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Leave Reykjavik—Rich Soil—Leiruvogr—Accidents—Camp out—A lazy Guide—Arctic Midnight—Rank Breakfast—The Story of Sonartorrek —Alpine Road—Icelandic Dogs—A Farmhouse—Filth—On the Heithi —Birds—Icelandic Indifference—Arrival at Thingvb'llum—A Quarrel.
Off at last! Farewell comfort, ease, good food, snug beds! Welcome hard riding, rain and cold, scanty diet, and the ground for a couch!
At eight o'clock on the evening of June 19th, we left Reykjavik for the interior and north. The sun had come out right gloriously from his pavilion of clouds, and furled them up in long white folds on the mountain tops.
The baggage train preceded us by half an hour, that we might have the pleasure of galloping out of the town, cracking our whips, whilst Bob, Martin's Newfoundland dog, careered at our heels.
We caught up the advanced party on the brow of the first hill, and our pace was brought to a jog-trot in conformity with that of the sumpter animals.
We were a merry party, making as much noise as boys breaking loose from school. The guides smacked their long Icelandic whips and vociferated to the horses; the American sang "Yankee-doodle," with the fervour of a patriot; whilst Grimr trolled forth a "kvoethi" or lay, to a dismal chant, and the loose pots and pans hammered out a harmony from the back of the pony, which trotted along with them on its saddle. Martin discharged his fowling-piece at gulls and skuas, which were flying in numbers over head, quite beyond range; and Mr. Briggs occasionally yelled with pain, as the corners of boxes or the prongs of fishing-rods violently impinged, at various points, on his person, whenever a pack-horse charged past him on the narrow track, and brought its load into collision with every thing and person which obstructed its course. On one occasion my portly friend was nearly annihilated by a body of erratic ponies, which Guthmundr and Magnus drove into the path, at the very spot where he was bickering along on his reeking steed.
We formed a cavalcade of twenty-five horses and six men; our luggage consisted of tents, two boxes of comestibles, two cases of brandy, an apparatus for cooking over a spirit-lamp, guns and fishing-tackle. I must not omit from enumeration the great bed—a horse-load in itself—belonging to Mr. Briggs, who had no intention of sleeping uncomfortably, even in Iceland.
The baggage is adapted to an Icelandic horse's back in the clumsiest manner possible; two square sods of turf are laid against the sides of the pony, and a framework of wood in two curves is laid over these and strapped together under the belly. To this frame are affixed eight wooden pins, and the traveller's luggage is attached to these by woollen ropes of little strength, forming a net-work of cord full of knots, which take half-anhour to be untied. If the burden on one side of the horse be greater than that on the other, round goes the pack-saddle, and bags and boxes strew the road; consequently one of the arts of loading consists in estimating weights and producing equipoise.
For two or three miles the track is cleared of stones, and we jogged along with comfort; but on crossing the Elitha-a, there remained no trace of road-making, and we found it impossible to ride abreast. The sumpter horses, as well as the reserve, were continually breaking away in quest of grass, and the inconvenience was so great that the guides proceeded to lead them I taumi (cognate with Eng. team), which consists of tying the head of one horse to the tail of another, so that a line is formed, and a refractory beast has no chance of getting away. One guide leads the foremost pony by its halter, a second brings up the rear, and the third oscillates between the extreme points, alarming each pony individually by his shouts and whip-cracking, besides keeping his eye on the packages and straps.
To right and left opened friths, with wild duck rocking on the crisp wavelets which flowed in before the breeze.
We rode under bluffs of rich mould, ten to twenty feet high, formed of disintegrated volcanic rock, ragged and mangled by the spring torrents, which sweep off snags of turf and cakes of soil into the sea. The earth seems ready enough to produce most luxuriant crops were the climate less rigorous. If we had such deposits in England, we should quarry them out to fertilize our fields. Draining might make the soil produce something even in Iceland, but at present it is coated with only a scanty crop of grey moss and wiry grass, whose tender shoots are charred by the snow-water as soon as they begin to spring.
