The Historian

Chapter 17


Athens made my father nervous and tired; I could see that plainly after only a day there. For my part, I found it exhilarating: I liked the combined senses of decay and vitality, the suffocating, exhaust-spewing traffic that whirled around its squares and parks and outcroppings of ancient monuments, the Botanic Gardens with a lion caged in the middle, the soaring Acropolis with frivolous-looking restaurant awnings fluttering around its base. My father promised we would climb up for a view as soon as he had time. It was February of 1974, the first time in nearly three months he'd traveled anywhere, and he'd brought me reluctantly, because he disliked the Greek military presence on the streets. I intended to make the most of every moment.
Meanwhile, I worked diligently in my hotel room, keeping an eye on the temple-crowned heights out my one window as if they might take wing after twenty-five hundred years and fly off without my ever having explored them. I could see the roads, paths, alleys that wound upward toward the base of the Parthenon. It would be a long, slow walk - we were in hot country again, and summer began early here - among whitewashed houses and stuccoed lemonade shops, a path that broke out into ancient marketplaces and temple grounds from time to time, then cut back through the tile-roofed neighborhoods. I could see some of this labyrinth from the dingy window. We would rise from one view to another, looking out on what the residents of the Acropolis neighborhood saw from their front doors every day. I could imagine from here the vistas of ruins, looming municipal buildings, semitropical parks, winding streets, gold-tipped or red-tiled churches that stood out in the evening light like colored rocks scattered on a gray beach.
Farther away, we would see the distant ridges of apartment buildings, newer hotels than this one, a sprawl of suburbs through which we'd traveled by train the day before. Beyond that, I couldn't guess; it was too distant to imagine. My father would wipe his face with his handkerchief. And I would know, stealing a glance at him, that when we reached the summit he would show me not only the ancient ruins there but also another glimpse of his own past.
The diner I'd chosen, my father said, was far enough from campus to make me feel out of range of that creepy librarian (who was surely required to stay on the job but probably took a lunch break somewhere) and yet close enough to be a reasonable request, not the assignation in some lonely spot that an ax murderer might make with a woman he hardly knew. I'm not sure I'd actually expected her to be late, hesitating about my motives, but Helen was there before me, so that when I pushed in through the diner door, I saw her unwinding her blue silk scarf in a far corner and taking off her white gloves - remember that this was still an era of impractical, charming accoutrements for even the most hard-boiled of female academics. Her hair was rolled back almost smoothly and pinned away from her face, so that when she turned to regard me, I had a sense of being stared at even more enormously than I had been at the library table the day before.
"Good morning," she said in a cold voice. "I have ordered you some coffee, since you sounded so fatigued on the phone."
This struck me as presumptuous - how would she know my fatigued voice from my well-rested one, and what if my coffee were already cold? But I introduced myself by name this time, and shook hands with her, trying to hide my uneasiness. I wanted to ask her immediately about her own last name, but I thought I'd better wait for the right opportunity. Her hand was smooth and dry, cool in mine, as if she still wore her gloves. I pulled out a chair opposite her and sat down, wishing I'd put on a clean shirt even for the occasion of hunting vampires. Her mannish white blouse, severe under a black jacket, looked immaculate.
"Why did I think I would be hearing from you again?" Her tone was close to insulting.
"I know you find this strange." I sat up straight and tried to look her in the eye, wondering if I could ask her all the questions I wanted to before she stood up and walked off again. "I'm sorry. It's not a practical joke and I'm not trying to bother you or disrupt your work."
She nodded, humoring me. Watching her face, it struck me that her general outline - certainly her voice - was ugly as well as elegant, and I took heart from this, as if the revelation made her human. "I discovered something odd this morning," I began, with fresh confidence. "That's why I called you out of the blue. Have you still got that copy ofDracula from the library?"
She was quick, but I was quicker, since I'd been waiting for the flinch, the drop in color under her already pale face. "Yes," she said warily. "Whose business is it what another person checks out from the library?"
I ignored this bait. "Did you tear out all the cards in the card catalog pertaining to that book?"
This time her reaction was genuine and undisguised. "Did I what?"
"This morning I went to the card catalog to look for some information on - on the subject we both seem to be studying. I found that all the cards for Dracula and Stoker had been wrenched out of the drawer."
Her face had tightened and she was staring at me, the ugliness very close to the surface now, her eyes too bright. But at that moment, for the first time since Massimo had shouted to me that Rossi had disappeared, I felt an infinitesimal lightening of burdens, a shifting of the weight of loneliness. She hadn't laughed at my melodrama, as she could have called it, or frowned, puzzled. Most importantly, there was no cunning in her look, nothing to indicate that I was talking with an enemy. Her face registered only one emotion, as far as she allowed it: a delicate, flickering fear.
