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Letters From High Latitudes by The Marquess of Dufferin (Lord Dufferin)

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took place quite in the spick and span manner the section
might lead you to imagine; in some places the rock has
split asunder very unevenly, and the Hrafna Gja is
altogether a very untidy rent, the sides having fallen
in in many places, and almost filled up the ravine with
ruins. On the other hand, in the Almanna Gja, you can
easily distinguish on the one face marks and formations
exactly corresponding, though at a different level, with
those on the face opposite, so cleanly were they separated.

[Figure: fig-p051.gif with the following caption:
1 Plain of Thingvalla.
2 Lake.
3 Lava plateau.
4 Almanna Gja.
5 Rabna Gja.]

2. Is the sea of lava now lying on the top of the original
surface. Its depth I had no means of ascertaining.

3. Is the level of the surface first formed when the lava
was still hot.

4. Is the plain of Thingvalla, eight miles broad, its
surface shattered into a network of innumerable crevices
and fissures fifty or sixty feet deep, and each wide
enough to have swallowed the entire company of Korah. At
the foot of the plain lies a vast lake, into which,
indeed, it may be said to slope, with a gradual inclination
from the north, the imprisoned waters having burst up
through the lava strata, as it subsided beneath them.
Gazing down through their emerald depths, you can still
follow the pattern traced on the surface of the bottom,
by cracks and chasms similar to those into which the dry
portion of Thingvalla has been shivered.

The accompanying ground plan will, I trust, complete what
is wanting to fill up the picture I so long to conjure
up before the mind's eye. It is the last card I have to
play, and, if unsuccessful, I must give up the task in
despair. But to return to where I left myself, on the
edge of the cliff, gazing down with astonished eyes over
the panorama of land and water embedded at my feet. I
could scarcely speak for pleasure and surprise; Fitz was
equally taken aback, and as for Wilson, he looked as if
he thought we had arrived at the end of the world. After
having allowed us sufficient time to admire the prospect
Sigurdr turned to the left, along the edge of the precipice,
until we reached a narrow pathway accidentally formed
down a longitudinal niche in the splintered face of the
cliff, which led across the bottom, and up the opposite
side of the Gja, into the plain of Thingvalla. By rights
our tents ought to have arrived before us, but when we
reached the little glebe where we expected to find them
pitched, no signs of servants, guides, or horses were to
be seen. As we had not overtaken them ourselves, their
non-appearance was inexplicable. Wilson suggested that,
the cook having died on the road, the rest of the party
must have turned aside to bury him; and that we had passed
unperceived during the interesting ceremony. Be the cause
what it might, the result was not agreeable. We were very
tired, very hungry, and it had just begun to rain.

It is true there was a clergyman's house and a church,
both built of stones covered with turf sods, close by;
at the one, perhaps, we could get milk, and in the other
we could sleep, as our betters--including Madame
Pfeiffer--had done before us; but its inside looked so
dark, and damp, and cold, and charnel-like, that one
really doubted whether lying in the churchyard would not
be snugger. You may guess, then, how great was my relief
when our belated baggage-train was descried against the
sky-line, as it slowly wended its way along the purple
edge of the precipice towards the staircase by which we
had already descended.

Half an hour afterwards the little plot of grass selected
for the site of our encampment was covered over with
poles, boxes, cauldrons, tea-kettles, and all the
paraphernalia of a gipsy settlement. Wilson's Kaffir
experience came at once into play, and under his solemn
but effective superintendence, in less than twenty minutes
the horn-headed tent rose, dry and taut, upon the sward.
Having carpeted the floor with oil-skin rugs, and arranged
our three beds with their clean crisp sheets, blankets,
and coverlets complete, at the back, he proceeded to lay
out the dinner-table at the tent door with as much decorum
as if we were expecting the Archbishop of Canterbury.
All this time the cook, who looked a little pale, and
moved, I observed with difficulty, was mysteriously
closeted with a spirit-lamp inside a diminutive tent of
his own, through the door of which the most delicious
whiffs occasionally permeated. Olaf and his comrades had
driven off the horses to their pastures; and Sigurdr and
I were deep in a game of chess. Luckily, the shower,
which threatened us a moment, had blown over. Though now
almost nine o'clock P.M., it was as bright as mid-day;
the sky burned like a dome of gold, and silence and deep
peace brooded over the fair grass-robed plain, that once
had been so fearfully convulsed.

You may be quite sure our dinner went off merrily; the
tetanus-afflicted salmon proved excellent, the plover
and ptarmigan were done to a turn, the mulligatawny beyond
all praise; but, alas! I regret to add, that he--the
artist, by whose skill these triumphs had been achieved--his
task accomplished,--no longer sustained by the factitious
energy resulting from his professional enthusiasm,--at
last succumbed, and, retiring to the recesses of his
tent, like Psyche in the "Princess," lay down, "and
neither spoke nor stirred."

After another game or two of chess, a pleasant chat, a
gentle stroll, we also turned in; and for the next eight
hours perfect silence reigned throughout our little
encampment, except when Wilson's sob-like snores shook
to their foundation the canvas walls that sheltered him.

When I awoke--I do not know at what hour, for from this
time we kept no account of day or night--the white sunlight
was streaming into the tent, and the whole landscape was
gleaming and glowing in the beauty of one of the hottest
summer-days I ever remember. We breakfasted in our
shirt-sleeves, and I was forced to wrap my head in a
white handkerchief for fear of the sun. As we were all
a little stiff after our ride, I could not resist the
temptation of spending the day where we were, and examining
more leisurely the wonderful features of the neighbourhood.
Independently of its natural curiosities, Thingvalla was
most interesting to me on account of the historical
associations connected with it. Here, long ago, at a
period when feudal despotism was the only government
known throughout Europe, free parliaments used to sit in
peace, and regulate the affairs of the young Republic;
and to this hour the precincts of its Commons House of
Parliament are as distinct and unchanged as on the day
when the high-hearted fathers of the emigration first
consecrated them to the service of a free nation. By a
freak of nature, as the subsiding plain cracked and
shivered into twenty thousand fissures, an irregular oval
area, of about two hundred feet by fifty, was left almost
entirely surrounded by a crevice so deep and broad as to
be utterly impassable;--at one extremity alone a scanty
causeway connected it with the adjoining level, and
allowed of access to its interior. It is true, just at
one point the encircling chasm grows so narrow as to be
within the possibility of a jump; and an ancient worthy,
named Flosi, pursued by his enemies, did actually take
it at a fly; but as leaping an inch short would have
entailed certain drowning in the bright green waters that
sleep forty feet below, you can conceive there was never
much danger of this entrance becoming a thoroughfare. I
confess that for one moment, while contemplating the
scene of Flosi's exploit, I felt,--like a true Briton,--an
idiotic desire to be able to say that I had done the
same; that I survive to write this letter is a proof of
my having come subsequently to my senses.

[Figure: fig-p055.gif with caption as follows:
A The Althing.
B The Hill of Laws.
C The place where Flosi jumped.
D Adjacent Chasms.]

This spot then, erected by nature almost into a fortress,
the founders of the Icelandic constitution chose for the
meetings of their Thing, [Footnote: From thing, to speak.
We have a vestige of the same word in Dingwall, a town
of Ross-shire.] or Parliament, armed guards defended the
entrance, while the grave bonders deliberated in security
within: to this day, at the upper end of the place of
meeting, may be seen the three hammocks, where sat in
state the chiefs and judges of the land.

But those grand old times have long since passed away.
Along the banks of the Oxeraa no longer glisten the tents
and booths of the assembled lieges; no longer stalwart
berserks guard the narrow entrance to the Althing; ravens
alone sit on the sacred Logberg; and the floor of the
old Icelandic House of Commons is ignominiously cropped
by the sheep of the parson. For three hundred years did
the gallant little Republic maintain its independence--three
hundred years of unequalled literary and political vigour.
At last its day of doom drew near. Like the Scotch nobles
in the time of Elizabeth, their own chieftains intrigued
against the liberties of the Icelandic people; and in
1261 the island became an appanage of the Norwegian crown.
Yet even then the deed embodying the concession of their
independence was drawn up in such haughty terms as to
resemble rather the offer of an equal alliance than the
renunciation of imperial rights. Soon, however, the apathy
which invariably benumbs the faculties of a people too
entirely relieved from the discipline and obligation of
self-government, lapped in complete inactivity, moral,
political, and intellectual,--these once stirring islanders.
On the amalgamation of the three Scandinavian monarchies,
at the union of Calmar, the allegiance of the people of
Iceland was passively transferred to the Danish crown.
Ever since that time, Danish proconsuls have administered
their government, and Danish restrictions have regulated
their trade. The traditions of their ancient autonomy
have become as unsubstantial and obsolete as those which
record the vanished fame of their poets and historians,
and the exploits of their mariners. It is true, the
adoption of the Lutheran religion galvanized for a moment
into the semblance of activity the old literary spirit.
A printing-press was introduced as early as 1530, and
ever since the sixteenth century many works of merit have
been produced from time to time by Icelandic genius.
Shakespeare, Milton, and Pope have been translated into
the native tongue; one of the best printed newspapers I
have ever seen is now published at Reykjavik; and the
Colleges of Copenhagen are adorned by many an illustrious
Icelandic scholar; but the glory of the old days is
departed, and it is across a wide desolate flat of ignoble
annals, as dull and arid as their own lava plains, that
the student has to look back upon the glorious drama of
Iceland's early history. As I gazed around on the silent,
deserted plain, and paced to and fro along the untrodden
grass that now clothed the Althing, I could scarcely
believe it had ever been the battle-field where such keen
and energetic wits encountered,--that the fire-scathed
rocks I saw before me were the very same that had once
inspired one of the most successful rhetorical appeals
ever hazarded in a public assembly.

As an account of the debate to which I allude has been
carefully preserved, I may as well give you an abstract
of it. A more characteristic leaf out of the Parliamentary
Annals of Iceland you could scarcely have.

In the summer of the year 1000, when Ethelred the Unready
ruled in England, and fourteen years after Hugh Capet
had succeeded the last Carlovingian on the throne of
France,--the Icelandic legislature was convened for the
consideration of a very important subject--no less
important, indeed, than an inquiry into the merits of a
new religion lately brought into the country by certain
emissaries of Olaf Tryggveson,--the first Christian king
of Norway,--and the same who pulled down London bridge.

