The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  “Sorry. I forgot.”

  She looked at me critically. “You ought to loosen up. Look at your hands. You’re very tense.”

  “This is about as loose as I get,” I said, quite truthfully.

  She looked at me, and a light of recognition began to dawn in her eye. “I know who you are,” she said, looking at my jacket and my tie that had the pictures of the men hunting deer on it. “Judy told me all about you. You’re the new guy who’s studying Greek with those creepos.”

  “Judy? What do you mean, Judy told you about me?”

  She ignored this. “You had better watch out,” she said. “I have heard some weird shit about those people.”

  “Like what?”

  “Like they worship the fucking Devil.”

  “The Greeks have no Devil,” I said pedantically.

  “Well, that’s not what I heard.”

  “Well, so what. You’re wrong.”

  “That’s not all. I’ve heard some other stuff, too.”

  “What else?”

  She wouldn’t say.

  “Who told you this? Judy?”

  “No.”

  “Who, then?”

  “Seth Gartrell,” she said, as if that settled the matter.

  As it happened, I knew Gartrell. He was a bad painter and a vicious gossip, with a vocabulary composed almost entirely of obscenities, guttural verbs, and the word “postmodernist.” “That swine,” I said. “You know him?”

  She looked at me with a glitter of antagonism. “Seth Gartrell is my good friend.”

  I really had had a bit much to drink. “Is he?” I said. “Tell me, then. How does his girlfriend get all those black eyes? And does he really piss on his paintings like Jackson Pollock?”

  “Seth,” she said coldly, “is a genius.”

  “Is that so? Then he’s certainly a master of deception, isn’t he?”

  “He is a wonderful painter. Conceptually, that is. Everybody in the art department says so.”

  “Well then. If everybody says it, it must be true.”

  “A lot of people don’t like Seth.” She was angry now. “I think a lot of people are just jealous of him.”

  A hand tugged at the back of my sleeve, near the elbow. I shrugged it off. With my luck it could only be Judy Poovey, trying to hit up on me as she inevitably did about this time every Friday night. But the tug came again, this time sharper and more impatient; irritably I turned, and almost stumbled backward into the blonde.

  It was Camilla. Her iron-colored eyes were all I saw at first—luminous, bemused, bright in the dim light from the bar. “Hi,” she said.

  I stared at her. “Hello,” I said, trying to be nonchalant but delighted and beaming down at her all the same. “How are you? What are you doing here? Can I get you a drink?”

  “Are you busy?” she said.

  It was hard to think. The little gold hairs were curled in a very engaging way at her temples. “No, no, I’m not busy at all,” I said, looking not at her eyes but at this fascinating area around her forehead.

  “If you are, just say so,” she said in an undertone, looking over my shoulder. “I don’t want to drag you away from anything.”

  Of course: Miss Gaultier. I turned around, half-expecting some snide comment, but she’d lost interest and was talking pointedly to someone else. “No,” I said. “I’m not doing a thing.”

  “Do you want to go to the country this weekend?”

  “What?”

  “We’re leaving now. Francis and me. He has a house about an hour from here.”

  I was really drunk; otherwise I wouldn’t have just nodded and followed her without a single question. To get to the door, we had to make our way through the dance floor: sweat and heat, blinking Christmas lights, a dreadful crush of bodies. When finally we stepped outside, it was like falling into a pool of cool, still water. Shrieks and depraved music throbbed, muffled, through the closed windows.

  “My God,” said Camilla. “Those things are hellish. People being sick all over the place.”

  The pebbled drive was silver in the moonlight. Francis was standing in the shadows under some trees. When he saw us coming he stepped suddenly onto the lighted path. “Boo,” he said.

  We both jumped back. Francis smiled thinly, light glinting off his fraudulent pince-nez. Cigarette smoke curled from his nostrils. “Hello,” he said to me, then glanced at Camilla. “I thought you’d run off,” he said.

  “You should have come in with me.”

  “I’m glad I didn’t,” said Francis, “because I saw some interesting things out here.”

  “Like what?”