"The cards were there yesterday morning," she said slowly, as if laying down a weapon and preparing to talk. "I looked up Dracula first, and there was an entry for it, only one copy. Then I wondered if they had other works by Stoker, and I looked him up, too. There were a few entries under his name, including one for Dracula. "
The diner's indifferent waiter was setting coffee on the table, and Helen drew hers toward her without looking at it. I thought with sudden fierce longing of Rossi, pouring out far finer coffee than this for himself and me - his exquisite hospitality. Oh, I had other questions for this strange young woman.
"Someone obviously doesn't want you - me - anybody - checking out that book," I observed. I kept my voice quiet, watching her.
"That's the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard," she said sharply, putting sugar in her cup and stirring it. But she looked unconvinced by her own words, and I pressed on.
"Do you still have the book?"
"Yes." Her spoon fell with an annoyed clatter. "It is in my book bag." She glanced down, and I noticed beside her the briefcase I'd seen her carrying the day before.
"Miss Rossi," I said. "I beg your pardon, and I'm afraid I'm going to sound like a maniac, but it's my personal belief that there may be some danger to you in possessing this book, which someone else clearly doesn't want you to have."
"What makes you think that?" she countered, not meeting my eye now. "Who do you think would not want me to have that book?" A slight flush had spread over her cheekbones again, and she looked guiltily down into her cup; that was the only way to describe it - she looked downright guilty. I wondered with horror if she might not be in league with the vampire: Dracula's bride, I thought, aghast, the Sunday matinees coming back to me in rapid frames. That smoky dark hair would fit, the rich, un-identifiable accent, the lips like blackberry stain on the pale skin, the elegant black-and-white garb. I put this idea firmly out of my mind; it was fantasy and it fit too well with my jittery mood.
"Do you actually know someone who wouldn't want you to have that book?" "Yes, as a matter of fact. But that is certainly none of your business." She glared at me and went back to her coffee. "Why were you hunting for the book, anyway? If you wanted my phone number, why did you not simply ask me for it, without going through all this rigmarole?" This time I felt my own face redden. Talking with this woman was like sitting still for a series of slaps, delivered arhythmically so you couldn't know when the next one was coming. "I had no intention of asking for your phone number until I realized those cards had been torn out of the catalog and thought you should know about it," I said, stiffly. "I needed that book very badly myself. So I went to the library to see if they had a second copy I might be able to use."
"And they didn't," she said fiercely, "so you had the perfect excuse to call me looking for it. If you wanted my library book, why didn't you just put it on reserve?"
"I need it now," I retorted. Her tone was beginning to exasperate me. We might both be in serious trouble, and she was quibbling about this meeting as if it were a bid for a date, which it wasn't. I reminded myself that she couldn't know what dire straits I was in. Then it occurred to me that if I told her the whole story, she might not merely think I was insane. But it might also put her in greater danger. I sighed aloud, without meaning to.
"Are you trying to intimidate me out of my library book?" Her tone was a little softened now, and I caught the amusement that made her strong mouth twitch. "I believe you are."
"No, I'm not. But I would like to know who you think might not want you checking out this book." I set down my cup and looked across at her.
She moved her shoulders restlessly under the lightweight wool of her jacket. I could see one longish hair clinging to the lapel, her own dark hair, but glinting with copper lights against the black fabric. She appeared to be making up her mind to say something. "Who are you?" she asked suddenly.
I took the question at academic face value. "I'm a graduate student here, in history."
"History?" It was a quick, almost angry interjection.
"I'm writing my dissertation on Dutch trade in the seventeenth century."
"Oh." She was silent for a moment. "I am an anthropologist," she said finally. "But I am also very much interested in history. I study the customs and traditions of the Balkans and Central Europe, especially of my native" - her voice dropped a little, but sadly, not secretively - "my native Romania."
It was my turn to flinch. Really, this was all more and more peculiar. "Is that why you wanted to readDracula? " I asked.
Her smile surprised me - white, even, her teeth a little small for such a strong face, the eyes shining. Then she tightened her lips again. "I suppose you could say that."
"You're not answering my questions," I pointed out.
"Why should I?" She shrugged. "You are a total stranger and you want to take my library book."
"You may be in danger, Miss Rossi. I'm not trying to threaten you, but I'm perfectly serious."
