The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  I was nervous. The room smelled like new clothes and perfume; big disco mirrors on the wall reproduced our every move in paranoiac multiple-image; there was no way out and no possible excuse for being there should anyone happen in. I kept an eye on the door while Cloke, with admirable efficiency, went swiftly through the bottles.

  Dalmane. Yellow and orange. Darvon. Red and gray. Fiorinal. Nembutal. Miltown. I took two from each of the bottles he gave me.

  “What,” he said, “don’t you want more than that?”

  “I don’t want her to miss anything.”

  “Shit,” he said, opening another bottle and pouring half the contents into his pocket. “Take what you want. She’ll think it was one of her daughters-in-law or something. Here, have some of this speed,” he said, tapping most of the rest of the bottle on my palm. “It’s great stuff. Pharmaceutical. During exams you can get ten or fifteen dollars a hit for this, easy.”

  I went downstairs, the right-hand pocket of my jacket full of ups and the left full of downs. Francis was standing at the foot of the steps. “Listen,” I said, “do you know where Henry is?”

  “No. Have you seen Charles?”

  He was half-hysterical. “What’s wrong?” I said.

  “He stole my car keys.”


  “He took the keys out of my coat pocket and left. Camilla saw him pulling out of the driveway. He had the top down. That car stalls in the rain, anyway, but if—shit,” he said, running a hand through his hair. “You don’t know anything about it, do you?”

  “I saw him about an hour ago. With Marion.”

  “Yes, I talked to her too. He said he was going out for cigarettes, but that was an hour ago. You did see him? You haven’t talked to him?”


  “Was he drunk? Marion said he was. Did he look drunk to you?”

  Francis looked pretty drunk himself. “Not very,” I said. “Come on, help me find Henry.”

  “I told you. I don’t know where he is. What do you want him for?”

  “I have something for him.”

  “What is it?” he said in Greek. “Drugs?”


  “Well, give me something, for God’s sake,” he said, swaying forward, pop-eyed.

  He was far too drunk for sleeping pills. I gave him an Excedrin.

  “Thanks,” he said, and swallowed it with a big sloppy drink of his whiskey. “I hope I die in the night. Where do you suppose he went, anyway? What time is it?”

  “About ten.”

  “You don’t suppose he decided to drive home, do you? Maybe he just took the car and went back to Hampden. Camilla said certainly not, not with the funeral tomorrow, but I don’t know, he’s just disappeared. If he really just went for cigarettes, don’t you think he’d be back by now? I can’t imagine where else he would have gone. What do you think?”

  “He’ll turn up,” I said. “Look, I’m sorry, I’ve got to go. I’ll see you later.”

  I looked all over the house for Henry and found him sitting by himself on an army cot, in the basement, in the dark.

  He looked at me out of the corner of his eye, without moving his head. “What is that?” he said, when I offered him a couple of capsules.

  “Nembutal. Here.”

  He took them from me and swallowed them without water. “Do you have any more?”


  “Give them to me.”

  “You can’t take more than two.”

  “Give them to me.”

  I gave them to him. “I’m not kidding, Henry,” I said. “You’d better be careful.”

  He looked at them, then reached in his pocket for the blue enamel pillbox and put them carefully inside it. “I don’t suppose,” he said, “you would go upstairs and get me a drink.”

  “You shouldn’t be drinking on top of those pills.”

  “I’ve been drinking already.”

  “I know that.”

  There was a brief silence.

  “Look,” he said, pushing his glasses up on the bridge of his nose. “I want a Scotch and soda. In a tall glass. Heavy on the Scotch, light on the soda, lots of ice, a glass of plain water, no ice, on the side. That’s what I want.”

  “I’m not going to get it for you.”

  “If you don’t go up and get it for me,” he said, “I’ll just have to go up and get it myself.”

  I went up to the kitchen and got it for him, except I made it a good deal heavier on the soda than I knew he wanted me to.

  “That’s for Henry,” said Camilla, coming into the kitchen just as I’d finished the first glass and was filling the second with water from the tap.


