George Smith.

The Cornhill magazine, v. 1-16. -- online

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The amount of rental was interesting enough, but I always hated what
a philosopher of my acquaintance calls the *' disgusting details " of boai-
neas matters. When he had quite done I said in my offhand way, '^ And
then there's that box at Oovent Garden."

My uncle pushed his glass half off the table as he replied, '' How on
earth came you to know I possessed such a thing ) What box t "

" Box 16 — the Guinea Box, as they call it IVe been in it more
than once, to my sorrow ; " and I told him in the simplest manner what
I had seen there.

"Your experience is very curious," said my unde drily, "but of
course not inexplicable. It is evident that theatrical performances aflfect
your nerves. I never approved of them myself for other reasons."

'* I am quite certain, unde, that I actually saw in Box 16 what I
have just described to you. Nothing will ever shake my conviction on
that point."

'^ Then we won't discuss it, Frank," was the quiet r^ly. " Have
you had enough wine t Very good. I have some letters to write, so I
will leave you to your cigar, which I remark with regret has become i
necessity to most young men."

Uncle Balph was not a person to be subjected to cross-examinatioa
by anybody, or to be induced to talk on any subject that was displeasing
to him, and after the disdosure of his benevolent intentions towards
myself it would have been the height of ingratitude and imprudenoe to
offend him in any way ; so I said nothing more about the matter.

After breakfast the next morning, much to my surprise, my unde
asked me to come with him into the picture gallery. " Some o£ your
ancestors, I am told, want deaning," he said, " and I want to have yoor
opinion as to whether it is worth while to go to that expense."

For my part it struck me that a little washing would have done
them all a world of good, but I was very car^l to erptesB mjself
respectfldly. When we had settled which were to be sent to the picture
cleanersi he opened the oak door of a little closet, and produced timee or

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four other portraits. " I have never been able to find room for these,'^
he saidy setting them one* by one against the wiedl ; " in cajse you many

and have a &mily, Frank, we must have a new gallery built, to

What's the matter 1 What are you staring at your great -aunt like that

" That's the woman ! " I exclaimed ; " that is the woman I saw in
the box ! "

** Pooh ! nonsense ! Because she's painted in white satin f "

'* No, no ; that is her face ! " cried I. " She looks happier in the pic-
ture, though not more handsome ; she has not that look of pain and
yearning that she had in the theatre. But that's the woman."

" Well, that's your great-aunt, Mrs. Barnard. I am bound to say
there is a story about her in connection with the place in which you
think you saw her. Are you sure you never heard of it 1 "

" Quite sure," I said, with my eyes fixed on the portrait with a fieisci-
nation I could not resist. '* What did she do ? "

** She ran away from her husband with a Captain Colville of the
Guards. The scoundrel met her by appointment in that very box, No.
16, and fled with her the same night to Brussels. Barnard followed him
and called him out. They were both shot, and it was understood
(though none who knew her saw her afterwards) that the woman
perished miserably by her own hand."

'* I have seen her," said I confidently.

" WeU, I don't know," returned my undo doubtfully. " It is cer-
tainly very curious, and, since you have heard so much, I will tell you
all. I put the picture in your way on purpose to see if you would recog-
nise it ; perhaps I was wrong, but it is now easier to go on with the
thing than to get out of it. Do you remember your cousin Frederic t "

"Frederic Parton? No, I never saw him. I only know that the
poor fellow died mad in India."

" He didn't die mad ; he died of sunstroke ; but he was supposed by
some people to be mad before he went out. That was because he saw
the lady in white satin in box No. 16 at Covent Garden. People who
see ghosts nowadays, and especially in public places, are naturally
thought mad."

" But did you think him mad ? " I inquired.

" No, I didn't. I thought there was something in the matter more
than a mere delusion from this circumstance : John Parton, his father,
had seen the ghost before him."

" Another witness ! " exclaimed I ; " it is most marvellous."

" Yes ; and the testimony agrees with yours in one curious particular :
in both cases there were people in the box with them, who didn't see
it ; but t?iey saw it plain enough. The lady appears, it would seem,
only to blood relations."

