The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  Charles’s eyes narrowed. He pushed down his sleeve. “Did Henry send you?” he said,

  “God, no,” said Francis, surprised.

  “Are you sure?”

  “I haven’t seen him in days.”

  Charles still didn’t look convinced.

  “We’re not even speaking to him,” I said.

  Charles turned to look at me. His gaze was watery and a little unfocused. “Richard,” he said. “Hi.”

  “Hi.”

  “You know,” he said, “I’ve always liked you a lot.”

  “I like you, too.”

  “You wouldn’t go behind my back, would you?”

  “Of course not.”

  “Because,” he said, nodding at Francis, “because I know he would.”

  Francis opened his mouth, then shut it. He looked as if he’d been slapped.

  “You underestimate Francis,” I said to Charles, in a calm, quiet voice. It was a mistake the others often made with him, to try to reason with him in a methodical, aggressive way, when all he wanted was to be reassured like a child. “Francis likes you very much. He’s your friend. So am I.”

  “Are you?” he said.

  “Of course.”

  He pulled out a kitchen chair and sat down, heavily. The cat slunk over and began to twine round his ankles. “I’m afraid,” he said hoarsely. “I’m afraid Henry’s going to kill me.”

  Francis and I looked at each other.

  “Why?” said Francis. “Why would he want to do that?”

  “Because I’m in the way.” He looked up at us. “He’d do it, too, you know,” he said. “For two cents.” He nodded at a small, unlabeled medicine bottle on the counter. “You see that?” he said. “Henry gave it to me. Couple of days ago.”

  I picked it up. With a chill I recognized the Nembutals I’d stolen for Henry at the Corcorans.

  “I don’t know what they are,” said Charles, pushing the dirty hair from his eyes. “He told me they’d help me sleep. God knows I need something, but I’m afraid to take them.”

  I handed the bottle to Francis. He looked at it, then up at me, horrified.

  “Capsules, too,” said Charles. “No telling what he filled them with.”

  But he wouldn’t even have to, that was the evil thing. I remembered, with a sick feeling, having tried to impress upon Henry how dangerous these were when mixed with liquor.

  Charles passed a hand over his eyes. “I’ve seen him sneaking around here at night,” he said. “Out back. I don’t know what he’s doing.”

  “Henry?”

  “Yes. And if he tries anything with me,” he said, “it’ll be the worst mistake he ever made in his life.”

  We had less trouble enticing him to the car than I’d expected. He was in a rambling, paranoid humor and was somewhat comforted by our solicitude. He asked repeatedly if Henry knew where we were going. “You haven’t talked to him, have you?”

  “No,” we assured him, “no, of course not.”

  He insisted on taking the cat with him. We had a terrible time catching it—Francis and I dodging round the dark kitchen, knocking dishes to the floor, trying to corner it behind the water heater while Charles stood anxiously by saying things like “Come on” and “Good kitty.” Finally, in desperation, I seized it by a scrawny black hindquarter—it thrashed around and sank its teeth into my arm—and, together, we managed to wrap it up in a dish towel so that only its head stuck out, eyes bulging and ears flattened back against the skull. We gave the mummified, hissing bundle to Charles. “Now, hold her tight,” Francis kept saying in the car, glancing anxiously back in the rear-view mirror, “watch out, don’t let it get away—”

  But, of course, it did get away, catapulting into the front seat and nearly running Francis off the road. Then, after scrabbling around under the brake and gas pedal—Francis aghast, attempting simultaneously to avoid touching it and to kick it away from him—it settled on the floorboard by my feet, succumbing to an attack of diarrhea before falling into a glaring, prickle-haired trance.

  I had not been out to Francis’s since the week before Bunny died. The trees in the drive were in full leaf and the yard was overgrown and dark. Bees droned in the lilacs. Mr. Hatch, mowing the lawn some thirty yards away, nodded and raised a hand at us.

  The house was shadowy and cool. There were sheets on some of the furniture and dust balls on the hardwood floor. We locked the cat in an upstairs bathroom and Charles went down to the kitchen, to make himself something to eat, he said. He came back up with a jar of peanuts and a double martini in a water glass, which he carried into his room, and shut the door.

