The Historian

Chapter 26


Barley was angry. I couldn't blame him, but this was a most inconvenient turn of events for me, and I was a little mad, too. It made me all the angrier that my first twinge of annoyance was followed by a secret swelling of relief; I hadn't realized before seeing him how thoroughly alone I'd felt on that train, headed toward the unknown, headed perhaps toward the larger loneliness of being unable to find my father or even toward the galactic loneliness of losing him forever. Barley had been a stranger to me only a few days before, and now his face was my vision of familiarity.
At this moment, however, it was still scowling. "Where in bloody hell do you think you're going? You've given me a pretty chase - what are you up to, anyhow?"
I evaded the last question for now. "I didn't mean to worry you, Barley. I thought you'd gone on the ferry and would never know." "Yes, and hurry back to Master James, tell him you were safe in Amsterdam and then get word that you'd vanished. Oh, I would have been in his good graces then." He plunked himself down next to me, folded his arms, and crossed his long legs. He had his little suitcase with him, and the front of his straw-colored hair stood on end. "What's got into you?"
"Why were you spying on me?" I countered. "The ferry was delayed this morning for repairs." It seemed he couldn't help smiling a little now. "I was hungry as a horse, so I went back a few streets to get some rolls and tea, and then I thought I saw you slipping out the other direction, way up the street, but I wasn't at all sure. I thought I might be imagining things, you know, so I stayed and bought my breakfast. And then my conscience smote me, because if it was you I was in big trouble. So I hurried this way and saw the station, and then you boarded the train and I thought I was going to have heart failure." He glared at me again. "You've been quite a bother this morning. I had to run around and get a ticket - and I almost didn't have enough guilders for it, too - and hunt through the whole train for you. And now it's been moving so long we can't get off right away." His narrow bright eyes strayed to the window and then to the pile of envelopes in my lap. "Would you mind explaining why you're on the Paris express instead of at school?"
What could I do? "I'm sorry, Barley," I said humbly. "I didn't mean to involve you in this for a minute. I really thought you were on your way a long time ago and could go back to Master James with a clean conscience. I wasn't trying to be any trouble to you."
"Yes?" He was clearly waiting for more enlightenment. "So you just had a little hankering for Paris instead of history class?"
"Well," I began, stalling for time. "My father sent me a telegram saying he was fine and I should join him there for a few days."
Barley was silent for a moment. "Sorry, but that doesn't explain everything. If you'd got a telegram it would probably have come last night and I'd have heard about it. And was there any question of your father's not being 'fine'? I thought he was just away on business. What's all that you're reading?"
"It's a long story," I said slowly, "and I know you already think I'm strange - "
"You're awfully strange," Barley put in crossly. "But you'd better tell me what you're up to. You'll have just time before we get off in Brussels and take the next train back to Amsterdam."
"No!" I hadn't meant to cry out like that. The lady across from us stirred in her gentle sleep, and I dropped my voice. "I have to go on to Paris. I'm fine. You can get off there, if you want, and then get back to London by tonight."
"'Get off there,' eh? Does that mean you won't be getting off there? Where else does this train go?"
"No, it does stop in Paris - "He had folded his arms and was waiting again. He was worse than my father. Maybe he was worse than Professor Rossi had been. I had a brief vision of Barley standing at the head of a classroom, arms folded, eyes scanning his hapless students, his voice sharp: "And what finally leads Milton to his terrible conclusion about Satan's fall? Or hasn't anybody done the reading?" I swallowed. "It's a long story." I said it again, more humbly. "We have time," said Barley. "Helen and Turgut and I looked at one another around our little restaurant table, and I sensed a signal of kinship passing among us. Perhaps to delay for a moment, Helen picked up the round blue stone Turgut had put next to her plate and held it out to me. 'This is an ancient symbol,' she said. 'It is a talisman against the Evil Eye.' I took it, felt its heavy smoothness, warm from her hand, and set it down again.
"Turgut was not to be distracted, however. 'Madam, you are Romanian?' She was silent. 'If this is true, you must be careful here.' He lowered his voice a little. 'The police might be rather interested in you. Our country is not on friendly terms with Romania.'
"'I know,' she said coldly.
"'But how did the Gypsy woman know this?' Turgut frowned. 'You did not speak to her.'
"'I do not know.' Helen gave a helpless shrug.
"Turgut shook his head. 'Some people say the Gypsies have the talent of special vision. I have never believed this, but - ' He broke off and patted his mustache with his napkin. 'How strange that she talked of vampires.'
"'Is it?' Helen countered. 'She must have been a crazy woman. Gypsies are all mad.'
