The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  “Me?”

  He looked at me with a blank, childish expression. Then he laughed.

  “Oh, you hadn’t heard?” he said. “Now it’s you, too. Drinking too much. Wandering around drunk in the middle of the day. Rolling down the road to ruin.”

  I was startled. He laughed again at the look on my face but then we heard footsteps and the tinkle of ice in an advancing cocktail—Francis. He poked his head into the doorway and began to gabble good-naturedly about something or other, and after a few minutes we picked up our drinks and followed him back to the living room.

  That was a cozy night, a happy night; lamps lit, sparkle of glasses, rain falling heavy on the roof. Outside, the treetops tumbled and tossed, with a foamy whoosh like club soda bubbling up in the glass. The windows were open and a damp cool breeze swirled through the curtains, bewitchingly wild and sweet.

  Henry was in excellent spirits. Relaxed, sitting in an armchair with his legs stretched out in front of him, he was alert, well rested, quick with a laugh or a clever reply. Camilla looked enchanting. She wore a narrow sleeveless dress, salmon-colored, which exposed a pair of pretty collarbones and the sweet frail vertebrae at the base of her neck—lovely kneecaps, lovely ankles, lovely bare, strong-muscled legs. The dress exaggerated her spareness of body, her unconscious and slightly masculine grace of posture; I loved her, loved the luscious, stuttering way she would blink while telling a story, or the way (faint echo of Charles) that she held a cigarette, caught in the knuckles of her bitten-nailed fingers.

  She and Charles seemed to have made up. They didn’t talk much, but the old silent thread of twinship seemed in place again. They perched on the arms of each other’s chairs, and fetched drinks back and forth (a peculiar twin-ritual, complex and charged with meaning). Though I did not fully understand these observances, they were generally a sign that all was well. She, if anything, seemed the more conciliatory party, which seemed to disprove the hypothesis that he was at fault.

  The mirror over the fireplace was the center of attention, a cloudy old mirror in a rosewood frame; nothing remarkable, they’d got it at a yard sale, but it was the first thing one saw when one stepped inside and now even more conspicuous because it was cracked—a dramatic splatter that radiated from the center like a spider’s web. How that had happened was such a funny story that Charles had to tell it twice, though it was his re-enactment of it that was funny, really—spring housecleaning, sneezing and miserable with dust, sneezing himself right off his stepladder and landing on the mirror, which had just been washed and was on the floor.

  “What I don’t understand,” said Henry, “is how you got it back up again without the glass falling out.”

  “It was a miracle. I wouldn’t touch it now. Don’t you think it looks kind of wonderful?”

  Which it did, there was no denying it, the spotty dark glass shattered like a kaleidoscope and refracting the room into a hundred pieces.

  Not until it was time to leave did I discover, quite by accident, how the mirror had actually been broken. I was standing on the hearth, my hand resting on the mantel, when I happened to look into the fireplace. The fireplace did not work. It had a screen and a pair of andirons, but the logs that lay across them were furry with dust. But now, glancing down, I saw something else: silver sparkles, bright-needled splinters from the broken mirror, mixed with large, unmistakable shards of a gold-rimmed highball glass, the twin of the one in my own hand. They were heavy old glasses, an inch thick at the bottom. Someone had thrown this one hard, with a pretty good arm, from across the room, hard enough to break it to pieces and to shatter the looking-glass behind my head.

  Two nights later, I was woken again by a knock at my door. Confused, in a foul temper, I switched on the lamp and reached blinking for my watch. It was three o’clock. “Who’s there?” I said.

  “Henry,” came the surprising reply.

  I let him in, somewhat reluctantly. He didn’t sit down. “Listen,” he said. “I’m sorry to disturb you, but this is very important. I have a favor to ask of you.”

  His tone was quick and businesslike. It alarmed me. I sat down on the edge of my bed.

  “Are you listening to me?”

  “What is it?” I said.

