The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  I turned down Water Street, which ran north past Henry’s house, and as I approached I saw a dark shadow in the back of his garden. No, I thought.

  But it was. He was on his knees with a pail of water, and a cloth, and as I drew nearer I saw that he was washing not the flagstones, as I’d thought at first, but a rosebush. He was bent over it, polishing the leaves with meticulous care, like some crazed gardener from Alice in Wonderland.

  I thought that any moment he must stop, but he didn’t, and finally I let myself in through the back gate. “Henry,” I said. “What are you doing?”

  He glanced up, calmly, not at all surprised to see me. “Spider mites,” he said. “We’ve had a damp spring. I’ve sprayed them twice, but to get the eggs off it’s best to wash them by hand.” He dropped the cloth in the pail. I noted, not for the first time lately, how well he looked, how his stiff sad manner had relaxed into a more natural one. I had never thought Henry handsome—indeed, I’d always thought that only the formality of his bearing saved him from mediocrity, as far as looks went—but now, less rigid, and locked-up in his movements, he had a sure, tigerish grace the swiftness and ease of which surprised me. A lock of hair blew upon his forehead. “This is a Reine des Violettes,” he said, indicating the rosebush. “A lovely old rose. Introduced in 1860. And that is a Madame Isaac Pereire. The flowers smell of raspberries.”

  I said: “Is Camilla here?”

  There was no trace of emotion upon his face, or of any effort to conceal it. “No,” he said, turning back to his work. “She was sleeping when I left. I didn’t want to wake her.”

  It was shocking to hear him speak of her with such intimacy. Pluto and Persephone. I looked at his back, prim as a parson’s, tried to imagine the two of them together. His big white hands with the square nails.

  Henry said, unexpectedly: “How is Charles?”

  “All right,” I said, after an awkward pause.

  “He’ll be coming home soon, I suppose.”

  A dirty tarpaulin flapped loudly on the roof. He kept working. His dark trousers, with the suspenders crossed over his white-shirted back, gave him a vaguely Amish appearance.

  “Henry,” I said.

  He didn’t look up.

  “Henry, it’s none of my business, but I hope for God’s sake you know what you’re doing,” I said. I paused, expecting some response, but there was none. “You haven’t seen Charles, but I have, and I don’t think you realize the shape he’s in. Ask Francis, if you don’t believe me. Even Julian’s noticed. I mean, I’ve tried to tell you, but I just don’t think you understand. He’s out of his mind, and Camilla has no idea, and I don’t know what we’ll do when he gets home. I’m not even sure he’ll be able to stay by himself. I mean—”

  “I’m sorry,” interrupted Henry, “but would you mind handing me those shears?”

  There was a long silence. Finally, he reached over and got them himself. “All right,” he said pleasantly. “Never mind.” Very conscientiously, he parted the canes and clipped one in the middle, holding the shears at a careful slant, taking care not to injure a larger cane adjacent to it.

  “What the hell is wrong with you?” I had a hard time keeping my voice down. There were windows open in the upstairs apartment that faced the back; I heard people talking, listening to the radio, moving around. “Why do you have to make things so hard for everybody?” He didn’t turn around. I grabbed the shears from his hand and threw them, with a clatter, on the bricks. “Answer me,” I said.

  We looked at each other for a long moment. Behind his glasses, his eyes were steady and very blue.

  Finally, he said, quietly: “Tell me.”

  The intensity of his gaze frightened me. “What?”

  “You don’t feel a great deal of emotion for other people, do you?”

  I was taken aback. “What are you talking about?” I said. “Of course I do.”

  “Do you?” He raised an eyebrow. “I don’t think so. It doesn’t matter,” he said, after a long, tense pause. “I don’t, either.”

  “What are you trying to get at?”

  He shrugged. “Nothing,” he said. “Except that my life, for the most part, has been very stale and colorless. Dead, I mean. The world has always been an empty place to me. I was incapable of enjoying even the simplest things. I felt dead in everything I did.” He brushed the dirt from his hands. “But then it changed,” he said. “The night I killed that man.”

  I was jarred—a little spooked, as well—at so blatant a reference to something referred to, by mutual agreement, almost exclusively with codes, catchwords, a hundred different euphemisms.

  “It was the most important night of my life,” he said calmly. “It enabled me to do what I’ve always wanted most.”

  “Which is?”

  “To live without thinking.”

  Bees buzzed loudly in the honeysuckle. He went back to his rosebush, thinning the smaller branches at the top.

  “Before, I was paralyzed, though I didn’t really know it,” he said. “It was because I thought too much, lived too much in the mind. It was hard to make decisions. I felt immobilized.”

  “And now?”

  “Now,” he said, “now, I know that I can do anything that I want.” He glanced up. “And, unless I’m very wrong, you’ve experienced something similar yourself.”

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

  “Oh, but I think you do. That surge of power and delight, of confidence, of control. That sudden sense of the richness of the world. Its infinite possibility.”

