The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  … I am the Resurrection and the life; he who believeth in Me, even if he die, shall live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never die.…

  The pallbearers lowered the coffin into the grave with long, creaking straps. Henry’s muscles quivered with the effort; his jaw was clenched tight. Sweat had soaked through to the back of his jacket.

  I felt in the pocket of my jacket to make sure the painkillers were still there. It was going to be a long ride home.

  The straps were pulled up. The minister blessed the grave and then sprinkled it with holy water. Dirt and dark. Mr. Corcoran, his face buried in his hands, sobbed monotonously. The awning rattled in the wind.

  The first spadeful of earth. The thud of it on the hollow lid gave me a sick, black, empty feeling. Mrs. Corcoran—Patrick on one side, sober Ted on the other—stepped forward. With a gloved hand she tossed the little bouquet of roses into the grave.

  Slowly, slowly, with a drugged, fathomless calm, Henry bent and picked up a handful of dirt. He held it over the grave and let it trickle from his fingers. Then, with terrible composure, he stepped back and absently dragged the hand across his chest, smearing mud upon his lapel, his tie, the starched immaculate white of his shirt.

  I stared at him. So did Julian, and Francis, and the twins, with a kind of shocked horror. He seemed not to realize he had done anything out of the ordinary. He stood there perfectly still, the wind ruffling his hair and the dull light glinting from the rims of his glasses.

  CHAPTER

  8

  MY MEMORIES of the Corcorans’ post-funeral get-together are very foggy, due possibly to the handful of mixed painkillers I swallowed on the way there. But even morphia could not fully dull the horror of this event. Julian was there, which was something of a blessing; he drifted through the party like a good angel, making graceful small talk, knowing exactly the right thing to say to everyone, and behaving with such heavenly charm and diplomacy towards the Corcorans (whom he in fact disliked and vice versa) that even Mrs. Corcoran was mollified. Besides—the pinnacle of glory as far as the Corcorans were concerned—it turned out that he was an old acquaintance of Paul Vanderfeller’s, and Francis, who happened to be nearby, said he hoped he never forgot the expression on Mr. Corcoran’s face when Vanderfeller recognized Julian and greeted him (“European-style,” as Mrs. Corcoran was heard explaining to a neighbor) with an embrace and a kiss on the cheek.

  The little Corcorans—who seemed oddly elated by the morning’s sad events—skidded around in hilarious spirits: throwing croissants, shrieking with laughter, chasing through the crowd with a horrible toy that made an explosive noise like a fart. The caterers had screwed up as well—too much liquor, not enough food, a recipe for certain trouble. Ted and his wife fought without stopping. Bram Guernsey was sick on a linen sofa. Mr. Corcoran swung to and fro between euphoria and the wildest of despairs.

  After a bit of this, Mrs. Corcoran went up to the bedroom, and came down again with a look on her face that was terrible to see. In low tones, she told her husband that there had been “a burglary,” a remark which—repeated by a well-meaning eavesdropper to his neighbor—spread rapidly around the room and generated a flurry of unwanted concern. When had it happened? What was missing? Had the police been called? People abandoned their conversations and gravitated towards her in a murmuring swarm. She evaded their questions masterfully, with a martyred air. No, she said, there was no point in calling the police: the missing items were small things, of sentimental value, and of no use to anyone but herself.

  Cloke found occasion to leave not long after this. And though no one said much about it, Henry too had left. Almost immediately after the funeral he’d collected his bags, got in his car, and driven away, with only the most perfunctory of goodbyes to the Corcorans and without a word to Julian, who was very anxious to talk to him. “He looks wretched,” he said to Camilla and me (I unresponsive, deep in my Dalmane stupor). “I believe he should see a doctor.”

  “The last week has been hard on him,” said Camilla.

  “Certainly. But I think Henry is a more sensitive fellow than we often give him credit for being. In many ways it’s hard to imagine that he’ll ever get over this. He and Edmund were closer than I think you realize.” He sighed. “That was a peculiar poem he read, wasn’t it? I would have suggested something from the Phaedo.”

