The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  “To tell you the truth,” said Julian, “I didn’t even finish reading it. Obviously the perpetrator of this is quite disturbed. One can’t say, of course, but I think it must have been written by another student, don’t you?”

  “I can’t imagine that a member of the faculty would write something like this, if that’s what you mean,” said Francis, turning the letterhead back over. We didn’t look at each other. I knew exactly what he was thinking: how can we steal this page? how can we get it away?

  To distract Julian’s attention, I walked to the window. “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” I said, my back to both of them. “It’s hard to believe there was snow on the ground hardly a month ago.…” I babbled on, hardly aware of what I was saying, and afraid to look around.

  “Yes,” said Julian politely, “yes, it is lovely out,” but his voice came not from where I was expecting it but farther away, near the bookcase. I turned and saw that he was putting on his coat. From the look on Francis’s face, I knew he hadn’t succeeded. He was turned halfway, watching Julian from the corner of his eye; for a moment, when Julian turned his head to cough, it seemed like he was going to be able to get away with it but no sooner had he pulled the page out than Julian turned around, and he had no choice but to casually place it where it had been, as if the pages were out of order and he was simply rearranging them.

  Julian smiled at us, by the door. “Are you boys ready?” he said.

  “Certainly,” said Francis, with more enthusiasm than I knew he felt. He lay the letter, folded, back on the table and the two of us followed him out, smiling and talking, though I could see the tension in the back of Francis’s shoulders and I was biting the inside of my bottom lip with frustration.

  It was a miserable lunch. I remember hardly anything about it except that it was a very bright day, and we sat at a table too close to the window, and the glare in my eyes only increased my confusion and discomfort. And all the time we talked about the letter, the letter, the letter. Might whoever sent it have a grudge against Julian? Or was someone angry at us? Francis was more composed than me, but he was downing the glasses of house wine one after another, and a light sweat had broken out on his forehead.

  Julian thought the letter was a fake. That was obvious. But if he saw the letterhead, the game was up, because he knew as well as we did that Bunny and Henry had stayed at the Excelsior for a couple of weeks. Our best hope was that he would simply throw it away, without showing it to anyone else or examining it further. But Julian liked intrigue, and secrecy, and this was the sort of thing that could keep him speculating for days. (“No. Could it have been a faculty member? Do you think?”) I kept thinking about what he’d said earlier, about showing it to the Dean. We would have to get hold of it somehow. Break in his office, maybe. But even assuming he left it there, in a place where we could find it, that meant waiting six or seven hours.

  I drank a good deal during lunch, but by the time we were finished I was still so nervous that I had brandy with my dessert instead of coffee. Twice, Francis slipped away to telephone. I knew he was trying to get Henry, to ask him to go over to the office and nip the letter while we had Julian captive at the Brasserie; I knew also, from his tense smiles when he returned, that he wasn’t having any luck. After the second time he came back, an idea occurred to me: if he could leave to telephone, why couldn’t he just go out the back and get in his car and go get it himself? I would have slipped out and done it myself if I had only had the car keys. Too late—as Francis was paying the check—I realized what I should have said: that I’d left something in the car and needed the keys to go unlock the door and get it.

  On the way back to school, in the charged silence, I realized that something we had always relied on was the ability to communicate whenever we wanted. Always, previously, in an emergency we could throw out something in Greek, under the guise of an aphorism or quotation. But now that was impossible.

  Julian didn’t invite us back up to his office. We watched him going up the walk, waved as he turned at the back door to the Lyceum. It was, by now, about one-thirty in the afternoon.

  We sat motionless in the car for a moment after he disappeared. Francis’s chummy, goodbye smile had died on his face. Suddenly, and with a violence that frightened me, he leaned down and banged his forehead on the steering wheel. “Shit!” he yelled. “Shit! Shit!”

  I grabbed his arm and shook it. “Shut up,” I said.

  “Oh, shit,” he wailed, rolling his head back, the heels of his hands pressed to his temples. “Shit. This is it, Richard.”

  “Shut up.”

