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First digital edition 2017 by Anna Ruggieri
THE"Voyages Extraordinaires" of M. Jules Verne deserve to be made widely known in English-speaking countries by means of carefully prepared translations. Witty and ingenious adaptations of the researches and discoveries of modern science to the popular taste,which demands that these should be presented to ordinary readers in the lighter form of cleverly mingled truth and fiction, these books will assuredly be read with profit and delight, especially by English youth. Certainly no writer before M. Jules Vernehas been so happy in weaving together in judicious combination severe scientific truth with a charming exercise of playful imagination.
Iceland, the starting point of the marvellous underground journey imagined in this volume, is invested at the present time with a painful interest in consequence of the disastrous eruptions last Easter Day, which covered with lava and ashes the poor and scanty vegetation upon which four thousand persons were partly dependent for the means of subsistence. For a long time tocome the natives of that interesting island, who cleave to their desert home with all thatamor patriaewhich is so much more easily understood than explained, will look, and look not in vain, for the help of those on whom fall the smiles of a kindlier sunin regions not torn by earthquakes nor blasted and ravaged by volcanic fires. Will the readers of this little book, who, are gifted with the means of indulging in the luxury of extended beneficence, remember the distress of their brethren in the far north, whom distance has not barred from the claim of being counted our "neighbours"? And whatever their humane feelings may prompt them to bestow will be gladly added to the Mansion-House Iceland Relief Fund.
In his desire to ascertain how far the picture of Iceland, drawn in the work of Jules Verne is a correct one, the translator hopes in the course of a mail or two to receive a communication from a leading man of science in the island, which may furnish matter for additional information in a future edition.
The scientific portion of the French original is not without a few errors, which the translator, with the kind assistance of Mr. Cameron of H. M. Geological Survey, has ventured to point out and correct. It is scarcely to be expected in a work in which theelement of amusement is intended to enter more largely than that of scientific instruction, that any great degree of accuracy should be arrived at. Yet the translator hopes that what trifling deviations from the text or corrections in foot notes he is responsible for, will have done a little towards the increased usefulness of the work.
On the 24th of May, 1863, my uncle, Professor Liedenbrock, rushed into his little house, No. 19 Königstrasse, oneof the oldest streets in the oldest portion of the city of Hamburg.
Martha must have concluded that she was very much behindhand, for the dinner had only just been put into the oven.
"Well, now," said I to myself, "if that most impatient of men is hungry,what a disturbance he will make!"
"M. Liedenbrock so soon!" cried poor Martha in great alarm, half opening the dining-room door.
"Yes, Martha; but very likely the dinner is not half cooked, for it is not two yet. Saint Michael's clock has only just struckhalf-past one."
"Then why has the master come home so soon?"
"Perhaps he will tell us that himself."
"Here he is, Monsieur Axel; I will run and hide myself while you argue with him."
And Martha retreated in safety into her own dominions.
I was left alone.But how was it possible for a man of my undecided turn of mind to argue successfully with so irascible a person as the Professor? With this persuasion I was hurrying away to my own little retreat upstairs, when the street door creaked upon its hinges; heavy feet made the whole flight of stairs to shake; and the master of the house, passing rapidly through the dining-room, threw himself in haste into his own sanctum.
But on his rapid way he had found time to fling his hazel stick into a corner, his rough broadbrim upon the table, and these few emphatic words at his nephew:
"Axel, follow me!"
I had scarcely had time to move when the Professor was again shouting after me:
"What! not come yet?"
And I rushed into my redoubtable master's study.
Otto Liedenbrockhad no mischief in him, I willingly allow that; but unless he very considerably changes as he grows older, at the end he will be a most original character.
He was professor at the Johannæum, and was delivering a series of lectures on mineralogy, in the course of every one of which he broke into a passion once or twice at least. Not at all that he was over-anxious about the improvement of his class, or about the degree of attention with which they listened to him, or the success which might eventually crownhis labours. Such little matters of detail never troubled him much. His teaching was as the German philosophy calls it, 'subjective'; it was to benefit himself, not others. He was a learned egotist. He was a well of science, and the pulleys worked uneasilywhen you wanted to draw anything out of it. In a word, he was a learned miser.
