At two we went to lunch with the Rector. The entertainment bore a strong family likeness to our last night's dinner; but as I wanted afterwards to exhibit my magic lantern to his little daughter Raghnilder, and a select party of her young friends, we contrived to elude doing full justice to it. During the remainder of the evening, like Job's children, we went about feasting from house to house, taking leave of friends who could not have been kinder had they known us all our lives, and interchanging little gifts and souvenirs. With the Governor I have left a print from the Princess Royal's drawing of the dead soldier in the Crimea. From the Rector of the cathedral church I have received some very curious books—almost the first printed in the island; I have been very anxious to obtain some specimens of ancient Icelandic manuscripts, but the island has long since been ransacked of its literary treasures; and to the kindness of the French consul I am indebted for a charming little white fox, the drollest and prettiest little beast I ever saw.
Having dined on board the "Artemise," we adjourned at eleven o'clock to the beach to witness the departure of the baggage. The ponies were all drawn up in one long file, the head of each being tied to the tail of the one immediately before him. Additional articles were stowed away here and there among the boxes. The last instructions were given by Sigurdr to the guides, and everything was declared ready for a start. With the air of an equestrian star, descending into the arena of Astley's Amphitheatre, the cook then stepped forward, made me a superb bow, and was assisted into the saddle. My little cabin-boy accompanied him as aide-de-camp.
The jovial Wilson rides with us tomorrow. Unless we get his head round during the night, he will have to sit facing his horse's tail, in order to see before him.
We do not seem to run any danger of falling short of provisions, as by all accounts there are birds enough in the interior of the country to feed an Israelitish emigration.
KISSES—WILSON ON HORSEBACK—A LAVA PLATEAU—THINGVALLA— ALMANNAGIA—RABNAGIA—OUR TENT—THE SHIVERED PLAIN— WITCH-DROWNING—A PARLIAMENTARY DEBATE, A. D. 1000— THANGBRAND THE MISSIONARY—A GERMAN GNAT-CATCHER—THE MYSTICAL MOUNTAINS—SIR OLAF—HECKLA—SKAPTA JOKUL—THE FIRE DELUGE OF 1783—WE REACH THE GEYSIR—STROKR—FITZ'S BONNE FORTUNE—MORE KISSES—AN ERUPTION—PRINCE NAPOLEON —RETURN—TRADE—POPULATION—A MUTINY—THE REINE HORTENSE—THE SEVEN DUTCHMEN—A BALL—LOW DRESSES— NORTHWARD HO!
Reykjavik, July 7, 1856.
At last I have seen the famous Geysirs, of which every one has heard so much; but I have also seen Thingvalla, of which no one has heard anything. The Geysirs are certainly wonderful marvels of nature, but more wonderful, more marvellous is Thingvalla; and if the one repay you for crossing the Spanish Sea, it would be worth while to go round the world to reach the other.
Of the boiling fountains I think I can give you a good idea, but whether I can contrive to draw for you anything like a comprehensible picture of the shape and nature of the Almannagja, the Hrafnagja, and the lava vale, called Thingvalla, that lies between them, I am doubtful. Before coming to Iceland I had read every account that had been written of Thingvalla by any former traveller, and when I saw it, it appeared to me a place of which I had never heard; so I suppose I shall come to grief in as melancholy a manner as my predecessors, whose ineffectual pages whiten the entrance to the valley they have failed to describe.
Having superintended—as I think I mentioned to you in my last letter—the midnight departure of the cook, guides, and luggage, we returned on board for a good night's rest, which we all needed. The start was settled for the next morning at eleven o'clock, and you may suppose we were not sorry to find, on waking, the bright joyous sunshine pouring down through the cabin skylight, and illuminating the white-robed, well-furnished breakfast-table with more than usual splendour. At the appointed hour we rowed ashore to where our eight ponies—two being assigned to each of us, to be ridden alternately—were standing ready bridled and saddled, at the house of one of our kindest friends. Of course, though but just risen from breakfast, the inevitable invitation to eat and drink awaited us; and another half-hour was spent in sipping cups of coffee poured out for us with much laughter by our hostess and her pretty daughter. At last, the necessary libations accomplished, we rose to go. Turning round to Fitz, I whispered, how I had always understood it was the proper thing in Iceland for travellers departing on a journey to kiss the ladies who had been good enough to entertain them,—little imagining he would take me at my word. Guess then my horror, when I suddenly saw him, with an intrepidity I envied but dared not imitate, first embrace the mamma, by way of prelude, and then proceed, in the most natural manner possible, to make the same tender advances to the daughter. I confess I remained dumb with consternation; the room swam round before me; I expected the next minute we should be packed neck and crop into the street, and that the young lady would have gone off into hysterics. It turned out, however, that such was the very last thing she was thinking of doing. With a simple frankness that became her more than all the boarding-school graces in the world, her eyes dancing with mischief and good humour, she met him half way, and pouting out two rosy lips, gave him as hearty a kiss as it might ever be the good fortune of one of us he-creatures to receive. From that moment I determined to conform for the future to the customs of the inhabitants.
Fresh from favours such as these, it was not surprising we should start in the highest spirits. With a courtesy peculiar to Iceland, Dr. Hjaltelin, the most jovial of doctors,—and another gentleman, insisted on conveying us the first dozen miles of our journey; and as we clattered away through the wooden streets, I think a merrier party never set out from Reykjavik. In front scampered the three spare ponies, without bridles, saddles, or any sense of moral responsibility, flinging up their heels, biting and neighing like mad things; then came Sigurdr, now become our chief, surrounded by the rest of the cavalcade; and finally, at a little distance, plunged in profound melancholy, rode Wilson. Never shall I forget his appearance. During the night his head had come partially straight, but by way of precaution, I suppose, he had conceived the idea of burying it down to the chin in a huge seal-skin helmet I had given him against the inclemencies of the Polar Sea. As on this occasion the thermometer was at 81 degrees, and a coup-de-soleil was the chief thing to be feared, a ton of fur round his skull was scarcely necessary. Seamen's trousers, a bright scarlet jersey, and jack-boots fringed with cat-skin, completed his costume; and as he proceeded along in his usual state of chronic consternation, with my rifle slung at his back and a couple of telescopes over his shoulder, he looked the image of Robinson Crusoe, fresh from having seen the foot-print.
A couple of hours' ride across the lava plain we had previously traversed brought us to a river, where our Reykjavik friends, after showing us a salmon weir, finally took their leave, with many kind wishes for our prosperity. On looking through the clear water that hissed and bubbled through the wooden sluice, the Doctor had caught sight of an apparently dead salmon, jammed up against its wooden bars; but on pulling him out, he proved to be still breathing, though his tail was immovably twisted into his mouth. A consultation taking place, the Doctors both agreed that it was a case of pleurosthotonos, brought on by mechanical injury to the spine (we had just been talking of Palmer's trial), and that he was perfectly fit for food. In accordance with this verdict, he was knocked on the head, and slung at Wilson's saddle-bow. Left to ourselves, we now pushed on as rapidly as we could, though the track across the lava was so uneven, that every moment I expected Snorro (for thus have I christened my pony) would be on his nose. In another hour we were among the hills. The scenery of this part of the journey was not very beautiful, the mountains not being remarkable either for their size or shape; but here and there we came upon pretty bits, not unlike some of the barren parts of Scotland, with quiet blue lakes sleeping in the solitude.
After wandering along for some time in a broad open valley, that gradually narrowed to a glen, we reached a grassy patch. As it was past three o'clock, Sigurdr proposed a halt.
Unbridling and unsaddling our steeds, we turned them loose upon the pasture, and sat ourselves down on a sunny knoll to lunch. For the first time since landing in Iceland I felt hungry; as, for the first time, four successive hours had elapsed without our having been compelled to take a snack. The appetites of the ponies seemed equally good, though probably with them hunger was no such novelty. Wilson alone looked sad. He confided to me privately that he feared his trousers would not last such jolting many days; but his dolefulness, like a bit of minor in a sparkling melody, only made our jollity more radiant. In about half an hour Sigurdr gave the signal for a start; and having caught, saddled, and bridled three unridden ponies, we drove Snorro and his companions to the front, and proceeded on our way rejoicing. After an hour's gradual ascent through a picturesque ravine, we emerged upon an immense desolate plateau of lava, that stretched away for miles and miles like a great stony sea. A more barren desert you cannot conceive. Innumerable boulders, relics of the glacial period, encumbered the track. We could only go at a foot-pace. Not a blade of grass, not a strip of green, enlivened the prospect, and the only sound we heard was the croak of the curlew and the wail of the plover. Hour after hour we plodded on, but the grey waste seemed interminable, boundless; and the only consolation Sigurdr would vouchsafe was, that our journey's end lay on this side of some purple mountains that peeped like the tents of a demon leaguer above the stony horizon.
As it was already eight o'clock, and we had been told the entire distance from Reykjavik to Thingvalla was only five-and-thirty miles, I could not comprehend how so great a space should still separate us from our destination. Concluding more time had been lost in shooting, lunching, etc., by the way than we had supposed, I put my pony into a canter, and determined to make short work of the dozen miles which seemed still to lie between us and the hills, on this side of which I understood from Sigurdr our encampment for the night was to be pitched.
