The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  “Then why are you going to marry her?”

  For a moment he didn’t answer. Then he said: “I was seeing someone. A lawyer. He’s a bit of a drunk but that’s all right. He went to Harvard. You’d like him. His name is Kim.”

  “And?”

  “And my grandfather found out. In the most melodramatic way you can possibly imagine.”

  He reached for a cigarette. I had to light it for him because of his hands. He had injured one of the tendons that led to his thumb.

  “So,” he said, blowing out a plume of smoke. “I have to get married.”

  “Or what?”

  “Or my grandfather will cut me off without a cent.”

  “Can’t you get by on your own?” I said.

  “No.”

  He said this with such certainty that it irritated me.

  “I do,” I said.

  “But you’re used to it.”

  Just then the door to his room cracked open. It was his nurse-not from the hospital, but one that his mother had privately engaged.

  “Mr. Abernathy!” she said brightly. “There’s someone here who wants to see you!”

  Francis closed his eyes, then opened them. “It’s her,” he said. The nurse withdrew. We looked at each other.

  “Don’t do it, Francis,” I said.

  “I’ve got to.”

  The door opened, and the blonde in the photograph—all smiles—waltzed in, wearing a pink sweater with a pattern of snowflakes knit into it, and her hair tied back with a pink ribbon. She was actually quite pretty. Among her armload of presents were a teddy bear; jelly beans wrapped in cellophane; copies of GQ, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire: good God, I thought, since when does Francis read magazines?

  She walked over to the bed, kissed him briskly on the forehead. “Now, sweetie,” she said to him, “I thought we’d decided not to smoke.”

  To my surprise, she plucked the cigarette from between his fingers and put it out in the ashtray. Then she looked over at me and beamed.

  Francis ran a bandaged hand through his hair. “Priscilla,” he said tonelessly, “this is my friend Richard.”

  Her blue eyes widened. “Hi!” she said. “I’ve heard so much about you!”

  “And I about you,” I said politely.

  She pulled up a chair to Francis’s bed. Pleasant, still smiling, she sat down.

  And, as if by magic, the conversation stopped.

  Camilla showed up in Boston the next day; she, too, had got a letter from Francis.

  I was drowsing in the bedside chair. I’d been reading to Francis, Our Mutual Friend—funny, now I think about it, how much my time with Francis at the hospital in Boston was like the time that Henry spent at the hospital in Vermont with me—and when I woke up, awakened by Francis’s exclamation of surprise, and saw her standing there in the dreary Boston light, I thought that I was dreaming.

  She looked older. Cheeks a bit hollower. Different hair, cut very short. Without realizing it, I had come to think of her, too, as a ghost: but to see her, wan but still beautiful, in the flesh, my heart gave such a glad and violent leap that I thought it would burst, I thought I would die, right there.

  Francis sat up in bed and held out his arms. “Darling,” he said. “Come here.”

  The three of us were in Boston together for four days. It rained the whole time. Francis got out of the hospital on the second day—which, as it happened, was Ash Wednesday.

  I had never been to Boston before; I thought it looked like the London I had never seen. Gray skies, sooty brick townhouses, Chinese magnolias in the fog. Camilla and Francis wanted to go to mass, and I went along with them. The church was crowded and drafty. I went to the altar with them to get ashes, shuffling along in the swaying line. The priest was bent, in black, very old. He made a cross on my forehead with the flat of his thumb. Dust thou art, to dust thou shalt return. I stood up again when it was time for communion, but Camilla caught my arm and hastily pulled me back. The three of us stayed in our seats as the pews emptied and the long, shuffling line started toward the altar again.

  “You know,” said Francis, on the way out, “I once made the mistake of asking Bunny if he ever thought about Sin.”

  “What did he say?” asked Camilla.

  Francis snorted. “He said ‘No, of course not. I’m not a Catholic.’ ”

  We loitered all afternoon in a dark little bar on Boylston Street, smoking cigarettes and drinking Irish whiskey. The talk turned to Charles. He, it seemed, had been an intermittent guest at Francis’s over the course of the past few years.

