- CHAPTER ONE
- CHAPTER TWO
- CHAPTER THREE
- CHAPTER FOUR
- CHAPTER FIVE
- CHAPTER SIX
- CHAPTER SEVEN
- CHAPTER EIGHT
- CHAPTER NINE
- CHAPTER TEN
- CHAPTER ELEVEN
- CHAPTER TWELVE
- CHAPTER THIRTEEN
- CHAPTER FOURTEEN
- CHAPTER FIFTEEN
- CHAPTER SIXTEEN
- CHAPTER SEVENTEEN
- CHAPTER EIGHTEEN
- CHAPTER NINETEEN
- CHAPTER TWENTY
- CHAPTER TWENTY ONE
- CHAPTER TWENTY TWO
- CHAPTER TWENTY THREE
- CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR
- CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE
- CHAPTER TWENTY SIX
- CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN
- CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT
- CHAPTER TWENTY NINE
- CHAPTER THIRTY
- CHAPTER THIRTY ONE
I would like to dedicate this book to my mother Lucy May who died while I wrote this novel.
Mom, you always supported me and you were proud of me. I am missing you more and more every day.
Central Australia, October 1933
Like a mythical serpent from aboriginal dreamtime, The Ghan train slithered north through heat that shimmered over Australia’s arid heart. On the far horizon, which seemed to merge with the endless blue sky, the early afternoon shadows were beginning to creep over an almost featureless landscape, the monotony broken only by the occasional willie-willie that weaved and danced across the desert.
The train consisted of the locomotive engine, one car of seats for day/night passengers, a restaurant car, lounge car, two cars for first class passengers with sleepers, and at the back, two cars carrying freight and mail. It was journeying to Alice Springs at a pace barely fast enough to afford a breeze through the open windows. The train driver was proceeding cautiously as the tracks had been known to buckle in temperatures over one hundred and ten degrees Fahrenheit, derailing the train. This day’s blistering heat had reached nearly one hundred and fifteen degrees in the shade.
“Why are we slowing further down, mummy?” Arabella Fitzherbert pursed her pretty mouth petulantly. She was nineteen years old, but looked younger, especially in her nightgown as she sat on her bed in their first class compartment with her honey coloured hair falling over her shoulders. She hadn’t been able to wait until night fall to take off her dress, clinging petticoats, stockings and under garments in the privacy of their compartment and put on her loose nightdress.
Clarice strained to see what was up ahead.
“We appear to be coming into a small settlement, but from what I can see, it looks quite unsightly.”
A few moments later the train came to a jerky standstill at a platform made up of a pile of rail sleepers with a corrugated iron canopy. A sign, nailed to an upright post at a sad angle, read: “Marree; Population: 84 people and one billion flies”. Clarice grimaced when she read it, but she was thinking the folk that lived in the outback had a strange sense of humour.
There had been almost nothing to see for miles, but even so, the town aroused absolutely no excitement amongst the passengers on the train as a plume of steam cleared, giving them an uninterrupted view of the town. On the main street, little more than a dusty track, there was a two storey sandstone building with a balcony going around three sides known as The Great Northern Hotel, a post office alongside, a police station a bit further along, and three corrugated iron shops. In the distance, through the gusts of red dust, they could see a few fibro houses haphazardly placed amid a few scrawny trees. Clarice observed someone in uniform alight and exchange bags of mail with a man on the platform, but her attention was soon taken by aboriginals and dark skinned men in turbans who approached the train.
“Oh, my Lord,” Clarice said, recoiling from the window. “Will you look at those fearful beggars? We’re not getting off here. I don’t care what your father says.” She remembered her daughter’s state of undress as the curious onlookers outside strained to see in the windows.
“Cover up, Bella,” she said, clasping the sheet and lifting it to hide her daughter’s bare shoulders and arms. “Goodness only knows what’s in their minds.”
As a turbaned man came closer, she pulled the curtain across and glanced at the cabin door fearfully, wondering whether she should lock it. With the curtain closed, the air in the compartment immediately became stifling.
“It’s so hot on this train,” Arabella complained.
“Tomorrow we’ll be arriving at our hotel in Alice Springs,” Clarice said. She imagined herself in a shady lounge with an overhead fan, sipping something long and cool, with lots of ice in it.
Arabella opened a Chinese paper fan bought on their travels and began fanning herself.
“This heat is making me feel faint, mummy,” she whined. “And I have a headache.”
“You’ll be all right when we get moving again and a breeze comes through the window.” Clarice swatted at the flies coming under the curtain. “Some nice people have the private compartment next door. Your father and I are going to play gin-rummy with them after dinner. Perhaps you’d like to join us, Bella?”
Arabella flopped back on her pillows.
“No, mummy and I don’t want any dinner either,” she said. “I have a tummy ache.”
It was one of many complaints Clarice had often heard from her daughter, so she wasn’t alarmed. Arabella had always been something of a hypochondriac and a poor eater, and Clarice was certain her lack of any womanly shape was the result.
“It’s the heat, Bella. At least you aren’t coughing. Your father is praying the dry climate will clear up your chest, and it seems to be helping. You know that is the reason we came out to Australia, so please make an attempt to put on a brave face for your father. He was following the doctor’s advice in bringing us out here. Doctor Portman was certain it was London’s damp air and smog that was giving you Bronchitis all the time.”
Edward Fitzherbert was a very successful producer of theatre plays. In England he was quite a famous person. But for the sake of his daughter he had decided to leave London for about a year. Though the Depression has gripped the world, the Fitzherberts need not to worry about a year with no income. Clarice descended from a gentry family owning vast properties. They’d been staying in the city of Adelaide since they had arrived in Australia a month ago, and planned to spend at least three months in the country traveling. In Adelaide the weather had been pleasantly warm and the air clear. Clarice had wanted to remain there as she’d been enjoying the shops, but it was her husband’s exploratory spirit that had them heading into the arid heart of the country. Edward had always needed very little excuse to go on an adventure.
Arabella grimaced. Her blue eyes looked vivid in a face that was the same colour as the sheet.
“Perspiring all the time is so uncomfortable, mummy,” she continued to complain.
“I know, darling,” Clarice sighed and patted her daughter’s hand.
“I think I’m getting a rash,” Arabella whined.
“Where?” Clarice asked.
Arabella showed her mother a tiny red patch on her thigh.
“That’s nothing, Arabella.”
“Yes it is. This heat is ruining my skin.”
Clarice wanted to roll her eyes. She loved her only daughter more than life itself, but Arabella never failed to find fault, whereas Clarice was an adaptable person. With a husband like Edward, who’d taken her trekking through Africa before Arabella was born, it had been just as well. Health wise, she was a robust woman with a full figure. But with this being the first long trip she’d taken since becoming a mother, she had to admit, being a little older, she no longer enjoyed not having the comforts of home and she missed socializing with her friends.
Clarice also knew she was partly to blame for the way Arabella was. When she’d showed any signs of sickness as a child, Clarice had mollycoddled her, setting a precedent for her life. And when she became ill with Bronchitis years ago, Clarice’s worries had made her far too lenient towards her child. She was hoping this trip would make Arabella grow up a little and better prepare her to stand on her own two feet, but so far the signs weren’t encouraging.
“You’ll acclimatize, Arabella,” she said. The staff on the train had told Clarice that there wasn’t much in the desert town of Alice Springs in the way of shops and no theatres, so she hoped Edward wouldn’t want to be staying too long, but she didn’t say so. She didn’t want to colour Arabella’s opinions.
The train began moving again, and Clarice opened the curtains quickly, allowing some air into their compartment. It wasn’t cool air, but any air was better than none.
“I’m going to the lounge car,” she said.
“Can’t you stay here and look after me, mummy?” Arabella moaned.
“You’ll be all right, dear. If you feel a bit better later, join us in the lounge car. The Harris’ are from Kent and they’re awfully nice.”
“I don’t want to meet them. Besides, it’s too hot to get dressed,” Arabella replied sullenly.
“As you wish,” Clarice said patiently. “I’ll fetch you some sandwiches.”
As the train left the town slowly Clarice caught a glimpse of a large pen on the other side of the tracks with lots of camels in it. Some were very big, but there were also a few young, and nearby about twenty Date Palm trees and strange looking buildings set in a small village. In the midst there was a mosque. She realized it must be the place of worship for the men in turbans, and was thankful her husband hadn’t suggested a tour of the town.
“Don’t bother, mummy,” Arabella sulked. “I’ve still got half the sandwich I had for lunch. The bread was dry, and the filling, whatever it was, was horrible. I doubt anything they are serving in the dining car is better, so I’d sooner go without.”
“It was only egg and mayonnaise, Bella darling. I ate mine and enjoyed it. They serve it wrapped to keep it from drying out, but in this heat, you have to eat it quickly.” Clarice wanted to berate her daughter for eating so little, but she knew it would only put her in a dour mood and she wanted to enjoy this trip as much as she could.
“If you won’t stay with me I’ll try and have a sleep,” Arabella moaned. She hoped the journey might pass more quickly if she slept.
“Very well. If it’s late when we retire, I won’t put a lamp on and disturb you. The conductor told me we should reach Alice Springs early tomorrow morning.” Clarice kissed her daughter’s pale cheek and then left their compartment. She tried to quell the guilt she felt for leaving her alone for awhile. She loved playing gin-rummy, so she was looking forward to it and she needed a break from Arabella’s constant whining.
After her mother had gone, Arabella glanced through the windows at the sky, searching the vast blueness for any sign of a cloud that would break the monotony. Soon the heat and the clackity-clack of the train were lulling her to sleep.
The jerking motion of the train coming to a standstill awoke Arabella. She sat up and looked outside, but could see nothing but desert glowing in the heat. She pulled the curtain back on the door to see across the corridor and out the other side of the train, but they were surrounded by salt bush and desert. Her faint hope that the train had stopped because they had reached their destination vanished.
She waited and waited, thinking her mother or father might come to tell her what was going on, but they didn’t. Eventually, she stuck her head out of the window and looked towards the front of the train. Someone up ahead in the day/night car was doing the same. Then another head popped out between them from the lounge car.
“What’s going on?” the woman called.
The head sticking through the day/night car up ahead turned. Arabella could see it belonged to a middle aged man.
“There’s a dead animal on the track,” he called. “It’s being removed.”
