The Historian

Chapter 16


It was early December, we were on the road again, and the lassitude of our summer trips to the Mediterranean seemed far behind us. The high Adriatic wind was combing my hair again and I liked the feel of it, its awkward roughness; it was as if a beast with heavy paws clambered over everything in the harbor, making flags snap sharply in front of the modern hotel and straining the topmost branches of the plane trees along the promenade. "What?" I shouted. My father again said something unintelligible, pointing at the top story of the emperor's palace. We both craned back to look.
Diocletian's elegant stronghold towered over us in the morning sunlight, and I almost fell over backward trying to see the upper edge of it. Many of the spaces between its beautiful columns had been filled in - often by people dividing up the building for apartments, my father had explained earlier - so that a patchwork of stone, much of it Roman-hewn marble plundered from other structures, shone across the whole strange facade. Here and there water or earthquake had broken long cracks in it. Tenacious little plants, even some trees, hung out of the fissures. The wind whipped up the broad collars of sailors strolling along the quay in twos and threes, their faces brass colored against white uniforms and their crew-cut dark hair shining like wire brushes. I followed my father around the edge of the building, over fallen black walnuts and the litter from sycamore trees, to the monument-lined square behind it, which smelled of urine. Just in front of us rose a fantastic tower, open to the winds and decorated like a piece of pastry, a tall thin wedding cake. It was quieter back here and we could stop shouting.
"I've always wanted to see this," my father said in his normal voice. "Would you like to climb to the top?" I led the way, taking the iron steps with gusto. In the open-air market near the quay, which I glimpsed from time to time through a marble frame, the trees had turned gold-brown, so that the cypresses along the water looked more black than green against them. As we rose I could see the water of the harbor navy blue beneath us, the small white shapes of the sailors on leave roaming among the outdoor caf¨¦s. Distant curving land, beyond our big hotel, pointed like an arrow to the interior region of the Slavic-speaking world, where my father would soon be drawn into the flood of d¨¦tente spreading across it.
Just under the roof of the tower, we stood catching our breath. Only an iron platform suspended us above the drop to earth; from there we could see all the way to the ground through a spiderweb of plaited iron steps, which we'd just climbed. The world around us stretched out beyond stone-framed openings, each possibly low enough to let an unwary tourist topple nine stories to the paved courtyard below. We chose a bench in the center instead, looking out toward the water, and sat so quietly that a swift came in, its wings arched against the blustering sea wind, and disappeared under the eaves. It had something bright in its beak, something that caught the glint of the sun as it flew in off the water.
I woke early, my father said, the morning after I'd finished reading through Rossi's papers. I've never been so glad to see sunshine as I was that morning. My first and very sad business was to bury Rembrandt. After that, I had no trouble arriving at the library just when the doors were opening. I wanted this whole day to ready myself for the next night, the next onslaught of darkness. For many years, night had been friendly to me, the cocoon of quiet in which I read and wrote. Now it was a threat, an inevitable danger just hours away. I might also be setting out on a journey soon, with all the preparations that would entail. It would be a little easier, I thought ruefully, if I just knew where I'd be going. The main hall of the library was very still except for the echoing steps of librarians going about their business; few students got here this early, and I would have peace and quiet for at least half an hour. I went into the maze of the card catalog, opened my notebook, and began pulling out the drawers I needed. There were several listings for the Carpathians, one on Transylvanian folklore. One book on vampires - legends from the Egyptian tradition. I wondered how much vampires had in common around the world. Were Egyptian vampires anything like East European vampires? It was a study for an archaeologist, not for me, but I copied down the call number of the book on Egyptian tradition anyway.
Then I looked up Dracula. Subjects and titles were mixed together in the catalog; between "Drab-Ali the Great" and "Dragons, Asia," there would be at least one entry: the title card for Bram Stoker's Dracula, which I had seen the dark-haired young woman reading here the day before. Perhaps the library even had two copies of such a classic. I needed it right away; Rossi had said it was the distillation of Stoker's research on vampire lore, and it might contain suggestions for protection I could use myself. I hunted backward and forward. There was not a single entry under "Dracula" - nothing, nothing whatsoever. I hadn't expected the legend to be a major topic of scholarship, but surely that one book would be listed somewhere.
Then I caught sight of what actually lay between "Drab-Ali" and "Dragons." A little shard of twisted paper at the bottom of the drawer showed clearly that at least one card had been wrenched out. I hurried to the "St" drawer. No entries for "Stoker" appeared there - only further signs of a hasty theft. I sat down hard on the nearest wooden stool. This was too strange. Why would anyone have ripped out these particular cards?