Germany has not a few professors of this sort.
To his misfortune, my uncle was not gifted with a sufficiently rapid utterance; not, to be sure, when he was talking at home, butcertainly in his public delivery; this is a want much to be deplored in a speaker. The fact is, that during the course of his lectures at the Johannæum, the Professor often came to a complete standstill; he fought with wilful words that refused to pass his struggling lips, such words as resist and distend the cheeks, and at last break out into the unasked-for shape of a round and most unscientific oath: then his fury would gradually abate.
Now in mineralogy there are many half-Greek and half-Latin terms, very hard to articulate, and which would be most trying to a poet's measures. I don't wish to say a word against so respectable a science, far be that from me. True, in the august presence of rhombohedral crystals, retinasphaltic resins, gehlenites, Fassaites, molybdenites, tungstates of manganese, and titanite of zirconium, why, the most facile of tongues may make a slip now and then.
It therefore happened that this venial fault of my uncle's came to be pretty well understood in time, and an unfair advantage was taken of it; the students laid wait for him in dangerous places, and when he began to stumble, loud was the laughter, which is not in good taste, not even in Germans. And if there was always a full audience to honour the Liedenbrock courses, I shouldbe sorry to conjecture how many came to make merry at my uncle's expense.
Nevertheless my good uncle was a man of deep learning—a fact I am most anxious to assert and reassert. Sometimes he might irretrievably injure a specimen by his too great ardour inhandling it; but still he united the genius of a true geologist with the keen eye of the mineralogist. Armed with his hammer, his steel pointer, his magnetic needles, his blowpipe, and his bottle of nitric acid, he was a powerful man of science. He would refer any mineral to its proper place among the six hundred  elementary substances now enumerated, by its fracture, its appearance, its hardness, its fusibility, its sonorousness, its smell, and its taste.
The name of Liedenbrock was honourably mentionedin colleges and learned societies. Humphry Davy,  Humboldt, Captain Sir John Franklin, General Sabine, never failed to call upon him on their way through Hamburg. Becquerel, Ebelman, Brewster, Dumas, Milne-Edwards, Saint-Claire-Deville frequently consulted him upon the most difficult problems in chemistry, a science which was indebted to him for considerable discoveries, for in 1853 there had appeared at Leipzig an imposing folio by Otto Liedenbrock, entitled, "A Treatise upon Transcendental Chemistry,"with plates; a work, however, which failed to cover its expenses.
To all these titles to honour let me add that my uncle was the curator of the museum of mineralogy formed by M. Struve, the Russian ambassador; a most valuable collection, the fame of whichis European.
Such was the gentleman who addressed me in that impetuous manner. Fancy a tall, spare man, of an iron constitution, and with a fair complexion which took off a good ten years from the fifty he must own to. His restless eyes were in incessantmotion behind his full-sized spectacles. His long, thin nose was like a knife blade. Boys have been heard to remark that that organ was magnetised and attracted iron filings. But this was merely a mischievous report; it had no attraction except for snuff,which it seemed to draw to itself in great quantities.
When I have added, to complete my portrait, that my uncle walked by mathematical strides of a yard and a half, and that in walking he kept his fists firmly closed, a sure sign of an irritable temperament, I think I shall have said enough to disenchant any one who should by mistake have coveted much of his company.
He lived in his own little house in Königstrasse, a structure half brick and half wood, with a gable cut into steps; it looked upon one of those winding canals which intersect each other in the middle of the ancient quarter of Hamburg, and which the great fire of 1842 had fortunately spared.
 Sixty-three. (Tr.)
 As Sir Humphry Davy died in 1829, the translator must be pardoned for pointing out here an anachronism, unless we are to assume that the learned Professor's celebrity dawned in his earliest years. (Tr.)
