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Adieu to the Geysers. — A Horse-Auction. — Ruinous Sales. — Coasting Iceland. — The Eyja Fiord. — Sick. — Our Danish Friend. — Akureyri. — Or to the Fire-Region. — The Fnjoska. — A Blue Fox. — The Great Skjafandi-fljot. — Godafoss. — Myvatn. — The Farm of Reykjalith. — Dogs; Ravens; Good People; Soft Beds; and a Bit of Scandal.
ON the morning of the 17th of June we bade farewell to the geysers, and, with our long train of ponies, went galloping back toward Reykjavik. Kit had thrown a few parting sods into Strokhr's pipe, for which that irascible old gentleman growled and groaned us out of hearing; and just as we were turning the angle of the ridge, before passing the shepherd's byre, we saw him spouting up the black contents of his ever-bilious stomach high over the intervening knolls.
Our journey back to Reykjavik was over the same trail by which we came out. I shall not venture a second account of its scenery. We arrived in town at a few minutes after one on the afternoon of the 18th. What to do with our horses was a somewhat puzzling question; for, as will probably be remembered, we had been obliged to purchase eleven outright. After some discussion, it was decided to have an auction-sale. with Halgrim for auctioneer. Accordingly, after a hearty dinner at the hotel, we hired three "loafers" to go out and notify the public generally of the proposed "vendue." In the course of an hour, there was a crowd of from seventy-five to a hundred; and we directed Halgrim to proceed without further delay. Auction-sales, it appeared, were not unknown in Reykjavik. Halgrim perfectly comprehended the process, and went into it with a will. Nevertheless, the Reykjavik public fought very shy of us. I suspect that disastrous conspiracies were entered into among the jockeys to keep down the price. Nags for which we had paid from forty to fifty rix-dollars, we could now only get nineteen offered for. They looked as well, too, as when we started off, for aught we could see. I shall always think the Reykjavikers took a mean advantage of our necessity on that horse-auction occasion. The auctioneer, apparently, did his best; but, for all that, those eleven horses only brought two hundred and twenty-three rix-dollars, — about one hundred and thirteen American money.
Halgrim was then paid, with a handsome little gratuity. We shook hands and bade him good-by (we didn't kiss him), and then went down to the jetty. There lay "The Curlew," looking, for all the world, like some dear old friend. We raised a cheer, which soon brought off the boat with Hobbs and Bonney. Capt. Hazard was awaiting us with a hearty hand-grasp over the .rail to help us aboard.
"How are you, boys?"
"Cap., how do you do?" and Kit sings out, "Captain, how about the amtman's daughter, the Skén Jamfru? What success at the stone house?"
The captain shakes his head very sagely and gravely. "Raed, my boy," beginning with great solemnity, "I hope you will try to bear it calmly."
"I shall try to," replies Raed, showing symptoms of internal agitation. "I hope you will try to do the same on your own part."
"There is serious reason to, apprehend," resumed the captain with a melancholy bow, 'that the affections of the Skén Jomfru are — can you bear it, Raed? — are already engaged."
Raed staggers back with clinched fists. The captain gazes gloomily and suicidally over into the water. Thus ends the tableau; and thus terminates all possibility of a romance at Reykjavik.
Palmleaf's cookery had a decidedly good taste after eight days of dry biscuit and soups. We had a "grand feed" that night. The darky was fain to exclaim that he "neber seed sich appletites as dat gazer-water did make."
According to our pre-arranged plan, we sailed the neat morning for Akureyri on the Eyja Fiord, the second largest town of Iceland. Reykjavik is situated, as will be seen from the map, in nearly the south-west corner of the island. Akureyri on the contrary, is in almost the north corner. We desired to visit the region of the more recent volcanic irruptions to the north-east of the Eyja Fiord, as also the Godafoss and Dettifoss cataracts.
To reach Akureyri from Reykjavik, we sailed around the north-west coast of the island, and, proceeding along the northern coast, descended the Eyja Fiord.
