The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  “What?” I said, hopeful at last for some passionate, back-clawing detail.

  “That dead man. Lying on the ground. His stomach was torn open and steam was coming out of it.”

  “His stomach?”

  “It was a cold night. I’ll never forget the smell of it, either. Like when my uncle used to cut up deer. Ask Francis. He remembers, too.”

  I was too horrified to say anything. She reached for the teapot and poured a bit more into her cup. “Do you know,” she said, “why I think we’re having such bad luck this time around?”

  “What?”

  “Because it’s terrible luck to leave a body unburied. That farmer they found straight away, you know. But remember poor Palinurus in the Aeneid? He lingered around and haunted them for the longest time. I’m afraid that none of us are going to have a good night’s sleep until Bunny’s in the ground.”

  “That’s nonsense.”

  She laughed. “In the fourth century B.C., the sailing of the entire Attic fleet was delayed just because a soldier sneezed.”

  “You’ve been talking too much to Henry.”

  She was silent for a moment. Then she said: “Do you know what Henry made us do, a couple of days after that thing in the woods?”

  “What?”

  “He made us kill a piglet.”

  I was not shocked so much by this statement as by the eerie calm with which she delivered it. “Oh, my God,” I said.

  “We cut its throat. Then we took turns holding it over each other, so it bled on our heads and hands. It was awful. I nearly got sick.”

  It seemed to me that the wisdom of deliberately covering oneself with blood—even pig blood—immediately after committing a murder was questionable, but all I said was: “Why did he want to do that?”

  “Murder is pollution. The murderer defiles everyone he comes into contact with. And the only way to purify blood is through blood. We let the pig bleed on us. Then we went inside and washed it off. After that, we were okay.”

  “Are you trying to tell me,” I said, “that—”

  “Oh, don’t worry,” she said hastily. “I don’t think he plans on doing anything like that this time.”

  “Why? Didn’t it work?”

  She failed to catch the sarcasm of this. “Oh, no,” she said. “I think it worked, all right.”

  “Then why not do it again?”

  “Because I think Henry has got the idea that it might upset you.”

  There was the fumble of a key in the lock, and a few moments later Charles plunged through the door. He shouldered his coat off and let it fall in a heap on the rug.

  “Hello, hello,” he sang, lurching inside and shedding his jacket in the same fashion. He had not come into the living room, but made an abrupt turn into the hallway which led to bedrooms and bath. A door opened, then another. “Milly, my girl,” I heard him call. “Where are you, honey?”

  “Oh, dear,” said Camilla. Out loud, she said: “We’re in here, Charles.”

  Charles reappeared. His tie was now loosened and his hair was wild. “Camilla,” he said, leaning against the doorframe, “Camilla,” and then he saw me.

  “You,” he said, not too politely. “What are you doing here?”

  “We’re just having some tea,” said Camilla. “Would you like some?”

  “No.” He turned and disappeared into the hall again. “Too late. Going to bed.”

  A door slammed. Camilla and I looked at each other. I stood up.

  “Well,” I said, “better be heading home.”

  There were still search parties, but the number of participating townspeople had shrunk dramatically, and almost no students remained at all. The operation had turned tight, secretive, professional. I heard the police had brought in a psychic, a fingerprint expert, a special team of bloodhounds trained at Dannemora. Perhaps because I imagined that I was tainted with a secret pollution, imperceptible to most but perhaps discernible to the nose of a dog (in movies, the dog is always the first to know the suave and unsuspected vampire for what it is), the thought of the bloodhounds made me superstitious and I tried to stay as far away from dogs as I could, all dogs, even the dopey Labrador mutts who belonged to the ceramics teacher and were always running around with their tongues hanging out, looking for a game of Frisbee. Henry—imagining, perhaps, some trembling Kassandra gibbering prophecies to a chorus of policemen—was far more concerned about the psychic. “If they’re going to find us out,” he said, with glum certainty, “that’s how it’s going to happen.”

  “Certainly you don’t believe in that stuff.”

  He gave me a look of indescribable contempt.

  “You amaze me,” he said. “You think nothing exists if you can’t see it.”

