LETTERS FROM HIGH LATITUDES
Being some account of a voyage in 1856 of the schooner yacht "Foam" to Iceland, Jan Meyen, and Spitzbergen.
By the Marquess of Dufferin Sometime Governor-General of the Dominion of Canada and afterwards Viceroy of India.
PROTESILAUS STUMBLES ON THE THRESHOLD
Glasgow, Monday, June 2, 1856.
Our start has not been prosperous. Yesterday evening, on passing Carlisle, a telegraphic message was put into my hand, announcing the fact of the "Foam" having been obliged to put into Holyhead, in consequence of the sudden illness of my Master. As the success of our expedition entirely depends on our getting off before the season is further advanced, you can understand how disagreeable it is to have received this check at its very outset. As yet, of course, I know nothing of the nature of the illness with which he has been seized. However, I have ordered the schooner to proceed at once to Oban, and I have sent back the Doctor to Holyhead to overhaul the sick man. It is rather early in the day for him to enter upon the exercise of his functions.
THE ICELANDER—A MODERN SIR PATRICK SPENS
Greenock, Tuesday, June 3, 1856
I found the Icelander awaiting my arrival here,—pacing up and down the coffee-room like a Polar bear.
At first he was a little shy, and, not having yet had much opportunity of practising his English, it was some time before I could set him perfectly at his ease. He has something so frank and honest in his face and bearing, that I am certain he will turn out a pleasant companion. There being no hatred so intense as that which you feel towards a disagreeable shipmate, this assurance has relieved me of a great anxiety, and I already feel I shall hereafter reckon Sigurdr (pronounced Segurthur), the son of Jonas, among the number of my best friends.
As most educated English people firmly believe the Icelanders to be a "Squawmuck," blubber-eating, seal-skin-clad race, I think it right to tell you that Sigurdr is apparelled in good broadcloth, and all the inconveniences of civilization, his costume culminating in the orthodox chimney-pot of the nineteenth century. He is about twenty-seven, very intelligent-looking, and—all women would think—lovely to behold. A high forehead, straight, delicate features, dark blue eyes, auburn hair and beard, and the complexion of—Lady S—d! His early life was passed in Iceland; but he is now residing at Copenhagen as a law student. Through the introduction of a mutual friend, he has been induced to come with me, and do us the honours of his native land.
"O whar will I get a skeely skipper, To sail this gude ship o' mine?'
Such, alas! has been the burden of my song for these last four-and-twenty hours, as I have sat in the Tontine Tower, drinking the bad port wine, for, after spending a fortune in telegraphic messages to Holyhead, it has been decided that B— cannot come on, and I have been forced to rig up a Glasgow merchant skipper into a jury sailing-master.
Any such arrangement is, at the best, unsatisfactory, but to abandon the cruise is the only alternative. However, considering I had but a few hours to look about me, I have been more fortunate than might have been expected. I have had the luck to stumble on a young fellow, very highly recommended by the Captain of the Port. He returned just a fortnight ago from a trip to Australia, and having since married a wife, is naturally anxious not to lose this opportunity of going to sea again for a few months.
I start to-morrow for Oban, via Inverary, which I wish to show to my Icelander. At Oban I join the schooner, and proceed to Stornaway, in the Hebrides, whither the undomestic Mr. Ebenezer Wyse (a descendant, probably, of some Westland Covenanter) is to follow me by the steamer.
LOCH GOIL—THE SAGA OF CLAN CAMPBELL
Oban, June 5, 1856
I have seldom enjoyed anything so much as our journey yesterday. Getting clear at last of the smells, smoke, noise, and squalor of Greenock, to plunge into the very heart of the Highland hills, robed as they were in the sunshine of a beautiful summer day, was enough to make one beside oneself with delight, and the Icelander enjoyed it as much as I did. Having crossed the Clyde, alive with innumerable vessels, its waves dancing and sparkling in the sunlight, we suddenly shot into the still and solemn Loch Goil, whose waters, dark with mountain shadows, seemed almost to belong to a different element from that of the yellow, rushing, ship-laden river we had left. In fact, in the space of ten minutes we had got into another world, centuries remote from the steaming, weaving, delving Britain, south of Clyde.
After a sail of about three hours, we reached the head of the loch, and then took coach along the worst mountain road in Europe, towards the country of the world-invading Campbells. A steady pull of three hours more, up a wild bare glen, brought us to the top of the mica-slate ridge which pens up Loch Fyne, on its western side, and disclosed what I have always thought the loveliest scene in Scotland.
Far below at our feet, and stretching away on either hand among the mountains, lay the blue waters of the lake.
On its other side, encompassed by a level belt of pasture-land and corn-fields, the white little town of Inverary glittered like a gem on the sea-shore, while to the right, amid lawns and gardens, and gleaming banks of wood, that hung down into the water, rose the dark towers of the Castle, the whole environed by an amphitheatre of tumbled porphyry hills, beyond whose fir-crowned crags rose the bare blue mountain-tops of Lorn.
It was a perfect picture of peace and seclusion, and I confess I had great pride in being able to show my companion so fair a specimen of one of our lordly island homes—the birthplace of a race of nobles whose names sparkle down the page of their country's history as conspicuously as the golden letters in an illuminated missal.
While descending towards the strand, I tried to amuse Sigurdr with a sketch of the fortunes of the great house of Argyll.
I told him how in ancient days three warriors came from Green Ierne, to dwell in the wild glens of Cowal and Lochow,—how one of them, the swart Breachdan, all for the love of blue-eyed Eila, swam the Gulf, once with a clew of thread, then with a hempen rope, last with an iron chain, but this time, alas! the returning tide sucks down the over-tasked hero into its swirling vortex,—how Diarmid O' Duin, i.e. son of "the Brown," slew with his own hand the mighty boar, whose head still scowls over the escutcheon of the Campbells,—how in later times, while the murdered Duncan's son, afterwards the great Malcolm Canmore, was yet an exile at the court of his Northumbrian uncle, ere Birnam wood had marched to Dunsinane, the first Campbell i.e. Campus-bellus, Beau-champ, a Norman knight and nephew of the Conqueror, having won the hand of the lady Eva, sole heiress of the race of Diarmid, became master of the lands and lordships of Argyll,—how six generations later—each of them notable in their day—the valiant Sir Colin created for his posterity a title prouder than any within a sovereign's power to bestow, which no forfeiture could attaint, no act of parliament recall; for though he cease to be Duke or Earl, the head of the Clan Campbell will still remain Mac Calan More,—and how at last the same Sir Colin fell at the String of Cowal, beneath the sword of that fierce lord, whose granddaughter was destined to bind the honours of his own heirless house round the coronet of his slain foeman's descendant;—how Sir Neill at Bannockburn fought side by side with the Bruce whose sister he had married; how Colin, the first Earl, wooed and won the Lady Isabel, sprung from the race of Somerled, Lord of the Isles, thus adding the galleys of Lorn to the blazonry of Argyll;— how the next Earl died at Flodden, and his successor fought not less disastrously at Pinkie;—how Archibald, fifth Earl, whose wife was at supper with the Queen, her half-sister, when Rizzio was murdered, fell on the field of Langside, smitten not by the hand of the enemy, but by the finger of God; how Colin, Earl and boy-General at fifteen, was dragged away by force, with tears in his eyes, from the unhappy skirmish at Glenlivit, where his brave Highlanders were being swept down by the artillery of Huntley and Errol,—destined to regild his spurs in future years on the soil of Spain.
Then I told him of the Great Rebellion, and how, amid the tumult of the next fifty years, the Grim Marquis— Gillespie Grumach, as his squint caused him to be called— Montrose's fatal foe, staked life and fortunes in the deadly game engaged in by the fierce spirits of that generation, and losing, paid the forfeit with his head, as calmly as became a brave and noble gentleman, leaving an example, which his son—already twice rescued from the scaffold, once by a daughter of the ever-gallant house of Lindsay, again a prisoner, and a rebel, because four years too soon to be a patriot—as nobly imitated;— how, at last, the clouds of misfortune cleared away, and honours clustered where only merit had been before; the martyr's aureole, almost become hereditary, being replaced in the next generation by a ducal coronet, itself to be regilt in its turn with a less sinister lustre by him—
"The State's whole thunder born to wield, And shake alike the senate and the field;"
who baffled Walpole in the cabinet, and conquered with Marlborough at Ramilies, Oudenarde, and Malplaquet;— and, last,—how at that present moment, even while we were speaking, the heir to all these noble reminiscences, the young chief of this princely line, had already won, at the age of twenty-nine, by the manly vigour of his intellect and his hereditary independence of character, the confidence of his fellow-countrymen, and a seat at the council board of his sovereign.
