The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  My heart was thumping so wildly I thought it would burst in my chest like a red balloon. Had Henry got scared, tried to sic the FBI on me? That didn’t make sense. There was no way, at least that I could see, he could set me up without incriminating himself. Then again (paranoia, I thought, I have to stop this) maybe it was no coincidence that Charles had stopped by my room that night on his way to the bar. Maybe he had been apprised of the whole thing and—unbeknownst to Henry—had come over and successfully lured me out of harm’s way.

  “You look like you could use a drink, man,” said Cloke presently.

  “Yeah,” I said. I had been sitting for a long time without saying anything. “Yeah, I guess I could.”

  “Why don’t you go to the Villager tonight? Thirsty Thursday. Two for the price of one.”

  “Are you going?”

  “Everybody’s going. Shit. You’re trying to tell me you never went to Thirsty Thursday before?”

  So I went to Thirsty Thursday, with Cloke and Judy, with Bram and Sophie Dearbold and some friends of Sophie’s, and a lot of other people I didn’t even know, and though I don’t know what time I got home I didn’t wake up till six the next evening, when Sophie knocked at my door. My stomach hurt and my head was splitting in two, but I put on my robe and let her in. She had just got out of ceramics class and was wearing a T-shirt and faded old jeans. She had brought me a bagel from the snack bar.

  “Are you okay?” she said.

  “Yes,” I said, though I had to hold on to the back of my chair to stand up.

  “You were really drunk last night.”

  “I know,” I said. Getting out of bed had made me feel, suddenly, much worse. Red spots jumped in front of my eyes.

  “I was worried. I thought I’d better come check on you.” She laughed. “Nobody’s seen you all day. Somebody told me they saw the flag at the guard booth at half-mast and I was afraid you might be dead.”

  I sat on the bed, breathing hard, and stared at her. Her face was like a half-remembered fragment of dream—bar? I thought. There had been the bar—Irish whiskeys and a pinball game with Bram, Sophie’s face blue in the sleazy neon light. More cocaine, cut into lines with a school ID, off the side of a compact-disc case. Then a ride in the back of someone’s truck, a Gulf sign on the highway, someone’s apartment? The rest of the evening was black. Vaguely I remembered a long, earnest conversation with Sophie, standing by an ice-filled sink in someone’s kitchen (MeisterBrau and Genesee, MOMA calendar on the wall). Certainly—a coil of fear wrenched in my stomach—certainly I hadn’t said anything about Bunny. Certainly not. Rather frantically, I searched my memory. Certainly, if I had, she would not be in my room now, looking at me the way she was, would not have brought me this toasted bagel on a paper plate, the smell of which (it was an onion bagel) made me want to retch.

  “How did I get home?” I said, looking up at her.

  “Don’t you remember?”

  “No.” Blood hammered nightmarishly in my temples.

  “Then you were drunk. We called a cab from Jack Teitelbaum’s.”

  “And where did we go?”

  “Here.”

  Had we slept together? Her expression was neutral, offering no clue. If we had, I wasn’t sorry—I liked Sophie, I knew she liked me, she was one of the prettiest girls at Hampden besides—but this was the kind of thing you like to know for sure. I was trying to think how I could ask her, tactfully, when someone knocked at the door. The raps were like gun shots. Sharp pains ricocheted through my head.

  “Come in,” said Sophie.

  Francis stuck his head around the door. “Well, look at this, would you,” he said. He liked Sophie. “It’s the car trip reunion and nobody asked me.”

  Sophie stood up. “Francis! Hello! How’ve you been?”

  “Good, thanks. I haven’t talked to you since the funeral.”

  “I know. I was thinking about you just the other day. How have you been?”

  I lay back on the bed, my stomach boiling. The two of them were conversing animatedly. I wished they would both leave.

  “Well well,” said Francis after a long interlude, peering over Sophie’s shoulder at me. “What’s wrong with tiny patient?”

  “Too much to drink.”

