The Secret History, Page 2Donna Tartt
The months subsequent were an endless dreary battle of paperwork, full of stalemates, fought in trenches. My father refused to complete the financial aid papers; finally, in desperation, I stole the tax returns from the glove compartment of his Toyota and did them myself. More waiting. Then a note from the Dean of Admissions. An interview was required, and when could I fly to Vermont? I could not afford to fly to Vermont, and I wrote and told him so. Another wait, another letter. The college would reimburse me for my travel expenses if their scholarship offer was accepted. Meanwhile the financial aid packet had come in. My family’s contribution was more than my father said he could afford and he would not pay it. This sort of guerrilla warfare dragged on for eight months. Even today I do not fully understand the chain of events that brought me to Hampden. Sympathetic professors wrote letters; exceptions of various sorts were made in my case. And less than a year after I’d sat down on the gold shag carpet of my little room in Plano and impulsively filled out the questionnaire, I was getting off the bus in Hampden with two suitcases and fifty dollars in my pocket.
I had never been east of Santa Fe, never north of Portland, and—when I stepped off the bus after a long anxious night that had begun somewhere in Illinois—it was six o’clock in the morning, and the sun was rising over mountains, and birches, and impossibly green meadows; and to me, dazed with night and no sleep and three days on the highway, it was like a country from a dream.
The dormitories weren’t even dorms—or at any rate not like the dorms I knew, with cinderblock walls and depressing, yellowish light—but white clapboard houses with green shutters, set back from the Commons in groves of maple and ash. All the same it never occurred to me that my particular room, wherever it might be, would be anything but ugly and disappointing and it was with something of a shock that I saw it for the first time—a white room with big north-facing windows, monkish and bare, with scarred oak floors and a ceiling slanted like a garret’s. On my first night there, I sat on the bed during the twilight while the walls went slowly from gray to gold to black, listening to a soprano’s voice climb dizzily up and down somewhere at the other end of the hall until at last the light was completely gone, and the faraway soprano spiraled on and on in the darkness like some angel of death, and I can’t remember the air ever seeming as high and cold and rarefied as it was that night, or ever feeling farther away from the low-slung lines of dusty Plano.
Those first days before classes started I spent alone in my whitewashed room, in the bright meadows of Hampden. And I was happy in those first days as really I’d never been before, roaming like a sleepwalker, stunned and drunk with beauty. A group of red-cheeked girls playing soccer, ponytails flying, their shouts and laughter carrying faintly over the velvety, twilit field. Trees creaking with apples, fallen apples red on the grass beneath, the heavy sweet smell of apples rotting on the ground and the steady thrumming of wasps around them. Commons clock tower: ivied brick, white spire, spellbound in the hazy distance. The shock of first seeing a birch tree at night, rising up in the dark as cool and slim as a ghost. And the nights, bigger than imagining: black and gusty and enormous, disordered and wild with stars.
I was planning to sign up for Greek again, as it was the only language at which I was at all proficient. But when I told this to the academic counselor to whom I had been assigned—a French teacher named Georges Laforgue, with olive skin and a pinched, long-nostriled nose like a turtle’s—he only smiled, and pressed the tips of his fingers together. “I am afraid there may be a problem,” he said, in accented English.
“There is only one teacher of ancient Greek here and he is very particular about his students.”
“I’ve studied Greek for two years.”
“That probably will not make any difference. Besides, if you are going to major in English literature you will need a modern language. There is still space left in my Elementary French class and some room in German and Italian. The Spanish—” he consulted his list—“the Spanish classes are for the most part filled but if you like I will have a word with Mr. Delgado.”
“Maybe you could speak to the Greek teacher instead.”
“I don’t know if it would do any good. He accepts only a limited number of students. A very limited number. Besides, in my opinion, he conducts the selection on a personal rather than academic basis.”
His voice bore a hint of sarcasm; also a suggestion that, if it was all the same to me, he would prefer not to continue this particular conversation.