  “Like some security guards handing out a girl on a stretcher and a black dog attacking some hippies.” He laughed, then tossed his car keys in the air and caught them with a jingle. “Are you ready?”

  He had a convertible, an old Mustang, and we drove all the way to the country with the top down and the three of us in the front seat. Amazingly, I had never been in a convertible before, and it is even more amazing that I managed to fall asleep when both momentum and nerves should’ve kept me awake but I did, fell asleep with my cheek resting on the padded leather of the door, my sleepless week and the six vodka tonics hitting me hard as an injection.

  I remember little of the ride. Francis drove at a reasonable clip—he was a careful driver, unlike Henry, who drove fast and often recklessly and whose eyes were none too good besides. The night wind in my hair, their indistinct talk, the songs on the radio all mingled and blurred in my dreams. It seemed we’d been driving for only a few minutes when suddenly I was conscious of silence, and of Camilla’s hand on my shoulder. “Wake up,” she said. “We’re here.”

  Dazed, half dreaming, not quite sure where I was, I shook my head and inched up in my seat. There was drool on my cheek and I wiped it off with the flat of my hand.

  “Are you awake?”

  “Yes,” I said, though I wasn’t. It was dark and I couldn’t see a thing. My fingers finally closed on the door handle and only then, as I was climbing out of the car, the moon came out from behind a cloud and I saw the house. It was tremendous. I saw, in sharp, ink-black silhouette against the sky, turrets and pikes, a widow’s walk.

  “Geez,” I said.

  Francis was standing beside me, but I was scarcely aware of it till he spoke, and I was startled by the closeness of his voice. “You can’t get a very good idea of it at night,” he said.

  “This belongs to you?” I said.

  He laughed. “No. It’s my aunt’s. Way too big for her, but she won’t sell it. She and my cousins come in the summer, and only a caretaker the rest of the year.”

  The entrance hall had a sweet, musty smell and was so dim it seemed almost gaslit; the walls were spidery with the shadows of potted palms and on the ceilings, so high they made my head reel, loomed distorted traces of our own shadows. Someone in the back of the house was playing the piano. Photographs and gloomy, gilt-framed portraits lined the hall in long perspectives.

  “It smells terrible in here,” said Francis. “Tomorrow, if it’s warm, we’ll air it out, Bunny gets asthma from all this dust.… That’s my great-grandmother,” he said, pointing at a photograph which he saw had caught my attention. “And that’s her brother next to her—he went down on the Titanic, poor thing. They found his tennis racket floating around in the North Atlantic about three weeks afterward.”

  “Come see the library,” said Camilla.

  Francis close behind us, we went down the hall and through several rooms—a lemon-yellow sitting room with gilt mirrors and chandeliers, a dining room dark with mahogany, rooms I wanted to linger in but got only a glimpse of. The piano music got closer; it was Chopin, one of the preludes, maybe.

  Walking into the library, I took in my breath sharply and stopped: glass-fronted bookcases and Gothic panels, stretching fifteen feet to a frescoed and plaster-medallioned ceiling. In the back of the room was a marble fireplace, big as a sepulchre, and a globed gasolier—d
ripping with prisms and strings of crystal beading—sparkled in the dim.

  There was a grand piano, too, and Charles was playing, a glass of whiskey on the seat beside him. He was a little drunk; the Chopin was slurred and fluid, the notes melting sleepily into one another. A breeze stirred the heavy, moth-eaten velvet curtains, ruffling his hair.

  “Golly,” I said.

  The playing stopped abruptly and Charles looked up. “Well there you are,” he said. “You’re awfully late. Bunny’s gone to sleep.”

  “Where’s Henry?” said Francis.

  “Working. He might come down before bed.”

  Camilla went to the piano and took a sip from Charles’s glass. “You should have a look at these books,” she said to me. “There’s a first edition of Ivanhoe here.”

  “Actually, I think they sold that one,” said Francis, sitting in a leather armchair and lighting a cigarette. “There are one or two interesting things but mostly it’s Marie Corelli and old Rover Boys.”

