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Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Page 3

Jules Verne

  As I struggled with this apparently insoluble problem, my brain got heated, my eyes blinked at the sheet of paper, and the hundred and thirty-two letters seemed to flutter around me, like those silver drops which float in the air about you when you get a rush of blood to the head.

  I was in the grip of a sort of hallucination; I was stifling; I needed air. Without thinking, I started fanning myself with the sheet of paper so that the back and front came alternately before my eyes.

  Imagine my surprise when, in one of these rapid movements, just as the back was turning towards me, I thought I could see some perfectly legible words, Latin words, such as craterem and terrestre!

  Light suddenly dawned upon me; these few clues were enough to give me a glimpse of the truth; I had found the key to the cipher. To understand the document, it was not even necessary to read it through the paper. It could be read out just as it was, just as it had been dictated to me. All the Professor’s ingenious theories were correct. He had been right about the arrangement of the letters, and right about the language in which the document was written. He had needed only a little ‘something’ extra in order to read the Latin sentence from beginning to end, and chance had just given me that ‘something’.

  You may imagine how excited I was. My eyes misted over, so that I could not see. I had spread the sheet of paper out on the table, so that I only had to glance at it to possess its secret.

  At last I succeeded in calming down. I forced myself to walk twice round the room in order to settle my nerves, and then dropped into the huge armchair.

  ‘Now let’s see what it says,’ I said to myself, after taking a deep breath.

  I bent over the table and placed my finger on each letter in succession; and without stopping, without hesitating for a moment, I read out the whole sentence aloud.

  But what terror and stupefaction it produced! At first I was absolutely thunderstruck. What! Had what I had just read really happened? Had some man had the audacity to penetrate …?

  ‘Oh, no!’ I cried, leaping to my feet. ‘My uncle mustn’t know about this! It would be the last straw if he got to hear of a journey of this sort. He would want to follow suit, and nothing would stop him, he is such a fanatical geologist. He would set off in spite of everything, and he would take me with him, and we should never come back. Never! Never!’

  I was in a state of indescribable agitation.

  ‘No, it shall not be,’ I declared, ‘and since it is in my power to prevent such an idea from entering my tyrant’s head, I shall do so. If he kept turning this document over and over, he too might discover the key. The only thing to do is to destroy it.’

  There was a little fire still burning in the hearth. I picked up not only the sheet of paper but also Saknussemm’s parchment; and with a trembling hand I was about to fling them both into the fire and destroy the dangerous secret when the study door opened and my uncle appeared.


  Hunger Defeats Me

  I only just had time to put the wretched document back on the table.

  Professor Lidenbrock seemed profoundly preoccupied. His all-absorbing idea was not giving him a moment’s respite; he had obviously analysed the problem carefully and brought all the resources of his imagination to bear on it during his walk, and now he had come home to apply some new combination.

  Sure enough, he sat down in his armchair and, pen in hand, started putting down what looked to me like algebraical equations.

  I followed with my eyes his quivering hand, not missing a single movement. Was he going to produce some unexpected result? I trembled, but unnecessarily, for since the only true combination had been found, any other line of investigation was doomed to disappointment.

  For three long hours my uncle worked without a word, without raising his head, rubbing out, beginning again, crossing out, and starting again hundreds of times.

  I knew perfectly well that if he succeeded in arranging the letters in every possible relative order, the sentence would come out. But I also knew that a mere twenty letters can have 2,432,902,800,176,640,000 different combinations.

  Now there were 132 letters in this sentence, and 132 letters produced a number of different combinations running to at least 133 figures, a number almost impossible to enumerate and quite impossible to imagine. I therefore felt sure that there was no danger of my uncle solving the problem by this heroic method.

  Meanwhile time went by; night fell; the noises in the street ceased; my uncle, bent over his task, saw nothing, not even Martha opening the door; he heard nothing, not even the good woman’s voice asking:

  ‘Are you going to have any supper tonight, Sir?’

