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under for once in an argument with the Yankee on the rights of the American war, so that I might retire early to my berth, —and yet Mr. Abraham Blank was before me.
I hurried on deck, but the Yankee, satisfied with having won his bet, turned round for another snooze.
The morning was beautiful; full in front, Hjurleif s Head, a bluff of dark rock, seven hundred feet high, stood up proudly from a low, repulsive plain of volcanic dust. We could distinguish the smoke from a little farm on the top, but the house itself was invisible, either sunk in a depression, or with the slope of its turf roof towards us, grass-grown like the soil around.
Behind the headland rose the white dome of Kotlugja, now calm and hushed, looking down on the devastation it has made; for these extensive flats were once grassy meadows, but Katla buried them deep in sand and pumice. Between Katla and Myrdals Jokull, the adjoining heap of snow, is a grim chasm, hitherto never reached by man.
Hjorleif s Head is named after one of the first settlers in Iceland. Hjorleif and Ingolf sailed from Norway together, but when the latter came on shore under the Orcefa, the other pushed west and established himself at this point. Having built two farms, he set his Irish slaves to plough the sandy soil with his one ox. The rogues were idly disposed and soon tired of their task; they then slew the ox, and came back to their master with a story that a bear had carried off the creature. The Paddies seem then to have thought that having perpetrated one evil deed they might just as well make a pair of them, so they killed their master, and laid his bones by the bones of his ox: then, fearing lest Ingolf should take it into his head to look up his foster-brother, and haul them all over the coals for their morning's work, the scamps loaded the boats with everything that they could carry off, and fled to the Westmann Islands, which are called after them. So landlord stalking is no new invention among the Irish!
A glorious panorama was gradually unfolding before us as the steamer advanced. The long stretch of Myrdals Jokull, pure and undiluted in the morning sun; the black burnt crags, so steep that snow will not veil them, but only festoon their heads, now mellowed in the fresh beam of dawn; the tremulous blue sea flickering along the sand flats, and frothing about the Needles of Portland, flashing white through the mighty natural arch of Dyrhular; a pale grey glacier from Myrdals, bristling with silvery spikes, and discharging its melted ice in broad streams, seaming the flats in all directions: these are the leading features of the scene, and the minor details are striking also; the great gull on poised wing, vibrating overhead; the kittiwakes dipping in the wavelets; the gannet descending with a rush into the water to spike a luckless fish he has seen from aloft; a shark asleep on the surface, rolling with the swell, his dorsal fin standing above the water like a ploughshare; and, out at sea, a whale blowing off a fountain of spray.
Dyrholar is an arch drilled by the waves through the blackest of rocks. The gap is 200 ft. across, the thickness of the crag, 75 ft., and the height above the water, from 80 to 90 ft.; so that, weather permitting, the little steamer, Arcturus, might thread the needle eye, without much danger.
We sight the Westmann Islands, a cluster of turf-capped columns, thronged by sea-birds, which have the majority of the rocks to themselves, as only one of them, Heimey or Home Isle, is inhabited. This is the largest of a group of fifteen, and is as big as all the rest put together. Its length is three miles and its breadth hardly two, the distance from the mainland is seven miles, but communication between them is cut off entirely for months, and it is only when a cascade near Holt reaches the sea in an unbroken silver thread, as it does to-day, that a boat can venture across the straits. When the wind is at all violent, the stream is taken and tossed in spray high above the cliffs over which it shoots.
The islands form a syssel or county by themselves, and have a magistrate, parson and doctor, resident on Heimey. There is one church near the harbour, which has been completely sacked of all its plate and old vestments by the pirates of the seventeenth century. One of the skerries, Geldingasker, is so abrupt, that sheep, brought to the foot in boats, are hoisted on to it by ropes. Another, Hellarey, has caves in it which serve as folds during boisterous weather, when the winds are violent enough to sweep the unprotected live-stock over the cliffs. Bjarney, which fronts the little harbour, is a highly picturesque pile of rock; the name signifies Bear Island, but when Bruin made it his resort and managed to clamber up its perpendicular sides, I have been unable to discover. As the Arcturus, our steamer, approaches the neat and tight little harbour of Heimey, we see the lava which has flowed from Heima Klettir, a volcanic cone, nine hundred and sixteen feet high, connected with the island by a narrow ridge of crag. The Westmann Islands get their name, as already stated, from the Irish scoundrels who slew Hjorleif. It is a satisfaction to know that Ingolf, the dead man's foster-brother, killed the rascals one day when they were taking their siesta after dinner. By the way, is the expression dead man's foster-brother quite admissible? I use it on the following authority. Shortly before leaving England I was visiting a clergyman who had just returned from a funeral; when there was a tap at the door, and the servant looked in. "Well, Mary, am I wanted?" asked the parson. "Please your reverence, there's the corpse's brother wants to speak with your honour."
