Chapter 13




CHAPTER XIII.

HOSPITALITY UNDER THE ARCTIC CIRCLE

It ought to have been night-time, but under the 65th parallel therewas nothing surprising in the nocturnal polar light. In Icelandduring the months of June and July the sun does not set.

But the temperature was much lower. I was cold and more hungry thancold. Welcome was the sight of the boër which was hospitably openedto receive us.

It was a peasant's house, but in point of hospitality it was equal toa king's. On our arrival the master came with outstretched hands, andwithout more ceremony he beckoned us to follow him.

To accompany him down the long, narrow, dark passage, would have beenimpossible. Therefore, we followed, as he bid us. The building wasconstructed of roughly squared timbers, with rooms on both sides,four in number, all opening out into the one passage: these were thekitchen, the weaving shop, the badstofa, or family sleeping-room, andthe visitors' room, which was the best of all. My uncle, whose heighthad not been thought of in building the house, of course hit his headseveral times against the beams that projected from the ceilings.

We were introduced into our apartment, a large room with a floor ofearth stamped hard down, and lighted by a window, the panes of whichwere formed of sheep's bladder, not admitting too much light. Thesleeping accommodation consisted of dry litter, thrown into twowooden frames painted red, and ornamented with Icelandic sentences. Iwas hardly expecting so much comfort; the only discomfort proceededfrom the strong odour of dried fish, hung meat, and sour milk, ofwhich my nose made bitter complaints.

When we had laid aside our travelling wraps the voice of the host washeard inviting us to the kitchen, the only room where a fire waslighted even in the severest cold.

My uncle lost no time in obeying the friendly call, nor was I slackin following.

The kitchen chimney was constructed on the ancient pattern; in themiddle of the room was a stone for a hearth, over it in the roof ahole to let the smoke escape. The kitchen was also a dining-room.

At our entrance the host, as if he had never seen us, greeted us withthe word "_Sællvertu,_" which means "be happy," and came and kissedus on the cheek.

After him his wife pronounced the same words, accompanied with thesame ceremonial; then the two placing their hands upon their hearts,inclined profoundly before us.

I hasten to inform the reader that this Icelandic lady was the motherof nineteen children, all, big and little, swarming in the midst ofthe dense wreaths of smoke with which the fire on the hearth filledthe chamber. Every moment I noticed a fair-haired and rathermelancholy face peeping out of the rolling volumes of smoke - theywere a perfect cluster of unwashed angels.

My uncle and I treated this little tribe with kindness; and in a veryshort time we each had three or four of these brats on our shoulders,as many on our laps, and the rest between our knees. Those who couldspeak kept repeating "_Sællvertu,_" in every conceivable tone; thosethat could not speak made up for that want by shrill cries.

This concert was brought to a close by the announcement of dinner. Atthat moment our hunter returned, who had been seeing his horsesprovided for; that is to say, he had economically let them loose inthe fields, where the poor beasts had to content themselves with thescanty moss they could pull off the rocks and a few meagre sea weeds,and the next day they would not fail to come of themselves and resumethe labours of the previous day.

"_Sællvertu,_" said Hans.

Then calmly, automatically, and dispassionately he kissed the host,the hostess, and their nineteen children.

This ceremony over, we sat at table, twenty-four in number, andtherefore one upon another. The luckiest had only two urchins upontheir knees.

But silence reigned in all this little world at the arrival of thesoup, and the national taciturnity resumed its empire even over thechildren. The host served out to us a soup made of lichen and by nomeans unpleasant, then an immense piece of dried fish floating inbutter rancid with twenty years' keeping, and, therefore, accordingto Icelandic gastronomy, much preferable to fresh butter. Along withthis, we had 'skye,' a sort of clotted milk, with biscuits, and aliquid prepared from juniper berries; for beverage we had a thin milkmixed with water, called in this country 'blanda.' It is not for meto decide whether this diet is wholesome or not; all I can say is,that I was desperately hungry, and that at dessert I swallowed to thevery last gulp of a thick broth made from buckwheat.

