Iceland, Summer and Winter
THERE was an unusual noise of hurrying to and fro on the deck of the Phœnix, the stanch little steamer that carries the mail from Denmark to Iceland. It was still very early in the morning of the last day but one of August. The sound that came down from above was clearly some sort of chorus. There was nobody about to ask for information, for every one was apparently on deck. What could it mean ? A glance from the companion-way showed my fellow-passengers singing together in a group, while far off in the distance rose the top, the white, glistening top, of a glacier. It was an Icelander’s welcome to Iceland.
All that day we steamed along a shore that was white in the distant background where it met the sky, but black and rugged in the foreground, and then white again where the sea broke in foam at its feet. Sometimes a waterfall was seen, a straight line of light across the face of a precipice, and then a green-brown slope told of vegetation ; a promise only, in which one was not tempted to place much faith, and which was never fully kept. The Westmann Islands were passed, and we saw where miniature sheep were grazing far up above one’s head. Over a dizzy steep, cut sheer to the sea, a man hung by a rope, while the gulls, mere insignificant specks, wheeled about him. Round about clouds of sea-birds floated upon the water or hovered over it. Now the coast was smoother and greener, and back of it, apparently out of a field of ice, rose Hekla, the Cloak. Then the sun set in the sea, and the ice-peaks turned red as if from the fire glowing within. The night grew dark, but the ship kept on its course, and early the next morning the anchor chain rattled out, a gun was fired, and we were anchored in the harbor of Reykjavik.
Seen from the sea, Reykjavik does not present an imposing appearance. You have before you an ordinary fishing village, made up of a few straggling Streets of little one-story wooden houses, browned by the weather or painted black, as if to anticipate its ravages. Close by the sea is a green mound where once was a fort. Back of it stands a long white house, the Governor’s, with a flagstaff, and a flag flying in honor of our arrival. Still farther back are two small churches, and a graveyard on a hill. That is all, yet Reykjavik is the great point of contact with the outside world; the commercial, the intellectual, and the political centre of Iceland, at the same time hand, heart, and head.
If you are fortunate in securing early the services of a boatman from the shore, you are stowed, with your luggage, in his boat, and presently landed at one of the several long wooden piers that run down into the water. Then you pick your way between the piles of dried codfish, making room for a woman who is carrying an unsavory load of them upon her head, and at last you are on shore. The distinctive characteristic of Reykjavik at certain seasons of the year is codfish. It is the principal article of export, and one of the few sources of wealth. The air is heavy and the ground is covered with it, until, at last, it is loaded upon ships and disseminated throughout Europe. The coat of arms of Iceland is a codfish spread open upon a shield, and surmounted by a crown.
The chief beauties of Reykjavik are not of itself, but of its surroundings. Away to the west, beyond the islands of the harbor, roll the bright blue waters of the Faxa Fjord. Sixty miles to the north rises, as if out of the sea, the single icy jieak of Snowfell. Nearer are the slopes of Esja, with their ever-varying color, violet, purple, pink, and glowing red. On the land side the view is shut in by black mountains, rough and jagged notches across the horizon, with here and there a volcanic peak as symmetrical as a sugar-loaf. A little way off, from some warm springs, whose “reek” gives the town its name, a cloud of steam floats lazily.
Reykjavik, poor little metropolis of two thousand inhabitants, has, nevertheless, its sights and sounds. Its houses, witli but few exceptions of wood, consist usually of a single story, but in isolated instances rise to the dignity of two. Through the town runs a wide and tolerably straight street, on which live several of the dignitaries of the island, the Bishop, the Governor, the ChiefJustice, and other members of the government. Upon one side, surrounded by wooden palings, is the public square, in the centre of which stands a bronze statue of Thorwahlsen, presented by the Danish government to the native country of the sculptor. At the farther end is the little cathedral, which contains a marble font by the artist himself. Around the different sides of the square are grouped the new parliament house, the post-office, and a school for girls, which draws its pupils from all parts of the country. One of the most imposing buildings of the capital is the jail, and two of the most awe-inspiring of her citizens are the policemen, who in turn patrol the streets in felt helmets and uniform. It was not discovered, however, that they ever arrested anybody, because nobody ever so far forgot himself as to warrant arrest. The jail consequently is always empty, a fact that can be but imperfectly understood when one sees its manifest superiority to all other dwellings. One of the policemen exercises, in addition to his function of guardian of the public weal, that of librarian of the Icelandic Literary Society, which was established as long ago as 1816, and has published many works. He is also an author, and has written at least one valuable book.
The streets of Reykjavik are unpaved, but at certain corners, wide apart, stand lamp-posts, whereon burn kerosene lamps to light the belated citizen to his door. One of the most characteristic of street sights is the long lines of ponies that almost continually come and go, bringing loads of dried fish, and carrying back the necessaries of life; and almost all of life’s necessary demands in Iceland must be supplied from without. Even the wood with which the houses are framed comes from Norway, and must be taken into the interior on the backs of horses. A frequent sight is a procession of ponies, each with a board on either side, fastened at one end to the pack-saddle, while the other end is left to trail and bump along the uneven road. On pleasant mornings another kind of procession is often seen. It is composed of women and girls, each with a wooden tub, and all going to the warm springs to do the household washing. The water can be had at all temperatures, from boiling hot, where it bubbles up out of the earth, to tepid, farther down the little stream formed from the overflow. Dipping up a tubful of hot water, the washerwoman puts her washing to soak, and then selects a convenient place upon the bank near the water’s edge, where she kneels and rubs and wrings piece by piece.