Her eyes narrowed on mine. "You are hiding something, too," she said. "I will tell you if you tell me."
I had never seen, met, or spoken with a woman like this. She was combative without being in the least flirtatious. I had the sensation that her words were a pool of cold water, into which I now plunged without stopping to count the consequences.
"All right. You answer my question first," I said, borrowing her tone. "Who do you think might not want you to have that book in your possession?"
"Professor Bartholomew Rossi," she said, her voice sarcastic, grating. "You're in history. Maybe you've heard of him?"
I sat there dumbfounded. "Professor Rossi? What - what do you mean?"
"I have answered your question," she said, straightening up and adjusting her jacket and piling her gloves one on the other again, as if finished with a task. I wondered fleetingly if she were enjoying the effect her words had on me, seeing me stammer over them. "Now tell me what you mean by all this drama about danger from a book."
"Miss Rossi," I said. "Please. I will tell you. Whatever I can. But please explain to me your relation to Professor Bartholomew Rossi."
She bent down, opened her book bag, and took out a leather case. "Do you mind if I smoke?" For the second time, I saw in her that masculine ease, which seemed to come over her when she put aside her defensively ladylike gestures. "Would you like one?"
I shook my head; I hated cigarettes, although I would almost have accepted one from that spare, smooth hand. She inhaled without any flourish, smoking dexterously. "I do not know why I am telling a stranger this," she said reflectively. "I guess the loneliness of this place is affecting me. I have hardly spoken with anyone in two months, except about work. And you do not strike me as a gossiping type, although God knows my department is full of them." I could hear her accent welling up fully under the words, which she spoke with a soft rancor. "But if you'll keep your promise¡­" The hard look came over her again; she straightened, cigarette jutting defiantly from one hand. "My relationship to the famous Professor Rossi is very simple. Or it should be. He is my father. He met my mother while he was in Romania looking for Dracula."
My coffee splashed across the table, over my lap, down the front of my shirt - which hadn't been perfectly clean, anyway - and spattered her cheek. She wiped it off with one hand, staring at me.
"Good God, I'm sorry. I'm sorry." I tried to clean up, using both our napkins.
"So this really shocks you," she said, without moving. "You must know him, then."
"I do," I said. "He's my adviser. But he never told me about Romania, and he - he never told me he had a family."
"He doesn't." The coldness in her voice cut through me. "I have never met him, you see, although I guess it is only a matter of time now." She leaned back in the little chair and hunched her shoulders, crudely, as if defying me to come closer. "I have seen him once, from a distance, at a lecture - imagine, seeing your father for the first time at a distance like that."
I had made a soggy heap of napkins and now I pushed everything aside, heap, coffee cup, spoon. "Why?"
"It's a very odd story," she said. She looked at me, but not as if she were lost in thought. She seemed instead to be gauging my reactions. "All right. It's a love 'em and leave 'em story." This sounded strange in her accent, although I wasn't moved to smile. "Maybe that's not so odd. He met my mother in her village, enjoyed her company for a while, and left her after a few weeks with an address in England. After he had gone, my mother discovered she was pregnant, and then her sister, who lived in Hungary, helped her flee to Budapest before I was born."
"He never told me he'd been to Romania." I was croaking, not speaking.
"Not surprising." She smoked bitterly. "My mother wrote him from Hungary, to the address he'd left her, and told him about their baby. He wrote her back saying he had no idea who she was or how she'd found his name, and that he'd never been to Romania. Can you imagine anything so cruel?" Her eyes bored into me, huge and starkly black now.
"What year were you born?" It didn't occur to me to apologize before asking the lady this question; she was so unlike anyone I'd ever encountered that the usual rules didn't seem to apply.
"In 1931," she said flatly. "My mother took me to Romania for a few days once, before I even knew about Dracula, but even then she would not go back to Transylvania."
"My God." I whispered it to the Formica tabletop. "My God. I thought he'd told me everything, but he didn't tell me that."
"He told you - what?" she asked sharply.
"Why haven't you met him? Doesn't he know you're here?"
She looked at me strangely but answered without demurring. "It's a game, I guess you could say. Just a fancy of mine." She paused. "I was not doing so badly in the university in Budapest. In fact, they considered me a genius." She announced this almost modestly. Her English was phenomenally good, I realized for the first time - supernaturally good. Maybe shewas a genius.