  He came over to the bed. He seemed, up close, slightly agitated. “Well, I hope you’ve learned your lesson,” he said brightly and then, in Greek, added: “Important news, my friend.”

  My heart sank. I had screwed up. I had been careless, talked too much, said something weird. “What have I done?” I said.

  I had said it in English. If Francis was flustered, he didn’t look it. “I haven’t the slightest idea,” he said. “Do you want some tea or something?”

  I tried to figure out what he was trying to say. The pounding agony in my head was such that I couldn’t concentrate on anything. Nausea swelled in a great green wave, trembled at the crest, sank and rolled again. I felt saturated with despair. Everything, I thought tremulously, everything would be okay if only I could have a few moments of quiet and if I lay very, very still.

  “No,” I said finally. “Please.”

  “Please what?”

  The wave swelled again. I rolled over on my stomach and gave a long, miserable moan.

  Sophie caught on first. “Come on,” she said to Francis, “let’s go. I think we ought to let him go back to sleep.”

  I fell into a tormented half-dreaming state from which I woke, several hours later, to a soft knock. The room was now dark. The door creaked open and a flag of light fell in from the corridor. Francis slipped in and closed the door behind him.

  He switched on the weak reading lamp on my desk and pulled the chair over to my bed. “I’m sorry but I’ve got to talk to you,” he said. “Something very odd has happened.”

  I had forgotten my earlier fright; it came back in a sick, bilious wash. “What is it?”

  “Camilla has moved. She’s moved out of the apartment. All her things are gone. Charles is there right now, drunk nearly out of his mind. He says she’s living at the Albemarle Inn. Can you imagine? The Albemarle?”

  I rubbed my eyes, trying to collect my thoughts. “But I knew that,” I said finally.

  “You did?” He was astonished. “Who told you?”

  “I think it was Cloke.”

  “Cloke? When was this?”

  I explained, as far as memory allowed. “I forgot about it,” I said.

  “Forgot? How could you forget something like that?”

  I sat up a bit. Fresh pain surged through my head. “What difference does it make?” I said, a little angrily. “If she wants to leave I don’t blame her. Charles will just have to straighten up. That’s all.”

  “But the Albemarle?” said Francis. “Do you have any idea how expensive it is?”

  “Of course I do,” I said irritably. The Albemarle was the nicest inn in town. Presidents had stayed there, and movie stars. “So what?”

  Francis put his head in his hands. “Richard,” he said, “you’re dense. You must have brain damage.”

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  “How about two hundred dollars a night? Do you think the twins have that kind of money? Who the hell do you think is paying for it?”

  I stared at him.

  “Henry, that’s who,” said Francis. “He came over when Charles was out and moved her there, lock, stock and barrel. Charles came home and her things were gone. Can you imagine? He can’t even get in touch with her, she’s registered under a different name. Henry won’t tell him anything. For that matter, he won’t tell me anything, either. Charles is absolutely beside himself. He asked me to call Henry and see if I could get anything out of him, I couldn’t, of course, he was like a brick wall.”

  “What’s the big deal? Why are they making such a secret of it?”

  “I don’t know. I don’t know Camilla’s side but I think Henry is being very foolish.”

  “Maybe she has reasons of her own
.”

  “She doesn’t think that way,” said Francis, exasperated. “I know Henry. This is just the sort of thing he’d do and it’s just the way he’d do it. But even if there’s a good reason it’s the wrong way to go about it. Especially now. Charles is in a state. Henry should know better than to antagonize him after the other night.”

  Uncomfortably, I thought of the walk home from the police station. “You know, there’s something I’ve meant to tell you,” I said, and I told him about Charles’s outburst.

  “Oh, he’s mad at Henry all right,” said Francis tersely. “He’s told me the same thing—that Henry pushed it all off on him, basically. But what does he expect? When you get down to it, I don’t think Henry asked all that much of him. That’s not the reason he’s angry. The real reason is Camilla. Do you want to know my theory?”

