The Historian

Chapter 14


I had stayed away from the university library for some time, partly because I'd been feeling strangely nervous about my research there, and partly because I had the sense that Mrs. Clay was suspicious about my absences after school. I had always called her, as I'd promised to, but something increasingly shy in her voice on the phone had made me picture her holding uncomfortable discussions with my father. I couldn't imagine her knowing enough about vice to guess anything specific, but my father might have embarrassing surmises of his own - pot? Boys? And he looked so anxiously at me sometimes, already, that I was unwilling to trouble him further.
Finally, however, the temptation was too great, and I decided in spite of my uneasiness to go back to the library. This time I feigned an evening movie with a dull girl from my class - I knew that Johan Binnerts worked in the medieval section on Wednesday nights and that my father was at a meeting at the Center - and I went out in my new coat before Mrs. Clay could say much.
It was odd, going to the library at night, especially since I found the main hall as full as ever of weary-looking university students. The medieval reading room was empty, however. I made my way quietly to Mr. Binnerts's desk and found him turning through a pile of new books - nothing that would interest me, he reported with his sweet smile, since I liked only horrible things. But he did have a volume set aside for me - why hadn't I come in sooner for it? I apologized weakly and he chuckled. "I was afraid something must have happened to you, or that you had taken my advice and found a nicer topic for a young lady. But you have got me interested, too, so I looked this up for you." I took the book gratefully, and Mr. Binnerts said he was going into his workroom and would be back soon to see if I needed anything. He had shown me the workroom once, a little stall with windows, at the back of the reading room, where the librarians repaired wonderful old books and glued cards into new ones. The reading room was quieter than ever when he had gone, but I eagerly opened the volume he'd given me. It was a remarkable find, I thought then, although I know now what a basic source it is for fifteenth-century Byzantine history - a translation of Michael Doukas's Istoria Turco-Bizantina. Doukas has quite a bit to say about the conflict between Vlad Dracula and Mehmed II, and it was at that table that I first read the famous description of the sight that met Mehmed's eyes when he invaded Wallachia in 1462 and made his way to T?rgoviste, Dracula's deserted capital. Outside the city, Doukas asserted, Mehmed was greeted by "thousands and thousands of stakes bearing dead people instead of fruit." At the center of this garden of death was Dracula's pi¨¨ce de r¨¦sistance: Mehmed's favorite general, Hamza, impaled among the others in his "thin garment of purple."
I remembered Sultan Mehmed's archive, the one Rossi had gone to Istanbul to explore. The prince of Wallachia had been a thorn in the sultan's side - that was clear. I thought it would be a good idea for me to read something about Mehmed; perhaps there were sources about him that explained his relationship with Dracula. I didn't know where to start, but Mr. Binnerts had said he would return soon to check on me.
I had turned, impatiently, with the idea of going to see where he was, when I heard a noise from the back of the room. It was a kind of thump, more a vibration through the floor than an actual sound, like the feel of a bird hitting a polished window in full flight. Something made me start up in the direction of the impact, whatever it was, and I found myself dashing into the workroom at the back of the hall. I could not see Mr. Binnerts through the windows, which was for one moment a reassurance, but when I opened the wooden door, there was a leg on the floor, a gray-trousered leg attached to a twisted body, the blue sweater askew on the wrenched torso, the pale-gray hair matted with blood, the face - mercifully half hidden - crushed, a bit of it still on the corner of the desk. A book had apparently just fallen from Mr. Binnerts's grasp; it lay sprawled, like him. On the wall above the desk, there was a smear of blood with a large, fine handprint in it, like a child's finger painting. I tried so hard not to make a sound that my scream, when it came, seemed to belong to someone else.
I spent a couple of nights at the hospital - my father insisted, and the attending doctor was an old friend. My father was gentle and grave, sitting on the edge of the bed, or standing by the window with his arms crossed as the police officer questioned me for the third time. I had seen no one come into the library room. I had been reading quietly at the table. I had heard a thump. I had not known the librarian personally, but I had been fond of him. The officer assured my father that I was not under suspicion; I was simply the closest thing they had to a witness. But I had witnessed nothing, nobody had come into the reading room - I was certain about that - and Mr. Binnerts had not cried out. There had been no wounds to any other part of the body; someone had simply dashed the poor man's brain out against the corner of the desk. It would have taken prodigious strength.