Having thus duly indoctrinated Sigurdr with the Sagas of the family, as soon as we had crossed the lake I took him up to the Castle, and acted cicerone to its pictures and heirlooms,—the gleaming stands of muskets, whose fire wrought such fatal ruin at Culloden;—the portrait of the beautiful Irish girl, twice a Duchess, whom the cunning artist has painted with a sunflower that turns FROM the sun to look at her;—Gillespie Grumach himself, as grim and sinister-looking as in life.—the trumpets to carry the voice from the hall door to Dunnaquaich;—the fair beech avenues, planted by the old Marquis, now looking with their smooth grey boles, and overhanging branches, like the cloisters of an abbey the vale of Esechasan, to which, on the evening before his execution, the Earl wrote such touching verses; the quaint old kitchen-garden; the ruins of the ancient Castle, where worthy Major Dalgetty is said to have passed such uncom- fortable moments;—the Celtic cross from lone Iona:—all and everything I showed off with as much pride and pleasure, I think, as if they had been my own possessions; and the more so as the Icelander himself evidently sympathised with such Scald-like gossip.
Having thoroughly overrun the woods and lawns of Inverary, we had a game of chess, and went to bed pretty well tired.
The next morning, before breakfast, I went off in a boat to Ardkinglass to see my little cousins; and then returning about twelve, we got a post-chaise, and crossing the boastful Loch Awe in a ferry-boat, reached Oban at nightfall. Here I had the satisfaction of finding the schooner already arrived, and of being joined by the Doctor, just returned from his fruitless expedition to Holyhead.
THROUGH THE SOUNDS—STORNAWAY—THE SETTING UP OF THE FIGURE-HEAD—FITZ'S FORAY—OH WEEL MAY THE BOATIE ROW, THAT WINS THE BAIRNS'S BREAD—SIR PATRICK SPENS JOINS—UP ANCHOR.
Stornaway, Island of Lewis, Hebrides, June 9, 1856.
We reached these Islands of the West the day before yesterday, after a fine run from Oban.
I had intended taking Staffa and Iona on my way, but it came on so thick with heavy weather from the south-west, that to have landed on either island would have been out of the question. So we bore up under Mull at one in the morning, tore through the Sound at daylight, rounded Ardnamurchan under a double-reefed mainsail at two P.M., and shot into the Sound of Skye the same evening, leaving the hills of Moidart (one of whose "seven naen" was an ancestor of your own), and the jaws of the hospitable Loch Hourn, reddening in the stormy sunset.
At Kylakin we were obliged to bring up for the night; but getting under weigh again at daylight, we took a fair wind with us along the east coast of Skye, passed Raasa and Rona, and so across the Minch to Stornaway.
Stornaway is a little fishing-town with a beautiful harbour, from out of which was sailing, as we entered, a fleet of herring-boats, their brown sails gleaming like gold against the dark angry water as they fluttered out to sea, unmindful of the leaden clouds banked up along the west, and all the symptoms of an approaching gale. The next morning it was upon us; but brought up as we were under the lea of a high rock, the tempest tore harmlessly over our heads, and left us at liberty to make the final preparations for departure.
Fitz, whose talents for discerning where the vegetables, fowls, and pretty ladies of a place were to be found, I had already had occasion to admire, went ashore to forage; while I remained on board to superintend the fixing of our sacred figure-head—executed in bronze by Marochetti— and brought along with me by rail, still warm from the furnace.
For the performance of this solemnity I luckily possessed a functionary equal to the occasion, in the shape of the second cook. Originally a guardsman, he had beaten his sword into a chisel, and become carpenter; subsequently conceiving a passion for the sea, he turned his attention to the mysteries of the kitchen, and now sails with me in the alternate exercise of his two last professions. This individual, thus happily combining the chivalry inherent in the profession of arms with the skill of the craftsman and the refinement of the artist—to whose person, moreover, a paper cap, white vestments, and the sacrificial knife at his girdle, gave something of a sacerdotal character—I did not consider unfit to raise the ship's guardian image to its appointed place; and after two hours' reverential handiwork, I had the satisfaction of seeing the well-known lovely face, with its golden hair, and smile that might charm all malice from the elements, beaming like a happy omen above our bows.
Shortly afterwards Fitz came alongside, after a most successful foray among the fish-wives. He was sitting in the stern-sheets, up to his knees in vegetables, with seven elderly hens beside him, and a dissipated-looking cock under his arm, with regard to whose qualifications its late proprietor had volunteered the most satisfactory assurances. I am also bound to mention, that protruding from his coat-pocket were certain sheets of music, with the name of "Alice Louisa," written therein in a remarkably pretty hand, which led me to believe that the Doctor had not entirely confined his energies to the acquisition of hens and vegetables. The rest of the day was spent in packing away our newly-purchased stores, and making the ship as tidy as circumstances would admit. I am afraid, however, many a smart yachtsman would have been scandalized at our decks, lumbered up with hen-coops, sacks of coal, and other necessaries, which, like the Queen of Spain's legs, not only ought never to be seen, but must not be supposed even to exist, on board a tip-top craft.
By the evening, the gale, which had been blowing all day, had increased to a perfect hurricane. At nine o'clock we let go a second anchor; and I confess, as we sat comfortably round the fire in the bright cheerful little cabin, and listened to the wind whistling and shrieking through the cordage, that none of us were sorry to find ourselves in port on such a night, instead of tossing on the wild Atlantic—though we little knew that even then the destroying angel was busy with the fleet of fishing-boats which had put to sea so gallantly on the evening of our arrival. By morning the neck of the gale was broken, and the sun shone brightly on the white rollers as they chased each other to the shore; but a Queen's ship was steaming into the bay, with sad news of ruin out to seaward;—towing behind her, boats, water-logged, or bottom upwards,—while a silent crowd of women on the quay were waiting to learn on what homes among them the bolt had fallen.
About twelve o'clock the Glasgow packet came in, and a few minutes afterwards I had the honour of receiving on my quarter-deck a gentleman who seemed a cross between the German student and swell commercial gent. On his head he wore a queer kind of smoking-cap, with the peak cocked over his left ear; then came a green shooting-jacket, and flashy silk tartan waistcoat, set off by a gold chain, hung about in innumerable festoons,—while light trousers and knotty Wellington boots completed his costume, and made the wearer look as little like a seaman as need be. It appeared, nevertheless, that the individual in question was Mr. Ebenezer Wyse, my new sailing-master; so I accepted Captain C.'s strong recommendation as a set-off against the silk tartan; explained to the new comer the position he was to occupy on board, and gave orders for sailing in an hour. The multitudinous chain, moreover, so lavishly displayed, turned out to be an ornament of which Mr. Wyse might well be proud; and the following history of its acquisition reconciled me more than anything else to my Master's unnautical appearance.
Some time ago there was a great demand in Australia for small river steamers, which certain Scotch companies undertook to supply. The difficulty, however, was to get such fragile tea-kettles across the ocean; five started one after another in murderous succession, and each came to grief before it got half-way to the equator; the sixth alone remained with which to try a last experiment. Should she arrive, her price would more than compensate the pecuniary loss already sustained, though it could not bring to life the hands sacrificed in the mad speculation; by this time, however, even the proverbial recklessness of the seamen of the port was daunted, and the hearts of two crews had already failed them at the last moment of starting, when my friend of the chain volunteered to take the command. At the outset of his voyage everything went well; a fair wind (her machinery was stowed away, and she sailed under canvas) carried the little craft in an incredibly short time a thousand miles to the southward of the Cape, when one day, as she was running before the gale, the man at the wheel—startled at a sea which he thought was going to poop her—let go the helm; the vessel broached to, and tons of water tumbled in on the top of the deck. As soon as the confusion of the moment had subsided, it became evident that the shock had broken some of the iron plates, and that the ship was in a fair way of foundering. So frightened were the crew, that, after consultation with each other, they determined to take to the boats, and all hands came aft, to know whether there was anything the skipper would wish to carry off with him. Comprehending the madness of attempting to reach land in open boats at the distance of a thousand miles from any shore, Wyse pretended to go into the cabin to get his compass, chronometer, etc., but returning immediately with a revolver in each hand, swore he would shoot the first man who attempted to touch the boats. This timely exhibition of spirit saved their lives: soon after the weather moderated; by undergirding the ship with chains, St. Paul fashion, the leaks were partially stopped, the steamer reached her destination, and was sold for 7,000 pounds a few days after her arrival. In token of their gratitude for the good service he had done them, the Company presented Mr. Wyse on his return with a gold watch, and the chain he wears so gloriously outside the silk tartan waistcoat.
