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Chapter 9

CHAPTER IX.

ICELAND! BUT WHAT NEXT?

The day for our departure arrived. The day before it our kind friendM. Thomsen brought us letters of introduction to Count Trampe, theGovernor of Iceland, M. Picturssen, the bishop's suffragan, and M.Finsen, mayor of Rejkiavik. My uncle expressed his gratitude bytremendous compressions of both his hands.

On the 2nd, at six in the evening, all our precious baggage beingsafely on board the _Valkyria,_ the captain took us into a verynarrow cabin.

"Is the wind favourable?" my uncle asked.

"Excellent," replied Captain Bjarne; "a sou'-easter. We shall passdown the Sound full speed, with all sails set."

In a few minutes the schooner, under her mizen, brigantine, topsail,and topgallant sail, loosed from her moorings and made full sailthrough the straits. In an hour the capital of Denmark seemed to sinkbelow the distant waves, and the _Valkyria_ was skirting the coast byElsinore. In my nervous frame of mind I expected to see the ghost ofHamlet wandering on the legendary castle terrace.

"Sublime madman!" I said, "no doubt you would approve of ourexpedition. Perhaps you would keep us company to the centre of theglobe, to find the solution of your eternal doubts."

But there was no ghostly shape upon the ancient walls. Indeed, thecastle is much younger than the heroic prince of Denmark. It nowanswers the purpose of a sumptuous lodge for the doorkeeper of thestraits of the Sound, before which every year there pass fifteenthousand ships of all nations.

The castle of Kronsberg soon disappeared in the mist, as well as thetower of Helsingborg, built on the Swedish coast, and the schoonerpassed lightly on her way urged by the breezes of the Cattegat.

The _Valkyria_ was a splendid sailer, but on a sailing vessel you canplace no dependence. She was taking to Rejkiavik coal, householdgoods, earthenware, woollen clothing, and a cargo of wheat. The crewconsisted of five men, all Danes.

"How long will the passage take?" my uncle asked.

"Ten days," the captain replied, "if we don't meet a nor'-wester inpassing the Faroes."

"But are you not subject to considerable delays?"

"No, M. Liedenbrock, don't be uneasy, we shall get there in very goodtime."

At evening the schooner doubled the Skaw at the northern point ofDenmark, in the night passed the Skager Rack, skirted Norway by CapeLindness, and entered the North Sea.

In two days more we sighted the coast of Scotland near Peterhead,,andthe _Valkyria_ turned her lead towards the Faroe Islands, passingbetween the Orkneys and Shetlands.

Soon the schooner encountered the great Atlantic swell; she had totack against the north wind, and reached the Faroes only with somedifficulty. On the 8th the captain made out Myganness, thesouthernmost of these islands, and from that moment took a straightcourse for Cape Portland, the most southerly point of Iceland.

The passage was marked by nothing unusual. I bore the troubles of thesea pretty well; my uncle, to his own intense disgust, and hisgreater shame, was ill all through the voyage.

He therefore was unable to converse with the captain about Snæfell,the way to get to it, the facilities for transport, he was obliged toput off these inquiries until his arrival, and spent all his time atfull length in his cabin, of which the timbers creaked and shook withevery pitch she took. It must be confessed he was not undeserving ofhis punishment.

On the 11th we reached Cape Portland. The clear open weather gave usa good view of Myrdals jokul, which overhangs it. The cape is merelya low hill with steep sides, standing lonely by the beach.

The _Valkyria_ kept at some distance from the coast, taking awesterly course amidst great shoals of whales and sharks. Soon wecame in sight of an enormous perforated rock, through which the seadashed furiously. The Westman islets seemed to rise out of the oceanlike a group of rocks in a liquid plain. From that time the schoonertook a wide berth and swept at a great distance round CapeRejkianess, which forms the western point of Iceland.

The rough sea prevented my uncle from coming on deck to admire theseshattered and surf-beaten coasts.

Forty-eight hours after, coming out of a storm which forced theschooner to scud under bare poles, we sighted east of us the beaconon Cape Skagen, where dangerous rocks extend far away seaward. AnIcelandic pilot came on board, and in three hours the _Valkyria_dropped her anchor before Rejkiavik, in Faxa Bay.

The Professor at last emerged from his cabin, rather pale andwretched-looking, but still full of enthusiasm, and with ardentsatisfaction shining in his eyes.

The population of the town, wonderfully interested in the arrival ofa vessel from which every one expected something, formed in groupsupon the quay.

My uncle left in haste his floating prison, or rather hospital. Butbefore quitting the deck of the schooner he dragged me forward, andpointing with outstretched finger north of the bay at a distantmountain terminating in a double peak, a pair of cones covered withperpetual snow, he cried:

"Snæfell! Snæfell!"

Then recommending me, by an impressive gesture, to keep silence, hewent into the boat which awaited him. I followed, and presently wewere treading the soil of Iceland.

The first man we saw was a good-looking fellow enough, in a general'suniform. Yet he was not a general but a magistrate, the Governor ofthe island, M. le Baron Trampe himself. The Professor was soon awareof the presence he was in. He delivered him his letters fromCopenhagen, and then followed a short conversation in the Danishlanguage, the purport of which I was quite ignorant of, and for avery good reason. But the result of this first conversation was, thatBaron Trampe placed himself entirely at the service of ProfessorLiedenbrock.

