The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  All that night it rained and all the next morning: warm, gray, coming down soft and steady as a dream.

  When I woke up I knew they were going to find him that day, knew it in my stomach from the moment I looked out my window at the snow, rotten and pocky, patches of slimy grass and everywhere drip drip drip.

  It was one of those mysterious, oppressive days we sometimes had at Hampden, where the mountains that lowered at the horizon were swallowed up in fog and the world seemed light and empty, dangerous somehow. Walking around campus, the wet grass squishing beneath your feet, you felt as if you were in Olympus, Valhalla, some old abandoned land above the clouds; the landmarks that you knew—clocktower, houses—floating up like memories from a former life, isolated and disconnected in the mist.

  Drizzle and damp. Commons smelled like wet clothes, everything dark and subdued. I found Henry and Camilla upstairs at a table by the window, a full ashtray between them, Camilla with her chin propped in her hand and a cigarette burning low between her ink-stained fingers.

  The main dining room was on the second floor, in a modern addition that jutted over a loading dock in the back. Huge, rain-splashed panes of glass—tinted gray, so they made the day seem drearier than it was—walled us in on three sides and we had a prime view of the loading dock itself, where the butter and egg trucks pulled up early in the morning, and of the slick black road that wound through the trees and disappeared in the mist in the direction of North Hampden.

  There was tomato soup for lunch, coffee with skim milk because they were out of plain. Rain pittered against the plate glass windows. Henry was distracted. The FBI had paid him another visit the night before—what they wanted he didn’t say—and he was talking on and on in a low voice about Schliemann’s Ilios, the fingertips of his big square hands poised on the table’s edge as if it were a Ouija board. When I’d lived with him over the winter, he would sometimes go on for hours in these didactic monologues, reeling off a pedantic and astonishingly accurate torrent of knowledge with the slow, transfixed calm of a subject under hypnosis. He was talking about the excavation of Hissarlik: “a terrible place, a cursed place,” he said dreamily—cities and cities buried beneath each other, cities torn down, cities burnt and their bricks melted to glass … a terrible place, he said absently, a cursed place, nests of tiny brown adders of the sort that the Greeks call antelion and thousands and thousands of little owl-headed death gods (goddesses, really, some hideous prototype of Athena) staring fanatical and rigid from the engraved illustrations.

  I didn’t know where Francis was, but there was no need to ask about Charles. The night before I’d had to bring him home in a taxi, help him upstairs and into bed, where, judging from the condition in which I’d left him, he still was now. Two cream cheese and marmalade sandwiches lay wrapped in napkins by Camilla’s plate. She hadn’t been there when I brought Charles home, and she looked like she’d just got out of bed herself: tousle-haired, no lipstick, wearing a gray wool sweater that came down past her wrists. Smoke drifted from her cigarette in wisps that were the color of the sky outside. A tiny white speck of a car came singing down the wet road from town, far away, twisting with the black curves and growing larger by the moment.

  It was late. Lunch was over, people were leaving. A misshapen old janitor trudged in with mop and pail and began, with weary grunting noises, to slop water on the floor by the beverage center.

  Camilla was staring out the window. Suddenly, her eyes got wide. Slowly, incredulously, she raised her head; and then she was scrambling out of her chair, craning to see.

  I saw, too, and jumped forward. An ambulance was parked directly beneath us. Two attendants, pursued by a pack of photographers, hurried past with their heads bent against the rain and a stretcher between them. The form upon it was covered with a sheet but, just before they shoved it through the double doors (long, easy motion, like bread sliding into the oven) and slammed them shut, I saw, hanging down from the edge, five or six inches of yellow rain slicker.

  Shouts, far away, downstairs in Commons; doors slamming, a growing confusion, voices shouting down voices and then one hoarse voice, rising above the others: “Is he living?”

  Henry took a deep breath. Then he closed his eyes; and exhaling sharply, a hand to his chest, he fell back in his chair as if he’d been shot.

  This is what happened.

