Yet I remembered that I had been convinced, although now my enthusiasm was beginning to cool down; but I felt a desire to start at once, and not to lose time and courage by calm reflection. I had at that moment quite courage enough to strap my knapsack to my shoulders and start.
But I must confess that in another hour this unnatural excitement abated, my nerves became unstrung, and from the depths of the abysses of this earth I ascended to its surface again.
"It is quite absurd!" I cried, "there is no sense about it. No sensible young man should for a moment entertain such a proposal. The whole thing is non-existent. I have had a bad night, I have been dreaming of horrors."
But I had followed the banks of the Elbe and passed the town. After passing the port too, I had reached the Altona road. I was led by a presentiment, soon to be realised; for shortly I espied my little Gräuben bravely returning with her light step to Hamburg.
"Gräuben!" I cried from afar off.
The young girl stopped, rather frightened perhaps to hear her name called after her on the high road. Ten yards more, and I had joined her.
"Axel!" she cried surprised. "What! have you come to meet me? Is this why you are here, sir?"
But when she had looked upon me, Gräuben could not fail to see the uneasiness and distress of my mind.
"What is the matter?" she said, holding out her hand.
"What is the matter, Gräuben?" I cried.
In a couple of minutes my pretty Virlandaise was fully informed of the position of affairs. For a time she was silent. Did her heart palpitate as mine did? I don't know about that, but I know that her hand did not tremble in mine. We went on a hundred yards without speaking.
At last she said, "Axel!"
"My dear Gräuben."
"That will be a splendid journey!"
I gave a bound at these words.
"Yes, Axel, a journey worthy of the nephew of a savant; it is a good thing for a man to be distinguished by some great enterprise."
"What, Gräuben, won't you dissuade me from such an undertaking?"
"No, my dear Axel, and I would willingly go with you, but that a poor girl would only be in your way."
"Is that quite true?"
"It is true."
Ah! women and young girls, how incomprehensible are your feminine hearts! When you are not the timidest, you are the bravest of creatures. Reason has nothing to do with your actions. What! did this child encourage me in such an expedition! Would she not be afraid to join it herself? And she was driving me to it, one whom she loved!
I was disconcerted, and, if I must tell the whole truth, I was ashamed.
"Gräuben, we will see whether you will say the same thing tomorrow."
"To-morrow, dear Axel, I will say what I say to-day."
Gräuben and I, hand in hand, but in silence, pursued our way. The emotions of that day were breaking my heart.
After all, I thought, the kalends of July are a long way off, and between this and then many things may take place which will cure my uncle of his desire to travel underground.
It was night when we arrived at the house in Königstrasse. I expected to find all quiet there, my uncle in bed as was his custom, and Martha giving her last touches with the feather brush.
But I had not taken into account the Professor's impatience. I found him shouting- and working himself up amidst a crowd of porters and messengers who were all depositing various loads in the passage. Our old servant was at her wits' end.
"Come, Axel, come, you miserable wretch," my uncle cried from as far off as he could see me. "Your boxes are not packed, and my papers are not arranged; where's the key of my carpet bag? and what have you done with my gaiters?"
I stood thunderstruck. My voice failed. Scarcely could my lips utter the words:
"Are we really going?"
"Of course, you unhappy boy! Could I have dreamed that yon would have gone out for a walk instead of hurrying your preparations forward?"
"Are we to go?" I asked again, with sinking hopes.
"Yes; the day after to-morrow, early."
I could hear no more.