My uncle was just as courteously received by the mayor, M. Finsen,whose appearance was as military, and disposition and office aspacific, as the Governor's.

As for the bishop's suffragan, M. Picturssen, he was at that momentengaged on an episcopal visitation in the north. For the time we mustbe resigned to wait for the honour of being presented to him. But M.Fridrikssen, professor of natural sciences at the school ofRejkiavik, was a delightful man, and his friendship became veryprecious to me. This modest philosopher spoke only Danish and Latin.He came to proffer me his good offices in the language of Horace, andI felt that we were made to understand each other. In fact he was theonly person in Iceland with whom I could converse at all.

This good-natured gentleman made over to us two of the three roomswhich his house contained, and we were soon installed in it with allour luggage, the abundance of which rather astonished the good peopleof Rejkiavik.

"Well, Axel," said my uncle, "we are getting on, and now the worst isover."

"The worst!" I said, astonished.

"To be sure, now we have nothing to do but go down."

"Oh, if that is all, you are quite right; but after all, when we havegone down, we shall have to get up again, I suppose?"

"Oh I don't trouble myself about that. Come, there's no time to lose;I am going to the library. Perhaps there is some manuscript ofSaknussemm's there, and I should be glad to consult it."

"Well, while you are there I will go into the town. Won't you?"

"Oh, that is very uninteresting to me. It is not what is upon thisisland, but what is underneath, that interests me."

I went out, and wandered wherever chance took me.

It would not be easy to lose your way in Rejkiavik. I was thereforeunder no necessity to inquire the road, which exposes one to mistakeswhen the only medium of intercourse is gesture.

The town extends along a low and marshy level, between two hills. Animmense bed of lava bounds it on one side, and falls gently towardsthe sea. On the other extends the vast bay of Faxa, shut in at thenorth by the enormous glacier of the Snæfell, and of which the_Valkyria_ was for the time the only occupant. Usually the Englishand French conservators of fisheries moor in this bay, but just thenthey were cruising about the western coasts of the island.

The longest of the only two streets that Rejkiavik possesses wasparallel with the beach. Here live the merchants and traders, inwooden cabins made of red planks set horizontally; the other street,running west, ends at the little lake between the house of the bishopand other non-commercial people.

I had soon explored these melancholy ways; here and there I got aglimpse of faded turf, looking like a worn-out bit of carpet, or someappearance of a kitchen garden, the sparse vegetables of which(potatoes, cabbages, and lettuces), would have figured appropriatelyupon a Lilliputian table. A few sickly wallflowers were trying toenjoy the air and sunshine.

About the middle of the tin-commercial street I found the publiccemetery, inclosed with a mud wall, and where there seemed plenty ofroom.

Then a few steps brought me to the Governor's house, a but comparedwith the town hall of Hamburg, a palace in comparison with the cabinsof the Icelandic population.

Between the little lake and the town the church is built in theProtestant style, of calcined stones extracted out of the volcanoesby their own labour and at their own expense; in high westerly windsit was manifest that the red tiles of the roof would be scattered inthe air, to the great danger of the faithful worshippers.

On a neighbouring hill I perceived the national school, where, as Iwas informed later by our host, were taught Hebrew, English, French,and Danish, four languages of which, with shame I confess it, I don'tknow a single word; after an examination I should have had to standlast of the forty scholars educated at this little college, and Ishould have been held unworthy to sleep along with them in one ofthose little double closets, where more delicate youths would havedied of suffocation the very first night.

In three hours I had seen not only the town but its environs. Thegeneral aspect was wonderfully dull. No trees, and scarcely anyvegetation. Everywhere bare rocks, signs of volcanic action. TheIcelandic buts are made of earth and turf, and the walls slopeinward; they rather resemble roofs placed on the ground. But thenthese roofs are meadows of comparative fertility. Thanks to theinternal heat, the grass grows on them to some degree of perfection.It is carefully mown in the hay season; if it were not, the horseswould come to pasture on these green abodes.

In my excursion I met but few people. On returning to the main streetI found the greater part of the population busied in drying, salting,and putting on board codfish, their chief export. The men looked likerobust but heavy, blond Germans with pensive eyes, conscious of beingfar removed from their fellow creatures, poor exiles relegated tothis land of ice, poor creatures who should have been Esquimaux,since nature had condemned them to live only just outside the arcticcircle! In vain did I try to detect a smile upon their lips;sometimes by a spasmodic and involuntary contraction of the musclesthey seemed to laugh, but they never smiled.

Their costume consisted of a coarse jacket of black woollen clothcalled in Scandinavian lands a 'vadmel,' a hat with a very broadbrim, trousers with a narrow edge of red, and a bit of leather rolledround the foot for shoes.

The women looked as sad and as resigned as the men; their faces wereagreeable but expressionless, and they wore gowns and petticoats ofdark 'vadmel'; as maidens, they wore over their braided hair a littleknitted brown cap; when married, they put around their heads acoloured handkerchief, crowned with a peak of white linen.

After a good walk I returned to M. Fridrikssen's house, where I foundmy uncle already in his host's company.


Jules Verne