What they didn’t know was that there was a sand drift over the tracks near the dead kangaroo. The crew had already pulled the kangaroo off the tracks. It was a large male that looked like it had been fighting with another male and been mortally wounded, but it would take longer to shovel the sand drift away.
As time passed, Arabella became restless. The shadows of late afternoon were falling as the sun slipped towards the western horizon. She was grateful because it was becoming a little cooler. As she gazed out of the window, she caught sight of a flower she’d never seen before. It was a vibrant red in colour with a black-pea like centre. She loved flowers and knew many varieties, but she’d never seen anything as unusual before. It was like a treasure amongst the monotonous salt bush and only a few feet from the train.
It crossed Arabella’s mind that she could just step from the train and pick it. She’d liked the idea of drying it and taking it home, but dare she? No, she thought. She couldn’t chance it. The train might move off at any moment.
Fifteen long minutes later, the train was still at a stand still, and Arabella was becoming more impatient as each second passed. She kept glancing at the flower, thinking she’d missed an easy opportunity to pick it. In the fading light it was getting harder to see, but the more she looked at it, the more she admired its beauty and wanted it. Finally she stood up and peered out into the deserted corridor. She went to the door leading off the train and opened it. The flower was no more than ten feet away.
“It will only take me five seconds to pick it and get back on the train,” she said to herself. Even if the train began to move, I’d be able to get back on. She had slippers on her feet, so she didn’t fear the stones littering the red desert sand, or the small thorny plants that grew in clumps. Holding the hand rail, she stepped down onto the wooden step. As she went to take another step, her toe caught in the hem of her long nightgown and she slipped. Her weight wrenched her arm, twisting it painfully, so she let go of the rail and landed awkwardly in the sand with her hand on a thorny plant.
“Ouch,” she cried as pain seared through her ankle and the palm of her hand. She picked thorns out of her hand and rubbed her ankle as tears pricked her eyes. “Oh fiddlesticks,” she muttered angrily. Suddenly she heard a gush of steam from the locomotive and the train jerked forward.
“Oh, no!” Arabella cried. She tried to get up, but winced when she put her hand on the ground to support her weight and pain shot through her palm and ankle.
“Wait!” she called as the train began moving away. She tried again to stand up and hobble to the train, but the step she had slipped from had moved away, so there was nothing to hold onto. The train picked up speed and she watched helplessly as the carriages that passed her were carrying goods and no people. There was no one to see her, no-one to call to. Worse! No-one knew she’d been left behind.
“Mummy! Daddy!” she cried. “Wait!” she screamed louder. For a few moments she stood watching in sheer disbelief as the train snaked off into the distance. As the realization and horror that she’d been left behind hit her, she began to cry.
“Mummy and daddy will know I’m not on the train,” Arabella thought, trying to quash the panic rising in her. They’ll come back for me. She thought about her parents playing gin-rummy. She was well aware of how they lost track of time when they were playing cards. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for them to play half the night. She remembered her mother saying she wasn’t going to light a lamp when they came to bed because they didn’t want to wake her. “Oh, no,” she thought, imagining them getting into bed and not realizing she wasn’t in her bed until the next morning. She couldn’t comprehend the full reality that she was all alone in the desert and no-one knew, so she screamed as loud as she possibly could in frustration. Her voice sounded hollow and seemed to evaporate in the boundless isolation that was closing around her.
When the train had completely disappeared from view Arabella sat down, put her head on her knees and sobbed. It was only something crawling up her leg that made her leap up and stamp one foot, which caused another shot of pain in her ankle bringing fresh tears to her eyes. She screamed as she lifted her nightgown to find a large insect on her inner thigh. She knocked it off and shuddered in revulsion before hobbling onto the train tracks, limping in the direction the train had taken. All sorts of thoughts were going through her mind.
“I can walk along the tracks to Alice Springs,” she thought. “I can do it.” With the tracks to follow she couldn’t get lost. But then she remembered her mother had said the train wouldn’t arrive in Alice Springs till morning, and her ankle was painful and swelling. She couldn’t make it on her own. It was too far. They had to come back for her. They had to. And most suitably tonight.
Arabella was soon aware that when the sun faded in the desert, the temperature dropped dramatically. She began shivering and mumbling to herself in fear as darkness she’d never known before descended upon her. Trying to walk on the train tracks hurt her ankle even more and she couldn’t see the sleepers so she kept stubbing her toes. The only thing to do was move off the tracks, and walk beside them in the sand, but she still kept stumbling in the dark.
In her flimsy nightgown Arabella was freezing cold, and she couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of her, so she had no idea if there was any shelter nearby. It wasn’t until the stars came out and the moon rose in the sky, giving a little illumination, that she could see a bit further, but there didn’t appear to be any trees or rocks nearby. Now and again she thought she saw something scuttle in front of her, huge insects and small rodent type creatures, which made her scream in terror.
When her teeth began chattering and she could no longer feel her feet, she began to despair that the train wasn’t coming back this night. It felt like hours had passed, but she was sure it hadn’t been that long since she’d been left behind. She kept reassuring herself that her parents would soon know or “feel” she was missing and that they’d insist the train return for her. She had to believe it or she’d go mad. She intended to tell them off for neglecting her. If they had stayed in their compartment with her, then this wouldn’t have happened.
The minutes dragged to hours and Arabella’s hopes faded. The wearier she became, the more depressed she felt. The colder she got, the more she felt she couldn’t go on. Time and again she tripped and fell to her knees, until they were cut and bloodied. Somehow, when she could hardly keep her eyes open anymore and the only thing she could concentrate on was the pain in her ankle, she’d wandered away from the train line. At one point, she fell in the sand, and no longer had the strength to get up. She curled up and cried in misery. She wanted desperately to sleep, but she kept willing herself to stay awake so that she’d hear the train return.
Eventually Arabella was overwhelmed by weariness and dozed off.
The hours ticked by and dawn began creeping over the landscape. Arabella was fast asleep in the sand when a tickling feeling on her leg caused her to wake up. She opened her eyes and screamed in horror as the biggest spider she’d ever seen crawled up her leg. The sight of it almost caused her to faint. She shook her leg hysterically and the spider quickly scuttled under cover of a bush. To her utter despair, the train tracks were nowhere in sight and nothing looked familiar. The desert was made up of unspectacular salt bush and flat red patches of sand where thorny succulents struggled to grow. There were no distinguishing land marks; no rocky outcrops, hills, or groups of trees.
Arabella got up slowly and turned in a full circle, spotting a lone tree off in the distance. It was the only tree for miles, so she made for it. She was thirsty and hungry, and the tree gave her hope of finding that it might bear fruit, and there could be water nearby. She knew it was a long shot, but something was keeping the tree alive where only the hardiest vegetation survived. Her ankle still hurt, but the swelling had receded during the night and the pain had subsided a little.
Arabella’s limbs felt frozen and stiff. As she trudged towards the tree, shivering so hard her teeth were rattling, she was vaguely aware that the rising sun was giving off a little warmth. She’d never been so cold in her life, not even in the heart of an English winter, but then she’d never been outside in nothing but a nightdress. The desert night had been surprisingly damp and she’d begun to cough again, as her mouth was as parched as the landscape around her. In desperation she licked the dew off leaves she picked from bushes she passed.
A strange noise alerted her, and Arabella turned to find five emus coming up behind her. They were making a drumming noise which she assumed was threatening behaviour. Their beaks looked sharp and their long legs, powerful. She glanced at their toes and long claw-like nails, sure they could do some damage with them. As they regarded her with dark inquisitive eyes, she screamed and quickened her quest for the tree. Without looking back she hobbled, fell, and hobbled again, waving her arms and screaming hysterically. She was unaware her screams had already sent the emus off in another direction.
When Arabella reached the tree, she ducked behind its trunk and peered around it to see if the emus were pursuing her. To her surprise, they were off in the far distance, strolling along without a care in the world. For a second she felt foolish for fearing them. Obviously they hadn’t meant her harm, and just for a moment she wished they hadn’t left her all alone. As hunger pains struck her again, she looked up at the tree branches, hoping to find fruit or berries, anything edible, but all she could see was an abandoned bird nest. There was also no water nearby. In utter despair, she sank down by its trunk and cried again.
“Mummy, come back for me,” she sobbed. “Don’t leave me here to die.”
Still sobbing and exhausted, she fell asleep again.
Early on the same morning, the Ghan train had come to a sudden, almost violent standstill that shook the passengers from sleep at around six o’clock. Edward Fitzherbert looked out of their compartment window to see they were not in the town of Alice Springs. Thinking another animal must be on the tracks, he waited a few minutes before getting up to see what had happened. Clarice was not quite awake, so he decided to check on Arabella. He peered around the screen separating their bed from hers, and was startled to notice she was not in her bed. As she hadn’t left their compartment since they had boarded the train, he was at first confused, but then thought she must be in their private bathroom.
Edward put his robe on and then took a minute or two to locate his slippers. Before he reached their cabin door, there was a sharp rap on it. He opened the door to find a porter there.
“Please get dressed, sir, and collect your most necessary belongings. Everyone must get off the train.”
“Why?” Edward asked. “What has happened?”
“The train cannot go any further. The tracks are unstable because termites have eaten the sleepers. We are not sure at this stage how much of the line is affected, so we must walk to town from here. The rest of the luggage will be collected later.”
“Walk? How far?”
“About five miles, sir. Excuse me, I must move along.” The conductor hurried back down the corridor checking that the other passengers he’d alerted were collecting their belongings.
“What’s going on, dear?” Clarice mumbled sleepily as Edward shut the door.
“The train cannot go any further because termites have eaten the sleepers. Apparently, we must get dressed and then walk to town.” As he spoke, he knocked on the bathroom door, but there was no answer.
“You had better wake Arabella,” Clarice said drowsily.
“She’s not in her bed,” Edward replied. “You don’t suppose she’s gone to find out why the train has stopped?” He hadn’t seen her in the corridor, so he was puzzled.
Clarice looked baffled, and Edward knew what she was thinking. It was out of character for Arabella not to wake them if she thought something was wrong. It was certainly not like her to just leave without a word.
“Have you checked the bathroom?”
“I just knocked on the door,” Edward said. “But there was no answer.”
“Arabella,” Clarice called. Still there was no answer. “Open the door, dear,” she said to her husband.
Edward did as she requested.
“She’s not in there!” He shook his head in astonishment.
Clarice swung her legs out of bed. She could never think clearly in the morning until she’d had her first cup of tea.
