Author: cuthalion PM
Captain Emmet Dutton vividly remembers the day he first discovered Lady Ashley through a spy-glass... this is her story, told from the POV of the British officer who never forgot Sarah for the rest of his life.Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Romance/Drama - Sarah Ashley & Drover - Words: 11,984 - Reviews: 7 - Favs: 17 - Follows: 1 - Published: 06-21-09 - Status: Complete - id: 5154417
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My name is Emmet Dutton - Sir Emmet, Baronet of Dutton it would be, if my brother Anthony had not been lucky enough to be born two years before me. I am the proud (even if hopelessly overbred) produce of a British family that is able to trace their ancestors back to Piers Dutton, a man whose main achievement (beside of having been the Mayor of Chester for merely two years) was to be knighted by Henry VIII in 1527. Being in favour of his sovereign earned him a rather satisfying amount of money and property, though, and his descendants kept a loving, provident eye on both. So my brother was able to settle for a comfortable life on Dutton Manor; he married the Honourable Susannah Sherbourne and added three sons to our widespread family tree.
I chose the career as a soldier in service of my King and country – as it was expected of the second son – and spent a few successful years at the Royal Military College before I was sent first to Kenya and then to Bombay and Delhi. I fell in love with the jubilant, sun-glowing colours of India immediately and committed myself to the Jewel in the Crown for the next decade; I would have preferred to fulfil the rest of my active service in India, had I not called the account of a direct superior into question. The ink on my appointment as a Captain and Supply Officer was not even dry, and I had just assumed my post when I found out that said superior had over years stashed away and sold a shocking amount of the supplies meant for his men.
I ignored his subtle hints as well as half a dozen attempts of bribery - and finally his open threat to "bring me into serious trouble" - and wrote a detailed report. To my misfortune, the man had connections into the highest ranks of the British Army in India, was a cousin of the Viceroy's wife and showed a healthy thirst for revenge.
And so, at the age of thirty-eight, I was forced to leave India and found myself in the most miserable corner of the world I could imagine – Australia. It was not Van Diemen's Land, but bad enough for a man who's ambitions had always lain somewhere entirely else. I hated the Northern Territory with passionate intensity, and the so-called "gentlefolk" of Darwin did nothing to change my mind. I was born into a social class with a deeply running streak of narrow-minded arrogance – but the people in this godforsaken place made my own family look incredibly liberal and progressive. Tradesmen and upstarts they were, clinging to the rigid rules of British society and brutally dismissing anyone who did – or would – not fit in.
As I said, I knew the prejudices and the blue-nosed snobbery by heart – which doesn't mean that I shared them. I had always been very interested in foreign culture – one of the reasons why I fell for India so completely. I studied Indian history for years, and it was always my deepest belief that the trauma of the Sepoy Mutiny had been a direct result of deeply rooted racial prejudice and criminal indifference towards a people the British Government claimed to rule with reason and wisdom. When I left Bombay in 1937, I could already see the writing of change on the wall, though many of my fellow comrades and most of my superiors stubbornly decided to turn their eyes away. Since then I had spent two years in Australia, registering the same blindness. I decided to ignore that lingering plague, because I had much more urgent matters to care for. I had been too young to fight in the first great war of this century, but the next one was already darkening the horizon. There were supplies to be organized and troops to be fed, and gathering food for thousands of soldiers was a mammoth task, enough to keep me busy and to give me a constant headache.
Part of my personal pain was Leslie "King" Carney – naturally. If anybody could justifiably be called a "cattle baron", it was Carney. He had something of a proud breeding bull himself – gathering his herds and nourishing the confident opinion that every pound of carefully fattened beef in the Northern Territory belonged to him and was his to make profit of.
Which was the reason why Faraway Downs was such a thorn in his flesh. I met the owner of that station shortly before Christmas 1938, during one of those unspeakable afternoon teas of Ethel Allsop, wife of the British administrator. I stood beside the window looking out over the bay when she sailed in my direction, carrying a tray with pastries. I knew that I would end up with my tongue glued to my palate by an overdose of sugar icing if I allowed her to stuff me with those sticky éclairs. So I turned around as fast as possible, wound my way through the gossiping crowd and out of the door – and then ran into a man of middle height, with reddish blonde hair, pale blue eyes and the sensitive skin you so often find on the Anglo-Saxon descendants of Albion. Our eyes met, and suddenly he grinned.
"On the run from Mrs. Allsop's hostess qualities?" he said, then unceremoniously took me by the elbow and pulled me through a side door into an empty parlour. The room was heavenly cool and quiet after the crowded, muggy salon, and I sank down on a huge leather Ottoman with a deep sigh of relief. My unknown saviour dropped beside me, pulled a silver flask out of his pocket and offered it to me. The heavenly scent of Macallan Single Malt tickled my nose, and I took a blissful gulp. He took back the flask with his left and held out his right.
"Maitland Ashley," he said, "Of Ashlight Hall. And of Faraway Downs, in the moment."
"Captain Emmet Dutton, 19th Infantry Brigade, Supply Officer for His Majesty's Army in the Northern Territory," I replied. "What does 'in the moment' mean, Lord Ashley? Until Carney waves enough banknotes under your nose to make you sell your station?" I studied his barely tanned face. "Which would enable him to wipe out that nasty white spot on his map, of course."
"Of course," he agreed, his lips curling to something that was more a grimace than a smile. "But he'll learn to live with it, for I won't let him win Faraway Downs as his biggest trophy. I have an offer for you, Captain Dutton."
I leaned back, the Macallan pleasantly aglow in my stomach. "I'm all ears."
And so I learned all about the herd of cattle he had been breeding during the last three years. 1500 bulls, cows and calves... splendid news, and the price per animal was more than reasonable. He didn't tell me how urgently he needed this bargain to save his station, and he didn't tell me about the mysterious diminishment of his livestock. From a present-day perspective, I think he probably had no idea of what was really happening on Faraway Downs.
That afternoon, he invited me to celebrate Christmas with him, but the belated arrival of a ship with supplies kept me in Darwin. I saw him at the beginning of January; he was confident and nearly euphoric, and we spent a rather lively evening in the officer's mess of the regiment. I met him again at the end of January when he delivered a hasty series of telegrams to his wife who was obviously keen to make him get rid of both, station and cattle, and who had every intention to fly to Australia and carry her point.
"My Darling Sarah," Maitland called her, adoration and a kind of helpless amusement in his voice, but when he wanted to show me a photograph, it turned out that he had left it at home. Two days later he vanished into the emptiness of the Northern Territory again, and that was the last time I ever saw him.
I think we might have become friends, had he only lived a while longer.
