AN ASTOUNDING DISCOVERY
“What is the matter?” cried the cook, entering the room; “when will master have his dinner?”
“And, his supper?”
“I don’t know. He says he will eat no more, neither shall I. My uncle has determined to fast and make me fast until he makes out this abominable inscription,” I replied.
“You will be starved to death,” she said.
I was very much of the same opinion, but not liking to say so, sent her away, and began some of my usual work of classification. But try as I might, nothing could keep me from thinking alternately of the stupid manuscript and of the pretty Gretchen.
Several times I thought of going out, but my uncle would have been angry at my absence. At the end of an hour, my allotted task was done. How to pass the time? I began by lighting my pipe. Like all other students, I delighted in tobacco; and, seating myself in the great armchair, I began to think.
Where was my uncle? I could easily imagine him tearing along some solitary road, gesticulating, talking to himself, cutting the air with his cane, and still thinking of the absurd bit of hieroglyphics. Would he hit upon some clue? Would he come home in better humor? While these thoughts were passing through my brain, I mechanically took up the execrable puzzle and tried every imaginable way of grouping the letters. I put them together by twos, by threes, fours, and fives—in vain. Nothing intelligible came out, except that the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth made ice in English; the eighty-fourth, eighty-fifth, and eighty-sixth, the word sir; then at last I seemed to find the Latin words rota, mutabile, ira, nec, atra.
“Ha! there seems to be some truth in my uncle’s notion,” thought I.
Then again I seemed to find the word luco, which means sacred wood. Then in the third line I appeared to make out labiled, a perfect Hebrew word, and at the last the syllables mere, are, mer, which were French.
It was enough to drive one mad. Four different idioms in this absurd phrase. What connection could there be between ice, sir, anger, cruel, sacred wood, changing, mother, are, and sea? The first and the last might, in a sentence connected with Iceland, mean sea of ice. But what of the rest of this monstrous cryptograph?
I was, in fact, fighting against an insurmountable difficulty; my brain was almost on fire; my eyes were strained with staring at the parchment; the whole absurd collection of letters appeared to dance before my vision in a number of black little groups. My mind was possessed with temporary hallucination—I was stifling. I wanted air. Mechanically I fanned myself with the document, of which now I saw the back and then the front.
Imagine my surprise when glancing at the back of the wearisome puzzle, the ink having gone through, I clearly made out Latin words, and among others craterem and terrestre.
I had discovered the secret!
It came upon me like a flash of lightning. I had got the clue. All you had to do to understand the document was to read it backwards. All the ingenious ideas of the Professor were realized; he had dictated it rightly to me; by a mere accident I had discovered what he so much desired.
My delight, my emotion may be imagined, my eyes were dazzled and I trembled so that at first I could make nothing of it. One look, however, would tell me all I wished to know.
“Let me read,” I said to myself, after drawing a long breath.
I spread it before me on the table, I passed my finger over each letter, I spelled it through; in my excitement I read it out.
What horror and stupefaction took possession of my soul. I was like a man who had received a knock-down blow. Was it possible that I really read the terrible secret, and it had really been accomplished! A man had dared to do—what?
No living being should ever know.
“Never!” cried I, jumping up. “Never shall my uncle be made aware of the dread secret. He would be quite capable of undertaking the terrible journey. Nothing would check him, nothing stop him. Worse, he would compel me to accompany him, and we should be lost forever. But no; such folly and madness cannot be allowed.”
I was almost beside myself with rage and fury.
“My worthy uncle is already nearly mad,” I cried aloud. “This would finish him. By some accident he may make the discovery; in which case, we are both lost. Perish the fearful secret—let the flames forever bury it in oblivion.”
I snatched up book and parchment, and was about to cast them into the fire, when the door opened and my uncle entered.
I had scarcely time to put down the wretched documents before my uncle was by my side. He was profoundly absorbed. His thoughts were evidently bent on the terrible parchment. Some new combination had probably struck him while taking his walk.
He seated himself in his armchair, and with a pen began to make an algebraical calculation. I watched him with anxious eyes. My flesh crawled as it became probable that he would discover the secret.
His combinations I knew now were useless, I having discovered the one only clue. For three mortal hours he continued without speaking a word, without raising his head, scratching, rewriting, calculating over and over again. I knew that in time he must hit upon the right phrase. The letters of every alphabet have only a certain number of combinations. But then years might elapse before he would arrive at the correct solution.
Still time went on; night came, the sounds in the streets ceased—and still my uncle went on, not even answering our worthy cook when she called us to supper.
I did not dare to leave him, so waved her away, and at last fell asleep on the sofa.
When I awoke my uncle was still at work. His red eyes, his pallid countenance, his matted hair, his feverish hands, his hectically flushed cheeks, showed how terrible had been his struggle with the impossible, and what fearful fatigue he had undergone during that long sleepless night. It made me quite ill to look at him. Though he was rather severe with me, I loved him, and my heart ached at his sufferings. He was so overcome by one idea that he could not even get in a passion! All his energies were focused on one point. And I knew that by speaking one little word all this suffering would cease. I could not speak it.
My heart was, nevertheless, inclining towards him. Why, then, did I remain silent? In the interest of my uncle himself.
“Nothing shall make me speak,” I muttered. “He will want to follow in the footsteps of the other! I know him well. His imagination is a perfect volcano, and to make discoveries in the interests of geology he would sacrifice his life. I will therefore be silent and strictly keep the secret I have discovered. To reveal it would be suicidal. He would not only rush, himself, to destruction, but drag me with him.”
I crossed my arms, looked another way and smoked—resolved never to speak.