The Icelanders show plainly enough their Scandinavian origin, and but little new blood has come in since the settlement, over a thousand years ago. One sees, however, fewer pleasing faces, both among men and women, than in Norway. It is a harsh life at the best in this unpropitious climate. It is far too serious a matter to be lived lightly, and there are few pleasures. The ordinary Icelander is a person who is phenomenally serious, seldom smiles, and neither can take a joke nor make one. In stature and physique he is slighter than the Norwegian. His height is not so great, his shoulders are less broad, and his limbs less brawny. In his costume, except for his shoes of ill-tanned sealskin, there is but little unconventionality. His suit is of black homespun, for the Icelandic sheep produce wool of excellent quality and length, which the housewives spin and weave during the long nights of winter.
The feminine costume is more characteristic. On ordinary, every-day occasions the garb is all of black, relieved only at the bosom by a coquettish glimpse of white chemisette stiffly starched. The abundant hair is carefully braided, usually in four strands, which are then caught up at the ends. Matron and maid, the women wear upon the head, both at home and abroad, a jaunty disk-like cap, black in color, and so firmly knitted that it seems to be of cloth; from its centre depends to the shoulder a tassel of silk, held at the top by a silver slide. The peasant maids, who often have bright eyes and full, red-cheeked faces, know how, by a toss of the head, to throw these tassels saucily from one side to the other. Where it can be afforded, a black silk apron completes the.attire.
The holiday costume is still more effective. A dress waist elaborately embroidered with silver thread, and often a precious heirloom for generations, replaces the one ordinarily worn. A silver belt of antique workmanship clasps the waist, and upon the head is set the graceful faldur, a Phrygian helmet of stiff white linen, over which is thrown a white gauze veil. A gala costume, now scarcely ever seen, is still more elaborate. In addition to the silver ornaments of belt and waist, a flat silverembroidered ruff stands stiffly from the neck. Upon the head is wound, like a turban, a handkerchief of figured silk, while over it curves a stiff white linen headdress, shaped like a miniature pulpit sounding-board. In Reykjavik one also sees, here and there, the conventional dress of woman; for the wives and daughters of many of the government officials have been educated abroad. A glance into many of the houses shows, too, the cosmopolitan tastes of their inhabitants. There are pianos and pictures, the London illustrated papers, the Revue du Monde, and the last new Danish novel. Reykjavik, however, is not Iceland any more than Paris really is France ; and to find the characteristic life of the people one must seek it outside of the little town.
Town life, in fact, is a matter of comparatively recent growth in Iceland. The only considerable villages are Reykjavik in the south, and Akreyri in the north. The rest of the seventy thousand people who make up the total of the population are scattered in small fishing settlements along the coast and in isolated farmsteads about the fertile parts of the island. The west and north are the most thickly inhabited and the most fertile; fertility, however, must he taken in a purely relative sense in a country where there are no trees taller than dwarf willows and birches, over which one can see without difficulty, where grain will not ripen, and the hardiest vegetables rarely will grow.
The interior of the island consists of vast and well-nigh inaccessible plains of volcanic sand and desolate lava fields, which rise in the southeast to the height of considerable mountain-ranges covered with eternal ice and snow. Along the west and north the coast line is broken by innumerable fjords running far up into the land. Into them pour countless streams, whose sloping hanks are clothed, during the summer, with short, rich grass, which forms excellent pasturage for the ponies and sheep, and provides them, in favorable years, with hay for the winter. It is in these grass-grown valleys that the Icelanders most often live.
Travel through the interior is performed entirely by means of ponies. The little Icelandic pony is one of the hardiest of his species ; his life, no doubt, has made him what he is. All summer he toils for a master who does not care to spare him, and when snow has obliterated every pathway, and he can no more serve for a beast of burden, he is not infrequently turned adrift to shift for himself ; then, forsaken and forlorn, he wanders down to the sea-shore to eat the wrack washed up by the waves. Yet he serves you cheerfully and faithfully. Along the rough bridle-paths — for roads are short and few —he carries you with surest foot, close, often, to the brink of frightful precipices, where the slightest misstep or stumble would be certain death alike to pony and to rider ; up hill and down, now fording this stream, and now swimming that, you are borne safely to your journey’s end.
It was one morning in September that our party started out from Reykjavik. Everything had been arranged by Zoega, the guide, and Gisli, his useful auxiliary. The ponies for immediate use were saddled, the packs were adjusted on the wooden pack-saddles, and the dogs were guarding the relay of ponies they were hereafter to drive.
The Icelandic dogs do not merit the slight esteem in which, to judge from ancient Pistol, they were held in Shakespeare’s day. They are very intelligent animals, in race like their congeners of the extreme north of Europe. No traveling party is complete without a number of them. They trot soberly along behind the ponies, now and then going a short distance to one side of the bridle-path, where they stand still a moment looking up and down the line ; if any of the ponies have strayed from their places, the dog on duty instantly is after the delinquents, and by furiously attacking their legs, drives them back into line again. To make your train move faster you have hut to br-r-r-r to the dog and at once he is barking and snapping at the heels of the laggards. There is continual war between horses and dogs. The horses, in their turn, often make an ineffectual hut savage attack on the dogs with teeth and hoof, hut the latter are always too quick for them. If the way is rough and the horses are intractable, the iioor dogs sometimes get very tired, and then they are taken up upon the saddle, either before or behind the rider, where they cling until rested.
