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Chapter 30

A TRIP TO THE VÖRING-FOSS.


After waiting only five hours, we obtained three horses and drove away from Bergen. It was a superb afternoon, spotlessly blue overhead, with still bluer water below, and hills of dark, velvety verdure throbbing and sparkling in the sunshine, and the breezes from off the fjord. We sped past the long line of suburban gardens, through the linden avenues, which, somehow or other, suggested to me the days of the Hanseatic League, past Tivoli, the Hoboken of Bergen, and on the summit of the hill beyond stopped to take a parting look at the beautiful city. She sat at the foot of her guardian mountain, across the lake, her white towers and red roofs rising in sharp relief against the purple background of the islands which protect her from the sea. In colour, form, and atmospheric effect, the picture was perfect. Norway is particularly fortunate in the position and surroundings of her three chief cities. Bergen bears away the palm, truly, but either of them has few rivals in Europe.

Our road led at first over well-cultivated hills dotted with comfortable farmhouses--a rolling, broken country enclosed by rugged and sterile groups of hills. After some miles we turned northward into a narrow valley running parallel to the coast line. The afternoon sun, shining over the shoulder of the mountain-ridge on our left, illuminated with dazzling effect the green pastures in the bosom of the valley, and the groves of twinkling birch and sombre fir on the opposite slope. I have never seen purer tints in the sunshine--never a softer transparency in the shadows. The landscape was ideal in its beauty, except the houses, whose squalor and discomfort were real. Our first station lay off the road, on a hill. A very friendly old man promised to get us horses as soon as possible, and his wife set before us the best fare the house afforded--milk, oaten shingles, and bad cheese. The house was dirty, and the aspect of the family bed, which occupied one end of the room, merely divided by boards into separate compartments for the parents, children and servants was sufficient to banish sleep. Notwithstanding the poverty of the place, the old woman set a good value upon her choice provender. The horses were soon forthcoming, and the man, whose apparent kindness increased every moment, said to me, "Have I not done well? Is it not very well that I have brought you horses so soon?" I assented cheerfully, but he still repeated the same questions, and I was stupid enough not to discover their meaning, until he added; "I have done everything so well, that you ought to give me something for it." The naďve manner of this request made it seem reasonable, and I gave him something accordingly, though a little disappointed, for I had congratulated myself on finding at last a friendly and obliging skyds-skaffer (Postmaster) in Norway.

Towards evening we reached a little village on the shore of the Osterfjord. Here the road terminated, and a water station of eighteen miles in length lay before us. The fjords on the western coast of Norway are narrow, shut in by lofty and abrupt mountains, and penetrate far into the land--frequently to the distance of a hundred miles. The general direction of the valleys is parallel to the line of the coast, intersecting the fjords at nearly a right angle, so that they, in connection with these watery defiles, divide the mountains into immense irregular blocks, with very precipitous sides and a summit table-land varying from two to four thousand feet above the sea level. For this reason there is no continuous road in all western Norway, but alternate links of land and water--boats and post-horses. The deepest fjords reach very nearly to the spinal ridge of the mountain region, and a land-road from Bergen to this line would be more difficult to construct than any of the great highways across the Alps. In proportion to her population and means, Norway has done more for roads than any country in the world. Not only her main thoroughfares, but even her by-ways, give evidence of astonishing skill, industry, and perseverance. The Storthing has recently appropriated a sum of $188,000 for the improvement of roads, in addition to the repairs which the farmers are obliged to make, and which constitute almost their only tax, as there is no assessment whatever upon landed property. There seems a singular incongruity, however, in finding such an evidence of the highest civilisation, in connection with the semi-barbaric condition of the people. Generally, the improvement of the means of communication in a country is in the ratio of its social progress.