  I walked over to the shelves. Something called London by somebody called Pennant, six volumes bound in red leather—massive books, two feet tall. Next to it The Club History of London, an equally massive set, bound in pale calfhide. The libretto of The Pirates of Penzance. Numberless Bobbsey Twins. Byron’s Marino Faliero, bound in black leather, with the date 1821 stamped in gold on the spine.

  “Here, go make your own drink if you want one,” Charles was saying to Camilla.

  “I don’t want my own. I want some of yours.”

  He gave her the glass with one hand and with the other, wobbled up a difficult backwards-and-forwards scale.

  “Play something,” I said.

  He rolled his eyes.

  “Oh, come on,” said Camilla.

  “No.”

  “Of course, he can’t really play anything,” Francis said in a sympathetic undertone.

  Charles took a swallow of his drink and ran up another octave, trilling nonsensically on the keys with his right hand. Then he handed the glass to Camilla and, left hand free, reached down and turned the fibrillation into the opening notes of a Scott Joplin rag.

  He played with relish, sleeves rolled up, smiling at his work, tinkling from the low ranges to the high with the tricky syncopation of a tap dancer going up a Ziegfeld staircase. Camilla, on the seat beside him, smiled at me. I smiled back, a little dazed. The ceilings had set off a ghostly echo, giving all that desperate hilarity the quality of a memory even as I sat listening to it, memories of things I’d never known.

  Charlestons on the wings of airborne biplanes. Parties on sinking ships, the icy water bubbling around the waists of the orchestra as they sawed out a last brave chorus of “Auld Lang Syne.” Actually, it wasn’t “Auld Lang Syne” they’d sung, the night the Titanic went down, but hymns. Lots of hymns, and the Catholic priest saying Hail Marys, and the first-class salon which had really looked a lot like this: dark wood, potted palms, rose silk lampshades with their swaying fringe. I really had had a bit much to drink. I was sitting sideways in my chair, holding tight to the arms (Holy Mary, Mother of God), and even the floors were listing, like the decks of a foundering ship; like we might all slide to the other end with a hysterical wheeee! piano and all.

  There were footsteps on the stair and Bunny, his eyes screwed up and his hair standing on end, tottered in wearing his pajamas. “What the hell,” he said. “You woke me up.” But nobody paid any attention to him, and finally he poured himself a drink and tottered back up the stairs with it, in his bare feet, to bed.

  The chronological sorting of memories is an interesting business. Prior to this first weekend in the country, my recollections of that fall are distant and blurry: from here on out, they come into a sharp, delightful focus. It is here that the stilted mannequins of my initial acquaintance begin to yawn and stretch and come to life. It was months before the gloss and mystery of newness, which kept me from seeing them with much objectivity, would wear entirely off—though their reality was far more interesting than any idealized version could possibly be—but it is here, in my memory, that they cease being totally foreign and begin to appear, for the first time, in shapes very like their bright old selves.

  I too appear as something of a stranger in these early memories: watchful and grudging, oddly silent. All my life, people have taken my shyness for sullenness, snobbery, bad temper of one sort or another. “Stop looking so superior!” my father sometimes used to shout at me when I was eating, watching television, or otherwise minding my own business. But this facial cast of mine (that’s what I think it is, really, a way my mouth has of turning down at the corners, it has little to do with my actual moods) has worked as often to my favor as to my disadvantage. Months after I got to know the five of them, I found to my surprise that at the start they’d been nearly as bewildered by me as I by them. It never occurred to me that my behavior could seem to them anything but awkward and provincial, certainly not that it would appear as enigmatic as it in fact did; why, they eventually asked me, hadn’t I told anyone anything about myself? Why had I gone to such lengths to avoid them? (Startled, I realized my trick of ducking into doorways wasn’t as clandestine as I’d thought.) And why hadn’t I returned any of their invitations? Though I had believed they were snubbing me, now I realize they were only waiting, politely as maiden aunts, for me to make the next move.

