Chapter 8 A Chapter of Incidents and Exploration, in which a Bear and _hale Play Prominent Parts.
Although arrested thus suddenly and unexpectedly in their progress toward th_hore, these resolute Norsemen were not to be balked in their intention o_eaching the land that forenoon—for it was morning when the vessel stuck fas_n the shallows.
The tide was ebbing at the time, so that Karlsefin knew it would be impossibl_o get the ship off again until the next flood-tide. He therefore waited til_he water was low enough, and then waded to the land accompanied by a larg_and of men. We need scarcely say that they were well-armed. In those days me_ever went abroad either by land or sea without their armour, which consiste_f swords, axes, spears and bows for offence, with helmets and shields fo_efence. Some of the men of wealth and position also wore defensive armour o_heir breasts, thighs, and shins, but most of the fighting men were content t_rust to the partial protection afforded by tunics of thick skin.
They were not long of reaching the mouth of the river which Biarne had pointe_ut, and, after proceeding up its banks for a short distance, were convince_hat this must be the very spot they were in search of.
“Now, Biarne,” said Karlsefin, stopping and sitting down on a large stone, “_ave no doubt that this is Leif’s river, for it is broad and deep as he tol_s, therefore we will take our ship up here. Nevertheless, before doing so, i_ould be a satisfaction to make positively certain that we are in the righ_ay, and this we may do by sending one or two of our men up into the land, who, by following the river, will come to the lake where Leif built hi_ooths, and so bring us back the news of them. Meanwhile we can explore th_ountry here till they return.”
Biarne and Thorward thought this advice good, and both offered to lead th_arty to be sent there.
“For,” said Thorward, “they may meet with natives, and if the natives her_ear any resemblance to the Skraelingers, methinks they won’t receive us wit_uch civility.”
“I have thought of that,” returned Karlsefin with a smile, “but I like no_our proposal. What good would it do that either you or Biarne should lead s_mall a party if ye were assaulted by a hundred or more savages, as might wel_e the case?”
“Why, we could at all events retreat fighting,” retorted Thorward in _lightly offended tone.
“With fifty, perhaps, in front, to keep you in play, and fifty detached t_ickle you in rear.”
Thorward laughed at this, and so did Biarne. “Well, if the worst came to th_orst,” said the latter, “we could at any rate sell our lives dearly.”
“And, pray, what good would that do to _us_?” demanded Karlsefin.
“Well, well, have it your own way, skipper,” said Biarne; “it seems to me, nevertheless, that if we were to advance with the whole of the men we hav_rought on shore with us, we should be in the same predicament, for twenty me_ould not easily save themselves from a hundred—or, as it might be, _housand—if surrounded in the way you speak of.”
“Besides that,” added Thorward, “it seems to me a mean thing to send out onl_ne or two of our men without a leader to cope with such possible dangers, unless indeed they were possessed of more than mortal powers.”
“Why, what has become of your memories, my friends?” exclaimed Karlsefin. “Ar_here none of our men possessed of powers that are, at all events, more tha_hose of _ordinary_ mortals?”
“O-ho! Hake and Heika! I forgot them,” cried Biarne; “the very men for th_ork, to be sure!”
“No doubt of it,” said Karlsefin. “If they meet with natives who are friendly, well and good; if they meet with no natives at all,—better. If they meet wit_nfriendly natives, they can show them their heels; and I warrant you that, unless the natives here be different from most other men, the best pair o_avage legs in Vinland will fail to overtake the Scottish brothers.”
Thorward agreed that this was a good plan, but cautioned Karlsefin to give th_rothers strict injunctions to fly, and not upon any account to fight; “for,” said he, “these doughty Scots are fiery and fierce when roused, and from wha_ have seen of them will, I think, be much more disposed to use their legs i_unning after their foes than in running away from them.”
This having been settled, the brothers were called, and instructed to procee_nto the woods and up the bank of the river as quickly as possible, until the_hould come to a lake on the margin of which they would probably see a fe_mall huts. On discovering these they were to turn immediately and haste_ack. They were also particularly cautioned as to their behaviour in the even_f meeting with natives, and strictly forbidden to fight, if these should b_vil disposed, but to run back at full speed to warn their friends, so tha_hey might be prepared for any emergency.
“Nevertheless,” said Karlsefin, in conclusion, “ye may carry weapons with yo_f ye will.”
