The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  There followed a long and not too pleasant silence. Then Charles spun and stormed out, slamming the door behind him. The Dean cleared his throat.

  “As I was saying,” he continued.

  It is strange, but true, to relate, that at this point in time I was still capable of being upset by the fact that my career at Hampden had pretty much gone down the drain. When the Dean had said “two extra semesters,” my blood ran cold. I knew, with the certainty I knew that night follows day, there was no way I could get my parents to make their measly, but quite necessary, contribution for an extra year. I’d lost time already, in three changes of major, in the transfer from California, and I’d lose even more if I transferred again—assuming that I could even get into another school, that I could get another scholarship, with my spotty records, with my spotty grades: why, I asked myself, oh, why, had I been so foolish, why hadn’t I picked something and stuck with it, how was it that I could currently be at the end of my third year of college and have basically nothing to show for it?

  What made me angrier was that none of the others seemed to care. To them, I knew, this didn’t make the slightest bit of difference. What was it to them if they had to go an extra term? What did it matter, if they failed to graduate, if they had to go back home? At least they had homes to go to. They had trust funds, allowances, dividend checks, doting grandmas, well-connected uncles, loving families. College for them was only a way station, a sort of youthful diversion. But this was my main chance, the only one. And I had blown it.

  I spent a frantic couple of hours pacing in my room—that is, I’d come to think of it as “mine” but it wasn’t really, I had to be out in three weeks, already it seemed to be assuming a heartless air of impersonality—and drafting a memo to the financial aid office. The only way I could finish my degree—in essence, the only way I could ever acquire the means to support myself in any passably tolerable fashion—was if Hampden agreed to shoulder the entire cost of my education during this additional year. I pointed out, somewhat aggressively, that it wasn’t my fault Julian had decided to leave. I brought up every miserable commendation and award I’d won since the eighth grade. I argued that a year of classics could only bolster and enrich this now highly desirable course of study in English Literature.

  Finally, my plea finished, and my handwriting a passionate scrawl, I fell down on my bed and went to sleep. At eleven o’clock I woke, made some changes, and headed for the all-night study room to type it up. On the way I stopped at the post office, where, to my immense gratification, a note in my box informed me that I had got the job apartment-sitting in Brooklyn, and that the professor wanted to meet with me sometime in the coming week to discuss my schedule.

  Well, that’s the summer taken care of, I thought.

  It was a beautiful night, full moon, the meadow like silver and the housefronts throwing square black shadows sharp as cutouts on the grass. Most of the windows were dark: everyone sleeping, early to bed. I hurried across the lawn to the library, where the lights of the All-Night Study Room—“The House of Eternal Learning,” Bunny had called it in happier days—burned clear and bright on the top floor, shining yellow through the treetops. I went up the outside stairs—iron stairs, like a fire escape, like the steps in my nightmare—my shoes clattering on the metal in a way that might have given me the heebie-jeebies in a less distracted mood.

  Then, through the window, I saw a dark figure in a black suit, alone. It was Henry. Books were piled in front of him but he wasn’t working. For some reason, I thought of that February night I had seen him standing in the shadows beneath the windows of Dr. Roland’s office, dark and solitary, hands in the pockets of his overcoat and the snow whirling high in the empty arc of the streetlights.

  I closed the door. “Henry,” I said. “Henry. It’s me.”

  He didn’t turn his head. “I just got back from Julian’s house,” he said, in a monotone.

  I sat down. “And?”

  “The place is shut up. He’s gone.”

  There was a long silence.

  “I find it very hard to believe he’s done this, you know.” The light glinted off his spectacles; beneath the dark, glossy hair his face was deadly pale. “It’s just such a cowardly thing to have done. That’s why he left, you know. Because he was afraid.”

  The screens were open. A damp wind rustled in the trees. Beyond them clouds sailed over the moon, fast and wild.

  Henry took off his glasses. I never could get used to seeing him without them, that naked, vulnerable look he always had.

