April 13th, 1850. — The village of Bothwell, where John Martin and myself are now privileged, by “ticket-of-leave,” to live or to vegetate, contains about sixty or seventy houses; has a church where clergymen of the Church of England and of Scotland perform service, one in the morning and the other in the evening of Sunday; has four large public-houses, or hotels, establishments which are much better supported on the voluntary system, and have much larger congregations, than the church; has a post-office, and several carpenters’ and blacksmiths’ shops, for the accommodation of the settlers who live in the district; and a police-office and police-barrack, with the police magistrate of the district predominating there.
It is situated in a valley about three or four miles in width, and twice that in length, at an elevation of 1,300 feet above the sea; and is surrounded by rough wooded mountains, rising perhaps 1,000 feet higher. Through the valley, from north to south, runs the little river Clyde, turning two mills. Two miles below Bothwell, the Clyde makes a leap of forty-five feet into a profound cauldron between high rocks, and thence enters a narrow gorge between lofty and rocky banks, where it rushes along with great rapidity, and about sixteen miles lower down passes another village with a Lanarkshire name, “Hamilton,” from whence it still continues a southern course, till it enters the large river Derwent, which collects the drainage of all the high central region of the island. This particular valley of the Clyde was settled principally by Scotch colonists, which accounts for the Lanarkshire names.
Hamilton, however, is a police-district by itself, and lies out of the bounds of our dungeon. Northward the district of Bothwell extends twenty-four miles to the shores of Lake Crescent and Lake Sorel; and the farther shores of the lakes bound the territories of Meagher and O’Doherty. Eastward the district of Bothwell is defined by the course of the Jordan, a stream still smaller than the Clyde, which I crossed on my way hither a few days ago, without knowing it: for it is always dry except in winter. Westward we reach the large river Shannon, which runs through a lonely wilderness of forest and mountain, between lofty banks, and after joining with the Ouse, a still more western river, loses itself in the same Derwent. Beyond those rivers lies the almost unexplored region of the island, utterly barren and inhospitable, spreading in a great plateau, at an elevation of nearly 4,000 feet, to the Western Sea.
We climbed to-day one of the minor hills, and from the summit commanded a vast view of endless mountains, covered with wood, closed to the south-west by a great range already covered with snow, though it is still warm autumnal weather here.
The trees are almost all of one or other of the gum species; lofty and vast, but not umbrageous, for the foliage is meagre, and but ill clothes the huge limbs. In some of the huge valleys, however, there is more richness of foliage, and along the river’s bank the gum-trees are chiefly of the sort called black gum, which makes a grand leafy head, almost as massive as the European beech or sycamore. On the slopes of some of the hills are great thickets of mimosa, called by the colonists the wattle-gum, a most graceful evergreen tree, but stripped at this season of its splendid gold-hued blossoms. The air is laden with the fragrance of these gum-trees, and illuminated by the flight of parrots of most glowing and radiant plumage, that go flashing through the arches of the forest like winged gems.
I grow stronger every day. And whether it be the elastic and balmy air of these mountain-woods that sends the tide of life coursing somewhat warmer through my veins — or unwonted converse of an old friend that revives the personal identity I had nearly lost — or the mere treading once more upon the firm flowery surface of our bounteous Mother Earth, after two years’ tossing on the barren, briny ocean — Mother Earth breathing vital fragrance for ever, for ever swinging the censer of her perfumes from a thousand flowers; for ever singing her eternal melodies in whispering tree-tops and murmuring, tinkling, bubbling streams — certain it is, I feel a kind of joy. In vain I try to torment myself into a state of chronic savage indignation: it will not do here. In vain I reflect that “it is incumbent on me diligently to remember” (as Mr. Gibbon says) how that I am, after all, in a real cell, hulk, or dungeon, yet — that these ancient mountains, with the cloud-shadows flying over their far-stretching woodlands, are but Carthaginian prison walls — that the bright birds, waving their rainbow wings here before me, are but “ticket-of-leave” birds, and enjoy only “comparative liberty” — in vain — there is in every soul of man a buoyancy that will not let it sink to utter stark despair. Well said the Lady Eleanora —
“When the heart is throbbing sorest
There is balsam in the forest:
There is balsam in the forest for its pain”
— Said the Lady Eleanora.
Moreover, at my side walks Martin; and pours me out such a stream of discourse. The slight sketches or partial glimpses I had got in my seafaring captivity of the history of our most rueful and pitiful rebellion needed to be filled up: and he has three months’ later history of Ireland than I knew. Three ignominious months!