"'Perhaps, perhaps.' Turgut was silent. 'However, it is very strange to me, the way she spoke, because that is my other speciality.'
"'Gypsies?' I asked.
"'No, good sir - vampires.' Helen and I stared at him, carefully not meeting each other's eyes. 'Shakespeare is my life's work, but the legend of the vampire is my hobby. We have an ancient tradition here of vampires.'
"'Is that - ah - a Turkish tradition?' I asked in astonishment.
"'Oh, the legend goes back at least to Egypt, dear colleagues. But here in Istanbul - to begin with, there is a story that the most bloodthirsty of the emperors of Byzantium were vampires, that some of them understood the Christian communion as an invitation to quaff the blood of mortals. But I do not believe this. I believe it appeared later.'
"'Well - ' I didn't want to reveal too keen an interest, more for fear that Helen would jab my foot under the table again than from any conviction that Turgut was aligned with the powers of darkness. But she was staring at him, too.
'What about the legend of Dracula? Have you heard of that?'
"'Heard of that?' snorted Turgut. His dark eyes shone, and he twisted his napkin into a knot. 'You know that Dracula was a real person, a figure of history? A countryman of yours, actually, madam - ' He bowed to Helen. 'He was a lord, a voivoda, in the western Carpathians in the fifteenth century. Not an admirable person, you know.'
"Helen and I were nodding - we couldn't help it. I couldn't, at least, and she seemed too intent now on Turgut's words to stop herself. She had leaned forward a little, listening, and her eyes shone with the same rich darkness as his. Color had blossomed under her usual pallor. It was one of those many moments, I observed, even in the midst of my excitement, when beauty suddenly filled her rather harsh countenance, lighting it from within.
"'Well - ' Turgut seemed to be warming to his subject. 'I do not mean to bore you, but I have a theory that Dracula is a very important figure in the history of Istanbul. It is known that when he was a boy, he was held captive by Sultan Mehmed II in Gallipoli and then farther east in Anatolia - his own father gave him to the father of Mehmed, Sultan Murad II, as ransom for a treaty, from 1442 to 1448, six long years. Dracula's father was not a gentleman, either.' Turgut chuckled. 'The soldiers who guarded the boy Dracula were masters in the art of torture, and he must have learned too much when he watched them. But, my good sirs' - he seemed to have forgotten Helen's gender for the moment, in his collegial fervor - 'I have my own theory that he left his mark on them, too.'
"'What on earth do you mean?' My breath was coming short.
"'From about that time, there is a record of vampirism in Istanbul. It is my notion - and it is still unpublished, alack, and I cannot prove it - that his first victims were among the Ottomans, maybe the guards who became his friends.
He left behind him contamination in our empire, I propose, and then it must have been carried into Constantinople with the Conqueror.'
"We stared at him, speechless. It occurred to me that, according to legend, only the dead became vampires. Did this mean that Vlad Dracula had actually been killed in Asia Minor and become undead then, as a very young man, or that he'd simply had a taste for unholy libations very early in his life and had inspired it in others? I filed this away to ask Turgut in case I ever knew him well enough. 'Oh, this is my eccentric hobby, you know.' Turgut lapsed into a genial smile again. 'Well, excuse me for climbing up onto my soap dish. My wife says I am intolerable.' He toasted us with a subtle, courtly gesture before sipping from his little vase again. 'But, by heaven, I have proof of one thing! I have proof that the sultans feared him as a vampire!' He gestured toward the ceiling.
"'Proof?' I echoed.
"'Yes! I discovered it some few years ago. The sultan was so much interested in Vlad Dracula that he collected some of his documents and possessions here after Dracula died in Wallachia. Dracula killed many Turkish soldiers in his own country, and our sultan hated him for this, but that was not why he founded this archive. No! The sultan even wrote a letter to the pasha of Wallachia in 1478 asking him for any writings he knew of about Vlad Dracula. Why? Because - he said - he was creating a library that would fight the evil that Dracula had spread in his city after his death. You see - why would the sultan still fear Dracula when Dracula was dead, if he did not believe Dracula could return? I have found a copy of the letter the pasha wrote to him in response.' He thumped a fist on the table and smiled at us. 'I have even found the library he created to fight evil.'
"Helen and I sat motionless. The coincidence was almost unbearably strange. Finally I ventured a question. 'Professor, was this collection by any chance created by Sultan Mehmed II?'
"This time he stared at us. 'By my boots, you are a fine historian indeed. You are interested in this period in our history?'
"'Ah - very much so,' I said. 'And we would be - I'd be very much interested in seeing this archive you found.'
