Meanwhile, we progressed but very slowly. On the 10th of July we were still far from the meridian of Jan Mayen, when we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by a fog, and at the bottom of one of the bays formed by the field ice. We tacked immediately, and put the ship about, but the wind had accumulated the ice behind us. At a distance the circle that enclosed us seemed compact and without egress. We considered this as the most critical moment of our expedition. Having tried this icy barrier at several points, we found a narrow and tortuous channel, into which we ventured; and it was not till after an hour of anxieties that we got a view of the open sea, and of a passage into it. From this moment we were able to coast along the Banquise without interruption.
On the 11th of July at 6 A.M. we reached, at last, the meridian of Jan Mayen, at about eighteen leagues' distance [Footnote: I think there must be some mistake here; when we parted company with the "Reine Hortense," we were still upwards of 100 miles distant from the southern extremity of Jan Mayen.] from the southern part of that island, but we saw the ice-field stretching out before us as far as the eye could reach; hence it became evident that Jan Mayen was blocked up by the ice, at least along its south coast. To ascertain whether it might still be accessible from the north, it would have been necessary to have attempted a circuit to the eastward, the possible extent of which could not be estimated; moreover, we had consumed half our coals, and had lost all hope of being rejoined by the 'Saxon.' Thus forced to give up any further attempts in that direction, Commodore de la Ronciere, having got the ship clear of the floating ice, took a W.S.W. course, in the direction of Reykjavik.
The instant the 'Reine Hortense' assumed this new course, a telegraphic signal—as had been previously arranged— acquainted Lord Dufferin with our determinations. Almost immediately, the young Lord sent on board us a tin box, with two letters, one for his mother, and one for our commander. In the latter he stated that—finding himself clear of the ice, and master of his own movements—he preferred continuing his voyage alone, uncertain whether he should at once push for Norway, or return to Scotland. [Footnote: I was purposely vague as to my plans, lest you might learn we still intended to go on.] The two ropes that united the vessels were then cast off, a farewell hurrah was given, and in a moment the English schooner was lost in the fog.
Our return to Reykjavik afforded no incident worth notice; the 'Reine Hortense,' keeping her course outside the ice, encountered no impediment, except from the intense fogs, which forced her—from the impossibility of ascertaining her position—to lie to, and anchor off the cape during part of the day and night of the 13th.
On the morning of the 14th, as we were getting out at the Dyre Fiord, where we had anchored, we met—to our great astonishment—the 'Cocyte' proceeding northward. Her commander, Sonnart, informed us that on the evening of the 12th, the 'Saxon'—in consequence of the injuries she had received, had been forced back to Reykjavik. She had hardly reached the ice on the 9th, when she came into collision with it; five of her timbers had been stove in, and an enormous leak had followed. Becoming water-logged, she was run ashore, the first tine at Onundarfiord, and again in Reykjavik roads, whither she had been brought with the greatest difficulty."
BUCOLICS—THE GOAT—MAID MARIAN—A LAPP LADY—LAPP LOVE- MAKING—THE SEA-HORSEMAN—THE GULF STREAM—ARCTIC CURRENTS—A DINGY EXPEDITION—A SCHOOL OF PERIPATETIC FISHES—ALTEN—THE CHATELAINE OF KAAFIORD—STILL NORTHWARD HO!
July 27th, Alten.
This letter ought to be an Eclogue, so pastoral a life have we been leading lately among these pleasant Nordland valleys. Perhaps it is only the unusual sight of meadows, trees and flowers, after the barren sea, and still more barren lands we have been accustomed to, that invests this neighbourhood with such a smiling character. Be that as it may, the change has been too grateful not to have made us seriously reflect on our condition; and we have at last determined that not even the envious ocean shall for the future cut us off from the pleasures of a shepherd life. Henceforth, the boatswain is no longer to be the only swain on board! We have purchased an ancient goat—a nanny-goat—so we may be able to go a-milking upon occasion. Mr. Webster, late of her Majesty's Foot-guards, carpenter, etc., takes brevet-rank as dairy-maid; and our venerable passenger is at this moment being inducted into a sumptuous barrel [Footnote: The cask in question was bought in order to be rigged up eventually into a crow's-nest, as soon as we should again find ourselves among the ice.] which I have had fitted up for her reception abaft the binnacle. A spacious meadow of sweet-scented hay has been laid down in a neighbouring corner for her further accommodation; and the Doctor is tuning up his flageolet, in order to complete the bucolic character of the scene. The only personage amongst us at all disconcerted by these arrangements is the little white fox which has come with us from Iceland. Whether he considers the admission on board of so domestic an animal to be a reflection on his own wild Viking habits, I cannot say; but there is no impertinence—even to the nibbling of her beard when she is asleep—of which he is not guilty towards the poor old thing, who passes the greater part of her mornings in gravely butting at her irreverent tormentor.
But I must relate our last week's proceedings in a more orderly manner.
As soon as the anchor was let go in Hammerfest harbour, we went ashore; and having first ascertained that the existence of a post does not necessarily imply letters, we turned away, a little disappointed, to examine the metropolis of Finmark. A nearer inspection did not improve the impression its first appearance had made upon us; and the odour of rancid cod-liver oil, which seemed indiscriminately to proceed from every building in the town, including the church, has irretrievably confirmed us in our prejudices. Nevertheless, henceforth the place will have one redeeming association connected with it, which I am bound to mention. It was in the streets of Hammerfest that I first set eyes on a Laplander. Turning round the corner of one of the ill-built houses, we suddenly ran over a diminutive little personage in a white woollen tunic, bordered with red and yellow stripes, green trousers, fastened round the ankles, and reindeer boots, curving up at the toes like Turkish slippers. On her head—for notwithstanding the trousers, she turned out to be a lady—was perched a gay parti-coloured cap, fitting close round the face, and running up at the back into an overarching peak of red cloth. Within this peak was crammed—as I afterwards learnt—a piece of hollow wood, weighing about a quarter of a pound, into which is fitted the wearer's back hair; so that perhaps, after all, there does exist a more in, convenient coiffure than a Paris bonnet.
Hardly had we taken off our hats, and bowed a thousand apologies for our unintentional rudeness to the fair inhabitant of the green trousers, before a couple of Lapp gentlemen hove in sight. They were dressed pretty much like their companion, except that an ordinary red night-cap replaced the queer helmet worn by the lady; and the knife and sporran fastened to their belts, instead of being suspended in front as hers were, hung down against their hips. Their tunics, too, may have been a trifle shorter. None of the three were beautiful. High cheek-bones, short noses, oblique Mongol eyes, no eyelashes, and enormous mouths, composed a cast of features which their burnt-sienna complexion, and hair like ill-got-in hay did not much enhance. The expression of their countenances was not unintelligent; and there was a merry, half-timid, half-cunning twinkle in their eyes, which reminded me a little of faces I had met with in the more neglected districts of Ireland. Some ethnologists, indeed, are inclined to reckon the Laplanders as a branch of the Celtic family. Others, again, maintain them to be Ugrians; while a few pretend to discover a relationship between the Lapp language and the dialects of the Australian savages, and similar outsiders of the human family; alleging that as successive stocks bubbled up from the central birthplace of mankind in Asia, the earlier and inferior races were gradually driven outwards in concentric circles, like the rings produced by the throwing of a stone into a pond; and that consequently, those who dwell in the uttermost ends of the earth are, ipso facto, first cousins.
This relationship with the Polynesian Niggers, the native genealogists would probably scout with indignation, being perfectly persuaded of the extreme gentility of their descent. Their only knowledge of the patriarch Noah is as a personage who derives his principal claim to notoriety from having been the first Lapp. Their acquaintance with any sacred history—nay, with Christianity at all—is very limited. It was not until after the thirteenth century that an attempt was made to convert them; and although Charles the Fourth and Gustavus ordered portions of Scripture to be translated in Lappish, to this very day a great proportion of the race are pagans; and even the most illuminated amongst them remain slaves to the grossest superstition. When a couple is to be married, if a priest happens to be in the way, they will send for him perhaps out of complaisance; but otherwise, the young lady's papa merely strikes a flint and steel together, and the ceremony is not less irrevocably completed. When they die, a hatchet and a flint and steel are invariably buried with the defunct, in case he should find himself chilly on his long journey—an unnecessary precaution, many of the orthodox would consider, on the part of such lax religionists. When they go boar-hunting—the most important business in their lives—it is a sorcerer, with no other defence than his incantations, who marches at the head of the procession. In the internal arrangements of their tents, it is not a room to themselves, but a door to themselves, that they assign to their womankind; for woe betide the hunter if a woman has crossed the threshold over which he sallies to the chase; and for three days after the slaughter of his prey he must live apart from the female portion of his family in order to appease the evil deity whose familiar he is supposed to have destroyed. It would be endless to recount the innumerable occasions upon which the ancient rites of Jumala are still interpolated among the Christian observances they profess to have adopted.