  We didn’t see an awful lot of Charles for the next thirty-six hours or so. He stayed in his room eating peanuts, and drinking, and looking out the window like the old pirate in Treasure Island. Once he came down to the library while Francis and I were playing cards, but he refused our invitation to join in and poked listlessly through the shelves, finally meandering upstairs without choosing a book. He came down for coffee in the mornings, in an old bathrobe of Francis’s, and sat in the kitchen windowsill looking moodily over the lawn as if he were waiting for someone.

  “When do you think is the last time he had a bath?” Francis whispered to me.

  He lost all interest in the cat. Francis sent Mr. Hatch out for some cat food and each morning and evening Francis let himself in the bathroom to feed it (“Get away,” I heard him muttering, “get away from me, you devil.”) and came out again with a fouled crumple of newspaper, which he held from his body at arm’s length.

  About six o’clock in the afternoon of our third day there, Francis was up in the attic digging around for a jar of old coins his aunt had said he could have if he could find it, and I was lying on the couch downstairs drinking iced tea and trying to memorize the irregular subjunctive verbs in French (for my final exam was in less than a week) when I heard the phone ringing in the kitchen. I went to answer it.

  It was Henry. “So there you are,” he said.

  “Yes.”

  There was a long, crackly silence. At last he said: “May I speak to Francis?”

  “He can’t come to the phone,” I said. “What is it?”

  “I suppose you’ve got Charles out there with you.”

  “Look here, Henry,” I said. “What’s the big idea giving Charles those sleeping pills?”

  His voice came back at me brisk and cool. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  “Yes you do. I saw them.”

  “Those pills you gave me, you mean?”

  “Yes.”

  “Well, if he has them he must have taken them from my medicine cabinet.”

  “He says you gave them to him,” I said. “He thinks you’re trying to poison him.”

  “That’s nonsense.”

  “Is it?”

  “He is there, isn’t he?”

  “Yes,” I said, “we brought him out the day before yesterday …” and then I stopped, because it seemed to me that somewhere towards the beginning of this sentence I had heard a stealthy but distinct click, as of an extension being picked up.

  “Well, listen,” Henry said. “I’d appreciate it if you could keep him out there a day or two longer. Everyone seems to think this should be some big secret but believe me, I’m happy to have him out of the way for a while. If he doesn’t come to court he’ll be guilty by default, but I don’t think there’s an awful lot they can do to him.”

  It seemed I could hear breathing on the other end.

  “What is it?” said Henry, suddenly wary.

  Neither of us said anything for a moment.

  “Charles?” I said. “Charles, is that you?”

  Upstairs, the telephone slammed down.

  I went up and knocked on Charles’s door. No answer. When I tried the knob, it was locked.

  “Charles,” I said. “Let me in.”

  No answer.

  “Charles, it wasn’t anything,” I said. “He called out of t
he blue. All I did was answer the phone.”

  Still no answer. I stood in the hall for a few minutes, the afternoon sun shining golden on the polished oak floor.

  “Really, Charles, I think you’re being a bit silly. Henry can’t hurt you. You’re perfectly safe out here.”

  “Bullshit,” came the muffled reply from within.

  There was nothing more to say. I went downstairs again, and back to the subjunctive verbs.

  I must have fallen asleep on the couch, and I don’t know how much later it was—not a whole lot later, because it was still light out—when Francis shook me awake, not too gently.

  “Richard,” he said. “Richard, you’ve got to wake up. Charles is gone.”

  I sat up, rubbed my eyes. “Gone?” I said. “But where could he go?”

  “I don’t know. He’s not in the house.”

  “Are you sure?”

  “I’ve looked everywhere.”

  “He’s got to be around somewhere. Maybe he’s in the yard.”

  “I can’t find him.”

  “Maybe he’s hiding.”

  “Get up and help me look.”

  I went upstairs. Francis ran outside. The screen door slammed behind him.

