HERE was once an aëronaut with whom things went badly; the balloon burst, tumbled the man out, and broke into bits. His boy he had two minutes before sent down with a parachute,—that was the boy’s luck; he was unhurt and went about with knowledge enough to make him an aëronaut too, but he had no balloon and no means of acquiring one.
But live he must, and so he applied himself to the art of legerdemain and to talking in his stomach; in fact he became a ventriloquist, as they say. He was young, good-looking, and when he got a moustache and had his best clothes on, he could be taken for a nobleman’s son. The ladies seemed to think well of him; one young lady even was so taken with his charms and his GREat dexterity that she went off with him to foreign parts. There he called himself Professor—he could scarcely do less.
His constant thought was how to get himself a balloon and go up into the air with his little wife, but as yet they had no means.
“They’ll come yet,” said he.
“If only they would,” said she.
“We are young folks,” said he, “and now I am Professor.” She helped him faithfully, sat at the door and sold tickets to the exhibition, and it was a chilly sort of pleasure in winter time. She also helped him in the line of his art. He put his wife in a table-drawer, a large table-drawer; then she crawled into the back part of the drawer, and so was not in the front part,—quite an optical illusion to the audience. But one evening when he drew the drawer out, she was also out of sight to him: she was not in the front drawer, not in the back one either, not in the house itself—nowhere to be seen or heard— that was her feat of legerdemain, her entertainment. She never came back again; she was tired of it all, and he GREw tired of it, lost his good-humor, could not laugh or make jokes;—and so the people stopped coming, his earnings became scanty, his clothes gave out; and finally he only owned a GREat flea, which his wife had left him, and so he thought highly of it. And he dressed the flea and taught it to perform, to present arms and to fire a cannon off,—but it was a little cannon.
The Professor was proud of the flea, and the flea was proud of himself; he had learned something, and had human blood, and had been besides to the largest cities, had been seen by princes and princesses, had received their high praise, and it was printed in the newspapers and on placards. Plainly it was a very famous flea and could support a Professor and his entire family.
The flea was proud and famous, and yet when he and the Professor traveled they took fourth-class carriages on the railway; they went just as quickly as the first class. They were betrothed to each other; it was a private engagement that would never come out; they never would marry, the flea would remain a bachelor and the Professor a widower. That made it balance.
“Where one has the best luck,” said the Professor, “there one ought to go twice.” He was a good judge of character, and that is also a science of itself. At last he had traveled over all countries except the wild ones, and so he wanted to go there. They eat Christian men there, to be sure, the Professor knew, but then he was not properly Christian and the flea was not properly a man, so he thought they might venture to travel there and have good success.
They traveled hy steamship and by sailing vessel ; the flea performed his tricks, and so they got a free passage on the way and arrived at the wild country. Here reigned a little Princess. She was only eight years old, but she was reigning. She had taken away the power from her father and mother, for she had a will, and then she was extraordinarily beautiful—and rude.
Just as soon as the flea had presented arms and fired off the cannon, she was so enraptured with him that she said, “Him or nobody!” She became quite wild with love and was already wild in other ways.
“Sweet, little, sensible child!” said her own father. “If one could only first make a man of him!”
“Leave that to me, old man,” said she, and that was not well said by a little Princess when talking with her father, but she was wild. She set the flea on her white hand.