"Undoubtedly it is Runic," said the Professor,
bending his brows; "but there is a secret in it, and I mean to
discover the key."
A violent gesture finished the sentence.
"Sit there," he added, holding out his fist towards the table.
"Sit there, and write."
I was seated in a trice.
"Now I will dictate to you every letter of our alphabet which
corresponds with each of these Icelandic characters. We will see
what that will give us. But, by St. Michael, if you should dare to
The dictation commenced. I did my best. Every letter was given
me one after the other, with the following remarkable result:
When this work was ended my uncle tore the paper from me and
examined it attentively for a long time.
"What does it all mean?" he kept repeating mechanically.
Upon my honour I could not have enlightened him. Besides he did
not ask me, and he went on talking to himself.
"This is what is called a cryptogram, or cipher," he said, "in
which letters are purposely thrown in confusion, which if properly
arranged would reveal their sense. Only think that under this
jargon there may lie concealed the clue to some great
As for me, I was of opinion that there was nothing at all, in
it; though, of course, I took care not to say so.
Then the Professor took the book and the parchment, and
diligently compared them together.
"These two writings are not by the same hand," he said; "the
cipher is of later date than the book, an undoubted proof of which
I see in a moment. The first letter is a double m, a letter which
is not to be found in Turlleson's book, and which was only added to
the alphabet in the fourteenth century. Therefore there are two
hundred years between the manuscript and the document."
I admitted that this was a strictly logical conclusion.
"I am therefore led to imagine," continued my uncle, "that some
possessor of this book wrote these mysterious letters. But who was
that possessor? Is his name nowhere to be found in the
My uncle raised his spectacles, took up a strong lens, and
carefully examined the blank pages of the book. On the front of the
second, the title-page, he noticed a sort of stain which looked
like an ink blot. But in looking at it very closely he thought he
could distinguish some half-effaced letters. My uncle at once
fastened upon this as the centre of interest, and he laboured at
that blot, until by the help of his microscope he ended by making
out the following Runic characters which he read without
"Arne Saknussemm!" he cried in triumph. "Why that is the name of
another Icelander, a savant of the sixteenth century, a celebrated
I gazed at my uncle with satisfactory admiration.
"Those alchemists," he resumed, "Avicenna, Bacon, Lully,
Paracelsus, were the real and only savants of their time. They made
discoveries at which we are astonished. Has not this Saknussemm
concealed under his cryptogram some surprising invention? It is so;
it must be so!"
The Professor's imagination took fire at this hypothesis.
"No doubt," I ventured to reply, "but what interest would he
have in thus hiding so marvellous a discovery?"
"Why? Why? How can I tell? Did not Galileo do the same by
Saturn? We shall see. I will get at the secret of this document,
and I will neither sleep nor eat until I have found it out."
My comment on this was a half-suppressed "Oh!"
"Nor you either, Axel," he added.
"The deuce!" said I to myself; "then it is lucky I have eaten
two dinners to-day!"
"First of all we must find out the key to this cipher; that
cannot be difficult."
At these words I quickly raised my head; but my uncle went on
"There's nothing easier. In this document there are a hundred
and thirty-two letters, viz., seventy-seven consonants and
fifty-five vowels. This is the proportion found in southern
languages, whilst northern tongues are much richer in consonants;
therefore this is in a southern language."
These were very fair conclusions, I thought.
"But what language is it?"
Here I looked for a display of learning, but I met instead with
"This Saknussemm," he went on, "was a very well-informed man;
now since he was not writing in his own mother tongue, he would
naturally select that which was currently adopted by the choice
spirits of the sixteenth century; I mean Latin. If I am mistaken, I
can but try Spanish, French, Italian, Greek, or Hebrew. But the
savants of the sixteenth century generally wrote in Latin. I am
therefore entitled to pronounce this, a priori, to be Latin. It is
I jumped up in my chair. My Latin memories rose in revolt
against the notion that these barbarous words could belong to the
sweet language of Virgil.
"Yes, it is Latin," my uncle went on; "but it is Latin confused
and in disorder; ‘pertubata seu inordinata,' as Euclid has
"Very well," thought I, "if you can bring order out of that
confusion, my dear uncle, you are a clever man."