The day Maitland's wife arrived in Darwin went straight into the legends. Not because of that stupid brawl on the street in front of Ivan Rolev's sorry excuse for a hotel, of course... though it was tumultuous enough to have the tongues wagging for months to follow. I've never cherished that kind of public displays, but even I could understand why people tended to laugh about smashed luggage and Unspeakables, sailing through the air like a swarm of crazy birds. Even if it were the Unspeakables of Lady Sarah Ashley.
I don't remember overly much of that brawl, and even less of the wave of gossip that rose in its wake. The clearest, almost painfully sharp image I keep of that day was the look through Administrator Allsop's infamous spy-glass. We were right in the midst of a heated discussion about cattle in general and King Carney's stranglehold of the meat business in particular, when Lady Sarah was rowed with a barge from the flying boat to the wharf. Allsop peered through his glass, all but whistling through his teeth. "She's quite a looker…" he said, and I must admit to my greatest shame that he made me curious enough to risk a long glance, too.
She was slender as a willow, almost fragile, her tender porcelain skin protected by a sassy hat and an elegant parasol, firmly held by a gloved hand. I could see her profile, a study in marble, radiating pride and the iron will not to succumb to the circumstances fate – and her irresponsible husband – had forced upon her. She was marvellous.
I stepped back from the spy-glass, swallowing nervously; suddenly, inexplicably I felt like the worst kind of voyeur. I pushed the irritation about my own behaviour back into the farthest corner of my mind and forced my thoughts back to the problem at hand. If this stern English rose made her husband sell the station to Carney, the cunning, old villain would finally be able to dictate the market. And she didn't look as if her position could be swayed easily.
I didn't met her in person that day. But that evening in the officers' mess I heard a lot about her first encounter with the man Ashley had sent to bring her to Faraway Downs. The Drover.
Not that I wanted to call Ashley's judgement into question, but the image of Lady Sarah was too fresh in my mind not to doubt that this man was the right person to introduce her to the land her husband hoped to master. A fellow officer gave a rather lively narration of her departure later this day – the shabby Jeep, luggage and deliveries for the station piled on its roof, and Lady Ashley on the passenger's seat beside the Drover, hiding her dismay behind a tropical hat and a mosquito veil. His audience was clearly amused, but all I felt was pity.
I couldn't know that the trip to Faraway Downs was only the beginning of Sarah Ashley's greatest adventure.
One week later Neil Fletcher came to Darwin, and the news he brought with him spread like wildfire.
Maitland was dead, according to Fletcher's story killed by an Aboriginal called King George... some kind of medicine man who had ambushed Maitland at the bank on a river and murdered him with a spear. Fletcher said that he'd done his best to convince Lady Ashley that she should sell Faraway Downs as fast as possible, and he ascribed it to her grief and "general confusion" (as he put it) that she didn't agree. The same "confusion" obviously led to an unfortunate argument between them that made him leave the station. I wasn't there when he told this tale first, and I had no idea about the true nature of this particular argument, but I remember the day when two pilots of the Air Force informed me that they had seen a big mass of cattle, being driven across the Marmont river. I couldn't keep myself from using this information as an ace upon my sleeve when later that evening Carney tried to press me to sign the army contract, as he had done a dozen times before.
"Marmont River?" Administrator Allsop asked, his eyebrows almost vanishing under his hairline. "That's Faraway Downs!" He turned to the man behind him. "Are you running out cattle from Faraway downs, Mr. Fletcher?"
"No, no, I don't work there any more," Fletcher replied, his face strangely blank, the words slurred by the soft Australian accent that made his speech sound like a good-humoured, placid singsong.
"Well, I suppose Lady Ashley's driving the cattle herself," Allsop remarked, laughing about his own joke, and Carney joined him. But Neil Fletcher didn't laugh, and I could see something decidedly unpleasant flicker in his blue eyes.
"Someone must be helping her," I said, turning away abruptly. Suddenly I couldn't stand the company of that man any longer, and the warm night air outside felt like a relief in my lungs. When I looked back, I saw how Carney said something to the former manager of Faraway Downs, and then Fletcher vanished behind a curtain... and from Darwin, but this was something I found out much later.
Another week passed, and then I got new information from the Air Force. They were even more devastating than those Fletcher had brought. "TRAGEDY IN THE NEVER-NEVER" the newspaper headlines screamed the next morning, and: "Droving team perish in Kuraman". This was a severe setback for my hopes concerning the cattle from the Ashley homestead, and the memories of Maitland and his beautiful wife weighed down on my mind when I finally decided to capitulate and to sign the contract King Carney would doubtlessly use to milk the Army cashier for years to come.
I sat in his many-windowed office overlooking the harbour and the bay, the fountain pen in my hand. "I suppose it's not a real war unless someone makes a profit," I said, the taste of defeat bitter in my mouth. From far away I heard the voice of Carney, speaking into the phone, but it was not loud enough to drown the sound of the pen while I watched my name appear on the paper.
Suddenly there was another sound, a distant droning, slowly rising to the overwhelming and unmistakeable thunder of hooves on the dusty ground. Thousands of hooves. I turned around and saw the look of utter disbelief on Carney's face, and then I turned back and saw the steady, broad stream of fifteen hundred brown bodies, heads and horns, spilling into the main street of Darwin and flooding towards the wharf. The cattle from Faraway Downs had finally arrived, beyond all hope and expectation... and I had just signed Carney's contract.
I stepped to the window, peering through the sunshade. And then I heard the sharp, clear voice of a woman, calling "Gentlemen!", and I saw her, galloping down the street towards the Carney Cattle Company.
I stared at her, barely able to trust my eyes. Nothing was left of the English rose, nothing of the arrogant lady I had first seen through Allsop's spying-glass. This woman seemed to be one with the strikingly beautiful black mare she was riding; her hair beneath the simple brown hat was a tousled, unkempt mass, as dust-streaked as her face and her entire clothing. But she was vibrant with triumph and life, a true Boadicea ahead of her troops, and she threw her offer at Carney's feet like a gauntlet.
"We will accept twenty per cent less than what the Carney Cattle Company is asking!"
For the fraction of a second, the bearded face beside me paled, but Carney quickly had himself under control again. "No can do, love! You're late! The contract's signed!"
And he was right, of course. Even from the distance, I saw the realisation dawn in her eyes that all her efforts might have been for naught. Another rider was beside her now, and through the clouds of stirred dust I identified the Drover. They looked strangely alike, two warriors in the wake of the a battle they had fought back to back, and suddenly an idea sprang into my mind like a bolt of lightning.
"But this contract," I said, "is not binding - until the cattle are loaded."
It was all I could do for her in that very moment, the only signal I was able to send out to that remarkable woman down on the street, and to her most unlikely knight. Carney quickly stepped away from me, running to the phone, and I stood unmoving, forced to wait and let things take their course.
