There 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 by 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 ruling. 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.
“Now you are a man, reigning with me, but you shall do what I want you to, or else I’ll kill you and eat the Professor.”
The Professor had a great hall to live in. The walls were made of sugar-cane, and he could lick them, but he was not a sweet-tooth. He had a hammock to sleep in. It was as if he were lying in a balloon, such as he had always wished for himself—that was his constant thought.
The flea lived with the Princess, sat upon her delicate hand and upon her white neck. She had taken a hair from her head and made the Professor tie it to the flea’s leg, and so she kept him tied to the great red coral drop which she wore in her ear.
What a delightful time the Princess had, and the flea too, she thought, but the Professor was not very comfortable. He was a traveler; he liked to drive from town to town, and read about his perseverance and cleverness in teaching a flea to do what men do. But he got out of and into his hammock, lounged about and had good feeding, fresh bird’s-eggs, elephant’s eyes and roast giraffe. People that eat men do not live entirely on cooked men—no, that is a great delicacy.
“Shoulder of children with sharp sauce,” said the Princess’s mother, “is the most delicate.”
The Professor was tired of it all and would rather go away from the wild land, but he must have his flea with him, for that was his prodigy, and his bread and butter. How was he to get hold of him? That was no easy matter. He strained all his wits, and then he said, “Now I have it.”
“Princess’s Father! grant me a favor. May I summon your subjects to present themselves before your Royal Highness? That is what is called a Ceremony in the high and mighty countries of the world.
“Can I, too, learn to do that?” asked the Princess’s father.
“That is not quite proper,” replied the Professor; “but I shall teach your wild Fathership to fire a cannon off. It goes off with a bang. One sits high up aloft, and then off it goes or down he comes.”
“Let me crack it off!” said the Princess’s father. But in all the land there was no cannon except the one the flea had brought, and that was so very small.
“I will cast a bigger one!” said the Professor. “Only give me the means. I must have fine silk stuff, needle and thread, rope and cord, together with cordial drops for the balloon, they blow one up so easily and give one the heaves; they are what make the report in the cannons s inside.”
“By all means,” said the Princess’s father, and gave him what he called for.
All the court and the entire population came together to see the great cannon cast. The Professor did not summon them before he had the balloon entirely ready to be filled and go up: The flea sat on the Princess’s hand and looked on. The balloon was filled, it bulged out and could scarcely be held down, so violent did it become.
“I must have it up in the air before it can be cooled off,” said the Professor, and took his seat in the car which hung below. “But I cannot manage and steer it alone. I must have a skillful companion along to help me. There is no one here that can do that except the flea.”
“I am not very willing to let him,” said the Princess, but still she reached out and handed the flea to the Professor, who placed him on his hand.
“Let go the cords and ropes,” he shouted. “Now the balloon’s going.” They thought he said “the cannon,” and so the balloon went higher and higher, up above the clouds, far away from the wild land.
The little Princess, all the family and the people sat and waited—they are waiting still; and if you do not believe it, just take a journey to the wild land; every child there talks about the Professor and the flea, and believes that they are coming back when the cannon is cooled off; but they will not come, they are at home with us, they are in their native country, they travel on the railway, first class, not fourth; they have good success, a great balloon. Nobody asks how they got their balloon or where it came from: they are rich folks now, quite respectable folks, indeed—the flea and the Professor!