The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  “Francis? What are you doing over there?” I said.

  “Oh, hello, Richard,” said Francis. He said it in a stagy way, as if for Henry’s benefit.

  “I guess you can’t really talk now.”

  “No.”

  “Look here. I need to ask you something.” I explained to him about Charles, playground and all. “He seems pretty sick. What do you think I should do?”

  “The snail?” said Francis. “You found him inside that giant snail?”

  “Yes. Listen, that doesn’t matter. What should I do? I’m kind of worried.”

  Francis put his hand over the receiver. I could hear a muffled discussion. In a moment Henry came on the line. “Hello, Richard,” he said. “What’s the matter?”

  I had to explain all over again.

  “How high, did you say? A hundred and three?”

  “Yes.”

  “That’s rather a lot, isn’t it?”

  I said that I thought it was.

  “Did you give him some aspirins?”

  “A few minutes ago.”

  “Well, then, why don’t you wait and see. I’m sure he’s fine.”

  This is exactly what I wanted to hear.

  “You’re right,” I said.

  “He probably caught cold sleeping out of doors. I’m sure he’ll be better in the morning.”

  I spent the night on Dr. Roland’s couch, and after breakfast, came back to my room with blueberry muffins and a half-gallon carton of orange juice which, with extraordinary difficulty, I had managed to steal from the buffet in the dining hall.

  Charles was awake, but feverish and vague. From the state of the bedclothes, which were tumbled and tossed, blanket trailing on the floor and the stained ticking of the mattress showing where he’d pulled the sheets loose, I gathered he’d not had a very good night of it. He said he wasn’t hungry, but he managed a few limp little sips of the orange juice. The rest of the Kosher wine had disappeared, I noticed, in the night.

  “How do you feel?” I asked him.

  He lolled his head on the crumpled pillow. “Head hurts,” he said sleepily. “I had a dream about Dante.”

  “Alighieri?”

  “Yes.”

  “What?”

  “We were at the Corcorans’ house,” he mumbled. “Dante was there. He had a fat friend in a plaid shirt who yelled at us.”

  I took his temperature; it was an even hundred. A bit lower, but still kind of high for the first thing in the morning. I gave him some more aspirin and wrote down my number at Dr. Roland’s in case he wanted to call me, but when he realized I was leaving, he rolled his head back and gave me such a dazed and hopeless look that it stopped me cold in the middle of my explanation about how the switchboard re-routed calls to administrative offices on the weekends.

  “Or, I could stay here,” I said. “If I wouldn’t be bothering you, that is.”

  He pushed up on his elbows. His eyes were bloodshot and very bright. “Don’t go,” he said. “I’m scared. Stay a little while.”

  He asked me to read to him, but I didn’t have anything around but Greek books, and he didn’t want me to go to the library. So we played Euchre on a dictionary balanced on his lap, and when that started to prove a bit much we switched to Casino. He won the first couple of games. Then he started losing. On the final hand—it was his deal—he shuffled the cards so poorly they were coming up in virtually exact sequence, which should not have made for very challenging play but he was so absent-minded he kept trailing when he could easily have built or taken in. When I was reaching to increase a build, my hand brushed against his and I was taken aback by how dry and hot it was. And though the room was warm, he was shivering. I took his temperature. It had shot back to a hundred and three.

  I went downstairs to call Francis, but neither he nor Henry was in. So I went back upstairs. There was no doubt about it: Charles looked terrible. I stood in the door looking at him for a moment, and then I said, “Wait a minute” and went down the hall to Judy’s room.

  I found her lying on her bed, watching a Mel Gibson movie on a VCR she’d borrowed from the video department. She was managing somehow to polish her fingernails, smoke a cigarette, and drink a diet Coke all at the same time.

  “Look at Mel,” she said. “Don’t you just love him? If he called up and asked me to marry him I would do it in, like, one second.”

  “Judy, what would you do if you had a hundred and three degrees of fever?”

  “I would go to the fucking doctor,” she said without looking away from the TV.

