The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  We unloaded the sack of presents. I’d half expected him to pounce on the Cutty Sark and tear it open in front of us, but he only thanked us and put the bottle in the compartment underneath his upright gray-plastic bed tray.

  “Have you talked to my sister?” he said to Francis. He said it in a very cold way, as if he were saying Have you talked to my lawyer?

  “Yes,” Francis said.

  “She’s all right?”

  “Seems to be.”

  “What does she have to say for herself?”

  “I don’t know what you mean.”

  “I hope you told her I said go to hell.”

  Francis didn’t answer. Charles picked up one of the books I had brought him and began to leaf through it sporadically. “Thanks for coming,” he said. “I’m kind of tired now.”

  “He looks awful,” said Francis in the car.

  “There’s got to be some way they can patch this up,” I said. “Surely we can get Henry to call him and apologize.”

  “What good do you think that’s going to do? As long as Camilla’s at the Albemarle?”

  “Well, she doesn’t know he’s in the hospital, does she? This is kind of an emergency.”

  “I don’t know.”

  The windshield wipers ticked back and forth. A cop in a rain slicker was directing traffic at the intersection. It was the cop with the red moustache. Recognizing Henry’s car, he smiled at us and beckoned for us to go through. We smiled and waved back, happy day, two guys on a ride—then drove for a block or two in grim, superstitious silence.

  “There’s got to be something we can do,” I said at last.

  “I think we had better stay out of it.”

  “You can’t tell me that if she knew how sick he was, she wouldn’t be over at the hospital in five minutes.”

  “I’m not kidding,” said Francis. “I think we both had better just stay out of it.”

  “Why?”

  But he only lit another cigarette and wouldn’t say anything else, no matter how I grilled him.

  When I got back to my room I found Camilla sitting at my desk, reading a book. “Hi,” she said, glancing up. “Your door was open. I hope you don’t mind.”

  Seeing her was like an electric shock. Unexpectedly I felt a surge of anger. Rain was blowing through the screen and I walked across the room to shut the window.

  “What are you doing here?” I said.

  “I wanted to talk to you.”

  “About what?”

  “How’s my brother?”

  “Why don’t you go see him yourself?”

  She put down the book—ah, lovely, I thought helplessly, I loved her, I loved the very sight of her: she was wearing a cashmere sweater, soft gray-green, and her gray eyes had a luminous celadon tint. “You think you have to take sides,” she said. “But you don’t.”

  “I’m not taking sides. I just think whatever you’re doing, you picked a bad time to do it.”

  “And what would be a good time?” she said. “I want you to see something. Look.”

  She held up a piece of the light hair near her temples. Underneath was a scabbed spot about the size of a quarter where someone had, apparently, pulled a handful of hair out by the roots. I was too startled to say anything.

  “And this.” She pushed up the sleeve of her sweater. The wrist was swollen and a bit discolored, but what horrified me was a tiny, evil burn on the underside of the forearm: a cigarette burn, gouged deep and ugly in the flesh.

  It was a moment before I found my voice. “Good God, Camilla! Charles did this?”

  She pulled the sleeve down. “See what I mean?” she said. Her voice was unemotional; her expression watchful, almost wry.

  “How long has this been going on?”

  She ignored my question. “I know Charles,” she said. “Better than you do. Staying away, just now, is much wiser.”

  “Whose idea was it that you stay at the Albemarle?”

  “Henry’s.”

  “How does he fit into this?”

  She didn’t answer.

  A horrible thought flashed across my mind. “He didn’t do this to you, did he?” I said.

  She looked at me in surprise. “No. Why would you think that?”

  “How am I supposed to know what to think?”

  The sun came suddenly from behind a rain cloud, flooding the room with glorious light that wavered on the walls like water. Camilla’s face burst into glowing bloom. A terrible sweetness boiled up in me. Everything, for a moment—mirror, ceiling, floor—was unstable and radiant as a dream. I felt a fierce, nearly irresistible desire to seize Camilla by her bruised wrist, twist her arm behind her back until she cried out, throw her on my bed: strangle her, rape her, I don’t know what. And then the cloud passed over the sun again, and the life went out of everything.

  “Why did you come here?” I said.

  “Because I wanted to see you.”