** Did you erer see her yourself, uncle 1 "

" No ; I never go to theatres. The box came into my possession

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from the Pari<ni8y bat I bare nerer used it. The fibnrttn in TjoaMJon
knowB the whole story, because jour cousin Frederic made a row about
itjost as you did. ^Diat is why the box is let so cliesp. He hasit from
mOy for almost oothingy upon the understanding tluit only a guinea shall
be charged for it. People oa^t not to be exposed to risks, howew
small, without having a corresponding advantage. Some folks, of ooorse,
would pay ten times the money for the chance of seeing the lady, bot^ as
a general rule, those who have hired a box expect to have it to them-

This business view of the matter would have tickled me a good deal
had I not been so personally interested in it ; my uncle's notion that the
apparition only appeared to relatives seemed to be a correct one, but it
made the whole affiur more eerie and tremendous.

** I shall never rest, uncle," said I, " till I have fiithomed this mys-
tery. Perhaps the poor lady has some secret to disclose to us."

" Shell never tell it to me," returned my uncle confidently, " and if
you take my advice, you will not give her a third of^rtunity of telling
it to you. She was a bad woman and a disgrace to her £unily. More-
over," he added, as he replaced the picture in the cupboard, " the evil that
she did lives after her, for she depreciates the price of our £unily box."

This style of talk, especially upon a serious subject, was by no means
in accorduice with my uncle's character, and I felt convinced it was
affected in order to dispel any morbid feelings which his revelations
might have aroused in me. As a matter of fact, however, curiosify
rather than alarm had the upper hand with me. I should have liked
to have started for London within the hour and taken the Guinea Box at
Covent Garden for that very night. Upon the whole, as, notwithstand-
ing my uncle's advice, I was resolutely determined on pursuing the
matter, I thought it beet to appear as indifferent as I could, and after
awhile we dropped the subject. This was evidently what he wished to
happen, for he never recarred to it again throughout my visit.

For my part, however, so far from forgetting it, I thought of little
else, and when the time came for my departure had laid down a plan for
my interview with the lady in white satin. I had two cousins — both
descendants of hers — ^in London, one a clergyman and one a barrister,
and I determined to enlist the assistance of the Church and the Law in
investigating the matter. I would invite my kinsmen to the Guinea Box,
and see what they thought of the family ghost.

I left for London by the mail train on a date (March 5, 1856), whidi
many had cause to remember, and all through the night, as the swaying
train sped through the darkness, I was making up my mind what to say
and do when I next came into that supernatural presence. It was a ghasUy
night journey, and made more so by the fact that, as we drew near
London, the lurid glow of some vast conflagration filled the eastern sky.
Too much occupied with another subject, however, to make any inquirieB

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about the fire on our arrival at the terminuSi I went straight to my
lodgings and to bed.

Before breakflEust the next morning my first act was to look in the
newspaper to see whether the Guinea Box was to be let for that night.
The advertisement was there as usual, but in the body of the paper
there was a piece of intelligence that contradicted it in a very decisive
manner — " Total Destbuction op Covent Garden Theatre by Fire."

The previous night had been that of the famous masked ball with
which its entertainments had been brought to an end for ever ; and with
it of course had perished Box 16 and all hope of explanation of its


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Cfet €uth^m^ Saga.

In the Comhill Magcu^me for July 1879, 1 gave a very brief aooonnt of
the place taken in the history of literature by the four great Sagas whii^
form the crowning glory of Icelandic imaginatiYe writing. At the same
time I attempted to give a » ketch of one <^ theee — Aigla^ or the Bgila
Saga. In ao doing I had iho disadvantage of translating, into lang:aage
<^ necessily terse and ineffective, a story the very charm <^ which lies in
the delib^?ate and old-world manner of its telling ; bat I had also the
advantage of dealing with a work complete and vertebrate in itBd£
When the reader has passed the Icmg genealogical preface to Aigloj the
history of its hero continnes to demand his fall attention to the dose,
and gives a progressive charm to every chapter. Bat Byrhyggja, with
whidi I propose to deal to-day, possesses none of this conciseness of
composition. It covers a period of at least 140 years ; it treats of a
vast namber of persons very vagaely related to one another, or not
related at all ; and, instead of possessing a single hero or central thread
of action, it is nothing more nor less than a chain of desultory stories
hung upon a thin cord of genealogy. Bat they are charming stories, as
pathetic and as mysterious as any to be found in Icelandic literature,
and following so dosely one on another as to make the Saga in which
they occur one of the most precious relics of Northern antiquity that we