The dark-haired girl had checked out the book last, I knew that. Had she wanted to remove the evidence of what she had checked out? But if she'd wanted to steal or hide the copy, why had she been reading it publicly, in the middle of the library? Someone else must have pulled the cards out, perhaps somebody - but why? - who didn't want anyone looking up the book here. Whoever it was had done it hurriedly, neglecting to remove traces of the job. I thought it through again. The card catalog was sacrosanct here; any student who even left a drawer out on the tables and was caught in this error got a sharp lecture from the clerks or librarians. Any violation of the catalog would have to be accomplished quickly, that was certain, at some odd moment when no one was around or looking in that direction. If the young woman hadn't committed this crime herself, then maybe she didn't know that someone else didn't want that book checked out. And she probably still had it in her possession. I almost ran to the main desk.
This library, built in the highest of high Gothic-revival styles about the time Rossi was finishing his studies at Oxford (where he was surrounded by the real thing, of course), had always appealed to me as both beautiful and comical. To reach the main desk, I had to hurry up a long cathedral nave. The circulation desk stood where the altar would have in a real cathedral, under a mural of Our Lady - of Knowledge, presumably - in sky blue robes, her arms full of heavenly tomes. Checking out a book there had all the sanctity of taking communion. Today this seemed to me the most cynical of jokes, and I ignored Our Lady's bland, unhelpful face as I addressed the librarian, trying not to seem ruffled myself.
"I'm looking for a book that's not on the shelves at the moment," I began, "and I wonder if it's actually checked out right now, or on its way back." The librarian, a short, unsmiling woman of sixty, glanced up from her work. "The title, please," she said.
"Dracula, by Bram Stoker."
"Just a minute, please; I'll see if it's in." She thumbed through a little box, her face expressionless. "I'm sorry. It's currently checked out."
"Oh, what a shame," I said heartily. "When will it be coming back?"
"In three weeks. It was checked out yesterday.""I'm afraid I simply can't wait that long. You see I'm teaching a course¡­" These were usually the magic words.
"You are welcome to put it on reserve, if you like," the librarian said coldly. She turned her coiffed gray head away from me, as if she wanted to get back to her work.
"Maybe one of my students has checked it out, to read ahead for the course. If you'd just let me have his name, I'll get in touch with him myself."
She looked narrowly at me. "We don't usually do that," she said.
"This is an unusual situation," I confided. "I'll be frank with you. I really must use one section of that book to prepare my exam for them, and - well, I loaned my own copy to a student and he's unable to find it now. It was my mistake, but you know how these things go, with students. I should have known better."
Her face softened and she looked almost sympathetic. "It's terrible, isn't it?" she said, nodding. "We lose a stack of books every term, I'm sure. Well, let me see if I can get the name for you, but don't spread around that I did this, all right?"
She turned away to root in a cabinet behind her, and I stood reflecting on the duplicity I had suddenly discovered in my own nature. When had I learned to lie so fluently? It gave me a feeling of uneasy pleasure. While I was standing there, I realized that another librarian behind the big altar had moved closer and was watching me. He was a thin middle-aged man I'd often seen there, only slightly taller than his colleague and shabbily dressed in a tweed jacket and stained tie. Perhaps because I'd noticed him before, I was unexpectedly struck by a change in his appearance. His face looked sallow and wasted, perhaps even seriously ill. "Can I help you?" he said suddenly, as if he suspected I might steal something from the desk if I weren't attended to at once.
"Oh, no, thank you." I waved at the lady librarian's back. "I'm being helped already."
"I see." He stepped aside as she returned with a slip of paper and put it in front of me. At that moment I didn't know where to look - the paper swam under my eyes. For as the second librarian turned aside, he leaned over to examine some books that had obviously been returned to the desk and were waiting to be dealt with. And as he bent myopically toward them, his neck was exposed for a moment above the threadbare shirt collar, and I saw on it two scabbed, grimy-looking wounds, with a little dried blood making an ugly lacework on the skin just below them. Then he straightened and turned away again, holding his books.
"Is this what you wanted?" the lady librarian was asking me. I looked down at the paper she pushed toward me. "You see, it's the slip for Bram Stoker, Dracula. We have just one copy."
The grubby male librarian suddenly dropped a book on the floor, and the sound of it reverberated with a bang through the high nave. He straightened and looked directly at me, and I have never seen - or until that moment had never seen - a human gaze so full of hatred and wariness. "That's what you wanted, right?" the lady was insisting.
"Oh, no," I said, thinking fast, catching hold of myself. "You must have misunderstood me. I'm looking for Gibbon'sDecline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I told you, I'm teaching a course on it and we've got to have extra copies."
