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List Of Contents | Contents of Letters From High Latitudes, by Lord Dufferin
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Pfeiffer--had done before us; but its inside looked so
dark, and damp, and cold, and charnel-like, that one
really doubted whether lying in the churchyard would not
be snugger. You may guess, then, how great was my relief
when our belated baggage-train was descried against the
sky-line, as it slowly wended its way along the purple
edge of the precipice towards the staircase by which we
had already descended.

Half an hour afterwards the little plot of grass selected
for the site of our encampment was covered over with
poles, boxes, cauldrons, tea-kettles, and all the
paraphernalia of a gipsy settlement. Wilson's Kaffir
experience came at once into play, and under his solemn
but effective superintendence, in less than twenty minutes
the horn-headed tent rose, dry and taut, upon the sward.
Having carpeted the floor with oil-skin rugs, and arranged
our three beds with their clean crisp sheets, blankets,
and coverlets complete, at the back, he proceeded to lay
out the dinner-table at the tent door with as much decorum
as if we were expecting the Archbishop of Canterbury.
All this time the cook, who looked a little pale, and
moved, I observed with difficulty, was mysteriously
closeted with a spirit-lamp inside a diminutive tent of
his own, through the door of which the most delicious
whiffs occasionally permeated. Olaf and his comrades had
driven off the horses to their pastures; and Sigurdr and
I were deep in a game of chess. Luckily, the shower,
which threatened us a moment, had blown over. Though now
almost nine o'clock P.M., it was as bright as mid-day;
the sky burned like a dome of gold, and silence and deep
peace brooded over the fair grass-robed plain, that once
had been so fearfully convulsed.

You may be quite sure our dinner went off merrily; the
tetanus-afflicted salmon proved excellent, the plover
and ptarmigan were done to a turn, the mulligatawny beyond
all praise; but, alas! I regret to add, that he--the
artist, by whose skill these triumphs had been achieved--his
task accomplished,--no longer sustained by the factitious
energy resulting from his professional enthusiasm,--at
last succumbed, and, retiring to the recesses of his
tent, like Psyche in the "Princess," lay down, "and
neither spoke nor stirred."

After another game or two of chess, a pleasant chat, a
gentle stroll, we also turned in; and for the next eight
hours perfect silence reigned throughout our little
encampment, except when Wilson's sob-like snores shook
to their foundation the canvas walls that sheltered him.

When I awoke--I do not know at what hour, for from this
time we kept no account of day or night--the white sunlight
was streaming into the tent, and the whole landscape was
gleaming and glowing in the beauty of one of the hottest
summer-days I ever remember. We breakfasted in our
shirt-sleeves, and I was forced to wrap my head in a
white handkerchief for fear of the sun. As we were all
a little stiff after our ride, I could not resist the
temptation of spending the day where we were, and examining
more leisurely the wonderful features of the neighbourhood.
Independently of its natural curiosities, Thingvalla was
most interesting to me on account of the historical
associations connected with it. Here, long ago, at a
period when feudal despotism was the only government
known throughout Europe, free parliaments used to sit in
peace, and regulate the affairs of the young Republic;
and to this hour the precincts of its Commons House of
Parliament are as distinct and unchanged as on the day
when the high-hearted fathers of the emigration first
consecrated them to the service of a free nation. By a
freak of nature, as the subsiding plain cracked and
shivered into twenty thousand fissures, an irregular oval
area, of about two hundred feet by fifty, was left almost
entirely surrounded by a crevice so deep and broad as to
be utterly impassable;--at one extremity alone a scanty
causeway connected it with the adjoining level, and
allowed of access to its interior.  It is true, just at
one point the encircling chasm grows so narrow as to be
within the possibility of a jump; and an ancient worthy,
named Flosi, pursued by his enemies, did actually take
it at a fly; but as leaping an inch short would have
entailed certain drowning in the bright green waters that
sleep forty feet below, you can conceive there was never
much danger of this entrance becoming a thoroughfare. I
confess that for one moment, while contemplating the
scene of Flosi's exploit, I felt,--like a true Briton,--an
idiotic desire to be able to say that I had done the
same; that I survive to write this letter is a proof of
my having come subsequently to my senses.

[Figure: fig-p055.gif with caption as follows:
   A  The Althing.
   B  The Hill of Laws.
   C  The place where Flosi jumped.
   D  Adjacent Chasms.]

