June 20, 1930
My dear friend, I haven't a soul in the world to talk to at this moment, and I find myself with pen in hand wishing for your company, in particular - you would be full of your usual mild amazement at the scene I'm enjoying just now. I've been in a state of disbelief myself today - as you would be if you could see where I am - on a train, although that's hardly a clue in itself. But the train is puffing towards Bucarest. Good God, man, I hear you say through its whistle. But it is true. I hadn't planned to come here, but something quite remarkable has brought me. I was in Istanbul until just a few days ago, on a bit of research I've been keeping under my hat, and I found something there that made me want to come here. Not want to, actually; it would be more accurate to say I'm terrified to, and yet feel compelled. You are such an old rationalist - you aren't going to care for all this a bit, but I wish like the devil I had your brains along on my jaunt; I'm going to need every scrap of mine and more to find what I'm looking for. We're slowing for a town, with a chance to buy breakfast - I'll desist for the moment and come back to this later. Afternoon - Bucarest I'm down for what would be a siesta if my mind weren't in such a state of unrest and excitement. It's accursedly hot here - I thought this would be a land of cool mountains, but if it is I haven't reached any yet. Nice hotel, Bucarest is a sort of tiny Paris of the East, grand and small and a little faded, all at the same time. It must have been dashing in the Eighties and Nineties. It took me forever to find a cab, and then a hotel, but my rooms are fairly comfortable and I can rest and wash and think about what to do. I'm half inclined not to set down here what I'm about, but you'll be so very perplexed by my ravings if I don't that I think I must. To make it short and shocking, I'm on a quest of sorts, an historian's hunt for Dracula - not Count Dracula of the romantic stage, but a real Dracula - Drakulya - Vlad III, a fifteenth-century tyrant who lived in Transylvania and Wallachia and dedicated himself to keeping the Ottoman Empire out of his lands as long as possible. I stopped in Istanbul the better part of a week to see an archive there that contains some documents about him collected by the Turks, and while there I found a most remarkable set of maps that I believe to be clues to the whereabouts of his tomb. I'll explain to you at greater length when I'm home what sent me on this chase, and I simply have to beg your indulgence in the meantime. You can chalk it up to youth, you old sage, my setting out on this chase at all.
In any case, my stay in Istanbul turned dark at the end and has rather frightened me, although that will surely sound foolish at a distance. But I'm not easily put off a quest once I've begun, as you know, and I couldn't help coming on here with copies I've made of those maps, to look for more information about Drakulya's tomb. I should explain to you, at the very least, that he is supposed to have been buried in an island monastery in Lake Snagov, in western Roumania - Wallachia, the region is called. The maps I found in Istanbul, with his tomb clearly marked on them, show no island, no lake, and nothing that looks like western Roumania, as far as I can tell. It always seems to me a good idea to check the obvious first, since the obvious is sometimes the right answer. I've resolved, therefore - but here I'm sure you're shaking your head over what you will call foolish stubbornness - to make my way to Lake Snagov with the maps and ascertain for myself that the tomb is not there. How I will go about that, I don't yet know, but I can't begin to be satisfied hunting elsewhere until I have ruled out this possibility. And, perhaps, after all, my maps are some kind of ancient hoax and I will find ample proof that the tyrant sleeps there and always has.
I must be in Greece by the fifth, so I have precious little time for this whole excursion. I only want to know if my maps fit anything at the site of the tomb. Why I need to know this, I cannot tell even you, dear man - I wish I knew, myself. I intend to conclude my Roumanian journey by visiting as much as I can of Wallachia and Transylvania. What comes to your mind when you think of the word Transylvania, if you ponder it at all? Yes, as I thought - wisely, you don't. But what comes tomymind are mountains of savage beauty, ancient castles, werewolves, and witches - a land of magical obscurity. How, in short, am I to believe I will still be in Europe, on entering such a realm? I shall let you know if it's Europe or fairyland when I get there. First, Snagov - I set out tomorrow.
Your devoted friend,
June 22 Lake Snagov
My dear friend, I haven't yet seen any place to post my first letter - to post it with the confidence, that is, that it will ever reach your hands - but I'll go hopefully on here despite that, since a great deal has happened. I spent all day yesterday in Bucarest trying to locate good maps - I now have at least some road maps of Wallachia and Transylvania - and talking with everyone I could find at the university who might have some interest in the history of Vlad Tepes. No one here seems to want to discuss the subject, and I have the sense of their inwardly, if not outwardly, crossing themselves when I mention Dracula's name. After my experiences in Istanbul, this makes me a little nervous, I confess, but I will press on for now.