There is a road for a short distance out of Reykjavik, but it ends abruptly, and thenceforth your way is hut a succession of bridle - paths, worn by the hoofs of generations of ponies. Now you begin to realize what manner of country Iceland is and how sparsely it is peopled. Often you may travel mile upon mile and not a house nor a human being meet your eye. The panorama that unrolls itself is, nevertheless, one of the most interesting. You start into the lower end of the valley, whose hillsides and slopes, where the sun is warmest, are bright with the greenest grass and gay with short-stemmed flowers — the dandelion the most frequent of all. Your way leads you continually upward — at first gradually, but soon it grows more and more abrupt and difficult. The flowers disappear, the grass gives way to brown heather, and then you have nothing about you but moss-grown volcanic rocks; soon these are bare, and the air grows chill, for the snow-line is low. Higher still you climb, and the path is slippery with fresh-fallen snow, which now flies in a flurry around you. At last you pass the summit and commence the descent. The air changes, and is thick and heavy. Ahead, you hear the barking of the dogs, as they urge on the hesitating horses, but you have lost sight of them, for the fog has settled over you. Lower still, the wind has swept the mist away, and now your view falls upon the rugged surface of a lava field. As far as the eye can reach, it stretches away, a picture of utter chaos and desolation. The path winds laboriously through it, and you have a chance to see it in all its varied phases of disorder. In every conceivable manner it is riven and torn. Here, a crack has been formed, with sides as sharply defined as if laid with trowel and plummet. Yonder, a giant bubble has burst and left a deep chasm, black and jagged. Farther on, the lava has assumed all the capricious forms of the ocean in a storm, as if waves, and swirls, and foam had been caught and instantly turned into stone. Nowhere is there a sign of life ; over all there is silence unbroken. Only now and then the dismal croak of a raven, as he flies heavily across the scene, makes the silence more apparent and the desolation more complete.
Sometimes, however, you look upon quite another scene. Below you the land rolls away, in slopes covered with green, to the shores of a lake, whose still waters strive to rival, in depth of color, the sky above. Near it a cloud of steam from a hot spring floats leisurely away. Flocks of sheep are grazing here and there, upon the hillsides, and yonder rises the yellow smoke from the peat fire of a farmhouse. In the background, beyond the lake, the view is shut in by mountains, whose icy tops glisten in the sunlight.
There are no inns in Iceland, and the goal of your day’s journey must be some farmstead, where you can be sure of shelter for the night. When it is possible the farm of a clergyman is selected, for the Lutheran clergy all eke out a scant living by farming. In close proximity to the house is the little church, which also is made to do duty as a literal place of refuge for the weary traveler. An Icelandic farmstead is peculiarly characteristic and picturesque. You approach, first of all, the homefield, carefully enclosed by a wall of lava blocks and turf: it is of considerable extent and not infrequently on both sides of a road leading directly up to the farmhouse. Before the buildings it ends in a sort of court, sometimes paved with stone, but oftener overgrown with grass. Your arrival has already been announced by the dogs, of which there is always a nondescript collection about every dwelling, and several of them are standing on the highest point of the roof of the house, from which position they have watched your gradual approach, and are now excitedly barking. Before you have fairly entered the court, everybody belonging to the farm has come to the door and regards you curiously ; questions and answers as to your destination are interchanged, and you are made welcome.
The buildings of a farm usually are under one roof and stand in a row, with their gable ends facing the court. They are peculiarly constructed: economy of timber and the exigencies of the climate furnish, however, a key to their architecture. Ordinarily they are but one story in height. They are framed of wood, and their gables also are wooden; their sides and backs, which usually slope to the ground, are commonly of lava and turf; the roof always is thatched with turf, which quickly grows together and forms a continuous covering, through which wet and cold scarcely can penetrate. Seen from a distance a group of farm buildings bears the appearance of an irregular grass-grown hillock, upon which, to heighten the illusion, sheep are calmly grazing. The farmhouse proper consists of two or three gables : next it is the byre for the winter shelter of the cows, if the farmer is sufficiently well-todo to possess any, and next the smithy with its forge and anvil: the Icelander in his isolation is thrown upon his own resources, and is obliged still to exercise, upon occasion, a calling that has descended to him from the immemorial past. Entering the house through the low doorway in one of the gables, you find yourself in a long straight passage, through which, even in broad daylight, you must commonly grope your way. The floor is sometimes of boards, sometimes of earth ; on each side doors open into the adjoining buildings, separated from each other only by wooden partitions. Usually the door on one side leads into the common living-room of the house, which occupies the whole of the building in which it is situated. A quaint and picturesque interior meets your eye. It is a long, low room, lighted at either end by a square window. Above, the beams are visible, and have been made the place of deposit for an indescribable variety of household articles. Along one side Stands the low stationary bed which serves also as a lounging place by day ; some square wooden chests are ranged along the opposite side ; at the end, particularly in winter, several women are carding and spinning wool. This common room always indicates the thrift or poverty of the farmer. Sometimes it is scrupulously neat and orderly, and its furniture is good and substantial, if not costly. Frequently, however, everything about the place is of the most primitive kind, and comfort, convenience, and cleanliness are unknown. The bed looks as if it were never made up; and dirt, fleas, children, and dogs are distributed in equal, though inordinate, proportions.