  The psychic was a young mother from upstate New York. An electrical shock from some jumper cables had put her into a coma from which she emerged, three weeks later, able to “know” things by handling an object or touching a stranger’s hand. The police had used her successfully in a number of missing-person cases. Once she had found the body of a strangled child by merely pointing to an area on a surveyor’s map. Henry, who was so superstitious that he sometimes left a saucer of milk outside his door to appease any malevolent spirits who might happen to wander by, watched her, fascinated, as she walked alone on the edge of campus—thick glasses, suburban car coat, red hair tied up in a polka-dot scarf.

  “It’s unfortunate,” he said. “I don’t dare risk meeting her. But I should like to talk to her very much.”

  The majority of our classmates, however, were thrown into an uproar by the information—accurate or not, I still don’t know—that the Drug Enforcement Agency had brought in agents and was conducting an undercover investigation. Théophile Gautier, writing about the effect of Vigny’s Chatterton on the youth of Paris, said that in the nineteenth-century night one could practically hear the crack of the solitary pistols: here, now, in Hampden, the night was alive with the flushing of toilets. Pillheads, cokeheads staggered around glassy-eyed, dazed at their sudden losses. Someone flushed so much pot down one of the toilets in the sculpture studio they had to get somebody in from the Water Department to dig up the septic tank.

  About four-thirty on Monday afternoon, Charles showed up at my room. “Hello,” he said. “Want to get something to eat?”

  “Where’s Camilla?”

  “Somewhere, I don’t know,” he said, his pale glance skittering across my room. “Do you want to come?”

  “Well … sure,” I said.

  He brightened. “Good. I’ve got a taxi downstairs.”

  The taxi driver—a florid man named Junior who’d driven Bunny and me into town that first fall afternoon, and who in three days would be driving Bunny back to Connecticut for the last time, this time in a hearse—looked back at us in the rear-view mirror as we pulled out onto College Drive. “You boys going to the Brassiere?” he said.

  He meant the Brasserie. It was the little joke he always had with us. “Yes,” I said.

  “No,” said Charles quite suddenly. He was slouched down childishly low against the door, staring straight ahead and drumming on the armrest with his fingers. “We want to go to 1910 Catamount Street.”

  “Where’s that?” I said to him.

  “Oh, I hope you don’t mind,” he said, almost looking at me but not quite. “Just feel like a change. It’s not far and besides, I’m sick of the food at the Brasserie, aren’t you?”

  The place where we wound up—a bar called the Farmer’s Inn—was not remarkable for its food, or its decor—folding chairs and Formica tables—or for its sparse clientele, which was mostly rural, drunken, and over sixty-five. It was, in fact, inferior to the Brasserie in every respect but one, which was that really very sizable shots of off-brand whiskey could be got at the bar for fifty cents each.

  We sat at the end of the bar by the television set. A basketball game was on. The barmaid—in her fifties, with turquoise eye shadow and lots of turquoise rings to match—lo
oked us over, our suits and ties. She seemed startled by Charles’s order of two double whiskeys and a club sandwich. “What the hey,” she said, in a voice like a macaw. “They’re letting you boys have a snort now and then, huh?”

  I didn’t know what she meant—was this some dig at our clothes, at Hampden College, did she want to see our IDs? Charles, who only the moment before had been sunk in gloom, glanced up and fixed her with a smile of great warmth and sweetness. He had a way with waitresses. They always hovered over him in restaurants and went to all kinds of special trouble on his behalf.

  This one looked at him—pleased, incredulous—and barked with laughter. “Well, ain’t that a kick,” she said hoarsely, reaching with a heavily ringed hand for the Silva-Thin burning in the ashtray beside her. “And here I thought you Mormon kids that went around wasn’t even suppose to drink Coca-Cola.”

  As soon as she sauntered back to the kitchen to turn in our order (“Bill!” we heard her saying, behind the swinging doors. “Hey, Bill! Listen to this!”), the smile faded from Charles’s face. He reached for his drink and offered a humorless shrug when I tried to catch his eye.

  “Sorry,” he said. “I hope you don’t mind coming here. It’s cheaper than the Brasserie and we won’t see anybody.”