Their manner of life I had scarcely any opportunities of observing. Our Consul kindly undertook to take us to one of their encampments; but they flit so often from place to place, it is very difficult to light upon them. Here and there, as we cruised about among the fiords, blue wreaths of smoke rising from some little green nook among the rocks would betray their temporary place of abode; but I never got a near view of a regular settlement.
In the summer-time they live in canvas tents: during winter, when the snow is on the ground, the forest Lapps build huts in the branches of trees, and so roost like birds. The principal tent is of an hexagonal form, with a fire in the centre, whose smoke rises through a hole in the roof. The gentlemen and ladies occupy different sides of the same apartment; but a long pole laid along the ground midway between them symbolizes an ideal partition, which I dare say is in the end as effectual a defence as lath and plaster prove in more civilized countries. At all events, the ladies have a doorway quite to themselves, which, doubtless, they consider a far greater privilege than the seclusion of a separate boudoir. Hunting and fishing are the principal employments of the Lapp tribes; and to slay a bear is the most honourable exploit a Lapp hero can achieve. The flesh of the slaughtered beast becomes the property—not of the man who killed him, but of him who discovered his trail, and the skin is hung up on a pole, for the wives of all who took part in the expedition to shoot at with their eyes bandaged. Fortunate is she whose arrow pierces the trophy,—not only does it become her prize, but, in the eyes of the whole settlement, her husband is looked upon thence forth as the most fortunate of men. As long as the chase is going on, the women are not allowed to stir abroad; but as soon as the party have safely brought home their booty, the whole female population issue from the tents, and having deliberately chewed some bark of a species of alder, they spit the red juice into their husband's faces, typifying thereby the bear's blood which has been shed in the honourable encounter.
Although the forests, the rivers, and the sea supply them in a great measure with their food, it is upon the reindeer that the Laplander is dependent for every other comfort in life. The reindeer is his estate, his horse, his cow, his companion, and friend. He has twenty-two different names for him. His coat, trousers, and shoes are made of reindeer's skin, stitched with thread manufactured from the nerves and sinews of the reindeer. Reindeer milk is the most important item in his diet. Out of reindeer horns are made almost all the utensils used in his domestic economy; and it is the reindeer that carries his baggage, and drags his sledge. But the beauty of this animal is by no means on a par with his various moral and physical endowments. His antlers, indeed, are magnificent, branching back to the length of three or four feet; but his body is poor, and his limbs thick and ungainly; neither is his pace quite so rapid as is generally supposed. The Laplanders count distances by the number of horizons they have traversed; and if a reindeer changes the horizon three times during the twenty-four hours, it is thought a good day's work. Moreover, so just an appreciation has the creature of what is due to his own great merit, that if his owner seeks to tax him beyond his strength, he not only becomes restive, but sometimes actually turns upon the inconsiderate Jehu who has over-driven him. When, therefore, a Lapp is in a great hurry, instead of taking to his sledge, he puts on a pair of skates exactly twice as long as his own body, and so flies on the wings of the wind.
Every Laplander, however poor, has his dozen or two dozen deer; and the flocks of a Lapp Croesus amount sometimes to two thousand head. As soon as a young lady is born—after having been duly rolled in the snow—she is dowered by her father with a certain number of deer, which are immediately branded with her initials, and thenceforth kept apart as her especial property. In proportion as they increase and multiply does her chance improve of making a good match. Lapp courtships are conducted pretty much in the same fashion as in other parts of the world. The aspirant, as soon as he discovers that he has lost his heart, goes off in search of a friend and a bottle of brandy. The friend enters the tent, and opens simultaneously—the brandy—and his business; while the lover remains outside, engaged in hewing wood, or some other menial employment. If, after the brandy and the proposal have been duly discussed, the eloquence of his friend prevails, he is himself called into the conclave, and the young people are allowed to rub noses. The bride then accepts from her suitor a present of a reindeer's tongue, and the espousals are considered concluded. The marriage does not take place for two or three years afterwards; and during the interval the intended is obliged to labour in the service of his father-in-law, as diligently as Jacob served Laban for the sake of his long-loved Rachel.
I cannot better conclude this summary of what I have been able to learn about the honest Lapps, than by sending you the tourist's stock specimen of a Lapp love-ditty. The author is supposed to be hastening in his sledge towards the home of his adored one:—
"Hasten, Kulnasatz! my little reindeer! long is the way, and boundless are the marshes. Swift are we, and light of foot, and soon we shall have come to whither we are speeding. There shall I behold my fair one pacing. Kulnasatz, my reindeer, look forth! look around! Dost thou not see her somewhere—BATHING?"
As soon as we had thoroughly looked over the Lapp lady and her companions, a process to which they submitted with the greatest complacency, we proceeded to inspect the other lions of the town; the church, the lazar-house,— principally occupied by Lapps,—the stock fish establishment, and the hotel. But a very few hours were sufficient to exhaust the pleasures of Hammerfest; so having bought an extra suit of jerseys for my people, and laid in a supply of other necessaries, likely to be useful in our cruise to Spitzbergen, we exchanged dinners with the Consul, a transaction by which, I fear, he got the worst of the bargain, and then got under way for this place,—Alten.
The very day we left Hammerfest our hopes of being able to get to Spitzbergen at all—received a tremendous shock. We had just sat down to dinner, and I was helping the Consul to fish, when in comes Wilson, his face, as usual, upside down, and hisses something into the Doctor's ear. Ever since the famous dialogue which had taken place between them on the subject of sea-sickness, Wilson had got to look upon Fitz as in some sort his legitimate prey; and whenever the burden of his own misgivings became greater than he could bear, it was to the Doctor that he unbosomed himself. On this occasion, I guessed, by the look of gloomy triumph in his eyes, that some great calamity had occurred, and it turned out that the following was the agreeable announcement he had been in such haste to make: "Do you know, Sir?"—This was always the preface to tidings unusually doleful. "No—what?" said the Doctor, breathless. "Oh nothing, Sir; only two sloops have just arrived, Sir, from Spitzbergen, Sir—where they couldn't get, Sir;—such a precious lot of ice—two hundred miles from the land-and, oh, Sir—they've come back with all their bows stove in!" Now, immediately on arriving at Hammerfest, my first care had been to inquire how the ice was lying this year to the northward, and I had certainly been told that the season was a very bad one, and that most of the sloops that go every summer to kill sea-horses (i.e., walrus) at Spitzbergen, being unable to reach the land., had returned empty-handed; but as three weeks of better weather had intervened since their discomfiture, I had quite reassured myself with the hope, that in the meantime the advance of the season might have opened for us a passage to the island.
This news of Wilson's quite threw me on my back again. The only consolation was, that probably it was not true; so immediately after dinner we boarded the honest Sea-horseman who was reported to have brought the dismal intelligence. He turned out to be a very cheery intelligent fellow of about five-and-thirty, six feet high, with a dashing "devil-may-care" manner that completely imposed upon me. Charts were got out, and the whole state of the case laid before me in the clearest manner. Nothing could be more unpromising. The sloop had quitted the ice but eight-and-forty hours before making the Norway coast; she had not been able even to reach Bear Island. Two hundred miles of ice lay off the southern and western coast of Spitzbergen—(the eastern side is always blocked up with ice)—and then bent round in a continuous semicircle towards Jan Mayen. That they had not failed for want of exertion—the bows of his ships sufficiently testified. As to OUR getting there it was out of the question. So spake the Sea-horseman. On returning on board the "Foam" I gave myself up to the most gloomy reflections. This, then, was to be the result of all my preparations and long-meditated schemes. What likelihood was there of success, after so unfavourable a verdict? Ipse dixit, equus marinus. It is true the horse-marines have hitherto been considered a mythic corps, but my friend was too substantial-looking for me to doubt his existence: and unless I was to ride off on the proverbial credulity of the other branch of that amphibious profession, I had no reason to question his veracity. Nevertheless, I felt it would not become a gentleman to turn back at the first blush of discouragement. If it were possible to reach Spitzbergen, I was determined to do so. I reflected that every day that passed was telling in our favour. It was not yet the end of July; even in these latitudes winter does not commence much before September, and in the meantime the tail of the Gulf Stream would still be wearing a channel in the ice towards the pole; so, however unpromising might be the prospect, I determined, at all events, that we should go and see for ourselves how matters really stood.
But I must explain to you why I so counted upon the assistance of the Gulf Stream to help us through.
