The Historian

Chapter 2


You already know, my father said, that before you were born I was a professor at an American university. Before that, I studied for many years to become a professor. At first I thought I would study literature. Then, however, I realized I loved true stories even better than imaginary ones. All the literary stories I read led me into some kind of - exploration - of history. So finally I gave myself up to it. And I'm very pleased that history interests you, too.
One spring night when I was still a graduate student, I was in my carrel at the university library, sitting alone very late among rows and rows of books. Looking up from my work, I suddenly realized that someone had left a book whose spine I had never seen before among my own textbooks, which sat on a shelf above my desk. The spine of this new book showed an elegant little dragon, green on pale leather.
I didn't remember ever having seen the book there or anywhere else, so I took it down and looked through it without really thinking. The binding was soft, faded leather, and the pages inside appeared to be quite old. It opened easily to the very center. Across those two pages I saw a great woodcut of a dragon with spread wings and a long looped tail, a beast unfurled and raging, claws outstretched. In the dragon's claws hung a banner on which ran a single word in Gothic lettering: DRAKULYA.
I recognized the word at once and thought of Bram Stoker's novel, which I hadn't yet read, and of those childhood nights at the movie theater in my neighborhood, Bela Lugosi hovering over some starlet's white neck. But the spelling of the word was odd and the book clearly very old. Besides, I was a scholar and deeply interested in European history, and after staring at it for a few seconds, I remembered something I'd read. The name actually came from the Latin root for dragon or devil, the honorary title of Vlad Tepes - the "Impaler" - of Wallachia, a feudal lord in the Carpathians who tormented his subjects and prisoners of war in unbelievably cruel ways. I was studying trade in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, so I didn't see any reason for a book on this subject to be tucked in among mine, and I decided it must have been left there accidentally, perhaps by someone who was working on the history of Central Europe, or on feudal symbols.
I flipped through the rest of the pages - when you handle books all day long, every new one is a friend and a temptation. To my further surprise, the rest of it  - all those fine old ivory-colored leaves - was completely blank. There wasn't even a title page, and certainly no information about where or when the book had been printed, no maps or endpapers or other illustrations. It showed no imprint of the university library, no card or stamp or label.
After gazing at the book for a few more minutes, I set it on my desk and went down to the card catalog on the first floor. There was indeed a subject card for "Vlad III ('Tepes') of Wallachia, 1431- 1476 - See also Wallachia, Transylvania, and Dracula." I thought I should check a map first; I quickly discovered that Wallachia and Transylvania were two ancient regions in what was now Romania. Transylvania looked more mountainous, with Wallachia bordering it on the southwest. In the stacks I found what seemed to be the library's only primary source on the subject, a strange little English translation from the 1890s of some pamphlets about "Drakula." The original pamphlets had been printed in Nuremberg in the 1470s and '80s. The mention of Nuremberg gave me a chill; only a few years earlier, I had followed closely the trials there of Nazi leaders. I'd been too young by one year to serve in the war before it ended, and I had studied its aftermath with all the fervor of the excluded. The volume of pamphlets had a frontispiece, a crude woodcut of a man's head and shoulders, a bullnecked man with hooded dark eyes, a long mustache, and a hat with a feather in it. The image was surprisingly lively, given the primitive medium.
I knew I should be getting on with my work, but I couldn't help reading the beginning of one of the pamphlets. It was a list of some of Dracula's crimes against his own people, and against some other groups, too. I could repeat what it said, from memory, but I think I won't - it was extremely disturbing. I shut the little volume with a snap and went back to my carrel. The seventeenth century consumed my attention until nearly midnight. I left the strange book lying closed on my desk, hoping its owner would find it there the next day, and then I went home to bed.
In the morning I had to attend a lecture. I was tired from my long night, but after class I drank two cups of coffee and went back up to my research. The antique book was still there, lying open now to that great swirling dragon. After my short sleep and jarring lunch of coffee, it gave me a turn, as old novels used to say. I looked at the book again, more carefully. The central image was clearly a woodcut, perhaps a medieval design, a fine sample of bookmaking. I thought it might be valuable in a cold-cash way, and maybe also of personal value to some scholar, since it obviously wasn't a library book.
