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The Sulphur-Jokuls. — Volcanic Slag and Clinkers. — Lava Bubbles. — The "Brimstone-Badness." — A Natural Steam-Whistle. — Fumeroles. — A Block of Sulphur. — A Red Soil. — Another Saga-Reading, "Grettir in Norway."
THE morning of the 2d of July was fair and sunny. We took an early breakfast. The farmer's son drove up our horses from the pasture, and we set off to visit the sulphur jokuls about the Namarfjal. Down to the right lay the shining Myvatn, with its black islets; so many lava-ledges showing above the surface, about which scores of water-fowl were wheeling and clamoring. Ten minutes took us out beyond the farm-limits upon rising ground, down which the fiery floods had poured from the craters. If the reader has ever seen the heaps of slag, cinders, and clinkers, which come from the iron furnaces and mills, he can form a good idea of the sort of rock and soil which here covers the earth. We had to walk the horses, for the ground was full of holes, which were no less than bubbles in the lava, puffed up and burst at the top, leaving cavities often two and three feet in depth, with sharp, knife-like edges. Bad places for ponies' legs, these! Heaps of slag lay piled all about, — red, brown, black, and vitreous Half an hour over the ascending slope took us to the immediate peaks. Not a plant, shrub, nor a blade of grass, is here to be seen, — nothing but bare volcanic rocks of an almost pure red color.
"Look as if they were still red-hot, just from the furnace!" was Kit's impression as we sat gazing up at them.
"I wonder why these sulphur-deposits are not worked for commercial purposes," Raed queried.
Young Havisteen told us that there had been one attempt to do so, which had failed from some cause or other.
"If managed properly, and worked economically, I have no doubt there might be money made here," Kit remarked. "Havisteen, let's start some sulphur-works, and make our fortunes."
But the young Dane didn't think he should like the brimstone-business. It was too suggestive, he said. Besides, he didn't much like the place: it was altogether too near a very fiery, restless region, situated at no great depth below, where they had their brimstone hot instead of cold. He preferred, for permanent residence, a point where the crust of the earth was thicker.
"That's because you're not a Yankee!" exclaimed Wash. "Why, down in our country, the folks take worse risks of brimstone than this, every day, for not half the prospect these jokuls, offer, they do it for fan, even!"
"Ah, yes! I've often heard that you are a very adventurous people," replied Jan. "I hope you use needful precautions, — such as paying the priest well, and getting your sins pardoned regularly."
A little farther on we entered a glen, or ravine, between two sharp ridges; and ere long, as we rode forward, a strange sound burst on our ears.
"What's that, Jan?" I asked.
"Sounds like a steamer-whistle," observed Raed.
"I think it is a steam-whistle of some kind," replied Jan.
On turning a bend in the hollow, we saw that the air had a misty, steamy look farther on. Presently we passed a small fissure in the crumbling tuff and bole, whence steam was emitted in quick, sharp puffs. All about the orifice was of a yellow hue.
"There's sulphur in that steam, you see," Jan remarked. "Sulphur is being deposited there."
A few rods farther on we passed two more of these fumeroles, as Raed termed them. Meanwhile the deep gram shriek of the whistle grew louder and more hideous, making the bare, rocky sides of the glen resound alarmingly; and about two hundred yards farther on we came in eight of a white jet of steam, streaming out from the face of a wild, black crag, rent and jagged with lava-fragments. The eight of it gave its queer sensations. The steam spurts from a small crevice with vast impetuosity and a shuddering motion fearful to gaze upon. The wild, gruff shriek of the resonant edges utterly drowned our voices. The horses reared and plunged, snorting frightenedly. The ground all along the glen was warm; and judging from the color, the crumbling rocks, and the lava-clinkers, has clearly been in an intensely-heated condition some time.
