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List Of Contents | Contents of Letters From High Latitudes, by Lord Dufferin
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through the wooden sluice, the Doctor had caught sight
of an apparently dead salmon, jammed up against its wooden
bars; but on pulling him out, he proved to be still
breathing, though his tail was immovably twisted into
his mouth. A consultation taking place, the Doctors both
agreed that it was a case of pleurosthotonos, brought on
by mechanical injury to the spine (we had just been
talking of Palmer's trial), and that he was perfectly
fit for food. In accordance with this verdict, he was
knocked on the head, and slung at Wilson's saddle-bow.
Left to ourselves, we now pushed on as rapidly as we
could, though the track across the lava was so uneven,
that every moment I expected Snorro (for thus have I
christened my pony) would be on his nose. In another hour
we were among the hills. The scenery of this part of the
journey was not very beautiful, the mountains not being
remarkable either for their size or shape; but here and
there we came upon pretty bits, not unlike some of the
barren parts of Scotland, with quiet blue lakes sleeping
in the solitude.

After wandering along for some time in a broad open
valley, that gradually narrowed to a glen, we reached a
grassy patch. As it was past three o'clock, Sigurdr
proposed a halt.

Unbridling and unsaddling our steeds, we turned them
loose upon the pasture, and sat ourselves down on a sunny
knoll to lunch. For the first time since landing in
Iceland I felt hungry; as, for the first time, four
successive hours had elapsed without our having been
compelled to take a snack.  The appetites of the ponies
seemed equally good, though probably with them hunger
was no such novelty. Wilson alone looked sad. He confided
to me privately that he feared his trousers would not
last such jolting many days; but his dolefulness, like
a bit of minor in a sparkling melody, only made our
jollity more radiant. In about half an hour Sigurdr gave
the signal for a start; and having caught, saddled, and
bridled three unridden ponies, we drove Snorro and his
companions to the front, and proceeded on our way rejoicing.
After an hour's gradual ascent through a picturesque
ravine, we emerged upon an immense desolate plateau of
lava, that stretched away for miles and miles like a
great stony sea. A more barren desert you cannot conceive.
Innumerable boulders, relics of the glacial period,
encumbered the track. We could only go at a foot-pace.
Not a blade of grass, not a strip of green, enlivened
the prospect, and the only sound we heard was the croak
of the curlew and the wail of the plover. Hour after hour
we plodded on, but the grey waste seemed interminable,
boundless; and the only consolation Sigurdr would vouchsafe
was, that our journey's end lay on this side of some
purple mountains that peeped like the tents of a demon
leaguer above the stony horizon.

As it was already eight o'clock, and we had been told
the entire distance from Reykjavik to Thingvalla was only
five-and-thirty miles, I could not comprehend how so
great a space should still separate us from our destination.
Concluding more time had been lost in shooting, lunching,
etc., by the way than we had supposed, I put my pony into
a canter, and determined to make short work of the dozen
miles which seemed still to lie between us and the hills,
on this side of which I understood from Sigurdr our
encampment for the night was to be pitched.

Judge then of my astonishment when, a few minutes
afterwards, I was arrested in full career by a tremendous
precipice, or rather chasm, which suddenly gaped beneath
my feet, and completely separated the barren plateau we
had been so painfully traversing from a lovely, gay,
sunlit flat, ten miles broad, that lay--sunk at a level
lower by a hundred feet--between us and the opposite
mountains. I was never so completely taken by surprise;
Sigurdr's purposely vague description of our halting-place
was accounted for.

We had reached the famous Almanna Gja. Like a black
rampart in the distance, the corresponding chasm of the
Hrafna Gja cut across the lower slope of the distant
hills, and between them now slept in beauty and sunshine
the broad verdant [Footnote: The plain of Thingvalla is
in a great measure clothed with birch brushwood.] plain
of Thingvalla.

Ages ago,--who shall say how long?--some vast commotion
shook the foundations of the island, and bubbling up from
sources far away amid the inland hills, a fiery deluge
must have rushed down between their ridges, until, escaping
from the narrower gorges, it found space to spread itself
into one broad sheet of molten stone over an entire
district of country, reducing its varied surface to one
vast blackened level.