The word Eyrhyggja means the story of the Eyrbyggjar, or people
that lived on the peninsula of Eyri or the Island. The full name of the
book is Sa^a Thdranesinga, Eyrhyggja^ oh Alptfirdinga — that is to say,
it has to do with the families that settled in Th6rsnes and Eyri praiin-
sulas, and along the shores of AlptaQord. This limits it geographically
to the northern coast of the great promontory of Si\j6fjaelsneB, whidi
runs out westward &r into the Atlantic, dividing Broad fjord from
Faxa fjord, so in the centre of the west coast of Icdand. Dr. Yigfussen
is of opinion that it was originally put together from several sources by
Sturla the Lawman, about the year 1 250. At the very dose of the Saga,
where it speaks of the moving of Tunga Church and the shifting of
Snorri's bones, the writer speaks of a remark made by Gudny, the
mother of the Sturlings, as though he had personally spoken with her ;
she died in 1221. It is, moreover, obvious that it was written before
the fiill of the Icelandic commonwealth in 1262 ; and from all iheee
and other indications the eminent scholar just dted believes it to bdong
to the middle of the thirteenth century, and to be the work of the Broad

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Pjord school of saga-writers at their most brilliant epoch. If we turn
from the date of composition to the period of which Ihe Saga treats, we
find some difficulty in stating the latter in brief terms. It opens about
the year 890 ; it passes over a period of thirty years ; and the events
which crowd the final pages took place between 1010 and 1031.

To attempt to follow chapter by chapter the desultory and discon-
nected plan of this Saga wotdd only be to weary the reader. I shall
therefore merely attempt to tell, in language as dose to that of the
original as possible, a few of the excellent stories that it contains. ' The
^yrhyggja opens with an account of Ketil Flatnose, a Norwegian
warrior, who was forced against his will to lead the army of King Himtld
against the Westlanders, and who rebelled, sailed oflf, and took possession
of Orkney as his own. His son, Bj5m, remained in Norway and defended
his father's lands, for which he was outlawed^ and would have been slain
but for the protection ofiered him by an old viking named Thorolf *
Mostrarskegg, who provided him with a l<mg-ship to go to Iceland. This
happened in the year 884, ten years after the fiiist settlement of Iceland
by Ingolf Amasson. Before he let the young man go, however, Thorolf
'' went to frUtar" or to ask the oracle of Thor, his dstvmr or dear
fSfvmiliar deity; and the oracle definitely recommended the exodus to
Iceland. So Thorolf determined to go himself, and with his household,
his goods, his gods, and a goodly following of his friends, he accompanied
Bjom westwards over the sea. As soon as they had cleared the southern
and south-western promontories of Iceland, and had reached Eaxa fjord,
Thorolf threw the posts of his high-seat, on one of which was graven Uie
image of Thor, into the sea, and swore that he would settle where these
came to shore. But as soon as l^e posts were thrown into the water,
the wind or tide took them northwards, round the great headland of
Snowfiallness, into Broadfirth. The posts were finally driven into a bay,
called HofsvAg, halfway up the southern shore of Broadfirth, and there
Thorolf landed. He took possession of the whole peninsula between
Hofsv^ and AlptaQord, and this he called Thorsnees. The centre of this
peninsula is formed by an isolated mountain, which he named Helgafell,
or the Holy Hill. Thorolf encouraged the idea that this mountain was
sacred and mysterious, and on its western slope he bmlt himself a great

One of the first episodes in Eyrhyggja deals with the sacred nature
of this mountain. Thorsteinn the Fish^, Thorolf s son and heir, shifted
the dwelling-place of the fkmily from the slope of Helgafell to the moun-
tain itself. One evening in the autumn, when Thorsteinn was out
fishing, his herdsman, as he was watching his flock, suddenly perceived
that Helgafell was open towards the north, and that a great £bre Uaaed
insida Listening, he heard, moreover, a loud noise of shouting and
blowing of horns, and after that, as he tried to distinguish words, he
thou^i he heard one who bade Thorsteinn welcome, and called him to
sit beside his dead &ther on the high-seat. The herdsman told tfaia

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yidon in the evaning to Thons Thanbeam'a wife^ aod nfixt maniiDg
men oaaie with the tiding thftt Thorsteiim had been dzowoed at the
fiahing* He was fiye-and-^iweiity yean old whea he died, and at the
same age his son Thorgrim was murdered at a banquet bj his btothei^in
law Gisli

