The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  “Well,” he said at last. “Well, well, well.”

  As is true of most incipient bad things in life, I had not really prepared myself for this possibility. And what I felt, standing there, was not fear or remorse but only terrible, crushing humiliation, a dreadful, red-faced shame I hadn’t felt since childhood. And what was even worse was to see Henry, and to realize that he was feeling the same thing, and if anything, more acutely than myself. I hated him—was so angry I wanted to kill him—but somehow I was not prepared to see him like that.

  Nobody said anything. Dust motes floated in a sunbeam. I thought of Camilla at the Albemarle, Charles in the hospital, Francis waiting trustfully in the car.

  “Julian,” said Henry, “I can explain this.”

  “Please do,” said Julian.

  His voice chilled me to the bone. Though he and Henry had in common a distinct coldness of manner—sometimes, around them, the very temperature seemed to drop—I had always thought Henry’s coldness essential, to the marrow, and Julian’s only a veneer for what was, at bottom, a warm and kind-hearted nature. But the twinkle in Julian’s eye, as I looked at him now, was mechanical and dead. It was as if the charming theatrical curtain had dropped away and I saw him for the first time as he really was: not the benign old sage, the indulgent and protective good-parent of my dreams, but ambiguous, a moral neutral, whose beguiling trappings concealed a being watchful, capricious, and heartless.

  Henry started to talk. It was so painful to hear him—Henry!—stumble over his words that I am afraid I blocked out much of what he said. He began, in typical fashion, by attempting to justify himself but that soon faltered in the white glare of Julian’s silence. Then—I still shudder to remember it—a desperate, pleading note crept into his voice. “I disliked having to lie, of course”—disliked! as if he were talking about an ugly necktie, a dull dinner party!—“we never wanted to lie to you, but it was necessary. That is, I felt it was necessary. The first matter was an accident; there was no use in worrying you about it, was there? And then, with Bunny … He wasn’t a happy person in those last months. I’m sure you know that. He was having a lot of personal problems, problems with his family.…”

  He went on and on. Julian’s silence was vast, arctic. A black buzzing noise echoed in my head. I can’t stand this, I thought, I’ve got to leave, but still Henry talked, and still I stood there, and the sicker and blacker I felt to hear Henry’s voice and to see the look on Julian’s face.

  Unable to stand it, I finally turned to go. Julian saw me do it.

  Abruptly, he cut Henry off. “That’s enough,” he said.

  There was an awful pause. I stared at him. This is it, I thought, with a kind of fascinated horror. He won’t listen anymore. He doesn’t want to be left alone with him.

  Julian reached into his pocket. The expression on his face was impossible to read. He took the letter out and handed it to Henry. “I think you’d better keep this,” he said.

  He didn’t get up from the table. The two of us left his office without a word. Funny, when I think about it now. That was the last time I ever saw him.

  Henry and I didn’t speak in the hallway. Slowly, we drifted out, eyes averted, like strangers. As I went down the stairs he was standing by the windowsill on the landing, looking out, blind and unseeing.

  Francis was panic-stricken when he saw the look on my face. “Oh, no,” he said. “Oh, my God. What’s happened?”

  It was a long time before I could say anything. “Julian saw it,” I said.


  “He saw the letterhead. Henry’s got it now.”

  “How’d he get it?”

  “Julian gave it to him.”

  Francis was jubilant. “He gave it to him? He gave Henry the letter?”


  “And he’s not going to tell anyone?”

  “No, I don’t think so.”

  He was startled by the gloom in my voice.

  “But what’s the matter?” he said shrilly. “You got it, didn’t you? It’s okay. Everything’s all right now. Isn’t it?”

  I was staring out the car window, at the window of Julian’s office.

  “No,” I said, “no, I don’t really think that it is.”

  Years ago, in an old notebook, I wrote: “One of Julian’s most attractive qualities is his inability to see anyone, or anything, in its true light.” And under it, in a different ink, “maybe one of my most attractive qualities, as well (?)”

  It has always been hard for me to talk about Julian without romanticizing him. In many ways, I loved him the most of all; and it is with him that I am most tempted to embroider, to flatter, to basically reinvent. I think that is because Julian himself was constantly in the process of reinventing the people and events around him, conferring kindness, or wisdom, or bravery, or charm, on actions which contained nothing of the sort. It was one of the reasons I loved him: for that flattering light in which he saw me, for the person I was when I was with him, for what it was he allowed me to be.

  Now, of course, it would be easy for me to veer to the opposite extreme. I could say that the secret of Julian’s charm was that he latched onto young people who wanted to feel better than everybody else; that he had a strange gift for twisting feelings of inferiority into superiority and arrogance. I could also say that he did this not through altruistic motives but selfish ones, in order to fulfill some egotistic impulse of his own. And I could elaborate on this at some length and with, I believe, a fair degree of accuracy. But still that would not explain the fundamental magic of his personality or why—even in the light of subsequent events—I still have an overwhelming wish to see him the way that I first saw him: as the wise old man who appeared to me out of nowhere on a desolate strip of road, with a bewitching offer to make all my dreams come true.