  “Where is he?”


  “How’s he doing?”

  We were alone in the kitchen. With my eyes on the empty doorway, I told her about the lacquer chest.

  “That sounds like Cloke,” she said, laughing. “He’s really pretty decent, isn’t he? Bun always said he reminded him of you.”

  I was puzzled and a bit offended by this last. I started to say something about it, but instead I set down the glass and said, “Who do you talk to on the telephone at three in the morning?”


  Her surprise seemed perfectly natural. The problem was that she was such an expert actress it was impossible to know if it was genuine.

  I held her gaze. She met it unblinking, brows knit, and just when I thought she’d been silent a beat too long, she shook her head and laughed again. “What’s wrong with you?” she said. “What are you talking about?”

  I laughed too. It was impossible to outfox her at this game.

  “I’m not trying to put you on the spot,” I said. “But you need to be careful what you say on the telephone when Cloke’s in your house.”

  She looked blank. “I am careful.”

  “I hope you are, because he’s been listening.”

  “He couldn’t have heard anything.”

  “Well, that’s not for want of trying.”

  We stood looking at each other. There was a heart-stopping, ruby-red pinprick of a beauty mark just beneath her eye. On an irresistible impulse I leaned down and gave her a kiss.

  She laughed. “What was that for?” she said.

  My heart—which, thrilled at my daring, had held its breath for a moment or two—began suddenly to beat quite wildly. I turned and busied myself with the glasses. “Nothing,” I said, “you just looked pretty,” and I might have said something else had Charles—dripping wet—not burst through the kitchen door, Francis hard at his heels.

  “Why didn’t you just tell me?” said Francis in an angry whisper. He was flushed and trembling. “Never mind that the seats are soaked, and will probably mildew and rot, and that I’ve got to drive back to Hampden tomorrow. But never mind about that. I don’t care. What I can’t believe is that you went up, you deliberately went looking for my coat, you took the keys and—”

  “I’ve seen you leave the top down in the rain before,” said Charles curtly. He was at the counter, his back to Francis, pouring himself a drink. His hair was plastered to his head and a small puddle was forming round him on the linoleum.

  “What,” said Francis, through his teeth. “I never.”

  “Yes you have,” said Charles, without turning around.

  “Name one time.”

  “Okay. What about that afternoon you and I were in Manchester, and it was about two weeks before school started, and we decided to go to the Equinox House for—”

  “That was a summer afternoon. It was sprinkling.”

  “It was not. It was raining hard. You just don’t want to talk about that now because that was the afternoon you tried to get me to—”

  “You’re crazy,” said Francis. “That doesn’t have anything to do with this. It’s dark as hell and pouring rain and you’re drunk out of your skull. It’s a miracle you didn’t kill somebody. Where the hell did you go for
those cigarettes, anyway? There’s not a store around here for—”

  “I’m not drunk.”

  “Ha, ha. Tell me. Where’d you get those cigarettes? I’d like to know. I bet—”

  “I said I’m not drunk.”

  “Yeah, sure. I bet you didn’t even buy any cigarettes. If you did, they must be soaking wet. Where are they, anyway?”

  “Leave me alone.”

  “No. Really. Show them to me. I’d like to see these famous—”

  Charles slammed down his glass and spun around. “Leave me alone,” he hissed.

  It was not the tone of his voice, exactly, as much as the look on his face which was so terrible. Francis stared, his mouth fallen slightly open. For about ten long seconds there was no sound but the rhythmic tick tick tick of the water dripping from Charles’s sodden clothes.

  I took Henry’s Scotch and soda, lots of ice, and his water, no ice, and walked past Francis, out the swinging door and down to the basement.

  It rained hard all night. My nose tickled from the dust in the sleeping bag, and the basement floor—which was poured concrete beneath a thin, comfortless layer of indoor-outdoor carpeting—made my bones ache whichever way I turned. The rain drummed on the high windows, and the floodlights, shining through the glass, cast a pattern on the walls as if dark rivulets of water were streaming down them from ceiling to floor.