  “About fifteen minutes ago I got a call from the police. Charles is in jail. He has been arrested for drunk driving. I want you to go down and get him out.”

  A prickle rose on the nape of my neck. “What?” I said.

  “He was driving my car. They got my name from the registration sticker. I have no idea what kind of condition he’s in.” He reached into his pocket and handed me an unsealed envelope. “I expect it’s going to cost something to get him out, I don’t know what.”

  I opened the envelope. Inside was a check, blank except for Henry’s signature, and a twenty-dollar bill.

  “I already told the police that I lent him the car,” said Henry.

  “If there’s any question about that, have them call me.” He was standing by the window, looking out. “In the morning I’ll get in touch with a lawyer. All I want you to do is get him out of there as soon as you can.”

  It took a moment or two for this to sink in.

  “What about the money?” I said at last.

  “Pay them whatever it costs.”

  “I mean this twenty dollars.”

  “You’ll have to take a taxi. I took one over here. It’s waiting downstairs.”

  There was a long silence. I still wasn’t awake. I was sitting there in just an undershirt and a pair of boxer shorts.

  While I dressed, he stood at the window looking out at the dark meadow, hands clasped behind his back, oblivious to the jangle of clothes-hangers and my clumsy, sleep-dazed fumbling through the bureau drawers—serene, preoccupied; lost, apparently, in his own abstract concerns.

  It wasn’t until I’d dropped Henry off and was being driven, at a rapid clip, towards the dark center of town that I realized how poorly I had been apprised of the situation I was heading into. Henry hadn’t told me a thing. Had there been an accident? Was anyone hurt? Besides, if this was such a big deal—and it was Henry’s car, after all—why wasn’t he coming, too?

  A lone traffic light rocked on a wire over the empty intersection.

  The jail, in Hampden town, was in an annex of the courthouse. It was also the only building in the square that had any lights on that time of night. I told the taxi driver to wait and went inside.

  Two policemen were sitting in a large, well-lit room. There were many filing cabinets, and metal desks behind partitions; an old-fashioned water cooler; a gumball machine from the Civitan Club (“Your Change Changes Things”). I recognized one of the policemen—a fellow with a red moustache—from the search parties. The two of them were eating fried chicken, the sort you buy from under heat lamps in convenience stores, and watching “Sally Jessy Raphaël” on a portable black-and-white TV.

  “Hi,” I said.

  They looked up.

  “I came to see about getting my friend out of jail.”

  The one with the red moustache wiped his mouth on a paper napkin. He was big and pleasant-looking, in his thirties. “That’s Charles Macaulay, I bet,” he said.

  He said this as if Charles were an old friend of his. Maybe he was. Charles had spent a lot of time down here when the stuff with Bunny was going on. The cops, he said, had been nice to him. They’d sent out for sandwiches, bought him Cokes from the machine.

  “You’re not the guy I talked to on the phone,” said the other policeman. He was large and relaxed, about forty, with gray hair and a froglike mouth. “Is that your car out there?”

  I explained. They ate their chicken and listened: big, friendly guys, big police .38s on their hips. The walls were covered in government-issue posters: FIGHT BIRTH DEFECTS, HIRE VETERANS, REPORT MAIL FRAUD.

  “Well, you know, we can’t let you have the car,” said the policeman with the red moustache. “Mr. Winter is going to have to come down here and pick it up him
self.”

  “I don’t care about the car. I just want to get my friend out of jail.”

  The other policeman looked at his watch. “Well,” he said, “come back in about six hours, then.”

  Was he joking? “I have the money,” I said.

  “We can’t set bail. The judge will have to do that at the arraignment. Nine o’clock in the morning.”

  Arraignment? My heart pumped. What the hell was that?

  The cops were looking at me blandly as if to say, “Is that all?”

  “Can you tell me what happened?” I said.

  “What?”

  My voice sounded flat and strange to me. “What exactly did he do?”

  “State trooper pulled him over out on Deep Kill Road,” said the gray-haired policeman. He said it as if he were reading it.

