The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Hampden, suddenly, was green as Heaven again. Most of the flowers had been killed by the snow except the late bloomers, honeysuckle and lilac and so forth, but the trees had come back bushier than ever, it seemed, deep and dark, foliage so dense that the way that ran through the woods to North Hampden was suddenly very narrow, green pushing in on both sides and shutting out the sunlight on the dank, buggy path.

  On Monday I arrived at the Lyceum a little early and, in Julian’s office, found the windows open and Henry arranging peonies in a white vase. He looked as if he’d lost ten or fifteen pounds, which was nothing to someone Henry’s size but still I saw the thinness in his face and even in his wrists and hands; it wasn’t that, though, but something else, indefinable, that somehow had changed since I had seen him last.

  Julian and he were talking—in jocular, mocking, pedantic Latin—like a couple of priests tidying the vestry before a mass. A dark smell of brewing tea hung strong in the air.

  Henry glanced up. “Salve, amice,” he said, and a subtle animation flickered in his rigid features, usually so locked up, and distant: “valesne? Quid est rei?”

  “You look well,” I said to him, and he did.

  He inclined his head slightly. His eyes, which had been murky and dilated while he was ill, were now the clearest of blues.

  “Benigne dicis,” he said. “I feel much better.”

  Julian was clearing away the last of the rolls and jam—he and Henry had had breakfast together, quite a large one from the looks of it—and he laughed and said something I didn’t quite catch, some Horatian-sounding tag about meat being good for sorrow. I was glad to see that he seemed quite his bright, serene old self. He’d been almost inexplicably fond of Bunny, but strong emotion was distasteful to him, and a display of feeling normal by modern standards would to him have seemed exhibitionist and slightly shocking: I was fairly sure this death had affected him more than he let show. Then again, I suspect that Julian’s cheery, Socratic indifference to matters of life and death kept him from feeling too sad about anything for very long.

  Francis arrived, and then Camilla; no Charles, he was probably in bed with a hangover. We all sat down at the big round table.

  “And now,” said Julian, when everything was quiet, “I hope we are all ready to leave the phenomenal world and enter into the sublime?”

  Those days, I took an enormous relish in my new-found freedom. Now it appeared that we were safe a huge darkness had lifted from my mind. The world was a fresh and wonderful place to me, green and bracing and entirely new, and I looked at it now with fresh new eyes.

  I went on a lot of long walks by myself, through North Hampden, down to the Battenkill river. I liked especially going to the little country grocery in North Hampden (whose ancient proprietors, mother and son, were said to have been the inspiration for a famous and frequently anthologized horror story from the 1950s) to buy a bottle of wine, and wandering down to the riverbank to drink it, then roaming around drunk all the rest of those glorious, golden, blazing afternoons—a waste of time. I was behind in school, there were papers to write and exams were coming up but still I was young; the grass was green and the air was heavy with the sound of bees and I had just come back from the brink of Death itself, back to the sun and air. Now I was free; and my life, which I had thought was lost, stretched out indescribably precious and sweet before me.

  On one of those afternoons I wandered by Henry’s house and found him in his back yard digging a flower bed. He had on his gardening clothes—old trousers, shirtsleeves rolled up past the elbow—and in the wheelbarrow were tomato plants and cucumber, flats of strawberry and sunflower and scarlet geranium. Three or four rosebushes with their roots tied in burlap were propped against the fence.

  I let myself in through the side gate. I was quite drunk. “Hello,” I said, “hello, hello, hello.”

  He stopped and leaned on his shovel. A pale flush of sunburn glowed on the bridge of his nose.

  “What are you doing?” I said.

  “Putting out some lettuces.”

  There was a long silence, in which I noticed the ferns he’d dug up the afternoon we killed Bunny. Spleenwort, I remembered him calling them; Camilla had remarked on the witchiness of the name. He had planted them on the shady side of the house, near the cellar, where they grew dark and foamy in the cool.

  I lurched back a bit, caught myself on the gatepost. “Are you going to stay here this summer?” I said.

