R. M. Ballantyne
The Norsemen in the West
The Norsemen in the West; Or America before Columbus. The Curtain Rises and the Play Begins
One fine autumn evening, between eight and nine hundred years ago, two large hairy creatures, bearing some resemblance to polar bears, might have been seen creeping slowly, and with much caution, toward the summit of a ridge that formed a spur to one of the ice-clad mountains of Greenland. The creatures went on all-fours. They had long bodies, short legs, shorter tails, and large round heads.
Having gained the top of the ridge they peeped over and beheld a hamlet nestled at the foot of a frowning cliff; and at the head of a smiling inlet. We use these terms advisedly, because the cliff, being in deep shadow, looked unusually black and forbidding, while the inlet, besides being under the influence of a profound calm, was lit up on all its dimples by the rays of the setting sun.
The hamlet consisted of one large cottage and half a dozen small cots, besides several sheds and enclosures wherein were a few sleepy-looking sheep, some lean cattle, and several half-starved horses. There was active life there also. Smoke issued from the chimneys; fresh-looking women busied themselves about household work; rosy children tumbled in and out at the doors, while men in rough garments and with ruddy countenances mended nets or repaired boats on the shore. On a bench in front of the principal cottage sat a sturdy man, scarcely middle-aged, with shaggy fair and flowing locks. His right foot served as a horse to a rapturous little boy, whose locks and looks were so like to those of the man that their kinship was obvious—only the man was rugged and rough in exterior; the boy was round and smooth. Tow typified the hair of the man; floss silk that of the boy.
Everything in and around the hamlet bore evidence of peace and thrift. It was a settlement of Norsemen—the first Greenland settlement, established by Eric the Red of Iceland about the year 986—nearly twenty years before the date of the opening of our tale—and the hairy creatures above referred to had gone there to look at it.
Having gazed very intently over the ridge for a considerable time, they crept backwards with extreme caution, and, on getting sufficiently far down the hill-side to be safe from observation, rose on their hind-legs and began to talk; from which circumstance it may be concluded that they were human beings. After talking, grinning, and glaring at each other for a few minutes, with gestures to correspond, as though on the point of engaging in mortal combat, they suddenly wheeled about and walked off at a rapid pace in the direction of a gorge in the mountains, the head of which was shut in by and filled up with cliffs and masses and fields of ice that overtopped the everlasting hills, and rested like a white crest on the blue sky. Vast though it seemed, this was merely a tongue of those great glaciers of the mysterious North which have done, and are still doing, so much to modify the earth’s economy and puzzle antiquarian philosophy; which form the fountain-head of influences that promote the circulation of the great deep, and constitute the cradle of those ponderous icebergs that cover the arctic seas.
From out that gloomy gorge a band of more than a hundred hairy creatures issued with wild shouts and upraised arms to welcome back the adventurous two. They surrounded them, and forthwith the nation—for the entire nation was evidently there—held a general assembly or parliament on the spot. There was a good deal of uproar and confusion in that parliament, with occasional attempts on the part of several speakers to obtain a hearing at one and the same time—in which respects this parliament bore some resemblance to civilised assemblies of the present day. There was also an immense amount of gesticulation and excitement.
At last there uprose a man clad in garments that had once belonged to a seal, and with a face that was quite as round and nearly as flat as a frying-pan. He stood fully half a foot higher than the tallest of his fellows. Like the adventurous two he had a tail—a very short tail—to his coat; but indeed this might be said of all the men of the tribe. The women’s tails, however, were long. Perhaps this was meant as a mark of distinction, for their costume was so very similar to that of the men that their smaller size and longer tails alone marked the difference. To be sure there was additional presumptive evidence of their sex in the fact that most of them carried babies in their hoods; which hoods were made preposterously large for the express purpose of containing the babies.