In any case, yesterday I found a young professor of archaeology at the university who was kind enough to inform me that one of his colleagues, a Mr. Georgescu, has made a speciality of the history of Snagov and is digging out there this summer. Of course, I was tremendously excited to learn this and have decided to put myself, maps and bags and all, into the hands of a driver who can take me out there today; it is only some hours' drive from Bucarest, he says, and we leave at one o'clock. I must go now to lunch somewhere - the little restaurants here are uncommonly nice, with glimpses of an Oriental luxury in their cuisine - before we depart.
My dear friend, I can't help continuing this spurious correspondence of ours - may it unfold itself under your eyes eventually - because it's been such a remarkable day that I simply must talk with someone. I left Bucarest in a neat little taxicab of sorts, driven by an equally neat little man with whom I could barely exchange two words (Snagovbeing one of them). After a brief session with my road maps, and many reassuring pats on the shoulder (my shoulder, that is), we set off. It took us all of the afternoon. We puttered along roads mainly paved but very dusty, and through a lovely landscape mainly agrarian but occasionally forested, to reach Lake Snagov. My first intimation of the place was the driver's waving an excited hand, on which I looked out and saw only forest. This was just an introduction, however. I don't quite know what I'd expected; I suppose I'd been so wrapped up in my historian's curiosity that I hadn't stopped to expect anything in particular. I was jolted out of my obsession by the first sight of the lake. It is an exceptionally lovely place, my friend, bucolic and otherworldly. Imagine, if you will, a sparkling long water, which you catch glimpses of from the road between dense groves of trees. Nestled here and there in the woods are fine villas - often you can see only an elegant chimney, or a curving wall - many of which appear to date from early in the last century, or earlier. When you get to an opening in the forest - we parked near a little restaurant of sorts with three boats drawn up behind it - you look out across the lake to the island where the monastery lies, and there - there at last - you get a panorama that has surely changed little over centuries. The island is a short boat ride from shore and is wooded like the banks of the lake. Above its trees rise the splendid Byzantine cupolas of the monastery church, and across the water comes the sound of bells - struck (I later learned) by a monk's wooden mallet. That sound of bells floating across the water made my heart turn over; it seemed to me exactly one of those messages from the past that cry out to be read, even if one cannot be sure what they say. My driver and I, standing there in the late-afternoon light reflected off the water, might have been spies for the Turkish army, peering out at this bastion of an alien faith, instead of two rather dusty modern men leaning against an automobile.
I could have stood looking and listening far longer without growing restless, but my determination to find the archaeologist before nightfall sent me into the restaurant. I used a little sign language and my best pidgin Latin to get us a boat to the island. Yes, yes, there was a man from Bucarest digging with a shovel over there, the owner managed to convey to me - and twenty minutes later we were disembarking on the shore of the island. The monastery was even lovelier up close, and rather forbidding, with its ancient walls and high cupolas, each crowned with an ornate seven-pointed cross. The boatman led us up steep steps to it, and I would have entered the great wooden doors at once, but the fellow pointed us around the back.
Skirting those beautiful old walls, I realized suddenly that for the first time I was actually walking in Dracula's footsteps. Until then, I had been following his trail through a maze of documents, but now I stood on ground that his feet - in what sort of shoes? Leather boots, with a cruel spur buckled to them? - had probably trodden. If I had been one for crossing myself, I would have done it at that moment; as it was, I had the sudden urge to tap the boatman on his rough woollen shoulder and ask him to row us safely to shore again. But I didn't, as you can imagine, and I hope I shall not ultimately regret having stayed my hand.
Behind the church, in the midst of a large ruin, we did indeed find a man with a shovel. He was a hearty-looking, middle-aged man with curly black hair, his white shirt untucked, sleeves rolled to the elbow. Two boys worked beside him, turning carefully through the soil by hand, and from time to time he set down his shovel and did the same. They were concentrated around a very small area, as if they had found something of interest there, and only when our boatman shouted a greeting did they all look up.