  “I don’t know if you care what I think—” I hated the sound of my voice, was unable to control it, everything I said was coming out in the same haughty, injured tone—“I don’t know if you care what I think, but I think you’re making things worse by staying at the Albemarle.”

  “And what do you think I should do?”

  “Why don’t you stay with Francis?”

  She laughed. “Because Charles bullies poor Francis to death,” she said. “Francis means well. I know that. But he couldn’t stand up to Charles for five minutes.”

  “If you asked him, he’d give you the money to go somewhere.”

  “I know he would. He offered to.” She reached in her pocket for a cigarette; with a pang I saw they were Lucky Strikes, Henry’s brand.

  “You could take the money and stay wherever you like,” I said. “You wouldn’t have to tell him where.”

  “Francis and I have gone over all this.” She paused. “The thing is, I’m afraid of Charles. And Charles is afraid of Henry. That’s really all there is to it.”

  I was shocked by the coldness with which she said this.

  “So is that it?” I said.

  “What do you mean?”

  “You’re protecting your own interests?”

  “He tried to kill me,” she said simply. Her eyes met mine, candid and clear.

  “And is Henry not afraid of Charles too?”

  “Why should he be?”

  “You know.”

  Once she realized what I meant, I was startled how quickly she leapt to his defense. “Charles would never do that,” she said, with childlike swiftness.

  “Let’s say he did. Went to the police.”

  “But he wouldn’t.”

  “How do you know?”

  “And implicate the rest of us? Himself, too?”

  “At this point, I think he might not care.”

  I said this intending to hurt her, and with pleasure I saw that I had. Her startled eyes met mine. “Maybe,” she said. “But you’ve got to remember, Charles is sick now. He’s not himself. And the thing is, I believe he knows it.” She paused. “I love Charles,” she said. “I love him, and I know him better than anybody in the world. But he’s been under an awful lot of pressure, and when he’s drinking like this, I don’t know, he just becomes a different person. He won’t listen to anybody; I don’t know if he even remembers half the things he does. That’s why I thank God he’s in the hospital. If he has to stop for a day or two, maybe he’ll start thinking straight again.”

  What would she think, I wondered, if she knew that Henry was sending him whiskey.

  “And do you think Henry really has Charles’s best interest at heart?” I said.

  “Of course,” she said, startled.

  “And yours too?”

  “Certainly. Why shouldn’t he?”

  “You do have a lot of faith in Henry, don’t you,” I said.

  “He’s never let me down.”

  For some reason, I felt a fresh swell of anger. “And what about Charles?” I said.


  “I don’t know.”

  “He’ll be out of the hospital soon. You’ll have to see him. What are you going to do then?”

  “Why are you so angry at me, Richard?”

  I glanced at my hand. It was trembling. I hadn’t even realized it. I was trembling all over with rage.

  “Please leave,” I said. “I wish you’d go.”

  “What’s wrong?”

  “Just go. Please.”

  She got up and took a step towards me. I stepped away. “All right,” she said, “all right,” and she turned around and left.

  It rained all day and the rest of the night. I took some sleeping pills and went to the movies: Japanese film, I couldn’t seem to follow it. The characters loitered in deserted rooms, no one talking, everything silent for whole minutes except the hiss of the projector and rain pounding on the roof. The theater was empty except for a shadowy man in the back. Dust motes floated in the projector beam. It was raining when I came out, no stars, sky black as the ceiling of the movie house. The marquee lights melted on the wet pavement in long white gleams. I went back inside the glass doors to wait for my taxi, in the carpeted, popcorn-smelling lobby. I called Charles on the pay phone, but the hospital switchboard wouldn’t put me through: it was past visiting hours, she said, everyone was sleeping. I was still arguing with her when the taxi pulled up at the curb, long slants of rain illumined in the headlights and the tires throwing up low fans of water.