  At about one-thirty on Tuesday afternoon, Holly Goldsmith, an eighteen-year-old freshman from Taos, New Mexico, decided to take her golden retriever, Milo, for a walk.

  Holly, who studied modern dance, knew of the search for Bunny but like most students of her year had not participated in it, taking advantage of the unexpected recess to catch up on sleep and study for midterms. Quite understandably, she did not wish to run into a search party while on her outing. Therefore she decided to take Milo out behind the tennis courts to the ravine, since it had been canvassed days before and was, besides, a spot of which the dog was especially fond.

  This is what Holly said:

  “When we were out of sight of campus, I unhooked Milo’s leash so he could run around by himself. He likes to do that.…

  “So I was just standing there [at the edge of the ravine] waiting for him. He’d scrambled over the embankment and was running around and barking, usual stuff. I’d forgot his tennis ball that day. I thought it was in my pocket but it wasn’t, so I went off and found a few sticks to throw to him. When I came back to the edge of the embankment, I saw he had something in his teeth, shaking it from side to side. He wouldn’t come when I called him. I thought he had a rabbit or something.…

  “I guess Milo had dug him up, his head and his, um, chest, I guess—I couldn’t see very well. It was the glasses I noticed … slipped off one [ear] and kind of flopping back and forth like … yes, please … licking his face … I thought for a moment he was …” [unintelligible].

  The three of us went rapidly downstairs (gaping janitor, cooks peeping from the kitchen, the cafeteria ladies in their nurse cardigans leaning over the balustrade) past the snack bar, past the post office where for once the red-wigged lady at the switchboard had put aside her afghan and her bag of variegated yarns and was standing in the doorway, crumpled Kleenex in hand, following us curiously with her eyes as we rushed through the hall and into the main room of Commons, where stood a cluster of grim-looking policemen, the sheriff, the game warden, security guards, a strange girl crying and someone taking pictures and everybody talking at once until someone looked up at us and shouted: “Hey! You! Didn’t you know the boy?”

  Flashbulbs went off everywhere and there was a riot of microphones and camcorders in our faces.

  “How long had you known him?”

  “… drug-related incident?”

  “… traveled across Europe, is that right?”

  Henry passed a hand over his face; I’ll never forget the way he looked, white as talc, beads of sweat on his upper lip and the light bouncing off his glasses … “Leave me alone,” he muttered, seizing Camilla by the wrist and trying to push through to the door.

  They crowded forward to block his path.

  “… care to comment …?”

  “… best friends?”

  The black snout of a camcorder was thrust in his face. With a sweep of his arm Henry knocked it away and it fell on the floor with a loud crack, batteries rolling in all directions. The owner—a fat man in a Mets cap—shrieked, stooped partway to the floor in consternation, then sprang up, cursing, as if to grab the retreating Henry by the collar. His fingers brushed the back of Henry’s jacket and Henry turned, surprisingly quick.

  The man shrank. It was funny, but people never seemed to notice at first glance how big Henry was. Maybe it was because of his clothes, which were like one of those lame but curiously impenetrable disguises from a comic book (why does no one ever see that “bookish” Clark Kent, without his glasses, is Superman?). Or maybe it was a question of his making people see. He had the far more remarkable talent of making himself invi
sible—in a room, in a car, a virtual ability to dematerialize at will—and perhaps this gift was only the converse of that one: the sudden concentration of his wandering molecules rendering his shadowy form solid, all at once, a metamorphosis startling to the viewer.

  The ambulance had gone. The roads stretched out slick and empty in the drizzle. Agent Davenport was hurrying up the steps to Commons, head down, black shoes slapping on the wet marble. When he saw us, he stopped. Sciola, behind him, climbed laboriously up the last two or three steps, bracing his knee with his palm. He stood behind Davenport and regarded us for a moment, breathing hard. “I’m sorry,” he said.

  An airplane went by overhead, invisible above the clouds.

  “He is dead, then,” said Henry.

  “Afraid so.”

  The buzz of the airplane receded in the damp, windy distance.