  “Francis lent him quite a bit of money about two years ago,” Camilla said. “It was good of him, but he shouldn’t have done it.”

  Francis shrugged and drank off the rest of his glass. It was clear the subject made him uncomfortable. “I wanted to,” he said.

  “You’ll never see it again.”

  “That’s all right.”

  I was consumed with curiosity. “Where is Charles?”

  “Oh, he’s getting by,” said Camilla. It was clear the topic made her uncomfortable, too. “He worked for my uncle for a little while. Then he had a job playing piano in a bar—which, as you can imagine, didn’t work out so well. Our Nana was distraught. Finally she had to have my uncle tell him that if he didn’t shape up, he was going to have to move out of the house. So he did. He got himself a room in town and went on working at the bar. But they finally fired him and he had to come home again. That was when he started coming up here. It was good of you,” she said to Francis, “to put up with him the way you did.”

  He was staring down into his drink. “Oh,” he said, “it’s all right.”

  “You were very kind to him.”

  “He was my friend.”

  “Francis,” said Camilla, “lent Charles the money to put himself into a treatment place. A hospital. But he only stayed about a week. He ran off with some thirty-year-old woman he met in the detox ward. Nobody heard from them for about two months. Finally the woman’s husband—”

  “She was married?”

  “Yes. Had a baby, too. A little boy. Anyway, the woman’s husband finally hired a private detective, and he tracked them down in San Antonio. They were living in this horrible place, a dump. Charles was washing dishes in a diner, and she—well, I don’t know what she was doing. They were both in kind of bad shape. But neither of them wanted to come home. They were very happy, they said.”

  She paused to take a sip of her drink.

  “And?” I said.

  “And they’re still down there,” she said. “In Texas. Though they’re not in San Antonio anymore. They were in Corpus Christi for a while. The last we heard they’d moved to Galveston.”

  “Doesn’t he ever call?”

  There was a long pause. Finally, she said: “Charles and I don’t really talk anymore.”

  “Not at all?”

  “Not really, no.” She took another drink of her whiskey. “It’s broken my Nana’s heart,” she said.

  In the rainy twilight, we walked back to Francis’s through the Public Gardens. The lamps were lit.

  Very suddenly, Francis said: “You know, I keep expecting Henry to show up.”

  I was a bit unnerved by this. Though I hadn’t mentioned it, I’d been thinking the same thing. What was more, ever since arriving in Boston I’d kept catching glimpses of people I thought were him: dark figures dashing by in taxicabs, disappearing into office buildings.

  “You know, I thought I saw him when I was lying in the bathtub,” said Francis. “Faucet dripping, blood all over the goddamned place. I thought I saw him standing there in his bathrobe—-you know, that one with all the pockets that he kept his cigarettes and stuff in—over by the window, with his back half-turned, and he said to me, in this really disgusted voice: ‘Well, Francis, I hope you’re happy now.’ ”

  We kept walking. Nobody said anything.

  “It’s funny,” said Francis. “I have a hard time believing he’s really d
ead. I mean—I know there’s no way he could have faked dying—but, you know, if anybody could figure out how to come back, it’s him. It’s kind of like Sherlock Holmes. Going over the Reichenbach Falls. I keep expecting to find that it was all a trick, that he’ll turn up any day now with some kind of elaborate explanation.”

  We were crossing a bridge. Yellow streamers of lamplight shimmered bright in the inky water.

  “Maybe it really was him that you saw,” I said.

  “What do you mean?”

  “I thought I saw him too,” I said, after a long, thoughtful pause. “In my room. While I was in the hospital.”

  “Well, you know what Julian would say,” said Francis. “There are such things as ghosts. People everywhere have always known that. And we believe in them every bit as much as Homer did. Only now, we call them by different names. Memory. The unconscious.”

  “Do you mind if we change the subject?” Camilla said, quite suddenly. “Please?”

  Camilla had to leave on Friday morning. Her grandmother wasn’t well, she said, she had to get back. I didn’t have to be back in California until the following week.

  As I stood with her on the platform—she impatient, tapping her foot, leaning forward to look down the tracks—it seemed more than I could bear to see her go. Francis was around the corner, buying her a book to read on the train.

