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Chapter 33

TELLEMARK AND THE RIUKAN FOSS.


Kongsberg, where we arrived on the 26th of August, is celebrated for its extensive silver mines, which were first opened by Christian IV in 1624, and are now worked by the Government. They are doubtless interesting to mineralogists; but we did not visit them. The guide-book says, "The principal entrance to the mines is through a level nearly two English miles in length; from this level you descend by thirty-eight perpendicular ladders, of the average length of five fathoms each, a very fatiguing task, and then find yourself at the bottom of the shaft, and are rewarded by the sight of the veins of native silver"--not a bit of which, after all, are you allowed to put into your pocket. Thank you! I prefer remaining above ground, and was content with having in my possession smelted specimens of the ore, stamped with the head of Oscar I.

The goal of our journey was the Riukan Foss, which lies in Upper Tellemark, on the south-eastern edge of the great plateau of the Hardanger Fjeld. This cascade disputes with the Vöring Foss the supremacy of the thousand waterfalls of Norway. There are several ways from Kongsberg thither; and in our ignorance of the country, we suffered ourselves to be guided by the landlord of our hotel. Let no traveller follow our example! The road he recommended was almost impassable for carrioles, and miserably supplied with horses, while that through Hitterdal, by which we returned, is broad, smooth, and excellent. We left on the morning after our arrival, taking a road which led up the valley of the Lauven for some distance, and then struck westward through the hills to a little station called Moen. Here, as the place was rarely visited by travellers, the people were simple, honest, and friendly. Horses could not be had in less than two hours; and my postillion, an intelligent fellow far gone in consumption, proposed taking the same horse to the next station, fifteen miles further. He accepted my offer of increased pay; but another, who appeared to be the owner of the horses, refused, demanding more than double the usual rates. "How is it?" said I, "that you were willing to bring us to Moen for one and a half marks, and will not take us to Bolkesjö for less than five?" "It was my turn," he answered, "to furnish post-horses. I am bound by law to bring you here at the price fixed by the law; but now I can make my own bargain, and I want a price that will leave me some profit." This was reasonable enough; and we finally agreed to retain two of the horses, taking the postmaster's for a third.

The region we now traversed was almost a wilderness. There were grazing-farms in the valley, with a few fields of oats or barley; but these soon ceased, and an interminable forest enclosed us. The road, terribly rough and stony, crossed spurs of the hills, slowly climbing to a wild summit-level, whence we caught glimpses of lakes far below us, and the blue mountain-ranges in the west, with the pyramidal peak of the Gousta Fjeld crowning them. Bolkesjö, which we reached in a little more than two hours, is a small hamlet on the western slope of the mountain, overlooking a wide tract of lake and forest. Most of the inhabitants were away in the harvest-fields; but the skyds-shaffer, a tall powerful fellow, with a grin of ineffable stupidity on his face, came forward as we pulled in our horses on the turfy square between the rows of magazines. "Can we get horses at once?" "Ne-e-ey!" was his drawling answer, accompanied with a still broader grin, as if the thing were a good joke. "How soon?" "In three hours." "But if we pay fast prices?" He hesitated, scratched his head, and drawled, "In a liten stund" (a "short time"), which may mean any time from five minutes to as many hours. "Can we get fresh milk?" "Ne-e-ey!" "Can we get butter?" "Ne-e-ey!" "What can we get?" "Nothing." Fortunately we had foreseen this emergency, and had brought a meal with us from Kongsberg.

We took possession of the kitchen, a spacious and tolerably clean apartment, with ponderous benches against two sides of it, and two bedsteads, as huge and ugly as those of kings, built along the third. Enormous platters of pewter, earthen and stone ware, were ranged on shelves; while a cupboard, fantastically painted, contained the smaller crockery. There was a heavy red and green cornice above the bed, upon which the names of the host and his wife, with the date of their marriage, were painted in yellow letters. The worthy couple lay so high that several steps were necessary to enable them to reach the bed, in which process their eyes encountered words of admonition, painted upon triangular boards, introduced to strengthen the pillars at the head and foot. One of these inscriptions ran, "This is my bed: here I take my rest in the night, and when morning comes I get up cheerfully and go to work;" and the other, "When thou liest down to sleep think on thy last hour, pray that God will guard thy sleep, and be ready for thy last hour when it comes." On the bottom of the cupboard was a representation of two individuals with chalk-white faces and inky eyes, smoking their pipes and clinking glasses. The same fondness for decorations and inscriptions is seen in all the houses in Tellemark and a great part of Hallingdal. Some of them are thoroughly Chinese in gaudy colour and grotesque design.

