The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  He trailed away, sat smoking for some moments, an expression of frustration and vague irritation on his face.

  “Well?” I said. “What happened?”

  “Specifically?” He shrugged. “I can’t tell you. I remember hardly anything that happened that night, which isn’t to say the tenor of it isn’t clear enough.…” He paused; started to speak but thought better of it; shook his head. “I mean, after that night it was obvious to everyone,” he said. “Not that it wasn’t before. It’s just that Charles was so much worse than anyone had expected. I …”

  He sat staring into space for a moment. Then he shook his head and reached for another cigarette.

  “It’s impossible to explain,” he said. “But one can also look at it on an extremely simple level. They were always keen on each other, those two. And I’m no prude, but this jealousy I find astounding. One thing I’ll say for Camilla, she’s more reasonable about that sort of thing. Perhaps she has to be.”

  “What sort of thing?”

  “About Charles going to bed with people.”

  “Who’s he been to bed with?”

  He brought up his glass and took a big drink. “Me for one,” he said. “That shouldn’t surprise you. If you drank as much as he does, I daresay I would have been to bed with you, too.”

  Despite the archness of his tone—which normally would have irritated me—there was a melancholy undernote in his voice. He drained off the rest of the whiskey and set the glass down on the end table with a bang. He said, after a pause: “It hasn’t happened often. Three or four times. The first time when I was a sophomore and he was a freshman. We were up late, drinking in my room, one thing led to another. Loads of fun on a rainy night, but you should have seen us at breakfast the next morning.” He laughed bleakly. “Remember the night Bunny died?” he said. “When I was in your room? And Charles interrupted us at that rather unfortunate moment?”

  I knew what he was going to tell me. “You left my room with him,” I said.

  “Yes. He was awfully drunk. Actually a little too drunk. Which was quite convenient for him as he pretended not to remember it the next day. Charles is very prone to these attacks of amnesia after he spends the night at my house.” He looked at me out of the corner of his eye. “He denies it all quite convincingly and the thing is, he expects me to play along with him, you know, pretend it never happened,” he said. “I don’t even think he does it out of guilt. As a matter of fact he does it in this particularly light-hearted way which infuriates me.”

  I said: “You like him a lot, don’t you?”

  I don’t know what made me say this. Francis didn’t blink. “I don’t know,” he said coldly, reaching for a cigarette with his long, nicotine-stained fingers. “I like him well enough, I suppose. We’re old friends. Certainly I don’t fool myself that it’s more than that. But I’ve had a lot of fun with him, which is a great deal more than you can say about Camilla.”

  That was what Bunny would have called a shot across the bow. I was too surprised to even answer.

  Francis—though his satisfaction was evident—did not acknowledge his point. He leaned back in his chair by the window; the edges of his hair glowed metallic red in the sun. He said: “It’s unfortunate, but there it is. Neither one cares about anybody but himself—or herself, as the case may be. They like to present a unified front but I don’t even know how much they care about each other. Certainly they take a perverse pleasure in leading one on—yes, she does lead you on,” he said when I tried to interrupt, “I’ve seen her do it. And the same with Henry. He used to be crazy about her, I’m sure you know that; for all I know he still is. As for Charles—well, basically, he likes girls. If he’s drunk, I’ll do. But—just when I’ve managed to harden my heart, he’ll turn around and be so sweet. I always fall for it. I don’t know why.” He was quiet for a moment. “We don’t run much to looks in my family, you know, all knuckles and cheekbones and beaky noses,” he said. “Maybe that’s why I tend to equate physical beauty with qualities with which it has absolutely nothing to do. I see a pretty mouth or a moody pair of eyes and imagine all sorts of deep affinities, private kinships. Never mind that half a dozen jerks are clustered round the same person, just because they’ve been duped by the same pair of eyes.” He leaned over and energetically stubbed out his cigarette. “She’d behave a lot more like Charles if she were allowed to; he’s so possessive, though, he keeps her reeled in pretty tight. Can you imagine a worse situation? He watches her like a hawk. And he’s also rather poor—not that it matters much,” he said hastily, realizing to whom he was speaking, “but he’s quite self-conscious about it. Very proud of his family, you know, very well aware that he himself is a sot. There’s something kind of Roman about it, all this regard he puts in his sister’s honor. Bunny wouldn’t go near Camilla, you know, he would hardly even look at her. He used to say that she wasn’t his type but I think the old Dutchman in him just knew she was bad medicine. My God … I remember once, a long time ago, we had dinner at a ridiculous Chinese restaurant in Bennington. The Lobster Pagoda. It’s closed now. Red bead curtains and a shrine to the Buddha with an artificial waterfall. We drank a lot of drinks with umbrellas in them and Charles was horribly drunk—not that it was his fault, really; we were all drunk, the cocktails are always too strong in a place like that and besides, you never know quite what they put in them, do you? Outside, they had a footbridge to the parking lot that went over a moat with tame ducks and goldfish. Somehow Camilla and I got separated from everyone else, and we were waiting there. Comparing fortunes. Hers said something like ‘Expect a kiss from the man of your dreams,’ which was too good to pass up, so I—well, we were both drunk, and we got a little carried away—and then Charles barreled out of nowhere and grabbed me by the back of the neck and I thought he was going to throw me over the rail. Bunny was there, too, he pulled him off, and Charles had the sense to say he’d been joking but he wasn’t, he hurt me, twisted my arm behind my back and damn near pulled it out of the socket. I don’t know where Henry was. Probably looking at the moon and reciting some poem from the T’ang Dynasty.”