The Westmann islander must lead a melancholy life, cut off from the world, living on the bleakest spot imaginable, with an ever-boiling sea below him, its throb and roar always sounding in his ear, the wind sweeping over the unsheltered turf, searing it as with a hot iron, as it rolls from the snowfields of Eyjafjalla. His life is one of daily peril, battling with the sea in slight fishing boats, or slung over the precipices, collecting eggs, his life depending on the hair rope his own hands have woven, and these Icelandic hair ropes are frail enough, Heaven knows! Offer him a stout English cable and he will shake his head; his father, and his father's father used rope such as his, why should he try one of other texture? His home is like a rabbit-burrow, under turf mounds, redolent with the disgusting odour of the fulmar petrel (Procellaria glacialis), whose strong flesh is his food, its bones his fuel, and its feathers his bedding. Nay, more! the young birds have a wick run down their throats, and they are so charged with oil that they serve as lamps.
The fulmar petrel has to be caught with caution. The fowler must drop on it suddenly, and by a sharp grasp of the throat secure it before the bird has time to spit the oil from its beak, which it will do, when alarmed, knowing it to be the treasure for which it is hunted.
As the feathers can never be purified, the offensiveness of the fowler's home may be guessed; to a stranger, the atmosphere is perfectly unendurable. One or two cottages in Reykjavik are furnished with feather-beds of fulmar down, and none but natives will enter the hovels.
Children do not live, unless removed to the mainland; the coarse flesh of the sea-birds, and the early age at which they are weaned, produce a fearful disease amongst them, called gjuklofi, which is quite incurable. Violent cramps and spasms contort the body and continue at intervals, increasing in violence, till death ensues.
The history of this cluster of islands is marked by misfortune, as may be gathered from the Icelandic annals. Shipwreck succeeds shipwreck; half the crew of a merchant vessel rise in the night and murder the other half, as the ship lies at anchor in the tiny harbour; the crags become a refuge for outlaws. "Lopt in the islands biting puffin bones, Soemund on the moor munching berries," says an old saw, commemorating two famous exiles. Finally, pirates enter the harbour, rob, burn, and carry into captivity, as has already been mentioned in the introduction.
A boat started from among the rocks as we came to a standstill just off the harbour, and brought letters from the post ship; the sysselman, the doctor and the parson were in the bows, and eight lusty fishermen rowed. The post-bag was handed up the side, and one letter, the only one that year, was flung to them from the deck. "Some newspapers!" in an imploring voice from the little cockle-shell which danced at our side, and we tossed down all the Danish papers we could scrape together in the cabin. The painter was flung loose, we waved caps, and shouted "Adieu!" When the captain opened the bag, he found that it contained half-adozen letters, of which only two had any direction. "That is just the way of these out-of-the-way people," laughed he. "They write to any one they know, or have known in former years, and always forget the directions, so that I have to break the seals and discover the destination of their letters."
We steamed on again. To the right, the glorious silver shoulder of Eyjafjalla, 5,432 feet high, shines in the sun, and, as we steam past the mouths of the Markarfljot, which threads the scenes of the glorious story of Burnt Njal, we catch the white cap of Tindarfjalla Jokull, the brown horns of Trihyrningr, and the distant Hekla with his mantle of snow around him.
As evening set in, we lost sight of the shore, which is low about Eyrarbakki, and we stood direct for Cape Beykjanes. There was a cry of " Whales!" and we ran to the hurricane deck to have a view of the monsters rolling and tumbling, sending up spouts of foam, diving, and rising to spout again. There must have been a shoal of twenty; Martin sent a shot from his Whitworth rifle amongst them, but without disturbing the ungainly creatures in their frolic.
The Yankee eyed them with gravity, and then observed: "I calculate we could make better whales than them in the U-nited States."
"Make them! Nonsense! stuff!" from Mr. Briggs, in derision. Mr. Briggs was a rather portly gentleman, who was on his way to Iceland with his friend Martin for a little fishing and shooting. "Make whales! Fiddlesticks' ends!"
"Yes, make them," retorted the Yankee, bridling up. "There was an intimate friend of mine made the great Leviathan or sea-sarpint; and a powerful sight better it was than anything in natur', I reckon."
Mr. Briggs gave a long whistle, expressive of astonishment, dismay, or perhaps doubt.