The officer shook his head, perplexed. The handprint on the wall had not been made by the librarian himself; there hadn't been blood on his hands. Besides, the print did not match his, and it was a strange print, the whorls of the fingers unusually worn. It would have been easy to match - the officer waxed talkative with my father - except that they'd never recorded one like it. A bad case. Amsterdam was not the city he had grown up in - now people threw bicycles into the canals, and what about that terrible incident last year with the prostitute who - my father stopped him with a look. When the officer was gone, my father sat on the edge of my bed again and asked me for the first time what I'd been doing in the library. I explained that I'd been studying, that I'd liked to go there after school to do my homework because the reading room was quiet and comfortable. I was afraid he might be on the verge of asking me why I had chosen the medieval section, but to my relief he lapsed into silence. I did not tell him that in the eruption of the library after my scream, I had instinctively shoved into my bag the volume Mr. Binnerts had been holding when he died. The police had searched my bag, of course, when they'd entered the room, but they had said nothing about the book - and why would they have noticed it at all? There had been no blood on it. It was a nineteenth-century French volume on Romanian churches and it had fallen open to a page on the church at Lake Snagov, endowed with magnificence by Vlad III of Wallachia. His grave was traditionally located there, in front of the altar, according to a little text below a plan of the apse. The author noted, however, that villagers near Snagov had their own stories. What stories? I wondered, but there was nothing more on that particular church. The sketch of the apse showed nothing unusual, either.
Sitting gingerly on the edge of my hospital bed, my father shook his head. "I want you to study at home from now on," he said quietly. I wished he hadn't said it; I would never have entered that library again anyway. "Mrs. Clay can sleep in your room for a while if you feel upset, and we can see the doctor again, whenever you want to. Just let me know." I nodded, although I thought I would almost rather be alone with the description of the church at Snagov than with Mrs. Clay. I pondered the idea of dropping the volume into our canal  - the fate of the bicycles the policeman had mentioned - but I knew that I would want eventually to reopen it, in daylight, to read it again. I might want to do this not only for my own sake but also for that of grandfatherly Mr. Binnerts, who now lay somewhere in a city morgue. Afew weeks later, my father said he thought it would be good for my nerves to take a trip, and I knew that he meant it would be better for him not to leave me at home. "The French," he explained, wanted to confer with representatives from his foundation before beginning talks in Eastern Europe that winter, and we were going to meet them one last time. It would be the best possible moment on the Mediterranean coast, too, after the hordes of tourists left but before the landscape began to look barren. We examined the map carefully and were pleased that the French had foregone their usual choice of a meeting in Paris and settled on the privacy of a resort near the Spanish border - close to the little gem of Collioure, my father gloated, and perhaps something like it. Just inland were Les Bains and Saint-Matthieu-des-Pyr¨¦n¨¦es-Orientales, I pointed out, but when I mentioned them my father's face clouded and he began to hunt along the coast for other interesting names. Breakfast on the terrace at Le Corbeau, where we stayed, was so good in the fresh morning air that I lingered there after my father had joined the other dark-suited men in the conference hall, taking out my books reluctantly and looking up often at the aquamarine water a few hundred yards away. I was on my second cup of that bitter Continental chocolat, made bearable with a cube of sugar and a pile of fresh rolls. The sunlight on the faces of the old houses looked eternal in the dry Mediterranean climate with its preternaturally clear light, as if no storm had ever dared to approach these inlets. From where I sat I could see a couple of early sailboats out on the edge of the marvelously colored sea and a family of small children going with their mother and their pails and their (to me) unusual French bathing suits down to the sand beach below the hotel. The bay curved around us to the right, in the form of jagged hills. One of these was topped by a rotting fortress the same color as the rocks and sere grasses, olive trees climbing ineffectively toward it, the delicately blue morning sky stretched behind it.
I felt a sudden twinge of unbelonging, of envy for those unbearably complacent children with their mother. I had no mother and no normal life. I wasn't sure what I meant bynormal life, but as I flipped through my biology book looking for the beginning of the third chapter, I thought vaguely it might mean living in one place, with a mother and father who were there every evening at dinnertime, a household in which travel meant the occasional beach vacation, not an endlessly nomadic existence. I felt sure, glaring at the children as they settled onto the sand with their shovels, that these creatures were never threatened by the grimness of history, either.
Then, looking down on their glossy heads, I realized that they were indeed threatened; they were simply unaware of it. We were all vulnerable. I shivered and glanced at my watch. In another four hours, my father and I would have lunch on this terrace. Then I would study again, and after five o'clock we would take a walk toward the eroded fortress that ornamented the near horizon  - from which, my father said, you could see the little sea-bathed church on the other side, at Collioure. In the course of this day I would learn more algebra, some German verbs, read a chapter on the War of the Roses, and then  - what? Up on the dry cliff, I would listen to my father's next story. He would tell it unwillingly, looking down at the sandy soil or drumming his fingers on rock quarried centuries ago, lost in his own fear. And it would be up to me to study it again, to piece it all together. A child shrieked below me and I started, spilling my cocoa.