In the course of an hour and a half we obtained three strong and spirited stallions, and continued our journey towards the Tind-Sö. During this stage of twelve or thirteen miles, the quality of our carrioles was tested in the most satisfactory manner. Up-hill and down, over stock and stone, jolted on rock and wrenched in gulley, they were whirled at a smashing rate; but the tough ash and firmly-welded iron resisted every shock. For any other than Norwegian horses and vehicles, it would have been hazardous travelling. We were anxious to retain the same animals for the remaining stage to Tinoset, at the foot of the lake; but the postillions refused, and a further delay of two hours was the consequence. It was dark when the new horses came; and ten miles of forest lay before us. We were ferried one by one across the Tind Elv, on a weak, loose raft and got our carrioles up a frightful bank on the opposite side by miraculous luck. Fortunately we struck the post-road from Hitterdal at this place; for it would have been impossible to ride over such rocky by-ways as we had left behind us. A white streak was all that was visible in the gloom of the forest. We kept in the middle of it, not knowing whether the road went up, down, or on a level, until we had gone over it. At last, however, the forest came to an end, and we saw Tind Lake lying still and black in the starlight. All were in bed at Tinoset; but we went into the common sleeping-room, and stirred the people up promiscuously until we found the housewife, who gave us the only supper the house afforded--hard oaten bread and milk. We three then made the most of two small beds.

In the morning we took a boat, with four oarsmen, for Mael, at the mouth of the Westfjord-dal, in which lies the Riukan Foss. There was no end to our wonderful weather. In rainy Norway the sky had for once forgotten its clouds. One after another dawned the bright Egyptian days, followed by nights soft, starry, and dewless. The wooded shores of the long Tind Lake were illuminated with perfect sunshine, and its mirror of translucent beryl broke into light waves under the northern breeze. Yet, with every advantage of sun and air, I found this lake undeserving of its reputation for picturesque beauty. The highest peaks rise to the height of 2000 feet, but there is nothing bold and decided in their forms, and after the splendid fjords of the western coast the scenery appears tame and commonplace. Our boatmen pulled well, and by noon brought us to Hakenaes, a distance of twenty-one miles. Here we stopped to engage horses to the Riukan Foss, as there is no post-station at Mael. While the old man put off in his boat to notify the farmers whose turn it was to supply the animals, we entered the farm-house, a substantial two-story building. The rooms were tolerably clean and well stocked with the clumsy, heavy furniture of the country, which is mostly made by the farmers themselves, every man being his own carpenter, cooper, and blacksmith. There were some odd old stools, made of segments of the trunk of a tree, the upper part hollowed out so as to receive the body, and form a support for the back. I have no doubt that this fashion of seat is as old as the time of the Vikings. The owner was evidently a man in tolerable circumstances, and we therefore cherished the hope of getting a good meal; but all that the old woman, with the best will in the world, was able to furnish, was milk, butter, oaten bread, and an egg apiece. The upper rooms were all supplied with beds, one of which displayed remarkable portraits of the Crown Prince of Denmark and his spouse, upon the head-board. In another room was a loom of primitive construction.

