The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  This walk, from the courthouse steps to Charles’s apartment in North Hampden, was not an inconsiderable one. It was three miles, at least. A good portion of it lay along a stretch of highway.

  Cars whooshed past in a rush of exhaust. I was dead tired. My head ached and my feet were like lead. But the morning air was cool and fresh and it seemed to bring Charles around a little. About halfway, he stopped at the dusty roadside window of a Tastee Freeze, across the highway from the Veterans Hospital, and bought an ice cream soda.

  Our feet crunched on the gravel. Charles smoked a cigarette and drank his soda through a red-and-white-striped straw. Black-flies whined around our ears.

  “So you and Henry had an argument,” I said, just for something to say.

  “Who told you? Him?”

  “Yes.”

  “I couldn’t remember. It doesn’t matter. I’m tired of him telling me what to do.”

  “You know what I wonder,” I said.

  “What?”

  “Not why he tells us what to do. But why we always do what he says.”

  “Beats me,” said Charles. “It’s not as if much good has come of it.”

  “Oh, I don’t know.”

  “Are you kidding? The idea of that fucking bacchanal in the first place—who thought of that? Whose idea was it to take Bunny to Italy? Who the hell wrote that diary and left it lying around? The son of a bitch. I blame every bit of this on him. Besides, you have no idea how close they were to finding us out.”

  “Who?” I said, startled. “The police?”

  “The people from the FBI. There was a lot towards the end we didn’t tell the rest of you. Henry made me swear not to tell.”

  “Why? What happened?”

  He threw down his cigarette. “Well, I mean, they had it confused,” he said. “They thought Cloke was mixed up in it, they thought a lot of things. It’s funny. We’re so used to Henry. We don’t realize sometimes how he looks to other people.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Oh, I don’t know. I can think of a million examples.” He laughed sleepily. “I remember last summer, when Henry was so gung-ho about renting a farmhouse, driving with him to a realtor’s office upstate. It was perfectly straightforward. He had a specific house in mind—big old place built in the 1800s, way out on some dirt road, tremendous grounds, servants’ quarters, the whole bit. He even had the cash in hand. They must’ve talked for two hours. The realtor called up her manager at home and asked him to come down to the office. The manager asked Henry a million questions. Called every one of his references. Everything was in order but even then they wouldn’t rent it to him.”

  “Why?”

  He laughed. “Well, Henry looks a bit too good to be true, doesn’t he? They couldn’t believe someone his age, a college student, would pay so much for a place that big and isolated, just to live all by himself and study the Twelve Great Cultures.”

  “What? They thought he was some kind of crook?”

  “They thought he wasn’t entirely above-board, let’s put it that way. Apparently the men from the FBI thought the same thing. They didn’t think he killed Bunny, but they thought he knew something he wasn’t telling. Obviously there had been a disagreement in Italy. Marion knew that, Cloke knew it, even Julian did. They even tricked me into admitting it, though I didn’t tell that to Henry. If you ask me, I think what they really thought was that he and Bunny had some money sunk in Cloke’s drug-dealing business. That trip to Rome was a big mistake. They could’ve done it inconspicuously but Henry spent a fortune, throwing money around like crazy, they lived in a palazzo, for Christ sake. People remembered them everywhere they went. I mean, you know Henry, that’s just the way he is but you have to look at it from their point of view. That illness of his must’ve looked pretty suspicious, too. Wiring a doctor in the States for Demerol. Plus those tickets to South America. Putting them on his credit card was about the stupidest thing he ever did.”

  “They found out about that?” I said, horrified.

  “Certainly. When they suspect somebody is dealing drugs, the financial records are the first thing they check—and good God, of all places, South America. Luckily Henry’s dad really does own some property down there. Henry was able to cook up something fairly plausible—not that they believed him; it was a more a matter of their not being able to disprove it.”

  “But I don’t understand where they got this stuff about drugs.”

