List Of Contents | Contents of Letters From High Latitudes, by Lord Dufferin
< < Previous Page     Next Page > >

hid the defences of Sebastopol; which fact, on reflection,
I perceived to be the less extraordinary, as I was standing
in my shirt at the door of a tent in Iceland. The
premonitory symptoms of an eruption, which I had taken
for a Russian cannonading, had awakened the French
sleepers,--a universal cry was pervading the
encampment,--and the entire settlement had turned
out--chiefly in bare legs--to witness the event which
the reverberating earth and steaming water seemed to
prognosticate. Old Geysir, however, proved less courteous
than we had begun to hope, for after labouring uneasily
in his basin for a few minutes, he roused himself on his
hind-legs--fell--made one more effort,--and then giving
it up as a bad job, sank back into his accustomed inaction,
and left the disappointed assembly to disperse to their
respective dormitories.

The next morning, the whole encampment was stirring at
an early hour with preparations for departure; for
unsatisfactory as it had been, the French considered
themselves absolved by the partial performance they had
witnessed from any longer "making antechamber," as they
said, to so capricious a functionary. Being very anxious
to have one more trial at photographing Strokr, I ventured
to suggest that the necessary bolus of sods should be
administered to him. In a few minutes two or three
cart-loads of turf were seething and wallowing within
him. In the meantime, Fitz seized the opportunity of the
Prince being at breakfast to do a picture of him seated
on a chair, with his staff standing around him, and
looking the image of Napoleon before the battle of
Austerlitz. A good twenty minutes had now elapsed since
the emetic had been given,--no symptoms of any result
had as yet appeared,--and the French began to get impatient;
inuendoes were hazarded to the disadvantage of Strokr's
reputation for consistency,--inuendoes which I confess
touched me nearly, and made me feel like a show-man
whose dog has misbehaved. At last the whole party rode
off; but the rear horseman had not disappeared round the
neighbouring hill before--splash! bang!--fifty feet up
into the air drove the dilatory fountain, with a fury
which amply avenged the affront put upon it, and more
than vindicated my good opinion. All our endeavours,
however, to photograph the eruption proved abortive. We
had already attempted both Strokr and the Great Geysir,
but in the case of the latter the exhibition was always
concluded before the plate could be got ready; and
although, as far as Strokr is concerned, you can tell
within a certain period when the performance will take
place, yet the interval occurring between the dose and
the explosion varies so capriciously, that unless you
are content to spend many days upon the spot, it would
be almost impossible to hit it off exactly.  On this last
occasion,--although we did not prepare the plate until
a good twenty minutes after the turf was thrown in,--the
spring remained inactive so much longer than is usual
that the collodion became quite insensitive, and the
eruption left no impression whatever upon it.

Of our return journey to Reykjavik I think I have no very
interesting particulars to give you. During the early
part of the morning there had been a slight threatening
of rain; but by twelve o'clock it had settled down into
one of those still dark days, which wrap even the most
familiar landscape in a mantle of mystery. A heavy,
low-hung, steel-coloured pall was stretched almost entirely
across the heavens, except where along the flat horizon
a broad stripe of opal atmosphere let the eye wander into
space, in search of the pearly gateways of Paradise. On
the other side rose the contorted lava mountains, their
bleak heads knocking against the solid sky and stained
of an inky blackness, which changed into a still more
lurid tint where the local reds struggled up through the
shadow that lay brooding over the desolate scene. If
within the domain of nature such another region is to be
found, it can only be in the heart of those awful solitudes
which science has unveiled to us amid the untrodden
fastnesses of the lunar mountains. An hour before reaching
our old camping-ground at Thingvalla, as if summoned by
enchantment, a dull grey mist closed around us, and
suddenly confounded in undistinguishable ruin the glory
and the terror of the panorama we had traversed; sky,
mountains, horizon, all had disappeared; and as we strained
our eyes from the edge of the Rabna Gja across the
monotonous grey level at our feet, it was almost difficult
to believe that there lay the same magical plain, the
first sight of which had become almost an epoch in our