  So poor Martha had to go away unanswered. As for me, after resisting for a while I was overcome by an invincible drowsiness and I fell asleep on the sofa, while my uncle Lidenbrock went on calculating and rubbing out.

  When I awoke the next morning, the indefatigable savant was still at work. His red eyes, his pale complexion, his hair tousled by his feverish hand, and his flushed cheeks revealed what a terrible struggle he was having with the impossible, and what weariness of mind and intellectual turmoil he must have been enduring.

  I honestly felt sorry for him. In spite of the reproaches I felt entitled to level at him, a certain pity took hold of me. The poor man was so possessed by his idea that he had forgotten to lose his temper. All his forces were concentrated on a single point, and, as their usual outlet was closed, there was every reason to fear an explosion at any moment.

  With a single word I could have loosened the pressure of that iron vice which was squeezing his brain, but I said nothing.

  Yet I was not a cruel fellow by nature. Why, then, did I remain silent in these circumstances? In my uncle’s own best interests.

  ‘No, no,’ I said to myself, ‘I will not speak! I know him – he would want to go, and nothing would stop him. He has a volcanic imagination, and he would risk his life to do something that no other geologist has done. I will remain silent. I will keep the secret which chance has revealed to me. To pass it on would be tantamount to killing Professor Lidenbrock. Let him find it out himself if he can. I have no desire to have his death on my conscience one day.’

  Having taken this decision, I folded my arms and waited. But I had reckoned without a little incident which occurred a few hours later.

  When Martha wanted to leave the house to go to the market, she found the door locked. The big key was gone. Who had taken it out of the lock? Obviously my uncle must have done so when he had come in the night before from his unexpected walk.

  Had he done that on purpose? Or had it just been absent-mindedness on his part? Did he want to submit us to the rigours of hunger? That struck me as going rather too far. Could Martha and I really be the victims of a state of affairs which did not concern us in the slightest? We could indeed, for I remembered a precedent calculated to alarm us. A few years before, when my uncle was working on his great mineralogical classification, he had gone forty-eight hours without eating and the whole household had been obliged to share in that scientific fast. For my part, I had suffered stomach pains which had been anything but amusing for a lad with a healthy appetite.

  Now it seemed to me that breakfast was going to fail to appear, like supper the night before. All the same, I decided to be a hero and not give in to the demands of hunger. Martha took the whole thing very much to heart and, poor woman, was greatly distressed. As for me, the impossibility of leaving the house distressed me even more, and for a very good reason, which you can imagine.

  My uncle went on working, his imagination far away in the ideal world of combinations; he was living a long way from the earth and quite apart from earthly needs.

  About midday, hunger began to have a serious effect on me. Martha, in all innocence, had eaten everything in the larder the night before, so that now there was nothing left in the house. Yet I stood firm. I made this a sort of point of honour.

  Two o’clock struck. The situation was becoming ri
diculous, indeed unbearable. I began to feel really hungry. I started telling myself that I was exaggerating the importance of the document; that my uncle would not believe it; that he would dismiss it as a joke; that if the worst came to the worst, he could be forcibly restrained; that finally he might find the key to the cipher himself, and in that case I should have fasted in vain.

  These arguments struck me as excellent, though the day before I would have rejected them indignantly; I even decided that I had been ridiculous to wait so long, and I resolved to tell all.

  I was considering how to broach the subject, in a way which was not too obvious, when the Professor stood up, put on his hat, and got ready to go out.

  What! Were we going to let him leave the house and lock us in again? Never!

  ‘Uncle!’ I said.

  He did not seem to hear me.

  ‘Uncle Lidenbrock!’ I said, raising my voice.

  ‘Eh?’ he said, like a man suddenly roused from sleep.

  ‘What about that key?’

  ‘What key? The key to the door?’

  ‘No,’ I cried, ‘the key to the document!’

