The Historian

Chapter 13


Our next trip took us east again, beyond the Julian Alps. The little town of Kostanjevica, "place of the chestnut tree," was indeed full of chestnuts at this time of year, some already underfoot, so that if you set your shoe down wrong on the cobbled streets you slid precariously on a sharp burr. In front of the mayor's house, originally built to shelter an Austro-Hungarian bureaucrat, the nuts in their wicked-looking shells lay everywhere, a swarm of tiny porcupines.
My father and I walked slowly along, enjoying the end of a warm autumnal day - in the local dialect, this was called gypsy summer, a woman in a shop had told us - and I reflected on the differences between the Western world, a few hundred kilometers away, and this Eastern one, just a little south of Emona. Here everything in the stores looked like everything else, and the shop clerks, too, seemed to me exactly like one another, in royal blue work coats and flowered scarves, their gold or stainless steel teeth glinting at us over the half-empty counter. We had bought an enormous chocolate bar to supplement our picnic of sliced salami, brown bread, and cheese, and my father carried bottles of my favorite Naranca, an orange drink that reminded me already of Ragusa, Emona, Venezia.
The last meeting in Zagreb had ended the day before while I put the finishing flourish to my history homework. My father wanted me to study German now, too, and I was eager to, not because of his insistence but despite it; I would begin that tomorrow, out of a book from the foreign-language store in Amsterdam. I had a new short green dress and yellow kneesocks, my father was smiling over some unintelligible spoof that had passed between one diplomat and another that morning, and the Naranca bottles clinked together in our net bag. Ahead of us lay a low stone bridge, spanning the River Kostan. I hurried there for my first look, which I wanted to enjoy in private, without even my father beside me.
The river curved out of sight close to the bridge, and in its curve huddled a diminutive castle, a villa-sized Slav ch?teau with swans paddling below its walls and grooming themselves on the bank. As I watched, a woman in a blue coat opened an upstairs window, pushing it outward, making its latticed glass wink in the sun, and shook her dust mop. Below the bridge, young willows crowded together and swallows flew in and out of the mud bluffs at their roots. In the castle park, I saw a stone bench (not too close to the swans, whom I feared even now, in my teens) with chestnut trees leaning over it and the castle walls throwing a soothing shade on it. My father's clean suit would be safe there, and he might sit longer than he'd intended and talk in spite of himself.
All the time I was looking through these letters in my apartment, my father said, wiping the traces of salami from his hands with a cotton handkerchief, something outside the whole tragic problem of Rossi's disappearance kept nagging at the back of my mind. When I put down the letter recounting his friend Hedges's gruesome accident, I felt too ill for a few moments to think clearly. I had stumbled into a world of sickness, a netherworld of the familiar academic one I'd known for many years, a subtext of the ordinary narrative of history I'd always taken for granted. In my historian's experience, the dead stayed respectably dead, the Middle Ages held real horrors, not supernatural ones, Dracula was a colorful East European legend resurrected by the movies of my childhood, and 1930 was three years before Hitler assumed dictatorial powers in Germany, a terror that surely precluded all other possibilities.
So I felt sick, for a second, and corrupted, angry with my vanished mentor for having bequeathed me these nasty illusions. Then the regretful, gentle tone of his letters worked on me again, and I was filled with compunction for my disloyalty. Rossi depended on me - on me alone; if I refused to suspend disbelief because of some pedantic principle, I would surely never see him again.
And something else nagged at me. As my brain cleared a little, I realized it was my memory of the young woman at the library, whom I'd met only a couple of hours before, although it already seemed to me days. I remembered the extraordinary light in her eyes as she had listened to my explanation of Rossi's letters, the masculine drawing together of her eyebrows in concentration. Why had she been reading about Dracula, at my table of all tables, that evening of all evenings, at my very elbow? Why had she mentioned Istanbul? I was rattled enough by what I had read in Rossi's letters to suspend my disbelief further, to reject the notion of coincidence in favor of something stronger. And why not? If I accepted one supernatural occurrence, I should certainly accept others; it was only logical.
