The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  “Say yes,” cooed the baby’s father. “ ‘Yes, Drampaw.’ ”

  “That’s baloney, Ted,” said Brady, laughing. “He didn’t eat a bite of it.”

  “He got a prize in the box, though, didn’t you? Didn’t you? Huh?”

  “Let’s see it,” said Mr. Corcoran, busily prying the baby’s fingers from around it.

  “Henry,” said Mrs. Corcoran, “perhaps you’ll help the young lady with her bags and show her to her room. Brady, you can take the boys downstairs.”

  Mr. Corcoran had got the prize—a plastic airplane—away from the baby and was making it fly back and forth.

  “Look!” he said, in a tone of hushed awe.

  “Since it’s only for a night,” Mrs. Corcoran said to us, “I’m sure that no one will mind doubling up.”

  As we were leaving with Brady, Mr. Corcoran plumped the baby down on the hearth rug and was rolling around, tickling him. I could hear the baby’s high screams of terror and delight all the way down the stairs.

  We were to stay in the basement. Along the back wall, near the Ping-Pong and pool tables, several army cots had been set up, and in the corner was a pile of sleeping bags.

  “Isn’t this wretched,” said Francis as soon as we were alone.

  “It’s just for tonight.”

  “I can’t sleep in rooms with lots of people. I’ll be up all night.”

  I sat down on a cot. The room had a damp, unused smell and the light from the lamp over the pool table was greenish and depressing.

  “It’s dusty, too,” said Francis. “I think we ought to just go check into a hotel.”

  Sniffing noisily, he complained about the dust as he searched for an ashtray but deadly radon could have been seeping into the room, it didn’t matter to me. All I wondered was how, in the name of Heaven and a merciful God, was I going to make it through the hours ahead. We had been there only twenty minutes and already I felt like shooting myself.

  He was still complaining and I was still sunk in despair when Camilla came down. She was wearing jet earrings, patent-leather shoes, a natty, closely cut black velvet suit.

  “Hello,” Francis said, handing her a cigarette. “Let’s go check into the Ramada Inn.”

  As she put the cigarette between her parched lips I realized how much I’d missed her for the last few days.

  “Oh, you don’t have it so bad,” she said. “Last night I had to sleep with Marion.”

  “Same room?”

  “Same bed.”

  Francis’s eyes widened with admiration and horror. “Oh, really? Oh, I say. That’s awful,” he said in a hushed, respectful voice.

  “Charles is upstairs with her now. She’s hysterical because somebody asked that poor girl who rode down with you.”

  “Where’s Henry?”

  “Haven’t you seen him yet?”

  “I saw him. I didn’t talk to him.”

  She paused to blow out a cloud of smoke. “How does he seem to you?”

  “I’ve seen him looking better. Why?”

  “Because he’s sick. Those headaches.”

  “One of the bad ones?”

  “That’s what he says.”

  Francis looked at her in disbelief. “How is he up and walking around, then?”

  “I don’t know. He’s all doped up. He has his pills and he’s been taking them for days.”

  “Well, where is he now? Why isn’t he in bed?”

  “I don’t know. Mrs. Corcoran just sent him down to the Cumberland Farms to get that damn baby a quart of milk.”

  “Can he drive?”

  “I have no idea.”

  “Francis,” I said, “your cigarette.”

  He jumped up, grabbed for it too quickly and burned his fingers. He’d laid it on the edge of the pool table and the coal had burned down to the wood; a charred spot was spreading on the varnish.

  “Boys?” Mrs. Corcoran called from the head of the stairs. “Boys? Do you mind if I come down to check the thermostat?”

  “Quick,” Camilla whispered, mashing out her cigarette. “We’re not supposed to smoke down here.”

  “Who’s there?” said Mrs. Corcoran sharply. “Is something burning?”

  “No, ma’am,” Francis said, wiping at the burned spot and scrambling to hide the cigarette butt as she came down the steps.

  It was one of the worst nights of my life. The house was filling with people and the hours passed in a dreadful streaky blur of relatives, neighbors, crying children, covered dishes, blocked driveways, ringing telephones, bright lights, strange faces, awkward conversations. Some swinish, hard-faced man trapped me in a corner for hours, boasting of bass tournaments and businesses in Chicago and Nashville and Kansas City until finally I excused myself and locked myself in an upstairs bathroom, ignoring the beating and piteous cries of an unknown toddler who pled, weeping, for admittance.

