The Flea and the Professor
By Hans Christian Andersen (1874)
Once upon a time there was a balloonist with whom things went badly ; the balloon burst, and the man came down and was dashed to pieces. He had sent his boy down with the parachute two minutes before : that was lucky for the boy. He was unhurt, and went about with great abilities for becoming a balloonist, but he had no balloon, and no means of getting one.
Live he must, and so he laid himself out to acquire the art of legerdemain, and to be able to talk with his stomach, which is called being a ventriloquist.
He was young and good-looking, and when he got a moustache, and was dressed in good clothes, he might have been taken for a nobleman’s son. The ladies thought him beautiful : one young lady was so enchanted with his beauty and his cleverness, that she accompanied him to strange towns and countries ; there he called himself Professor ; less it could not be.
His constant thought was to get a balloon and fly in the air with his little wife, but as yet they had not the means.
‘ They will come,’ said he.
‘ If only they would,’ said she.
‘ We are young people ! and now I am a Professor. Even crumbs are bread ! ‘
She helped him faithfully, sat by the door and sold tickets for the performance, and that was a cold entertainment in winter. She helped him also in one trick. He put his wife in a table-drawer, a big table-drawer ; she crept into the back drawer, and so was not to be seen from the front ; it was like an optical illusion.
But one evening, when he pulled the drawer out, she had gone ; she was not in the front drawer, nor in the back drawer, nor in the whole house not to be seen, not to be heard. It was her clever trick. She never came back. She was tired of it, and he became tired of it, lost his good humour, could not talk or play tricks any more, and so nobody came ; the profits became poor, his clothes became poor ; he owned at last only a huge flea, an inheritance from his wife, and therefore he thought so much of it. So he trained it, taught it to do clever tricks, taught it to present arms, and fire a cannon.
The Professor was proud of the flea, and it was proud of itself ; it had learnt something and had human blood in it, and had been in the biggest towns, had been seen by princes and princesses, and had won their high admiration. It appeared printed in the newspapers and on placards. It knew that it was famous, and could maintain a Professor, yes, even a whole family.
Proud and famous it was, and yet, when it and the Professor travelled, they went fourth class on the railway ; that travels just as quickly as the first. There was a tacit nmise that they would never separate, never marry, the would remain a bachelor, and the Professor a widower. It comes to the same thing.
‘ Where one has the greatest success,’ said the Professor, ‘ one should not come twice.’ He was a judge of character, and that is also an art.
At last he had travelled in all countries except savage countries, and so he decided to go there ; there, indeed, they ate Christian men, the Professor knew, but he was not really a Christian, and the flea was not really a man, so he imagined that they might venture to travel there and have good fortune.
They travelled by steamship and sailing ship ; the flea went through his tricks, and so they travelled free on the way and came to the country of the savages.
Here reigned a little Princess ; she was only eight years old, but she reigned. She had taken the power from her father and mother, for she had a will and was exception- ally charming and naughty. As soon as the flea had presented arms and fired the cannon, she was so enchanted with it, that she said, ‘ Him, or no one ! ‘ She became quite wild with love, and was already wild before that. ‘ Sweet little sensible child ! ‘ said her father, ‘ if one could first make a man of it ! ‘
‘ Leave that to me, old man ! ‘ said she, and it was not nicely said by a little princess, who talks to her father, but she was wild.
She set the flea on her little hand. ‘ Now you are a man ruling with me, but you shall do what I wish, or I shall kill you and eat the Professor.’
The Professor got a big room to live in. The walls were made of sugar-cane he could go and lick them, but he had not a sweet tooth. He got a hammock to sleep in. It was as if he lay in a balloon such as he had always wished for, and which was his constant thought.
The flea stayed with the Princess, sat on her little hand and on her smooth neck. She had taken a hair from her head, and the Professor had to tie it to the leg of the flea, and so she kept it tied to the great piece of coral which she wore in her ear.
It was a delightful time for the Princess, also for the flea, she thought ; but the Professor was not quite at his ease ; he was a traveller, and liked to go from town to town, and to read in the newspapers about his perseverance and cleverness in teaching a flea all human actions. Day in and day out he lay in his hammock, dozed, and got good food fresh eggs, elephants’ eyes, and giraffe steak ; cannibals do not live only on human flesh, that is a delicacy. ‘ Child’s shoulder with sharp sauce,’ said the mother of the Princess, ‘ is the most delicate ! ‘
The Professor was wearied, and wished to get away from the savage country, but he must have the flea with him, it was his prodigy and bread-winner. How could he get it ? That was not so easy. He strained all his powers of thought, and then he said, ‘ Now I have it ! ‘
‘ Princess -father ; vouchsafe me something to do ! May I exercise the inhabitants of this country in presentations, or introductions ; that is what one calls culture in the greatest countries of the world.’
‘ And what can you teach me ? ‘ said the father of the Princess.
‘ My greatest art,’ said the Professor ‘ to fire a cannon, so that the whole earth trembles, and all the nicest birds of the air fall down cooked ! That makes a noise ! ‘
‘ Come with the cannon ! ‘ said the Princess -father.
But in the whole country there was no cannon, except the one the flea had brought, and that was too little.
‘ I will make a bigger one,’ said the Professor ; ‘ give me only the materials ; I must have fine silk, needle and thread, rope and cord, together with stomach drops for the balloon they puff up, make lighter and lift up ; they make the explosion in the stomach of the cannon.’
All that he demanded he got.
The whole country came together to see the big cannon. The Professor did not call before he had the balloon quite ready to fill up and to ascend.
The flea sat on the Princess’s hand and looked on. The balloon was filled up, it bulged out and could scarcely be held, it was so wild.
‘ I must take it up into the air, so that it may be cooled, said the Professor, and took his seat in the basket which hung under it. ‘ But I cannot manage to steer it alone. I must have an experienced companion with me to help me. There is no one here but the flea who can do that ! ‘
‘ I am not willing to allow it ! ‘ said the Princess, but passed the flea to the Professor, who set it on his hand.
‘ Let go the ropes and cords ! ‘ said he. ‘ Now the balloon goes off ! ‘
They thought he said, ‘ Cannon ! ‘
And so the balloon went higher and higher, up over the clouds, away from the savage land. The little Princess, with her father and mother and all the people, stood and waited. They wait still, and if you don’t believe it, go to the savage land, where every child talks about the flea and the Professor, and believes that they will come again when the cannon is cooled, but they come not, they are at home with us, they are in their fatherland, ride on the railway, first class, not fourth ; they have good fortune and a huge balloon. No one asks how they have got the balloon, or from where they have it ; they are well-to-do and honourable people, the flea and the Professor.