It is true that the old house stood slightly off the perpendicular, and bulged out a little towards the street; its roof sloped alittle to one side, like the cap over the left ear of a Tugendbund student; its lines wanted accuracy; but after all, it stood firm, thanks to an old elm which buttressed it in front, and which often in spring sent its young sprays through the window panes.
My uncle was tolerably well off for a German professor. The house was his own, and everything in it. The living contents were his god-daughter Gräuben, a young Virlandaise ofseventeen, Martha, and myself. As his nephew and an orphan, I became his laboratory assistant.
I freely confess that I was exceedingly fond of geology and all its kindred sciences; the blood of a mineralogist was in my veins, and in the midst of my specimens I was always happy.
In a word, a man might live happily enough in the littleold house in the Königstrasse, in spite of the restless impatience of its master, for although he was a little too excitable—he was very fond of me. But the man had no notion how to wait; nature herself was too slow for him. In April, after he had plantedin the terra-cotta pots outside his window seedling plants of mignonette and convolvulus, he would go and give them a little pull by their leaves to make them grow faster. In dealing with such a strange individual there was nothing for it but prompt obedience. I therefore rushed after him.
That study of his was a museum, and nothing else. Specimens of everything known in mineralogy lay there in their places in perfect order, and correctly named, divided intoinflammable, metallic, and lithoid minerals.
How well I knew all these bits of science! Many a time, instead of enjoying the company of lads of my own age, I had preferred dusting these graphites, anthracites, coals, lignites, and peats! And there were bitumens, resins, organic salts, to be protected from the least grain of dust; and metals, from iron to gold, metals whose current value altogether disappeared in the presence of the republican equality of scientific specimens; and stones too, enough to rebuild entirely the house in Königstrasse, even with a handsome additional room, which would have suited me admirably.
But on entering this study now I thought of none of all these wonders; my uncle alone filled my thoughts. He had thrown himself into a velvet easy-chair, and was grasping between his hands a book over which he bent, pondering with intense admiration.
"Here's a remarkable book! What a wonderful book!" he was exclaiming.
These ejaculations brought to my mind the fact that my uncle was liable tooccasional fits of bibliomania; but no old book had any value in his eyes unless it had the virtue of being nowhere else to be found, or, at any rate, of being illegible.
"Well, now; don't you see it yet? Why I have got a priceless treasure, that I found his morning, in rummaging in old Hevelius's shop, the Jew."
"Magnificent!" I replied, with a good imitation of enthusiasm.
What was the good of all this fuss about an old quarto, bound in rough calf, a yellow, faded volume, with a ragged seal depending fromit?
But for all that there was no lull yet in the admiring exclamations of the Professor.
"See," he went on, both asking the questions and supplying the answers. "Isn't it a beauty? Yes; splendid! Did you ever see such a binding? Doesn't the book open easily? Yes; it stops open anywhere. But does it shut equally well? Yes; for the binding and the leaves are flush,all in a straight line, and no gaps or openings anywhere. And look at its back, after seven hundred years. Why, Bozerian, Closs, or Purgold might have been proud of such a binding!"
While rapidly making these comments my uncle kept opening and shutting the old tome. I really could do no less than ask a question about its contents, although I did not feel the slightest interest.
"And what is the title of this marvellous work?" I asked with an affected eagerness which he must have been very blind not to see through.
"This work," replied my uncle, firing up with renewed enthusiasm,"this work is the Heims Kringla of Snorre Turlleson, the most famousIcelandic author of the twelfth century! It is the chronicle of theNorwegian princes who ruled in Iceland."
"Indeed;" I cried, keeping up wonderfully, "of course it is a German translation?"
"What!" sharply replied the Professor, "a translation! What should I do with a translation? Thisisthe Icelandic original, in the magnificent idiomatic vernacular, which is both rich and simple, and admits of an infinite variety of grammatical combinations and verbal modifications."
"Like German." I happily ventured.
"Yes," replied my uncle, shrugging his shoulders; "but, in addition to all this, the Icelandic has three numbers like the Greek, and irregular declensions of nouns proper like the Latin."
"Ah!" said I, a little moved out of my indifference; "and is the type good?"
