The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  I wasn’t sure if she really didn’t hear him or if she chose not to; the fixed expression on her face made me think maybe the latter, but then the terrace doors slid open and Cloke came in with Charles and Bram and Rooney.

  “Oh. So there you are,” said Mrs. Corcoran suspiciously. “What are you doing out there in the rain?”

  “Fresh air,” said Cloke. He looked really stoned. The tip of a Visine bottle stuck out from the handkerchief pocket of his suit.

  They all looked really stoned. Poor Charles was bug-eyed and sweating. This was probably more than he’d bargained for: bright lights, too high, having to deal with a hostile adult.

  She looked at them. I wondered if she knew. For a moment I thought she’d say something, but instead she reached out and grabbed hold of Brandon’s arm. “Well, you should all get a move on,” she said curtly, leaning down to run a hand through his mussed hair. “It’s getting late and I’ve been led to expect that there might be a little problem with seating.”

  The church had been built in seventeen-something, according to the National Register of Historic Places. It was an age-blacked, dungeonlike building with its own rickety little graveyard in the back, set on a rolling country lane. When we arrived, damp and uncomfortable from Francis’s sodden car seats, cars lined the road on both sides, as if for a rural dance or bingo night, sloping gently into the grassy ditch. A gray drizzle was falling. We parked near the country club, which was down a bit, and hiked the quarter-mile silently, in the mud.

  The sanctuary was dim, and stepping inside I was blinded by a dazzle of candles. When my eyes cleared I saw iron lanterns, clammy stone floors, flowers everywhere. Startled, I noticed that one of the arrangements, quite near the altar, was wired in the shape of the number 27.

  “I thought he was twenty-four,” I whispered to Camilla.

  “No,” she said, “that’s his old football number.”

  The church was packed. I looked for Henry but didn’t see him; saw someone I thought was Julian but realized it wasn’t when he turned around. For a moment we stood there in a knot, confused. There were metal folding chairs along the back wall to accommodate the crowd, but then someone spotted a half-empty pew and we headed for that: Francis and Sophie, the twins, and me. Charles, who stuck close to Camilla, was plainly freaking out. The doomy horrorhouse atmosphere of the church was not helping at all and he stared at his surroundings with frank terror, while Camilla took his arm and tried to nudge him down the row. Marion had disappeared to sit with some people who’d driven down from Hampden, and Cloke and Bram and Rooney had simply disappeared, somewhere between car and church.

  It was a long service. The minister, who took his ecumenical and—some felt—slightly impersonal remarks from Saint Paul’s sermon on Love from First Corinthians, talked for about half an hour. (“Didn’t you feel that was a very inappropriate text?” said Julian, who had a pagan’s gloomy view of death coupled with a horror of the non-specific.) Next was Hugh Corcoran (“He was the best little brother a guy could have”); then Bunny’s old football coach, a dynamic Jaycee type who talked at length of Bunny’s team spirit, telling a rousing anecdote about how Bunny had once saved the day against a particularly tough team from “lower” Connecticut. (“That means black,” whispered Francis.) He wound up his story by pausing and staring at the lectern for a count of ten; then he looked up frankly. “I don’t know,” he said, “a whole lot about Heaven. My business is teaching boys to play a game and play it hard. Today we’re here to honor a boy who’s been taken out of the game early. But that’s not to say that while he was out on the field, he didn’t give us all he had. That’s not to say he wasn’t a winner.” A long, suspenseful pause. “Bunny Corcoran,” he said gruffly, “was a winner.”

  A long, solitary wail went up from somebody towards the middle of the congregation.

  Except in the movies (Knute Rockne, All-American) I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such a bravura performance. When he sat down, half the place was in tears—the coach included. No one paid much attention to the final speaker, Henry himself, who went to the podium and read, inaudibly and without comment, a short poem by A. E. Housman.