Judge then of my astonishment when, a few minutes afterwards, I was arrested in full career by a tremendous precipice, or rather chasm, which suddenly gaped beneath my feet, and completely separated the barren plateau we had been so painfully traversing from a lovely, gay, sunlit flat, ten miles broad, that lay—sunk at a level lower by a hundred feet—between us and the opposite mountains. I was never so completely taken by surprise; Sigurdr's purposely vague description of our halting-place was accounted for.
We had reached the famous Almanna Gja. Like a black rampart in the distance, the corresponding chasm of the Hrafna Gja cut across the lower slope of the distant hills, and between them now slept in beauty and sunshine the broad verdant [Footnote: The plain of Thingvalla is in a great measure clothed with birch brushwood.] plain of Thingvalla.
Ages ago,—who shall say how long?—some vast commotion shook the foundations of the island, and bubbling up from sources far away amid the inland hills, a fiery deluge must have rushed down between their ridges, until, escaping from the narrower gorges, it found space to spread itself into one broad sheet of molten stone over an entire district of country, reducing its varied surface to one vast blackened level.
One of two things then occurred: either the vitrified mass contracting as it cooled,—the centre area of fifty square miles burst asunder at either side from the adjoining plateau, and sinking down to its present level, left the two parallel Gjas, or chasms, which form its lateral boundaries, to mark the limits of the disruption; or else, while the pith or marrow of the lava was still in a fluid state, its upper surface became solid, and formed a roof beneath which the molten stream flowed on to lower levels, leaving a vast cavern into which the upper crust subsequently plumped down. [Footnote: I feel it is very presumptuous in me to hazard a conjecture on a subject with which my want of geological knowledge renders me quite incompetent to deal; but however incorrect either of the above suppositions may be justly considered by the philosophers, they will perhaps serve to convey to the unlearned reader, for whose amusement (not instruction) these letters are intended, the impression conveyed to my mind by what I saw, and so help out the picture I am trying to fill in for him.]
The enclosed section will perhaps help you a little to comprehend what I am afraid my description will have failed to bring before you.
[Figure: fig-p050.gif with following caption: 1 Gjas. 2 Lava deluge. 3 Original surface. 4 Thingvalla sunk to a lower level. 5 Astonished traveller.]
1. Are the two chasms called respectively Almanna Gja, [Footnote: Almanna may be translated main; it means literally all men's; when applied to a road, it would mean the road along which all the world travel.] or Main Gja, and Hrafna Gja, or Raven's Gja. In the act of disruption the sinking mass fell in, as it were, upon itself, so that one side of the Gja slopes a good deal back as it ascends; the other side is perfectly perpendicular, and at the spot I saw it upwards of one hundred feet high. In the lapse of years the bottom of the Almanna Gja has become gradually filled up to an even surface, covered with the most beautiful turf, except where a river, leaping from the higher plateau over the precipice, has chosen it for a bed. You must not suppose, however, that the disruption and land-slip of Thingvalla took place quite in the spick and span manner the section might lead you to imagine; in some places the rock has split asunder very unevenly, and the Hrafna Gja is altogether a very untidy rent, the sides having fallen in in many places, and almost filled up the ravine with ruins. On the other hand, in the Almanna Gja, you can easily distinguish on the one face marks and formations exactly corresponding, though at a different level, with those on the face opposite, so cleanly were they separated.
[Figure: fig-p051.gif with the following caption: 1 Plain of Thingvalla. 2 Lake. 3 Lava plateau. 4 Almanna Gja. 5 Rabna Gja.]
2. Is the sea of lava now lying on the top of the original surface. Its depth I had no means of ascertaining.
3. Is the level of the surface first formed when the lava was still hot.
4. Is the plain of Thingvalla, eight miles broad, its surface shattered into a network of innumerable crevices and fissures fifty or sixty feet deep, and each wide enough to have swallowed the entire company of Korah. At the foot of the plain lies a vast lake, into which, indeed, it may be said to slope, with a gradual inclination from the north, the imprisoned waters having burst up through the lava strata, as it subsided beneath them. Gazing down through their emerald depths, you can still follow the pattern traced on the surface of the bottom, by cracks and chasms similar to those into which the dry portion of Thingvalla has been shivered.
The accompanying ground plan will, I trust, complete what is wanting to fill up the picture I so long to conjure up before the mind's eye. It is the last card I have to play, and, if unsuccessful, I must give up the task in despair. But to return to where I left myself, on the edge of the cliff, gazing down with astonished eyes over the panorama of land and water embedded at my feet. I could scarcely speak for pleasure and surprise; Fitz was equally taken aback, and as for Wilson, he looked as if he thought we had arrived at the end of the world. After having allowed us sufficient time to admire the prospect Sigurdr turned to the left, along the edge of the precipice, until we reached a narrow pathway accidentally formed down a longitudinal niche in the splintered face of the cliff, which led across the bottom, and up the opposite side of the Gja, into the plain of Thingvalla. By rights our tents ought to have arrived before us, but when we reached the little glebe where we expected to find them pitched, no signs of servants, guides, or horses were to be seen. As we had not overtaken them ourselves, their non-appearance was inexplicable. Wilson suggested that, the cook having died on the road, the rest of the party must have turned aside to bury him; and that we had passed unperceived during the interesting ceremony. Be the cause what it might, the result was not agreeable. We were very tired, very hungry, and it had just begun to rain.
It is true there was a clergyman's house and a church, both built of stones covered with turf sods, close by; at the one, perhaps, we could get milk, and in the other we could sleep, as our betters—including Madame Pfeiffer—had done before us; but its inside looked so dark, and damp, and cold, and charnel-like, that one really doubted whether lying in the churchyard would not be snugger. You may guess, then, how great was my relief when our belated baggage-train was descried against the sky-line, as it slowly wended its way along the purple edge of the precipice towards the staircase by which we had already descended.
Half an hour afterwards the little plot of grass selected for the site of our encampment was covered over with poles, boxes, cauldrons, tea-kettles, and all the paraphernalia of a gipsy settlement. Wilson's Kaffir experience came at once into play, and under his solemn but effective superintendence, in less than twenty minutes the horn-headed tent rose, dry and taut, upon the sward. Having carpeted the floor with oil-skin rugs, and arranged our three beds with their clean crisp sheets, blankets, and coverlets complete, at the back, he proceeded to lay out the dinner-table at the tent door with as much decorum as if we were expecting the Archbishop of Canterbury. All this time the cook, who looked a little pale, and moved, I observed with difficulty, was mysteriously closeted with a spirit-lamp inside a diminutive tent of his own, through the door of which the most delicious whiffs occasionally permeated. Olaf and his comrades had driven off the horses to their pastures; and Sigurdr and I were deep in a game of chess. Luckily, the shower, which threatened us a moment, had blown over. Though now almost nine o'clock P.M., it was as bright as mid-day; the sky burned like a dome of gold, and silence and deep peace brooded over the fair grass-robed plain, that once had been so fearfully convulsed.
You may be quite sure our dinner went off merrily; the tetanus-afflicted salmon proved excellent, the plover and ptarmigan were done to a turn, the mulligatawny beyond all praise; but, alas! I regret to add, that he—the artist, by whose skill these triumphs had been achieved—his task accomplished,—no longer sustained by the factitious energy resulting from his professional enthusiasm,—at last succumbed, and, retiring to the recesses of his tent, like Psyche in the "Princess," lay down, "and neither spoke nor stirred."
After another game or two of chess, a pleasant chat, a gentle stroll, we also turned in; and for the next eight hours perfect silence reigned throughout our little encampment, except when Wilson's sob-like snores shook to their foundation the canvas walls that sheltered him.
When I awoke—I do not know at what hour, for from this time we kept no account of day or night—the white sunlight was streaming into the tent, and the whole landscape was gleaming and glowing in the beauty of one of the hottest summer-days I ever remember. We breakfasted in our shirt-sleeves, and I was forced to wrap my head in a white handkerchief for fear of the sun. As we were all a little stiff after our ride, I could not resist the temptation of spending the day where we were, and examining more leisurely the wonderful features of the neighbourhood. Independently of its natural curiosities, Thingvalla was most interesting to me on account of the historical associations connected with it. Here, long ago, at a period when feudal despotism was the only government known throughout Europe, free parliaments used to sit in peace, and regulate the affairs of the young Republic; and to this hour the precincts of its Commons House of Parliament are as distinct and unchanged as on the day when the high-hearted fathers of the emigration first consecrated them to the service of a free nation. By a freak of nature, as the subsiding plain cracked and shivered into twenty thousand fissures, an irregular oval area, of about two hundred feet by fifty, was left almost entirely surrounded by a crevice so deep and broad as to be utterly impassable;—at one extremity alone a scanty causeway connected it with the adjoining level, and allowed of access to its interior. It is true, just at one point the encircling chasm grows so narrow as to be within the possibility of a jump; and an ancient worthy, named Flosi, pursued by his enemies, did actually take it at a fly; but as leaping an inch short would have entailed certain drowning in the bright green waters that sleep forty feet below, you can conceive there was never much danger of this entrance becoming a thoroughfare. I confess that for one moment, while contemplating the scene of Flosi's exploit, I felt,—like a true Briton,—an idiotic desire to be able to say that I had done the same; that I survive to write this letter is a proof of my having come subsequently to my senses.
