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Chapter 4

A SLEIGH RIDE THROUGH NORRLAND.


Sundsvall is a pretty little town of two or three thousand inhabitants, situated at the head of a broad and magnificent bay. It is the eastern terminus of the only post-road across the mountains to Trondhjem (Drontheim) in Norway, which passes through the extensive province of Jemteland. It is, consequently, a lively and bustling place, and has a considerable coasting trade. The day after our arrival was market-day, and hundreds of the Norrlanders thronged the streets and public square. They were all fresh, strong, coarse, honest, healthy people--the men with long yellow hair, large noses and blue eyes, the women with the rosiest of checks and the fullest development of body and limb. Many of the latter wore basques or jackets of sheepskin with the wool inside, striped petticoats and bright red stockings. The men were dressed in shaggy sheepskin coats, or garments of reindeer skin, with the hair outward. There was a vast collection of low Norrland sleds, laden with butter, cheese, hay, and wild game, and drawn by the rough and tough little horses of the country. Here was still plenty of life and animation, although we were already so far north that the sun did not shine upon Sundsvall the whole day, being hidden by a low hill to the south. The snowy ridges on the north, however, wore a bright roseate blush from his rays, from ten until two.

We called upon a merchant of the place, to whom I had a letter of introduction. He was almost the only man I met before undertaking the journey, who encouraged me to push on. "The people in Stockholm," said he, "know nothing about Northern Sweden." He advised me to give up travelling by förbud, to purchase a couple of sleds, and take our chance of finding horses: we would have no trouble in making from forty to fifty English miles per day. On returning to the inn, I made the landlord understand what we wanted, but could not understand him in return. At this juncture came in a handsome fellow; with a cosmopolitan air, whom Braisted recognised, by certain invisible signs, as the mate of a ship, and who explained the matter in very good English. I purchased two plain but light and strongly made sleds for 50 rigs (about $14), which seemed very cheap, but I afterwards learned that I paid much more than the current price.

On repacking our effects, we found that everything liquid was frozen--even a camphorated mixture, which had been carefully wrapped in flannel. The cold, therefore, must have been much more severe than we supposed. Our supplies, also, were considerably damaged--the lantern broken, a powder-flask cracked, and the salt, shot, nails, wadding, &c., mixed together in beautiful confusion. Everything was stowed in one of the sleds, which was driven by the postilion; the other contained only our two selves. We were off the next morning, as the first streaks of dawn appeared in the sky. The roads about Sundsvall were very much cut up, and even before getting out of the town we were pitched over head and ears into a snow-bank.

We climbed slowly up and darted headlong down the ridges which descend from the west toward the Bothnian Gulf, dividing its tributary rivers; and toward sunrise, came to a broad bay, completely frozen over and turned into a snowy plain. With some difficulty the skjutsbonde made me understand that a shorter road led across the ice to the second post-station, Fjäl, avoiding one change of horses. The way was rough enough at first, over heaped blocks of ice, but became smoother where the wind had full sweep, and had cleared the water before it froze. Our road was marked out by a double row of young fir-trees, planted in the ice. The bay was completely land-locked, embraced by a bold sweep of wooded hills, with rich, populous valleys between. Before us, three or four miles across, lay the little port of Wifsta-warf, where several vessels--among them a ship of three or four hundred tuns--were frozen in for the winter. We crossed, ascended a long hill, and drove on through fir woods to Fjäl, a little hamlet with a large inn. Here we got breakfast; and though it may be in bad taste to speak of what one eats, the breakfast was in such good taste that I cannot pass over it without lingering to enjoy, in memory, its wonderful aroma. Besides, if it be true, as some shockingly gross persons assert, that the belly is a more important district of the human economy than the brain, a good meal deserves chronicling no less than an exalted impression. Certain it is, that strong digestive are to be preferred to strong thinking powers--better live unknown than die of dyspepsia. This was our first country meal in Norrland, of whose fare the Stockholmers have a horror, yet that stately capital never furnished a better. We had beefsteak and onions, delicious blood-puddings, the tenderest of pancakes (no omelette soufflée could be more fragile), with ruby raspberry jam, and a bottle of genuine English porter. If you think the bill of fare too heavy and solid, take a drive of fifteen miles in the regions of Zero, and then let your delicate stomach decide.

In a picturesque dell near Fjäl we crossed the rapid Indal River, which comes down from the mountains of Norway. The country was wild and broken, with occasional superb views over frozen arms of the Gulf, and the deep rich valleys stretching inland. Leaving Hernösand, the capital of the province, a few miles to our right, we kept the main northern road, slowly advancing from station to station with old and tired horses. There was a snow-storm in the afternoon, after which the sky came out splendidly clear, and gorgeous with the long northern twilight. In the silence of the hour and the deepening shadows of the forest through which we drove, it was startling to hear, all at once the sound of voices singing a solemn hymn. My first idea was, that some of those fanatical Dissenters of Norrland who meet, as once the Scotch Covenanters, among the hills, were having a refreshing winter meeting in the woods; but on proceeding further we found that the choristers were a company of peasants returning from market with their empty sleds.

