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Chapter 26

THE MIDNIGHT SUN.


Most of the travellers who push as far north as Hammerfest content themselves with one experience of the midnight sun, and return with the same steamer to Drontheim. A few extend their journey to the North Cape, and, once a year, on an average, perhaps, some one is adventurous enough to strike across Lapland to Torneå. The steamers, nevertheless, pass the North Cape, and during the summer make weekly trips to the Varanger Fjord, the extreme eastern limit of the Norwegian territory. We were divided in opinion whether to devote our week of sunshine to the North Cape, or to make the entire trip and see something of the northern coast of Europe, but finally decided that the latter, on the whole, as being unfamiliar ground, would be most interesting. The screw-steamer Gyller (one of Odin's horses) was lying in the harbour when we arrived, and was to leave in the course of the next night; so we lost no time in securing places, as she had but a small cabin and no state-rooms. Nevertheless, we found her very comfortable, and in every respect far superior to the English vessels which ply between Hull and Christiania. Our fellow travellers were all returning to Drontheim--except three Norwegian officers on their way to make an official inspection of the fortress of Wardöhuus--and the last we saw of them was their return, an hour past midnight, from making a second attempt to see the sun from the hills. The night was somewhat obscured, and I doubt if they were successful.

When I went on deck on the morning after our departure, we were in the narrow strait between the island of Mageröe, the northern extremity of which forms the North Cape, and the mainland. On either side, the shores of bare bleak rock, spotted with patches of moss and stunted grass, rose precipitously from the water, the snow filling up their ravines from the summit to the sea. Not a tree nor a shrub, nor a sign of human habitation was visible; there was no fisher's sail on the lonely waters, and only the cries of some sea-gulls, wheeling about the cliffs, broke the silence. As the strait opened to the eastward, a boat appeared, beating into Kjelvik, on the south-eastern corner of the island; but the place itself was concealed from us by an intervening cape. This is the spot which Von Buch visited in the summer of 1807, just fifty years ago, and his description would be equally correct at the present day. Here, where the scurvy carries off half the inhabitants,--where pastors coming from Southern Norway die within a year,--where no trees grow, no vegetables come to maturity, and gales from every quarter of the Icy Sea beat the last faint life out of nature, men will still persist in living, in apparent defiance of all natural laws. Yet they have at least an excuse for it, in the miraculous provision which Providence has made for their food and fuel. The sea and fjords are alive with fish, which are not only a means of existence but of profit to them, while the wonderful Gulf Stream, which crosses 5000 miles of the Atlantic to die upon this Ultima Thule in a last struggle with the Polar Sea, casts up the spoils of tropical forests to feed their fires. Think of arctic fishers burning upon their hearths the palms of Hayti, the mahogany of Honduras, and the precious woods of the Amazon and the Orinoco!

In the spring months, there are on an average 800 vessels on the northern coast, between the North Cape and Vadsö, with a fishing population of 5000 men on board, whose average gains, even at the scanty prices they receive amount to $30 apiece, making a total yield of $150,000. It is only within a very few years that the Norwegian Government has paid any attention to this far corner of the peninsula. At present, considering the slender population, the means of communication are well kept up during eight months in the year, and the result is an increase (perceptible to an old resident, no doubt) in the activity and prosperity of the country.

On issuing from the strait, we turned southward into the great Porsanger Fjord, which stretches nearly a hundred miles into the heart of Lapland, dividing Western from Eastern Finmark. Its shores are high monotonous hills, half covered with snow, and barren of vegetation except patches of grass and moss. If once wooded, like the hills of the Alten Fjord, the trees have long since disappeared, and now nothing can be more bleak and desolate. The wind blew violently from the east, gradually lifting a veil of grey clouds from the cold pale sky, and our slow little steamer with jib and fore-topsail set, made somewhat better progress. Toward evening (if there is such a time in the arctic summer), we reached Kistrand, the principal settlement on the fjord. It has eight or nine houses, scattered along a gentle slope a mile in length, and a little red church, but neither gardens, fields, nor potato patches. A strip of grazing ground before the principal house was yellow with dandelions, the slope behind showed patches of brownish green grass, and above this melancholy attempt at summer stretched the cold, grey, snow-streaked ridge of the hill. Two boats, manned by sea-Lapps, with square blue caps, and long ragged locks of yellow hair fluttering in the wind, brought off the only passenger and the mails, and we put about for the mouth of the fjord.