The man in the white shirt came forwards, scanning all of us with very sharp dark eyes, and the boatman made some sort of introduction, helped along by the driver. I held out my hand and tried one of my few Roumanian phrases before lapsing into English: "Ma numesc Bartolomeo Rossi. Nu va suparati¡­"I learned this delightful phrase, with which one interrupts strangers with a request for information, from the concierge at my hotel in Bucarest. It means, literally, "Don't be angry" - can you imagine an everyday utterance more redolent of history? "Don't pull out your dagger, friend - I'm simply lost in this wood and need directions out of it." I don't know whether it was my use of the phrase, or my probably atrocious accent, but the archaeologist burst into laughter as he gripped my hand.
Up close, he was a sturdy, deeply tanned fellow with a network of lines around his eyes and mouth. Two top teeth were missing from his smile, and most of the remaining ones glinted with gold. His hand was prodigiously strong, dry and rough as a farmer's. "Bartolomeo Rossi," he said in a rich voice, still laughing. "Ma numesc Velior Georgescu. How doo you doo? How can I help you?" For a moment I was transported to our walking trip last year; he might have been any one of those weather-beaten highlanders of whom we were constantly asking directions, only with dark hair instead of sandy.
"You speak English?" I puzzled stupidly.
"A wee bit," said Mr. Georgescu. "It has been a long time since I have had the chance to practice, but it will come back to my toongue yet." His speech was fluent and rich, with the burr of a rolled "r."
"I beg your pardon," I said hastily. "I understand you have a special interest in Vlad III and I would very much like to talk with you. I'm an historian from Oxford University."
He nodded. "I'm glad to hear of your interest. Have you coome so far just to see his grave?"
"Well, I had hoped - "
"Ah, you hooped, you hooped," said Mr. Georgescu, clapping me on the shoulder not unkindly. "But I shall have to bring down your hoopes a bit, my lad." My heart leapt - was it possible that this man, too, thought Vlad was not buried here? But I decided to bide my time and listen carefully before asking any more questions. He was studying me quizzically, and now he smiled again. "Coome, I'll take you for the walking toour." He gave his assistants a few quick instructions, which appeared to be an invitation to stop working, for they brushed off their hands and flopped down under a tree. Leaning his shovel against a half-excavated wall, he beckoned to me. In my turn, I let the driver and boatman know I was taken care of and crossed the boatman's palm with silver. He touched his hat and disappeared, and the driver sat down against the ruin and took out a pocket flask.
"Very good. We will go around the outside first." Mr. Georgescu waved a broad hand about him. "You know the history of this island? A little? There was a church here in the fourteenth century, and the monastery was built a wee bit later, also in that century. The first church was wooden, and the second was stoone, but the stoone church sank right into the lake in 1453. Remarkable, doon't you think? Dracula came to power in Wallachia for the second time in 1462, and he had his own ideas. I believe he liked this monastery because an island is easy to protect - he was always looking for places he could fortify against the Turks. This is a good one, doon't you think?"
I agreed, trying not to stare at him. The man's English was so fascinating that I was finding it hard to concentrate on what he said, but his last point had sunk in. It took only a glance around to picture even a few monks defending this stronghold from invaders. Velior Georgescu was gazing about us with approval, too. "Therefoore, Vlad made a fortress of the existing monastery. He built fortified walls around it, and a prison and a toorture chamber. Also an escape tunnel and a bridge to the shore. He was a canny lad, Vlad was. The bridge is long gone, of course, and I am excavating the rest. This, where we are digging now, was the prison. We have found several skeletons in it already." He smiled broadly and his gold teeth gleamed in the sun.
"And this is Vlad's church, then?" I pointed at the lovely building nearby,
with its soaring cupolas and the dark trees rustling around its walls. "Noo, I'm afraid not," said Georgescu. "The monastery was partly burned by the Turks in 1462, when Vlad's brother Radu, an Ottoman puppet, was on the throone of Wallachia. And just after Vlad was buried here, a terrible storm blew his church into the lake."WasVlad buried here? I longed to ask it, but I kept my mouth firmly closed. "The peasants must have thought it was God's punishment for his sins. The church was rebuilt in 1517 - it took three years, and you see here the results. The outside walls of the monastery are a restoration, only about thirty years auld."