  Subsequent events had knocked it from my mind, but the mention of Henry made me think of what Charles had told me that morning about the FBI—and of another question, this one regarding Henry too. I was wondering if this was the time to bring up either of them when Francis said, abruptly and in a tone suggestive of bad news to follow, “You know, I was at the doctor’s today.”

  I waited for him to go on. He didn’t.

  “What for?” I finally said.

  “Same stuff. Dizziness. Chest pains. I wake up in the night and can’t get my breath. Last week I went back to the hospital and let them run some tests but nothing turned up. They referred me to this other fellow. A neurologist.”

  “And?”

  He shifted restlessly in his chair. “He didn’t find anything. None of these hick doctors are any good. Julian gave me the name of a man in New York; he was the one who cured the Shah of Isram, you know, of that blood disease. It was in all the papers. Julian says he’s the best diagnostician in the country and one of the best in the world. He’s booked two years in advance but Julian says maybe if he calls him, he might agree to see me.”

  He was reaching for another cigarette, and the last, untouched, was still smoldering in the ashtray.

  “The way you smoke,” I said, “no wonder you’re short of breath.”

  “That has nothing to do with it,” he said irritably, tamping the cigarette on the back of his wrist. “That’s just what these stupid Vermonters tell you. Stop smoking, cut out booze and coffee. I’ve been smoking half my life. You think I don’t know how it affects me? You don’t get these nasty cramping pains in your chest from cigarettes, nor from having a few drinks, either. Besides, I have all these other symptoms. Heart palpitations. Ringing in the ears.”

  “Smoking can have totally weird effects on your body.”

  Francis frequently made fun of me when I used so
me phrase he perceived as Californian. “Totally weird?” he said maliciously, mimicking my accent: suburban, hollow, flat. “Rilly?”

  I looked at him slouching in his chair: polka-dot tie, narrow Bally shoes, foxy narrow face. His grin was foxy too, and showed too many teeth. I was sick of him. I stood up. The room was so smoky that my eyes watered. “Yeah,” I said. “I’ve got to go now.”

  Francis’s snide expression faded. “You’re mad, aren’t you?” he said anxiously.

  “No.”

  “Yes you are.”

  “No, I’m not,” I said. These sudden, panicky attempts at conciliation annoyed me more than his insults.

  “I’m sorry. Don’t listen to me. I’m drunk, I’m sick, I didn’t mean it.”

  Without warning I had a vision of Francis—twenty years later, fifty years, in a wheelchair. And of myself—older, too, sitting around with him in some smoky room, the two of us repeating this exchange for the thousandth time. At one time I had liked the idea, that the act, at least, had bound us together; we were not ordinary friends, but friends till-death-do-us-part. This thought had been my only comfort in the aftermath of Bunny’s death. Now it made me sick, knowing there was no way out. I was stuck with them, with all of them, for good.