“I’ll get dressed and begin packing our things, dear,” she said. “After you’ve dressed, see if you can find Arabella.” Maybe her daughter has already started to grow up this morning and was checking the situation for herself.
When Edward returned to their compartment a while later, he was alone.
“Did you find her?” Clarice asked as soon as he entered.
“I don’t know. No-one I’ve asked has seen her.” Most of the passengers he’d spoken to had been disgruntled about having to walk such a distance into town, so they’d barely taken notice of what he’d asked them.
Clarice looked alarmed.
“She must be somewhere. Did you ask the Harris’ next door?”
“Yes, but they haven’t seen her either. People are getting off the train, so maybe we’ll find her with someone,” he said. He was trying not to panic because he knew his daughter had to be somewhere. She couldn’t have just disappeared into thin air.
Edward and Clarice hurriedly collected the most necessary things, and Arabella’s, and went down the corridor, where stewards were helping people off the train. Some of the passengers had already started walking along the train line towards town. After Clarice had been helped down, Edward stood on the train steps and took advantage of the height to look over the passengers, searching for Arabella.
“We can’t find our daughter,” he addressed the conductor who was at the bottom of the steps.
The conductor tried to remember seeing their daughter, but he could only vaguely recall a young adolescent girl who wasn’t very cheerful.
“How old is she, sir?” he asked, hoping that might give him a clue as to her whereabouts. He remembered the Fitzherberts in the lounge car the previous evening, but their daughter hadn’t been with them.
“She’s almost twenty,” Edward said. “But she wouldn’t have gone anywhere without her mother or me.”
“She’ll be here somewhere,” the conductor said. He was relieved to hear Arabella was almost twenty because that meant she was old enough to take care of herself. He imagined she might have left their compartment to talk to one of the young men on the train. “Now please climb down, sir, because other people want to get down.”
Edward climbed down. As he did, he could hear Clarice calling Arabella as she walked amongst the passengers.
“I can’t find Arabella,” Clarice said in a panic when her husband caught up with her.
“Don’t worry, dear. We’ll find her,” Edward said.
Once most of the people were off the train, the stewards tried to get them moving. They knew it would get hot very quickly, and they didn’t need any of the women fainting.
“Please move along,” the conductor they had asked about Arabella said to Edward and Clarice when they stayed behind after the other passengers began the walk.
“We’re not going anywhere without our daughter,” Edward snapped.
“Haven’t you seen her yet?” the conductor asked.
“No, she must still be on the train,” Clarice said. She knew if Arabella was among those on the ground, they would have seen her by now.
“We’ll wait here until she’s found,” Edward said to his wife, making sure the conductor overheard him.
Half an hour later, the last passengers alighted, an elderly couple who needed help, and still the Fitzherberts hadn’t seen their daughter. Clarice was verging on hysteria and Edward was becoming angry with the train staff for their lack of concern.
“I’m going to search every compartment for my daughter,” he said the conductor.
“We’ll do that, sir,” the conductor said. “Rest assured, if she’s aboard, we’ll find her.” In the back of his mind he was thinking the Fitzherberts may have had a disagreement with their daughter, possibly a young woman with an independent mind, and she’d gone off with someone on the train without telling them. He did have a niggling doubt though, because there had been only forty one passengers on the train, and none of those that had gone on to Alice Springs had fitted the description of Arabella.
“Of course she’s aboard,” Edward bristled. “Where else could she be?” He didn’t like the look the conductor gave him, but he didn’t say anything.
Twenty agonizing minutes later, the conductor and two stewards reported that they’d searched every compartment on the train, even the cargo cars, and found no-one.
“Then where is our daughter?” Edward demanded to know.
While they’d been searching, he’d asked the last of the passengers heading for Alice Springs on foot whether they’d seen Arabella, but no-one had.
“We have no idea, sir,” the conductor answered.
“What do you mean, you have no idea? Are you in the habit of losing passengers on a journey?”
“Of course not, sir. We’ve never lost a passenger.”
Clarice looked at her husband. “You don’t suppose … you don’t think … Arabella could have …” She put her hand over her mouth, unable to finish her thoughts.
“What dear?” Edward asked, wide eyed with concern.
Clarice looked at the conductor.
“Is it … possible our daughter could have fallen off the train?” she asked in a voice rising near hysteria.
Edward gasped and turned his attention to the conductor who looked very nervous.
“Yours was the last carriage, so if she’d opened the back door, it … is possible,” he said, going red in the face. He’d been thinking that was a strong possibility, but he hadn’t been brave enough to suggest it. Something like this had never happened before. It was too shocking to contemplate, but what else was there to think?
“Oh, my God,” Clarice cried. She went as white as a sheet and then almost collapsed. Edward caught her in his arms, and lowered her down onto one of their suitcases. At the same time, he glanced back down the hundreds of miles of train line that snaked into the desert, and tried to imagine poor Arabella lying somewhere beside it, injured.
“I must go back and find my daughter,” he said.
The conductor paled.
“I can’t let you do that, sir,” he said.
“Try and stop me,” Edward said angrily.
“Sir, we must go to Alice Springs and organize a proper search,” the conductor said. “It would do your daughter no good if you were to perish, too.”
Clarice clung to Edward’s shirt sleeve.
“We must have traveled hundreds of miles during the night,” she said. “You can’t walk that distance, Edward.”
The magnitude of what Clarice said hit Edward like a flying brick. How were they going to find Arabella along hundreds of miles of railway track? He felt himself go light headed before he broke out in a sweat.
The conductor took charge. He ordered two stewards to carry the Fitzherberts’ luggage to town.
“Where were you going to stay in Alice Springs, sir?” he asked Edward.
“At the Central Hotel in Todd Street,” Edward said, slowly going numb.
“We’ll get your luggage there, sir. You just take care of your wife. She needs you now. As soon as we arrive in Alice Springs, I will report your daughter missing at the police station and I’m sure a search will be mounted straight away. It’s the best chance your daughter has, sir.”
Edward knew he was speaking the truth, but he still felt he should be looking for Arabella.
When Arabella opened her eyes, she screamed in terror. Ants were crawling all over her feet and legs. She jumped up and stamped her feet, flicking wildly at her legs and screaming. She could feel their painful bites as she furiously tried to brush them off her. Never would she lie down again in this disgusting desert, she swore to herself. She picked up handfuls of sand and rubbed it over her legs to get the last of the ants off her, and then hobbled away from the tree, out into the glaring sun. When she looked at her legs she was shocked by what she saw. Her white skin was covered in angry, red lumps that were painful and itchy. Arabella cried in despair.
“I want to go home,” she sobbed. She longed for the comfort of her own bed and the safety of the family home in London. “How could this have happened?” she asked herself. “How did I end up here, alone? I can’t … die out here.” She imagined someone finding her bones years from now, or never, and her parents never knowing what had become of her. It was a shocking thought.
Arabella was acutely aware of the silence around her. She wondered if the train had gone past when she’d been asleep and she hadn’t heard it. She wondered how far from the track she was. The sun was now beating down on her as she searched for the train line in one direction, and then another. She felt the skin on her arms burning but she couldn’t sit under the tree because that’s where the ant nest was. She was dizzy and so thirsty. She thought of the dry half sandwich on the train that she had discarded. She’d give anything to have it now, and a large glass of water. She’d give her soul to the Devil just to quench her thirst.
In the early afternoon, Arabella collapsed. The shimmering heat had been playing tricks on her mind for some time. She kept imagining she was seeing the train coming and she’d get excited. She’d lost all sense of direction and had been going in circles. The ant bites on her legs were painful and itchy and her head ached.
Lying on the scorching ground, Arabella was sure she was going to die, but she had no more tears to cry. She closed her eyes as salty perspiration stung them. Her lips were swollen, cracked, and sun-burned. Her tongue felt like a piece of leather in her mouth. As she lay there listening to the intolerable silence, broken only by the buzzing of bush flies, she heard the cracking sound of a breaking twig. She imagined the wild dogs they’d seen from the train had come to devour her body.
“I’m not dead yet,” she mumbled deliriously. She opened one eye and squinted up into the sunlight. A dark, shadowy being, appeared over her. She gasped and put her hand up to her eyes to shade them from the glaring sunlight and squinted.
A black face was peering at her. It had a very broad, flat nose, which gave it a fierceness she’d never seen before, and dark, mesmerizing eyes. The hair framing the face was frizzy, and there were ochre painted marks across the broad expanse of forehead and cheek bones. While Arabella stared in terrified disbelief at the face, she heard voices but she didn’t understand what was being said. For a moment she thought she must be seeing and hearing things. She must have sun stroke!
Suddenly Arabella was prodded with what she thought was a stick in her ribs. A command was shouted at her by the owner of the stick. He looked angry. She jumped with fright and struggled to sit up. She found she was surrounded by fierce looking natives. They were nothing like the ones in Marree, who in comparison looked friendly. Arabella simply started screaming again. The natives, eight in all, jumped back a step and exchanged opinions in a rapid foreign language.
Arabella was not to know they were suggesting she was demented. She struggled to her feet. As terrified as she was, she was convinced what she did next could mean the difference between life and death, so she tried to bluff them by shouting at them. She hoped they didn’t notice the tremor in her voice.
“Keep away … from me! If you harm me … my father will have you all shot!”
The men from the Arrernte clan looked at each other in bewilderment.
“Crazy woman,” their elder, Djalu said in their language. Her sun-burned, blistered face intrigued him. “She look like she bin roasted like an emu,” he said and laughed.
When the others laughed too, suggesting there wasn’t much meat on her bones to eat, Arabella didn’t know what to think. Were they mocking her?
“What we do with her?” one of the others asked Djalu. “She die soon out here.”
“Where she come from?” another of the group asked the elder. They were joined by two women and a child, who approached Arabella from behind.
“Must be Marree,” Djalu said. “Don’t know how she got this far away.” He was thinking she might have been banished from the town because she was crazy. Or she’d wandered away and got lost.
All sorts of things were going through Arabella’s mind. She glanced at her nightgown, which was torn around the bottom from catching it on thorny bushes. She put her hands over her breasts because she had no undergarments on to disguise their small outline. Then she noticed that the native men wore nothing but a tiny piece of animal skin over their private parts. Having never seen a man in such a state of undress, she was embarrassed and humiliated. It wasn’t until one of them turned that she noticed his bottom was uncovered, and she shrieked again. She turned to flee, but stopped suddenly when she came face to face with the women behind her.