  Dinner was set out at seven, an unappetizing combination of gourmet carry-out—orzo salad, duck in Campari, miniature foie gras tarts—and food the neighbors had made: tuna casseroles, gelatin molds in Tupperware, and a frightful dessert called a “wacky cake” that I am at a loss to even describe. People roamed with paper plates. It was dark outside and raining. Hugh Corcoran, in shirtsleeves, went around with a bottle freshening drinks, nudging his way through the dark, murmuring crowd. He brushed by me without a glance. Of all the brothers, he bore the strongest resemblance to Bunny (Bunny’s death was starting to seem some horrible kind of generative act, more Bunnys popping up everywhere I looked, Bunnys coming out of the woodwork), and it was akin to looking into the future and seeing what Bunny would have looked like at thirty-five, just as looking at his father was like seeing him at sixty. I knew him and he didn’t know me. I had a strong, nearly irresistible urge to take him by the arm, say something to him, what I didn’t know: just to see the brows drop abruptly in the way I knew so well, to see the startled expression in the naive, muddy eyes.

  It was I killed the old pawnbroker woman and her sister Lizaveta with an axe and robbed them.

  Laughter, vertigo. Strangers kept wandering up and talking at me. I disengaged myself from one of Bunny’s teenaged cousins—who, upon hearing I was from California, had begun to ask me a lot of very complicated questions about surfing—and, swimming through the bobbling crowd, found Henry. He was standing by himself in front of some glass doors, his back to the room, smoking a cigarette.

  I stood beside him. He didn’t look at me or speak. The doors faced out on a barren, floodlit terrace—black cinder, privet in concrete urns, a statue artfully broken in white pieces on the ground. Rain slanted in the lights, which were angled to cast long, dramatic shadows. The effect was fashionable, post-nuclear but ancient, too, like some pumice-strewn courtyard from Pompeii.

  “That is the ugliest garden I have ever seen,” I said.

  “Yes,” said Henry. He was very pale. “Rubble and ash.”

  People laughed and talked behind us. The lights, through the rain-spattered window, cast a pattern of droplets trickling down his face.

  “Maybe you’d better lie down,” I said after a while.

  He bit his lip. The ash on his cigarette was about an inch long. “I don’t have any more medicine,” he said.

  I looked at the side of his face. “Can you get along?”

  “I guess I’ll have to, won’t I?” he said without moving.

  Camilla locked the door of the bathroom behind us and the two of us, on our hands and knees, began to rummage through the mess of prescription bottles under the sink.

  “ ‘For high blood pressure,’ ” she read.

  “No.”

  “ ‘For asthma.’ ”

  There was a knock on the door.

  “Somebody’s in here,” I yelled.

  Camilla’s head was wedged all the way in the cabinet by the water pipes, so that her rear end stuck out. I could hear the medicine bottles clinking. “ ‘Inner ear?’ ” she said, her voice muffled. “ ‘One cap twice daily’?”
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  “Let’s see.”

  She handed me some antibiotics, at least ten years old.

  “This won’t do,” I said, edging closer. “Do you see anything with a no-refill sticker? From a dentist, maybe?”

  “No.”

  “ ‘May Cause Drowsiness’? ‘Do Not Drive or Operate Heavy Machinery’?”

  Someone knocked on the door again and rattled the knob. I knocked back, then reached up and turned on both taps full-blast.

  Our findings were not good. If Henry had been suffering from poison ivy, hay fever, rheumatism, pinkeye, we would have been in luck but the only painkiller they had was Excedrin. Out of sheer desperation I took a handful, also two ambiguous capsules that had a Drowsiness sticker but which I suspected of being antihistamines.

  I’d thought our mystery guest had left, but venturing out I was annoyed to find Cloke lurking outside. He gave me a contemptuous look that turned to a stare when Camilla—hair tousled, tugging at her skirt—stepped out behind me.

  If she was surprised to see him, she didn’t show it. “Oh, hello,” she said to him, reaching down to dust off her knees.