  I dreamed about the stairs again that night. It was a dream I’d had often in the winter but seldom since. Once more, I was on the iron stairs at Leo’s—rusted thin, no railing—except now they stretched down into a dark infinity and the steps were all different sizes: some tall, some short, some as narrow as the width of my shoe. The drop was bottomless on either side. For some reason, I had to hurry, though I was terrified of falling. Down and down. The stairs got more and more precarious, until finally they weren’t even stairs at all; farther down—and for some reason this was always the most terrifying thing of all—a man was going down them, far ahead of me, really fast.…

  I woke around four, couldn’t get back to sleep. Too many of Mrs. Corcoran’s tranquilizers: they’d started to backfire in my system, I was taking them in the daytime now, they wouldn’t knock me out anymore. I got out of bed and sat by the window. My heartbeat trembled in my fingertips. Outside the black panes, past my ghost in the glass (Why so pale and wan, fond lover?) I heard the wind in the trees, felt the hills crowding around me in the dark.

  I wished I could stop myself from thinking. But all sorts of things had begun to occur to me. For instance: why had Henry let me in on this, only two months (it seemed years, a lifetime) before? Because it was obvious, now, that his decision to tell me was a calculated move. He had appealed to my vanity, allowing me to think I’d figured it out by myself (good for you, he’d said, leaning back in his chair; I could still remember the look on his face as he’d said it, good for you, you’re just as smart as I’d thought you were); and I had congratulated myself in the glow of his praise, when in fact—I saw this now, I’d been too vain to see it then—he’d led me right to it, coaxing and flattering all the way. Perhaps—the thought crawled over me like a cold sweat—perhaps even my preliminary, accidental discovery had been engineered. The lexicon that had been misplaced, for instance: had Henry stolen it, knowing I’d come back for it? And the messy apartment I was sure to walk into; the flight numbers and so forth left deliberately, so it now seemed, by the phone; both were oversights unworthy of Henry. Maybe he’d wanted me to find out. Maybe he’d divined in me—correctly—this cowardice, this hideous pack instinct which would enable me to fall into step without question.

  And it wasn’t just a question of having kept my mouth shut, I thought, staring with a sick feeling at my blurred reflection in the windowpane. Because they couldn’t have done it without me. Bunny had come to me, and I had delivered him right into Henry’s hands. And I hadn’t even thought twice about it.

  “You were the alarm bell, Richard,” Henry had said. “I knew if he told anybody, he’d tell you first. And now that he has, I feel that we’re in for an extremely rapid progression of events.”

  An extremely rapid progression of events. My flesh crawled, remembering the ironic, almost humorous twist he’d put on the last words—oh, God, I thought, my God, how could I have listened to him? He was right, too, about the rapid part at least. Less than twenty-four hours later, Bunny was dead. And though I hadn’t done the actual pushing—which had seemed an essential distinction at the time—now that didn’t matter much anymore.

  I was still trying to force back the blackest thought of all; the merest suggestion of it sent the rat’s feet of panic skittering up my spine. Had Henry intended to make me the patsy if his plan had fallen through? If so, I wasn’t quite sure how he’d meant to manage it, but if he’d felt like doing it, there was no doubt in my mind he would have been able to. So much of what I knew was only secondhand, so much of it was only what he’d told me; there was an awful lot, when you got right down to it, that I didn’t even know. And—though the immediate danger was apparently gone—there was no guarantee that it wouldn’t surface again a year, twenty years, fifty years from now. I knew, from television, that there was no statute of limitations on murder. New evidence discovered. The case reopened. You read about these things all the time.

  It was still dark. Birds were chirping in the eaves. I pulled out my desk drawer and counted the rest of the sleeping pills: candy-colored pretties, bright on a sheet of typing paper. There were still quite a lot of them, plenty for my purposes. (Would Mrs. Corcoran feel better if she knew this twist: that her stolen pills had killed her son’s killer?) So easy, to feel them go down my throat: but blinking in the glare of my desk lamp, I was struck with a wave of revulsion so strong it was almost nausea. Horrific as it was, the present dark, I was afraid to leave it for the other, permanent dark—jelly and bloat, the muddy pit. I had seen the shadow of it on Bunny’s face—stupid terror; the whole world opening upside down; his life exploding in a thunder of crows and the sky expanding empty over his stomach like a white ocean. Then nothing. Rotten stumps, sowbugs crawling in the fallen leaves. Dirt and dark.

  I lay on my bed. I felt my heart limping in my chest, and was revolted by it, a pitiful muscle, sick and bloody, pulsing against my ribs. Rain streamed down the windowpanes. The lawn outside was sodden, swampy. When the sun came up, I saw, in the small, cold light of dawn, that the flagstones outside were covered with earthworms: delicate, nasty, hundreds of them, twisting blind and helpless on the rain-dark sheets of slate.