As we were obliged to wait until morning before commencing our voyage, we set about procuring supper and lodging. Some dirty beds in a dirty upper room constituted the latter, but the former was a doubtful affair. The landlord, who persisted in calling me "Dock," made a foraging excursion among the houses, and, after some time, laid before us a salted and smoked leg of mutton, some rancid butter, hard oaten bread, and pestilential cheese. I ate as a matter of duty towards my body, but my companions were less conscientious. We deserve no credit for having risen early the next morning, neither was there any self-denial in the fact of our being content with a single cup of coffee. The boatmen, five in number, who had been engaged the evening before, took our carrioles apart and stowed them in the stern, while we three disposed ourselves very uneasily in the narrow bow. As we were about pushing off, one of the men stepped upon a stone and shouted in a loud voice, "Come and help us, fairies!"--whereat the others laughed heartily. The wind was against us, but I thought the men hugged the shore much more than was necessary. I noticed the same thing afterwards, and spoke of it, but they stated that there were strong currents in these fjords, setting towards the sea. The water, in fact, is but slightly brackish, and the ebb and flow of the tides is hardly felt.

The scenery in the Osterfjord is superb. Mountains, 2000 feet high, inclose and twist it between their interlocking bases. Cliffs of naked rock overhang it, and cataracts fall into it in long zigzag chains of foam. Here and there a little embayed dell rejoices with settlement and cultivation, and even on the wildest steeps, where it seems almost impossible for a human foot to find hold, the people scramble at the hazard of their lives, to reap a scanty harvest of grass for the winter. Goats pasture everywhere, and our boatmen took delight in making the ewes follow us along the cliffs, by imitating the bleating of kids. Towards noon we left the main body of the fjord and entered a narrow arm which lay in eternal shadow under tremendous walls of dark rock. The light and heat of noonday were tropical in their silent intensity, painting the summits far above with dashes of fierce colour, while their bases sank in blue gloom to meet the green darkness of the water. Again and again the heights enclosed us, so that there was no outlet; but they opened as if purposely to make way for us, until our keel grated the pebbly barrier of a narrow valley, where the land road was resumed. Four miles through this gap brought us to another branch of the same fjord, where we were obliged to have our carrioles taken to pieces and shipped for a short voyage.

At its extremity the fjord narrowed, and still loftier mountains overhung it. Shut in by these, like some palmy dell in the heart of the porphyry mountains of the Sahara, lay Bolstadören, a miracle of greenness and beauty. A mantle of emerald velvet, falling in the softest slopes and swells to the water's edge, was thrown upon the valley; the barley had been cut and bound to long upright poles to dry, rising like golden pillars from the shaven stubble; and, to crown all, above the landing-place stood a two-story house, with a jolly fat landlord smoking in the shade, and half-a-dozen pleasant-looking women gossiping in-doors. "Can we get anything to eat?" was the first question. "The gentlemen can have fresh salmon and potatoes, and red wine if they wish it," answered the mistress. Of course we wished it; we wished for any food clean enough to be eatable, and the promise of such fare was like the falling of manna in the desert. The salmon, fresh from the stream, was particularly fine; the fish here is so abundant that the landlord had caught 962, as he informed us, in the course of one season.

We had but two miles of land before another sheet of water intervened, and our carrioles were again taken to pieces. The postillions and boatmen along this route were great scamps, frequently asking more than the legal fare, and in one instance threatened to prevent us from going on unless we paid it. I shall not bore the reader with accounts of our various little squabbles on the road, all of which tended more and more to convince us, that unless the Norwegians were a great deal more friendly, kind, and honest a few years ago than they are now, they have been more over-praised than any people in the world. I must say, however, that they are bungling swindlers, and could only be successful with the greenest of travellers. The moment an imposition is resisted, and the stranger shows himself familiar with the true charges and methods of travel, they give up the attempt; but the desire to cheat is only less annoying to one than cheating itself. The fees for travelling by skyds are, it is true, disproportionably low, and in many instances the obligation to furnish horses is no doubt an actual loss to the farmer. Very often we would have willingly paid a small increase upon the legal rates if it had been asked for as a favour; but when it was boldly demanded as a right, and backed by a falsehood, we went not a stiver beyond the letter of the law.