It was nearly two hours before the old farmer returned with the information that the horses would be at Mael as soon as we; but we lay upon the bank for some time after arriving there, watching the postillions swim them across the mouth of the Maan Elv. Leaving the boat, which was to await our return the next day, we set off up the Westfjord-dal, towards the broad cone-like mass of the Gousta-Fjeld, whose huge bulk, 6000 feet in height, loomed grandly over the valley. The houses of Mael, clustered about its little church, were scattered over the slope above the lake; and across the river, amid the fields of grass and grain, stood another village of equal size. The bed of the valley, dotted with farms and groups of farm-houses, appeared to be thickly populated; but as a farmer's residence rarely consists of less than six buildings--sometimes even eight--a stranger would naturally overrate the number of inhabitants. The production of grain, also, is much less than would be supposed from the amount of land under cultivation, owing to the heads being so light. The valley of the Maan, apparently a rich and populous region, is in reality rather the reverse. In relation to its beauty, however, there can be no two opinions. Deeply sunken between the Gousta and another bold spur of the Hardanger, its golden harvest-fields and groves of birch, ash, and pine seem doubly charming from the contrast of the savage steeps overhanging them, at first scantily feathered with fir-trees, and scarred with the tracks of cataracts and slides, then streaked only with patches of grey moss, and at last bleak and sublimely bare. The deeply-channelled cone of the Gousta, with its indented summit, rose far above us, sharp and clear in the thin ether; but its base, wrapped in forests and wet by many a waterfall--sank into the bed of blue vapour which filled the valley.

There was no Arabian, nor even Byzantine blood in our horses; and our attendants--a stout full-grown farmer and a boy of sixteen--easily kept pace with their slow rough trot. In order to reach Tinoset the next day, we had determined to push on to the Riukan Foss the same evening. Our quarters for the night were to be in the house of the old farmer, Ole Torgensen, in the village of Däl, half-way between Mael and the cataract, which we did not reach until five o'clock, when the sun was already resting his chin on the shoulder of the Gousta. On a turfy slope surrounded with groves, above the pretty little church of Däl, we found Ole's gaard. There was no one at home except the daughter, a blooming lass of twenty, whose neat dress, and graceful, friendly deportment, after the hideous feminines of Hallingdal, in their ungirdled sacks and shifts, so charmed us that if we had been younger, more sentimental, and less experienced in such matters, I should not answer for the consequences. She ushered us into the guests' room, which was neatness itself, set before us a bottle of Bavarian beer and promised to have a supper ready on our return.

There were still ten miles to the Riukan, and consequently no time to be lost. The valley contracted, squeezing the Maan between the interlocking bases of the mountains, through which, in the course of uncounted centuries, it had worn itself a deep groove, cut straight and clean into the heart of the rock. The loud, perpetual roar of the vexed waters filled the glen; the only sound except the bleating of goats clinging to the steep pastures above us. The mountain walls on either hand were now so high and precipitous, that the bed of the valley lay wholly in shadow; and on looking back, its further foldings were dimly seen through purple mist. Only the peak of the Gousta, which from this point appeared an entire and perfect pyramid, 1500 feet in perpendicular height above the mountain platform from which it rose, gleamed with a rich bronze lustre in the setting sun. The valley was now a mere ascending gorge, along the sides of which our road climbed. Before us extended a slanting shelf thrust out from the mountain, and affording room for a few cottages and fields; but all else was naked rock and ragged pine. From one of the huts we passed, a crippled, distorted form crawled out on its hands and knees to beg of us. It was a boy of sixteen, struck with another and scarcely less frightful form of leprosy. In this case, instead of hideous swellings and fungous excrescences, the limbs gradually dry up and drop off piecemeal at the joints. Well may the victims of both these forms of hopeless disease curse the hour in which they were begotten. I know of no more awful example of that visitation of the sins of the parents upon the children, which almost always attends confirmed drunkenness, filth, and licentiousness.

When we reached the little hamlet on the shelf of the mountain, the last rays of the sun were playing on the summits above. We had mounted about 2000 feet since leaving the Tind Lake, and the dusky valley yawned far beneath us, its termination invisible, as if leading downward into a lower world. Many hundreds of feet below the edge of the wild little platform on which we stood, thundered the Maan in a cleft, the bottom of which the sun has never beheld. Beyond this the path was impracticable for horses; we walked, climbed, or scrambled along the side of the dizzy steep, where, in many places, a false step would have sent us to the brink of gulfs whose mysteries we had no desire to explore. After we had advanced nearly two miles in this manner, ascending rapidly all the time, a hollow reverberation, and a glimpse of profounder abysses ahead, revealed the neighbourhood of the Riukan. All at once patches of lurid gloom appeared through the openings of the birch thicket we were threading, and we came abruptly upon the brink of the great chasm into which the river falls.

