The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  Actually, the Corcorans had invited quite a few people from Hampden—dorm acquaintances, people I didn’t know Bunny even knew. A girl named Sophie Dearbold, whom I knew slightly from French class, was to ride down with Francis and me.

  “How did Bunny know her?” I asked Francis on the way to her dorm.

  “I don’t think he did, not well. He did have a crush on her, though, freshman year. I’m sure Marion won’t like it a bit that they’ve asked her.”

  Though I’d feared that the ride down might be awkward, in fact it was a wonderful relief to be around a stranger. We almost had fun, with the radio going and Sophie (brown-eyed, gravel-voiced) leaning on folded arms over the front seat talking to us, and Francis in a better mood than I’d seen him in in ages. “You look like Audrey Hepburn,” he told her, “you know that?” She gave us Kools and cinnamon gumballs, told funny stories. I laughed and looked out the window and prayed we’d miss our turn. I had never been to Connecticut in my life. I had never been to a funeral, either.

  Shady Brook was on a narrow road that veered off sharply from the highway and twisted along for many miles, over bridges, past farmland and horse pastures and fields. After a time the rolling meadows segued into a golf course. SHADY BROOK COUNTRY CLUB, said the wood-burned sign that swung in front of the mock-Tudor clubhouse. The houses began after that–large, handsome, widely spaced, each set on its own six or seven acres of land.

  The place was like a maze. Frances looked for numbers on the mailboxes, nosing into one false trail after another and backing out again, cursing, grinding the gears. There were no signs and no apparent logic to the house numbers, and after we’d poked around blind for about half an hour, I began to hope that we would never find it at all, that we could just turn around and have a jolly ride back to Hampden.

  But of course we did find it. At the end of its own cul-de-sac, it was a large modern house of the “architectural” sort, bleached cedar, its split levels and asymmetrical terraces self-consciously bare. The yard was paved with black cinder, and there was no greenery at all except a few gingko trees in postmodern tubs, placed at dramatic intervals.

  “Wow,” said Sophie, a true Hampden girl, ever dutiful in homage to the New.

  I looked over at Francis and he shrugged.

  “His mom likes modern architecture,” he said.

  I had never seen the man who answered the door but with a sick, dreamlike feeling I recognized him instantly. He was big and red in the face, with a heavy jaw and a full head of white hair; for a moment he stared at us, his smallish mouth fallen open into a tight, round o. Then, surprisingly boyish and quick, he sprang forward and seized Francis’s hand. “Well,” he said. “Well, well, well.” His voice was nasal, garrulous, Bunny’s voice. “If it’s not the old Carrot Top. How are you, boy?”

  “Pretty good,” said Francis, and I was a little surprised at the depth and warmth with which he said it, and the strength with which he returned the handshake.

  Mr. Corcoran slung a heavy arm around his neck and pulled him close. “This one’s my boy,” he said to Sophie and me, reaching up to tousle Francis’s hair. “All my brothers were redheads and out of my boys there’s not an honest-to-god redhead in the bunch. Can’t understand it. Who are you, sweetheart?” he said to Sophie, disengaging his arm and reaching for her hand.

  “Hi. I’m Sophie Dearbold.”

  “Well, you’re mighty pretty. Isn’t she pretty, boys. You look just like your aunt Jean, honey.”

  “What?” said Sophie, after a confused pause.

  “Why, your aunt, honey. Your daddy’s sister. That pretty Jean Lickfold that won the ladies’ golf tournament out at the club last year.”

  “No, sir. Dearbold.

  “Dearfold. Well, isn’t that strange. I don’t know of any Dearfolds around here. Now, I used to know a fellow name of Breedlow, but that must have been, oh, twenty years ago. He was in business. They say he embezzled a cool five million from his partner.”

  “I’m not from around here.”

  He cocked an eyebrow at her, in a manner reminiscent of Bunny. “No?” he said.

  “No.”

  “Not from Shady Brook?” He said it as if he could hardly believe it.

  “No.”

  “Then where you from, honey? Greenwich?”

  “Detroit.”

  “Bless your heart then. To come all this way.”