If you enter the door on the opposite side of the hall-way, you find a smaller room, usually furnished with chairs and a table, and sometimes with a bed. This, in the larger houses, is the spare room of the house, and, after the various saddles and Sunday garments placed here for safe keeping have been removed, it is assigned to the chance guest. If, instead of turning to the right or to the left, you continue your way along the passage to the end, you arrive at the kitchen, which usually is in a separate building. Its floor is of earth. In a fire-place flickers an uncertain fire of peat, and over it hangs an iron pot from a crane. Everything is dark and smokebegrimed, for much of the smoke does not escape through the open chimney, and the only light is from the fire. Perhaps an old woman with her black garments and her tasseled hufa bends over the kettle and stirs its contents. The unsteady fight gives it all a weird appearance, and you wonder if the crone is not muttering an incantation. It is such an interior as Gerard Douw would have loved to paint.
Small as is the kitchen fire, it is often the only one in the house, for fuel in some parts of the island is exceedingly scarce, and must be used with the strictest economy for cooking purposes alone. It is customary to close the houses when the cold winter weather comes on, for then the atmosphere becomes at least warmer than the outside air, if not quite so well adapted for breathing purposes. The houses of the clergy often are better than those described, in that they have more rooms or better accommodations; sometimes, however, they are worse, or the guest chamber already has been allotted, and in that case you retire to the neighboring church.
The churches of Iceland are generally of one character, — small wooden structures, plain and unpretending, with peaked roof and open belfry at the front above the entrance. Often they are set in the midst of grass-grown mounds, a silent congregation just without the door, and then the whole is inclosed with the usual wall of turf and lava. Within, the little church is more peculiar. An aisle runs down the centre, and on each side are rows of straightbacked benches. At the extreme end is the altar, with two tall candlesticks and a low platform in front surrounded by a railing. Everything is plain and unpainted, and there is no attempt at decoration, with the exception of the altar-piece, which not infrequently is a fair copy of some well-known picture of the Crucifixion or the Resurrection. On week days the churches often are made the convenient receptacle of all sorts of articles from the farmhouse. On the floor are straps, and saddles, and bridles; dependent from pegs in the beams or the ceiling are trousers, and shawls, and dresses, coats and petticoats of all materials, shapes, and sizes. Curious they are and out of place, but once or twice we were thankful that they hung so near, for the night proved exceptionally cold, and we took down the whole nondescript collection and spread it over us for additional warmth.
Although he has little to offer, the Icelander willingly shares with you what he has. If there is room in his house you are welcome to it: all wet and travel-stained as not infrequently you are, your garments are placed where they will dry, and you are made as comfortable as circumstances will admit. If, by good luck, there is a salmon boiling in the pot over the fire, you are asked to partake of it. If the house is too small or already is occupied, you are furnished with bedding, which you then spread upon the church floor just in front of the altar, or, if it is large enough, upon the platform inside the altar rail, and go to bed by the light of the candles.
No matter when you come to the farmhouse, it is the same. One day Gisli had miscalculated the distance, and darkness overtook us when we were yet a long way from any habitation. From the ordinary dark night it grew to be as black as any possible Cimmerian desert, and to add to the discomfort we lost the way, and it began to rain. Because of the darkness it was impossible to see the ground over which we rode, and we only knew from the crunching of the horses’ hoofs that we were traversing a plain of volcanic sand, or from their sharp click that our pathway was the flat surface of a lava field. Later on we found ourselves struggling over and between the hummocks of a bog, where the stirrups were knocked off our feet at one moment, and we were half unseated the next. At last, however, after having made an unnecessary detour, we arrived at the farmstead which had been our original destination. Nobody was astir, so Gisli clambered up on the roof of the house and called down the chimney. The people soon appeared, and bedding was given us to spread on the floor of the church. It was a cold night, and the floor was filled with draughty cracks, so that the wardrobe was taken down from its pegs, and the black gown of the priest, which hung at the side of the altar, shared the general fate.
Occasionally we found better accommodations. Once, in the south, we arrived after dark, tired, wet, and hungry, at the house of a clergyman whom we had met in Reykjavik. He was not at home, but his wife received us, and took us to the best room, which bore, in its carpet, and pictures, and well-filled bookshelves unmistakable marks of cultivation. Shortly after the table was spread with a snow-white cloth, and coffee was brought on a silver server by the housewife herself, who sat down and drank with us. One of us, interested in a rare copy of an ancient Saga whose scene of action was about this very place, took it down from the shelf to examine it more carefully, and was asked if he would not accept it as a gift. After a dinner of boiled salmon and potatoes, broiled mutton, rye bread with butter, and the national dish of skyr, or curds, we were shown to a bedroom and comfortable beds. At the foot of Hekla we were met with open-handed hospitality. The white-haired clergyman received us with evident pleasure, and gave us the best room and an adjoining bedroom. His generosity did not stop here, for the comely daughter of the house had soon spread the table in our room with an abundant dinner. The next morning, before we had thought of rising, the same fair maid brought us coffee and cakes on a napkin-covered tray, waited until we had bolstered ourselves up so that we could drink more comfortably, and stood by until we had finished our repast.
