Artabanzanus/Chapter 1

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1319968Artabanzanus — Chapter 1William Moore Ferrar



The lakes of Tasmania are, with one or two exceptions, situated on the higher levels of the mountains. The mountains occupy a large space-some thousands of square miles—in the centre of the island. They rise abruptly from a surrounding belt of level plains, which are bounded by other mountains nearer to the sea. On these plains, which are relieved by occasional hills and valleys, the settlers of the colony have created many handsome, and even elegant, mansions; and they have brought into cultivation, and stocked with sheep and cattle, valuable lands which one hundred years ago were the domains of black and naked savages, who lived on kangaroos, opossums, and snakes. From a moderate distance the mountains present a magnificent appearance, being broken at irregular intervals by precipices and bold headlands, which the inhabitants call bluffs. No lover of the picturesque and wild beauties of the world can look upon these gigantic walls without feeling an anxious desire to scale them, and see for himself what is on the other side. That was the wish I formed the first time that I saw them, but it was only after the lapse of several years that I was able to gratify the wish.

Having become acquainted with a family of sheep-owners who occupy a station on the northern shore of Lake Sorell, I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation to spend some time with them. I had a month or two of leisure in the oppressive summer time, so, being in the enjoyment of good health, I shouldered my knapsack one fine morning in April, and clambered up the eastern face of the Western Tier, by a steep and rocky zigzag road which men and horses can travel, but no wheeled vehicle. The side of the mountain was covered with a dense forest, having an undergrowth of scrub and coarse grass, studded with huge rocks. The track was blocked up in several places by trees that were lying prostrate, and I found it difficult to make my way among their tangled roots or branches. The steepness of the ascent made the walk a somewhat laborious one. Surmounting all difficulties, however, I found myself, at the sultry hour of noon, sitting on my knapsack, on the very summit of the mountain, some three thousand feet above the sea, with an extensive shining lake spread out at my feet. Seated there, I was soon lost in dreamland, building sparkling 'castles in the air'—a habit to which I am, fortunately or unfortunately, rather strongly disposed.

I stay the progress of my narrative here, in order to say a few words about myself, which my generous readers will kindly excuse. I belong to that class of men who are styled 'visionary' by their wiser and more practical acquaintances, who never, in their imagination, see anything that may be on the top of a mountain, or at the other side of a haystack. Some use the adjective in contempt, others in derision, again, in profound pity. They say that a 'visionary' man cannot look after his proper business, but is certain to drop into the pitfall of irretrievable ruin. But I attended to my business for a great many years with fair measure of success, though now, as I am in the 'sear and yellow leaf,' I have handed it over to younger men. A 'visionary' man may be unfit for some occupations, but he can, if he pleases, make himself useful and agreeable to others, and he can improve his little farm, if he has one, as Cincinnatus did, and as I, in all humility, do, by cutting down trees where they are too thick, and planting them where they are too thin. And now, as the reader knows all about me that he will care to know, I will further explain that, as I sat on the shore of Lake Sorell on that high mountain, in the far distant island of Tasmania, building sparkling 'castles in the air,' I fell into the following train of thought:

'I am rather tired of this same castle-building. Of what use is it? If I walk in a frenzy into this lake, will it save me from being drowned? If I fall over these rocks and break my leg, will it mend it again, and give me renewed strength to prosecute my journey? Will it put money in my purse when it is empty, or bread on my table, or clothes on my back? If it is a gift from on high, a branch, possibly, of the great candelabrum of human genius, of what use is it? Surely the ability to dig potatoes, to break in horses, to cook a dinner, or to sweep a crossing, would be much more beneficial to its possessor, and useful to the world at large. It is like Falstaff's honour: it pricks us on, and often pricks us off again; not even a word or a mere breath of air, only a thought built up in any fantastic shape we please, and then blown into fragments. And yet it is not like Falstaff's honour; it is not always of lower rank than a breath of air. It is an amusement to the great heart and mind of man, when he who builds such a castle has not a balance at his bankers' to amuse him, or a regiment of soldiers, or a ship to command, or anything to do to keep himself alive. It is an unquestionable fact that our airy castles, which your hard-headed, practical people sneer at so much, very often turn into real towers of grandeur and magnificence. Did Nelson, or Wellington, or Stanley, never build castles in the air about winning glorious victories and achieving immortal renown?

