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


The Arcturus had been delayed in discharging freight by a series of storms which prevailed at the bay, and was now down at Haparanda Fjord taking in ballast. The probability was that she would not leave for several days. Meantime I was extremely anxious to see a little more of domestic life in Iceland, and made several foot-expeditions to the farm-houses in the neighborhood of Reykjavik.

At one of these I passed a night. In giving the details of an awkward adventure that befell me on that occasion, it is only necessary for me to say of the house that it was built in the usual primitive style, already described at some length. The people were farmers, and the family consisted of an old man and his wife, three or four stout sons, and a buxom daughter some twenty years of age. A few words of Danish enabled me to make them understand that I wished for a cup of coffee, some bread, and lodgings for the night. They were exceeding kind, and seemed greatly interested in the fact that I was an American probably the first they had ever seen. The coffee was soon ready; a cloth was spread upon the table, and a very good supper of bread, cheese, and curds placed before me. I passed some hours very sociably, giving them, as well as I could by means of signs and diagrams, aided by a few words of Danish, a general idea of California, its position on the globe, and the enormous amount of gold which it yielded. Evidently they had heard some exaggerated rumors of the country. The name was familiar to them, but they had no idea where this El Dorado was, or whether there was any truth in the statement that the mountains were made of gold, and all the rocks in the valleys of pure silver. My efforts to enlighten them on these points were rather ludicrous. It was miraculous how far I made a few words go, and how quick they were to guess at my meaning.

About eleven o’clock the old people began to manifest symptoms of drowsiness, and gave me to understand that whenever I felt disposed to go to bed the girl would show me my room. A walk of ten or twelve miles over the lava-bergs rendered this suggestion quite acceptable, so I bade the family a friendly good-night, and followed the girl to another part of the house. She took me into a small room with a bed in one corner. By a motion of her hand she intimated that I could rest there for the night. I sat down on the edge of the bed and said it was very good that I was much obliged to her. She still lingered in the room, however, as if waiting to see if she could be of any farther assistance. I could not be insensible to the fact that she was a very florid and good-natured looking young woman; but, of course, that was none of my business. All I could do with propriety was to thank her again, and signify by taking off my overcoat that I was about to go to bed. Still she lingered, apparently disposed to be as friendly as circumstances would permit. It was somewhat awkward being alone in a strange room with a person of the opposite sex, young and rather pretty, without saying any thing particular. Her silence, as well as my own, was getting embarrassing. I attempted to carry on a conversation in Danish, of which I soon discovered she knew even less than I did myself. She answered my remarks, however, in her native tongue, with a very sweet voice, and in such a sociable way that I felt sure she meant to be kind and hospitable. In vain I waited for her to leave. It was getting late, and her parents might feel anxious about her. Still she manifested no disposition to go away. What could the girl mean? was a question that now began to enter my head. Probably I had taken possession of her room, and she had no other place to sleep. If so, it was not my fault. Nobody could hold me responsible for such a peculiar family arrangement. Seeing no alternative but to test the point, I gradually began to take off my coat. So far from being abashed at the movement, she seized hold of the sleeves and helped me off with it. I did the same with my vest, and still with the same result. Then I pulled off my boots, but with no better prospect of relief from my embarrassing dilemma. Finally I came to my pantaloons, at which I naturally hesitated. It was about time for the young woman to leave, if she had any regard for my feelings. I thanked her very cordially; but she showed no symptoms of leaving. It was plain that she meant to help me through with the business. I sat for some time longer before I could bring myself to this last trying ordeal. There was something so pure and innocent in the expression of the young woman’s face such an utter unconsciousness of any impropriety in our relative positions, that I scarcely knew what to do or think. “She wants to help me off with my pantaloons that’s plain!” said I to myself. “Perhaps it is the custom in Iceland; but it is very awkward, nevertheless.” The fact is, you see, I was not quite old enough to be the girl’s father, nor yet quite young enough to be put to bed like her youngest brother. Between the two extremes of the case I was considerably troubled. To reject her kind offers of service might be deemed rude, and nothing was farther from my intention than to offend this amiable young person. Allowing a reasonable time to elapse, I saw there was no getting over the difficulty, and began to remove the last article of my daily apparel. Doubtless she had long foreseen that it would eventually come to that. In a very accommodating manner, she took a position directly in front, and beckoned to me to elevate one of my legs, an order which I naturally obeyed. Then she seized hold of the pendent casimere and dragged away with a hearty good-will. I was quickly reduced to my natural state with the exception of a pair of drawers, which, to my horror, I discovered were in a very ragged condition, owing to the roughness of my travels in this wild region. However, by an adroit movement I whirled into bed, and the young woman covered me up and wished me a good night’s sleep. I thanked her very cordially, and so ended this strange and rather awkward adventure.

Such primitive scenes are to be found only in the interior. In the towns the women are in dress and manners very like their sisters elsewhere. Hoops and crinoline are frequently to be seen not only among the Danes, who, as a matter of course, import them from Copenhagen, but among the native women, who can see no good reason why they should not be as much like pyramids or Jokuls as others of their sex. Bonnets and inverted pudding-bowls are common on the heads of the Reykjavik ladies, though as yet they have not found their way into the interior. All who can afford it indulge in a profusion of jewelry silver clasps, breast-pins, tassel-bands, etc., and various articles of filigree made by native artists. These feminine traits I had not expected to find so fully developed in so out-of-the-way a country. But where is it that lovely woman will not make herself still more captivating? I once saw in Madagascar a belle of the first rank, as black as the ace of spades, and greased all over cocoa-nut oil, commit great havoc among her admirers by a necklace of shark’s teeth and a pair of brass anklets, and nothing else. The rest of her costume, with a trifling exception, was purely imaginary; yet she was as vain of her superior style, and put on as many fine airs, as the most fashionable lady in any civilized country. After all, what is the difference between a finely-dressed savage and a finely-dressed Parisian? None at all that I can see, save in the color of the skin and the amount of labor performed by the manufacturer, the milliner, the tailor, or the schoolmaster. Intrinsically the constitution of the mind is identically the same. I speak now of men as well as women, for the most affected creatures I have seen in Europe are of the male sex. So pardon me, fair ladies, for any reflection upon your crinoline, and accept as my apology this candid avowal that while you are naturally angelic, and always beautiful beyond comparison, in spite of what you do to disfigure your lovely persons, we men are naturally savages, and are driven to the barbarous expedient of adorning and beautifying our ugly bodies with gewgaws, tinsel, and jimcrackery, in order that they may be acceptable in your eyes.

On my return to Reykjavik I found that the steamer was to sail next day. I was very anxious to visit Mount Hecla, but my time and means were limited, and would not permit of a farther sojourn in this interesting land. It was a great satisfaction to have seen any thing of it at all; and if I have given the reader even a slight glimpse of its wonders, my trip has not been entirely unsuccessful.