  Things started to break up around two in the afternoon. We could have stayed for supper, could have stayed—if Mr. Corcoran’s drunken invitations held true (Mrs. Corcoran’s frosty smile behind his back informed us that they did not)—indefinitely, friends of the family, sleeping on our very own cots down in the basement; welcome to join in the life of the Corcoran household and share freely in its daily joys and sorrows: family holidays, babysitting the little ones, pitching in occasionally with the household chores, working together, as a team (he emphasized) which was the Corcoran way. It would not be a soft life—he was not soft with his boys—but it would be an almost unbelievably enriching one in terms of things like character, and pluck, and fine moral standards, the latter of which he did not expect that many of our parents had taken the trouble to teach us.

  It was four o’clock before we finally got away. Now, for some reason, it was Charles and Camilla who weren’t speaking. They’d fought about something—I’d seen them arguing in the yard—and all the way home, in the back seat, they sat side by side and stared straight ahead, their arms folded across their chests in what I am sure they did not realize was a comically identical fashion.

  It felt as if I’d been away longer than I had. My room seemed abandoned and small, like it had stood empty for weeks. I opened the window and lay on my unmade bed. The sheets smelled musty. It was twilight.

  Finally it was over but I felt strangely let down. I had classes on Monday: Greek and French. I hadn’t been to French in nearly three weeks and the thought of it gave me a twinge of anxiety. Final papers. I rolled over on my stomach. Exams. And summer vacation in a month and a half, and where on earth was I going to spend it? Working for Dr. Roland? Pumping gas in Plano?

  I got up and took another Dalmane and lay down again. Outside it was nearly dark. Through the walls I could hear my neighbor’s stereo: David Bowie. “This is Ground Control to Major Tom …”

  I stared at the shadows on the ceiling.

  In some strange country between dream and waking, I found myself in a cemetery, not the one Bunny was buried in but a different one, much older, and very famous—thick with hedges and evergreens, its cracked marble pavilions choked with vines. I was walking along a narrow flagstone path. As I turned a corner, the white blossoms of an unexpected hydrangea–luminous clouds, floating pale in the shadows—brushed against my cheek.

  I was looking for the tomb of a famous writer—Marcel Proust, I think, or maybe George Sand. Whoever it was, I knew they were buried in that place, but it was so overgrown I could hardly see the names on the stones, and it was getting dark besides.

  I found myself at the top of a hill in a dark grove of pines. A smudged, smoky valley lay far beneath. I turned and looked back the way I’d come: a prickle of marble spires, dim mausoleums, pale in the growing darkness. Far below, a tiny light—a lantern, maybe, or a flashlight—bobbed towards me through the crowd of gravestones. I leaned forward to see more clearly, and then was startled by a crash in the shrubbery behind me.

  It was the baby the Corcorans called Champ. It had tumbled the length of its body and was trying to stagger to its feet; after a moment it gave up and lay still, barefoot, shivering, its belly heaving in and out. It was wearing nothing but a plastic diaper and there were long ugly scratches on its arms and legs. I stared at it, aghast. The Corcorans were thoughtless but this was unconscionable; those monsters, I thought, those imbeciles, they just went off and left it here all by itself.

  The baby was whimpering, its legs mottled blue with cold. Clutched in one fat starfish of a hand was the plastic airplane which had come with its Happy Meal. I bent dow
n to see if it was okay but as I did I heard, very near, the wry, ostentatious clearing of a throat.

  What happened next took place in a flash. Looking over my shoulder I had only the most fleeting impression of the figure looming behind me, but the glimpse I got struck me stumbling backwards, screaming, falling down and down and down until at last I hit my own bed, which rushed up from the dark to meet me. The jolt knocked me awake. Trembling, I lay flat on my back for a moment, then scrambled for the light.

  Desk, door, chair. I lay back, still trembling. Though his features had been clotted and ruined, with a thick, scabbed quality that I did not like to remember even with the light on—still, I had known very well who it was, and in the dream he knew I knew.