This route is practicable only during those seasons when the passage between Iceland and Greenland is comparatively free from those vast ice-fields which periodically obstruct it, causing what are known as the "cold summers" in Iceland. This same cause also affects the summers as far south as England and Ireland.
Sailing out of the port of Reykjavik, we doubled the Snćfel promontory on the upper side of the Faxa Fiord by ten o'clock in the afternoon; and, keeping well out to sea, passed the mountainous northern capes of the island on the morning of the 20th. The sun did not set at all that night. At midnight it stood a fair handbreadth above the sea. A strange place this, — the sun shining in the north at midnight! The ocean was calm: the schooner made but little headway. Great icebergs drove slowly southward, white as marble, and often shining like silver in the waning sun.
Thence our course was almost due east.
On the 21st we passed the entrance to the hunaflöi (bay). During the night, if thus it can be termed, of the 22d, we sailed athwart the embouchure of the Skaja Fiord; and, toward noon of the 23d, entered the Eyja Fiord, — a long, narrow gulf; walled on both coasts by high, bare mountains capped with snow. The fiord itself seems to occupy a mighty rent in the island, extending far down toward its centre. At the foot of this gulf is Akureyri. The wind was fitful and light; and it was not till near midnight that we reached the quaint little northern hamlet. From the mouth of the fiord to Akureyri is a distance of about forty miles, so deeply does this narrow bay penetrate the island.
Of the scenery I gained very little idea at the time. A bad cold, taken from the damp clothes at the geysers, had at length thrown me into a sort of fever, which, during the last two days of the voyage, had prostrated me completely. But for the energetic sweats and fever-teas with which my comrades tortured me, I should have died, I make no doubt. It was five days after reaching Akureyri before I went on deck. Of my own chagrin at thus being the cause of so much delay I have no need to speak. During this time, however, the other boys had made the acquaintance of nearly everybody in town, and, among the rest, of an intelligent young Dane, named Havisteen, of about our own age. He was either the son or nephew of a merchant who makes this place his temporary residence. His home was, as I understood, at Copenhagen. Young Havisteen could speak some English, and understood Icelandic enough to converse to a considerable extent with the people who trade at the little seaport. He was also an amateur geologist in his way, and had been as far as Reykjalith on an expedition of his own. The boys found him a very congenial spirit. He was knocking about without much to do, and jumped at the chance of joining our party on any sort of a trip. Falling in with him was a streak of good luck, — so Kit thought. "He was such a jolly good fellow, he would do just as well as any guide we could get; and, better still, he had two horses of his own, and could hire half a dozen more of town-people he knew."
All this, and plenty more, I heard from the boys, who were going back and forth from the town to the schooner all the time. They kept ringing it in my ears as I lay there feebly on my back. How it does tire an invalid to hear and see a hale, well person talk and tear round! and, vice versa, I suspect that the invalid is about the biggest sort of a bore to the well one. Long before I had got back vim enough to stumble up the companionway, they had every thing arranged, and were only waiting for my restoration.
My first intelligible view of Akureyri was on the morning of the 29th of June. If I had been attended by a physician, I dare say he would have positively forbidden me to leave the yacht. Capt. Mazard said all he could to have me remain with him; but Kit was urgent for me not to lose the "fire region" about the Namarfjal. I didn't like much to stay behind; and, knowing how impatient the boys were getting, I mustered my strength, and started out, notwithstanding the captain's ominous prediction that I "was a dead man" to do it.
Akureyri is a row of tarred wooden shanties, with two or three stone houses, extending along the beach at the foot of a steep ridge, or bluff, which rises abruptly in their rear to the height of three hundred feet, and thence slopes off to the summit of the Wind Jokuls three thousand feet in height. The fiord is here about a mile in width, and extends for some little distance farther up the valley, which makes back into the island, between two high mountain-ranges. The hamlet is said to contain a population of a thousand inhabitants; but, from its size, this seemed to me clearly impossible. The space between the hill and the bay is so narrow, that the doorsteps of the houses are actually on the very beach. One can almost step from a boat into the houses.