  “It’s over. We’ve had it. We’re going to jail.”

  “Shut up,” I said again. His panic, oddly, had sobered me. “We’ve got to figure out what to do.”

  “Look,” said Francis. “Let’s just go. If we leave now we can be in Montreal by dark. Nobody will ever find us.”

  “You’re not making any sense.”

  “We’ll stay in Montreal a couple of days. Sell the car. Then take the bus to, I don’t know, Saskatchewan or something. We’ll go to the weirdest place we can find.”

  “Francis, I wish you would calm down for a minute. I think we can handle this.”

  “What are we going to do?”

  “Well, first, I think, we’ve got to find Henry.”

  “Henry?” He looked at me in amazement. “What makes you think he’ll be any help? He’s so whacked-out, he doesn’t know which way—”

  “Doesn’t he have a key to Julian’s office?”

  He was quiet a moment. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I think he does. Or he used to.”

  “There you go,” I said. “We’ll find Henry and drive him over here. He can make some excuse to get Julian out of the office. Then one of us can slip up the back stairs with the key.”

  It was a good plan. The only problem was, running Henry down wasn’t so easy as we’d hoped. He wasn’t at his apartment, and when we went by the Albemarle, his car wasn’t there.

  We drove back to campus to check the library, then back to the Albemarle. This time Francis and I got out of the car and walked around the grounds.

  The Albemarle had been built in the nineteenth century, as a retreat for rich convalescents. It was shady and luxurious, with tall shutters and a big, cool porch—everyone from Rudyard Kipling to FDR had stayed there—but it wasn’t much bigger than a big private house.

  “You tried the desk clerk?” I asked Francis.

  “Don’t even think about it. They’re registered under a phony name, and I’m sure Henry gave the innkeeper some story, because when I tried to talk to her the other night she clammed up in a second.”

  “Is there any way we can get in past the lobby?”

  “I have no idea. My mother and Chris stayed here once. It isn’t that big a place. There’s only one set of stairs that I know of, and you have to walk past the desk to get to them.”

  “What about downstairs?”

  “The thing is, I think they’re on an upper floor. Camilla said something about carrying bags upstairs. There might be fire stairs, but I wouldn’t know how to go about finding them.”

  We stepped up onto the porch. Through the screen door we could see a dark, cool lobby and, behind the desk, a man of about sixty, his half-moon glasses pulled low on his nose, reading a copy of the Bennington Banner.

  “Is that the guy you talked to?” I whispered.

  “No. His wife.”

  “Has he seen you before?”

  “No.”

  I pushed open the door and stuck my head in for a moment, then went inside. The innkeeper glanced from his paper and gave us a supercilious up-and-down look. He was one of those prissy retirees one sees frequently in New England, the sort who subscribe to antique magazines and carry those canvas tote bags they give as gift premiums on public TV.

  I gave him my best smile. Behind the desk, I noticed, was a pegboard with room keys. They were arranged in tiers according to floor. There were three ke
ys—2-B, -C, and -E—missing on the second floor, and only one—3-A—on the third.

  He was looking at us frostily. “How may I help you?” he said.

  “Excuse me,” I said, “but do you know if our parents have arrived yet from California?”

  He was surprised. He opened a ledger. “What’s the name?”

  “Rayburn. Mr. and Mrs. Cloke Rayburn.”

  “I don’t see a reservation.”

  “I’m not sure they made one.”

  He looked at me over the tops of his glasses. “Generally, we require a reservation, with deposit, at least forty-eight hours in advance,” he said.

  “They didn’t think they’d need one this time of year.”

  “Well, there’s no guarantee that there’ll be room for them when they arrive,” he said curtly.

  I would have liked to have pointed out that his inn was more than half-empty, and that I didn’t see the guests exactly fighting to get in, but I smiled again and said, “I guess they’ll have to take their chances, then. Their plane got into Albany at noon. They should be here any minute.”

  “Well, then.”

  “Do you mind if we wait?”

