Yes, indeed, without knowing what I was about, like an awkward and unlucky lover, I had compromised myself by writing this unfortunate sentence.
"Aha! you are in love with Gräuben?" he said, with the right look for a guardian.
"Yes; no!" I stammered.
"You love Gräuben," he went on once or twice dreamily. "Well, let us apply the process I have suggested to the document in question."
My uncle, falling back into his absorbing contemplations, had already forgotten my imprudent words. I merely say imprudent, for the great mind of so learned a man of course had no place for love affairs, and happily the grand business of the document gained me the victory.
Just as the moment of the supreme experiment arrived the Professor's eyes flashed right through his spectacles. There was a quivering in his fingers as he grasped the old parchment. He was deeply moved. At last he gave a preliminary cough, and with profound gravity, naming in succession the first, then the second letter of each word, he dictated me the following:
mmessvnkaSenrA.icefdoK.segnittamvrtn ecertserrette,rotaisadva,ednecsedsadne lacartniiilvIsiratracSarbmvtabiledmek meretarcsilvcoIsleffenSnI.
I confess I felt considerably excited in coming to the end; these letters named, one at a time, had carried no sense to my mind; I therefore waited for the Professor with great pomp to unfold the magnificent but hidden Latin of this mysterious phrase.
But who could have foretold the result? A violent thump made the furniture rattle, and spilt some ink, and my pen dropped from between my fingers.
"That's not it," cried my uncle, "there's no sense in it."
Then darting out like a shot, bowling down stairs like an avalanche, he rushed into the Königstrasse and fled.
THE ENEMY TO BE STARVED INTO SUBMISSION
"He is gone!" cried Martha, running out of her kitchen at the noise of the violent slamming of doors.
"Yes," I replied, "completely gone."
"Well; and how about his dinner?" said the old servant.
"He won't have any."
"And his supper?"
"He won't have any."
"What?" cried Martha, with clasped hands.
"No, my dear Martha, he will eat no more. No one in the house is to eat anything at all. Uncle Liedenbrock is going to make us all fast until he has succeeded in deciphering an undecipherable scrawl."
"Oh, my dear! must we then all die of hunger?"
I hardly dared to confess that, with so absolute a ruler as my uncle, this fate was inevitable.
The old servant, visibly moved, returned to the kitchen, moaning piteously.
When I was alone, I thought I would go and tell Gräuben all about it. But how should I be able to escape from the house? The Professor might return at any moment. And suppose he called me? And suppose he tackled me again with this logomachy, which might vainly have been set before ancient Oedipus. And if I did not obey his call, who could answer for what might happen?
The wisest course was to remain where I was. A mineralogist at Besançon had just sent us a collection of siliceous nodules, which I had to classify: so I set to work; I sorted, labelled, and arranged in their own glass case all these hollow specimens, in the cavity of each of which was a nest of little crystals.
But this work did not succeed in absorbing all my attention. That old document kept working in my brain. My head throbbed with excitement, and I felt an undefined uneasiness. I was possessed with a presentiment of coming evil.
In an hour my nodules were all arranged upon successive shelves. Then I dropped down into the old velvet arm-chair, my head thrown back and my hands joined over it. I lighted my long crooked pipe, with a painting on it of an idle-looking naiad; then I amused myself watching the process of the conversion of the tobacco into carbon, which was by slow degrees making my naiad into a negress. Now and then I listened to hear whether a well-known step was on the stairs. No. Where could my uncle be at that moment? I fancied him running under the noble trees which line the road to Altona, gesticulating, making shots with his cane, thrashing the long grass, cutting the heads off the thistles, and disturbing the contemplative storks in their peaceful solitude.