'So I, Oliver Ubertus, of Tasmania, wool-grower (my friends smile at me, and tell me that I am a boy still, though over sixty years of age), while laughing to scorn the idea of glorious victories and immortal renown, have often built castles, which gradually dwindled into a snug little estate in the country; and a pleasant house, with trees and a garden around it; and a diminutive park, with a horse or two and a few simple-minded cows in it; and a cosy library indoors, and an outside run for a few hundred sheep, all my own. And now, when I have all these in reality, it must be acknowledged that my airy castle has become a substantial one of timber and stone, albeit one of very humble dimensions.'

My soliloquy ended, I rose up and continued my journey, stepping boldly into the wild Bush. Some idea of writing and publishing a book about these wonderful Tasmanian lakes, that would astonish the world and shake it up to the very centre of its cold, selfish heart, entered into my mind, and became a dreamy fascination which I could not shake off. It recurred again and again as I pursued my way. But it must be no ordinary book. If it should be nothing but a dry description of land and water, or even a kind of half and-half history of another Paris and Helen, or of some forlorn Angelina or Virginia pining on an island, or a story of the romantic love of a local Tom Smith and his Betsy Jane Stubbs, the mighty world would scarcely condescend to touch it at all.

I am travelling now through a very thick, dark forest, along a snake-like track which winds round the northern shore, and I find myself booked for a weary, solitary tramp of at least twenty miles. I thought I should never get out of that forest, and began to imagine myself a veritable Babe in the Wood. There was no fear of my being lost, for the lake could not fly away, and my friend's house was within half a mile of it. At last, in about four hours' time, I emerged into the open country, and entered upon a vast marsh, which was bounded at a great distance by a range of high wooded hills. There were mountains to be seen all round in this land of enchantment—mountains piled on mountains. For a time immersed to the waist in an ocean, so to speak, of rushes, which greatly added to the fatigue of walking, I plodded on; but it was fortunate for me that I was not compelled to wade up to my knees in water, or flounder pitiably over my boot-tops in hideous black mud. The time was passing quickly, the sun was sinking, and the end of my journey seemed as far off as ever. Extricating myself at last from the thick rushes, I strode into the wood again, which was now much more open, and then toiled wearily on until, as night was coming on, I arrived at a paddock, in which a new weather-boarded cottage could be descried at a little distance. This proved to be the very dwelling of which I was in search. I received a warm welcome, as is usually the case under such circumstances, and soon sat down to enjoy a refreshing cup of tea. The honours of the table were done by a young lady, a sister of my host, who, with her little niece, resides here during the summer, and takes great pleasure in the pure mountain air and in the delightful scenery around the lake.

I was told a great deal that evening about the curiosities of the locality. There is a so-called phantom island in Lake Sorell, and I was a week in my friend's house before I succeeded in getting a glimpse of it. There is also a beautiful wooded island in it which is by no means a phantom. The lake is about ten miles in diameter, and is surrounded, except in a few marshy places, with rocky and densely-wooded shores. It might be appropriately called the Tasmanian Lake of the Woods. On its southern shore the celebrated Thomas Francis Meagher, he of the drawn sword and of 'Irish Invincible' fame, resided for a time.