  He was talking about the ravine. And, to my horror, I realized that in a way he was right. As ghastly as it had been, there was no denying that Bunny’s murder had thrown all subsequent events into a kind of glaring Technicolor. And, though this new lucidity of vision was frequently nerve wracking, there was no denying that it was not an altogether unpleasant sensation.

  “I don’t understand what this has to do with anything,” I said, to his back.

  “I’m not sure that I do, either,” he said, assessing the balance of his rosebush, then removing, very carefully, another cane in the center. “Except that there’s not much which matters a great deal. The last six months have made that plain. And lately it has seemed important to find a thing or two which do. That’s all.”

  As he said this, he trailed away. “There,” he said at last. “Does that look all right? Or do I need to open it up more in the middle?”

  “Henry,” I said. “Listen to me.”

  “I don’t want to take off too much,” he said vaguely. “I should have done this a month ago. The canes bleed if they’re pruned this late, but better late than never, as they say.”

  “Henry. Please.” I was on the verge of tears. “What’s the matter with you? Have you lost your mind? Don’t you understand what’s going on?”

  He stood up, dusted his hands on his trousers. “I have to go in the house now,” he said.

  I watched him hang the shears on a peg, then walk away. At the last, I thought he was going to turn and say something, goodbye, anything. But he didn’t. He went inside. The door shut behind him.

  I found Francis’s apartment darkened, razor slits of light showing through the closed Venetian blinds. He was asleep. The place smelled sour, and ashy. Cigarette butts floated in a gin glass. There was a black, bubbled scorch in the varnish of the night table beside his bed.

  I pulled the blinds to let some sun in. He rubbed his eyes, called me a strange name. Then he recognized me. “Oh,” he said, his face screwed up, albino-pale. “You. What are you doing here?”

  I reminded him that we had agreed to visit Charles.

  “What day is it?”

  “Friday.”

  “Friday.” He slumped back down in the bed. “I hate Fridays. Wednesdays, too. Bad luck. Sorrowful Mystery on the Rosary.” He lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. Then he said: “Do you get the sense something really awful is about to happen?”

  I was alarme
d. “No,” I said, defensively, though this was far from true. “What do you think’s going to happen?”

  “I don’t know,” he said without moving. “Maybe I’m wrong.”

  “You should open a window,” I said. “It smells in here.”

  “I don’t care. I can’t smell. I’ve got a sinus infection.” Listlessly, with one hand, he groped for his cigarettes on the night table. “Jesus, I’m depressed,” he said. “I can’t handle seeing Charles right now.”

  “We’ve got to.”

  “What time is it?”

  “About eleven.”

  He was silent for a moment, then said: “Look here. I’ve got an idea. Let’s have some lunch. Then we’ll do it.”

  “We’ll worry about it the whole time.”

  “Let’s ask Julian, then. I’ll bet he’ll come.”

  “Why do you want to ask Julian?”

  “I’m depressed. Always nice to see him, anyway.” He rolled over on his stomach. “Or maybe not. I don’t know.”

  Julian answered the door—just a crack, as he had the very first time I’d knocked—and opened it wide when he saw who it was. Immediately Francis asked him if he wanted to come to lunch.

  “Of course. I’d be delighted.” He laughed. “This has been an odd morning indeed. Most peculiar. I’ll tell you about it on the way.”

  Things which were odd, by Julian’s definition, often turned out to be amusingly mundane. By his own choice, he had so little contact with the outside world that he frequently considered the commonplace to be bizarre: an automatic-teller machine, for instance, or some new peculiarity in the supermarket—cereal shaped like vampires, or unrefrigerated yogurt sold in pop-top cans. All of us enjoyed hearing about these little forays of his into the twentieth century, so Francis and I pressed him to tell us what now had happened.

  “Well, the secretary from the Literature and Languages Division was just here,” he said. “She had a letter for me. They have in and out boxes, you know, in the literature office—one can leave things to be typed or pick up messages there, though I never do. Anyone with whom I have the slightest wish to talk knows to reach me here. This letter”—he indicated it, lying open on the table beside his reading glasses—“which was meant for me, somehow wound up in the box of a Mr. Morse, who apparently is on sabbatical. His son came round to pick up his mail this morning and found it had been put by mistake into his father’s slot.”

  “What kind of letter?” said Francis, leaning closer. “Who’s it from?”

  “Bunny,” Julian said.

  A bright knife of terror plunged through my heart. We stared at him, dumbstruck. Julian smiled at us, allowing a dramatic pause for our astonishment to blossom to the full.

  “Well, of course, it’s not really from Edmund,” he said. “It’s a forgery, and not a very clever one. The thing is typewritten, and there’s no signature or date. That doesn’t seem quite legitimate, does it?”

  Francis had found his voice. “Typewritten?” he said.

  “Yes.”

  “Bunny didn’t own a typewriter.”

  “Well, he was my student for nearly four years, and he never handed in anything typewritten to me. As far as I’m aware, he didn’t know how to type-write at all. Or did he?” he said, looking up shrewdly.