It seems the three rebels whose dungeon-districts all touch Lake Sorel are in the habit of meeting almost every week at those lakes, which is against the rule, to be sure; but authorities connive at it — thinking probably that no great or immediate harm can accrue to the British Empire thereby. And Martin is to guide me to-morrow to the rendezvous; having written immediately on my arrival to the two others, announcing the day of meeting. Martin has a grey pony; O’Doherty and Meagher have each a horse; and I, having none yet of my own, am to hire one from a man in the village. This evening I have deluged Martin with talk, as we sat at our wood fire, smoking like two volcanoes. We have lodgings in a neat cottage of the village, our hostess being a woman who conducts the church-singing on Sundays. She is very attentive to us; and to show me she is a person of respectability, she took an early occasion of informing me that she “came out free”; which, in fact, is the patent of nobility in Van Diemen’s Land. Here, a freeman is a king, and the convict-class is regarded just as the negroes must be in South Carolina; which indeed is perfectly right.
I have seen none of the neighbouring gentlemen yet; but John Martin tells me that they have almost all called on him, and shown him kind attentions during the five months he spent here alone. I feel pretty indifferent to society, however, at least yet. But it is agreeable to find that even English and Scotch settlers of good character and rank refuse to regard us as “felons.” A piece of contumacy indeed against their own Government, but a considerable pleasure and advantage to us.
Martin has brought out some books, which, together with my small store, make our lodging look literary. Martin is an old brick; he has listened to me haranguing to-night with commendable attention. So that I trust I have improved his mind.
To-morrow we start at eight o’clock in the morning for our re-union in a certain shepherd’s hut on Lake Sorel.
15th. — Lake Sorel. Promontory of the “Dog’s Head,” or Cynoscephaloe. Yesterday morning dawned cold and gloomy; the first morning apparently of their Tasmanian winter. Before we rose it had begun to rain violently; and all the sky was dark. Evidently the day was to be tempestuous; and on the hills round about the valley we could see that it was snow instead of rain that was falling. Our landlady and her husband advised us not to move, as we might be stopped by floods in the high country; and, besides, I was still extremely weak and nervous, though improving rapidly.
We waited till noon; but at noon, as it rained more furiously than ever, we resolved to brave it and mount. We set out north-eastward through the valley, which is perfectly level, sandy, clothed with a short, dry, yellowish grass, and sprinkled with trees. After a ride of four miles we passed a handsome stone house, with very extensive outbuildings for convict labourers and the tradesmen required on a sheep-farming estate. It lies nestled at the very root of the great Quoin hill; and commands a most extensive view over the plain in front and the distant mountains to the south. This is Denistoun, the residence of Mr. Russell, a Scottish settler, and a good friend of Martin’s; but we rode past without stopping, and through a large green paddock, surrounded by the stables and workmen’s huts. Immediately on clearing this we found ourselves in the wild bush, and ascending a gorge of the hill behind. From this point the rain began to change into snow and for many miles we rode on through the blinding tempest, which prevented any special reconnaissance of the country. I was only sensible that we were continually ascending — that the track was very obscure, and wound amongst dead trees and rocks — and that at every mile the forest became more wild, and more encumbered with naked and fallen trees; until at last I thought the whole world might be challenged to show a scene of such utter howling desolation.
Still we rode on, Martin always saying that when we should be half-way to Lake Sorel, we might turn if we liked. Fifteen miles from Denistoun we passed a rough log-fence, and saw before us a level plain extending full two miles, partially adorned with majestic trees, like some spacious park in Ireland. And, though it was bleak enough yesterday, with a snow-storm driving and hissing over it, yet it was easy to see we had got into a country of a different character. In short, we had finished the long ascent, and we were now on the great plateau of these two lakes. We galloped over the plain with the snow beating furiously in our faces, and found ourselves on the bank of a small river, beyond which seemed to be a tract of very close and rugged woodland “The Clyde again,” said my companion; “we are but a quarter of a mile from the point of Lake Crescent, whence it issues; but you cannot see the lake through the close bush.”
We crossed the river by a rough wooden bridge, made by some of the settlers for the passage of their flocks when they drive them down for the winter to the low country; and then for four miles farther we had a most savage and difficult region to pass, covered with thick and shaggy bush, and very much encumbered with the monstrous ruins of ancient trees. No living creature was anywhere visible; but now and then a few sheep cowering under the lee side of a honeysuckle tree (for all these regions are parcelled out into sheep-runs); no sound, but the roaring of the wind, and the groaning and screaming of the trees.