And now, good-bye. I hear the click-click of the chain as they heave the anchor; I am rather tired and exhausted with all the worry of the last two months, and shall be heartily glad to get to sea, where fresh air will set me up again, I hope, in a few days. My next letter will be from Iceland; and, please God, before I see English land again, I hope to have many a story to tell you of the islands that are washed by the chill waters of the Arctic Sea.
THE NORTH ATLANTIC—SPANISH WAVES—OUR CABIN IN A GALE— SEA-SICKNESS FROM A SCIENTIFIC POINT OF VIEW—WILSON—A PASSENGER COMMITS SUICIDE—FIRST SIGHT OF ICELAND—FLOKI OF THE RAVENS—THE NORSE MAYFLOWER—FAXA FIORD—WE LAND IN THULE
Reykjavik, Iceland, June 21, 1856.
We have landed in Thule! When, in parting, you moaned so at the thought of not being able to hear of our safe arrival, I knew there would be an opportunity of writing to you almost immediately after reaching Iceland; but I said nothing about it at the time, lest something should delay this letter, and you be left to imagine all kinds of doleful reasons for its non-appearance. We anchored in Reykjavik harbour this afternoon (Saturday). H.M.S. "Coquette" sails for England on Monday; so that within a week you will get this.
For the last ten days we have been leading the life of the "Flying Dutchman." Never do I remember to have had such a dusting: foul winds, gales, and calms—or rather breathing spaces, which the gale took occasionally to muster up fresh energies for a blow—with a heavy head sea, that prevented our sailing even when we got aslant. On the afternoon of the day we quitted Stornaway, I got a notion how it was going to be; the sun went angrily down behind a bank of solid grey cloud, and by the time we were up with the Butt of Lewis, the whole sky was in tatters, and the mercury nowhere, with a heavy swell from the north-west.
As, two years before, I had spent a week in trying to beat through the Roost of Sumburgh under double-reefed trysails, I was at home in the weather; and guessing we were in for it, sent down the topmasts, stowed the boats on board, handed the foresail, rove the ridge-ropes, and reefed all down. By midnight it blew a gale, which continued without intermission until the day we sighted Iceland; sometimes increasing to a hurricane, but broken now and then by sudden lulls, which used to leave us for a couple of hours at a time tumbling about on the top of the great Atlantic rollers—or Spanish waves, as they are called—until I thought the ship would roll the masts out of her. Why they should be called Spanish waves, no one seems to know; but I had always heard the seas were heavier here than in any other part of the world, and certainly they did not belie their character. The little ship behaved beautifully, and many a vessel twice her size would have been less comfortable. Indeed, few people can have any notion of the cosiness of a yacht's cabin under such circumstances. After having remained for several hours on deck, in the presence of the tempest,— peering through the darkness at those black liquid walls of water, mounting above you in ceaseless agitation, or tumbling over in cataracts of gleaming foam,—the wind roaring through the rigging,—timbers creaking as if the ship would break its heart,—the spray and rain beating in your face,—everything around in tumult,—suddenly to descend into the quiet of a snug, well-lighted little cabin, with the firelight dancing on the white rosebud chintz, the well-furnished book-shelves, and all the innumerable nick-nacks that decorate its walls,—little Edith's portrait looking so serene,—everything about you as bright and fresh as a lady's boudoir in May Fair,—the certainty of being a good three hundred miles from any troublesome shore,—all combine to inspire a feeling of comfort and security difficult to describe.
These pleasures, indeed, for the first days of our voyage, the Icelander had pretty much to himself. I was laid up with a severe bout of illness I had long felt coming on, and Fitz was sea-sick. I must say, however, I never saw any one behave with more pluck and resolution; and when we return, the first thing you do must be to thank him for his kindness to me on that occasion. Though himself almost prostrate, he looked after me as indefatigably as if he had already found his sea legs; and, sitting down on the cabin floor, with a basin on one side of him, and a pestle and mortar on the other, used to manufacture my pills, between the paroxysms of his malady, with a decorous pertinacity that could not be too much admired.
Strangely enough, too, his state of unhappiness lasted a few days longer than the eight-and-forty hours which are generally sufficient to set people on their feet again. I tried to console him by representing what an occasion it was for observing the phenomena of sea-sickness from a scientific point of view; and I must say he set to work most conscientiously to discover some remedy. Brandy, prussic acid, opium, champagne, ginger, mutton- chops, and tumblers of salt-water, were successively exhibited; but, I regret to say, after a few minutes, each in turn re-exhibited itself with monotonous punctuality. Indeed, at one time we thought he would never get over it; and the following conversation, which I overheard one morning between him and my servant, did not brighten his hopes of recovery.
This person's name is Wilson, and of all men I ever met he is the most desponding. Whatever is to be done, he is sure to see a lion in the path. Life in his eyes is a perpetual filling of leaky buckets, and a rolling of stones up hill. He is amazed when the bucket holds water, or the stone perches on the summit. He professes but a limited belief in his star,—and success with him is almost a disappointment. His countenance corresponds with the prevailing character of his thoughts, always hopelessly chapfallen; his voice is as of the tomb. He brushes my clothes, lays the cloth, opens the champagne, with the air of one advancing to his execution. I have never seen him smile but once, when he came to report to me that a sea had nearly swept his colleague, the steward, overboard. The son of a gardener at Chiswick, he first took to horticulture; then emigrated as a settler to the Cape, where he acquired his present complexion, which is of a grass-green; and finally served as a steward on board an Australian steam-packet.
Thinking to draw consolation from his professional experiences, I heard Fitz's voice, now very weak, say in a tone of coaxing cheerfulness,—
"Well, Wilson, I suppose this kind of thing does not last long?"
The Voice, as of the tomb. "I don't know, Sir."
Fitz.—"But you must have often seen passengers sick."
The Voice.—"Often, Sir; very sick."
Fitz.—"Well; and on an average, how soon did they recover?"
The Voice.—"Some of them didn't recover, Sir."
Fitz.—"Well, but those that did?"
The Voice.—"I know'd a clergyman and his wife as were, ill all the voyage; five months, Sir."
The Voice; now become sepulchral.—"They sometimes dies, Sir."
Before the end of the voyage, however, this Job's comforter himself fell ill, and the Doctor amply revenged himself by prescribing for him.
Shortly after this, a very melancholy occurrence took place. I had observed for some days past, as we proceeded north, and the nights became shorter, that the cock we shipped at Stornaway had become quite bewildered on the subject of that meteorological phenomenon called the Dawn of Day. In fact, I doubt whether he ever slept for more than five minutes at a stretch, without waking up in a state of nervous agitation, lest it should be cock-crow. At last, when night ceased altogether, his constitution could no longer stand the shock. He crowed once or twice sarcastically, then went melancholy mad: finally, taking a calenture, he cackled lowly (probably of green fields), and leaping overboard, drowned himself. The mysterious manner in which every day a fresh member of his harem used to disappear, may also have preyed upon his spirits.
At last, on the morning of the eighth day, we began to look out for land. The weather had greatly improved during the night; and, for the first time since leaving the Hebrides, the sun had got the better of the clouds, and driven them in confusion before his face. The sea, losing its dead leaden colour, had become quite crisp and burnished, darkling into a deep sapphire blue against the horizon; beyond which, at about nine o'clock, there suddenly shot up towards the zenith, a pale, gold aureole, such as precedes the appearance of the good fairy at a pantomime farce; then, gradually lifting its huge back above the water, rose a silver pyramid of snow, which I knew must be the cone of an ice mountain, miles away in the interior of the island. From the moment we got hold of the land, our cruise, as you may suppose, doubled in interest. Unfortunately, however, the fair morning did not keep its promise; about one o'clock, the glittering mountain vanished in mist; the sky again became like an inverted pewter cup, and we had to return for two more days to our old practice of threshing to windward. So provoked was I at this relapse of the weather, that, perceiving a whale blowing convenient, I could not help suggesting to Sigurdr, son of Jonas, that it was an occasion for observing the traditions of his family; but he excused himself on the plea of their having become obsolete.