To the tall man with the flat face the assembly listened with eager looks, bated breath, and open mouths. What he said—who can tell? His language was unintelligible to civilised ears. Not so, however, his actions, which were vigorous and full of meaning, and comprehensible by all nations. If there be any significance in signs at all he began by saying, “Hold your stupid tongues and I will speak.” This drew forth loud and prolonged applause—as consummate impudence usually does. When he pointed with both hands to the women and children, and spoke in tender tones, instantly thereafter growling in his speech, gnashing his teeth, glaring fiercely, waving one hand at the surrounding hills and shaking the other, clenched, at the unoffending sea—he was obviously stating his grievances, namely, that the white men had come there to wrest from him his native hills and glaciers, and rob him of his wife and children, and that he defied them to come on and do their worst, seeing that, in regard to the whole assembled white world in arms he did not care a button—or a walrus-tusk, for buttons were unknown to these creatures at that time. When, suddenly changing his manner and tone, he seized a spear, hissed his sentiments through his teeth with great volubility, and made a furious plunge that caused the assembly to gasp, and the man nearest the spear point to shrivel up—what could be his meaning save that nothing short of a hole right through the body of a Norseman could appease the spirit of indignation that caused his blood to boil? And when, finally, he pointed to the setting sun, traced a line with his finger from it downward to the centre of the earth under his feet, then shook his spear wrathfully toward the sea and wound up with a tremendous Ho! that would have startled the echoes of the place had there been any there, it was plain to the meanest capacity that an attack—impetuous and overwhelming—was to be made on the strangers at midnight.
Whatever were his sentiments, the assembly heartily appreciated, applauded, and approved them. They cheered and shouted “Hear, hear,” after their own fashion, and then the whole band rushed back into the mountain gorge,—doubtless with the intent to gorge themselves with raw blubber, prepare their weapons, and snatch a little repose before issuing forth to battle.
But let us return to the Norsemen, over whose innocent heads such awful prospects were impending.
The sturdy man with the fair shaggy locks was Leif, the son of Eric the Red of Iceland. The boy with the silken curls, who rode on his foot so joyously, was his son Olaf.
Eric had died several years before the date on which our tale opens, and Leif inherited his cottage and property at Brattalid in Ericsfiord, on the west coast of Greenland—the hamlet which we have already described.
“Come now, Olaf,” said Leif, flinging the child from his foot to his knee, and thence to the ground, “give me your hand; we shall go see how the boats and nets get on.—Hey! there goes a puff of wind. We shall have more presently.” He paused and scanned the seaward horizon with that intent abstracted gaze which is peculiar to seafaring men. So long did he gaze, and so earnestly, that the child looked up in his face with an expression of surprise, and then at the horizon, where a dark blue line indicated the approach of a breeze.
“What do you see, father?” asked Olaf.
“Methinks I see two ships,” replied Leif.
At this there came a sweet musical voice from the cottage:– “Ships, brother! Did I not tell you that I had a dream about two ships, and said I not that I was sure something was going to happen?”
The speaker appeared in the doorway, drying her hands and arms on a towel,—for she had been washing dishes. She was a fair comely young woman, with exceedingly deep blue eyes, and a bright colour in her cheeks,—for women of the richer class were remarkably healthy and well-made in those days. They did a great deal of hard work with their hands, hence their arms were strong and well developed without losing anything of their elegance.
“You are always dreaming, widow Gudrid,” said Leif, with a quiet smile,—for he was no believer in dreams or superstitions, in which respect he differed much from the men and women of his time; “nevertheless, I am bound to admit that you did tell me that ‘something’ was going to happen, and no one can deny that something is about to occur just now. But your dream happened a month or six weeks ago, and the ‘something,’ which you are pleased to assume is these two ships, is only happening to-day. See, now, I can be a more definite prophet than thou: I will prophesy that Yule is coming,—and it will surely come if you only wait long enough!”
“You are an unbeliever, brother-in-law,” retorted Gudrid, with a laugh; “but I have not time to reason with you. These ships will bring strangers, and I must prepare to show them hospitality.—Come, Olaf, help me to put the house in order.”
Thus summoned, Olaf followed Gudrid into the house with alacrity, for he was passionately fond of his pretty aunt, who stood in the place of a mother to him, his own mother having died when he was an infant.
“But, aunt,” said Olaf, checking himself in the doorway and looking wistfully back, “I want to see the ships come in.”
“You shall see that, my son; I will not keep you too long.”
This was quite sufficient. Olaf thoroughly believed in his aunt’s truthfulness and wisdom. He set to work to assist in clearing away the confusion—part of which, in the shape of toys and chips—was of his own creating—and became so busy that he almost forgot the ships—at least if he did remember them they did not weigh heavily on his mind.
