Page images
PDF
EPUB

land round Kalmanstånga, my house and tân, a ‘forest' for firewood, besides this wilderness.” “Which you would as soon be without.” “Far from it. The trout and char from the lakes supply me and my family with food.” “What taxes have you to pay?” I asked. “My rates amount to forty dollars; but, because of the sheep disease and bad year, there is an extra tax of twentyfive dollars. To the King of Denmark I pay eight, and that I grudge him.” “What are included in the rates?” I inquired. “My dues to the Althing man (M.P.), amounting to some twelve or fourteen dollars, Easter offerings to the priest, church-rates, &c. I grudge none of them—not a mark l I am proud to give money to the man who represents my interests at Althing; the priests are our brothers and cousins, so we don't mind giving them a trifle; but as for the eight dollars to the king, every one of them is like a drop of blood wrung from my heart.” “How comes it that you have extra rates because of the sheep disease ?” I asked. “You must know,” answered the farmer, clearing his throat and preparing for a long story, “one of the blessed things Denmark has done for us has been the introduction of scab among our sheep. Our sheep, according to the Danes, wanted their stock improving ; so they introduced some foreign brutes, and at once a terrible malady spread among the flocks, from Reykjavik as a centre. Sheep died all through the south, and scab was appearing in the north, when the farmers of the north unanimously agreed on slaughtering every infected sheep, and on making these jökulls and deserts a boundary beyond which the disease was not to penetrate. A line of demarcation was drawn; every sheep coming north of this was forthwith killed ; all the flocks along the friths which form chains of communication between north and south, Were slaughtered, and their owners remunerated by the ratepayers. Now, the sheep in the north are quite well, whilst the scab reappears yearly in the South.” The story of the sheep grievance was checked by an exclamation of “Swans ! swans !” from Martin. To our left, a hundred yards off, was a small tarn with reedy marge; on it sailed majestically two noble birds, every feather mirrored in the still blue water. Bang! went Mr. Briggs' gun. With a strange musical scream, the two bright birds rose from the water and flew to some lake north of our route. “We shall see plenty more,” said the farmer; “but only two in each small sheet of water. Swans are not sociable beings, and will not suffer a second couple to occupy the same tarn.” “The nest is sure to be close by,” said Mr. Briggs, rolling from his saddle. We left our horses and searched the rim of the pool. Before long we came upon the nest, a heap of mud, rush and willow roots, about a foot and a half high, with a depression at the top lined with feathers; in this were four greenish-white eggs. We left them, as there was no chance of our being able to carry them unbroken through the day, and our guide assured us that we should find plenty more at little Arnarvatn. Mr. Briggs had probably fired as the male bird was returning to relieve the female by supplying her place on the eggs. Our route lay now through more desolate country. We traversed long tracts of mud and stone, utterly bare of vegetation, but strewn at intervals with white dead roots of dwarf willow. Here and there, in a depression of the heithi,” bloomed a little moss campion; the grass of Parnassus was in bud, though not yet in flower; but the purple butterwort, in full blossom, shook its beautiful head with every icy puff that swept the waste. We skirted the great lava flood, which has gushed from Eiriks jökull, has climbed the heithi, and now lies in a long black ridge on the mud desert. We could trace the sweep of every billow, now intruding on a lake, then shrinking before a shoulder of trachyte, here tumbling in cakes down a hollow, there throwing feelers round a sandy knoll, though too exhausted to meet beyond it. Lava is a rock in ruin, never picturesque, always horrible; for during its flow, gases generated in its fiery womb have exploded, shivering its whole mass, tilting the sides of these domes into the air with their jagged edges exposed, and blowing snags and splinters into cairn-like heaps all around. In the centre of a lava stream, the surface is more even, but the edge is always shattered and bristling. Blow up Westminster Palace with gunpowder, and an Icelandic pony will trot over the ruins; but the skirt of a lava-flood is an insurmountable barrier even to him. We soon sighted other swans, but my companion failed to shoot any, as the baldness of the land about the lakes and pools made it impossible to get under cover whilst approaching, and the birds were very timid. Mr. Briggs and Irode on ahead, following the spoor of other horses, and it was full an hour before we found that this was leading us in a wrong direction. We were threading a network of lakes. The great map of Gunnlaugsson