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When all was ready, my guide made signals to the sportsmen, and we finished the evening with a capital supper within the tent, seated on Mr. Briggs' great and comfortable bed, with boxes for our table, and my hammock for the sideboard, into which the dirty knives, forks, tin plates, and mugs, were flung, notwithstanding my earnest remonstrances.
On the following morning I should really have been driven to ask my companions to halt a day, as my fever had increased, but that I knew that there was not grass for the horses' sustenance during another twenty-four hours; moreover, I have a theory that the more one gives way to sickness, the worse it becomes.
By ten o'clock we were en route, my companions walking, gun in hand, on the look-out for game. I rode on ahead at a fast trot, that I might make a sketch of the waste district at the entrance to the dale, but found that I could not steady or direct my pencil; I was consequently obliged to postpone it till my return. Plate XIV., which represents this scene, was taken then; the rising columns of red sand were not visible at this time, and the phenomenon shall be explained in the chapter detailing my return journey over Ok.
To the left is Ok, or the yoke, a mountain shaped like a dish-cover, snow-draped, with Fantofell guarding the entrance to Kaldidalr. This Jokull is not included in the drawing. Fantofell obtains its name from the tradition that two rogues, one from the north, the other from the south, met on its top, and fought till they had mutually slain each other, like the Kilkenny cats. An ugly gap—the Kaldidalr — apparently blocked by a low ridge of saw-like hills, barren and precipitous, separates Ok from Geitland's Jokull, an outstanding portion of the great Ball Jokull, from which it is parted by the mysterious Thorisdalr. In the distance, to the right, is Hlothufell, or the Stack, with abrupt flanks; more to the right is another snow point, very distant, and then the symmetrical Skjaldbreith. The foreground is sand and shale, quite destitute of vegetation. We turn the flank of the iron-black saw, and the wind moans up Kaldidalr in my face, fierce and biting.
The scene of desolation is quite indescribable: a vast trench between walls of rock and heaps of snow; the crags of great height and flat-topped, with bare precipices of green ice and snow resting on them, ready to topple over in avalanches with the least disturbing cause, and bury us under their ruins; here and there a cone of snow, which has thus shot to the bottom and has not yet begun to melt; now a smooth sweep of undinted whiteness rising to the Jokull top, or barred with black steps of rock glazed with frozen streams. Not a bird, nor insect, not a sound. I stood—
"Alone, for other creature in this place,
In the foreground a cairn of rib and leg bones of horses, which have died of starvation in the pass, with a patch of turf about it as large as a horse-walk in a threshing-mill, the grass grey not green, and that the last sign of vegetation] we are to see for many hours.
The bed of the vale has not even the flash or tinkle of a rivulet to relieve its hushed monotony. The snow melts, and is absorbed into the spongy ground. Shoulder on shoulder of snow, buttress on buttress of rock, swell on swell of avalanche rubble for us to toil over; here and there the skeleton of a poor horse which has fallen lame and died before it could reach herbage. It was indeed an awe-inspiring scene among these Jokulls locked in everlasting stillness, folded in a white veil never to be raised till the crack of doom.
"The palaces of Nature, whose vast walls
Two parties had traversed the dale this year before us, and one had left his best horse hopelessly lamed; and the other— the postman—had lost his way, and had been nearly driven to cut the throats of some of his horses to spare them a lingering death by famine.
I waited at the cairn, wrapped in my Franciscan cloak, till the rest came up.
"This is the Bemakerling (pronounced Bayna-kedling), or old woman of bones," said Grimr. "Every traveller is bound to write a message of ' God speed' for the next person who traverses this pass, and secure it in one of the bones of the heap."
We complied with the custom, and, after drinking a bumper to the Queen and to the "Old Folks at Home," dashed into the scene of desolation before us, in pursuit of the sumpter horses now crawling over a neck of rubble a mile ahead. Half way through this wilderness is a dark headland of tufa, the Hiidoegrafell, pronounced How-daigra-fedtl, or Half-day mountain; it flanks a noble and picturesque trachyte Jokull, whose pale ashen hue contrasts with the blackness of the tufa around. This is Thorishofthi, and is believed to mask the mysterious glen.
The sky gradually became overcast, and we were afraid of the clouds descending upon the snow and enveloping us, but we were fortunate. A wildly beautiful scene opened on us now—the glorious heap of Eireks Jokull, an isolated rounded head of snow supported on abrupt scarps, and looking something like a bride-cake; beyond this a blue horizon with water-specks flashing on it, the Arnarvatn-heithi with its network of countless lakes, over which our course was to lie •in a few days. Still onward we pushed over soft earth, and through sludgy snow, whose crust had broken through in several places, and disclosed ugly pits ready to engulph us should the snow not support our weight; up a desperate stair of rock with blocks of glistening obsidian and cakes of amygdaloid, strewn on either side and under foot. Still more snow as we scrambled over a spur of Ok glacier, and then with a shout of joy we hail a wintry flake of turf; our horses break into a canter, the dog leaps about us joyously barking, and the pipe of the plover relieves the ear which has tired with a stillness so oppressive, that few of us had been in spirits to speak, during the many hours in the cold dale.
But we were not at the end of our journey yet; we had two hours more fast riding and two rivers to cross, one of the hue of milk and water from the amount of unmelted snow it swept along with it. This was separated from the other river by a monotonous tract of volcanic sand and cinder, sprinkled with a minute rhododendron.
At eleven o'clock we reached Kalmanstunga, and partook of an excellent supper off rice-milk, stirred with the instrument used in poking the fire, and lake trout. I was in especial glee, as my fever had left me suddenly in Kaldidalr.
The next day was so rainy that we were obliged to remain at Kalmanstunga. Mr. Martin was glad of the opportunity for skinning his birds and preparing them for the taxidermist.
On the second day, June 15th, we started for Little Arnarvatn, intending to visit Surtshellir on the way. This cavern has been so frequently visited and described, that I have no heart for writing a fresh account of it. It has been investigated by Olafsen and Povelsen, by Henderson, by Capt. Forbes, by M. Preyer and Dr. Zirkel, and by Mr. Holland. Suffice it to say, that its interest has been much overrated. It consists of a chain of air bubbles in the lava, the top of two of which have fallen in; out of these branch tunnels, one of which served long ago as hall and cubicle for a robber gang, another as a receptacle for the bones of cattle stolen from neighbouring farmers. These bones still remain in great numbers.
The band was destroyed through the treachery of a young man of the party, who led the armed bonders upon the robbers as they lay asleep in the sun on the side of a turfy split in the lava, some way off.
All the rogues were killed except Eirek, who, having had one foot cut off, escaped by running like a wheel with hands and foot, just in the manner of street urchins, till he reached the jokull, which he climbed, and then vanished among its snows. Many years after, a ship came into the nearest fjord, commanded by a one-footed merchant. The cheap rate at which the goods were sold attracted the young man, among others, to the vessel. Scarcely was he on board, than the one-footed merchant shouted for the anchor to be raised and the sails to be set. The ship rolled out to sea, and neither youth nor merchant were seen or heard of again.