As soon as the meal was over the children disappeared, and theirelders gathered round the peat fire, which also burnt suchmiscellaneous fuel as briars, cow-dung, and fishbones. After thislittle pinch of warmth the different groups retired to theirrespective rooms. Our hostess hospitably offered us her assistance inundressing, according to Icelandic usage; but on our gracefullydeclining, she insisted no longer, and I was able at last to curlmyself up in my mossy bed.

At five next morning we bade our host farewell, my uncle withdifficulty persuading him to accept a proper remuneration; and Hanssignalled the start.

At a hundred yards from Gardär the soil began to change its aspect;it became boggy and less favourable to progress. On our right thechain of mountains was indefinitely prolonged like an immense systemof natural fortifications, of which we were following thecounter-scarp or lesser steep; often we were met by streams, which wehad to ford with great care, not to wet our packages.

The desert became wider and more hideous; yet from time to time weseemed to descry a human figure that fled at our approach, sometimesa sharp turn would bring us suddenly within a short distance of oneof these spectres, and I was filled with loathing at the sight of ahuge deformed head, the skin shining and hairless, and repulsivesores visible through the gaps in the poor creature's wretched rags.

The unhappy being forbore to approach us and offer his misshapenhand. He fled away, but not before Hans had saluted him with thecustomary "_Sællvertu._"

"_Spetelsk,_" said he.

"A leper!" my uncle repeated.

This word produced a repulsive effect. The horrible disease ofleprosy is too common in Iceland; it is not contagious, buthereditary, and lepers are forbidden to marry.

These apparitions were not cheerful, and did not throw any charm overthe less and less attractive landscapes. The last tufts of grass haddisappeared from beneath our feet. Not a tree was to be seen, unlesswe except a few dwarf birches as low as brushwood. Not an animal buta few wandering ponies that their owners would not feed. Sometimes wecould see a hawk balancing himself on his wings under the grey cloud,and then darting away south with rapid flight. I felt melancholyunder this savage aspect of nature, and my thoughts went away to thecheerful scenes I had left in the far south.

We had to cross a few narrow fiords, and at last quite a wide gulf;the tide, then high, allowed us to pass over without delay, and toreach the hamlet of Alftanes, one mile beyond.

That evening, after having forded two rivers full of trout and pike,called Alfa and Heta, we were obliged to spend the night in adeserted building worthy to be haunted by all the elfins ofScandinavia. The ice king certainly held court here, and gave us allnight long samples of what he could do.

No particular event marked the next day. Bogs, dead levels,melancholy desert tracks, wherever we travelled. By nightfall we hadaccomplished half our journey, and we lay at Krösolbt.

On the 19th of June, for about a mile, that is an Icelandic mile, wewalked upon hardened lava; this ground is called in the country'hraun'; the writhen surface presented the appearance of distorted,twisted cables, sometimes stretched in length, sometimes contortedtogether; an immense torrent, once liquid, now solid, ran from thenearest mountains, now extinct volcanoes, but the ruins aroundrevealed the violence of the past eruptions. Yet here and there werea few jets of steam from hot springs.

We had no time to watch these phenomena; we had to proceed on ourway. Soon at the foot of the mountains the boggy land reappeared,intersected by little lakes. Our route now lay westward; we hadturned the great bay of Faxa, and the twin peaks of Snæfell rosewhite into the cloudy sky at the distance of at least five miles.

The horses did their duty well, no difficulties stopped them in theirsteady career. I was getting tired; but my uncle was as firm andstraight as he was at our first start. I could not help admiring hispersistency, as well as the hunter's, who treated our expedition likea mere promenade.

June 20. At six p.m. we reached Büdir, a village on the sea shore;and the guide there claiming his due, my uncle settled with him. Itwas Hans' own family, that is, his uncles and cousins, who gave ushospitality; we were kindly received, and without taxing too much thegoodness of these folks, I would willingly have tarried here torecruit after my fatigues. But my uncle, who wanted no recruiting,would not hear of it, and the next morning we had to bestride ourbeasts again.

The soil told of the neighbourhood of the mountain, whose granitefoundations rose from the earth like the knotted roots of some hugeoak. We were rounding the immense base of the volcano. The Professorhardly took his eyes off it. He tossed up his arms and seemed to defyit, and to declare, "There stands the giant that I shall conquer."After about four hours' walking the horses stopped of their ownaccord at the door of the priest's house at Stapi.



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