  “Imagine how it looked to them. On one hand, there was Cloke. The police knew he was dealing drugs on a pretty substantial scale; they also figured he was probably the middleman for somebody a lot bigger. There was no obvious connection between that and Bunny, but then there was Bunny’s best friend, with all this money, they can’t tell quite where it’s coming from. And during those last months Bunny was throwing around plenty of money himself. Henry was giving it to him, of course, but they didn’t know that. Fancy restaurants. Italian suits. Besides. Henry just looks suspicious. The way he acts. Even the way he dresses. He looks like one of those guys with horn-rimmed glasses and armbands in a gangster movie, you know, the one who cooks the books for Al Capone or something.” He lit another cigarette. “Do you remember the night before they found Bunny’s body?” he said. “When you and I went to that awful bar, the one with the TV, and I got so drunk?”

  “Yes.”

  “That was one of the worst nights of my life. It looked pretty bad for both of us. Henry was almost sure he was going to be arrested the next day.”

  I was so appalled that for a moment I couldn’t speak. “Why, for God’s sake?” I said at last.

  He drew deeply on his cigarette. “The FBI men came to see him that afternoon,” he said. “Not long after they’d taken Cloke into custody. They told Henry they had enough probable cause to arrest half a dozen people, including himself, either for conspiracy or withholding evidence.”

  “Christ!” I said, dumbfounded. “Half a dozen people? Who?”

  “I don’t know exactly. They might’ve been bluffing but Henry was worried sick. He warned me they’d probably be coming over to my place and I just had to get out of there, I couldn’t sit around waiting for them. He made me promise not to tell you. Even Camilla didn’t know.”

  There was a long pause.

  “But they didn’t arrest you,” I said.

  Charles laughed. I noticed that his hands still shook a little. “I think we have dear old Hampden College to thank for that,” he said. “Of course, a lot of the stuff didn’t tie up; they figured that out from talking to Cloke. But still they knew they weren’t getting the truth and they probably would’ve kept after it if the college had been a little more cooperative. Once Bunny’s body was found, though, the administration just wanted to hush it up. Too much bad publicity. Freshman applications had gone down something like twenty percent. And the town police—whose business it was, really—are very cooperative about such things. Cloke was in a lot of trouble, you know—some of that drug stuff was serious, they could’ve thrown him in jail. But he got off with academic probation and fifty hours of community service. It didn’t even go on his school record.”

  It took me some moments to digest this. Cars and trucks whooshed past.

  After a while Charles laughed again. “It’s funny,” he said, pushing his fists deep in his pockets. “We thought we were putting our ace man up front but if one of the rest of us had handled it it would’ve been much better. If it had been you. Or Francis. Even my sister. We could have avoided half of this.”

  “It doesn’t matter. It’s over now.”

  “No thanks to him. I was the one who had to deal with the police. He takes the credit, but it was me who actually had to sit around that goddamned station all hours drinking coffee and trying to make them like me, you know, trying to convince them we were all just a bunch of regular kids. Same with the FBI, and that was even worse. Being the front for everybody, you know, always on guard, having to say exactly the right thing and doing my
best to size up things from their point of view, and you had to hit exactly the right note with these people, too, you couldn’t drop it for a second, trying to be all communicative and open yet concerned, too, you know, and at the same time not at all nervous, though I could hardly pick up a cup without being afraid of spilling it and a couple of times I was so panicky I thought I was just going to black out or break down or something. Do you know how hard that was? Do you think Henry would lower himself to do something like that? No. It was all right, of course, for me to do it but he couldn’t be bothered. Those people had never seen anything like Henry in their lives. I’ll tell you the sort of thing he worried about. Like if he was carrying around the right book, if Homer would make a better impression than Thomas Aquinas. He was like something from another planet. If he was the only one they’d had to deal with he would have landed us all in the gas chamber.”

  A lumber truck rattled past.

  “Good God,” I finally said. I was quite shaken. “I’m glad I didn’t know.”

  He shrugged. “Well, you’re right. It all came out okay. But I still don’t like the way he tries to lord it over me.”