  He was not in a mood to talk—ebullient sometimes, he could also be as mute and sulky as a child—and he drank steadily, with both his elbows on the bar and his hair falling down in his face. When his sandwich came he picked it apart, ate the bacon and left the rest, while I drank my drink and watched the Lakers. It was weird to be there, in that clammy dark bar in Vermont, and watching them play. Back in California, at my old college, they’d had a pub called Falstaff’s with a wide-screen television; I’d had a dopey friend named Carl who used to drag me there to drink dollar beer and watch basketball. He was probably there now, on a redwood bar stool, watching this exact game.

  I was thinking these depressing thoughts and others like them, and Charles was on his fourth or fifth whiskey when somebody started switching the television with a remote control: “Jeopardy,” “Wheel of Fortune,” “MacNeil/Lehrer,” at last a local talk show. It was called “Tonight in Vermont.” The set was styled after a New England farmhouse, with mock Shaker furniture and antique farm equipment, pitchforks and so forth, hanging from the clapboard backdrop. Liz Ocavello was the host. In imitation of Oprah and Phil, she had a question-and-answer period at the end of each show, generally not too lively since her guests tended to be pretty tame—the State Commissioner for Veterans’ Affairs, Shriners announcing a blood drive (“What’s that address again, Joe?”).

  Her guest that evening, though it was several moments before I realized it, was William Hundy. He had on a suit—not the blue leisure suit but an old one the likes of which a rural preacher might wear—and he was talking authoritatively, for some reason I did not immediately understand, about Arabs and OPEC. “That OPEC,” he said, “is the reason we don’t have Texaco filling stations anymore. I remember when I was a boy it was Texaco stations all over the place but these Arabs, it was some kind of, what you call, leverage buyout—”

  “Look,” I said to Charles, but by the time I’d got him to glance up from his stupor they’d switched back to “Jeopardy.”

  “What?” he said.

  “Nothing.”

  “Jeopardy,” “Wheel of Fortune,” back to “MacNeil-Lehrer” for kind of a long time until someone yelled, “Turn that shit off, Dotty.”

  “Well, what you want to watch, then?”

  “ ‘Wheel of Fortune,’ ” shouted a hoarse chorus.

  But “Wheel of Fortune” was going off the air (Vanna blowing a glittery kiss) and the next thing I knew we were back in the simulated farmhouse with William Hundy. He was talking now about his appearance the previous morning on the “Today” show.

  “Look,” said someone, “there’s that guy runs Redeemed Repair.”

  “He don’t run it.”

  “Who does, then?”

  “Him and Bud Alcorn both do.”

  “Aw, shut up, Bobby.”

  “Naw,” said Mr. Hundy, “didn’t see Willard Scott. Reckon I wouldn’t have known what to said if I had. It’s a big operation they got there, course it don’t look so big on the TV.”

  I kicked Charles’s foot.

  “Yeah,” he said, without interest, and brought his glass up with an unsteady hand.

  I was surprised to see how outspoken Mr. Hundy had become in just four days. I was even more surprised to see how warmly the studio audience responded to him—asking concerned questions on topics ranging from the criminal justice system to the role of the small businessman in the community, roaring with laughter at his feeble jokes. It seemed to me that such popularity could only be incidental to what he had seen, or claimed to see. His stunned and stuttering air was gone. Now, with his hands folded over his stomach, answering questions with the pacific smile of a pontiff granting dispensations, he was so perfectly at his ease that there was something palpably dishonest about it. I wondered why no one else, apparently, could see it.

  A small, dark man in shirtsleeves, who had been waving his hand in the air for some time, was finally called upon by Liz and stood up. “My name is Adnan Nassar and I am Palestinian-American,” he said in a rush. “I came to this country from Syria nine years ago and have since then earned American citizenship and am assistant manager of the Pizza Pad on Highway 6.”

  Mr. Hundy put his head to the side. “Well, Adnan,” he said cordially, “I expect that story would be pretty unusual in your own country. But here, that’s the way the system works. For everybody. And that’s regardless of your race or the color of your skin.” Applause.

