A Garden of Ships and Bells: (Government House, Sydney)

NOON with bright wings beats on this radiant foreland. On the Observatory the black ball has fallen. The oneo’clock gun has gone. Puffs of vapor, whiter than wedding favors, have flashed an instant on Fort Denison, and vanished, dispersed by the vagrant winds that vex the island. Distant factory sirens disturb, like hurt birds, the wavy stillness.

Sporting hulls and funnels brilliant as broom or bougainvillæa cleave waters bluer than lapis lazuli. Beneath pinkflowered oleander tufts, seagoing steamers, smart as paint, tittup importantly, exotic music, heady as tropical scent, trailing from their flower-laden saloons. Among them, looking like water beetles, ferries from Cremorne, or Neutral Bay, or Mosman, dart out from arrowpointed wakes in brisk marine quadrilles. How gayly they pass and repass these sloping lawns which for over a century have brought green England to the Antipodes!

H.M.A.S. Australia is berthed at Garden Island. Just below this garden’s fringing oleanders and its lush, incorrigible wistarias H. M. S. Sussex, moored to the Admiral’s buoy close inshore, swings to the incoming tide. On both ships gramophones whirr and sun-struck telescopes flicker, focusing, in the Domain or Botanic Gardens, such wenches as fall easily on the eye.

From these moorings long ago the warship Rattlesnake, with the Crocodile, her consort, landed ‘on the meadows above Fort Macquarie’ the sailors who were to act here the plays Bleeding Nan and The Miller and His Men. Since the First Fleet lay to leeward; since Phillip, rowing ashore in the captain’s gig, brought his bundle of cuttings from Rio and the Cape (Dodds, his servant, clutching the spade that was to turn the first spit of Australian soil), this garden has been a garden of ships. Within hail of it the Sirius lay at anchor, below it the Supply and Golden Grove dried their sails, and to-day in paper-ribbon rainbows great liners, whose masts have challenged its pines, depart from it, fussily, for the world’s four quarters, tugs buzzing round them like flies, aeroplanes floating above them, fish-like, in a blue, unclouded aquarium. Where a white tape fluttered, a ragged horseman rode, now ceaseless traffic clatters across the irongray cantilever of the harbor bridge.

None of these sounds destroy the garden’s inmost peace. It has its own impregnable silences, against which such strident echoes beat as helplessly as the seas once surged against the impermeable rocks beneath it. Never dulled is its dripping fountain’s musical susurrus; its doves’ murmurs are never hushed. Rooted in our earliest history,— Banks’s garden, Phillip’s garden, Macquarie’s, Bligh’s, King’s, — it is set between this glittering haven of the sea and the tiered and castellated façade of the fourth Government House. Carved on the creamy stone of the battlemented outer walls and on the verandah’s noble pilasters, the armorial shields of succeeding governors link us with a chivalrous Norman past, and the garden speaks to us of our own first, progenitors.

There is magic here. I do not know any garden where dark is darker, or bright, more bright. I have not seen any garden more vehemently or more blithely swept by a spatter of raindrops that the sun licks up. Here the dewy patina on leaves and flowers, even at dawn, stays only momentarily, the rising sun is so thirsty on these lawns. The dappled shades are fitful that wake and sleep here; the sea winds and the summer gales are quick with brine.

The lawns are quiet, but for the doves and Persian bulbuls, the starlings, kingfishers, and cheeping sparrows, or, in stormy weather, the screaming gulls, these green secluded acres are uninhabited. Earlier this was not so; in 1840, emus paraded the walks.

A simple Frenchman, — that is, if Frenchmen are ever simple, — who landed from the corvette Uranie (or perhaps the Physicienne) in 1817, says that sitting in these gardens, which he called ‘the gardens of the Governor’s Palace,’ under a Norfolk Island pine, he listened to ‘ the shrill cries of the Yellow-crested cockatoos, stroked the black swans that wandered on the paths, watched the tame kangaroos aimlessly jumping the hedges.’ He praises the Governor’s ‘good tastes’ in ‘not overloading the garden with statues.’

In this garden that was once Phillip’s — cut back, like the old lady’s petticoats, till even his dog would not know it — the Port Jackson fig tree to the right of the house front to-day measures thirty-six feet in circumference at a point three feet up the trunk, and its foliage, with its old-gold underpaintings, has a spread of two hundred and seventy feet — this though its larger boughs are lopped. (A painting of 1843 shows it as a tree of perhaps fifty years’ growth.)

The twin pines by the dining-room windows figure in a French print of 1823, while the leaning araucaria, towering near, was brought by the first ship coming from Cook Island. Phillip himself may have planted the olives next the largest oleander clump. Both measure thirty feet round the stem clusters; both have a foliage spread of sixty feet. A mystery tree on the northern lawn smells, when it is broken, of lead pencil; when cut, it peels red, like cedar.

Camellias, in November, are still flowering. Wistarias are hardly fading, so beneficent the weather. Under the olives late daffodils still star the grass, while poinsettias, superb magnolias, spiræa, purple eupatorium, primulas, and double-flowering cherries foam like a sea in the spring border among standard white wistarias.

But suddenly, over the blue waters, all the bells on the sea start ringing!

Audaciously forcing a vibrant passage through drooping wistarias and bright coral trees, four bells sound from the Admiral’s buoy, and distantly, from Garden Island, a farther, fainter four. Brief carillons from anchorages hidden in Snail’s Bay, or Darling Harbor, tremulously reöcho as the S. S. Erina’s fourfold quota tinkles, querulously, from the Baltic Wharf. Nestor, Ormonde, Tainui, and Talune, in punctilious repetition, heighten this clangor of bells, while right underfoot, it seems, a dusty tugboat thrusts a black funnel up through a bed of phlox and November lilies to assert, huskily, ‘four bells.’ From every ship in harbor, bells in a joyous frenzy assault the trembling flowers.

Without question — wonderfully, triumphantly! — it is two o’clock.