"Type! What do you mean by talking of type, wretched Axel? Type! Do you take it for a printed book, you ignorant fool? It is a manuscript, a Runic manuscript."
"Yes. Do you want me to explain what that is?"
"Of course not," I replied in the tone of an injured man. But my uncle persevered, and told me, against my will, of many things I cared nothing about.
"Runic characters were in use in Iceland in former ages. They were invented, it is said, by Odin himself. Look there, and wonder, impious young man, and admire these letters, the invention of the Scandinavian god!"
Well, well! not knowing what to say, I was going to prostrate myself before this wonderful book, a way of answering equally pleasing to gods and kings, and which has the advantageof never giving them any embarrassment, when a little incident happened to divert conversation into another channel.
This was the appearance of a dirty slip of parchment, which slipped outof the volume and fell upon the floor.
My uncle pounced upon this shred with incredible avidity. An old document, enclosed an immemorial time within the folds of this old book, had for him an immeasurable value.
"What's this?" he cried.
And he laid out upon the table a piece of parchment, five inches by three, and along which were traced certain mysterious characters.
Here is the exact facsimile. I think it important to let these strange signs be publicly known, for they were the means of drawing on Professor Liedenbrock and his nephew to undertake the most wonderful expedition of the nineteenth century.
[Runic glyphs occur here]
The Professor mused a few moments over this series of characters; then raising his spectacles he pronounced:
"These are Runic letters; they are exactly like those of the manuscript of Snorre Turlleson. But, what on earth is their meaning?"
Runic letters appearing to my mind to be an invention of the learned to mystify this poor world, I was not sorry to see my uncle suffering the pangs of mystification. At least, so it seemed to me, judging from his fingers, which were beginning to work with terrible energy.
"It is certainly old Icelandic," he muttered between his teeth.
And Professor Liedenbrock must have known, for he wasacknowledged to be quite a polyglot. Not that he could speak fluently in the two thousand languages and twelve thousand dialects which are spoken on the earth, but he knew at least his share of them.
So he was going, in the presence of this difficulty, togive way to all the impetuosity of his character, and I was preparing for a violent outbreak, when two o'clock struck by the little timepiece over the fireplace.
At that moment our good housekeeper Martha opened the study door, saying:
"Dinner is ready!"
Iam afraid he sent that soup to where it would boil away to nothing, and Martha took to her heels for safety. I followed her, and hardly knowing how I got there I found myself seated in my usual place.
I waited a few minutes. No Professor came. Never within my remembrance had he missed the important ceremonial of dinner. And yet what a good dinner it was! There was parsley soup, an omelette of ham garnished with spiced sorrel, a fillet of veal with compote of prunes; for dessert, crystallised fruit; the whole washed down with sweet Moselle.
All this my uncle was going to sacrifice to a bit of old parchment. As an affectionate and attentive nephew I considered it my duty to eat for him as well as for myself, which I did conscientiously.
"I have never known such a thing," said Martha. "M. Liedenbrock is not at table!"
"Who could have believed it?" I said, with my mouth full.
"Something serious is going to happen," said the servant, shaking her head.
My opinion was, that nothing more serious would happen than anawful scene when my uncle should have discovered that his dinner was devoured. I had come to the last of the fruit when a very loud voice tore me away from the pleasures of my dessert. With one spring I bounded out of the dining-room into the study.
"Undoubtedly it is Runic," said the Professor, bending hisbrows; "but there is a secret in it, and I mean to discover thekey."
A violent gesture finished the sentence.
"Sit there," he added, holding outhis 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 whichcorresponds with each of these Icelandic characters. We will seewhat that will give us. But, by St. Michael, if youshould dare todeceive me—"
The dictation commenced. I did my best. Every letter was givenme one after the other, with the following remarkable result:
mm.rnlls esrevel seecIde sgtssmf vnteief niedrke kt,samn atrateSsaodrrn emtnaeI nvaect rrilSa Atsaar .nvcrc ieaabs ccrmi eevtVlfrAntv dt,iac oseibo KediiI
[Redactor: In the original version the initial letter is an 'm'with a superscore over it. It is my supposition that this is thetranslator's way of writing 'mm' and I have replaced itaccordingly, since our typography does not allow such acharacter.]