  But even in fairy tales, these kindly old gentlemen with their fascinating offers are not always what they seem to be. That should not be a particularly difficult truth for me to accept at this point but for some reason it is. More than anything I wish I could say that Julian’s face crumbled when he heard what we had done. I wish I could say that he put his head on the table and wept, wept for Bunny, wept for us, wept for the wrong turns and the life wasted: wept for himself, for being so blind, for having over and over again refused to see.

  And the thing is, I had a strong temptation to say he had done these things anyway, though it wasn’t at all the truth.

  George Orwell—a keen observer of what lay behind the glitter of constructed facades, social and otherwise—had met Julian on several occasions, and had not liked him. To a friend he wrote: “Upon meeting Julian Morrow, one has the impression that he is a man of extraordinary sympathy and warmth. But what you call his ‘Asiatic serenity’ is, I think, a mask for great coldness. The face one shows him he invariably reflects back at one, creating the illusion of warmth and depth when in fact he is brittle and shallow as a mirror. Acton”—this, apparently, Harold Acton, who was also in Paris then and a friend to both Orwell and Julian—“disagrees. But I think he is not a man to be trusted.”

  I have thought a great deal about this passage, also about a particularly shrewd remark once made by, of all people, Bunny. “Y’know,” he said, “Julian is like one of those people that’ll pick all his favorite chocolates out of the box and leave the rest.” This seems rather enigmatic on the face of it, but actually I cannot think of a better metaphor for Julian’s personality. It is similar to another remark made to me once by Georges Laforgue, on an occasion when I had been extolling Julian to the skies. “Julian,” he said curtly, “will never be a scholar of the very first rate, and that is because he is only capable of seeing things on a selective basis.”

  When I disagreed—strenuously—and asked what was wrong with focusing one’s entire attention on only two things, if those two things were Art and Beauty, Laforgue replied: “There is nothing wrong with the love of Beauty. But Beauty—unless she is wed to something more meaningful
—is always superficial. It is not that your Julian chooses solely to concentrate on certain, exalted things; it is that he chooses to ignore others equally as important.”

  It’s funny. In retelling these events, I have fought against a tendency to sentimentalize Julian, to make him seem very saintly—basically to falsify him—in order to make our veneration of him seem more explicable; to make it seem something more, in short, than my own fatal tendency to try to make interesting people good. And I know I said earlier that he was perfect but he wasn’t perfect, far from it; he could be silly and vain and remote and often cruel and still we loved him, in spite of, because.

  Charles was released from the hospital the following day. Despite Francis’s insistence that he come to his house for a while, he insisted on going home to his own apartment. His cheeks were sunken; he’d lost a lot of weight and he needed a haircut. He was sullen and depressed. We didn’t tell him what had happened.

  I felt sorry for Francis. I could tell he was worried about Charles, and upset that he was so hostile and uncommunicative. “Would you like some lunch?” he asked him.


  “Come on. Let’s go to the Brasserie.”

  “I’m not hungry.”

  “It’ll be good. I’ll buy you one of those roulage things you like for dessert.”

  We went to the Brasserie. It was eleven o’clock in the morning. By an unfortunate coincidence, the waiter sat us at the table by the window where Francis and I had sat with Julian less than twenty-four hours before. Charles wouldn’t look at a menu. He ordered two Bloody Marys and drank them in quick succession. Then he ordered a third.

  Francis and I put down our forks and exchanged an uneasy glance.

  “Charles,” Francis said, “why don’t you get an omelet or something?”

  “I told you I’m not hungry.”

  Francis picked up a menu and gave it a quick once-over. Then he motioned to the waiter.

  “I said I’m not fucking hungry,” said Charles without looking up. He was having a hard time keeping his cigarette balanced between his first and middle fingers.

  Nobody had much to say after that. We finished eating and got the check, not before Charles had time to finish his third Bloody Mary and order a fourth. We had to help him to the car.

  I was not much looking forward to going to Greek class, but when Monday rolled around I got up and went anyway. Henry and Camilla arrived separately—in case Charles decided to show up, I think—which, thank God, he didn’t. Henry, I noticed, was puffy and very pale. He stared out the window and ignored Francis and me.

  Camilla was nervous—embarrassed, maybe, by the way Henry was acting. She was anxious to hear about Charles and asked a number of questions, to most of which she didn’t receive any response at all. Soon it was ten after; then fifteen.

  “I’ve never known Julian to be this late,” said Camilla, looking at her watch.

  Suddenly, Henry cleared his throat. His voice was strange and rusty, as if fallen into disuse. “He’s not coming,” he said.

  We turned to look at him.

  “What?” said Francis.

  “I don’t think he’s going to come today.”

  Just then we heard footsteps, and a knock at the door. It wasn’t Julian, but the Dean of Studies. He creaked open the door and looked inside.

  “Well, well,” he said. He was a sly, balding man in his early fifties who had a reputation for being kind of a smart-aleck. “So this is what the Inner Sanctum looks like. The Holy of Holies. I’ve never once been allowed up here.”

  We looked at him.