But in that mood I didn't like the look of it. I shut the book a little impatiently and sat down to write about merchants' guilds until late afternoon. On my way out of the library, I stopped at the front desk and handed the volume to one of the librarians, who promised to put it in the lost-and-found cabinet.
The next morning at eight o'clock, when I hauled myself up to my carrel to work on my chapter some more, the book was on my desk again, open to its single, cruel illustration. I felt some annoyance - probably the librarian had misunderstood me. I put the thing quickly away on my shelves and came and went all day without letting myself look at it again. In the late afternoon I had a meeting with my adviser, and as I swept up my papers, I pulled out the strange book and added it to the pile. This was an impulse; I didn't intend to keep it, but Professor Rossi enjoyed historical mysteries, and I thought it might entertain him. He might be able to identify it, too, with his vast knowledge of European history.
I had the habit of meeting Rossi as he finished his afternoon lecture, and I liked to sneak into the hall before it ended, to watch him in action. This semester he was giving a course on the ancient Mediterranean, and I had caught the end of several lectures, each brilliant and dramatic, each imbued with his great gift for oratory. Now I crept to a seat at the back in time to hear him concluding a discussion of Sir Arthur Evans's restoration of the Minoan palace in Crete. The hall was dim, a vast Gothic auditorium that held five hundred undergraduates. The hush, too, would have suited a cathedral. Not a soul stirred; all eyes were fixed on the trim figure at the front.
Rossi was alone on a lit stage. Sometimes he wandered back and forth, exploring ideas aloud as if ruminating to himself in the privacy of his study. Sometimes he stopped suddenly, fixing his students with an intense stare, an eloquent gesture, an astonishing declaration. He ignored the podium, scorned microphones, and never used notes, although occasionally he showed slides, rapping the huge screen with a pole to make his point. Sometimes he got so excited that he raised both arms and ran partway across the stage. There was a legend that he'd once fallen off the front in his rapture over the flowering of Greek democracy and had scrambled up again without missing a beat of his lecture. I'd never dared to ask him if this was true.
Today he was in a pensive mood, pacing up and down with his hands behind his back. "Sir Arthur Evans, please remember, restored the palace of King Minos at Knossos partly according to what he found there and partly according to his own imagination, his vision of what Minoan civilization had been." He gazed into the vault above us. "The records were sparse and he was dealing mainly with mysteries. Instead of adhering to limited accuracy, he used his imagination to create a palace style breathtakingly whole - and flawed. Was he wrong to do this?"
Here he paused, looking almost wistfully out over the sea of tousled heads, cowlicks, buzz cuts, the purposely shabby blazers and earnest young male faces (remember, this was an era when only boys attended such a university as undergraduates, although you, dear daughter, will probably be able to enroll wherever you want to). Five hundred pairs of eyes gazed back at him. "I shall leave you to ponder that question." Rossi smiled, turned abruptly, and left the limelight.
There was an intake of breath; the students began to talk and laugh, to collect their belongings. Rossi usually went to sit on the edge of the stage after the lecture, and some of his more avid disciples hurried forward to ask him questions. These he answered with seriousness and good humor until the last student had trailed away, and then I went over to greet him.
"Paul, my friend! Let's go put our feet up and speak Dutch." He clapped me affectionately on the shoulder and we walked out together. Rossi's office always amused me because it defied the convention of the mad professorial study: books sat neatly on the shelves, a very modern little coffee burner by the window fed his habit, plants that never lacked water adorned his desk, and he himself was always trimly dressed in tweed trousers and an immaculate shirt and tie. His face was of a crisp English mold, sharp-featured and intensely blue-eyed; he'd told me once that from his father, a Tuscan immigrant to Sussex, he'd acquired only a love of good food. To look into Rossi's face was to see a world as definite and orderly as the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace.