I sighed and picked up Rossi's last letter. After this I would need only to review the other materials that had been hidden in that innocuous envelope and then I was on my own. Whatever the girl's appearance meant - and it probably meant nothing out of the ordinary, didn't it? - I did not have time yet to find out who she was or why we shared this interest in the occult. It was odd for me to think of myself as someone interested in the occult; I wasn't, in the slightest, when you got right down to it. I was interested in finding Rossi.
The last letter, unlike the others, was handwritten - on lined notebook paper, in a dark ink. I unfolded it.
August 19, 1931
My dear and unfortunate successor:
Well, I cannot pretend you may not be out there for me still, somewhere, waiting to save me if my life one day collapses. And because I have a further bit of information to add to everything you have already (presumably) perused, I feel I should fill this bitter vial up to the brim. "A little learning is a dangerous thing," my friend Hedges would have quoted. But he is gone, and gone as surely by my hand as if I had opened my study door, struck the blow myself, and then shouted for assistance. I didn't do that, of course. If you have consented to read this far, you do not doubt my word. But I finally doubted my own strength, a few months ago, and I did so for reasons connected with Hedges's enraging and terrible end. I fled his graveside for America - almost literally; my appointment had become reality and I was already packing my boxes at the time I took a day out in Dorset to see where he rested in peace. After I departed for America, disappointing a few in Oxford and saddening my parents greatly, I'm afraid, I found myself in a new and brighter world, where the term (I have been appointed for three and will fight for more) begins earlier, and the students have an open and practical outlook unknown at Oxford. And even after all this I could not bring myself to drop entirely my acquaintance with the undead. As a consequence, apparently, he - It - could not bring himself to drop his acquaintance with me.
You will remember that on the night Hedges was attacked, I had unexpectedly discovered the meaning of the central woodcut in my sinister book and verified to myself that the Unholy Tomb on the maps I'd found in Istanbul must be the tomb of Vlad Dracula. I had spoken my remaining question aloud  - where was his tomb, then? - as I had spoken aloud in the archive in Istanbul, conjuring up this second time some terrible presence, which wreaked its warning to me on my dear friend's life. Perhaps only an abnormal ego would pit itself against natural forces - unnatural, in this case - but I swear to you that this punishment angered me beyond terror, for a time, and made me vow to ferret out the last clues and, if my strength held, to pursue my pursuer to his lair. This bizarre thought became as ordinary to me as the desire to publish my next article, or to earn a permanent place at the cheerful new university that was claiming my jaded heart.
After I had settled into the routine of academic duties, and prepared to return briefly to England at the end of term to see my parents and to turn the pages of my doctoral thesis over to that kind London press where I was increasingly well looked after, I set out once more on the scent of Vlad Dracula, the historical or the supernatural, whichever he might prove to be. It seemed to me that my next task was to learn more about my strange old book: whence it had come, who had designed it, how old it was. I gave it up (reluctantly, I admit) to the laboratories of the Smithsonian. They shook their heads there over the specificity of my questions and hinted that the consultation of powers beyond their own means would cost me more. But I was stubborn, and I didn't think that a farthing of my inheritance from my grandfather, or my meagre savings from Oxford, should go to clothe or feed or entertain me while Hedges lay unavenged (but, thank God, at peace) in a churchyard that ought not to have seen his coffin for another fifty years. I was no longer afraid of consequences, since the worst I could have imagined had already befallen me; in this sense, at least, the forces of darkness had miscalculated.
But it was not the brutality of what occurred next that changed my mind and brought home to me the full meaning of fear. It was the brilliance of it. My book was being handled at the Smithsonian by a bibliophilic little person named Howard Martin, a kind if rather taciturn man who had taken my cause to heart as thoroughly as if he'd known my whole story. (No - on second thought, if he had known my whole story, he would perhaps have shown me the door on my first visit.) But he apparently saw only my passion for history, sympathized, and did his best for me. His best was very good, very thorough, and he assimilated what the laboratories sent him with a care that would have graced Oxford better than it did those rather bureaucratic museum offices in Washington. I was impressed, and further impressed by his knowledge of European bookmaking in the centuries just before and after Gutenberg.
When he had apparently done everything he could for me, he wrote to me that I could have the results, such as they were, and that he would hand the book to me in person, as I had first handed it to him, if I didn't wish it to be shipped north. I made the train trip down, doing a little sightseeing the next morning and then appearing at his office door ten minutes before the appointed time. My heart was thudding and my mouth had gone dry; I itched both to have my hands on my book again and to know what he had learned about its origins.
