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Chapter 3

FIRST EXPERIENCES OF NORTHERN TRAVEL.


The diligence was a compact little vehicle, carrying four persons, but we two were so burdened with our guns, sword, money-bag, field-glass, over-boots and two-fathom-long sashes, that we found the space allotted to us small enough. We started at eight o'clock, and had not gone a hundred yards before we discovered that the most important part of our outfit--the maps--had been left behind. It was too late to return, and we were obliged to content ourselves with the hope of supplying them at Upsala or Gefle.

We rolled by twilight through the Northern suburb. The morning was sharp and cold, and the roads, which had been muddy and cut up the day before, were frozen terribly hard and rough. Our fellow-passengers were two Swedes, an unprepossessing young fellow who spoke a few words of English, and a silent old gentleman; we did not derive much advantage from their society, and I busied myself with observing the country through which we passed. A mile or two, past handsome country-seats and some cemeteries, brought us into the region of forests. The pines were tall and picturesque in their forms, and the grassy meadows between them, entirely clear of snow, were wonderfully green for the season. During the first stage we passed some inlets of the Baltic, highly picturesque with their irregular wooded shores. They had all been frozen over during the night. We were surprised to see, on a southern hill-side, four peasants at work ploughing. How they got their shares through the frozen sod, unless the soil was remarkably dry and sandy, was more than I could imagine. We noticed occasionally a large manor-house, with its dependent out-buildings, and its avenue of clipped beeches or lindens, looking grand and luxurious in the midst of the cold dark fields. Here and there were patches of wheat, which the early snow had kept green, and the grass in the damp hollows was still bright, yet it was the 15th of December, and we were almost in lat. 60° N.

The houses were mostly one-story wooden cottages, of a dull red color, with red roofs. In connection with the black-green of the pine and fir woods they gave the country a singularly sombre aspect. There was little variation in the scenery all the way to Upsala. In some places, the soil appeared to be rich and under good cultivation; here the red villages were more frequent, and squat church-towers showed themselves in the distance. In other places, we had but the rough hills, or rather knobs of gray gneiss, whose masses were covered with yellow moss, and the straggling fir forests. We met but few country teams on the road; nobody was to be seen about the houses, and the land seemed to be asleep or desolated. Even at noon, when the sun came out fairly, he was low on the horizon, and gave but an eclipsed light, which was more cheerless than complete darkness.

The sun set about three o'clock, but we had a long, splendid twilight, a flush of orange, rose and amber-green, worthy of a Mediterranean heaven. Two hours afterwards, the lights of Upsala appeared, and we drove under the imposing front of the old palace, through clean streets, over the Upsala River, and finally stopped at the door of a courtyard. Here we were instantly hailed by some young fellows, who inquired if we did not want rooms. The place did not appear to be an inn, but as the silent old gentleman got out and went in, I judged it best to follow his example, and the diligence drove off with our baggage. We were right, after all: a rosy, handsome, good-humored landlady appeared, promised to furnish us with beds and a supper, to wake us betimes, and give us coffee before leaving.

The old gentleman kindly put on his coat and accompanied us to a bookstore on the public square, where I found Akrell's map of Northern Sweden, and thus partially replaced our loss. He sat awhile in our room trying to converse, but I made little headway. On learning that we were bound for Torneå, he asked: "Are you going to buy lumber?" "No," I answered; "we are merely going to see the country." He laughed long and heartily at such an absurd idea, got up in a hurry, and went to bed without saying another word. We had a supper of various kinds of sausage, tough rye bread, and a bowl of milk, followed by excellent beds--a thing which you are sure to find everywhere in Sweden.

We drove off again at half-past six in the morning moon light, with a temperature of zero. Two or three miles from the town we passed the mounds of old Upsala, the graves of Odin, Thor and Freja, rising boldly against the first glimmerings of daylight. The landscape was broad, dark and silent, the woods and fields confusedly blended together, and only the sepulchres of the ancient gods broke the level line of the horizon. I could readily have believed in them at that hour.