[Figure: fig-p055.gif with caption as follows: A The Althing. B The Hill of Laws. C The place where Flosi jumped. D Adjacent Chasms.]
This spot then, erected by nature almost into a fortress, the founders of the Icelandic constitution chose for the meetings of their Thing, [Footnote: From thing, to speak. We have a vestige of the same word in Dingwall, a town of Ross-shire.] or Parliament, armed guards defended the entrance, while the grave bonders deliberated in security within: to this day, at the upper end of the place of meeting, may be seen the three hammocks, where sat in state the chiefs and judges of the land.
But those grand old times have long since passed away. Along the banks of the Oxeraa no longer glisten the tents and booths of the assembled lieges; no longer stalwart berserks guard the narrow entrance to the Althing; ravens alone sit on the sacred Logberg; and the floor of the old Icelandic House of Commons is ignominiously cropped by the sheep of the parson. For three hundred years did the gallant little Republic maintain its independence—three hundred years of unequalled literary and political vigour. At last its day of doom drew near. Like the Scotch nobles in the time of Elizabeth, their own chieftains intrigued against the liberties of the Icelandic people; and in 1261 the island became an appanage of the Norwegian crown. Yet even then the deed embodying the concession of their independence was drawn up in such haughty terms as to resemble rather the offer of an equal alliance than the renunciation of imperial rights. Soon, however, the apathy which invariably benumbs the faculties of a people too entirely relieved from the discipline and obligation of self-government, lapped in complete inactivity, moral, political, and intellectual,—these once stirring islanders. On the amalgamation of the three Scandinavian monarchies, at the union of Calmar, the allegiance of the people of Iceland was passively transferred to the Danish crown. Ever since that time, Danish proconsuls have administered their government, and Danish restrictions have regulated their trade. The traditions of their ancient autonomy have become as unsubstantial and obsolete as those which record the vanished fame of their poets and historians, and the exploits of their mariners. It is true, the adoption of the Lutheran religion galvanized for a moment into the semblance of activity the old literary spirit. A printing-press was introduced as early as 1530, and ever since the sixteenth century many works of merit have been produced from time to time by Icelandic genius. Shakespeare, Milton, and Pope have been translated into the native tongue; one of the best printed newspapers I have ever seen is now published at Reykjavik; and the Colleges of Copenhagen are adorned by many an illustrious Icelandic scholar; but the glory of the old days is departed, and it is across a wide desolate flat of ignoble annals, as dull and arid as their own lava plains, that the student has to look back upon the glorious drama of Iceland's early history. As I gazed around on the silent, deserted plain, and paced to and fro along the untrodden grass that now clothed the Althing, I could scarcely believe it had ever been the battle-field where such keen and energetic wits encountered,—that the fire-scathed rocks I saw before me were the very same that had once inspired one of the most successful rhetorical appeals ever hazarded in a public assembly.
As an account of the debate to which I allude has been carefully preserved, I may as well give you an abstract of it. A more characteristic leaf out of the Parliamentary Annals of Iceland you could scarcely have.
In the summer of the year 1000, when Ethelred the Unready ruled in England, and fourteen years after Hugh Capet had succeeded the last Carlovingian on the throne of France,—the Icelandic legislature was convened for the consideration of a very important subject—no less important, indeed, than an inquiry into the merits of a new religion lately brought into the country by certain emissaries of Olaf Tryggveson,—the first Christian king of Norway,—and the same who pulled down London bridge.
The assembly met. The Norse missionaries were called upon to enunciate to the House the tenets of the faith they were commissioned to disclose; and the debate began. Great and fierce was the difference of opinion. The good old Tory party, supported by all the authority of the Odin establishment, were violent in opposition. The Whigs advocated the new arrangement, and, as the king supported their own views, insisted strongly on the Divine right. Several liberal members permitted themselves to speak sarcastically of the Valhalla tap, and the ankles of Freya. The discussion was at its height, when suddenly a fearful peal of subterranean thunder roared around the Althing. "Listen!" cried an orator of the Pagan party; "how angry is Odin that we should even consider the subject of a new religion. His fires will consume us." To which a ready debater on the other side replied, by "begging leave to ask the honourable gentleman,—with whom were the gods angry when these rocks were melted?"—pointing to the devastated plain around him. Taking advantage of so good a hit, the Treasury "whips" immediately called for a division; and the Christian religion was adopted by a large majority.
The first Christian missionaries who came to Iceland seem to have had a rather peculiar manner of enforcing the truths of the Gospel. Their leader was a person of the name of Thangbrand. Like the Protestant clergymen Queen Elizabeth despatched to convert Ireland, he was bundled over to Iceland principally because he was too disreputable to be allowed to live in Norway. The old Chronicler gives a very quaint description of him. "Thangbrand," he says, "was a passionate, ungovernable person, and a great man-slayer; but a good scholar, and clever. Thorvald, and Veterlid the Scald, composed a lampoon against him; but he killed them both outright. Thangbrand was two years in Iceland, and was the death of three men before he left it."
From the Althing we strolled over to the Almanna Gja, visiting the Pool of Execution on our way. As I have already mentioned, a river from the plateau above leaps over the precipice into the bottom of the Gja, and flows for a certain distance between its walls. At the foot of the fall the waters linger for a moment in a dark, deep, brimming pool, hemmed in by a circle of ruined rocks; to this pool, in ancient times, all women convicted of capital crimes were immediately taken, and drowned. Witchcraft seems to have been the principal weakness of ladies in those days, throughout the Scandinavian countries. For a long period no disgrace was attached to its profession. Odin himself, we are expressly told, was a great adept, and always found himself very much exhausted at the end of his performance; which leads me to think that perhaps he dabbled in electro-biology. At last the advent of Christianity threw discredit on the practice; severe punishments were denounced against all who indulged in it; and, in the end, its mysteries became the monopoly of the Laplanders.
All criminals, men and women, were tried by juries; and that the accused had the power of challenging the jurymen empannelled to try them, appears from the following extract from the Book of Laws:—"The judges shall go out on Washday, i.e., Saturday, and continue out for challenges, until the sun comes on Thingvalla on the Lord's-day." And again, "The power of challenging shall cease as soon as the sun can no longer be seen above the western brink of the chasm, from the Logberg."
Turning aside from what, I dare say, was the scene of many an unrecorded tragedy, we descended the gorge of the Almanna Gja, towards the lake; and I took advantage of the opportunity again to examine its marvellous construction. The perpendicular walls of rock rose on either hand from the flat greensward that carpeted its bottom, pretty much as the waters of the Red Sea must have risen on each side of the fugitive Israelites. A blaze of light smote the face of one cliff, while the other lay in the deepest shadow; and on the rugged surface of each might still be traced corresponding articulations, that once had dovetailed into each other, ere the igneous mass was rent asunder. So unchanged, so recent seemed the vestiges of this convulsion, that I felt as if I had been admitted to witness one of nature's grandest and most violent operations, almost in the very act of its execution. A walk of about twenty minutes brought us to the borders of the lake—a glorious expanse of water, fifteen miles long, by eight miles broad, occupying a basin formed by the same hills, which must also, I imagine, have arrested the further progress of the lava torrent. A lovelier scene I have seldom witnessed. In the foreground lay huge masses of rock and lava, tossed about like the ruins of a world; and washed by waters as bright and green as polished malachite. Beyond, a bevy of distant mountains, robed by the transparent atmosphere in tints unknown to Europe, peeped over each other's shoulders into the silver mirror at their feet, while here and there from among their purple ridges columns of white vapour rose like altar smoke toward the tranquil heaven.
On returning home we found dinner waiting for us. I had invited the clergyman, and a German gentleman who was lodging with him, to give us the pleasure of their company; and in ten minutes we had all become the best of friends. It is true the conversation was carried on in rather a wild jargon, made up of six different languages—Icelandic, English, German, Latin, Danish, French—but in spite of the difficulty with which he expressed himself, it was impossible not to be struck with the simple earnest character of my German convive. He was about five-and-twenty, a "doctor philosophiae," and had come to Iceland to catch gnats. After having caught gnats in Iceland, he intended, he said, to spend some years in catching gnats in Spain.—the privacy of Spanish gnats, as it appears, not having been hitherto invaded. The truth is, my guest was an entomologist, and in the pursuit of the objects of his study was evidently prepared to approach hardships and danger with a serenity that would not have been unworthy of the apostle of a new religion. It was almost touching to hear him describe the intensity of his joy when perhaps days and nights of fruitless labours were at last rewarded by the discovery of some hitherto unknown little fly; and it was with my whole heart that, at parting, I wished him success in his career, and the fame that so much conscientious labour merited. From my allusion to this last reward, however, he seemed almost to shrink, and, with a sincerity it was impossible to doubt, disclaimed as ignoble so poor a motive as a thirst for fame. His was one of those calm laborious minds, seldom found but among the Teutonic race, that—pursuing day by day with single-minded energy some special object—live in a noble obscurity, and die at last content with the consciousness of having added one other stone to that tower of knowledge men are building up toward heaven, even though the world should never learn what strong and patient hands have placed it there.