Landing at Evanger, an intelligent landlord, who had four brothers in America, gave us return horses to Vossevangen, and we enjoyed the long twilight of the warm summer evening, while driving along the hills which overlook the valley connecting the lakes of Vossevangen and Evanger. It was a lovely landscape, ripe with harvest, and the air full of mellow, balmy odours from the flowers and grain. The black spire of Vossevangen church, standing dark against the dawning moonlight, was the welcome termination of our long day's journey, and not less welcome were our clean and comfortable quarters in the house of a merchant there. Here we left the main road across Norway, and made an excursion to the Vöring-Foss, which lies beyond the Hardanger Fjord, about fifty miles distant, in a south-eastern direction.

Vossevangen, in the splendour of a cloudless morning, was even more beautiful than as a moonlit haven of repose. The compact little village lay half buried in trees, clustered about the massive old church, with its black, pointed tower, and roof covered with pitched shingles, in the centre of the valley, while the mountains around shone bald and bright through floating veils of vapour which had risen from the lake. The people were all at work in the fields betimes, cutting and stacking the barley. The grass-fields, cut smooth and close, and of the softest and evenest green, seemed kept for show rather than for use. The bottom of the valley along which we drove, was filled with an unbroken pine forest, inclosing here and there a lake,

"Where Heaven itself, brought down to Earth, Seemed fairer than above;"

while the opposite mountain rose rich with harvest fields and farmhouses. There are similar landscapes between Fribourg and Vevay, in Switzerland--finer, perhaps, except that all cultivated scenery in Norway gains wonderfully in effect from the savage environment of the barren fjelds. Here, cultivation is somewhat of a phenomenon, and a rich, thickly settled valley strikes one with a certain surprise. The Norwegians have been accused of neglecting agriculture; but I do not see that much more could be expected of them. The subjugation of virgin soil, as we had occasion to notice, is a serious work. At the best, the grain harvests are uncertain, while fish are almost as sure as the season; and so the surplus agricultural population either emigrates or removes to the fishing grounds on the coast. There is, undoubtedly, a considerable quantity of wild land which could be made arable, but the same means, applied to the improvement of that which is at present under cultivation, would accomplish far more beneficent results.

Leaving the valley, we drove for some time through pine forests, and here, as elsewhere, had occasion to notice the manner in which this source of wealth has been drained of late years. The trees were very straight and beautiful, but there were none of more than middle age. All the fine old timber had been cut away; all Norway, in fact, has been despoiled in like manner, and the people are but just awaking to the fact, that they are killing a goose which lays golden eggs. The government, so prudently economical that it only allows $100,000 worth of silver to be quarried annually in the mines of Kongsberg, lest the supply should be exhausted, has, I believe, adopted measures for the preservation of the forests; but I am not able to state their precise character. Except in valleys remote from the rivers and fjords, one now finds very little mature timber.

"The tallest pine, Hewn on Norwegian hills, to be the mast Of some great admiral,"

I have not yet seen.

We at last came upon a little lake, in a close glen with walls 1000 feet high. Not suspecting that we had ascended much above the sea-level, we were surprised to see the gorge all at once open below us, revealing a dark-blue lake, far down among the mountains. We stood on the brink of a wall, over which the stream at our side fell in a "hank" of divided cataracts. Our road was engineered with great difficulty to the bottom of the steep, whence a gentler descent took us to the hamlet of Vasenden, at the head of the lake. Beyond this there was no road for carrioles, and we accordingly gave ours in charge of a bright, active and intelligent little postmaster, twelve years old. He and his mother then rowed us across the lake to the village of Graven, whence there was a bridle-road across the mountains to a branch of the Hardanger Fjord. They demanded only twelve skillings (ten cents) for the row of three miles, and then posted off to a neighbouring farmhouse to engage horses for us.

There was a neat white dwelling on the hill, which we took to be the parsonage, but which proved to be the residence of an army captain on leave, whom we found sitting in the door, cleaning his gun, as we approached. He courteously ushered us into the house, and made his appearance soon afterwards in a clean shirt, followed by his wife, with wine and cakes upon a tray. I found him to be a man of more than ordinary intelligence, and of an earnest and reflective turn of mind, rare in men of his profession. He spoke chiefly of the passion for emigration which now possesses the Norwegian farmers, considering it not rendered necessary by their actual condition, but rather one of those contagions which spread through communities and nations, overcoming alike prudence and prejudice. He deplored it as retarding the development of Norway. Personal interest, however, is everywhere stronger than patriotism, and I see no signs of the emigration decreasing for some years to come.