For a second Arabella was pleased to see women, because she thought they’d take pity on her, but when she noticed that their breasts were uncovered, it was yet another shock for her. She blushed but her face was so sunburned that they didn’t notice. The lower half of the women’s bodies was covered by an animal skin, and one of them was carrying a small child who was looking at Arabella in bewilderment with enormous brown eyes. It was a small boy. She knew that because he was completely naked. Arabella was immediately of the opinion that the natives were very primitive, which meant she was in no end of trouble.
One of the men put his hand on her shoulder from behind. Arabella jumped in alarm and turned to find he had the branch of a bush in his hands and he raised it over his head. Suspecting he was going to beat her, Arabella shrilled, startling them all again. She then tried to flee.
Djalu called to the men, who began herding her in the direction they wanted her to go in, but Arabella thought it was some kind of game, and they were taunting her. When she tried to run in another direction, a young native chased after her and ‘herded’ her back the way they wanted her to go. All the while Arabella screamed like mad, sure their intention was to kill or rape her. She imagined them cooking and eating her flesh and called for her father.
The aborigines were sure she had lost her mind and discussed it as they continue to ‘shepherd’ her in the direction they wanted her to go. As she couldn’t go very fast with her hurting ankle, they had no trouble keeping up with her.
After Arabella had half run, half hobbled for about twenty minutes, she fell to her knees. Exhausted, hot and dizzy, she could hardly catch her breath. “Please give me water,” she wailed. She was so dehydrated that she couldn’t go on. She pointed to her mouth, trying to make them understand.
“Water, water,” she pleaded.
The natives had a discussion amongst themselves, which sounded like an argument to Arabella, and then one of them walked about ten feet away and began digging under a succulent bush. She had no idea what he was doing. She was so thirsty, she didn’t care anymore. She believed she was going to die. She just hoped her death came quickly.
A few minutes later, Arabella was dragged by her arm, screaming, to the hole the native had dug. She was convinced he was going to bury her alive, and pleaded for her life. But to her utter amazement there was water in the hole. It wasn’t very clear, but Arabella was still overjoyed to see it. She cupped it in her hands and wet her mouth and then gulped some down. She drank thirstily for several minutes, not caring that the water tasted terrible, and then wet her perspiring neck. It felt glorious to feel cool for just a minute.
When she looked up, she saw something off in the distance. The shimmering heat danced over the desert, distorting everything, but she thought there was a building way off in the distance, and trees. She was sure her mind must be playing tricks on her. How many times had she imagined she saw the train coming? She was prodded in the back again and turned to see the native was using the blunt end of spear, and the elder of the men, Djalu, shouted at her. He was pointing in the direction that she’d been looking in, to where she thought she saw a building and trees. It was a long way off and the sun was dazzling. Arabella was sure it must be a mirage, but he seemed to want her to go in that direction.
Arabella suddenly had a thought.
“Alice Springs,” she said. “Is that Alice Springs?” Could she have walked that far? “Mummy, daddy!” she called. “I’m coming.” She didn’t know where the train tracks were but she no longer cared. Somehow, she had made it to Alice Springs.
Arabella tried to hurry, but she felt as weak as a new born kitten. She was faint with hunger, but if she could just make it to Alice Springs her parents would see that she was cared for. She trudged along, now and again prodded by the blunt end of the spear. Angrily she turned on the man with the spear, but the look on his face stopped her from shouting at him. Terrified, she said nothing and hurried on.
“You wait until my father hears what you have done to me,” she mumbled defiantly over her shoulder. “He’ll have your hide nailed to a tree.” She knew he couldn’t understand her, but she felt better for giving him a piece of her mind, even though she was careful not to sound threatening.
The nearer they got to the settlement, Arabella could make out Date palms and camels. The palms gave the impression of a shady desert oasis. She was so weak she could barely walk, but she longed to get into the shade. Her feet ached and she could feel the heat of the scorching desert sand through her slippers, burning the soles of her feet. The bites on her legs itched, and her head throbbed. She also kept seeing spots before her eyes. She was sure she couldn’t walk the mile or more to the buildings, but the natives wouldn’t let her stop and rest. Every time she fell to her knees, they pulled her back to her feet.
It seemed to take forever to reach town. It wasn’t until they were quite close that Arabella thought it looked familiar. When she saw the train line and the platform she realized it was Marree. She was disappointed and cried out in despair again because she had built her hopes up that she’d be reunited with her parents. The natives had assumed she’d be relieved to reach some form of her civilization so her reaction totally convinced them she had lost her mind.
As she passed the “Ghan” town, Arabella saw the turbaned men kneeling on mats under the palm trees with their heads down, praying. They were all facing the same direction. The sight of a white girl being brought into town by aboriginals barely rated a second glance from them, even though her face was as red as the desert sand, her hair was littered with dry leaves, and she was wearing only a thin nightdress. Nothing detracted from their praying. She did arouse the interest of some aboriginal children playing in the dust, but there were no Europeans to be seen.
Arabella was heading for the hotel, when suddenly she had the feeling she was alone. She stopped and turned, startled to find the aboriginals had gone. Strangely, she couldn’t see them anywhere. She was totally bewildered. How could they have just disappeared in a flat landscape? She felt too weak to think about it. She was so weary and thirsty, she could barely stay upright. It took all her will power not to collapse. She trudged on, making for the hotel, where there were horses tied up outside. When she reached the door, she barely had strength to push it open. She leant against it and stumbled inside. It was dim and it took a few moments for her eyes to adjust to the dimmness. There was a man and woman behind the bar, who were looking at her in astonishment, and four or five men with their backs to her, drinking.
“Has … the train … come back?” Arabella asked weakly, just as her legs buckled beneath her. She barely saw the looks of sheer disbelief on the hotel patrons when they turned to look at her before she fainted.
In Alice Springs, Edward took Clarice to their hotel and had one of the staff look after her while he went to the police station to make sure that Arabella had been reported missing. The conductor he’d spoken to, a Mr. Hampton, was already there making a report. Apparently, before Mr. Hampton had arrived, a telegraph was sent down the line, notifying the towns that depended on the train, that the tracks needed repairing. By the time Mr. Hampton told the police about Arabella, a telegraph pole between Marree and Alice Springs had collapsed, taking the line down with it and tearing it apart.
“When will a search party get underway?” Edward demanded to know.
“I need to go over a few facts to determine what might have happened to your daughter,” a Sergeant Menner said.
“She could by lying injured, waiting for us to come and get her,” Edward said, losing his temper.
“We can’t think about mounting a search until we are sure she has fallen off the train,” the sergeant said.
“Where else could she be?” Edward got excited.
The sergeant sighed. He understood a huge amount of emotion was involved.
“Could you tell me when you and your wife last saw her, sir?”
“Yesterday evening. We left her in our compartment while we went to the lounge car to play gin rummy with the couple from the next compartment. Arabella didn’t want to join us. She said she was tired.”
“Was she in good spirits?”
“What do you mean?”
“What was her state of mind? Happy or depressed?”
“She had no reason to be depressed.”
“Did she eat dinner?”
Edward couldn’t fathom where the questioning was leading, and his anger and frustration were building.
“My daughter could be lying in the desert injured. Do something about finding her, or I will.”
“Once I have questioned the staff on the train, I’ll mount a search.”
“How long will that take?”
“I can’t say, sir. It depends on what information I receive.”
“What good will that do? They don’t know anymore than I do. She’s not on the train, so therefore she must have fallen off it during the journey.”
“I have to gather all the facts before I send anyone out into the desert. It’s a very dangerous place.”
Edward’s eyes widened.
“All the more reason to find my daughter as soon as we can. If she dies because you were asking questions, her blood will be on your hands.” Edward marched out of the police station and into the nearest hotel, which was across the road. A bar tender was polishing glasses while three people sat at the bar drinking.
“What would you like, sir?” the bar tender asked him.
“I don’t want a drink. I need to hire some people to go into the desert to find my daughter. How do I go about it?”
The bar keeper looked startled.
“You need some trackers if she’s wandered off,” he said.
“She didn’t wander off. We think she fell off the Ghan Train during the night.”
The bar keeper blinked in surprise.
“Finding a body out there won’t be easy,” he said. “Do you have any idea how many hours ago it might have happened?”
Edward’s eyes widened. He couldn’t comprehend that the bar keeper was talking about ‘a body’.
An elderly man nearby was taking an interest in the conversation.
“There won’t be much left of a body to find,” he commented dryly.
Edward looked at him with his mouth open. He was so upset that he was finding it difficult to breathe. The bar keeper realized he’d just had the worst possible news, and passed him a whiskey, which Edward threw back before he put a few coins on the bar and walked out the door without saying another word. He crossed the road and went back into the police station. The sergeant looked at his ashen face and realized Edward Fitzherbert finally understood the reality of the situation.
Edward opened his mouth to speak, but he didn’t know quite what to say.
“We … have to believe she might have survived,” he said.
“Miracles do happen, sir,” Sergeant Menner said. He had children, so he understood how Edward felt.
“They do, don’t they?” Edward said eagerly. “I can’t tell my wife there is no hope. I can’t do that to her.”
The sergeant nodded.
“The reality, sir, is that we might not retrieve a body. You have to understand that. There are dingoes out there, and birds of prey, and millions of ants. I’m understanding you last saw your daughter when the train was near Marree. Is that right?”
“Yes,” Edward said.
“That’s hundreds of miles away. It would take us weeks on camels to cover that distance thoroughly. You could not take horses because they would not make it through the desert. Sir, no one could survive more than a few days out there, even a healthy person. Someone injured …”
“I won’t give up on Arabella,” Edward said. “I want to go and look for her. She could have fallen off the train this morning, only a few miles from where we had to get off the train.”
Seeing that Edward needed to cling to hope, and completely understanding, the sergeant nodded.
“It would be too dangerous for you on your own, sir, and too straining anyway. I’ll mount a search party using some of my most experienced men.”
Finally Edward felt he was getting somewhere.
“As soon as I possibly can,” Sergeant Menner said. “Now please go back to your hotel and take care of your wife. As soon as I have some news, I’ll contact you.”
Edward was walking back to the hotel when he suddenly remembered that the train had stopped sometime after they left Marree, while the engineer and driver removed a dead animal on the tracks. It occurred to him that Arabella might have gotten off then. For a few moments he was filled with joyous hope that the citizens of Marree would find her, but then reason began to set in.