When this work was ended my uncle tore the paper from me andexamined 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 didnot ask me, and he went on talking to himself.
"This is what is called a cryptogram, or cipher," he said, "inwhich letters are purposely thrown in confusion, which if properlyarranged would reveal their sense. Only think that under thisjargonthere may lie concealed the clue to some great discovery!"
As for me, I was of opinion that there was nothing at all, init; though, of course, I took care not to say so.
Then the Professor took the book and the parchment, anddiligently comparedthem together.
"These two writings are not by the same hand," he said; "thecipher is of later date than the book, an undoubted proof of whichI see in a moment. The first letter is a double m, a letter whichis not to be found in Turlleson's book, and which was only added tothe alphabet in the fourteenth century. Therefore there are twohundred 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, "thatsomepossessor of this book wrote these mysterious letters. But who wasthat possessor? Is his name nowhere to be found in themanuscript?"
My uncle raised his spectacles, took up a strong lens, andcarefully examined the blank pages of the book. On the front of thesecond, the title-page, he noticed a sort of stain which lookedlike an ink blot. But in looking at it very closely he thought hecould distinguish some half-effaced letters. My uncle at oncefastened upon this as the centre of interest, and helaboured atthat blot, until by the help of his microscope he ended by makingout the following Runic characters which he read withoutdifficulty.
"Arne Saknussemm!" he cried in triumph. "Why that is the name ofanother Icelander, a savant of the sixteenthcentury, a celebratedalchemist!"
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 madediscoveries at which we are astonished. Has not this Saknussemmconcealed 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 hehave in thus hiding so marvellous adiscovery?"
"Why? Why? How can I tell? Did not Galileo do the same bySaturn? 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 eatentwo dinners to-day!"
"First of all we must find out the key to this cipher; thatcannot be difficult."
At these words I quickly raised my head; but my uncle went onsoliloquising.
"There's nothing easier. In this document there are a hundredand thirty-two letters, viz., seventy-seven consonants andfifty-five vowels. This is the proportion found in southernlanguages, 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 withprofound analysis.
"This Saknussemm," he went on, "was a very well-informed man;now since he was not writing in his own mother tongue, he wouldnaturally select that which was currently adopted by the choicespirits of the sixteenth century; I mean Latin. If I am mistaken, Ican but try Spanish, French, Italian, Greek, or Hebrew. But thesavants of the sixteenth century generally wrote in Latin. I amtherefore entitled to pronounce this, à priori, to be Latin.It is Latin."
I jumped up in my chair. My Latin memories rose in revoltagainst the notion that these barbarous words couldbelong to thesweet language of Virgil.
"Yes, it is Latin," my uncle went on; "but it is Latin confusedand in disorder; "pertubata seu inordinata," as Euclid has it."
"Very well," thought I, "if you can bring order out of thatconfusion, my dear uncle, you are a clever man."
"Let us examine carefully," said he again, taking up the leafupon which I had written. "Here is a series of one hundred andthirty-two letters in apparent disorder. There are words consistingof consonants only, asnrrlls;others, onthe other hand, in whichvowels predominate, as for instance the fifth,uneeief,or the lastbut one,oseibo. Now this arrangement has evidently not beenpremeditated; it has arisen mathematically in obedience to theunknown law which has ruled in the succession of these letters. Itappears to me a certainty that the original sentence was written ina proper manner, and afterwards distorted by a law which we haveyet to discover. Whoever possesses the key of this cipher will readit with fluency. What is that key? Axel, have you got it?"