I watched what happened next like the thrilled audience from the balcony of a theatre: Lady Ashley, steering her beasts down to the sea while Carney's men cornered the Drover in an empty holding yard while he tried to keep back their herd all on his own. My heart sank; if Carney's cattle won the race through the narrow running gate, she would lose the game in the very last moment. But then I saw the Drover escaping the yard with a mighty leap of his horse over the wooden fence, and he raced down towards the ship, men jumping out of his way all along the wharf. At one point he leaned out of the saddle, and his arm rose and fell in a fluent movement. Suddenly the steady stream of animals in Carney's running gate came to a halt... and at the same time the first bull from Faraway Downs moved up the wide gangway and vanished in the belly of the provision ship.
My gaze went back to the main street. People had come out of the houses and the Territory Hotel, yelling, waving handkerchiefs and throwing their hats into the air. It looked like a giant festival, and it was nothing less: David had bested Goliath, throwing him face down into the dust, and my victory was almost as great as Lady Ashley's. I left Carney's office without as much as a nod in his direction; he ignored me anyway, speaking into the phone, his face dark with silent rage.
One hour later I handed Sarah Ashley the new contract with the British Army. The women of Darwin's "gentlefolk" had already pounced on her, making her the patroness of the charity ball for the Children's Island Mission, and she had taken a bath and changed into a beautiful pink dress with a red pattern of birds and flowers – it is strange how exactly I remember that dress, more than forty years after that day. She signed the contract with a flourish and gave it to me, her eyes shining.
I bowed to her. "Lady Ashley.."
"Call me Sarah," she said and gave me a smile that made my heart careen within my ribcage. "I would be very glad to see you as my guest on Faraway Downs."
"And I would be most happy to accept the invitation," I replied. "This was certainly not the first herd of cattle we can expect from your station during this war. And I'd furthermore be delighted if you'd reserve me a dance on the ball tomorrow."
"I'll see what I can do," she said and left, still sailing on the strong wind of her triumph. I looked after her, wondering how she would feel in my arms.
That was the eve of the ball, and the very next morning Darwin was abuzz with fresh gossip. It was the very first thing I heard when I entered the officers mess for a cup of coffee.
Sarah had sought out the authorities, asking for help with the adoption of a little boy she had met on Faraway Downs and taken with her on the drove to Darwin. The boy's name was Nullah, and he was a half-caste. Creamies the Australians called children like him with blatant condescension, and the only way the government and church knew how to handle the 'problem' was to herd the children into Mission homes, making them forget their Aboriginal ancestry and culture and giving them just enough education to serve in a white household.
Somehow the boy Nullah must have escaped the police; rumours went that his mother had died during an unfortunate accident, immediately before Sarah and the Drover had set off to Darwin. From that on the speculations went rapidly downhill; people presumed that the child was the result of the Drover's shocking interactions with the Aboriginals. It was widely known that he chose his friends among them, spoke at least three dialects of their mysterious, guttural language and had – the most juicy piece of scandal – actually once been married to an Aboriginal woman. It was an open secret that quite a few men in the Northern Territory took those women as bedmates, using them by night and letting them work as near-slave servants by daytime... until they grew tired of those unfortunate girls or decided to send them away, to face the natural consequences without any help of the men who had carelessly fathered their children. But marrying one of those women - in the eyes of the good people of Darwin, such a thing made the Drover look like a kind of perverted fool. It also made him a complete pariah, of course.
And now Sarah wanted to adopt this boy... but why? I must admit I asked myself the same, but I refused to come to the same hair-raising conclusions my fellow officers jumped to with such alarming ease. I left the mess before their assumptions made my stomach turn, and I could only hope that this vicious blabber didn't reach the ears of the reputable matrons in Darwin until the ball was over.
The ball was the height of the season. The merchants and wealthy ranchers of the Territory used the chance to come to agreements slightly aside from legality (and even more durable for exactly that reason), and their wives took their finest dresses out of their wardrobes, shook the camphor balls out of the frills and stormed the hairdressers. When the sun went down, the High Society of Darwin gathered on the illuminated ball ground, drinking punch, Australian beer and whisky, or waltzing on the wooden dance floor until the stiff, old band leader and master of ceremonies decided for something more progressive and occasionally changed to a quickstep. And the main attraction of the feast was an auction of dances with the most sophisticated ladies in the room; the money was meant to support the work of the Mission.
I stepped on the brightly lit scene together with Timothy Abberly, a clever, sharp-tongued veteran of the British Army, hardened in half a dozen missions in Cashmere and Kandahar; we quickly became friends when my own honesty made me strand in Australia. Opposite to me, Timms had quit service after his own time in India, to take over the law firm of his deceased father in Darwin. His sarcastic jokes about the idiocy of certain superiors and the British General Staff in particular was a refreshing font of amusement, and opposite to me he was truly a man for the ladies. He quickly scanned the room for any new faces he might find worthy to attack with his infamous charm. Suddenly he froze and took a deep breath. "Oh... smashing."
I followed his gaze and saw Sarah, clad in a spectacular, red dress, delicate flowers in her hair. Administrator Allsop walked beside her, visibly blinded by her looks and decidedly unwilling to let her out of his claws any time soon.
"Excuse me..." I quickly said and hurried down the steps, calling her name. She turned to me, her face lighting up. "Captain Dutton!"
For some precious minutes I owned the first price of this feast, and while I led her to Dr. Barker (that old, holier-than-thou dinosaur who was responsible for Mission Island), she informed me about her view of things. To my surprise and dismay the rumours proved as not entirely false; Sarah actually planned to adopt that half-caste boy, heedless of the consequences. She spoke with urgency, and I felt a desperate tension beneath the façade of her splendid loveliness.
"I asked the Drover to be my new manager of Faraway Downs. " It was a very sudden change of subject. "But he... he refused."
Then he obviously possesses more sanity than you do right now. I almost said it aloud, but in this moment we had reached Dr. Barker and the circle of elder ladies who would surely be most willing to skin her alive at the first sign of weakness. And right now the boy was her Achilles' heel.
I stood with my back to the little group, listening to the conversation that turned from a polite request for information to a heated argument with alarming speed. I made my bid for the dance with her – fifty pounds – and at the same time remembered an argument I once had myself with that shrivelled hypocrite Barker.
"We must save those unfortunate creatures from the primitive filth of their upbringing," he had unctuously told me during one of Mrs. Allsop's afternoon teas. "The education in our Mission schools is indispensable to make them worthy members of the society."
"Worthy in which regard?" I asked innocently, turning the tea cup between my fingers and desperately wishing for something stronger. "As merchants? Land owners? Ranchers? Members of the Government?"