  “Hi.” He glanced away in a studied, offhanded manner. We all knew Cloke was sort of interested in her, but even if he hadn’t been, Camilla was not exactly the sort of girl one expected to find making out with someone in a locked bathroom.

  She brushed past us and headed downstairs. I started down, too, but Cloke coughed in a significant manner and I turned around.

  He leaned back against the wall, looking at me as if he’d had me figured out from the day I was born. “So,” he said. His shirt was unironed and his shirttails were out; and though his eyes were red, I didn’t know if he was stoned or just tired. “How’s it going?”

  I paused on the landing. Camilla was at the foot of the steps, out of earshot. “All right,” I said.

  “What’s the story?”

  “What?”

  “Better not let Kathy catch you guys screwing around in her bathroom. She’ll make you walk to the bus station.”

  His tone was neutral. Still, I was reminded of the business with Mona’s boyfriend the week before. Cloke, however, presented little or nothing in the way of physical threat and besides, he had problems enough of his own.

  “Look,” I said, “you’ve got it wrong.”

  “I don’t care. I’m just telling you.”

  “Well, I’m telling you. Believe it or not, I don’t care.”

  Cloke fished lazily in his pocket, came out with a pack of Marlboros so crumpled and flat that it did not seem possible that a cigarette could be inside it. He said: “I thought she was seeing somebody.”

  “For God’s sake.”

  He shrugged. “It’s no business of mine,” he said, extracting one crooked cigarette and crushing the empty pack in his hand. “People were bothering me at school, so I was staying on their couch before we came down here. I’ve heard her talking on the phone.”

  “And saying what?”

  “Oh, nothing, but like two or three in the morning, whispering, you’ve got to wonder.” He smiled bleakly. “I guess she thinks I’m passed out but to tell you the truth I haven’t been sleeping all that well.… Right,” he said, when I didn’t answer. “You don’t know a thing about it.”

  “I don’t.”

  “Sure.”

  “I really don’t.”

  “So what were you doing in there?”

  I looked at him for a moment, and then I took out a handful of pills and held them out on my open palm.

  He leaned forward, brows knit, and then, quite suddenly, his foggy eyes became intelligent and alert. He selected a capsule and held it up to the light in businesslike fashion. “What is it?” he said. “Do you know?”

  “Sudafed,” I said. “Don’t bother. There’s nothing in there.”

  He chuckled. “Know why?” he said, looking at me for the first time with real friendliness. “That’s because you were looking in the wrong place.”

  “What?”

  He glanced over his shoulder. “Down the hall. Off the master bedroom. I would have told you if you’d asked.”

  I was startled. “How do you know?”

  He pocketed the capsule and raised an eyebrow at me. “I practically grew up in this house,” he said. “Old Kathy is on about sixteen different types of dope.”

  I looked back at the closed door of the master bedroom.

  “No,” he said. “Not now.”

  “Why not?”

  “Bunny’s grandma. She has to lie down after she eats. We’ll come up later.”

  Things downstairs had cleared out some, but not much. Camilla was nowhere in sight. Charles, bored and drunk, his back in a corner, was holding a glass to his temple as a tearful Marion babbled away—her hair pulled back in one of those tremendous preppy bows from the Talbots catalogue. I hadn’t had a chance to speak to him because she had shadowed him almost constantly since we arrived; why she had latched so firmly on to him I don’t know, except that she wasn’t talking to Cloke, and Bunny’s brothers were either married or engaged, and of the remaining males in her age group—Bunny’s cousins, Henry and me, Bram Guernsey and Rooney Wynne—Charles was by far the best looking.

  He glanced at me over her shoulder. I didn’t have the stomach to go over and rescue him, and I looked away; but just then a toddler—fleeing his grinning, jug-eared brother—slid into my legs and almost knocked me down.

  They dodged round me in circles. The smaller one, terrified and shrieking, dove to the floor and grabbed my knees. “Butthole,” he sobbed.

  The other one stopped and took a step backwards, and there was something nasty and almost lascivious about the look on his face. “Oh, Dad,” he sang, his voice like spilled syrup.

  “Oh, Daa-yid.”

  Across the room, Hugh Corcoran turned, glass in hand. “Don’t make me come over there, Brandon,” he said.

  “But Corey called you a butthole, Daa-yid.”