I answered not a word, and for a very good reason. My eyes hadfallen upon a charming picture, suspended against the wall, theportrait of Gräuben. My uncle's ward was at that time atAltona, staying with a relation, and inher absence I was verydownhearted; for I may confess it to you now, the prettyVirlandaise and the professor's nephew loved eachother with apatience and a calmness entirely German. We had become engagedunknown to my uncle, who was too much taken up with geology to beable to enter into such feelings as ours. Gräuben was a lovelyblue-eyed blonde, rather given to gravity and seriousness; but thatdid not prevent her from loving me very sincerely. As for me, Iadored her, if there is such a word in the German language. Thus ithappened that the picture of my pretty Virlandaise threw me in amoment out of the world of realities into that of memory andfancy.
There looked down upon me the faithful companion of my laboursand my recreations. Every day she helped me to arrange my uncle'sprecious specimens; she and I labelled them together. MademoiselleGräuben was an accomplished mineralogist; she could havetaught a few things to a savant. She was fond of investigatingabstruse scientific questions. What pleasant hours we have spent instudy; and how often I envied the very stones which she handledwith her charming fingers.
Then, when our leisure hours came, we used to go out togetherand turn into the shady avenues by the Alster, and went happilyside by side up to the old windmill, which forms such animprovement to the landscape at the head of the lake. On the roadwe chatted hand in hand; I told her amusing tales at which shelaughed heartily. Then we reached the banks of the Elbe, and afterhaving bid good-bye to the swan, sailing gracefully amidst thewhite water lilies, we returned to the quay by the steamer.
That is just where I was in my dream, when my uncle with avehement thump on the table dragged me back to the realities oflife.
"Come," said he,"the very first idea which would come into anyone's head to confuse the letters of a sentence would be to writethe words vertically instead of horizontally."
"Indeed!" said I.
"Now we must see what would be the effect of that, Axel; putdown upon this paper any sentence you like, only instead ofarranging the letters in the usual way, one after the other, placethem in succession in vertical columns, so as to group themtogether in five or six vertical lines."
I caught his meaning, and immediately produced the followingliterary wonder:
I y l o a u l o l w r b o u , n G e v w m d r n e e y e a !
"Good," said the professor, without reading them, "now set downthose words in a horizontal line."
I obeyed, and with this result:
Iyloau lolwrb ou,nGe vwmdrn eeyea!
"Excellent!" said my uncle, taking the paper hastily out of myhands. "This begins to look just like an ancient document: thevowels 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 thesentence which you have just written, and with which I am whollyunacquainted, I shall only have to take the first letter of eachword, then the second, the third, and so forth."
And my uncle, to his great astonishment, and my much greater,read:
"I love you well, my own dear Gräuben!"
"Hallo!" cried the Professor.
Yes, indeed, without knowing what I was about, like an awkwardand unlucky lover, I had compromised myself by writing thisunfortunate sentence.
"Aha! you are in love with Gräuben?" he said, with theright 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 inquestion."
My uncle, falling back into his absorbing contemplations, hadalready forgotten my imprudent words. I merely say imprudent, forthe great mind of so learned a man of course had noplace for loveaffairs, and happily the grand business of the document gained methe victory.
Just as the moment of the supreme experiment arrived theProfessor's eyes flashed right through his spectacles. There was aquivering in his fingers as he graspedthe old parchment. He wasdeeply moved. At last he gave a preliminary cough, and withprofound gravity, naming in succession the first, then the secondletter 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 mymind; I therefore waited for the Professor with great pomp tounfold the magnificent but hidden Latin of this mysteriousphrase.
But who could have foretold the result? A violent thump made thefurniture rattle, and spilt some ink, and my pen dropped frombetween 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 anavalanche, he rushed into the Königstrasse and fled.
"He is gone!" cried Martha, running out of her kitchen atthenoise of the violent slamming of doors.
"Yes," I replied, "completely gone."
"Well; and how about his dinner?" said the old servant.
"He won't have any."
"And his supper?"
"He won't have any."
"What?" cried Martha, with clasped hands.
"No, my dear Martha, he will eat no more. No one in the house isto eat anything at all. Uncle Liedenbrock is going to make us allfast until he has succeeded in deciphering an undecipherablescrawl."
"Oh, my dear! must we then all die of hunger?"