He stared at me, his mouth falling open. "Captain Dutton! I'm... I'm positively certain that serving in a good Christian household is the best and most rewarding option for those poor souls."
"And the most comfortable solution for the white society," I shot back. I knew that kind of ignorant drivel by heart, from my time in India, and here it was all over again. "The only alternative would be to pledge the fathers of your 'poor souls' not to trifle with the women they misused, and to take over true responsibility for their offspring, regardless if they're conceived in wedlock or not."
He paled, red spots springing up on his cheekbones. "Captain Dutton, you don't actually mean to..."
"... tell you that there's no difference whatsoever between those half-caste children and ours?" I asked. "I know this is a revolutionary idea for you, Dr. Barker... for if it is true, the purpose of your Mission schools might be more than a bit... misled."
I left him standing beside one of Mrs. Allsop's potted palm trees, seething in his dismay and self-righteous anger. --
"Lady Ashley!" - "This is most inappropriate!" The voices of Mrs. Barker and Ethel Allsop, risen in audible indignation. The ladies were definitely sounding the attack.
"We can't very well ask their fathers, can we?" Sarah said, her tone sharp as a knife. "Or perhaps we should – they're right in this room after all."
I had a very clear idea of what this conversation had been about – it was an echo of my memories anyway – and now I frantically racked my brain what I could do to prevent a full-blown war. I had been so lost in my thoughts and the growing conflict behind me that I forgot to follow the auction any longer.
"Five hundred quid!"
That was "King" Carney, and for the first time ever I was truly glad to see him. The auctioneer broke into an incoherent hymn of praise about Carney's many virtues, and the crowd parted in front of him like the waters of the Red Sea in front of Moses when he came down the stairs to claim the dance with Lady Ashley he had just won.
"For the benefit of the Missions", he said, reaching out and taking her hand. And all of a sudden I realized that there was really a war going on; Carney had decided for a personal attack, and he'd chosen exactly the right moment. Sarah was incredibly vulnerable; Faraway Downs had no manager who could set things to rights, and her desire to be a mother for the boy Nullah made her a target for the mockery of the whole town. I was dead sure that he already had the perfect solution for her up his sleeve... not for the benefit of the Missions but mainly for his own.
I made my way back across the dance floor, up to where my friend Timms was standing beside the huge punch bowl. He saw the expression on my face and grinned.
"Lost the fight for the Princess?" he said. "The old warhorse has snatched her away from you, as it seems."
"The old villain," I snapped, deliberately ignoring the scene on the dance floor. "He will bribe her into selling the station, and her signature on the contract won't be worth the ink it was written with. Can you imagine her actually asking the Drover to be her new manager? What on earth did she think? That he would agree, meek as a lamb, and that she could stuff him into a noble suit and proudly present him to the gathered crowd, here on the ball?"
Timms laughed. "Come on, old boy... you wanted to be her knight in shiny armour, and you didn't succeed. Take it like a man."
He handed me a glass of punch; I took a sip and found it nauseatingly sweet. Behind me the slow waltz ended with a small fanfare, and there was a short but palpable silence. Timms peered over my shoulder; his eyes widened in honest surprise.
"And by the way... that position is already taken. Lo and behold – the spell has worked, and Cinderella has come to the ball."
I turned around. Right opposite of me, a man stood in the doorway to the ball ground... elegantly clad in polished shoes, black trousers, a pristine shirt and a white dinner jacket. I saw brown, neatly trimmed hair and a remarkable face, clean-shaven, the mouth curled to a small smile. It took me a few seconds to understand how much clothing and a missing beard had changed the appearance of the rider I'd seen only one day ago, speeding along the wharf like a centaur and cutting the ropes of the portcullis.
"My God." I had been raised better than to misuse the name of my creator, but my own reaction was nothing compared to the shock wave running through the crowd when people realized that Lady Ashley had dared to invite the Drover.
It was not difficult to find Sarah – in her dress she stood out against the other guests like a brightly burning flame. They approached each other, steadily weaving their way through the unruly pattern of men and women until white and crimson stood close. He took her arm and led her to the dance floor, and when the band intoned "Begin the beguine" , they began to move to the slow rhythm of the foxtrot.
I felt Timms' eyes on my face, and suddenly I heard his voice, soft and with an undertone of gentle amusement.
"O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey'd monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on..."
"For heaven's sake, don't tell me that you've discovered your love for Shakespeare!" I growled. Without waiting for his reply, I turned away and left, out into the night. The air had cooled down, and clouds were hanging deep over the roofs. I could see the unruly dance of lightning behind the cumulated grey and black, and I heard distant thunder... the first signs of what the Australians laconically called "The Wet". While I hurried down the hill and towards the head quarter of the 19th Infantry Brigade, heavy drops began to fall, and within minutes the world disappeared behind a cool, silvery curtain of rain.
It took Sarah more than two years to return to Darwin; enough time to let the scandal die down to a low whisper beyond the surface.
By keeping out of the trials and tribulations of Darwin, she missed half a dozen smaller dramas and one real tragedy: in June 1940, Henry "King" Carney went on a hunting trip together with his future son-in-law, Neil Fletcher, and he didn't return alive. Fletcher reported with all signs of deep grief that Carney had stumbled and fallen into a shallow river that was infested with crocodiles. One of those beasts bit him, pulled him under and ripped him apart before Fletcher could do as much as blindly fire into the muddy water.
The general dismay was huge, and a wave of sympathy for the widow and the orphaned daughter captured the city. Most people agreed that things could have been worse, however; Neil Fletcher seamlessly took over the affairs of his fiancée's father, arranged his marriage in a minimum of time and with a maximum of pomp and quickly brought things back to normal again. Everyone was reassured – the King was dead, long lived the King.
At the end of 1941, the endless struggle of organizing provisions for a growing number of soldiers finally brought me to Sarah's station. I had to stuff supply holes with my left while ripping new holes open with my right. I needed wool for the uniforms, flour and vegetables, and of course beef. Faraway Downs fulfilled its obligations reliably and on schedule, but even so the Army grew dangerously short of meat.
I reached the station late on a hot afternoon. Sarah ran down the flat steps of the verandah to meet me, a beautiful vision in sand-coloured breeches and a white blouse. I reached out to shake her hand, but was drawn into a one-armed, loose embrace instead. Soft, fragrant hair tickled my chin as her lips grazed my cheek.
"Welcome!" she said, and her voice was every bit as lovely as I remembered it from the charity ball. "How was the journey?"
"Long and dusty," I said, slightly stunned. "Right now I don't need much more than a bucket of water for my thirst and another one for a good scrub."