  “What?”

  “I think Camilla and Henry have been slipping around with each other for quite some time. I think Charles has been suspicious for a while but until lately he didn’t have any proof. Then he found something out. I don’t know what, exactly,” he said, raising his hand as I tried to interrupt, “but it’s not hard to imagine. I think it’s something he found out down at the Corcorans’. Something he saw or heard. And I think it must’ve happened before we arrived. The night before they left for Connecticut with Cloke, everything seemed fine, but you remember what Charles was like when we got there. And by the time we left they weren’t even speaking.”

  I told Francis what Cloke had said to me in the upstairs hallway.

  “God knows what happened, then, if Cloke was smart enough to catch on,” said Francis. “Henry was sick, probably wasn’t thinking too clearly. And the week we came back, you know, when he holed up in his apartment, I think Camilla was there a lot. She was there, I know, the day I went to take him that Mycenaean book and I think she might have even spent the night a couple of times. But then he got well and Camilla came home and for a while after that, things were okay. Remember? Around the time you took me to the hospital?”

  “I don’t know about that,” I said. I told him about the glass I had seen lying broken in the fireplace at the twins’ apartment.

  “Well, who knows what was really happening. At least they seemed better. And Henry was in good spirits too. Then there was that quarrel, the night Charles ended up in jail. Nobody seems to want to say exactly what that was all about but I’ll bet it had something to do with her. And now this. Good God. Charles is in a bloody rage.”

  “Do you think he’s sleeping with her? Henry?”

  “If he’s not, he’s certainly done everything he possibly can to convince Charles that he is.” He stood up. “I tried to call him again before I came over here,” he said. “He wasn’t in. I expect he’s over at the Albemarle. I’m going to drive by and see if his car is there.”

  “There must be some way you can find out what room she’s in.”

  “I’ve thought about that. I can’t get anything out of the desk clerk. Maybe I’d have better luck talking to one of the maids, but I’m afraid I’m not very good at that sort of thing.” He sighed. “I wish I could see her for just five minutes.”

  “If you find her, do you think you can talk her into coming home?”

  “I don’t know. I must say, I wouldn’t care to be living with Charles right now. But I still think everything would be okay if Henry would just keep out of it.”

  After Francis left I fell asleep again. When I woke up it was four in the morning. I had slept for nearly twenty-four hours.

  The nights that spring were unusually cold; this one was colder than most and the heat was on in the dormitories—steam heat, full blast, which made it unbearably stuffy even with the windows open. My sheets were damp with sweat. I got up and stuck my head out the window and took a few breaths. The chill air was so refreshing that I decided to put on some clothes and go for a walk.

  The moon was full and very bright. Everything was silent except for the chirp of the crickets and the full foamy toss of the wind in the trees. Down at the Early Childhood Center, where Marion worked, the swings creaked gently to and fro, and the corkscrewed slide gleamed silver in the moonlight.

  The most striking object in the playground was without question the giant snail. Some art students had built it, modeling it after the giant snail in the movie of Doctor Dolittle. It was pink, made of fiberglass, nearly eight feet tall, with a hollow shell so kids could play inside. Silent in the moonlight, it was like some patient prehistoric creature that had crawled down from the mountains: dumb, lonely, biding its time, untroubled by the articles of playground equipment which surrounded it.

  Access to the snail’s interior was gained by a child-sized tunnel, maybe two feet high, at the base of the tail. From this tunnel, I was extremely startled to see protruding a pair of adult male feet, shod in some oddly familiar brown-and-white spectator shoes.

  On hands and knees, I leaned forward and stuck my head in the tunnel and was overwhelmed by the raw, powerful stink of whiskey. Light snores echoed in the close, boozy darkness. The shell, apparently, had acted as a brandy snifter, gathering and concentrating the vapors until they were so pungent I felt nauseated just to breathe them.

  I caught and shook a bony kneecap. “Charles.” My voice boomed and reverberated in the dark interior. “Charles.”