The next morning we started for the Geysirs: this time dividing the baggage-train, and sending on the cook in light marching order, with the materials for dinner. The weather still remained unclouded, and each mile we advanced disclosed some new wonder in the unearthly landscape. A three hours' ride brought us to the Rabna Gja, the eastern boundary of Thingvalla, and, winding up its rugged face, we took our last look over the lovely plain beneath us, and then manfully set forward across the same kind of arid lava plateau as that which we had already traversed before arriving at the Almanna Gja. But instead of the boundless immensity which had then so much disheartened us, the present prospect was terminated by a range of quaint parti-coloured hills, which rose before us in such fantastic shapes that I could not take my eyes off them. I do not know whether it was the strong coffee or the invigorating air that stimulated my imagination; but I certainly felt convinced I was coming to some mystical spot—out of space, out of time—where I should suddenly light upon a green-scaled griffin, or golden-haired princess, or other bonnie fortune of the olden days. Certainly a more appropriate scene for such an encounter could not be conceived, than that which displayed itself, when we wheeled at last round the flank of the scorched ridge we had been approaching. A perfectly smooth grassy plain, about a league square, and shaped like a horse-shoe, opened before us, encompassed by bare cinder-like hills, that rose round—red, black, and yellow—in a hundred uncouth peaks of ash and slag. Not a vestige of vegetation relieved the aridity of their vitrified sides, while the verdant carpet at their feet only made the fire-moulded circle seem more weird and impassable. Had I had a trumpet and a lance, I should have blown a blast of defiance on the one, and having shaken the other toward the foul corners of the world, would have calmly waited to see what next might betide. Three arrows shot bravely forward would have probably resulted in the discovery of a trap-door with an iron ring; but having neither trumpet, lance, nor arrow, we simply alighted and lunched: yet even then I could not help thinking how lucky it was that, not eating dates, we could not inadvertently fling their stones into the eye of any inquisitive genie who might be in the neighbourhood.
After the usual hour's rest and change of horses, we galloped away to the other side of the plain, and, doubling the further horn of the semicircle, suddenly found ourselves in a district as unlike the cinder mountains we had quitted as they had differed from the volcanic scenery of the day before. On the left lay a long rampart of green hills, opening up every now and then into Scottish glens and gorges, while from their roots to the horizon stretched a vast breadth of meadowland, watered by two or three rivers, that wound, and twisted, and coiled about, like blue serpents. Here and there, white volumes of vapour, that rose in endless wreaths from the ground, told of mighty cauldrons at work beneath that moist cool verdant carpet; while large silvery lakes, and flat-topped isolated hills, relieved the monotony of the level land, and carried on the eye to where the three snowy peaks of Mount Hecla shone cold and clear against the sky.
Of course it was rather tantalizing to pass so near this famous burning mountain without having an opportunity of ascending it; but the expedition would have taken up too much time. In appearance Hecla differs very little from the innumerable other volcanic hills with which the island is studded. Its cone consists of a pyramid of stone and scoriae, rising to the height of about five thousand feet, and welded together by bands of molten matter which have issued from its sides. From A.D. 1004 to 1766 there have been twenty-three eruptions, occurring at intervals which have varied in duration, from six to seventy-six years. The one of 1766 was remarkably violent. It commenced on the 5th of April by the appearance of a huge pillar of black sand mounting slowly into the heavens, accompanied by subterranean thunders, and all the other symptoms which precede volcanic disturbances. Then a coronet of flame encircled the crater; masses of red rock, pumice, and magnetic stones were flung out with tremendous violence to an incredible distance, and in such continuous multitudes as to resemble a swarm of bees clustering over the mountain. One boulder of pumice six feet in circumference was pitched twenty miies away; another of magnetic iron fell at a distance of fifteen. The surface of the earth was covered, for a circuit of one hundred and fifty miles, with a layer of sand four inches deep; the air was so darkened by it, that at a place one hundred and forty miles off, white paper held up at a little distance could not be distinguished from black. The fishermen could not put to sea on account of the darkness, and the inhabitants of the Orkney islands were frightened out of their senses by showers of what they thought must be black snow. On the 9th of April, the lava began to overflow, and ran for five miles in a southwesterly direction, whilst, some days later,—in order that no element might be wanting to mingle in this devil's charivari,—a vast column of water, like Robin Hood's second arrow, split up through the cinder pillar to the height of several hundred feet; the horror of the spectacle being further enhanced by an accompaniment of subterranean cannonading and dire reports, heard at a distance of fifty miles.
Striking as all this must have been, it sinks into comparative tameness and insignificance, beside the infinitely more terrible phenomena which attended the eruption of another volcano, called Skapta jokul.
Of all countries in Europe, Iceland is the one which has been the most minutely mapped, not even excepting the ordnance survey of Ireland. The Danish Government seem to have had a hobby about it, and the result has been a chart so beautifully executed, that every little crevice, each mountain torrent, each flood of lava, is laid down with an accuracy perfectly astonishing. One huge blank, however, in the south-west corner of this map of Iceland, mars the integrity of its almost microscopic delineations. To every other part of the island the engineer has succeeded in penetrating; one vast space alone of about four hundred square miles has defied his investigation. Over the area occupied by the Skapta Jokul, amid its mountain-cradled fields of snow and icy ridges, no human foot has ever wandered. Yet it is from the bosom of this desert district that has descended the most frightful visitation ever known to have desolated the island.
This event occurred in the year 1783. The preceding winter and spring had been unusually mild. Toward the end of May, a light bluish fog began to float along the confines of the untrodden tracts of Skapta, accompanied in the beginning of June by a great trembling of the earth. On the 8th of that month, immense pillars of smoke collected over the hill country towards the north, and coming down against the wind in a southerly direction, enveloped the whole district of Sida in darkness. A whirlwind of ashes then swept over the face of the country, and on the 10th, innumerable fire spouts were seen leaping and flaring amid the icy hollows of the mountain, while the river Skapta, one of the largest in the island, having first rolled down to the plain a vast volume of fetid waters mixed with sand, suddenly disappeared.
Two days afterwards a stream of lava, issuing from sources to which no one has ever been able to penetrate, came sliding down the bed of the dried-up river, and in a little time,—though the channel was six hundred feet deep and two hundred broad,—the glowing deluge overflowed its banks, crossed the low country of Medalland, ripping the turf up before it like a table-cloth, and poured into a great lake whose affrighted waters flew hissing and screaming into the air at the approach of the fiery intruder. Within a few more days the basin of the lake itself was completely filled, and having separated into two streams, the unexhausted torrent again recommenced its march; in one direction overflowing soiree ancient lava fields,—in the other, re-entering the channel of the Skapta, and leaping down the lofty cataract of Stapafoss. But this was not all; while one lava flood had chosen the Skapta for its bed, another, descending in a different direction, was working like ruin within and on either side the banks of the Hverfisfliot, rushing into the plain, by all accounts, with even greater fury and velocity. Whether the two issued from the same crater it is impossible to say, as the sources of both were far away within the heart of the unapproachable desert, and even the extent of the lava flow can only be measured from the spot where it entered the inhabited districts. The stream which flowed down Skapta is calculated to be about fifty miles in length by twelve or fifteen at its greatest breadth; that which rolled down the Hverfisfliot, at forty miles in length by seven in breadth. Where it was imprisoned, between the high banks of Skapta, the lava is five or six hundred feet thick; but as soon as it spread out into the plain its depth never exceeded one hundred feet. The eruption of sand, ashes, pumice, and lava, continued till the end of August, when the Plutonic drama concluded with a violent earthquake.
For a whole year a canopy of cinder-laden cloud hung over the island. Sand and ashes irretrievably overwhelmed thousands of acres of fertile pasturage. The Faroe islands, the Shetlands, and the Orkneys were deluged with volcanic dust, which perceptibly contaminated even the pure skies of England and Holland. Mephitic vapours tainted the atmosphere of the entire island;—even the grass, which no cinder rain had stifled, completely withered up; the fish perished in the poisoned sea. A murrain broke out among the cattle, and a disease resembling scurvy attacked the inhabitants themselves. Stephenson has calculated that 9,000 men, 28,000 horses, 11,000 cattle, 190,000 sheep, died from the effects of this one eruption. The most moderate calculation puts the number of human deaths at upwards of 1,300; and of cattle, etc. at about 156,000.
The whole of this century had proved most fatal to the unfortunate people of Iceland. At its commencement smallpox destroyed more than 16,000 persons; nearly 20,000 more perished by a famine consequent on a succession of inclement seasons; while from time to time the southern coasts were considerably depopulated by the incursions of English and even Algerine pirates.
The rest of our day's journey lay through a country less interesting than the district we had traversed before luncheon. For the most part we kept on along the foot of the hills, stopping now and then for a drink of milk at the occasional farms perched upon their slopes. Sometimes turning up a green and even bushy glen, (there are no trees in Iceland, the nearest approach to anything of the kind being a low dwarf birch, hardly worthy of being called a shrub,) we would cut across the shoulder of some projecting spur, and obtain a wider prospect of the level land upon our right; or else keeping more down in the flat, we had to flounder for half an hour up to the horses' shoulders in an Irish bog. After about five hours of this work we reached the banks of a broad and rather singular river, called the Bruara. Halfway across it was perfectly fordable; but exactly in the middle was a deep cleft, into which the waters from either side spilt themselves, and then in a collected volume roared over a precipice a little lower down. Across this cleft some wooden planks were thrown, giving the traveller an opportunity of boasting that he had crossed a river on a bridge which itself was under water. By this time we had all begun to be very tired, and very hungry;—it was 11 o'clock P.M. We had been twelve or thirteen hours on horseback, not to mention occasional half-hours of pretty severe walking after the ptarmigan and plover. Many were the questions we addressed to Sigurdr on the distance yet remaining, and many the conjectures we hazarded as to whether the cook would have arrived in time to get dinner ready for us. At last, after another two hours' weary jogging, we descried, straight in front, a low steep brown rugged hill, standing entirely detached from the range at the foot of which we had been riding; and in a few minutes more, wheeling round its outer end, we found ourselves in the presence of the steaming Geysirs.
