William Sharps (Ph.D., Harvard, 1844) sat in the dining room of the Coroana de Aur hotel in Bistriţa and listened to two men plotting to kill him.
Sharps was dining alone. He was the only American in the room, and possibly the only man who spoke English as a native tongue for a hundred miles in any direction. The whispered conversation between the two would-be murderers was in an Ural-Altaic dialect. Everyone else in the room appeared to be speaking Romanian, German, or Croat.
The language was what had first caught Sharps's interest. The second point was how clear the conversation was. When he glanced around the room, pretending to savor his glass of quite execrable mead, he noted that the two men whom he presumed to be the speakers were seated in a far corner, their heads together, speaking in low tones. He supposed that the geometry of the room made it into a whispering gallery, like that of St. Paul's Cathedral in London.
He listened more closely. The speakers were referring to an unknown man, a traveler: Sharps noted that the word they used could equally refer to a stranger, a foreigner, or a slave. They were wondering how rich this foreigner was. They wondered if the crime (for they spoke of the foreigner's necessary death) would be better put off until the morrow; but they decided against this, for the foreigner would be away by the post and might slip beyond their grasp.
Sharps was himself planning to be away by the post. He had arrived by train from Vienna in the late afternoon, and, from Bistriţa, the way to the University of Brasov was best attempted by coach. Sharps carried letters of introduction from professors at the universities in Heidelberg and Köln. The library at Brasov housed a collection of arcane and metaphysical texts of high repute in scholarly circles; not so broad as the holdings of Wittenberg or Oxford, or of Arkham, but of great depth in the fields of Sharps's particular concern. Among the uncatalogued volumes in such a library, Sharps thought, he might well find the ur-text of the Liber Pallidus, the so-called Grey Book, which his researches had convinced him must, in fact, vary significantly from the Aldine Press edition of 1501, as well as from extant manuscript sources.