The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  “Yep,” said Bunny proudly, running his finger along the edge of his glass. “She’s my gal. Keeps me in line, I can tell you.”

  This time, caught in mid-swallow, I laughed so hard I was close to choking.

  “And she’s an elementary-education major, too, don’t you love it?” he said. “I mean, she’s a real girl.” He drew his hands apart, as if to indicate a sizable space between them. “Long hair, got a little meat on her bones, isn’t afraid to wear a dress. I like that. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t care much for the brainy ones. Take Camilla. She’s fun, and a good guy and all—”

  “Come on,” I said, still laughing. “She’s really pretty.”

  “That she is, that she is,” he agreed, holding up a conciliatory palm. “Lovely girl. I’ve always said so. Looks just like a statue of Diana in my father’s club. All she lacks is a mother’s firm hand, but still, for my money, she’s what you call a bramble rose, as opposed to your hybrid tea. Doesn’t take the pains she ought, you know. And runs around half the time in her brother’s sloppy old clothes, which maybe some girls could get away with—well, frankly I don’t think any girls can really get away with it, but she certainly can’t. Looks too much like her brother. I mean to say, Charles is a handsome fellow and a sterling character all around, but I wouldn’t want to marry him, would I?”

  He was on a roll and was about to say something else; but then, quite suddenly, he stopped, his face souring as if something unpleasant had occurred to him. I was puzzled, yet a little amused; was he afraid he’d said too much, afraid of seeming foolish? I was trying to think of a quick change of subject, to let him off the hook, but then he shifted in his chair and squinted across the room.

  “Look there,” he said. “Think that’s us? It’s about time.”

  Despite the vast amount we ate that afternoon—soups, lobsters, pâtés, mousses, an array appalling in variety and amount—we drank even more, three bottles of Taittinger on top of the cocktails, and brandy on top of that, so that, gradually, our table became the sole hub of convergence in the room, around which objects spun and blurred at a dizzying velocity. I kept drinking from glasses which kept appearing as if by magic, Bunny proposing toasts to everything from Hampden College to Benjamin Jowett to Periclean Athens, and the toasts becoming purpler and purpler as time wore on until, by the time the coffee arrived, it was getting dark. Bunny was so drunk by then he asked the waiter to bring us two cigars, which he did, along with the check, face down, on a little tray.

  The dim room was whirling at what was now an incredible rate of speed, and the cigar, so far from helping that, made me see as well a series of luminous spots that were dark around the edges, and reminded me unpleasantly of those horrible one-celled creatures that I used to have to blink at through a microscope till my head swam. I put it out in the ashtray, or what I thought was the ashtray but was in fact my dessert plate. Bunny took off his gold-rimmed spectacles, unhooking them carefully from behind each ear, and began to polish them with a napkin. Without them, his eyes were small and weak and amiable, watery with smoke, crinkled at the edges with laughter.

  “Ah. That was some lunch, wasn’t it, old man?” he said around the cigar clamped in his teeth, holding the glasses to the light to inspect them for dust. He looked like a very young Teddy Roosevelt, sans moustache, about to lead the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill or go out and track a wildebeest or something.

  “It was wonderful. Thanks.”

  He blew out a ponderous cloud of blue, foul-smelling smoke. “Great food, good company, lotsa drinks, couldn’t ask for much more, could we? What’s that song?”

  “What song?”

  “I want my dinner,” sang Bunny, “and conversation, and … something, dum-te-dum.”

  “Don’t know.”

  “I don’t know, either. Ethel Merman sings it.”

  The light was growing dimmer and, as I struggled to focus on objects outside our immediate area, I saw the place was empty except for us. In a distant corner hovered a pale shape which I believed to be our waiter, a being obscure, faintly supernatural in aspect, yet without that preoccupied air which shadows are said to possess: we were the sole focus of its attention; I felt it concentrating towards us its rays of spectral hate.

  “Uh,” I said, shifting in my chair with a movement that almost made me lose my balance, “maybe we should go.”

  Bunny waved his hand magnanimously and turned over the check, rummaging in a pocket as he studied it. In a moment he looked up and smiled. “I say, old horse.”