The entire configuration of the Arctic ice is determined by the action of that mysterious current on its edges. Several theories have been advanced to account for its influence in so remote a region. I give you one which appears to me reasonable. It is supposed, that in obedience to that great law of Nature which seeks to establish equilibrium in the temperature of fluids,—a vast body of gelid water is continually mounting from the Antarctic, to displace and regenerate the over-heated oceans of the torrid zone. Bounding up against the west side of South America, the ascending stream skirts the coasts of Chili and Peru, and is then deflected in a westerly direction across the Pacific Ocean, where it takes the name of the Equatorial Current. Having completely encircled Australia, it enters the Indian Sea, sweeps up round the Cape of Good Hope, and, crossing the Atlantic, twists into the Gulf of Mexico. Here its flagging energies are suddenly accelerated in consequence of the narrow limits within which it finds itself compressed. So marvellous does the velocity of the current now become, so complete its isolation from the deep sea bed it traverses, that by the time it issues again into the Atlantic, its hitherto diffused and loitering waters are suddenly concentrated into what Lieutenant Maury has happily called—"a river in the ocean," swifter and of greater volume than either the Mississippi or the Amazon. Surging forth between the interstices of the Bahamas, that stretch like a weir across its mouth, it cleaves asunder the Atlantic. So distinct is its individuality, that one side of a vessel will be scoured by its warm indigo-coloured water, while the other is floating in the pale, stagnant, weed-encumbered brine of the Mar de Sargasso of the Spaniards. It is not only by colour, by its temperature, by its motion, that this (Greek) "ron Okeanuio" is distinguished; its very surface is arched upwards some way above the ordinary sea-level toward the centre, by the lateral pressure of the elastic liquid banks between which it flows. Impregnated with the warmth of tropic climes, the Gulf Stream-as it has now come to be called,—then pours its genial floods across the North Atlantic, laving the western coasts of Britain, Ireland, and Norway, and investing each shore it strikes upon, with a climate far milder than that enjoyed by other lands situated in the same latitudes. Arrived abreast of the North Cape, the impetus of the current is in a great measure exhausted.
From causes similar (though of less efficacy, in consequence of the smaller area occupied by water) to those which originally gave birth to the ascending energy of the Antarctic waters, a gelid current is also generated in the Arctic Ocean, which, descending in a south-westerly direction, encounters the already faltering Gulf Stream in the space between Spitzbergen and Nova Zembla. A contest for the mastery ensues, which is eventually terminated by a compromise. The warmer stream, no longer quite able to hold its own, splits into two branches, the one squeezing itself round the North Cape, as far as that Varangar Fiord which Russia is supposed so much to covet, while the other is pushed up in a more northerly direction along the west coast of Spitzbergen. But although it has power to split up the Gulf Stream for a certain distance, the Arctic current is ultimately unable to cut across it, and the result is an accumulation of ice to the south of Spitzbergen in the angle formed by the bifurcation, as Mr. Grote would call it, of the warmer current.
It is quite possible, therefore, that the north-west extremity of Spitzbergen may be comparatively clear, while the whole of its southern coasts are enveloped in belts of ice of enormous extent. It was on this contingency that we built our hopes, and determined to prosecute our voyage, in spite of the discouraging report of the Norse skipper.
About eight o'clock in the evening we got under way from Hammerfest; unfortunately the wind almost immediately after fell dead calm, and during the whole night we lay "like a painted ship upon a painted ocean." At six o'clock a little breeze sprang up, and when we came on deck at breakfast time, the schooner was skimming at the rate of five knots an hour over the level lanes of water, which lie between the silver-grey ridges of gneiss and mica slate that hem in the Nordland shore. The distance from Hammerfest to Alten is about forty miles, along a zigzag chain of fiords. It was six o'clock in the evening, and we had already sailed two-and-thirty miles, when it again fell almost calm. Impatient at the unexpected delay, and tempted by the beauty of the evening,—which was indeed most lovely, the moon hanging on one side right opposite to the sun on the other, as in the picture of Joshua's miracle,—Sigurdr, in an evil hour, proposed that we should take a row in the dingy, until the midnight breeze should spring up, and bring the schooner along with it. Away we went, and so occupied did we become with admiring the rocky precipices beneath which we were gliding, that it was not until the white sails of the motionless schooner had dwindled to a speck, that we became aware of the distance we had come.
Our attention had been further diverted by the spectacle of a tribe of fishes, whose habit it appeared to be—instead of swimming like Christian fishes in a horizontal position beneath the water—to walk upon their hind-legs along its surface. Perceiving a little boat floating on the loch not far from the spot where we had observed this phenomenon, we pulled towards it, and ascertained that the Lapp officer in charge was actually intent on stalking the peripatetic school—to use a technical expression—whose evolutions had so much astonished us. The great object of the sportsman is to judge by their last appearance what part of the water the fish are likely to select for the scene of their next promenade. Directly he has determined this in his own mind, he rows noiselessly to the spot, and, as soon as they show themselves, hooks them with a landing-net into his boat.
By this time it had become a doubtful point whether it would not be as little trouble to row on to Alten as to return to the schooner, so we determined to go on. Unfortunately we turned down a wrong fiord, and after a long pull, about two o'clock in the morning had the satisfaction of finding ourselves in a cul-de-sac. To add to our discomfort, clouds of mosquitoes with the bodies of behemoths and the stings of dragons, had collected from all quarters of the heavens to make a prey of us. In vain we struggled—strove to knock them down with the oars,—plunged our heads under the water,—smacked our faces with frantic violence; on they came in myriads, until I thought our bleaching bones would alone remain to indicate our fate. At last Sigurdr espied a log but on the shore, where we might at least find some one to put us into the right road again; but on looking in at the open door, we only saw a Lapland gentleman fast asleep. Awaking at our approach he started to his feet, and though nothing could be more gracefully conciliatory than the bow with which I opened the conversation, I regret to say that after staring wildly round for a few minutes, the aboriginal bolted straight away in the most unpolite manner and left us to our fate. There was nothing for it but patiently to turn back, and try some other opening. This time we were more successful, and about three o'clock A.M. had the satisfaction of landing at one of the wharves attached to the copper mines of Kaafiord. We came upon a lovely scene. It was as light and warm as a summer's noon in England; upon a broad plateau, carved by nature out of the side of the grey limestone, stood a bright shining house in the middle of a plot of rich English-looking garden. On one side lay the narrow fiord, on every other rose an amphitheatre of fir-clad mountains. The door of the house was open, so were many of the windows—even those on the ground-floor, and from the road where we stood we could see the books on the library shelves. A swing and some gymnastic appliances on the lawn told us that there were children. Altogether, I thought I had never seen such a charming picture of silent comfort and security. Perhaps the barren prospects we had been accustomed to made the little oasis before us look more cheerful than we might otherwise have thought it.
The question now arose, what was to be done? My principal reason for coming to Alten was to buy some salt provisions and Lapland dresses; but dolls and junk were scarcely a sufficient pretext for knocking up a quiet family at three o'clock in the morning. It is true, I happened to have a letter for Mr. T—, written by a mutual friend, who had expressly told me that—arrive when I might at Alten,—the more unceremoniously I walked in and took possession of the first unoccupied bed I stumbled on, the better Mr. T— would be pleased; but British punctilio would not allow me to act on the recommendation, though we were sorely tried. In the meantime the mosquitoes had become more intolerable than ever. At last, half mad with irritation, I set off straight up the side of the nearest mountain, in hopes of attaining a zone too high for them to inhabit; and, poising myself upon its topmost pinnacle, I drew my handkerchief over my head—I was already without coat and waistcoat—and remained the rest of the morning "mopping and mowing" at the world beneath my feet.
About six o'clock, like a phantom in a dream, the little schooner came stealing round the misty headland, and anchored at the foot of the rocks below. Returning immediately on board, we bathed, dressed, and found repose from all our troubles. Not long after, a message from Mr. T—, in answer to a card I had sent up to the house as soon as the household gave signs of being astir—invited us to breakfast; and about half-past nine we presented ourselves at his hospitable door. The reception I met with was exactly what the gentlemen who had given me the letter of introduction had led me to expect; and so eager did Mr. T— seem to make us comfortable, that I did not dare to tell him how we had been prowling about his house the greater part of the previous night, lest he should knock me down on the spot for not having knocked him up. The appearance of the inside of the house quite corresponded with what we had anticipated from the soigne air of everything about its exterior. Books, maps, pictures, a number of astronomical instruments, geological specimens, and a magnificent assortment of fishing-rods, betrayed the habits of the practical, well-educated, business-loving English gentlemen who inhabited it; and as he showed me the various articles of interest in his study, most heartily did I congratulate myself on the lucky chance which had brought me into contact with so desirable an acquaintance.
All this time we had seen nothing of the lady of the house; and I was just beginning to speculate as to whether that crowning ornament could be wanting to this pleasant home, when the door at the further end of the room suddenly opened, and there glided out into the sunshine—"The White Lady of Avenel." A fairer apparition I have seldom seen,—stately, pale, and fragile as a lily—blond hair, that rippled round a forehead of ivory—a cheek of waxen purity on which the fitful colour went and came—not with the flush of southern blood, or flower-bloom of English beauty,—but rather with a cool radiance, as of "northern streamers" on the snows of her native hills,— eyes of a dusky blue, and lips of that rare tint which lines the conch-shell. Such was the Chatelaine of Kaafiord,—as perfect a type of Norse beauty as ever my Saga lore had conjured up! Frithiof's Ingeborg herself seemed to stand before me. A few minutes afterwards, two little fair-haired maidens, like twin snowdrops, stole into the room; and the sweet home picture was complete.