  Charles snored on his cot, his mouth open; Francis grumbled in his sleep. Occasionally a car swooshed by in the rain and its headlights would swing round momentarily and illuminate the room—the pool table, the snowshoes on the wall and the rowing machine, the armchair in which Henry sat, motionless, a glass in his hand and the cigarette burning low between his fingers. For a moment his face, pale and watchful as a ghost’s, would be caught in the headlights and then, very gradually, it would slide back into the dark.

  In the morning I woke up sore and disoriented to the sound of a loose shutter banging somewhere. The rain was falling harder than ever. It lashed in rhythmic waves against the windows of the white, brightly lit kitchen as we guests sat around the table and ate a silent, cheerless breakfast of coffee and Pop Tarts.

  The Corcorans were upstairs, dressing. Cloke and Bram and Rooney drank coffee with their elbows on the table and talked in low voices. They were freshly showered and shaven, cocky in their Sunday suits but uneasy, too, as if they were about to go to court. Francis—puff-eyed, his stiff red hair full of absurd cowlicks—was still in his bathrobe. He had got up late and was in a state of barely contained outrage because all the hot water in the downstairs tank was gone.

  He and Charles were across the table from each other, and took great pains to avoid looking in the other’s direction. Marion—red-eyed, her hair in hot curlers—was sullen and silent, too. She was dressed very smartly, in a navy suit, but with fuzzy pink slippers over her fleshtone nylons. Every now and then she would reach up and put her hands on the rollers to see if they were cooling off.

  Henry, among us, was the only pallbearer—the other five being family friends or business associates of Mr. Corcoran’s. I wondered if the coffin was very heavy and, if so, how Henry would manage. Though he emitted a faint, ammoniac odor of sweat and Scotch he did not look at all drunk. The pills had sunk him into a glassy, fathomless calm. Threads of smoke floated up from a filterless cigarette whose coal burned dangerously near his fingertips. It was a state which might have seemed a suspiciously narcotic one except that it differed so little from his customary manner.

  It was a little after nine-thirty by the kitchen clock. The funeral was set for eleven. Francis went off to dress and Marion to take her rollers out. The rest of us were still sitting around the kitchen table, awkward and inert, pretending to enjoy our second and third cups of coffee when Teddy’s wife marched in. She was a hard-faced, pretty litigation lawyer who smoked constantly and wore her blond hair in a China chop. With her was Hugh’s wife: a small, mild-mannered woman who looked far too young and frail to have borne as many children as she had. By an unfortunate coincidence, both of them were named Lisa, which made for a lot of confusion around the house.

  “Henry,” said the first Lisa, leaning forward and jamming out her half-smoked Vantage so it crooked at a right angle in the ashtray. She was wearing Giorgio perfume and far too much of it. “We’re driving to the church now to arrange the flowers in the chancel and collect the cards before the service starts. Ted’s mother”—both Lisas disliked Mrs. Corcoran, a feeling which was heartily reciprocated—“said you should drive over with us so that you can meet with the pallbearers. Okay?”

  Henry, the light winking off the steel rims of his glasses, gave no indication of having heard her. I was about to kick him under the table when, very slowly, he looked up.

  “Why?” he said.

  “The pallbearers are supposed to meet in the vestibule at ten-fifteen.”

  “Why?” repeated Henry, with Vedic calm.

  “I don’t know why. I’m just telling you what she said. This stuff is planned out like synchronized swimming or some damn thing. Are you ready to go, or do you need a minute?”

  “Now, Brandon,” said Hugh’s wife weakly to her little son, who had run into the kitchen and was attempting to swing from his mother’s arms like an ape. “Please. You’re going to hurt Mother. Brandon.”

  “Lisa, you shouldn’t let him hang all over you like that,” said the first Lisa, glancing at her watch.

  “Please, Brandon. Mother’s got to go now.”

  “He’s too big to act like that. You know he is. If I were you, I would just take him in the bathroom and tear him up.”