It is at this port that all the trade of Northern Iceland goes on; and, if what we saw was a fair specimen of its usual business, I should account it a very small trade indeed.
Young Havisteen, with the horses and baggage, was awaiting us as we rowed ashore from the schooner; and I at once had the honor of an introduction. He is a good-natured, and, withal, a very good-looking young fellow; lively, smart (for a Dane), and in possession of a good deal of practical information on this, that, and the other subject. His tastes, likes, and dislikes — so far as we could discover through the somewhat clumsy splicings of the two languages which we made — were much the same as our own; and, as a natural consequence, we cottoned to him amazingly. It seemed real good, as well as novel, to find a chap who thought as we did, away up here in this out-the-way corner of the world. The only obstacle to a perfect understanding was the trouble of making out what he said. Oh, what a glorious thing it will be when all nations speak one languages — one universal language which everybody can understand! God speed that time, I say! What a bother of lexicons and grammars, and "new methods," and teachers, and years of study, it will do away with!
We had five horses to ride, and two to carry our baggage. Young Havisteen (his Christian name was Jan, Danish for John, which first Kit, and then all the rest of us, had come to call him before night) didn't believe that extra saddle-horses were necessary; therein differing from the nefarious Reykjavikers. He declared, moreover, that two horses could just as well carry our luggage as five. It should be explained, however, that the north-country horses are rather larger than those we bought for our geyser expedition. The northern portions of the island far excel the tract about Reykjavik for agricultural purposes. The average temperature at Akureyri, through the year, is 32° Fahrenheit, so young Havisteen told us; but during the winter season it is sometimes as low as -32°.
Riding opt of the town, we continued down the beach on the west side of the fiord to the head of it, where we forded the Eyja River, which there makes in from the valley. It has seven mouths and a very respectable delta When the tide is in, it is half a mile in width. This statement has a very large sound, which I may qualify by adding that the stream itself is not larger than the Charles River at Boston, or the Ashley at Charleston. Its resemblance to the ancient Nile, as young Havisteen very naively remarked, ends at a very short distance from the sea
Passing the Eyja, we turned to the north-east, and entering a skarth, or mountain hollow, ascended by it toward the summit of the jokul ridge on the east side of the fiord. We were two or three hours getting over this. Near the top we encountered a smart snow-squall, which rapidly whitened the dark ledges. Ice lay in all the little hollows. It was a bleak place. We gladly descended into a vale beyond, at the bottom of which whirls a deep, rapid stream. Its name, the young Dane informed us, was spelled F-n-j-o-s-k-a. We all gave in on its pronunciation. Kit suggested that the first syllable might be approximated by blowing one's; nose sharply. Raed thought that an ordinary hiccough might well stand for the last two. The trail led directly into it; but it was not without some misgivings that we undertook the ford, — a perfect rapid, foaming among bowlders over a rough bottom strewn with huge, round, slippery pebbles, among which our horses crippled and sprawled. Despite our attempts at drawing up our feet, we all got our boots full of water; and Wash's pony, getting out of his depth, actually swam under him, and only came to the bank some fifty yards below.
Oh! Iceland never can advance in civilization, nor any thing else, till they have these terrific torrents bridged. That was very evident to every one of us on getting out of the Fnjoska.
Our route next led through what came nearest to a forest of any thing we saw in the country. For a long way, birch-shrubs, some of them ten and fifteen feet in height, stood thickly on both sides. The leaves were now just unfolding. It seemed decidedly home-like; and, in consideration of my weakened frame, the boys kindly consented to encamp here for the remainder of the afternoon and night. The tent was pitched, and the blankets spread on a springy heap of birch-twigs. Once out of the saddle, I turned in on them, and, swaddled up in the great-coats, went to sleep like a year-old baby.