I had sent on cook, baggage, and guides, some hours before
we ourselves started, so that on our arrival we found a
dry, cosy tent, and a warm dinner awaiting us. The rapid
transformation of the aspect of the country, which I had
just witnessed, made me quite understand how completely
the success of an expedition in Iceland must depend on
the weather, and fully accounted for the difference I
had observed in the amount of enjoyment different travellers
seemed to have derived from it. It is one thing to ride
forty miles a day through the most singular scenery in
the world, when a radiant sun brings out every feature
of the country into startling distinctness, transmuting
the dull tormented earth into towers, domes, and pinnacles
of gleaming metal,--and weaves for every distant summit
a robe of variegated light, such as the "Delectable
Mountains" must have worn for the rapt gaze of weary
"Christian;"--and another to plod over the same forty
miles, drenched to the skin, seeing nothing but the dim,
grey roots of hills, that rise you know not how, and you
care not where,--with no better employment than to look
at your watch, and wonder when you shall reach your
journey's end. If, in addition to this, you have to wait,
as very often must be the case, for many hours after your
own arrival, wet, tired, hungry, until the baggage-train,
with the tents and food, shall have come up, with no
alternative in the meantime but to lie shivering inside
a grass-roofed church, or to share the quarters of some
farmer's family, whose domestic arrangements resemble in
every particular those which Macaulay describes as
prevailing among the Scottish Highlanders a hundred years
ago; and, if finally--after vainly waiting for some days
to see an eruption which never takes place--you journey
back to Reykjavik under the same melancholy conditions,--it
will not be unnatural that, on returning to your native
land, you should proclaim Iceland, with her Geysirs, to
be a sham, a delusion, and a snare!

Fortune, however, seemed determined that of these
bitternesses we should not taste; for the next morning,
bright and joyous overhead bent the blue unclouded heaven;
while the plain lay gleaming at our feet in all the
brilliancy of enamel.  I was sorely tempted to linger
another day in the neighbourhood; but we have already
spent more time upon the Geysirs than I had counted upon,
and it will not do to remain in Iceland longer than the
15th, or Winter will have begun to barricade the passes
into his Arctic dominions. My plan, on returning to
Reykjavik, is to send the schooner round to wait for us
in a harbour on the north coast of the island, while we
ourselves strike straight across the interior on horseback.

The scenery, I am told, is magnificent. On the way we
shall pass many a little nook, shut up among the hills,
that has been consecrated by some touching old-world
story; and the manner of life among the northern inhabitants
is, I believe, more unchanged and characteristic than
that of any other of the islanders. Moreover, scarcely
any stranger has ever penetrated to any distance in this
direction; and we shall have an opportunity of traversing
a slice of that tremendous desert--piled up for thirty
thousand square miles in disordered pyramids of ice and
lava over the centre of the country, and periodically
devastated by deluges of molten stone and boiling mud,
or overwhelmed with whirlwinds of intermingled snow and
cinders,--an unfinished corner of the universe, where
the elements of chaos are still allowed to rage with
unbridled fury.

Our last stage from Thingvalla back to Reykjavik was got
over very quickly, and seemed an infinitely shorter
distance than when we first performed it. We met a number
of farmers returning to their homes from a kind of fair
that is annually held in the little metropolis; and as
I watched the long caravan-like line of pack-horses and
horsemen, wearily plodding over the stony waste in single
file, I found it less difficult to believe that these
remote islanders should be descended from Oriental
forefathers. In fact, one is constantly reminded of the
East in Iceland. From the earliest ages the Icelanders
have been a people dwelling in tents.  In the time of
the ancient Parliament, the legislators, during the entire
session, lay encamped in movable booths around the place
of meeting. Their domestic polity is naturally patriarchal,
and the flight of their ancestors from Norway was a
protest against the antagonistic principle of feudalism.
No Arab could be prouder of his courser than they are of
their little ponies, or reverence more deeply the sacred
rights of hospitality; while the solemn salutation
exchanged between two companies of travellers, passing
each other in the DESERT--as they invariably call the
uninhabited part of the country--would not have misbecome
the stately courtesy of the most ancient worshippers of
the sun.

Anything more multifarious than the landing of these
caravans we met returning to the inland districts--cannot
well be conceived; deal boards, rope, kegs of brandy,
sacks of rye or wheaten flour, salt, soap, sugar, snuff,
tobacco, coffee; everything, in fact, which was necessary
to their domestic consumption during the ensuing winter.
In exchange for these commodities, which of course they
are obliged to get from Europe, the Icelanders export
raw wool, knitted stockings, mittens, cured cod, and fish

< < Previous Page     Next Page > >

Other sites: