Upon my honour I could not have enlightened him. Besides he did not ask me, and he went on talking to himself.
"This is what is called a cryptogram, or cipher," he said, "in which letters are purposely thrown in confusion, which if properly arranged would reveal their sense. Only think that under this jargon there may lie concealed the clue to some great discovery!"
As for me, I was of opinion that there was nothing at all, in it; though, of course, I took care not to say so.
Then the Professor took the book and the parchment, and diligently compared them together.
"These two writings are not by the same hand," he said; "the cipher is of later date than the book, an undoubted proof of which I see in a moment. The first letter is a double m, a letter which is not to be found in Turlleson's book, and which was only added to the alphabet in the fourteenth century. Therefore there are two hundred 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, "that some possessor of this book wrote these mysterious letters. But who was that possessor? Is his name nowhere to be found in the manuscript?"
My uncle raised his spectacles, took up a strong lens, and carefully examined the blank pages of the book. On the front of the second, the title-page, he noticed a sort of stain which looked like an ink blot. But in looking at it very closely he thought he could distinguish some half-effaced letters. My uncle at once fastened upon this as the centre of interest, and he laboured at that blot, until by the help of his microscope he ended by making out the following Runic characters which he read without difficulty.
"Arne Saknussemm!" he cried in triumph. "Why that is the name of another Icelander, a savant of the sixteenth century, a celebrated alchemist!"
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 made discoveries at which we are astonished. Has not this Saknussemm concealed 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 he have in thus hiding so marvellous a discovery?"
"Why? Why? How can I tell? Did not Galileo do the same by Saturn? 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 eaten two dinners to-day!"
"First of all we must find out the key to this cipher; that cannot be difficult."
At these words I quickly raised my head; but my uncle went on soliloquising.
"There's nothing easier. In this document there are a hundred and thirty-two letters, viz., seventy-seven consonants and fifty-five vowels. This is the proportion found in southern languages, 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 with profound analysis.
"This Saknussemm," he went on, "was a very well-informed man; now since he was not writing in his own mother tongue, he would naturally select that which was currently adopted by the choice spirits of the sixteenth century; I mean Latin. If I am mistaken, I can but try Spanish, French, Italian, Greek, or Hebrew. But the savants of the sixteenth century generally wrote in Latin. I am therefore entitled to pronounce this, à priori, to be Latin. It is Latin."
I jumped up in my chair. My Latin memories rose in revolt against the notion that these barbarous words could belong to the sweet language of Virgil.
"Yes, it is Latin," my uncle went on; "but it is Latin confused and in disorder; "_pertubata seu inordinata,_" as Euclid has it."
"Very well," thought I, "if you can bring order out of that confusion, my dear uncle, you are a clever man."
"Let us examine carefully," said he again, taking up the leaf upon which I had written.