The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  I was too petrified to answer. I blinked at him.

  “I knew where you were,” said Henry coolly. “If you want to shoot me, Charles, go ahead and do it. It’ll be the stupidest thing you ever did in your life.”

  “The stupidest thing I ever did in my life was listening to you,” Charles said.

  What happened next took place in an instant. Charles raised his arm; and quick as a flash, Francis, who was standing closest to him, threw a glass of wine in his face. At the same time Henry sprang from his chair and rushed in. There were four pops in rapid succession, like a cap gun. With the second pop, I heard a windowpane shatter. And with the third I was conscious of a warm, stinging sensation in my abdomen, to the left of my navel.

  Henry was holding Charles’s right forearm above his head with both hands, bending him backward; Charles was struggling to get the gun with his left hand, but Henry twisted it from his wrist and it dropped to the carpet. Charles dove for it but Henry was too quick.

  I was still standing. I’m shot, I thought, I’m shot. I reached down and touched my stomach. Blood. There was a small hole, slightly charred, in my white shirt: my Paul Smith shirt, I thought, with a pang of anguish. I’d paid a week’s salary for it in San Francisco. My stomach felt very hot. Waves of heat radiating from the bull’s-eye.

  Henry had the gun. He twisted Charles’s arm behind his back—Charles fighting, thrashing wildly about—and, nosing the pistol into his spine, shoved him away from the door.

  I still hadn’t quite grasped what had happened. Maybe I should sit down, I thought. Was the bullet still in me? Was I going to die? The thought was ridiculous; it didn’t seem possible. My stomach burned but I felt oddly calm. Getting shot, I’d always thought, would hurt a lot more than this. Carefully, I stepped back, and felt the back of the chair I had been sitting in bump against my legs. I sat down.

  Charles, despite having one arm pinned behind him, was trying to elbow Henry in the stomach with the other. Henry pushed him, staggering, across the room and into a chair. “Sit down,” he said.

  Charles tried to get up. Henry mashed him back down. He tried to get up a second time and Henry slapped him across the face with his open hand with a whack that was louder than the gunshots. Then, with the pistol on him, he stepped to the windows and drew the shades.

  I put my hand over the hole in my shirt. Bending forward slightly, I felt a sharp pain. I expected everyone to stop and look at me. No one did. I wondered if I should call it to their attention.

  Charles’s head was rolled against the back of the chair. I noticed that there was blood on his mouth. His eyes were glassy.

  Awkwardly—he was holding the gun in his good hand—Henry reached up and took off his spectacles and rubbed them on the front of his shirt. Then he hooked them over his ears again. “Well, Charles,” he said. “You’ve done it now.”

  I heard some kind of commotion downstairs, through the open window—footsteps, voices, a door slamming.

  “Do you think anybody heard?” said Francis anxiously.

  “I should think they did,” Henry said.

  Camilla went over to Charles. Drunkenly, he made as if to push her away.

  “Get away from him,” Henry said.

  “What are we going to do about this window?” said Francis.

  “What are we going to do about me?” I said.

  They all turned and looked at me.

  “He shot me.”

  Somehow, this remark did not elicit the dramatic response I expected. Before I had the chance to elaborate, there were footsteps on the stairs and somebody banged at the door.

  “What’s going on in there?” I recognized the innkeeper’s voice. “What’s happening?”

  Francis put his face in his hands. “Oh, shit,” he said.

  “Open up in there.”

  Charles, drunkenly, mumbled something and tried to raise his head. Henry bit his lip. He went to the window and looked out the corner of the shade.

  Then he turned around. He still had the pistol. “Come here,” he said to Camilla.

  She looked at him in horror. So did Francis and I.

  He beckoned to her with his gun arm. “Come here,” he said. “Quick.”

  I felt faint. What’s he doing? I thought, bewildered.

  Camilla took a step away from him. Her gaze was terrified. “No, Henry,” she said, “don’t …”

  To my surprise, he smiled at her. “You think I’d hurt you?” he said. “Come here.”

