Read CHAPTER XXIV of The Land of Thor , free online book, by J. Ross Browne, on ReadCentral.com.

STOCKHOLM.

The passage from Abo to Stockholm occupies about eighteen hours, and in fine weather affords a constant succession of agreeable scenes. With the exception of about four hours of open sea in crossing the Gulf of Bothnia, the steamer is constantly surrounded by islands, many of them highly picturesque, and all interesting from their peculiar geological formation. Occasionally the island winds like a snake through a wilderness of naked granite boulders, round and slippery, and barely high enough out of the water to afford a foundation for a few fishermen’s huts, which from time to time break the monotony of their solitude. Sometimes the channel opens out into broad lakes, apparently hemmed in on all sides by pine-covered cliffs; then passing between a series of frightful crags, upthrown, as it were, out of the water by some convulsion of nature, the surging waves lash their way through the narrow passages, and threaten each moment to ingulf the frail vessel, or dash it to atoms against the rocks. The greatest danger in making this trip arises from the number of sunken rocks, which often approach to within a few feet of the surface without being visible. The depth is usually marked by poles or buoys, and it often happens that the steamer plies her way for hours between these water-marks, where there is no other indication of danger. The Swedish and Finnish pilots are proverbially among the best in the world. We had an old Finn on board a shaggy old sea-dog, rough and weather-beaten as any of the rocks on his own rock-bound coast, who, I venture to say, never slept a wink during the entire passage, or if he did, it was all the same. He knew every rock, big and little, visible and invisible, that lay on the entire route between Abo and Stockholm, and could see them all with his eyes shut. An uncouth, hardy, honest old monster was this Finn a Caliban of a fellow, half human, half fish with a great sou’wester on his head, a rough monkey-jacket buttoned around his body, and a pair of boots on his legs that must have been designed for wading over coral reefs, through seas of swordfish, shovel-nosed sharks, and unicorns. His broad, honest face looked for all the world like a granite boulder covered with barnacles and sea-weed, and ornamented by a bunch of mussels for a nose, and a pair of shining blue pebbles by way of eyes; and when he spoke, which was not often, his voice sounded like the keel of a fishing-smack grating over a bank of gravel. I strongly suspect his father was a sea-lion and his mother a grampus or scragg whale, and that he was fished up out of the sea when young by some hardy son of Neptune, and subsequently trained up in the ways of humanity on board a fishing-smack, where the food consisted of polypi, lobsters, and black bread. Yet there was something wonderfully genial about this old pilot. He chewed enormous quantities of tobacco, the stains of which around his mouth greatly improved the beauty of his countenance; and when he was not chewing pigtail he was smoking it, which equally contributed to soften the asperities of his features. Having sailed in many seas, he spoke many languages, but none very intelligibly, owing to some radical defect in the muscles of his mouth. As to the channel between Abo and Stockholm, which lies partly through the Aland Islands and numerous adjacent rocks, above and below water, I believe he had traveled over it so often that he could steer a vessel through it standing backward as readily as box the compass, or shut both his eyes and tell where the deepest water lay by the smell of the air and the taste of his tobacco.

The passage across the Gulf of Bothnia was somewhat rough, and most of the passengers were sea-sick, owing, no doubt, to the short chopping motion which prevails on board of all kinds of sea-going vessels in these inland seas. Having performed various voyages in various parts of the world, I was, of course, exempt from this annoyance; but my digestion had been impaired in Russia by the vast quantity of tea, cucumbers, veal, cabbage-soup, and other horrible mixtures which I had been forced to consume while there, and which now began to tell on my constitution. Notwithstanding repeated doses of cognac, taken from time to time as I walked the decks, the sea began to whirl all round, the clouds overhead to swing about at random through the rigging, and the odor of the machinery to produce the strongest and most disagreeable sensations. I went below to see how things looked there; but, finding the atmosphere dense and the prospect gloomy, returned in great haste and looked over the bulwarks to see how fast we were going through the water. While thus engaged, an amusing thought occurred to me. Suppose the mermaids who lie down in the briny depths form their ideas of the beauty of the human countenance from the casual glimpses thus afforded of our features, would it be possible for the most susceptible of them to fall in love with us? The idea was so droll that I was almost convulsed with laughter; but, not wishing to attract attention by laughing aloud at my own thoughts, I merely clung to the bulwarks and doubled myself up, trying to avoid the appearance of eccentricity. At or about the same moment, the old Finnish pilot, with whom I had formed an acquaintance, came along, and said good-naturedly, “Hello, sir! I dink you pe sea-sick.” “Sea-sick?” said I, a little nettled. “Oh no, Herr Pilot, I’m an old sailor, and never get sea-sick.” “Vel, I dought you was sick you look bad, sir,” answered the good old pilot; “de sea is very rough, sir.” Here the steamer took a notion to pitch down into the water and jump up again suddenly, and then rolled on one side and then on the other, and at the same time a number of the passengers began to make grotesque and disagreeable noises, which amused me so much that I had to turn away my face and look at the water again to avoid laughing. “Sir,” said the old pilot, who observed the contortions of mirth by which I was moved, “vil you have some schnapps? I dink schnapps is goot for de sea-sick.” “Thank you,” said I, the tears streaming from my eyes, “I won’t have any just now.” “Vel, ’twon’t last long, any how,” suggested the good-natured monster. “By’m-by we be up to Vaxholm in pout two hours. Dere’s land! Don’t you see it?” I saw it, and right glad I was too, for it is always refreshing to see land from the deck of a steamer. In half an hour more we entered a smooth stretch of water, and soon the wood-covered islands and shores of Sweden were close ahead.