Why would she get off the train in the middle of the desert, in her nightdress? He knew she was only wearing her nightdress because all her clothes had still been in their compartment and she was smart enough to know that the train could take off at any time. He also knew that Arabella had never been fond of being out in the sun in their English summers which were nothing compared to the heat in Australia. And of course, they could not contact anyone in Marree because the telegraph line was down. Repairs on the line usually to took a few weeks – depending on the cause. And why should any inhabitant of Marree walk in to desert without any purpose and stumble over his daughter? His faint hope was dashed. He decided he wouldn’t mention this to Clarice because he didn’t want to give her false hope. He couldn’t do that to her.
As he walked back to the Central Hotel, Edward kept thinking about what the man in the bar had said. The thought of his daughter being eaten by dingoes or ants, or having birds of prey picking at her body, was intolerable. He stumbled into the bar of the Central Hotel as soon as he arrived and ordered a double whiskey, which he downed in one gulp.
“Are you all right sir?” the bar tender asked him.
“No,” he whispered. He knew he’d never be all right again. He ordered another drink, unable to face his wife with the painful news.
Arabella regained consciousness by feeling flies crawling over her face. Annoyed, she swatted at them impatiently and then opened her eyes. Just for a split second she thought she was at home in her bed, and that everything that had happened had been a bad dream. It wasn’t until her mind registered the unattractive wallpaper, which was faded and peeling at the joins, and the ceiling that sagged in one corner, that she realized she was in a strange room. The curtains at an open door that lead to a veranda were shabby lace. The bed was a large iron framed bed that squeaked when she moved and the mattress was lumpy. She groaned in despair. The nightmare she was living was reality.
Arabella was about to sit up when the door to the hallway opened and a slim woman in an off white dress decorated in a washed-out lavender print, similar to the wallpaper, came in carrying a tray. On it was a pitcher of water and a glass, also a plate containing a sandwich. The woman had dark hair that was slightly tainted with grey at the front and pinned up in a bun. Her complexion was tanned, emphasizing the crease lines around her eyes as she smiled. Arabella thought she was somewhere in her early forties.
“You’re awake,” the woman said in a kindly tone. “How are you feeling?”
“Terrible. Where … am I?” Arabella asked. Her head still ached and she was drained of energy.
“Don’t you remember? You stumbled into The Great Northern Hotel a couple of hours ago.”
“Oh … yes,” she said, recalling the full horror of her desert ordeal.
“I’m Margaret McMahon, but I’m known as Maggie. My husband Tony and I have been the licensees of this establishment for eight years. We are anxious to know where you came from. Tony has sent out a couple of trackers to try and find out if there is anyone else out in the desert that needs help, another family member perhaps.”
“Aboriginal trackers. They’re marvelous.”
“There isn’t anyone else,” Arabella muttered.
“Then where did you come from?”
“I was on the train that passed through here yesterday,” Arabella said.
Margaret blinked in surprise.
“Yes, and I’ve been in the desert all night … by myself.”
“How did someone so young end up in the desert alone? Did you fall from the train?” Maggie didn’t know what to believe. She knew the train hadn’t derailed, and there had not been an accident. So why would the train “lose” one of its passengers?
Arabella was used to people commenting on how young she looked, and it always offended her.
“I’m nineteen,” she said indignantly.
“Are you?” Maggie had been thinking she was no more than fourteen and looked over Arabella’s almost shapeless body in disbelief.
“Has the train come back for me?” Arabella asked.
“No,” Maggie answered with mild surprise. How could anyone think the train would come back just for one person – and out of schedule? ”And it won’t be back for some time,” she added.
“We’ve had a telegraph this morning to say that termites have eaten nearly a mile of railway sleepers up near Alice Springs.” Maggie was curious about why the telegraph never mentioned anyone falling from the train. It occurred to her that perhaps this girl was not telling the truth. But then if someone had fallen from the train, the authorities wouldn’t give them any chance of surviving. They wouldn’t even expect to retrieve a body, because it wouldn’t last long in the desert heat.
“Apparently the passengers had to walk about five miles into town,” she said. “It could take weeks or even months to replace the sleepers, and then the whole length of the line will have to be checked before the train is back in service. It’s a terrible inconvenience to all of us, but we should be used to doing it rough. If it’s not locust plagues or dust storms, it’s something else, and don’t even get me started on the toll the five year drought is taking on the town and surrounding stations. If it wasn’t for the camels bringing water in, we’d all have dried up and blown away in the dust by now. Now that the Ghan is not in service, we’ll have to rely on the camels and their handlers to bring food up here from down south.”
Arabella groaned in dismay, but a thought occurred to her and her eyes widened.
“You mentioned a telegraph. I can send word to my parents in Alice Springs and tell them that I’m here and they can fetch me,” she said excitedly. “We were going to be staying at the Central Hotel so that’s where they’ll be. Do you know it?”
“Yes, the Central is in Todd Street,” Maggie said frowning. “But I don’t know how they’d fetch you,” she added, looking at Arabella in astonishment. “The train is our only link to Alice Springs. Besides, the telegraph line is down now, too. So we can’t contact the outside world.” Maggie thought perhaps the authorities in Alice Springs had tried to send another telegraph to say that someone was missing from the train, but it hadn’t been able to get through.
Arabella couldn’t believe her bad luck.
“What happened to it?”
“I don’t know. We tried to reply to the telegraph about the train, but the line was dead.”
“You mean … I’m stuck here?” Arabella crinkled her nose in horror.
Maggie was used to that reaction about Marree, so she wasn’t offended.
“Are you telling me there’s no way to tell my parents where I am?” Arabella asked in a high-pitched voice.
“It looks like it and I can’t tell you when the telegraph line will be fixed, but maybe it won’t take very long.” Maggie knew she was being optimistic. Everything in the bush happened at an alarmingly slow rate. “What’s your name?”
“I am Miss Arabella Fitzherbert.”
The way she introduced herself made it quite clear to Maggie that the girl wouldn’t like to be addressed informally – very much on the contrary as Maggie has introduced herself.
“So, Miss Arabella Fitzherbert, you never answered my question about falling from the train. Is that what happened?” She knew the train had been traveling quite slowly as it set off from Marree, so if she’d landed in some bushes when she fell it was possible that she didn’t injure herself too badly. Maggie had noticed the scrapes on her knees, elbows and hands, and the bruises. This wasn’t the scenario the authorities in Alice Springs would come up with about a passenger lost in the desert. They’d give her no hope of surviving in the desert, even uninjured. They would be sure that she would not be able to reach a settlement before she died of thirst – which would have surely been the case if the aboriginals hadn’t found her. So, the authorities in Alice Springs would be very reluctant to send out a search party because they’d believe it was a complete waste of time. By the time the search party had reached Marree on camels, weeks would have passed, and by then the lost passenger would have died in the desert anyway. There was no road transport between the towns as there were no roads, so cars would soon get bogged in the desert sand, and anyone setting out on foot would perish.
With tears in her eyes Arabella gave her explanation.
“The train stopped in the middle of nowhere because there was a dead animal on the tracks. I became impatient when it didn’t move on for quite some time, so I got off to pick a wild flower but slipped, twisting my ankle. Before I could get up the train took off without me.”
“Oh,” Maggie said. Now that’s something no-one would think of – that she got off the train when it stopped for a short while. “Surely your parents must have realized you were missing?” Maggie wondered if they’d think of their daughter getting off the train for some reason.
“They were playing cards in the lounge car at the time, and my mother had told me that they wouldn’t disturb me when they retired, so they might not have known I was missing until this morning.” A sob rose in her throat.
Maggie knew, even if her parents thought she had gotten off the train, and they made it return, the odds of finding Arabella in the desert were a million to one, especially at night.
“I was wandering around all night in the freezing cold,” Arabella added, full of self pity.
“Yes, the desert can get very cold at night,” Maggie said. “We light a fire just after sunset for at least two thirds of the year. But when the temperatures get up around the hundred and twenty degree mark, it’s usually a relief to have a bit of cool at night if you’re indoors. I just can’t believe you found your way back here. It’s a miracle.
“I didn’t. Some fearsome aborigines chased me back here,” Arabella said. “I thought they were going to kill me.”
“Why would you think that?” Maggie could hardly believe that since she had never met any natives that were aggressive.
“Some of them were carrying spears and one of them kept prodding me with one. Another one of them was going to beat me with a branch from a bush. They frightened the life out of me.”
Maggie was confused.
“What gave you the idea that you were going to be beaten?”
“He raised the branch over my head to hit me.”
Maggie thought for a moment and took in the look of the sunburnt skin of the pale, skinny girl in bed before her.
“Are you sure he wasn’t offering it to you as a substitute for a parasol?”
“Yes, to protect you from the sun. He could probably see how burnt you are.”
Arabella thought the idea was preposterous.
“Those savages wouldn’t think of something like that,” she said.
Maggie was shocked by her condescending attitude and ignorance.
“They know how to survive in the desert, Miss Fitzherbert,” she said. “We couldn’t find water or food out there.”
Arabella couldn’t deny they had found water, which had saved her life, but she wasn’t forgetting how they had treated her or that they had been almost naked.
“They had no clothes on,” she said in disgust. “Even the women. Only savages would walk around like that.”
“They see no point in wearing clothes, and when you think about it, there isn’t an abundance of water out there to do laundry.”
Arabella suddenly noticed Maggie’s dress was a bit grubby, and wondered what her excuse was.
“Speaking of water, I can’t wait to have a bath,” she said.
Maggie shook her head.
“Our bath tub has an inch of dust in it because it hasn’t been used for so long.”
Arabella was shocked and it showed in her expression.
“During a drought we can’t spare water for a bath and we’ve been in a severe drought for years.”
“Well, you’ll have to make an exception. You can’t expect me to go without a bath after trudging around in the desert heat. I’ve never smelt so awful in my life.” Arabella sniffed at her self and wrinkled her nose again.
“I can assure you no one around here will notice, Miss Fitzherbert. You can have a bowl of water to wash. You’ll have to do the best you can with that, but don’t throw it out when you’ve finished. I will put it on the veggie garden.” Maggie poured Arabella a glass of water and handed it to her. “Drink all of the water in this pitcher because you’ll be dehydrated. It’s spring water, not water from the bore. Our rain tanks have been empty for years, so the Afghans have to go to the springs at Mungerannie, up the Birdsville track, to fetch drinking water. We use our bore for washing, but that’s not a limitless source, so every drop is precious.”