  We walked for a long time without saying anything.

  “Do you know where you’re going to spend the summer?” said Charles.

  “I haven’t thought about it much,” I said. I hadn’t heard anything about the situation in Brooklyn, which tended to make me think it had fallen through.

  “I’m going to Boston,” Charles said. “Francis’s great-aunt has an apartment on Marlborough Street. Just a few doors from the Public Garden. She goes to the country in the summer and Francis said if I wanted to stay there, I could.”

  “Sounds nice.”

  “It’s a big place. If you wanted, you could come too.”

  “Maybe.”

  “You’d like it. Francis will be in New York but he’ll come up sometimes. Have you ever been to Boston?”

  “No.”

  “We’ll go to the Gardner Museum. And the piano bar at the Ritz.”

  He was telling me about a museum they had at Harvard, some place where they had a million different flowers all made of colored glass when all of a sudden, with alarming swiftness, a yellow Volkswagen swooped from the opposite lane and ground to a stop beside us.

  It was Judy Poovey’s friend Tracy. She rolled down her window and gave us a brilliant smile. “Hi, guys,” she said. “Want a ride?”

  She dropped us off at Charles’s place. It was ten o’clock. Camilla wasn’t home.

  “God,” said Charles, shouldering off his jacket. It fell, in a heap, on the floor.

  “How do you feel?”

  “Drunk.”

  “Want some coffee?”

  “There’s some in the kitchen,” Charles said, yawning and running a hand through his hair. “Mind if I have a bath?”

  “Go ahead.”

  “I’ll be out in a minute. That cell was filthy. I think I might have fleas.”

  He was more than a minute. I could hear him sneezing, running the hot and cold taps, humming to himself. I went into the kitchen and poured myself a glass of orange juice and put some raisin bread in the toaster.

  While looking through the cabinet for coffee, I found a half-full jar of Horlick’s malted milk. The label stared at me like a reproach. Bunny was the only one of us who ever drank malted milk. I pushed it to the rear of the cabinet, behind a jug of maple syrup.

  The coffee was ready and I was on my second batch of toast when I heard a key in the lock, the front door opening. Camilla stuck her head into the kitchen.

  “Hi, you,” she said. Her hair was untidy and her face pale and watchful; she looked like a little boy.

  “Hi yourself. Want some breakfast?”

  She sat down at the table beside me. “How did it go?” she said.

  I told her. She listened attentively, reached out and took a triangle of buttered toast from my plate and ate it as she listened.

  “Is he all right?” she said.

  I didn’t know exactly how she meant it, “all right.” “Sure,” I said.

  There was a long silence. Very faintly, on a downstairs radio, a sprightly female voice sang a song about yogurt, backed by a chorus of mooing cows.

  She finished her toast and got up to pour herself some coffee. The refrigerator hummed. I watched her rummage in the cabinet for a cup.

  “You know,” I said, “you ought to throw away that jar of malted milk you have in there.”

  It was a moment before she answered. “I know,” she said. “In the closet there’s a scarf he left the last time he was here. I keep running across it. It still smells like him.”

  “Why don’t you get rid of it?”

  “I keep hoping I won’t have to. I hope one day I’ll open the closet door and it’ll be gone.”

  “I thought I heard you,” said Charles, who had been standing in the kitchen door for I didn’t know how long. His hair was wet and all he had on was a bathrobe and in his voice was still a trace of that liquory thickness I knew so well. “I thought you were in class.”

  “Small class. Julian let us out early. How do you feel?”

  “Fabulous,” said Charles, padding into the kitchen, his moist feet tracking prints that evaporated instantly on the shiny, tomato-red linoleum. He came up behind her and laid his hands on her shoulders; bending low, he put his lips close to the nape of her neck. “How about a kiss for your jailbird brother?” he said.