Passing the fortress of Waxholm, we entered the magnificent fjord or arm of the sea which extends for a distance of ten or twelve miles up to the city. The scenery on this part of the route is very fine. All along the shores of the main land and adjacent islands rugged cliffs of granite reared their hoary crests over the waters of the fjord. Forests of oak and pine cover the rolling background, and beautiful villas, with parterres and blooming gardens, peep from every glen. Sometimes for miles the solitude of the forests and rock-bound shores is unbroken, save by an occasional fisherman’s hut or an open patch of green pasture; then suddenly, upon turning a point, a group of red-roofed villas glimmer through the foliage; sail-boats are seen gliding over the water with gay companies of ladies and gentlemen from the city enjoying the fresh breeze that sweeps up from the Gulf; now a hay-boat or a clumsy lugger laden with wood drifts along lazily toward the grand centre of trade; and as we approach nearer to the dim smoke-cloud that hangs over the city, big and little craft gather thicker and thicker before us, till the whole fjord seems alive with masts and sails. Soon the outlines of the churches and castles break through the dim distance, and, like some grand optical illusion, the whole city gradually opens up before us.

To say that I was charmed with the first view of Stockholm would but faintly express the feelings with which I gazed upon this beautiful metropolis of the North. Though different in almost every essential particular, it has been not unaptly compared to Venice; and certainly, if the sparkling waters from which it seems to rise, the wood-covered islands, the rich and varied outlines of its churches and castles, the forests of shipping at its wharves, the many-colored sail-boats and gondolas sweeping hither and thither, the glowing atmosphere, and surrounding gardens, villas, temples, and pavilions, can entitle it to that distinction, Stockholm well deserves to rank with the Queen City of the Adriatic.

The landing for the Baltic steamers is at the head quay called the Skepsbron, which in summer is well lined with shipping, and presents rather an animated appearance. Very little formality is observed in regard to the baggage of passengers, and passports are not required, or at least no demand was made upon me for mine. All I had to do was to show my knapsack to the custom-house officer, who put a chalk-mark upon it, signifying, no doubt, that it contained nothing contraband; after which I stepped ashore, and, aided by a friendly fellow-passenger, found lodgings at a dirty little hotel close by, called the “Stadt Frankfort.” If there is any worse place to be found in Stockholm, it must be the very worst on the face of the earth, for the “Stadt Frankfort” is next thing to it. Being dirty and foul of smell, and abounding in vermin, of course the charges are, as usual in such cases, proportionally high, for which reason I recommend it to any gentleman traveling in this direction whose main object is to get rid of his money for an equivalent of filth, fleas, bugs, bad bread, and worse coffee. The main part of the city, embracing the King’s Palace, the Bourse, the Church of St. Nicholas, the Barracks and public buildings, is built upon an island fronting the Baltic on the one side and the Malar Lake on the other. This is the most populous and interesting part, though the streets are narrow and irregular, and the houses generally old and dilapidated, with dark, gloomy fronts, and a very fishy and primitive expression of countenance. The new parts of the city, called the Normalm to the north and the Sodmalm to the south, which are connected with the island by bridges, have some fine streets and handsome rows of buildings in the modern style, especially the Normalm, which contains the King’s Garden, the Arsenal, the Opera-house, and the principal hotels and residences of the foreign ministers. This part of Stockholm will compare favorably with second or third-rate cities in Germany; for it must be borne in mind that, striking as the external aspect of Stockholm is, the interior is very far from sustaining the illusion of grandeur cast around it by the scenic beauties of its position. In nothing is the traveler more disappointed than the almost total absence of business excitement. With the exception of a few stevedores at work on the wharves and a trifling jostle at the market-places, the whole city seems to be sitting down in its Northern solitude, waiting, like Mr. Micawber, for something to turn up. In some parts one may walk half a mile without hearing a sound save the echo of his own footsteps. It is, emphatically, a “slow” place so slow, indeed, compared with the marts of commerce to which I had been accustomed in California (especially the city of Oakland), that I was constantly impressed with the idea that every body was fast asleep, and that if three or four of them should happen to wake at the same time, it would be fearfully startling to hear their eyelids crack open and the hollow streets echo to their yawns.