The mountain we had seen in the morning was the south-east extremity of the island, the very landfall made by one of its first discoverers. [Footnote: There is in Strabo an account of a voyage made by a citizen of the Greek colony of Marseilles, in the time of Alexander the Great, through the Pillars of Hercules, along the coasts of France and Spain, up the English Channel, and so across the North Sea, past an island he calls Thule; his further progress, he asserted, was hindered by a barrier of a peculiar nature,—neither earth, air, nor sky, but a compound of all three, forming a thick viscid substance which it was impossible to penetrate. Now, whether this same Thule was one of the Shetland Islands, and the impassable substance merely a fog,—or Iceland, and the barricade beyond, a wall of ice, it is impossible to say. Probably Pythias did not get beyond the Shetlands.] This gentleman not having a compass, (he lived about A.D. 864,) nor knowing exactly where the land lay, took on board with him, at starting, three consecrated ravens—as an M.P. would take three well-trained pointers to his moor. Having sailed a certain distance, he let loose one, which flew back: by this he judged he had not got half-way. Proceeding onwards, he loosed the second, which, after circling in the air for some minutes in apparent uncertainty, also made off home, as though it still remained a nice point which were the shorter course toward terra firma. But the third, on obtaining his liberty a few days later, flew forward, and by following the direction in which he had disappeared, Rabna Floki, or Floki of the Ravens, as he came to be called, triumphantly made the land.
The real colonists did not arrive till some years later, for I do not much believe a story they tell of Christian relics, supposed to have been left by Irish fishermen, found on the Westmann islands. A Scandinavian king, named Harold Haarfager (a contemporary of our own King Alfred's), having murdered, burnt, and otherwise exterminated all his brother kings who at that time grew as thick as blackberries in Norway, first consolidated their dominions into one realm, as Edgar did the Heptarchy, and then proceeded to invade the Udal rights of the landholders. Some of them, animated with that love of liberty innate in the race of the noble Northmen, rather than submit to his oppressions, determined to look for a new home amid the desolate regions of the icy sea. Freighting a dragon-shaped galley—the "Mayflower" of the period—with their wives and children, and all the household monuments that were dear to them, they saw the blue peaks of their dear Norway hills sink down into the sea behind, and manfully set their faces towards the west, where—some vague report had whispered—a new land might be found. Arrived in sight of Iceland, the leader of the expedition threw the sacred pillars belonging to his former dwelling into the water, in order that the gods might determine the site of his new home: carried by the tide, no one could say in what direction, they were at last discovered, at the end of three years, in a sheltered bay on the west side of the island, and Ingolf [Footnote: It was in consequence of a domestic feud that Ingolf himself was forced to emigrate.] came and abode there, and the place became in the course of years Reykjavik, the capital of the country.
Sigurdr having scouted the idea of acting Iphigenia, there was nothing for it but steadily to beat over the remaining hundred and fifty miles, which still separated us from Cape Reikianess. After going for two days hard at it, and sighting the Westmann islands, we ran plump into a fog, and lay to. In a few hours, however, it cleared up into a lovely sunny day, with a warm summer breeze just rippling up the water. Before us lay the long wished-for Cape, with the Meal-sack,—a queer stump of basalt, that flops up out of the sea, fifteen miles south-west of Cape Reikianess, its flat top white with guano, like the mouth of a bag of flour,—five miles on our port bow; and seldom have I remembered a pleasanter four-and-twenty hours than those spent stealing up along the gnarled and crumpled lava flat that forms the western coast of Guldbrand Syssel. Such fishing, shooting, looking through telescopes, and talking of what was to be done on our arrival! Like Antaeus, Sigurdr seemed twice the man he was before, at sight of his native land; and the Doctor grew nearly lunatic when after stalking a solent goose asleep on the water, the bird flew away at the moment the schooner hove within shot.
The panorama of the bay of Faxa Fiord is magnificent, —with a width of fifty miles from horn to horn, the one running down into a rocky ridge of pumice, the other towering to the height of five thousand feet in a pyramid of eternal snow, while round the intervening semicircle crowd the peaks of a hundred noble mountains. As you approach the shore, you are very much reminded of the west coast of Scotland, except that everything is more INTENSE—the atmosphere clearer, the light more vivid, the air more bracing, the hills steeper, loftier, more tormented, as the French say, and more gaunt; while between their base and the sea stretches a dirty greenish slope, patched with houses which themselves, both roof and walls, are of a mouldy green, as if some long-since inhabited country had been fished up out of the bottom of the sea.
The effects of light and shadow are the purest I ever saw, the contrasts of colour most astonishing,—one square front of a mountain jutting out in a blaze of gold against the flank of another, dyed of the darkest purple, while up against the azure sky beyond, rise peaks of glittering snow and ice. The snow, however, beyond serving as an ornamental fringe to the distance, plays but a very poor part at this season of the year in Iceland. While I write, the thermometer is above 70. Last night we remained playing at chess on deck till bedtime, without thinking of calling for coats, and my people live in their shirt-sleeves, and—astonishment at the climate.
And now, good-bye. I cannot tell you how I am enjoying myself, body and soul. Already I feel much stronger, and before I return I trust to have laid in a stock of health sufficient to last the family for several generations.
Remember me to —, and tell her she looks too lovely; her face has become of a beautiful bright green—a complexion which her golden crown sets off to the greatest advantage. I wish she could have seen, as we sped across, how passionately the waves of the Atlantic flung their liquid arms about her neck, and how proudly she broke through their embraces, leaving them far behind, moaning and lamenting.
REYKJAVIK—LATIN CONVERSATION—I BECOME THE PROPRIETOR OF TWENTY-SIX HORSES—EIDER DUCKS—BESSESTAD—SNORKO STURLESON—THE OLD GREENLAND COLONY—FINLAND—A GENOESE SKIPPER IN THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY—AN ICELANDIC DINNER— SKOAL—AN AFTER-DINNER SPEACH IN LATIN—WINGED RABBITS— DUCROW—START OF THE BAGGAGE-TRAIN.
Reykjavik, June 28, 1856.
Notwithstanding that its site, as I mentioned in my last letter, was determined by auspices not less divine than those of Rome or Athens, Reykjavik is not so fine a city as either, though its public buildings may be thought to be in better repair. In fact, the town consists of a collection of wooden sheds, one story high—rising here and there into a gable end of greater pretentions—built along the lava beach, and flanked at either end by a suburb of turf huts.
On every side of it extends a desolate plain of lava that once must have boiled up red-hot from some distant gateway of hell, and fallen hissing into the sea. No tree or bush relieves the dreariness of the landscape, and the mountains are too distant to serve as a background to the buildings; but before the door of each merchant's house facing the sea, there flies a gay little pennon; and as you walk along the silent streets, whose dust no carriage-wheel has ever desecrated, the rows of flower-pots that peep out of the windows, between curtains of white muslin, at once convince you that notwithstanding their unpretending appearance, within each dwelling reign the elegance and comfort of a woman-tended home.
Thanks to Sigurdr's popularity among his countrymen, by the second day after our arrival we found ourselves no longer in a strange land. With a frank energetic cordiality that quite took one by surprise, the gentlemen of the place at once welcomed us to their firesides, and made us feel that we could give them no greater pleasure than by claiming their hospitality. As, however, it is necessary, if we are to reach Jan Mayen and Spitzbergen this summer, that our stay in Iceland should not be prolonged above a certain date, I determined at once to make preparations for our expedition to the Geysirs and the interior of the country. Our plan at present, after visiting the hot springs, is to return to Reykjavik, and stretch right across the middle of the island to the north coast—scarcely ever visited by strangers. Thence we shall sail straight away to Jan Mayen.
In pursuance of this arrangement, the first thing to do was to buy some horses. Away, accordingly, we went in the gig to the little pier leading up to the merchant's house who had kindly promised Sigurdr to provide them. Everything in the country that is not made of wood is made of lava. The pier was constructed out of huge boulders of lava, the shingle is lava, the sea-sand is pounded lava, the mud on the roads is lava paste, the foundations of the houses are lava blocks, and in dry weather you are blinded with lava dust. Immediately upon landing I was presented to a fine, burly gentleman, who, I was informed, could let me have a steppe-ful of horses if I desired, and a few minutes afterwards I picked myself up in the middle of a Latin oration on the subject of the weather. Having suddenly lost my nominative case, I concluded abruptly with the figure syncope, and a bow, to which my interlocutor politely replied "Ita." Many of the inhabitants speak English, and one or two French, but in default of either of these, your only chance is Latin. At first I found great difficulty in brushing up anything sufficiently conversational, more especially as it was necessary to broaden out the vowels in the high Roman fashion; but a little practice soon made me more fluent, and I got at last to brandish my "Pergratum est," etc. in the face of a new acquaintance, without any misgivings. On this occasion I thought it more prudent to let Sigurdr make the necessary arrangements for our journey, and in a few minutes I had the satisfaction of learning that I had become the proprietor of twenty-six horses, as many bridles and pack-saddles, and three guides.