  The Professor looked at me over his spectacles; no doubt he saw something odd in my expression, for he seized me by the arm, and, incapable of speaking, questioned me with his eyes. Even so, no question was ever put more clearly.

  I nodded.

  He shook his head with a sort of pity, as if he were dealing with a lunatic.

  I nodded more emphatically.

  His eyes glistened and his hand tightened menacingly.

  This mute conversation in those circumstances would have aroused the interest of the most indifferent onlooker. And the fact is that I had really got to the stage where I no longer dared to speak, I was so afraid that my uncle would smother me in his transports of joy. But he became so insistent that I was finally compelled to answer.

  ‘Yes, that key,’ I said. ‘By chance …’

  ‘What’s that you’re saying?’ he exclaimed with indescribable emotion.

  ‘There,’ I said, handing him the sheet of paper on which I had written. ‘Read that.’

  ‘But that’s meaningless,’ he answered, crumpling the paper in his hand.

  ‘Yes, if you start reading at the beginning, but if you read backwards …’

  Before I had finished the sentence the Professor uttered a cry, or rather more than a cry, a positive roar. Light had suddenly dawned upon him. He was transfigured.

  Pouncing on the paper, with misty eyes and a broken voice, he read the whole document, working backwards from the last letter to the first.

  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 bad Latin may be translated thus:

  Descend into the crater of Sneffells Yokul,

  over which the shadow of Scartaris falls

  before the kalends of July, bold traveller,

  and you will reach the centre of the earth.

  I have done this. Arne Saknussemm

  On reading this, my uncle gave a jump as if he had unexpectedly received an electric shock. His courage, his joy, his self-assurance were wonderful to behold. He walked up and down; he held his head in both hands; he moved the chairs around; he stacked his books in piles; he juggled, incredible as it may seem, with his precious geodes. At last his nerves calmed down and, like a man exhausted by too lavish an expenditure of vital energy, he sank back into his armchair.

  ‘What time is it?’ he asked after a few moments of silence.

  ‘Three o’clock,’ I replied.

  ‘Is it really? My dinner has gone down quickly. I’m dying of hunger. Let’s have something to eat. After that …’

  ‘After that?’

  ‘You can pack my box.’

  ‘What?’ I exclaimed.

  ‘And your own,’ said the pitiless Professor, going into the dining-room.


  I Argue in Vain

  At these words a shudder went through the whole of my body. However, I controlled myself and even decided to put a good face on things. I knew that only scientific arguments could stop Professor Lidenbrock. Luckily there were plenty of good ones against the practicability of such a journey. To go to the centre of the earth! What a crazy idea! But I kept my dialectics for a suitable opportunity and gave the whole of my attention to the business of eating.

  There would be no point in repeating my uncle’s curses when he saw the empty table. An explanation was given and Martha set at liberty. She ran to the market, and managed so well that an hour later my hunger had been appeased and I became aware of the situation once more.

  During the meal my uncle was almost merry, and indulged in some of those learned jokes which never do anybody any harm. After dessert he beckoned me to follow him into his study.

  I obeyed. He sat down at one end of his table, I at the other.

  ‘Axel,’ he said in quite a gentle voice, ‘you are a very clever young man, and you have done me a great service when, tired of trying, I was going to give up that combination. What mightn’t I have tried next? I shall never forget that, my boy, and you shall have your share in the glory we are going to win.’

  ‘Splendid!’ I thought. ‘He’s in a good mood. Now’s the time to discuss that glory he mentions.’

  ‘Above all,’ my uncle went on, ‘I insist on absolute secrecy, you understand? I have plenty of envious rivals in the world of science who would be only too eager to undertake this journey, but they mustn’t hear about it until we are back.’

  ‘Do you really think,’ I asked, ‘that there are many who would be bold enough to risk it?’

  ‘Of course! Who would hesitate at the thought of winning such fame? If this document were made public, a whole army of geologists would rush to follow in Arne Saknussemm’s footsteps.’

  ‘I’m not so sure of that, Uncle, for there’s nothing to prove that the document is genuine.’