Running along under the eastern shore, we exchanged the dreadful monotony through which we had been sailing for more rugged and picturesque scenery. Before us rose a wall of dark cliff, from five to six hundred feet in height, gaping here and there with sharp clefts or gashes, as if it had cracked in cooling, after the primeval fires. The summit of these cliffs was the average level of the country; and this peculiarity, I found, applies to all the northern shore of Finmark, distinguishing the forms of the capes and islands from those about Alten and Hammerfest, which, again, are quite different from those of the Lofodens. "On returning from Spitzbergen," said a Hammerfest merchant to me, "I do not need to look at chart or compass, when I get sight of the coast; I know, from the formation of the cliffs, exactly where I am." There is some general resemblance to the chalk bluffs of England, especially about Beachy Head, but the rock here appears to be mica-slate, disposed in thin, vertical strata, with many violent transverse breaks.

As we approached the end of the promontory which divides the Porsanger from the Laxe Fjord, the rocks became more abrupt and violently shattered. Huge masses, fallen from the summit, lined the base of the precipice, which was hollowed into cavernous arches, the home of myriads of sea-gulls. The rock of Sværholtklub, off the point, resembled a massive fortress in ruins. Its walls of smooth masonry rested on three enormous vaults, the piers of which were buttressed with slanting piles of rocky fragments. The ramparts, crenelated in some places, had mouldered away in others, and one fancied he saw in the rents and scars of the giant pile the marks of the shot and shell which had wrought its ruin. Thousands of white gulls, gone to their nightly roost, rested on every ledge and cornice of the rock; but preparations were already made to disturb their slumbers. The steamer's cannon was directed towards the largest vault, and discharged. The fortress shook with the crashing reverberation; "then rose a shriek, as of a city sacked"--a wild, piercing, maddening, myriad-tongued cry, which still rings in my ears. With the cry, came a rushing sound, as of a tempest among the woods; a white cloud burst out of the hollow arch-way, like the smoke of an answering shot, and, in the space of a second, the air was filled with birds, thicker than autumn leaves, and rang with one universal, clanging shriek. A second shot, followed by a second outcry and an answering discharge from the other caverns, almost darkened the sky. The whirring, rustling and screaming, as the birds circled overhead, or dropped like thick scurries of snow-flakes on the water, was truly awful. There could not have been less than fifty thousand in the air at one time, while as many more clung to the face of the rock, or screamed from the depth of the vaults. Such an indignation meeting I never attended before; but, like many others I have heard of, the time for action was passed before they had decided what to do.

It was now eleven o'clock, and Sværholt glowed in fiery bronze lustre as we rounded it, the eddies of returning birds gleaming golden in the nocturnal sun, like drifts of beech leaves in the October air. Far to the north, the sun lay in a bed of saffron light over the clear horizon of the Arctic Ocean. A few bars of dazzling orange cloud floated above him, and still higher in the sky, where the saffron melted through delicate rose-colour into blue, hung light wreaths of vapour, touched with pearly, opaline flushes of pink and golden grey. The sea was a web of pale slate-colour, shot through and through with threads of orange and saffron, from the dance of a myriad shifting and twinkling ripples. The air was filled and permeated with the soft, mysterious glow, and even the very azure of the southern sky seemed to shine through a net of golden gauze. The headlands of this deeply-indented coast--the capes of the Laxe and Porsanger Fjords, and of Mageröe--lay around us, in different degrees of distance, but all with foreheads touched with supernatural glory. Far to the north-east was Nordkyn, the most northern point of the mainland of Europe, gleaming rosily and faint in the full beams of the sun, and just as our watches denoted midnight the North Cape appeared to the westward--a long line of purple bluff, presenting a vertical front of nine hundred feet in height to the Polar Sea. Midway between those two magnificent headlands stood the Midnight Sun, shining on us with subdued fires, and with the gorgeous colouring of an hour for which we have no name, since it is neither sunset nor sunrise, but the blended loveliness of both--but shining at the same moment, in the heat and splendour of noonday, on the Pacific Isles.