But don’t understand this as a reflection upon the Swedish race. They are industrious and energetic when occasion requires, but, like all people who live at the extreme North, acquire tropical habits of indolence from the climate. During the tedious winters, when the days are but six hours long, all who can afford it become torpid, like frogs, and lie up in their houses till the summer sun thaws them out. Balls, parties, and sleigh-riding occasionally rouse them up, but lethargy is the general rule. The warm weather comes very suddenly, and then the days are eighteen hours long. This being the season of outdoor pleasure, it is spent in visits to the country or lounging about the gardens, sitting on spring benches and enjoying the sunshine.

The Swedish soldiers are a fine-looking race of men, far superior in stature and general appearance to the soldiers of Russia. They are well drilled, bold, and manly, and have fine faces, full of spirit and intelligence. Wherever these men are led, they will now, as in past times, give the enemies of their country some trouble. I consider them the finest soldiers in Northern Europe.

The general aspect of the citizens of Stockholm is that of extreme plainness and simplicity. I take them to be an honest, substantial, and reliable people, well educated and intelligent; satisfied with themselves and the world, and proud of their country and its history. Politeness is a national characteristic. Every person, of high and low degree, upon entering a shop, takes off his hat, and remains with uncovered head while making his purchase. Gentlemen who meet on the street knock the tops of their “tiles” against their knees, and continue to bow at each other long after they have passed. In feature and general appearance the Swedes are handsomer than the southern races of Europe, and for that reason wear a nearer resemblance to the Americans. I saw several men in Stockholm who would not have done discredit to California, in point of fine faces and commanding figures. The Swedish ladies are proverbially beautiful. It was really refreshing, after my visit to Russia, to see so many pretty women as I met here. Light hair, oval features, sparkling blue eyes, and forms of intoxicating grace and beauty ah me! why should such dangers be permitted to threaten the defenseless traveler with instant destruction, when the law provides for his protection against other disasters by land and sea, assault and battery, false imprisonment and highway robbery? Yet here were lovely creatures, gliding about at large, shooting mutilation and death out of their bright blue eyes, and apparently as indifferent to the slaughter they committed as if it were the finest fun in the world! Talk of your French beauties, your Italian beauties, your Spanish beauties! Give me, for the impersonation of soul expressed in the human form divine for features “woven from the music of the spheres and painted with the hues of the aurora borealis” a Swedish beauty, the nearest approach upon earth to an American beauty, which, being altogether angelic, must ever remain the highest type of perfection known to mankind.

I don’t wonder Swedenborg made so many heavens for his female characters. His “conjugal felicity” required at least seven. One small heaven, constructed upon the Swedish plan, would certainly afford but limited accommodations for all the beauties of Stockholm.

A day or two after my arrival in Stockholm I called to Mr. Fristadius, the American consul, from whom I obtained the latest news in reference to the progress of the rebellion. Accustomed as we are in the United States to read the newspapers every morning, wherever we may happen to be, the deprivations in this respect to which an American traveler in Europe is subjected must be experienced to be fully appreciated. Even in the principal cities of Germany it is difficult to find a newspaper that contains any thing more than a notice of the price of stocks, a few telegraphic items about the petty court movements of neighboring cities, a rehash of slander upon our country from the London Times, or an item of news about the war, in which the states are misplaced, the names misspelled, and the most important points omitted. I do not think there is a village press in California that would not be ashamed to turn out such trashy little sheets as are issued in Frankfort; and as for the matter of fairness and honesty, it is rare to find an independent newspaper in any part of Europe. To suppress truth and subserve some military or financial interest is the business for which they are paid. Making due allowance for party prejudices, you may guess at the truth in most of our American journals, but it would be a waste of time to search for it in the newspapers published on this side of the water. While they studiously refrain from indecorous language, they are corrupt and unreliable beyond any thing known in California, and have not even the merit of being energetic and entertaining liars. This is the case in Russia and Finland as well as in Germany. Where the press is subjected to a rigid censorship, it is of course useless to look for reliable information, and as for late intelligence, it does not travel through official bureaus. Before leaving Frankfort I had news to the 28th of June. A week after my arrival at St. Petersburg the same news was promulgated in that city. On my return from Moscow I had the pleasure of reading the details in an American newspaper. One or two mutilated telegraphic dispatches seemed to sharpen my appetite during the trip to Revel, Helsingfors, Abo, and Stockholm; and now, arrived at the head-quarters of Swedish civilization, after searching in vain for a late English or American newspaper at the principal cafes, I was compelled to make application to our consul, in the faint hope that he might be an occasional reader of that ephemeral species of literature. Fortunately, Mr. Fristadius had spent some time in the United States, and learned to appreciate the magnitude and importance of the struggle in which we were engaged.