  The poem was called “With Rue My Heart Is Laden.” I don’t know why he chose that particular one. We knew that the Corcorans had asked him to read something and I expected that they had trusted him to choose something appropriate. It would have been so easy for him to choose something else, though, something you would think he would pick, for Christ’s sake, from Lycidas or the Upanishads or anything, really—certainly not that poem, which Bunny had known by heart. He’d been very fond of the corny old poems he’d learned in grade school: “The Charge of the Light Brigade,”

  “In Flanders Fields,” a lot of strange old sentimental stuff whose authors and titles I never even knew. The rest of us, who were snobs about such things, had thought this a shameful taste, akin to his taste for King Dons and Hostess Twinkies. Quite often I had heard Bunny say this Housman aloud—seriously when drunk, more mockingly when sober—so that the lines for me were set and hardened in the cadence of his voice; perhaps that is why hearing it then, in Henry’s academic monotone (he was a terrible reader) there with the guttering candles and the draft shivering in the flowers and people crying all around, enkindled in me such a brief and yet so excruciating pain, like one of those weirdly scientific Japanese tortures calibrated to extract the greatest possible misery in the smallest space of time.

  It was a very short poem.

  With rue my heart is laden

  For golden friends I had,

  For many a rose-lipt maiden

  And many a lightfoot lad.

  By brooks too broad for leaping

  The lightfoot boys are laid;

  The rose-lipt girls are sleeping

  In fields where roses fade.

  During the closing prayer (overly long) I felt myself swaying, so much so that the sides of my new shoes dug in the tender spot beneath my anklebones. The air was close; people were crying; there was an insistent buzz which came in close to my ear and then receded. For a moment I was afraid I would black out. Then I realized the buzz actually came from a large wasp flying in erratic darts and circles over our heads. Francis, by flailing at it uselessly with the memorial service bulletin, had succeeded in enraging it; it dove towards the weeping Sophie’s head but, finding her unresponsive, turned in midair and lit on the back of the pew to collect its wits. Stealthily Camilla leaned to one side and began to slip off her shoe, but before she could, Charles had killed it with a resounding thwack from The Book of Common Prayer.

  The pastor, at a key point in his prayer, started. He opened his eyes and his glance fell on Charles, still wielding the guilty prayerbook. “That they may not languish in unavailing grief,” he said in a slightly amplified voice, “nor sorrow as those who have no hope, but through their tears look always up to Thee.…”

  Quickly I bowed my head. The wasp still clung with one black feeler to the edge of the pew. I stared down at it and thought of Bunny, poor old Bunny, expert killer of flying pests, stalking houseflies with a rolled-up copy of the Hampden Examiner.

  Charles and Francis, who weren’t speaking before the service, had managed somehow to make up during the course of it. After the final amen, in silent, perfect sympathy, they ducked into an empty corridor off the side aisle. I caught a glimpse of them speeding wordlessly down it before they turned into the men’s room, Francis stopping for one last nervous glance behind and already reaching in his coat pocket for what I knew was there—the flat pint bottle of something or other I’d seen him take from the glove compartment.

  It was a muddy, black day in the churchyard. The rain had stopped but the sky was dark and the wind was blowing hard. Someone was ringing the church bell and not doing a very good job of it; it clanged unevenly to and fro like a bell at a seance.

  People straggled to their cars, dresses billowing, holding hats to head. A few paces in front of me Camilla struggled on tiptoe t
o pull down her umbrella, which dragged her along in little skipping steps—Mary Poppins in her black funeral dress. I stepped up to help her, but before I got there the umbrella blew inside out. For a moment it had a horrible life of its own, squawking and flapping its spines like a pterodactyl; with a sudden sharp cry she let it go and immediately it sailed ten feet in the air, somersaulting once or twice before it caught in the high branches of an ash tree.

  “Damn,” she said, looking up at it and then down at her finger, from which a thin seam of blood sprang. “Damn, damn, damn.”

  “Are you okay?”

  She stuck the injured finger in her mouth. “It’s not that,” she said peevishly, glancing up at the branches. “This is my favorite umbrella.”

  I fished around in my pocket, gave her my handkerchief. She shook it out and held it to her finger (flutter of white, blown hair, darkening sky) and as I watched time stopped and I was transfixed by a bright knife of memory: the sky was the same thundery gray as it had been then, new leaves, her hair had blown across her mouth just so …

  (flutter of white)

  (… at the ravine. She’d climbed down with Henry and was back at the top before him, the rest of us waiting at the edge, cold wind, jitters, springing to hoist her up; dead? is he …? She took a handkerchief from her pocket and wiped her muddy hands, not looking at any of us, really, her hair blowing back light against the sky and her face a blank for just about any emotion one might care to project …)

  Behind us someone said, very loudly, “Dad?”