She smiled and pulled me into the house; it was a solid building with thick walls, and the rooms were surprisingly cool. There was a parlour with a few chosen pieces of mahogany furniture and a Persian carpet on the wooden floor, and a dining room with a long, polished table. A door opened and a boy rushed towards Sarah, taking her hand. He was about ten, with a pretty, open face and brilliant black eyes ; unruly curls of a warm, sun-gilded brown fell down to his shoulders and his skin had the pleasant hue of fine toffee.
"Emmet," Sarah said, unmistakeable pride and love in her voice. "this is Nullah. And Nullah, this is a good friend of ours, Captain Emmet Dutton."
The black eyes studied me with great interest and a certain amount of caution. He turned to her, his gaze never leaving my face.
"Missus Boss, he's not a copper, like that man Callahan... or is he?" It was a stage whisper, meant as a warning to her as well as to me. "He's not from the police?"
"I'm not," I said, bowing solemnly. "I can honestly claim that Sergeant Callahan is not one of my favourite persons in Darwin."
"I don't like him either." Nullah laughed, all white teeth, dimples and radiating joy, and I saw his emotions mirrored in Sarah's eyes. "Missus Boss, I go and tell Bandy prepare a bath for your friend, yes?"
"Very good idea... thank you, Nullah," Sarah replied, and out of the door he was, like a whirlwind. Her gaze followed him, and I could feel the strong connection between them... for Sarah, this was her child indeed, no matter who had born him, and no matter what race he descended from.
I took a bath and found a luscious tea ready as soon as I had dried and changed into fresh clothes. Nullah was nowhere to be seen, and Sarah wore the dress I had last seen on her when she signed the contract with the Army. She was not the only one waiting for me; when I entered the room, the Drover rose from the chair at the head of the table.
His beard was regrown, but he looked well-groomed, in a very natural, relaxed way. He greeted me with real friendliness, and we sat down to a meal of scones, sandwiches and iced fruits. I had plenty of time to watch the two of them, even though the conversation flowed with ease. There had been a strong bond between Sarah and the little boy, and here was a bond, too... at least as vivid as the other one, and still different. I saw two independent beings, drawn to each other with irresistible power... I could feel it in the way they looked at each other, the way their fingers almost touched when he poured a glass of sherry for her, or when she filled the plate for him. It was a constant current of deep emotions, and only when I finally brought up the main issue of my visit, I understood that there were dangerous undercurrents and turbulences beneath the smooth surface.
"Faraway Downs has been nothing else than the best possible business partner," I said, peeling an orange. "But even though things are going exceptionally well here, you can't breed your cattle fast enough to give us the number of animals we actually need."
The Drover looked at me from the other end of the table. "Which means what?"
"I have found and bought three thousand cattle, from several stations in New South Wales . All we have to do now is to collect and to drove them to Darwin. This will in no way affect the contract with Faraway Downs, of course," I added, turning to Sarah. She sat there unmoving and a little tense, a steep fold between her eyebrows. "We need the best stock men possible. It may take six months or so."
"An overland." That was the Drover, but in this very moment my attention was fixed on the woman sitting opposite of me. She kept herself under control, but I could see protest radiate from her like a sudden burst of heat.
"Absolutely not. You just got back!"
The Drover opened his mouth and closed it again, and I saw a cloud darken his face... not very long, but it had been there, and for the first time I asked myself how long this strong-willed Eve would be able to keep "her" Adam in the private Elysium she'd created around them, and if this had been the first time that she tried to regulate his ways. Considering all I knew about this man, I certainly saw trouble. And I didn't like to play the part of the snake in Sarah's personal paradise.
"Think about it," I said, trying to calm the waves. "You don't have to make a decision right away; but after the first drove from Faraway Downs to Darwin was stuff enough for half a dozen legends, I simply had to ask the best man I can imagine for this difficult job."
We changed the subject and spoke of other things until I retired, leaving them to solve the conflict on their own. The next morning I gave the Drover all the details I already had to offer, and I assured him that there would be big team of stock men and experienced scouts, to make the whole business if not simple, but at least a lot easier. I met Sarah at the breakfast table, too, and she listened to my explanations without speaking her mind. I thought that they must have come to a kind of truce, but I didn't get the chance to find out, for my tight schedule forced me to leave shortly after and return to Darwin.
The last time I saw them that day was when I started my Army Jeep and directed it down the road: the man and the woman, standing in front of the gate, the child holding their hands, like a living link between them. It was a strangely peaceful image, but it went out of sight all too soon, obscured by a stifling, brown cloud of dust.
That was in November, and then December came, and with it the tremendous shock of Pearl Harbor. Australia had already sent thousands of young men to the battle fields in Asia, but now the war was drawing alarmingly close to Australian territory, and Darwin was most likely to become an aim for the next Japanese air raid.
So the authorities decided that the residents should be evacuated... mostly old people, women and children. All in all, there were only two thousand inhabitants left in the end, soon to be reinforced by Allied troops. I was not involved in the process – aside from formulating the orders and taking care that everybody knew about the evacuation in time. The building of the Carney Cattle Company had become the Army Head Quarter, being the best house available for such a purpose. A huge ship was anchored in the harbour, ready to take aboard the citizens Darwin didn't want to lose to this war; when I came down to the shore to watch it leave, I first met Neil Fletcher, walking past me with an expression of smug self-satisfaction, and then the person I had certainly expected to see least of all people: Sarah Ashley, standing with her back to the balustrade of the wharf. She was as pale as sour milk, and she looked as if she would faint any minute.
"Sarah! What on earth..."
"Oh, Emmet!" She hurried over to me, reaching out like a drowning castaway searching for the lifeline, and the very next moment I held her in my arms. That was not the woman I knew, not the energetic Amazon who took the fate of her station in both hands and won the game... and not the strong, happy Eve, safe in her haven in the middle of nowhere.
"They have taken my boy!" she sobbed into my shoulder. "They have taken Nullah, and they have brought him and all those children of mixed blood out to Mission Island, and Fletcher said... Fletcher said..."
"What did Fletcher say?" No answer. Her whole body was shaking as if in fever. "Come on, Sarah, let me get you away from here. This is not he right place to break down. I'll bring you to the Territory Hotel, and there we'll have a drink. I certainly need one, and you look as if you do, too."
I managed to manoeuvre her away from wharf and harbour, and after a while she regained at least part of her composure and walked beside me with fast steps, face rigid with tension and lips pressed to a narrow line. We reached the hotel and entered the Pub. Ivan Rolev stood behind the bar, polishing glasses. When he saw her, his eyes went wide.
"Lady Ashley? What are you doing chere? Where is the Drover? Did che come with you?"