Finding it quite impossible to get the horses past the whistle, we took them back to where a clump of low willow-shrubs were growing, fostered, no doubt, by the unnatural warmth of the soil. To the pliant twigs of these we twisted our bridles, and, leaving the scared nags, went back to prosecute our investigation on foot. Along the glen we found scores of the fumeroles putting spitefully; and not only in the glen, but far up the sides of the mountains. The edges of the orifices are quite hot. Raed got his fingers scalded by getting them too far into the cracks of one of these. We stopped the mouths of several by way of experiment; but the steam soon made its way past the obstructions. In one case the stones were blown out with some violence. Kit and Raed climbed up the crag to the whistle. They reported, that, at a distance of three or four yards, the noise was perfectly deafening; and also that the rocks were too hot for their hands within a radius of six feet of the hole. There must be a terrific head of steam on somewhere in behind that crag.
At another place, during our ride along these sulphur-ridges, we came upon a block of pure brimstone, from which we broke off bits as specimens for our collection of minerals. The soil all about this place was of soft bole of a brick-red color. So many objects of curiosity arrested us all along our way, that it was four o'clock (afternoon) ere we came to the Namarskarth, or pass, which leads into the famous plain beyond the sulphur-ridges. Rather reluctantly, therefore, we gave up visiting it till the next day. We had taken nothing save a lunch with us, and now began to long exceedingly for the goon cheer which we knew would be awaiting us at the farmer's byre.
After supper, and during the long glowing evening, the farmer read to us another chapter from the "Story of Grettir;" which I subjoin without further preface.
GRETTIR IN NORWAY.
There was a man named Thorir, who lived at Garth in Athaldal. He was a mighty Icelandic chief, with numerous retainers and extended influence. He had two sons, — fine promising fellows both of them, and pretty nearly fall-grown men. Thorir had spent the summer in Norway when King Olaf returned from England, and had got into favor with the king, and also with Bishop Sigurth, as may be judged by the fact, that Thorir, after having built a ship, asked him to consecrate it; which was a great condescension on the part of Thorir.
Thorir left Norway for Iceland: he reached it safely, and then chopped up his boat, as he was tired of the sea. The two beaks of the prow he set up over his hall-doors: and they were sure indications of the direction of the wind; for the north wind piped in one, and in the other wailed the south wind.
As soon as the news reached Iceland that King Olaf was supreme over the whole of Norway, Thorir considered that there might be a good opening at court for his two sons: so he packed them both off late in the autumn to pay their respects to the king, and remind him of his old friendship for their father.
They landed in the south of Norway; and then, getting a long rowing-boat, they skirted the coast on their way north to Drontheim. Reaching a fine frith in which there was shelter from the gales, which began to bluster violently as the winter drew nigh, the sons of Thorir ran their boat in, and determined on waiting till the storms blew over in a comfortable hostel, built some way up the shore for the accommodation of travellers. Their days they spent in hunting bears among the mountains, and their nights in merry carousal.
It happened that Grettir was on board a merchantman, then off the shores of Norway, beating about in the gale, seeking safe harborage.
Late one evening the vessel ran up this same fiord, and stranded on the side opposite that on which was the hostel. The night was cold and wintry: heavy storms of snow rolled over the country, whitening the mountains, and forming drifts behind the rocks. The men from the ship were worn out, and numbed with cold; and they knew not on what part of the coast they had stranded.
When they reached land, they hurried from the shore to seek a sheltered nook where they might pass the night.
It was a wild night. The moon had been clouded over by piles of gray mist, which rolled through the sky, sending out arms of vapor. Haggard and ghastly, she seemed to steal over her course swathed in grave-clothes. Now and then some crags caught a straggling gleam, and flashed forth, but, directly after, were again blotted out; then the fiord caught the light, and shone like steel till the shadows turned it to lead. An uncertain light flickered down the mountain-side over the pine-forests, which raved and bent as the wind poured through them.
Suddenly a spark, then a flame, was distinguishable, twinkling among the trees on the opposite side of the fiord. This was a tantalizing sight for the poor shivering fellows; and they began to wish that some one of their number would swim across, and bring over a light. No one, however, offered; and the crew hesitated about pushing the ship off and rowing across, lest they should fall among rocks, and injure the vessel.
"In the good old times, there must have been men who would have thought nothing of swimming across the frith by night," said Grettir.