  I jumped, startled and guilty. It was Hugh. He was walking briskly, half-running, and in a moment had caught up with his father. “Dad?” he said again, placing a hand on his father’s slumping shoulder. There was no response. He shook him gently. Up ahead, the pallbearers (Henry indistinct, somewhere among them) were sliding the casket into the open doors of the hearse.

  “Dad,” said Hugh. He was tremendously agitated. “Dad. You gotta listen to me for a sec.”

  The doors slammed. Slowly, slowly, Mr. Corcoran turned. He was carrying the baby they called Champ but today its presence seemed to offer him little comfort. The expression on his big slack face was haunted and lost. He stared at his son as if he had never seen him before.

  “Dad” said Hugh. “Guess who I just saw. Guess who came. Mr. Vanderfeller,” he said urgently, pressing his father’s arm.

  The syllables of this illustrious name—one which the Cocorans invoked with very nearly as much respect as that of God Almighty—had when uttered aloud a miraculous effect of healing on Mr. Corcoran. “Vanderfeller’s here?” he said, looking around. “Where?”

  This august personage, who loomed large in the collective unconscious of the Corcorans, was the head of a charitable foundation—endowed by his even more august grandpapa—which happened to own a controlling interest in the stock of Mr. Corcoran’s bank. This entailed board meetings, and occasional social functions, and the Corcorans had an endless store of “delightful” anecdotes about Paul Vanderfeller, of how European he was, what a celebrated “wit,” and though the witticisms they found frequent occasion to repeat seemed poor things to me (the guards up at the security booth at Hampden were cleverer) they made the Corcorans rock with urbane and apparently quite sincere laughter. One of Bunny’s favorite ways to start a sentence had been to let drop, quite casually: “When Dad was lunching with Paul Vanderfeller the other day …”

  And here he was, the great one himself, scorching us all with his rays of glory. I glanced in the direction Hugh indicated to his father and saw him—an ordinary-looking man with the good-natured expression of someone used to being constantly catered to; late forties; nicely dressed; nothing particularly “European” about him except his ugly eyeglasses and the fact that he was considerably below the average height.

  An expression of something very like tenderness spread itself across Mr. Corcoran’s face. Without a word he thrust the baby at Hugh and hurried off across the lawn.

  Maybe it was because the Corcorans were Irish, maybe it was that Mr. Corcoran was born in Boston, but the whole family seemed to feel, somehow, that it had a mysterious affinity with the Kennedys. It was a resemblance they tried to cultivate—especially Mrs. Corcoran, with her hairdo and faux-Jackie glasses—but it also had some slight physical basis: in Brady and Patrick’s toothy, too-tanned gauntness there was a shadow of Bobby Kennedy while the other brothers, Bunny among them, were built on the Ted Kennedy model, much heavier, with little round features bunched in the middle of their faces. It would not have been difficult to mistake any of them for minor clan members, cousins perhaps. Francis had told me of walking into a fashionable, very crowded restaurant in Boston once, with Bunny. There was a long wait, and the waiter had asked for a name: “Kennedy,” Bun said briskly, rocking back on his heels, and the next instant half the staff was scrambling to clear a table.

  And maybe it was these old associations which were clicking around in my mind or maybe it was that the only funerals I had ever seen were televised events, affairs of state: in any case, the funeral procession—long, black, rain-splashed cars, Mr. Vanderfeller’s Bentley among them—was linked for me in dreamlike fashion to another funeral and another, far more famous motorcade. Slowly we rolled along. Open cars of flowers—like convertibles in some nightmare Rose Parade—crept behind the curtained hearse. Gladiola, dyed chrysanthemum, sprays of palm. The wind was blowing hard, and garish petals shook loose and tumbled back among the cars, sticking to the damp windshields like bits of confetti.