  In class on Tuesday, Julian mentioned he’d spoken to Charles on the telephone. “You’re right,” he murmured. “He doesn’t sound well. Very groggy and confused, don’t you think? I suppose they have him under sedation?” He smiled, sifting through his papers. “Poor Charles. I asked where Camilla was—I wanted to get her on the line, I couldn’t make any sense of what he was trying to tell me—and he said”—(here his voice changed slightly, in imitation of Charles, a stranger might assume; but it was really Julian’s own voice, cultured and purring, only raised slightly in tone, as if he could not bear, even in mimicry, to substantively alter its own melodious cadence)—“he said, in the most melancholy voice, ‘She’s hiding from me.’ He was dreaming, of course. I thought it was rather sweet. So, to humor him, I said, ‘Well, then. You must hide your eyes and count to ten and she’ll come back.’ ”

  He laughed. “But he got angry at me. It was really rather charming of him. ‘No,’ he said, ‘no she won’t.’ ‘But you’re dreaming,’ I said to him. ‘No,’ he said, ‘no I’m not. It’s not a dream. It’s real.’ ”

  The doctors couldn’t figure out quite what was wrong with Charles. They’d tried two antibiotics over the course of the week, but the infection—whatever it was—didn’t respond. The third try was more successful. Francis, who went to see him Wednesday and Thursday, was told that Charles was improving, and that if eve
rything went well he could come home over the weekend.

  About ten o’clock on Friday, after another sleepless night, I walked over to Francis’s. It was a hot, overcast morning, trees shimmering in the heat. I felt haggard and exhausted. The warm air vibrated with the thrum of wasps and the drone of lawn mowers. Swifts chased and chittered, in fluttering pairs, through the sky.

  My head hurt. I wished I had a pair of sunglasses. I wasn’t supposed to meet Francis until eleven-thirty but my room was a wreck, I hadn’t done laundry in weeks; it was too hot to do anything more taxing than lie on my tangled bed, and sweat, and try to ignore the bass of my neighbor’s stereo thumping through the wall. Jud and Frank were building some enormous, ramshackle, modernistic structure out on Commons lawn, and the hammers and the power drills had started early in the morning. I didn’t know what it was—I had heard, variously, that it was a stage set, a sculpture, a Stonehenge-type monument to the Grateful Dead—but the first time I had looked out my window, dazed with Fiorinal, and seen the upright support posts rising stark from the lawn, I was flooded with black, irrational terror: gibbets, I thought, they’re putting up gibbets, they’re having a hanging on Commons lawn.… The hallucination was over in a moment, but in a strange way it had persisted, manifesting itself in different lights like one of those pictures on the cover of horror paperbacks in the supermarket: turned one way, a smiling blond-haired child; turned the other, a skull in flames. Sometimes the structure was mundane, silly, perfectly harmless; though early in the morning, say, or around twilight, the world would drop away and there loomed a gallows, medieval and black, birds wheeling low in the skies overhead. At night, it cast its long shadow over what fitful sleep I was able to get.

  The problem, basically, was that I had been taking too many pills; the ups now, periodically, mixed with the downs, because though the latter had ceased to put me effectively to sleep, they hung me over in the daytime, so that I wandered in a perpetual twilight. Unmedicated sleep was impossible, a fairy tale, some remote childhood dream. But I was running low on the downs; and though I knew I could probably get some more, from Cloke, or Bram, or somebody, I’d decided to cut them out for a couple of days—a good idea, in the abstract, but it was excruciating to emerge from my eerie submarine existence into this harsh stampede of noise and light. The world jangled with a sharp, discordant clarity; green everywhere, sweat and sap, weeds pushing through the spattered cracks of the old marble sidewalk; veined white slabs, heaved and buckled by a century’s worth of hard January freezes. A millionaire had put them down, those marble walks, a man who summered in North Hampden and threw himself from a window on Park Avenue in the 1920s. Behind the mountains the sky was overcast, dark as slate. There was pressure in the air; rain coming, sometime soon. Geraniums blazed from the white housefronts, the red of them, against the chalky clapboard, fierce and harrowing.

 
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