Artabanzanus/Chapter 3

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I bade adieu to my kind host and hostess, promising to repeat my visit, if possible, at no distant date. Accordingly, after the lapse of a few months, I found myself again in the airy home of Solomon Pepper, and enjoyed for some three or four days his genial and instructive conversation. He strongly advised me to pay a visit to the Great Lake, which is far larger and more beautiful than Lake Sorell. I therefore set out immediately on horseback, and after a pleasant journey of about thirty miles through some very wild and rocky country, arrived at the romantic shore. The waters of this lake are clear as glass, not thick with mud like those of Lake Sorell. Its circumference is about one hundred miles. Three picturesque islands adorn its surface, but they are situated at long distances from each other. Near it are splendid bare and rocky mountains, of weird and fantastic appearance, but its shores in some places expand into extensive stony plains, and in others are clothed with forest down to the water's edge. It was a wild and charming scene, in the remembrance of which I should always find the greatest possible pleasure were it not for a great peril which befell me there.

My residence in this district lasted for nearly a month, and I enjoyed the hospitality of a younger brother of Mr. Pepper's, to whom he had given me a very kind introduction. These gentlemen could not get suitable shepherds at that time, and were consequently obliged to live during the summer months at their out-stations. There is a freedom in this country life which makes it attractive, and its extreme loneliness is compensated for by the best of health, and plenty of invigorating exercise. A strong boy, ten years old, resided here with his uncle, who was my host, and with this lad for my guide and companion I rambled about over the rocks, and up and down the precipitous hills. We used to traverse extensive plains that were covered with thick grass, and had thousands of curiously-shaped stones, as high as my head jutting out here and there, all over them; and it was pleasant to see the playful sheep jumping upon them and off again. From the top of one of the highest of the hills—itself a mass of nearly inaccessible crags—I could see three large lakes, and the mountain masses, and the forests by which they were separated from each other. On one side was the 'Great Lake,' with its adamantine sentinels, the 'Split Rock' and 'China Wall'; on the other, two large sheets of water, which were known as 'Arthur's Lakes,' lay stretched beneath our feet, as in a clearly-painted picture, glittering in the sun like blue mirrors. In the distance we saw a large portion of the midland plains as far as Epping Forest and Ben Lomond, a hundred miles away. The whole country is a wilderness of rocks, forests, yellow grassy plains, and water. No houses of any kind were to be seen; not a garden or cultivated field was visible, and not a sound was to be heard save the occasional bleating of the sheep, and now and again the bellowing of cattle.

The season had changed since my last visit. The days were then almost insufferably hot; now they were exceedingly cold. The winter was drawing near, when the white sun, if it condescends to shine at all, does so with a sublime indifference to the effect of his rays in giving life and warmth. I well remember what the lake was like in the long bright days of summer; everything was then fresh and beautiful. The bright blue water, changing sometimes to rich emerald, reflected in varied tints the floating clouds above it. The three islands looked like little fairy gardens, and amid their crags the keen eye of imagination might see tiny medieval castles holding sway over diminutive domains. But now everything is sombre and desolate. The shore is encrusted with ice; the air is heavy with gloomy fogs and snow-laden clouds; the wind is blowing with searching, chilling keenness; the waters look dark as if threatening some coming calamity; the birds are silent; the flowers have hidden themselves, and I am shivering with cold.

I sat down on a rock, and gave way to reflections that were quite in harmony with the gloomy scene around me. I put myself for the time being in the place of the large landed proprietor. The life of a sheepowner may be more free and happy than that of a brave defender of his country, but, except for its health and freedom-giving qualities, it is not an enviable life. Just at the present time the farmer has emerged from the severest drought that has ever been experienced in this usually favoured island. It was so protracted and so intense that it killed thousands of trees, and caused great loss and deterioration of his flocks. He has been visited by calamitous Bush fires, which have destroyed thousands of acres of grass, and miles upon miles of valuable fencing which cannot be replaced save at great labour and expense; and he is constantly suffering from other losses, annoyances and anxieties.

I grew quite excited as I thought over the social and political anxieties of the class to which I belong, and I could not refrain from giving audible expression to my soliloquy.

