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Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Page 2

Jules Verne

  The Professor considered this series of characters for a few moments; then, raising his spectacles, he said:

  ‘These are Runic letters; they are absolutely identical with those in Snorro Turleson’s manuscript. But what on earth do they mean?’

  Since Runic letters struck me as something invented by scholars to mystify the unfortunate world, I was not sorry to see that my uncle could not make head or tail of them. At least that was what I supposed from his fingers, which had begun to twitch terribly.

  ‘And yet it must be old Icelandic!’ he muttered between his teeth. And Professor Lidenbrock must have known, for he was reputed to be a regular polyglot. Not that he could speak fluently all the two thousand languages and four thousand dialects used on this earth, but at least he was familiar with a good many of them.

  Faced with this difficulty, he was obviously going to lose his temper, and I was steeling myself for a violent scene when the little clock on the mantelpiece struck two.

  At that moment Martha opened the study door, saying:

  ‘The soup is ready.’

  ‘To hell with the soup,’ cried my uncle, ‘and her that made it, and them that drink it!’

  Martha took to her heels. I ran after her and, scarcely knowing how I got there, I found myself sitting in my usual place in the dining-room.

  I waited for a few minutes. There was no sign of the Professor. It was the first time, to my knowledge, that he had missed his dinner. And what a dinner it was! Parsley soup, a ham omelette seasoned with sorrel, veal with prune sauce, and, for dessert, sugared prawns, the whole accompanied by an excellent Moselle wine.

  All this my uncle was going to miss on account of a scrap of old parchment! Naturally, as a devoted nephew, I considered it my duty to eat for him as well as for myself, and I carried out this duty conscientiously.

  ‘I’ve never known such a thing,’ said Martha. ‘Professor Lidenbrock not at table!’

  ‘Unbelievable, isn’t it?’

  ‘It means that something serious is going to happen!’ said the old servant, wagging her head.

  In my opinion it meant nothing at all, except perhaps a dreadful scene when my uncle found that his dinner had been eaten.

  I had come to my last prawn when a stentorian voice tore me away from the pleasures of dessert. With one bound I went from the dining-room to the study.


  My Uncle is Baffled

  ‘It’s definitely Runic,’ said the Professor, frowning. ‘But there is a secret to it which I mean to discover, or else …

  ‘Sit down there,’ he added, extending his fist towards the table, ‘and get ready to write.’

  In an instant I was ready.

  ‘Now, I am going to dictate to you the letters of our alphabet which correspond to these Icelandic characters. We shall see what that gives us. But by St Michael, be careful not to make a mistake!’

  The dictation began, I was as careful as I could be. The letters were called out one after another, and together they formed this incomprehensible succession of words:

  m.rnlls esreuel seecJde

  sgtssmf unteief niedrke

  kt,samn atrateS Saodrrn

  emtnaeI nuaect rrilSa

  Atvaar .nscrc ieaabs

  ccdrmi eeutul frantu

  dt,iac oseibo KediiY

  When I had finished, my uncle snatched up the paper upon which I had been writing and examined it closely for a long time.

  ‘What does it mean?’ he kept repeating mechanically.

  Upon my honour I could not have told him. In any case he was not asking me, and he went on talking to himself.

  ‘It’s what they call a cryptogram,’ he said, ‘in which the sense is concealed by a deliberate jumbling of the letters, which would make an intelligible sentence if they were correctly rearranged. To think that I may have here the clue to some great discovery!’

  For my part I thought there was absolutely nothing there, but I prudently kept my opinion to myself.

  Then the Professor took the book and the parchment, and compared them. ‘They aren’t in the same hand-writing,’ he said. ‘The cryptogram is of a later date than the book, and I can see indisputable proof of that right at the beginning. The first letter is a double m, a letter you would look for in vain in Turleson’s book for it was only added to the Icelandic alphabet in the fourteenth century. So there are at least two hundred years between the book and the document.’