  I explained about Charles. “He’s really sick,” I said. “What do you think I should do?”

  She fanned a red taloned hand in the air, drying it, her eyes still fixed on the screen. “Take him to the emergency room.”

  “You think?”

  “You’re not going to find any doctors on Sunday afternoon. Want to use my car?”

  “That would be great.”

  “Keys are on the desk,” she said absently. “Bye.”

  I drove Charles to the hospital in the red Corvette. He was bright-eyed and quiet, staring straight ahead, his right cheek pressed to the cool window-glass. In the waiting room, while I looked through magazines I’d seen before, he sat without moving, staring at a faded color photograph from the 1960s which hung opposite, of a nurse who had a white-nailed finger pressed to a white-lipsticked, vaguely pornographic mouth, in a sexy injunction to hospital silence.

  The doctor on duty was a woman. She’d been with Charles for only about five or ten minutes when she came from the back with his chart; leaning over the counter, she consulted briefly with the receptionist, who indicated me.

  The doctor came over and sat beside me. She was like one of those cheery young physicians in Hawaiian shirts and tennis shoes that you see on TV shows. “Hello,” she said. “I’ve just been looking at your friend. I think we’re going to have to keep him with us for a couple of days.”

  I put down my magazine. This I hadn’t expected. “What’s wrong?” I said.

  “It looks like bronchitis, but he’s very dehydrated. I want to put him on an IV. Also we need to get that fever down. He’ll be okay, but he needs rest and a good strong series of antibiotics, and to get those working as soon as we can we should give him those intravenously, too, for the first forty-eight hours at least. You both in school up at the college?”

  “Yes.”

  “Is he under a lot of stress? Working on his thesis or something?”

  “He works pretty hard,” I said cautiously. “Why?”

  “Oh, nothing. It just looks like he hasn’t been eating properly. Bruises on his arms and legs, which look like a C deficiency, and he may be running low on some of the B vitamins as well. Tell me. Does he smoke?”

  I couldn’t help but laugh. At any rate, she wouldn’t let me see him; she said she wanted to get some blood work done before the lab technicians left for the day, so I drove to the twins’ apartment to gather some of his things. The place was ominously neat. I packed pajamas, toothbrush, shaving kit, and a couple of paperback books (P.G. Wodehouse, who I thought might cheer him up) and left the suitcase with the receptionist.

  Early the next morning, before I left for Greek, Judy knocked at my door and told me I had a call downstairs. I thought it was Francis or Henry—both of whom I’d tried to reach repeatedly the night before—or maybe even Camilla, but it was Charles.

  “Hello,” I said. “How are you feeling?”

  “Oh, very well.” His voice had a strange, forced note of cheeriness. “It’s quite comfortable here. Thanks for bringing the suitcase by.”

  “No problem. Do you have one of those beds you can crank up and down?”

  “As a matter of fact I do. Listen. I want to ask you something. Will you do me a favor?”

  “Sure.”

  “I’d like you to get a couple of things for me.” He mentioned a book, and letter paper, and a bathrobe which I would find hanging on the inside of his closet
door—“Also,” he said hurriedly, “there’s a bottle of Scotch. You’ll find it in the drawer of my night table. Do you think you can get it out this morning?”

  “I have to go to Greek.”

  “Well, after Greek then. What time do you think you’ll be here?”

  I told him I would have to see about borrowing a car.

  “Don’t worry about that. Take a taxi. I’ll give you the money. I really appreciate this, you know. What time should I expect you? Ten-thirty? Eleven?”

  “Probably more like eleven-thirty.”

  “That’s fine. Listen. I can’t talk, I’m in the patients’ lounge. I have to get back to bed before they miss me. You will come, won’t you?”

  “I’ll be there.”

  “Bathrobe and letter paper.”

  “Yes.”

  “And the Scotch.”

  “Of course.”

  Camilla was not at class that morning, but Francis and Henry were. Julian was there when I arrived, and I explained that Charles was in the hospital.