  She went to him. He kissed her between the eyes, then whispered something—what, I’ve always wondered—in her ear.

  “I’ve got a key,” the innkeeper yelled, pounding away at the door. “I’ll use it.”

  The room was swimming. Idiot, I thought wildly, just try the knob.

  Henry kissed Camilla again. “I love you,” he said. Then he said, out loud: “Come in.”

  The door flew open. Henry raised the arm with the gun. He’s going to shoot them, I thought, dazed; the innkeeper and his wife, behind him, thought the same thing, because they froze about three steps into the room—but then I heard Camilla scream, “No, Henry!” and, too late, I realized what he was going to do.

  He put the pistol to his temple and fired, twice. Two flat cracks. They slammed his head to the left. It was the kick of the gun, I think, that triggered the second shot.

  His mouth fell open. A draft, created by the open door, sucked the curtains into the gap of the open window. For a moment or two, they shuddered against the screen. Then they breathed out again, with something like a sigh; and Henry, his eyes squeezed tight, and his knees giving way beneath him, fell with a thud to the carpet.

  EPILOGUE

  Alas, poor gentleman,

  He look’d not like the ruins of his youth

  But like the ruins of those ruins.

  –JOHN FORD,

  The Broken Heart

  I MANAGED to get out of taking my French exams the next week, due to the very excellent excuse of having a gunshot wound to the stomach.

  They said at the hospital that I was lucky, and I suppose I was. The bullet drilled me clean through, missing my intestinal wall by a millimeter or two and my spleen by not much more, exiting about an inch and a half to the right of where it came in. I lay flat on my back in the ambulance, feeling the summer night flash by warm and mysterious—kids on bikes, moths haunting the street lamps—and wondering if this was what it was like, if life sped up when you were about to die. Bleeding richly. Sensations fading round the edges. I kept thinking how funny, this dark ride to the underworld, the tunnel illuminated by Shell Oil, Burger King. The paramedic riding in the back wasn’t much older than I was; a kid, really, with bad skin and a downy little moustache. He had never seen a gunshot wound. He kept asking what it felt like? dull or sharp? an ache or burn? My head was spinning and naturally I could give him no kind of coherent answer but I remember thinking dimly that it was sort of like the first time I got drunk, or slept with a girl; not quite what one expected, really, but once it happened one realized it couldn’t be any other way. Neon lights: Motel 6, Dairy Queen. Colors so bright, they nearly broke my heart.

  Henry died, of course. With two bullets to the head I don’t suppose he could have done much else. Still, he lived more than twelve hours, a feat which amazed the doctors. (I was under sedation, this is what they tell me.) Such grave wounds, they said, would have killed most people instantly. I wonder if that means he didn’t want to die; and if so, why he shot himself in the first place. As bad as it looked, there in the Albemarle, I still think we could have patched it up somehow. It wasn’t from desperation that he did it. Nor, I think, was it fear. The business with Julian was heavy on his mind; it had impressed him deeply. I think he felt the need to make a noble gesture, something to prove to us and to himself that it was in fact possible to put those high cold principles which Julian had taught us to use. Duty, piety, loyalty, sacrifice. I remember his reflection in the mirror as he raised the pistol to his head.
His expression was one of rapt concentration, of triumph, almost, a high diver rushing to the end of the board; eyes tight, joyous, waiting for the big splash.

  I think about it quite a bit, actually, that look on his face. I think about a lot of things. I think about the first time I ever saw a birch tree; about the last time I saw Julian; about the first sentence that I ever learned in Greek. . Beauty is harsh.

  I did end up graduating from Hampden, with a degree in English literature. And I went to Brooklyn, with my guts taped up like a gangster (“Well!” said the professor, “this is Brooklyn Heights, not Bensonhurst!”) and spent the summer drowsing on his rooftop deck, smoking cigarettes, reading Proust, dreaming about death and indolence and beauty and time. The gunshot healed, leaving a char mark on my stomach. I went back to school in the fall: a dry, gorgeous September, you wouldn’t believe how beautiful the trees were that year: clear skies, littered groves, people whispering whenever I walked by.

