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An Astounding Discovery







From: A Journey To The Centre Of The Earth

"What is the matter?" cried the cook, entering the room; "when will
master have his dinner?"

"Never."

"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.

ARNE SAKNUSSEMM


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.

"About three."

"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."

"What for?"

"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.





Next: We Start On The Journey

Previous: The Mysterious Parchment



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