  On the walk home from Francis’s—head down, sunk in a black, inarticulate tangle of anxiety and gloom—I heard Julian’s voice saying my name.

  I turned. He was just coming out of the Lyceum. At the sight of his quizzical, kindly face—so sweet, so agreeable, so glad to see me—something wrenched deep in my chest.

  “Richard,” he said again, as if there were no one on earth he could possibly be so delighted to see. “How are you?”

  “Fine.”

  “I’m just going over to North Hampden. Will you walk with me?”

  I looked at the innocent, happy face and thought: If he only knew. It would kill him.

  “Julian, I’d love to, thanks,” I said. “But I have to be getting home.”

  He looked at me closely. The concern in his eyes made me nearly sick with self-loathing.

  “I see so little of you these days, Richard,” he said. “I feel that you’re becoming just a shadow in my life.”

  The benevolence, the spiritual calm, that radiated from him seemed so clear and true that, for a dizzying moment, I felt the darkness lift almost palpably from my heart. The relief was such that I almost broke down sobbing; but then, looking at him again, I felt the whole poisonous weight come crashing back down, full force.

  “Are you sure you’re all right?”

  He can never know. We can never tell him.

  “Oh. Sure I am,” I said. “I’m fine.”

  Though the fuss about Bunny had mostly blown over, the college had still not returned quite to normal—and not at all in the new “Dragnet” spirit of drug enforcement which had spread across campus. Gone were the nights when, on one’s way home from the Rathskeller, it was not unheard-of to see an occasional teacher standing under the bare light bulb of Durbinstall basement—Arnie Weinstein, say, the Marxist economist (Berkeley, ’69), or the haggard, scraggle-haired Englishman who taught classes in Sterne and Defoe.

  Long gone. I had watched grim security men dismantling the underground laboratory, hauling out cartons of beakers and copper piping, while Durbinstall’s head chemist—a small, pimple-faced boy from Akron named Cal Clarken—stood by and wept, still in his trademark high-top sneakers and lab coat. The anthropology teacher who for twenty years had taught “Voices and Visions: The Thought of Carlos Castaneda” (a course which featured, at its conclusion, a mandatory campfire ritual at which pot was smoked) announced quite suddenly that he was leaving for Mexico on sabbatical. Arnie Weinstein took to frequenting the townie bars, where he attempted to discuss Marxist theory with hostile countermen. The scraggle-haired Englishman had returned to his primary interest, which was chasing girls twenty years younger than himself.

  As part of the new “Drug Awareness” policy, Hampden was hosting an intercollege tournament, in game-show format, which tested students’ knowledge about drugs and alcohol. The questions were developed by the National Council for Alcoholism and Substance Abuse. The shows were moderated by a local TV personality (Liz Ocavello) and were broadcast live on Channel 12.

  Unexpectedly, the quizzes proved wildly popular, though not in the spirit the sponsors might have hoped. Hampden had assembled a crack team which—like one of those commando forces in the movies, made up of desperate fugitives, men with freedom to gain and nothing to lose—proved virtually invincible. It was an all-star lineup: Cloke Rayburn; Bram Guernsey; Jack Teitelbaum; Laura Stora; none other than the legendary Cal Clarken heading the team. Cal was participating in hopes of being allowed back into school next term; Cloke and Bram and Laura as part of their required hours of community service; Jack was merely along for the ride. Their combined expertise was nothing short of stunning. Together, they led Hampden to victory after crashing victory over Williams, Vassar, Sarah Lawrence, fielding with dazzling speed and skill such questions as: Name five drugs in the Thorazine family, or: What are the effects of PCP?

  But—even though business had been seriously curtailed—I was not surprised to find that Cloke was still plying his trade, though a good bit more discreetly than he had used to in the old days. One Thursday night before a party I went down to Judy’s room to ask for an aspirin and, after a brief but mysterious inquisition from behind the locked door, found Cloke inside, shades pulled, busy with her mirror and her druggist’s scales.

  “Hi,” he said, ushering me quickly inside and locking the door behind me again. “What can I do for you tonight?”

  “Uh, nothing, thanks,” I said. “I’m just looking for Judy. Where is she?”