  “He’s a coward,” he said. “In our circumstance, he would have done exactly what we did. He’s just too much of a hypocrite to admit it.”

  I didn’t say anything.

  “He doesn’t even care that Bunny is dead. I could forgive him if that was why he felt this way, but it isn’t. He wouldn’t care if we’d killed half a dozen people. All that matters to him is keeping his own name out of it. Which is essentially what he said when I talked to him last night.”

  “You went to see him?”

  “Yes. One would hope that this matter would’ve seemed something more to him than just a question of his own comfort. Even to have turned us in would have shown some strength of character, not that I wanted to be turned in. But it’s nothing but cowardice. Running away like this.”

  Even after all that had happened, the bitterness and disappointment in his voice cut me to the heart.

  “Henry,” I said. I wanted to say something profound, that Julian was only human, that he was old, that flesh and blood are frail and weak and that there comes a time when we have to transcend our teachers. But I found myself unable to say anything at all.

  He turned his blind, unseeing eyes upon me.

  “I loved him more than my own father,” he said. “I loved him more than anyone in the world.”

  The wind was up. A gentle pitter of rain swept across the roof. We sat there like that, not talking, for a very long time.

  The next afternoon at three, I went to meet the new teacher.

  When I stepped inside Julian’s office I was shocked. It was completely empty. The books, the rugs, the big round table were gone. All that was left were the curtains on the windows and a tacked-up Japanese print that Bunny had given him. Camilla was there, and Francis, looking pretty uncomfortable, and Henry. He was standing by the window doing his best to ignore the stranger.

  The teacher had dragged in some chairs from the dining hall. He was a round-faced, fair-haired man of about thirty, in turtleneck and jeans. A wedding band shone conspicuously on one pink hand; he had a conspicuous smell of after-shave. “Welcome,” he said, leaning to shake my hand, and in his voice I heard the enthusiasm and condescension of a man accustomed to working with adolescents. “My name is Dick Spence. Yours?”

  It was a nightmarish hour. I really don’t have the heart to go into it: his patronizing tone at the start (handing out a page from the New Testament, saying, “Of course I don’t expect you to pick up the finer points, if you can get the sense, it’s okay with me”), a tone which metamorphosed gradually into surprise (“Well! Rather advanced, for undergraduates!”) and defensiveness (“It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen students at your level”) and, ultimately, embarrassment. He was the chaplain at Hackett and his Greek, which he had mostly learned at seminary, was crude and inferior even by my standards. He was one of those language teachers who rely heavily on mnemonics. (“Agathon. Do you know how I remember that word? ‘Agatha Christie writes good mysteries.’ ”) Henry’s look of contempt was indescribable. The rest of us were silent and humiliated. Matters were not helped by Charles stumbling in—obviously drunk—about twenty minutes into the class. His appearance prompted a rehash of previous formalities (“Welcome! My name is Dick Spence. Yours?”) and even, incredibly, a repetition of the agathon embarrassment.

  When the lesson was over (teacher sneaking a look at his watch: “Well! Looks like we’re running out of time here!”) the five of us fil
ed out in grim silence.

  “Well, it’s only two more weeks,” said Francis, when we were outside.

  Henry lit a cigarette. “I’m not going back,” he said.

  “Yeah,” Charles said sarcastically. “That’s right. That’ll show him.”

  “But Henry,” said Francis, “you’ve got to go.”

  He was smoking the cigarette with tight-lipped, resolute drags. “No, I don’t,” he said.

  “Two weeks. That’s it.”

  “Poor fellow,” said Camilla. “He’s doing the best he can.”

  “But that’s not good enough for him,” said Charles loudly. “Who does he expect? Fucking Richmond Lattimore?”

  “Henry, if you don’t go you’ll fail,” said Francis.

  “I don’t care.”

  “He doesn’t have to go to school,” said Charles. “He can do whatever he fucking pleases. He can fail every single fucking class and his dad’ll still send him that fat allowance check every month—”

  “Don’t say ‘fuck’ anymore,” said Henry, in a quiet but ominous voice.