His mind was another thing altogether. Even after forty years of strict self-apprenticeship, it boiled over with remnants of the past, simmered with the unsolved. His encyclopedic production had long since won him accolades in a publishing world much wider than the academic press. As soon as he finished one work, he turned to another, often an abrupt change of direction. As a result, students from a myriad of disciplines sought him out, and I was considered lucky to have acquired his advisership. He was also the kindest, warmest friend I'd ever had.
"Well," he said, turning on his coffeepot and waving me to a chair. "How's the opus coming along?"
I filled him in on several weeks' work, and we had a short argument about trade between Utrecht and Amsterdam in the early seventeenth century. He served up his fine coffee in porcelain cups and we both stretched back, he behind the big desk. The room was permeated with the pleasant gloom that still came in at that hour, later each evening now that spring was deepening. Then I remembered my antique offering. "I've brought you a curiosity, Ross. Someone's left a rather morbid object in my carrel by mistake and after two days I didn't mind borrowing it for you to take a look at."
"Hand it over." He set down the delicate cup and reached out to take my book.
"Good binding. This leather might even be some kind of heavy vellum. And an embossed spine." Something about the spine of the book brought a frown to his usually clear face.
"Open it," I suggested. I couldn't understand the flickering throb my heart gave as I waited for him to repeat my own experience with the nearly blank book. It opened under his practiced hands to its exact center. I couldn't see what he saw, behind his desk, but I saw him see it. His face was suddenly grave - a still face, and not one I knew. He turned through the other leaves, front and back, as I had, but the gravity didn't become surprise. "Yes, empty." He laid it open on his desk. "All blank."
"Isn't it an odd thing?" My coffee was growing cold in my hand.
"And quite old. But not blank because it is unfinished. Just terribly blank, to make the ornament in the center stand out."
"Yes. Yes, it's as if the creature in the middle has eaten up everything else around it." I'd begun flippantly, but I finished slowly.Rossi seemed unable to drag his eyes from that central image spread before him. At last he shut the book firmly and stirred his coffee without sipping it.
"Where did you get this?"
"Well, as I said, someone left it in my carrel by accident, two days ago. I guess I should have taken it to Rare Books immediately, but I honestly think it's someone's personal possession, so I didn't."
"Oh, it is," Rossi said, looking narrowly at me. "It is someone's personal possession.""So you know whose?"
"Yes. It's yours."
"No, I mean that I simply found it in my - " The expression on his face stopped me. He looked ten years older, by some trick of the light from the dusky window. "What do you mean, it's mine?"
Rossi rose slowly and went to a corner of his study behind the desk, climbing two steps of the library stool to bring down a little dark volume. He stood looking at it for a minute, as if unwilling to put it in my hands. Then he passed it across. "What do you think of this?"
The book was small, covered in ancient-looking brown velvet like an old prayer missal or Book of Days, with nothing on the spine or front to give it an identity. It had a bronze-colored clasp that slipped apart with a little pressure. The book itself fell open to the middle. There, spread across the center, was my - I say my - dragon, this time overflowing the edges of the pages, claws outstretched, savage beak open to show its fangs, with the same bannered word in the same Gothic script.
"Of course," Rossi was saying, "I've had time, and I've had this identified. It's a Central European design, printed about 1512 - so you see it could very well have been set with movable-type text throughout, if there had been any text."
I flipped slowly through the delicate leaves. No titles on the first pages - no, I knew it already. "What a strange coincidence."
"It's been stained by salt water on the back, perhaps from a trip on the Black Sea. Not even the Smithsonian could tell me what it's seen in the course of its travels. You see, I actually took the trouble of getting a chemical analysis. It cost me three hundred dollars to learn that this thing sat in an environment heavily laden with stone dust at some point, probably prior to 1700. I also went all the way to Istanbul to try to learn more about its origins. But the strangest thing is the way I acquired this book." He stretched out a hand and I gladly gave the volume back, old and fragile as it was.
"Did you buy it somewhere?"
"I found it in my desk when I was a graduate student."
A shiver went over me. "Your desk?"
"My library carrel. We had them, too. The custom goes back to seventh-century monasteries, you know."
"Where did you - where did it come from? A gift?"
"Maybe." Rossi smiled strangely. He seemed to be controlling some difficult emotion. "Like another cup?"