“I don’t know what you mean,” I said.
Actually, I thought I did know. Laforgue’s answer surprised me. “It’s nothing like that,” he said. “Of course he is a distinguished scholar. He happens to be quite charming as well. But he has what I think are some very odd ideas about teaching. He and his students have virtually no contact with the rest of the division. I don’t know why they continue to list his courses in the general catalogue—it’s misleading, every year there is confusion about it—because, practically speaking, the classes are closed. I am told that to study with him one must have read the right things, hold similar views. It has happened repeatedly that he has turned away students such as yourself who have done prior work in classics. With me”—he lifted an eyebrow—“if the student wants to learn what I teach and is qualified, I allow him in my classes. Very democratic, no? It is the best way.”
“Does that sort of thing happen often here?”
“Of course. There are difficult teachers at every school. And plenty—” to my surprise, he lowered his voice—“and plenty here who are far more difficult than him. Though I must ask that you do not quote me on that.”
“I won’t,” I said, a bit startled by this sudden confidential manner.
“Really, it is quite essential that you don’t.” He was leaning forward, whispering, his tiny mouth scarcely moving as he spoke. “I must insist. Perhaps you are not aware of this but I have several formidable enemies in the Literature Division. Even, though you may scarcely believe it, here in my own department. Besides,” he continued in a more normal tone, “he is a special case. He has taught here for many years and even refuses payment for his work.”
“He is a wealthy man. He donates his salary to the college, though he accepts, I think, one dollar a year for tax purposes.”
“Oh,” I said. Even though I had been at Hampden only a few days, I was already accustomed to the official accounts of financial hardship, of limited endowment, of corners cut.
“Now me,” said Laforgue, “I like to teach well enough, but I have a wife and a daughter in school in France—the money comes in handy, yes?”
“Maybe I’ll talk to him anyway.”
Laforgue shrugged. “You can try. But I advise you not to make an appointment, or probably he will not see you. His name is Julian Morrow.”
I had not been particularly bent on taking Greek, but what Laforgue said intrigued me. I went downstairs and walked into the first office I saw. A thin, sour-looking woman with tired blond hair was sitting at the desk in the front room, eating a sandwich.
“It’s my lunch hour,” she said. “Come back at two.”
“I’m sorry. I’m just looking for a teacher’s office.”
“Well, I’m the registrar, not the switchboard. But I might know. Who is it?”
“Oh, him,” she said, surprised. “What do you want with him? He’s upstairs, I think, in the Lyceum.”
“Only teacher up there. Likes his peace and quiet. You’ll find him.”
Actually, finding the Lyceum wasn’t easy at all. It was a small building on the edge of campus, old and covered with ivy in such a manner as to be almost indistinguishable from its landscape. Downstairs were lecture halls and classrooms, all of them empty, with clean blackboards and freshly waxed floors. I wandered around helplessly until finally I noticed the staircase—small and badly lit—in the
far corner of the building.
Once at the top I found myself in a long, deserted hallway. Enjoying the noise of my shoes on the linoleum, I walked along briskly, looking at the closed doors for numbers or names until I came to one that had a brass card holder and, within it, an engraved card that read JULIAN MORROW. I stood there for a moment and then I knocked, three short raps.
A minute or so passed, and another, and then the white door opened just a crack. A face looked out at me. It was a small, wise face, as alert and poised as a question; and though certain features of it were suggestive of youth—the elfin upsweep of the eyebrows, the deft lines of nose and jaw and mouth—it was by no means a young face, and the hair was snow white.
I stood there for a moment as he blinked at me.
“How may I help you?” The voice was reasonable and kind, in the way that pleasant adults sometimes have with children.
“I—well, my name is Richard Papen—”
He put his head to the side and blinked again, bright-eyed, amiable as a sparrow.
“—and I want to take your class in ancient Greek.”