Meanwhile, as was afterwards told me, the boys, in collecting fuel for a fire, started a "blue fox," and had a prodigious race after him, — one of the "best things," Kit said, he ever saw. After a very exciting hunt, the game was holed about a mile away; and, by tearing off the rubbish, they contrived to shoot him: all of which I remained in blissful ignorance of till they showed me the skin some hours after. Those who have observed the peculiar hue of a genuine Maltese cat will have a very good idea of the color of an Iceland fox, which is a species quite unlike the gray and red Reynards of any other country. Its claws are nearly as sharp and retractile as those of a cat. Raed told me that this one was not more than two-thirds as large as the red fox of New England.
Our provisions were much the same as on our geyser trip. Supper was prepared at eight o'clock. I did very little but sleep till late the next morning; when, after a breakfast of thick soup, we again set out. A gallop of an hour took us past the church and station of Hals; and, entering the Lijosavatn Skarth (Light-water Lake Ravine), we soon came out upon the Lijosavatn, — a pale sheet of water, in which patches of ice were still floating. Two loons were sailing about. Their hollow, quavering cry strangely reminded us of the Maine lakes, where we had so often heard them while "prospecting" on the Katandin ridge. Winding over the mountains beyond the lake, we descended into the valley of the Great Skjalfandi-fljot. Sneeze, reader, and you will have the first word: the second is simply flot: all together, the phrase signifies "shimmering flood." The river is thus named from the quivering motion of its waves. Wallowing through a fen, we approached the bank, and hailed the ferryman, who presently took us across. The Skjalfandi is the second river of Iceland, and far too deep and broad to be forded. Wash compared it to the Merrimack in size. I am uncertain as to the correctness of this comparison. It seemed as large, though it resembles that industrious river in no other particular. The ferryman's name, on this occasion, was Páll. Young Havisteen wondered whether he was aware of the associations it would call up in certain purlieus of London or New York.
The Godafoss cataract is about a mile above the ferry. I did not feel able to accompany the other boys up to it. While they were gone, I took a nap in the old ferry-boat. Raed tells me that it is an almost perfect Niagara in miniature; resembling our world-wide wonder in its rapids, its Goat Island, its Horse-shoe Island, and many other particulars. The lava-cliffs which enclose the river for some distance below the falls are, he says, of wonderful height, and almost sooty blackness.
Climbing up from the river, we rode on for ten or a dozen miles over a rough, bare country, with distant pale-blue jokuls set on the horizon.
At about four o'clock (afternoon) we passed a small church and farm, which our Danish friend called Thverá; and crossed a small stream known as the Laxa, or Salmon River.
An hour later a fine broad expanse opened to view from a hill-top.
"What vatn is that?" Kit asked.
"Myvatn," replied Jan. "My means midge in your language: so there you are, Midge Lake. And there is the farm and church of Reykjalith out past the head of the vatn, — three English miles, just about."
"Had we best go to the farm, Jan?" said Raed doubtfully.
"Ja. Good old chap, the farmer. Always takes in tourists. His wife is a pleasant woman. She makes good skyer and nice cakes. We shall have the badstöve all to ourselves."
"The bad what?" exclaimed Kit.
"The badstöve: that's the guest-room, or rather bedroom," Jan explained.
A long way below the byre we were met by a shaggy house-dog, — a terribly-ferocious little chap, all yap and bristle. Had his size been in any proportion to his ferocity, we should have been torn piecemeal on the spot. Three ravens too, which had been perched leisurely on the gables of the hovels, came flapping out, and, wheeling tamely about our heads, kept settling down in the path, croaking dismally when the approach of the ponies made it necessary for them to hop aside. They strongly resemble our American crows in size, and in the shape of their large, knowing heads. Wash pronounced them rather larger. They plainly belong to the same order of birds. At sight of them, young Havisteen repeated a verse of an Icelandic poem entitled "Hrafna" ("The Raven"); and afterwards gave us its English translation, as follows: —
"Raven sits on gable-tree;
Watch! Death is onward creeping:
Short the life of him will be
Who 'neath that roof lies sleeping."
From which it would appear, that in Iceland, as in other lands, the raven has been regarded as a bird of ill omen.