There being no roads in Iceland, all the traffic of the country is conducted by means of horses, along the bridle- tracks which centuries of travel have worn in the lava plains. As but little hay is to be had, the winter is a season of fasting for all cattle, and it is not until spring is well advanced, and the horses have had time to grow a little fat on the young grass, that you can go a journey. I was a good deal taken aback when the number of my stud was announced to me, but it appears that what with the photographic apparatus, which I am anxious to take, and our tent, it would be impossible to do with fewer animals. The price of each pony is very moderate, and I am told I shall have no difficulty in disposing of all of them, at the conclusion of our expedition.
These preliminaries happily concluded, Mr. J— invited us into his house, where his wife and daughter—a sunshiny young lady of eighteen—were waiting to receive us. As Latin here was quite useless, we had to entrust Sigurdr with all the pretty things we desired to convey to our entertainers, but it is my firm opinion that that gentleman took a dirty advantage of us, and intercepting the choicest flowers of our eloquence, appropriated them to the advancement of his own interests. However, such expressions of respectful admiration as he suffered to reach their destination were received very graciously, and rewarded with a shower of smiles.
The next few days were spent in making short expeditions in the neighbourhood, in preparing our baggage-train, and in paying visits. It would be too long for me to enumerate all the marks of kindness and hospitality I received during this short period. Suffice it to say, that I had the satisfaction of making many very interesting acquaintances, of beholding a great number of very pretty faces, and of partaking of an innumerable quantity of luncheons. In fact, to break bread, or, more correctly speaking, to crack a bottle with the master of the house, is as essential an element of a morning call as the making a bow or shaking hands, and to refuse to take off your glass would be as great an incivility as to decline taking off your hat. From earliest times, as the grand old ballad of the King of Thule tells us, a beaker was considered the fittest token a lady could present to her true-love—
Dem fterbend feine Buble Einen goldnen Becher gab.
And in one of the most ancient Eddaic songs it is written, "Drink, Runes, must thou know, if thou wilt maintain thy power over the maiden thou lovest. Thou shalt score them on the drinking-horn, on the back of thy hand, and the word NAUD" (NEED—necessity) "on thy nail." Moreover, when it is remembered that the ladies of the house themselves minister on these occasions, it will be easily understood that all flinching is out of the question. What is a man to do, when a wicked little golden-haired maiden insists on pouring him out a bumper, and dumb show is his only means of remonstrance? Why, of course, if death were in the cup, he must make her a leg, and drain it to the bottom, as I did. In conclusion, I am bound to add that, notwithstanding the bacchanalian character prevailing in these visits, I derived from them much interesting and useful information, and I have invariably found the gentlemen to whom I have been presented persons of education and refinement, combined with a happy, healthy, jovial temperament, that invests their conversation with a peculiar charm.
At this moment people are in a great state of excitement at the expected arrival of H.I.H. Prince Napoleon, and two days ago a large full-rigged ship came in laden with coal for his use. The day after we left Stornaway, we had seen her scudding away before the gale on a due west course, and guessed she was bound for Iceland, and running down the longitude, but as we arrived here four days before her, our course seems to have been a better one. The only other ship here is the French frigate "Artemise," Commodore Dumas, by whom I have been treated with the greatest kindness and civility.
On Saturday we went to Vedey, a beautiful little green island where the eider ducks breed, and build nests with the soft under-down plucked from their own bosoms. After the little ones are hatched, and their birthplaces deserted, the nests are gathered, cleaned, and stuffed into pillow-cases, for pretty ladies in Europe to lay their soft, warm cheeks upon, and sleep the sleep of the innocent, while long-legged, broad-shouldered Englishmen protrude from between them at German inns, like the ham from a sandwich, and cannot sleep, however innocent.
The next day, being Sunday, I read prayers on board, and then went for a short time to the cathedral church,— the only stone building in Reykjavik. It is a moderate-sized, unpretending place, capable of holding three or four hundred persons, erected in very ancient times, but lately restored. The Icelanders are of the Lutheran religion, and a Lutheran clergyman, in a black gown, etc., with a ruff round his neck, such as our bishops are painted in about the time of James the First, was preaching a sermon. It was the first time I had heard Icelandic spoken continuously, and it struck me as a singularly sweet caressing language, although I disliked the particular cadence, amounting almost to a chant, with which each sentence ended.
As in every church where prayers have been offered up since the world began, the majority of the congregation were women, some few dressed in bonnets, and the rest in the national black silk skull-cap, set jauntily on one side of the head, with a long black tassel hanging down to the shoulder, or else in a quaint mitre of white linen, of which a drawing alone could give you an idea, the remainder of an Icelandic lady's costume, when not superseded by Paris fashions, consists of a black bodice fastened in front with silver clasps, over which is drawn a cloth jacket, ornamented with a multitude of silver buttons; round the neck goes a stiff ruff of velvet, figured with silver lace, and a silver belt, often beautifully chased, binds the long dark wadmal petticoat round the waist. Sometimes the ornaments are of gold instead of silver, and very costly.
Before dismissing his people, the preacher descended from the pulpit, and putting on a splendid cope of crimson velvet (in which some bishop had in ages past been murdered), turned his back to the congregation, and chanted some Latin sentences in good round Roman style. Though still retaining in their ceremonies a few vestiges of the old religion, though altars, candles, pictures, and crucifixes yet remain in many of their churches, the Icelanders are staunch Protestants, and, by all accounts, the most devout, innocent pure-hearted people in the world. Crime, theft, debauchery, cruelty, are unknown amongst them; they have neither prison, gallows, soldiers, nor police; and in the manner of the lives they lead among their secluded valleys, there is something of a patriarchal simplicity, that reminds one of the Old World princes, of whom it has been said, that they were "upright and perfect, eschewing evil, and in their hearts no guile."
The law with regard to marriage, however, is sufficiently peculiar. When, from some unhappy incompatibility of temper, a married couple live so miserably together as to render life insupportable, it is competent for them to apply to the Danish Governor of the island for a divorce. If, after the lapse of three years from the date of the application, both are still of the same mind, and equally eager to be free, the divorce is granted, and each is at liberty to marry again.
The next day it had been arranged that we were to take an experimental trip on our new ponies, under the guidance of the learned and jovial Rector of the College. Unfortunately the weather was dull and rainy, but we were determined to enioy ourselves in spite of everything, and a pleasanter ride I have seldom had. The steed Sigurdr had purchased for me was a long-tailed, hog-maned, shaggy, cow-houghed creature, thirteen hands high, of a bright yellow colour, with admirable action, and sure-footed enough to walk downstairs backwards. The Doctor was not less well mounted; in fact, the Icelandic pony is quite a peculiar race, much stronger, faster, and better bred than the Highland shelty, and descended probably from pure-blooded sires that scoured the steppes of Asia, long before Odin and his paladins had peopled the valleys of Scandinavia.
The first few miles of our ride lay across an undulating plain of dolorite, to a farm situated at the head of an inlet of the sea. At a distance, the farm-steading looked like a little oasis of green, amid the grey stony slopes that surrounded it, and on a nearer approach not unlike the vestiges of a Celtic earthwork, with the tumulus of a hero or two in the centre, but the mounds turned out to be nothing more than the grass roofs of the house and offices, and the banks and dykes but circumvallations round the plot of most carefully cleaned meadow, called the "tun," which always surrounds every Icelandic farm. This word "tun" is evidently identical with our own Irish "TOWN-LAND," the Cornish "TOWN," and the Scotch "TOON,"—terms which, in their local signification, do not mean a congregation of streets and buildings, but the yard, and spaces of grass immediately adjoining a single house, just as in German we have "tzaun," and in the Dutch "tuyn," a garden.
Turning to the right, round the head of a little bay, we passed within forty yards of an enormous eagle, seated on a crag; but we had no rifle, and all he did was to rise heavily into the air, flap his wings like a barn-door fowl, and plump lazily down twenty yards farther off. Soon after, the district we traversed became more igneous, wrinkled, cracked, and ropy than anything we had yet seen, and another two hours' scamper over such a track as till then I would not have believed horses could have traversed, even at a foot's pace, brought us to the solitary farm-house of Bessestad. Fresh from the neat homesteads of England that we had left sparkling in the bright spring weather, and sheltered by immemorial elms,—the scene before us looked inexpressibly desolate. In front rose a cluster of weather-beaten wooden buildings, and huts like ice-houses, surrounded by a scanty plot of grass, reclaimed from the craggy plain of broken lava that stretched—the home of ravens and foxes—on either side to the horizon. Beyond, lay a low black breadth of moorland, intersected by patches of what was neither land nor water, and last, the sullen sea; while above our heads a wind, saturated with the damps of the Atlantic, went moaning over the landscape. Yet this was Bessestad, the ancient home of Snorro Sturleson!