I had the pleasure, during my sojourn in Stockholm, of getting a glimpse of Swedish social life in one of its most agreeable phases. Mr. Fristadius, who is a Swede by birth and education, and occupies a prominent position as one of the leading iron-merchants of Stockholm, was kind enough to invite me to an entertainment at his villa, situated about four miles from the city, on one of the prettiest little islands in the Malar Lake.

At an early hour in the afternoon, the company, which consisted of thirty or forty ladies and gentlemen, assembled by appointment at a wharf near one of the principal bridges, where a small steam-boat belonging to Mr. Fristadius was in waiting. I was a little astonished, not to say taken aback, at the display of elegant dresses, liveried servants, and white kid gloves that graced the occasion, and looked at my dusty and travel-worn coat, slouched hat, and sunburnt hands for which there was no remedy with serious thoughts of a hasty retreat. One doesn’t like to be a savage among civilized people; yet, if one undertakes to travel with little baggage and less money, what can he do, unless he holds himself aloof from the world altogether, which is not the best way of seeing it? There was no time for reflection, however; the whistle was blowing, and we were hurried on board by our kind host, who seemed determined to make every body as happy as possible. The trip down the lake was delightful. On either side the hills and islands were dotted with villas and gardens; sail-boats were skimming over the water with gay parties intent on pleasure; the views of the city from every turn were picturesque beyond description, and the weather was quite enchanting. As we swept along on our course, the gentlemen of the party, who were nearly all Swedes, united in a wild and beautiful Scandinavian glee, the mellow strains of which swept over the water, and were echoed from the wooded islands and shores of the lake with a magnificent effect. Whether it was the scenery, the weather, or the singing, or all combined, I could scarcely tell, but this little trip was certainly an episode in life to be remembered with pleasure in after years. In about half an hour we drew near a perfect little Paradise of an island, upon which, half hidden in shrubbery and flowers, stood the villa of our friend, Mr. Fristadius. Here were winding graveled walks overhung by rich foliage; beds of flowers in full bloom; grottoes of rock laved by the waters of the lake; immense boulders of granite surmounted by rustic pavilions; hedges of privet and hawthorn to mark the by-paths; a miniature bridge from the main island across to a smaller island, upon which stood an aquatic temple for the fishing-boats and gondolas; with a wharf jutting out into the deep water at which the little steam-boat landed. Nothing could be more unique than the whole place. Nature and art seemed to have united to give it the most captivating effects of wildness, seclusion, comfort, and elegance. It was Crusoe-life idealized. As we approached the landing-place, the interesting family of our host, surrounded by numerous friends, stood upon a little eminence awaiting our arrival. While we gazed with pleasurable emotions at the pretty scene before us, a most delicate and appropriate compliment was paid to our excellent minister, Mr. Haldeman, and his accomplished wife, who were of the party. The American flag was hoisted upon a pole near the landing by Mrs. Fristadius, and the company with one accord arose and greeted with three cheers this glorious emblem of liberty. I shall never forget the mingled feelings of pride and pleasure with which I looked upon the stars and stripes once more, after months of dreary depression in countries where freedom is but a glimmering hope in the human heart. But here in Sweden the spirit of our institutions is appreciated; here I found myself surrounded by noble and trusty friends of the American Union, loyal to their own liberal government, yet devoted to the great cause of human freedom wherever it can exist consistently with the progress of the times and the capacity of the people for self-government. As the flag waved in the breeze, an inspiring song of liberty burst from the joyous company one of those soul-stirring songs of Belman, which find a response in the breast of every Swede wild, impassioned, and patriotic, breathing in every word and intonation the chivalrous spirit of men whose ancestry had fought under the glorious banners of Gustavus Adolphus.