  “Fuck? What’s the matter, Henry? You never heard that word before? Isn’t that what you do to my sister every night?”

  I remember, when I was a kid, once seeing my father strike my mother for absolutely no reason. Though he sometimes did the same thing to me, I did not realize that he did it sheerly out of bad temper, and believed that his trumped-up justifications (“You talk too much”; “Don’t look at me like that”) somehow warranted the punishment. But the day I saw him hit my mother (because she had remarked, innocently, that the neighbors were building an addition to their house; later, he would claim she had provoked him, that it was a reproach about his abilities as wage earner, and she, tearfully, would agree) I realized that the childish impression I had always had of my father, as Just Lawgiver, was entirely wrong. We were utterly dependent on this man, who was not only deluded and ignorant, but incompetent in every way. What was more, I knew that my mother was incapable of standing up to him. It was like walking into the cockpit of an airplane and finding the pilot and co-pilot passed out drunk in their seats. And standing outside the Lyceum, I was struck with a black, incredulous horror, which in fact was not at all unlike the horror I had felt at twelve, sitting on a bar stool in our sunny little kitchen in Plano. Who is in control here? I thought, dismayed. Who is flying this plane?

  And the thing of it was, that Charles and Henry had to appear together in court in less than a week, because of the business with Henry’s car.

  Camilla, I knew, was worried sick. She—whom I had never known to fear anything—was afraid now; and though in a certain perverse way I was pleased at her distress, there was no denying that if Henry and Charles—who practically came to blows each time they were in the same room—were going to be forced to appear before a judge, and with some show of cooperation and friendship, there could be no possible outcome but disaster.

  Henry had hired a lawyer in town. The hope that a third party would be able to reconcile these differences had granted Camilla a small measure of optimism, but in the afternoon on the day of the appointment, I received a telephone call from her.

  “Richard,” she said. “I’ve got to talk to you and Francis.”

  Her tone frightened me. When I arrived at Francis’s apartment, I found Francis badly shaken and Camilla in tears.

  I had seen her cry only once before, and then only, I think, from nerves and exhaustion. But this was different. She was blank and hollow-eyed, and there was despair in the set of her features.

  “Camilla,” I said. “What’s wrong?”

  She didn’t answer immediately. She smoked one cigarette, then another. Little by little the story came out. Henry and Charles had gone to see the lawyer and Camilla, in capacity of peacemaker, had gone along. At first, it had seemed as if everything might be all right. Henry, apparently, had not hired the lawyer entirely from altruism but because the judge before whom they were to appear had a reputation for being tough on drunk drivers and there was a possibility—as Charles neither had a valid driver’s license nor was covered on Henry’s insurance—that Henry might lose his license or car or both. Charles, though he obviously felt martyred by the whole business, had nonetheless been willing to go along: not, as he told anyone who would listen, because he had any affection for Henry but because he was sick of being blamed for things that weren’t his fault, and if Henry lost his license he’d never hear the end of it.

  But the meeting was a catastrophe. Charles, in the office, was sullen and uncommunicative. This was merely embarrassing but then—being prodded a bit too energetically by the attorney—he suddenly and quite without warning lost his head. “You should have heard him,” said Camilla. “He told Henry he didn’t care if he lost his car. He told him he didn’t care if the judge put them both in jail for fifty years. And Henry—well, you can imagine how Henry reacted. He blew up. The lawyer thought they were out of their minds. He kept trying to get Charles to calm down, be reasonable. And Charles said: “I don’t care what happens to him. I don’t care if he dies. I wish he was dead.”

  It got so bad, she said, the lawyer kicked them out of his office. Doors were opening up and down the hallway: an insurance agent, the tax assessor, a dentist in a white coat, all poking their heads out to see what the fuss was about. Charles stormed off—walked home, got a taxi, she didn’t know what he’d done.

  “And Henry?”