The terrific barks of the dog gave timely notice of our coming in-doors. As we rode up, both the old farmer in his skull-cap, and his wife in a tall white turban, stood at the door with kindly faces. Behind them smiled a cherry-cheeked lass in a tight black jacket (?); while at another doorway farther along the establishment stood a tall, gaunt youth of twenty, or thereabouts, in wonderfully-tight pants and a leathern frock. Another dog — that had probably up to this moment been slothfully asleep — rushed out; and together they nearly deafened us, rendering all attempts at vocal salutation on our part an utter failure. But it was a pleasure for us to observe that the family had all recognized Havisteen. We could see their mouths going, and catch now and then a sound over the canine uproar. All three seemed to be bidding him and us — as we judged from kind looks in our direction — a hearty welcome. Just at this juncture, another dog — a puppy — bobbed out past the old lady's skirt, and began on a very sharp key. Havisteen had now fairly to shout; so did the old lady; so did the old farmer. Yet it seemed not to occur to either of them that any thing was the matter. Finally, the young fellow, as if struck by the idea that so much doggerel was a sort of old-fashioned nuisance, which he, as the representative of the rising generation, ought to discountenance, stole quietly out, and, with a couple of sly cuts from a whip he held, changed the boisterous barking into a chorus of surprised yelps. The old lady stopped short, and stared at him in great astonishment and disapproval. The youngster slunk back toward his doorway. He didn't venture to cut at the pup.
Jan now dismounted, and bade us do the same. The farmer and his son took off the saddles, and led the ponies away to their pasture. The old lady conducted us under a low doorway. The cherry-cheeked lass disappeared in the darkness of a long passage, which we rendered still darker by entering; the door behind us being its only window. This was the main hall, off which blanketed doorways branch into the various apartments, or rather houpes; for each apartment is one entire house. Putting up our hands, we groped on after the good-wife, occasionally grazing against the lava-walls of the passage. After going, as I judge, from thirty to forty feet, and having made several turns and bends, a blanket was pulled aside, and we were ushered into the badstöve. It had a window of glass, — two windows, in fact; though the second was a very diminutive one. Whether the floor was of clay, or a kind of "Nicholson pavement," I never could fully decide. There were several wooden chairs and two beds. The beds would, I fancy, have astonished a New-England matron. The bedsteads were simply huge boxes on legs, into which two exceedingly corpulent beds of eider-down are tumbled. On top of these feathery mountains are piled coverlets, puffe, and spreads ad infinitum.
"By Jude! here's a soft thing," was Wash's exclamation on giving one of them an experimental poke.
His next query was, "Wonder if there are any bugs in 'em."
To the credit of the housewife, I should here affirm that we found but two bugs; and they were seemingly seed ones that had long since retired from active life. The boxes containing our biscuits, coffee, cheese; meat, &c., were brought in, and given in charge of the women, with the request to draw on them for soups, and add whatever they chose from their own supplies at our expense. The result was a steaming supper of excellent coffee, soup, skyer, biscuit and butter, cheese, and some delicious little cakes made of native wild corn and cinnamon. Seated around a table in the badstöve, with the luxury of a white cotton tablecloth, we enjoyed it amazingly, — all the more that it had come on to rain, pattering softly on the turf-covered roof over our heads. Young Havisteen, at our request, gave the farmer and his family an invitation to take their tea with us; but, for some reason, they declined to do so. I had become too much exhausted to long resist the charms of those downy beds; though they were so soft as to actually frighten me on first getting in. So violent was the contrast between these feathery depths and the birchen "shakedown" of the preceding evening, that it was really some little time before I could reconcile myself to such extravagant softness; and, after going to sleep, I kept jumping up from dreams of sinking in bottomless laugs for more than an hour.
The rest of the party didn't come to bed till a late hour; and I learned next morning that they had been out into the kitchen, ostensibly after a dram of milk, but really to get another glimpse of the cherry-cheeked Iass in the black jacket. Kit also informed me that Wash (he seemed greatly scandalized and disgusted with him) was carrying on a most ridiculous and altogether senseless flirtation with her: he felt sure he would disgrace us all yet with his ineradicable bent toward nonsense.