“How can I wash properly with just a bowl of water?” Arabella asked in a pitiful voice.
“You’ll manage, dear. We all do. When we carried you up here I noticed bites all over your legs. What happened?”
Arabella lifted her nightdress to her knees, revealing the horrible lumps on her lower legs. They were a shocking sight, and so itchy she had to scratch them.
“I sat down under the only tree for miles, and fell asleep. When I woke up, I had ants all over me.”
Maggie knew a person experienced in the bush would have seen the ant nest, but she didn’t say anything.
“I’ll give you some Tea Tree oil to put on the bites. It will help with the itching, but the lumps will probably take quite a while to go away. In the years we’ve been here, we’ve seen some strange things come out of the desert, but we haven’t seen anything so strange as you in a long time. You looked like a ghost in that nightdress and gave us all quite a fright when you came into the bar this afternoon.” Maggie couldn’t suppress a smile.
Arabella’s mouth dropped open and she gasped in offence.
Before Arabella could say anything, Maggie went to the dresser and opened a drawer, retrieving a hand mirror. She handed it to Arabella who couldn’t understand why she was giving it to her until she looked into it to see her reflection. What she saw frightened the life out of her, and she screamed in horror, making Maggie jump in surprise.
“How long will I look like this?” Arabella asked Maggie with tears welling in her eyes. She’d noticed her arms, shoulders and feet were burnt, but hadn’t been prepared for how terrible her face looked. Her skin was beet red and her nose was blistering. All that stood out was the whites of her eyes, indeed giving her a ghostly appearance. Her lips were swollen and blistered and her hair, which usually gleamed despite her poor eating habits, looked like she’d been dragged through a bush backwards.
“At least a week, maybe two,” Maggie said. “You’ll shed your skin like a snake, but not in one neat piece. It will come off in bits so you can expect to look like that patchwork quilt on your bed for awhile.”
Arabella glanced at the quilt, crestfallen. “Mummy won’t recognize me,” she cried. “I’m not going out of this room until I look normal again.”
Maggie was startled by her remark.
“You can’t stay up here,” she said. “I’ve got more than my fair share of work to do, so I can’t keep running up and down the stairs to see to you.”
“But you don’t expect me to look after myself, do you?” Arabella said in a pitiful tone. “I can’t possibly walk. Just look at my legs.”
“My husband once had to crawl five miles through the desert with a broken leg, so I’m sure you can manage the stairs with a few ant bites, Miss Fitzherbert.” Every time Maggie thought of how Tony had been thrown from his horse after a snake had startled it, and broke his leg, she knew it was a miracle and sheer grit that got him back to town. Even then he nearly lost his leg with gangrene. It was only an aboriginal remedy that saved it.
“But I sprained my ankle and it still hurts.”
Maggie examined her ankle. It wasn’t very swollen, and just a little bruised.
“The quicker you get up on your ankle, the better it will be.”
“I might be getting pneumonia,” Arabella said. “I’ve never been out in the cold dressed like this.”
“If you had pneumonia, you’d be too sick to be complaining.”
Arabella thought Maggie was quite heartless.
“I can’t be seen like this,” she said, looking into the mirror again.
“You’re in the bush now, Miss Fitzherbert. With the constant dust, heat and water shortages, it’s no place for vanity. Besides, who do you think is going to wait on you?” Maggie asked in disbelief.
“One of your staff, of course,” Arabella said in all seriousness.
“I don’t have any staff, Miss Fitzherbert. It’s just me and Tony. He looks after the bar and does all the maintenance and I do the cleaning and cooking. If you can’t pay for the room, you’ll have to help me while you’re here.”
“My parents will pay for the room when they come back,” Arabella said, appalled at the idea that she should work for her keep. What did she know about cooking and cleaning?
“It could be weeks or even months before they get here,” Maggie said.
“That’s right. Even if they hire an Afghan and some camels in Alice Springs, it will take them many weeks at the very least.”
Arabella couldn’t comprehend that. She was sure her parents would find a quicker way to come and get her.
“I’m sure it won’t be that long. My parents will move Heaven and Earth to find me, and my father will be happy to see you are well compensated for looking after me. I’m an only child and mummy and daddy dote on me.”
Maggie was speechless. Not because her parents loved her; that was only natural, but because she was obviously spoilt and living in some kind of fantasy world. Maggie could only wonder about what sort of parents would bring up a child to think everyone was at her beck and call.
“Well I don’t have time to dote on you, Miss Fitzherbert. If you want some water for a wash, you’ll have to fetch it yourself from the drum out the back. The jug and bowl are on the dresser.” She was thinking Miss Fitzherbert was in for a shock if she thought she was going to wait on her.
“Please get it for me, Mrs. McMahon,” Arabella pleaded. “I’m still dizzy.”
Maggie sighed. She didn’t want to give in to this spoilt brat, but she knew Arabella had been through quite an ordeal, so she didn’t want to appear too hard on her, either.
“All right, but just this once. I’ve got meals to prepare. We usually have between ten and twenty guests in for dinner on a Saturday night.”
“What’s on the menu?”
“We don’t have a menu. The locals know it’s always lamb or beef.”
“I’d love some roast lamb with mint sauce.” Arabella couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt so hungry. Even so, she wanted something tasty, and although she was hungry enough to do more than pick at her food, the sandwich Maggie had brought her didn’t look very appetizing.
“It’s beef this week.”
“Are you telling me you are serving beef all week?”
“That’s right. Once Tony has killed a steer we have to eat it because it wouldn’t last long in the heat.”
“Then I’ll have a small beef steak with all the fat trimmed off. Make sure it’s well cooked because I won’t eat it if I see any blood. I’ll have some vegetables, too. I don’t like beans, but I do like peas and creamy mashed potatoes.”
Maggie couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
“With no rain and starving roos hopping all over the place, nothing survives above the ground, so we don’t have any peas. We’re lucky if we can grow a few carrots and potatoes without them being dug up by wombats. As for creamy mashed potatoes, I don’t make anything fancy like that. It’s just plain cooking around here. Boiled vegetables and meat cooked on the grill.”
“But you are making gravy, aren’t you?”
“No,” Maggie said sharply. “I can’t be bothered messing about with that.” She left Arabella with a stunned expression on her face, but it was nothing compared to what Maggie was feeling. In all her life she’d never met anyone like Arabella Fitzherbert.
Maggie went downstairs and met up with her husband in the hallway.
“Is our mystery guest awake?” Tony asked. Only Maggie called her husband Tony. To the locals, he was nicknamed Macca.
“She sure is,” Maggie said, shaking her head in disbelief.
“Do you know who she is?”
“Yes. Miss Arabella Fitzherbert. She said she was traveling with her parents to Alice Springs on The Ghan.”
“The trackers ran into some of the Arrernte tribesman and they told them they’d brought a crazy white woman into town, and that they’d found her alone in the desert.”
“Apparently the train stopped not long after it left here because there was a dead animal on the track, and she got off to pick a flower. She slipped and twisted her ankle and the train took off without her.”
Tony rolled his eyes.
“Oh, there’s more,” Maggie said sarcastically. “She’s not coming downstairs until she looks like her old self.”
“You haven’t got time to molly-coddle her, Maggie.”
“So I’ve told her. She seemed offended when I suggested she’d have to earn her keep by helping me.”
“Did she now?”
“Yes, she assures me her father will pay for her room and care when he comes back for her.”
Tony shook his head.
“We’ve been in a depression for years so it’s only the very wealthy who have a few extra pounds to spend, or the racketeers. And by the looks of her, I’m not convinced her parents are wealthy,” he said.
“Well, judging by her behaviour she seems to be a spoiled brat from a well-off family,” Maggie inserted.
“Hardly anybody is not affected by the Depression. It is very probable that her parents are not rich anymore. Therefore, I doubt that they can afford to pay for a hotel room for what could be weeks. Like it or not, she’ll have to help out around here.”
“She’s a bit of a hypochondriac, imagining all sorts wrong with her. But she is much older than I thought she was. I guessed she’d be about fourteen years old,” Maggie said.
“Isn’t she?” Tony asked.
“She claims to be nineteen.”
Tony raised his fair brows.
“There’s not much meat on her, is there? That just proves my point. If her parents were wealthy, she’d be well fed. The girl is making up stories. I wouldn’t believe much she says.”
Maggie realized Tony could be right.
When Maggie took Arabella’s water up to her room, she noticed she’d only eaten a very small part of her sandwich.
“Not hungry?” she commented. “I thought you’d be starving after being in the desert all night.” That she wasn’t added more weight to Tony’s theory that she might be lying.
“I am hungry, but the cheese on the sandwich you brought me is dry and hard,” Arabella said.
Maggie was startled.
“There’s nothing wrong with it. I had a cheese sandwich for lunch, and so did Tony.”
“You must have cut mine from a block that’s months old,” Arabella sulked.
“All of our stores are months old. The train is very unreliable.”
“Didn’t you get any fresh cheese yesterday when the train stopped?”
“Yes, but we are rationed like everyone else because of the depression. Besides, we always finish the old stuff first.”
“I’m a paying guest, or I will be when my parents get here. I should have been given the fresh cheese,” Arabella said. “When will you be bringing my dinner up?”
Maggie’s eyes widened.
“I don’t deliver meals, Miss Fitzherbert. If you’re hungry you’ll soon find the dining room. If you are not there by half past six you’ll miss out.”
“You can’t expect me to come down in my nightgown,” Arabella said sulkily. She could see Maggie felt no sympathy for her ailments, but she was sure she wouldn’t make her go to the dining room in her nightgown.
Thinking of the men that would be in for dinner, Maggie realized she had a point.
“All right. I’ll bring your meal up, but tomorrow I’ll find you a dress to wear. Meanwhile, I’ll loan you a dressing gown. If you want the outhouse, it’s outside the back door. When you get to the bottom of the stairs, follow the hall to the end and turn right. There’s always a light on out there.”
Soon Maggie came up with Arabella’s dinner and the dressing gown she was going to lend her. The steak was enormous and it was accompanied by three halves of potato and half a dozen slices of carrot. Arabella looked at it in shock. Even her father wouldn’t eat such a large steak. It must have been two inches thick and it was hanging over the sides of the plate.