  Charles’s room was in disarray and a half-empty bottle of Bombay gin—from the liquor cabinet in the library—was on the night table. None of his things were gone.

  I went through all the upstairs rooms, then up to the attic. Lampshades and picture frames, organdy party dresses yellowed with age. Gray wide-plank floors, so worn they were almost fuzzy. A shaft of dusty cathedral light filtered through the stained-glass porthole that faced the front of the house.

  I went down the back staircase—low and claustrophobic, scarcely three feet wide—through the kitchen and butler’s pantry, and out onto the back porch. Some distance away, Francis and Mr. Hatch were standing in the driveway. Mr. Hatch was talking to Francis. I had never heard Mr. Hatch say much of anything to anyone and he was plainly uncomfortable. He kept running a hand over his scalp. His manner was cringing and apologetic.

  I met Francis on his way back to the house.

  “Well,” he said, “this is a hell of a note.” He looked a bit stunned. “Mr. Hatch says he gave Charles the keys to his truck about an hour and a half ago.”

  “What?”

  “He said Charles came looking for him and said he had to run an errand. He promised to have the truck back in fifteen minutes.”

  We looked at each other.

  “Where do you think he went?” I said.

  “How should I know?”

  “Do you think he just took off?”

  “Looks that way, doesn’t it?”

  We went back in the house—dim now with twilight—and sat by the window on a long davenport that had a sheet thrown over it. The warm air smelled like lilac. Across the lawn, we could hear Mr. Hatch trying to get the lawn mower started up again.

  Francis had his arms folded across the back of the davenport and his chin resting on his arms. He was looking out the window. “I don’t know what to do,” he said. “He’s stolen that truck, you know.”

  “Maybe he’ll be back.”

  “I’m afraid he’ll have a wreck. Or a cop will pull him over. I’ll bet you anything he’s plastered. That’s all he needs, getting stopped for drunk driving.”

  “Shouldn’t we go look for him?”

  “I wouldn’t know where to start. He could be halfway to Boston for all we know.”

  “What else can we do? Sit around and wait for the phone to ring?”

  First we tried the bars: the Farmer’s Inn, the Villager, the Boulder Tap and the Notty Pine. The Notch. The Four Squires. The Man of Kent. It was a hazy, gorgeous summer twilight and the gravel parking lots were packed with trucks but none of the trucks was Mr. Hatch’s.

  Just for the hell of it, we drove by the State Liquor Store. The aisles were bright and empty, splashy rum displays (“Tropical Island Sweepstakes!”) competing with somber, medicinal rows of vodka and gin. A cardboard cutout advertising wine coolers twirled from the ceiling. There were no customers, and a fat old Vermonter with a naked woman tattooed on his forearm was leaning against the cash register, passing time with a kid who worked at the Mini-Mart next door.

  “So then,” I heard him say in an undertone, “so then the guy pulls out a sawed-off shotgun. Emmett’s standing here beside me, right where I am now. ‘We don’t have the key to the cashbox,’ he says. And the guy pulls the trigger and I seen Emmett’s brains”—he gestured—“splatter all over that wall back there.…”

  We drove to campus, to the library (“He’s not there,” said Francis, “I’ll bet a million dollars”) and back to the bars again.

  “He’s left town,” said Francis. “I know it.”

  “Do you think Mr. Hatch will call the police?”

  “What would you do? If it was your truck? He won’t do anything without talking to me, but if Charles isn’t back, say, by tomorrow afternoon.…”

  We decided to drive by the Albemarle. Henry’s car was parked out front. Francis and I went in the lobby cautiously, not knowing quite how we were going to deal with the innkeeper, but, miraculously, there was no one at the desk.

  We went upstairs to 3-A. Camilla let us in. She and Henry were eating their dinner, from room service—lamb chops, bottle of burgundy, yellow rose in a bud vase.

  Henry was not pleased to see us. “What can I do for you?” he said, putting down his fork.

  “It’s Charles,” said Francis. “He’s gone AWOL.”