I do not know that I can give you a better notion of the appearance of the place than by saying that it looked as if—for about a quarter of a mile—the ground had been honey-combed by disease into numerous sores and orifices; not a blade of grass grew on its hot, inflamed surface, which consisted of unwholesome-looking red livid clay, or crumpled shreds and shards of slough-like incrustations. Naturally enough, our first impulse on dismounting was to scamper off at once to the Great Geysir. As it lay at the furthest end of the congeries of hot springs, in order to reach it we had to run the gauntlet of all the pools of boiling water and scalding quagmires of soft clay that intervened, and consequently arrived on the spot with our ankles nicely poulticed. But the occasion justified our eagerness. A smooth silicious basin, seventy-two feet in diameter and four feet deep, with a hole at the bottom as in a washing-basin on board a steamer, stood before us brimful of water just upon the simmer; while up into the air above our heads rose a great column of vapour, looking as if it was going to turn into the Fisherman's Genie. The ground about the brim was composed of layers of incrusted silica, like the outside of an oyster, sloping gently down on all sides from the edge of the basin.
[Figure: fig-p067.gif with caption A Basin. B Funnel.]
Having satisfied our curiosity with this cursory inspection of what we had come so far to see, hunger compelled us to look about with great anxiety for the cook; and you may fancy our delight at seeing that functionary in the very act of dishing up dinner on a neighbouring hillock. Sent forward at an early hour, under the chaperonage of a guide, he had arrived about two hours before us, and seizing with a general's eye the key of the position, at once turned an idle babbling little Geysir into a camp-kettle, dug a bake-house in the hot soft clay, and improvising a kitchen-range at a neighbouring vent, had made himself completely master of the situation. It was about one o'clock in the morning when we sat down to dinner, and as light as day.
As the baggage-train with our tents and beds had not yet arrived, we fully appreciated our luck in being treated to so dry a night; and having eaten everything we could lay hands on, were sat quietly down to chess, and coffee brewed in Geysir water; when suddenly it seemed as if beneath our very feet a quantity of subterraneous cannon were going off; the whole earth shook, and Sigurdr, starting to his feet, upset the chess-board (I was just beginning to get the best of the game), and flung off full speed towards the great basin. By the time we reached its brim, however, the noise had ceased, and all we could see was a slight movement in the centre, as if an angel had passed by and troubled the water. Irritated at this false alarm, we determined to revenge ourselves by going and tormenting the Strokr. Strokr—or the churn—you must know, is an unfortunate Geysir, with so little command over his temper and his stomach, that you can get a rise out of him whenever you like. All that is necessary is to collect a quantity of sods, and throw them down his funnel. As he has no basin to protect him from these liberties, you can approach to the very edge of the pipe, about five feet in diameter, and look down at the boiling water which is perpetually seething at the bottom. In a few minutes the dose of turf you have just administered begins to disagree with him; he works himself up into an awful passion—tormented by the qualms of incipient sickness, he groans and hisses, and boils up, and spits at you with malicious vehemence, until at last, with a roar of mingled pain and rage, he throws up into the air a column of water forty feet high, which carries with it all the sods that have been chucked in, and scatters them scalded and half-digested at your feet. So irritated has the poor thing's stomach become by the discipline it has undergone, that even long after all the foreign matter has been thrown off, it goes on retching and sputtering, until at last nature is exhausted, when, sobbing and sighing to itself, it sinks back into the bottom of its den.
Put into the highest spirits by the success of this performance, we turned away to examine the remaining springs. I do not know, however, that any of the rest are worthy of particular mention. They all resemble in character the two I have described, the only difference being that they are infinitely smaller, and of much less power and importance. One other remarkable formation in the neighbourhood must not be passed unnoticed. Imagine a large irregular opening in the surface of the soft white clay, filled to the very brim with scalding water, perfectly still, and of as bright a blue as that of the Grotto Azzuro at Capri, through whose transparent depths you can see down into the mouth of a vast subaqueous cavern, which runs, Heaven knows how far, in a horizontal direction beneath your feet. Its walls and varied cavities really looked as if they were built of the purest lupis lazuli—and so thin seemed the crust that roofed it in, we almost fancied it might break through, and tumble us all into the fearful beautiful bath.
Having by this time taken a pretty good look at the principal features of our new domain, I wrapped myself up in a cloak and went to sleep; leaving orders that I should not be called until after the tent had arrived, and our beds were ready. Sigurdr followed my example, but the Doctor went out shooting.
As our principal object in coming so far was to see an eruption of the Great Geysir, it was of course necessary we should wait his pleasure; in fact, our movements entirely depended upon his. For the next two or three days, therefore, like pilgrims round some ancient shrine, we patiently kept watch; but he scarcely deigned to vouchsafe us the slightest manifestation of his latent energies. Two or three times the cannonading we had heard immediately after our arrival recommenced,—and once an eruption to the height of about ten feet occurred; but so brief was its duration, that by the time we were on the spot, although the tent was not eighty yards distant, all was over. As after every effort of the fountain the water in the basin mysteriously ebbs back into the funnel, this performance, though unsatisfactory in itself, gave us an opportunity of approaching the mouth of the pipe, and looking down into its scalded gullet. In an hour afterwards, the basin was brimful as ever.
Tethered down by our curiosity to a particular spot for an indefinite period, we had to while away the hours as best we could. We played chess, collected specimens, photographed the encampment, the guides, the ponies, and one or two astonished natives. Every now and then we went out shooting over the neighbouring flats, and once I ventured on a longer expedition among the mountains to our left. The views I got were beautiful,—ridge rising beyond ridge in eternal silence, like gigantic ocean waves, whose tumult has been suddenly frozen into stone;—but the dread of the Geysir going off during my absence made me almost too fidgety to enjoy them. The weather luckily remained beautiful, with the exception of one little spell of rain, which came to make us all the more grateful for the sunshine,—and we fed like princes. Independently of the game, duck, plover, ptarmigan, and bittern, with which our own guns supplied us, a young lamb was always in the larder,—not to mention reindeer tongues, skier,—a kind of sour curds, excellent when well made,—milk, cheese whose taste and nature baffles description, biscuit and bread, sent us as a free gift by the lady of a neighbouring farm. In fact, so noble is Icelandic hospitality, that I really believe there was nothing within fifty miles round we might not have obtained for the asking, had we desired it. As for Fitz, he became quite the enfant gate of a neighbouring family.
Having unluckily caught cold, instead of sleeping in the tent, he determined to seek shelter under a solid roof-tree, and, conducted by our guide Olaf, set off on his pony at bed-time in search of a habitation. The next morning he reappeared so unusually radiant that I could not help inquiring what good fortune had in the meantime befallen him: upon which he gave me such an account of his last night's reception at the farm, that I was almost tempted to bundle tent and beds down the throat of our irritable friend Strokr, and throw myself for the future upon the hospitality of the inhabitants. It is true, I had read in Van Troil of something of the kind, but until now I never fully believed it. The Doctor shall tell his own history.
"No sooner," said he, "had I presented myself at the door, and made known my errand, than I was immediately welcomed by the whole family, and triumphantly inducted into the guest quarters: everything the house could produce was set before me, and the whole society stood by to see that I enjoyed myself. As I had but just dined an additional repast was no longer essential to my happiness; but all explanation was useless, and I did my best to give them satisfaction. Immediately on rising from the table, the young lady of the house—(old Van Troil says it is either the mother or the daughter of the house, if she be grown up, who performs this office)—proposed by signs to conduct me to my apartment; taking in one hand a large plate of skier, and in the other a bottle of brandy, she led the way through a passage built of turf and stones to the place where I was to sleep. Having watched her deposit—not without misgivings, for I knew it was expected both should be disposed of before morning—the skier by my bedside, and the brandy-bottle under the pillow, I was preparing to make her a polite bow, and to wish her a very good night, when she advanced towards me, and with a winning grace difcult to resist, insisted upon helping me off with my coat, and then,—proceeding to extremities,—with my shoes and stockings. At this most critical part of the proceedings, I naturally imagined her share of the performance would conclude, and that I should at last be restored to that privacy which at such seasons is generally considered appropriate. Not a bit of it. Before I knew where I was, I found myself sitting in a chair, in my shirt, trouserless, while my fair tire-woman was engaged in neatly folding up the ravished garments on a neighbouring chair. She then in the most simple manner in the world, helped me into bed, tucked me up, and having said a quantity of pretty things in Icelandic, gave me a hearty kiss and departed. If," he added, "you see anything remarkable in my appearance, it is probably because—
'This very morn I've felt the sweet surprise Of unexpected lips on sealed eyes;'"
by which he poetically intimated the pleasing ceremony which had awaked him to the duties of the day. I think it needless to subjoin that the Doctor's cold did not get better as long as we remained in the neighbourhood, and that, had it not been for the daily increasing fire of his looks, I should have begun to be alarmed at so protracted an indisposition.