Passing over the broad rich plain of Upsala, we entered a gently undulating country, richer and better cultivated than the district we had traversed the previous day. It was splendidly wooded with thick fir forests, floored with bright green moss. Some of the views toward the north and west were really fine from their extent, though seen in the faded light and long shadows of the low northern sun. In the afternoon, we passed a large white church, with four little towers at the corners, standing in the midst of a village of low red stables, in which the country people shelter their horses while attending service. There must have been fifty or sixty of these buildings, arranged in regular streets. In most of the Swedish country churches, the belfry stands apart, a squat, square tower, painted red, with a black upper story, and is sometimes larger than the church itself. The houses of the peasants are veritable western shanties, except in color and compactness. No wind finds a cranny to enter, and the roofs of thick thatch, kept down by long, horizontal poles, have an air of warmth and comfort. The stables are banked with earth up to the hay-loft, and the cattle enter their subterranean stalls through sloping doorways like those of the Egyptian tombs.

Notwithstanding we made good progress through the day, it was dark long before we reached the bridge over the Dal Elv, and of the famous cascades we saw only a sloping white glimmer, between dark masses of forest, and heard the noise of the broken waters. At Elfkarleby we were allowed twenty minutes for dinner--boiled salmon and beefsteak, both bad. I slept after this, until aroused by the old Swede, as we entered Gefle. We drove across a broad bridge, looked over vessels frozen into the inlet of the Gulf, passed a large public square, and entered the yard of the diligence office. A boy in waiting conducted us to a private house, where furnished rooms were to be had, and here we obtained tea, comfortable beds, and the attendance of a rosy servant-girl, who spoke intelligible Swedish.

My first care the next morning, was to engage horses and send off my förbud papers. We were now to travel by "skjuts" (pronounced shoos), or post, taking new horses at each station on the road. The förbud tickets are simply orders for horses to be ready at an appointed time, and are sent in advance to all the stations on the road, either by mail or by a special messenger. Without this precaution, I was told, we might be subjected to considerable delay. This mode of travelling is peculiar to Sweden and Norway. It has been in existence for three or four centuries, and though gradually improved and systematized with the lapse of time, it is still sufficiently complex and inconvenient to a traveller coming from the railroad world.

Professor Retzius had referred me to the botanist Hartman, in case of need, but I determined to commence by helping myself. I had a little difficulty at first: the people are unused to speaking with foreigners, and if you ask them to talk slowly, they invariably rattle away twice as fast as before. I went into a variety shop on the public square, and asked where I could engage horses for Sundsvall. After making myself understood, as I supposed, the clerk handed me some new bridles. By dint of blundering, I gradually circumscribed the range of my inquiries, and finally came to a focus at the right place. Having ordered horses at six the next morning, and despatched the förbud tickets by the afternoon's mail, I felt that I had made a good beginning, and we set out to make the tour of Gefle.

This is a town of eight or ten thousand inhabitants, with a considerable shipping interest, and a naval school. It is a pretty place, well built, and with a neat, substantial air. The houses are mostly two stories high, white, and with spacious courts in the rear. The country around is low but rolling, and finely clothed with dark forests of fir and pine. It was a superb day--gloriously clear, with a south wind, bracing, and not too cold, and a soft, pale lustre from the cloudless sun. But such a day! Sunrise melting into sunset without a noon--a long morning twilight, a low, slant sun, shining on the housetops for an hour or so, and the evening twilight at three in the afternoon. Nothing seemed real in this strange, dying light--nothing but my ignorance of Swedish, whenever I tried to talk.

In the afternoon, we called on the Magister Hartman, whom we found poring over his plants. He spoke English tolerably, and having made a journey through Lapland from Torneå to the Lyngen Fjord, was able to give us some information about the country. He encouraged us in the belief that we should find the journey more rapid and easy in winter than in summer. He said the Swedes feared the North and few of them ever made a winter journey thither, but nothing could stop the Americans and the English from going anywhere. He also comforted us with the assurance that we should find snow only six Swedish (forty English) miles further north. Lat. 60° 35' N., the 17th of December, and no snow yet! In the streets, we met an organ-grinder playing the Marseillaise. There was no mistaking the jet-black hair, the golden complexion and the brilliant eyes of the player, "Siete Italiano?" I asked. "Sicuro!" he answered, joyously: "e lei anche?" "Ah," he said, in answer to my questions, "io non amo questo paese; è freddo ed oscuro; non si gagna niente--ma in Italia si vive." My friend Ziegler had already assured me: "One should see the North, but not after the South." Well, we shall see; but I confess that twenty degrees below zero would have chilled me less than the sight of that Italian.

