‘No, Father, no,’ she said, crouching beside him and urgently taking a hold of his arm. ‘I can help you to your horse. We’ll get you home together and Alfred will look after you.’ Alfred was the property’s overseer. A tough outback man, Alfred would know what to do. But even as she spoke, her father’s arm began to shudder. The action was not deliberate, she knew, but a series of involuntary muscular spasms, and it frightened her.
‘Do as you’re told, Emily.’ James tried once again to sound authoritative, but he was starting to convulse and his throat was swelling. His larynx restricted, his voice was only a painful rasp. Soon paralysis would set in and he would be unable to speak at all. ‘Go home and fetch Alfred. Be quick now.’ They had set out in the late afternoon to avoid the heat of the day, but she had a good hour of light still ahead of her, he told himself, and the homestead was only a two-mile ride away. So long as she doesn’t get lost, James prayed, so long as she doesn’t . . .
‘Head east,’ he said with the last few words he could push out, ‘keep the sun behind you. Head east . . .’ Then as his throat restricted further his voice failed him altogether.
Emily stood, her chest heaving, her breath coming in frantic, fevered gasps. Her father’s body was starting to shake uncontrollably, but his eyes were still upon her, very much alive and ordering her to go.
Half blinded by tears of sheer terror, she turned from him and ran to where the horses were tethered twenty yards away. She must save her father. ‘My daughter can ride like the wind!’ She could hear his laughter and the proud boast to his friends; he delighted in her skill as a horsewoman. She tightened the girth strap and mounted the hardy little mare. She could hear him now, urging her on. ‘Ride like the wind, Emily! Ride like the wind!’ Well, she would ride as she had never ridden before. There was still time: there had to be. She must save her father’s life.
James tried to watch her go, his eyes rolling in their sockets, but he couldn’t see her. He couldn’t move his head. He couldn’t move any part of himself. Brain and body were disconnected, no longer his to command. All that remained was thought. And thought said, There is no road to the homestead, not even a track, and I didn’t think to teach her the landmarks. Then a further thought . . . I should have told her to let the mare have her head – the mare will sense the way home. Then all that was left as the venom overtook him was a terrible guilt and self-recrimination.
How could I have let this happen?
James Angus McQuillan, only son of Angus Donald McQuillan, gentleman, farmer and Director of the Bank of Scotland, was born in 1820 in Dundee, Scotland on 21 August, a birthday, he often remarked, that he shared with King William IV.
After migrating to Adelaide in 1854 to appraise and report on his father’s already-established land-holdings in South Australia, James had formed a business partnership with lawyer and fellow Scot, Edwin Moss. The two presented an odd couple in appearance, James ginger-bearded and burly, Edwin moustachioed, lean and lanky, but a strong friendship developed between the Scotsmen, a friendship based on mutual respect, for they were similarly shrewd when it came to business.
In 1859 McQuillan, Moss & Co invested with Elder, Stirling & Co to finance the Wallaroo and Moonta Copper Mines. After initial risks, the investment brought them a handsome return, and over the ensuing years James and Edwin went from strength to strength, acquiring vast tracts of land that spread further and further into the untouched wastes of South Australia and the territory to the north known as Alexandra Land. In tackling the problems presented by the outback, they spent thousands of pounds on fencing and the sinking of bores until finally their pastoral properties constituted a land mass far larger than the whole of their native Scotland. James McQuillan and Edwin Moss had become wealthy men.
James lived a happy, fulfilled life. He had fallen in love two years after his arrival in Adelaide, and became engaged to Eleanor Welles, a fair-haired, pretty young Englishwoman. Eleanor was the daughter of a prominent banker with whom James did a great deal of business and everyone agreed it was an ideal match. ‘Convenient’, some even said a little archly, which was an apt enough comment for the relationship did indeed benefit all parties concerned, but this happy fact did not make the love shared by the couple any the less real.
The two married and in 1860, after several unfortunate miscarriages, Eleanor finally bore James a daughter, Emily, who grew to be a replica of her mother. James, who could be surprisingly effusive when something delighted him, as Emily did, would happily declare to one and all in his rich Scottish brogue, ‘She’s the apple of my eye, that wee girl, the apple of my eye.’