  Sophie, smiling, shook her head and started to explain when, with absolutely no warning, Mr. Corcoran flung his arms around her and burst into tears.

  We were frozen with horror. Sophie’s eyes, over his heaving shoulder, were round and aghast as if he’d run her through with a knife.

  “Oh, darling,” he wailed, his face buried deep in her neck. “Honey, how are we going to get along without him?”

  “Come on, Mr. Corcoran,” said Francis, tugging at his sleeve.

  “We loved him a lot, honey,” sobbed Mr. Corcoran. “Didn’t we? He loved you, too. He would have wanted you to know that. You know that, don’t you, dear?”

  “Mr. Corcoran,” said Francis, grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him hard. “Mr. Corcoran.”

  He turned and fell back against Francis, bellowing.

  I ran around to the other side and managed to get his arm around my neck. His knees sagged; he almost pulled me down but somehow, staggering beneath his weight, Francis and I got him to his feet and together we maneuvered him inside and weaved down the hall with him (“Oh, shit,” I heard Sophie murmur, “shit.”) and got him into a chair.

  He was still crying. His face was purple. When I reached down to loosen his collar he grabbed me by the wrist. “Gone,” he wailed, looking me straight in the eye. “My baby.”

  His gaze—helpless, wild—hit me like a blackjack. Suddenly, and for the first time, really, I was struck by the bitter, irrevocable truth of it; the evil of what we had done. It was like running full speed into a brick wall. I let go his collar, feeling completely helpless. I wanted to die. “Oh, God,” I mumbled, “God help me, I’m sorry—”

  I felt a fierce kick in my anklebone. It was Francis. His face was as white as chalk.

  A shaft of light splintered painfully in my vision. I clutched the back of the chair, closed my eyes and saw luminous red as the rhythmic noise of his sobs fell over and over again, like a bludgeon.

  Then, very abruptly, they stopped. Everything was quiet. I opened my eyes. Mr. Corcoran—leftover tears still rolling down his cheeks but his face otherwise composed—was looking with interest at a spaniel puppy who was gnawing furtively at the toe of his shoe.

  “Jennie,” he said severely. “Bad girl. Didn’t Mama put you out? Huh?”

  With a cooing, baby noise, he reached down and scooped up the little dog—its feet paddling furiously in midair—and carried her out of the room.

  “Now, go on,” I heard him say airily. “Scat.”

  A screen door creaked somewhere. In a moment he was back: calm now, beaming, a dad from an ad.

  “Any of you kids care for a beer?” he said.

  We were all agog. No one answered him. I stared at him, trembling, ashen-faced.

  “Come on, guys,” he said, and winked. “No takers?”

  At last, Francis cleared his throat with a rasping sound. “Ah, I believe I’d like one, yes.”

  There was a silence.

  “Me, too,” said Sophie.

  “Three?” said Mr. Corcoran to me jovially, holding up three fingers.

  I moved my mouth but no sound came out of it.

  He put his head to the side, as if fixing me with his good eye. “I don’t think we’ve met, have we, son?”

  I shook my head.

  “Macdonald Corcoran,” he said, leaning forward to offer his hand. “Call me Mack.”

  I mumbled my own name.

  “What’s that?” he said brightly, hand to ear.

  I said it again, louder this time.

  “Ah! So you’re the one from California! Where’s your
tan, son?” He laughed loudly at his joke and went to fetch the beers.

  I sat down hard, exhausted and almost sick. We were in an overscaled, Architectural Digest sort of room, big and loft-like, with skylights and a fieldstone fireplace, chairs upholstered in white leather, kidney-shaped coffee table—modern, expensive, Italian stuff. Running along the back wall was a long glass trophy case filled with loving cups, ribbons, school and sports memorabilia; in ominous proximity were several large funeral wreaths which, in conjunction with the trophies, gave that corner of the room a Kentucky Derby sort of look.

  “This is a beautiful space,” said Sophie. Her voice echoed amid the sharp surfaces and the polished floor.

  “Why, thank you, honey,” Mr. Corcoran said from the kitchen. “We were in House Beautiful last year, and the Home section of the Times the year before that. Not quite what I’d pick myself, but Kathy’s the decorator in the family, y’know.”