The Riukan lay before us, a miracle of sprayey splendour, an apparition of unearthly loveliness, set in a framework of darkness and terror befitting the jaws of hell. Before us, so high against the sky as to shut out the colours of sunset, rose the top of the valley--the level of the Hardanger table land, on which, a short distance further, lies the Miös-Vand, a lovely lake, in which the Maan Elv is born. The river first comes into sight a mass of boiling foam, shooting around the corner of a line of black cliffs which are rent for its passage, curves to the right as it descends, and then drops in a single fall of 500 feet in a hollow caldron of bare black rock. The water is already foam as it leaps from the summit; and the successive waves, as they are whirled into the air, and feel the gusts which for ever revolve around the abyss, drop into beaded fringes in falling, and go fluttering down like scarfs of the richest lace. It is not water, but the spirit of water. The bottom is lost in a shifting snowy film, with starry rays of foam radiating from its heart, below which, as the clouds shifts, break momentary gleams of perfect emerald light. What fairy bowers of some Northern Undine are suggested in those sudden flashes of silver and green! In that dim profound, which human eye can but partially explore, in which human foot shall never be set, what secret wonders may still lie hidden! And around this vision of perfect loveliness, rise the awful walls wet with spray which never dries, and crossed by ledges of dazzling turf, from the gulf so far below our feet, until, still further above our heads, they lift their irregular cornices against the sky.

I do not think I am extravagant when I say that the Riukan Foss is the most beautiful cataract in the world. I looked upon it with that involuntary suspension of the breath and quickening of the pulse, which is the surest recognition of beauty. The whole scene, with its breadth and grandeur of form, and its superb gloom of colouring, enshrining this one glorious flash of grace, and brightness, and loveliness, is indelibly impressed upon my mind. Not alone during that half hour of fading sunset, but day after day, and night after night, the embroidered spray wreaths of the Riukan were falling before me.

We turned away reluctantly at last, when the emerald pavement of Undine's palace was no longer visible through the shooting meteors of silver foam. The depths of Westfjord-dal were filled with purple darkness: only the perfect pyramid of the Gousta, lifted upon a mountain basement more than 4000 feet in height, shone like a colossal wedge of fire against the violet sky. By the time we reached our horses we discovered that we were hungry, and, leaving the attendants to follow at their leisure, we urged the tired animals down the rocky road. The smell of fresh-cut grain and sweet mountain hay filled the cool evening air; darkness crept under the birches and pines, and we no longer met the home-going harvesters. Between nine and ten our horses took the way to a gaard standing a little off the road; but it did not appear to be Ole Torgensen's, so we kept on. In the darkness, however, we began to doubt our memory, and finally turned back again. This time there could be no mistake: it was not Ole Torgensen's. I knocked at various doors, and hallooed loudly, until a sleepy farmer made his appearance, and started us forward again. He kindly offered to accompany us, but we did not think it necessary. Terribly fatigued and hungry, we at last saw a star of promise--the light of Ole's kitchen window. There was a white cloth on the table in the guests' house, and Ole's charming daughter--the Rose of Westfjord-dalen--did not keep us long waiting. Roast mutton, tender as her own heart, potatoes plump as her cheeks, and beer sparkling as her eyes, graced the board; but emptiness, void as our own celibate lives, was there when we arose. In the upper room there were beds, with linen fresh as youth and aromatic as spring; and the peace of a full stomach and a clear conscience descended upon our sleep.