The rest of the day has been a continued fete. In vain after having transacted my business, I pleaded the turning of the tide, and our anxiety to get away to sea; nothing would serve our kind entertainer but that we should stay to dinner; and his was one of those strong energetic wills it is difficult to resist.
In the afternoon, the Hammerfest steamer called in from the southward, and by her came two fair sisters of our hostess from their father's home in one of the Loffodens which overlook the famous Maelstrom. The stories about the violence of the whirlpool Mr. T— assures me are ridiculously exaggerated. On ordinary occasions the site of the supposed vortex is perfectly unruffled, and it is only when a strong weather tide is running that any unusual movements in the water can be observed; even then the disturbance does not amount to much more than a rather troublesome race. "Often and often, when she was a girl, had his wife and her sisters sailed over its fabulous crater in an open boat." But in this wild romantic country, with its sparse population, rugged mountains, and gloomy fiords, very ordinary matters become invested with a character of awe and mystery quite foreign to the atmosphere of our own matter-of-fact world; and many of the Norwegians are as prone to superstition as the poor little Lapp pagans who dwell among them.
No later than a few years ago, in the very fiord we had passed on our way to Alten, when an unfortunate boat got cast away during the night on some rocks at a little distance from the shore, the inhabitants, startled by the cries of distress which reached them in the morning twilight, hurried down in a body to the sea-side,—not to afford assistance,—but to open a volley of musketry on the drowning mariners; being fully persuaded that the stranded boat, with its torn sails, was no other than the Kracken or Great Sea-Serpent flapping its dusky wings: and when, at last, one of the crew succeeded in swimming ashore in spite of waves and bullets,—the whole society turned and fled!
And now, again good-bye. We are just going up to dine with Mr. T—; and after dinner, or at least as soon as the tide turns, we get under way—Northward Ho! (as Mr. Kingsley would say) in right good earnest this time!
WE SAIL FOR BEAR ISLAND, AND SPITZBERGEN—CHERIE ISLAND— BARENTZ-SIR HUGH WILLOUGHBY—PARRY'S ATTEMPT TO REACH THE NORTH POLE—AGAIN AMONGST THE ICE—ICEBLINK—FIRST SIGHT OF SPITZBERGEN—WILSON—DECAY OF OUR HOPES—CONSTANT STRUGGLE WITH THE ICE—WE REACH THE 80 DEGREES N. LAT.—A FREER SEA—WE LAND IN SPITZBERGEN—ENGLISH BAY—LADY EDITH'S GLACIER—A MIDNIGHT PHOTOGRAPH—NO REINDEER TO BE SEEN—ET EGO IN ARCTIS—WINTER IN SPITZBERGEN— PTARMIGAN—THE BEAR-SAGA—THE "FOAM" MONUMENT— SOUTHWARDS—SIGHT THE GREENLAND ICE—A GALE—WILSON ON THE MAELSTROM—BREAKERS AHEAD—ROOST—TAKING A SIGHT— THRONDHJEM.
Throndhjem, Aug. 22nd, 1856.
We have won our laurels, after all! We have landed in Spitzbergen—almost at its most northern extremity; and the little "Foam" has sailed to within 630 miles of the Pole; that is to say, within 100 miles as far north as any ship has ever succeeded in getting.
I think my last letter left us enjoying the pleasant hospitalities of Kaafiord.
The genial quiet of that last evening in Norway was certainly a strange preface to the scenes we have since witnessed. So warm was it, that when dinner was over, we all went out into the garden, and had tea in the open air; the ladies without either bonnets or shawls, merely plucking a little branch of willow to brush away the mosquitoes; and so the evening wore away in alternate intervals of chat and song. At midnight, seawards again began to swirl the tide, and we rose to go,—not without having first paid a visit to the room where the little daughters of the house lay folded in sleep. Then descending to the beach, laden with flowers and kind wishes waved to us by white handkerchiefs held in still whiter hands, we rowed on board; up went the napping sails, and dipping her ensign in token of adieu—the schooner glided swiftly on between the walls of rock, until an intervening crag shut out from our sight the friendly group that had come forth to bid us "Good speed." In another twenty-four hours we had threaded our way back through the intricate fiords; and leaving Hammerfest three or four miles on the starboard hand, on the evening of the 28th of July, we passed out between the islands of Soroe and Bolsvoe into the open sea.
My intention was to go first to Bear Island, and ascertain for myself in what direction the ice was lying to the southward of Spitzbergen.
Bear—or Cherie Island, is a diamond-shaped island, about ten miles long, composed of secondary rocks—principally sandstone and limestone-lying about 280 miles due north of the North Cape. It was originally discovered by Barentz, the 9th of June, 1596, on the occasion of his last and fatal voyage. Already had he commanded two expeditions sent forth by the United Provinces to discover a north-east passage to that dream-land—Cathay; and each time, after penetrating to the eastward of Nova Zembla, he had been foiled by the impenetrable line of ice. On this occasion he adopted the bolder and more northerly courses which brought him to Bear Island. Thence, plunging into the mists of the frozen sea, he ultimately sighted the western mountains of Spitzbergen. Unable to proceed further in that direction, Barentz retraced his steps, and again passing in sight of Bear Island, proceeded in a south-east direction to Nova Zembla, where his ships got entangled in the ice, and he subsequently perished.
Towards the close of the sixteenth century, in spite of repeated failures, one endeavour after another was made to penetrate to India across these fatal waters.
The first English vessel that sailed on the disastrous quest was the "Bona Esperanza." in the last year of King Edward VI. Her commander was Sir Hugh Willoughby, and we have still extant a copy of the instructions drawn up by Sebastian Cabot—the Grand Pilot of England, for his guidance. Nothing can be more pious than the spirit in which this ancient document is conceived; expressly enjoining that morning and evening prayers should be offered on board every ship attached to the expedition, and that neither dicing, carding, tabling, nor other devilish devices—were to be permitted. Here and there were clauses of a more questionable morality,—recommending that natives of strange lands be "enticed on board, and made drunk with your beer and wine; for then you shall know the secrets of their hearts." The whole concluding with an exhortation to all on board to take especial heed to the devices of "certain creatures, with men's heads, and the tails of fishes, who swim with bows and arrows about the fiords and bays, and live on human flesh."
On the 11th of May the ill-starred expedition got under way from Deptford, and saluting the king, who was then lying sick at Greenwich, put to sea. By the 30th of July the little fleet—three vessels in all—had come up abreast of the Loffoden islands, but a gale coming on, the "Esperanza" was separated from the consorts. Ward-huus—a little harbour to the east of the North Cape-had been appointed as the place of rendezvous in case of such an event, but unfortunately, Sir Hugh overshot the mark, and wasted all the precious autumn time in blundering amid the ice to the eastward. At last, winter set in, and they were obliged to run for a port in Lapland. Here, removed from all human aid, they were frozen to death. A year afterwards, the ill-fated ships were discovered by some Russian sailors, and an unfinished journal proved that Sir Hugh and many of his companions were still alive in January, 1554.
The next voyage of discovery in a north-east direction was sent out by Sir Francis Cherie, alderman of London, in 1603. After proceeding as far east as Ward-huus and Kela, the "Godspeed" pushed north into the ocean, and on the 16th of August fell in with Bear Island. Unaware of its previous discovery by Barentz, Stephen Bennet—who commanded the expedition—christened the island Cherie Island, in honour of his patron, and to this day the two names are used almost indiscriminately.
In 1607, Henry Hudson was despatched by the Muscovy Company, with orders to sail, if possible, right across the pole. Although perpetually baffled by the ice, Hudson at last succeeded in reaching the north-west extremity of Spitzbergen, but finding his further progress arrested by an impenetrable barrier of fixed ice, he was forced to return. A few years later, Jonas Poole—having been sent in the same direction, instead of prosecuting any discoveries, wisely set himself to killing the sea-horses that frequent the Arctic ice-fields, and in lieu of tidings of new lands—brought back a valuable cargo of walrus tusks. In 1615, Fotherby started with the intention of renewing the attempt to sail across the north pole, but after encountering many dangers he also was forced to return. It was during the course of his homeward voyage that he fell in with the island of Jan Mayen. Soon afterwards, the discovery by Hudson and Davis, of the seas and straits to which they have given their names, diverted the attention of the public from all thoughts of a north-east passage, and the Spitzbergen waters were only frequented by ships engaged in the fisheries. The gradual disappearance of the whale, and the discovery of more profitable fishing stations on the west coast of Greenland, subsequently abolished the sole attraction for human being which this inhospitable region ever possessed, and of late years, I understand, the Spitzbergen seas have remained as lonely and unvisited as they were before the first adventurer invaded their solitude.
