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Chapter 6

JOURNEY FROM PITEÅ TO HAPARANDA.


My jaw was so painful on reaching Piteå, that I tossed about in torment the whole night, utterly unable to sleep. The long northern night seemed as if it would never come to an end, and I arose in the morning much more fatigued and exhausted than when I lay down. It was 6° below zero, and the storm still blowing, but the cold seemed to relieve my face a little, and so we set out. The roads were heavy, but a little broken, and still led over hills and through interminable forests of mingled fir and pine, in the dark, imperfect day. I took but little note of the scenery, but was so drowsy and overcome, that Braisted at last filled the long baggage-sled with hay, and sat at the rear, so that I could lie stretched out, with my head upon his lap. Here, in spite of the cold and wind, I lay in a warm, stupid half-sleep.

It was dark when we reached Ersnäs, whence we had twelve miles to Old Luleå, with tired horses, heavy roads, and a lazy driver. I lay down again, dozed as usual, and tried to forget my torments. So passed three hours; the night had long set in, with a clear sky, 13° below zero, and a sharp wind blowing. All at once an exclamation from Braisted aroused me. I opened my eyes, as I lay in his lap, looked upward, and saw a narrow belt or scarf of silver fire stretching directly across the zenith, with its loose, frayed ends slowly swaying to and fro down the slopes of the sky. Presently it began to waver, bending back and forth, sometimes slowly, sometimes with a quick, springing motion, as if testing its elasticity. Now it took the shape of a bow, now undulated into Hogarth's line of beauty, brightening and fading in its sinuous motion, and finally formed a shepherd's crook, the end of which suddenly began to separate and fall off, as if driven by a strong wind, until the whole belt shot away in long, drifting lines of fiery snow. It then gathered again into a dozen dancing fragments, which alternately advanced and retreated, shot hither and thither, against and across each other, blazed out in yellow and rosy gleams or paled again, playing a thousand fantastic pranks, as if guided by some wild whim.

We lay silent, with upturned faces, watching this wonderful spectacle. Suddenly, the scattered lights ran together, as by a common impulse, joined their bright ends, twisted them through each other, and fell in a broad, luminous curtain straight downward through the air until its fringed hem swung apparently but a few yards over our heads. This phenomenon was so unexpected and startling, that for a moment I thought our faces would be touched by the skirts of the glorious auroral drapery. It did not follow the spheric curve of the firmament, but hung plumb from the zenith, falling, apparently, millions of leagues through the air, its folds gathered together among the stars and its embroidery of flame sweeping the earth and shedding a pale, unearthly radiance over the wastes of snow. A moment afterwards and it was again drawn up, parted, waved its flambeaux and shot its lances hither and thither, advancing and retreating as before. Anything so strange, so capricious, so wonderful, so gloriously beautiful, I scarcely hope to see again.

By this time we came upon the broad Luleå River, and were half an hour traversing its frozen surface, still watching the snow above us, which gradually became fainter and less active. Finally we reached the opposite shore, drove up a long slope, through a large village of stables, and past the imposing church of Old Luleå to the inn. It was now nearly eight o'clock, very cold, and I was thoroughly exhausted. But the inn was already full of travellers, and there was no place to lay our heads. The landlord, a sublimely indifferent Swede, coolly advised us to go on to Persö, ten miles distant. I told him I had not slept for two nights, but he merely shrugged his shoulders, repeated his advice, and offered to furnish horses at once, to get us off. It was a long, cold, dreary ride, and I was in a state of semi-consciousness the whole time. We reached Persö about eleven, found the house full of travellers, but procured two small beds in a small room with another man in it, and went to sleep without supper. I was so thoroughly worn out that I got about three hours' rest, in spite of my pain.

We took coffee in bed at seven, and started for Rånbyn, on the Råneå River. The day was lowering, temperature 8-1/2° below zero. The country was low, slightly undulating with occasional wide views to the north, over the inlets of the gulf, and vast wide tracts of forest. The settlements were still as frequent as ever, but there was little apparent cultivation, except flax. Rånbyn is a large village, with a stately church. The people were putting up booths for a fair (a fair in the open air, in lat. 65° N., with the mercury freezing!), which explained the increased travel on the road. We kept on to Hvitå for breakfast, thus getting north of the latitude of Torneå; thence our road turned eastward at right angles around the head of the Bothnian Gulf. Much snow had fallen, but the road had been ploughed, and we had a tolerable track, except when passing sleds, which sometimes gave us an overturn.