It is customary to instruct your guide to distribute among the servants of such a farm a sum proportionate to the size of your party and the duration of your stay, but it would be considered an insult to offer pay directly. Hospitably to entertain the stranger is an old-fashioned usage that is fast dying out on this tourist-traveled globe, but it is still characteristic of Iceland.
Your Icelander himself, wherever you may meet him, is disposed to be friendly and communicative. As snuff-taking is the national vice, he is an inveterate snuff-taker, and offers you, after the usual greetings have been exchanged, his capacious snuff-horn. The habit is usually confined to the men, but women sometimes succumb to its temptations. It is customary to pour out the snuff in a little heap upon the back of the hand, and then to draw it up into the nose, but occasionally a more vigorous votary of the art of snuffing puts the little end of the horn into his nostrils and fills them up in this expeditious manner. Whatever pleasure, real or imagined, the snuff - taker may derive from his habit, its disadvantages are apparent in the unsavory condition of his face, which is usually stained on both sides a dirty brown. If you are acquainted, or your new-found friend feels particularly well disposed toward you, he makes haste to kiss you. Among themselves the people are continually kissing. When they arrive and when they depart, the whole household, men, women, and maids, must be kissed. It was a custom that we found pleasant enough in some cases, but we were not infrequently obliged to discriminate against some and in favor of others. In traveling, a casually met horseman stops and inquires who you are, where you are going, and what your errand may be. If you are riding alone you are usually greeted with “ Sœll ! ” (Be happy !) and then by the question : “ What is the name of this man ? ” If you are belated, you are often met by a traveler who suddenly rides up out of the darkness. “ Happy be you ! ” he cries, and passes on into the night. The universal greeting is a mutual wish for happiness. The customary salutation upon entering a house is “ Happy be you ! ” Upon departing the order is reversed, “ Be you happy ! ” which has the force of a blessing.
The usual objective point of a tour in Iceland is the Great Geyser in the southwestern part of the island. It is most accessible from Reykjavik, and the journey becomes doubly interesting from the fact that the way leads by Thingvalla, where the Althing, the parliament of Iceland, used to meet in the open air, in the midst of some of the grandest scenery of which even Iceland can boast. Down between black precipices of lava, concealed from your view until you are almost close upon them, lie the Thingfields, a green, fertile plain through which runs the little river Axewater. At one end the plain runs down to the bright blue waters of the Thingvallavatn, the largest fresh-water lake in Iceland, whose farther shore is bounded by mountains. At the other end the valley slopes upward to a range of high mountains, whose tops at the time of our visit were covered with snow. Into the valley on the west tumbles the Axewater over the precipice at a single leap ; flowing thence along a chasm, suddenly it changes its course and conies, with a succession of leaps, directly into the middle of the Thingfields, where, broadening out, it forms several sandy islands near the lower part of its course. On the western side of the valley, a continuation of the chasm through which the river first runs, is the Almannagja, the general assembling place of the people. It is simply a great rift in the lava with flat, grassy bottom and black sides, that on the west rising sheer a hundred feet. On the eastern side of the valley is the Hill of Laws, where the legislature sat. Like an island, it is almost completely isolated from the Thingfields by deep rifts, the bottom of which, fifty feet below, is filled with clear blue water. The tongue by which it is joined to the mainland is so narrow that it could be defended, as was sometimes necessary, by a single man. The Hill of Laws proper is a slight elevation in its centre around which were grouped the members of the little parliament.
The site of the old Icelandic Althing is one of the classical places of the world. For almost nine hundred years it was the meeting place of the parliament and the centre of the whole national life. When the assembly met in the middle of June the plain was covered with the tents and booths of the principal men from all parts of the island. It was the scene of games and of friendly contests of all kinds ; of ball-playing, of tugging at a rope, and of wrestling. Bargains were made here and contracts closed; fast friendships and alliances were formed; feuds were healed, and marriages were contracted. It is the stage, too, upon which was enacted many a thrilling scene described in the ancient Sagas. There is little left now at Thingvalla to remind the chance traveler of its former significance. Time has effaced all the old marks and left intact only the green plain, the rocks, and the river.
The clergyman of the little church had hospitably received us and pointed out the places of interest. After a supper in his house, to which we had also contributed from our stores, we picked our way through the graves in the churchyard to the church where we were to sleep. The distant mountain tops shone white and cold in the moonlight, and at their feet the lake sparkled. All was still. Only the low, half-heard sound of falling water rose and fell on the air. Inside the church the beds already were spread upon the floor, and the candles were burning on the altar.