  He began to flounder wildly, as if he had waked to find himself in ten feet of water. At length, and after repeated assurances that I was who I said I was, he fell on his back again, breathing hard.

  “Richard,” he said thickly. “Thank God. I thought you were some kind of creature from space.”

  At first it had been completely dark inside but now my eyes had adjusted I was aware of a faint, pinkish light, moonlight, just enough to see by, glowing through the translucent walls. “What are you doing here?” I asked him.

  He sneezed. “I was depressed,” he said. “I thought if I slept here it might make me feel better.”

  “Did it?”

  “No.” He sneezed again, five or six times in a row. Then he slumped back on the floor.

  I thought of the nursery-school kids, huddled round Charles the next morning like Lilliputians round the sleeping Gulliver. The lady who ran the Childhood Center—a psychiatrist, whose office was down the hall from Dr. Roland’s—seemed to me a pleasant, grandmotherly sort, though who could predict how she’d react to finding a drunk passed out on her playground. “Wake up, Charles,” I said.

  “Leave me alone.”

  “You can’t sleep here.”

  “I can do whatever I want,” he said haughtily.

  “Why don’t you come home with me? Have a drink.”

  “I’m fine.”

  “Oh, come on.”

  “Well—just one.”

  He bumped his head, hard, while crawling out. The little kids were certainly going to love that smell of Johnnie Walker when they came to school in a few hours.

  He had to lean on me on the way up the hill to Monmouth House.

  “Just one,” he reminded me.

  I was not in terrific shape myself and had a hard time hauling him up the stairs. Finally I reached my room and deposited him on my bed. He offered little resistance and lay there, mumbling, while I went down to the kitchen.

  My offer of a drink had been a ruse. Quickly I searched the refrigerator but all I could find was a screw-top bottle of some syrupy Kosher stuff, strawberry-flavored, which had been there since Hanukkah. I’d tasted it once, with the idea of stealing it, and hurriedly spit it out and put the bottle back on the shelf. That had been months ago. I slipped it under my shirt; but when I got upstairs, Charles’s head had rolled back against the wall where the headboard should have been and he was snoring.

  Quietly, I put the botttle on my desk, got a book, and left. Then I went to Dr. Roland’s office, where I lay reading on the couch with my jacket thrown over me until the sun came up, and I turned off the lamp and went to sleep.

  I woke around ten. It
was Saturday, which surprised me a little; I’d lost track of the days. I went to the dining hall and had a late breakfast of tea and soft-boiled eggs, the first thing I’d eaten since Thursday. When I went to my room to change, around noon, Charles was still asleep in my bed. I shaved, put on a clean shirt, got my Greek books and went back to Dr. Roland’s.

  I was ridiculously behind in my studies but not (as is often the case) so far behind as I’d thought. The hours went by without my noticing them. When I got hungry, around six, I went to the refrigerator in the Social Sciences office and found some leftover hors d’oeuvres and a piece of birthday cake, which I ate from my fingers off a paper plate at Dr. Roland’s desk.

  Since I wanted a bath, I came home around eleven, but when I unlocked the door and turned on the light, I was startled to find Charles still in my bed. He was sleeping, but the bottle of Kosher wine on the desk was half-empty. His face was flushed and pink. When I shook him, he felt as though he had a good deal of fever.

  “Bunny,” he said, waking with a start. “Where did he go?”

  “You’re dreaming.”

  “But he was here,” he said, looking wildly round. “For a long time. I saw him.”

  “You’re dreaming, Charles.”

  “But I saw him. He was here. He was sitting on the foot of the bed.”

  I went next door to borrow a thermometer. His temperature was nearly a hundred and three. I gave him two Tylenol and a glass of water and left him, rubbing his eyes and talking nonsense, to go downstairs and call Francis.

  Francis wasn’t home. I decided to try Henry. To my surprise it was Francis, not Henry, who answered the phone.

 
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