  The cemetery was on a highway. We pulled over and got out of the Mustang (flat clack of car doors) and stood blinking on the littered shoulder. Cars whooshed past on the asphalt, not ten feet away.

  It was a big cemetery, windy and flat and anonymous. The stones were laid out in rows like tract homes. The uniformed driver of the funeral-home Lincoln walked around to open the door for Mrs. Corcoran. She was carrying—I didn’t know why—a small bouquet of rosebuds. Patrick offered her an arm and she slipped a gloved hand in the crook of his elbow, inscrutable behind her dark glasses, calm as a bride.

  The back doors of the hearse were opened and the coffin slid out. Silently, the party drifted after it as it was borne aloft into the open field, bobbing across the sea of grass like a little boat. Yellow ribbons fluttered gaily from the lid. The sky was hostile and enormous. We passed one grave, a child’s, from which grinned a faded plastic jack-o’-lantern.

  A green striped canopy, of the sort used for lawn parties, was set up over the grave. There was something vacuous and stupid about it, flapping out there in the middle of nowhere, something empty, banal, brutish. We stopped, stood, in awkward little groups. Somehow I had thought there would be more than this. Bits of litter chewed up by the mowers lay scattered on the grass. There were cigarette butts, a Twix wrapper, recognizable.

  This is stupid, I thought, with a sudden rush of panic. How did this happen?

  Traffic washed past up on the expressway.

  The grave was almost unspeakably horrible. I had never seen one before. It was a barbarous thing, a blind clayey hole with folding chairs for the family teetering on one side and raw dirt heaped on the other. My God, I thought. I was starting to see everything, all at once, with a blistering clarity. Why bother with the coffin, the awning or any of it if they were just doing to dump him, shovel the dirt in, go home? Was this all there was to it? To get rid of him like a piece of garbage?

  Bun, I thought, oh, Bun, I’m sorry.

  The minister ran through the service fast, his bland face tinted green beneath the canopy. Julian was there—I saw him now, looking towards the four of us. First Francis, and then Charles and Camilla, moved to go stand with him but I didn’t care, I was in a daze. The Corcorans sat very quietly, hands in laps: how can they just sit there? I thought, by that awful pit, do nothing? It was Wednesday. On Wednesdays at ten we had Greek Prose Composition and that was where we all ought to have been now. The coffin lay dumbly by the grave. I knew they woul
dn’t open it, but I wished they would. It was just starting to dawn on me that I would never see him again.

  The pallbearers stood in a dark row behind the coffin, like a chorus of elders in a tragedy. Henry was the youngest one. He stood there quietly, his hands folded before him—big, white, scholarly hands, capable and well-kept, the same hands that had dug in Bunny’s neck for a pulse and rolled his head back and forth on its poor broken stem while the rest of us leaned over the edge, breathless, watching. Even from that distance we could see the terrible angle of his neck, the shoe turned the wrong way, the trickle of blood from nose and mouth. He pulled back the eyelids with his thumb, leaning close, careful not to touch the eyeglasses which were skewed on top of Bunny’s head. One leg jerked in a solitary spasm which quieted gradually to a twitch and then stopped. Camilla’s wristwatch had a second hand. We saw them silently conferring. Climbing up the hill after her, bracing his knee with his palm, he’d wiped his hands on his trousers and answered our clamorous whispers—dead? is he—?—with the brief impersonal nod of a doctor.…

  —? Lord we beseech you, that while we lament the departure of our brother Edmund Grayden Corcoran your servant out of this life, we bear in mind that we are most certainly ready to follow him. Give us grace to make ready for that last hour, and protect us against a sudden and unprovided death.…

  He hadn’t seen it coming at all. He hadn’t even understood, there wasn’t time. Teetering back as if on the edge of the swimming pool: comic yodel, windmilling arms. Then the surprised nightmare of falling. Someone who didn’t know there was such a thing in the world as Death; who couldn’t believe it even when he saw it; had never dreamed it would come to him.

  Flapping crows. Shiny beetles crawling in the undergrowth. A patch of sky, frozen in a cloudy retina, reflected in a puddle on the ground. Yoo-hoo. Being and nothingness.

 
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