“Now, Olaf,” said Gudrid, going to the window when the preparations were nearly completed, “you may run down to the shore, for the ships will soon be on the strand.”
The boy waited no second bidding, you may be sure. He flew out of the house, and to his great surprise beheld the two ships—which so lately had appeared like sea-birds on the horizon—coming grandly up the fiord, their great square sails bulging out before a smart breeze.
All the men of the little colony were assembled on the shore—all, at least, who chanced to be at home at the time; but many of the inhabitants were absent—some fishing, some gone to Iceland, and others on viking-cruise. There were probably about thirty men on the sands, besides a good many women and children.
It must not be supposed, however, that this was the whole of that Greenland colony. It was only the part of it that had settled at Brattalid in Ericsfiord. There was another portion, a few miles distant, named Heriulfness, nearly as large as that of Ericsfiord, which had been founded by Heriulf a friend and companion of Eric the Red. Heriulf had soon followed his friend Eric to the grave, leaving the management of the colony of Heriulfness to his son Biarne.
Biarne had not been present when the two sails were first observed, but he chanced to come over to Brattalid just before their arrival.
“What, ho! Biarne,” shouted Leif, as the son of Heriulf went down to the beach, “come up hither.”
Leif stood on an elevated rock apart, and Biarne, a good deal excited, went up to him.
“Why, what ails thee?” asked Leif.
“Nothing,” replied Biarne, “but I think I know whose ship that first one is.”
“Ay! is it the ship of a friend or a foe?”
“A friend,” replied Biarne—“at least he was a friend when I knew him in Norway, nigh twenty summers past, and I did not think him changeable. You and I, Leif, have often sailed these northern seas together and apart, but I do not think that in all our wanderings either of us has met before or since a finer man than Karlsefin, though he was a mere stripling when I knew him.”
The Norseman’s eyes flashed as he spoke of his friend, for, besides being a strong and handsome man, he possessed a warm enthusiastic heart. Indeed, he had been noted in the settlement for the strength of his affection for his father Heriulf, and his dutiful conduct towards him as long as the old man lived.
“Karlsefin,” repeated Leif, musing; “I know him not.”
“Yet he knows you,” said Biarne; “when I met him in Norway I told him all about your discovery of Vinland.”
“Nay, thine own discovery of it,” said Leif.
“Not so,” replied the other, with a blush, in which a frown mingled; “I did but look upon the land—you went ashore and took possession.”
“Well, if I did so I have not retained it,” replied Leif, with a laugh; “but say, how know you that this is Karlsefin’s ship?”
“I know by the cut of her figure-head and the colour of her sails. Karlsefin was always partial to stripes of white and blue.”
“Well, it may be as you say; we shall soon know.” Thus saying, Leif descended to the beach as the vessels approached and ran their keels straight on the sandy shores of the bay. There was great bustle on board, and there were many men, besides some women, who could be seen looking over the bulwarks with keen interest, while Leif’s men brought planks with which to make a gangway from the ship to the shore.
The ships which had thus come to Greenland were of the quaint build peculiar to the Norse vessels of those days—a peculiarity of build, by the way, which has not altogether disappeared, for to this day the great central mast, huge square sail, and high prow may be seen in the fiords of Norway.
Each of the vessels which now lay beached in Ericsfiord had a high forecastle and poop, with figure-heads on stem and stern-posts that towered higher still. The ships were only half-decked, with benches for numerous rowers, and each had a crew of sixty men.
When the gangway was laid to the leading ship the first man who descended to the shore was of striking appearance. It was not so much that he was tall and strong enough to have been a worthy foeman to the stoutest colonist in Ericsfiord, as that his demeanour was bland and courtly, while there was great intellectuality in his dark handsome countenance. Unlike most Norsemen, his hair and beard were black and close-curling, and his costume, though simple, was rich in quality.
The moment he landed, Biarne stepped forward, exclaiming, “Karlsefin!”
The stranger’s face lighted up with surprise and pleasure.
“Biarne!” he said, seizing his hand, “I thought you were in Iceland.”
“So I was, but now I am in Greenland, and right glad to be the first to welcome my friend.”
Hereupon the two shook hands fervently; but, not content with this, they seized each other in an embrace, and their bearded mouths met with a hearty masculine smack that did credit to their hearts, and which it might have gratified the feelings of an affectionate walrus to behold.