere in Durbinstall, all this wild stuff. Bram says it’s because Cloke is afraid to go to sleep and been up on crystal meth for forty-eight hours. He sits around in his room with the door locked and does lines and listens to this song by the Buffalo Springfield, over and over … you know that one? ‘Something’s happening here … what it is ain’t exactly clear.…’ It’s weird. People get upset, all of a sudden they want to listen to old hippie garbage they would never listen to if they were in their right mind, when my cat died I had to go out and borrow all these Simon and Garfunkel records. Anyway.” She lit a cigarette. “How did I get off on this? Right, Laura’s freaking out, somehow they traced the mirror to her and she’s already on probation, you know, had to do all this community service last fall because Flipper Leach got in trouble and ratted on Laura and Jack Teitelbaum—oh, you remember all that stuff, don’t you?”

  “I never heard of Flipper Leach.”

  “Oh, you know Flipper. She’s a bitch. Everybody calls her Flipper because she flipped over her dad’s Volvo, like, four times freshman year.”

  “I don’t understand what this Flipper person has to do with this.”

  “Well, she doesn’t have anything to do with it, Richard, you’re just like that guy in ‘Dragnet’ that always wants the facts. It’s just that Laura is freaking out, okay, and Student Services is threatening to call her parents unless she tells them how that mirror got in Bunny’s room, which she doesn’t even have a fucking clue, and, get this, those FBI men found out about the Ecstasy she had at Swing into Spring last week and they want her to give up the names. I said, ‘Laura, don’t do it, it’ll be just like that thing with Flipper and everybody’ll hate you and you’ll have to transfer to another school.’ It’s like Bram was saying—”

  “Where is Cloke now?”

  “That’s what I was going to tell you if you’d shut up a minute. Nobody knows. He was really wigged out and asked if he could borrow Bram’s car last night, to leave school, but this morning the car was back in the parking lot with the keys in it and nobody’s seen him and he’s not in his room and something weird is happening there, too, but for sure I don’t know what it is.… I just won’t even do meth anymore. Heebiejeebieville. By the way, I’ve been meaning to ask you, what did you do to your eye?”

  Back at Francis’s with the twins—Henry was having lunch with the Corcorans—I told them what Judy had told me.

  “But I know that mirror,” said Camilla.

  “I do, too,” said Francis. “Spotty old dark one. Bunny’s had it in his room for a while.”

  “I thought it was his.”

  “I wonder how he got hold of it.”

  “If the girl left it in a living room,” said Charles, “he probably just found it and took it.”

  This was highly probable. Bunny had had a mild tendency towards kleptomania, and was apt to pocket any small, valueless articles that caught his eye—nail clippers, buttons, spools of tape. These he hid around his room in jumbled little nests. It was a vice he practiced in secret, but at the same time he had felt no compunction about quite openly carrying away objects of greater value which he found unattended. He did this with such assurance and authority—tucking bottles of liquor or unguarded boxes from the florist under his arm and walking away without a backwards glance—that I wondered if he knew it was stealing. I once heard him explaining vigorously and quite unselfconsciously to Marion what he thought ought to be done to people who stole food from house refrigerators.

  As bad as things were for Laura Stora, they were worse for the luckless Cloke. We were to discover later that he had not brought Bram Guernsey’s car back of his own volition, but had been impelled to do so by the FBI agents, who had had him pulled over before he was ten miles out of Hampden. They took him back to the classroom where they had set up headquarters, and kept him there for most of Sunday night, and while I don’t know what they said to him, I do know that by Monday morning he had requested to have an attorney present at the interview.

  Mrs. Corcoran (said Henry) was burned up that anyone had dared suggest Bunny was on drugs. At lunch at the Brasserie, a reporter had edged up to the Corcoran table to ask if they had any comment to make about the “drug paraphernalia” found in Bunny’s room.

  Mr. Corcoran, startled, had lowered his eyebrows impressively and said, “Well, of course, haw, ahem,” but Mrs. Corcoran, sawing at her steak au poivre with subdued violence, launched without even looking up into a tart diatribe. Drug paraphernalia, as they chose to call it, was not drugs, and it was a pity the press chose to level accusations at persons not present to defend themselves, and she was having a hard enough time as it was without having strangers imply that her son was a drug kingpin. All of which was more or less reasonable and true, and which the Post reported dutifully the next day word for word, alongside an unflattering picture of Mrs. Corcoran with her mouth open and a headline which read: MOM SEZ: NOT MY KID.

  On Monday night, about two in the morning, Camilla asked me to walk her home from Francis’s. Henry had left around midnight; and Francis and Charles, who’d been drinking hard since four o’clock, showed no signs of slowing down. They were entrenched in Francis’s kitchen with the lights turned out, preparing, with what I felt was alarming hilarity, a series of hazardous cocktails called “Blue Blazers” which involved ignited whiskey poured back and forth in a flaming arc between two pewter mugs.

  At her apartment Camilla—shivering, preoccupied, her cheeks fever-red from the cold—asked me upstairs for a cup of tea. “I wonder if we should have left them there,” she said, switching on the lamp. “I’m afraid they’re going to set themselves on fire.”

  “They’ll be all right,” I said, though the same thought had occurred to me.

  We drank our tea. The lamplight was warm and the apartment still and snug. At home in bed, in my private abyss of longing, the scenes I dreamed of always began like this: drowsy drunken hour, the two of us alone, scenarios in which invariably she would brush against me as if by chance, or lean conveniently close, cheek touching mine, to point out a passage in a book; opportunities which I would seize, gently but manfully, as exordium to more violent pleasures.

  The teacup was too hot; it burned my fingertips. I set it down and looked at her—oblivious, smoking a cigarette, scarcely two feet away. I could lose myself forever in that singular little face, in the pessimism of her beautiful mouth. Come here, you. Let’s shut the light out, shall we? When I imagined these phrases cast in her voice, they were almost intolerably sweet; now, sitting right beside her, it was unthinkable that I should voice them myself.

  And yet: why should it be? She had been party to the killing of two men; had stood calm as a Madonna and watched Bunny die. I remembered Henry’s cool voice, scarcely six weeks earlier. There was a certain carnal element to the proceedings, yes.

  “Camilla?” I said.

  She glanced up, distracted.

  “What really happe
ned, that night in the woods?”

  I think I had been expecting, if not surprise, at least a show of it. But she didn’t blink. “Well, I don’t remember an awful lot,” she said slowly. “And what I do remember is almost impossible to describe. It’s all much less clear than it was even a few months ago. I suppose I should have tried to write it down or something.”

  “But what do you remember?”

  It was a moment before she answered. “Well, I’m sure you’ve heard it all from Henry,” she said. “It seems a bit silly to even say it aloud. I remember a pack of dogs. Snakes twining around my arms. Trees on fire, pines bursting into flames like enormous torches. There was a fifth person with us for part of the time.”

  “A fifth person?”

  “It wasn’t always a person.”

  “I don’t know what you mean.”

  “You know what the Greeks called Dionysus. . The Many-Formed One. Sometimes it was a man, sometimes a woman. And sometimes something else. I—I’ll tell you something that I do remember,” she said abruptly.

 
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