The assembly met. The Norse missionaries were called upon
to enunciate to the House the tenets of the faith they
were commissioned to disclose; and the debate began.
Great and fierce was the difference of opinion. The good
old Tory party, supported by all the authority of the
Odin establishment, were violent in opposition. The Whigs
advocated the new arrangement, and, as the king supported
their own views, insisted strongly on the Divine right.
Several liberal members permitted themselves to speak
sarcastically of the Valhalla tap, and the ankles of
Freya. The discussion was at its height, when suddenly
a fearful peal of subterranean thunder roared around the
Althing. "Listen!" cried an orator of the Pagan party;
"how angry is Odin that we should even consider the
subject of a new religion. His fires will consume us."
To which a ready debater on the other side replied, by
"begging leave to ask the honourable gentleman,--with
whom were the gods angry when these rocks were
melted?"--pointing to the devastated plain around him.
Taking advantage of so good a hit, the Treasury "whips"
immediately called for a division; and the Christian
religion was adopted by a large majority.

The first Christian missionaries who came to Iceland seem
to have had a rather peculiar manner of enforcing the
truths of the Gospel. Their leader was a person of the
name of Thangbrand. Like the Protestant clergymen Queen
Elizabeth despatched to convert Ireland, he was bundled
over to Iceland principally because he was too disreputable
to be allowed to live in Norway. The old Chronicler gives
a very quaint description of him. "Thangbrand," he says,
"was a passionate, ungovernable person, and a great
man-slayer; but a good scholar, and clever. Thorvald,
and Veterlid the Scald, composed a lampoon against him;
but he killed them both outright. Thangbrand was two
years in Iceland, and was the death of three men before
he left it."

From the Althing we strolled over to the Almanna Gja,
visiting the Pool of Execution on our way. As I have
already mentioned, a river from the plateau above leaps
over the precipice into the bottom of the Gja, and flows
for a certain distance between its walls. At the foot of
the fall the waters linger for a moment in a dark, deep,
brimming pool, hemmed in by a circle of ruined rocks; to
this pool, in ancient times, all women convicted of
capital crimes were immediately taken, and drowned.
Witchcraft seems to have been the principal weakness of
ladies in those days, throughout the Scandinavian countries.
For a long period no disgrace was attached to its
profession. Odin himself, we are expressly told, was a
great adept, and always found himself very much exhausted
at the end of his performance; which leads me to think
that perhaps he dabbled in electro-biology. At last the
advent of Christianity threw discredit on the practice;
severe punishments were denounced against all who indulged
in it; and, in the end, its mysteries became the monopoly
of the Laplanders.

All criminals, men and women, were tried by juries; and
that the accused had the power of challenging the jurymen
empannelled to try them, appears from the following
extract from the Book of Laws:--"The judges shall go out
on Washday, i.e., Saturday, and continue out for challenges,
until the sun comes on Thingvalla on the Lord's-day."
And again, "The power of challenging shall cease as soon
as the sun can no longer be seen above the western brink
of the chasm, from the Logberg."

Turning aside from what, I dare say, was the scene of
many an unrecorded tragedy, we descended the gorge of
the Almanna Gja, towards the lake; and I took advantage
of the opportunity again to examine its marvellous
construction. The perpendicular walls of rock rose on
either hand from the flat greensward that carpeted its
bottom, pretty much as the waters of the Red Sea must
have risen on each side of the fugitive Israelites. A
blaze of light smote the face of one cliff, while the
other lay in the deepest shadow; and on the rugged surface
of each might still be traced corresponding articulations,
that once had dovetailed into each other, ere the igneous
mass was rent asunder. So unchanged, so recent seemed
the vestiges of this convulsion, that I felt as if I had
been admitted to witness one of nature's grandest and
most violent operations, almost in the very act of its
execution. A walk of about twenty minutes brought us to
the borders of the lake--a glorious expanse of water,
fifteen miles long, by eight miles broad, occupying a
basin formed by the same hills, which must also, I imagine,
have arrested the further progress of the lava torrent.
A lovelier scene I have seldom witnessed. In the foreground
lay huge masses of rock and lava, tossed about like the
ruins of a world; and washed by waters as bright and
green as polished malachite. Beyond, a bevy of distant
mountains, robed by the transparent atmosphere in tints
unknown to Europe, peeped over each other's shoulders
into the silver mirror at their feet, while here and
there from among their purple ridges columns of white
vapour rose like altar smoke toward the tranquil heaven.

On returning home we found dinner waiting for us. I had
invited the clergyman, and a German gentleman who was
lodging with him, to give us the pleasure of their company;
and in ten minutes we had all become the best of friends.
It is true the conversation was carried on in rather a
wild jargon, made up of six different languages--Icelandic,
English, German, Latin, Danish, French--but in spite of
the difficulty with which he expressed himself, it was
impossible not to be struck with the simple earnest
character of my German convive. He was about
five-and-twenty, a "doctor philosophiae," and had come to
Iceland to catch gnats. After having caught gnats in
Iceland, he intended, he said, to spend some years in
catching gnats in Spain.--the privacy of Spanish gnats,
as it appears, not having been hitherto invaded. The
truth is, my guest was an entomologist, and in the pursuit
of the objects of his study was evidently prepared to
approach hardships and danger with a serenity that would
not have been unworthy of the apostle of a new religion.
It was almost touching to hear him describe the intensity
of his joy when perhaps days and nights of fruitless
labours were at last rewarded by the discovery of some
hitherto unknown little fly; and it was with my whole
heart that, at parting, I wished him success in his
career, and the fame that so much conscientious labour
merited. From my allusion to this last reward, however,
he seemed almost to shrink, and, with a sincerity it was
impossible to doubt, disclaimed as ignoble so poor a
motive as a thirst for fame. His was one of those calm
laborious minds, seldom found but among the Teutonic
race, that--pursuing day by day with single-minded energy
some special object--live in a noble obscurity, and die
at last content with the consciousness of having added
one other stone to that tower of knowledge men are building
up toward heaven, even though the world should never
learn what strong and patient hands have placed it there.

The next morning we started for the Geysirs: this time
dividing the baggage-train, and sending on the cook in
light marching order, with the materials for dinner. The
weather still remained unclouded, and each mile we advanced
disclosed some new wonder in the unearthly landscape. A
three hours' ride brought us to the Rabna Gja, the eastern
boundary of Thingvalla, and, winding up its rugged face,
we took our last look over the lovely plain beneath us,
and then manfully set forward across the same kind of
arid lava plateau as that which we had already traversed
before arriving at the Almanna Gja. But instead of the
boundless immensity which had then so much disheartened
us, the present prospect was terminated by a range of
quaint parti-coloured hills, which rose before us in such
fantastic shapes that I could not take my eyes off them.
I do not know whether it was the strong coffee or the
invigorating air that stimulated my imagination; but I
certainly felt convinced I was coming to some mystical
spot--out of space, out of time--where I should suddenly
light upon a green-scaled griffin, or golden-haired
princess, or other bonnie fortune of the olden days.
Certainly a more appropriate scene for such an encounter
could not be conceived, than that which displayed itself,
when we wheeled at last round the flank of the scorched
ridge we had been approaching. A perfectly smooth grassy
plain, about a league square, and shaped like a horse-shoe,
opened before us, encompassed by bare cinder-like hills,
that rose round--red, black, and yellow--in a hundred
uncouth peaks of ash and slag. Not a vestige of vegetation
relieved the aridity of their vitrified sides, while the
verdant carpet at their feet only made the fire-moulded
circle seem more weird and impassable. Had I had a trumpet
and a lance, I should have blown a blast of defiance on
the one, and having shaken the other toward the foul
corners of the world, would have calmly waited to see
what next might betide. Three arrows shot bravely forward
would have probably resulted in the discovery of a
trap-door with an iron ring; but having neither trumpet,
lance, nor arrow, we simply alighted and lunched: yet
even then I could not help thinking how lucky it was
that, not eating dates, we could not inadvertently fling
their stones into the eye of any inquisitive genie who
might be in the neighbourhood.

After the usual hour's rest and change of horses, we
galloped away to the other side of the plain, and, doubling
the further horn of the semicircle, suddenly found
ourselves in a district as unlike the cinder mountains
we had quitted as they had differed from the volcanic
scenery of the day before. On the left lay a long rampart
of green hills, opening up every now and then into Scottish
glens and gorges, while from their roots to the horizon
stretched a vast breadth of meadowland, watered by two
or three rivers, that wound, and twisted, and coiled
about, like blue serpents. Here and there, white volumes
of vapour, that rose in endless wreaths from the ground,
told of mighty cauldrons at work beneath that moist cool
verdant carpet; while large silvery lakes, and flat-topped
isolated hills, relieved the monotony of the level land,
and carried on the eye to where the three snowy peaks of
Mount Hecla shone cold and clear against the sky.

Of course it was rather tantalizing to pass so near this
famous burning mountain without having an opportunity of
ascending it; but the expedition would have taken up too
much time. In appearance Hecla differs very little from
the innumerable other volcanic hills with which the island
is studded. Its cone consists of a pyramid of stone and
scoriae, rising to the height of about five thousand feet,
and welded together by bands of molten matter which have
issued from its sides. From A.D. 1004 to 1766 there have
been twenty-three eruptions, occurring at intervals which
have varied in duration, from six to seventy-six years.
The one of 1766 was remarkably violent. It commenced on
the 5th of April by the appearance of a huge pillar of
black sand mounting slowly into the heavens, accompanied
by subterranean thunders, and all the other symptoms
which precede volcanic disturbances. Then a coronet of
flame encircled the crater; masses of red rock, pumice,
and magnetic stones were flung out with tremendous violence
to an incredible distance, and in such continuous multitudes
as to resemble a swarm of bees clustering over the
mountain. One boulder of pumice six feet in circumference
was pitched twenty miies away; another of magnetic iron
fell at a distance of fifteen. The surface of the earth
was covered, for a circuit of one hundred and fifty miles,
with a layer of sand four inches deep; the air was so
darkened by it, that at a place one hundred and forty
miles off, white paper held up at a little distance could
not be distinguished from black. The fishermen could not
put to sea on account of the darkness, and the inhabitants
of the Orkney islands were frightened out of their senses
by showers of what they thought must be black snow. On
the 9th of April, the lava began to overflow, and ran
for five miles in a southwesterly direction, whilst, some
days later,--in order that no element might be wanting
to mingle in this devil's charivari,--a vast column of
water, like Robin Hood's second arrow, split up through
the cinder pillar to the height of several hundred feet;
the horror of the spectacle being further enhanced by an
accompaniment of subterranean cannonading and dire reports,
heard at a distance of fifty miles.

Striking as all this must have been, it sinks into
comparative tameness and insignificance, beside the
infinitely more terrible phenomena which attended the
eruption of another volcano, called Skapta jokul.