'There is not, I believe, on the face of our glorious world a single human being—let him appear to be ever so happy, be he saint or sinner, beggar or gentleman, earl or emperor—who has not his under-current of grief and misery—his skeleton in the house. While some are oppressed with the cares of vast property, others are groaning under hopeless, chronic poverty. Millions bewail their past follies and blunders; millions more are the victims of degrading vice, and lost in the mazes of the basest passions. Millions drink to the dregs the cup of pleasure, and fritter away their precious—their most precious—time in idle and senseless gratifications. Who are they who are suffering the agonies of incurable disease, and why am I spared? What have the poor wretches done? Religion saith it is a sin to murmur, or to think of wriggling ourselves out of our mortal envelope. Is the world beautiful, and am I cold and hungry? I cannot love or admire the world. Am I in pain or without a penny? I abhor my existence and everything else. What to me are the joys of earth, the pleasures of life? And these odious demands for our hard-earned money—money that is so difficult to obtain, and so easy to get rid of. Pay! pay! pay! or the bloodhounds of the law will be let loose upon you. Pay! pay! pay! or the demons of the "Rabbit Act," the "Scab Act," and every other Act, will follow you about with red-hot fish-hooks. Our wool may sell for next to nothing, our sheep may die of rot, our lambs of fluke and tigers; our house may be burnt and our bank smashed; nevertheless, we must pay! pay!' I raised my voice and struck a rock a tremendous blow with my stick, and cried out: 'There's the very devil himself to pay, and the devil will be paid!'

There was a terrific roar close to my side, and somebody said:

'Aye, I will, and I'll make you pay, I will!'

As I thought I was altogether alone, I started up in the wildest terror, and with a feeling of horror which I could not conquer, and cannot now describe, I turned slowly round, and lo! within six feet of me stood that terrible being, the far-famed 'Demon of the Great Lake.'

An iceberg glided down my vertebral column. The appearance of this awful being, far more repulsive than that of a real live yahoo, nearly drove me frantic with terror and despair, tempered with something like detestation, so utterly repugnant was it, and so far below everything which I had previously imagined in connection with created beings above the rank of beasts of the field. He was about seven feet in height. His face was frightful, and of a deep chocolate colour; his nose was hooked like an eagle's claw. He glared upon me with eyes like two leaden bullets of grape-shot just ready to go off; his mouth and teeth closely resembled the deadliest part of a rabbit-trap. On his head he wore a remarkably small cocked hat made of serpent's skin, as I was afterwards informed. His robe was the rough waterproof hide of a bunyip. In his right hand he carried a knotted caduceus with two live snakes twined around it, and with certain cabalistic characters engraved upon it; and on his left arm he bore what appeared to be several folds of the tail part of a boa-constrictor.

'I'll make you pay!' he again roared at the top of his voice, and gnashing his teeth with a loud snapping noise; 'and I'll double the amount and more, I will!'

'I kept silence for a long time, and I was trembling to my very boots; but seeing that he was working himself up into a fearful rage, I managed to stammer:

'Please, sir———'

'Oh, you have found your tongue at last, have you?' he said, in a somewhat mollified tone. 'Well, get up your courage, what little you have of it, and listen to my words. You are in for it like a rabbit in a trap, and it is no use your doubling and twisting. I am not so bad as I appear; I can make myself look much better sometimes. I intend to show you some great things, and use you as you deserve. I have long had my watchful eye upon you, and you will suit me very well. I want a new private secretary, and you are the coming man. Salary one million sterling pounds per annum, and as many fine castles to live in as you like, and a thousand pleasures besides from year's end to year's end. You shall have power to give pleasure to, or to torture, whom you please. I have had many private secretaries, but was obliged to send them about their business on account of their idleness; but you are a hard worker, and will suit me very well.'

'And what has become of your secretaries, sir?' I ventured to ask.

'Gone to glory,' he replied laconically.

'But, sir,' I managed to say, 'I am growing old. I am unfitted for the office; and if I accepted it, what would my friends, what would the world, say?'

'Your friends!' said he, in a tone of the greatest contempt; 'it is fine news to me that you have any; and what have you to do with the world, or the world with you? Does the world care a farthing about you? No more words, I say. I am the world, and the prince of it.'

'What an extraordinary being!' I said to myself; 'he flies into a passion with me for not speaking, and when I do speak he commands me to hold my tongue.'

He now called out in a loud voice some words which I could not understand. Then he lifted his caduceus into the air over his head, and waved it to and fro three times. Suddenly a black shadow, deep, and appalling, and portentous of some great impending misfortune, spread itself over the face of the waters.