We now had uninterrupted forest scenery between the stations--and such scenery! It is almost impossible to paint the glory of those winter forests. Every tree, laden with the purest snow, resembles a Gothic fountain of bronze, covered with frozen spray, through which only suggestive glimpses of its delicate tracery can be obtained. From every rise we looked over thousands of such mimic fountains, shooting, low or high, from their pavements of ivory and alabaster. It was an enchanted wilderness--white, silent, gleaming, and filled with inexhaustible forms of beauty. To what shall I liken those glimpses under the boughs, into the depths of the forest, where the snow destroyed all perspective, and brought the remotest fairy nooks and coverts, too lovely and fragile to seem cold, into the glittering foreground? "Wonderful! Glorious!" I could only exclaim, in breathless admiration. Once, by the roadside, we saw an Arctic ptarmigan, as white as the snow, with ruby eyes that sparkled like jewels as he moved slowly and silently along, not frightened in the least.

The sun set a little after one o'clock, and we pushed on to reach the Kalix River the same evening. At the last station we got a boy postilion and two lazy horses, and were three hours and a half on the road, with a temperature of 20° below zero. My feet became like ice, which increased the pain in my face, and I began to feel faint and sick with so much suffering and loss of rest. The boy aggravated us so much by his laziness, that Braisted ran ahead and cuffed his ears, after which he made better speed. After a drive through interminable woods, we came upon the banks of the Kalix, which were steep and fringed with splendid firs. Then came the village of Månsbyn, where, thank Heaven, we got something to eat, a warm room, and a bed.

While we were at supper, two travellers arrived, one of whom, a well-made, richly-dressed young fellow, was ushered into our room. He was a bruk-patron (iron-master), so the servant informed us, and from his superfine broad-cloth, rings, and the immense anchor-chain which attached him to his watch, appeared to be doing a thriving business. He had the Norse bloom on his face, a dignified nose, and English whiskers flanking his smoothly-shaven chin. His air was flushed and happy; he was not exactly drunk, but comfortably within that gay and cheerful vestibule beyond which lies the chamber of horrors. He listened to our conversation for some time, and finally addressed me in imperfect English. This led to mutual communications, and a declaration of our character, and object in travel--nothing of which would he believe. "Nobody can possibly come here for pleasure," said he; "I know better; you have a secret political mission." Our amusement at this only strengthened him in his suspicions. Nevertheless he called for a bottle of port wine, which, when it came, turned out to be bad Malaga, and insisted on drinking a welcome. "You are in latitude 66° north," said he; "on the Kalix, where no American has ever been before, and I shall call my friend to give a skål to your country. We have been to the church, where my friend is stationed."

With that he went out, and soon returned with a short, stout, broad faced, large-headed man of forty or thereabouts. His manner was perfectly well-bred and self-possessed, and I took him to be a clergyman, especially as the iron-master addressed him as "Brother Horton." "Now," said he, "welcome to 66° north, and prosperity to free America! Are you for Buchanan or Fremont?" Brother Horton kept a watchful eye upon his young friend, but cheerfully joined in the sentiment. I gave in return: "Skål to Sweden and the Swedish people," and hoped to get rid of our jolly acquaintance; but he was not to be shaken off. "You don't know me," he said; "and I don't know you--but you are something more than you seem to be: you are a political character." Just then Braisted came in with the thermometer, and announced 24° of cold (Reaumur). "Thousand devils!" exclaimed Brother Horton (and now I was convinced that he was not a clergyman), "what a thermometer! How cold it makes the weather! Would you part with it if I were to give you money in return?" I declined, stating that it was impossible for us to procure so cold a thermometer in the north, and we wanted to have as low a temperature as could be obtained.