Of all countries in Europe, Iceland is the one which has
been the most minutely mapped, not even excepting the
ordnance survey of Ireland. The Danish Government seem
to have had a hobby about it, and the result has been a
chart so beautifully executed, that every little crevice,
each mountain torrent, each flood of lava, is laid down
with an accuracy perfectly astonishing. One huge blank,
however, in the south-west corner of this map of Iceland,
mars the integrity of its almost microscopic delineations.
To every other part of the island the engineer has
succeeded in penetrating; one vast space alone of about
four hundred square miles has defied his investigation.
Over the area occupied by the Skapta Jokul, amid its
mountain-cradled fields of snow and icy ridges, no human
foot has ever wandered. Yet it is from the bosom of this
desert district that has descended the most frightful
visitation ever known to have desolated the island.

This event occurred in the year 1783. The preceding winter
and spring had been unusually mild. Toward the end of
May, a light bluish fog began to float along the confines
of the untrodden tracts of Skapta, accompanied in the
beginning of June by a great trembling of the earth. On
the 8th of that month, immense pillars of smoke collected
over the hill country towards the north, and coming down
against the wind in a southerly direction, enveloped the
whole district of Sida in darkness. A whirlwind of ashes
then swept over the face of the country, and on the 10th,
innumerable fire spouts were seen leaping and flaring
amid the icy hollows of the mountain, while the river
Skapta, one of the largest in the island, having first
rolled down to the plain a vast volume of fetid waters
mixed with sand, suddenly disappeared.

Two days afterwards a stream of lava, issuing from sources
to which no one has ever been able to penetrate, came
sliding down the bed of the dried-up river, and in a
little time,--though the channel was six hundred feet
deep and two hundred broad,--the glowing deluge overflowed
its banks, crossed the low country of Medalland, ripping
the turf up before it like a table-cloth, and poured into
a great lake whose affrighted waters flew hissing and
screaming into the air at the approach of the fiery
intruder. Within a few more days the basin of the lake
itself was completely filled, and having separated into
two streams, the unexhausted torrent again recommenced
its march; in one direction overflowing soiree ancient
lava fields,--in the other, re-entering the channel of
the Skapta, and leaping down the lofty cataract of
Stapafoss. But this was not all; while one lava flood
had chosen the Skapta for its bed, another, descending
in a different direction, was working like ruin within
and on either side the banks of the Hverfisfliot, rushing
into the plain, by all accounts, with even greater fury
and velocity. Whether the two issued from the same crater
it is impossible to say, as the sources of both were far
away within the heart of the unapproachable desert, and
even the extent of the lava flow can only be measured
from the spot where it entered the inhabited districts.
The stream which flowed down Skapta is calculated to be
about fifty miles in length by twelve or fifteen at its
greatest breadth; that which rolled down the Hverfisfliot,
at forty miles in length by seven in breadth. Where it
was imprisoned, between the high banks of Skapta, the
lava is five or six hundred feet thick; but as soon as
it spread out into the plain its depth never exceeded
one hundred feet. The eruption of sand, ashes, pumice,
and lava, continued till the end of August, when the
Plutonic drama concluded with a violent earthquake.

For a whole year a canopy of cinder-laden cloud hung over
the island. Sand and ashes irretrievably overwhelmed
thousands of acres of fertile pasturage. The Faroe islands,
the Shetlands, and the Orkneys were deluged with volcanic
dust, which perceptibly contaminated even the pure skies
of England and Holland. Mephitic vapours tainted the
atmosphere of the entire island;--even the grass, which
no cinder rain had stifled, completely withered up; the
fish perished in the poisoned sea. A murrain broke out
among the cattle, and a disease resembling scurvy attacked
the inhabitants themselves. Stephenson has calculated
that 9,000 men, 28,000 horses, 11,000 cattle, 190,000
sheep, died from the effects of this one eruption. The
most moderate calculation puts the number of human deaths
at upwards of 1,300; and of cattle, etc. at about 156,000.

The whole of this century had proved most fatal to the
unfortunate people of Iceland. At its commencement smallpox
destroyed more than 16,000 persons; nearly 20,000 more
perished by a famine consequent on a succession of
inclement seasons; while from time to time the southern
coasts were considerably depopulated by the incursions
of English and even Algerine pirates.

The rest of our day's journey lay through a country less
interesting than the district we had traversed before
luncheon. For the most part we kept on along the foot
of the hills, stopping now and then for a drink of milk
at the occasional farms perched upon their slopes.
Sometimes turning up a green and even bushy glen, (there
are no trees in Iceland, the nearest approach to anything
of the kind being a low dwarf birch, hardly worthy of
being called a shrub,) we would cut across the shoulder
of some projecting spur, and obtain a wider prospect of
the level land upon our right; or else keeping more down
in the flat, we had to flounder for half an hour up to
the horses' shoulders in an Irish bog. After about five
hours of this work we reached the banks of a broad and
rather singular river, called the Bruara. Halfway across
it was perfectly fordable; but exactly in the middle was
a deep cleft, into which the waters from either side
spilt themselves, and then in a collected volume roared
over a precipice a little lower down. Across this cleft
some wooden planks were thrown, giving the traveller an
opportunity of boasting that he had crossed a river on
a bridge which itself was under water. By this time we
had all begun to be very tired, and very hungry;--it was
11 o'clock P.M. We had been twelve or thirteen hours on
horseback, not to mention occasional half-hours of pretty
severe walking after the ptarmigan and plover. Many were
the questions we addressed to Sigurdr on the distance
yet remaining, and many the conjectures we hazarded as
to whether the cook would have arrived in time to get
dinner ready for us. At last, after another two hours'
weary jogging, we descried, straight in front, a low
steep brown rugged hill, standing entirely detached from
the range at the foot of which we had been riding; and
in a few minutes more, wheeling round its outer end, we
found ourselves in the presence of the steaming Geysirs.

I do not know that I can give you a better notion of the
appearance of the place than by saying that it looked as
if--for about a quarter of a mile--the ground had been
honey-combed by disease into numerous sores and orifices;
not a blade of grass grew on its hot, inflamed surface,
which consisted of unwholesome-looking red livid clay,
or crumpled shreds and shards of slough-like incrustations.
Naturally enough, our first impulse on dismounting was
to scamper off at once to the Great Geysir. As it lay at
the furthest end of the congeries of hot springs, in
order to reach it we had to run the gauntlet of all the
pools of boiling water and scalding quagmires of soft
clay that intervened, and consequently arrived on the
spot with our ankles nicely poulticed. But the occasion
justified our eagerness. A smooth silicious basin,
seventy-two feet in diameter and four feet deep, with a
hole at the bottom as in a washing-basin on board a
steamer, stood before us brimful of water just upon the
simmer; while up into the air above our heads rose a
great column of vapour, looking as if it was going to
turn into the Fisherman's Genie. The ground about the
brim was composed of layers of incrusted silica, like
the outside of an oyster, sloping gently down on all
sides from the edge of the basin.

[Figure: fig-p067.gif with caption
A Basin.
B Funnel.]

Having satisfied our curiosity with this cursory inspection
of what we had come so far to see, hunger compelled us
to look about with great anxiety for the cook; and you
may fancy our delight at seeing that functionary in the
very act of dishing up dinner on a neighbouring hillock.
Sent forward at an early hour, under the chaperonage of
a guide, he had arrived about two hours before us, and
seizing with a general's eye the key of the position, at
once turned an idle babbling little Geysir into a
camp-kettle, dug a bake-house in the hot soft clay, and
improvising a kitchen-range at a neighbouring vent, had
made himself completely master of the situation. It was
about one o'clock in the morning when we sat down to
dinner, and as light as day.

As the baggage-train with our tents and beds had not yet
arrived, we fully appreciated our luck in being treated
to so dry a night; and having eaten everything we could
lay hands on, were sat quietly down to chess, and coffee
brewed in Geysir water; when suddenly it seemed as if
beneath our very feet a quantity of subterraneous cannon
were going off; the whole earth shook, and Sigurdr,
starting to his feet, upset the chess-board (I was just
beginning to get the best of the game), and flung off
full speed towards the great basin. By the time we
reached its brim, however, the noise had ceased, and all
we could see was a slight movement in the centre, as if
an angel had passed by and troubled the water. Irritated
at this false alarm, we determined to revenge ourselves
by going and tormenting the Strokr. Strokr--or the
churn--you must know, is an unfortunate Geysir, with so
little command over his temper and his stomach, that you
can get a rise out of him whenever you like. All that is
necessary is to collect a quantity of sods, and throw
them down his funnel. As he has no basin to protect him
from these liberties, you can approach to the very edge
of the pipe, about five feet in diameter, and look down
at the boiling water which is perpetually seething at
the bottom. In a few minutes the dose of turf you have
just administered begins to disagree with him; he works
himself up into an awful passion--tormented by the qualms
of incipient sickness, he groans and hisses, and boils
up, and spits at you with malicious vehemence, until at
last, with a roar of mingled pain and rage, he throws up
into the air a column of water forty feet high, which
carries with it all the sods that have been chucked in,
and scatters them scalded and half-digested at your feet.
So irritated has the poor thing's stomach become by the
discipline it has undergone, that even long after all
the foreign matter has been thrown off, it goes on retching
and sputtering, until at last nature is exhausted, when,
sobbing and sighing to itself, it sinks back into the
bottom of its den.

Put into the highest spirits by the success of this
performance, we turned away to examine the remaining
springs. I do not know, however, that any of the rest
are worthy of particular mention. They all resemble in
character the two I have described, the only difference
being that they are infinitely smaller, and of much less
power and importance. One other remarkable formation in
the neighbourhood must not be passed unnoticed. Imagine
a large irregular opening in the surface of the soft
white clay, filled to the very brim with scalding water,
perfectly still, and of as bright a blue as that of the
Grotto Azzuro at Capri, through whose transparent depths
you can see down into the mouth of a vast subaqueous
cavern, which runs, Heaven knows how far, in a horizontal
direction beneath your feet. Its walls and varied cavities
really looked as if they were built of the purest lupis
lazuli--and so thin seemed the crust that roofed it in,
we almost fancied it might break through, and tumble us
all into the fearful beautiful bath.

Having by this time taken a pretty good look at the
principal features of our new domain, I wrapped myself
up in a cloak and went to sleep; leaving orders that I
should not be called until after the tent had arrived,
and our beds were ready. Sigurdr followed my example,
but the Doctor went out shooting.