On dismounting from our horses and entering the house things began to look more cheery; a dear old lady, to whom we were successively presented by the Rector, received us, with the air of a princess, ushered us into her best room, made us sit down on the sofa—the place of honour—and assisted by her niece, a pale lily-like maiden, named after Jarl Hakon's Thora, proceeded to serve us with hot coffee, rusks, and sweetmeats. At first it used to give me a very disagreeable feeling to be waited upon by the woman-kind of the household, and I was always starting up, and attempting to take the dishes out of their hands, to their infinite surprise; but now I have succeeded in learning to accept their ministrations with the same unembarrassed dignity as my neighbours. In the end, indeed, I have rather got to like it, especially when they are as pretty as Miss Thora. To add, moreover, to our content, it appeared that that young lady spoke a little French; so that we had no longer any need to pay our court by proxy, which many persons besides ourselves have found to be unsatisfactory. Our hostess lives quite alone. Her son, whom I have the pleasure of knowing, is far away, pursuing a career of honour and usefulness at Copenhagen, and it seems quite enough for his mother to know that he is holding his head high among the princes of literature, and the statesmen of Europe, provided only news of his success and advancing reputation shall occasionally reach her across the ocean.
Of the rooms and the interior arrangement of the house, I do not know that I have anything particular to tell you; they seemed to me like those of a good old-fashioned farmhouse, the walls wainscoted with deal, and the doors and staircase of the same material. A few prints, a photograph, some book-shelves, one or two little pictures, decorated the parlour, and a neat iron stove, and massive chests of drawers, served to furnish it very completely. But you must not, I fear, take the drawing-room of Bessestad as an average specimen of the comfort of an Icelandic interieur. The greater proportion of the inhabitants of the island live much more rudely. The walls of only the more substantial farmsteads are wainscoted with deal, or even partially screened with drift-wood. In most houses the bare blocks of lava, pointed with moss, are left in all their natural ruggedness. Instead of wood, the rafters are made of the ribs of whales. The same room but too often serves as the dining, sitting, and sleeping place for the whole family; a hole in the roof is the only chimney, and a horse's skull the most luxurious fauteuil into which it is possible for them to induct a stranger. The parquet is that originally laid down by Nature,—the beds are merely boxes filled with feathers or sea-weed,—and by all accounts the nightly packing is pretty close, and very indiscriminate.
After drinking several cups of coffee, and consuming at least a barrel of rusks, we rose to go, in spite of Miss Thora's intimation that a fresh jorum of coffee was being brewed. The horses were resaddled; and with an eloquent exchange of bows, curtseys, and kindly smiles, we took leave of our courteous entertainers, and sallied forth into the wind and rain. It was a regular race home, single file, the Rector leading; but as we sped along in silence, amid the unchangeable features of this strange land, I could not help thinking of him whose shrewd observing eye must have rested, six hundred and fifty years ago, on the selfsame crags, and tarns, and distant mountain-tops; perhaps on the very day he rode out in the pride of his wealth, talent, and political influence, to meet his murderers at Reikholt. And mingling with his memory would rise the pale face of Thora,—not the little lady of the coffee and buscuits we had just left, but that other Thora, so tender and true, who turned back King Olaf's hell-hounds from the hiding-place of the great Jarl of Lade.
In order that you may understand why the forlorn barrack we had just left, and its solitary inmates, should have set me thinking of the men and women "of a thousand summers back," it is necessary I should tell you a little about this same Snorro Sturleson, whose memory so haunted me.
Colonized as Iceland had been,—not, as is generally the case, when a new land is brought into occupation, by the poverty-stricken dregs of a redundant population, nor by a gang of outcasts and ruffians, expelled from the bosom of a society which they contaminated,—but by men who in their own land had been both rich and noble,—with possessions to be taxed, and a spirit too haughty to endure taxation,—already acquainted with whatever of refinement and learning the age they lived in was capable of supplying, it is not surprising that we should find its inhabitants, even from the first infancy of the republic, endowed with an amount of intellectual energy hardly to be expected in so secluded a community.
Perhaps it was this very seclusion which stimulated into almost miraculous exuberance the mental powers already innate in the people. Undistracted during several successive centuries by the bloody wars, and still more bloody political convulsions, which for too long a period rendered the sword of the warrior so much more important to European society than the pen of the scholar, the Icelandic settlers, devoting the long leisure of their winter nights to intellectual occupations, became the first of any European nation to create for themselves a native literature. Indeed, so much more accustomed did they get to use their heads than their hands, than if an Icelander were injured he often avenged himself, not by cutting the throat of his antagonist, but by ridiculing him in some pasquinade,—sometimes, indeed, he did both; and when the King of Denmark maltreats the crew of an Icelandic vessel shipwrecked on his coast, their indignant countrymen send the barbarous monarch word, that by way of reprisal, they intend making as many lampoons on him as there are promontories in his dominions. Almost all the ancient Scandinavian manuscripts are Icelandic; the negotiations between the Courts of the North were conducted by Icelandic diplomatists; the earliest topographical survey with which we are acquainted was Icelandic; the cosmogony of the Odin religion was formulated, and its doctrinal traditions and ritual reduced to a system, by Icelandic archaeologists; and the first historical composition ever written by any European in the vernacular, was the product of Icelandic genius. The title of this important work is "The Heimskringla," or world-circle, [Footnote: So called because Heimskringla (world-circle) is the first word in the opening sentence of the manuscript which catches the eye.] and its author was—Snorro Sturleson! It consists of an account of the reigns of the Norwegian kings from mythic times down to about A.D. 1150, that is to say, a few years before the death of our own Henry II.; but detailed by the old Sagaman with so much art and cleverness as almost to combine the dramatic power of Macaulay with Clarendon's delicate delineation of character, and the charming loquacity of Mr. Pepys. His stirring sea-fights, his tender love-stories, and delightful bits of domestic gossip, are really inimitable;—you actually live with the people he brings upon the stage, as intimately as you do with Falstaff, Percy, or Prince Hal; and there is something in the bearing of those old heroic figures who form his dramatis person, so grand and noble, that it is impossible to read the story of their earnest stirring lives without a feeling of almost passionate interest—an effect which no tale frozen up in the monkish Latin of the Saxon annalists has ever produced upon me.
As for Snorro's own life, it was eventful and tragic enough. Unscrupulous, turbulent, greedy of money, he married two heiresses—the one, however, becoming the COLLEAGUE, not the successor of the other. This arrangement naturally led to embarrassment. His wealth created envy, his excessive haughtiness disgusted his sturdy fellow-countrymen. He was suspected of desiring to make the republic an appanage of the Norwegian crown, in the hope of himself becoming viceroy; and at last, on a dark September night, of the year 1241, he was murdered in his house at Reikholt by his three sons-in-law.
The same century which produced the Herodotean work of Sturleson also gave birth to a whole body of miscellaneous Icelandic literature,—though in Britain and elsewhere bookmaking was entirely confined to the monks, and merely consisted in the compilation of a series of bald annals locked up in bad Latin. It is true, Thomas of Ercildoune was a contemporary of Snorro's; but he is known to us more as a magician than as a man of letters; whereas histories, memoirs, romances, biographies, poetry, statistics, novels, calendars, specimens of almost every kind of composition, are to be found even among the meagre relics which have survived the literary decadence that supervened on the extinction of the republic.
It is to these same spirited chroniclers that we are indebted for the preservation of two of the most remarkable facts in the history of the world: the colonization of Greenland by Europeans in the 10th century, and the discovery of America by the Icelanders at the commencement of the 11th.
The story is rather curious.
Shortly after the arrival of the first settlers in Iceland, a mariner of the name of Eric the Red discovers a country away to the west, which, in consequence of its fruitful appearance, he calls Greenland. In the course of a few years the new land has become so thickly inhabited that it is necessary to erect the district into an episcopal see; and at last, in 1448, we have a brief of Pope Nicolas "granting to his beloved children of Greenland, in consideration of their having erected many sacred buildings and a splendid cathedral,"—a new bishop and a fresh supply of priests. At the commencement, however, of the next century, this colony of Greenland, with its bishops, priests and people, its one hundred and ninety townships, its cathedral, its churches, its monasteries, suddenly fades into oblivion, like the fabric of a dream. The memory of its existence perishes, and the allusions made to it in the old Scandinavian Sagas gradually come to be considered poetical inventions or pious frauds. At last, after a lapse of four hundred years, some Danish missionaries set out to convert the Esquimaux; and there, far within Davis' Straits, are discovered vestiges of the ancient settlement,—remains of houses, paths, walls, churches, tombstones, and inscriptions. [Footnote: On one tombstone there was written in Runic, "Vigdis M. D. Hvilir Her; Glwde Gude Sal Hennar." "Vigdessa rests here; God gladden her soul." But the most interesting of these inscriptions is one discovered, in 1824, in an island in Baffin's Bay, in latitude 72 degrees 55', as it shows how boldly these Northmen must have penetrated into regions supposed to have been unvisited by man before the voyages of our modern navigators:—"Erling Sighvatson and Biomo Thordarson, and Eindrid Oddson, on Saturday before Ascension-week, raised these marks and cleared ground, 1135:" This date of Ascension-week implies that these three men wintered here, which must lead us to imagine that at that time, seven hundred years ago, the climate was less inclement than it is now.]