"My mother did not finish grade school, if you can believe it, although she got some more education later in life, but I was attending the university by the time I was sixteen. Of course, my mother told me my paternal heritage, and we do know Professor Rossi's outstanding books even in the murky depths of the East Bloc - Minoan civilization, Mediterranean religious cults, the age of Rembrandt. Because he wrote sympathetically on British socialism, our government allows the distribution of his works. I studied English throughout high school - would you like to know why? So I could read the amazing Dr. Rossi's work in the original. It wasn't exactly hard to find out where he was, either, you know; I used to stare at the university name on the jackets of his books and vow to go there one day. I thought things through. I made all the right connections, politically - I started by pretending I wanted to study the glorious labor revolution in England. And when the time came, I had my pick of scholarships. We have been enjoying some freedom in Hungary these days, although everyone wonders how long the Soviets will tolerate that. Speaking of impalers. In any case, I went to London first, for six months, and then got my fellowship to come here, four months ago."
She blew out a curl of gray smoke, thinking, but her eyes never left mine. It occurred to me that Helen Rossi was likelier to run into persecution by the communist governments she referred to with such cynicism than by Dracula. Perhaps she had actually defected to the West. I made a mental note to ask her about this later. Later? And what had become of her mother? And had she made all of this up, in Hungary, in order to attach herself to the reputation of a famous Western academic?
She was following her own train of thought. "Isn't it a pretty picture? The long-lost daughter turns out to be a great credit, finds her father, happy reunion." The bitterness in her smile turned my stomach. "But that is not quite what I had in mind. I have come here to let him hear about me, as if by accident - my publications, my lectures. We will see if he can hide from his past then, ignore me as he ignored my mother. And about this Dracula thing  - " She pointed her cigarette at me. "My mother, bless her simple soul for thinking of it, told me something about that."
"Told you what?" I asked faintly. "Told me about Rossi's special research on the subject. I had not known about it, not until last summer, just before I left for London. That is how they met; he was asking around in the village about vampire lore, and she had heard something about local vampires from her father and his cronies - not that a man alone should have been addressing a young girl in public, you understand, in that culture. But I suppose he did not know any better. Historian, you know  - not an anthropologist. He was in Romania looking for information on Vlad the Impaler, our own dear Count Dracula. And don't you think it's strange" -  she leaned forward suddenly, bringing her face closer to mine than it had been yet, but ferociously, not in appeal - "don't you think it is downright weird that he has not published a thing on the subject? Not one thing, as you surely know. Why? I asked myself. Why should the famous explorer of historical territories - and women, apparently, since who knows how many other genius daughters he has out there - why should he not have published anything out of this very unusual research?"
"Why?" I asked, not moving. "I'll tell you. Because he is saving it up for a grand finale. It is his secret, his passion. Why else would a scholar remain silent? But he has a surprise coming to him." Her lovely smile was a grin this time, and I didn't like it. "You would not believe how much ground I have covered in a year, since I learned about this little interest of his. I have not contacted Professor Rossi, but I have been careful to make my expertise known in my department. What a shame it will be for him when someone else publishes the definitive work on the subject first  - someone with his own name, too. It is beautiful. You see, I even took his name, once I arrived here - an academic nom de plume, you might say.
Besides, in the East Bloc, we do not like other people stealing our heritage and commenting on it; they usually misunderstand it." I must have groaned out loud, because she paused momentarily and frowned at me. "By the end of this summer, I will know more than anyone in the world about the legend of Dracula. You can have your old book, by the way." She opened the bag again and thumped it horribly, publicly, on the table between us. "I was simply checking something in it yesterday and I did not have time to go home for my own copy. You see, I do not even need it. It is only literature, in any case, and I know the whole damn thing almost by heart." My father looked around him like a man in a dream. We'd been standing on the Acropolis in silence for a quarter of an hour now, our feet planted on that crest of ancient civilization. I was awed by the muscular columns above us, and surprised to find that the most distant view on the horizon was of mountains, long dry ridges that hung darkly over the city at this sunset hour. But as we started back down, and he came out of his reverie to ask how I liked the great panorama, it took me a minute to collect my thoughts and answer. I had been thinking about the night before. I'd gone into his room a little later than usual so that he could look through my algebra homework, and I found him writing, mulling over the day's paperwork, as he often did in the evening. That night he sat very still with his head bent above the desk, drooping toward some documents, not upright and paging through them with his usual efficiency. I couldn't tell from the doorway whether he was intently scanning something he'd just written, almost without seeing it, or simply trying not to doze. His form cast a great shadow on the undecorated hotel-room wall, the figure of a man slumped dully over another, darker desk. If I hadn't known his fatigue, and the familiar shape of his shoulders sloping above the page, I might for a second - not knowing him  - have said he was dead.