As our principal object in coming so far was to see an
eruption of the Great Geysir, it was of course necessary
we should wait his pleasure; in fact, our movements
entirely depended upon his. For the next two or three
days, therefore, like pilgrims round some ancient shrine,
we patiently kept watch; but he scarcely deigned to
vouchsafe us the slightest manifestation of his latent
energies. Two or three times the cannonading we had heard
immediately after our arrival recommenced,--and once an
eruption to the height of about ten feet occurred; but
so brief was its duration, that by the time we were on
the spot, although the tent was not eighty yards distant,
all was over. As after every effort of the fountain the
water in the basin mysteriously ebbs back into the funnel,
this performance, though unsatisfactory in itself, gave
us an opportunity of approaching the mouth of the pipe,
and looking down into its scalded gullet. In an hour
afterwards, the basin was brimful as ever.

Tethered down by our curiosity to a particular spot for
an indefinite period, we had to while away the hours as
best we could. We played chess, collected specimens,
photographed the encampment, the guides, the ponies, and
one or two astonished natives. Every now and then we went
out shooting over the neighbouring flats, and once I
ventured on a longer expedition among the mountains to
our left. The views I got were beautiful,--ridge rising
beyond ridge in eternal silence, like gigantic ocean
waves, whose tumult has been suddenly frozen into
stone;--but the dread of the Geysir going off during my
absence made me almost too fidgety to enjoy them. The
weather luckily remained beautiful, with the exception
of one little spell of rain, which came to make us all
the more grateful for the sunshine,--and we fed like
princes. Independently of the game, duck, plover, ptarmigan,
and bittern, with which our own guns supplied us, a young
lamb was always in the larder,--not to mention reindeer
tongues, skier,--a kind of sour curds, excellent when
well made,--milk, cheese whose taste and nature baffles
description, biscuit and bread, sent us as a free gift
by the lady of a neighbouring farm. In fact, so noble is
Icelandic hospitality, that I really believe there was
nothing within fifty miles round we might not have obtained
for the asking, had we desired it. As for Fitz, he became
quite the enfant gate of a neighbouring family.

Having unluckily caught cold, instead of sleeping in the
tent, he determined to seek shelter under a solid roof-tree,
and, conducted by our guide Olaf, set off on his pony at
bed-time in search of a habitation. The next morning he
reappeared so unusually radiant that I could not help
inquiring what good fortune had in the meantime befallen
him: upon which he gave me such an account of his last
night's reception at the farm, that I was almost tempted
to bundle tent and beds down the throat of our irritable
friend Strokr, and throw myself for the future upon the
hospitality of the inhabitants. It is true, I had read
in Van Troil of something of the kind, but until now I
never fully believed it. The Doctor shall tell his own

"No sooner," said he, "had I presented myself at the
door, and made known my errand, than I was immediately
welcomed by the whole family, and triumphantly inducted
into the guest quarters: everything the house could
produce was set before me, and the whole society stood
by to see that I enjoyed myself. As I had but just dined
an additional repast was no longer essential to my
happiness; but all explanation was useless, and I did my
best to give them satisfaction. Immediately on rising
from the table, the young lady of the house--(old Van
Troil says it is either the mother or the daughter of
the house, if she be grown up, who performs this
office)--proposed by signs to conduct me to my apartment;
taking in one hand a large plate of skier, and in the
other a bottle of brandy, she led the way through a
passage built of turf and stones to the place where I
was to sleep. Having watched her deposit--not without
misgivings, for I knew it was expected both should be
disposed of before morning--the skier by my bedside, and
the brandy-bottle under the pillow, I was preparing to
make her a polite bow, and to wish her a very good night,
when she advanced towards me, and with a winning grace
difcult to resist, insisted upon helping me off with my
coat, and then,--proceeding to extremities,--with my
shoes and stockings. At this most critical part of the
proceedings, I naturally imagined her share of the
performance would conclude, and that I should at last be
restored to that privacy which at such seasons is generally
considered appropriate. Not a bit of it. Before I knew
where I was, I found myself sitting in a chair, in my
shirt, trouserless, while my fair tire-woman was engaged
in neatly folding up the ravished garments on a neighbouring
chair. She then in the most simple manner in the world,
helped me into bed, tucked me up, and having said a
quantity of pretty things in Icelandic, gave me a hearty
kiss and departed. If," he added, "you see anything
remarkable in my appearance, it is probably because--

'This very morn I've felt the sweet surprise
Of unexpected lips on sealed eyes;'"

by which he poetically intimated the pleasing ceremony
which had awaked him to the duties of the day. I think
it needless to subjoin that the Doctor's cold did not
get better as long as we remained in the neighbourhood,
and that, had it not been for the daily increasing fire
of his looks, I should have begun to be alarmed at so
protracted an indisposition.

We had now been keeping watch for three days over the
Geysir, in languid expectation of the eruption which was
to set us free. All the morning of the fourth day I had
been playing chess with Sigurdr; Fitzgerald was
photographing, Wilson was in the act of announcing
luncheon, when a cry from the guides made us start to
our feet, and with one common impulse rush towards the
basin. The usual subterranean thunders had already
commenced. A violent agitation was disturbing the centre
of the pool. Suddenly a dome of water lifted itself up
to the height of eight or ten feet,--then burst, and
fell; immediately after which a shining liquid column,
or rather a sheaf of columns wreathed in robes of vapour,
sprung into the air, and in a succession of jerking leaps,
each higher than the last, flung their silver crests
against the sky. For a few minutes the fountain held its
own, then all at once appeared to lose its ascending
energy. The unstable waters faltered, drooped, fell,
"like a broken purpose," back upon themselves, and were
immediately sucked down into the recesses of their pipe.

The spectacle was certainly magnificent; but no description
can give any idea of its most striking features. The
enormous wealth of water, its vitality, its hidden
power,--the illimitable breadth of sunlit vapour, rolling
out in exhaustless profusion,--all combined to make one
feel the stupendous energy of nature's slightest movements.

And yet I do not believe the exhibition was so fine as
some that have been seen: from the first burst upwards
to the moment the last jet retreated into the pipe, was
no more than a space of seven or eight minutes, and at
no moment did the crown of the column reach higher than
sixty or seventy feet above the surface of the basin.
Now, early travellers talk of three hundred feet, which
must, of course, be fabulous; but many trustworthy persons
have judged the eruptions at two hundred feet, while
well-authenticated accounts--when the elevation of the
jet has been actually measured--make it to have attained
a height of upwards of one hundred feet.

With regard to the internal machinery by which these
waterworks are set in motion, I will only say that the
most received theory seems to be that which supposes the
existence of a chamber in the heated earth, almost, but
not quite, filled with water, and communicating with the
upper air by means of a pipe, whose lower orifice, instead
of being in the roof, is at the side of the cavern, and
BELOW the surface of the subterranean pond. The water
kept by the surrounding furnaces at boiling point,
generates of course a continuous supply of steam, for
which some vent must be obtained; as it cannot escape by
the funnel, the lower mouth of which is under water, it
squeezes itself up within the arching roof, until at
last, compressed beyond all endurance, it strains against
the rock, and pushing down the intervening waters with
its broad, strong back, forces them below the level of
the funnel, and dispersing part, and driving part before
it, rushes forth in triumph to the upper air. The fountains,
therefore, that we see mounting to the sky during an
eruption, are nothing but the superincumbent mass of
waters in the pipe driven up in confusion before the
steam at the moment it obtains its liberation. [Footnote:
Professor Bunsen has lately announced a chemical theory,
which I believe has been received with favour by the
scientific world. He points to the fact that water, after
being long subjected to heat, loses much of the air
contained in it, has the cohesion of its molecules much
increased, and requires a higher temperature to bring it
to boil; at which moment the production of vapour becomes
so great, and so instantaneous, as to cause explosion.
The bursting of furnace boilers is often attributable to
this cause. Now, the water at the bottom of the well of
the Great Geysir is found to be of constantly increasing
temperature up to the moment of an eruption, when on one
occasion it was as high as 261 degrees. Fahrenheit.
Professor Bunsen's idea is, that on reaching some unknown
point above that temperature, ebullition takes place,
vapour is suddenly generated in enormous quantity, and
an eruption of the superior column of water is the

The accompanying sketch may perhaps help you to understand
my meaning.

[Figure: fig-p074.gif]

The last gulp of water had disappeared down the funnel.
We were standing at the bottom of the now empty basin,
gazing into each other's faces with joyous astonishment,
when suddenly we perceived a horseman come frantically
galloping round the base of the neighbouring hill towards
us. The state of the case was only too evident. He had
seen the masses of vapour rising round the fountain, and
guessing "what was UP", had strained every nerve to arrive
in time. As there was no mutual friend present to
introduce us to each other,--of course under ordinary
circumstances I should have wrapped myself in that reserve
which is the birthright of every Briton, and pretended
never even to have noticed his arrival; but the sight we
had just seen had quite upset my nerves,--and I confess,
with shame, that I so far compromised myself, as to
inaugurate a conversation with the stranger. In extenuation
of my conduct, I must be allowed to add, that the newcomer
was not a fellow-countryman, but of the French tongue,
and of the naval profession.

Occupying then the door of my tent--by way of vantage
ground, as soon as the stranger was come within earshot,
I lifted up my voice, and cried in a style of Arabian
familiarity, "O thou that ridest so furiously,--weary
and disappointed one,--turn in, I pray thee, into the
tent of thy servant, and eat bread, and drink wine, that
thy soul may becomforted." To which he answered and said,
"Man,--dweller in sulphureous places,--I will not eat
bread, nor drink wine, neither will I enter into thy
tent, until I have measured out a resting-place for my
Lord the Prince."

At this interesting moment our acquaintance was interrupted
by the appearance of two other horsemen--the one a painter,
the other a geologist--attached to the expedition of
Prince Napoleon. They informed us that His Imperial
Highness had reached Reykjavik two days after we had
left, that he had encamped last night at Thingvalla, and
might be expected here in about four hours: they themselves
having come on in advance to prepare for his arrival. My
first care was to order coffee for the tired Frenchmen;
and then--feeling that long residence having given us
a kind of proprietorship in the Geysirs, we were bound
to do the honours of the place to the approaching band
of travellers,--I summoned the cook, and enlarging in a
long speech on the gravity of the occasion, gave orders
that he should make a holocaust of all the remaining
game, and get under way a plum-pudding, whose dimensions
should do himself and England credit. A long table having
been erected within the tent, Sigurdr started on a
plundering expedition to the neighbouring farm, Fitzgerald
undertook the ordering of the feast, while I rode on my
pony across the morass, in hopes of being able to shoot
a few additional plover. In a couple of hours afterwards,
just as I was stalking a duck that lay innocently basking
on the bosom of the river, a cloud of horsemen swept
round the base of the distant mountain, and returning
home, I found the encampment I had left so deserted--alive
and populous with as merry a group of Frenchmen as it
might ever be one's fortune to fall in with. Of course
they were dressed in every variety of costumes, long
boots, picturesque brigand-looking hats, with here and
there a sprinkling of Scotch caps from Aberdeen; but--
whatever might be the head-dress, underneath you might
be sure to find a kindly, cheery face. My old friend
Count Trampe, who had accompanied the expedition, at once
presented me to the Prince, who was engaged in sounding
the depth of the pipe of the Great Geysir,--and encouraged
by the gracious reception which His Imperial Highness
accorded me, I ventured to inform him that "there was a
poor banquet toward," of which I trusted he--and as many
of his officers as the table could hold--would condescend
to partake. After a little hesitation,--caused, I presume,
by fear of our being put to inconvenience,--he was kind
enough to signify his acceptance of my proposal, and in
a few minutes afterwards with a cordial frankness I fully
appreciated, allowed me to have the satisfaction of
receiving him as a guest within my tent.