What could have been the calamity which suddenly annihilated this Christian people, it is impossible to say; whether they were massacred by some warlike tribe of natives, or swept off to the last man by the terrible pestilence of 1349, called "The Black Death," or,—most horrible conjecture of all,—beleaguered by vast masses of ice setting down from the Polar Sea along the eastern coast of Greenland, and thus miserably frozen, we are never likely to know—so utterly did they perish, so mysterious has been their doom.
On the other hand, certain traditions, with regard to the discovery of a vast continent by their forefathers away in the south-west, seems never entirely to have died out of the memory of the Icelanders; and in the month of February, 1477, there arrives at Reykjavik, in a barque belonging to the port of Bristol, a certain long-visaged, grey-eyed Genoese mariner, who was observed to take an amazing interest in hunting up whatever was known on the subject. Whether Columbus—for it was no less a personage than he—really learned anything to confirm him in his noble resolutions, is uncertain; but we have still extant an historical manuscript, written at all events before the year 1395, that is to say, one hundred years prior to Columbus' voyage, which contains a minute account of how a certain person named Lief, while sailing over to Greenland, was driven out of his course by contrary winds, until he found himself off an extensive and unknown coast, which increased in beauty and fertility as he descended south, and how, in consequence of the representation Lief made on his return, successive expeditions were undertaken in the same direction. On two occasions their wives seem to have accompanied the adventurers; of one ship's company the skipper was a lady: while two parties even wintered in the new land, built houses, and prepared to colonize. For some reason, however, the intention was abandoned; and in process of time these early voyages came to be considered as aprocryphal as the Phoenician circumnavigation of Africa in the time of Pharaoh Necho.
It is quite uncertain how low a latitude in America the Northmen ever reached; but from the description given of the scenery, products, and inhabitants,—from the mildness of the weather,—and from the length of the day on the 21st of December,—it is conjectured they could not have descended much farther than Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, or, at most, the coast of Massachusetts. [Footnote: There is a certain piece of rock on the Taunton river, in Massachusetts, called the Deighton Stone, on which are to be seen rude configurations, for a long time supposed to be a Runic inscription executed by these Scandinavian voyagers; but there can be now no longer any doubt of this inscription, such as it is, being of Indian execution.]
But to return to more material matters.
Yesterday—no—the day before—in fact I forget the date of the day—I don't believe it had one—all I know is, I have not been in bed since,—we dined at the Governor's;— though dinner is too modest a term to apply to the entertainment.
The invitation was for four o'clock, and at half-past three we pulled ashore in the gig; I, innocent that I was, in a well-fitting white waistcoat.
The Government House, like all the others, is built of wood, on the top of a hillock; the only accession of dignity it can boast being a little bit of mangy kitchen-garden that hangs down in front to the road, like a soiled apron. There was no lock, handle, bell, or knocker to the door, but immediately on our approach, a servant presented himself, and ushered us into the room where Count Trampe was waiting to welcome us. After having been presented to his wife, we proceeded to shake hands with the other guests, most of whom I already knew; and I was glad to find that, at all events in Iceland, people do not consider it necessary to pass the ten minutes which precede the announcement of dinner, as if they had assembled to assist at the opening of their entertainer's will, instead of his oysters. The company consisted of the chief dignitaries of the island, including the Bishop, the Chief justice, etc. etc., some of them in uniform, and all with holiday faces. As soon as the door was opened, Count Trampe tucked me under his arm—two other gentlemen did the same to my two companions—and we streamed into the dining-room. The table was very prettily arranged with flowers, plate, and a forest of glasses. Fitzgerald and I were placed on either side of our host, the other guests, in due order, beyond. On my left sat the Rector, and opposite, next to Fitz, the chief physician of the island. Then began a series of transactions of which I have no distinct recollection; in fact, the events of the next five hours recur to me in as great disarray as reappear the vestiges of a country that has been disfigured by some deluge. If I give you anything like a connected account of what passed, you must thank Sigurdr's more solid temperament; for the Doctor looked quite foolish when I asked him—tried to feel my pulse—could not find it—and then wrote the following prescription, which I believe to be nothing more than an invoice of the number of bottles he himself disposed of.
[Footnote: Copy of Dr. F.'s prescription :— vin: claret: iii btls. vin: champ: iv btls. vin: sherr: 1/2 btl. vin: Rheni: ii btls. aqua vitae viii gls. trigint: poc: aegrot: cap: quotid: C. E. F. Reik: die Martis, Junii 27.]
I gather, then, from evidence—internal and otherwise— that the dinner was excellent, and that we were helped in Benjamite proportions; but as before the soup was finished I was already hard at work hob-nobbing with my two neighbours, it is not to be expected I should remember the bill of fare.
With the peculiar manners used in Scandinavian skoal- drinking I was already well acquainted. In the nice conduct of a wine-glass I knew that I excelled, and having an hereditary horror of heel-taps, I prepared with a firm heart to respond to the friendly provocations of my host. I only wish you could have seen how his kind face beamed with approval when I chinked my first bumper against his, and having emptied it at a draught, turned it towards him bottom upwards, with the orthodox twist. Soon, however, things began to look more serious even than I had expected. I knew well that to refuse a toast, or to half empty your glass, was considered churlish. I had come determined to accept my host's hospitality as cordially as it was offered. I was willing, at a pinch, to payer de ma personne; should he not be content with seeing me at his table, I was ready, if need were, to remain UNDER it! but at the rate we were then going it seemed probable this consummation would take place before the second course: so, after having exchanged a dozen rounds of sherry and champagne with my two neighbours, I pretended not to observe that my glass had been refilled; and, like the sea-captain, who, slipping from between his two opponents, left them to blaze away at each other the long night through,—withdrew from the combat. But it would not do; with untasted bumpers, and dejected faces, they politely waited until I should give the signal for a renewal of HOSTilities, as they well deserved to be called. Then there came over me a horrid, wicked feeling. What if I should endeavour to floor the Governor, and so literally turn the tables on him! It is true I had lived for five-and-twenty years without touching wine,—but was not I my great-grandfather's great-grandson, and an Irish peer to boot? Were there not traditions, too, on the other side of the house, of casks of claret brought up into the dining-room, the door locked, and the key thrown out of the window? With such antecedents to sustain me, I ought to be able to hold my own against the staunchest toper in Iceland! So, with a devil glittering in my left eye, I winked defiance right and left, and away we went at it again for another five-and-forty minutes. At last their fire slackened: I had partially quelled both the Governor and the Rector, and still survived. It is true I did not feel comfortable; but it was in the neighbourhood of my waistcoat, not my head, I suffered. "I am not well, but I will not out," I soliloquized, with Lepidus [footnote: Antony and Cleopatra.]— (Greek) "Sos moi ro prepov," I would have added, had I dared. Still the neck of the banquet was broken—Fitzgerald's chair was not yet empty,—could we hold out perhaps a quarter of an hour longer, our reputation was established; guess then my horror, when the Icelandic Doctor, shouting his favourite dogma, by way of battle cry, "Si trigintis guttis, morbum curare velis, erras," gave the signal for an unexpected onslaught, and the twenty guests poured down on me in succession. I really thought I should have run away from the house; but the true family blood, I suppose, began to show itself, and with a calmness almost frightful, I received them one by one.
After this began the public toasts.