“Thanks,” replied Heika. “As, however, you appear to doubt our powers of self- restraint, we will relieve your mind by going without them.”
Thus instructed and warned, the brothers tightened their belts, and, leapin_imbly into the neighbouring brake, disappeared from view.
“A pair of proper men,” said Karlsefin.—“And now, comrades, we will explor_he neighbourhood together, for it is advisable to ascertain all we can of th_ature of our new country, and that as quickly as may be. It is needful, also, to do so without scattering, lest we be set upon unexpectedly by any lurkin_oe. This land is not easily surveyed like Iceland or Greenland, being, as yo_ee, covered with shrubs and trees, which somewhat curtail our vision, an_ender caution the more necessary.”
While the Norsemen were engaged in examining the woods near the coast, the tw_cots held on their way into the interior. There was something absolutel_xhilarating, as Krake once remarked, in the mere beholding of these brothers’ movements. They had been famed for agility and endurance even in their ow_ountry. They did not run, but trotted lightly, and appeared to be going at _oderate pace, when in reality it would have compelled an ordinary runner t_o his best to keep up with them. Yet they did not pant or show any othe_ymptom of distress. On the contrary, they conversed occasionally in quie_ones, as men do when walking. They ran abreast as often as the nature of th_round would allow them to do so, taking their leaps together when they cam_o small obstructions, such as fallen trees or brooks of a few feet wide; bu_hen they came to creeks of considerable width, the one usually paused to se_he other spring over, and then followed him.
Just after having taken a leap of this kind, and while they were runnin_ilently side by side along the margin of the river, they heard a crash amon_he bushes, and next instant a fine deer sprang into an open space in front o_hem. The brothers bent forward, and, flying like the wind, or like arrow_rom a bow, followed for a hundred yards or so—then stopped abruptly and burs_nto a hearty fit of laughter.
“Ah! Heika,” exclaimed the younger, “that fellow would be more than a matc_or us if we could double our speed. We have no chance with four-legge_unners.”
While he was speaking they resumed the jog-trot pace, and soon afterwards cam_o a rocky ridge, that seemed to traverse the country for some distance. Her_hey were compelled to walk, and in some places even to clamber, the groun_eing very rugged.
Here also they came to a small branch or fork of the river that appeared t_ind its way to the sea through another channel. It was deep, and althoug_arrow in comparison with the parent stream, was much too broad to be leape_ver. The pioneers were therefore obliged to swim. Being almost as much a_ome in the water as otters, they plunged in, clothes and all, withou_alting, and in a few seconds had gained the other side.
When they reached the top of the ridge they stopped and gazed in silen_dmiration, for there lay stretched out before them a vast woodland scene o_ost exquisite beauty. Just at their feet was the lake of which they were i_earch; some parts of it bright as the blue sky which its unruffled breas_eflected; other parts dark almost to blackness with the images of rocks an_rees. Everywhere around lay a primeval wilderness of wood and water which i_s beyond the power of mortal pen adequately to describe; and while all wa_uffused with the golden light of an early summer sun, and steeped in th_epose of an absolutely calm day, the soft and plaintive cries of innumerabl_ild-fowl enlivened, without disturbing, the profound tranquillity of th_cene.
“Does it not remind you of our own dear land?” said Heika in a low soft voice.
“Ay, like the lowlands on the shores of the Forth fiord,” replied Hake, in th_ame low tone, as if he feared to break the pleasing stillness; “and there, surely, are the booths we were to search for—see, in the hollow, at the hea_f yonder bay, with the gravelly beach and the birch-trees hanging from th_ocks as if they wished to view themselves in the watery mirror.”
“True—there are three of them visible. Let us descend and examine.”
“Hist! Some one appears to have got there before us,” said Hake, laying hi_and on his brother’s shoulder and pointing in the direction of the huts.
“It is not a human visitor, methinks,” observed Heika.
“More like a bear,” returned Hake.
In order to set the question at rest the brothers hastened round by the wood_o a spot immediately behind the huts. There was a hill there so steep as t_e almost a precipice. It overlooked the shores of the lake immediately belo_here the huts were, and when the pioneers came to the crest of it and peepe_autiously over, they beheld a large brown bear not far from the hut tha_tood nearest to the hill, busily engaged in devouring something.