  He looked at me closely, dusted his hands on his trousers. “I think so,” he said. “What about you?”

  “I don’t know,” I said. I hadn’t mentioned it to anyone, but only the day before I had put in an application at the Student Services office for an apartment-sitting job, in Brooklyn, for a history professor who was studying in England over the summer. It sounded ideal—a rent-free place to stay in, nice part of Brooklyn, and no duties except watering the plants and taking care of a pair of Boston terriers, who couldn’t go to England because of the quarantine. My experience with Leo and the mandolins had made me wary, but the clerk had assured me that no, this was different, and she’d shown me a file of letters from happy students who had previously held the job. I had never been to Brooklyn and didn’t know a thing about it but I liked the idea of living in a city—any city, especially a strange one—liked the thought of traffic and crowds, of working in a bookstore, waiting tables in a coffee shop, who knew what kind of odd, solitary life I might slip into? Meals alone, walking the dogs in the evenings; and nobody knowing who I was.

  Henry was still looking at me. He pushed his glassses up on his nose. “You know,” he said, “it’s pretty early in the afternoon.” I laughed. I knew what he was thinking: first Charles, now me.

  “I’m okay,” I said.

  “Are you?”

  “Of course.”

  He went back to his work, sticking the shovel into the ground, stepping down hard on one side of the blade with a khaki-gaitered foot. His suspenders made a black X across his back. “Then you can give me a hand with these lettuces,” he said. “There’s another spade in the toolshed.”

  Late that night—two a.m.—my house chairperson pounded on my door and yelled that I had a phone call. Dazed with sleep, I put on my bathrobe and stumbled downstairs.

  It was Francis. “What do you want?” I said.

  “Richard, I’m having a heart attack.”

  I looked with one eye at my house chairperson—Veronica, Valerie, I forget her name—who was standing by the phone with her arms folded over her chest, head to one side in an attitude of concern. I turned my back. “You’re all right,” I said into the receiver. “Go back to sleep.”

  “Listen to me.” His voice was panicky. “I’m having a heart attack. I think I’m going to die.”

  “No you’re not.”

  “I have all the symptoms. Pain in the left arm. Tightness in chest. Difficulty breathing.”

  “What do you want me to do?”

  “I want you to come over here and drive me to the hospital.”

  “Why don’t you call the ambulance?” I was so sleepy my eyes kept closing.

  “Because I’m scared of the ambulance,” said Francis, but I couldn’t hear the rest because Veronica, whose ears had pricked up at the word ambulance, broke in excitedly.

  “If you need a paramedic, the guys up at the security booth know CPR,” she said eagerly. “They’re on call from midnight to six. They also run a van service to the hospital. If you want me to I’ll—”

  “I don’t need a paramedic,” I said. Francis was repeating my name frantically at the other end.

  “Here I am,” I said.

  “Richard?” His voice was weak and breathy. “Who are you talking to? What’s wrong?”

  “Nothing. Now listen to me—”

  “Who said something about paramedic?”

  “Nobody. Now listen. Listen,” I said, as he tried to talk over me. “Calm down. Tell me what’s wrong.”

  “I want you to come over. I feel r
eally bad. I think my heart just stopped beating for a moment. I—”

  “Are drugs involved?” said Veronica in a confidential tone.

  “Look,” I said to her, “I wish you’d be quiet and let me hear what this person is trying to say.”

  “Richard?” said Francis. “Will you just come get me? Please?”

  There was a brief silence.

  “All right,” I said, “give me a few minutes,” and I hung up the phone.

  At Francis’s apartment I found him dressed except for his shoes, lying on his bed. “Feel my pulse,” he said.

  I did, to humor him. It was quick and strong. He lay there limply, eyelids fluttering. “What do you think is wrong with me?” he said.

  “I don’t know,” I said. He was a bit flushed but he really didn’t look that bad. Still—though it would be insane, I knew, to mention it at that moment—it was possible that he had food poisoning or appendicitis or something.