  Though Julian could be marvelously kind in difficult circumstances of all sorts, I sometimes got the feeling that he was less pleased by kindness itself than by the elegance of the gesture. But at this news he appeared genuinely concerned. “Poor Charles,” he said. “It’s not serious, is it?”

  “I don’t think so.”

  “Is he allowed any visitors? I shall telephone him this afternoon. Can you think of anything he might like? Food is so dreadful in the hospital. I remember years ago, in New York, when a dear friend of mine was in Columbia Presbyterian—in the bloody Harkness Pavilion, for goodness’ sake—the chef at the old Le Chasseur used to send her dinner to her every single day.…”

  Henry, across the table, was absolutely inscrutable. I tried to catch Francis’s glance; he slid me a quick look, bit his lip and glanced away.

  “… and flowers,” said Julian, “you’ve never seen so many flowers, she had so many I could only suspect that she was sending at least some of them to herself.” He laughed. “Anyway. I suppose there’s no need to ask where Camilla is this morning.”

  I saw Francis’s eyes snap open. For a moment I was startled too, before I realized that he’d assumed—naturally, of course—that she was at the hospital with Charles.

  Julian’s eyebrows went down. “What’s wrong?” he said.

  The utter blankness which met this question made him smile.

  “It doesn’t do to be too Spartan about these things,” he said kindly, after a very long pause; and I was grateful to see that, as usual, he was projecting his own tasteful interpretations upon the confusion. “Edmund was your friend. I too am very sorry that he is dead. But I think you are grieving yourselves sick over this, and not only does that not help him, it hurts you. And besides, is death really so terrible a thing? It seems terrible to you, because you are young, but who is to say he is not better off now than you are? Or—if death is a journey to another place—that you will not see him again?”

  He opened his lexicon and began to search for his place. “It does not do to be frightened of things about which you know nothing,” he said. “You are like children. Afraid of the dark.”

  Francis didn’t have his car with him, so after class I got Henry to drive me to Charles’s apartment. Francis—who came too—was nervous and on edge, chain-smoking and pacing in the foyer while Henry stood in the bedroom door and watched me get Charles’s things: quiet, expressionless, his eyes following me with an abstract calculation that entirely precluded the possibility of my asking him about Camilla—which I had determined to do as soon as we were alone—or, in fact, of asking practically anything at all.

  I got the book, the letter paper, the bathrobe. The Scotch I hesitated over.

  “What’s the matter?” said Henry.

  I put the bottle back in the drawer and shut it. “Nothing,” I said. Charles, I knew, would be furious. I would have to think of a good excuse.

  He nodded at the closed drawer. “Did he ask you to bring that to him?” he said.

  I did not feel like discussing Charles’s personal business with Henry. I said: “He asked for cigarettes, too, but I don’t think he ought to have them.”

  Francis had been pacing in the hall outside, prowling restlessly back and forth like a cat. During this exchange he paused in the door. Now I saw him dart a quick worried glance at Henry. “Well, you know …?” he said hesitantly.

  Henry said to me: “If he wants it—the bottle, that is—I think you’d better go ahead and take it to him.”

  His tone annoyed me. “He’s sick,” I said. “You haven’t even seen him. If you think you’re doing him a favor by—”

  “Richard, he’s right,” said Francis nervously, tapping a cigarette ash into his cupped palm. “I know about this a little bit. Sometimes, if you drink, it’s dangerous to stop too suddenly. Makes you sick. People can die of it.”

  I was shocked by this. Charles’s drinking had never seemed so bad as all that. I did not comment on this, though, only said: “Well, if he’s that bad off, he’ll do a lot better in the hospital, won’t he?”

  “What do you mean?” said Francis. “Do you want them to put him in a detox? Do you know what that’s like? When my mother came off drink that first time, she was out of her head. Seeing things. Wrestling with the nurse and yelling nutty stuff at the top of her lungs.”

  “Hate to think of Charles having DTs in the Catamount Memorial Hospital,” said Henry. He went to the night table and got the bottle. It was a fifth, a little less than half full. “This will be cumbersome for him to hide,” he said, holding it up by the neck.

