Chapter VII: Conversation and Discovery
When I returned, dinner was ready. This meal was devoured by my worthy relative with avidity and voracity. His shipboard diet had turned his interior into a perfect gulf. The repast, which was more Danish than Icelandic, was in itself nothing, but the excessive hospitality of our host made us enjoy it doubly.
The conversation turned upon scientific matters, and M. Fridriksson asked my uncle what he thought of the public library.
"Library, sir?" cried my uncle; "it appears to me a collection of useless odd volumes, and a beggarly amount of empty shelves."
"What!" cried M. Fridriksson; "why, we have eight thousand volumes of most rare and valuable works—some in the Scandinavian language, besides all the new publications from Copenhagen."
"Eight thousand volumes, my dear sir—why, where are they?" cried my uncle.
"Scattered over the country, Professor Hardwigg. We are very studious, my dear sir, though we do live in Iceland. Every farmer, every laborer, every fisherman can both read and write—and we think that books instead of being locked up in cupboards, far from the sight of students, should be distributed as widely as possible. The books of our library are therefore passed from hand to hand without returning to the library shelves perhaps for years."
"Then when foreigners visit you, there is nothing for them to see?"
"Well, sir, foreigners have their own libraries, and our first consideration is, that our humbler classes should be highly educated. Fortunately, the love of study is innate in the Icelandic people. In 1816 we founded a Literary Society and Mechanics' Institute; many foreign scholars of eminence are honorary members; we publish books destined to educate our people, and these books have rendered valuable services to our country. Allow me to have the honor, Professor Hardwigg, to enroll you as an honorary member?"
My uncle, who already belonged to nearly every literary and scientific institution in Europe, immediately yielded to the amiable wishes of good M. Fridriksson.
"And now," he said, after many expressions of gratitude and good will, "if you will tell me what books you expected to find, perhaps I may be of some assistance to you."
I watched my uncle keenly. For a minute or two he hesitated, as if unwilling to speak; to speak openly was, perhaps, to unveil his projects. Nevertheless, after some reflection, he made up his mind.
"Well, M. Fridriksson," he said in an easy, unconcerned kind of way, "I was desirous of ascertaining, if among other valuable works, you had any of the learned Arne Saknussemm."
"Arne Saknussemm!" cried the Professor of Reykjavik; "you speak of one of the most distinguished scholars of the sixteenth century, of the great naturalist, the great alchemist, the great traveler."
"One of the most distinguished men connected with Icelandic science and literature."
"As you say, sir—"
"A man illustrious above all."
"Yes, sir, all this is true, but his works?"
"We have none of them."
"Not in Iceland?"
"There are none in Iceland or elsewhere," answered the other, sadly.
"Because Arne Saknussemm was persecuted for heresy, and in 1573 his works were publicly burnt at Copenhagen, by the hands of the common hangman."
"Very good! capital!" murmured my uncle, to the great astonishment of the worthy Icelander.
"You said, sir—"
"Yes, yes, all is clear, I see the link in the chain; everything is explained, and I now understand why Arne Saknussemm, put out of court, forced to hide his magnificent discoveries, was compelled to conceal beneath the veil of an incomprehensible cryptograph, the secret—"
"A secret—which," stammered my uncle.
"Have you discovered some wonderful manuscript?" cried M. Fridriksson.
"No! no, I was carried away by my enthusiasm. A mere supposition."
"Very good, sir. But, really, to turn to another subject, I hope you will not leave our island without examining into its mineralogical riches."
"Well, the fact is, I am rather late. So many learned men have been here before me."
"Yes, yes, but there is still much to be done," cried M. Fridriksson.
"You think so," said my uncle, his eyes twinkling with hidden satisfaction.
"Yes, you have no idea how many unknown mountains, glaciers, volcanoes there are which remain to be studied. Without moving from where we sit, I can show you one. Yonder on the edge of the horizon, you see Sneffels."
"Oh yes, Sneffels," said my uncle.
"One of the most curious volcanoes in existence, the crater of which has been rarely visited."
"Extinct, any time these five hundred years," was the ready reply.
"Well," said my uncle, who dug his nails into his flesh, and pressed his knees tightly together to prevent himself leaping up with joy. "I have a great mind to begin my studies with an examination of the geological mysteries of this Mount Seffel—Feisel—what do you call it?"
"Sneffels, my dear sir."
This portion of the conversation took place in Latin, and I therefore understood all that had been said. I could scarcely keep my countenance when I found my uncle so cunningly concealing his delight and satisfaction. I must confess that his artful grimaces, put on to conceal his happiness, made him look like a new Mephistopheles.
"Yes, yes," he continued, "your proposition delights me. I will endeavor to climb to the summit of Sneffels, and, if possible, will descend into its crater."
"I very much regret," continued M. Fridriksson, "that my occupation will entirely preclude the possibility of my accompanying you. It would have been both pleasurable and profitable if I could have spared the time."
"No, no, a thousand times no," cried my uncle. "I do not wish to disturb the serenity of any man. I thank you, however, with all my heart. The presence of one so learned as yourself, would no doubt have been most useful, but the duties of your office and profession before everything."
In the innocence of his simple heart, our host did not perceive the irony of these remarks.
"I entirely approve your project," continued the Icelander after some further remarks. "It is a good idea to begin by examining this volcano. You will make a harvest of curious observations. In the first place, how do you propose to get to Sneffels?"
"By sea. I shall cross the bay. Of course that is the most rapid route."
"Of course. But still it cannot be done."
"We have not an available boat in all Reykjavik," replied the other.
"What is to be done?"
"You must go by land along the coast. It is longer, but much more interesting."
"Then I must have a guide."
"Of course; and I have your very man."
"Somebody on whom I can depend."
"Yes, an inhabitant of the peninsula on which Sneffels is situated. He is a very shrewd and worthy man, with whom you will be pleased. He speaks Danish like a Dane."
"When can I see him—today?"
"No, tomorrow; he will not be here before."
"Tomorrow be it," replied my uncle, with a deep sigh.
The conversation ended by compliments on both sides. During the dinner my uncle had learned much as to the history of Arne Saknussemm, the reasons for his mysterious and hieroglyphical document. He also became aware that his host would not accompany him on his adventurous expedition, and that next day we should have a guide.