As the night progressed, if I may call that night when the sun was still in the heavens, the clouds left the mountains, and the stately pile of Esja stood out purple-mantled, with its ravines choked with snow. We had a fine view of it from above Leiruvogr, a bay studded with islands, on one of which cows were pasturing, and light blue smoke gave evidence of a farm. Beyond, in the remotest distance, shone the sugar-loaf Sncefels Jokull, nearly seventy miles distant. To our right, was a bold scarth of dark rock thronged with ravens, at its foot a hot spring, near which nestles a small byre, whose tun or home-field, bright green sprinkled with golden-cups, was gladdening to the eye wearied with the prevailing grey and black tints of the landscape. The only land cultivated in. Iceland is the tun, which is a meadow surrounding the house, varying in extent according to the number of cows kept on the farm; this field is dressed with their dung, and produces the hay which constitutes the food of the cattle during the winter.
An oyster-catcher sailing near us, was brought down by the gun and thrust into my saddle-bag, though Gn'mr shook his head, and pronounced it execrable eating.
From Leiruvogr, a flat of deep bogs extends to Mosfell, traversed by a river, the waters of which are rendered lukewarm by the existence of hot springs in and around it. The name Leiruvogr (the ei is pronounced like ai in laird), signifies the bay of muddy deposit. I wonder whether the Frith at Plymouth, called the Laura, which is muddy enough in all conscience, has any etymological connection with this Icelandic bay! .
We noticed a mallard feeding in the swamps, so the Yankee cocked his gun and rode into the river; he discharged his piece just as the bird observed him, and plunged into a pool hard by. Unfortunately, the Yankee not only missed his bird, but lost his seat, for the pony, unaccustomed to hearing explosions on his back, bounded forward suddenly, and deposited its rider in a sitting posture, gun in hand, in the water. This produced a general laugh, led by Mr. Briggs; but the Yankee had soon an opportunity of turning the tables on him ; for as, a few minutes later, my fat friend was ambling ahead of us with the utmost composure, his pony came to a dead halt before an ugly quagmire, and by the impetus with which he had been moving, threw Mr. Briggs head over heels, with his arms up to the elbows in the mire, and his feet on either side of the horse's neck. Mr. Briggs bore our jokes with the greatest good-humour, protesting that he had not fallen, but that the ground had risen up and hit him on the head, which was a very different thing. Our merriment was cut short by Mosfell (pronounced Mosfedtl) church appearing above us, perched on a mound, and looking much like a diminutive Noah's ark. The parsonage is close by, and its tune is crossed by a gill, draining the two ridges which rise above the church, one of which is crowned by a rock strikingly like a roast sucking-pig. We unsaddled and hobbled the horses, unravelled the intricate meshes of cord which bound up the parcels, rolled out Mr. Briggs' great bed, drew the tent from its case, and spread it on the ground. Grimr in the meantime lit his pipe, and put his hands into his pockets. "Well!" said I; "here is the tent to be put up, help me with it."
The student grumbled at our giving unnecessary trouble, when the house was close by, in which we could be all accommodated. The exterior of the parsonage was so uninviting that we were hardly prepared to risk a night in it, and preferred sleeping under canvas in the pure air of heaven. As we did not choose to take his advice, Grimr sulked, and would have nothing to do with the tent, so that Mr. Briggs and I had to erect it ourselves, spread the floorcloth and lay out the rugs for beds, whilst my amiable guide watched us from his seat on one of the boxes. When the canvas was taut, Grimr, taking the pipe from his mouth and pointing with the stem over his shoulder, said: "The grey horse is down; and it will probably break its back."
"Well then," said I; "go and help the beast to its feet."
"It's of no use; it will fall down again."
Not satisfied with this reason, I made him follow me to the grey's assistance. The horse had lain down to roll, and was wedged between heaps of turf, and could not extricate itself, as its feet were hobbled. We soon brought it to its legs again, and then Grimr muttered, " The chestnut is running away; before morning it will be back in Reykjavik."
"Then run after it!"
"It is of no use; if I catch it, it will run away again."
So I was obliged to pursue the steed myself, through the river, getting myself soaked, catch it, and secure the hobbies which were loose.
"Now I shall go to bed," said Grimr, retiring towards the farm.
It was a still arctic midnight. The sky was flooded with light, toning the azure to the tenderest green. Clouds were transmuted to rose flakes, and mist to a nebulous haze of flame; some ragged cloud patches, high above the mountain peaks, flamed like gold in the furnace, their shadows picked