  Francis didn’t come back to school that fall. Neither did the twins. The story at the Albemarle was simple, it told itself, really: suicidal Henry, struggle for the gun, leaving me wounded and him dead. In a way I felt this was unfair to Henry but in another it wasn’t. And it made me feel better in some obscure way: imagining myself a hero, rushing fearlessly for the gun, instead of merely loitering in the bullet’s path like the bystander which I so essentially am.

  Camilla took Charles down to Virginia the day of Henry’s funeral. It was, incidentally, the same day that Henry and Charles were to have appeared in court. The funeral took place in St. Louis. None of us was there but Francis. I was still in the hospital, half-delirious, still seeing the overturned wine glass rolling on the carpet and the oak-sprigged wallpaper at the Albemarle.

  A few days before, Henry’s mother had stopped in to see me, after she’d been down the hall to see her own son in the morgue. I wish I remembered more of her visit. All I remember is a pretty lady with dark hair and Henry’s eyes: one of a stream of visitors, real and imagined, living and dead, who drifted in and out of my room, clustering around my bed at all hours. Julian. My dead grandfather. Bunny, indifferent, clipping his fingernails.

  She held my hand. I had tried to save her son’s life. There was a doctor in the room, a nurse or two. I saw Henry himself, over her shoulder, standing in the corner in his old gardening clothes.

  It was only when I was leaving the hospital, and found the keys to Henry’s car among my things, that I remembered something she’d tried to tell me. In going through Henry’s affairs, she’d discovered that before he died, he was in the process of transferring the registration of his car to my name (which fit neatly with the official story—suicidal young man, giving away his possessions; no one, not even the police, ever tried to reconcile this generosity with the fact that, when Henry died, he believed himself in danger of losing the car). At any rate, the BMW was mine. She’d picked it out herself, she said, as a present for his nineteenth birthday. She couldn’t bear to sell it, or to see it again. This she tried to tell me, crying softly in a chair beside my bed as Henry padded about in the shadows behind her; preoccupied, unnoticed by the nurses; rearranging, with meticulous care, a disordered vase of flowers.

  You would think, after all we’d been through, that Francis and the twins and I would have kept in better touch over the years. But after Henry died, it was as if some thread which bound us had been abruptly severed, and soon after we began to drift apart.

  Francis was in Manhattan the whole summer that I was in Brooklyn. During that time we talked on the telephone maybe five times and saw each other twice. Both times were in a bar on the Upper East Side, directly downstairs from his mother’s apartment. He didn’t like to venture far from home, he said; crowds made him nervous; two blocks away, he said, and he started to feel as though the buildings were going to collapse on him. His hands fidgeted around the ashtray. He was seeing a doctor. He was doing a lot of reading. The people at the bar all seemed to know him.

  The twins were in Virginia, sequestered at their grandmother’s, incommunicado. Camilla sent me three postcards that summer and called me twice. Then in October, when I was back at school, she wrote to say that Charles had stopped drinking, hadn’t had a drop for over a month. There was a Christmas card. In February, a card on my birthday—conspicuously lacking in news of Charles. And then, after that, for a long time, nothing.

  Around the time I graduated, there was a sporadic renewal of communications. “Who would’ve thought,” wrote Francis, “that you’d be the only one of us to make it out with a diploma.” Camilla sent her congratulations, and called a couple of times. There was some talk from both of them about coming up to Hampden, to watch me walk down the aisle, but this did not materialize and I was not very surprised when it didn’t.

  I had started to date Sophie Dearbold, my senior year of school, and during my last term I moved into her apartment off-campus: on Water Street, just a few doors down from Henry’s house, where his Madame Isaac Pereire roses were running wild in the back yard (he never lived to see them bloom, it occurs to me, those roses that smelled like raspberries) and where the boxer dog, sole survivor of his chemistry experiments, ran out to bark at me when I walked by. Sophie had a job, after school, with a dance company in Los Angeles. We thought we were in love. There was some talk of getting married. Though everything in my subconscious was warning me not to (at night I dreamed of car crashes, freeway snipers, the glowing eyes of feral dogs in suburban parking lots) I restricted my applications for graduate fellowships to schools in Southern California.