Twice only, since the time of Fotherby, has any attempt been made to reach the pole on a north-east course. In 1773, Captain Phipps, afterwards Lord Mulgrave, sailed in the "Carcass" towards Spitzbergen, but he never reached a higher latitude than 81 degrees. It was in this expedition that Nelson made his first voyage, and had that famous encounter with the bear. The next and last endeavour was undertaken by Parry, in 1827. Unable to get his ship even as far north as Phipps had gone, he determined to leave her in a harbour in Spitzbergen, and push across the sea in boats and sledges. The uneven nature of the surface over which they had to travel, caused their progress northward to be very slow, and very laborious. The ice too, beneath their feet, was not itself immovable, and at last they perceived they were making the kind of progress a criminal makes upon the treadmill,—the floes over which they were journeying drifting to the southward faster than they walked north; so that at the end of a long day's march of ten miles, they found themselves four miles further from their destination than at its commencement. Disgusted with so Irish a manoeuvre, Parry determined to return, though not until he had almost reached the 83rd parallel, a higher latitude than any to which man is known to have penetrated. Arctic authorities are still of opinion, that Parry's plan for reaching the pole might prove successful, if the expedition were to set out earlier in the season, ere the intervening field of ice is cast adrift by the approach of summer.
Our own run to Bear Island was very rapid. On getting outside the islands, a fair fresh wind sprung up, and we went spinning along for two nights and two days as merrily as possible, under a double-reefed mainsail and staysail, on a due north course. On the third day we began to see some land birds, and a few hours afterwards, the loom of the island itself; but it had already begun to get fearfully cold, and our thermometer, which I consulted every two hours, plainly indicated that we were approaching ice. My only hope was that, at all events, the southern extremity of the island might be disengaged; for I was very anxious to land, in order to examine some coal-beds which are said to exist in the upper strata of the sandstone formation. This expectation was doomed to complete disappointment. Before we had got within six miles of the shore, it became evident that the report of the Hammerfest Sea-horseman was too true.
Between us and the land there extended an impenetrable barrier of packed ice, running due east and west, as far as the eye could reach.
What was now to be done? If a continuous field of ice lay 150 miles off the southern coast of Spitzbergen, what would be the chance of getting to the land by going further north? Now that we had received ocular proof of the veracity of the Hammerfest skipper in this first particular, was it likely that we should have the luck to find the remainder of his story untrue? According to the track he had jotted down for me on the chart, the ice in front stretched right away west in an unbroken line, to the wall of ice which we had seen running to the north, from the upper end of Jan Mayen. Only a week had elapsed since he had actually ascertained the impracticability of reaching a higher latitude,—what likelihood could there be of a channel having been opened up to the northward during so short an interval? Such was the series of insoluble problems by which I posed myself, as we stood vainly smacking our lips at the island, which lay so tantalizingly beyond our reach.
Still, unpromising as the aspect of things might appear, it would not do to throw a chance away; so I determined to put the schooner round on the other tack, and run westwards along the edge of the ice, until we found ourselves again in the Greenland sea. Bidding, therefore, a last adieu to Mount Misery, as its first discoverers very appropriately christened one of the higher hills in Bear Island, we suffered it to melt back into a fog,—out of which, indeed, no part of the land had ever more than partially emerged,—and with no very sanguine expectations as to the result, sailed west away towards Greenland. During the next four-and-twenty hours we ran along the edge of the ice, in nearly a due westerly direction, without observing the slightest indication of anything approaching to an opening towards the North. It was weary work, scanning that seemingly interminable barrier, and listening to the melancholy roar of waters on its icy shore.
At last, after having come about 140 miles since leaving Bear Island,—the long, white, wave-lashed line suddenly ran down into a low point, and then trended back with a decided inclination to the North. Here, at all events, was an improvement; instead of our continuing to steer W. by S., or at most W. by N., the schooner would often lay as high up as N.W., and even N.W. by N. Evidently the action of the Gulf Stream was beginning to tell, and our spirits rose in proportion. In a few more hours, however, this cheering prospect was interrupted by a fresh line of ice being reported, not only ahead, but as far as the eye could reach on the port bow; so again the schooner's head was put to the westward, and the old story recommenced. And now the flank of the second barrier was turned, and we were able to edge up a few hours to the northward; but only to be again confronted by another line, more interminable, apparently, than the last. But why should I weary you with the detail of our various manoeuvres during the ensuing days? They were too tedious and disheartening at the time, for me to look back upon them with any pleasure. Suffice it to say, that by dint of sailing north whenever the ice would permit us, and sailing west when we could not sail north, we found ourselves on the 2nd of August, in the latitude of the southern extremity of Spitzbergen, though divided from the land by about fifty miles of ice. All this while the weather had been pretty good, foggy and cold enough, but with a fine stiff breeze that rattled us along at a good rate whenever we did get a chance of making any Northing. But lately it had come on to blow very hard, the cold became quite piercing, and what was worse—in every direction round the whole circuit of the horizon, except along its southern segment,—a blaze of iceblink illuminated the sky. A more discouraging spectacle could not have met our eyes. The iceblink is a luminous appearance, reflected on the heavens from the fields of ice that still lie sunk beneath the horizon; it was, therefore on this occasion an unmistakable indication of the encumbered state of the sea in front of us.
I had turned in for a few hours of rest, and release from the monotonous sense of disappointment, and was already lost in a dream of deep bewildering bays of ice, and gulfs whose shifting shores offered to the eye every possible combination of uncomfortable scenery, without possible issue,—when "a voice in my dreaming ear" shouted "LAND!" and I awoke to its reality. I need not tell you in what double quick time I tumbled up the companion, or with what greediness I feasted my eyes on that longed-for view,—the only sight—as I then thought—we were ever destined to enjoy of the mountains of Spitzbergen!
The whole heaven was overcast with a dark mantle of tempestuous clouds, that stretched down in umbrella-like points towards the horizon, leaving a clear space between their edge and the sea, illuminated by the sinister brilliancy of the iceblink. In an easterly direction, this belt of unclouded atmosphere was etherealized to an indescribable transparency, and up into it there gradually grew—above the dingy line of starboard ice—a forest of thin lilac peaks, so faint, so pale, that had it not been for the gem-like distinctness of their outline, one could have deemed them as unsubstantial as the spires of fairy-land. The beautiful vision proved only too transient; in one short half hour mist and cloud had blotted it all out, while a fresh barrier of ice compelled us to turn our backs on the very land we were striving to reach.
Although we were certainly upwards of sixty miles distant from the land when the Spitzbergen hills were first observed, the intervening space seemed infinitely less; but in these high latitudes the eye is constantly liable to be deceived in the estimate it forms of distances. Often, from some change suddenly taking place in the state of the atmosphere, the land you approach will appear even to RECEDE; and on one occasion, an honest skipper—one of the most valiant and enterprising mariners of his day—actually turned back, because, after sailing for several hours with a fair wind towards the land, and finding himself no nearer to it than at first, he concluded that some loadstone rock beneath the sea must have attracted the keel of his ship, and kept her stationary.
The next five days were spent in a continual struggle with the ice. On referring to our log, I see nothing but a repetition of the same monotonous observations.
"July 31st.—Wind W. by S.—Courses sundry to clear ice."
"Ice very thick."
"These twenty-four hours picking our way through ice."
"August 1st.—Wind W.—courses variable—foggy—continually among ice these twenty-four hours."
And in Fitz's diary, the discouraging state of the weather is still more pithily expressed:—
"August 2nd.—Head wind—sailing westward—large hummocks of ice ahead, and on port bow, i.e. to the westward—hope we may be able to push through. In evening, ice gets thicker; we still hold on—fog comes on—ice getting thicker—wind freshens—we can get no farther—ice impass- able, no room to tack—struck the ice several times— obliged to sail S. and W.—things look very shady."
Sometimes we were on the point of despairing altogether, then a plausible opening would show itself as if leading towards the land, and we would be tempted to run down it until we found the field become so closely packed, that it was with great difficulty we could get the vessel round,—and only then at the expense of collisions, which made the little craft shiver from stem to stern. Then a fog would come on—so thick, you could almost cut it like a cheese, and thus render the sailing among the loose ice very critical indeed then it would fall dead calm, and leave us, hours together, muffled in mist, with no other employment than chess or hopscotch. It was during one of those intervals of quiet that I executed the annexed work of art, which is intended to represent Sigurdr, in the act of meditating a complicated gambit for the Doctor's benefit.