I hardly dared to confess that, with so absolute a ruler as myuncle, this fate was inevitable.
The old servant, visibly moved, returned to the kitchen, moaningpiteously.
When I was alone, I thought I would go and tell Gräuben allabout it. But how should I be able to escape from the house? TheProfessor might return at any moment. And suppose he called me? Andsuppose he tackled me again with this logomachy, which might vainlyhave been set before ancient Oedipus. And if I did not obey hiscall, who could answer for what might happen?
The wisest course was to remain where I was. A mineralogist atBesançon had just sent us a collection of siliceous nodules,which I had to classify: so I set to work; I sorted, labelled, andarranged in their own glass case all these hollow specimens, in thecavity of each of which was a nest of little crystals.
But this work did not succeed in absorbing all my attention.That old document kept working in my brain. My head throbbed withexcitement, and I felt an undefined uneasiness. I was possessedwitha presentiment of coming evil.
In an hour my nodules were all arranged upon successive shelves.Then I dropped down into the old velvet armchair, my head thrownback and my hands joined over it. I lighted my long crooked pipe,with a painting on it ofan idle-looking naiad; then I amused myselfwatching the process of the conversion of the tobacco into carbon,which was by slow degrees making my naiad into a negress. Now andthen I listened to hear whether a well-known step was on thestairs. No. Wherecould my uncle be at that moment? I fancied himrunning under the noble trees which line the road to Altona,gesticulating, making shots with his cane, thrashing the longgrass, cutting the heads off the thistles, and disturbing thecontemplative storks in their peaceful solitude.
Would he return in triumph or in discouragement? Which would getthe upper hand, he or the secret? I was thus asking myselfquestions, and mechanically taking between my fingers the sheet ofpaper mysteriously disfigured with theincomprehensible successionof letters I had written down; and I repeated to myself "What doesit all mean?"
I sought to group the letters so as to form words. Quiteimpossible! When I put them together by twos, threes, fives orsixes, nothing came of itbut nonsense. To be sure the fourteenth,fifteenth and sixteenth letters made the English word 'ice'; theeighty-third and two following made 'sir'; and in the midst of thedocument, in the second and third lines, I observed the words,"rots," "mutabile,""ira," "net," "atra."
"Come now," I thought, "these words seem to justify my uncle'sview about the language of the document. In the fourth lineappeared the word "luco", which means a sacred wood. It is truethat in the third line was the word "tabiled",which looked likeHebrew, and in the last the purely French words "mer", "arc","mere.""
All this was enough to drive a poor fellow crazy. Four differentlanguages in this ridiculous sentence! What connection could therepossibly be between such words as ice, sir, anger, cruel, sacredwood, changeable, mother, bow, and sea? The first and the lastmight have something to do with each other; it was not at allsurprising that in a document written in Iceland there should bemention of a sea of ice; but it wasquite another thing to get tothe end of this cryptogram with so small a clue. So I wasstruggling with an insurmountable difficulty; my brain got heated,my eyes watered over that sheet of paper; its hundred andthirty-two letters seemed to flutter and fly around me like thosemotes of mingled light and darkness which float in the air aroundthe head when the blood is rushing upwards with undue violence. Iwas a prey to a kind of hallucination; I was stifling; I wantedair. Unconsciously I fanned myself with the bit of paper, the backand front of which successively came before my eyes. What was mysurprise when, in one of those rapid revolutions, at the momentwhen the back was turned to me I thought I caught sight of theLatin words "craterem," "terrestre," and others.
A sudden light burst in upon me; these hints alone gave me thefirst glimpse of the truth; I had discovered the key to the cipher.To read the document, it would not even be necessary to read itthrough the paper. Such as it was, just such as it had beendictated to me, so it might be spelt out with ease. All thoseingenious professorial combinations were coming right. He was rightas to the arrangement of the letters; he was right as to thelanguage. He had been within a hair's breadth of reading this Latindocument from end to end; but that hair's breadth, chance had givenit to me!
You may be sure I felt stirred up. My eyes were dim, I couldscarcely see. I had laid the paper upon the table. At a glance Icould tell the whole secret.