As soon as the song was concluded the little steam-boat drew up to the wharf, where we were most kindly and cordially greeted by the family of our host. After a pleasant ramble about the grounds we proceeded to the house, which is situated on a picturesque eminence overlooking the lake, and the adjacent shores and islands. Here, in a large and elegant saloon, opening on all sides upon a spacious veranda, a sumptuous collation was spread. The company lounged about without ceremony, eating, drinking, and enjoying themselves as they pleased; wit and wine flowed together, unrestrained by the slightest formality. In the midst of our “feast of reason and flow of soul,” Mr. Fristadius made a neat and appropriate little speech of “welcome to all his friends,” which was followed by a song from the musical gentlemen; after which he proposed a toast to a young married couple present. This was followed by another song. Then there was a toast to the American flag, another speech and a song, to which Mr. Haldeman, our minister, responded in such terms of enthusiasm and complimentary allusion to the Swedish nation that there was a general outburst of applause. I had hoped, in view of my rustic garb, to escape notice, and was snugly barricaded in a corner behind a table, looking on quietly and enjoying the scene, when, to my great astonishment, a toast was proposed “to the DISTINGUISHED TRAVELER FROM CALIFORNIA!” In vain I looked about me to see if any prominent gentleman of my acquaintance from California would step forward and answer to the summons, when I was gently but firmly captured by our host, and duly brought forth to respond to the charge! Never having made a speech in my life, I could only seize hold of a wine-glass (which I think belonged to somebody else), and in the confusion of the moment drink spontaneously to the great traveler from California! Then there was an inspiring glee from the lively young gentlemen who did the music.

Thus passed the time till dinner was over, when we adjourned to the garden for coffee and cigars. Seated under the wide-spreading trees, in the balmy air of this summer evening, we had songs and recitations of Scandinavian poetry, anecdotes, and humorous dissertations till nearly midnight. I do not remember that I ever participated in a more rational or delightful entertainment. After a farewell glee to our host we marched down to the wharf, where the boat was in waiting, and embarked for Stockholm. I can only add that I was charmed with the refinement and intelligence of Swedish society, as far as I could judge of it by this casual glimpse. From many of the guests I received cordial invitations to prolong my sojourn, and the next morning found two or three of the gentlemen in readiness to show me every thing of interest about the city.

We visited the Museum, where there is an interesting assortment of Scandinavian antiquities, and the palace, and some half a dozen other places, all of which came in the regular routine of sight-seeing; but the fact is, I am getting dreadfully tired of this systematic way of lionizing the cities of Europe. I turn pale at the sight of a museum, shudder at a church, feel weak in the knees at the bare thought of a picture-gallery, and as for antiquities, they make my flesh creep. Between you and myself, dear reader, I wouldn’t give a sou-markee for all the old bones gathered up during the last eighteen centuries, unless to start a bone-mill and sell the dust at a remunerative profit.

After all, the more I saw of Stockholm the more the blues began to creep over me. It is depressingly slow in these far Northern cities; so slow, indeed, I don’t wonder every thing has a mildewed and sepulchral aspect. The houses look like slimy tombs in a grave-yard; the atmosphere, when the sun does not happen to shine which is more than half the time is dank and flat, and hangs upon one’s spirits like a nightmare, crushing out by degrees the very germ of vitality. I am not surprised that paralysis and hip-disease are frightfully prevalent in Stockholm.

Give me California forever the land of sunshine and progress. I have seen no country like it yet. When I think of old times there, a terrible home-sickness takes possession of me. So help me, friends and fellow-citizens, I’d sooner be a pack-mule in California with a raw back, and be owned by a Mexican greaser, employed week in and week out in carrying barrels of whisky over the Downieville trail, fed on three grains of barley per day, and turned out to browse on quartz rock and sage-bushes every night I’d rather be a miserable little burro, kicked and cuffed by a Mariposa Chinaman I’d rather be a dog and bay the moon in the city of Oakland, or a toad and feed upon the vapors of a dungeon at San Quentin I’d rather be a lamp-post on the corner of Montgomery Street, San Francisco, and be leaned against, and hugged, and kissed alternately by every loafer out of the Montgomery saloon I’d rather be any of these than a human being compelled to live permanently in Europe, with a palace in every city, town, and village, and an income of fifty thousand dollars a day to defray expenses; so don’t be surprised if I should turn up again one of these fine mornings on the Pacific coast. The only difficulty at present is a collapse in the financial department.