We had strolled to the edge of the church, and he patted the mellowed masonry as if slapping the rump of a favorite horse
. As we stood there, a man suddenly rounded the corner of the church and came towards us - a white-bearded, bent old man in black robes and black pillbox hat with long flaps that descended to his shoulders. He walked with the aid of a stick, and his robe was tied with a narrow rope from which hung a ring of keys. Around his neck on a chain dangled a very fine old cross of the type I'd seen on the church cupolas.
I was so astonished by this apparition that I nearly fell over; I can't describe the effect it had on me, except to say that it was very much as if Georgescu had successfully conjured a ghost. But my new acquaintance went forwards, smiling at the monk and bowing over his gnarled hand, on which sparkled a gold ring that Georgescu respectfully kissed. The old man seemed fond of him, too, for he placed his fingers on the archaeologist's head for a moment and smiled, a wan, sere smile that involved even fewer teeth than Georgescu's. I caught my name in the introductions and bowed to the monk as gracefully as I could, though I couldn't bring myself to kiss his ring.
"This is the abboot," Georgescu explained to me. "He is the last one here and he has only three other monks living with him now. He has been here since he was a yooung man and he knows the island much better than I ever will. He welcomes you and gives you his blessing. If you have any questions for him, he says, he will try to answer them." I bowed my thanks, and the old man moved slowly on. A few minutes later I saw him sitting quietly on the edge of the ruined wall behind us, like a crow resting in the afternoon sunlight.
"Do they live here year-round?" I asked Georgescu.
"Oh, yes. They are here in the moost difficult winters." My guide nodded. "You will hear them chanting the mass if you dinna leave too airly." I assured him that I wouldn't want to miss such an experience. "Now, let us go in the church." We went around to the front doors, great carved wooden ones, and there I entered a world I had never known before, quite a different one from our Anglican chapels.
It was cold inside, and before I could see anything in the penetrating darkness of the interior, I could smell a smoky spice on the air and feel a clammy draft from the stones, as if they were breathing. When my eyes adjusted to the gloom, it was only to catch faint gleams of brass and candle flame. The daylight filtered in dimly, through heavy, dark colored glass. There were no pews or chairs, apart from some tall wooden seats built along one of the walls. Near the entrance burned a stand of candles, dripping thickly and giving off a smell of scorching wax; some of them were stuck in a brass crown at the top and some placed in a pot of sand around the base. "The monks light these every day, and now and then there are other visitors who do, as well," Georgescu explained. "The ones around the top are for the living, and the ones around the bottom are for the soouls of the dead. They bairn until they go out by themselves."
At the center of the church he pointed upwards, and I saw a dim, floating face above us, at the peak of the dome. "Are you familiar with our Byzantine churches?" Georgescu asked. "Christ is always in the center, looking doon. This candelabrum" - a great crown hung from the center of Christ's chest, filling the main space of the church, but the candles in it had burned out - "is typical, too."
We proceeded to the altar. I felt suddenly like an invader, but there was no sign of the monks and Georgescu strode ahead with proprietary cheerfulness. The altar was hung with embroidered cloths, and in front of it lay a mass of woven wool rugs and mats in folk motifs that I would have called Turkish if I hadn't known better. The top of the altar was adorned with several richly decorated objects, among them an enamelled crucifix and a gold-framed icon of the Virgin and Child. Behind it rose a wall of sad-eyed saints and even sadder angels, and in their midst was a pair of beaten-gold doors backed by purple velvet curtains, leading somewhere completely hidden and mysterious.
All this I made out with difficulty, through the dusk, but the gloomy beauty of the scene moved me. I turned to Georgescu. "Did Vlad worship here? In the previous church, I mean?"
"Oh, cairtainly." The archaeologist chuckled. "He was a pious auld murtherer. He built many churches and other monasteries, to be sure that plenty of people were praying for his salvation. This was one of his favorite places and he was very cloose to the monks here. I doon't know what they thought of his bad deeds, but they loved his support of the monastery. Besides, he protected them from the Turks. But the treasures you see here were brought from other churches - peasants stole everything valuable in the last century, when the church was closed. Look here - this is what I wanted to show you." He squatted down and turned back the rugs in front of the altar. Directly before it I saw a long rectangular stone, smooth and undecorated but clearly a grave marker. My heart began to thud.
"Yes, according to legend. Some of my colleagues and I excavated here a few years ago and found an empty hole - it contained only a few animal boones."