"Maybe," answered some of the party; "but it is of no odds to us what men have been, if there are none now up to the mark. Why do you not venture yourself, Grettir? You areas strong and plucky as any of the old heroes. You see what straits we are put to for want of a little fire."
"There is no great difficulty in procuring a light," answered the young Icelander; "but I know that I shall get no thanks for my pains."
"Then you must have an uncommonly poor opinion of us," said the chapmen.
"Well," quoth Grettir, "I will risk it: at the same time, I tell you I have a presentiment that you will bear me no good will for what I do."
They pooh-poohed his objections, and assured him that he was the beat fellow going.
Then Grettir flung his clothes off, and busked him for swimming. He had on him a fur cape, and a pair of wadmal breeches: these he hitched up, and strapped tightly round his waist with a bark cord; then, catching up an iron pot, he jumped into the sea, and swam across. On reaching the farther side, he stood up on the beach, and shook the superfluous water from him; but before long his trousers froze hard, and the water formed in icicles round the hood of his cape.
Grettir ascended through the pine-wood towards the light; and, on reaching the hostel from whence it proceeded, he walked straight in without speaking to any one, and, striding up to the fire, stooped, and began to rake the embers into his iron pot, and to select a blazing brand which he could carry across in his mouth. The hall was full of revellers, and these revellers were the sons of Thorir and their boat's crew. They were already half intoxicated; and on seeing a tall, wild-looking man enter the hall, half dressed in fur, and bristling with icicles, they concluded at once that they saw a troll, or mountain-demon.
Whereupon every man caught up the first weapon he could lay hold of, and rushed to the attack. Grettir defended himself as best he could, warding off the blows with the flaming log, and eluding the missiles flung at him. In the scuffle, the hot embers on the hearth were scattered over the floor, which was strewn with fresh straw and rushes.
In a few moments the hall was filled with flame and smoke; and Grettir broke through it, escaped to the shore, plunged into the waves, and reached the other side in safety.
He found his companions waiting for him behind a rock, with a pile of dry wood which they had collected during his absence. The cinders were blown upon, and twigs applied, till a blaze was produced; and before long the whole party sat rubbing their almost-frozen hands over a cheerful fire.
On the following morning the merchants recognized the fiord; and, remembering that on its bank stood the house of refuge which King Olaf had built for weather-bound travellers, they supposed that the light Grettir had procured must have come from it: so they determined on running the boat across, and seeing who were then quartered in the hostel.
When they reached the spot, they found nothing but an immense heap of smoking ashes. From under some of the charred timber projected scorched human limbs. The chapmen, in alarm and horror, turned upon Grettir, and charged him with having maliciously burned the house with all its inmates.
"There now!" exclaimed Grettir. "I had a presentiment that misfortune would attend my undertaking last night. I wish that I had not taken so much trouble for a set of thankless churls like you."
The ship's crew raked the embers out, and pilled aside the smoking beams in their search for the bodies, that they might give them decent burial. In so doing, they came upon some whose features were not completely obliterated; and among these was one of the sons of Thorir. It was at once concluded that the party brought by Grettir to such an untimely end was that of Thorir's sons, which had sailed shortly before the chapmen. The indignation of the merchants became so vehement, that they drove Grettir with imprecations from their company, and refused to receive him into their vessel for the remainder of the voyage.
Grettir, in sullen wrath, would say no word in self-defence; but, turning on his heel, he stalked proudly into the woods, with his sword by his side, and his battle-axe over his shoulder, determined on exculpating himself before King Olaf, and him alone. The vessel reached Drontheim before him; and the news of the hostel-burning caused universal indignation.
One day, as the king sat at audience in his hall, Grettir strode in, and, going before Olaf, greeted him. The king eyed him all over, and said, —
"Are you Grettir the Strong?"
He answered, "Such is my name; and I have come hither, sire, to get a fair hearing, and rid myself of the charge of having burned men maliciously. Of that I am guiltless."
Olaf replied, "I sincerely hope that what you say is true, and that you will have the good fortune to clear yourself of the imputation laid against you."
Grettir said that he was willing to do any thing the king wished in order to prove his innocence.
"Tell me, first," quoth the king, "what is the true version of the story, that I may know what steps are to be taken."