Mr. Martin opened the door and ushered me in with a little smile. "So glad you could come down," he said in the flat American twang that had become for me the most welcoming speech in the world.
When we were seated in his manuscript-filled office, I found myself facing him and was immediately shocked by the change in his appearance. I had seen him briefly a few months before and remembered his face, and nothing in his neat and professional correspondence with me had implied illness. Now he was drawn and pale, haggard in a way that caused his skin to look grey-yellow, his lips unnaturally crimson. He had lost a great deal of weight, so that his outdated suit hung limply from his thin shoulders. He sat hunched slightly forwards, as if some pain or weakness made it impossible for him to stand up straight. He seemed drained of life.
I tried to tell myself that I had merely been in a hurry during my first visit and that my acquaintance with the man by post had made me more observant this time, or more compassionate in my observations, but I couldn't shake the feeling of having seen him decay with the lapse of a short time. I assured myself that he might have some unfortunate and degenerative disease, a rapidly advancing cancer of some sort. Of course, politeness precluded any mention of his appearance.
"Now, Dr. Rossi," he said, in the American way. "I don't believe you realize
what a valuable little item you've had here all along."
"Valuable?" He could not possibly know its value to me, I thought, not with all the chemical analyses in the world. It was my key to revenge.
"Yes. It's a rare example of Central European mediaeval printing, a very interesting and unusual thing, and I'm pretty well satisfied now that it was probably printed about 1512, perhaps in Buda or perhaps in Wallachia. That date would place it safely after the Corvinus Saint Luke but before the Hungarian New Testament of 1520, which would probably have had an influence on such a work if it had already existed." He shifted in his creaking chair. "It's even possible that the woodcut in your book actually influenced the New Testament of 1520, which has a similar illustration, a winged Satan. But there's no way to prove that. Anyway, it would be a funny influence, wouldn't it? I mean, to see part of the Bible decorated with illustrations anything like this diabolical one."
"Diabolical?" I relished the sound of the condemnation on someone else's lips.
"Sure. You filled me in on the Dracula legend, but do you think I stopped there?"
Mr. Martin's tone was so flat and bright, so American, that it took me a moment to react. Never had I heard that sinister depth in a voice so perfectly ordinary. I stared at him, puzzled, but the tone was gone and his face smooth. He was looking through a pile of papers he had taken out of a folder.
"Here are the results of our tests," he said. "I've made clean copies of them for you, along with my write-up, and I think you'll find them interesting. They don't say much more than I've just told you - oh, there are two interesting additional facts. It appears from the chemical analysis that this book was stored, probably for a long time, in an atmosphere heavily laden with stone dust, and that that occurred before 1700. Also, the back section of it was stained at some point with salt water - perhaps from exposure to an ocean voyage. I suppose it could have been the Black Sea, if our guesses about production location are correct, but there are a lot of other possibilities, of course. I'm afraid we haven't set you farther on your quest than that - didn't you say you're writing a history of mediaeval Europe?"
He looked up and gave me his casual, good-natured smile, weird in that wasted face, and I perceived simultaneously two things that made my marrow go cold as I sat there.
The first was that I had never told him anything about writing a history of mediaeval Europe; I had said I wanted information on my volume to help me complete a bibliography of materials related to the life of Vlad the Impaler, known in legend as Dracula. Howard Martin was as precise a man, in his curatorial way, as I was in my scholarly one, and he would never unknowingly have committed such an error. His memory had previously struck me as nearly photographic in its capacity for detail, something I notice and appreciate heartily whenever I meet it in other people.
The second thing I perceived at this moment was that, perhaps due to whatever illness he was suffering - the poor man, I almost made myself say, internally - his lips had a decayed, flaccid look when he smiled and his upper canine teeth were bared and somehow prominent in a way that gave his whole face an unpleasant appearance. I remembered all too well the bureaucrat in Istanbul, although there was nothing wrong with Howard Martin's neck, as far as I could see. I had just quelled my tremor and taken book and notes from his hand when he spoke up again.
"That map, by the way, is remarkable."