I caught my breath. "He wasn't in it?"
"Absolutely not." Georgescu's teeth glinted like the brass and gold all around us. "The written records say that he was buried here, in front of the altar, and that the new church was built on the same foundations as the auld, so his toomb was not disturbed. You can imagine how disappointed we were not to find him."
Disappointed?I thought. I found the idea of the empty hole below more frightening than disappointing.
"In any case, we decided to pooke around a little more, and over here" - he led me back down the nave to a spot near the front entrance and moved another rug - "over here we found a second stoone just the same as the first." I stared down at it. This one was indeed the same size and shape as the first and also undecorated. "So we doog this up, too," Georgescu explained, patting it.
"And you found - ?"
"Oh, a very nice skeleton." He reported this with obvious satisfaction. "In a casket that had part of the shroud still over it - amazing, after five centuries. The shroud was royal purple with gold embroidery and the skeleton inside was in good condition. Beautifully dressed, too, in purple broocade with dark red sleeves. The most wonderful thing was that sewn to one of the sleeves we found a little ring. The ring is rather plain, but one of my colleagues believes it was part of a larger oornament that showed the symbol of the Oorder of the Dragon."
My heart had lost a beat or two, by this point, I confess. "The symbol?"
"Yes, a dragon with long claws and a looped tail. Those who were invested in the Oorder wore this image somewhere on their person at all times, usually as a brooch or clasp for the cloak. Our friend Vlad was no doubt invested in it, probably by his father, when he reached manhood." Georgescu smiled up at me. "But I have the feeling you knew that already, Professor."
I was struggling with warring emotions of regret and relief. "So this was his grave, and the legends just had the exact spot wrong."
"Oh, I doon't think so." He smoothed the rug back over the stone. "Not all my colleagues would agree with me, but I think the evidence is clairly against it."
I couldn't help staring at him in surprise. "But what about the regal clothing and the little ring?"
Georgescu shook his head. "This fellow was probably a member of the Oorder, too - a high-ranking nobleman - and perhaps he was dressed up in Dracula's best clothes for the occasion. Perhaps he was even invited to die so that there would be a body to fill the toomb - who knows exactly when."
"Did you rebury the skeleton?" I had to ask it; the stone lay so very close to our feet.
"Oh, noo - we packed him off to the history museum in Bucarest, but you can't go see him there - they locked him up in storage with all his nice clothes. It was a shame." Georgescu did not look terribly sorry, as if the skeleton had been appealing but unimportant, at least compared with his true quarry.
"I don't understand," I said, staring at him. "With so much evidence, exactly why don't you think he was Vlad Dracula?"
"It's very simple," Georgescu countered cheerfully, patting the rug. "This fellow had his head on. Dracula's was cut off and taken to Istanbul by the Turks as a troophy. All the sources are in agreement about that. So now I'm digging in the old prison for another toomb. I think the body was removed from its burial site in front of the altar to outwit grave robbers, or perhaps to protect it from later Turkish invasions. He's on this island somewhere, the auld bugger."
I was transfixed by all the questions I wanted to ask Georgescu, but he stood and stretched. "Wouldn't you like to go across to the restaurant for supper? I'm hungry enough to devour a sheep whoole. But we can hear the beginning of the service first, if you'd like. Where are you staying?"
I confessed that I had no idea yet and that I needed also to provide lodgings for my driver. "There's a great deal I should like to talk with you about," I added.
"And I with you," he agreed. "We can doo that during our supper."
I needed to speak to my driver, so we made our way back to the ruined prison.
It devolved that the archaeologist kept a little boat below the church and could row us over, and that he would prevail upon the owner of the restaurant to find local rooms for us. Georgescu stowed away his gear and dismissed the assistants, and we returned to the church in time to see the abbot and his three monks, equally black garbed, processing into the church through the doors of the sanctuary. Two of the monks were elderly, but one was still brown of beard and stood firmly upright. They walked slowly around to face the altar, the abbot leading with a cross and orb in his hands. His bent shoulders carried a purple-and-gold mantle that caught the glow of the candle flames.
At the altar they bowed, the monks prostrating themselves full-length for a moment on the stone floor - just over the empty tomb, I noticed. For a moment, I had the horrifying sense that they were bowing not to the altar but to the grave of the Impaler.
