Count Otto von Hausburg and his devoted servant are sent to Belgrade by the Austrian monarchy to investigate troubling reports of vampires. There they find a deeply frightened populace who are willing to believe the Count is the devil incarnate. Perhaps they are right. Novakovic brilliantly captures the atmosphere of the Balkans in the 18th century and offers up a playful twist on the Gothic imagination.
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In the Fog
'Master, please step out.' With these words my servant woke me from the light sleep into which I had fallen upon leaving Petrovaradin.
'One of the wheels is on its way out. We have to replace it before it breaks.'
I yawned, stretched and got down from the carriage. The six white horses stood still, while the coachman and my servant readied the new wheel. It was a cold morning. I shall never understand why I always let myself be talked into travelling at the very crack of dawn, when I hate the dawn – and whatever crack it crawls out of.
I turned around where I stood, twice, having a good look at the thick fog that was rolling in from all sides across the flat black earth. The endless plain. This land is said to be quite fertile. For wheat.
The coachman drew near enough for me to smell the previous year's inferior vintage.
'Sir,' he said, 'could you mind the team while we change the wheel?'
'All of them at once?' I asked.
'Oh no, sir, it's only the leader you have to take in hand.'
How clever of him to have realized. The night before, when I'd hired him, he'd struck me as somewhat slow. Clearly, alcohol had the opposite effect on him, sharpening his wits. He really ought to give it up.
'My dear coachman, if you only knew,' I answered. 'Holding the leader by the reins is fine, of course, but I'd much rather have them all.'
No sooner had I said these words than I heard a distant whinnying and sound of hooves that could belong only to another carriage heading in our direction. I couldn't make it out through the fog, but it was coming closer, of that I was certain.
The moments passed, and the horses grew restless. My servant drew his pistol and loaded it, although this was unnecessary. I have no enemies among the sons of men. I am beloved of all.
And as I stood there, thinking of love, out of the fog came a wide carriage of black and yellow. A six-in-hand like my own. Its driver brought the team to a halt, the door emblazoned with the imperial coat of arms swung open and out of the imperial interior leaped a young man. He was dressed quite as well as myself. Tall, with broad shoulders. He bowed and spoke in German.
'My dear sir, you seem to be having some trouble. May we be of some assistance?'
'Thank you, my fine young gentleman, but I trust my servant and coachman will manage to change the wheel and that we shall shortly be on our way again.'
'And where are you headed, if I may ask?'
'As are we. But please, allow me to introduce myself. I am Klaus Radetzky, physician and special investigator in the service of His Imperial Majesty Karl VI.'
'And I am Count Otto von Hausburg, a distant cousin to His Imperial Majesty. How odd that we should happen to meet like this. It was only the other day, as I was leaving Vienna, that His Imperial Majesty received me, and yet there was no mention of any special investigator.'
Radetzky squirmed. The situation was awkward for him, not because he'd been caught in a lie but because he'd been caught in the truth.
'His Imperial Majesty does not wish my – I mean, our – business to be a matter of general knowledge,' he said, stumbling over his words.
'And yet I hardly had to drag it out of you, did I?'
'I was ... how should I ... I cannot explain ...' As he stammered, a way out suddenly occurred to him. 'I was struck immediately by your resemblance to His Imperial Majesty and knew right away that you must be related.'
'Indeed, I am related to His Imperial Majesty's half-brother, but it's one of those half-brothers of the illegitimate persuasion, and the connection is all on the half-brother's mother's side, so one could say that I'm not actually kin to His Imperial Majesty. Or even kith, as far as that goes. But no matter. What matters is the love and esteem in which His Imperial Majesty holds me. It was by personal service in the English colonies that I earned my title and lands and not by inheritance.'
Radetzky, having disgraced himself even further, was dumbstruck. He could only look around, hoping perhaps that something would come out of the fog to save him. There was, however, nothing to save him. How could there be? Out of the fog?
'Well now, as you've already told me so much, you might as well tell me your business in Belgrade. Always finish what you start, as they say. Stories first and foremost.'
He considered for a few moments, then bravely swallowed. It seemed such a big thing for him – to swallow, I mean.
'My lord,' he said, 'you would be sure to learn of it in Belgrade anyway. I belong to a special commission, one personally chosen and sent by His Imperial Majesty to Belgrade, so recently under Turkish dominion, in order to investigate certain occurrences there of a strange and horrifying nature. I am accompanied by two other men of science, both of the rank of Graf.'
Fortune had smiled on me at last. After the bony Hungarian girls in Pest, the clever coachman and the broken wheel, now was my chance. I had only to get close to Radetzky, gain his friendship and everything I wanted to know would be dropped right into my lap. So the news had reached the emperor after all. My journey had not been in vain.
I gave the young man a nod, and he turned and leaped into his carriage. Again the escutcheon flashed before my eyes, and then the carriage vanished into the fog.