One morning I went down to the lake before sunrise, and found the opposite shores enveloped in a thick atmosphere of blue smoke, which had risen from many surrounding Bush fires. Above the edge of this smoke a splendid orange glow preceded the rising sun. A soft hazy cloud stretched itself over such of the adjacent hills as were at all visible. The lake had the appearance of an extensive sea—a vast sheet of the brightest silver, studded with millions of glancing particles of gold. Then, and not till then, I found the object of my search—the phantom island. Alas for the genius of romance! It was not a creation of indescribable grandeur like a mediaeval castellated rock or a fairy-like garden in a pearly ocean, such as we read of in Byron and Moore. On the contrary, it presented the very practical appearance of the black hull of a huge ship, rising only a few feet above the surface of the water, and yet seeming to be suspended over it like the flying island of 'Gulliver's Travels.' It is evidently nothing more nor less than a low mass of rock nearly in the centre of the lake, not always visible; and when I first saw it I fancied myself standing on the brink of the Nile, surveying the hulk of one of the great French ships which had been battered to pieces in Nelson's famous battle.

The Cradle Mountain, and the hills around, were totally invisible, owing to the dense columns of smoke which rose from the sides of the Western Tier, where fierce fires were raging. On such occasions a weird and deceptive glare is cast upon the water; and that morning the rosy glow of the sunrise through the nearly opaque gloom rendered the scene a truly magnificent one. A Bush fire also had broken out on the estate occupied by my friend Mr. Solomon Pepper, and I volunteered my services to help to save his fences from being burnt. But it unfortunately happened that, in spite of all our efforts, fully two miles of fencing were destroyed. One of these fires was the grandest I ever saw; the flames roared like thunder, and leaped up in the forest to the height of forty or fifty feet.

After the pearly lake and the phantom island, what will you say, gentle reader, to a Giant's Castle? It is an eccentric idea of mine to give it that name. Before I attempted to explore the edifice itself, I discovered the graves of the giant and his wife, or what might be regarded as such, close to the public road and the margin of the lake. They—I mean the graves, not the bodies—lie side by side, but, as there are no monuments of any kind, I cannot be certain that the giant and his wife actually lie buried there.

The Giant's Castle is, in fact, a stupendous pile of rocks, towering one above another, and reaching to a height of about five hundred feet above the tops of the forest trees by which it is surrounded. It is a mile from the shore, and consists of a hard gray granite, or something of that kind, which seems to be impervious to the assaults of all the raging elements. At present it bears the unclassical name of Todd's Hill; but it ought to be called Castle Rock or Mount Terror. I was of course seized with an irresistible desire to ascend its perpendicular heights, and, to my great delight, my young hostess and her little niece promptly volunteered to be my guides.

We selected a fine afternoon for our excursion, and started at three o'clock. The air was calm and warm, but, unfortunately, not so free from smoke as we could have wished. The ascent was not particularly difficult, if I except the rough rocks which we had to scramble over, until we reached the foot of the enormous crags which form the ruined walls and turrets of the magnificent structure. We followed for some time a well-defined track round the base of the rocky tower, seeking for the least impregnable part by which we might scale the escarpment, which was now hanging in confused masses over our heads. At last we discovered a narrow natural staircase among the rocks, which led us up to a grassy platform covered with innumerable trees. At the further side of this we found another pile of rocks, and these also we ascended, traversing at last a narrow ledge, which led us up to the highest pinnacle. Now came the tug of war. I had been advised to keep my head cool—it is by nature exceedingly hot—and to brace up my nerves—which, to say the least, were never very strong—and to effect both objects I screwed my hat firmly down over my eyebrows.

My fair guides tripped along like antelopes; but I, being well up in years, and inclined to be heavy, passed the causeway very cautiously indeed. Two unexpected sights burst suddenly upon my view. On our left lay the remains of a vast chamber, deep in the heart of the mountain, the roof of which must have been blown off in the centuries gone by in some terrible convulsion of the earth, and the ruins scattered about in every direction. On our right lay a frightful precipice, and, like imperial eagles, we were pluming our feathers on the very edge. The distance to the tops of the trees below seemed amazing. A sheer wall of rock was beneath our feet, the highest I had ever been on in my life.