  “I don’t want you to leave,” I said.

  “I don’t want to, either.”

  “Then don’t.”

  “I have to.”

  We stood looking at each other. It was raining. She looked at me with her rain-colored eyes.

  “Camilla, I love you,” I said. “Let’s get married.”

  She didn’t answer for the longest time. Finally she said: “Richard, you know I can’t do that.”

  “Why not?”

  “I can’t. I can’t just pick up and go to California. My grandmother is old. She can’t get around by herself anymore. She needs someone to look after her.”

  “So forget California. I’ll move back East.”

  “Richard, you can’t. What about your dissertation? School?”

  “I don’t care about school.”

  We looked at each other for a long time. Finally, she looked away.

  “You should see the way I live now, Richard,” she said. “My Nana’s in bad shape. It’s all I can do to take care of her, and that big house, too. I don’t have a single friend my own age. I can’t even remember the last time I read a book.”

  “I could help you.”

  “I don’t want you to help me.” She raised her head and looked at me: her gaze hit me hard and sweet as a shot of morphine.

  “I’ll get down on my knees if you want me to,” I said. “Really, I will.”

  She closed her eyes, dark-lidded, dark shadows beneath them; she really was older, not the glancing-eyed girl I had fallen in love with but no less beautiful for that; beautiful now in a way that less excited my senses, than tore at my very heart.

  “I can’t marry you,” she said.

  “Why not?”

  I thought she was going to say, Because I don’t love you, which probably would have been more or less the truth, but instead, to my surprise, she said: “Because I love Henry.”

  “Henry’s dead.”

  “I can’t help it. I still love him.”

  “I loved him, too,” I said.

  For just a moment, I thought I felt her waver. But then she looked away.

  “I know you did,” she said. “But it’s not enough.”

  The rain stayed with me all the way back to California. An abrupt departure, I knew, would be too much; if I was to leave the East at all, I could do so only gradually and so I rented a car, and drove and drove until finally the landscape changed, and I was in the Midwest, and the rain was all I had left of Camilla’s goodbye kiss. Raindrops on the windshield, radio stations fading in and out. Cornfields bleak in all those gray, wide-open reaches. I had said goodbye to her once before, but it took everything I had to say goodbye to her then, again, for the last time, like poor Orpheus turning for a last backward glance at the ghost of his only love and in the same heartbeat losing her forever: hinc illae lacrimae, hence those tears.

  I suppose nothing remains now but to tell you what happened, as far as I know, to the rest of the players in our story.

  Cloke Rayburn, amazingly, ended up going to law school. He is now an associate in mergers and acquisitions at Milbank Tweed in New York, where, interestingly, Hugh Corcoran was just made partner. Word is Hugh got him the job. This might or might not be true, but I tend to think it is, as Cloke almost certainly did not distinguish himself wherever it was that he happened to matriculate. He lives not far from Francis and Priscilla, on Lexington and Eighty-first (Francis, by the way, is supposed to have an incredible apartment; Priscilla’s dad, who’s in real estate, gave it to them for a wedding present) and Francis, who still has trouble sleeping, says he runs into him every now and then in the wee hours of the morning at the Korean deli where they both buy their cigarettes.

  Judy Poovey is now something of a minor celebrity. A certified Aerobics instructor, she appears regularly—with a bevy of other muscle-toned beauties—on an exercise program, “Power Moves!” on cable TV.

  After school, Frank and Jud went in together and bought the Farmer’s Inn, which has become the preferred Hampden hangout. Supposedly they’re doing a great business. They have a lot of old Hampdenians working for them, including Jack Teitelbaum and Rooney Wynne, according to a feature article not long ago in the alumni magazine.

  Somebody told me that Bram Guernsey was in the Green Berets, though I tend to think this is untrue.

  Georges Laforgue is still on the Literature and Languages faculty at Hampden, where his enemies have still not managed to supplant him.