  We hadn’t been out there six months when Sophie and I broke up. I was uncommunicative, she said. She never knew what I was thinking. The way I looked at her sometimes, when I woke up in the morning, frightened her.

  I spent all my time in the library, reading the Jacobean dramatists. Webster and Middleton, Tourneur and Ford. It was an obscure specialization, but the candlelit and treacherous universe in which they moved—of sin unpunished, of innocence destroyed—was one I found appealing. Even the titles of their plays were strangely seductive, trapdoors to something beautiful and wicked that trickled beneath the surface of mortality: The Malcontent. The White Devil. The Broken Heart. I pored over them, made notes in the margins. The Jacobeans had a sure grasp of catastrophe. They understood not only evil, it seemed, but the extravagance of tricks with which evil presents itself as good. I felt they cut right to the heart of the matter, to the essential rottenness of the world.

  I had always loved Christopher Marlowe, and I found myself thinking a lot about him, too. “Kind Kit Marlowe,” a contemporary had called him. He was a scholar, the friend of Raleigh and of Nashe, the most brilliant and educated of the Cambridge wits. He moved in the most exalted literary and political circles; of all his fellow poets, the only one to whom Shakespeare ever directly alluded was he; and yet he was also a forger, a murderer, a man of the most dissolute companions and habits, who “dyed swearing” in a tavern at the age of twenty-nine. His companions on that day were a spy, a pickpocket, and a “bawdy serving-man.” One of them stabbed Marlowe, fatally, just above the eye: “of which wound the aforesaid Christ. Marlowe died instantly.”

  I often thought of these lines of his, from Doctor Faustus:

  I think my master shortly means to die

  For he hath given me all his goods …

  and of this one, spoken as an aside on the day that Faustus in his black robes went to the emperor’s court:

  I’faith, he looks much like a conjurer.

  When I was writing my dissertation, on Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, I received the following letter from Francis.

  Dear Richard:

  I wish I could say that this is a difficult letter for me to write but in fact it is not. My life has been for many years in a process of dissolution and it seems to me that now, finally, it is time for me to do the honorable thing.

  So this is the last chance I will have to speak to you, in this world at least. What
I want to say to you is this. Work hard. Be happy with Sophie. [He did not know about our breakup.] Forgive me, for all the things I did but mostly for the ones that I did not.

  Mais, vrai, j’ai trop pleuré! Les aubes sont navrantes. What a sad and beautiful line that is. I’d always hoped that someday I’d have the chance to use it. And maybe the dawns will be less harrowing in that country for which I shortly depart. Then again, the Athenians think death to be merely sleep. Soon I will know for myself.

  I wonder if I will see Henry on the other side. If I do, I am looking forward to asking him why the hell he didn’t just shoot us all and get it over with.

  Don’t feel too bad about any of this. Really.

  Cheerily,

  Francis

  I had not seen him in three years. The letter was postmarked Boston, four days earlier. I dropped everything and drove to the airport and got on the first plane to Logan, where I found Francis in Brigham and Women’s Hospital recuperating from two razorblade cuts to the wrist.

  He looked terrible. He was pale as a corpse. The maid, he said, had found him in the bathtub.

  He had a private room. Rain was pounding on the gray windowpanes. I was terribly glad to see him and he, I think, to see me. We talked for hours, about nothing, really.

  “Did you hear I’m going to get married?” he said presently.

  “No,” I said, startled.

  I thought he was joking. But then he pushed up in his bed a bit and riffled through his night table and found a photograph of her, which he showed to me. Blue-eyed blonde, tastefully clad, built along the Marion line.

  “She’s pretty.”

  “She’s stupid,” said Francis passionately. “I hate her. Do you know what my cousins call her? The Black Hole.”

  “Why is that?”

  “Because the conversation turns into a vacuum whenever she walks into the room.”

 
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