  At any rate, this was the weekend that things started to change, that the dark gaps between the street lamps begin to grow smaller, and smaller, and farther apart, the first sign that one’s train is approaching familiar territory, and will soon be passing through the well-known, well-lighted streets of town. The house was their trump card, their fondest treasure, and that weekend they revealed it to me slyly, by degrees—the dizzy little turret rooms, the high-beamed attic, the old sleigh in the cellar, big enough to be pulled by four horses, astring with bells. The carriage barn was a caretaker’s house. (“That’s Mrs. Hatch in the yard. She’s very sweet but her husband is a Seventh-Day Adventist or something, quite strict. We have to hide all the bottles when he comes inside.”

  “Or what?”

  “Or he’ll get depressed and start leaving little tracts all over the place.”)

  In the afternoon we wandered down to the lake, which was shared, discreetly, by several adjoining properties. On the way they pointed out the tennis court and the old summerhouse, a mock tholos, Doric by way of Pompeii, and Stanford White, and (said Francis, who was scornful of this Victorian effort at classicism) D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. De Mille. It was made of plaster, he said, and had come in pieces from Sears, Roebuck. The grounds, in places, bore signs of the geometric Victorian trimness which had been their original form: drained fish-pools; the long white colonnades of skeleton pergolas; rock-bordered parterres where flowers no longer grew. But for the most part, these traces were obliterated, with the hedges running wild and native trees—slippery elm and tamarack—outnumbering the quince and Japanese maple.

  The lake, surrounded by birches, was bright and very still. Huddled in the rushes was a small wooden rowboat, painted white on the outside and blue within.

  “Can we take it out?” I said, intrigued.

  “Of course. But we can’t all go, we’ll sink.”

  I had never been in a boat in my life. Henry and Camilla went out with me—Henry at the oars, his sleeves rolled to the elbow and his dark jacket on the seat beside him. He had a habit, as I was later to discover, of trailing off into absorbed, didactic, entirely self-contained monologues, about whatever he happened to be interested in at the time—the Catuvellauni, or late Byzantine painting, or headhunting in the Solomon Islands. That day he was talking about Elizabeth and Leicester, I remember: the murdered wife, the royal barge, the queen on a white horse talking to the troops at Tilbury Fort, and Leicester and the Earl of Essex holding the bridle rein.… The swish of the oars and the hypnotic thrum of dragonflies blended with his academic monotone. Camilla, flushed and sleepy, trailed her hand in the water. Yellow birch
leaves blew from the trees and drifted down to rest on the surface. It was many years later, and far away, when I came across this passage in The Waste-Land:

  Elizabeth and Leicester

  Beating oars

  The stern was formed

  A gilded shell

  Red and gold

  The brisk swell

  Rippled both shores

  Southwest wind

  Carried down stream

  The peal of bells

  White towers

  Weialala leia

  Wallala leilala

  We went to the other side of the lake and returned, half-blinded by the light on the water, to find Bunny and Charles on the front porch, eating ham sandwiches and playing cards.

  “Have some champagne, quick,” Bunny said. “It’s going flat.”

  “Where is it?”

  “In the teapot.”

  “Mr. Hatch would be beside himself if he saw a bottle on the porch,” said Charles.

  They were playing Go Fish: it was the only card game that Bunny knew.

  On Sunday I woke early to a quiet house. Francis had given my clothes to Mrs. Hatch to be laundered; putting on a bathrobe he’d lent me, I went downstairs to sit on the porch for a few minutes before the others woke up.

  Outside, it was cool and still, the sky that hazy shade of white peculiar to autumn mornings, and the wicker chairs were drenched with dew. The hedges and the acres and acres of lawn were covered in a network of spider web that caught the dew in beads so that it glistened white as frost. Preparing for their journey south, the martins flapped and fretted in the eaves, and, from the blanket of mist hovering over the lake, I heard the harsh, lonely cry of the mallards.

  “Good morning,” a cool voice behind me said.

  Startled, I turned to see Henry sitting at the other end of the porch. He was without a jacket but otherwise immaculate for such an ungodly hour: trousers knife-pressed, his white shirt crisp with starch. On the table in front of him were books and papers, a steaming espresso pot and a tiny cup, and—I was surprised to see—an unfiltered cigarette burning in an ashtray.

 
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