The McQuillans lived in a gracious three-storey home that James had had specially designed in North Terrace, the very heart of Adelaide. A wide circular carriageway led up to the front of the house, where a series of impressive stone arches formed the ground floor facade, while the broad balconies above, encased by a lacework of ornate railings, offered excellent views of the surrounding township and countryside. The grounds were spacious and beautifully landscaped, with separate servants’ quarters at the rear near stables housing James’s beloved horses and a large barn sheltering a selection of vehicles – work-drays, traps, buggies and a covered carriage – together with the requisite harness tackle.
McQuillan House was a symbol of James’s position in society and far larger than was necessary to meet the family’s requirements, but it was not a deliberate show of ostentation. James and Eleanor intended to have many children, and their lifestyle obliged them to entertain. Along with the many philanthropic concerns both had embraced, Eleanor was a keen follower of the arts and nurtured budding writers and painters, while James, as a member of the Adelaide Legislative Council, took his civic duties very seriously.
Given the diversity of the couple’s interests, McQuillan House saw numerous and eclectic social gatherings over the years. There were dinners with twenty to table in the formal dining room, gala charity concerts staged in the front salon, casual afternoon teas held on the balcony and huge garden parties each spring. But sadly, as time passed, the house did not see a growth in family numbers. After suffering another two miscarriages, both times well into her second trimester, Eleanor was warned that any further attempt to bear children could prove dangerous, perhaps even fatal.
‘Oh James, I am so very, very sorry.’ When the doctor had gone, Eleanor succumbed to the tears she’d been desperately fighting back. In her weakened state, they now flowed freely as her husband sat beside her on the bed. ‘Oh my dearest, how I have let you down.’
‘There, there, my dear, you have done nothing of the sort, don’t talk such nonsense.’ James drew his kerchief from his breast pocket and wiped the tears from her cheeks. His tone was brisk and business-like: indulging her in any maudlin sentiment would do her no good, he thought, though in truth his heart ached to see his normally vibrant wife so wretched and unhappy. ‘Come along now, blow your nose,’ he said as if to a child. ‘No more tears, there’s a good girl.’
She blew her nose obediently, but she could not stem the flow of tears. ‘You married the wrong woman, James. You should have chosen a stronger wife, one who could give you the family you’ve always longed for.’
He took her hand in both of his and pressed it gently to his lips. ‘I married exactly the right woman, my dear,’ he said. ‘I married the woman with whom I wish to spend the whole of my life. And we have a family. We have Emily.’
‘But the sons you so craved . . .’
Disappointment ran deep, it was true; he would very much miss having sons. But he would teach Emily to ride like a man . . . He would imbue in Emily the thrill of adventure . . . ‘Emily is family enough,’ he said firmly, ‘now go to sleep: we need you strong.’
Although his intention had been merely to placate his distraught wife, the years proved James right. All of the love he might have lavished on a large family he focused upon his daughter, who became the very centre of his existence. Emily was not mollycoddled or spoilt though, for that was not James’s way. From a very early age she was treated as an adult and shared in his life, in his very dreams and expectations. Father and daughter quite simply adored each other.
To many, James McQuillan appeared a somewhat contradictory man. He was personally wealthy and lived a lavish lifestyle, yet the speeches he made at legislative council meetings were invariably in opposition to what he considered extravagant government spending. He was practical and conservative, his public addresses short and to the point, yet on social occasions, particularly as host in his own home, he was flamboyant and could wax lyrical with the best. But the most contradictory element in James McQuillan’s make-up was something that would have been beyond the comprehension of his desk-bound city colleagues. James McQuillan was an adventurer, a man whose love of the outback was so fierce it bordered on passion.
Even Edwin Moss, James’s friend and business partner, did not know the degree of passion he felt for the rugged beauty of central Australia. Certainly the two had shared excitement over their ventures into the wilderness of Alexandra Land. Certainly where others had seen nothing but dry desert James and Edwin had seen endless possibility. But Edwin had not bonded with the land as James had, and James had not seen fit to share his feelings about something he regarded as intensely personal. He did, however, share them with his thirteen-year-old daughter, painting vivid pictures of giant gorges and fiery-red escarpments and huge gum trees growing from the centre of dusty, dry riverbeds.