Suddenly an eerie sound rose up; it seemed to come from the church itself, to curl out of the walls and dome like mist. They were chanting. The abbot went through the little doors behind the altar - I tried not to crane for a glimpse of the inner sanctum - and brought out a great book with an enamelled cover, tracing his blessing over it in the air. He laid it on the altar. One of the monks handed him a censer on a long chain; this he swung above the book, dusting it with an aromatic smoke. All around us, above and behind and below, rose the dissonant sacred music with its buzzing drone and wavering heights. My skin crawled, for I realized that at that moment I was closer to the heart of Byzantium than I'd ever been in Istanbul. The ancient music and the rite that accompanied it had probably changed little since they were performed for the emperor in Constantinople.
"The service is very long," Georgescu whispered to me. "They woon't mind if we slip away." He took a candle from his pockets, lit it from a burning wick in the stand near the entrance, and set it in the sand below.
In the restaurant on the shore, a dingy little place, we ate heartily of stews and salads served up by a timid girl in village dress. There was a whole chicken and a bottle of heavy red wine, which Georgescu poured liberally. My driver had apparently made friends in the kitchen, so that we found ourselves utterly alone in the panelled room with its fading views of lake and island.
Once we had warded off the worst of our hunger, I asked the archaeologist about his wonderful command of English. He laughed with his mouth full. "I owe that to my mither and father, God rest their souls," he said. "He was a Scottish archaeologist, a mediaevalist, and she was a Scottish Gypsy. I was raised from a bairn in Fort William and worked with my father until he died. Then some of my mother's relatives asked her to travel with them to Roumania, where they came from. She'd been boorn and bred in a village in western Scotland, but when my father was gone she wanted only to leave. My father's family hadn't been kind about her, you see. So she brought me here, when I was just fifteen, and I've been here since. When we came here I took her family name. To blend in a bit better."
This story left me speechless for a moment, and he grinned. "It's an odd tale, I know. What's yours?"
I told him, briefly, about my life and studies, and about the mysterious book that had come into my possession. He listened with brows knit together, and when I was done he nodded slowly. "A strange story, no doubt about it."
I took the book from my bag and handed it to him. He looked through it carefully, pausing to gaze for long minutes at the woodcut in the center. "Yes," he told me thoughtfully. "This is very much like many images associated with the Oorder. I've seen a similar dragon on pieces of jewellery - that little ring, for example. But I've never seen a book like this one before. No idea where it came from, then?"
"None," I admitted. "I hope to have it examined by a specialist one day, perhaps in London."
"It's a remarkable piece of work." Georgescu handed it gently back to me. "And now that you've seen Snagov, where do you intend to go? Back to Istanbul?"
"No." I shuddered, but I didn't want to tell him why. "I've got to return to Greece to attend a dig, actually, in a couple of weeks, but I thought I'd go for a glimpse of T?rgoviste, since that was Vlad's main capital. Have you been there?"
"Ah, yes, of coourse." Georgescu scraped his plate clean like a hungry boy. "That's an interesting place for any pursuer of Dracula. But the really interesting thing is his castle."
"His castle? Does he really have a castle? I mean, does it still exist?" "Well, it's a ruin, but a rather nice one. A ruined fortress. It's a few miles up the River Arges from T?rgoviste, and you can get there rather easily by road, with a climb on foot to the very top. Dracula favored any place that could be easily defended from the Turks, and this one is a love of a site. I'll tell you what - " He was fishing in his pockets and now he found a little clay pipe and began to fill it with fragrant tobacco. I passed him a light. "Thank you, lad. I'll tell you what - I'll go along with you. I can stay only a couple of days, but I could help you find the fortress. It's a great deal easier if you have a guide. I haven't been there in a wandering moon, and I'd like to see it again myself." I thanked him sincerely; the idea of striking out into the heart of Roumania without an interpreter had made me uneasy, I admit. We agreed to start tomorrow, if my driver will take us as far as T?rgoviste. Georgescu knows a village near the Arges where we can stay for a few shillings; it isn't the nearest to the fortress, but he doesn't like going to that village anymore as he was once almost chased out of it. We parted with a hearty good night, and now, my friend, I must blow out my light to sleep for the next adventure, of which I shall keep you apprised.
Yours most affectionately, Bartholomew