  “Yes?”

  “Hate to do this to you, but why don’t you stand me lunch this time.”

  I raised a drunken eyebrow and laughed. “I don’t have a cent on me.”

  “Neither do I,” he said. “Funny thing. Seem to have left my wallet at home.”

  “Oh, come on. You’re joking.”

  “Not at all,” he said lightly. “Haven’t a dime. I’d turn out my pockets for you, but Twinkletoes’d see.”

  I became aware of our malevolent waiter, lurking in the shadows, no doubt listening to this exchange with interest. “How much is it?” I said.

  He ran an unsteady finger down the column of figures. “Comes to two hundred and eighty-seven dollars and fifty-nine cents,” he said. “That’s without tip.”

  I was stunned at this amount, and baffled at his lack of concern. “That’s a lot.”

  “All that booze, you know.”

  “What are we going to do?”

  “Can’t you write a check or something?” he said casually.

  “I don’t have any checks.”

  “Then put it on your card.”

  “I don’t have a card.”

  “Oh, come on.”

  “I don’t,” I said, growing more irritated by the second.

  Bunny pushed back his chair and stood up and looked around the restaurant with a studied carelessness, like a detective cruising a hotel lobby, and for one wild moment I thought he was going to make a dash for it. Then he clapped me on the shoulder. “Sit tight, old man,” he whispered. “I’m going to make a phone call.” And then he was off, his fists in his pockets, the white of his socks flashing in the dim.

  He was gone a long time. I was wondering if he was going to come back at all, if he hadn’t just crawled out a window and left me to foot the bill, when finally a door shut somewhere and he sauntered back across the room.

  “Worry not, worry not,” he said as he slid into his chair. “All’s well.”

  “What’d you do?’

  “Called Henry.”

  “He’s coming?”

  “In two shakes.”

  “Is he mad?”

  “Naw,” said Bunny, brushing off this thought with a slight flick of the hand. “Happy to do it. Between you and me, I think he’s damned glad to get out of the house.”

  After maybe ten extremely uncomfortable minutes, during which we pretended to sip at the dregs of our ice-cold coffee, Henry walked in, a book beneath his arm.

  “See?” whispered Bunny. “Knew he’d come. Oh, hello,” he said, as Henry approached the table. “Boy am I glad to see—”

  “Where’s the check,” said Henry, in a toneless and deadly voice.

  “Here you are, old pal,” said Bunny, fumbling among the cups and glasses. “Thanks a million. I really owe you—”

  “Hello,” said Henry coldly, turning to me.

  “Hello.”

  “How are you?” He was like a robot.

  “Fine.”

  “That’s good.”

  “Here you go, old top,” said Bunny, producing the check.

  Henry looked hard at the total, his face motionless.

  “Well,” said Bunny chummily, his voice booming in the tense silence, “I’d apologize for dragging you away from your book if you hadn’t brought it with you. What you got there? Any good?”

  Without a word, Henry handed it to him. The lettering on the front was in some Oriental language. Bunny stared at
it for a moment, then gave it back. “That’s nice,” he said faintly.

  “Are you ready to go?” Henry said abruptly.

  “Sure, sure,” said Bunny hastily, leaping up and nearly knocking over the table. “Say the word. Undele, undele. Any time you want.”

  Henry paid the check while Bunny hung behind him like a bad child. The ride home was excruciating. Bunny, in the back seat, kept up a sally of brilliant but doomed attempts at conversation, which one by one flared and sank, while Henry kept his eyes on the road and I sat in the front beside him, fidgeting with the built-in ashtray, snapping it in and out till finally I realized how irritating this was and forced myself, with difficulty, to stop.

  He stopped at Bunny’s first. Bellowing a chain of incoherent pleasantries, Bunny slapped me on the shoulder and leaped out of the car. “Yes, well, Henry, Richard, here we are. Lovely. Fine. Thank you so much—beautiful lunch—well, toodle-oo, yes, yes, goodbye—” The door slammed and he shot up the walk at a rapid clip.

  Once he was inside, Henry turned to me. “I’m very sorry,” he said.