Lake Crescent was now visible on our right; and for three or four miles we had no track, or other guidance on our way save that by keeping the lake in sight, on our right hand, we must strike on the point where the other lake communicates with it by a short stream. And there lay the hut where, I was assured, we should find a human being, a hermit named Cooper, who would be sure to give us a mutton-chop, and enable us to proceed on our way.
I had pretended, up to this time, that I was not fatigued, and could still ride any distance; but the weakness produced by my two years’ close confinement began now to be visible. My companion encouraged me by the assurance that we were within two miles of Cooper’s, and we now got into open ground again, where we could push our horses to a canter. At last we found ourselves on a low tract of land, about half a mile across, having Lake Crescent still to the right, and the great Lake Sorel to the left. This is a magnificent sheet of water, thirty-five miles in circuit measured by the sinuosities of the shore, varied by some bold promontories, one small wooded island, and a fine range of bold hills on its northern side. The water looked black, and had an angry curl; the snow, which had abated somewhat, came down thicker than ever; and at last, to my great contentment, I could see a smoke mounting amongst the trees before us. There, upon the edge of a marsh, and just at the point where a sluggish winding stream leaves Lake Sorel, to carry its surplus waters to Lake Crescent, stood a small hut of round logs, thatched with grass — the first human habitation we had seen since we left Dennistoun.
The sound of our horses’ hoofs brought out a man of about forty years of age, with a thin, sharp, intelligent face, and hair somewhat reddish, dressed in the blue woollen shirt, which is the invariable uniform of the shepherds and stock-keepers. He welcomed us with great cordiality, and said at once that Mr. Meagher and Mr. O’Doherty were at Townsend’s all day waiting for us. Townsend’s is another hut, four miles further on, and situated in the district of Ross, which is usually made the place of meeting, because it is a better house, and has several rooms. On dismounting, however, to sit a little while at Cooper’s fire, I found myself too much exhausted to ride any farther; so Cooper took one of our horses, and set off to Townsend’s, to ask our friends to come to me, seeing I could not go to them.
“You just keep the fire up, gentlemen,” said Cooper, as he girthed the saddle, “that I may get the tea and chops ready when I come back, and I’ll engage the other gentlemen will be here in an hour or less.” We threw on more wood, and tried to dry our clothes.
It now began to grow dusk, for we had been four hours and a-half on the way; and the evening was fast growing dark, when we heard the gallop of three horses, and a loud laugh, well known to me. We went to the door, and in a minute Meagher and O’Doherty had thrown themselves from their horses; and, as we exchanged greetings — I know not from what impulse, whether from buoyancy of heart, or bizarre perversity of feeling — we all laughed till the woods rang around; laughed loud and long, and uproariously, till two teal rose, startled from the reeds on the lake-shore, and flew screaming to seek a quieter neighbourhood.
I suspect there was something hollow in that laughter, though at the time it was hearty, vociferous, and spontaneous. But even in laughter the heart is sad; and curses or tears, just then, might have become us better.
Both these exiles looked fresh and vigorous. Kevin O’Doherty I had scarcely ever met before; but he is a fine, erect, noble-looking young man, with a face well bronzed by air and exercise.
After giving the horses each two handfuls of oats, all we had, we turned them out to find shelter and grazing as best they could. Beside the hut is a large enclosure, made by an old post-and-rail fence; and into this, with much compunction, on my part at least, we turned out the poor animals. However, such is the usage that horses are accustomed to here, where they are seldom stabled, even in winter. Indeed, the bush everywhere affords good close shelter for all sorts of animals, under the thickets of “wattle-gum,” and the dense dark shade of the honeysuckle-tree. Horses also eat the leaves and tender shoots of both these trees, when the ground happens to be covered with snow, which, even at this height among the mountains, is exceedingly rare.
All this time, while we were employed about our horses. Cooper was in the hut broiling mutton-chops, boiling tea in an open tin-can, slung over the fire, and cutting the damper into thick slices — mutton, tea, and damper being the morning refection, and mutton, damper, and tea being the evening meal in the bush. Damper is merely a large flat cake of flour and water, baked in the wood embers on the hearth. We sat down upon blocks of gum-tree, and Cooper being possessed of but one knife and one fork, we dined primitively; but all were ravenously hungry, and it seems Cooper is notorious in the lake region for the excellency of his chop-cookery.