But barely had the clip-clop of hooves and the creaking of the carriage wheels faded away when from the thick mists appeared a new figure. This one was alone and walked on his own two feet, and was therefore either a wandering beggar or a fool. Same thing, really. As he approached I was able to make out some of his features. He was exceptionally tall, had long pale hair and a beard and was dressed in rags.
He drew near, but not too near, and called out, 'Need any help?'
What a question, coming from the likes of him. The man must have a good heart, I surmised. There were any number of his ilk wandering around in the fog. I don't like them. They don't bathe as a rule, thinking that cleanliness doesn't matter. And so they stink. Other people, put off by the smell, give them a wide berth. It's easy to be good when you haven't actually got to deal with other people. However, it was not the offer of assistance that surprised me, coming as it did from a man who was attired – if you can call it that – in rags. No, what surprised me was the language in which he spoke to me. It was Russian. I answered in the same language, 'Nyet!'
Then he cried out, 'Oh! Brother of mine!' and came running.
Ah yes, there was that smell.
'No, not your brother,' I said in Russian, thrusting my hands out to ward him off. The Russians love their kisses. And always in sets of three.
'But you are Russian!' he exclaimed, still giving signs of wanting to embrace me. 'I am Nikolai Leskovich Patkoff of Moscow.'
'I am Boyar Mikhail Fyodorovich Tolstoyevski,' I responded, taking special pleasure in my introduction. 'And where might you be going, Nikolai Leskovich?'
'To Belgrade,' he answered, greatly pleased for some unknown reason.
'To Belgrade? From Moscow to Belgrade? That's rather a long way.'
'Yes, my lord, the way is long. It was last summer when I started out. But the journey must be made.'
My servant informed me that the wheel had been changed and that we could continue.
'Well, Nikolai Leskovich, all the worst! Er, all the best, rather,' I said, and got into the carriage. The six-in-hand set off with a jolt, and the Russian continued to stand there. He'd make it to Belgrade in time for dinner. As long as he didn't lose his way in the fog. As for me, yes, it would be just as well to reach Belgrade before the commission did. I removed four kreutzers from my purse then put one back. I shouted to the coachman.
'Get us to Belgrade before that other carriage, and you'll have' – I slipped another kreutzer back into my purse – 'two kreutzers for your trouble.'
I heard the crack of the whip.
Still in the Fog
It had been years since my last visit to Belgrade. And I was missing it. I was curious to see what twenty years of Austrian rule had done for the place. The last time I'd seen it, it was an Oriental bazaar, the skyline bristling with countless minarets, the air filled with the stench of tallow and the wailing of muezzins. In Pest I'd heard how the city was nearly destroyed in the siege of 1717 but that the fortifications had since been tripled, making it even more impregnable than during its time under the Turks.
We made our way on to the bridge over the Sava, our vision obscured on every side. I stuck my head out as far as it would go but was unable to see the city. All was blanketed in thick fog. I could just make out, at the very top, the fortress of Kalemegdan.
We stopped while my servant spoke to the guards, and soon I heard the heavy gates creak open. The imperial and other state credentials I carried were the work of Jewish master craftsmen. I've got every conceivable pedigree – from German princedoms, Italian city states, the empires of Austria and Russia, the Kingdom of France ... Although some thing tells me the French papers have nearly outlived their usefulness.
Once again I was Otto von Hausburg, Graf.
'Master,' said my servant, 'the guards say to go straight to the regent's.'
This struck me as odd, but I merely nodded, and the carriage jolted back into motion.
At long last we reached our destination, and servants dashed out to meet us and unhitch the team. A promising welcome, I thought to myself. I watched my man speaking to the servants, and the servants all shaking their heads. At once I beckoned him to me.
'What are they saying?' I asked. If you want to learn something important, always ask the little people.
'Master, they say that no one must go about once the sun goes down.'
'Ah well,' I said, playing the part, 'it's always that way in a city, isn't it? As if one would go wandering about Pest or Vienna at night! No shortage of cutpurses and brigands anywhere, is there? And here we are in the middle of an entire garrison, so one can just imagine what they get up to when they've been drinking ...'
'No, master, they don't mean soldiers or brigands or any of the other things that strike fear into a city. Soldiers may be soldiers, but at least they're flesh and blood, and robbers are flesh and blood, too, as you yourself know, master – but the danger in the night they are speaking of is something else.'
'They wouldn't say. They're afraid. The regent doesn't want it spoken of.'
Well, of course he doesn't, I thought. His position as regent was at stake. But keeping quiet never saved anyone – quite the contrary, you might say.
I didn't pursue the matter, not wanting my servant to grasp the real reason for my presence. I couldn't trust him. Naturally, when he'd first learned of our destination, he was beside himself. 'Why, master? Why Serbia? They're still fighting the Turks.'
'Because it is good for you to see your homeland.'
'I cannot believe you'd do such a thing to me, master.'
'Then don't believe,' I'd answered.
And yet I must bear with him, as it's so hard to find good help these days, willing help. I've got any number of people actually working for me, of course – practically everyone you can think of, in fact, but more in a roundabout sort of way, inconspicuously. Very few people directly on the payroll. However, my Serb was an exception in every sense.