This spot then, erected by nature almost into a fortress,
the founders of the Icelandic constitution chose for the
meetings of their Thing, [Footnote:  From thing, to speak.
We have a vestige of the same word in Dingwall, a town
of Ross-shire.] or Parliament, armed guards defended the
entrance, while the grave bonders deliberated in security
within: to this day, at the upper end of the place of
meeting, may be seen the three hammocks, where sat in
state the chiefs and judges of the land.

But those grand old times have long since passed away.
Along the banks of the Oxeraa no longer glisten the tents
and booths of the assembled lieges; no longer stalwart
berserks guard the narrow entrance to the Althing; ravens
alone sit on the sacred Logberg; and the floor of the
old Icelandic House of Commons is ignominiously cropped
by the sheep of the parson. For three hundred years did
the gallant little Republic maintain its independence--three
hundred years of unequalled literary and political vigour.
At last its day of doom drew near. Like the Scotch nobles
in the time of Elizabeth, their own chieftains intrigued
against the liberties of the Icelandic people; and in
1261 the island became an appanage of the Norwegian crown.
Yet even then the deed embodying the concession of their
independence was drawn up in such haughty terms as to
resemble rather the offer of an equal alliance than the
renunciation of imperial rights. Soon, however, the apathy
which invariably benumbs the faculties of a people too
entirely relieved from the discipline and obligation of
self-government, lapped in complete inactivity, moral,
political, and intellectual,--these once stirring islanders.
On the amalgamation of the three Scandinavian monarchies,
at the union of Calmar, the allegiance of the people of
Iceland was passively transferred to the Danish crown.
Ever since that time, Danish proconsuls have administered
their government, and Danish restrictions have regulated
their trade.  The traditions of their ancient autonomy
have become as unsubstantial and obsolete as those which
record the vanished fame of their poets and historians,
and the exploits of their mariners. It is true, the
adoption of the Lutheran religion galvanized for a moment
into the semblance of activity the old literary spirit.
A printing-press was introduced as early as 1530, and
ever since the sixteenth century many works of merit have
been produced from time to time by Icelandic genius.
Shakespeare, Milton, and Pope have been translated into
the native tongue; one of the best printed newspapers I
have ever seen is now published at Reykjavik; and the
Colleges of Copenhagen are adorned by many an illustrious
Icelandic scholar; but the glory of the old days is
departed, and it is across a wide desolate flat of ignoble
annals, as dull and arid as their own lava plains, that
the student has to look back upon the glorious drama of
Iceland's early history. As I gazed around on the silent,
deserted plain, and paced to and fro along the untrodden
grass that now clothed the Althing, I could scarcely
believe it had ever been the battle-field where such keen
and energetic wits encountered,--that the fire-scathed
rocks I saw before me were the very same that had once
inspired one of the most successful rhetorical appeals
ever hazarded in a public assembly.

As an account of the debate to which I allude has been
carefully preserved, I may as well give you an abstract
of it.  A more characteristic leaf out of the Parliamentary
Annals of Iceland you could scarcely have.

In the summer of the year 1000, when Ethelred the Unready
ruled in England, and fourteen years after Hugh Capet
had succeeded the last Carlovingian on the throne of
France,--the Icelandic legislature was convened for the
consideration of a very important subject--no less
important, indeed, than an inquiry into the merits of a
new religion lately brought into the country by certain
emissaries of Olaf Tryggveson,--the first Christian king
of Norway,--and the same who pulled down London bridge.

The assembly met. The Norse missionaries were called upon
to enunciate to the House the tenets of the faith they
were commissioned to disclose; and the debate began.
Great and fierce was the difference of opinion. The good
old Tory party, supported by all the authority of the
Odin establishment, were violent in opposition. The Whigs
advocated the new arrangement, and, as the king supported
their own views, insisted strongly on the Divine right.
Several liberal members permitted themselves to speak
sarcastically of the Valhalla tap, and the ankles of
Freya. The discussion was at its height, when suddenly
a fearful peal of subterranean thunder roared around the
Althing. "Listen!" cried an orator of the Pagan party;
"how angry is Odin that we should even consider the
subject of a new religion. His fires will consume us."
To which a ready debater on the other side replied, by
"begging leave to ask the honourable gentleman,--with
whom were the gods angry when these rocks were
melted?"--pointing to the devastated plain around him.
Taking advantage of so good a hit, the Treasury "whips"
immediately called for a division; and the Christian

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