His face fell. “Oh. I’m sorry.” His tone of voice, incredibly enough, seemed to suggest that he really was sorry, sorrier than I was. “I can’t think of anything I’d like better, but I’m afraid there isn’t any room. My class is already filled.”
Something about this apparently sincere regret gave me courage. “Surely there must be some way,” I said. “One extra student—”
“I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Papen,” he said, almost as if he were consoling me on the death of a beloved friend, trying to make me understand that he was powerless to help me in any substantial way. “But I have limited myself to five students and I cannot even think of adding another.”
“Five students is not very many.”
He shook his head quickly, eyes shut, as if entreaty were more than he could bear.
“Really, I’d love to have you, but I mustn’t even consider it,” he said. “I’m terribly sorry. Will you excuse me now? I have a student with me.”
More than a week went by. I started my classes and got a job with a professor of psychology named Dr. Roland. (I was to assist him in some vague “research,” the nature of which I never discovered; he was an old, dazed, disordered-looking fellow, a behavioralist, who spent most of his time loitering in the teachers’ lounge.) And I made some friends, most of them freshmen who lived in my house. Friends is perhaps an inaccurate word to use. We ate our meals together, saw each other coming and going, but mainly were thrown together by the fact that none of us knew anybody—a situation which, at the time, did not seem necessarily unpleasant. Among the few people I had met who’d been at Hampden awhile, I asked what the story was with Julian Morrow.
Nearly everyone had heard of him, and I was given all sorts of contradictory but fascinating information: that he was a brilliant man; that he was a fraud; that he had no college degree; that he had been a great intellectual in the forties, and a friend to Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot; that his family money had come from a partnership in a white-shoe banking firm or, conversely, from the purchase of foreclosed property during the Depression; that he had dodged the draft in some war (though chronologically this was difficult to compute); that he had ties with the Vatican; a deposed royal family in the Middle East; Franco’s Spain. The degree of truth in any of this was, of course, unknowable but the more I heard about him, the more interested I became, and I began to watch for him and his little group of pupils around campus. Four boys and a girl, they were nothing so unusual at a distance. At close range, though, they were an arresting party—at least to me, who had never seen anything like them, and to whom they suggested a variety of picturesque and fictive qualities.
Two of the boys wore glasses, curiously enough the same kind: tiny, old-fashioned, with round steel rims. The larger of the two—and he was quite large, well over six feet—was dark-haired, with a square jaw and coarse, pale skin. He might have been handsome had his features been less set, or his eyes, behind the glasses, less expressionless and blank. He wore dark English suits and carried an umbrella (a bizarre sight in Hampden) and he walked stiffly through the throngs of hippies and beatniks and preppies and punks with the self-conscious formality of an old ballerina, surprising in one so large as he. “Henry Winter,” said my friends when I pointed him out, at a distance, making a wide circle to avoid a group of bongo players on the lawn.
The smaller of the two—but not by much—was a sloppy blond boy, rosy-cheeked and gum-chewing, with a relentlessly cheery demeanor and his fists thrust deep in the pockets of his knee-sprung trousers. He wore the same jacket every day, a shapeless brown tweed that was frayed at the elbows and short in the sleeves, and his sandy hair was parted on the left, so a long forelock fell over one bespectacled eye. Bunny Corcoran was his name, Bunny being somehow short for Edmund. His voice was loud and honking, and carried in the dining halls.
The third boy was the most exotic of the set. Angular and elegant, he was precariously thin, with nervous hands and a shrewd albino face and a short, fiery mop of the reddest hair I had ever seen. I thought (erroneously) that he dressed like Alfred Douglas, or the Comte de Montesquiou: beautiful starchy shirts with French cuffs; magnificent neckties; a black greatcoat that billowed behind him as he walked and made him look like a cross between a student prince and Jack the Ripper. Once, to my delight, I even saw him wearing pince-nez. (Later, I discovered that they weren’t real pince-nez, but only had glass in them, and that his eyes were a good deal sharper than my own.) Francis Abernathy was his name. Further inquiries elicited suspicion from male acquaintances, who wondered at my interest in such a person.
