HOSPITALITY UNDER THE ARCTIC CIRCLE
It ought to have been night-time, but under the 65th parallel there
was nothing surprising in the nocturnal polar light. In Iceland
during the months of June and July the sun does not set.
But the temperature was much lower. I was cold and more hungry than
cold. Welcome was the sight of the boer which was hospitably opened
to receive us.
It was a peasant's house, but in point of hospitality it was equal to
a king's. On our arrival the master came with outstretched hands, and
without more ceremony he beckoned us to follow him.
To accompany him down the long, narrow, dark passage, would have been
impossible. Therefore, we followed, as he bid us. The building was
constructed of roughly squared timbers, with rooms on both sides,
four in number, all opening out into the one passage: these were the
kitchen, the weaving shop, the badstofa, or family sleeping-room, and
the visitors' room, which was the best of all. My uncle, whose height
had not been thought of in building the house, of course hit his head
several times against the beams that projected from the ceilings.
We were introduced into our apartment, a large room with a floor of
earth stamped hard down, and lighted by a window, the panes of which
were formed of sheep's bladder, not admitting too much light. The
sleeping accommodation consisted of dry litter, thrown into two
wooden frames painted red, and ornamented with Icelandic sentences. I
was hardly expecting so much comfort; the only discomfort proceeded
from the strong odour of dried fish, hung meat, and sour milk, of
which my nose made bitter complaints.
When we had laid aside our travelling wraps the voice of the host was
heard inviting us to the kitchen, the only room where a fire was
lighted even in the severest cold.
My uncle lost no time in obeying the friendly call, nor was I slack
The kitchen chimney was constructed on the ancient pattern; in the
middle of the room was a stone for a hearth, over it in the roof a
hole to let the smoke escape. The kitchen was also a dining-room.
At our entrance the host, as if he had never seen us, greeted us with
the word "SAELLVERTU," which means "be happy," and came and kissed
us on the cheek.
After him his wife pronounced the same words, accompanied with the
same ceremonial; then the two placing their hands upon their hearts,
inclined profoundly before us.
I hasten to inform the reader that this Icelandic lady was the mother
of nineteen children, all, big and little, swarming in the midst of
the dense wreaths of smoke with which the fire on the hearth filled
the chamber. Every moment I noticed a fair-haired and rather
melancholy face peeping out of the rolling volumes of smoke--they
were a perfect cluster of unwashed angels.
My uncle and I treated this little tribe with kindness; and in a very
short time we each had three or four of these brats on our shoulders,
as many on our laps, and the rest between our knees. Those who could
speak kept repeating "SAELLVERTU," in every conceivable tone; those
that could not speak made up for that want by shrill cries.
This concert was brought to a close by the announcement of dinner. At
that moment our hunter returned, who had been seeing his horses
provided for; that is to say, he had economically let them loose in
the fields, where the poor beasts had to content themselves with the
scanty moss they could pull off the rocks and a few meagre sea weeds,
and the next day they would not fail to come of themselves and resume
the labours of the previous day.
"SAELLVERTU," said Hans.
Then calmly, automatically, and dispassionately he kissed the host,
the hostess, and their nineteen children.
This ceremony over, we sat at table, twenty-four in number, and
therefore one upon another. The luckiest had only two urchins upon
But silence reigned in all this little world at the arrival of the
soup, and the national taciturnity resumed its empire even over the
children. The host served out to us a soup made of lichen and by no
means unpleasant, then an immense piece of dried fish floating in
butter rancid with twenty years' keeping, and, therefore, according
to Icelandic gastronomy, much preferable to fresh butter. Along with
this, we had 'skye,' a sort of clotted milk, with biscuits, and a
liquid prepared from juniper berries; for beverage we had a thin milk
mixed with water, called in this country 'blanda.' It is not for me
to decide whether this diet is wholesome or not; all I can say is,
that I was desperately hungry, and that at dessert I swallowed to the
very last gulp of a thick broth made from buckwheat.
As soon as the meal was over the children disappeared, and their
elders gathered round the peat fire, which also burnt such
miscellaneous fuel as briars, cow-dung, and fishbones. After this
little pinch of warmth the different groups retired to their
respective rooms. Our hostess hospitably offered us her assistance in
undressing, according to Icelandic usage; but on our gracefully
declining, she insisted no longer, and I was able at last to curl
myself up in my mossy bed.