The real hero of the Saga, however, if it can be said to have a hero,
is Snorri Thorgrimsson, the grandson of the last-mentkmed. He seems
to have been bom about the year 963, and quite early, when he was
only thirteen, he turned his undo Bork out of the house at Hdgafell
and took possession himself. He was a man of middle hei^t^ of slendor
build, handsome to look at, with regular features and a bri^toomplecdoii,
with light flaaLen hair and a red beard ; he was so wise and canning that
Mends and foes alike came to him for oounsd« With this portrait of an
inteUeciaal Icelander we may compare that of his foster-biother and
follower Amgrim, who was called Styrr, or Fight^ because of his brutal
temperament. Styrr is the type of the turbulent Icelandic noble whose
one idea was to kill his immediate rival He is described to us as a
very powerful and burly man, with a prominent nose, with great bones
in his face, light-red hair, a bald forehead, the skin bronzed, and with
large, beautiful eye& He was full of all int^nperate and angry devices.
In this list of characteristics we see drawn very plainly before us the
outer and physical nature of the man, and we can understand how it
was that the democracy, Mb in such hands, passed through a brief and
splendid period of authority in the north of Europe, oxdy to sink ex-
hausted under the blow that it received from withio. Hie murdefoos
passions of the great Icelandic nobles were more dangerous to the wel£ue
of the state than any inclemency of the dimate, or any attacks from
foreign nations.

In none of the Sagas are there moace or better witch-stories than in
the Eyrhyggja, Considerable space is taken up with an account of the
rivalry between two great witches, Geirrid and Katla. Odd, the son of
Katla, had taken occasion of a free fight between two of the great
feimilies to cut off the hand of a worthy woman named Audi. By her
divinations Qeirrid discovered this, and r^>orted it to the rdations c^
Audi, who thereupon rode over to Holt, where Odd and his mother
lived, in order to revenge tiiemselves. When they reached Holt th^re
were no men in the house, but Katla sat on the women's seat and was
spinning yam with her maidens. Amkel and lus companions burst in
and asked where Odd was. Katla replied that he had gone away to
Breidavik. '* But if he had been at home," she saidi '*he would not
have feared to meet you, for we have confidence in your justice."
'^ Nevertheless," said Amkel, '< we will have a look round." But they
could not find Odd, so off they rode. On the way home, Amkel sad*
denly stopped, remembering that Katla hsA been spinning yam on a
distaff: <'Perhi^" he said, <' Katla has bewitched us, and that was her
son Odd, whcmi she made to look like a distaff" So back they went to

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Holt, and when Katla saw them oomifig she began to oomb Odd's hair
and to cut it. In lan Amkel and his men, and there stood Katla, who
seemed to be playing with a goat^ and trimming its beard and hair. So
they ransacked the house again, but found no Odd anywhere. When
they had ridd^i some distance Amkel said to his men, '^ Do you think
that goat can have been Oddl Let us go back, and see if we can catch
Katla this time." But Katla saw them coming, and told Odd to lie
down in the ash-pit. So they came in and searched eyerywhere, but
found no living thing, except a little pig i^t wbb rolling himself in the
ashes. In their annoyance, they snatched up the spindle and hewed it
in pieces. Then Elatla smiled and said : " When you go home to-ni^t,
you need not say you did nothing here at Holt, since you have destroyed
a spindle.'' So they went back again, but when they were halfway home
they met the other witch, Geirrid, with a blue mantle over her shoul-
ders, and she persuaded them to turn back once more. When Katla
saw them coming, and a blue figure amongst them, she said, '* That must
be Geirrid ; it will be no use trying ocular delusions any longer." So
this time she hid Odd under the bench where she was sitting. But
Qeirrid walked up to her, and throwing a seal's skin over her head,
commanded the men to bind her and then break up the bench. So they
found Odd at last, and hanged him, and when they took him to the
gallows, he said that his wicked mother was the cause of all his misfor-
tunes. Then the people stoned Katla to death, imder the sacred moun-
tain, as was the practice with witches in Iceland before the introduction
of Christianity.