We had now been keeping watch for three days over the Geysir, in languid expectation of the eruption which was to set us free. All the morning of the fourth day I had been playing chess with Sigurdr; Fitzgerald was photographing, Wilson was in the act of announcing luncheon, when a cry from the guides made us start to our feet, and with one common impulse rush towards the basin. The usual subterranean thunders had already commenced. A violent agitation was disturbing the centre of the pool. Suddenly a dome of water lifted itself up to the height of eight or ten feet,—then burst, and fell; immediately after which a shining liquid column, or rather a sheaf of columns wreathed in robes of vapour, sprung into the air, and in a succession of jerking leaps, each higher than the last, flung their silver crests against the sky. For a few minutes the fountain held its own, then all at once appeared to lose its ascending energy. The unstable waters faltered, drooped, fell, "like a broken purpose," back upon themselves, and were immediately sucked down into the recesses of their pipe.
The spectacle was certainly magnificent; but no description can give any idea of its most striking features. The enormous wealth of water, its vitality, its hidden power,—the illimitable breadth of sunlit vapour, rolling out in exhaustless profusion,—all combined to make one feel the stupendous energy of nature's slightest movements.
And yet I do not believe the exhibition was so fine as some that have been seen: from the first burst upwards to the moment the last jet retreated into the pipe, was no more than a space of seven or eight minutes, and at no moment did the crown of the column reach higher than sixty or seventy feet above the surface of the basin. Now, early travellers talk of three hundred feet, which must, of course, be fabulous; but many trustworthy persons have judged the eruptions at two hundred feet, while well-authenticated accounts—when the elevation of the jet has been actually measured—make it to have attained a height of upwards of one hundred feet.
With regard to the internal machinery by which these waterworks are set in motion, I will only say that the most received theory seems to be that which supposes the existence of a chamber in the heated earth, almost, but not quite, filled with water, and communicating with the upper air by means of a pipe, whose lower orifice, instead of being in the roof, is at the side of the cavern, and BELOW the surface of the subterranean pond. The water kept by the surrounding furnaces at boiling point, generates of course a continuous supply of steam, for which some vent must be obtained; as it cannot escape by the funnel, the lower mouth of which is under water, it squeezes itself up within the arching roof, until at last, compressed beyond all endurance, it strains against the rock, and pushing down the intervening waters with its broad, strong back, forces them below the level of the funnel, and dispersing part, and driving part before it, rushes forth in triumph to the upper air. The fountains, therefore, that we see mounting to the sky during an eruption, are nothing but the superincumbent mass of waters in the pipe driven up in confusion before the steam at the moment it obtains its liberation. [Footnote: Professor Bunsen has lately announced a chemical theory, which I believe has been received with favour by the scientific world. He points to the fact that water, after being long subjected to heat, loses much of the air contained in it, has the cohesion of its molecules much increased, and requires a higher temperature to bring it to boil; at which moment the production of vapour becomes so great, and so instantaneous, as to cause explosion. The bursting of furnace boilers is often attributable to this cause. Now, the water at the bottom of the well of the Great Geysir is found to be of constantly increasing temperature up to the moment of an eruption, when on one occasion it was as high as 261 degrees. Fahrenheit. Professor Bunsen's idea is, that on reaching some unknown point above that temperature, ebullition takes place, vapour is suddenly generated in enormous quantity, and an eruption of the superior column of water is the consequence.]
The accompanying sketch may perhaps help you to understand my meaning.
The last gulp of water had disappeared down the funnel. We were standing at the bottom of the now empty basin, gazing into each other's faces with joyous astonishment, when suddenly we perceived a horseman come frantically galloping round the base of the neighbouring hill towards us. The state of the case was only too evident. He had seen the masses of vapour rising round the fountain, and guessing "what was UP", had strained every nerve to arrive in time. As there was no mutual friend present to introduce us to each other,—of course under ordinary circumstances I should have wrapped myself in that reserve which is the birthright of every Briton, and pretended never even to have noticed his arrival; but the sight we had just seen had quite upset my nerves,—and I confess, with shame, that I so far compromised myself, as to inaugurate a conversation with the stranger. In extenuation of my conduct, I must be allowed to add, that the newcomer was not a fellow-countryman, but of the French tongue, and of the naval profession.
Occupying then the door of my tent—by way of vantage ground, as soon as the stranger was come within earshot, I lifted up my voice, and cried in a style of Arabian familiarity, "O thou that ridest so furiously,—weary and disappointed one,—turn in, I pray thee, into the tent of thy servant, and eat bread, and drink wine, that thy soul may becomforted." To which he answered and said, "Man,—dweller in sulphureous places,—I will not eat bread, nor drink wine, neither will I enter into thy tent, until I have measured out a resting-place for my Lord the Prince."
At this interesting moment our acquaintance was interrupted by the appearance of two other horsemen—the one a painter, the other a geologist—attached to the expedition of Prince Napoleon. They informed us that His Imperial Highness had reached Reykjavik two days after we had left, that he had encamped last night at Thingvalla, and might be expected here in about four hours: they themselves having come on in advance to prepare for his arrival. My first care was to order coffee for the tired Frenchmen; and then—feeling that long residence having given us a kind of proprietorship in the Geysirs, we were bound to do the honours of the place to the approaching band of travellers,—I summoned the cook, and enlarging in a long speech on the gravity of the occasion, gave orders that he should make a holocaust of all the remaining game, and get under way a plum-pudding, whose dimensions should do himself and England credit. A long table having been erected within the tent, Sigurdr started on a plundering expedition to the neighbouring farm, Fitzgerald undertook the ordering of the feast, while I rode on my pony across the morass, in hopes of being able to shoot a few additional plover. In a couple of hours afterwards, just as I was stalking a duck that lay innocently basking on the bosom of the river, a cloud of horsemen swept round the base of the distant mountain, and returning home, I found the encampment I had left so deserted—alive and populous with as merry a group of Frenchmen as it might ever be one's fortune to fall in with. Of course they were dressed in every variety of costumes, long boots, picturesque brigand-looking hats, with here and there a sprinkling of Scotch caps from Aberdeen; but— whatever might be the head-dress, underneath you might be sure to find a kindly, cheery face. My old friend Count Trampe, who had accompanied the expedition, at once presented me to the Prince, who was engaged in sounding the depth of the pipe of the Great Geysir,—and encouraged by the gracious reception which His Imperial Highness accorded me, I ventured to inform him that "there was a poor banquet toward," of which I trusted he—and as many of his officers as the table could hold—would condescend to partake. After a little hesitation,—caused, I presume, by fear of our being put to inconvenience,—he was kind enough to signify his acceptance of my proposal, and in a few minutes afterwards with a cordial frankness I fully appreciated, allowed me to have the satisfaction of receiving him as a guest within my tent.
Although I never had the pleasure of seeing Prince Napoleon before, I should have known him among a thousand, from his remarkable likeness to his uncle, the first Emperor. A stronger resemblance, I conceive, could scarcely exist between two persons. The same delicate, sharply cut features, thin refined mouth, and firm determined jaw. The Prince's frame, however, is built altogether on a larger scale, and his eyes, instead of being of a cold piercing blue—are soft and brown, with quite a different expression.
Though of course a little Barmicidal, the dinner went off very well, as every dinner must do where such merry companions are the convives. We had some difficulty about stowing away the legs of a tall philosopher, and to each knife three individuals were told off; but the birds were not badly cooked, and the plum-pudding arrived in time to convert a questionable success into an undoubted triumph.
On rising from table, each one strolled away in whatever direction his particular taste suggested. The painter to sketch; the geologist to break stones; the philosopher to moralize, I presume,—at least, he lighted a cigar,—and the rest to superintend the erection of the tents which had just arrived.
In an hour afterwards, sleep—though not altogether silence—for loud and strong rose the choral service intoned to Morpheus from every side—reigned supreme over the encampment, whose canvas habitations, huddled together on the desolated plateau, looked almost Crimean. This last notion, I suppose, must have mingled with my dreams, for not long afterwards I found myself in full swing towards a Russian battery, that banged and bellowed, and cannonaded about my ears in a fashion frightful to hear. Apparently I was serving in the French attack, for clear and shrill above the tempest rose the cry, "Alerte! alerte! aux armes, Monseigneur! aux armes!" The ground shook, volumes of smoke rose before my eyes, and completely hid the defences of Sebastopol; which fact, on reflection, I perceived to be the less extraordinary, as I was standing in my shirt at the door of a tent in Iceland. The premonitory symptoms of an eruption, which I had taken for a Russian cannonading, had awakened the French sleepers,—a universal cry was pervading the encampment,—and the entire settlement had turned out—chiefly in bare legs—to witness the event which the reverberating earth and steaming water seemed to prognosticate. Old Geysir, however, proved less courteous than we had begun to hope, for after labouring uneasily in his basin for a few minutes, he roused himself on his hind-legs—fell—made one more effort,—and then giving it up as a bad job, sank back into his accustomed inaction, and left the disappointed assembly to disperse to their respective dormitories.