This was the midnight sun as I had dreamed it--as I had hoped to see it.

Within fifteen minutes after midnight, there was a perceptible increase of altitude, and in less than half an hour the whole tone of the sky had changed, the yellow brightening into orange, and the saffron melting into the pale vermilion of dawn. Yet it was neither the colours, nor the same character of light as we had had, half an hour before midnight. The difference was so slight as scarcely to be described; but it was the difference between evening and morning. The faintest transfusion of one prevailing tint into another had changed the whole expression of heaven and earth, and so imperceptibly and miraculously that a new day was already present to our consciousness. Our view of the wild cliffs of Sværholt, less than two hours before, belonged to yesterday, though we had stood on deck, in full sunshine, during all the intervening time. Had the sensation of a night slipped through our brains in the momentary winking of the eyes? Or was the old routine of consciousness so firmly stereotyped in our natures, that the view of a morning was sufficient proof to them of the preëxistence of a night? Let those explain the phenomenon who can--but I found my physical senses utterly at war with those mental perceptions wherewith they should harmonise. The eye saw but one unending day; the mind notched the twenty-four hours on its calendar, as before.

Before one o'clock we reached the entrance of the Kiöllefjord, which in the pre-diluvial times must have been a tremendous mountain gorge, like that of Gondo, on the Italian side of the Simplon. Its mouth is about half a mile in breadth, and its depth is not more than a mile and a half. It is completely walled in with sheer precipices of bare rock, from three to five hundred feet in height, except at the very head, where they subside into a stony heap, upon which some infatuated mortals have built two or three cabins. As we neared the southern headland, the face of which was touched with the purest orange light, while its yawning fissures lay in deep-blue gloom, a tall ruin, with shattered turrets and crumbling spires, detached itself from the mass, and stood alone at the foot of the precipice. This is the Finnkirka, or "Church of the Lapps," well known to all the northern coasters. At first it resembles a tall church with a massive square spire; but the two parts separate again, and you have a crag-perched castle of the middle-ages, with its watch-tower--the very counterpart of scores in Germany--and a quaint Gothic chapel on the point beyond. The vertical strata of the rock, worn into sharp points at the top and gradually broadening to the base, with numberless notched ornaments and channels fluted by the rain, make the resemblance marvellous, when seen under the proper effects of light and shade. The lustre in which we saw it had the effect of enchantment. There was a play of colours upon it, such as one sees in illuminated Moorish halls, and I am almost afraid to say how much I was enraptured by a scene which has not its equal on the whole Norwegian coast, yet of which none of us had ever heard before.

We landed a single passenger--a government surveyor apparently--on the heap of rocks beyond, and ran out under the northern headland, which again charmed us with a glory peculiarly its own. Here the colours were a part of the substance of the rock, and the sun but heightened and harmonised their tones. The huge projecting masses of pale yellow had a mellow gleam, like golden chalk; behind them were cliffs, violet in shadow; broad strata of soft red, tipped on the edges with vermilion; thinner layers, which shot up vertically to the height of four or five hundred feet, and striped the splendid sea-wall with lines of bronze, orange, brown, and dark red, while great rents and breaks interrupted these marvellous frescoes with their dashes of uncertain gloom. I have seen many wonderful aspects of nature, in many lands, but rock-painting such as this I never beheld. A part of its effect may have been owing to atmospheric conditions which must be rare, even in the North; but, without such embellishments, I think the sight of this coast will nobly repay any one for continuing his voyage beyond Hammerfest.

We lingered on deck, as point after point revealed some change in the dazzling diorama, uncertain which was finest, and whether something still grander might not be in store. But at last Nordkyn drew nigh, and at three o'clock the light became that of day, white and colourless. The north-east wind blew keenly across the Arctic Ocean, and we were both satisfied and fatigued enough to go to bed. It was the most northern point of our voyage--about 71° 20', which is further north than I ever was before, or ever wish to be again.


Bayard Taylor