  She shook her head. “He was in a rage,” she said; her voice was exhausted, hopeless. “As I was following him to the car, the lawyer pulled me aside. Took here,’ he said. ‘I don’t know what the situation is, but your brother is obviously quite disturbed. Please try to make him understand that if he doesn’t cool down, he’s going to be in a lot more trouble than he bargained for. This judge is not going to be particularly amenable to them even if they walk in there like a pair of lambs. Your brother is almost sure to be sentenced to an alcohol treatment program, which might not be a bad idea from what I’ve seen of him today. There’s a pretty good chance that the judge will give him probation, which is not as easy as it sounds. And there’s more than a gambler’s chance that he’s going to get either jail time or he’s going to get put in a locked ward over at the detox center in Manchester.’ ”

  She was extremely upset. Francis was ashen-faced.

  “What does Henry say?” I asked her.

  “He says he doesn’t care about the car,” she said. “He doesn’t care about anything. ‘Let him go to jail,’ he says.”

  “You saw this judge?” Francis said to me.

  “Yes.”

  “What was he like?”

  “To tell you the truth, he looked like a pretty tough customer,” I said.

  Francis lit a cigarette. “What would happen,” he said, “if Charles didn’t show up?”

  “I’m not sure. I’m almost certain they’d come looking for him.”

  “But if they couldn’t find him?”

  “What are you suggesting?” I said.

  “I think we ought to get Charles out of town for a while,” said Francis. He looked tense and worried. “School’s almost over. It’s not as if anything’s keeping him here. I think we ought to pack him off to my mother and Chris in New York for a couple of weeks.”

  “The way he’s acting now?”

  “Drunk, you mean? You think my mother minds drunks? He’d be safe as a baby.”

  “I don’t think,” said Camilla, “you’d be able to get him to go.”

  “I could take him myself,” said Francis.

  “But what if he got away?” I pointed out. “Vermont is one thing but he could get into a hell of a lot of trouble in New York.”

  “All right,” said Francis irritably, “all right, it was just an idea.” He ran a hand through his hair. “You know what we could do? We could take him out to the country.”

  “To your place, you mean?”

  “Yes.”

  “What would that accomplish?


  “Easy to get him there, for one thing. And once he’s out there, what’s he going to do? He won’t have a car. It’s miles from the road. You can’t get a Hampden taxi driver to pick you up for love nor money.”

  Camilla was looking at him thoughtfully.

  “Charles loves to go to the country,” she said.

  “I know,” said Francis, pleased. “What could be simpler? And we won’t have to keep him there long. Richard and I can stay with him. I’ll buy a case of champagne. We’ll make it look like a party.”

  It was not easy to get Charles to come to the door. We knocked for what seemed like half an hour. Camilla had given us a key, which we didn’t want to use unless we had to, but just as we were contemplating it the bolt snapped and Charles squinted at us through the crack.

  He looked disordered, terrible. “What do you want?” he said.

  “Nothing,” said Francis, quite easily, despite a slight, stunned pause of maybe a second. “Can we come in?”

  Charles looked back and forth at the two of us. “Is anybody with you?”

  “No,” Francis said.

  He opened the door and let us in. The shades were pulled and the place had the sour smell of garbage. As my eyes adjusted to the dim I saw dirty dishes, apple cores and soup cans littering almost every conceivable surface. Beside the refrigerator, arranged with perverse neatness, stood a row of empty Scotch bottles.

  A lithe shadow darted across the kitchen counter, twisting through the dirty pans and empty milk cartons: Jesus, I thought, is that a rat? But then it jumped to the floor, tail switching, and I saw it was a cat. Its eyes glowed at us in the dark.

  “Found her in an empty lot,” said Charles. His breath, I noticed, did not have an alcoholic odor but a suspiciously minty one. “She’s not too tame.” He pushed up the sleeve of his bathrobe and showed us a discolored, contaminated-looking crisscross of scratches on his forearm.

  “Charles,” said Francis, jingling his car keys nervously, “we stopped by because we’re driving out to the country. Thought it might be nice to get away for a while. Do you want to come?”

 
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