"'Of course,' he said. 'With great pleasure. I will show you. My wife will be astounded that anyone wants to see.' He chuckled. 'But, alack, the beautiful building in which it was once housed has been torn down to make way for an office of the Ministry of Roads - oh, eight years ago. It was a lovely little building near the Blue Mosque. Such a shame.'
"I felt the blood draining from my face. So that was why we had had such difficulty locating Rossi's archive. 'But the documents - ?'
"'Do not worry, kind sir. I myself ensured them to become part of the National Library. Even if no one else adores them as I do, they must be preserved.'
Something dark crossed his face for the first time since he had scolded the Gypsy woman. 'There is still evil to fight in our city, as there is everywhere.' He looked from one of us to the other. 'If you like old curiosities, I will most joyfully take you there tomorrow. It is closed this evening, of course. I know well the librarian who can allow you to peruse the collection.'
"'Thank you very much.' I didn't dare look at Helen. 'And how - how did you come to be interested in this unusual topic?'
"'Oh, it is a long story,' Turgut countered seriously. 'I cannot be allowed to bore you so much.'
"'We're not bored at all,' I insisted.
"'You are very kind.' He sat silent for some minutes, polishing his fork between thumb and forefinger. Outside our brick alcove, honking cars dodged bicycles in the crowded streets and pedestrians came and went like characters across a stage - women in flowing patterned skirts, scarves, and dangling gold earrings, or black dresses and reddish hair, men in Western suits and ties and white shirts. The breath of a mild, salty air reached us there at our table, and I imagined ships from all over Eurasia bringing their bounty to the heart of an empire - first Christian, then Muslim - and docking at a city whose walls stretched down into the very sea. Vlad Dracula's forested stronghold, with its barbaric rituals of violence, seemed far indeed from this ancient, cosmopolitan world. No wonder he had hated the Turks, and they him, I thought. And yet the Turks of Istanbul, with their crafts of gold and brass and silk, their bazaars and bookshops and myriad houses of worship, must have had much more in common with the Christian Byzantines they had conquered here than did Vlad, defying them from his frontier. Viewed from this center of culture, he looked like a backwoods thug, a provincial ogre, a medieval redneck. I remembered the picture I'd seen of him in an encyclopedia at home - that woodcut of an elegant, mustached face framed by courtly dress. It was a paradox.
"I was lost in this image when Turgut spoke again. 'Tell me, my fellows, what makes you to be interested in this topic of Dracula?' He had turned the table on us, with a gentlemanly - or suspicious? - smile.
"I glanced at Helen. 'Well, I'm studying the fifteenth century in Europe as background for my dissertation,' I said, and was immediately punished for my lack of candor by a sense that this lie might already be true. God knew when I'd be working on my dissertation again, I thought, and the last thing I needed was a broader topic. 'And you,' I pressed again. 'How did you jump from Shakespeare to vampires?'
"Turgut smiled - sadly, it seemed to me, and his quiet honesty punished me further. 'Ah, it is a very strange thing, a long time ago. You see, I was working on my second book about Shakespeare - the tragedies. I sat to work every day in a little - how do you say? - niche in our English room at the university. Then one day I found a book I never saw there before.' He turned to me with that sad smile again. My blood had already run cold in every extremity. 'This book was like no other, an empty book, very old, with a dragon in the middle and a word - DRAKULYA. I had never heard about Dracula before. But the picture was very strange and strong. And then I thought, I must know what this is. So I tried to learn everything.'
"Helen had frozen across from me, but now she stirred, as if with eagerness.
'Everything?' she echoed softly."
Barley and I had almost reached Brussels. It had taken me a long time - although it seemed like a few minutes - to tell Barley as simply and clearly as I could what my father had related of his experiences in graduate school. Barley stared past me out the window at the little Belgian houses and gardens, which looked sad under a curtain of clouds. We could see the occasional shaft of sunlight picking out a church spire or an old industrial chimney as we drew close to Brussels. The Dutch woman snored quietly, her magazine on the floor by her feet.
I was about to embark on a description of my father's recent restlessness, his unhealthy pallor and strange behavior, when Barley suddenly turned to face me. "This is awfully peculiar," he said. "I don't know why I should believe this wild tale, but I do. I want to, anyway." It struck me that I'd never before seen him look serious - only humorous or, briefly, annoyed. His eyes, blue as chips of sky, narrowed further. "The funny thing is that it all reminds me of something."
"What?" I was almost faint with relief at his apparent acceptance of my story.
"Well, that's the odd thing. I can't think what. Something to do with Master James. But what was it?"