Midway between the Thingfields and the Geyser, after passing a mountain range of black and scarred lava masses and extinct volcanoes, the road is crossed by the river Bridgewater, which comes tumbling down out of the mountains between precipitous banks. Here, however, the banks fall away in a slope, the river broadens out, and is divided into two parts by a wedge-shaped chasm, which suddenly yawns in the river-bed. Lower down, the sides of the stream are again rocky walls, so that this one spot forms the only available crossing place. A rude wooden bridge accordingly has been thrown across the chasm, and presents the unusual spectacle of a bridge in the middle of a river, for to reach it from either side you have first to ford the swiftly running water. Insignificant as it is, it is the only bridge in Iceland, and gives a name to the river over which it stands. The absence of bridges is often a serious inconvenience to the traveler. The smaller streams are forded, but a long detour often is necessary in order to find a suitable crossing place, and even then the fords not infrequently are deep and dangerous, and every year occasion the loss of many lives. When the rivers are too deep to ford they are crossed by ferries, consisting of ordinary fishing - boats managed by men who live in convenient proximity. The ponies are driven down to the river-side and the packs, saddles, and bridles taken off and placed in the boats ; they are then with difficulty urged into the stream, for they dread the icecold water, when they swim across in an irregular line, followed by the boat. If the river is swift or unusually broad, they are tied together, head to tail, and then are towed behind the boat. They are good swimmers and seldom drown, although often obliged to swim long distances, as the rivers, on account of the rugged nature of their sides, can often he crossed only near their months. The brackish water at the river mouths is particularly disliked by the ponies, and, to add to their discomfort, the seals, which swarm in the estuaries, appear to delight in terrifying them. Suddenly and without warning a smooth black head with round eyes appears directly in front of a pony’s face ; and then he plunges and makes the water foam in his excitement and terror. If, from the nature of the river banks, it is impossible to row the boat close to the shore, the ferrymen jump, with perfect nonchalance, into the water, up to their waists if need he, and, taking the passengers up in their arms, like infants, place them dry-shod upon land. The Icelander is a perfect water animal, unshrinking and fearless, although, owing to the coldness of the water, he seldom, if ever, learns to swim. Death by drowning is a common fate in all parts of Iceland, and it is due not infrequently to recklessness in venturing far out to sea in open fishing-boats, or to crossing the streams carelessly in unknown places or at high water.
On approaching the valley (the Hawkadale, in which the Geyser is situated) the clouds of vapor rising from the numerous hot springs and mud volcanoes present the appearance of a busy manufacturing place with steaming and smoking chimneys. It is a broad plain which unfolds itself gradually to view, grassgrown in the distance, but barren in the immediate foreground, where it slopes upward in continually increasing heaps of sand and tufa, forming farther back a line of black mountains. Near the edge of the slope is the group of warm springs. Here the whole surface of the ground is parched and burnt, and filled with fumaroles, and one is obliged to dismount and go cautiously, lest the horse should break through the thin and brittle crust. The Geyser (the Spouter) is a gigantic caldron set in a hillock of calcareous tufa which rises gradually and symmetrically from the surrounding plain. The cone has been formed in the usual way, by deposits from the water itself, which at frequent intervals rises to the top of the basin, overflows for a few minutes, and then resumes its former level, several inches below the brim. The round basin is about sixty feet in diameter at the top, and narrows gradually, like a shallow funnel, toward the centre, from which, five or six feet from the surface, a shaft goes straight down into the earth. The water is as clear as crystal, and the fantastic deposits on the sides of the basin can he seen with perfect distinctness to the bottom. Over its surface, which lies as still as a mirror, hangs a continual cloud of steam. While we were standing close to the edge looking in, thump ! thump ! thump! came the sound and sensation of a violent blow struck three times under our feet; the water boiled up fiercely and ran over the edge, a great column of vapor rose high into the air, and then the water sank back to its former condition of perfect tranquillity. Eruptions take place at very uncertain intervals ; sometimes hours, sometimes weeks intervene, and nowadays they occur less frequently than formerly. The Geyser evidently is gradually dying out. The water, although it does not boil at the surface, still is nearly at the boiling point, and if you can trust in Providence sufficiently to hang your coffee-pot from a crane over the edge so that the bottom shall be well immersed, your coffee soon will be cooking in a gratifying manner.
The Strokkur, or Churn, which lies a short distance away, is much more satisfactory. It is merely an oblong hole in the ground, quite even with the surrounding surface. Inside it is like a well, some five feet wide at the mouth, and looking down through the steam, you see the water surging and boiling in great waves twelve or fifteen feet below. While the Geyser is to the last degree uncertain and capricious, the Strokkur can be made to erupt. It is only necessary to administer a quantity of turf and rocks by way of an emetic (the figure is Icelandic), and a desperate sickness is sure to follow after a short interval. From the farm near by, Gisli had procured a shovel, and cutting a pile of turf carried it to the edge of the Strokkur, where he tumbled it in together. It ought to have produced the desired effect. A glance down the well showed that the water had risen halfway to the top and was boiling more violently than before. A half-hour and an hour passed, and still there was no eruption, and down in the well the commotion had begun to subside. A fresh attempt was made, and a pile of sand and loose rocks was heaped up at the edge, and then thrown in as rapidly as possible. Ten minutes after the water came boiling to the top and burst, a muddy fountain, high up in the air. Again and again the stream shot up, carrying with it rocks, and stones, and half digested sods, which were Hung to a distance on all sides or sank back into the well, only to be hurled out again a minute after. Gradually the eruption diminished. The column of water, at first nearly a hundred feet high, grew lower at each successive outburst. Several times when it appeared to be all over it broke out anew, but each time more feebly than the last, until finally, after half an hour, the water, as at first, lay boiling at the bottom. With the subsidence of the Strokkur, a third spring, a short distance away, called the Little Geyser, which seems to be in some way connected, all at once became active, and repeatedly sent up a column of mingled water and steam ten or twelve feet high. The other springs in the vicinity are of all kinds and sizes. In some of them the water boils furiously, and the steam escapes hissing into the air ; in others the water lies unruffled, and gives evidence of its heat only by the vapor that slowly rises from the surface. One is a deep well filled to the brim with clear water, but the light reflected from the sides is a deep, vivid blue, and the whole glitters and sparkles like a jeweled grotto in a fairy tale. The next morning, after having slept in the church not far distant, we made our toilet in the runlet formed by the overflow’ of the Geyser, and found that the tepid water left the skin deliciously soft and smooth.