  “Do you think I should go into the hospital?”

  “You tell me.”

  He lay there a moment. “I don’t know. I really think I should,” he said.

  “All right, then. If it’ll make you feel better. Come on. Sit up.”

  He was not too ill to smoke in the car all the way to the hospital.

  We circled around the drive and pulled up by the wide floodlit entrance marked Emergency. I stopped the car. We sat there for a moment.

  “Are you sure you want to do this?” I said.

  He looked at me with astonishment and contempt.

  “You think I’m faking,” he said.

  “No I don’t,” I said, surprised; and, to be honest, the thought hadn’t occurred to me. “I just asked you a question.”

  He got out of the car and slammed the door. We had to wait about half an hour. Francis filled out his chart and sat sullenly reading back issues of Smithsonian magazine. But when the nurse finally called his name, he didn’t stand up.

  “That’s you,” I said.

  He still didn’t move.

  “Well, go on,” I said.

  He didn’t answer. He had a sort of wild look in his eye. “Look here,” he finally said. “I’ve changed my mind.”


  “I’ve said I’ve changed my mind. I want to go home.”

  The nurse was standing in the doorway, listening to this exchange with interest.

  “That’s stupid,” I said to him, irritated. “You’ve waited this long.”

  “I changed my mind.”

  “You were the one who wanted to come.”

  I knew this would shame him. Annoyed, avoiding my gaze, he slammed down his magazine and stalked through the double doors without looking back.

  About ten minutes later an exhausted-looking doctor in a scrub shirt poked his head into the waiting room. I was the only person there.

  “Hi,” he said curtly. “You with Mr. Abernathy?”


  “Would you step back with me for a moment, please?”

  I got up and followed him. Francis was sitting on the edge of an examining table, fully clad, bent almost double and looking miserable.

  “Mr. Abernathy will not put on a gown,” said the doctor. “And he won’t let the nurse take any blood. I don’t know how he expects us to examine him if he won’t cooperate.”

  There was a silence. The lights in the examining room were very bright. I was horribly embarrassed.

  The doctor walked over to a sink and began to wash his hands. “You guys been doing any drugs tonight?” he said casually.

  I felt my face getting red. “No,” I said.

  “A little cocaine? Some speed, maybe?”


  “If your friend here took something, it would help a lot if we knew what it was.”

  “Francis,” I said weakly, and was silenced by a glare of hatred: et tu, Brute.

  “How dare you,” he snapped. “I didn’t take anything. You know very well I didn’t.”

  “Calm down,” said the doctor. “Nobody’s accusing you of anything. But your behavior is a little irrational tonight, don’t you think?”

  “No,” said Francis, after a confused pause.

  The doctor rinsed his hands and dried them on a towel. “No?” he said. “You come here in the middle of the night saying you’re having a heart attack and then you won’t let anyone near you? How do you expect me to know what is wrong with you?”

  Francis didn’t answer. He was breathing hard. His eyes were cast downward and his face was a bright pink.

  “I’m not a mind reader,” the doctor said at last. “But in my experience, somebody your age saying they’re having a heart attack, it’s one of two things.”

  “What?” I finally said.

  “Well. Amphetamine poisoning, for one.”

  “It’s not that,” Francis said angrily, glancing up.

  “All right, all right. Something else it could be is a panic disorder.”

  “What’s that?” I said, carefully avoiding looking in Francis’s direction.

  “Like an anxiety attack. A sudden rush of fear. Heart palpitations. Trembling and sweating. It can be quite severe. People often think they’re dying.”

  Francis didn’t say anything.

  “Well?” said the doctor. “Do you think that might be it?”

  “I don’t know,” said Francis, after another confused pause.

  The doctor leaned back against the sink. “Do you feel afraid a lot?” he said. “For no good reason you can think of?”

  By the time we left the hospital, it was a quarter after three. Francis lit a cigarette in the parking lot. In his left hand he was grinding a piece of paper on which the doctor had written the name of a psychiatrist in town.

  “Are you mad?” he said when we were in the car.

