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CHAPTER XXIX: Tasmania, Early Days - Description of the Town of Hobart - An Englishman's Love of Home Surroundings - Neatest City on Earth - The Museum - A Parrot with an Acquired Taste - Glass Arrow Beads - Refuge for the Indigent too healthy
When people do not respect us we are sharply offended; yet deep down in his private heart no man much respects himself.
- Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar.
Necessarily, the human interest is the first interest in the log-book of any country. The annals of Tasmania, in whose shadow we were sailing, are lurid with that feature. Tasmania was a convict-dump, in old times; this has been indicated in the account of the Conciliator, where reference is made to vain attempts of desperate convicts to win to permanent freedom, after escaping from Macquarrie Harbor and the "Gates of Hell." In the early days Tasmania had a great population of convicts, of both sexes and all ages, and a bitter hard life they had. In one spot there was a settlement of juvenile convicts - children - who had been sent thither from their home and their friends on the other side of the globe to expiate their "crimes."
In due course our ship entered the estuary called the Derwent, at whose head stands Hobart, the capital of Tasmania. The Derwent's shores furnish scenery of an interesting sort. The historian Laurie, whose book, "The Story of Australasia," is just out, invoices its features with considerable truth and intemperance: "The marvelous picturesqueness of every point of view, combined with the clear balmy atmosphere and the transparency of the ocean depths, must have delighted and deeply impressed" the early explorers. "If the rock-bound coasts, sullen, defiant, and lowering, seemed uninviting, these were occasionally broken into charmingly alluring coves floored with golden sand, clad with evergreen shrubbery, and adorned with every variety of indigenous wattle, she-oak, wild flower, and fern, from the delicately graceful 'maidenhair' to the palm-like 'old man'; while the majestic gum-tree, clean and smooth as the mast of 'some tall admiral' pierces the clear air to the height of 230 feet or more."
It looked so to me. "Coasting along Tasman's Peninsula, what a shock of pleasant wonder must have struck the early mariner on suddenly sighting Cape Pillar, with its cluster of black-ribbed basaltic columns rising to a height of 900 feet, the hydra head wreathed in a turban of fleecy cloud, the base lashed by jealous waves spouting angry fountains of foam."
That is well enough, but I did not suppose those snags were 900 feet high. Still they were a very fine show. They stood boldly out by themselves, and made a fascinatingly odd spectacle. But there was nothing about their appearance to suggest the heads of a hydra. They looked like a row of lofty slabs with their upper ends tapered to the shape of a carving-knife point; in fact, the early voyager, ignorant of their great height, might have mistaken them for a rusty old rank of piles that had sagged this way and that out of the perpendicular.
The Peninsula is lofty, rocky, and densely clothed with scrub, or brush, or both. It is joined to the main by a low neck. At this junction was formerly a convict station called Port Arthur - a place hard to escape from. Behind it was the wilderness of scrub, in which a fugitive would soon starve; in front was the narrow neck, with a cordon of chained dogs across it, and a line of lanterns, and a fence of living guards, armed. We saw the place as we swept by - that is, we had a glimpse of what we were told was the entrance to Port Arthur. The glimpse was worth something, as a remembrancer, but that was all.
The voyage thence up the Derwent Frith displays a grand succession of fairy visions, in its entire length elsewhere unequaled. In gliding over the deep blue sea studded with lovely islets luxuriant to the water's edge, one is at a loss which scene to choose for contemplation and to admire most. When the Huon and Bruni have been passed, there seems no possible chance of a rival; but suddenly Mount Wellington, massive and noble like his brother Etna, literally heaves in sight, sternly guarded on either hand by Mounts Nelson and Rumney; presently we arrive at Sullivan's Cove - Hobart!"
It is an attractive town. It sits on low hills that slope to the harbor - a harbor that looks like a river, and is as smooth as one. Its still surface is pictured with dainty reflections of boats and grassy banks and luxuriant foliage. Back of the town rise highlands that are clothed in woodland loveliness, and over the way is that noble mountain, Wellington, a stately bulk, a most majestic pile. How beautiful is the whole region, for form, and grouping, and opulence, and freshness of foliage, and variety of color, and grace and shapeliness of the hills, the capes, the, promontories; and then, the splendor of the sunlight, the dim rich distances, the charm of the water-glimpses! And it was in this paradise that the yellow-liveried convicts were landed, and the Corps-bandits quartered, and the wanton slaughter of the kangaroo-chasing black innocents consummated on that autumn day in May, in the brutish old time. It was all out of keeping with the place, a sort of bringing of heaven and hell together.
The remembrance of this paradise reminds me that it was at Hobart that we struck the head of the procession of Junior Englands. We were to encounter other sections of it in New Zealand, presently, and others later in Natal. Wherever the exiled Englishman can find in his new home resemblances to his old one, he is touched to the marrow of his being; the love that is in his heart inspires his imagination, and these allied forces transfigure those resemblances into authentic duplicates of the revered originals. It is beautiful, the feeling which works this enchantment, and it compels one's homage; compels it, and also compels one's assent - compels it always - even when, as happens sometimes, one does not see the resemblances as clearly as does the exile who is pointing them out.