It was already dark at four o'clock, and our last horses were so slow that the postilion, a handsome, lively boy, whose pride was a little touched by my remonstrances, failed, in spite of all his efforts, to bring us to the station before seven. We stopped at Weda, on the Angermann River, the largest stream in Northern Sweden. Angermannland, the country which it drains, is said to be a very wild and beautiful region, where some traces of the old, original Asiatic type which peopled Scandinavia are yet to be traced in the features of its secluded population. At Weda, we found excellent quarters. A neat, quiet, old-fashioned little servant-girl, of twelve or fourteen, took charge of us, and attended to all our wants with the greatest assiduity. We had a good supper, a small but neat room, clean beds, and coffee in the morning, beside a plentiful provision for breakfast on the way, for a sum equal to seventy-five cents.

We left at half-past seven, the waning moon hanging on the horizon, and the first almost imperceptible signs of the morning twilight in the east. The Angermann River which is here a mile broad, was frozen, and our road led directly across its surface. The wind blew down it, across the snow-covered ice, making our faces tingle with premonitory signs of freezing, as the mercury was a little below zero. My hands were chilled inside the fur mittens, and I was obliged to rub my nose frequently, to prevent it from being nipped. The day was raw and chilly, and the temperature rose very little, although the hills occasionally sheltered us from the wind. The scenery, also, grew darker and wilder as we advanced. The fir-trees were shorter and stunted, and of a dark greenish-brown, which at a little distance appeared completely black. Nothing could exceed the bleak, inhospitable character of these landscapes. The inlets of the Bothnian Gulf were hard, snow-covered plains, inclosed by bold, rugged headlands, covered with ink-black forests. The more distant ridges faded into a dull indigo hue, flecked with patches of ghastly white, under the lowering, sullen, short-lived daylight.

Our road was much rougher than hitherto. We climbed long ridges, only to descend by as steep declivities on the northern side, to cross the bed of an inland stream, and then ascend again. The valleys, however, were inhabited and apparently well cultivated, for the houses were large and comfortable, and the people had a thrifty, prosperous and satisfied air. Beside the farmhouses were immense racks, twenty feet high, for the purpose of drying flax and grain, and at the stations the people offered for sale very fine and beautiful linen of their own manufacture. This is the staple production of Norrland, where the short summers are frequently insufficient to mature the grain crops. The inns were all comfortable buildings, with very fair accommodations for travellers. We had bad luck with horses this day, however, two or three travellers having been in advance and had the pick. On one stage our baggage-sled was driven by a poike of not more than ten years old--a darling fellow, with a face as round, fresh and sweet as a damask rose, the bluest of eyes, and a cloud of silky golden hair. His successor was a tall, lazy lout, who stopped so frequently to talk with the drivers of sleds behind us, that we lost all patience, drove past and pushed ahead in the darkness, trusting our horse to find the way. His horse followed, leaving him in the lurch, and we gave him a long-winded chase astern before we allowed him to overtake us. This so exasperated him that we had no trouble the rest of the way. Mem.--If you wish to travel with speed, make your postilion angry.

At Hörnäs they gave us a supper of ale and cold pig's feet, admirable beds, and were only deficient in the matter of water for washing. We awoke with headaches, on account of gas from the tight Russian stove. The temperature, at starting, was 22° below zero--colder than either of us had ever before known. We were a little curious, at first, to know how we should endure it, but, to our delight, found ourselves quite warm and comfortable. The air was still, dry, and delicious to inhale. My nose occasionally required friction, and my beard and moustache became a solid mass of ice, frozen together so that I could scarcely open my mouth, and firmly fastened to my fur collar. We travelled forty-nine miles, and were twelve hours on the way, yet felt no inconvenience from the temperature.

By this time it was almost wholly a journey by night, dawn and twilight, for full day there was none. The sun rose at ten and set at two. We skimmed along, over the black, fir-clothed hills, and across the pleasant little valleys, in the long, gray, slowly-gathering daybreak: then, heavy snow-clouds hid half the brief day, and the long, long, dusky evening glow settled into night. The sleighing was superb, the snow pure as ivory, hard as marble, and beautifully crisp and smooth. Our sleds glided over it without effort, the runners making music as they flew. With every day the country grew wilder, blacker and more rugged, with no change in the general character of the scenery. In the afternoon we passed the frontier of Norrland, and entered the province of West Bothnia. There are fewer horses at the stations, as we go north, but also fewer travellers, and we were not often detained. Thus far, we had no difficulty: my scanty stock of Swedish went a great way, and I began to understand with more facility, even the broad Norrland dialect.