  “Oh, no, please,” I said, embarrassed. “Just a mix-up. I’ll pay you back.”

  He ran a hand through his hair and I was surprised to see it was trembling. “I wouldn’t dream of such a thing,” he said curtly. “It’s his fault.”

  “But—”

  “He told you he was taking you out. Didn’t he?”

  His voice had a slightly accusatory note. “Well, yes,” I said.

  “And just happened to leave his wallet at home.”

  “It’s all right.”

  “It’s not all right,” Henry snapped. “It’s a terrible trick. How were you to know? He takes it on faith that whoever he’s with can produce tremendous sums at a moment’s notice. He never thinks about these things, you know, how awkward it is for everyone. Besides, what if I hadn’t been at home?”

  “I’m sure he really just forgot.”

  “You took a taxi there,” said Henry shortly. “Who paid for that?”

  Automatically I started to protest, and then stopped cold. Bunny had paid for the taxi. He’d even made sort of a big deal of it.

  “You see,” said Henry. “He’s not even very clever about it, is he? It’s bad enough he does it to anyone but I must say I never thought he’d have the nerve to try it on a perfect stranger.”

  I didn’t know what to say. We drove to the front of Monmouth in silence.

  “Here you are,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

  “It’s fine, really. Thank you, Henry.”

  “Good night, then.”

  I stood under the porch light and watched him drive away. Then I went inside and up to my room, where I collapsed on my bed in a drunken stupor.

  “We heard all about your lunch with Bunny,” said Charles.

  I laughed. It was late the next afternoon, a Sunday, and I’d been at my desk nearly all day reading the Parmenides. The Greek was rough going but I had a hangover, too, and I’d been at it so long that the letters didn’t even look like letters but something else, indecipherable, bird footprints on sand. I was staring out the window in a sort of trance, at the meadow cropped close like bright green velvet and billowing into carpeted hills at the horizon, when I saw the twins, far below, gliding like a pair of ghosts on the lawn.

  I leaned out the window and called to them. They stopped and turned, hands shading brows, eyes screwed up against the evening glare. “Hello,” they called, and their voices, faint and ragged, were almost one voice floating up to me. “Come down.”

  So now we were walking in the grove behind the college, down by the scrubby little pine forest at the base of the mountains, with one of them on either side of me.

  They looked particularly angelic, their blond hair wind-blown, both in white tennis sweaters and tennis shoes. I wasn’t sure why they’d asked me down. Though polite enough, they seemed wary and slightly puzzled, as if I were from some country with unfamiliar, eccentric customs, which made it necessary for them to take great caution in order not to startle or offend.

  “How’d you hear about it?” I said. “The lunch?”

  “Bun called this morning. And Henry told us about it last night.”

  “I think he was pretty mad.”

  Charles shrugged. “Mad at Bunny, maybe. Not at you.”

  “They don’t care for each other, do they?”

  They seemed astonished to hear this.

  “They’re old friends,” said Camilla.

  “Best friends, I would say,” said Charles. “At one time you never saw them apart.”

  “They seem to argue quite a bit.”

  “Well, of course,” said Camilla, “but that doesn’t mean they’re not fond of each other all the same. Henry’s so serious and Bun’s so sort of—well, not serious—that they really get along quite well.”

  “Yes,” said Charles. “L’Allegro and Il Penseroso. A well-matched pair. I think Bunny’s about the only person in the world who can make Henry laugh.” He stopped suddenly and pointed into the distance. “Have you ever been down there?” he said. “There’s a graveyard on that hill.”

  I could see it, just barely, through the pines—a flat, straggled line of tombstones, rickety and carious, skewed at such angles that they gave a hectic, uncanny effect of motion, as if some hysterical force, a poltergeist perhaps, had scattered them only moments before.

  “It’s old,” said Camilla. “From the 1700s. There was a town there too, a church and a mill. Nothing left but foundations, but you can still see the gardens they planted. Pippin apples and wintersweet, moss roses growing where the houses were. God knows what happened up there. An epidemic, maybe. Or a fire.”