  ‘What! And what about the book we found it in?’

  ‘Oh, I grant you that Saknussemm wrote those lines. But does it follow that he really performed the journey? May not this old parchment be just a hoax?’

  I almost regretted making this last, rather foolhardy remark. The Professor bent his shaggy brows, and I was afraid that I had compromised the rest of the conversation. Fortunately I was mistaken. A hint of a smile touched the lips of my solemn companion, and he replied:

  ‘We shall see.’

  ‘Ah!’ I said, rather put out. ‘But allow me to list all the possible objections to this document.’

  ‘Speak out, my boy, don’t be afraid. You are perfectly free to express your opinion. I no longer regard you as my nephew, but as my colleague. So go on.’

  ‘Well, first I should like to ask you what these names Yokul, Sneffels, and Scartaris mean, because I have never heard them before.’

  ‘That is an easy question to answer. As it happens I recently received a map from my friend Augustus Peterman of Leipzig, which could not have arrived at a better time. Take down the third atlas in the second section of the big bookcase, series Z, fourth shelf.’

  I stood up, and with the help of these precise instructions soon found the required atlas. My uncle opened it and said:

  ‘Here is one of the best maps of Iceland, Handerson’s, and I think it will give us the solution to all your difficulties.’

  I bent over the map.

  ‘You can see that there are volcanoes all over the island,’ said the Professor, ‘and you will notice that they all bear the name Yokul. That word means “glacier” in Icelandic, and at that high latitude most eruptions take place through layers of ice. Hence the term Yokul which is applied to all the volcanic mountains in Iceland.’

  ‘I see,’ I replied. ‘But what is Sneffels?’

  I was hoping that there would be no answer to thi
s question, but I was disappointed. My uncle went on:

  ‘Follow my finger along the west coast of Iceland. You see Reykjavik, the capital? Good. Well, go up the countless fjords that start from this shore eaten away by the sea, and stop just below the sixty-fifth degree of latitude. What do you see there?’

  ‘A sort of peninsula that looks like a bone with a huge knee-cap at the end of it.’

  ‘Quite a good comparison, my boy. Now can you see anything on that knee-cap?’

  ‘Yes, a mountain which looks as if it has grown out of the sea.’

  ‘Good. Well, that is Sneffels.’


  ‘Yes, that. It’s a mountain five thousand feet high, one of the most remarkable on the island, and undoubtedly destined to be the most famous in the world if its crater leads to the centre of the globe.’

  ‘But that’s impossible!’ I said, shrugging my shoulders in disgust at such a ridiculous idea.

  ‘Impossible?’ said Professor Lidenbrock in a stern voice. ‘And why should it be impossible?’

  ‘Because the crater must be full of lava and burning rocks, and in that case …’

  ‘But what if it’s an extinct volcano?’


  ‘Yes. The number of active volcanoes in the world is now only about three hundred. But there is a far greater number of extinct volcanoes, and Sneffels is one of these. It has had only one eruption known to history, and that was in 1229; after that it gradually calmed down, and at present it is no longer counted among the active volcanoes.’

  I could make no reply to such positive statements, and I therefore fell back on the other obscure aspects of the document.

  ‘What does this word Scartaris mean?’ I asked. ‘And where do the kalends of July come into all this?’

  My uncle considered for a few moments. I felt a surge of hope, but it was short-lived for soon he answered:

  ‘What is obscure to you is crystal-clear to me. This proves the ingenious care with which Saknussemm described his discovery. Sneffels has several craters, and it was therefore necessary to indicate the one which leads to the centre of the earth. What did the learned Icelander do? He observed that at the approach of the kalends of July, in other words towards the end of June, one of the peaks of the mountain, a peak called Scartaris, cast its shadow as far as the mouth of the crater in question, and he recorded that fact in his document. Nothing could be more precise, and when we reach the summit of Sneffels we shall have no hesitation as to which way to go.’