And then there were a pair, boy and girl. I saw them together a great deal, and at first I thought they were boyfriend and girlfriend, until one day I saw them up close and realized they had to be siblings. Later I learned they were twins. They looked very much alike, with heavy dark-blond hair and epicene faces as clear, as cheerful and grave, as a couple of Flemish angels. And perhaps most unusual in the context of Hampden—where pseudo-intellects and teenage decadents abounded, and where black clothing was de rigueur—they liked to wear pale clothes, particularly white. In this swarm of cigarettes and dark sophistication they appeared here and there like figures from an allegory, or long-dead celebrants from some forgotten garden party. It was easy to find out who they were, as they shared the distinction of being the only twins on campus. Their names were Charles and Camilla Macaulay.
All of them, to me, seemed highly unapproachable. But I watched them with interest whenever I happened to see them: Francis, stooping to talk to a cat on a doorstep; Henry dashing past at the wheel of a little white car, with Julian in the passenger’s seat; Bunny leaning out of an upstairs window to yell something at the twins on the lawn below. Slowly, more information came my way. Francis Abernathy was from Boston and, from most accounts, quite wealthy. Henry, too, was said to be wealthy; what’s more, he was a linguistic genius. He spoke a number of languages, ancient and modern, and had published a translation of Anacreon, with commentary, when he was only eighteen. (I found this out from Georges Laforgue, who was otherwise sour and reticent on the topic; later I discovered that Henry, during his freshman year, had embarrassed Laforgue badly in front of the entire literature faculty during the question-and-answer period of his annual lecture on Racine.) The twins had an apartment off campus, and were from somewhere down south. And Bunny Corcoran had a habit of playing John Philip Sousa march tunes in his room, at full volume, late at night.
Not to imply that I was overly preoccupied with any of this. I was settling in at school by this time; classes had begun and I was busy with my work. My interest in Julian Morrow and his Greek pupils, though still keen, was starting to wane when a curious coincidence happened.
It happened the Wednesday morning of my second week, when I was in the library making some Xeroxes for Dr. Roland before my eleven o’clock class. After about thirty minutes, spots of
light swimming in front of my eyes, I went back to the front desk to give the Xerox key to the librarian and as I turned to leave I saw them, Bunny and the twins, sitting at a table that was spread with papers and pens and bottles of ink. The bottles of ink I remember particularly, because I was very charmed by them, and by the long black straight pens, which looked incredibly archaic and troublesome. Charles was wearing a white tennis sweater, and Camilla a sun dress with a sailor collar, and a straw hat. Bunny’s tweed jacket was slung across the back of his chair, exposing several large rips and stains in the lining. He was leaning his elbows on the table, hair in eyes, his rumpled shirtsleeves held up with striped garters. Their heads were close together and they were talking quietly.
I suddenly wanted to know what they were saying. I went to the bookshelf behind their table—the long way, as if I wasn’t sure what I was looking for—all the way down until I was so close I could’ve reached out and touched Bunny’s arm. My back to them, I picked a book at random—a ridiculous sociological text, as it happened—and pretended to study the index. Secondary Analysis. Secondary Deviance. Secondary Groups. Secondary Schools.
“I don’t know about that,” Camilla was saying. “If the Greeks are sailing to Carthage, it should be accusative. Remember? Place whither? That’s the rule.”
“Can’t be.” This was Bunny. His voice was nasal, garrulous, W. C. Fields with a bad case of Long Island lockjaw. “It’s not place whither, it’s place to. I put my money on the ablative case.”
There was a confused rattling of papers.
“Wait,” said Charles. His voice was a lot like his sister’s—hoarse, slightly southern. “Look at this. They’re not just sailing to Carthage, they’re sailing to attack it.”