Our talk was all of Ireland, and of Richmond and Newgate prisons, and of Smith O’Brien; and it soon made us serious enough. I had still very much to learn — though before coming up to Bothwell at all, I had met MacManus at a wayside inn, and he told me all he knew. They have been in Van Diemen’s Land just five months; and they inform me that Smith O’Brien has been during that time subjected to most rigorous, capricious, and insolent treatment by the “Comptroller-General” and his subordinates. His confinement for a while, indeed, was as strict as my own had been in Bermuda; and only the representation of the medical officer, that his health was sinking under it, compelled them to relax the discipline so far that he is now allowed to wander over part of the island at stated times, attended by an armed constable. When he writes to any of the others, or they to him, the letters are all opened by the official people; and so petty has been the system of restriction exercised upon him, that they would not, for a good while, suffer him to receive his usual supply of cigars, sent to him from Hobart Town. To a man all alone, and already goaded and stung by outrage and wrong, even such a small privation as this may be a serious grievance. The “Comptroller-General,” one Hampton, is specially exasperated against him, because O’Brien could not bring himself to show him some of those external marks of respect which he is in the habit of exacting from the real convicts: and being restrained from using his usual methods of coercion and punishment in our case, scourging, hard labour, and the like, the Comptroller (who is bound somehow to assert his dignity), strives to conquer and torture his haughty captive by hourly mortification in detail. I suppose it is the man’s trade; and we must all have; but how much better it had been for that gallant heart, if he had been shot down at Ballingarry, or even hanged before the county-jail at Clonmel.
Our meeting at the Lakes, begun with factitious jollity, soon grew dismal enough; and it was still more saddened as we talked of the factions of Irish refugees in America — factions founded principally on the momentous question, who was the greatest man and most glorious hero, of that most inglorious Irish business of ’48; and each imagines he exalts his own favourite “martyr” by disparaging and pulling down the rest — as if the enemy’s Government had not pulled us all down, and ridden roughshod over us. It seems that I have my faction, and Meagher a still stronger one. If our respective partisans could but have seen — as we discussed this question of our own comparative importance — how bitterly and how mournfully we two smiled at one another across the gum-tree fire in that log-hut amongst the forests of the antipodes, perhaps it might have cooled their partizan zeal.
This morning, when we looked out on the snowy waste, we found that all the horses had broken out through the fence into the woods. So we sallied out and spent an hour searching for them all over the rocky country between the two lakes. At last, in a dense part of the forest, we found them cowering under some honeysuckle trees, and nibbling the leaves — a sorry breakfast. Drove them in; and after partaking of Cooper’s breakfast, we mounted and rode on to the “Dog’s Head.” This is a fine promontory running about a mile out into the lake, and fringed all round with noble trees. In a snug cove at the northern side of the “Dog’s Head” is a stone house inhabited by the shepherd in charge of a large flock belonging to a Mr. Clarke, the owner of all the eastern shores of the lake. The day became beautiful and bright. The snow had all disappeared by twelve o’clock, and the lake lay smooth as a mirror. Opposite to us rise several rough wooded peaks; and all that side of the lake is said to be utterly trackless, and nearly impervious, swarming with “native devils” and “native tigers,” two species of hideous beasts of prey about the size of sheep-dogs, which at times make great havoc among the flocks. We have taken the little boat belonging to this station and rowed over to the island, then to another quiet bay where there is a sandy beach, called by the shepherds the “Diamond Beach,” from beautiful little agates and pieces of yellow quartz often found amongst the sands.
18th. — To-day we reluctantly parted, promising to be at the rendezvous again the week after next; and rode our different ways. This day, as the snow was gone, and the forests were all glowing in the sunshine, I wondered the country had seemed desolate to me before. We passed along the skirts and nearly under the perpendicular precipices of Table Mountain; and at last found ourselves on the shoulder of Quoin Hill, and looked down over the valley of Bothwell, which already seems a sort of home to me. From this point the view is wide and magnificent — endless forests and mountains; with small bits of clearing here and there, looking like impertinent intrusions upon the primeval solitudes. Two eagles soar majestically above: and from far down in the profound umbrage below, rings the clear bugle note of the white magpie — a bird which, though called magpie by the colonists, is of a species unknown in the northern hemisphere. So ends my first visit to Lake Sorel: and it has pleased me well at any rate to find that my friends are all unsubdued. The game, I think, is not over yet.