The resemblances do exist, it is quite true; and often they cunningly approximate the originals - but after all, in the matter of certain physical patent rights there is only one England. Now that I have sampled the globe, I am not in doubt. There is a beauty of Switzerland, and it is repeated in the glaciers and snowy ranges of many parts of the earth; there is a beauty of the fiord, and it is repeated in New Zealand and Alaska; there is a beauty of Hawaii, and it is repeated in ten thousand islands of the Southern seas; there is a beauty of the prairie and the plain, and it is repeated here and there in the earth; each of these is worshipful, each is perfect in its way, yet holds no monopoly of its beauty; but that beauty which is England is alone - it has no duplicate.
It is made up of very simple details - just grass, and trees, and shrubs, and roads, and hedges, and gardens, and houses, and vines, and churches, and castles, and here and there a ruin - and over it all a mellow dreamhaze of history. But its beauty is incomparable, and all its own.
Hobart has a peculiarity - it is the neatest town that the sun shines on; and I incline to believe that it is also the cleanest. However that may be, its supremacy in neatness is not to be questioned. There cannot be another town in the world that has no shabby exteriors; no rickety gates and fences, no neglected houses crumbling to ruin, no crazy and unsightly sheds, no weed-grown front-yards of the poor, no back-yards littered with tin cans and old boots and empty bottles, no rubbish in the gutters, no clutter on the sidewalks, no outer-borders fraying out into dirty lanes and tin-patched huts. No, in Hobart all the aspects are tidy, and all a comfort to the eye; the modestest cottage looks combed and brushed, and has its vines, its flowers, its neat fence, its neat gate, its comely cat asleep on the window ledge.
We had a glimpse of the museum, by courtesy of the American gentleman who is curator of it. It has samples of half-a-dozen different kinds of marsupials - [A marsupial is a plantigrade vertebrate whose specialty is its pocket. In some countries it is extinct, in the others it is rare. The first American marsupials were Stephen Girard, Mr. Aston and the opossum; the principal marsupials of the Southern Hemisphere are Mr. Rhodes, and the kangaroo. I, myself, am the latest marsupial. Also, I might boast that I have the largest pocket of them all. But there is nothing in that.] - one, the " Tasmanian devil;" that is, I think he was one of them. And there was a fish with lungs. When the water dries up it can live in the mud. Most curious of all was a parrot that kills sheep. On one great sheep-run this bird killed a thousand sheep in a whole year. He doesn't want the whole sheep, but only the kidney-fat. This restricted taste makes him an expensive bird to support. To get the fat he drives his beak in and rips it out; the wound is mortal. This parrot furnishes a notable example of evolution brought about by changed conditions. When the sheep culture was introduced, it presently brought famine to the parrot by exterminating a kind of grub which had always thitherto been the parrot's diet. The miseries of hunger made the bird willing to eat raw flesh, since it could get no other food, and it began to pick remnants of meat from sheep skins hung out on the fences to dry. It soon came to prefer sheep meat to any other food, and by and by it came to prefer the kidney-fat to any other detail of the sheep. The parrot's bill was not well shaped for digging out the fat, but Nature fixed that matter; she altered the bill's shape, and now the parrot can dig out kidney-fat better than the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, or anybody else, for that matter - even an Admiral.
And there was another curiosity - quite a stunning one, I thought: Arrowheads and knives just like those which Primeval Man made out of flint, and thought he had done such a wonderful thing - yes, and has been humored and coddled in that superstition by this age of admiring scientists until there is probably no living with him in the other world by now. Yet here is his finest and nicest work exactly duplicated in our day; and by people who have never heard of him or his works: by aborigines who lived in the islands of these seas, within our time. And they not only duplicated those works of art but did it in the brittlest and most treacherous of substances - glass: made them out of old brandy bottles flung out of the British camps; millions of tons of them. It is time for Primeval Man to make a little less noise, now. He has had his day. He is not what he used to be. We had a drive through a bloomy and odorous fairy-land, to the Refuge for the Indigent - a spacious and comfortable home, with hospitals, etc., for both sexes. There was a crowd in there, of the oldest people I have ever seen. It was like being suddenly set down in a new world - a weird world where Youth has never been, a world sacred to Age, and bowed forms, and wrinkles. Out of the 359 persons present, 223, were ex-convicts, and could have told stirring tales, no doubt, if they had been minded to talk; 42 of the 359 were past 80, and several were close upon 90; the average age at death there is 76 years. As for me, I have no use for that place; it is too healthy. Seventy is old enough - after that, there is too much risk. Youth and gaiety might vanish, any day - and then, what is left? Death in life; death without its privileges, death without its benefits. There were 185 women in that Refuge, and 81 of them were ex-convicts.
The steamer disappointed us. Instead of making a long visit at Hobart, as usual, she made a short one. So we got but a glimpse of Tasmania, and then moved on.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER XXX: Arrival at Bluff, N. Z. - Where the Rabbit Plague Began - The Natural Enemy of the Rabbit - Dunedin - A Lovely Town - Visit to Dr. Hockin - His Museum-A Liquified Caterpillar - The Unperfected Tape Worm - The Public Museum and Picture