  “You’re a butthole,” sobbed the little one. “You you you.”

  I pried him off my leg and went looking for Henry. He and Mr. Corcoran were in the kitchen, surrounded by a semicircle of people: Mr. Corcoran, who had his arm around Henry, looked as if he’d had a few too many.

  “Now Kathy and I,” he said, in a loud, didactic voice, “have always opened our home to young people. Always an extra place at the table. First thing you know, they’d be coming to Kathy and me with their problems, too. Like this guy,” he said, jostling Henry. “I’ll never forget the time he came up to me one night after supper. He said, ‘Mack’—all the kids call me Mack—‘I’d like to ask your advice about something, man to man.’ ‘Well, before you start, son,’ I said, ‘I want to tell you just one thing. I think I know boys pretty well. I raised five of ’em myself. And I had four brothers when I was coming up, so I guess you might call me a pretty good authority on boys in general.…’ ”

  He rambled on with this fraudulent recollection while Henry, pale and ill, endured his prods and backslaps as a well-trained dog will tolerate the pummeling of a rough child. The story itself was ludicrous. It had a dynamic and strangely hot-headed young Henry wanting to rush out and buy a used single-engine airplane against the advice of his parents.

  “But this guy was determined,” said Mr. Corcoran. “He was going to get that plane or bust. After he’d told me all about it I sat there for a minute and then I took a deep breath and I said, ‘Henry, son, she sounds like a beaut, but I’m still going to have to be a square and agree with your folks. Let me tell you why that is.’ ”

  “Hey, Dad,” said Patrick Corcoran, who had just come in to fix himself another drink. He was slighter than Bun, heavily freckled, but he had Bunny’s sandy hair and his sharp little nose. “Dad, you’re all mixed up. That didn’t happen to Henry. That was Hugh’s old friend Walter Ballantine.”

  “Bosh,” said Mr. Corcoran.

  “Sure it was. And he ended up buying the plane anyway. Hugh?” he shouted
into the next room. “Hugh, do you remember Walter Ballantine?”

  “Sure,” said Hugh, and appeared in the doorway. He had by the wrist the kid Brandon, who was twisting and trying furiously to get away. “What about him?”

  “Didn’t Walter wind up buying that little Bonanza?”

  “It wasn’t a Bonanza,” said Hugh, ignoring with a glacial calm the thrashing and yelps of his son. “It was a Beechcraft. No, I know what you’re thinking,” he said, as both Patrick and his father started to object. “I drove out to Danbury with Walter to look at a little converted Bonanza, but the guy wanted way too much. Those things cost a fortune to maintain, and there was plenty wrong with it, too. He was selling it because he couldn’t afford to keep it.”

  “What about this Beechcraft, then?” said Mr. Corcoran. His hand had slipped from Henry’s shoulder. “I’ve heard that’s an excellent little outfit.”

  “Walter had some trouble with it. Got it through an ad in the Pennysaver, off some retired congressman from New Jersey. He’d used it to fly around in while he was campaigning and—”

  Gasping, he lurched forward as with a sudden wrench the kid broke free of him and shot across the room like a cannonball. Evading his father’s tackle, he sidestepped Patrick’s block as well and, glancing back at his pursuers, slammed right into Henry’s abdomen.

  It was a hard blow. The kid began to cry. Henry’s jaw dropped and every ounce of blood drained from his face. For a moment I was sure he would fall, but somehow he drew himself upright, with the dignified, massive effort of a wounded elephant, while Mr. Corcoran threw back his head and laughed merrily at his distress.

  I had not entirely believed Cloke about the drugs to be found upstairs, but when I went up with him again I saw he had told the truth. There was a tiny dressing room off the master bedroom, and a black lacquer vanity with lots of little compartments and a tiny key, and inside one of the compartments was a ballotin of Godiva chocolates and a neat, well-tended collection of candy-colored pills. The doctor who had prescribed them—E. G. Hart, M.D., and apparently a more reckless character than his prim initials would suggest—was a generous fellow, particularly with the amphetamines. Ladies of Mrs. Corcoran’s age usually went in pretty heavily for the Valium and so forth but she had enough speed to send a gang of Hell’s Angels on a cross-country rampage.

 
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