“Now it is a pity,” whispered Heika, “that we brought no arms with us. Truly, little cause have we men to be proud of our strength, for yonder beast coul_atch fifty of us if we had nothing to depend on save our fists and feet an_ingers.”
“Why not include the teeth in your list, brother?” asked Hake, with a quie_augh; “but it is a pity, as you say. What shall—”
He stopped abruptly, for a large boulder, or mass of rock, against which h_eaned, gave way under him, made a sudden lurch forward and then stuck fast.
“Ha! a dangerous support,” said Hake, starting back; “but, hist! suppose w_hove it down on the bear?”
“A good thought,” replied Heika, “if we can move the mass, which seem_oubtful; but let us try. Something may be gained by trying—nothing lost.”
The boulder, which had been so balanced on the edge of the steep hill that _entle pressure moved it, was a mass of rock weighing several tons, the movin_f which would have been a hopeless task for twenty men to attempt, but i_tood balanced on the extreme edge of the turn of the hill, and the littl_lip it had just made rendered its position still more critical; so that, whe_he young men lay down with their backs against a rock, placed their feet upo_t and pushed with all their might, it slowly yielded, toppled over, an_olled with a tremendous surge through a copse which lay immediately below it.
The brothers leaped up and gazed in breathless eagerness to observe th_esult. The bear, hearing the crash, looked up with as much surprise as th_isage of that stupid creature is capable of expressing. The thing was s_uddenly done that the bear seemed to have no time to form an opinion or ge_larmed, for it stood perfectly still, while the boulder, bounding from th_opse, went crashing down the hill, cutting a clear path wherever it touched, attaining terrific velocity, and drawing an immense amount of débris after it.
The direction it took happened to be not quite straight for the animal, whos_nout it passed within six or eight feet—causing him to shrink back an_rowl—as it rushed smoking onward over the level bit of sward beneath, throug_he mass of willows beyond, across the gravelly strand and out to the lake, into which it plunged and disappeared amid a magnificent spout of foam. Bu_he avalanche of earth and stones which its mad descent had created did no_et Bruin off so easily. One after another these latter, small and large, wen_attering and dashing against him,—some on his flank, some on his ribs, an_thers on his head. He growled of course, yet stood the fire nobly for a fe_econds, but when, at last, a large boulder hit him fairly on the nose, h_ave vent to a squeal which terminated in a passionate roar as he turned abou_nd made for the open shore, along which for some distance he ran with th_gility of a monstrous wild-cat, and finally leaped out of sight into hi_orest home!
The brothers looked at each other with sparkling eyes, and next moment th_oods resounded with their merriment, as they held their sides and leaned fo_upport against a neighbouring cliff.
Heika was first to recover himself.
“Hold, brother,” he exclaimed, “we laugh loud enough to let Bruin know who i_as that injured him, or to bring all the savages in these woods down upon us.
Peace, man, peace, and let us return to our friends.”
“As soon as ye please, brother,” said Hake, still laughing as he tightened hi_elt, “but was it not rare fun to see Bruin stand that stony rain so manfull_ntil his tender point was touched? And then how he ran! ’Twas worth comin_ere to see a bear leave off his rolling gait so and run like a very wild- cat.—Now I’m ready.”
Without staying to make further examination of Leif’s old huts—for from th_lace where they stood all the six of them could be clearly seen—the youn_ioneers started on their return to the coast. They ran back with much greate_peed than they had pushed forward—fearing that their companions might b_etting impatient or alarmed about them. They did not even converse, but wit_eads up, chests forward, and elbows bent, addressed themselves to a quic_teady run, which soon brought them to the branch of the river previousl_entioned. Here they stopped for a moment before plunging in.
“Suppose that we run down its bank,” suggested Hake, “and see whether there b_ot a shallow crossing.”
“Surely ye have not grown afraid of water, Hake?”
“No, not I, but I should like to see whither this branch trends, and what i_s like; besides, the divergence will not cost us much time, as we can cros_t any point we have a mind to, and come at the main river again through th_oods.”
“Well, I will not balk you—come on.”
They accordingly descended the smaller streams and found it to be broken b_arious little cascades and rapids, with here and there a longish reach o_ebbly ground where the stream widened into a shallow rippling river with on_r two small islands in it. At one of these places they crossed where it wa_nly knee-deep in the centre, and finally stopped at the end of a reach, wher_ sudden narrowing of the banks produced a brawling rapid. Below this ther_as a deep pool caused by a great eddy.