About this period Wilson culminated. Ever since leaving Bear Island he had been keeping a carnival of grief in the pantry, until the cook became almost half-witted by reason of his Jeremiads. Yet I must not give you the impression that the poor fellow was the least wanting in PLUCK—far from it. Surely it requires the highest order of courage to anticipate every species of disaster every moment of the day, and yet to meet the impending fate like a man—as he did. Was it his fault that fate was not equally ready to meet him? HIS share of the business was always done: he was ever prepared for the worst; but the most critical circumstances never disturbed the gravity of his carriage, and the fact of our being destined to go to the bottom before tea-time would not have caused him to lay out the dinner-table a whit less symmetrically. Still, I own, the style of his service was slightly depressing. He laid out my clean shirt of a morning as if it had been a shroud; and cleaned my boots as though for a man ON HIS LAST LEGS. The fact is, he was imaginative and atrabilious,—contemplating life through a medium of the colour of his own complexion.
This was the cheerful kind of report he used invariably to bring me of a morning. Coming to the side of my cot with the air of a man announcing the stroke of doomsday, he used to say, or rather, TOLL—
"Seven o'clock, my Lord!"
"Very well; how's the wind?"
"Dead ahead, my Lord—DEAD!"
"How many points is she off her course?"
"Four points, my Lord—full four points!" (Four points being as much as she could be.)
"Is it pretty clear? eh! Wilson?"
"—Can't see your hand, my Lord!—can't see your hand!"
"Much ice in sight?"
"—Ice all round, my Lord—ice a-all ro-ound!"—and so exit, sighing deeply over my trousers.
Yet it was immediately after one of these unpromising announcements, that for the first time matters began to look a little brighter. The preceding four-and-twenty hours we had remained enveloped in a cold and dismal fog. But on coming on deck, I found the sky had already begun to clear; and although there was ice as far as the eye could see on either side of us, in front a narrow passage showed itself across a patch of loose ice into what seemed a freer sea beyond. The only consideration was—whether we could be certain of finding our way out again, should it turn out that the open water we saw was only a basin without any exit in any other direction. The chance was too tempting to throw away; so the little schooner gallantly pushed her way through the intervening neck of ice where the floes seemed to be least huddled up together, and in half an hour afterwards found herself running up along the edge of the starboard ice, almost in a due northerly direction. And here I must take occasion to say that, during the whole of this rather anxious time, my master—Mr. Wyse—conducted himself in a most admirable manner. Vigilant, cool, and attentive, he handled the vessel most skilfully, and never seemed to lose his presence of mind in any emergency. It is true the silk tartan still coruscated on Sabbaths, but its brilliant hues were quite a relief to the colourless scenes which surrounded us, and the dangling chain now only served to remind me of what firm dependence I could place upon its wearer.
Soon after, the sun came out, the mist entirely disappeared, and again on the starboard hand shone a vision of the land; this time not in the sharp peaks and spires we had first seen, but in a chain of pale blue egg-shaped islands, floating in the air a long way above the horizon. This peculiar appearance was the result of extreme refraction, for, later in the day, we had an opportunity of watching the oval cloud-like forms gradually harden into the same pink tapering spikes which originally caused the island to be called Spitzbergen: nay, so clear did it become, that even the shadows on the hills became quite distinct, and we could easily trace the outlines of the enormous glaciers—sometimes ten or fifteen miles broad—that fill up every valley along the shore. Towards evening the line of coast again vanished into the distance, and our rising hopes received an almost intolerable disappointment by the appearance of a long line of ice right ahead, running to the westward, apparently, as far as the eye could reach. To add to our disgust, the wind flew right round into the North, and increasing to a gale, brought down upon us—not one of the usual thick arctic mists to which we were accustomed, but a dark, yellowish brown fog, that rolled along the surface of the water in twisted columns, and irregular masses of vapour, as dense as coal smoke. We had now almost reached the eightieth parallel of north latitude, and still an impenetrable sheet of ice, extending fifty or sixty miles westward from the shore, rendered all hopes of reaching the land out of the question. Our expectation of finding the north-west extremity of the island disengaged from ice by the action of the currents was—at all events for this season—evidently doomed to disappointment. We were already almost in the latitude of Amsterdam Island—which is actually its north-west point—and the coast seemed more encumbered than ever. No whaler had ever succeeded in getting more than about 120 miles further north than we ourselves had already come; and to entangle ourselves any further in the ice—unless it were with the certainty of reaching land—would be sheer folly. The only thing to be done was to turn back. Accordingly, to this course I determined at last to resign myself, if, after standing on for twelve hours longer, nothing should turn up to improve the present aspect of affairs. It was now eleven o'clock; P. M. Fitz and Sigurdr went to bed, while I remained on deck to see what the night might bring forth. It blew great guns, and the cold was perfectly intolerable; billow upon billow of black fog came sweeping down between the sea and sky, as if it were going to swallow up the whole universe; while the midnight sun—now completely blotted out—now faintly struggling through the ragged breaches of the mist—threw down from time to time an unearthly red-brown glare on the waste of roaring waters.
For the whole of that night did we continue beating up along the edge of the ice, in the teeth of a whole gale of wind; at last, about nine o'clock in the morning,—but two short hours before the moment at which it had been agreed we should bear up, and abandon the attempt,—we came up with a long low point of ice, that had stretched further to the Westward than any we had yet doubled; and there, beyond, lay an open sea!—open not only to the Northward and Westward, but also to the Eastward! You can imagine my excitement." Turn the hands up, Mr. Wyse!" "'Bout ship!" "Down with the helm!" "Helm a-lee!" Up comes the schooner's head to the wind, the sails flapping with the noise of thunder—blocks rattling against the deck, as if they wanted to knock their brains out—ropes dancing about in galvanised coils, like mad serpents—and everything to an inexperienced eye in inextricable confusion; till gradually she pays off on the other tack—the sails stiffen into deal-boards—the staysail sheet is let go—and heeling over on the opposite side. Again she darts forward over the sea like an arrow from the bow. "Stand by to make sail!" "Out all reefs!" I could have carried sail to sink a man-of-war!—and away the little ship went, playing leapfrog over the heavy seas, and staggering under her canvas, as if giddy with the same joyful excitement which made my own heart thump so loudly.
In another hour the sun came out, the fog cleared away, and about noon—up again, above the horizon, grow the pale lilac peaks, warming into a rosier tint as we approach. Ice still stretches toward the land on the starboard side; but we don't care for it now—the schooner's head is pointing E. and by S. At one o'clock we sight Amsterdam Island, about thirty miles on the port bow; then came the "seven ice-hills"—as seven enormous glaciers are called—that roll into the sea between lofty ridges of gneiss and mica slate, a little to the northward of Prince Charles's Foreland. Clearer and more defined grows the outline of the mountains, some coming forward while others recede; their rosy tints appear less even, fading here and there into pale yellows and greys; veins of shadow score the steep sides of the hills; the articulations of the rocks become visible; and now, at last, we glide under the limestone peaks of Mitre Cape, past the marble arches of King's Bay on the one side, and the pinnacle of the Vogel Hook on the other, into the quiet channel that separates the Foreland from the main.
It was at one o'clock in the morning of the 6th of August, 1856, that after having been eleven days at sea, we came to an anchor in the silent haven of English Bay, Spitzbergen.
And now, how shall I give you an idea of the wonderful panorama in the midst of which we found ourselves? I think, perhaps, its most striking feature was the stillness, and deadness, and impassibility of this new world: ice, and rock, and water surrounded us; not a sound of any kind interrupted the silence; the sea did not break upon the shore; no bird or any living thing was visible; the midnight sun, by this time muffled in a transparent mist, shed an awful, mysterious lustre on glacier and mountain; no atom of vegetation gave token of the earth's vitality: an universal numbness and dumbness seemed to pervade the solitude. I suppose in scarcely any other part of the world is this appearance of deadness so strikingly exhibited. On the stillest summer day in England, there is always perceptible an under-tone of life thrilling through the atmosphere; and though no breeze should stir a single leaf, yet—in default of motion—there is always a sense of growth; but here not so much as a blade of grass was to be seen on the sides of the bald excoriated hills. Primeval rocks and eternal ice constitute the landscape.
The anchorage where we had brought up is the best to be found, with the exception perhaps of Magdalena Bay, along the whole west coast of Spitzbergen; indeed it is almost the only one where you are not liable to have the ice set in upon you at a moment's notice. Ice Sound, Bell Sound, Horn Sound—the other harbours along the west coast—are all liable to be beset by drift-ice during the course of a single night, even though no vestige of it may have been in sight four-and-twenty hours before; and many a good ship has been inextricably imprisoned in the very harbour to which she had fled for refuge. This bay is completely landlocked, being protected on its open side by Prince Charles's Foreland, a long island lying parallel with the mainland. Down towards either horn run two ranges of schistose rocks, about 1,500 feet high, their sides almost precipitous, and the topmost ridge as sharp as a knife, and jagged as a saw; the intervening space is entirely filled up by an enormous glacier, which,—descending with one continuous incline from the head of a valley on the right, and sweeping like a torrent round the roots of an isolated clump of hills in the centre—rolls at last into the sea. The length of the glacial river from the spot where it apparently first originated, could not have been less than thirty, or thirty-five miles, or its greatest breadth less than nine or ten; but so completely did it fill up the higher end of the valley, that it was as much as you could do to distinguish the further mountains peeping up above its surface. The height of the precipice where it fell into the sea, I should judge to have been about 120 feet.