Grettir answered by relating all the circumstances, and he asserted that the men were alive when he left the hostel, carrying the fire.
The king remained silent for some moments.
"If I might fight some one!" suggested Grettir: "I should rather like it."
"I have no doubt that you would," replied Olaf. But, remember, you have not a single accuser, but a whole ship's crew; and you cannot fight them all."
"Why not?" asked the Icelander: "the more, the merrier. Let them come!"
"No, no, Grettir!" answered the king. "I cannot allow such a proceeding to take place. But I will tell you what you shall do, — go through the fire-ordeal."
"What is that? " asked the young man.
"You must lift bars, of iron heated till the furnace can make them no hotter, and walk with bare feet on red-hot ploughshares."
"I'll do it at once! " said Grettir. "Where are the ploughshares?"
"Stop!" said the king. "You would be burned, to a certainty, if you ventured without preparation." "What preparation?" asked Grettir.
"A week of prayer and fasting," was the reply. "I do not like fasting," said the young man.
"But you cannot help yourself," answered Olaf
"I cannot pray," said Grettir: "I never could."
"Then the bishop shall teach you," answered the king, with a smile at the bluntness of the Icelander.
Grettir was removed, and kept in custody by the clergy, who did their best to prepare him for the solemn moment of the ordeal; but they found him a troublesome fellow to manage.
The day came; and Drontheim was thronged with people, who streamed in from all the country round to see the Icelander of whom such stories were told. A procession was formed. The king's body-guard marched at the head, followed by the king himself, the bishop, the choir, and the clergy; amongst whom walked Grettir, a head taller than any of the throng, upright, his wild brown hair flying loose in the breeze, his arms, folded, and his honest blue eyes wandering over the sea of heads which filled the square before the cathedral-doors. The crowd pressed in closer and closer, but without in the slightest degree disconcerting him. Opinions seemed to be divided as to whether he were guilty or not: his dauntless bearing, and open, sunny countenance, were not those of a truculent berserkir. Among the mob was a young man of dark complexion, who made a great noise, wrangling, and shouldering his way till he reached the procession.
"Look at him!" exclaimed he. "This is the man, who, in cold blood, could burn a house down over helpless victims, and exult at their shrieks of despair; yet now is about to be given a chance of escape, when every one knows that he is a deep-dyed villain!"
"But he says that he is guiltless," quoth a man in the crowd.
"Innocent!" exclaimed the youth. "A plea of innocence has been set up as an excuse, because the king wishes to have him in his body-guard."
"He should have a chance of clearing his character," spoke a person standing near.
"Ay; but who knows how the irons may be tampered with by the king and clergy, so that this ruthless murderer may escape the punishment he deserves?"
"Young man," spoke Grettir with a voice like thunder, whilst flame leaped up in his eyes, and his strong limbs quivered with rage, — "young man, beware!"
"Beware of what, pray?" laughed the youth. "Though you may escape the punishment you have so richly deserved, yet you shall not escape me."
And, springing up, he thrust his nails into Grettir's face, so that he brought blood; calling him, at the same time, son of a sea-devil, troll, and other insulting names. This was more than the Icelander could bear: he caught the young man up, shook him as a cat shakes a mouse, and flung him to the ground with such violence, that he lay senseless, and was carried away as if dead.
This act gave rise to a general uproar. The mob wanted to lay hands on Grettir; some threw stones; others assaulted him with sticks: but he, planting his back against the church-wall, rolled up his sleeves, and guarded off the blows, shouting joyously to his assailants to come on.
A flush of honest joy at the prospect of a fight mantled in his cheeks, and his eyes sparkled with delight. Not a man came within his reach but was sent reeling back, or felled to the ground.
Grettir caught a stick aimed at him while it was in the air, and dealt such blows with it, that be cleared a ring about him; whilst still, with a voice clear as a bell, he called to the mob to come on manfully, and not shrink back like cowards.
In the mean time the king and bishop had been waiting in church; the processional psalm was ended; the red-hot ploughshares were laid in the choir, and were gradually cooling: yet no Grettir came.