That was a good question, a very good one indeed. But instead of answering it, Sarah sank down on a chair, propped her elbows on the table and buried her face in both hands. To my amazement, Rolev produced a bottle from under the bar and poured a generous amount of a dark fluid into a glass. Our eyes met, and when he saw my nod, he filled a second one. Down to the last civilian and soldier stationed in Darwin and in search for a proper buzz , Rolev was well known for his aversion against Aboriginals – he called them boongs - and against women, especially when they dared to appear in in his bar. But he was obviously as unable to resist Sarah's charm as any male being in the Northern Territory.
She took the glass, drank the brandy down and coughed. When she spoke, her voice was hoarse and tired.
"The Drover is gone... over to New South Wales, I think. He wouldn't believe that Nullah never went on that... that 'Walkabout'. He wouldn't help me find him. He didn't..." She swallowed. "I knew from the very beginning that the police had taken my boy. And when I came here, one hour ago, I could only say him goodbye, and tell him that I'd do anything to get him down from that island again. They must give him back to me, they must!"
I touched her hand on the table; it was cramped to a fist. "And what was that about Fletcher, Sarah?"
Her head snapped up, and suddenly her eyes were blazing with fire. "He told me that there's a radio tower on Mission Island, and that this will make them the first target for the Japanese bombs. He practically told me that Nullah is going to die if there is any attack. Do you know that he paid me a visit on Faraway Downs, shortly before your visit?"
"No. " Ivan came over from behind the bar and filled her glass once more, but this time she left it untouched. "What did he want?"
"He wanted Faraway Downs." She pulled her hand free and began to turn the glass between her fingers. "He said that his family served the owners of the station for three generations, and that the station rightfully belonged to them. He said he would help me with the adoption if I sold it to him, and when I refused..."
For a long moment, she was silent. Then she determinedly knocked down the second brandy and looked me directly in the eye. Her gaze was cold and desperate.
"He asked me if I had heard of Mr. Carney's... accident. He said that things like that might happen any time again. To Nullah. To ... to the Drover." Absently she wiped a stray tear from her cheek. "Do you know that Fletcher is Nullah's father?"
"N... no. Are you serious?" I looked down at my own glass and decided not to drink. Ivan's brandy seemed to have rather interesting side effects.
"I'm not drunk," she quietly said, guessing my thoughts. "I know exactly what I am talking about.... the only flaw is that I'm absolutely unable to prove anything. Neil Fletcher is a very bad and cunning man."
Her flat palm hit the table top, and the brandy in my glass nearly spilled over.
"I can't prove that Neil Fletcher took a glass-tipped Aboriginal spear from the living room in Faraway Downs and waylaid my husband Maitland at the river, nearly three years ago. He killed him with that spear and told the authorities that the murderer was a certain King George – who is Nullah's grandfather, by the way."
Another hit on the table.
"I can't prove that Fletcher stole thousands of bulls and cows while my husband was still alive. I can't prove that he sent Callahan to snatch Nullah away to the Mission after I had fired him. Daisy – Nullah's mother – panicked when she saw the 'coppers' come and fled with Nullah into the water tower. She couldn't swim, you know. She clung to the rusty ladder in there and it broke... and so she drowned."
Her hand lay still, but now I took a long gulp from the strong brandy in my glass. My stomach felt like a solid block of ice.
"I can't prove that Fletcher and his men waylaid us on the drove to Darwin. First they set the outback on fire, and we lost my book-keeper Kipling Flynn when the cattle broke into a stampede. Then - after we survived against all expectations - they poisoned each water hole we had to pass on our way here... which I can't prove either. We would never have survived the drove, if not for King George. He... he sang us into the desert and directly to clean water."
I stared at her, unable to think of anything coherent to say.
"As I said," Sarah continued bitterly, "I can't prove anything. And now Fletcher reaches for Faraway Downs, and if the authorities don't help me – which they most likely won't – I will have to give it to him, or I'll never see Nullah again. And this must not happen. This must not happen."
She took a deep breath.
"He told me he will help me to find a job; his wife Cath works as a telephone operator in the Head Quarters, and if I accept his offer, I will at least be able to stay in Darwin, close to my child."
I sat there, somewhat dazed by the monstrosity of her tale. Deep inside my heart I knew that she was neither drunk nor confused. She spoke the truth, and she was right – there was nothing she could do, not without any usable evidence of Fletcher's crimes. In other, more peaceful times it might have been possible to investigate her allegations, but we were at war, and no one – not the local authorities and certainly not the government – would have any interest to complicate things further by accusing Neil Fletcher of – at least – threefold murder.
I couldn't help her, not here and not now. I left her sitting in front of the table, lost in her thoughts; I drove her car behind the hotel and made Ivan Rolev prepare a room for her. That night, her desperate eyes and bleak voice haunted me in my dreams, and my inability to cut the Gordian knot for Sarah Ashley felt like the biggest failure in my life.
The second year of the war dragged on towards its closure. Christmas was a joyless matter in the half-deserted town, and on New Year's Eve, Neil Fletcher gave a party for the telephone operators and the few other women remaining in Darwin. His wife invited Sarah, too: it was no secret that Cath admired the legendary Lady Ashley, and she was a far too gentle and kind soul to care for any gossip that might reach her ear. At the same time she firmly believed that her husband did everything to help her courageous friend with the difficult matter of Nullah's adoption; I presume Sarah simply didn't have the heart to tell her the disgusting truth about the man she had married.
In the middle of January, I travelled to New South Wales, to negotiate a wool trade contract with one of the biggest sheep farmers there. After that, I reported to the General Staff in Canberra, handing in a record of the situation in Darwin. There had been other records already, complaining about the fact that the equipment with defensive weapons was far less than optimal. Aside from four sets of 3, 7 inch anti-aircraft guns the capital of the Northern Territory had to be shielded by barely more than a dozen Lewis machine guns, and they had to be propped on saplings to aim right into the air. When the gunmen fired, they had to do so without ammunition, and the guns had to be handed over from one defence point to the next, simply because they didn't have enough weapons. But the Staff was most unlikely to solve the problems at hand; they had enough others to consider, and one could only hope that the Japanese bombs wouldn't come any time soon. February had already begun when I finally returned to the Northern Territory.
I met Sarah on February 18th, this time in the officers' mess. She wore a khaki skirt and a bright blue blouse, her blonde hair held back by a tortoise shell clasp. She looked worn out, and at the same time strangely relieved.
"I will sell Faraway Downs," she told be over her glass of white wine. "Fletcher has promised to grant me a passage to Mission Island tomorrow. I'll take Nullah back with me, and we'll go south."