  The doorbell rang. We looked at each other. Then it rang again, two melodious chimes, and Mrs. Corcoran clicked through from the back of the house and past us without a word or a glance.

  “Henry,” she called. “Your guests are here.” Then she opened the front door. “Hello,” she said to the delivery boy who was standing outside. “Which one are you? Are you from Sunset Florists?”

  “Yes, ma’am. Please sign.”

  “Now wait just a minute. I called you people earlier. I want to know why you delivered all these wreaths here while I was out this morning.”

  “I didn’t deliver them. I just came on shift.”

  “You’re with Sunset Florists, aren’t you?”

  “Yes, ma’am.” I felt sorry for him. He was a teenager, with blotches of flesh-colored Clearasil scattered over his face.

  “I asked specifically that only floral arrangements and house plants be sent here. These wreaths should all be down at the funeral home.”

  “I’m sorry, lady. If you want to call the manager or something—”

  “I’m afraid you don’t understand. I don’t want these wreaths in my house. I want you to pack them right back up in your truck and take them to the funeral home. And don’t try to give me that one, either,” she said as he held up a gaudy wreath of red and yellow carnations. “Just tell me who it’s from.”

  The boy squinted at his clipboard. “ ‘With sympathy, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Bartle.’ ”

  “Ah!” said Mr. Corcoran, who had come back with the beers; he had them all clasped together in his hands, very clumsily, without a tray. “That from Betty and Bob?”

  Mrs. Corcoran ignored him. “I guess you can go ahead and bring in those ferns,” she said to the delivery boy, eyeing the foil-wrapped pots with loathing.

  After he had gone Mrs. Corcoran began to inspect the ferns, lifting up the fronds to check for dead foliage, making notes on the backs of the envelopes with a tiny silver screw-point pencil. To her husband she said: “Did you see that wreath the Bartles sent?”

  “Wasn’t that nice of them.”

  “No, in fact I don’t think it appropriate for an employee to send something like that. I wonder, is Bob thinking about asking you for a raise?”

  “Now, hon.”

  “I can’t believe these plants, either,” she said, jabbing a forefinger into the soil. “This African violet is almost dead. Louise would be humiliated if she knew.”

  “It’s the thought that counts.”

  “I know, but still, if I’ve learned one thing from this it is never to order flowers from Sunset Florists again. All the things from Tina’s Flowerland are so much nicer. Francis,” she said, in the same bored tone and without looking up. “You haven’t been to see us since last Easter.”

  Francis took a sip of his beer. “Oh, I’ve been fine,” he said stagily. “How are you?”

  She sighed and shook her head. “It’s been terribly hard,” she said. “We’re all trying to take things one day at a time. I never realized before how very difficult it can be for a parent to just let go and … Henry, is that you?” she said sharply at the sound of some scuffling on the landing.

  A pause. “No, Mom, just me.”

  “Go find him, Pat, and tell him to get down here,” she said. Then she turned back to Francis. “We got a lovely spray of Easter lilies from your mother this morning,” she said to him. “How is she?”

  “Oh, she’s fine. She’s in the city now. She was really upset,” he added uncomfortably, “when she heard about Bunny.” (Francis had told me she was hysterical on the telephone and had to go take a pill.)

  “She is such a lovely person,” said Mrs. Corcoran sweetly. “I was so sorry when I heard she’d been admitted to the Betty Ford Center.”

  “She was only there for a couple of days,” said Francis.

  She raised an eyebrow. “Oh? She made that much progress, did she? I’ve always heard it was an excellent place.”

  Francis cleared his throat. “Well, she mainly went out there for a rest. Quite a number of people do that, you know.”

  Mrs. Corcoran looked surprised. “Oh, you don’t mind talking about it, do you?” she said. “I don’t think you should. I think it’s very modern of your mother to realize that she needed help. Not so long ago one simply didn’t admit to problems of that nature. When I was a girl—”

  “Well, well, speak of the Devil,” boomed Mr. Corcoran.

  Henry, in dark suit, was creaking down the stairs with a stiff, measured tread.

  Francis stood up. I did, too. He ignored us.