  That, I admit, struck me as a logical conclusion.

  ‘I am therefore led to think,’ continued my uncle, ‘that one of the owners of this book wrote these mysterious letters. But who the devil was that owner? Wouldn’t he have written his name somewhere on this manuscript?’

  My uncle raised his spectacles, picked up a powerful magnifying glass, and carefully examined the first pages of the book. On the back of the second page, the one bearing the subtitle, he noticed a sort of stain which looked like a blot of ink. However, looking at it closely, he made out a few half-obliterated letters. My uncle realized that this was the interesting point, and he laboured at the stain until, with the help of his magnifying glass, he ended up by distinguishing the following Runic characters, which he read out without hesitation:

  ‘Arne Saknussemm!’ he cried triumphantly. ‘Why that’s a name, and what is more an Icelandic name, that of a famous alchemist of the sixteenth century!’

  I looked at my uncle with a certain admiration. ‘Those alchemists,’ he went on, ‘Avicenna, Bacon, Lully, Paracelsus, were the real scientists, indeed the only scientists, of their time. They made the most astonishing discoveries. Why shouldn’t this Saknussemm have concealed some surprising invention behind this incomprehensible cryptogram? That must be it. That is it.’

  The Professor’s imagination took fire at this idea.

  ‘No doubt,’ I ventured to reply. ‘But what interest could this scientist have had in hiding a wonderful discovery in this way?’

  ‘What indeed? How should I know? Didn’t Galileo do the same about Saturn? Anyway, we shall see: I’m going to discover the secret of this document, and I shall neither eat nor sleep until I have guessed it.’

  ‘Oh!’ I thought to myself.

  ‘Nor will you, Axel,’ he added.

  ‘Good Lord!’ I thought, ‘it’s a good thing I ate two dinners today!’

  ‘First of all,’ said my uncle, ‘we must find the key to this cipher. That ought not to be difficult.’

  At these words I looked up quickly. My uncle went on talking to himself.

  ‘Nothing could be easier. In this document there are 132 letters, namely seventy-nine consonants and fifty-three vowels. This is roughly the proportion found in southern languages, while northern idioms are infinitely richer in consonants. Consequently this is written in a southern language.’

  These conclusions struck me as very reasonable.

  ‘But what language is it?’

  Here I waited for a display of learning, but instead my uncle showed himself to be a master of analysis.

  ‘This Saknussemm,’ he went on, ‘was an educated man, so when he was not writing in his mother tongue, he would naturally write in the language commonly used by educated men in the sixteenth century, namely Latin. If I am wrong, I can go on to try Spanish, French, Italian, Greek, and Hebrew. But the savants of the sixteenth century generally wrote in Latin, so that I am entitled to say, a priori, that this is Latin.’

  I sat up with a jolt. My memories of Latin rose in revolt at the idea that this string of barbarous words could belong to the sweet language of Virgil.

  ‘Yes, this is Latin,’ my uncle continued, ‘but Latin in a scrambled form.’

  ‘Well,’ I thought to myself, ‘if you can unscramble it, my dear uncle, you are a clever man.’

  ‘Let us have a good look at it,’ he said, picking up the sheet of paper on which I had written. ‘Here is a series of 132 letters in apparent disorder. There are some words consisting of consonants only, like the first, mm.rnlls;
others, on the other hand, in which vowels predominate, such as the fifth, unteief, or the last but one, oseibo. Now this arrangement is obviously not deliberate: it has occurred mathematically in obedience to the unknown law which has governed the order of these letters. It seems to me quite certain that the original sentence was written in a regular manner, and afterwards distorted in accordance with a law which we have yet to discover. Whoever possessed the key to this cipher would be able to read it fluently. But what is that key? Axel, have you got it?’