The next morning, the whole encampment was stirring at an early hour with preparations for departure; for unsatisfactory as it had been, the French considered themselves absolved by the partial performance they had witnessed from any longer "making antechamber," as they said, to so capricious a functionary. Being very anxious to have one more trial at photographing Strokr, I ventured to suggest that the necessary bolus of sods should be administered to him. In a few minutes two or three cart-loads of turf were seething and wallowing within him. In the meantime, Fitz seized the opportunity of the Prince being at breakfast to do a picture of him seated on a chair, with his staff standing around him, and looking the image of Napoleon before the battle of Austerlitz. A good twenty minutes had now elapsed since the emetic had been given,—no symptoms of any result had as yet appeared,—and the French began to get impatient; inuendoes were hazarded to the disadvantage of Strokr's reputation for consistency,—inuendoes which I confess touched me nearly, and made me feel like a show-man whose dog has misbehaved. At last the whole party rode off; but the rear horseman had not disappeared round the neighbouring hill before—splash! bang!—fifty feet up into the air drove the dilatory fountain, with a fury which amply avenged the affront put upon it, and more than vindicated my good opinion. All our endeavours, however, to photograph the eruption proved abortive. We had already attempted both Strokr and the Great Geysir, but in the case of the latter the exhibition was always concluded before the plate could be got ready; and although, as far as Strokr is concerned, you can tell within a certain period when the performance will take place, yet the interval occurring between the dose and the explosion varies so capriciously, that unless you are content to spend many days upon the spot, it would be almost impossible to hit it off exactly. On this last occasion,—although we did not prepare the plate until a good twenty minutes after the turf was thrown in,—the spring remained inactive so much longer than is usual that the collodion became quite insensitive, and the eruption left no impression whatever upon it.
Of our return journey to Reykjavik I think I have no very interesting particulars to give you. During the early part of the morning there had been a slight threatening of rain; but by twelve o'clock it had settled down into one of those still dark days, which wrap even the most familiar landscape in a mantle of mystery. A heavy, low-hung, steel-coloured pall was stretched almost entirely across the heavens, except where along the flat horizon a broad stripe of opal atmosphere let the eye wander into space, in search of the pearly gateways of Paradise. On the other side rose the contorted lava mountains, their bleak heads knocking against the solid sky and stained of an inky blackness, which changed into a still more lurid tint where the local reds struggled up through the shadow that lay brooding over the desolate scene. If within the domain of nature such another region is to be found, it can only be in the heart of those awful solitudes which science has unveiled to us amid the untrodden fastnesses of the lunar mountains. An hour before reaching our old camping-ground at Thingvalla, as if summoned by enchantment, a dull grey mist closed around us, and suddenly confounded in undistinguishable ruin the glory and the terror of the panorama we had traversed; sky, mountains, horizon, all had disappeared; and as we strained our eyes from the edge of the Rabna Gja across the monotonous grey level at our feet, it was almost difficult to believe that there lay the same magical plain, the first sight of which had become almost an epoch in our lives.
I had sent on cook, baggage, and guides, some hours before we ourselves started, so that on our arrival we found a dry, cosy tent, and a warm dinner awaiting us. The rapid transformation of the aspect of the country, which I had just witnessed, made me quite understand how completely the success of an expedition in Iceland must depend on the weather, and fully accounted for the difference I had observed in the amount of enjoyment different travellers seemed to have derived from it. It is one thing to ride forty miles a day through the most singular scenery in the world, when a radiant sun brings out every feature of the country into startling distinctness, transmuting the dull tormented earth into towers, domes, and pinnacles of gleaming metal,—and weaves for every distant summit a robe of variegated light, such as the "Delectable Mountains" must have worn for the rapt gaze of weary "Christian;"—and another to plod over the same forty miles, drenched to the skin, seeing nothing but the dim, grey roots of hills, that rise you know not how, and you care not where,—with no better employment than to look at your watch, and wonder when you shall reach your journey's end. If, in addition to this, you have to wait, as very often must be the case, for many hours after your own arrival, wet, tired, hungry, until the baggage-train, with the tents and food, shall have come up, with no alternative in the meantime but to lie shivering inside a grass-roofed church, or to share the quarters of some farmer's family, whose domestic arrangements resemble in every particular those which Macaulay describes as prevailing among the Scottish Highlanders a hundred years ago; and, if finally—after vainly waiting for some days to see an eruption which never takes place—you journey back to Reykjavik under the same melancholy conditions,—it will not be unnatural that, on returning to your native land, you should proclaim Iceland, with her Geysirs, to be a sham, a delusion, and a snare!
Fortune, however, seemed determined that of these bitternesses we should not taste; for the next morning, bright and joyous overhead bent the blue unclouded heaven; while the plain lay gleaming at our feet in all the brilliancy of enamel. I was sorely tempted to linger another day in the neighbourhood; but we have already spent more time upon the Geysirs than I had counted upon, and it will not do to remain in Iceland longer than the 15th, or Winter will have begun to barricade the passes into his Arctic dominions. My plan, on returning to Reykjavik, is to send the schooner round to wait for us in a harbour on the north coast of the island, while we ourselves strike straight across the interior on horseback.
The scenery, I am told, is magnificent. On the way we shall pass many a little nook, shut up among the hills, that has been consecrated by some touching old-world story; and the manner of life among the northern inhabitants is, I believe, more unchanged and characteristic than that of any other of the islanders. Moreover, scarcely any stranger has ever penetrated to any distance in this direction; and we shall have an opportunity of traversing a slice of that tremendous desert—piled up for thirty thousand square miles in disordered pyramids of ice and lava over the centre of the country, and periodically devastated by deluges of molten stone and boiling mud, or overwhelmed with whirlwinds of intermingled snow and cinders,—an unfinished corner of the universe, where the elements of chaos are still allowed to rage with unbridled fury.
Our last stage from Thingvalla back to Reykjavik was got over very quickly, and seemed an infinitely shorter distance than when we first performed it. We met a number of farmers returning to their homes from a kind of fair that is annually held in the little metropolis; and as I watched the long caravan-like line of pack-horses and horsemen, wearily plodding over the stony waste in single file, I found it less difficult to believe that these remote islanders should be descended from Oriental forefathers. In fact, one is constantly reminded of the East in Iceland. From the earliest ages the Icelanders have been a people dwelling in tents. In the time of the ancient Parliament, the legislators, during the entire session, lay encamped in movable booths around the place of meeting. Their domestic polity is naturally patriarchal, and the flight of their ancestors from Norway was a protest against the antagonistic principle of feudalism. No Arab could be prouder of his courser than they are of their little ponies, or reverence more deeply the sacred rights of hospitality; while the solemn salutation exchanged between two companies of travellers, passing each other in the DESERT—as they invariably call the uninhabited part of the country—would not have misbecome the stately courtesy of the most ancient worshippers of the sun.
Anything more multifarious than the landing of these caravans we met returning to the inland districts—cannot well be conceived; deal boards, rope, kegs of brandy, sacks of rye or wheaten flour, salt, soap, sugar, snuff, tobacco, coffee; everything, in fact, which was necessary to their domestic consumption during the ensuing winter. In exchange for these commodities, which of course they are obliged to get from Europe, the Icelanders export raw wool, knitted stockings, mittens, cured cod, and fish oil, whale blubber, fox skins, eider-down, feathers, and Icelandic moss. During the last few years the exports of the island have amounted to about 1,200,000 lbs. of wool and 500,000 pairs of stockings and mittens. Although Iceland is one-fifth larger than Ireland, its population consists of only about 60,000 persons, scattered along the habitable ring which runs round between the central desert and the sea; of the whole area of 38,000 square miles it is calculated that not more than one-eighth part is occupied, the remaining 33,000 square miles consisting of naked mountains of ice, or valleys desolated by lava or volcanic ashes. Even Reykjavik itself cannot boast of more than 700 or 800 inhabitants.
During winter time the men are chiefly employed in tending cattle, picking wool, manufacturing ropes, bridles, saddles, and building boats. The fishing season commences in spring; in 1853 there were as many as 3,500 boats engaged upon the water. As summer advances—turf-cutting and hay-making begins; while the autumn months are principally devoted to the repairing of their houses, manuring the grass lands, and killing and curing of sheep for exportation, as well as for their own use during the winter. The woman-kind of a family occupy themselves throughout the year in washing, carding, and spinning wool, in knitting gloves and stockings, and in weaving frieze and flannel for their own wear.
The ordinary food of a well-to-do Icelandic family consists of dried fish, butter, sour whey kept till fermentation takes place, curds, and skier—a very peculiar cheese unlike any I ever tasted,—a little mutton, and rye bread. As might be expected, this meagre fare is not very conducive to health; scurvy, leprosy, elephantiasis, and all cutaneous disorders, are very common, while the practice of mothers to leave off nursing their children at the end of three days, feeding them with cows' milk instead, results in a frightful mortality among the babies.
Land is held either in fee-simple, or let by the Crown to tenants on what may almost be considered perpetual leases. The rent is calculated partly on the number of acres occupied, partly on the head of cattle the farm is fit to support, and is paid in kind, either in fish or farm produce. Tenants in easy circumstances generally employ two or three labourers, who—in addition to their board and lodging—receive from ten to twelve dollars a year of wages. No property can be entailed, and if any one dies intestate, what he leaves is distributed among his children—in equal shares to the sons, in half shares to the daughters.