  It was the second time he had asked. “No,” I said.

  “I know you are.”

  The streets were dream-lit, deserted. The car top was down. We drove past dark houses, turned onto a covered bridge. The tires thumped on the wooden planks.

  “Please don’t be mad at me,” said Francis.

  I ignored him. “Are you going to see that psychiatrist?” I said.

  “It wouldn’t do any good. I know what’s bothering me.”

  I didn’t say anything. When the word psychiatrist had come up, I had been alarmed. I was not a great believer in psychiatry but still, who knew what a trained eye might see in a personality test, a dream, even a slip of the tongue?

  “I went through analysis when I was a kid,” Francis said. He sounded on the verge of tears. “I guess I must’ve been eleven or twelve. My mother was on some kind of Yoga kick and she yanked me out of my old school in Boston and packed me off to this terrible place in Switzerland. The Something Institute. Everyone wore sandals with socks. There were classes in dervish dancing and the Kabbalah. All the White Level—that was what they called my grade, or form, whatever it was—had to do Chinese Quigong every morning and have four hours of Reichian analysis a week. I had to have six.”

  “How do you analyze a twelve-year-old kid?”

  “Lots of word association. Also weird games they made you play with anatomically correct dolls. They’d caught me and a couple of little French girls trying to sneak off the grounds—we were half-starved, macrobiotic food, you know, we were only trying to get down to the bureau de tabac to buy some chocolates but of course they insisted it had somehow been some sort of sexual incident. Not that they minded that sort of thing but they liked you to tell them about it and I was too ignorant to oblige. The girls knew more about such matters and had made up some wild French story to please the shrink—ménage à trois in some haystack, you can’t imagine how sick they thought I was for repressing this. Though I would’ve told them anything if I thought they’d send me home.” He laughed, without much humor. “God. I remember the head of the Institute asking me once what character from fiction I most identified with, and I said Davy Balfour from Kidn

  We were rounding a corner. Suddenly, in the wash of the headlights, a large animal loomed in my path. I hit the brakes hard. For a half a moment I found myself looking through the windshield at a pair of glowing eyes. Then, in a flash, it bounded away.

  We sat for a moment, shaken, at a full stop.

  “What was that?” said Francis.

  “I don’t know. A deer maybe.”

  “That wasn’t a deer.”

  “Then a dog.”

  “It looked like some kind of cat to me.”

  Actually, that was what it had looked like to me too. “But it was too big,” I said.

  “Maybe it was a cougar or something.”

  “They don’t have those around here.”

  “They used to. They called them catamounts. Cat-o-the-Mountain. Like Catamount Street in town.”

  The night breeze was chilly. A dog barked somewhere. There wasn’t much traffic on that road at night.

  I put the car in gear.

  Francis had asked me not to tell anyone about our excursion to the emergency room but at the twins’ apartment on Sunday night I had a little too much to drink and found myself telling the story to Charles in the kitchen after dinner.

  Charles was sympathetic. He’d had some drinks himself but not as many as me. He was wearing an old seersucker suit which hung very loosely on him—he, too, had lost some weight—and a frayed old Sulka tie.

  “Poor François,” he said. “He’s such a fruitcake. Is he going to see that shrink?”

  “I don’t know.”

  He shook a cigarette from a pack of Lucky Strikes that Henry had left on the counter. “If I were you,” he said, tapping the cigarette on the inside of his wrist and craning to make sure that no one was in the hall, “if I were you, I would advise him not to mention this to Henry.”

  I waited for him to continue. He lit the cigarette and blew out a cloud of smoke.

  “I mean, I’ve been drinking a bit more than I should,” he said quietly. “I’m the first to admit that. But my God, I was the one who had to deal with the cops, not him. I’m the one who has to deal with Marion, for Christ sake. She calls me almost every night. Let him try talking to her for a while and see how he feels.… If I wanted to drink a bottle of whiskey a day I don’t see what he could say about it. I told him it was none of his business, and none of his business what you did, either.”

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]