Although I never had the pleasure of seeing Prince Napoleon
before, I should have known him among a thousand, from
his remarkable likeness to his uncle, the first Emperor.
A stronger resemblance, I conceive, could scarcely exist
between two persons. The same delicate, sharply cut
features, thin refined mouth, and firm determined jaw.
The Prince's frame, however, is built altogether on a
larger scale, and his eyes, instead of being of a cold
piercing blue--are soft and brown, with quite a different

Though of course a little Barmicidal, the dinner went
off very well, as every dinner must do where such merry
companions are the convives. We had some difficulty about
stowing away the legs of a tall philosopher, and to each
knife three individuals were told off; but the birds were
not badly cooked, and the plum-pudding arrived in time
to convert a questionable success into an undoubted

On rising from table, each one strolled away in whatever
direction his particular taste suggested. The painter to
sketch; the geologist to break stones; the philosopher
to moralize, I presume,--at least, he lighted a cigar,--and
the rest to superintend the erection of the tents which
had just arrived.

In an hour afterwards, sleep--though not altogether
silence--for loud and strong rose the choral service
intoned to Morpheus from every side--reigned supreme over
the encampment, whose canvas habitations, huddled together
on the desolated plateau, looked almost Crimean. This
last notion, I suppose, must have mingled with my dreams,
for not long afterwards I found myself in full swing
towards a Russian battery, that banged and bellowed, and
cannonaded about my ears in a fashion frightful to hear.
Apparently I was serving in the French attack, for clear
and shrill above the tempest rose the cry, "Alerte!
alerte! aux armes, Monseigneur! aux armes!" The ground
shook, volumes of smoke rose before my eyes, and completely
hid the defences of Sebastopol; which fact, on reflection,
I perceived to be the less extraordinary, as I was standing
in my shirt at the door of a tent in Iceland. The
premonitory symptoms of an eruption, which I had taken
for a Russian cannonading, had awakened the French
sleepers,--a universal cry was pervading the
encampment,--and the entire settlement had turned
out--chiefly in bare legs--to witness the event which
the reverberating earth and steaming water seemed to
prognosticate. Old Geysir, however, proved less courteous
than we had begun to hope, for after labouring uneasily
in his basin for a few minutes, he roused himself on his
hind-legs--fell--made one more effort,--and then giving
it up as a bad job, sank back into his accustomed inaction,
and left the disappointed assembly to disperse to their
respective dormitories.

The next morning, the whole encampment was stirring at
an early hour with preparations for departure; for
unsatisfactory as it had been, the French considered
themselves absolved by the partial performance they had
witnessed from any longer "making antechamber," as they
said, to so capricious a functionary. Being very anxious
to have one more trial at photographing Strokr, I ventured
to suggest that the necessary bolus of sods should be
administered to him. In a few minutes two or three
cart-loads of turf were seething and wallowing within
him. In the meantime, Fitz seized the opportunity of the
Prince being at breakfast to do a picture of him seated
on a chair, with his staff standing around him, and
looking the image of Napoleon before the battle of
Austerlitz. A good twenty minutes had now elapsed since
the emetic had been given,--no symptoms of any result
had as yet appeared,--and the French began to get impatient;
inuendoes were hazarded to the disadvantage of Strokr's
reputation for consistency,--inuendoes which I confess
touched me nearly, and made me feel like a show-man
whose dog has misbehaved. At last the whole party rode
off; but the rear horseman had not disappeared round the
neighbouring hill before--splash! bang!--fifty feet up
into the air drove the dilatory fountain, with a fury
which amply avenged the affront put upon it, and more
than vindicated my good opinion. All our endeavours,
however, to photograph the eruption proved abortive. We
had already attempted both Strokr and the Great Geysir,
but in the case of the latter the exhibition was always
concluded before the plate could be got ready; and
although, as far as Strokr is concerned, you can tell
within a certain period when the performance will take
place, yet the interval occurring between the dose and
the explosion varies so capriciously, that unless you
are content to spend many days upon the spot, it would
be almost impossible to hit it off exactly. On this last
occasion,--although we did not prepare the plate until
a good twenty minutes after the turf was thrown in,--the
spring remained inactive so much longer than is usual
that the collodion became quite insensitive, and the
eruption left no impression whatever upon it.

Of our return journey to Reykjavik I think I have no very
interesting particulars to give you. During the early
part of the morning there had been a slight threatening
of rain; but by twelve o'clock it had settled down into
one of those still dark days, which wrap even the most
familiar landscape in a mantle of mystery. A heavy,
low-hung, steel-coloured pall was stretched almost entirely
across the heavens, except where along the flat horizon
a broad stripe of opal atmosphere let the eye wander into
space, in search of the pearly gateways of Paradise. On
the other side rose the contorted lava mountains, their
bleak heads knocking against the solid sky and stained
of an inky blackness, which changed into a still more
lurid tint where the local reds struggled up through the
shadow that lay brooding over the desolate scene. If
within the domain of nature such another region is to be
found, it can only be in the heart of those awful solitudes
which science has unveiled to us amid the untrodden
fastnesses of the lunar mountains. An hour before reaching
our old camping-ground at Thingvalla, as if summoned by
enchantment, a dull grey mist closed around us, and
suddenly confounded in undistinguishable ruin the glory
and the terror of the panorama we had traversed; sky,
mountains, horizon, all had disappeared; and as we strained
our eyes from the edge of the Rabna Gja across the
monotonous grey level at our feet, it was almost difficult
to believe that there lay the same magical plain, the
first sight of which had become almost an epoch in our

I had sent on cook, baggage, and guides, some hours before
we ourselves started, so that on our arrival we found a
dry, cosy tent, and a warm dinner awaiting us. The rapid
transformation of the aspect of the country, which I had
just witnessed, made me quite understand how completely
the success of an expedition in Iceland must depend on
the weather, and fully accounted for the difference I
had observed in the amount of enjoyment different travellers
seemed to have derived from it. It is one thing to ride
forty miles a day through the most singular scenery in
the world, when a radiant sun brings out every feature
of the country into startling distinctness, transmuting
the dull tormented earth into towers, domes, and pinnacles
of gleaming metal,--and weaves for every distant summit
a robe of variegated light, such as the "Delectable
Mountains" must have worn for the rapt gaze of weary
"Christian;"--and another to plod over the same forty
miles, drenched to the skin, seeing nothing but the dim,
grey roots of hills, that rise you know not how, and you
care not where,--with no better employment than to look
at your watch, and wonder when you shall reach your
journey's end. If, in addition to this, you have to wait,
as very often must be the case, for many hours after your
own arrival, wet, tired, hungry, until the baggage-train,
with the tents and food, shall have come up, with no
alternative in the meantime but to lie shivering inside
a grass-roofed church, or to share the quarters of some
farmer's family, whose domestic arrangements resemble in
every particular those which Macaulay describes as
prevailing among the Scottish Highlanders a hundred years
ago; and, if finally--after vainly waiting for some days
to see an eruption which never takes place--you journey
back to Reykjavik under the same melancholy conditions,--it
will not be unnatural that, on returning to your native
land, you should proclaim Iceland, with her Geysirs, to
be a sham, a delusion, and a snare!

Fortune, however, seemed determined that of these
bitternesses we should not taste; for the next morning,
bright and joyous overhead bent the blue unclouded heaven;
while the plain lay gleaming at our feet in all the
brilliancy of enamel. I was sorely tempted to linger
another day in the neighbourhood; but we have already
spent more time upon the Geysirs than I had counted upon,
and it will not do to remain in Iceland longer than the
15th, or Winter will have begun to barricade the passes
into his Arctic dominions. My plan, on returning to
Reykjavik, is to send the schooner round to wait for us
in a harbour on the north coast of the island, while we
ourselves strike straight across the interior on horseback.

The scenery, I am told, is magnificent. On the way we
shall pass many a little nook, shut up among the hills,
that has been consecrated by some touching old-world
story; and the manner of life among the northern inhabitants
is, I believe, more unchanged and characteristic than
that of any other of the islanders. Moreover, scarcely
any stranger has ever penetrated to any distance in this
direction; and we shall have an opportunity of traversing
a slice of that tremendous desert--piled up for thirty
thousand square miles in disordered pyramids of ice and
lava over the centre of the country, and periodically
devastated by deluges of molten stone and boiling mud,
or overwhelmed with whirlwinds of intermingled snow and
cinders,--an unfinished corner of the universe, where
the elements of chaos are still allowed to rage with
unbridled fury.

Our last stage from Thingvalla back to Reykjavik was got
over very quickly, and seemed an infinitely shorter
distance than when we first performed it. We met a number
of farmers returning to their homes from a kind of fair
that is annually held in the little metropolis; and as
I watched the long caravan-like line of pack-horses and
horsemen, wearily plodding over the stony waste in single
file, I found it less difficult to believe that these
remote islanders should be descended from Oriental
forefathers. In fact, one is constantly reminded of the
East in Iceland. From the earliest ages the Icelanders
have been a people dwelling in tents. In the time of
the ancient Parliament, the legislators, during the entire
session, lay encamped in movable booths around the place
of meeting. Their domestic polity is naturally patriarchal,
and the flight of their ancestors from Norway was a
protest against the antagonistic principle of feudalism.
No Arab could be prouder of his courser than they are of
their little ponies, or reverence more deeply the sacred
rights of hospitality; while the solemn salutation
exchanged between two companies of travellers, passing
each other in the DESERT--as they invariably call the
uninhabited part of the country--would not have misbecome
the stately courtesy of the most ancient worshippers of
the sun.