"Let us examine carefully," said he again, taking up the leaf
upon which I had written. "Here is a series of one hundred and
thirty-two letters in apparent disorder. There are words consisting
of consonants only, as nrrlls; others, on the other hand,
in which vowels predominate, as for instance the fifth,
uneeief, or the last but one, oseibo. Now this
arrangement has evidently not been premeditated; it has arisen
mathematically in obedience to the unknown law which has ruled in
the succession of these letters. It appears to me a certainty that
the original sentence was written in a proper manner, and
afterwards distorted by a law which we have yet to discover.
Whoever possesses the key of this cipher will read it with fluency.
What is that key? Axel, have you got it?"
I answered not a word, and for a very good reason. My eyes had
fallen upon a charming picture, suspended against the wall, the
portrait of Gräuben. My uncle's ward was at that time at Altona,
staying with a relation, and in her absence I was very downhearted;
for I may confess it to you now, the pretty Virlandaise and the
professor's nephew loved each other with a patience and a calmness
entirely German. We had become engaged unknown to my uncle, who was
too much taken up with geology to be able to enter into such
feelings as ours. Gräuben was a lovely blue-eyed blonde, rather
given to gravity and seriousness; but that did not prevent her from
loving me very sincerely. As for me, I adored her, if there is such
a word in the German language. Thus it happened that the picture of
my pretty Virlandaise threw me in a moment out of the world of
realities into that of memory and fancy.
There looked down upon me the faithful companion of my labours
and my recreations. Every day she helped me to arrange my uncle's
precious specimens; she and I labelled them together. Mademoiselle
Gräuben was an accomplished mineralogist; she could have taught a
few things to a savant. She was fond of investigating abstruse
scientific questions. What pleasant hours we have spent in study;
and how often I envied the very stones which she handled with her
Then, when our leisure hours came, we used to go out together
and turn into the shady avenues by the Alster, and went happily
side by side up to the old windmill, which forms such an
improvement to the landscape at the head of the lake. On the road
we chatted hand in hand; I told her amusing tales at which she
laughed heartilv. Then we reached the banks of the Elbe, and after
having bid good-bye to the swan, sailing gracefully amidst the
white water lilies, we returned to the quay by the steamer.
That is just where I was in my dream, when my uncle with a
vehement thump on the table dragged me back to the realities of
"Come," said he, "the very first idea which would come into any
one's head to confuse the letters of a sentence would be to write
the words vertically instead of horizontally."
"Indeed!" said I.
"Now we must see what would be the effect of that, Axel; put
down upon this paper any sentence you like, only instead of
arranging the letters in the usual way, one after the other, place
them in succession in vertical columns, so as to group them
together in five or six vertical lines."
I caught his meaning, and immediately produced the following
"Good," said the professor, without reading them, "now set down
those words in a horizontal line."
I obeyed, and with this result:
"Excellent!" said my uncle, taking the paper hastily out of my
hands. "This begins to look just like an ancient document: the
vowels and the consonants are grouped together in equal disorder;
there are even capitals in the middle of words, and commas too,
just as in Saknussemm's parchment."
I considered these remarks very clever.
"Now," said my uncle, looking straight at me, "to read the
sentence which you have just written, and with which I am wholly
unacquainted, I shall only have to take the first letter of each
word, then the second, the third, and so forth."
And my uncle, to his great astonishment, and my much greater,
"Hallo!" cried the Professor.
Yes, indeed, without knowing what I was about, like an awkward
and unlucky lover, I had compromised myself by writing this
"Aha! you are in love with Gräuben?" he said, with the right
look for a guardian.
"Yes; no!" I stammered.
"You love Gräuben," he went on once or twice dreamily. "Well,
let us apply the process I have suggested to the document in
My uncle, falling back into his absorbing contemplations, had
already forgotten my imprudent words. I merely say imprudent, for
the great mind of so learned a man of course had no place for love
affairs, and happily the grand business of the document gained me
Just as the moment of the supreme experiment arrived the
Professor's eyes flashed right through his spectacles. There was a
quivering in his fingers as he grasped the old parchment. He was
deeply moved. At last he gave a preliminary cough, and with
profound gravity, naming in succession the first, then the second
letter of each word, he dictated me the following:
I confess I felt considerably excited in coming to the end;
these letters named, one at a time, had carried no sense to my
mind; I therefore waited for the Professor with great pomp to
unfold the magnificent but hidden Latin of this mysterious
But who could have foretold the result? A violent thump made the
furniture rattle, and spilt some ink, and my pen dropped from
between my fingers.
"That's not it," cried my uncle, "there's no sense in it."
Then darting out like a shot, bowling down stairs like an
avalanche, he rushed into the Königstrasse and fled.