"Map?" I froze. Only one map I knew of - three, actually, in graduated scale - had anything to do with my present intentions, and I was sure I had never so much as mentioned their existence to this stranger.
"Did you sketch it yourself? It's not old, obviously, but I wouldn't have put you down as an artist. And certainly not a morbid type, anyway, if you don't mind my saying that."
I stared at him, unable to decipher his words and afraid to give something away by asking what he meant. Had I left one of my sketches in the book? How utterly stupid, if I had. But I was sure I'd checked the book carefully for loose leaves before handing it over to him.
"Well, I tucked it back in the book, so it's there," he said comfortingly. "Now, Dr. Rossi, I can show you down to our accounting department if you'd like, or I can arrange for you to be billed at home." He opened the door for me and smiled his professional grimace again. I had the presence of mind not to hunt through the volume in my hand then and there, and I saw in the light of the corridor that I must have imagined Martin's peculiar smile, and perhaps even his illness; he was normal-skinned, just a little stooped from decades of work among the leaves of the past, nothing more. He stood by the door with one hand thrust out in a hearty Washingtonian good-bye, and I shook it, muttering that I should like the bill sent to my university address.
I made my way warily out of sight of his door, then out of that hall and finally away from the great red castle that housed all his labours and those of his colleagues. Out in the fresh air of the Mall, I strolled across the bright green grass to a bench and sat down, trying both to appear and to feel unconcerned.
The volume fell open in my hand, with its usual sinister obligingness, and I looked in vain for a loose sheet of something to surprise me there. Only turning back through the pages did I find it - a very fine tracing on carbon paper, as if someone had had the third and most intimate of my secret maps actually in front of him, and had copied all its mysterious lineaments for me. The place-names in Slavic dialect were exactly those I knew from my own map  - Pig-Stealing Village, Valley of Eight Oaks. In fact, this sketch was unfamiliar to me in only one particular. Below the appellation of the Unholy Tomb, there was some neat Latin lettering in an ink that seemed to match that of the other titles. Over the apparent location of the tomb, arched around it as if to prove its absolute association with that spot, I read the words BARTOLOMEO ROSSI.
Reader, judge me a coward if you must, but I desisted from that moment. I am a young professor and I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I lecture, dine out with my new friends, and write home to my aging parents every week. I don't wear garlic, or crucifixes, or cross myself at the sound of a step in the hall. I have a better protection than that - I have stopped digging at that dreadful crossroads of history. Something must be satisfied to see me quiet, because I have been untroubled by further tragedy.
Now, if you yourself had to choose your sanity, your remembered life, over true instability, which would you select, as the proper way for a scholar to live out his days? Hedges would not, I know, have required of me a headlong plunge into darkness. And yet, if you are reading this at all, it means that harm has finally come to me. You must choose, too. I have given you every shard of knowledge that I possess, where these horrors are concerned. Knowing my story, can you refuse me succor?
Yours in grief,
Bartholomew Rossi
The shadows beneath the trees had lengthened to yawning proportions, and my father kicked at a chestnut burr under his good shoes. I had the sudden sense that if he had been a cruder man, he would have spat on the ground at this moment, to expel some appalling taste. Instead, he seemed to swallow hard and gather himself to smile. "Lord! What've we been talking about? How grim we seem to be this afternoon." He tried to smile, but he also threw me a glance that spoke of worry, as if some shadow might come down over me, me in particular, and remove me without warning from the scene. I uncurled my cold hand from the edge of the bench and made the effort to be lighthearted now, too. When had it become effort? I wondered, but it was too late. I was doing his work for him, distracting him as he had once tried to distract me. I took refuge in a slight petulance - not too much or he would suspect it. "I have to say I'm hungry again, for real food."
He smiled a little more naturally, and his good shoes thumped on the ground as he gave me a gallant hand off the bench and set about packing our bag with empty Naranca bottles and the other relics of our picnic. I gathered up my share with a will, relieved now because this meant he would stride away with me toward town instead of turning to linger over our view of the castle's facade. I had turned once already, near the end of the story, and seen that upper window, where a dark and stately shape had replaced the housecleaning old woman. I talked, rapidly, of anything else that came into my head. As long as my father didn't see it, too, there could be no confrontation. We might both be safe.