Anything more multifarious than the landing of these
caravans we met returning to the inland districts--cannot
well be conceived; deal boards, rope, kegs of brandy,
sacks of rye or wheaten flour, salt, soap, sugar, snuff,
tobacco, coffee; everything, in fact, which was necessary
to their domestic consumption during the ensuing winter.
In exchange for these commodities, which of course they
are obliged to get from Europe, the Icelanders export
raw wool, knitted stockings, mittens, cured cod, and fish
oil, whale blubber, fox skins, eider-down, feathers, and
Icelandic moss. During the last few years the exports
of the island have amounted to about 1,200,000 lbs. of
wool and 500,000 pairs of stockings and mittens. Although
Iceland is one-fifth larger than Ireland, its population
consists of only about 60,000 persons, scattered along
the habitable ring which runs round between the central
desert and the sea; of the whole area of 38,000 square
miles it is calculated that not more than one-eighth part
is occupied, the remaining 33,000 square miles consisting
of naked mountains of ice, or valleys desolated by lava
or volcanic ashes. Even Reykjavik itself cannot boast of
more than 700 or 800 inhabitants.

During winter time the men are chiefly employed in tending
cattle, picking wool, manufacturing ropes, bridles,
saddles, and building boats. The fishing season commences
in spring; in 1853 there were as many as 3,500 boats
engaged upon the water. As summer advances--turf-cutting
and hay-making begins; while the autumn months are
principally devoted to the repairing of their houses,
manuring the grass lands, and killing and curing of sheep
for exportation, as well as for their own use during the
winter. The woman-kind of a family occupy themselves
throughout the year in washing, carding, and spinning
wool, in knitting gloves and stockings, and in weaving
frieze and flannel for their own wear.

The ordinary food of a well-to-do Icelandic family consists
of dried fish, butter, sour whey kept till fermentation
takes place, curds, and skier--a very peculiar cheese
unlike any I ever tasted,--a little mutton, and rye bread.
As might be expected, this meagre fare is not very
conducive to health; scurvy, leprosy, elephantiasis, and
all cutaneous disorders, are very common, while the
practice of mothers to leave off nursing their children
at the end of three days, feeding them with cows' milk
instead, results in a frightful mortality among the

Land is held either in fee-simple, or let by the Crown
to tenants on what may almost be considered perpetual
leases. The rent is calculated partly on the number of
acres occupied, partly on the head of cattle the farm is
fit to support, and is paid in kind, either in fish or
farm produce. Tenants in easy circumstances generally
employ two or three labourers, who--in addition to their
board and lodging--receive from ten to twelve dollars a
year of wages. No property can be entailed, and if any
one dies intestate, what he leaves is distributed among
his children--in equal shares to the sons, in half shares
to the daughters.

The public revenue arising from Crown lands, commercial
charges, and a small tax on the transference of property,
amounts to about 3,000 pounds; the expenditure for
education, officers' salaries (the Governor has about
400 pounds a year), ecclesiastical establishments, etc.,
exceeds 6,000 pounds a year; so that the island is
certainly not a self-supporting institution.

The clergy are paid by tithes; their stipends are
exceedingly small, generally not averaging more than six
or seven pounds sterling per annum; their chief dependence
being upon their farms. Like St. Dunstan, they are
invariably excellent blacksmiths.

As we approached Reykjavik, for the first time during
the whole journey we began to have some little trouble
with the relay of ponies in front. Whether it was that
they were tired, or that they had arrived in a district
where they had been accustomed to roam at large, I cannot
tell; but every ten minutes, during the last six or seven
miles, one or other of them kept starting aside into the
rocky plain, across which the narrow bridle-road was
carried, and cost us many a weary chase before we could
drive them into the track again. At last, though not
till I had been violently hugged, kissed, and nearly
pulled off my horse by an enthusiastic and rather tipsy
farmer, who mistook me for the Prince, we galloped, about
five o'clock, triumphantly into the town, without an
accident having occurred to man or horse during the whole
course of the expedition--always excepting one tremendous
fall sustained by Wilson. It was on the evening of the
day we left the Geysirs. We were all galloping in single
file down the lava pathway, when suddenly I heard a cry
behind me, and then the noise as of a descending avalanche.
On turning round, behold! both Wilson and his pony lay
stretched upon the ground, the first some yards in advance
of the other. The poor fellow evidently thought he was
killed; for he neither spoke nor stirred, but lay looking
up at me, with blank, beady eyes as I approached to his
assistance. On further investigation, neither of the
sufferers proved to be a bit the worse.

The cook, and the rest of the party, did not arrive till
about midnight; but I make no doubt that when that able
and spirited individual did at length reascend the side
of the schooner, his cheek must have burned with pride
at the reflection, that during the short period of his
absence on shore he had added to his other accomplishments
that of becoming a most finished cavalier. I do not mean
by that to imply that he was at all DONE. Although we
had enjoyed our trip so much, I was not sorry to find
myself on board. The descent again, after our gipsy life,
into the coquettish little cabin, with its books and dear
home faces, quite penetrated me with that feeling of snug
content of which I believe Englishmen alone are susceptible.

I have now to relate to you a most painful occurrence
which has taken place during my absence at the Geysirs;--
no less a catastrophe, in fact, than a mutiny among my
hitherto most exemplary ship's company. I suppose they,
too, had occasion to bear witness to the proverbial
hospitality of Iceland; salt junk, and the innocuous
cates which generally compose ship-board rations, could
never have produced such an emergency. Suffice it to say,
that "Dyspepsia and her fatal train" having taken hold
of them, in a desperate hour they determined on a desperate
deed,--and rushing aft in a body, demanded of my faithful
steward, not only access to the penetralia of the absent
Doctor's cupboard, but that he himself should administer
to them whatever medicaments he could come by. In vain
Mr. Grant threw himself across the cabin-door. Remonstrance
was useless; my horny-handed lambs were inexorable--unless
he acceded to their demands, they threatened to report
him when I returned! The Doctor's sanctuary was thrown
open, and all its sweets--if such they may be called--were
rifled. A huge box of pills, the first that came to
hand--they happened to be calomel--was served out, share
and share alike, with concomitant vials of wrath, of
rhubarb and senna; and it was not until the last drop of
castor oil had been carefully licked up that the marauders
suffered their unwilling accomplice to retire to the
fastnesses of his pantry.

An avenging Nemesis, however, hovered over the violated
shrine of Esculapius. By the time I returned the exigencies
of justice had been more than satisfied, and the outrage
already atoned for. The rebellious HANDS were become most
penitent STOMACHS; and fresh from the Oriental associations
suggested by our last day's ride, I involuntarily dismissed
the disconsolate culprits, with the Asiatic form of
condonation: "Mashallah, you have made your faces white!
Go in peace!"

During our expedition to the interior, the harbour of
Reykjavik had become populous with new arrivals. First
of all, there was my old friend, the "Reine Hortense,"
the Emperor's yacht, a magnificent screw corvette of
1,100 tons. I had last parted with her three years ago
in the Baltic, after she had towed me for eighty miles
on our way from Bomarsund to Stockholm. Then there were
two English screw steamers, of about 700 tons each, taken
up by the French Government as tenders to the yacht; not
to mention a Spanish brig, and one or two other foreigners,
which, together with the frigate, the barque, and the
vessels we had found here on our first arrival, made the
usually deserted bay look quite lively. Until this year
no steamers had ever cockneyfied its secluded waters.

This morning, directly after breakfast, I went on board
the "Reine Hortense" to pay my respects to Prince Napoleon;
and H.I.H. has just done me the honour of coming to
inspect the "Foam." When I was first presented to him at
the Geysirs, he asked me what my plans might be; and on
my mentioning my resolution of sailing to the North, he
most kindly proposed that I should come with him West to
Greenland instead. My anxiety, however, to reach, if it
were possible, Jan Mayen and Spitzbergen, prevented my
accepting this most tempting offer; but in the meantime,
H.I.H. has, it seems, himself determined to come to Jan
Mayen, and he is kind enough to say that if I can get
ready for a start by six o'clock to-morrow morning, the
"Reine Hortense" shall take me in tow. To profit by this
proposal would of course entail the giving up my plan of
riding across the interior of Iceland, which I should be
very loth to do; at the same time, the season is so far
advanced, the mischances of our first start from England
have thrown us so far behind in our programme, that it
would seem almost a pity to neglect such an opportunity
of overrunning the time that has been lost; and after
all, these Polar islands, which so few have visited, are
what I am chiefly bent on seeing. Before I close this
letter the thing will have been settled one way or another;
for I am to have the honour of dining with the Prince
this evening, and between this and then I shall have made
up my mind. After dinner there is to be a ball on board
the frigate, to which all the rank, fashion, and beauty
of Reykjavik have been invited.

3 A.M.

I give up seeing the rest of Iceland, and go North at
once. It has cost me a struggle to come to this conclusion,
but on the whole I think it will be better. Ten or fifteen
days of summer-time become very precious in these latitudes,
and are worth a sacrifice. At this moment we have just
brought up astern of the "Reine Hortense," and are getting
our hawsers bent, ready for a start in half an hour's
time. My next letter, please God, will be dated from
Hammerfest. I suppose I shall be about fifteen or twenty
days getting there, but this will depend on the state of
the ice about Jan Mayen. If the anchorage is clear, I
shall spend a few days in examining the island, which by
all accounts would appear to be most curious.

I happened first to hear of its existence from a very
intelligent whaling Captain I fell in with among the
Shetlands four years ago. He was sailing home to Hull,
after fishing the Spitzbergen waters, and had sighted
the huge mountain which forms the northern extremity of
Jan Mayen, on his way south. Luckily, the weather was
fine while he was passing, and the sketch he made of it
at the time so filled me with amazement, that I then
determined, if ever I got the chance, to go and see with
my own eyes so great a marvel. Imagine a spike of igneous
rock (the whole island is volcanic), shooting straight
up out of the sea to the height of 6,870 feet, not
broad-based like a pyramid, nor round-topped like a
sugar-loaf, but needle-shaped, pointed like the spire of
a church. If only my Hull skipper were as good a draughtsman
as he seemed to be a seaman, we should now be on our way
to one of the wonders of the world. Most people here hold
out rather a doleful prospect, and say that, in the first
place, it is probable the whole island will be imprisoned
within the eternal fields of ice, that lie out for upwards
of a hundred and fifty miles along the eastern coast of
Greenland; and next, that if even the sea should be clear
in its vicinity, the fogs up there are so dense and
constant that the chances are very much against our
hitting the land. But the fact of the last French
man-of-war which sailed in that direction never having
returned, has made those seas needlessly unpopular at

It was during one of these fogs that Captain Fotherby,
the original discoverer of Jan Mayen, stumbled upon it
in 1614. While sailing southwards in a mist too thick to
see a ship's length off, he. suddenly heard the noise of
waters breaking on a great shore; and when the gigantic
bases of Mount Beerenberg gradually disclosed themselves,
he thought he had discovered some new continent. Since
then it has been often sighted by homeward-bound whalers,
but rarely landed upon. About the year 1633 the Dutch
Government, wishing to establish a settlement in the
actual neighbourhood of the fishing-grounds, where the
blubber might be boiled down, and the spoils of each
season transported home in the smallest bulk,--actually
induced seven seamen to volunteer remaining the whole
winter on the island. [Footnote: The names of the seven
Dutch seamen who attempted to winter in Jan Mayen's Island
were: Outgert Jacobson, of Grootenbrook, their commander;
Adrian Martin Carman, of Schiedam, clerk; Thauniss
Thaunissen, of Schermehem, cook; Dick Peterson, of
Veenhuyse; Peter Peterson, of Harlem; Sebastian Gyse, of
Defts-Haven; Gerard Beautin, of Bruges.] Huts were built
for them, and having been furnished with an ample supply
of salt provisions, they were left to resolve the problem,
as to whether or no human beings could support the
severities of the climate. Standing on the shore, these
seven men saw their comrades' parting sails sink down
beneath the sun,--then watched the sun sink, as had sunk
the sails;--but extracts from their own simple narrative
are the most touching record I can give you of their

"The 26th of August, our fleet set sail for Holland with
a strong north-east wind, and a hollow sea, which continued
all that night. The 28th, the wind the same; it began to
snow very hard; we then shared half a pound of tobacco
betwixt us, which was to be our allowance for a week.
Towards evening we went about together, to see whether
we could discover anything worth our observation; but
met with nothing." And so on for many a weary day of
sleet and storm.