  Mrs. Corcoran came down about twenty minutes later, in black crepe de chine, riffling through a quilted-leather clutch. “Where is everybody?” she said when she saw only Camilla, Sophie Dearbold and me loafing by the trophy case.

  When no one answered her, she paused on the stair, annoyed. “Well?” she said. “Has everybody left? Where’s Francis?”

  “I think he’s dressing,” I said, glad she’d asked something I could answer without having to lie. From where she stood on the stairs she could not see what the rest of us saw, quite clearly, through the glass doors of the living room: Cloke and Bram and Rooney, Charles with them, all of them standing around under the sheltered part of the terrace getting stoned. It was odd to see Charles of all people smoking pot and the only reason I could think why he was doing it was because he thought it would brace him up, the way a stiff drink might. If so, I felt certain he was in for a nasty surprise. When I was twelve and thirteen I used to get high at school every day—not because I liked it, it broke me out in cold sweats and panic—but because in the lower grades it was such a fabulous prestige to be thought a pothead, also because I was so expert at hiding the paranoiac flulike symptoms it gave me.

  Mrs. Corcoran was looking at me as if I’d uttered some Nazi oath. “Dressing?” she said.

  “I think so.”

  “Isn’t he even dressed by now? What’s everybody been doing all morning?”

  I didn’t know what to say. She was drifting down the stairs a step at a time, and now that her head was free of the balustrade, she had an unimpeded view of the patio doors—rain-splashed glass, oblivious smokers beyond—if she chose to look that way. We were all transfixed with suspense. Sometimes mothers didn’t know what pot was when they saw it, but Mrs. Corcoran looked like she would know, all right.

  She snapped the clutch bag shut and looked around with a sweeping, raptor-like gaze—the only thing about her, surely, that could remind me of my father, and it did.

  “Well?” she said. “Would somebody tell him to hurry up?”

  Camilla jumped up. “I’ll get him, Mrs. Corcoran,” she said, but once she was around the corner she scooted over to the terrace door.

  “Thank you, dear,” said Mrs. Corcoran. She had found what she wanted—her sunglasses—and she put them on. “I don’t know what it is with you young people,” she said. “I don’t mean you in particular, b
ut this is a very difficult time and we’re all under a great deal of stress and we must try to make things go as smoothly as they possibly can.”

  Cloke looked up, bloodshot and uncomprehending, at Camilla’s soft rap on the glass. Then he looked past her into the living room, and all of a sudden his face changed. Shit, I saw him say, noiselessly, and a cloud of smoke escaped from his mouth.

  Charles saw, too, and almost choked. Cloke snatched the joint from Bram and pinched it out with thumb and forefinger.

  Mrs. Corcoran, in big black sunglasses, remained thankfully unaware of this drama unfolding behind her back. “The church is a bit of a drive, you know,” she said as Camilla circled behind her and went to fetch Francis. “Mack and I will go ahead in the station wagon, and you people can follow either us or the boys. I think you’ll have to go in three cars, though maybe you can squeeze into two—Don’t run in Grandmother’s house,” she snapped at Brandon and his cousin Neale, who’d darted past her on the stairs and clattered into the living room. They wore little blue suits with snap-on bow ties, and their Sunday shoes made a terrific racket on the floor.

  Brandon, panting, dodged behind the sofa. “He hit me, Grandma.”

  “He called me a booty wipe.”

  “Did not.”

  “Did too.”

  “Boys,” she thundered. “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”

  She paused dramatically, to observe their silent, stricken faces. “Your Uncle Bunny is dead and do you know what that means? It means that he is gone forever. You will never see him again as long as you live.” She glared at them. “Today is a very special day,” she said. “It is a day for remembering him. You ought to be sitting quietly somewhere thinking about all the nice things he used to do for you instead of running around and scuffing up this pretty new floor that Grandmother just had re-finished.”

  There was a silence. Neale kicked sullenly at Brandon. “One time Uncle Bunny called me a bastard,” he said.

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