“Now, we go no further,” said Heika. “Here we shall cross through the woods t_he main branch.”
“’Tis a pretty stream,” observed Hake when they were about to leave it.
As he spoke a large salmon leaped high out of the pool below, flashed for on_oment in the sunshine like a bar of living silver, and fell back into th_ater with a sounding splash. Hake caught his breath and opened wide his eyes!
“Truly that is a good sight to the eyes of a Scotsman,” said Heika, gazin_ith interest at the place where the fish had disappeared; “it reminds me o_y native land.”
“Ay, and me of my dinner,” observed Hake, smacking his lips.
“Out upon thee, man!” cried Heika, “how can ye couple our native land wit_uch a matter-o’-fact thought as dinner?”
“Why, it would be hard to uncouple the thought of dinner from our nativ_and,” returned Hake, with a laugh, as they entered the forest; “for ever_an—not to mention woman—within its circling coast-line is a diner, and so b_ook or crook must daily have his dinner.—But say, brother, is it not matte_f satisfaction, as well as matter of fact, that the waters of this Vinlan_hall provide us with abundance of food not less surely than the land? I_hings go on as they have begun I shall be well content to stay here.”
“Ye do not deserve the name of Scot, Hake,” said the other gravely. “My hear_s in Scotland; it is not here.”
“True, I know it,” replied Hake, with a touch of feeling; “in a double sense, too, for your betrothed is there. Nevertheless, as _I_ did not leave my hear_ehind me; surely there is no sin in taking some pleasure in this new land.
But heed not my idle talk, brother. You and I shall yet live to see the bonn_ills of—. Ha! here we are on the big stream once more, sooner than I ha_xpected, and, if I mistake not, within hail of our comrades.”
Hake was right. The moment they emerged from the woods upon the open bank o_he large river they saw a party of men in the distance approaching them, and, an instant later, a loud halloo assured them that these were their friends.
When the pioneers had related all that they had seen and done, the whole part_eturned to the shore and hailed the ship, for, the tide having risen, the_ould not now reach it by wading. A boat was immediately sent for them, an_reat was the interest manifested by all on board to learn the news o_inland. They had time to give an account of all that had been done and seen, because it still wanted an hour of flood-tide, and the ship still la_mmoveable.
While they were thus engaged, Gudrid happened to cast her eyes over the ster_f the ship, and thought she saw an object moving in the water.
“What is that I see?” she said, pointing towards it.
“The great sea-serpent!” exclaimed Biarne, shading his eyes with his hand.
“Or his ghost,” remarked Krake.
From which observations, coupled together, it would appear that the famou_onster referred to was known by repute to the Norsemen of the elevent_entury, though he was to some extent regarded as a myth!
Be this as it may, the object which now attracted the attention and raised th_yebrows of all on board the “ _Snake_ ” evidently possessed life, for it wa_ery active—wildly so—besides being large. It darted hither and thither, apparently without aim, sending the water in curling foam before it. Suddenl_t made straight for the ship, then it turned at a tangent and made for th_sland; anon it wheeled round, and rushed, like a mad creature, to the shore.
Then arose a deafening shout from the men—
“A whale! an embayed whale!”
And so in fact it was; a large whale, which, as whales will sometimes do—blin_nes, perhaps—had lost its way, got entangled among the sandbanks lyin_etween the island and the shore, and was now making frantic efforts t_scape.
Need we say that a scene of the wildest excitement ensued among the men! Th_wo boats—one of which was, as we have said, a large one—were got ready, barbed spears and lances and ropes were thrown into them, as many men as the_ould hold with safety jumped in, and pulled away, might and main, after th_errified whale.
You may be sure, reader, that little Olaf was there, fast by the side of hi_riend and hero Karlsefin, who took charge of the large boat, with Thorward i_he bow to direct him how to steer. Biarne was there too as a matter o_ourse, in charge of the little boat, with Krake as his bowman and Tyrke_ulling the stroke-oar. For Tyrker was strong, though little, ugly, and old, and had a peculiar talent for getting involved in any fighting, fun, o_ischief that chanced to be in hand. Men said that he was afraid of dying i_is bed, and had made up his mind to rush continually into the jaws of dange_ntil they should close upon and crush him; but we are of opinion that thi_as a calumny. Those of the men who were necessarily left in the ship coul_carce be prevented from swimming after the boats as they shot away, an_othing but the certainty of being drowned restrained them from making the ma_ttempt. As it was, they clambered upon the figure-head and up the rigging, where, with gaping mouths and staring eyes, they watched the movements o_heir more fortunate companions.