“You can’t expect me to eat that,” Arabella said aghast.
“Why not?”, Maggie asked in a defensive tone.
“I wanted a small steak,” Arabella said, holding up her hands to show a piece not more than four inches long. “And this looks burnt.”
Maggie felt irritated by Arabella’s complaints.
“It’s not burnt, it’s well done. You said you wanted it well done. As for the size, my husband cuts the steaks and this was the smallest. If you usually eat such small meals it’s no wonder there’s no meat on your bones. A bit of hard work and a few good feeds, and you’d soon fill out.”
Arabella was stunned but Maggie didn’t notice as she went to the door.
“Don’t be alarmed by any noise you might hear this evening. It usually gets a bit rowdy in the bar on a Saturday night, but we try to kick the patrons out by midnight.”
After she’d gone, Arabella stared at her meal in disbelief. Surely they didn’t expect her to eat such a big piece of meat. She picked up her knife and fork and cut into the steak, releasing the juices. She had to admit it smelt good, especially as she was so hungry. She put a small piece in her mouth and began chewing. It wasn’t as tender as she was used to, but it tasted quite good. Just the same, as a small eater she could only manage a few bites. She would have liked some butter on her vegetables as there wasn’t any gravy, but she wasn’t willing to go downstairs to ask for some.
At nine o’clock that evening, Arabella slipped into Maggie’s dressing gown. After drinking most of the pitcher of water she needed to go to the outhouse, but she stood at the top of the stairs for a few minutes, listening to the rowdy patrons in the bar in trepidation. She could hear lots of shouting, which at first frightened her, but then she realized that there was not an argument going on because the shouting was accompanied by lots of laughter. As the hallway was quiet, she slipped down and crept along it, then turned right, where there was a door leading outside. As Maggie had said, there was a light outside run by a generator that had attracted millions of moths. Not too far away, she could see the outhouse. Further than that, out in the blackness, was the rest of the town, which, despite a few lights in the windows of distant houses, seemed as quiet as a church yard. She headed for the outhouse, and cautiously pushed open the door. The stench was unpleasant, but she had to go, so she warily ventured inside, all the while keeping an eye out for spiders and other creepy-crawlies before she pushed the door to. It wasn’t too dark inside, because at the top of the door there was a gap of about a foot, which let some light in.
Arabella was peeing when she suddenly heard voices, and her eyes widened in alarm. She had been hoping to creep back upstairs unnoticed, but it seemed someone else had come out to use the outhouse. Holding one hand on the door, she quickly finished peeing and listened. She could hear a man’s voice, but also a woman’s. The woman spoke in rapid syllables and her voice was high pitched. Arabella soon realized it was a native woman’s voice, and the man sounded gruff and drunk. She then heard some muffled fumbling and wondered what they were doing. As she listened, and tried to contemplate how she would get out without being seen, she heard animal like grunts. Was someone ill?
Arabella opened the door just a crack, and peered out. A man had a black woman pinned up against the wall of the hotel. He had his pants down around his knees and her dress was pulled up around her waist. He was grunting like a pig. Arabella was shocked beyond belief. She pushed the door to and covered her mouth with her hand so that they wouldn’t hear her cry out. She was torn because she wanted to cover her ears to block out the sounds as well. A few moments later, the man stopped grunting and took a deep, ragged breath. Arabella wanted to be sick as she heard him fumbling with his clothes.
What happened next, Arabella didn’t know, but an argument between the man and the aboriginal woman broke out. The aboriginal woman obviously wanted something from him, and from what she could understand, it was something he’d promised her. When the aboriginal woman began shrieking loudly, and the man shouted at her to shut up, Arabella feared their ruckus would attract more people and she’d be discovered.
Her fears were immediately confirmed. She heard another voice. She thought it was a woman’s voice, but it certainly couldn’t be described as feminine, and the tone was threatening. Arabella was so curious she opened the door enough to peer out. Her eyes widened again when she saw that the voice belonged to a very large aboriginal woman. She was taller than most men and as wide as two outhouses. The only thing feminine about her was her pink shift, which was dirty and pulled tight over her sagging bosoms and large belly. Her arms were what caught Arabella’s attention. They were bigger than any man’s she’d ever seen and she had a fierce look on a face so black, only the whites of her eyes and the three teeth in her mouth stood out. She was scary, and it was clear that the man she was confronting was wary.
“Rita, this is none of your business,” he said. His change of tone intrigued Arabella. She never thought she’d see the day a man cowered to a native woman. What was it about Rita, other than her size, which frightened him so much?
“Wally Jackson, you bin telling Lily you’re gonna give her two shillings or a bottle of gin to come out here and give you dungga. She has done that, so what’s it to be, fella?”
“I’ve got no money, Rita,” the man said nervously. “I spent it all on beer and I don’t get paid again until the end of the month.”
Rita’s eyes widened and she drew her fist back. Just the look of that powerful arm and big fist was enough to make anyone quake. Arabella’s eyes widened and she gasped.
Wally Jackson did the only sensible thing he could do. He cowered.
“All right, Rita,” he said, digging in his pockets. He counted out a shilling in small change and handed it to Lily, who complained.
“Let me borrow a shilling from Macca,” Wally said quickly, after seeing the look on Rita’s face. “I’ll be just a minute.”
“If I have to come lookin’ for you, Wally, I’ll be mad as Hell for sure,” Rita said.
Wally didn’t doubt her for a second. “You won’t, Rita, I promise. Just wait one minute.”
Meanwhile the hapless Lily looked hopeful and relieved.
Once Wally had gone, Rita asked Lily in English about her children.
“I need money for food, Rita,” Lily answered in English, too. “Or no way I’d have that stinkin’ Wally Jackson near me.”
Wally appeared with a shilling, which he offered to Lily, a very thin woman with a shock of hair, huge eyes, and twig like legs. He looked like he begrudged giving her the money now that his lusts had passed and Rita had practically frightened him sober. Once Lily had the money in her hand, Rita cuffed Wally’s ear.
Arabella heard the whack and it startled her, but not nearly as much as it stunned Wally.
“Ouch,” Wally said. “What was that for, Rita? I paid Lily, didn’t I?”
“You try getting out of paying one of the girls again, and I won’t go soft on you next time,” Rita threatened.
Rubbing his ear and scowling, Wally went back into the hotel.
“You go home to your piccaninnies,” Rita said to Lily in a stern voice.
Lily nodded and headed off into the darkness. Arabella carefully pushed the outhouse door to so she wouldn’t be seen, and prayed Rita went away, too.
A moment later, Arabella was nearly knocked off her feet when the door burst open. She screamed in shock.
Startled, Rita took a step backwards.
“Who you be?, she asked when she saw Arabella in the shadows inside the outhouse.
Arabella was shaking so much she felt faint. For a few moments, she couldn’t get a word out.
“I … I’m Arabella Fitzherbert,” she said breathlessly. “I’m staying … upstairs.”
To her surprise Rita blinked, and then burst out laughing.
“You must be that ghost woman they talkin’ ‘bout in the bar,” she said.
“Ggg… ghost woman?” Arabella stammered.
“The desert girl,” Rita said. “What ya doin’?”
“Nothing. I was just … going back to my room.”
“You should be watchin’ yourself out here. Too many drunken fellas in there,” Rita said, pointing at the hotel.
Arabella couldn’t believe she was being cautioned, and she was sure Rita had consumed her fair share of drink. Her breath reeked of it.
“Yyy… yes, I will,” she stammered, and cautiously circled Rita’s vast circumference. “Ggg… good night.” Ignoring the pain in her ankle, she hurried upstairs and shut the door to her room, unable to believe what had just taken place. “Mummy, where are you?” she cried. She didn’t know how she was going to survive in Marree without her mother to look after her.
Arabella pushed a chair against her door as there was no key in the lock. She got into bed and pulled the sheet up to her chin and lay there listening to every sound in the hotel. As patrons began leaving, she could hear voices below the balcony. As she lay trembling in bed, trying to push the horror of what she’d witnessed from her mind, she heard footsteps on the stairs. Terrified, she watched her door. Her heart was hammering and she could hardly breathe. As the noise came closer, someone stopped outside her bedroom door. She held her breath. Then a door opened and closed. She realized it was the door across the hall. There was another guest in the hotel. She wondered if it was Rita, but then realized the footsteps had been too soft to be hers.
Arabella knew she wasn’t going to sleep a wink.
She lay awake, unable to relax and sleep. Not only was her sunburn painful but she kept hearing noises outside accompanied by shouts, laughter and squabbles, as some of the hotel patrons hung around after closing. She even thought she heard Rita’s voice, but it sounded slurred. She was appalled that the aboriginal woman obviously drank so much. It was bad enough that the men got drunk.
When the voices outside finally drifted away, Arabella began hearing strange noises inside the hotel. Sometime after closing she thought she heard footsteps outside her door, not realizing it was the McMahons passing on the way to their rooms. She also heard scuttling noises on the roof, and strange noises below her in the bar. She kept thinking about what she had seen outside the outhouse; the man with his trousers down, recalling the animal like sounds he’d been making. She wasn’t so naïve that she hadn’t realized what had been going on. Having lead such a sheltered life, being confronted with sexuality in that manner had traumatized her. It wasn’t until the small hours of the morning that she finally fell into an exhausted sleep.
It was the next morning when Sergeant Menner came to see the Fitzherberts to report that a search party had gone out. Edward couldn’t believe they had waited until this morning. Clarice had spent hours crying the night before, until finally he couldn’t take it anymore and he’d gone out for a walk. He had found himself on the railway tracks. He set off following them for a few miles in the dark, all the while calling Arabella. Finally, emotionally exhausted, he fell to his knees and cried “Where are you, Arabella?” He pleaded with God to spare her.
“She can’t be dead,” he kept telling himself. “She can’t be.” At daybreak he returned to his hotel where he found that Clarice had fallen into an exhausted sleep. A few hours later, Sergeant Menner was knocking on the door.
“I’ve sent three men out to look for your daughter,” the sergeant told Edward. He could see Edward was in a terrible state, and it was obvious he hadn’t slept.
“How far will they go?” Edward asked. He didn’t mention that he’d walked a few miles himself in the cool of the night.
“I can’t say, sir. One searcher is one of my best men.” He didn’t say that this young constable would decide when they thought it was futile to search further. “I will contact you again later.”
