THE PROFESSOR AND HIS FAMILY
On the 24th of May, 1863, my uncle, Professor Liedenbrock, rushed
into his little house, No. 19 Konigstrasse, one of the oldest streets
in the oldest portion of the city of Hamburg.
Martha must have concluded that she was very much behindhand, for the
dinner had only just been put into the oven.
"Well, now," said I to myself, "if that most impatient of men is
hungry, what a disturbance he will make!"
"M. Liedenbrock so soon!" cried poor Martha in great alarm, half
opening the dining-room door.
"Yes, Martha; but very likely the dinner is not half cooked, for it
is not two yet. Saint Michael's clock has only just struck half-past
"Then why has the master come home so soon?"
"Perhaps he will tell us that himself."
"Here he is, Monsieur Axel; I will run and hide myself while you
argue with him."
And Martha retreated in safety into her own dominions.
I was left alone. But how was it possible for a man of my undecided
turn of mind to argue successfully with so irascible a person as the
Professor? With this persuasion I was hurrying away to my own little
retreat upstairs, when the street door creaked upon its hinges; heavy
feet made the whole flight of stairs to shake; and the master of the
house, passing rapidly through the dining-room, threw himself in
haste into his own sanctum.
But on his rapid way he had found time to fling his hazel stick into
a corner, his rough broadbrim upon the table, and these few emphatic
words at his nephew:
"Axel, follow me!"
I had scarcely had time to move when the Professor was again shouting
"What! not come yet?"
And I rushed into my redoubtable master's study.
Otto Liedenbrock had no mischief in him, I willingly allow that; but
unless he very considerably changes as he grows older, at the end he
will be a most original character.
He was professor at the Johannaeum, and was delivering a series of
lectures on mineralogy, in the course of every one of which he broke
into a passion once or twice at least. Not at all that he was
over-anxious about the improvement of his class, or about the degree
of attention with which they listened to him, or the success which
might eventually crown his labours. Such little matters of detail
never troubled him much. His teaching was as the German philosophy
calls it, 'subjective'; it was to benefit himself, not others. He was
a learned egotist. He was a well of science, and the pulleys worked
uneasily when you wanted to draw anything out of it. In a word, he
was a learned miser.
Germany has not a few professors of this sort.
To his misfortune, my uncle was not gifted with a sufficiently rapid
utterance; not, to be sure, when he was talking at home, but
certainly in his public delivery; this is a want much to be deplored
in a speaker. The fact is, that during the course of his lectures at
the Johannaeum, the Professor often came to a complete standstill; he
fought with wilful words that refused to pass his struggling lips,
such words as resist and distend the cheeks, and at last break out
into the unasked-for shape of a round and most unscientific oath:
then his fury would gradually abate.
Now in mineralogy there are many half-Greek and half-Latin terms,
very hard to articulate, and which would be most trying to a poet's
measures. I don't wish to say a word against so respectable a
science, far be that from me. True, in the august presence of
rhombohedral crystals, retinasphaltic resins, gehlenites, Fassaites,
molybdenites, tungstates of manganese, and titanite of zirconium,
why, the most facile of tongues may make a slip now and then.
It therefore happened that this venial fault of my uncle's came to be
pretty well understood in time, and an unfair advantage was taken of
it; the students laid wait for him in dangerous places, and when he
began to stumble, loud was the laughter, which is not in good taste,
not even in Germans. And if there was always a full audience to
honour the Liedenbrock courses, I should be sorry to conjecture how
many came to make merry at my uncle's expense.
Nevertheless my good uncle was a man of deep learning--a fact I am
most anxious to assert and reassert. Sometimes he might irretrievably
injure a specimen by his too great ardour in handling it; but still
he united the genius of a true geologist with the keen eye of the
mineralogist. Armed with his hammer, his steel pointer, his magnetic
needles, his blowpipe, and his bottle of nitric acid, he was a
powerful man of science. He would refer any mineral to its proper
place among the six hundred [l] elementary substances now enumerated,
by its fracture, its appearance, its hardness, its fusibility, its
sonorousness, its smell, and its taste.
The name of Liedenbrock was honourably mentioned in colleges and
learned societies. Humphry Davy,  Humboldt, Captain Sir John
Franklin, General Sabine, never failed to call upon him on their way
through Hamburg. Becquerel, Ebelman, Brewster, Dumas, Milne-Edwards,
Saint-Claire-Deville frequently consulted him upon the most difficult
problems in chemistry, a science which was indebted to him for
considerable discoveries, for in 1853 there had appeared at Leipzig
an imposing folio by Otto Liedenbrock, entitled, "A Treatise upon
Transcendental Chemistry," with plates; a work, however, which failed
to cover its expenses.
To all these titles to honour let me add that my uncle was the
curator of the museum of mineralogy formed by M. Struve, the Russian
ambassador; a most valuable collection, the fame of which is European.
Such was the gentleman who addressed me in that impetuous manner.
Fancy a tall, spare man, of an iron constitution, and with a fair
complexion which took off a good ten years from the fifty he must own
to. His restless eyes were in incessant motion behind his full-sized
spectacles. His long, thin nose was like a knife blade. Boys have
been heard to remark that that organ was magnetised and attracted
iron filings. But this was merely a mischievous report; it had no
attraction except for snuff, which it seemed to draw to itself in
When I have added, to complete my portrait, that my uncle walked by
mathematical strides of a yard and a half, and that in walking he
kept his fists firmly closed, a sure sign of an irritable
temperament, I think I shall have said enough to disenchant any one
who should by mistake have coveted much of his company.
He lived in his own little house in Konigstrasse, a structure half
brick and half wood, with a gable cut into steps; it looked upon one
of those winding canals which intersect each other in the middle of
the ancient quarter of Hamburg, and which the great fire of 1842 had
 Sixty-three. (Tr.)
 As Sir Humphry Davy died in 1829, the translator must be pardoned
for pointing out here an anachronism, unless we are to assume that
the learned Professor's celebrity dawned in his earliest years. (Tr.)
It is true that the old house stood slightly off the perpendicular,
and bulged out a little towards the street; its roof sloped a little
to one side, like the cap over the left ear of a Tugendbund student;
its lines wanted accuracy; but after all, it stood firm, thanks to an
old elm which buttressed it in front, and which often in spring sent
its young sprays through the window panes.
My uncle was tolerably well off for a German professor. The house was
his own, and everything in it. The living contents were his
god-daughter Grauben, a young Virlandaise of seventeen, Martha, and
myself. As his nephew and an orphan, I became his laboratory
I freely confess that I was exceedingly fond of geology and all its
kindred sciences; the blood of a mineralogist was in my veins, and in
the midst of my specimens I was always happy.
In a word, a man might live happily enough in the little old house in
the Konigstrasse, in spite of the restless impatience of its master,
for although he was a little too excitable--he was very fond of me.
But the man had no notion how to wait; nature herself was too slow
for him. In April, after a had planted in the terra-cotta pots
outside his window seedling plants of mignonette and convolvulus, he
would go and give them a little pull by their leaves to make them
grow faster. In dealing with such a strange individual there was
nothing for it but prompt obedience. I therefore rushed after him.