After losing the war the Serbs beat a hasty retreat from the Turks. This particular Serb hadn't stopped for breath until he had reached Pest. Which is where I'd found him in 1706.
The first time I laid eyes on him was in a tavern called the Fat German. He was roaring drunk, but I liked him instantly. I don't know why. He had an intelligent look about him, and beautiful hands. What's the use of a clever servant with nice hands? I wondered. The second time I saw him was outside a tavern called the Second Encounter. To this day I wonder at the name. Such an odd choice for an alehouse. It was indeed our second meeting, and I took it as a sign. This time I couldn't resist. He was drunk again, and I had to crouch down to speak to him.
'Would you like to come and work for me?'
He fired his answer back like the best Austrian cannon. 'For you? Get thee behind me, Satan!'
'Yes, quite. Although, frankly, I don't know how you expect to get ahead in today's Europe with such an intolerant attitude.'
'No use being open-minded when I'm always drunk,' he retorted, and right away I knew I was dealing not only with a clever man but a wise one. Just the sort of servant I like. Without wasting time I got straight to the point. The meaning of life.
'I'll pay you ten forints to be my servant.'
'Seeing as you're the Devil, sir, you could be more generous.'
'Generous? Ha! And I suppose old Fishmouth is generous, is he?'
'You know, that old Jew. The Jew with no teeth in his mouth. How much is he paying you?'
'Nothing yet, but he's very open-handed with his promises.'
'Have you a name to go with all those wits, my man?'
'The name's Novak. Twelve forints.'
'Eleven,' I countered. 'You're quite the drinker.'
'Twelve, because I do my best thinking when I'm drunk.'
Everyone's always telling me how accommodating I am and how it's one of my very best weaknesses.
I accepted, and he fired a question at me. 'But tell me, sir, what is it you do exactly? I've always wondered.'
'I deal in seven things and seven only. These seven things, in order – and the order is of the utmost importance, mind you – are as follows: pride, avarice, lust, envy, gluttony, anger and the despairing neglect of eternal salvation called sloth.'
And that was how he came to work for me.
But that was thirty long years ago.
In such a fog, everyone was sluggish and in disarray, and it was quite some time before I was able to enter the hall. At least there was no fog indoors. The walls were mostly bare, with the occasional decorative halberd in that narrow-bladed Saxon style of Johann Georg I. There were also some tufted maces lying about, and some hussar sabres, and a pickaxe, nearly a dozen daggers, five or six rapiers, a two-handed broadsword that even Hercules would find cumbersome, a pair of yataghans, three katana, a pair of Scottish flintlock pistols and one otherworldly Chinese landscape on silk.
The man who received me was a Baron Schmidlin. He was an adviser in the administration and was just over forty years old. Already bald, shortish and sporting a beer gut. He had a hearty manner that went beyond the merely polite, and it didn't take long for him to open up. As we all know, fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
'Herr Graf,' he said excitedly, 'I know that you are sent from Vienna to investigate the terrible events that torment His Majesty's subjects.'
Excellent, I thought. The man thinks I'm one of the emperor's special investigators. Why didn't he just assume I'd been sent because of the war Austria was waging to the south? Following its initial victories and the conquest of Ni, the imperial army had suffered defeat after defeat. Caribrod and Pirot had already fallen, and Ni was under siege by the Turks.
'Indeed,' I said evenly, 'I am a special imperial investigator, and I shall expect your full cooperation in bringing our investigation to a swift conclusion.'
'I'll tell you everything I know, but you must go and see it with your own eyes.'
'It,' he repeated, 'the thing with no name.'
'Very well,' I said, quite sure that I wouldn't. 'I shall.'
'And you are not at all afraid?'
'No,' I said resolutely, although I was afraid. Had I felt no fear I would not have come to Belgrade. 'Now tell me.'
'When the time is right,' said Schmidlin, nearly whispering. 'We expect the regent to return from the hunt at any moment. You see how thick the fog is. The hunt is sure to have been a failure, and the regent is very angry when he comes back empty-handed.'
'From what I hear, he's always very angry,' I said, making a bid for closeness with Schmidlin.
He grinned and nodded.
'That is so. And please do not forget, he does not like to be called President of the Administration, which is his real title here. Address him as Regent of Serbia.'
'I shall bear it in mind.'
'One other thing. Tonight there is a ball here at the Residenz. You will certainly attend, but I beg you not to speak to the regent of your business here. It will only provoke him.'
'But I am an imperial ...'
'Vienna is far away, Herr Graf, and here there are terrible crimes in the dark.'
'Very well,' I said, nodding, 'but I must advise you that there is another commission on its way, one that knows nothing of me and has been sent by His Imperial Majesty to conduct an investigation alongside my own. They are not aware of me because, among other things, I must oversee them as well. The commission is led by a young doctor, Klaus Radetzky.'
'It was to be expected,' said the baron. 'For Vienna to send a doctor was only to be expected.'
Excerpted from "Fear and His Servant"
Copyright © 2000 Mirjana Novakovic.
Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
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