The people of this region are noble specimens of the physical man--tall, broad-shouldered, large-limbed, ruddy and powerful; and they are mated with women who, I venture to say, do not even suspect the existence of a nervous system. The natural consequences of such health are: morality and honesty--to say nothing of the quantities of rosy and robust children which bless every household. If health and virtue cannot secure happiness, nothing can, and these Norrlanders appear to be a thoroughly happy and contented race. We had occasional reason to complain of their slowness; but, then, why should they be fast? It is rather we who should moderate our speed. Braisted, however, did not accept such a philosophy. "Charles XII. was the boy to manage the Swedes," said he to me one day; "he always kept them in a hurry."

We reached Lefwar, our resting-place for the night, in good condition, notwithstanding the 22° below, and felt much colder in the house, after stripping off our furs, than out of doors with them on. They gave us a supper consisting of smörgås ("butter-goose"--the Swedish prelude to a meal, consisting usually of bread, butter, pickled anchovies, and caviar flavored with garlic), sausages, potatoes, and milk, and made for us sumptuous beds of the snowiest and sweetest linen. When we rose next morning it was snowing. About an inch had fallen during the night, and the mercury had risen to 6° below zero. We drove along in the dusky half-twilight toward Angesjö, over low, broad hills, covered with forests of stunted birch and fir. The scenery continued the same, and there is no use in repeating the description, except to say that the land became more cold and barren, and there seemed to be few things cultivated except flax, barley and potatoes. Still the same ridges sweeping down to the Gulf, on one hand, the same frozen bays and inlets on the other, and villages at intervals of eight or ten miles, each with its great solid church, low red belfry and deserted encampment of red frame stables. Before reaching the second station, we looked from a wooded height over the open expanse of the Gulf,--a plain of snow-covered ice, stretching eastward as far as the eye could reach.

The day gradually became still and cold, until the temperature reached -22° again, and we became comfortable in the same proportion. The afternoon twilight, splendid with its hues of amber, rose and saffron, died away so gradually, that it seemed scarcely to fade at all, lighting our path for at least three hours after sunset. Our postilions were all boys--ruddy, hardy young fellows of fourteen or fifteen, who drove well and sang incessantly, in spite of the cold. They talked much with us, but to little purpose, as I found it very difficult to understand the humming dialect they spoke. Each, as he received his drickpenningar (drink-money, or gratuity), at the end of the station, expressed his thanks by shaking hands with us. This is a universal custom throughout the north of Sweden: it is a part of the simple, natural habits of the people; and though it seemed rather odd at first to be shaking hands with everybody, from the landlord down to the cook and the ostler, we soon came to take it as a matter of course. The frank, unaffected way in which the hand was offered, oftener made the custom a pleasant one.

At Stocksjö we decided to push on to a station beyond Umeå, called Innertafle, and took our horses accordingly. The direct road, however, was unused on account of the drifts, so we went around through Umeå, after all. We had nearly a Swedish mile, and it was just dark when we descended to the Umeå River, across whose solid surface we drove, and up a steep bank into the town. We stopped a few moments in the little public square, which was crowded with people, many of whom had already commenced their Christmas sprees. The shops were lighted, and the little town looked very gay and lively. Passing through, we kept down the left bank of the river for a little distance, and then struck into the woods. It was night by this time; all at once the boy stopped, mounted a snow-bank, whirled around three or four times, and said something to me which I could not understand. "What's the matter?" I asked; "is not this the road to Innertafle?" "I don't know--I think not," he said. "Don't you know the way, then?" I asked again. "No!" he yelled in reply, whirled around several times more, and then drove on. Presently we overtook a pedestrian, to whom he turned for advice, and who willingly acted as guide for the sake of a ride. Away we went again, but the snow was so spotless that it was impossible to see the track. Braisted and I ran upon a snow-bank, were overturned and dragged some little distance, but we righted ourselves again, and soon afterwards reached our destination.

In the little inn the guests' room lay behind the large family kitchen, through which we were obliged to pass. We were seized with a shivering fit on stripping off our furs, and it seemed scarcely possible to get warm again. This was followed by such intense drowsiness that we were obliged to lie down and sleep an hour before supper. After the cold weather set in, we were attacked with this drowsy fit every day, toward evening, and were obliged to take turns in arousing and stimulating each other. This we generally accomplished by singing "From Greenland's icy mountains," and other appropriate melodies. At Innertafle we were attended by a tall landlady, a staid, quiet, almost grim person, who paid most deliberate heed to our wants. After a delay of more than two hours, she furnished us with a supper consisting of some kind of fresh fish, with a sauce composed of milk, sugar and onions, followed by gryngröt, a warm mush of mixed rice and barley, eaten with milk. Such was our fare on Christmas eve; but hunger is the best sauce, and our dishes were plentifully seasoned with it.


Bayard Taylor