After waiting a considerable time, we obtained two horses and a strapping farmer's son for guide. The fellow was delighted to find out where we came from, and was continually shouting to the people in the fields: "Here these are Americans: they were born there!" whereat the people stared, saluted, and then stared again. He shouldered our packs and marched beside the horses with the greatest ease. "You are strong," I remarked. "Yes," he replied, "I am a strong Normand," making his patriotism an excuse for his personal pride. We had a terribly tough pull up the mountain, through fine woods, to the summit level of the fjeld. The view backwards, over the lake, was enchanting, and we lingered long on the steep, loth to lose it. Turning again, a desolate lake lay before us, heathery swells of the bleak table-land and distant peaks, touched with snow. Once upon the broad, level summit of a Norwegian fjeld, one would never guess what lovely valleys lie under those misty breaks which separate its immense lobes--what gashes of life and beauty penetrate its stony heart. There are, in fact, two Norways: one above--a series of detached, irregular masses, bleak, snowy, wind-swept and heather-grown, inhabited by herdsmen and hunters: and one below--a ramification of narrow veins of land and water, with fields and forests, highways and villages.

So, when we had traversed the upper land for several miles, we came to a brink overlooking another branch of the lower land, and descended through thick woods to the farms of Ulvik, on the Eyfjord, an arm of the Hardanger. The shores were gloriously beautiful; slopes of dazzling turf inclosed the bright blue water, and clumps of oak, ash, and linden, in park-like groups, studded the fields. Low red farmhouses, each with its hollow square of stables and granaries, dotted the hill-sides, and the people, male and female, were everywhere out reaping the ripe barley and piling it, pillar-wise, upon tall stakes. Owing to this circumstance we were obliged to wait some time for oarsmen. There was no milk to be had, nor indeed anything to eat, notwithstanding the signs of plenty on all sides. My friend, wandering from house to house, at last discovered an old man, who brought him a bowl of mead in exchange for a cigar. Late in the afternoon two men came, put us into a shabby and leaky boat, and pulled away slowly for Vik, ten miles distant.

The fjord was shut in by lofty and abrupt mountains, often interrupted by deep lateral gorges. This is the general character of the Hardanger Fjord, a broad winding sheet of water, with many arms, but whose extent is diminished to the eye by the grandeur of its shores. Nothing can be wilder or more desolate than this scenery, especially at the junction of the two branches, where all signs of habitation are shut out of sight, and one is surrounded by mighty precipices of dark-red rock, vanishing away to the eastward in a gloomy defile. It was three hours and a half before we reached Vik, at the head of a bay on the southern side. Here, however, some English fishermen were quartered and we made sure of a supper. The landlord, of course, received their superfluous salmon, and they were not the men to spare a potato-field, so both were forthcoming, and in the satisfaction of appeased hunger, we were willing to indorse the opinion of a former English traveller in the guest's book: "This place seems to me a paradise, although very probably it is not one." The luxury of fishing, which I never could understand, has taught the Norwegians to regard travellers as their proper prey. Why should a man, they think, pay 50l. for the privilege of catching fish, which he gives away as soon as caught, unless he don't know how else to get rid of his money? Were it not that fishing in Norway includes pure air, hard fare, and healthy exercise, I should agree with somebody's definition of angling, "a rod with a fly at one end and a fool at the other;" but it is all that, and besides furnished us with a good meal more than once; wherefore I respect it.