  “Where was he?” said Henry at last. He was pale, pale and sweaty at the temples but perfectly composed. There was a flat sound in his voice.

  “In the woods,” said Davenport.

  “Not far,” Sciola said, rubbing with a knuckle at his pouchy eye. “Half a mile from here.”

  “Were you there?”

  Sciola stopped rubbing his eye. “What?”

  “Were you there when they found him?”

  “We were at the Blue Ben having some lunch,” said Davenport briskly. He was breathing heavily through the nostrils and his ginger brush cut was beaded with droplets of condensed mist. “We went down for a look. Right now we’re on the way to see the family.”

  “Don’t they know?” said Camilla, after a shocked pause.

  “It’s not that,” said Sciola. He was patting his chest, fumbling gently with long yellow fingers in the pocket of his overcoat. “We’re taking them a release form. We’d like to send him down to the lab in Newark, have some tests run. Cases like this, though—” his hand closed upon something, very slowly he drew out a crumpled pack of Pall Malls—“cases like this, it’s hard to get the family to sign. Can’t say I blame them. These folks have been waiting around a week already, the family’s all together, they’re going to want to go ahead and bury him and get it over with.…”

  “What happened?” said Henry. “Do you know?”

  Sciola rummaged for a light, found it, got his cigarette lit after two or three tries. “Hard to say,” he said, letting the match fall, still burning, from his fingers. “He was at the bottom of a drop-off with a broken neck.”

  “You don’t think he might have killed himself?”

  Sciola’s expression did not change, but a wisp of smoke curled from his nostrils in a manner subtly indicative of surprise. “Why do you say that?”

  “Because someone inside said it just now.”

  He glanced over at Davenport. “I wouldn’t pay any attention to these people, son,” he said. “I don’t know what the police are going to find, and it’s going to be their decision, you understand, but I don’t think they’ll rule it a suicide.”

  “Why?”

  He blinked at us placidly, his eyes balled and heavy-lidded like a tortoise’s. “There’s no indication of it,” he said. “That I’m aware. The sheriff thinks maybe he was out there, he wasn’t dressed warm enough, the weather got bad and maybe he was just in too big of a hurry to get home.…”

  “And they don’t know for sure,” said Davenport, “but it looks like he might’ve been drinking.”

  Sciola made a weary, Italianate gesture of resignation. “Even if he wasn’t,” he said. “The ground was muddy. It was raining. It could’ve been dark for all we know.”

  Nobody said anything for several long moments.

  “Look, son,” said Sciola, not unkindly. “It’s just my opinion, but if you ask me, your friend didn’t kill himself. I saw the place he went over. The brush at the edge was all, you know—” he made a feeble, flicking gesture at the air.

  “Torn up,” said Davenport brusquely. “Dirt under his nails. When that kid went down he was grabbing at anything he could get a hold of.”

  “Nobody’s trying to say how it happened,” said Sciola. “I’m just saying, don’t believe everything you hear. That’s a dangerous place up there, they ought to fence it off or something.… Maybe you’d better sit down a minute, you think, honey?” he said to Camilla, who was looking a bit green.

  “The college is going to get stuck either way,” said Davenport. “From the way that lady in Student Services was talking I can already see them trying to dodge liability. If he got drunk at that college party.… There was a suit like this up in Nashua, where I’m from, about two years ago. A kid got drunk at some fraternity party, passed out in a snowbank, they didn’t find him till the plows came through. I guess it all depends on how drunk they were and where they got their last drink but even if he wasn’t drunk it looks pretty bad for the college, doesn’t it? Kid’s off at school, he has an accident like this right on the campus? All due respect to the parents, but I’ve met them, and they’re the type’s gonna sue.”

  “How do you think it happened?” said Henry to Sciola.

  This line of questioning did not seem to me to be a wise one, especially here, now, but Sciola grinned, a gaunt, toothy expanse, like an old dog or an opossum—too many teeth, discolored, stained. “Me?” he said.

  “Yes.”

  He didn’t say anything for a moment, just took a drag of his cigarette and nodded. “It doesn’t make any difference what I think, son,” he said after a pause. “This isn’t a federal case.”