On the left a still more extraordinary sight presented itself. A kind of baby glacier actually hung suspended half way on the hill side, like a tear in the act of rolling down the furrowed cheek of the mountain.
I have tried to convey to you a notion of the falling impetus impressed on the surface of the Jan Mayen ice rivers; but in this case so unaccountable did it seem that the over-hanging mass of ice should not continue to thunder down upon its course, that one's natural impulse was to shrink from crossing the path along which a breath—a sound—might precipitate the suspended avalanche into the valley. Though, perhaps, pretty exact in outline and general effect, the sketch I have made of this wonderful scene, will never convey to you a correct notion of the enormous scale of the distances, and size of its various features. These glaciers are the principal characteristic of the scenery in Spitzbergen; the bottom of every valley in every part of the island, is occupied and generally completely filled by them, enabling one in some measure to realize the look of England during her glacial period, when Snowdon was still being slowly lifted towards the clouds, and every valley in Wales was brimful of ice. But the glaciers in English Bay are by no means the largest in the island. We ourselves got a view—though a very distant one—of ice rivers which must have been more extensive; and Dr. Scoresby mentions several which actually measured forty or fifty miles in length, and nine or ten in breadth; while the precipice formed by their fall into the sea, was sometimes upwards of 400 or 500 feet high. Nothing is more dangerous than to approach these cliffs of ice. Every now and then huge masses detach themselves from the face of the crystal steep, and topple over into the water; and woe be to the unfortunate ship which might happen to be passing below. Scoresby himself actually witnessed a mass of ice, the size of a cathedral, thunder down into the sea from a height of 400 feet; frequently during our stay at Spitzbergen we ourselves observed specimens of these ice avalanches; and scarcely an hour passed without the solemn silence of the bay being disturbed by the thunderous boom resulting from similar catastrophes occurring in adjacent valleys.
As soon as we had thoroughly taken in the strange features of the scene around us, we all turned in for a night's rest. I was dog tired, as much with anxiety as want of sleep; for in continuing to push on to the northward in spite of the ice, I naturally could not help feeling that if any accident occurred, the responsibility would rest with me; and although I do not believe that we were at any time in any real danger, yet from our inexperience in the peculiarities of arctic navigation, I think the coolest judgment would have been liable to occasional misgivings as to what might arise from possible contingencies. Now, however, all was right; the result had justified our anticipations; we had reached the so longed-for goal; and as I stowed myself snugly away in the hollow of my cot, I could not help heartily congratulating myself that—for that night at all events— there was no danger of the ship knocking a hole in her bottom against some hummock which the lookout had been too sleepy to observe; and that Wilson could not come in the next morning and announce "ice all round, a-all ro-ound!" In a quarter of an hour afterwards, all was still on board the "Foam;" and the lonely little ship lay floating on the glassy bosom of the sea, apparently as inanimate as the landscape.
My feelings on awakening next morning were very pleasant; something like what one used to feel the first morning after one's return from school, on seeing pink curtains glistening round one's head, instead of the dirty-white boards of a turned-up bedstead. When Wilson came in with my hot water, I could not help triumphantly remarking to him,—"Well, Wilson, you see we've got to Spitzbergen, after all!" But Wilson was not a man to be driven from his convictions by facts; he only smiled grimly, with a look which meant—"Would we were safe back again!" Poor Wilson! he would have gone only half way with Bacon in his famous Apothegm; he would willingly "commit the Beginnings of all actions to Argus with his hundred eyes, and the Ends"—to Centipede, with his hundred legs. "First to watch, and then to speed"—away! would have been his pithy emendation.
Immediately after breakfast we pulled to the shore, carrying in the gig with us the photographic apparatus, tents, guns, ammunition, and the goat. Poor old thing! she had suffered dreadfully from sea-sickness, and I thought a run ashore might do her good. On the left-hand side of the bay, between the foot of the mountain and the sea, there ran a low flat belt of black moss, about half a mile broad; and as this appeared the only point in the neighbourhood likely to offer any attraction to reindeer, it was on this side that I determined to land. My chief reason for having run into English Bay rather than Magdalena Bay was because we had been told at Hammerfest that it was the more likely place of the two for deer; and as we were sadly in want of fresh meat this advantage quite decided us in our choice. As soon, therefore, as we had superintended the erection of the tent, and set Wilson hard at work cleaning the glasses for the photographs, we slung our rifles on our backs, and set off in search of deer. But in vain did I peer through my telescope across the dingy flat in front; not a vestige of a horn was to be seen, although in several places we came upon impressions of their track. At last our confidence in the reports of their great plenty became considerably diminished. Still the walk was very refreshing after our confinement on board; and although the thermometer was below freezing, the cold only made the exercise more pleasant. A little to the northward I observed, lying on the sea-shore, innumerable logs of driftwood. This wood is floated all the way from America by the Gulf Stream, and as I walked from one huge bole to another, I could not help wondering in what primeval forest each had grown, what chance had originally cast them on the waters, and piloted them to this desert shore. Mingled with this fringe of unhewn timber that lined the beach lay waifs and strays of a more sinister kind; pieces of broken spars, an oar, a boat's flagstaff, and a few shattered fragments of some long-lost vessel's planking. Here and there, too, we would come upon skulls of walrus, ribs and shoulder-blades of bears, brought possibly by the ice in winter. Turning again from the sea, we resumed our search for deer; but two or three hours' more very stiff walking produced no better luck. Suddenly a cry from Fitz, who had wandered a little to the right, brought us helter-skelter to the spot where was standing. But it was not a stag he had called us to come and look upon. Half imbedded in the black moss at his feet, there lay a grey deal coffin falling almost to pieces with age; the lid was gone—blown off probably by the wind—and within were stretched the bleaching bones of a human skeleton. A rude cross at the head of the grave still stood partially upright, and a half obliterated Dutch inscription preserved a record of the dead man's name and age.
.....VANDER SCHELLING.... COMMAN....JACOB MOOR.... OB 2 JUNE 1758 AET 44.
It was evidently some poor whaler of the last century to whom his companions had given the only burial possible in this frost-hardened earth, which even the summer sun has no force to penetrate beyond a couple of inches, and which will not afford to man the shallowest grave. A bleak resting-place for that hundred years' slumber, I thought, as I gazed on the dead mariner's remains!—
"I was snowed over with snow, And beaten with rains, And drenched with the dews; Dead have I long been,"—
—murmured the Vala to Odin in Nifelheim,—and whispers of a similar import seemed to rise up from the lidless coffin before us. It was no brother mortal that lay at our feet, softly folded in the embraces of "Mother Earth," but a poor scarecrow, gibbeted for ages on this bare rock, like a dead Prometheus; the vulture, frost, gnawing for ever on his bleaching relics, and yet eternally preserving them!
On another part of the coast we found two other corpses yet more scantily sepulchred, without so much as a cross to mark their resting-place. Even in the palmy days of the whale-fisheries, it was the practice of the Dutch and English sailors to leave the wooden coffins in which they had placed their comrades' remains, exposed upon the shore; and I have been told by an eye-witness, that in Magdalena Bay there are to be seen, even to this day, the bodies of men who died upwards of 250 years ago, in such complete preservation that, when you pour hot water on the icy coating which encases them, you can actually see the unchanged features of the dead, through the transparent incrustation.
As soon as Fitz had gathered a few of the little flowering mosses that grew inside the coffin, we proceeded on our way, leaving poor Jacob Moor—like his great namesake—alone in his glory.