  Obviously, he did. But he couldn’t say so. He nodded, his mouth pursed—thinking, no doubt, about the lecture on reservation policy he would deliver to my parents—and, with an ostentatious rattle, went back to his paper.

  We sat down on a cramped Victorian sofa, as far from the desk as possible.

  Francis was jittery and kept glancing around. “I don’t want to stay here,” he whispered, his lips barely moving, close to my ear. “I’m afraid the wife will come back.”

  “This guy is from hell, isn’t he?”

  “She’s worse.”

  The innkeeper was, very pointedly, not looking in our direction. In fact, his back was to us. I put my hand on Francis’s arm. “I’ll be right back,” I whispered. “Tell him I went looking for the men’s room.”

  The stairs were carpeted and I managed to get up them without making much noise. I hurried down the corridor until I saw 2-C, and 2-B next to it. The doors were blank and foreboding, but this was no time to hesitate. I knocked on 2-C. No answer. I knocked again, louder this time. “Camilla!” I said.

  At this, a small dog began to raise a racket, down the hall in 2-E. Nix that, I thought, and was about to knock on the third door, when suddenly it opened and there stood a middle-aged lady in a golfing skirt. “Excuse me,” she said. “Are you looking for someone?”

  It was funny, I thought, as I shot up the last flight of stairs, but I’d had a premonition they’d be on the top floor. In the corridor I passed a gaunt, sixtyish woman—print dress, harlequin glasses, sharp nasty face like a poodle—carrying a stack of folded towels. “Wait!” she yelped. “Where are you going?”

  But I was already past her, down the hall, banging at the door of 3-A. “Camilla!” I shouted. “It’s Richard! Let me in!”

  And then, there she was, like a miracle: sunlight streaming behind her into the hall, barefoot and blinking with surprise. “Hello,” she said, “hello! What are you doing here?” And, behind my shoulder, the innkeeper’s wife: “What do you think you’re doing here? Who are you?”

  “It’s all right,” Camilla said.

  I was out of breath. “Let me in,” I gasped.

  She pulled the door shut. It was a beautiful room—oak wainscoting, fireplace, only one bed, I noticed, in the room beyond, bedclothes tangled at the foot.… “Is Henry here?” I said.

  “What’s wrong?” Bright circles of color burned high in her cheeks. “It’s Charles, isn’t it? What’s happened?”

  Charles. I’d forgotten about him. I struggled to catch my breath. “No,” I said. “I don’t have time to explain. We’ve got to find Henry. Where is he?”

  “Why—” she looked at the clock—“I believe he’s at Julian’s office.”

  “Julian’s?”

  “Yes. What’s the matter?” she said, seeing the astonishment on my face. “He had an appointment, I think, at two.”

  I hurried downstairs to get Francis before the innkeeper and his wife had a chance to compare notes.

  “What should we do?” said Francis on the drive back to school. “Wait outside and watch for him?”

  “I’m afraid we’ll lose him. I think one of us better run up and get him.”

  Francis lit a cigarette. The match flame wavered. “Maybe it’s okay,” he said. “Maybe Henry managed to get hold of it.”

  “I don’t know,” I said. But I was thinking the same thing. If Henry saw the letterhead, I was pretty sure he’d try to take it, and I was pretty sure he’d be more efficient about it than Francis or me. Besides—it sounded petty but it was true—Henry was Julian’s favorite. If he put his mind to it, he could coerce away the whole letter on some pretext of giving it to the police, having the typing analyzed, who knew what he might come up with?

  Francis glanced at me sideways. “If Julian found out about this,” he said, “what do you think he would do?”

  “I don’t know,” I said, and I didn’t. It was such an unthinkable prospect that the only responses I could imagine him having were melodramatic and improbable. Julian suffering a fatal heart attack. Julian weeping uncontrollably, a broken man.

  “I can’t believe he’d turn us in.”

  “I don’t know.”

  “But he couldn’t. He loves us.”