At last I became more calm. I made a wise resolve to walk twiceround the room quietly and settle my nerves, and then I returnedinto the deep gulf of the huge armchair.
"Now I'll read it," I cried, after having well distended mylungs with air.
I leaned over the table; I laid my finger successively uponevery letter; and without a pause, without one moment's hesitation,I read off the whole sentence aloud.
Stupefaction! terror! I sat overwhelmed as if with a suddendeadly blow. What! that which I read had actually, really beendone! A mortal man had had the audacity to penetrate! . . .
"Ah!" I cried, springing up. "But no! no! My uncle shall neverknow it. He would insist upon doing it too. He would want to knowall about it. Ropes could not hold him, such a determined geologistas he is! He would start, he would, in spite of everything andeverybody, and he would take me with him, and we should never getback. No, never! never!"
My over-excitement was beyond all description.
"No! no! it shall not be," I declaredenergetically; "and as itis in my power to prevent the knowledge of it coming into the mindof my tyrant, I will do it. By dint of turning this document roundand round, he too might discover the key. I will destroy it."
There was a little fire left on the hearth. I seized not onlythe paper but Saknussemm's parchment; with a feverish hand I wasabout to fling it all upon the coals and utterly destroy andabolish this dangerous secret, when the study door opened, and myuncle appeared.
I had only just time to replace the unfortunate document uponthe table.
Professor Liedenbrock seemed to be greatly abstracted.
The ruling thought gave him no rest. Evidently he had gonedeeply into the matter, analyticallyand with profound scrutiny. Hehad brought all the resources of his mind to bear upon it duringhis walk, and he had come back to apply some new combination.
He sat in his armchair, and pen in hand he began what lookedvery much like algebraic formula: Ifollowed with my eyes histrembling hands, I took count of every movement. Might not someunhoped-for result come of it? I trembled, too, very unnecessarily,since the true key was in my hands, and no other would open thesecret.
For three long hours my uncle worked on without a word, withoutlifting his head; rubbing out, beginning again, then rubbing outagain, and so on a hundred times.
I knew very well that if he succeeded in setting down theseletters in every possible relative position, the sentence wouldcome out. But I knew also that twenty letters alone could form twoquintillions, four hundred and thirty-two quadrillions, ninehundred and two trillions, eight billions, a hundred andseventy-six millions, six hundred and forty thousandcombinations.Now, here were a hundred and thirty-two letters inthis sentence, and these hundred and thirty-two letters would givea number of different sentences, each made up of at least a hundredand thirty-three figures, a number which passed far beyond allcalculation or conception.
So I felt reassured as far as regarded this heroic method ofsolving the difficulty.
But time was passing away; night came on; the street noisesceased; my uncle, bending over his task, noticed nothing, not evenMartha half opening thedoor; he heard not a sound, not even thatexcellent woman saying:
"Will not monsieur take any supper to-night?"
And poor Martha had to go away unanswered. As for me, after longresistance, I was overcome by sleep, and fell off at the end of thesofa, while uncle Liedenbrock went on calculating and rubbing outhis calculations.
When I awoke next morning that indefatigable worker was still athis post. His red eyes, his pale complexion, his hair tangledbetween his feverish fingers, the red spots on hischeeks, revealedhis desperate struggle with impossibilities, and the weariness ofspirit, the mental wrestlings he must have undergone all throughthat unhappy night.
To tell the plain truth, I pitied him. In spite of thereproaches which I considered I had a right to lay upon him, acertain feeling of compassion was beginning to gain upon me. Thepoor man was so entirely taken up with his one idea that he hadeven forgotten how to get angry. All the strength of his feelingswas concentrated upon one pointalone; and as their usual vent wasclosed, it was to be feared lest extreme tension should give riseto an explosion sooner or later.
I might with a word have loosened the screw of the steel vicethat was crushing his brain; but that word I would not speak.
Yet I was not an ill-natured fellow. Why was I dumb at such acrisis?Why so insensible to my uncle's interests?