  “We could pour it into something else,” said Francis.

  “It would be easier, I think, if we bought him a new one. Less chance of it leaking all over everything. And if we get him one of those flat ones he can keep it under his pillow without much trouble.”

  It was a drizzly morning, overcast and gray. Henry didn’t go with us to the hospital. He had us drop him off at his apartment—he had some excuse, plausible enough, I can’t remember what it was—and when he got out of the car he gave me a hundred-dollar bill.

  “Here,” he said. “Give Charles my love. Will you buy some flowers for him or something?”

  I looked at the bill, momentarily stunned. Francis snatched it from me and pushed it back at him. “Come on, Henry,” he said, with an anger that surprised me. “Stop it.”

  “I want you to have it.”

  “Right. We’re supposed to get him a hundred dollars’ worth of flowers.”

  “Don’t forget to stop at the package store,” said Henry coldly. “Do what you like with the rest of the money. Just give him the change, if you want. I don’t care.”

  He pushed the money at me again and shut the car door, with a click that was more contemptuous than if he’d slammed it. I watched his stiff square back receding up the walk.

  We bought Charles’s whiskey—Cutty Sark, in a flat bottle—and a basket of fruit, and a box of petit-fours, and a game of Chinese checkers, and, instead of cleaning out the day’s stock of carnations at the florist’s downtown, an Oncidium orchid, yellow with russet tiger-stripes, in a red clay pot.

  On the way to the hospital, I asked Francis what had happened over the weekend.

  “Too upsetting. I don’t want to talk about it now,” he said. “I did see her. Over at Henry’s.”

  “How is she?”

  “Fine. A little preoccupied but fine, basically. She said she didn’t want Charles to know where she was and that was all there was to it. I wish I could’ve talked to her alone, and of course Henry didn’t leave the room for a second.” Restlessly, he felt in his pocket for a cigarette. “This may sound crazy,” he said, “but before I saw her I’d been a little worried, you know? That something maybe had happened to her.”

  I didn’t say anything. The same thought had crossed my mind, more than once.

  “I mean—not that I thought Henry would kill her or anything,
but you know—it was strange. Her disappearing like that, without a word to anybody. I—” He shook his head. “I hate to say this, but sometimes I wonder about Henry,” he said. “Especially with things like—well, you know what I mean?”

  I didn’t answer. Actually I did know what he meant, quite well. But it was too horrible for either of us to come out and say.

  Charles had a semi-private room. He was in the bed nearer the door, separated by a curtain from his roommate: the Hampden County postmaster, as we later discovered, who was in for a prostate operation. On his side there were a lot of FTD flower arrangements, and corny get-well cards taped to the wall, and he was propped up in bed talking with some noisy family members: food smells, laughter, everything cheery and snug. More of his visitors trailed in after Francis and me, stopping, for an instant, to peer curiously over the curtain at Charles: silent, alone, flat on his back with an IV in his arm. His face was puffy and his skin rough and coarse-looking, broken out in some kind of a rash. His hair was so dirty it looked brown. He was watching cartoons on television, violent ones, little animals that looked like weasels cracking up cars and bashing each other on the head.

  He struggled to sit up when we stepped into his partition. Francis drew the curtain behind us, practically in the faces of the postmaster’s inquisitive visitors, a pair of middle-aged ladies, who were dying to get a good look at Charles and one of whom had craned around and cawed “Good Morning!” through the gap in the curtain, in the hopes of initiating conversation.

  “Dorothy! Louise!” someone called from the other side. “Over here!”

  There were rapid footsteps on the linoleum and henlike clucks and cries of greeting.

  “Damn them,” said Charles. He was very hoarse and his voice was little more than a whisper. “He’s got people there all the time. They’re always coming in and out and trying to look at me.”

  By way of distraction, I presented Charles with the orchid.

  “Really? You bought that for me, Richard?” He seemed touched. I was going to explain that it was from all of us—without coming out and mentioning Henry, exactly—but Francis shot me a warning look and I kept my mouth shut.

 
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