  “He was obviously intoxicated. He agreed to a Breathalyzer and failed it when it was administered. The trooper brought him down here and we put him in the lock-up. That was about two-twenty-five a.m.”

  Things still weren’t clear, but for the life of me I couldn’t think of the right questions to ask. Finally I said, “Can I see him?”

  “He’s fine, son,” said the policeman with the red moustache. “You can see him first thing in the morning.”

  All smiles, very friendly. There was nothing more to say. I thanked them and left.

  When I got outside the cab was gone. I still had fifteen dollars from Henry’s twenty but to call another cab I’d have to go back inside the jail and I didn’t want to do that. So I walked down Main Street to the south end, where there was a pay phone in front of the lunch counter. It didn’t work.

  So tired I was almost dreaming, I walked back to the square—past the post office, past the hardware store, past the movie theater with its dead marquee: plate glass, cracked sidewalks, stars. Mountain cats in bas-relief prowled the friezes of the public library. I walked a long way, till the stores got sparse and the road was dark, walked on the deep singing shoulder of the highway till I got to the Greyhound bus station, sad in the moonlight, the first glimpse I’d ever had of Hampden. The terminal was closed. I sat outside, on a wooden bench beneath a yellow light bulb, waiting for it to open so I could go in and use the phone and have a cup of coffee.

  The clerk—a fat man with lifeless eyes—came to unlock the place at six. We were the only people there. I went into the men’s room and washed my face and had not one cup of coffee but two, which the clerk sold me grudgingly from a pot he’d brewed on a hot plate behind the counter.

  The sun was up, but it was hard to see much through the grime-streaked windows. Defunct timetables papered the walls; cigarette butts and chewing gum were stomped deep into the linoleum. The doors of the phone booth were covered in fingerprints. I closed them behind me and dialed Henry’s number, half-expecting he wouldn’t answer but to my surprise he did, on the second ring.

  “Where are you? What’s the matter?” he said.

  I explained what had happened. Ominous silence on the other end.

  “Was he in a cell by himself?” he said at last.

  “I don’t know.”

  “Was he conscious? I mean, could he talk?”

  “I don’t know.”

  Another long silence.

  “Look,” I said, “he’s going before the judge at nine. Why don’t you meet me at the courthouse.”

  Henry didn’t answer for a moment. Then he said: “It’s best if you handle it. There are other considerations involved.”

  “If there are other considerations I’d appreciate knowing what they are.”

  “Don’t be angry,” he said quickly. “It’s just that I’ve had to deal with the police so much. They know me already, and they know him too. Besides—” he paused—“I am afraid that I’m the last person Charles wants to see.”

  “And why is that?”

  “Because we quarreled last night. It’s a long story,” he said as I tried to interrupt. “But he was very upset when I saw him last. And of all of us, I think you’re on the best terms with him at the moment.”

  “Hmph,” I said, though secretly I was mollified.

  “Charles is very fond of you. You know that. Besides, the police don’t know who you are. I don’t think they’ll be likely to associate you with that other business.”

  “I don’t see that it matters at this point.”

  “I am afraid that it does matter. More than you might think.”

  There was a silence, during which I felt acutely the hopelessness of ever trying to get to the bottom of anything with Henry. He was like a propagandist, routinely withholding information, leaking it only when it served his purposes. “What are you trying to say to me?” I said.

  “Now’s not the time to discuss it.”

  “If you want me to go down there, you’d better tell me what you’re talking about.”

  When he spoke, his voice was crackly and distant. “Let’s just say that for a while things were much more touch-and-go than you realized. Charles has had a hard time. It’s no one’s fault really but he’s had to shoulder more than his share of the burden.”

  Silence.

  “I am not asking much of you.”

  Only that I do what you tell me, I thought as I hung up the telephone.