At the same time sounds of uproar entered the church, and the king sent out to know what was the matter. His messenger returned a moment after with a report, that, without the cathedral, the Icelander was fighting the whole town.
The king thereupon sprang from his throne, hastened down the nave, and came out of the great western door whilst the conflict was at its height.
"O sire!" exclaimed Grettir, "see how I can fight the rascals!" And, at the word, he knocked a man over at the king's feet.
"Hold, hold!" exclaimed Olaf. "What have you done, throwing away the chance of exculpating yourself from the charge laid against you?"
"I am ready now, sire," answered Grettir, wiping the perspiration and blood from his face, and smoothing down his hair, which was standing on end. "Let us go into the church at once: I am longing for the red-hot ploughshares."
He would have pushed past the king had not Olaf prevented him, saying that his opportunity was past, as he was guilty of mortal sin in having killed the young man who had assaulted him, and maimed so many other persons.
"What is to be done?" exclaimed Grettir. "I have undergone all that week of fasting for nothing. Sire, might not I become your hench-man? You will find me stronger than most men."
"True enough," arswered the king. "Few men have the strength and courage which you possess; but ill luck attends on you. Besides, I dare not keep you by me, as you would continually be getting into hot water. Now, this I decree: you shall be in peace during the winter; but with the return of summer you shall be outlawed, and go to Iceland, where, I forewarn you, you shall lay your bones."
Grettir answered, "I should like first to get rid of the charge of the hostel-burning; for, honor bright! I never intended to do the mischief."
"That is likely enough," said the king; "but it is quite impossible now for you to go through the ordeal."
After this, Grettir hung about the town for some while; but Olaf paid no further attention to him: so at last he went off to stay the rest of the winter with a kinsman.
On the return of spring, the news of what Grettir had done reached Iceland; and, when they came to the ears of Thorir of Garth, he rode with all his friends and clients to Thing, and brought an action against Grettir for the burning of his sons. Some men thought that the action was illegal, as the defendant was not present to take exception. However, the end of the action was, that Grettir was outlawed through the length and breadth of Iceland. Thorir set a price on his head, and proved the bitterest of Grettir's fees.
Towards the close of the summer, Grettir arrived in a vessel off the mouth of the White River, in Borgar Fiord.
It was a still, summer night when the ship dropped anchor. The Skarths-heithi chain was purple; but Baula's sharp cone was steeped in gold, and the distant silver cap of Ok shone in the sun's rays like a rising moon. The steam rising from the numerous springs in Reykholts-dall was rounded and white in the cool, still air. Flights of swans sailed overhead with their harp-like melody. As the gulls dipped in the calm water, every feather of their white wings was reflected. A boat came from shore, and was rowed to the ship.
Grettir stood watching it from the bows, leaning on his sword. As the smack touched the side of the ship, "What news?" he called.
"Are you Grettir, Asmund's son?" asked a man, rising in the boat.
"I am," replied Grettir.
"Then we bear you ill news: your father is dead." Another man stood up in the boat, and said, " Grettir, your brother has been murdered."
"And you," called a third boatman, "have been outlawed through the length and breadth of Iceland."
It is said that Grettir did not change color, nor did a muscle in his whole body quiver; but he lifted up his voice, and sang, —
"All at once are showered
Round me, rhyme collector,
Tidings sad, — my exile,
Father's loss, and brother's,
Branching boughs of battle!
Many blue-blade breakers
Shall bewail my sorrow."
One night Grettir swam ashore, obtained a horse and reached the middle frith in two days. He arrived at home by night, when all were asleep: so, instead of disturbing the household, he went round to the back of the house, opened a private door, stepped into the hall, stole up to his mother's bed, and threw his arms round her neck.
She started up, and asked who was there. When be told her, she clasped him to her heart, and laid her head sobbing on his breast, saying, "O my boy! I am bereaved of my children! Atli, my eldest, is murdered; and you are outlawed: only my baby Illugi remains!"
Grettir remained at home for some days, till Thorir of Garth learned where he was, and then he was compelled to fly. He was hunted from place to place; and, to the last, Thorir remained his implacable enemy.