was at fault, the Fiskivotn (fish lakes) were marked on it evidently somewhat at haphazard, and incorrectly. The river traced on the map as connecting the lakes nowhere exists, but the tarns lie land-locked in every dell and hollow of the heithi, surrounded by stony barren hills. Little Arnarvatn is not named on the map, so the compass was unavailing, we knew not the direction in which to steer. We were obliged to retrace our steps, and many a weary mile it cost us—Mr. Briggs at intervals discharging shots as signals of distress—when far off to the north we descried a moving speck on the summit of one of the heithi sweeps. “The farmer l’exclaimed Mr. Briggs, adjusting his operaglass; “I can distinguish his grey.” With a feeling of considerable relief we scrambled in that direction over rock and swamp, past pool and tarn, till we met the man galloping towards us, he having caught sight of us at the same time that we had noticed him. He was in a great state of excitement: “You should not have left me !” he exclaimed; “there is no track where we are going; no one knows these lakes except myself; you might easily be lost here, and I should never find you again. It was fortunate for you that you kept to the road l’” “Where are all the rest of the party?” “Miles away to the north ; by this time we might have been at little Arnarvatn, if I had not been obliged to return for you.” When we reached the caravan, Güthmundr in distress assured the farmer that notwithstanding his entreaties both Martin and the Yankee had strayed, having started in search of swans. The poor fellow, with an Icelandic recommendation to the troll to fetch them, started in pursuit, but this time he was not long in finding the runaways, as the sound of their guns directed him to the lake over the next hill, where they were wasting shot on Swans which kept out of range. It was seven o'clock when we reached the lake, a beautiful sheet of water surrounded by boggy hills covered with ashgrey moss, and with here and there a patch of snow, the tricklings of which burned up the scanty vegetation. I could see no grass anywhere, but our guide assured us that there was some a mile and a half up the lake, enough at least with willow sprouts and angelica shoots to last the horses for a couple of days. We fixed on a little tongue of land projecting into the lake as our camping spot; a nodule of rock on it, built round with turf, served for a fireplace to the fishermen when sent there by the farmer. As we arrived, a man and boy who had been ordered thither yesterday, drew their nets, and we secured enough char to last us for supper and breakfast. As the fishermen had collected willow roots sufficient for a fire, we soon kindled one and made the kettle boil. We drank a cup of tea all round, and then Magnús, Gūthmundr, and the farmer started with the horses for the lake head, my companions took their rods and guns, and Grimr alone remained with me, preferring to lounge about with his hands in his pockets whilst I put up the tents and cooked the supper. The first of these undertakings was not particularly easy, as the ground was nowhere even; like the surface of every heithi, if moss grows on it at all, it was covered with heaps of grey moss so large as effectually to prevent one from sleeping on it. In one spot, and one only, was there a level patch, and that was barely large enough for both tents to stand upon, and was moreover the bottom of a hollow into which water would be sure to flow with the first storm. “When it rains this shall be bog,” quoth Grímr, eyeing me as I heaved up the poles, and strained the canvas; “it look as though it rain to-night.” Then thinking it incumbent on him to do something, he volunteered to put up the little pennant which adorned the tent top. “That,” said I, “takes no trouble. Will you, however, kindly drive the pegs home, and stretch the guys?” “I see no of the hammer l’’ “Not unless you look for it certainly.” I had to hunt for the mallet, and then he leisurely drove in the pins where the moss was softest and where the hammering would cost him least trouble. I had to pull them all up again and drive them IIl 8.IleW. “Now, Grímr,” I called; “please to unroll the great bed.” “I see no of it !” “Because it is behind you; turn round and you will see it.” The theological student stooping for a moment unlaced the tarpaulin case, and then sauntered off to light his pipe at the fire. I spread the waterproof floor, slung my hammock, made the beds in the bigger tent, dragged the boxes under cover into the lesser, and when this was done it was high time to prepare our supper. The night was glorious. The desert was hushed into a death-like stillness, broken only by the note of the Snipe as it whirred by. Far off the great snow cupola of Eiriksjökull was flushed the tenderest rose-tint by the setting Sun—it was

* A heithi, as already explained, is barren, or moss-grown hilly country, which can be traversed by horses.

« PreviousContinue »