So the fight was over. I l studied her, realizing how much I had missed her... the sound of her voice, her gentle laughter (that had become increasingly rare during the last two months), the sight of her lovely face. I cursed the war, cursed the fact that my duty ripped me away and out of her presence all too often. The Drover had never come to reconcile with her... if it was the fear of being dominated or the feeling of being trapped by his love to this headstrong, courageous woman, I didn't know. All I was sure of was that I had admired her from the very first moment I spied her through Allsop's telescope... and right in this moment I wished that I would finally get up the nerve and tell Sarah how much I felt for her. I longed to bring her away from the danger in Darwin. I wanted to wrap her into a cocoon of safety, tenderness and protection.
But at the same time I knew that this had never been what she wanted. She didn't crave for adoration and shelter, not even now. She wanted her child, and if she had to sacrifice Faraway Downs to get him, she would do it. The Drover had certainly never tried to make her life a bed of roses. He had challenged her mercilessly, recognizing the core of steel beyond the delicate surface. .. only to run away from the great strength he himself had coaxed out of Sarah Ashley. Such an idiot.
I took her hand and touched it with my lips. "I will miss you," I said softly. "The thought of you being here in Darwin and the occasional sight of your face was one of the things that has kept me sane during the last two months."
"Thank you, Emmet." She rose from the chair, leaned over the table and kissed me... very gently, but full on the mouth. "I don't think we'll meet tomorrow... farewell. You have been a wonderful friend."
I watched her leave the mess, deliberately ignoring the curious glances from all sides. There was a heavy weight on my heart, and for a few seconds I felt the sting of unmanly tears behind my eyelids.
The next morning dawned warm and clear. I was up early, had breakfast and talked to a Major from the Air Force who told me that the ten Kittyhawks that had left for Timor at 9.15 a.m. were expected to come back, because of massive Japanese attacks against the Dutch East Indies, and because of brewing thunderstorms. "The pilots are all still wet behind the ears," he said, "and we can't afford to sacrifice a single man."
I went to the house of the Administrator; I remember that the sun shone brightly on my head, and that I took off my uniform cap to dry my forehead. It was nearly ten o'clock when I stood on the terrace, looking down on the city. Port Darwin was cramped with ships; I could see men, swarming like ants aboard the Neptunia and unloading wood for the repair of the wharf.
There was a telephone call from the Army Head Quarter; Administrator Allsop handed me the receiver and returned to his parrot, babbling nonsense to the bird while I tried to figure out what the voice of a very agitated young officer was trying to say through a crackling, swooshing cloud of atmospheric perturbance.
"... can't understand the ordinance... flying very high... massive squadron of... radio message from Mission Island broke off only a minute ago... waiting for an order..."
I shook my head. His words made absolutely no sense to me.
"But if you can't understand the ordinance, how can you understand the order?" I asked, trying to drown the perturbance... and then I suddenly realized that most of the noise did not come from the receiver but from the direction of the harbour. I turned around and looked up into the sky... and then I finally saw what the young officer had been talking about all the time.
A massive squadron of fighter-bombers, flying very high.
I turned back to the Administrator, getting a short glimpse of the almost comical surprise on his face.
"Into the shelter with you!" I snapped back over my shoulder, running down the stairs as fast as I could. "This is a real air raid... the Japs are coming!"
I shot out onto the street, and now the droning of the bombers swallowed everything else. Right in front of me, about five hundred yards ahead, there was an explosion... that had been the post office, and judging after the cloud of dust and the rain of debris there couldn't be much left of the building. I hurried down the hill, and then there was another mighty roar, and a peal of thunder. The very next moment, two giant hands seemed to lift me from the ground, catapulting me through the air and thankfully dropping me on the small lawn of a house nearby. I laboriously struggled to my feet again, ears humming and a small trickle of blood running down my temple. When I looked back the way I had just come, I saw the residence. A huge crater was yawning where only seconds before the roof had been.
And then hell broke loose.
Sometimes age can be merciful. It adds layer after layer, each new year obscuring the view on things we can hardly bear to remember. And still – sometimes small details flash back into our minds, garish and blindingly bright.
I don't recall when exactly I went where on that sunny day in February 1942... but I still feel the weight of the patients that I carried out of the hospital at Cullen Bay, only minutes before six bombs exploded directly in front of it. There are days when the simple smell of burning wood in a fireplace makes me gasp for air, the stench of long charred debris suddenly filling my nostrils. I remember bodies, dug out from under the crumpled walls of their homes, and relatives, staggering through the ruins in search for what was left of their existence. I remember the disbelieving horror I felt when Iwas told that only one of ten Kittyhawk pilots had been able to escape the Japanese attack alive. I remember the ground turning to mud under my feet while exhausted soldiers and members of the fire brigade tried to put out the flames.
At last the day bled over into the night, and still Darwin looked like something directly from Dante's Inferno. The building of the Carney Cattle Company was a smoldering heap of ashes; the Army hastily required a house in the city center that had miraculously survived the bombs. There we collected those inhabitants – and soldiers – who had died during the air raid. Some time around midnight another stretcher with a corpse was carried through the door of that house, and when the Sergeant – red-eyed and worn out by the sight of far too many crushed fates – snapped at the men, I heard the name: "Ashley. Sarah Ashley."
This couldn't be Sarah – simply because she had arrived in this impromptu morgue an hour ago, together with a troop of men who had dug postmaster Hurtle Bald and his family out of what had always been considered as the safest shelter in Darwin. It hadn't been safe enough to resist the direct impact of a 250 kilo bomb, however, and after a first glance into Sarah's face I had made her sit down on a bench in a silent secondary room, pressing a cup of lukewarm tea into her hand.
"What did you say?" I heard my own voice, strangely subdued as if through a thick layer of wool. I leaned over the stretcher, pulled back the dusty Army blanket... and looked at what lay underneath.
"There's been some mistake," I said. "That's Cath Fletcher."
I'd thought that the horror of that day had calloused my heart, but the loss of this gentle, kind woman pierced it with a sudden, white-hot sting of pain.
"Oh God! Oh my God!"
I spun around and caught Sarah by the shoulders before she could throw herself over the body of her dead friend. Her face was empty with shock and for a second she grew limp in my grip, but then an new thought rekindled life and desperation in her eyes.
"Nullah! I've got to get to Nullah!"
Of course. The war had robbed her the only true friend she had in Darwin; now another, even more dreadful loss threatened to crash down on her. And her boy had been on Mission Island.
"Sarah. The Japs hit the Mission first." I knew the truth was cruel, but lies didn't help her now. Still, she struggled against my hands, unwilling to give up the last shred of hope.
"Sarah... Sarah, look at me!"
Finally she held still.
"No one can get out there. No one."