When our cook wanted to go out to market, or on any other errand, she found the front door locked and the key taken away. Was this done purposely or not? Surely Professor Hardwigg did not intend the old woman and myself to become martyrs to his obstinate will. Were we to be starved to death? A frightful recollection came to my mind. Once we had fed on bits and scraps for a week while he sorted some curiosities. It gave me the cramp even to think of it!
I wanted my breakfast, and I saw no way of getting it. Still my resolution held good. I would starve rather than yield. But the cook began to take me seriously to task. What was to be done? She could not go out; and I dared not.
My uncle continued counting and writing; his imagination seemed to have translated him to the skies. He neither thought of eating nor drinking. In this way twelve o’clock came round. I was hungry, and there was nothing in the house. The cook had eaten the last bit of bread. This could not go on. It did, however, until two, when my sensations were terrible. After all, I began to think the document very absurd. Perhaps it might only be a gigantic hoax. Besides, some means would surely be found to keep my uncle back from attempting any such absurd expedition. On the other hand, if he did attempt anything so quixotic, I should not be compelled to accompany him. Another line of reasoning partially decided me. Very likely he would make the discovery himself when I should have suffered starvation for nothing. Under the influence of hunger this reasoning appeared admirable. I determined to tell all.
The question now arose as to how it was to be done. I was still dwelling on the thought, when he rose and put on his hat.
What! go out and lock us in? Never!
“Uncle,” I began.
He did not appear even to hear me.
“Professor Hardwigg,” I cried.
“What,” he retorted, “did you speak?”
“How about the key?”
“What key—the key of the door?”
“No—of these horrible hieroglyphics?”
He looked at me from under his spectacles, and started at the odd expression of my face. Rushing forward, he clutched me by the arm and keenly examined my countenance. His very look was an interrogation.
I simply nodded.
With an incredulous shrug of the shoulders, he turned upon his heel. Undoubtedly he thought I had gone mad.
“I have made a very important discovery.”
His eyes flashed with excitement. His hand was lifted in a menacing attitude. For a moment neither of us spoke. It is hard to say which was most excited.
“You don’t mean to say that you have any idea of the meaning of the scrawl?”
“I do,” was my desperate reply. “Look at the sentence as dictated by you.”
“Well, but it means nothing,” was the angry answer.
“Nothing if you read from left to right, but mark, if from right to left—”
“Backwards!” cried my uncle, in wild amazement. “Oh most cunning Saknussemm; and I to be such a blockhead!”
He snatched up the document, gazed at it with haggard eye, and read it out as I had done.
It read as follows:
In Sneffels Yoculis craterem kem delibat
umbra Scartaris Julii intra calendas descende,
audas viator, et terrestre centrum attinges.
Kod feci. Arne Saknussemm
Which dog Latin being translated, reads as follows:
Descend into the crater of Yocul of Sneffels, which the shade of
Scartaris caresses, before the kalends of July, audacious traveler,
and you will reach the centre of the earth. I did it.
My uncle leaped three feet from the ground with joy. He looked radiant and handsome. He rushed about the room wild with delight and satisfaction. He knocked over tables and chairs. He threw his books about until at last, utterly exhausted, he fell into his armchair.
“What’s o’clock?” he asked.
“My dinner does not seem to have done me much good,” he observed. “Let me have something to eat. We can then start at once. Get my portmanteau ready.”
“And your own,” he continued. “We start at once.”
My horror may be conceived. I resolved however to show no fear. Scientific reasons were the only ones likely to influence my uncle. Now, there were many against this terrible journey. The very idea of going down to the centre of the earth was simply absurd. I determined therefore to argue the point after dinner.
My uncle’s rage was now directed against the cook for having no dinner ready. My explanation however satisfied him, and having gotten the key, she soon contrived to get sufficient to satisfy our voracious appetites.
During the repast my uncle was rather gay than otherwise. He made some of those peculiar jokes which belong exclusively to the learned. As soon, however, as dessert was over, he called me to his study. We each took a chair on opposite sides of the table.
“Henry,” he said, in a soft and winning voice; “I have always believed you ingenious, and you have rendered me a service never to be forgotten. Without you, this great, this wondrous discovery would never have been made. It is my duty, therefore, to insist on your sharing the glory.”
“He is in a good humor,” thought I; “I’ll soon let him know my opinion of glory.”
“In the first place,” he continued, “you must keep the whole affair a profound secret. There is no more envious race of men than scientific discoverers. Many would start on the same journey. At all events, we will be the first in the field.”
“I doubt your having many competitors,” was my reply.
“A man of real scientific acquirements would be delighted at the chance. We should find a perfect stream of pilgrims on the traces of Arne Saknussemm, if this document were once made public.”
“But, my dear sir, is not this paper very likely to be a hoax?” I urged.
“The book in which we find it is sufficient proof of its authenticity,” he replied.
“I thoroughly allow that the celebrated Professor wrote the lines, but only, I believe, as a kind of mystification,” was my answer.
Scarcely were the words out of my mouth, when I was sorry I had uttered them. My uncle looked at me with a dark and gloomy scowl, and I began to be alarmed for the results of our conversation. His mood soon changed, however, and a smile took the place of a frown.
“We shall see,” he remarked, with decisive emphasis.
“But see, what is all this about Yocul, and Sneffels, and this Scartaris? I have never heard anything about them.”
“The very point to which I am coming. I lately received from my friend Augustus Peterman, of Leipzig, a map. Take down the third atlas from the second shelf, series Z, plate 4.”
I rose, went to the shelf, and presently returned with the volume indicated.
“This,” said my uncle, “is one of the best maps of Iceland. I believe it will settle all your doubts, difficulties and objections.”
With a grim hope to the contrary, I stooped over the map.