We were at the inn punctually at six in the morning, but our horses were not ready. The hållkarl, or ostler, after hearing my remonstrances, went on splitting wood, and, as I did not know enough of Swedish to scold with any profit, I was obliged to remain wrathful and silent. He insisted on my writing something (I could not understand what) in the post-book, so I copied the affidavit of a preceding traveller and signed my name to it, which seemed to answer the purpose. After more than half an hour, two rough two-wheeled carts were gotten ready, and the farmers to whom they belonged, packed themselves and our luggage into one, leaving us to drive the other. We mounted, rolled ourselves in our furs, thrust our feet into the hay, and rattled out of Gefle in the frosty moonlight. Such was our first experience of travelling by skjuts.

The road went northward, into dark forests, over the same undulating, yet monotonous country as before. The ground was rough and hard, and our progress slow, so that we did not reach the end of the first station (10 miles) until nine o'clock. As we drove into the post-house, three other travellers, who had the start of us, and consequently the first right to horses, drove away. I was dismayed to find that my förbud had not been received, but the ostler informed me that by paying twelve skillings extra I could have horses at once. While the new carts were getting ready, the postman, wrapped in wolf-skin, and with a face reddened by the wind, came up, and handed out my förbud ticket. Such was our first experience of förbud.

On the next station, the peasant who was ahead with our luggage left the main road and took a rough track through the woods. Presently we came to a large inlet of the Bothnian gulf, frozen solid from shore to shore, and upon this we boldly struck out. The ice was nearly a foot thick, and as solid as marble. So we drove for at least four miles, and finally came to land on the opposite side, near a sawmill. At the next post-house we found our predecessors just setting off again in sleds; the landlord informed us that he had only received my förbud an hour previous, and, according to law was allowed three hours to get ready his second instalment of horses, the first being exhausted. There was no help for it: we therefore comforted ourselves with breakfast. At one o'clock we set out again in low Norrland sleds, but there was little snow at first, and we were obliged to walk the first few miles. The station was a long one (twenty English miles), and our horses not the most promising. Coming upon solid snow at last, we travelled rather more swiftly, but with more risk. The sleds, although so low, rest upon narrow runners, and the shafts are attached by a hook, upon which they turn in all directions, so that the sled sways from side to side, entirely independent of them. In going off the main road to get a little more snow on a side track, I discovered this fact by overturning the sled, and pitching Braisted and myself out on our heads. There were lakes on either side, and we made many miles on the hard ice, which split with a dull sound under us. Long after dark, we reached the next station, Stråtjära, and found our horses in readiness. We started again, by the gleam of a flashing aurora, going through forests and fields in the uncertain light, blindly following our leader, Braisted and I driving by turns, and already much fatigued. After a long time, we descended a steep hill, to the Ljusne River. The water foamed and thundered under the bridge, and I could barely see that it fell in a series of rapids over the rocks.

At Mo Myskie, which we reached at eight o'clock, our horses had been ready four hours, which gave us a dollar banco väntapenningar (waiting money) to pay. The landlord, a sturdy, jolly fellow, with grizzly hair and a prosperous abdomen, asked if we were French, and I addressed him in that language. He answered in English on finding that we were Americans. On his saying that he had learned English in Tripoli, I addressed him in Arabic. His eyes flashed, he burst into a roaring laugh of the profoundest delight, and at once answered in the majestic gutturals of the Orient. "Allah akhbar!" he cried; "I have been waiting twenty years for some one to speak to me in Arabic, and you are the first!" He afterwards changed to Italian, which he spoke perfectly well, and preferred to any foreign language. We were detained half an hour by his delight, and went off forgetting to pay for a bottle of beer, the price of which I sent back by the skjutsbonde, or postillion.