  Liz, microphone in hand, made her way down the aisle and pointed at a lady with a bouffant hairdo, but the Palestinian angrily waved his arms and the camera shifted back to him.

  “That is not the point,” he said. “I am an Arab and I resent the racial slurs you make against my people.”

  Liz walked back to the Palestinian and put her hand on his arm, Oprah-style, to comfort him. William Hundy, sitting in his mock-Shaker chair on the podium, shifted slightly as he leaned forward. “You like it here?” he said shortly.

  “Yes.”

  “You want to go back?”

  “Now,” Liz said loudly. “Nobody is trying to say that—”

  “Because the boats,” said Mr. Hundy, even louder, “run both ways.”

  Dotty, the barmaid, laughed admiringly and took a drag off her cigarette. “That’s telling him,” she said.

  “Where your family comes from?” said the Arab sarcastically. “You American Indian or what?”

  Mr. Hundy did not appear to have heard this. “I’ll pay for you to go back,” he said. “How much is a one-way ticket to Baghdad going for these days? If you want me to, I’ll—”

  “I think,” Liz said hastily, “that you’ve misunderstood what this gentleman is trying to say. He’s just trying to make the point that—” She put her arm around the Palestinian’s shoulders and he threw it off in a rage.

  “All night long you say offensive things about Arabs,” he screamed. “You don’t know what Arab is.” He beat on his chest with his fist. “I know it, in my heart.”

  “You and your buddy Saddam Hussein.”

  “How dare you say we are all greedy, driving big cars? This is very offensive to me. I am Arabic and I conserve the natural resource—”

  “By setting fire to all them oil wells, eh?”

  “—by driving a Toyota Corolla.”

  “I wasn’t talking about you in particular,” said Hundy. “I was talking about them OPEC creepos and them sick people kidnapped that boy. You think they’re driving around in Toyota Corollas? You think we condone terrorism here? Is that what they do in your country?”

  “You lie,” shouted the Arab.

  For a moment, in confusion, the camera went to Liz Ocavello; she was staring, without seeing, right out of the screen and I knew she was
thinking exactly what I was thinking, oh, boy, oh, boy, here it comes …

  “It ain’t a lie,” said Hundy hotly. “I know. I been in the service station business for thirty years. You think I don’t remember, when Carter was President, you had us over such a barrel, back in nineteen and seventy-five? And now all you people coming over here, acting like you own the place, with all your chick peas and your filthy little pocket breads?”

  Liz was looking to the side, trying to mouth instructions.

  The Arab screamed out a frightful obscenity.

  “Hold it! Stop!” shouted Liz Ocavello in despair.

  Mr. Hundy leapt to his feet, eyes blazing, pointing a trembling forefinger into the audience. “Sand niggers!” he shouted bitterly. “Sand niggers! Sand—”

  The camera jerked away and panned wildly to the side of the set, a tangle of black cables, hooded lights. It wavered in and out of focus and then, with a jerk, a commercial for McDonald’s came on the screen.

  “Whooo-hoo,” someone shouted appreciatively.

  There was scattered clapping.

  “Did you hear that?” said Charles, after a pause.

  I had forgotten all about him. His voice was slurred and his hair fell sweaty across his forehead. “Be careful,” I said to him in Greek, and nodded toward the barmaid. “She can hear you.”

  He mumbled something, wobbling on his bar stool, all padded glitter-vinyl and chrome.

  “Let’s go. It’s late,” I said, fumbling in my pocket for money.

  Unsteadily, his gaze locked on mine, he leaned over and caught hold of my wrist. The light from the jukebox caught and glinted in his eyes, making them strange, crazed, the luminous killer eyes that sometimes glow unexpectedly from a friend’s face in a snapshot.

  “Shut up, old man,” he said. “Listen.”

  I pulled my hand away and swung round on the stool but just as I did it I heard a long, dry rumble. Thunder.

  We looked at each other.

  “It’s raining,” he whispered.

  All that night it fell, warm rain, dripping from the eaves and pattering at my window, while I lay flat on my back with my eyes wide open, listening.

 
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