  After what we’d been through in the previous weeks, it was no wonder we were all a little sick of one another. For the first few days we stayed pretty much to ourselves, except in class and in the dining halls; with Bun dead and buried, I suppose, there was much less to talk about, and no reason to stay up until four or five in the morning.

  I felt strangely free. I took walks; saw some movies by myself; went to an off-campus party on Friday night, where I stood on the back porch of some teacher’s house and drank beer and heard a girl whisper about me to another girl, “He looks so sad, don’t you think?” It was a clear night, with crickets and a million stars. The girl was pretty, the bright-eyed, ebullient type I always go for. She struck up a conversation, and I could have gone home with her; but it was enough just to flirt, in the tender, uncertain way tragic characters do in films (shell-shocked veteran or brooding young widower; attracted to the young stranger yet haunted by a dark past which she in her innocence cannot share) and have the pleasure of watching the stars of empathy bloom in her kind eyes; feeling her sweet wish to rescue me from myself (and, oh, my dear, I thought, if you knew what a job you’d be taking on, if you only knew!); knowing that if I wanted to go home with her, I could.

  Which I did not. Because—no matter what kindhearted strangers thought—I was in need of neither company nor comfort. All I wanted was to be alone. After the party I didn’t go to my room but to Dr. Roland’s office, where I knew no one would think to look for me. At night and on weekends it was wonderfully quiet, and once we got back from Connecticut I spent a great deal of time there—reading, napping on his couch, doing his work and my own.

  At that time of night, even the janitors had left. The building was dark. I locked the office door behind me. The lamp on Dr. Roland’s desk cast a warm, buttery circle of light and, after turning the radio on low to the classical station in Boston, I settled on the couch with my French grammar. Later, when I got sleepy, there would be a mystery novel, a cup of tea if I felt like it. Dr. Roland’s bookshelves glowed warm and mysterious in the lamplight. Though I wasn’t doing anything wrong, it seemed to me that I was sneaking around somehow, leading a secret life which, pleasant though it was, was bound to catch up with me sooner or later.

  Between the twins, discord still reigned. At lunch they would sometimes arrive as much as an hour apart. I sensed that the fault lay with Charles, who was surly and uncommunicative and—as lately was par for the course—drinking a little more than was good for him. Francis claimed to know nothing about it, but I had an idea he knew more than he was saying.

  I had not spoken to Henry since the funeral nor even seen him. He didn’t show up at meals and wasn’t answering the telephone. At lunch on Saturday, I said: “Do you suppose Henry’s all right?”

  “Oh, he’s fine,” said Camilla, busy with knife and fork.

  “How do you know?”

  She paused, the fork in mid-air; her glance was like a light turned suddenly into my face. “Because I just saw him.”

  “Where?”

  “At his apartment. This morning,” she said, going back to her lunch.

  “So how is he?”

  “Okay. A little shaky still, but all right.”

  Beside her, chin in hand, Charles glowered down at his untouched plate.

  Neither of the twins was at dinner that night. Francis was talkative and in a good mood. Just back from Manchester and loaded with shopping bags, he showed me his purchases one by one: jackets, socks, suspenders, shirts in half a dozen different stripes, a fabulous array of neckties, one of which—a greeny-bronze silk with tangerine polka dots—was a present for me. (Francis was always generous with his clothes. He gave Charles and me his old suits by the armload; he was taller than Charles, and thinner than both of us, and we would have them altered by a tailor in town. I still wear a lot of those suits: Sulka, Aquascutum, Gieves and Hawkes.)

  He had been to the bookstore, too. He had a biography of Cortés; a translation of Gregory of Tours; a study of Victorian murderesses, put out by the Harvard University Press. He had also bought a gift for Henry: a corpus of Mycenaean inscriptions from Knossos.

  I looked through it. It was an enormous book. There was no text, only photograph after photograph of broken tablets with the inscriptions—in Linear B—reproduced in facsimile in the bottom. Some of the fragments had only a single character.

  “He’ll like this,” I said.

  “Yes, I think he will,” said Francis. “It was the most boring book I could find. I thought I might drop it off after dinner.”