This skjutsbonde was a stupid fellow, who took us a long, circuitous road, in order to save time. We hurried along in the darkness, constantly crying out "Kör på!" (Drive on!) and narrowly missing a hundred overturns. It was eleven at night before we reached the inn at Kungsgården, where, fortunately, the people were awake, and the pleasant old landlady soon had our horses ready. We had yet sixteen English miles to Bro, our lodging-place, where we should have arrived by eight o'clock. I hardly know how to describe the journey. We were half asleep, tired out, nearly frozen, (mercury below zero) and dashed along at haphazard, through vast dark forests, up hill and down, following the sleepy boy who drove ahead with our baggage. A dozen times the sled, swaying from side to side like a pendulum, tilted, hung in suspense a second, and then righted itself again. The boy fell back on the hay and slept, until Braisted, creeping up behind, startled him with terrific yells in his ears. Away then dashed the horse, down steep declivities, across open, cultivated valleys, and into the woods again. After midnight the moon rose, and the cold was intenser than ever. The boy having fallen asleep again, the horse took advantage of it to run off at full speed, we following at the same rate, sometimes losing sight of him and uncertain of our way, until, after a chase of a few miles, we found the boy getting his reins out from under the runners. Finally, after two in the morning, we reached Bro.

Here we had ordered a warm room, beds and supper, by förbud, but found neither. A sleepy, stupid girl, who had just got up to wait on a captain who had arrived before us and was going on, told us there was nothing to be had. "We must eat, if we have to eat you," I said, savagely, for we were chilled through and fierce with hunger; but I might as well have tried to hurry the Venus de Medici. At last we got some cold sausage, a fire, and two couches, on which we lay down without undressing, and slept. I had scarcely closed my eyes, it seemed, when the girl, who was to call us at half-past five o'clock, came into the room. "Is it half-past five?" I asked. "Oh, yes," she coolly answered, "it's much more." We were obliged to hurry off at once to avoid paying so much waiting money.

At sunrise we passed Hudiksvall, a pretty town at the head of a deep bay, in which several vessels were frozen up for the winter. There were some handsome country houses in the vicinity, better cultivation, more taste in building, and a few apple and cherry orchards. The mercury was still at zero, but we suffered less from the cold than the day previous, and began to enjoy our mode of travel. The horses were ready at all the stations on our arrival, and we were not delayed in changing. There was now plenty of snow, and the roads were splendid--the country undulating, with beautiful, deep valleys, separated by high, wooded hills, and rising to bold ridges in the interior. The houses were larger and better than we had yet seen--so were the people--and there was a general air of progress and well-doing. In fact, both country and population improved in appearance as we went northward.

The night set in very dark and cold, threatening snow. We had an elephant of a horse, which kicked up his heels and frisked like an awkward bull-pup, dashed down the hills like an avalanche, and carried us forward at a rapid rate. We coiled ourselves up in the hay, kept warm, and trusted our safety to Providence, for it was impossible to see the road, and we could barely distinguish the other sled, a dark speck before us. The old horse soon exhausted his enthusiasm. Braisted lost the whip, and the zealous boy ahead stopped every now and then to hurry us on. The aurora gleamed but faintly through the clouds; we were nearly overcome with sleep and fatigue, but took turns in arousing and amusing each other. The sled vibrated continually from side to side, and finally went over, spilling ourselves and our guns into a snow-bank. The horse stopped and waited for us, and then went on until the shafts came off. Toward ten o'clock, the lights of Sundsvall appeared, and we soon afterwards drove into the yard of the inn, having made one hundred and fifty-five miles in two days. We were wretchedly tired, and hungry as bears, but found room in an adjoining house, and succeeded in getting a supper of reindeer steak. I fell asleep in my chair, before my pipe was half-finished, and awoke the next morning to a sense of real fatigue. I had had enough of travelling by förbud.


Bayard Taylor