She frowned heavily. "But I thought - "
I hated to sacrifice her feelings, even in that unpleasant moment, when she'd unbent so far toward me. "That's all right," I said. "Maybe I didn't look carefully enough. I'll go back and check the catalog again." As soon as I said the word catalog, however, I knew I'd overused my new fluency. The tall librarian's eyes narrowed further and he moved his head slightly, like an animal following the motions of its prey. "Thanks very much," I murmured politely and walked off, feeling those sharp eyes boring into my back all the way down the great aisle. I made a show of going back to the catalog for a minute, then closed my briefcase and went purposefully out the front door, through which the faithful were already flocking for their morning study. Outside, I found a bench in the brightest possible sunlight, my back against one of those neo-Gothic walls, where I could safely see everyone around me coming and going. I needed five minutes to sit and think -  reflection, Rossi always taught, should be well-timed rather than time-consuming.
It was all too much to digest quickly, however. In that dazed moment I had taken in not only my glimpse of the librarian's wounded neck but also the name of the library patron who had beaten me to Dracula. Her name was Helen Rossi.
The wind was cold and increasingly strong. My father paused here and drew from his camera bag two waterproof jackets, one for each of us. He kept them rolled up tightly to fit with his photographic equipment, canvas hat, and a little first-aid kit. Without speaking, we put them over our blazers, and he continued.
Sitting there in the late-spring sunshine, watching the university stir and wake to its usual activities, I felt a sudden envy of all those ordinary-looking students and faculty striding here and there. They thought that tomorrow's exam was a serious challenge, or that department politics constituted high drama, I reflected bitterly. Not one of them could have understood my predicament, or helped me out of it. I felt the loneliness, suddenly, of standing outside my institution, my universe, a worker bee expelled from the hive. And this state of things, I realized with surprise, had come about in forty-eight hours. I had to think clearly now, and fast. First, I had observed what Rossi himself had reported: someone outside the immediate threat to Rossi - in this case the someone was a half-washed, eccentric-looking librarian - had been bitten in the neck. Let us presume, I told myself, almost laughing at the preposterousness of the things I was starting to believe, let us presume that our librarian was bitten by a vampire, and quite recently. Rossi had been swept out of his office - with bloodshed, I reminded myself - only two nights earlier. Dracula, if he were at large, seemed to have a predilection not only for the best of the academic world (here I remembered poor Hedges) but also for librarians, archivists. No - I sat up straight, suddenly seeing the pattern - he had a predilection for those who handled archives that had something to do with his legend. First there had been the bureaucrat who had snatched the map from Rossi in Istanbul. The Smithsonian researcher, too, I thought, recalling Rossi's last letter. And, of course, threatened all along, there was Rossi himself, who had a copy of "one of these nice books" and had examined other possibly relevant documents. And then this librarian, although I had no proof yet that the fellow had handled any Dracula documents. And finally - me?
I picked up my briefcase and hurried to a public phone booth near the student commons. "University information, please." No one had followed me here, as far as I could see, but I closed the door and through it kept a sharp eye on the passersby. "Do you have a listing for a Miss Helen Rossi? Yes, graduate student," I hazarded.
The university operator was laconic; I could hear her shuffling slowly through papers. "We have an H. Rossi listed in the women's graduate dormitory," she said.
"That's it. Thank you so much." I scribbled the number down and dialed again. A matron answered, her voice sharp and protective. "Miss Rossi? Yes? Who's calling, please?"
Oh, God. I hadn't thought ahead to this. "Her brother," I said quickly. "She told me she'd be at this number." I could hear footsteps leaving the phone, a sharper stride returning, the rustle of a hand taking the receiver. "Thank you, Miss Lewis," said a distant voice, as if in dismissal. Then she spoke into my ear and I heard the low, strong tone I remembered from the library. "I do not have a brother," she said. It sounded like a warning, not a mere statement of fact. "Who is this?"
My father rubbed his hands together in the chill wind, making the sleeves of his jacket crinkle like tissue paper. Helen, I thought, although I did not dare repeat the name aloud. It was a name I had always liked; it evoked for me something valiant and beautiful, like the Pre-Raphaelite frontispiece showing Helen of Troy in my Children's Book of the Iliad, which I had owned at home in the United States. Above all, it had been my mother's name, and she was a topic my father never discussed.
I looked hard at him, but he was already speaking again. "Hot tea in one of those caf¨¦s down there," he said. "That's what I need. How about you?" I noticed for the first time that his face - the handsome, tactful face of a diplomat - was marred by heavy shadows, which ringed his eyes and gave his nose a pinched look at the base, as if he never slept enough. He rose and stretched, and then we looked out at each of the giddily framed views a last time. My father held me back a little as if he feared I would fall.