Maggie didn’t think much about it when Arabella didn’t appear downstairs for breakfast. Tony made sarcastic jokes about Arabella expecting breakfast in bed, but when Maggie hadn’t seen or heard her by nine o’clock she thought she had better check on her.
When Maggie knocked on Arabella’s door and she didn’t answer, she tried to open the door but it wouldn’t budge, which alarmed her.
“Miss Fitzherbert,” she called, knocking louder. “Miss Fitzherbert, are you all right?”
Maggie was about to call for her husband to force the door, when she heard a scraping noise and the door opened.
Arabella stood in the doorway, bleary-eyed.
Maggie glanced at the chair beside the door and realized Arabella had barricaded herself inside her room, which concerned her.
“Are you all right, Miss Fitzherbert?”
Arabella burst into tears.
Maggie went into her room and shut the door.
“What’s wrong, dear?” she asked worriedly, leading her to the bed and sitting her down.
Arabella didn’t know where to start.
“I went to … the outhouse … last night,” she sobbed. “It was … horrible.”
“You won’t get it much better out here, dear. We are in the middle of nowhere.”
Arabella realized she wasn’t making sense.
“Not the outhouse. There was a man out there, with a black woman,” she cried. “They were …” She shuddered, unable to tell Maggie what they’d been doing.
Maggie suddenly understood. She’d overheard Wally Jackson asking her husband if he could borrow a shilling to pay Lily for her ‘services’.
“That Wally,” she snapped angrily. “Is it too much to expect a man with a gutful of grog to be discreet?” She looked heavenward. “Of course it is,” she sighed. Maggie realized poor Arabella was young and innocent. What she’d seen must have been terribly disturbing. She regretted not warning her.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I should have said something to you.”
“You mean you know about this and it happens … often?”
“This big native woman came outside and threatened to beat the man up,” Arabella said, wide-eyed.
“That would be Rita,” Maggie said, trying to imagine how frightening Rita would be to someone who hadn’t seen her before.
“Yes, that’s her name,” Arabella said.
“There is something you should understand, Arabella. May I call you that?” Maggie thought it was time to drop the formalities.
“Rita is the unofficial guardian to the other black women. She is strong – stronger than most men – and she’s lived most of her adult life around towns, so she speaks fairly good English and she even teaches it to the younger women. The men don’t always treat them with respect, but Rita sees that justice is done. If the men refuse to do what’s right, Rita could knock any of them into next week and they know it. She drinks too much, and gets a bit boisterous at times, but she’s got a good heart.”
Arabella didn’t know what to think.
“Can’t you call a constable to handle this sort of thing?”
“We only have one constable in town, and he has hundreds of miles to look after, so he’s not really interested in minor disputes.”
Arabella was appalled.
“I heard lots of strange noises in the house last night,” she said. “I was terrified.”
“This old building creaks and groans when the sun goes down. The iron roof expands in the heat of the day, and then contracts at night. You’ll get used to it.” She glanced at the chair again. “If you are worrying about the men coming upstairs, don’t. They know its guests only up here.” Maggie didn’t add that they were usually too drunk to climb stairs. “You are perfectly safe up here. There is no need to barricade your door.”
“I heard footsteps in the hallway, and the door across from mine opened and shut. Is there someone else staying here?”
Maggie caught the anxiety in Arabella’s voice.
“Tony and I have rooms up here, so you might have heard us go past, and there is a guest across the hall. Jonathan has kept a room here for the past month, but he doesn’t sleep here every night. Actually I didn’t hear him come in last night.”
Arabella didn’t look reassured.
“I definitely heard someone.”
“Jonathon is a photographer. He’s using Marree as his base, but he spends at least two nights a week in the desert. It just depends on what he’s photographing. He sometimes hires an Afghan cameleer to take him out to a site he wants to photograph or he borrows a pack horse and walks. He’s a very quiet man, and he keeps pretty much to himself, so he won’t bother you.”
“I don’t want him to see me,” Arabella said, more determined than ever to stay out of sight. She was thinking that a photographer looked for beauty, be it in people or landscapes. “I’d scare the life out of him,” she said. “And don’t deny it. Not when I frightened you and your customers when I arrived.” Every time Arabella looked into the mirror she cried. Her face had started to blister and peel and it was a shocking sight, especially her nose. It was shades of red and pink, and patchy.
Maggie couldn’t deny it. She had frightened them when she came into the bar. With her profile silhouetted by the sun, and dressed only in a nightgown with her hair hanging loose, she’d looked like an apparition. By a strange coincidence they had been talking about ghosts that afternoon in the bar. Wally Jackson had been telling Maggie and Tony a story about a shearer mate of his who’d been on the grog with him one night in Hawker in the Flinders Ranges. He’d gone out to the pub’s outhouse in a drunken state and become disorientated in the dark and wandered off. Lost and unable to see in the dark, he fell asleep in the town’s cemetery. When he woke up on a slab, surrounded by headstones, he thought he was dead, and nearly had a heart attack. He swore never to touch the grog again.
“You don’t need to worry about Mr. Weston, Arabella. He is not like that. He sees beauty in the strangest things …” Maggie suddenly realized that Arabella would take her comment the wrong way. “I mean … for instance he thinks a thorny lizard is a beautiful creature. Personally I think they are peculiar and rather frightening.”
Arabella didn’t know what a thorny lizard was, but it sounded gruesome. She burst into tears.
“Now, now, dear,” Maggie said. She could see Arabella hadn’t slept well and she was sure her sunburn had given her grief during the night. “Would you like a nice cup of tea?”
Arabella sniffed and nodded.
“How about some toast?”
Arabella nodded again. “Can I have lots of butter and some honey on it?” she asked pitifully.
Maggie rolled her eyes and mentally chastised herself for being soft.
“We’re rationed, so you can have a smear of butter, but that’s all, and we don’t have any honey,” she said.
Maggie went out into the hallway and Arabella heard her knock on Mr. Weston’s door and then open it. Arabella’s door was slightly ajar, but she couldn’t see out from where she was sitting on the bed. The door shut again and Maggie popped her head into Arabella’s room.
“Mr. Weston must have gone for the day,” she said. He hadn’t appeared for breakfast, so she assumed he’d left very early, no doubt to catch the sunrise on a vista he wanted to photograph. Maggie had come to know that he was very conscientious about his work.
“Where does Mr. Weston come from?” Arabella asked, feeling a little curious about her neighbour.
“He arrived here on the Ghan. He told us he’s from England, but he’s lived in different parts of Australia. He said he loves the remoteness of Marree, but only Tony and I, and one or two of the Afghan shop keepers would understand that. I know one of the reasons he came here was because he knew there was a Ghan town here, and he needs the Afghans’ services to get to places in the desert. He develops his photographs in a cupboard downstairs. There’s a sign on the door, so don’t ever open it. If he’s developing, the light will ruin the photographs. He’s shown us some of his work and I have to say it’s absolutely amazing.”
“Does he drink in the bar?” Arabella asked. She was wondering whether Mr. Weston was one of the men who took the aboriginal women outside.
“No, he has had the occasional lemonade, to be sociable, but that’s all. He mostly keeps to himself. I worry about him though, because he rarely has meals here.”
A short while later, Maggie delivered Arabella’s breakfast and the dress she’d promised to lend her. “It will probably be a bit big on you,” Maggie said. She was a small woman but Arabella was much smaller. “But we can go to the bazaar in town and get you a dress that fits when you are ready. I’ve got chores to do, so I’ll get back downstairs.”
By lunch time, Arabella was bored. She called Maggie from the landing. Maggie appeared from the bar with a cloth in her hand. She looked hot and weary.
“Yes, Arabella,” she said.
“Can you bring me a pitcher of water, Maggie, and something to eat?”
Maggie sighed, and wiped perspiration from her brow.
“A cheese sandwich will have to do,” she said. “But I’ll finish what I’m doing first.” She was about to go back into the bar, when Arabella made a suggestion.
“As the cheese is hard, can you melt it on some toast?”
“How am I supposed to do that?” she asked, trying to keep the impatience from her voice.
“My mother used to put my cheese and toast in a hot oven for a few minutes.”
“I haven’t lit the oven yet,” Maggie said. “And I haven’t got time to do it now. So you’ll be getting plain cheese and bread, just like Tony and me.”
Maggie went back into the lounge, where she was wiping down the tables. She had to do it everyday, whether they were used or not, because of the dust.
“Did I hear the girl upstairs calling you?” Tony called from behind the bar, where he was stocking bottles and dusting shelves.
Maggie went to the doorway.
“Yes, she wants a drink and something to eat,” she said.
“Well tell her to come down and get it,” Tony said abruptly.
“I would have, but she was severely traumatized when I went to see her this morning,” Maggie said. She regretted being terse with her, but she had little patience when she was tired. “She went to the outhouse last night and saw Wally Jackson with Lily. You can imagine what they were doing.”
Tony’s eyes widened. “That could be enough to put her off marriage,” he said dryly.
“Indeed, and then Rita appeared. To a young girl who has led a sheltered life, Wally, Lily and Rita must have come as quite a shock.”
“They’re a shock to us and we’ve known them for years,” Tony said laughing. He wasn’t a particularly big man, although he was bush hardy and as tough as nails. Nevertheless, he quite appreciated Rita keeping the men in line, especially when it came to relations between the men and the aboriginal girls. “But you don’t have time to play nurse maid to that girl,” he added in a more serious tone.
“I know,” Maggie said. On a Saturday night she hired Lily and another young aboriginal woman, Missy, to help with the washing up after dinner, but even so, by the time she and Tony got to bed, they were exhausted. The women hung around after they’d finished work, getting drinks from the men. One thing usually led to another, and the men took them outside. By the end of the night, Rita was frequently quite drunk, too.
Maggie had suggested she tell Missy and Lily to go home, but Rita understood that the women needed the extra money they got from the men, so she refused. Neither woman lived with a tribe or a husband. Like Rita, they lived in humpy’s in the aboriginal quarter of town.
Lily had four children, three fathered by an aboriginal drover whom she saw rarely, and one by an Afghan cameleer. Missy had two children. One of them was quite obviously fathered by a white man she must have been intimate with in town. Her son was very light in colour. No one knew for sure who his father was and Missy wouldn’t say, but there were rumours going around about two of the men. One was Wally Jackson and the other was Les Mitchell. Les was a stockman on Lizard Creek Station, the nearest station to Marree.