  “No,” said Francis, after an earnest, thoughtful pause, “no, I think you’re right”; and I echoed this, though I knew—and Francis knew, too—that as a matter of fact Bunny had known how to type. He didn’t have a typewriter of his own—this was perfectly true; but he frequently borrowed Francis’s, or used one of the sticky old manuals in the library. The fact was—though neither of us was about to point it out—that none of us, ever, gave typed things to Julian. There was a simple reason for this. It was impossible to write in Greek alphabet on an English typewriter; and though Henry actually had somewhere a little Greek-alphabet portable, which he had purchased on holiday in Mykonos, he never used it because, as he explained to me, the keyboard was different from the English and it took him five minutes to type his own name.

  “It’s terribly sad that someone would want to play a trick like this,” Julian said. “I can’t imagine who would do such a thing.”

  “How long had it been in the mailbox?” Francis said. “Do you know?”

  “Well, that’s another thing,” Julian said. “It might have been put in at any time. The secretary said that Mr. Morse’s son hadn’t been to check his father’s box since March. Which means, of course, that it might have been slipped in yesterday.” He indicated the envelope, on the table. “You see. There’s only my name, typewritten, on the front, no return address, no date, of course no postmark. Obviously it’s the work of a crank. The thing is, though, I can’t imagine why anyone would play such a cruel joke. I’d almost like to tell the Dean, though goodness knows I don’t want to stir things up again after all that fuss.”

  Now that the first, horrible shock was over, I was starting to breathe a bit easier. “What sort of a letter is it?” I asked him.

  Julian shrugged. “You can have a look at it, if you like.”

  I picked it up. Francis looked at it over my shoulder. It was single-spaced, on five or six small sheets of paper, some of which looked not unlike some writing paper which Bunny used to have. But though the sheets were roughly the same size, they didn’t all match. I could tell, by the way the ribbon had struck a letter sometimes half-red and half-black, that it had been written on the typewriter in the all-night study room.

  The letter itself was disjointed, incoherent, and—to my astonished eyes—unquestionably genuine. I skimmed it only briefly, and remember so little about it that I am unable to reproduce it here, but I do remember thinking that if Bunny wrote it, he was a lot closer to a breakdown than any of us had thought. It was filled with profanities of various sorts which it was difficult, even in the most desperate of circumstances, to imagine Bunny using in a letter to Julian. It was unsigned, but there were several clear references which made it plain that Bunny Corcoran, or someone purporting to be him, was the author. It was badly spelled, with a great many of Bunny’s characteristic errors, which fortunately couldn’t have meant much to Julian, as Bunny was such a poor writer that he usually had someone else go over his work before he handed it in. Even I might have had doubts about the authorship, the thing was so garbled and paranoid, if not for the reference to the Battenkill murder: “He”—(Henry, that is, or so the letter ran approximately at one point)—“is a fucking Monster. He has killed a man and he wants to kill Me, too. Everybody is in on it. The man they killed in October, in Battenkill county. His name was McRee. I think they beat him to death I am not sure.” There were other accusations—some of them true (the twins’ sexual practices), some not; all of which were so wild that they only served to discredit the whole. There was no mention of my name. The whole thing had a desperate, drunken tone that was not unfamiliar. Though this didn’t occur to me until later, I now believe he must have gone to the all-night study room and written it on the same night that he came drunk to my room—either directly before or after, probably after—in which case it was a pure stroke of luck we didn’t run into each other when I was on my way to the Science Building to telephone Henry. I remember only one other thing, which was its closing line, and the only thing I saw which struck a pang at me: “Please Help me, this is why I wrote you, you are the only person that can.”

  “Well, I don’t know who wrote this,” said Francis at last, his tone offhand and perfectly casual, “but whoever they were, they certainly couldn’t spell.”

  Julian laughed. I knew he didn’t have the slightest idea that the letter was real.

  Francis took the letter and shuffled ruminatively through the pages. He stopped at the next-to-last sheet—which was of a slightly different color than the rest—and idly turned it over. “It seems that—” he said, and then stopped.

  “Seems that what?” said Julian pleasantly.

  There was a slight pause before Franc
is continued. “Seems that whoever wrote this needed a new typewriter ribbon,” he said; but that was not what he was thinking, or I was thinking, or what he had been about to say. That had been struck from his mind when, turning the irregular sheet over, the two of us saw, with horror, what was on the back of it. It was a sheet of hotel stationery, engraved, at the top, with the address and letterhead of the Excelsior: the hotel where Bunny and Henry had stayed in Rome.

  Henry told us, later, head in hands, that Bunny had asked him to buy him another box of stationery the day before he died. It was expensive stuff, white cream laid, imported from England; the best they had at the store in town. “If only I’d bought it for him,” he said. “He asked me half a dozen times. But I figured, there wasn’t much point, you see.…” The sheet from the Excelsior wasn’t quite so heavy, or fine. Henry speculated—probably correctly—that Bunny had got to the bottom of the box, so he rooted around in his desk and found that piece, roughly the same size, and turned it over to use the back.

  I tried not to look at it, but it kept obtruding at the corners of my vision. A palace, drawn in blue ink, with flowing script like the script on an Italian menu. Blue edges on the paper. Unmistakable.

 
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