  The courtroom was down the hall from the cells, through a pair of swinging doors with windows at the top. It looked very much like what I’d seen of the rest of the courthouse, circa 1950 or so, with pecky linoleum tiles and paneling that was yellowed and sticky-looking with honey-colored varnish.

  I had not expected so many people would be there. There were two tables before the judge’s bench, one with a couple of state troopers, the other with three or four unidentified men; a court reporter with her funny little typewriter; three more unidentified men in the spectators’ area, sitting well apart from each other, as well as a poor haggard lady in a tan raincoat who looked like she was getting beat up by somebody on a pretty regular basis.

  We rose for the judge. Charles’s case was called first.

  He padded through the doors like a sleepwalker, in his stocking feet, a court officer following close behind him. His face was blurry and thick. They’d taken his belt and tie as well as his shoes and he looked a little like he was in his pajamas.

  The judge peered down at him. He was sour-faced, about sixty, with a thin mouth and big meaty jowls like a bloodhound’s. “You have an attorney?” he said, in a strong Vermont accent.

  “No, sir,” said Charles.

  “Wife or parent present?”

  “No, sir.”

  “Can you post bail?”

  “No, sir,” Charles said. He looked sweaty and disoriented. I stood up. Charles didn’t see me but the judge did. “Are you here to post bail for Mr. Macaulay?” he said.

  “Yes, I am.”

  Charles turned to stare, lips parted, his expression as blank and trancelike as a twelve-year-old’s.

  “It’ll be five hundred dollars you can pay it at the window down the hall to your left,” said the judge in a bored monotone. “You’ll have to appear again in two weeks and I suggest you bring a lawyer. Do you have a job for which you need your vehicle?”

  One of the shabby middle-aged men at the front spoke up. “It’s not his car, Your Honor.”

  The judge glowered at Charles, suddenly fierce. “Is that correct?” he said.

  “The owner was contacted. A Henry Winter. Goes to school up at the college. He says he lent the vehicle to Mr. Macaulay for the evening.”

  The judge snorted. To Charles he said gruffly: “Your license is suspended pending resolution and have Mr. Winter here on the twenty-eighth.”

  The whole business was amazingly quick. We were out of the courthouse by ten after nine.

  The morning was damp and dewy, cold for May. Birds chattered in the black treetops. I was reeling with fatigue.

  Charles hugged himself. “Christ, it’s cold,” he said.

  Across the empty streets, across th
e square, they were just pulling the blinds up at the bank. “Wait here,” I said. “I’ll go call a cab.”

  He caught me by the arm. He was still drunk, but his night of boozing had done more damage to his clothes than to anything else; his face was fresh and flushed as a child’s. “Richard,” he said.

  “What?”

  “You’re my friend, aren’t you?”

  I was in no mood to stand around on the courthouse steps and listen to this sort of thing. “Sure,” I said, and tried to disengage my arm.

  But he only clutched me tighter. “Good old Richard,” he said. “I know you are. I’m so glad it was you who came. I just want you to do me this one little favor.”

  “What’s that?”

  “Don’t take me home.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Take me to the country. To Francis’s. I don’t have the key but Mrs. Hatch could let me in or I could bust a window or something—no, listen. Listen to this. I could get in through the basement. I’ve done it millions of times. Wait,” he said as I tried to interrupt again. “You could come, too. You could swing by school and get some clothes and—”

  “Hold on,” I said, for the third time. “I can’t take you anywhere. I don’t have a car.”

  His face changed, and he let go my arm. “Oh, right,” he said with sudden bitterness. “Thanks a lot.”

  “Listen to me. I can’t. I don’t have a car. I came down here in a taxicab.”

  “We can go in Henry’s.”

  “No we can’t. The police took the keys.”

  His hands were shaking. He ran them through his disordered hair. “Then come home with me. I don’t want to go home by myself.”

  “All right,” I said. I was so tired I was seeing spots. “All right. Just wait. I’ll call a cab.”

  “No. No cab,” he said, lurching backward. “I don’t feel so hot. I think I’d rather walk.”

 
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