"I will, after all," I said, dry throated.
"My efforts to find its owner failed, and the library couldn't identify it. Even the British Museum Library had never seen it before and offered me a considerable sum for it."
"But you didn't want to sell."
"No. I like a puzzle, as you know. So does every scholar worth his salt. It's the reward of the business, to look history in the eye and say, 'I know who you are. You can't fool me.'"
"So what is it? Do you think this larger copy was made by the same printer at the same time?"
His fingers drummed the windowsill. "I haven't thought much about it in years, actually, or I've tried not to, although I always sort of - feel it, there, over my shoulder." He gestured up toward the dark crevice among the book's fellows. "That top shelf is my row of failures. And things I'd rather not think about."
"Well, maybe now that I've turned up a mate for it, you can fit the pieces in place better. They can't be unrelated."
"They can't be unrelated." It was a hollow echo, even if it came through the swish of fresh coffee.
Impatience, and a slightly fevered feeling I often had in those days from lack of sleep and mental overexertion, made me hurry him on. "And your research? Not just the chemical analysis. You said you tried to learn more - ?"
"I tried to learn more." He sat down again and spread small, practical-looking hands on either side of his coffee cup. "I'm afraid I owe you more than a story," he said quietly. "Maybe I owe you a sort of apology - you'll see why - although I would never consciously wish such a legacy on any student of mine. Not on most of my students, anyway." He smiled, affectionately, but sadly, I thought. "You've heard of Vlad Tepes - the Impaler?"
"Yes, Dracula. A feudal lord in the Carpathians, otherwise known as Bela Lugosi."
"That's the one - or one of them. They were an ancient family before their most unpleasant member came to power. Did you look him up on your way out of the library? Yes? A bad sign. When my book appeared so oddly, I looked up the word itself, that afternoon - the name, as well as Transylvania, Wallachia, and the Carpathians. Instant obsession."
I wondered if this might be a veiled compliment - Rossi liked his students working at a high pitch - but I let it pass, afraid to interrupt his story with extraneous comment.
"So, the Carpathians. That's always been a mystical spot for historians. One of Occam's students traveled there - by donkey, I suppose - and produced out of his experiences a funny little thing called Philosophie of the Aweful. Of course, the basic story of Dracula has been hashed over many times and doesn't yield much to exploration. There's the Wallachian prince, a fifteenth-century ruler, hated by the Ottoman Empire and his own people - both. Really among the nastiest of all medieval European tyrants. It's estimated that he slaughtered at least twenty thousand of his fellow Wallachians and Transylvanians over the years. Dracula means son of Dracul - son of the dragon, more or less. His father had been inducted into the Order of the Dragon by Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund - it was an organization for the defense of the Empire against the Ottoman Turks. Actually, there is evidence that Dracula's father gave Dracula over to the Turks when he was a boy as hostage in a political bargain, and that Dracula acquired some of his taste for cruelty from observing Ottoman torture methods."
Rossi shook his head. "Anyway, Vlad's killed in a battle against the Turks, or perhaps just by accident by his own soldiers, and buried in a monastery on an island in Lake Snagov, now in the possession of our friend socialist Romania. His memory becomes legend, passed down through generations of superstitious peasants. At the end of the nineteenth century, a disturbed and melodramatic author - Abraham Stoker - gets hold of the name Dracula and fastens it on a creature of his own invention, a vampire. Vlad Tepes was horrifyingly cruel, but he wasn't a vampire, of course. And you won't find any mention of Vlad in Stoker's book, although his version of Dracula talks about his family's great past as Turk-fighters." Rossi sighed. "Stoker assembled some useful lore about vampire legends - about Transylvania, too, without ever going there - actually, Vlad Dracula ruled Wallachia, which borders Transylvania. In the twentieth century, Hollywood takes over and the myth lives on, resurrected. That's where my flippancy stops, by the way."
Rossi set his cup aside and folded his hands together. For a moment, he seemed unable to continue. "I can joke about the legend, which has been monstrously commercialized, but not about what my research turned up. In fact, I felt unable to publish it, partly because of the presence of that legend. I thought the very subject matter wouldn't be taken seriously. But there was another reason, too."