Turning to the right, we scrambled up the spur of one of the mountains on the eastern side of the plain, and thence dived down among the lateral valleys that run up between them. Although by this means we opened up quite a new system of hills, and basins, and gullies, the general scenery did not change its characteristics. All vegetation—if the black moss deserves such a name—ceases when you ascend twenty feet above the level of the sea, and the sides of the mountains become nothing but steep slopes of schist, split and crumbled into an even surface by the frost. Every step we took unfolded a fresh succession of these jagged spikes and break-neck acclivities, in an unending variety of quaint configuration. Mountain climbing has never been a hobby of mine, so I was not tempted to play the part of Excelsior on any of these hill sides; but for those who love such exercise a fairer or a more dangerous opportunity of distinguishing themselves could not be imagined. The supercargo or owner of the very first Dutch ship that ever came to Spitzbergen, broke his neck in attempting to climb a hill in Prince Charles's Foreland. Barentz very nearly lost several of his men under similar circumstances; and when Scoresby succeeded in making the ascent of another hill near Horn Sound, it was owing to his having taken the precaution of marking each upward step in chalk, that he was ever able to get down again. The prospect from the summit, the approach to which was by a ridge so narrow that he sat astride upon its edge, seems amply to have repaid the exertion; and I do not think I can give you a better idea of the general effect of Spitzbergen scenery, than by quoting his striking description of the panorama he beheld:—
"The prospect was most extensive and grand. A fine sheltered bay was seen to the east of us, an arm of the same on the north-east, and the sea, whose glassy surface was unruffled by a breeze, formed an immense expanse on the west; the icebergs rearing their proud crests almost to the tops of mountains between which they were lodged, and defying the power of the solar beams, were scattered in various directions about the sea-coast and in the adjoining bays. Beds of snow and ice filling extensive hollows, and giving an enamelled coat to adjoining valleys, one of which commencing at the foot of the mountain where we stood extended in a continued line towards the north, as far as the eye could reach—mountain rising above mountain, until by distance they dwindled into insignificancy—the whole contrasted by a cloudless canopy of deepest azure, and enlightened by the rays of a blazing sun, and the effect aided by a feeling of danger, seated as we were on the pinnacle of a rock almost surrounded by tremendous precipices,—all united to constitute a picture singularly sublime.
"Our descent we found really a very hazardous, and in some instances a painful undertaking. Every movement was a work of deliberation. Having by much care, and with some anxiety, made good our descent to the top of the secondary hills, we took our way down one of the steepest banks, and slid forward with great facility in a sitting posture. Towards the foot of the hill, an expanse of snow stretched across the line of descent. This being loose and soft, we entered upon it without fear; but on reaching the middle of it, we came to a surface of solid ice, perhaps a hundred yards across, over which we launched with astonishing velocity, but happily escaped without injury. The men whom we left below, viewed this latter movement with astonishment and fear."
So universally does this strange land bristle with peaks and needles of stone, that the views we ourselves obtained —though perhaps from a lower elevation, and certainly without the risk—scarcely yielded either in extent or picturesque grandeur to the scene described by Dr. Scoresby.
Having pretty well overrun the country to the northward, without coming on any more satisfactory signs of deer than their hoof-prints in the moss, we returned on board. The next day—but I need not weary you with a journal of our daily proceedings, for, however interesting each moment of our stay in Spitzbergen was to ourselves—as much perhaps from a vague expectation of what we might see, as from anything we actually did see—a minute account of every walk we took, and every bone we picked up, or every human skeleton we came upon, would probably only make you wonder why on earth we should have wished to come so far to see so little. Suffice it to say that we explored the neighbourhood in the three directions left open to us by the mountains, that we climbed the two most accessible of the adjacent hills, wandered along the margin of the glaciers, rowed across to the opposite side of the bay, descended a certain distance along the sea-coast, and in fact exhausted all the lions of the vicinity.
During the whole period of our stay in Spitzbergen, we had enjoyed unclouded sunshine. The nights were even brighter than the days, and afforded Fitz an opportunity of taking some photographic views by the light of a MIDNIGHT sun. The cold was never very intense, though the thermometer remained below freezing, but about four o'clock every evening, the salt-water bay in which the schooner lay was veneered over with a pellicle of ice one-eighth of an inch in thickness, and so elastic, that even when the sea beneath was considerably agitated, its surface remained unbroken, the smooth, round waves taking the appearance of billows of oil. If such is the effect produced by the slightest modification of the sun's power, in the month of August,—you can imagine what must be the result of his total disappearance beneath the horizon. The winter is, in fact, unendurable. Even in the height of summer, the moisture inherent in the atmosphere is often frozen into innumerable particles, so minute as to assume the appearance of an impalpable mist. Occasionally persons have wintered on the island, but unless the greatest precautions have been taken for their preservation, the consequences have been almost invariably fatal. About the same period as when the party of Dutch sailors were left at Jan Mayen, a similar experiment was tried in Spitzbergen. At the former place it was scurvy, rather than cold, which destroyed the poor wretches left there to fight it out with winter; at Spitzbergen, as well as could be gathered from their journal, it appeared that they had perished from the intolerable severity of the climate,—and the contorted attitudes in which their bodies were found lying, too plainly indicated the amount of agony they had suffered. No description can give an adequate idea of the intense rigour of the six months' winter in this part of the world. Stones crack with the noise of thunder; in a crowded hut the breath of its occupants will fall in flakes of snow; wine and spirits turn to ice; the snow burns like caustic; if iron touches the flesh, it brings the skin away with it; the soles of your stockings may be burnt off your feet, before you feel the slightest warmth from the fire; linen taken out of boiling water, instantly stiffens to the consistency of a wooden board; and heated stones will not prevent the sheets of the bed from freezing. If these are the effects of the climate within an air-tight, fire-warmed, crowded hut—what must they be among the dark, storm-lashed mountain-peaks outside?
It was now time to think of going south again; we had spent many more days on the voyage to Spitzbergen than I had expected, and I was continually haunted by the dread of your becoming anxious at not hearing from us. It was a great disappointment to be obliged to return without having got any deer; but your peace of mind was of more consequence to me than a ship-load of horns, and accordingly we decided on not remaining more than another day in our present berth leaving it still an open question whether we should not run up to Magdalena Bay, if the weather proved very inviting, the last thing before quitting for ever the Spitzbergen shores.
We had killed nothing as yet, except a few eider ducks, and one or two ice-birds—the most graceful winged creatures I have ever seen, with immensely long pinions, and plumage of spotless white. Although enormous seals from time to time used to lift their wise, grave faces above the water, with the dignity of sea-gods, none of us had any very great inclination to slay such rational human-looking creatures, and—with the exception of these and a white fish, a species of whale—no other living thing had been visible. On the very morning, however, of the day settled for our departure, Fitz came down from a solitary expedition up a hill with the news of his having seen some ptarmigan. Having taken a rifle with him instead of a gun, he had not been able to shoot more than one, which he had brought back in triumph as proof of the authenticity of his report, but the extreme juvenility of his victim hardly permitted us to identify the species; the hole made by the bullet being about the same size as the bird. Nevertheless, the slightest prospect of obtaining a supply of fresh meat was enough to reconcile us to any amount of exertion; therefore, on the strength of the pinch of feathers which Fitz kept gravely assuring us was the game he had bagged, we seized our guns—I took a rifle in case of a possible bear—and set our faces toward the hill. After a good hour's pull we reached the shoulder which Fitz had indicated as the scene of his exploit, but a patch of snow was the only thing visible. Suddenly I saw Sigurdr, who was remarkably sharp-sighted, run rapidly in the direction of the snow, and bringing his gun up to his shoulder, point it—as well as I could distinguish—at his own toes. When the smoke of the shot had cleared away, I fully expected to see the Icelander prostrate; but he was already reloading with the greatest expedition. Determined to prevent the repetition of so dreadful an attempt at self-destruction, I rushed to the spot. Guess then my relief when the bloody body of a ptarmigan—driven by so point blank a discharge a couple of feet into the snow—was triumphantly dragged forth by instalments from the sepulchre which it had received contemporaneously with its death wound, and thus happily accounted for Sigurdr's extraordinary proceeding. At the same moment I perceived two or three dozen other birds, brothers and sisters of the defunct, calmly strutting about under our very noses. By this time Sigurdr had reloaded, Fitz had also come up, and a regular massacre began. Retiring to a distance—for it was the case of Mahomet and the mountain reversed—the two sportsmen opened fire upon the innocent community, and in a few seconds sixteen corpses strewed the ground.
Scarcely had they finished off the last survivor of this Niobean family, when we were startled by the distant report of a volley of musketry, fired in the direction of the schooner. I could not conceive what had happened. Had a mutiny taken place? Was Mr. Wyse re-enacting, with a less docile ship's company, the pistol scene on board the Glasgow steamer? Again resounded the rattle of the firing. At all events, there was no time to be lost in getting back, so, tying up the birds in three bundles, we flung ourselves down into the gully by which we had ascended, and leaping on from stone to stone, to the infinite danger of our limbs and necks, rolled rather than ran down the hill. On rounding the lower wall of the curve which hitherto had hid what was passing from our eyes, the first I observed was Wilson breasting up the hill, evidently in a state of the greatest agitation. As soon as he thought himself within earshot, he stopped dead short, and, making a speaking-trumpet with his hands, shrieked, rather than shouted, "If you please, my Lord!"—(as I have already said, Wilson never forgot les convenances)—"If you please, my Lord, there's a b-e-a-a-a-a-r!" prolonging the last word into a polysyllable of fearful import. Concluding by the enthusiasm he was exhibiting, that the animal in question was at his heels,—hidden from us probably by the inequality of the ground,—I cocked my rifle, and prepared to roll him over the moment he should appear in sight. But what was my disappointment, when, on looking towards the schooner, my eye caught sight of our three boats fastened in a row, and towing behind them a white floating object, which my glass only too surely resolved the next minute into the dead bear!