  To this question I made no reply, and for a very good reason. My eyes had fallen on a charming picture hanging on the wall, the portrait of Gräuben. My uncle’s ward was at Altona at that time, staying with one of her female relations, and her absence made me very sad, for, as I can now confess, the pretty Virlandaise and the Professor’s nephew loved each other with all the patience and tranquillity of the German character. We had become engaged, unknown to my uncle, who was too deeply absorbed in his geology to understand such feelings as ours. Gräuben was a lovely blue-eyed blonde, who was rather solemn and serious-minded but loved me none the less for that. For my part, I adored her, and so the picture of my little Virlandaise transferred me in a single instant from the world of realities to that of dreams and memories.

  I recalled the faithful companion of my work and my pleasures. Every day she used to help me to arrange my uncle’s precious specimens; she and I labelled them together. Oh, Gräuben was an accomplished mineralogist; she could have taught a few things to many a savant. She loved getting to the bottom of abstruse scientific problems. What pleasant hours we had spent studying together, and how often I had envied the lot of those insensible stones which she handled with her charming fingers!

  Then, when our recreation time came, we used to go out together, strolling along the shady walks of the Alster and going together to the old tarred windmill which looks so picturesque at the end of the lake. On the way we would chat together, hand in hand, and I would tell her stories which made her laugh. Eventually we would come to the banks of the Elbe, and, after saying good-bye to the swans gliding about among the big water-lilies, we would return to the quay by the steamer.

  That was where I had got to in my dream when my uncle, thumping the table with his fist, brought me abruptly back to earth.

  ‘Look here,’ he said, ‘the first idea which would occur to anybody wanting to mix up the letters in a sentence would be to write the words vertically instead of horizontally.’

  ‘It wouldn’t have occurred to me,’ I thought.

  ‘Now let’s see how that works. Axel, write down any sentence that comes into your head on this scrap of paper; only, instead of arranging the letters in the usual way, one after another, put them in vertical columns, so as to get five or six.’

  I understood what he wanted and immediately wrote the following lines of letters:

  I o m y i r

  l u u d t ä

  o v c e t u

  v e h a l b

  e r , r e e

  y y m l G n

  ‘Good!’ said the Professor, without reading what I had written. ‘Now set out these groups of letters in a horizontal line.’

  I obeyed, and obtained the following result:

  Iomyir luudtä ovcetu vehalb er,ree yymlGn

  ‘Splendid!’ said my uncle, snatching the paper out of my hands. ‘This already looks rather like the old document: the vowels and consonants are grouped in the same haphazard way, and there are even capitals and commas in the middle of words, just as there are in Saknussemm’s parchment!’

  I couldn’t help thinking that what he said was extremely ingenious.

  ‘Now,’ my uncle went on, looking straight at me, ‘to read the sentence which you have just written, and with which I am completely unfamiliar, all I need to do is to take the first letter of each word, then the second letter, and so on.’

  And my uncle, to his great surprise, and even more to mine, read out:

  ‘I love you very much, my dear little Gräuben.’

  ‘What’s this?’ said the Professor.

  Yes, without knowing what I was doing, silly, lovesick young man that I was, I had written down that compromising sentence.

  ‘Ah! So you are in love with Gräuben?’ said my uncle, in a suitable voice for a guardian.

  ‘Yes! No!’ I stammered.

  ‘So you are in love with Gräuben,’ he repeated automatically. ‘Well, now let’s apply my method to the document in question.’

  Returning to the consideration of his absorbing theory, my uncle had already forgotten my imprudent words. I say imprudent because the savant’s learned head was incapable of understanding matters of the heart. But luckily the important matter of the document carried the day.

  As he got ready to carry out his crucial experiment, Professor Lidenbrock’s eyes darted flashes of light through his spectacles. His fingers trembled as he picked up the old parchment. He was deeply moved. At last he gave a loud cough, and in a solemn voice, reading out in succession the first letter of each word, then the second, and so on, he dictated the following series to me:





  I must admit that when I came to the end I felt very excited; these letters, called out one after another, had conveyed no meaning to my mind, but I expected the Professor to pronounce a magnificent Latin sentence.