  “Come on in here, son,” said Mr. Corcoran. “Grab yourself a brewski.”

  “Thank you, no,” said Henry.

  Up close, I was startled to see how pale he was. His face was leaden and set and beads of perspiration stood out on his forehead.

  “What you boys been doing up there all afternoon?” Mr. Corcoran said through a mouthful of ice.

  Henry blinked at him.

  “Huh?” said Mr. Corcoran pleasantly. “Looking at girlie magazines? Building yourselves a ham radio set?”

  Henry passed a hand—which, I saw, trembled slightly—over his forehead. “I was reading,” he said.

  “Reading?” said Mr. Corcoran, as if he’d never heard of such a thing.

  “Yes, sir.”

  “What is it? Something good?”

  “The Upanishads.”

  “Well aren’t you smart. You know, I’ve got a whole shelf of books down in the basement if you want to take a look. Even have a couple old Perry Masons. They’re pretty good. Exactly like the TV show, except Perry gets a little sexy with Della and sometimes he’ll say ‘damn’ and stuff.”

  Mrs. Corcoran cleared her throat.

  “Henry,” she said smoothly, reaching for her drink, “I’m sure the young people would like to see where they’ll be staying. Maybe they have some luggage in the car.”

  “All right.”

  “Check the downstairs bathroom to make sure there are enough washcloths and towels. If there aren’t, get some from the linen closet in the hall.”

  Henry nodded but before he could answer Mr. Corcoran suddenly came up behind him. “This boy,” he said, slapping him on the back—I saw Henry’s neck clench and his teeth sink into his lower lip—“is one in a million. Isn’t he a prince, Kathy?”

  “He has certainly been quite a help,” said Mrs. Corcoran coolly.

  “You bet your boots he has. I don’t know what we would’ve done this week without him. You kids,” said Mr. Corcoran, a hand clamped on Henry’s shoulder, “better hope you’ve got friends like this one. They don’t come along like this every day. No, sir. Why, I’ll never forget, it was Bunny’s first night at Hampden, he called me up on the telephone. ‘Dad,’ he said to me, ‘Dad, you ought to see this nut they gave me for a roommate.’ ‘Stick it out, son,’ I told him, ‘give it a chance’ and before you could spit it was Henry this, Henry that, he’s changing his major from whatever the hell it was to ancient Greek. Tearing off to Italy. Happy as a clam.” The tears were welling in
his eyes. “Just goes to show,” he said, shaking Henry’s shoulder with a kind of rough affection. “Never judge a book by its cover. Old Henry here may look like he’s got a stick up his butt but there never breathed a finer fella. Why, just about the last time I spoke to the old Bunster he was all excited about taking off to France with this guy in the summer—”

  “Now, Mack,” said Mrs. Corcoran, but it was too late. He was crying again.

  It was not as bad as the first time but still it was bad. He threw his arms around Henry and sobbed in his lapel while Henry just stood there, gazing off into the distance with a haggard, stoic calm.

  Everyone was embarrassed. Mrs. Corcoran began to pick at the house plants and I, ears burning, was staring at my lap when a door slammed and two young men sauntered into the wide, high-raftered hall. There was no mistaking for an instant who they were. The light was behind them, I couldn’t see either of them very well but they were laughing and talking and, oh, God, what a bright sudden stab in my heart at the echo of Bunny which rang—harsh, derisive, vibrant—through their laughter.

  They ignored their father’s tears and marched right up to him. “Hey, Pop,” said the eldest. He was curly haired, about thirty, and looked very much like Bunny in the face. A baby wearing a little cap that said Red Sox was perched high on his hip.

  The other brother—freckled, thinner, with a too-dark tan and black circles under his blue eyes—took the baby. “Here,” he said. “Go see Grandpa.”

  Mr. Corcoran stopped crying instantly, in mid-sob; he held the baby high in the air and looked up at it adoringly. “Champ!” he shouted. “Did you go for a ride with Daddy and Uncle Brady?”

  “We took him to McDonald’s,” said Brady. “Got him a Happy Meal.”

  Mr. Corcoran’s jaw dropped in wonder. “Did you eat it all?” he asked the baby. “All that Happy Meal?”

 
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