  She turned halfway, as if to touch her lips to his cheek but he slid a palm down her back and tipped her face up to his and kissed her full on the mouth—not a brotherly kiss, there was no mistaking it for that, but a long, slow, greedy kiss, messy and voluptuous. His bathrobe fell slightly open as his left hand sank from her chin to neck, collarbone, base of throat, his fingertips just inside the edge of her thin polka-dot shirt and trembling over the warm skin there.

  I was astounded. She didn’t flinch, didn’t move. When he came up for breath she pulled her chair in close to the table and reached for the sugar bowl as if nothing had happened. Spoon tinkled against china. The smell of Charles—damp, alcoholic, sweet with the linden-water he used for shaving—hung heavy in the air. She brought the cup up and took a sip and it was only then I remembered: Camilla didn’t like sugar in her coffee. She drank it unsweetened, with milk.

  I was astounded. I felt I should say something—anything—but I couldn’t think of a thing to say.

  It was Charles who finally broke the silence. “I’m starving to death,” he said, retying the knot of his bathrobe and pottering over to the refrigerator. The white door opened with a bark. He stooped to look in, his face radiant in the glacial light.

  “I think I’m going to make some scrambled eggs,” he said. “Anyone else want some?”

  Late that afternoon, after I’d gone home and had a shower and a nap, I went to visit Francis.

  “Come in, come in,” he said, waving me in frenetically. His Greek books were spread out on the desk; a cigarette burned in a full ashtray. “What happened last night? Was Charles arrested? Henry wouldn’t tell me a thing. I got part of the story from Camilla but she didn’t know the details.… Sit down. Do you want a drink? What can I get for you?”

  It was always fun to tell Francis a story. He leaned forward and hung on every word, reacting at appropriate intervals with astonishment, sympathy, dismay. When I was finished he bombarded me with questions. Normally, enjoying his rapt attention, I would have strung it out much longer, but after the first decent pause I said, “Now I want to ask you something.”

  He was lighting a fresh cigarette. He clicked shut the lighter and brought his eyebrows down. “What is it?”

  Though I had thought of various ways to phrase this question, it seemed, in the interests of clarity, most expedient to come to the point. “Do you think Charles and Camilla ever sleep together?” I said.

  He had just drawn in a big lungful of smoke. At my question it spurted out his nose the wrong way.
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  “Do you?”

  But he was coughing. “What makes you ask something like that?” he finally said.

  I told him what I’d seen that morning. He listened, his eyes red and streaming from the smoke.

  “That’s nothing,” he said. “He was probably still drunk.”

  “You haven’t answered my question.”

  He lay the burning cigarette in the ashtray. “All right,” he said, blinking. “If you want my opinion. Yes. I think sometimes they do.”

  There was a long silence. Francis closed his eyes, rubbed them with thumb and forefinger.

  “I don’t think it’s anything that happens too frequently,” he said. “But you never know. Bunny always claimed he walked in on them once.”

  I stared at him.

  “He told Henry, not me. I’m afraid I don’t know the details. Apparently he had the key and you remember how he used to barge in without knocking—Come now,” he said. “You must have had some idea.”

  “No,” I said, though actually I had, from the time I’d first met them. I’d attributed this to my own mental perversity, some degenerate vagary of thought, a projection of my own desire—because he was her brother, and they did look an awful lot alike, and the thought of them together brought, along with the predictable twinges of envy, scruple, surprise, another very much sharper one of excitement.

  Francis was looking at me keenly. Suddenly I felt he knew exactly what I was thinking.

  “They’re very jealous of each other,” he said. “He much more so than she. I always thought it was a childish, charming thing, you know, all verbal rough-and-tumble, even Julian used to tease them about it—I mean, I’m an only child, so is Henry, what do we know about such things? We used to talk about what fun it would be to have a sister.” He chuckled. “More fun than either of us imagined, it seems,” he said. “Not that I think it’s so terrible, either—from a moral standpoint, that is—but it’s not at all the casual, good-natured sort of thing that one might hope. It runs a lot more deep and nasty. Last fall, around the time when that farmer fellow …”

 
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