  To my astonishment, a violent blow from his fist made the table rock on its legs. The ink spurted into the air, and the pen flew out of my hand.

  ‘That can’t be it!’ exclaimed my uncle. ‘It doesn’t make sense!’

  Then, flying across the study like a cannonball, and descending the stairs like an avalanche, he rushed out into the Königstrasse and disappeared as fast as his legs could carry him.


  I Find the Key

  ‘Has he gone?’ cried Martha, running out of her kitchen as the street door slammed shut, shaking the whole house.

  ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘well and truly gone!’

  ‘Well I never! And what about his dinner?’ asked the old servant.

  ‘He won’t have any.’

  ‘And his supper?’

  ‘He won’t have any.’

  ‘What?’ cried Martha, clasping her hands.

  ‘No, Martha, he’s not going to eat a thing, nor is anybody else in this house. Uncle Lidenbrock is going to starve us all until he has succeeded in deciphering an old scrawl which is absolutely indecipherable.’

  ‘Goodness gracious! You mean we shall have to starve to death?’

  I did not dare to admit that, with a man as determined as my uncle, this fate struck me as inevitable.

  The old servant, seriously alarmed, went back to her kitchen groaning to herself.

  Once I was alone, the idea occurred to me of going to tell the whole story to Gräuben. But how could I leave the house? The Professor might return at any moment. And what if he called me? What if he wanted to go on with this logogryphic riddle which would have baffled even old Oedipus? And if I failed to answer his call, what might happen then?

  The wisest thing to do was to remain where I was. As it happened, a mineralogist at Besançon had just sent us a collection of siliceous geodes which had to be classified. I set to work, sorting, labelling, and arranging in their own glass case all these hollow stones, each with a set of little crystals inside it.

  But this task did not absorb the whole of my attention. The business of the old document continued to preoccupy me. My head was throbbing and I felt overcome by a vague anxiety. I had a presentiment of some imminent catastrophe.

  After an hour’s work my geodes were all neatly arranged on their respective shelves. I then dropped into the old Utrecht armchair, my head thrown back and my arms dangling. I lit my long curved pipe, whose bowl was carved in the shape of a reclining naiad, and then amused m
yself by watching the carbonizing process which was gradually turning my nymph into a negress. Every now and then I pricked up my ears to hear whether anybody was coming upstairs. But no. Where could my uncle be at that moment? I imagined him running along beneath the splendid trees lining the Altona road, gesticulating wildly, dragging his stick along the wall, slashing at the grass, decapitating the thistles, and rousing the lonely storks from their sleep.

  Would he return in triumph or in discouragement? Which of the two would get the upper hand, he or the secret? Asking myself these questions, I picked up the sheet of paper covered with the incomprehensible series of letters I had written down, and I murmured over and over again:

  ‘What can it possibly mean?’

  I tried grouping these letters together to form words. It was impossible! Whether I put them together in twos, threes, fives, or sixes, the result was still unintelligible. It was no clearer when I noticed that the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth letters made the English word ‘ice’; that the eighty-fourth, eighty-fifth, and eighty-sixth made the word ‘sir’; and that in the body of the document, in the second and third lines, there were the Latin words rota, mutabile, ira, nec, and atra.

  ‘Hang it,’ I thought, ‘these last words would seem to suggest that my uncle was right about the language the document is written in! And there in the fourth line I can see another Latin word – luco, which means a sacred wood. It’s true that in the third line there’s the word tabiled, which is as Hebrew as it could be, and in the last line the words mer, arc, and mère, which are pure French.’

  All this was enough to drive a fellow mad. Four different languages in this ridiculous sentence. What connexion could there possibly be between the words ice, sir, anger, cruel, sacred wood, changeable, mother, bow, and sea? The first and last went together quite well: it was not at all surprising that in a document written in Iceland there should be mention of a sea of ice. But solving the rest of the cryptogram was quite another matter.