The public revenue arising from Crown lands, commercial charges, and a small tax on the transference of property, amounts to about 3,000 pounds; the expenditure for education, officers' salaries (the Governor has about 400 pounds a year), ecclesiastical establishments, etc., exceeds 6,000 pounds a year; so that the island is certainly not a self-supporting institution.
The clergy are paid by tithes; their stipends are exceedingly small, generally not averaging more than six or seven pounds sterling per annum; their chief dependence being upon their farms. Like St. Dunstan, they are invariably excellent blacksmiths.
As we approached Reykjavik, for the first time during the whole journey we began to have some little trouble with the relay of ponies in front. Whether it was that they were tired, or that they had arrived in a district where they had been accustomed to roam at large, I cannot tell; but every ten minutes, during the last six or seven miles, one or other of them kept starting aside into the rocky plain, across which the narrow bridle-road was carried, and cost us many a weary chase before we could drive them into the track again. At last, though not till I had been violently hugged, kissed, and nearly pulled off my horse by an enthusiastic and rather tipsy farmer, who mistook me for the Prince, we galloped, about five o'clock, triumphantly into the town, without an accident having occurred to man or horse during the whole course of the expedition—always excepting one tremendous fall sustained by Wilson. It was on the evening of the day we left the Geysirs. We were all galloping in single file down the lava pathway, when suddenly I heard a cry behind me, and then the noise as of a descending avalanche. On turning round, behold! both Wilson and his pony lay stretched upon the ground, the first some yards in advance of the other. The poor fellow evidently thought he was killed; for he neither spoke nor stirred, but lay looking up at me, with blank, beady eyes as I approached to his assistance. On further investigation, neither of the sufferers proved to be a bit the worse.
The cook, and the rest of the party, did not arrive till about midnight; but I make no doubt that when that able and spirited individual did at length reascend the side of the schooner, his cheek must have burned with pride at the reflection, that during the short period of his absence on shore he had added to his other accomplishments that of becoming a most finished cavalier. I do not mean by that to imply that he was at all DONE. Although we had enjoyed our trip so much, I was not sorry to find myself on board. The descent again, after our gipsy life, into the coquettish little cabin, with its books and dear home faces, quite penetrated me with that feeling of snug content of which I believe Englishmen alone are susceptible.
I have now to relate to you a most painful occurrence which has taken place during my absence at the Geysirs;— no less a catastrophe, in fact, than a mutiny among my hitherto most exemplary ship's company. I suppose they, too, had occasion to bear witness to the proverbial hospitality of Iceland; salt junk, and the innocuous cates which generally compose ship-board rations, could never have produced such an emergency. Suffice it to say, that "Dyspepsia and her fatal train" having taken hold of them, in a desperate hour they determined on a desperate deed,—and rushing aft in a body, demanded of my faithful steward, not only access to the penetralia of the absent Doctor's cupboard, but that he himself should administer to them whatever medicaments he could come by. In vain Mr. Grant threw himself across the cabin-door. Remonstrance was useless; my horny-handed lambs were inexorable—unless he acceded to their demands, they threatened to report him when I returned! The Doctor's sanctuary was thrown open, and all its sweets—if such they may be called—were rifled. A huge box of pills, the first that came to hand—they happened to be calomel—was served out, share and share alike, with concomitant vials of wrath, of rhubarb and senna; and it was not until the last drop of castor oil had been carefully licked up that the marauders suffered their unwilling accomplice to retire to the fastnesses of his pantry.
An avenging Nemesis, however, hovered over the violated shrine of Esculapius. By the time I returned the exigencies of justice had been more than satisfied, and the outrage already atoned for. The rebellious HANDS were become most penitent STOMACHS; and fresh from the Oriental associations suggested by our last day's ride, I involuntarily dismissed the disconsolate culprits, with the Asiatic form of condonation: "Mashallah, you have made your faces white! Go in peace!"
During our expedition to the interior, the harbour of Reykjavik had become populous with new arrivals. First of all, there was my old friend, the "Reine Hortense," the Emperor's yacht, a magnificent screw corvette of 1,100 tons. I had last parted with her three years ago in the Baltic, after she had towed me for eighty miles on our way from Bomarsund to Stockholm. Then there were two English screw steamers, of about 700 tons each, taken up by the French Government as tenders to the yacht; not to mention a Spanish brig, and one or two other foreigners, which, together with the frigate, the barque, and the vessels we had found here on our first arrival, made the usually deserted bay look quite lively. Until this year no steamers had ever cockneyfied its secluded waters.
This morning, directly after breakfast, I went on board the "Reine Hortense" to pay my respects to Prince Napoleon; and H.I.H. has just done me the honour of coming to inspect the "Foam." When I was first presented to him at the Geysirs, he asked me what my plans might be; and on my mentioning my resolution of sailing to the North, he most kindly proposed that I should come with him West to Greenland instead. My anxiety, however, to reach, if it were possible, Jan Mayen and Spitzbergen, prevented my accepting this most tempting offer; but in the meantime, H.I.H. has, it seems, himself determined to come to Jan Mayen, and he is kind enough to say that if I can get ready for a start by six o'clock to-morrow morning, the "Reine Hortense" shall take me in tow. To profit by this proposal would of course entail the giving up my plan of riding across the interior of Iceland, which I should be very loth to do; at the same time, the season is so far advanced, the mischances of our first start from England have thrown us so far behind in our programme, that it would seem almost a pity to neglect such an opportunity of overrunning the time that has been lost; and after all, these Polar islands, which so few have visited, are what I am chiefly bent on seeing. Before I close this letter the thing will have been settled one way or another; for I am to have the honour of dining with the Prince this evening, and between this and then I shall have made up my mind. After dinner there is to be a ball on board the frigate, to which all the rank, fashion, and beauty of Reykjavik have been invited.
I give up seeing the rest of Iceland, and go North at once. It has cost me a struggle to come to this conclusion, but on the whole I think it will be better. Ten or fifteen days of summer-time become very precious in these latitudes, and are worth a sacrifice. At this moment we have just brought up astern of the "Reine Hortense," and are getting our hawsers bent, ready for a start in half an hour's time. My next letter, please God, will be dated from Hammerfest. I suppose I shall be about fifteen or twenty days getting there, but this will depend on the state of the ice about Jan Mayen. If the anchorage is clear, I shall spend a few days in examining the island, which by all accounts would appear to be most curious.
I happened first to hear of its existence from a very intelligent whaling Captain I fell in with among the Shetlands four years ago. He was sailing home to Hull, after fishing the Spitzbergen waters, and had sighted the huge mountain which forms the northern extremity of Jan Mayen, on his way south. Luckily, the weather was fine while he was passing, and the sketch he made of it at the time so filled me with amazement, that I then determined, if ever I got the chance, to go and see with my own eyes so great a marvel. Imagine a spike of igneous rock (the whole island is volcanic), shooting straight up out of the sea to the height of 6,870 feet, not broad-based like a pyramid, nor round-topped like a sugar-loaf, but needle-shaped, pointed like the spire of a church. If only my Hull skipper were as good a draughtsman as he seemed to be a seaman, we should now be on our way to one of the wonders of the world. Most people here hold out rather a doleful prospect, and say that, in the first place, it is probable the whole island will be imprisoned within the eternal fields of ice, that lie out for upwards of a hundred and fifty miles along the eastern coast of Greenland; and next, that if even the sea should be clear in its vicinity, the fogs up there are so dense and constant that the chances are very much against our hitting the land. But the fact of the last French man-of-war which sailed in that direction never having returned, has made those seas needlessly unpopular at Reykjavik.
It was during one of these fogs that Captain Fotherby, the original discoverer of Jan Mayen, stumbled upon it in 1614. While sailing southwards in a mist too thick to see a ship's length off, he. suddenly heard the noise of waters breaking on a great shore; and when the gigantic bases of Mount Beerenberg gradually disclosed themselves, he thought he had discovered some new continent. Since then it has been often sighted by homeward-bound whalers, but rarely landed upon. About the year 1633 the Dutch Government, wishing to establish a settlement in the actual neighbourhood of the fishing-grounds, where the blubber might be boiled down, and the spoils of each season transported home in the smallest bulk,—actually induced seven seamen to volunteer remaining the whole winter on the island. [Footnote: The names of the seven Dutch seamen who attempted to winter in Jan Mayen's Island were: Outgert Jacobson, of Grootenbrook, their commander; Adrian Martin Carman, of Schiedam, clerk; Thauniss Thaunissen, of Schermehem, cook; Dick Peterson, of Veenhuyse; Peter Peterson, of Harlem; Sebastian Gyse, of Defts-Haven; Gerard Beautin, of Bruges.] Huts were built for them, and having been furnished with an ample supply of salt provisions, they were left to resolve the problem, as to whether or no human beings could support the severities of the climate. Standing on the shore, these seven men saw their comrades' parting sails sink down beneath the sun,—then watched the sun sink, as had sunk the sails;—but extracts from their own simple narrative are the most touching record I can give you of their fate:—
"The 26th of August, our fleet set sail for Holland with a strong north-east wind, and a hollow sea, which continued all that night. The 28th, the wind the same; it began to snow very hard; we then shared half a pound of tobacco betwixt us, which was to be our allowance for a week. Towards evening we went about together, to see whether we could discover anything worth our observation; but met with nothing." And so on for many a weary day of sleet and storm.