  Dr. Roland is retired from active teaching. He lives in Hampden town, and has published a book of photographs of the college through the years, which has made him much sought-after as an after-dinner speaker at the various clubs in town. He was almost the cause of my not being admitted to graduate school by writing me a recommendation which—though it was a glowing one—repeatedly referred to me as “Jerry.”

  The feral cat that Charles found turned out, surprisingly, to be a rather good pet. He took up with Francis’s cousin Mildred over the summer and in the fall made the move with her to Boston, where he now lives, quite contentedly, in a ten-room apartment on Exeter Street under the name of “Princess.”

  Marion is married now, to Brady Corcoran. They live in Tarrytown, New York—an easy commute for Brady into the city—and the two of them have a baby now, a girl. She has the distinction of being the first female born into the Corcoran clan for no one even knows how many generations. According to Francis, Mr. Corcoran is absolutely wild about her, to the exclusion of all his other children, grandchildren, and pets. She was christened Mary Katherine, a name which has fallen more and more into disuse, as—for reasons best known to themselves—the Corcorans have chosen to give her the nickname “Bunny.”

  Sophie I hear from now and again. She injured her leg and was out of commission with the dance company for a while, but recently she was given a big role in a new piece. We go out to dinner sometimes. Mostly when she calls it’s late at night, and she wants to talk about her boyfriend problems. I like Sophie. I guess you could say she’s my best friend here. But somehow I never really forgave her for making me move back to this godforsaken place.

  I have not laid eyes on Julian since that last afternoon with Henry, in his office. Francis—with extraordinary difficulty—managed to get in touch with him a couple of days before Henry’s funeral. He said that Julian greeted him cordially; listened politely to the news of Henry’s demise; then said: “I appreciate it, Francis. But I’m afraid there’s really nothing more that I can do.”

  About a year ago Francis repeated to me a rumor—which we subsequently found was complete romance—that Julian had been appointed roya
l tutor to the little crown prince of Suaoriland, somewhere in East Africa. But this story, though false, took on a curious life in my imagination. What better fate for Julian than someday being the power behind the Suaori throne, than transforming his pupil into a philosopher-king? (The prince in the fiction was only eight. I wonder what I should be now if Julian had got hold of me when I was only eight years old.) I like to think that maybe he—as Aristotle did—would bring up a man who would conquer the world.

  But then, as Francis said, maybe not.

  I don’t know what happened to Agent Davenport—I expect he’s still living in Nashua, New Hampshire—but Detective Sciola is dead. He died of lung cancer maybe three years ago. I discovered this from a public service announcement that I saw late one night on television. It shows Sciola standing, gaunt and Dantesque, against a black backdrop. “By the time you see this announcement,” he says, “I will be dead.” He goes on to say that it wasn’t a career in law enforcement that killed him but two packs of cigarettes a day. I saw this about at three o’clock in the morning, alone in my apartment, on a black-and-white set with lots of interference. White noise and snow. He seemed to be speaking directly at me, right out of the television set. For a moment I was disoriented, seized by panic; could a ghost embody itself through wavelengths, electronic dots, a picture tube? What are the dead, anyway, but waves and energy? Light shining from a dead star?

  That, by the way, is a phrase of Julian’s. I remember it from a lecture of his on the Iliad, when Patroklos appears to Achilles in a dream. There is a very moving passage where Achilles–overjoyed at the sight of the apparition—tries to throw his arms around the ghost of his old friend, and it vanishes. The dead appear to us in dreams, said Julian, because that’s the only way they can make us see them; what we see is only a projection, beamed from a great distance, light shining at us from a dead star …

  Which reminds me, by the way, of a dream I had a couple of weeks ago.

  I found myself in a strange deserted city—an old city, like London—underpopulated by war or disease. It was night; the streets were dark, bombed-out, abandoned. For a long time, I wandered aimlessly—past ruined parks, blasted statuary, vacant lots overgrown with weeds and collapsed apartment houses with rusted girders poking out of their sides like ribs. But here and there, interspersed among the desolate shells of the heavy old public buildings, I began to see new buildings, too, which were connected by futuristic walkways lit from beneath. Long, cool perspectives of modern architecture, rising phosphorescent and eerie from the rubble.

 
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