This seemed to puzzle the iron-master, who studied awhile upon it, and then returned to the subject of my political mission. "I suppose you speak French," said he; "it is necessary in diplomacy. I can speak it also"--which he began to do, in a bungling way. I answered in the same language, but he soon gave up the attempt and tried German. I changed also, and, finding that he had exhausted his philology, of which he was rather proud, especially as Brother Horton knew nothing but Swedish, determined to have a little fun. "Of course you know Italian," said I; "it is more musical than German," and forthwith addressed him in that language. He reluctantly confessed his ignorance. "Oh, well," I continued, "Spanish is equally agreeable to me;" and took up that tongue before he could reply. His face grew more and more blank and bewildered. "The Oriental languages are doubtless familiar to you;" I persisted, "I have had no practice in Arabic for some time," and overwhelmed him with Egyptian salutations. I then tried him with Hindustanee, which exhausted my stock, but concluded by giving him the choice of Malay, Tartar, or Thibetan. "Come, come," said Brother Horton, taking his arm as he stood staring and perplexed--"the horses are ready." With some difficulty he was persuaded to leave, after shaking hands with us, and exclaiming, many times, "You are a very seldom man!"

When we awoke, the temperature had risen to 2° above zero, with a tremendous snow-storm blowing. As we were preparing to set out, a covered sled drove in from the north, with two Swedish naval officers, whose vessel had been frozen in at Cronstadt, and who had been obliged to return home through Finland, up the eastern coast of the Bothnian Gulf. The captain, who spoke excellent English, informed me that they were in about the same latitude as we, on Christmas day, on the opposite side of the gulf, and had experienced the same degree of cold. Both of them had their noses severely frozen. We were two hours and a half in travelling to the first station, seven miles, as the snow was falling in blinding quantities, and the road was not yet ploughed out. All the pedestrians we met were on runners, but even with their snow skates, five feet long, they sank deep enough to make their progress very slow and toilsome.

By the time we reached Näsby my face was very much swollen and inflamed, and as it was impossible to make the next stage by daylight, we wisely determined to stop there. The wind blew a hurricane, the hard snow-crystals lashed the windows and made a gray chaos of all out-of-doors, but we had a warm, cosy, carpeted room within, a capital dinner in the afternoon, and a bottle of genuine London porter with our evening pipe. So we passed the last day of A. D. 1856, grateful to God for all the blessings which the year had brought us, and for the comfort and shelter we enjoyed, in that Polar wilderness of storm and snow.

On New Year's morning it blew less, and the temperature was comparatively mild, so, although the road was very heavy, we started again. Näsby is the last Swedish station, the Finnish frontier, which is an abrupt separation of races and tongues, being at the north-western corner of the Bothnian Gulf. In spite of the constant intercourse which now exists between Norrland and the narrow strip of Finnish soil which remains to Sweden, there has been no perceptible assimilation of the two races. At Näsby, all is pure Swedish; at Sängis, twelve miles distant, everything is Finnish. The blue eyes and fair hair, the lengthened oval of the face, and slim, straight form disappear. You see, instead, square faces, dark eyes, low foreheads, and something of an Oriental fire and warmth in the movements. The language is totally dissimilar, and even the costume, though of the same general fashion, presents many noticeable points of difference. The women wear handkerchiefs of some bright color bound over the forehead and under the chin, very similar to those worn by the Armenian women in Asia Minor. On first coming among them, the Finns impressed me as a less frank and open hearted, but more original and picturesque, race than the Swedes. It is exceedingly curious and interesting to find such a flavour of the Orient on the borders of the Frigid Zone.

The roads were very bad, and our drivers and horses provokingly slow, but we determined to push on to Haparanda the same night. I needed rest and medical aid, my jaw by this time being so swollen that I had great difficulty in eating--a state of things which threatened to diminish my supply of fuel, and render me sensitive to the cold. We reached Nickala, the last station, at seven o'clock. Beyond this, the road was frightfully deep in places. We could scarcely make any headway, and were frequently overturned headlong into the drifts. The driver was a Finn, who did not understand a word of Swedish, and all our urging was of no avail. We went on and on, in the moonlight, over arms of the gulf, through forests, and then over ice again--a flat, monotonous country, with the same dull features repeated again and again. At half-past nine, a large white church announced our approach to Haparanda, and soon afterwards we drove up to the inn, which was full of New-Year carousers. The landlord gave us quarters in the same room with an old Norrlander, who was very drunk, and annoyed us not a little until we got into bed and pretended to sleep. It was pretence nearly the whole night, on my part, for my torture was still kept up. The next morning I called upon Dr. Wretholm, the physician of the place,--not without some misgivings,--but his prescription of a poultice of mallow leaves, a sudorific and an opiate, restored my confidence, and I cheerfully resigned myself to a rest of two or three days, before proceeding further northward.


Bayard Taylor