This brought me to a mental standstill. Rossi left no stone unpublished; it was part of his productivity, his lavish genius. He sternly instructed his students to do the same, to waste nothing.
"What I found in Istanbul was too serious not to be taken seriously. Perhaps I was wrong in my decision to keep this information - as I can honestly call it -  to myself, but each of us has his own superstitions. Mine happen to be an historian's. I was afraid."
I stared and he gave a sigh, as if reluctant to go on. "You see, Vlad Dracula had always been studied in the great archives of Central and Eastern Europe or, ultimately, in his home region. But he began his career as a Turk-killer, and I discovered that no one had ever looked in the Ottoman world for material on the Dracula legend. That was what took me to Istanbul, a secret detour from my research on the early Greek economies. Oh, I published all the Greek stuff, with a vengeance."
For a moment he was silent, turning his gaze toward the window. "And I suppose I should just tell you, straight out, what I discovered in the Istanbul collection and tried not to think about afterward. After all, you've inherited one of these nice books." He put his hand gravely on the stack of two. "If I don't tell you all this myself, you will probably simply retrace my steps, maybe at some added risk." He smiled a little grimly at the top of the desk. "I could save you a great deal of grant writing, anyway." I couldn't bring the dry chuckle out of my throat. What on earth was he driving at? It occurred to me that perhaps I'd underestimated some peculiar sense of humor in my mentor. Maybe this was an elaborate practical joke - he'd had two versions of the menacing old book in his library and had planted one in my stall, knowing I'd bring it to him, and I'd obliged, like a fool. But in the ordinary lamplight from his desk he was suddenly gray, unshaven at the end of the day, with dark hollows draining the color and humor from his eyes. I leaned forward. "What are you trying to tell me?"
"Dracula - " He paused. "Dracula - Vlad Tepes - is still alive."
"Good Lord," my father said suddenly, looking at his watch. "Why didn't you tell me? It's almost seven o'clock."
I put my cold hands inside my navy jacket. "I didn't know," I said. "But please don't stop the story. Please don't stop there." My father's face looked momentarily unreal to me; I'd never before considered the possibility that he might be - I didn't know what to call it. Mentally unbalanced? Had he lost his balance for a few minutes, in the telling of this story?
"It's late for such a long tale." My father picked up his teacup and put it down again. I noticed that his hands were shaking.
"Please go on," I said.
He was ignoring me. "Anyway, I don't know whether I've scared you or simply bored you. You probably wanted a good straightforward tale of dragons."
"There was a dragon," I said. I wanted, too, to believe he had made the story up. "Two dragons. Will you at least tell me more tomorrow?"
My father rubbed his arms, as if to warm himself, and I saw that for now he was fiercely unwilling to talk about it further. His face was dark, closed.
"Let's go get some dinner. We can leave our luggage at Hotel Turist first."
"All right," I said.
"They're going to throw us out in a minute, anyway, if we don't leave." I could see the light-haired waitress leaning against the bar; she didn't seem to care whether we stayed or went. My father got out his wallet, smoothed flat some of those big faded bills, always with a miner or farmworker smiling heroically off the back, and put them in the pewter tray. We worked our way around wrought-iron chairs and tables and went out the steamy door.
Night had come down hard - a cold, foggy, wet, East European night, and the street was almost deserted. "Keep your hat on," my father said, as he always did. Before we stepped out under the rain-washed sycamores, he suddenly stopped, held me back behind his outstretched hand, protectively, as if a car had gone rushing past us. But there was no car, and the street dripped quiet and rustic under its yellow lights. My father looked sharply left and right. I thought I saw no one, although my long-eaved hood partly blocked my sight. He stood listening, his face averted, body stock-still.
Then he let his breath out heavily and we walked on, talking about what to order for dinner at the Turist when we got there.There would be no more discussions of Dracula on that journey. I was soon to learn the pattern of my father's fear: he could tell me this story only in short bursts, reeling it out not for dramatic effect but to preserve something - his strength? His sanity?