  “What?”

  “He means it’s not a federal case,” Davenport said sharply. “There’s no federal offense committed here. It’s for the local cops to decide. The reason they called us up here in the first place was because of that nut, you know, from the gas station, and he didn’t have anything to do with it. D.C. faxed us a lot of information on him before we came. You want to know what kind of a nut he is? He used to send all this crank mail to Anwar Sadat in the 1970s. Ex-Lax, dog turds, mail order catalogues with pictures of nude Oriental women in them. Nobody paid much attention to him, but when Mr. Sadat was assassinated in, when was it, ’82, the CIA ran a check on Hundy and it was the Agency made available the files we saw. Never been arrested or anything but what a nut. Runs up thousand-dollar phone bills making prank calls to the Middle East. I saw this letter he wrote to Golda Meir where he called her his kissing cousin.… I mean, you have to be suspicious when somebody like him steps forward. Seemed harmless enough, wasn’t even after the reward—we had an undercover approach him with a phony check, he wouldn’t touch it. But it’s the ones like him that you’ve really got to wonder. I remember Morris Lee Harden back in ’78, seemed like the sweetest thing going, repairing all those clocks and watches and giving them to the poor kids, but I’ll never forget the day they went out behind that jewelry shop of his with the backhoe.…”

  “These kids don’t remember Morris, Harv,” said Sciola, letting the cigarette fall from his fingers. “That was before their time.”

  We stood there a moment or two longer, an awkward semicircle on the flagstones, and just as it seemed that everyone was going to open his mouth at once and say he had to be going, I heard a strange, choked noise from Camilla. I looked over at her in amazement. She was crying.

  For a moment, no one seemed to know what to do. Davenport gave Henry and me a disgusted look and turned half away as if to say: this is all your fault.

  Sciola, blinking in slow, somber consternation, twice reached to put his hand upon her arm, and on the third try his slow fingertips finally made contact with her elbow. “Dear,” he said to her, “dear, you want us to drop you off home on our way?”

  Their car—a car you’d expect, a black Ford sedan—was parked at the bottom of the hill, in the gravel lot behind the Science Building. Camilla walked ahead between the two of them. Sciola was talking to her, as soothingly as to a child; we could hear him above the crunching footsteps, the drip of water and the sift of wind in the trees overhead. “Is y
our brother at home?” he said.

  “Yes.”

  He nodded slowly. “You know,” he said, “I like your brother. He’s a good kid. It’s funny, but I didn’t know a boy and a girl could be twins. Did you know that, Harv?” he said over her head.

  “No.”

  “I didn’t know it, either. Did you look more alike when you were little kids? I mean, there’s a family resemblance, but your hair’s not even quite the same color. My wife, she’s got some cousins, they’re twins. They both look alike and they both work for the Welfare Department, too.” He paused peacefully. “You and your brother, you get along pretty well, don’t you?”

  She made a muffled reply.

  He nodded somberly. “That’s nice,” he said. “I bet you kids have some interesting stories. About ESP and things like that. My wife’s cousins, they go to these twin conventions they have sometimes, you wouldn’t believe the things they come back and tell us.”

  White sky. Trees fading at the skyline, the mountains gone. My hands dangled from the cuffs of my jacket as if they weren’t my own. I never got used to the way the horizon there could just erase itself and leave you marooned, adrift, in an incomplete dreamscape that was like a sketch for the world you knew—the outline of a single tree standing in for a grove, lamp-posts and chimneys floating up out of context before the surrounding canvas was filled in—an amnesia-land, a kind of skewed Heaven where the old landmarks were recognizable but spaced too far apart, and disarranged, and made terrible by the emptiness around them.

  An old shoe was lying on the asphalt in front of the loading dock, where the ambulance had been only minutes before. It wasn’t Bunny’s shoe. I don’t know whose it was or how it got there. It was just an old tennis shoe lying on its side. I don’t know why I remember that now, or why it made such an impression on me.

  CHAPTER

  7

 
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