I led her back to the other room and left her sitting on the bench, shoulders and arms slumped like those of a puppet with cut strings. I know I should have cared for her, but still the bodies were coming in, and ordinances crowded in the corridors, to discuss the evacuation of the survivors. Thus I was forced to leave her alone, and she drifted in and out of the house like a ghost, standing between the debris on the street and staring out at the harbour where the burning wrecks of the Barbossa and the Neptunia protruded out of the oily water like stranded iron whales. I told her that we would leave at first light and finally picked her up in front of the Northern Territory Hotel when the Army began to evacuate those we had been able to rescue and gather.
We were standing beside a box wagon and Sarah was just about to mount the driver's cab when suddenly she froze, listening intently, mouth half open.
"Can you hear that? The music... can you hear it?"
I swear to God I didn't hear anything. I felt the seething impatience of the Sergeant beside me who couldn't wait to leave, and I struggled to curb my own chagrin. I had the dreadful vision of myself, bundling up that stubborn Niobe and unceremoniously stuffing her into the car. That wouldn't do. "Sarah, please!"
"Can't you hear it? It's children singing!"
Slowly she walked around the wagon, body tense as a bowstring... and suddenly she broke into a run. I stood there with a sinking heart, watching her storming down the half-broken wharf, easily dodging the wreckage and distorted bodies scattered all along the way. Clouds of smoke drifted over the harbour basin, obscuring her slender form from my sight. I knew I had to bring her back, I knew time was running short... I bit back a curse and followed her.
I was close to the end of the wharf when I thought I saw her. "Sarah, what's going on? I can't hold the Sergeant any longer!"
It was true. I had found Sarah Ashley... and she was not alone. She stood in the tight embrace of a man, clinging to him for dear life and at the same time holding a child close to her.
Nullah... and the Drover.
I stared at them, unable to form a clear thought. In that very moment I wouldn't have been surprised if the man before me had grown wings and flown to the rescue of the boy and the reunion with the woman he loved. This was nothing less but a full-blown miracle, and witnessing it took my breath away. Only that this was not the end of wonders... out of the smoke emerged the thin figure of a young man in the dusty soutane of a priest, and then...
Faces. Small, jubilant faces and bare feet, drumming on the wooden planks of the wharf. Shining eyes and high-pitched, joyous laughter, and suddenly I realized the sheer magnitude of the marvel I was granted to experience.
Oh my God. The children from the Mission.
I felt tears well up in my eyes, and this time I was not ashamed. After the cruel day following the air raid this glorious moment felt like heavenly comfort and divine blessing at the same time.
Within a few turbulent minutes the little ones were gathered like a herd of eager lambs and hauled up on the box wagon. I knew I was expected to go with them, and immediately so, but I felt unable to turn away from Sarah and the Drover. Her face was pressed into his shoulder, and his hands held her like the greatest treasure possible. His eyes were closed; I looked at him and knew that I saw a man who had struggled his way to hell and back again, who had been lost and found, cursed and redeemed... and who humbly accepted the second chance he had been given.
"You know when I said that no one could get out there, I'd forgotten about you, Drover," I said with a smile.
"That no matter," Nullah piped in, turning to me and flashing me a brilliant grin. "We gonna go back Faraway Downs."
He was right. There could be no thought of once more ripping that child away from those he loved. I would certainly not be the one who did this.
"Yes, he's right, you know," I retorted, seeking the Drover's eye. "With the water up, it is the safest place in the North. These are, after all..."
"... extraordinary circumstances," the Drover said softly. It was a silent salute from knight to knight, and I answered it with a small bow.
"Thank you, Emmet," Sarah whispered. Her cheeks were wet with tears and smeared with grime, and she was incredibly beautiful.
With an effort I turned away and walked over to the box wagon. The young priest who had come with the children helped me up on the load platform, and a few minutes later the wagon rumbled away. I stared back to the wharf; I couldn't see them any longer, but the last vision of Sarah and her loved ones was etched into my mind as clearly as a photograph, and it stayed with me even as we left the ruined town and headed south.
More than forty years have passed since the bombing of Darwin. The echo of battles long past has dwindled to a distant murmur in my memory, barely audible against the many-voiced music of my life.
Only six months after the disaster the Army made me a Major and then moved me to Palestine; solving the problems in the Northern Territory had been nothing against what awaited me on that unholy powder keg. I stayed in the desert until the state of Israel was miraculously born in 1948 and then went to Germany, working as a liaison officer with the US Forces. 1964, I went into retirement, finally returning to England where my family had patiently been waiting for me to come back.
I could have asked to finish my service in Australia, of course, but I never did. Until this very day I can't say for sure why I decided to leave, and every time a small voice in the back of my head begun to ask uncomfortable questions, I determinedly silenced it before it became too insistent.
Was it the "green-eyed monster" Timms Abberly mentioned, that evening on the ball in Darwin? I haven't seen him for more than thirty years now; he survived the air raid and opened a new lawyer's office in Sydney, and in all our letters – more than six hundred over the years – Sarah Ashley was never mentioned even once. I could have asked him, of course... it would have been easy for him to find out if Faraway Downs still thrived, or if it shared the fate of many a station that was unable to survive the difficult years after World War II.
I never asked.
But I remember her. Of course I do. I remember the sophisticated Lady, the daredevil Amazon who brought one thousand and five hundred cattle to Darwin when the Army needed them. I remember the woman who kissed my cheek when I arrived on the station barely one month before Pear Harbor, the woman who kissed my mouth on the eve of Darwin's bitter baptism of fire in February 1942. But the strongest image is still the last one I ever had of her... standing in the embrace of the Drover, holding the child in her arms.
I am really old now. My bones have grown frail and my body weak, and the doctor has put me on a diet that bans me from drinking anything stronger but an occasional sherry. I am old now, and I have grown tired. I tend to sleep a lot these days.
Last night I had a dream... I saw Sarah's face, astonishingly clear, and it took my breath away as it did the very first time I discovered her through the spy-glass of Administrator Allsop. Her eyes smiled at me... and for a fleeting second I beheld what she must have heard that day when fate gave her back those she loved most. There was the gentle sound of a harmonica, and the voices of children, singing a sweet chorus that mingled with the leading melody and then blew away with the clouds of smoke over Port Darwin.
I woke up to a cool, rainy morning in England, her name on my lips.
"My Darling Sarah..."
The quote "Timms" Abberley uses on the ball is from Shakespeare's drama Othello. The details about the bombing of Darwin you don't remember from the movie are taken from the book An Awkward Truth: The bombing of Darwin in February 1942 by Peter Grose (which I hereby highly recommend). The characters, scenes or dialogues you don't recognize are my own, the rest comes directly from the movie. And nothing from the movie belongs to me... it's all Luhrman's. I've only played in his sandbox to get my head free for the original crime story I'm just writing. *grins* (And a very special "Thank you" to my great friend Pearlette who Brit-betaed this within a nightshift. Love you, dear!)