  He told them about the truck. I sat down beside Camilla. I was hungry and her lamb chops looked pretty good. She saw me looking at them and pushed the plate at me distractedly. “Here, have some,” she said.

  I did, and a glass of wine, too. Henry ate steadily as he listened. “Where do you think he’s gone?” he said when Francis had finished.

  “How the hell should I know?”

  “You can keep Mr. Hatch from pressing charges, can’t you?”

  “Not if he doesn’t get the truck back. Or if Charles cracks it up”

  “How much could a truck like that possibly cost? Assuming your aunt didn’t buy it for him in the first place.”

  “That’s beside the point.”

  Henry wiped his mouth with a napkin and reached in his pocket for a cigarette. “Charles is getting to be quite a problem,” he said. “You know what I’ve been thinking? I wonder how much it would cost to hire a private nurse.”

  “To get him off drink, you mean?”

  “Of course. We can’t send him to the hospital, obviously. Perhaps if we got a hotel room—not here, of course, but somewhere—and if we found some trustworthy person, maybe someone who didn’t speak English all that well.…”

  Camilla looked ill. She was slumped back in her chair. She said: “Henry, what are you going to do? Kidnap him?”

  “Kidnap is not the word that I would use.”

  “I’m afraid he’ll have a wreck. I think we ought to go look for him.”

  “We’ve looked all over town,” said Francis. “I don’t think he’s in Hampden.”

  “Have you called the hospital?”

  “No.”

  “What I think we really ought to do,” said Henry, “is call the police. Ask if there have been any traffic accidents. Do you think Mr. Hatch will agree to say that he lent Charles the truck?”

  “He did lend Charles the truck.”

  “In that case,” said Henry, “there should be no problem. Unless, of course, he gets stopped for drunk driving.”

  “Or unless we can’t find him.”

  “From my point of view,” said Henry, “the best thing that Charles could do right now is to disappear entirely from the face of the earth.”

  Suddenly there was a loud, frenetic banging at the door. We looked at one other.

  Camilla’s face had gone blank with relief. “Charles,” she said, “Charles,” and she jumped up from her chair and started to the
door; but no one had locked it behind us, and before she got there it flew open with a crash.

  It was Charles. He stood in the doorway, blinking drunkenly around the room, and I was so surprised and glad to see him that it was a moment before I realized that he had a gun.

  He stepped inside and kicked the door shut behind him. It was the little Beretta that Francis’s aunt kept in the night table, the one we’d used for target practice the fall before. We stared at him, thunderstruck.

  At last Camilla said, and in a voice which was fairly steady: “Charles, what do you think you are doing?”

  “Out of the way,” said Charles. He was very drunk.

  “So you’ve come to kill me?” said Henry. He was still holding his cigarette. He was remarkably composed. “Is that it?”

  “Yes.”

  “And what do you suppose that will solve?”

  “You’ve ruined my life, you son of a bitch.” He had the gun pointed at Henry’s chest. With a sinking feeling, I remembered what an expert shot he was, how he’d broken the rows of mason jars one by one.

  “Don’t be an idiot,” Henry snapped; and I felt the first prickle of real panic at the back of my neck. This belligerent, bullying tone might work with Francis, maybe even with me, but it was a disastrous tack to take with Charles. “If anyone’s to blame for your problems, it’s you.”

  I wanted to tell him to shut up, but before I could say anything Charles lurched abruptly to the side, to clear his shot. Camilla stepped into his path. “Charles, give me the gun,” she said.

  He pushed the hair from his eyes with his forearm, holding the gun remarkably steady with his other hand. “I’m telling you, Milly.” It was a pet name he had for her, one he seldom used. “You better get out of the way.”

  “Charles,” said Francis. He was white as a ghost. “Sit down. Have some wine. Let’s just forget about this.”

  The window was open and the chirrup of the crickets washed in harsh and strong.

  “You bastard,” said Charles, reeling backwards, and it was a moment before I realized, startled, that he was speaking not to Francis or Henry but to me. “I trusted you. You told him where I was.”

 
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