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CHAPTER VI. THE EAGLE TARNS.
Eiriks Jb'kull—Taxation—The Sheep's Disease—A Swan's-nest—Lava— Lose our Way—Camping-ont—Glorious Scene—Cooking Arrangements —Rare Skua—Great Northern Diver—Storm on the Heithi—Gunnarssonarvatn—The Great Eagle Tarn—Desert—H&lma-kvfsl.
We were now approaching that desert tract which Captain Forbes says is only to be traversed if a sufficient supply of hay is taken for the horses. This is not quite correct; but grass is certainly scarce, and we were warned that it would be impossible for us to halt at the Great Eagle tarn (Arnarvatn, pronounced Atnarvat), as there was no herbage there for the horses.
We were, therefore, now bound for the Lesser Eagle lake, where the farmer of Kalmanstiinga assured us we should find enough for our poor brutes to crop. But as no one knew the way thither through the labyrinth of lakes, except himself, we were obliged to engage him as guide for a couple of dollars per diem. Messrs. Shepherd, Upcher and Fowler, had attempted to traverse the road by the great lake earlier in the year, but had been compelled to give it up, and cross to Efrinupr by the Wolf lake.
The road, a mere track, ascended continuously; we had to scramble over old curdled and plaited lava, sprinkled with the pale lemon-coloured stars of the Dryas octopetala. In many places the molten stone seemed to have been poured as treacle from a spoon, and then to have suddenly congealed.
The day is very lovely; to the right are the snow heaps of Geitland and Ball jokulls, and the mighty dome of Eiriks jokull, an undinted tract of eternal ice and snow, heaved up on strange ribbed and buttressed flanks, down the gullies of which slip wreaths of silver, hardly beginning to melt in a sun without warmth. One purple crag stands forth as a headland, gashed at the top, snow-powdered; it is Eiriks gnypa, which the brave robber scaled though one of his feet was amputated, and at the summit checked the flow of blood by freezing the stump in ice. The wind is from the north, its moisture condenses on the cold head of the glacier mountains, and a thin veil of mist forms and is puffed away, forms again to be again blown aside, and as the vapour curls away from the snow, it is absorbed and vanishes.
Behind us rises the slim cone of Striitr, with a white cap on, for yesterday's rain in the vales was snow on the mountains. Far away in the west I can discern a similar cone, but grey and snowless—it is Paula, whose sides are too precipitous for the snow to lie on. To our right the Northlinga fljot tumbles between lava walls. There is a red-breasted merganser (Mergus senator), floating on yon pool. Bang! Martin's gun goes off. Bob dashes into the water, and the bird is thrust into my saddle-bag. The farmer calls the duck " Lilla Topond." Whimbrel and golden-plover pipe and wail in all directions; as we have to find our own provision for the next few days, the Yankee and Martin blaze away, and the saddlebags are soon as full as they can well be stuffed.
"Pray, to whom does this waste belong?" I asked, as my pony scrambled alongside of the farmer's grey. "Can it possibly be worth anything to anybody?"
"I farm it," he replied; "but it belongs to an old lady near Reykjavik. I rent near upon twenty square miles."
"And what do you pay for it?"
"Seventy-eight dollars (about 91. 10s.)"
"Dear at the money!" I exclaimed.
"Not so dear," the farmer answered: "for I get good land round Kalmanstunga, my house and tun, 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! 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 jokulls 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 jokull, 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.
* A heithi, as already explained, is barren, or moss-grown hilly country, which can be traversed by horses.
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 I rode 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 hie 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 !" 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