  I didn’t say anything. Regardless of what Julian felt for me, there was no denying that what I felt for him was love and trust of a very genuine sort. As my own parents had distanced themselves from me more and more—a retreat they had been in the process of effecting for many years—it was Julian who had grown to be the sole figure of paternal benevolence in my life, or, indeed, of benevolence of any sort. To me, he seemed my only protector in the world.

  “It was a mistake,” said Francis. “He has to understand.”

  “Maybe,” I said. I couldn’t conceive of his finding out, but as I tried to visualize myself explaining this catastrophe to someone, I realized that we would have an easier time explaining it to Julian than to anyone else. Perhaps, I thought, his reaction would be similar to my own. Perhaps he would see these murders as a sad, wild thing, haunted and picturesque (“I’ve done everything,” old Tolstoy used to boast, “I’ve even killed a man”), instead of the basically selfish, evil act which it was.

  “You know that thing Julian used to say,” said Francis.

  “Which thing?”

  “About a Hindu saint being able to slay a thousand on the battlefield and it not being a sin unless he felt remorse.”

  I had heard Julian say this, but had never understood what he meant. “We’re not Hindus,” I said.

  “Richard,” Julian said, in a tone which simultaneously welcomed me and let me know that I had come at a bad time.

  “Is Henry here? I need to talk to him about something.”

  He looked surprised. “Of course,” he said, and opened the door.

  Henry was sitting at the table where we did our Greek. Julian’s empty chair, on the side by the window, was pulled close to his. There were other papers on the table but the letter was in front of them. He glanced up. He did not look pleased to see me.

  “Henry, may I speak to you?”

  “Certainly,” he said coldly.

  I turned, to step into the hall, but he didn’t make a move to follow. He was avoiding my eye. Damn him, I thought. He thought I was trying to continue our earlier conversation in the garden.

  “Could you come out here for a minute?” I said.

  “What is it?”

  “I need to tell you something.”

  He raised an eyebrow. “You mean, it’s something you want to tell me in private?” he said.

  I could have killed him. Julian, politely, had been pretending not to follow this exchange, but his curiosity was aroused by this. He was standing, waiting, behind his chair. “Oh, dear,” he said. “I hope nothing’s wrong. Shall
I leave?”

  “Oh, no, Julian,” said Henry, looking not at Julian but at me. “Don’t bother.”

  “Is everything all right?” Julian asked me.

  “Yes, yes,” I said. “I just need to see Henry for a second. It’s kind of important.”

  “Can’t it wait?” said Henry.

  The letter was spread out on the table. With horror, I saw that he was turning through it slowly, like a book, pretending to examine the pages one by one. He hadn’t seen the letterhead. He didn’t know it was there.

  “Henry,” I said. “It’s an emergency. I have to talk to you right now.”

  He was struck by the urgency in my voice. He stopped, and pivoted in his chair to look at me—they were both staring, now—and as he did, as part of the motion of turning, he turned over the page in his hand. My heart did a somersault. There was the letterhead, face-up on the table. White palace drawn in blue curlicues.

  “All right,” said Henry. Then, to Julian: “I’m sorry. We’ll be back in a moment.”

  “Certainly,” said Julian. He looked grave and concerned. “I hope nothing’s the matter.”

  I wanted to cry. I had Henry’s attention; I had it, now, but I didn’t want it. The letterhead lay exposed on the table.

  “What’s wrong?” said Henry, his eyes locked on mine.

  He was attentive, poised as a cat. Julian was looking at me too. The letter lay on the table, between them, directly in Julian’s line of vision. He had only to glance down.

  I darted my eyes at the letter, then at Henry. He understood in an instant, turned smooth but fast; but he wasn’t fast enough, and in that split-second, Julian looked down—casually, just an afterthought, but a second too soon.

  I do not like to think about the silence that followed. Julian leaned over and looked at the letterhead for a long time. Then he picked up the page and examined it. Excelsior. Via Veneto. Blue-inked battlements. I felt curiously light and empty-headed.

  Julian put on his glasses and sat down. He looked through the whole thing, very carefully, front and back. I heard kids laughing, faintly, somewhere outside. At last he folded the letter and put it in the inside pocket of his jacket.

 
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