One of two things then occurred: either the vitrified
mass contracting as it cooled,--the centre area of fifty
square miles burst asunder at either side from the
adjoining plateau, and sinking down to its present level,
left the two parallel Gjas, or chasms, which form its
lateral boundaries, to mark the limits of the disruption;
or else, while the pith or marrow of the lava was still
in a fluid state, its upper surface became solid, and
formed a roof beneath which the molten stream flowed on
to lower levels, leaving a vast cavern into which the
upper crust subsequently plumped down. [Footnote: I feel
it is very presumptuous in me to hazard a conjecture on
a subject with which my want of geological knowledge
renders me quite incompetent to deal; but however incorrect
either of the above suppositions may be justly considered
by the philosophers, they will perhaps serve to convey
to the unlearned reader, for whose amusement (not
instruction) these letters are intended, the impression
conveyed to my mind by what I saw, and so help out the
picture I am trying to fill in for him.]

[Figure: fig-p050a.gif]

The enclosed section will perhaps help you a little to
comprehend what I am afraid my description will have
failed to bring before you.

[Figure: fig-p050.gif with following caption:
   1  Gjas.
   2  Lava deluge.
   3  Original surface.
   4  Thingvalla sunk to a lower level.
   5  Astonished traveller.]

1. Are the two chasms called respectively Almanna Gja,
[Footnote:  Almanna may be translated main; it means
literally all men's; when applied to a road, it would
mean the road along which all the world travel.] or Main
Gja, and Hrafna Gja, or Raven's Gja. In the act of
disruption the sinking mass fell in, as it were, upon
itself, so that one side of the Gja slopes a good deal
back as it ascends; the other side is perfectly
perpendicular, and at the spot I saw it upwards of one
hundred feet high. In the lapse of years the bottom of
the Almanna Gja has become gradually filled up to an even
surface, covered with the most beautiful turf, except
where a river, leaping from the higher plateau over the
precipice, has chosen it for a bed. You must not suppose,
however, that the disruption and land-slip of Thingvalla
took place quite in the spick and span manner the section
might lead you to imagine; in some places the rock has
split asunder very unevenly, and the Hrafna Gja is
altogether a very untidy rent, the sides having fallen
in in many places, and almost filled up the ravine with
ruins. On the other hand, in the Almanna Gja, you can
easily distinguish on the one face marks and formations
exactly corresponding, though at a different level, with
those on the face opposite, so cleanly were they separated.

[Figure: fig-p051.gif with the following caption:
   1  Plain of Thingvalla.
   2  Lake.
   3  Lava plateau.
   4  Almanna Gja.
   5  Rabna Gja.]

2. Is the sea of lava now lying on the top of the original
surface. Its depth I had no means of ascertaining.

3. Is the level of the surface first formed when the lava
was still hot.

4. Is the plain of Thingvalla, eight miles broad, its
surface shattered into a network of innumerable crevices
and fissures fifty or sixty feet deep, and each wide
enough to have swallowed the entire company of Korah. At
the foot of the plain lies a vast lake, into which,
indeed, it may be said to slope, with a gradual inclination
from the north, the imprisoned waters having burst up
through the lava strata, as it subsided beneath them.
Gazing down through their emerald depths, you can still
follow the pattern traced on the surface of the bottom,
by cracks and chasms similar to those into which the dry
portion of Thingvalla has been shivered.

The accompanying ground plan will, I trust, complete what
is wanting to fill up the picture I so long to conjure
up before the mind's eye. It is the last card I have to
play, and, if unsuccessful, I must give up the task in
despair.  But to return to where I left myself, on the
edge of the cliff, gazing down with astonished eyes over
the panorama of land and water embedded at my feet. I
could scarcely speak for pleasure and surprise; Fitz was
equally taken aback, and as for Wilson, he looked as if
he thought we had arrived at the end of the world. After
having allowed us sufficient time to admire the prospect
Sigurdr turned to the left, along the edge of the precipice,
until we reached a narrow pathway accidentally formed
down a longitudinal niche in the splintered face of the
cliff, which led across the bottom, and up the opposite
side of the Gja, into the plain of Thingvalla.  By rights
our tents ought to have arrived before us, but when we
reached the little glebe where we expected to find them
pitched, no signs of servants, guides, or horses were to
be seen.  As we had not overtaken them ourselves, their
non-appearance was inexplicable. Wilson suggested that,
the cook having died on the road, the rest of the party
must have turned aside to bury him; and that we had passed
unperceived during the interesting ceremony. Be the cause
what it might, the result was not agreeable. We were very
tired, very hungry, and it had just begun to rain.

It is true there was a clergyman's house and a church,
both built of stones covered with turf sods, close by;
at the one, perhaps, we could get milk, and in the other
we could sleep, as our betters--including Madame

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