Our course now lay to the south. In the home-fields along our route men and women were busily engaged in harvesting the bay, which was loaded on the backs of ponies and stacked near the buildings of the farm. Sometimes we met a number of ponies heavily loaded on either side with crates of turf, which had been cut earlier in the summer and left to dry in the sun, and was now being conveyed to a place of shelter. Once, while we were waiting for the ferryman on the bank of a river, a procession of ponies came slowly down the mountain in the distance. As it drew nearer we saw that it was a funeral; on the back of one of the foremost horses was tied a rude coffin of boards. They halted at the river-side and the coffin was silently placed in the boat; then the saddles were removed, the horses were driven into the water, and struck out for the opposite shore. We could see on the other side how the coffin was again fastened on a pony’s back, and as weirdly as they had come, they were soon lost to sight in the distance. Burials are always made in the little graveyards near the churches, and often it is necessary to come long distances, as the churches in the sparsely settled regions lie far apart.
We saw, a little later, another characteristic scene. It was a public sheepfolding, when the sheep, that have been left during the summer to stray at will wherever they can find sufficient pasturage to tempt them, are again collected. The folds are walled enclosures situated in a convenient and central place. On a certain spec died day in the autumn the whole male population of the district unites in hunting the sheep on every mountain and in every valley for miles around, and all are driven into the common fold. Every sheep is distinguishable by a registered ear-mark, and when all that can be found are collected, they are separated according to their marks and driven away by their owners. A sheep - folding sometimes lasts two or three days, and is an occasion of much conviviality, not always of a strictly pastoral kind. It is a picturesque sight — the men in their suits of rough homespun, the shaggy ponies, the dogs, and the long-wooled sheep. The foreground is a green plain with a turf-grown sheepfold, and round about are the snowcovered mountains and the glaciers.
On every side preparations were now making for the winter, which was soon to settle, long and dark, over the land.
According to the Icelandic almanac, winter commences shortly after the middle of October ; but for a month previous the snow had been gradually creeping farther and farther down the mountain sides. A bright day would melt it off, but it came again persistently, and finally it remained. The air, usually moisture-laden, was now clear and sharp. Night after night the sky was cloudless, and the atmosphere of marvelous transparency. September was the month of auroras ; later they faded by degrees, and finally almost wholly disappeared. But while they were at their best it was truly a magnificent display. Sometimes a complete semicircle stretched across the heavens from east to west, an arc of light, vying with the rainbow in brilliancy of color. At other times a bed of light, white, red, and green, often all together, lay still upon the sky ; now it hung down a waving curtain of changing colors; again, it shot up out of the north across the sky, vanishing and reappearing almost instantaneously.
By November the winter had begun with all its rigor, and fierce storms swept over land and over the sea, which lost its blue and became dull and dark. One by one the ships left the harbor of Reykjavik ; then the last mail-ship sailed, and Iceland was cut off until spring from communication with the outside world.
Although the climate of South Iceland is cold, the winter is scarcely what one would be led to expect from the northern situation. There is not much snow. A few inches usually lay upon the ground, crisp and hard, but not the piled up drifts of a New England winter. Accordingly it was possible to make horseback excursions to the farms round about, and to see the winter life of the people in the country. This season for the Icelander is a time of comparative rest. As nothing can be done abroad be stays of necessity at home, but his life is no mere hibernation. He sleeps a great deal, for his house is insufficiently lighted and the nights are long, but by daylight he has occupations enough. He has boats to build and oars to shape; saddles and harness to make and to mend; or he sorts the wool which the women spin into yarn and then knit into stockings, or weave into coarse homespun or flannel, like wadmal. A busy sound of whirring wheels often greets the ear when you enter the farmhouse, and you find the women all at work at one end of the long room. Another duty devolves on the heads of the household at isolated farms. There are good elementary schools in many places throughout the island, but in remote districts the children must be taught at home. In summer the time is occupied with out-of-door work, but in the comparatively idle days of winter the father, or not infrequently the mother, teaches the children of either sex the common branches. Iceland is perhaps the best-educated community on the face of the earth ; throughout the length and breadth of the land there is nobody who cannot read and write, and the general knowledge of some of these obscure fisherman-farmers is sometimes well-nigh appalling.