  “Or the Mohawks,” said Charles. “You’ll have to go see it sometime. The cemetery especially.”

  “It’s pretty. Especially in the snow.”

  The sun was low, burning gold through the trees, casting our shadows before us on the ground, long and distorted. We walked for a long time without saying anything. The air was musty with far-off bonfires, sharp with the edge of a twilight chill. There was no noise but the crunch of our shoes on the gravel path, the whistle of wind in the pines; I was sleepy and my head hurt and there was something not quite real about any of it, something like a dream. I felt that at any second I might start, my head on a pile of books at my desk, and find myself in a darkening room, alone.

  Suddenly Camilla stopped and put a finger to her lips. In a dead tree, split in two by lightning, were perched three huge, black birds, too big for crows. I had never seen anything like them before.

  “Ravens,” said Charles.

  We stood stock-still, watching them. One of them hopped clumsily to the end of a branch, which squeaked and bobbed under its weight and sent it squawking into the air. The other two followed, with a battery of flaps. They sailed over the meadow in a triangle formation, three dark shadows on the grass.

  Charles laughed. “Three of them for three of us. That’s an augury, I bet.”

  “An omen.”

  “Of what?” I said.

  “Don’t know,” said Charles. “Henry’s the ornithomantist. The bird-diviner.”

  “He’s such an old Roman. He’d know.”

  We had turned towards home and, at the top of a rise, I saw the gables of Monmouth House, bleak in the distance. The sky was cold and empty. A sliver of moon, like the white crescent of a thumbnail, floated in the dim. I was unused to those dreary autumn twilights, to chill and early dark; the nights fell too quickly and the hush that settled on the meadow in the evening filled me with a strange, tremulous sadness. Gloomily, I thought of Monmouth House: empty corridors, old gas-jets, the key turning in the lock of my room.

  “Well, see you later,” Charles said, at the front door of Monmouth, his face pale in the glow of the porch lamp.

  Off in the distance, I saw the lights in the dining hall, across Commons; could see dark silhouettes moving past the windows.

  “It was fun,” I sa
id, digging my hands in my pockets. “Want to come have dinner with me?”

  “Afraid not. We ought to be getting home.”

  “Oh, well,” I said, disappointed but relieved. “Some other time.”

  “Well, you know …?” said Camilla, turning to Charles.

  He furrowed his eyebrows. “Hmnn,” he said. “You’re right.”

  “Come have dinner at our house,” said Camilla, turning impulsively back to me.

  “Oh, no,” I said quickly.

  “Please.”

  “No, but thanks. It’s all right, really.”

  “Oh, come on,” said Charles graciously. “We’re not having anything very good but we’d like you to come.”

  I felt a rush of gratitude towards him. I did want to go, rather a lot. “If you’re sure it’s no trouble,” I said.

  “No trouble at all,” said Camilla. “Let’s go.”

  Charles and Camilla rented a furnished apartment on the third floor of a house in North Hampden. Stepping inside, one found oneself in a small living room with slanted walls and dormer windows. The armchairs and the lumpy sofa were upholstered in dusty brocades, threadbare at the arms: rose patterns on tan, acorns and oak leaves on mossy green. Everywhere were tattered doilies, dark with age. On the mantel of the fireplace (which I later discovered was inoperable) glittered a pair of lead-glass candelabra and a few pieces of tarnished silver plate.

  Though not untidy, exactly, it verged on being so. Books were stacked on every available surface; the tables were cluttered with papers, ashtrays, bottles of whiskey, boxes of chocolates; umbrellas and galoshes made passage difficult in the narrow hall. In Charles’s room clothes were scattered on the rug and a rich confusion of ties hung from the door of the wardrobe; Camilla’s night table was littered with empty teacups, leaky pens, dead marigolds in a water glass, and on the foot of her bed was laid a half-played game of solitaire. The layout of the place was peculiar, with unexpected windows and halls that led nowhere and low doors I had to duck to get through, and everywhere I looked was some fresh oddity: an old stereopticon (the palmy avenues of a ghostly Nice, receding in the sepia distance); arrowheads in a dusty case; a staghorn fern; a bird’s skeleton.

 
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