But by far the most curious stories of witchcraft and enchantment
are those connected with the name of Thorolf Lame-foot. He was a
man of an extremely jealous and sulky disposition, who had quarrelled
with all his neighbours, and who could not keep the peace even among
his own thralls, His son Amkel, on the contrary, was a man of pro-
digious energy and courage, but genUe and humane in all his dealings :
certainly, it would seem, the individual who possessed most personal
influence in the West Firths in that generation. We gather from
various expressions in the Saga that Amkel had wider views of polity
than his neighbours, and that, had he lived, his vigour and excellence
would have done much to preserve the commonwealth. Amkel resisted
the uigust claims of his father, and even thwarted Thorolf in his attempts
to browbeat his thralls and farmers. Hence, during the last yearn of
the old man's life, &ther and son were entirely estranged. But one day
Thorolf rode over to his son's house at B<51sWl, and proposed that they
should be friends again. Amkel was delighted, but when he found
that his other's reason for making a pact was to obtain his hdp in
robbing Snoni of his woodlands at Krdkuness, he refused, and ihe old
man went away very angry. He came home that night looking so grim
that nobody dared to speak to him ; he sat down in the high-seat, ate
nothing, said nothing, and remained there sitting when the others went

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to bed. Next moniiiig he was atttimg there stJU, but he was dead.
Hu wife sent a message to her son Arakely for no one dared to tondi
the old man, he locked so horrible. Amkel Uxk him bf the shoaldeR,
but had to pnt forth all his strength to swing the bod j oat of the high-
seat, and then the^ buried him. Nothing happened at first ; but as soon
as Amkel had put all things in order, and had gone home to Bdlstad,
strange romonrs began to creep about. People b^;an to foel very un-
comfiMrtable after suns^ and towards the end of the summer it began to
be whispered that old Thorolf was moving about. The ox^i became
bewitched that had drawn him to the grave, and all the cattle that came
near his caim went mad and knocked themselves to pieces. The shef^erd
that k^t flocks near the grave declared that Thorolf chased him at sun-
down, and one day they found him dead, his whole body coal-black, and
eveiy bone broken. The shej^erd was buried in Thon^^s cairn, but
things grew worse and worse. The veiy birds fell dead as they flew
over the valley. In the winter the ghost of Tborolf grew still bolder ;
it came and howled outside the house, and even came inside, and
frightened the housewife. She died before the winter was over, and
was buried beside her husband. After that the g^ost wandered all
over the neighbourhood, and killed or frightened away almost all the
inhabitants. In the spring Amkel came and dug up the body of his
father ; it looked very terrible ; but his men put it on a sleigh with ox«:i,
and would have carried it to a burial-ground, but the oxen went mad and
dashed into the sea, leaving Thorolf s body on a little hillock. Amkel
built a caim over it, and the ghost was quiet thenceforward as long as
Amkel lived.

But Amkel was not doomed to live long ; his gifts and virtues roused
the envy of the turbulent sons of Thorbrand, the foster brothers <d Boom
and Styrr. One winter night they were all feasting with Snorri at Hel-
gafell, when the question rose, who was the greatest man in Iceland, and
some said Snorri, because of his wit and skill ; and some said Styrr, be-
cause of his gigantic stature and physical force ; but Th^leiff Eombi rose
and said, ''What is the use of tiring ourselves with wrangling about
what every man can see with his own eyes ) " " Why ! what is your
opinion, ThorleifE^ since you think this so easy a matter to decide t''
'' Without doubt Amkel is the greatest man." '' Why do you say thatt"
they asked. " Because it is the plain truth. Snorri and Styrr count
only as one man for their friendship's sake, and that one man is not so
strong as Amkel, for none of Amkel's house-folk He dead by his home-
stead HgUdir^ for whom no weregild or money of atonement has been
claimed ; but Snmrri's man, Hauk, whom Amkel killed, lies here in that
disgrace." When the feast was over, Snorri went down with the sons of
Thorbrand to their ship, and as he parted from Thorleiff Kimbi, he gave
him an axe, and said, '' Here is an axe, Thorleiff whidk I give you ; it
has a long shaft, but yet it will not reach Amkel's head when he makes
hay at Orlygsstod, if you throw it all the way from your home at Alpta-

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Qord." So they parted, agroemg tliat when they found an opportanity of
slaying Amkel, they would unite to do so. Early that winter there
eame a severe frost, and the fjords were frozen over. One of ThorleiflTs
shepherds, Freysteinn the Knave, was keeping his sheep one moonlight
night just before Yule, when he saw Arnkel, who had been very busy all
day, go over to Orlygsstad to fetch hay at midnight. He had three thralls
with him, and two sleighs. The shepherd told the sonsof Thorbrand, and
then crossed over to HelgafeU to rouse Snorri. He waked Snorri, who

Online LibraryGeorge SmithThe Cornhill magazine, v. 1-16. -- → online text (page 85 of 91)