In the morning we prepared for an early return to Mael, as the boatmen were anxious to get back to their barley-fields. I found but one expression in the guests' book--that of satisfaction with Ole Torgensen, and cheerfully added our amen to the previous declarations. Ole's bill proved his honesty, no less than his worthy face. He brightened up on learning that we were Americans. "Why," said he, "there have only been two Americans here before in all my life; and you cannot be a born American, because you speak Norsk so well." "Oh," said I, "I have learned the language in travelling." "Is it possible?" he exclaimed: "then you must have a powerful intellect." "By no means," said I, "it is a very easy thing; I have travelled much, and can speak six other languages." "Now, God help us!" cried he; "seven languages! It is truly wonderful how much comprehension God has given unto man, that he can keep seven languages in his head at one time. Here am I, and I am not a fool; yet I do not see how it would be possible for me to speak anything but Norsk; and when I think of you, it shows me what wonders God has done. Will you not make a mark under your name, in the book, so that I may distinguish you from the other two?" I cheerfully complied, and hereby notify future visitors why my name is italicised in Ole's book.

We bade farewell to the good old man, and rode down the valley of the Maan, through the morning shadow of the Gousta. Our boat was in readiness; and its couch of fir boughs in the stern became a pleasant divan of indolence, after our hard horses and rough roads. We reached Tinoset by one o'clock, but were obliged to wait until four for horses. The only refreshment we could obtain was oaten bread, and weak spruce beer. Off at last, we took the post-road to Hitterdal, a smooth, excellent highway, through interminable forests of fir and pine. Towards the close of the stage, glimpses of a broad, beautiful, and thickly-settled valley glimmered through the woods, and we found ourselves on the edge of a tremendous gully, apparently the bed of an extinct river. The banks on both sides were composed entirely of gravel and huge rounded pebbles, masses of which we loosened at the top, and sent down the sides, gathering as they rolled, until in a cloud of dust they crashed with a sound like thunder upon the loose shingles of the bottom 200 feet below. It was scarcely possible to account for this phenomenon by the action of spring torrents from the melted snow. The immense banks of gravel, which we found to extend for a considerable distance along the northern side of the valley, seemed rather to be the deposit of an ocean-flood.

Hitterdal, with its enclosed fields, its harvests, and groups of picturesque, substantial farm-houses, gave us promise of good quarters for the night; and when our postillions stopped at the door of a prosperous-looking establishment, we congratulated ourselves on our luck. But (--) never whistle until you are out of the woods. The people seemed decidedly not to like the idea of our remaining, but promised to give us supper and beds. They were stupid, but not unfriendly; and our causes of dissatisfaction were, first, that they were so outrageously filthy, and secondly, that they lived so miserably when their means evidently allowed them to do better. The family room, with its two cumbrous bedsteads built against the wall, and indescribably dirty beds, was given up to us, the family betaking themselves to the stable. As they issued thence in the morning, in single garments, we were involuntary observers of their degree of bodily neatness; and the impression was one we would willingly forget. Yet a great painted desk in the room contained, amid many flourishes, the names and character of the host and hostess, as follows:--"Andres Svennogsen Bamble, and Ragnil Thorkilsdatter Bamble, Which These Two Are Respectable People." Over the cupboard, studded with earthen-ware dishes, was an inscription in misspelt Latin: "Solli Deo Glorria." Our supper consisted of boiled potatoes and fried salt pork, which, having seen the respectable hosts, it required considerable courage to eat, although we had not seen the cooking. Fleas darkened the floor; and they, with the fear of something worse, prevented us from sleeping much. We did not ask for coffee in the morning, but, as soon as we could procure horses, drove away hungry and disgusted from Bamble-Kaasa and its respectable inhabitants.

The church of Hitterdal, larger than that of Borgund, dates from about the same period, probably the twelfth century. Its style is similar, although it has not the same horned ornaments upon the roof, and the Byzantine features being simpler, produce a more harmonious effect. It is a charmingly quaint and picturesque building, and the people of the valley are justly proud of it. The interior has been renovated, not in the best style.

Well, to make this very long chapter short, we passed the beautiful falls of the Tind Elv, drove for more than twenty miles over wild piny hills, and then descended to Kongsberg, where Fru Hansen comforted us with a good dinner. The next day we breakfasted in Drammen, and, in baking heat and stifling dust, traversed the civilised country between that city and Christiania. Our Norwegian travel was now at an end; and, as a snobby Englishman once said to me of the Nile, "it is a good thing to have gotten over."


Bayard Taylor