Although up to this time I had kept a certain portion of my wits about me, the subsequent hours of the entertainment became henceforth developed in a dreamy mystery. I can perfectly recall the look of the sheaf of glasses that stood before me, six in number; I could draw the pattern of each remember feeling a lazy wonder they should always be full, though I did nothing but empty them,—and at last solved the phenomenon by concluding I had become a kind of Danaid, whose punishment, not whose sentence, had been reversed: then suddenly I felt as if I were disembodied,—a distant spectator of my own performances, and of the feast at which my person remained seated. The voices of my host, of the "Rector, of the Chief Justice, became thin and low, as though they reached me through a whispering tube; and when I rose to speak, it was as to an audience in another sphere, and in a language of another state of being: yet, however unintelligible to myself, I must have been in some sort understood, for at the end of each sentence, cheers, faint as the roar of waters on a far-off strand, floated towards me; and if I am to believe a report of the proceedings subsequently shown us, I must have become polyglot in my cups. According to that report it seems the Governor threw off (I wonder he did not do something else), with the Queen's health in French: to which I responded in the same language. Then the Rector, in English, proposed my health, under the circumstances a cruel mockery,—but to which, ill as I was, I responded very gallantly by drinking to the beaux yeux of the Countess. Then somebody else drank success to Great Britain, and I see it was followed by really a very learned discourse by Lord D., in honour of the ancient Icelanders; during which he alluded to their discovery of America, and Columbus' visit. Then came a couple of speeches in Icelandic, after which the Bishop, in a magnificent Latin oration of some twenty minutes, a second time proposes my health; to which, utterly at my wits' end, I had the audacity to reply in the same language. As it is fit so great an effort of oratory should not perish, I send you some of its choicest specimens:—
"Viri illustres," I began, "insolitus ut sum ad publicum loquendum, ego propero respondere ad complimentum quod recte reverendus prelaticus mihi fecit, in proponendo meam salutem: et supplico vos credere quod multum gratificatus et flattificatus sum honore tam distincto.
"Bibere, viri illustres, res est, quae in omnibus terris, 'domum venit ad hominum negotia et pectora:'
[Footnote: As the happiness of these quotations seemed to produce a very pleasing effect on my auditors, I subjoin a translation of them for the benefit of the unlearned:—
1. "Comes home to men's business and bosoms." —Paterfamilias, Times.
2. "A long pull, a strong pull, and a pull all together."—Nelson at the Nile.
3. "One touch of nature makes the whole world kin." —Jeremy Bentham.
4. Apothegm by the late Lord Mountcoffeehouse.
5. "Love rules the court, the camp, the grove." —Venerable Bede.]
(1) requirit 'haustum longum, haustum fortem, et haustum omnes simul:' (2) ut canit Poeta, 'unum tactum Naturae totum orben facit consanguineum,' (3) et hominis Natura est—bibere (4).
"Viri illustres, alterum est sentimentum equaliter universale: terra communis super quam septentrionales et meridionales, eadem enthusiasma convenire possunt: est necesse quod id nominarem? Ad pulchrum sexum devotio!
"Amor regit palatium, castra, lucum: (5) Dubito sub quo capite vestram jucundam civitatem numerare debeam. Palatium? non Regem! Castra? non milites! lucum? non ullam arborem habetis! Tamen Cupido vos dominat haud aliter quam alios,—et virginum Islandarum pulchritudo, per omnes regiones cognita est.
"Bibamus salutem earum, et confusionem ad omnes bacularios: speramus quod eae carae et benedictae creaturae invenient tot maritos quot velint,—quod geminos quottanis habeant, et quod earum filiae, maternum exemplum sequentes, gentem Islandicam perpetuent in saecula saeculorum."
The last words mechanically rolled out, in the same "ore rotundo" with which the poor old Dean of Christchurch used to finish his Gloria, etc. in the Cathedral.
Then followed more speeches,—a great chinking of glasses, —a Babel of conversation,—a kind of dance round the table, where we successively gave each alternate hand, as in the last figure of the Lancers,—a hearty embrace from the Governor,—and finally,—silence, daylight, and fresh air, as we stumbled forth into the street.
Now what was to be done? To go to bed was impossible. It was eleven o'clock by our watches, and as bright as noon. Fitz said it was twenty-two o'clock; but by this time he had reached that point of enlargement of the mind, and development of the visual organs, which is expressed by the term "seeing double,"—though he now pretends he was only reckoning time in the Venetian manner. We were in the position of three fast young men about Reykjavik, determined to make a night of it, but without the wherewithal. There were neither knockers to steal, nor watchmen to bonnet. At last we remembered that the apothecary's wife had a conversazione, to which she had kindly invited us; and accordingly, off we went to her house. Here we found a number of French officers, a piano, and a young lady; in consequence of which the drum soon became a ball. Finally, it was proposed we should dance a reel; the second lieutenant of the "Artemise" had once seen one when his ship was riding out a gale in the Clyde;—the little lady had frequently studied a picture of the Highland fling on the outside of a copy of Scotch music;—I could dance a jig—the set was complete, all we wanted was the music. Luckily the lady of the house knew the song of "Annie Laurie,"—played fast it made an excellent reel tune. As you may suppose, all succeeded admirably; we nearly died of laughing, and I only wish Lord Breadalbane had been by to see.
At one in the morning, our danseuse retiring to rest, the ball necessarily terminated; but the Governor's dinner still forbidding bed, we determined on a sail in the cutter to some islands about three-quarters of a mile out to sea; and I do not think I shall ever forget the delicious sensation of lying down lazily in the stern-sheets, and listening to the rippling of the water against the bows of the boat, as she glided away towards them. The dreamy, misty landscape,—each headland silently sleeping in the unearthly light,—Snoefell, from whose far-off peaks the midnight sun, though lost to us, had never faded,—the Plutonic crags that stood around, so gaunt and weird,—the quaint fresh life I had been lately leading,—all combined to promise such an existence of novelty and excitement in that strange Arctic region on the threshold of which we were now pausing, that I could not sufficiently congratulate myself on our good fortune. Soon, however, the grating of our keel upon the strand disturbed my reflections, and by the time I had unaccountably stepped up to my knees in the water, I was thoroughly awake, and in a condition to explore the island. It seemed to be about three-quarters of a mile long, not very broad, and a complete rabbit-warren; in fact, I could not walk a dozen yards without tripping up in the numerous burrows by which the ground was honeycombed: at last, on turning a corner, we suddenly came on a dozen rabbits, gravely sitting at the mouths of their holes. They were quite white, without ears, and with scarlet noses. I made several desperate attempts to catch some of these singular animals, but though one or two allowed me to come pretty near, just as I thought my prize was secure, in some unaccountable manner—it made unto itself wings, and literally flew away! Moreover, if my eyesight did not share the peculiar development which affected that of the Doctor's, I should say that these rabbits flew in PAIRS. Red-nosed, winged rabbits! I had never heard or read of the species; and I naturally grew enthusiastic in the chase, hoping to bring home a choice specimen to astonish our English naturalists. With some difficulty we managed to catch one or two, which had run into their holes instead of flying away. They bit and scratched like tiger-cats, and screamed like parrots; indeed, on a nearer inspection, I am obliged to confess that they assumed the appearance of birds, [Footnote: The Puffin (Alca arctica). In Icelandic, Soe papagoie; In Scotland, Priest; and in Cornwall, Pope.] which may perhaps account for their powers of flight. A slight confusion still remains in my mind as to the real nature of the creatures.
At about nine o'clock we returned to breakfast; and the rest of the day was spent in taking leave of our friends, and organizing the baggage-train, which was to start at midnight, under the command of the cook. The cavalcade consisted of eighteen horses, but of these only one-half were laden, two animals being told off to each burthen, which is shifted from the back of the one to that of the other every four hours. The pack-saddles were rude, but serviceable articles, with hooks on either side, on which a pair of oblong little chests were slung; strips of turf being stuffed beneath to prevent the creature's back being galled. Such of our goods as could not be conveniently stowed away in the chests were fitted on to the top, in whatever manner their size and weight admitted, each pony carrying about 140 lbs. The photographic apparatus caused us the greatest trouble, and had to be distributed between two beasts. As was to be expected, the guides who assisted us packed the nitrate of silver bath upside down; an outrage the nature of which you cannot appreciate. At last everything was pretty well arranged,—guns, powder, shot, tea-kettles, rice, tents, beds, portable soups, etc. all stowed away,—when the desponding Wilson came to me, his chin sweeping the ground, to say—that he very much feared the cook would die of the ride,—that he had never been on horseback in his life,—that as an experiment he had hired a pony that very morning at his own charges,—had been run away with, but having been caught and brought home by an honest Icelander, was now lying down—that position being the one he found most convenient.
As the first day's journey was two-and-thirty miles, and would probably necessitate his being twelve or thirteen hours in the saddle, I began to be really alarmed for my poor chef; but finding on inquiry that these gloomy prognostics were entirely voluntary on the part of Mr. Wilson, that the officer in question was full of zeal, and only too anxious to add horsemanship to his other accomplishments, I did not interfere. As for Wilson himself, it is not a marvel if he should see things a little askew; for some unaccountable reason, he chose to sleep last night in the open air, on the top of a hen- coop, and naturally awoke this morning with a crick in his neck, and his face so immovably fixed over his left shoulder, that the efforts of all the ship's company have not been able to twist it back: with the help of a tackle, however, I think we shall eventually brace it square again.