On the 8th of September they "were frightened by a noise
of something falling to the ground,"--probably some
volcanic disturbance. A month later, it becomes so cold
that their linen, after a moment's exposure to the air,
becomes frozen like a board. [Footnote: The climate,
however, does not appear to have been then so inclement
in these latitudes as it has since become. A similar
deterioration in the temperature, both of Spitzbergen
and Greenland, has also been observed. In Iceland we have
undoubted evidence of corn having been formerly grown,
as well as of the existence of timber of considerable
size, though now it can scarcely produce a cabbage, or
a stunted shrub of birch. M. Babinet, of the French
Institute, goes a little too far when he says, in the
Journal des Debats of the 30th December, 1856, that for
many years Jan Mayen has been inaccessible.] Huge fleets
of ice beleaguered the island, the sun disappears, and
they spend most of their time in "rehearsing to one
another the adventures that had befallen them both by
sea and land." On the 12th of December they kill a bear,
having already begun to feel the effects of a salt diet.
At last comes New Year's Day, 1636. "After having wished
each other a happy new year, and success in our enterprise,
we went to prayers, to disburthen our hearts before God."
On the 25th of February (the very day on which Wallenstein
was murdered) the sun reappeared. By the 22nd of March
scurvy had already declared itself: "For want of
refreshments we began to be very heartless, and so
afflicted that our legs are scarce able to bear us." On
the 3rd of April, "there being no more than two of us in
health, we killed for them the only two pullets we had
left; and they fed pretty heartily upon them, in hopes
it might prove a means to recover part of their strength.
We were sorry we had not a dozen more for their sake."
On Easter Day, Adrian Carman, of Schiedam, their clerk,
dies. "The Lord have mercy upon his soul, and upon us
all, we being very sick." During the next few days they
seem all to have got rapidly worse; one only is strong
enough to move about. He has learnt writing from his
comrades since coming to the island; and it is he who
concludes the melancholy story. "The 23rd (April), the
wind blew from the same corner, with small rain. We were
by this time reduced to a very deplorable state, there
being none of them all, except myself, that were able to
help themselves, much less one another, so that the whole
burden lay upon my shoulders,--and I perform my duty as
well as I am able, as long as God pleases to give me
strength. I am just now a-going to help our commander
out of his cabin, at his request, because he imagined by
this change to ease his pain, he then struggling with
death." For seven days this gallant fellow goes on
"striving to do his duty;" that is to say, making entries
in the journal as to the state of the weather, that being
the principal object their employers had in view when
they left them on the island; but on the 30th of April
his strength too gave way, and his failing hand could do
no more than trace an incompleted sentence on the page.

[Figure: fig-p090.gif]

Meanwhile succour and reward are on their way toward the
forlorn garrison. On the 4th of June, up again above the
horizon rise the sails of the Zealand fleet; but no glad
faces come forth to greet the boats as they pull towards
the shore; and when their comrades search for those they
had hoped to find alive and well,--lo! each lies dead in
his own hut,--one with an open Prayer-book by his side;
another with his hand stretched out towards the ointment
he had used for his stiffened joints; and the last
survivor, with the unfinished journal still lying by his

The most recent recorded landing on the island was effected
twenty-two years ago, by the brave and pious Captain,
now Dr. Scoresby,[Footnote: I regret to be obliged to
subjoin that Dr. Scoresby has died since the above was
written.] on his return from a whaling cruise. He had
seen the mountain of Beerenberg one hundred miles off,
and, on approaching, found the coast quite clear of ice.
According to his survey and observations, Jan Mayen is
about sixteen miles long, by four wide; but I hope soon,
on my own authority, to be able to tell you more about

Certainly, this our last evening spent in Iceland will
not have been the least joyous of our stay. The dinner
on board the "Reine Hortense" was very pleasant. I renewed
acquaintance with some of my old Baltic friends, and was
presented to two or three of the Prince's staff who did
not accompany the expedition to the Geysirs; among others,
to the Duc d'Abrantes, Marshal Junot's son. On sitting
down to table, I found myself between H.I.H. and Monsieur
de Saulcy, member of the French Institute, who made that
famous expedition to the Dead Sea, and is one of the
gayest, pleasantest persons I have ever met. Of course
there was a great deal of laughing and talking, as well
as much speculation with regard to the costume of the
Icelandic ladies we were to see at the ball. It appears
that the dove-cots of Reykjavik have been a good deal
fluttered by an announcement emanating from the gallant
Captain of the "Artemise" that his fair guests would be
expected to come in low dresses; for it would seem that
the practice of showing their ivory shoulders is, as yet,
an idea as shocking to the pretty ladies of this country
as waltzes were to our grandmothers. Nay, there was not
even to be found a native milliner equal to the task of
marking out that mysterious line which divides the prudish
from the improper; so that the Collet-monte faction have
been in despair. As it turned out, their anxiety on this
head was unnecessary; for we found, on entering the
ball-room, that, with the natural refinement which
characterises this noble people, our bright-eyed partners,
as if by inspiration, had hit off the exact sweep from
shoulder to shoulder, at which--after those many
oscillations, up and down, which the female corsage has
undergone since the time of the first Director--good
taste has finally arrested it.

I happened to be particularly interested in the above
important question; for up to that moment I had always
been haunted by a horrid paragraph I had met with somewhere
in an Icelandic book of travels, to the effect that it
was the practice of Icelandic women, from early childhood,
to flatten down their bosoms as much as possible. This
fact, for the honour of the island, I am now in a position
to deny; and I here declare that, as far as I had the
indiscretion to observe, those maligned ladies appeared
to me as buxom in form as any rosy English girl I have
ever seen.

It was nearly nine o'clock before we adjourned from the
"Reine Hortense," to the ball. Already, for some time
past, boats full of gay dresses had been passing under
the corvette's stern on their way to the "Artemise,"
looking like flower-beds that had put to sea,--though
they certainly could no longer be called a parterre;--and
by the time we ourselves mounted her lofty sides, a
mingled stream of music, light, and silver laughter, was
pouring out of every port-hole. The ball-room was very
prettily arranged. The upper deck had been closed in with
a lofty roof of canvas, from which hung suspended glittering
lustres, formed by bayonets with their points collected
into an inverted pyramid, and the butt-ends serving as
sockets for the tapers. Every wall was gay with flags,--the
frigate's frowning armament all hid or turned to ladies'
uses: 82 pounders became sofas--boarding-pikes,
balustrades--pistols, candlesticks--the brass carronades
set on end, pillarwise, their brawling mouths stopped
with nose-gays; while portraits of the Emperor and the
Empress, busts, colours draped with Parisian cunning,
gave to the scene an appearance of festivity that looked
quite fairy-like in so sombre a region. As for our gallant
host, I never saw such spirits; he is a fine old grey-headed
blow-hard of fifty odd, talking English like a native,
and combining the frank open-hearted cordiality of a
sailor with that graceful winning gaiety peculiar to
Frenchmen. I never saw anything more perfect than the
kind, almost fatherly, courtesy with which he welcomed
each blooming bevy of maidens that trooped up his ship's
side. About two o'clock we had supper on the main-deck.
I had the honour of taking down Miss Thora, of Bessestad;
and somehow--this time, I no longer found myself wandering
back in search of the pale face of the old-world Thora,
being, I suppose, sufficiently occupied by the soft,
gentle eyes of the one beside me. With the other young
ladies I did not make much acquaintance, as I experienced
a difficulty in finding befitting remarks on the occasion
of being presented to them. Once or twice, indeed, I
hazarded, through their fathers, some little complimentary
observations in Latin; but I cannot say that I found that
language lend itself readily to the gallantries of the
ball-room. After supper dancing recommenced, and the
hilarity of the evening reached its highest pitch when
half a dozen sailors, dressed in turbans made of flags
(one of them a lady with the face of the tragic muse),
came forward and danced the cancan, with a gravity and
decorum that would have greatly edified what Gavarni
calls "la pudeur municipale."

At 3 o'clock A.M. I returned on board the schooner, and
we are all now very busy in making final preparations
for departure. Fitz is rearranging his apothecary's shop.
Sigurdr is writing letters. The last strains of music
have ceased on board the "Artemise"; the sun is already
high in the heavens; the flower beds are returning on
shore,--a little draggled perhaps, as if just pelted by
a thunder-storm; the "Reine Hortense" has got her steam
up and the real, serious part of our voyage is about to

I feel that my description has not half done justice to
the wonders of this interesting island; but I can refer
you to your friend Sir Henry Holland for further details;
he paid a visit to Iceland in 1810, with Sir G. Mackenzie,
and made himself thoroughly acquainted with its historical
and scientific associations.


SCENE. R. Y. S: "Foam": astern of the "Reine Hortense"




LORD D--.--"All ready, Sir!"

WILSON TO DOCTOR (sotto voce).--"Sir!"


WILSON.--"Do you know, Sir?"


WILSON.--"Oh, nothing, Sir;--only we're going to the
hicy regions, Sir, ain't we? Well, I've just seen that
ere brig as is come from there, Sir, and they say there's
a precious lot of ice this year! (Pause.) Do you know,
Sir, the skipper showed me the bows of his vessel, Sir?
She's got seven feet of solid timber in her for'ard:
WE'VE only two inches, Sir!"


you ready?"