In their social conditions the Icelanders are neither the best nor the worst of the world’s people. Although as a whole the nation is to be characterized neither as immoral nor irreligious, its morals are by no means unimpeachable, nor its religion zealous. The little cathedral at Reykjavik and the parish churches throughout the land are well filled on Sundays and festivals with congregations of worshipers. The Bible, thanks to the English Bible Society, is everywhere diffused, and books of homilies and hymns are common in nearly all households ; but the religion is, after all, of that lukewarm quality that characterizes Protestant Germany. As a unit the nation is stanchly Lutheran, and schismatic “ isms ” have never appealed to Icelandic ears, nor found root in Icelandic hearts. Viewed comprehensively, the morals of the country are excellent, but judged in detail, the ethical code is nevertheless not wholly free from anomalies. Crime of any sort is infrequent. The Icelanders are and have always been a litigious folk, and their law-courts are crowded with neighbor feuds and cases of grievance real or imagined, but their jails are empty, and their house doors without locks. In all the land there are no criminal classes, and even petty crime is almost absolutely unknown. With the cardinal virtues it does not fare so well. Three are heeded, but intemperance is common. The principal drink is brandy, of which, as in all high latitudes, astonishing quantities are consumed without apparent ill-effect. It was not, however, a rare experience to meet men in various stages of intoxication; several times in our journeyings belated Icelanders were found lying upon the ground utterly oblivious of things mundane, while their ponies grazed near unconcernedly. It is in the recognized relationship of the sexes that the Icelanders are most unconventional. If the crowded condition of the Icelandic house is borne in mind, it will readily be inferred that privacy in such a place would be, as it really is, well-nigh impossible. The direct consequence is that modesty, in a great majority of the people of either sex, is not even a tradition. Every year a large proportion of the children born is illegitimate. This is, no doubt, partly owing to the loose construction of the marriage laws, but partly, too, to the unrestricted intercourse of the sexes. As children born out of wedlock are legitimized by subsequent marriage, public judgment looks upon a mistake of this character either as a matter that can easily be remedied, or generously condones it as an unfortunate accident. This state of affairs is not confined to one or the other stations of life ; even clergymen were pointed out whose children had been legalized only by a tardy marriage. Once contracted, however, the marriage tie binds fast enough, and is seldom broken. In the social status of the persons concerned it could not be discovered that a questionable birth made the slightest difference ; public opinion simply refuses to take the matter into consideration.
Winter in the usual Icelandic farmhouse, though picturesque, loses much of its charm upon close acquaintance ; there is little poetry associated with it,, but a great deal of stern and uncomfortable reality. The days are extremely short, and the tallow lights, necessary in midwinter more than two thirds of the twenty-four hours, but insufficiently illuminate the low room. The air is cold, damp, and impure, as there are no means of heating or of ventilation. There is excuse for the former because fuel is scarce, but the latter simply is disregarded. With the advent of cold weather the entrance door, which really is the only means of admitting fresh air, is kept carefully closed ; the windows are stationary, and are intended solely for the admission of light. The food during the winter consists principally of dried fish and smoked mutton. Rye flour, obtained from the nearest trading place, is made into hard bread, and potatoes often are to be bad. During the summer, butter lias been made of ewe’s milk and packed away without salt. There is also a kind of cheese, dark brown in color and nearly tasteless. The only luxury is coffee, of which the peojile are inveterate drinkers at all times of the year. For amusement the Icelander plays checkers, the national game, or he reads once more out of the limited number of books that he possesses. The picture, however, that one is apt to form of the cosey family group “ in many a smoky fireside nook,” gathered about one who tells or reads aloud the ancient Sagas, is purely fanciful.
There is a widespread knowledge of the old literature, but there are no fireside nooks. The Icelander is glad when the winter is over, for it is often a season of deprivation and always of hardship. To meet it successfully calls forth all his energies throughout the summer. Its importance over the rest of the year has even made itself felt upon the language. It is not “ How many years old are you ? ” but “ How many winters ? ”
In the little capital, life through the winter went merrily enough. The government functionaries vied with each other in giving and returning dinners, when sometimes the haunch of reindeer was followed by oranges and grapes. In December there was a grand ball at the hospital, at which the music was produced by an accordion and a drum. There were weddings, too, and christenings, both alike chiefly remarkable for the good cheer that succeeded them. In the autumn an antiquarian society had been organized, and to give an earnest of its purpose, it was decided to celebrate in the old heathen manner the great midwinter festival of Thor. An ancient mead-hall accordingly was arranged; long fires were lighted down the centre of the room, and shields were hung upon the walls. The head of the feast sat on a high seat, and around him were the members of the society as henchmen and retainers. The banquet was strictly Icelandic ; only the punch, which figured as mead in the speeches, had an unmistakably foreign flavor, but this was forgotten, and the sign of Thor’s hammer was made in the old way over the cups that were drunk in his honor.
Even in Reykjavik, with its comparative gayety, the winter was tedious by reason of the constantly changing weather. Storm succeeded storm, and sleet and snow lay alternately upon the earth ; the chilling air was heavy with moisture, and cold fogs clung about the coast. Once a furious thunder-storm with vivid lightning came out of the west and flew over the land, sending dawn its shafts upon every mountain-top in its course. Some days were clear, and bright, and beautiful, and the whole landscape gleamed and sparkled in the sunlight.
One morning in February there was a great commotion in the streets of Reykjavik. People were hurrying to and fro, armed with telescopes and glasses of all descriptions, or were conversing excitedly in groups ; some had hastily saddled their ponies, and were galloping off to neighboring hill-tops. The reason was soon apparent, for away down on the horizon was a blot of black which could be nothing but the smoke of an approaching steamship. There was presently no doubt of it, and before many hours an unheard-of thing had happened, — the mail-ship from Denmark lay in the harbor in the middle of winter.
Some days later, in the midst of a driving snowstorm, a fishing-boat waited to convey on board the mail and the few passengers for the return voyage. Healths had been drunk, the final adieux had been said, and last of all, the policeman kissed the departing travelers good-by at the pier.
William H. Carpenter.