Meanwhile the whale had made what appeared to be a grand and final neck-or- nothing rush in the direction of the shore. Of course he was high, althoug_ot dry, in a few seconds. That is to say, he got into water so shallow tha_e stuck fast, with his great head and shoulders raised considerably out o_he sea, in which position he began to roll, heave, spout, and lash his might_ail with a degree of violence that almost approached sublimity.
He was in these circumstances when the Norsemen came up; for though to_hallow for the whale, the water was quite deep enough for the boats.
Being light, the small boat reached the scene of action first. Krake stood u_n the bow to be ready. He held in his hand a curious wooden spear with _oose barb tipped with the tusk of a walrus. It had been procured from one o_he Greenland Skraelingers. A rope was attached to it.
As they drew near, the whale stopped for an instant, probably to recove_reath. Krake raised his spear—the fish raised his tail. Whizz! went th_pear. Down came the tail with a thunderclap, and next moment mud, sand, water, stones, foam, and blood, were flying in cataracts everywhere as th_onster renewed its struggles.
“Back! back oars!” shouted Biarne, as they were almost swamped by the flood.
The men obeyed with such good-will that Krake was thrown head-foremost ove_he bow.
“Hold fast!” yelled Krake on coming to the surface.
“If ye had held fast ye wouldn’t have been there,” said Biarne; “where ar_e?”
He rose again out of the foam, yelled, and tossed up his arms.
“Can the man not swim?” cried Biarne, in alarm; “pull, boys, pull!”
The men were already pulling with such force that they almost went over th_an. As they rubbed past him Hake dropped his oar and caught him by the hair, Biarne leaned over the side and got him by the breeches, and with a vigorou_eave they had him inboard.
“Why, Krake, I thought you could swim!” said Biarne.
“Ay, so I can, but who could swim with a coil of rope round his neck an_egs?”
The poor man had indeed been entangled in the rope of the spear, so that h_ould not use his limbs freely.
No more was said, however, for they were still in dangerous proximity to th_ail of the struggling fish, and had to pull out of its way.
Meanwhile the large boat, profiting by the experience of the small one, ha_ept more towards the whale’s head, and, before Krake had been rescued, Thorward sent a Skraelinger spear deep into its shoulder. But this only acte_s a spur to the huge creature, and made it heave about with such violenc_hat it managed to slew right round with its head offshore.
At this the men could not restrain a shout of alarm, for they knew that if th_hale were to succeed in struggling again into water where it could swim, i_ould carry away spears and ropes; or, in the event of these holding on, woul_nfallibly capsize and sink the boats.
“Come, drive in your spears!” shouted Karlsefin in a voice of thunder, for hi_sually quiet spirit was now deeply stirred.
Thorward and one of the men threw their spears, but the latter missed and th_ormer struck his weapon into a part that was too thick to do much injury, though it was delivered with great force and went deep.
“This will never do!” cried Karlsefin, leaping up; “here, Swend, take th_elm. Ho! hand me that spear, quick! Now, lads, pull, pull, with heart an_imb!”
As he spoke he sprang like a roused giant into the bow of the boat and caugh_p a spear. The men obeyed his orders. The boat rushed against the whale’_ide, and, with its impetus added to his own Herculean strength, Karlsefi_hrust the spear deep down into the monster’s body just behind the shoulde_in.
The crimson stream that immediately gushed forth besprinkled all in the boa_nd dyed the sea around.
“That is his life-blood,” said Karlsefin, with a grim smile; “you may back of_ow, lads.”
This was done at once. The small boat was also ordered to back off, and thos_n it obeyed not a moment too soon, for immediately after receiving the deadl_ound the whale went into a violent dying struggle. It soon subsided. Ther_ere one or two mighty heavings of the shoulder; then a shudder ran throug_he huge carcase, and it rolled slowly over in a relaxed manner which tol_ignificantly that the great mysterious life had fled.