  “Oh,” he said, crossing back to his work. “She’s in the costume shop. I thought she probably sent you over. I like Judy but she’s got to make such a big production of everything, which is definitely not cool. Not cool—” carefully, he tapped a measure of powder into an open fold of paper—“at all.” His hands trembled; it was evident that he had been dipping pretty freely into his own wares. “But I had to toss my own scales, you know, after all that shit happened and what the fuck am I supposed to do? Go up to the infirmary? She was running around all day, at lunch and stuff, rubbing her nose and saying, ‘Gramma’s here, Gramma’s here,’ lucky nobody knew what the fuck she was talking about, but still.” He nodded at the open book beside him—Janson’s History of Art, which was cut practically to tatters. “Even these fucking bindles. She got fixated on the idea that I had to make these fancy ones, Jesus, open them up and there’s a fucking Tintoretto on the inside. And gets pissed if I cut them out so that the cupid’s butt or whatever isn’t, like, right in the center. How’s Camilla?” he said, glancing up.

  “Fine,” I said. I didn’t want to think about Camilla. I didn’t want to think of anything having to do with Greek or Greek class, either one.

  “How’s she liking her new place?” said Cloke.

  “What?”

  He laughed. “Don’t you know?” he said. “She moved.”

  “What? Where to?”

  “Don’t know. Down the street, probably. Stopped by to see the twins—hand me that blade, would you?—stopped by to see them yesterday and Henry was helping her put her stuff in boxes.” He had abandoned his work at the scales and was now cutting out lines on the mirror. “Charles is going to Boston for the summer and she’s staying here. Said she didn’t want to stay there alone and it was too much of a pain to sublet. Sounds like there are going to be a lot of us here this summer.” He offered me the mirror and a rolled-up twenty. “Bram and I are looking for a place right now.”

  “This is very good,” I said, half a minute or so later, just as the first euphoric sparkle was starting to hit my synapses.

  “Yeah. It’s excellent, isn’t it? Especially after that awful shit of Laura’s that was going around. Those FBI guys analyzed it and said it was about eighty percent talcum powd
er or something.” He wiped his nose. “Did they ever come talk to you, by the way?”

  “The FBI? No.”

  “I’m surprised. After all that lifeboat shit they were feeding everybody.”

  “What are you talking about?”

  “Christ. They were saying all kinds of weird stuff. There was a conspiracy going on. They knew that Henry and Charles and I were involved. We were all in bad trouble and there was only room for one guy on the lifeboat out. And that guy was going to be the guy that talked first.” He sniffed again, and rubbed his nose with his knuckle. “In a way, it got worse after my dad sent the lawyer up. ‘Why do you need a lawyer if you’re innocent,’ all that kind of shit. Thing is, even the fucking lawyer couldn’t figure out what they were trying to get me to confess to. They kept saying that my friends—Henry and Charles—had ratted on me. That they were the guilty ones, and if I didn’t start talking I might get blamed for something I didn’t even do.”

  My heart was pounding, and not just from the cocaine. “Talking?” I said. “About what?”

  “Search me. My lawyer said not to worry, that they were full of shit. I talked to Charles and he said they were giving him the same line, too. And I mean—I know you like Henry but I think he got pretty flipped out by the whole thing.”

  “What?”

  “Well, I mean, he’s so straight, probably never even had an overdue library book, and out of the blue here comes the fucking FBI all over him. I don’t know what the hell he told them, but he was trying to point them in any direction but towards himself.”

  “Like what direction?”

  “Like me.” He reached for a cigarette. “And, I hate to say it, but I think towards you.”

  “Me?”

  “I never brought your name up, man. I hardly fucking know you. But they got it from somewhere. And it wasn’t from me.”

  “You mean they actually mentioned my name?” I said, after a stunned silence.

  “Maybe Marion gave it to them or something, I don’t know. God knows, they had Bram’s name, Laura’s, even Jud MacKenna’s.… Yours was only once or twice, toward the end there. Don’t ask me why, but I had the idea the Feebies went over to talk to you. I guess that would’ve been the night before they found Bunny’s body. They were coming over to talk to Charles again, I know that, but Henry called and tipped him off that they were on the way. That was when I was staying over at the twins’. Well, I didn’t want to see them, either, so I headed over to Bram’s, and Charles I guess just went to some townie bar and got completely fucked up.”

 
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