At five next morning we bade our host farewell, my uncle with
difficulty persuading him to accept a proper remuneration; and Hans
signalled the start.
At a hundred yards from Gardar the soil began to change its aspect;
it became boggy and less favourable to progress. On our right the
chain of mountains was indefinitely prolonged like an immense system
of natural fortifications, of which we were following the
counter-scarp or lesser steep; often we were met by streams, which we
had to ford with great care, not to wet our packages.
The desert became wider and more hideous; yet from time to time we
seemed to descry a human figure that fled at our approach, sometimes
a sharp turn would bring us suddenly within a short distance of one
of these spectres, and I was filled with loathing at the sight of a
huge deformed head, the skin shining and hairless, and repulsive
sores visible through the gaps in the poor creature's wretched rags.
The unhappy being forbore to approach us and offer his misshapen
hand. He fled away, but not before Hans had saluted him with the
"Spetelsk," said he.
"A leper!" my uncle repeated.
This word produced a repulsive effect. The horrible disease of
leprosy is too common in Iceland; it is not contagious, but
hereditary, and lepers are forbidden to marry.
These apparitions were not cheerful, and did not throw any charm over
the less and less attractive landscapes. The last tufts of grass had
disappeared from beneath our feet. Not a tree was to be seen, unless
we except a few dwarf birches as low as brushwood. Not an animal but
a few wandering ponies that their owners would not feed. Sometimes we
could see a hawk balancing himself on his wings under the grey cloud,
and then darting away south with rapid flight. I felt melancholy
under this savage aspect of nature, and my thoughts went away to the
cheerful scenes I had left in the far south.
We had to cross a few narrow fiords, and at last quite a wide gulf;
the tide, then high, allowed us to pass over without delay, and to
reach the hamlet of Alftanes, one mile beyond.
That evening, after having forded two rivers full of trout and pike,
called Alfa and Heta, we were obliged to spend the night in a
deserted building worthy to be haunted by all the elfins of
Scandinavia. The ice king certainly held court here, and gave us all
night long samples of what he could do.
No particular event marked the next day. Bogs, dead levels,
melancholy desert tracks, wherever we travelled. By nightfall we had
accomplished half our journey, and we lay at Krosolbt.
On the 19th of June, for about a mile, that is an Icelandic mile, we
walked upon hardened lava; this ground is called in the country
'hraun'; the writhen surface presented the appearance of distorted,
twisted cables, sometimes stretched in length, sometimes contorted
together; an immense torrent, once liquid, now solid, ran from the
nearest mountains, now extinct volcanoes, but the ruins around
revealed the violence of the past eruptions. Yet here and there were
a few jets of steam from hot springs.
We had no time to watch these phenomena; we had to proceed on our
way. Soon at the foot of the mountains the boggy land reappeared,
intersected by little lakes. Our route now lay westward; we had
turned the great bay of Faxa, and the twin peaks of Snaefell rose
white into the cloudy sky at the distance of at least five miles.
The horses did their duty well, no difficulties stopped them in their
steady career. I was getting tired; but my uncle was as firm and
straight as he was at our first start. I could not help admiring his
persistency, as well as the hunter's, who treated our expedition like
a mere promenade.
June 20. At six p.m. we reached Budir, a village on the sea shore;
and the guide there claiming his due, my uncle settled with him. It
was Hans' own family, that is, his uncles and cousins, who gave us
hospitality; we were kindly received, and without taxing too much the
goodness of these folks, I would willingly have tarried here to
recruit after my fatigues. But my uncle, who wanted no recruiting,
would not hear of it, and the next morning we had to bestride our
The soil told of the neighbourhood of the mountain, whose granite
foundations rose from the earth like the knotted roots of some huge
oak. We were rounding the immense base of the volcano. The Professor
hardly took his eyes off it. He tossed up his arms and seemed to defy
it, and to declare, "There stands the giant that I shall conquer."
After about four hours' walking the horses stopped of their own
accord at the door of the priest's house at Stapi.