We were now but eight miles from the Vöring-Foss, and set out betimes the next morning, taking with us a bottle of red wine, some dry bread, and Peder Halstensen as guide. I mention Peder particularly, because he is the only jolly, lively, wide-awake, open-hearted Norwegian I have ever seen. As rollicking as a Neapolitan, as chatty as an Andalusian, and as frank as a Tyrolese, he formed a remarkable contrast to the men with whom we had hitherto come in contact. He had long black hair, wicked black eyes, and a mouth which laughed even when his face was at rest. Add a capital tenor voice, a lithe, active frame, and something irresistibly odd and droll in his motions, and you have his principal points. We walked across the birch-wooded isthmus behind Vik to the Eyfjordsvand, a lake about three miles long, which completely cuts off the further valley, the mountains on either side falling to it in sheer precipices 1000 feet high.

We embarked in a crazy, leaky boat, Peder pulling vigorously and singing. "Frie dig ved lifvet" ("Life let us cherish"), with all the contentment on his face which is expressed in Mozart's immortal melody. "Peder," said I, "do you know the national song of Norway?" "I should think so," was his answer, stopping short in the midst of a wild fjeld-song, clearing his throat, and singing with a fervour and enthusiasm which rang wide over the lonely lake:--

"Minstrel, awaken the harp from its slumbers, Strike for old Norway, the land of the free! High and heroic, in soul-stirring numbers, Clime of our fathers, we strike it for thee! Old recollections awake our affections-- Hallow the name of the land of our birth; Each heart beats its loudest, each cheek glows its proudest, For Norway the ancient, the throne of the earth!"[D]

"Dost thou know," said he, becoming more familiar in his address, "that a lawyer (by the name of Bjerregaard) wrote this song, and the Storthing at Christiania gave him a hundred specie dollars for it. That was not too much, was it?" "No," said I, "five hundred dollars would have been little enough for such a song." "Yes, yes, that it would," was his earnest assent; and as I happened at that moment to ask whether we could see the peaks of the Halling Jökeln, he commenced a soeter-song of life on the lofty fjeld--a song of snow, and free winds, and blue sky. By this time we had reached the other end of the lake, where, in the midst of a little valley of rich alluvial soil, covered with patches of barley and potatoes, stood the hamlet of Sćbö. Here Peder procured a horse for my friend, and we entered the mouth of a sublime gorge which opened to the eastward--a mere split in the mighty ramparts of the Hardanger-Fjeld. Peder was continually shouting to the people in the fields: "Look here! These are Americans, these two, and the other one is a German! This one talks Norsk, and the others don't."

We ascended the defile by a rough footpath, at first through alder thickets, but afterwards over immense masses of rocky ruin, which had tumbled from the crags far above, and almost blocked up the valley. For silence, desolation, and awful grandeur, this defile equals any of the Alpine passes. In the spring, when the rocks, split by wedges of ice, disengage themselves from the summit, and thunder down upon the piled wrecks of ages, it must be terribly sublime. A bridge, consisting of two logs spanned across abutments of loose stones, and vibrating strongly under our tread, took us over the torrent. Our road, for some distance was now a mere staircase, scrambling up, down, under, over, and between the chaos of sundered rocks. A little further, and the defile shut in altogether, forming a cul de sac of apparently perpendicular walls, from 2000 to 3000 feet high. "How are we to get out of this?" I asked Peder. "Yonder," said he, pointing to the inaccessible summit in front. "But where does the stream come from?" "That you will soon see." Lo! all at once a clean split from top to bottom disclosed itself in the wall on our left, and in passing its mouth we had a glimpse up the monstrous chasm, whose dark-blue sides, falling sheer 3000 feet, vanished at the bottom in eternal gloom and spray.

Crossing the stream again, we commenced ascending over the débris of stony avalanches, the path becoming steeper and steeper, until the far-off summit almost hung over our heads. It was now a zigzag ladder, roughly thrown together, but very firm. The red mare which my friend rode climbed it like a cat, never hesitating, even at an angle of 50°, and never making a false step. The performance of this noble animal was almost incredible. I should never have believed a horse capable of such gymnastics, had I not seen it with my own eyes, had I not mounted her myself at the most difficult points, in order to test her powers. You, who have climbed the Mayenwand, in going from the glacier of the Rhone to the Grimsel, imagine a slant higher, steeper, and composed of loose rocks, and you will have an exact picture of our ascent. We climbed well; and yet it took us just an hour and a half to reach the summit.

We were now on the great plateau of the Hardanger Fjeld, 2500 feet above the sea. A wild region lay before us--great swells, covered with heather, sweeping into the distance and given up to solitude and silence. A few isolated peaks, streaked with snow, rose from this upper level; and a deep break on our left revealed the top of the chasm through which the torrent made its way. At its extremity, a mile or more distant, rose a light cloud of vapour, seeming close at hand in the thin mountain air. The thick, spongy soil, not more than two feet deep, rests on a solid bed of rock,--the entire Hardanger Fjeld, in fact, is but a single rock,--and is therefore always swampy. Whortleberries were abundant, as well as the multeberry (Rubus chamoemorus), which I have found growing in Newfoundland; and Peder, running off on the hunt of them, was continually leading us astray. But at last, we approached the wreath of whirling spray, and heard the hollow roar of the Vöring-Foss. The great chasm yawned before us; another step, and we stood on the brink. I seized the branch of a tough pine sapling as a support and leaned over. My head did not swim; the height was too great for that, the impression too grand and wonderful. The shelf of rock on which I stood projected far out over a gulf 1200 feet deep, whose opposite side rose in one great escarpment from the bottom to a height of 800 feet above my head. On this black wall, wet with eternal spray, was painted a splendid rainbow, forming two thirds of a circle before it melted into the gloom below. A little stream fell in one long thread of silver from the very summit, like a plumb-line dropped to measure the 2000 feet. On my right hand the river, coming down from the level of the fjeld in a torn, twisted, and boiling mass, reached the brink of the gulf at a point about 400 feet below me, whence it fell in a single sheet to the bottom, a depth of between 800 and 900 feet.

Could one view it from below, this fall would present one of the grandest spectacles in the world. In height, volume of water, and sublime surroundings it has no equal. The spectator, however, looks down upon it from a great height above its brink, whence it is so foreshortened that he can only guess its majesty and beauty. By lying upon your belly and thrusting your head out beyond the roots of the pines, you can safely peer into the dread abyss, and watch, through the vortex of whirling spray in its tortured womb, the starry coruscations which radiate from the bottom of the fall, like rockets of water incessantly exploding. But this view, sublime as it is, only whets your desire to stand below, and see the river, with its sprayey crest shining against the sky, make but one leap from heaven to hell. Some persons have succeeded, by entering the chasm at its mouth in the valley below, in getting far enough to see a portion of the fall, the remainder being concealed by a projecting rock; and the time will come, no doubt, when somebody will have energy enough to carry a path to its very foot. I envy the travellers who will then visit the Vöring-Foss.

A short distance above the fall there are a few cabins inhabited by soeters, or herdsmen, whither we repaired to procure some fresh milk. The house was rude and dirty; but the people received us in a friendly manner. The powerful housewife laid aside her hay-rake, and brought us milk which was actually sweet (a rare thing in Norway,) dirty, but not rancid butter, and tolerable cheese. When my friend asked for water, she dipped a pailful from a neighbouring stream, thick with decayed moss and vegetable mould, and handed it to him. He was nice enough to pick out a rotten root before drinking, which one of the children snatched up from the floor and ate. Yet these people did not appear to be in want; they were healthy, cheerful, and contented; and their filthy manner of living was the result of sheer indolence and slovenliness. There was nothing to prevent them from being neat and comfortable, even with their scanty means; but the good gifts of God are always spoiled and wasted in dirty hands.

When we opened our bottle of wine, an exquisite aroma diffused itself through the room--a mingled smell of vine blossoms and ripe grapes. How could the coarse vintage sent to the North, watered and chemically doctored as it is, produce such a miracle? We tasted--superb old Chateau Latour, from the sunniest hill of Bordeaux! By whatever accident it had wandered thither, it did not fall into unappreciative hands. Even Brita Halstendsdatter Höl, the strong housewife, smacked her lips over the glass which she drank after sitting to me for her portrait.

When the sketch was completed, we filled the empty bottle with milk and set out on our return.

FOOTNOTES:

[D] Latham's translation.


Bayard Taylor