Lord D--.-"Ay, ay, Sir! Up anchor!"



Hammerfest, July.

Back in Europe again,--within reach of posts! The glad
sun shining, the soft winds blowing, and roses on the
cabin table,--as if the region of fog and ice we have
just fled forth from were indeed the dream-land these
summer sights would make it seem. I cannot tell you how
gay and joyous it all appears to us, fresh from a climate
that would not have been unworthy of Dante's Inferno.
And yet--had it been twice as bad, what we have seen
would have more than repaid us, though it has been no
child's play to get to see it.

But I must begin where I left off in my last letter,--just,
I think, as we were getting under way, to be towed by
the "Reine Hortense" out of Reykjavik Harbour. Having
been up all night,--as soon as we were well clear of the
land, and that it was evident the towing business was
doing well--I turned in for a few hours. When I came on
deck again we had crossed the Faxe Fiord on our way north,
and were sweeping round the base of Snaefell--an extinct
volcano which rises from the sea in an icy cone to the
height of 5,000 feet, and grimly looks across to Greenland.
The day was beautiful; the mountain's summit beamed down
upon us in unclouded splendour, and everything seemed to
promise an uninterrupted view of the west coast of Iceland,
along whose rugged cliffs few mariners have ever sailed.
Indeed, until within these last few years, the passage,
I believe, was altogether impracticable, in consequence
of the continuous fields of ice which used to drift down
the narrow channel between the frozen continent and the
northern extremity of the island. Lately, some great
change seems to have taken place in the lie of the
Greenland ice; and during the summer-time you can pass
through, though late in the year a solid belt binds the
two shores together.

But in a historical and scientific point of view, the
whole country lying about the basanite roots of Snaefell
is most interesting. At the feet of its southern slopes
are to be seen wonderful ranges of columnar basalt,
prismatic caverns, ancient craters, and specimens of
almost every formation that can result from the agency
of subterranean fires; while each glen, and bay, and
headland, in the neighbourhood, teems with traditionary
lore. On the north-western side of the mountain stretches
the famous Eyrbiggja district, the most classic ground
in Iceland, with the towns, or rather farmsteads, of
Froda, Helgafell, and Biarnarhaf.

This last place was the scene of one of the most curious
and characteristic Sagas to be found in the whole catalogue
of Icelandic chronicles.

In the days when the same Jarl Hakon I have already
mentioned lorded it over Norway, an Icelander of the name
of Vermund, who had come to pay his court to the lord of
Lade, took a violent wish to engage in his own service
a couple of gigantic Berserks, [Footnote: Berserk, i.e.,
bare sark. The berserks seem to have been a description
of athletes, who were in the habit of stimulating their
nervous energies by the use of some intoxicating drug,
which rendered them capable of feats of extraordinary
strength and daring. The Berserker gang must have been
something very like the Malay custom of running a muck.
Their moments of excitement were followed by periods of
great exhaustion.] named Halli and Leikner, whom the Jarl
had retained about his person,--fancying that two champions
of such great strength and prowess would much acid to
his consequence on returning home. In vain. the Jarl
warned him that personages of that description were wont
to give trouble and become unruly,--nothing would serve
but he must needs carry them away with him; nay, if they
would but come, they might ask as wages any boon which
might be in his power to grant. The bargain accordingly
was made; but, on arriving in Iceland, the first thing
Halli took it into his head to require was a wife, who
should be rich, nobly born, and beautiful. As such a
request was difficult to comply with, Vermund, who was
noted for being a man of gentle disposition, determined
to turn his troublesome retainers over to his brother,
Arngrim Styr, i.e., the Stirring or Tumultuous One,--as
being a likelier man than himself to know how to keep
them in order.

Arngrim happened to have a beautiful daughter, named
Asdisa, with whom the inflammable Berserk of course fell
in love. Not daring openly to refuse him, Arngrim told
his would-be son-in-law, that before complying with his
suit, he must consult his friends, and posted off to
Helgafell, where dwelt the Pagan Pontiff Snorre. The
result of this conference was an agreement on the part'
of Styr to give his daughter to the Berserk, provided he
and his brother would CUT a road through the lava rocks
of Biarnarhaf. Halli and Leikner immediately set about
executing this prodigious task; while the scornful Asdisa,
arrayed in her most splendid attire, came sweeping past
in silence, as if to mock their toil. The poetical
reproaches addressed to the young lady on this occasion
by her sturdy admirer and his mate are still extant. In
the meantime, the other servants of the crafty Arngrim
had constructed a subterranean bath, so contrived that
at a moment's notice it could be flooded with boiling
water. Their task at last concluded, the two Berserks
returned home to claim their reward; but Arngrim Styr,
as if in the exuberance of his affection, proposed that
they should first refresh themselves in the new bath. No
sooner had they descended into it, than Arngrim shut down
the trap-door, and having ordered a newly-stripped
bullock's hide to be stretched before the entrance, gave
the signal for the boiling water to be turned on. Fearful
were the struggles of the scalded giants: Halli, indeed,
succeeded in bursting up the door; but his foot slipped
on the bloody bull's hide, and Amgrim stabbed him to the
heart. His brother was then easily forced back into the
seething water.

The effusion composed by the Tumultuous One on the occasion
of this exploit is also extant, and does not yield in
poetical merit to those which I have already mentioned
as having emanated from his victims.

As soon as the Pontiff Snorre heard of the result of
Arngrim Styr's stratagem, he came over and married the
Lady Asdisa. Traces of the road made by the unhappy
champions can yet be detected at Biarnarhaf, and tradition
still identifies the grave of the Berserks.

Connected with this same Pontiff Snorre is another of
those mysterious notices of a great land in the western
ocean which we find in the ancient chronicles, so interwoven
with narrative we know to be true, as to make it impossible
not to attach a certain amount of credit to them. This
particular story is the more interesting as its denouement,
abruptly left in the blankest mystery by one Saga, is
incidentally revealed to us in the course of another,
relating to events with which the first had no connection.
[Footnote: From internal evidence it is certain that the
chronicle which contains these Sagas must have been
written about the beginning of the thirteenth century.]

It seems that Snorre had a beautiful sister, named Thured
of Froda, with whom a certain gallant gentleman--called
Bjorn, the son of Astrand--fell head and ears in love.
Unfortunately, a rich rival appears in the field; and
though she had given her heart to Bjorn, Snorre--who, we
have already seen, was a prudent man--insisted upon her
giving her hand to his rival. Disgusted by such treatment,
Bjorn sails away to the coasts of the Baltic, and joins
a famous company of sea-rovers, called the Jomsburg
Vikings. In this worthy society he so distinguishes
himself by his valour and daring that he obtains the
title of the Champion of Breidavik. After many doughty
deeds, done by sea and land, he at last returns, loaded
with wealth and honours, to his native country.

In the summer-time of the year 999, soon after his arrival,
was held a great fair at Froda, whither all the merchants,
"clad in coloured garments," congregated from the adjacent
country. Thither came also Bjorn's old love, the Lady of
Froda; "and Bjorn went up and spoke to her, and it was
thought likely their talk would last long, since they
for such a length of time had not seen each other." But
to this renewal of old acquaintance both the lady's
husband and her brother very much objected; and "it seemed
to Snorre that it would be a good plan to kill Bjorn."
So, about the time of hay-making, off he rides, with
some retainers, to his victim's home, having fully
instructed one of them how to deal the first blow. Bjorn
was in the home-field (tun), mending his sledge, when
the cavalcade appeared in sight; and, guessing what motive
had inspired the visit, went straight up to Snorre, who
rode in front, "in a blue cloak," and held the knife with
which he had been working in such a position as to be
able to stab the Pontiff to the heart, should his followers
attempt to lift their hands against himself. Comprehending
the position of affairs, Snorre's friends kept quiet.
"Bjorn then asked the news." Snorre confesses that he
had intended to kill him; but adds, "Thou tookest such
a lucky grip of me at our meeting, that thou must have
peace this time, however it may have been determined
before." The conversation is concluded by an agreement
on the part of Bjorn to leave the country, as he feels
it impossible to abstain from paying visits to Thured as
long as he remains in the neighbourhood. Having manned
a ship, Bjorn put to sea in the summer-time "When they
sailed away, a north-east wind was blowing, which wind
lasted long during that summer; but of this ship was
nothing heard since this long time." And so we conclude
it is all over with the poor Champion of Breidavik! Not
a bit of it. He turns up, thirty years afterwards, safe
and sound, in the uttermost parts of the earth.

In the year 1029, a certain Icelander, named Gudlief,
undertakes a voyage to Limerick, in Ireland. On his return
home, he is driven out of his course by north-east winds,
Heaven knows where. After drifting for many days to the
westward, he at last falls in with land. On approaching
the beach, a great crowd of people came down to meet the
strangers, apparently with no friendly intentions. Shortly
afterwards, a tall and venerable chieftain makes his
appearance, and, to Gudlief's great astonishment, addresses
him in Icelandic. Having entertained the weary mariners
very honourably, and supplied them with provisions, the
old man bids them speed back to Iceland, as it would be
unsafe for them to remain where they were. His own name
he refused to tell; but having learnt that Gudlief comes
from the neighbourhood of Snaefell, he puts into his
hands a sword and a ring. The ring is to be given to
Thured of Froda; the sword to her son Kjartan. When
Gudlief asks by whom he is to say the gifts are sent,
the ancient chieftain answers, "Say they come from one
who was a better friend of the Lady of Froda than of her
brother Snorre of Helgafell." Wherefore it is conjectured
that this man was Bjorn, the son of Astrand, Champion of

After this, Madam, I hope I shall never hear you depreciate
the constancy of men. Thured had better have married
Bjorn after all!

I forgot to mention that when Gudlief landed on the
strange coast, it seemed to him that the inhabitants
spoke Irish. Now, there are many antiquaries inclined to
believe in the former existence of an Irish colony to
the southward of the Vinland of the Northmen. Scattered
through the Sagas are several notices of a distant country
in the West, which is called Ireland ed Mekla--Great
Ireland, or the White Man's land. When Pizarro penetrated
into the heart of Mexico, a tradition already existed of
the previous arrival of white men from the East. Among
the Shawnasee Indians a story is still preserved of
Florida having been once inhabited by white men, who used
iron instruments. In 1658, Sir Erland the Priest had in
his possession a chart, even then thought ancient, of
"The Land of the White Men, or Hibernia Major, situated
opposite Vinland the Good," and Gaelic philologists
pretend to trace a remarkable affinity between many of
the American-Indian dialects and the ancient Celtic.

But to return to the "Foam." After passing the cape, away

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