  “Not bad,” he said ruminatively. “I remember about fifteen years ago, before they built the new Science Building, they had to stick some of the counselors up here. This one psychologist liked to leave her door open, thought it gave things a friendly feeling. ‘Good morning,’ she’d say to Julian whenever he walked past her door, ‘have a nice day.’ Can you believe that Julian phoned Channing Williams, my wicked predecessor, and threatened to quit unless she was moved?” He chuckled. “ ‘That dreadful woman.’ That’s what he called her. ‘I can’t bear that dreadful woman accosting me every time I happen to walk by.’ ”

  This was a story which had some currency around Hampden, and the Dean had left some of it out. The psychologist had not only left her own door open but also had tried to get Julian to do the same.

  “To tell the truth,” said the Dean, “I’d expected something a little more classical. Oil lamps. Discus throwing. Nude youths wrestling on the floor.”

  “What do you want?” said Camilla, not very politely.

  He paused, caught short, and gave her an oily smile. “We need to have a little talk,” he said. “My office has just learned that Julian has been called away from school very suddenly. He has taken an indefinite leave of absence and does not know when he might return. Needless to say”—a phrase he delivered with sarcastic delicacy—“this puts you all in a rather interesting position in terms of academics, especially as it is only three weeks until the end of term. I understand that he was not in the habit of giving a written examination?”

  We stared at him.

  “Did you write papers? Sing songs? How was he accustomed to determining your final grade?”

  “An oral examination for the tutorials,” Camilla said, “as well as a term paper for the Civilization class.” She was the only one of us who was collected enough to speak. “For the composition classes, an extended translation, English to Greek, from a passage of his choosing.”

  The Dean pretended to ponder this. Then he took a breath and said: “The problem you face, as I’m sure you’re aware, is that we currently have no other teacher able to take over your class. Mr. Delgado has a reading knowledge of Greek, and though he says he’d be happy to look at your written work he is teaching a full load this term. Julian himself was most unhelpful on this point. I asked him to suggest a possible replacement and he said there wasn’t any that he knew of.”

  He took a piece of paper from his pocket. “Now here are the three possible alternatives which occur to me. The first is for you to take incompletes and finish the course work in the fall. The thing is, however, I’m far from certain that Literature and Languages will be hiring another Classics teacher. There is so little interest in the subject, and the general consensus seems to be that it should be phased out, especially now that we’re attempting to get the new Semiotics department off the ground.”

  He took a deep breath. “The second alternative is for you to take incompletes and finish the work in summer school. The third possibility is that we bring in—mind you, on a temporary basis—a substitute teacher. Understand this. At this point in time it is extremely doubtful that we will continue to offer the degree in Classics at Hampden. For those of you who choose to remain with us, I feel sure that the English department can absorb you with minimal loss of credit hours, though I think each of you in order to fulfill the department requirements are looking at two semesters of work above and beyond what you might’ve anticipated for graduation. At any rate.” He looked at his list. “I am sure you have heard of Hackett, the preparatory school for boys,” he said. “Hackett has extensive offerings in the field of Classics. I contacted the headmaster this morning and he said he would be happy to send a master over twice a week to supervise you. Though this might seem the best option from your perspective, it would by no means be ideal, relying, as it does, upon the auspices of the—”

  It was at this moment that Charles chose to come crashing through the door.

  He lurched in, looked around. Though he might not have been intoxicated technically, that very instant, he had been so recently enough for this to be an academic point. His shirttails hung out. His hair fell in long dirty strings over his eyes.

  “What?” he said, after a moment. “Where’s Julian?”

  “Don’t you knock?” said the Dean.

  Charles turned, unsteadily, and looked at him.

  “What’s this?” he s
aid. “Who the hell are you?”

  “I,” said the Dean sweetly, “am the Dean of Studies.”

  “What have you done with Julian?”

  “He has left you. And somewhat in the lurch if I dare say it. He has been called very suddenly from the country and doesn’t know—or hasn’t thought—about his return. He gave me to understand that it was something with the State Department, the Isrami government and all that. I think we are fortunate not to have had more problems of this nature, with the princess having gone to school here. One thinks at the time only of the prestige of such a pupil, alas, and not for an instant of the possible repercussions. Though I can’t for the life of me imagine what the Isramis would want with Julian. Hampden’s own Salman Rushdie.” He chuckled appreciatively, then consulted his sheet again. “At any rate. I have arranged for the master from Hackett to meet with you tomorrow, here, at three p.m. I hope there is no conflict of schedule for anyone. If that happens to be the case, however, it would be well for you to re-evaluate your priorities, as this is the only time that he will be available to answer your.…”

  I knew that Camilla hadn’t seen Charles in well over a week, and I knew she couldn’t have been prepared to see him looking so bad, but she was gazing at him with an expression not so much of surprise as of panic, and horror. Even Henry looked taken aback.

  “… and, of course, this will entail a certain spirit of compromise on your parts too, as—”

  “What?” said Charles, interrupting him. “What did you say? You said Julian’s gone?”

  “I must compliment you, young man, on your grasp of the English language.”

  “What happened? He just picked up and left?”

  “In essence, yes.”

  There was a brief pause. Then Charles said, in a loud, clear voice: “Henry, why do I think for some reason that this is all your fault?”

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