At first my head began to feel a little giddy, and at such times a kind of paroxysm comes over me, which in my assumed allegorical character I find it impossible to control. My imagination does not require a very strong charge of dynamite in order to set it going. Where are now my dreams of being able one day to see my native land again, and of embracing the friends, the brothers and sisters of my youth? Where are now the vile and crooked rascalities of the human hive—its pride, its venom, its avarice, and its arrogance? I even lose thought of my companions. I am alone, but surrounded with beings of another world. In this silent, impressive solitude I ask what I really am—a being destined to live for ever, armed with a dreadful power, or a poor, miserable creature of despicable clay, doomed to sleep the eternal sleep, or live on for centuries in the shadow of death? Why do I live and have power to move and think? And what awful power is that which prevents me from losing the command of my own strength, and falling headlong from the lop of this precipice? What am I now? A mere insect of life, a mere atom of matter, which a sudden gust of wind might blow, shrieking or senseless, into that profound abyss.

Ha, ha! what is the value, I should like to know, of the boasted highly-prized philosophy of mankind, and who are those men who dare to place their own limits on the power of the great Creator? If there is any scene to be surveyed in the world likely to convince such men of their own insignificance, it is one like this. It is like a looking-glass with two opposing surfaces. It can show the beholder how small he really is, and still how great and magnificent he can become. If his body is a mere atom compared to the mountain, he is gifted with an intellect which can grasp and understand it. But let him not be presumptuous; his metaphysical philosophy is—at least, the greater part of it is—nothing but conjecture.

What do I see? What do I hear? The faint pale-blue glimmering of approaching lightning, the muffled mutterings of distant thunder, the gushing sounds of torrents of rain renewing the life of the thirsty, sun-baked earth, the hoarse growling of the wild hurricane still chained up far away over the sea, the convulsive pantings of the earthquake destined to rend these iron masses from their foundations, but still securely bottled up.

What scenes, what creatures, are these? Circles of brilliantly-dressed ladies and gentlemen, myriads of white-robed beings, and a host of captive mountain tigers dancing round me in the graces of youth and beauty to the splendid music of the band of the Coldstream Guards—and listen! Whose voice is that?

'Look, oh, look, Mr. Ubertus,' warbled from the summit the elder Lady of the Lake, 'at this enchanting scene ! Is it not lovely? Come up here!'

'Up there, my dear young lady! I am not a rope-dancer or a chimpanzee. I can see it from where I am.'

And lovely it certainly was. Lake Sorell, with all its charming sinuosities of island and shore, of mountain, marsh, and forest, lay spread out beneath us like a coloured map of grand proportions. Lake Crescent lay farther off, looking like a round polished mirror deeply set within a fringe of dark-green ribbons. The isthmus between the lakes came out in strong relief. A Bush fire was raging at Interlaken. The mountains and hills around us reflected the amber light of the setting sun, his golden rays softened and mellowed into the richest of ruby tints by the smoke of the distant fires.

Lured on by an insatiable desire to see whatever might be worth seeing, I rambled forth alone on another afternoon in search of this wonderful castle, and then beheld it from below. At imminent danger to neck and limbs I climbed through and over a wilderness of rocks, and stood at last at the foot of the gigantic pile, gazing upwards at its towers and battlements. It did not present a perpendicular face, as I had at first assumed, but that of a sharp, jagged cone which appeared to have been besieged and battered by heavy guns for years. And yet what was it compared to the mountains of other lands? Still, it interested my lonely and brooding mind at the time, and in a pleasing and healthy way changed the gloomy current of my thoughts.

That night strange and weird ideas crowded into my mind, and strange and weird dreams, with but little originality in them, haunted my pillow. In the great ruined chamber of the Giant's Castle I saw sights which made my blood boil with excitement, angels and demons fighting for the mastery, as in Swift's 'Battle of the Books.'