  “Maybe I’ll come along,” I said.

  Francis lit a cigarette. “You can if you like. I’m not going in. I’m just going to leave it on the porch.”

  “Oh, well, then,” I said, oddly relieved.

  I spent all day Sunday in Dr. Roland’s office, from ten in the morning on. Around eleven that night I realized I’d had nothing to eat all day, nothing but coffee and some crackers from the Student Services office, so I got my things, locked up, and walked down to see if the Rathskeller was still open.

  It was. The Rat was an extension of the snack bar, with lousy food mostly but there were a couple of pinball machines, and a jukebox, and though you couldn’t buy any kind of a real drink there they would give you a plastic cup of watered-down beer for only sixty cents.

  That night it was loud and very crowded. The Rat made me nervous. To people like Jud and Frank, who were there every time the doors opened, it was the nexus of the universe. They were there now, at the center of an enthusiastic table of toadies and hangers-on, playing, with froth-mouthed relish, some game which apparently involved their trying to stab each other in the hand with a piece of broken glass.

  I pushed my way to the front and ordered a slice of pizza and a beer. While I was waiting for the pizza to come out of the oven, I saw Charles, alone, at the end of the bar.

  I said hello and he turned halfway. He was drunk; I could see it in the way he was sitting, not in an inebriated manner per se but as if a different person—a sluggish, sullen one—had occupied his body. “Oh,” he said. “Good. It’s you.”

  I wondered what he was doing in this obnoxious place, by himself, drinking bad beer when at home he had a cabinet full of the best liquor he could possibly want.

  He was saying something I couldn’t make out over the music and shouting. “What?” I said, leaning closer.

  “I said, could I borrow some money.”

  “How much?”

  He did some counting on his fingers. “Five dollars.”

  I gave it to him. He was not so drunk that he was able to accept it without repeated apologies and promises to repay it.

  “I meant to go to the bank on Friday,” he said.

  “It’s okay.”

  “No, really.” Carefully, he took a crumpled check from his pocket. “My Nana sent me this. I can cash it on Monday no problem.”

  “Don’t worry,” I said. “What are you doing here?”

  “Felt like going out.”

  “Where’s Camilla?”

  “Don’t know.”

  He was not so drunk, now, that he couldn’t make it home on his own; but the Rat didn’t close for another two hours, and I didn’t much like the idea of his staying on by himself. Since Bunn
y’s funeral several strangers—including the secretary in the Social Sciences office—had approached me and tried to pick me for information. I had frozen them out, a trick I’d learned from Henry (no expression, pitiless gaze, forcing intruder to retreat in embarrassment); it was a nearly infallible tactic but dealing with these people when you were sober was one thing, and quite another if you were drunk. I wasn’t drunk, but I didn’t feel like hanging around the Rat until Charles got ready to leave, either. Any effort to draw him away would, I knew, serve only to entrench him further; when he was drunk he had a perverse way of always wanting to do exactly the opposite of what anyone suggested.

  “Does Camilla know you’re here?” I asked him.

  He leaned over, palm on the bar to brace himself. “What?”

  I asked him again, louder this time. His face darkened. “None of her business,” he said, and turned back to his beer.

  My food came. I paid for it and told Charles, “Excuse me, I’ll be right back.”

  The men’s room was in a dank, smelly hallway that ran perpendicular to the bar. I turned down it, out of Charles’s view, to the pay phone on the wall. Some girl was on it, though, talking in German. I waited for ages, and was just about to leave when finally she hung up, and I dug in my pocket for a quarter and dialed the twins’ number.

  The twins weren’t like Henry; if they were home, they would generally answer the phone. But no one did answer. I dialed again and glanced at my watch. Eleven-twenty. I couldn’t think where Camilla would be, that time of night, unless she was on her way over to get him.

  I hung up the phone. The quarter tinkled into the slot. I pocketed it and headed back to Charles at the bar. For a moment I thought he had just moved somewhere into the crowd, but after standing there a moment or two I realized I wasn’t seeing him because he wasn’t there. He had drunk the rest of his beer and left.

 
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