‘A primitive land, Emily,’ he told her, ‘a land so spiritual you cannot help but feel at one with it. A person is closer to God out there, I swear. You can feel His very presence.’
So enthralled was Emily with the images her father painted of a landscape foreign to the green hills of Adelaide that she made him promise to take her to see his newest holding, a cattle station many days’ journey from anywhere.
‘I don’t see why not,’ James agreed, much to Eleanor’s consternation. ‘Perhaps in a year or so when the homestead’s living quarters are completed and the station is running smoothly.’
‘Not until she is sixteen, James,’ Eleanor insisted. ‘I will not hear of it. Not until she has turned sixteen.’
‘Very well,’ James acquiesced good-naturedly, ‘sixteen it is. The homestead will be finished altogether by then.’
‘And we’ll travel up by camel?’ Emily asked excitedly.
‘We will indeed. You and I will be in a cart drawn by a camel pair-in-hand, and a camel train will follow with supplies. Splendid animals, splendid – this country would be lost without them.’
James McQuillan, like a number of adventurous businessmen, saw the camel as the answer to the transport problems of the outback. Recently, with the help of Thomas Elder, a fellow aficionado of the camel and first to introduce the animals to Australia, James had imported a batch of breeding dromedaries, together with Afghan cameleers to manage the beasts. He intended to breed sturdy stock at his pastoral property in Alexandra Land. An area of well over one thousand square miles, the property’s border lay just twenty-five miles southwest of one of the newly established overland telegraph repeater stations, so an accessible track from Adelaide was already in existence.
The Overland Telegraph Line, traversing the continent from Adelaide in the south to the furthermost northern port of Palmerston, had been completed just the previous year, in 1872, and had very much followed the route of explorer John McDouall Stuart, who, a decade earlier, had led the first successful expedition north through central Australia. A massive undertaking, the Line had linked Australia by undersea cable to Java and therefore Great Britain. Two thousand miles of telegraph line had been painstakingly erected through the desert heart of the country and telegraph poles and materials for the construction of repeater stations had been transported into the barren wilderness. It was an extraordinary feat all round and, as James was wont to point out when enthusing about his new business venture, one that could only have been made possible by the camel.
‘Couldn’t have been done without the camel,’ he would declare in a tone that defied argument. ‘Not only is Australia now linked with the rest of the world, but the vast interior of this country is opened up for settlement, and all thanks to the camel! Just think of that! A splendid animal, splendid!’
The construction of the homestead on James’s property was completed well before Emily’s sixteenth birthday. The mud-brick and timber house consisting of five rooms with surrounding verandahs was modest, but comfortable; several smaller outbuildings and sheds housed employees and supplies; and there were corrals for the horses and camels. Already, within only three short years, Eleanor Downs Station was running smoothly, although yet to turn a profit, which was hardly to be expected at this early stage.
James had named the property in honour of his wife and Eleanor had accepted the tribute although they both knew it was doubtful she would ever travel there. The gentle foothills outside Adelaide were as far afield as Eleanor McQuillan wished to venture.
Now, as his daughter’s sixteenth birthday approached, James intended to fulfil his promise. Indeed he couldn’t wait. He was excited beyond measure by the prospect of showing Emily the glories of the outback.
‘Oh James, must you?’ Eleanor couldn’t stop herself saying. ‘Must you really?’
‘Of course I must, my dear, a promise is a promise.’
Eleanor breathed a sigh of resignation, knowing any protest would go unheard by both her husband and daughter.
Several months later, final arrangements were made.
‘No, Emily, of course you can’t take Nell with you.’ James laughed at the preposterousness of his daughter’s suggestion. ‘Nell’s a city horse. She’s not made for the bush.’
‘But she’s tough and she’s spirited, Father – that’s why I called her Nell Gwyn. My Nell’s afraid of nothing. And she can go like the wind,’ Emily added eagerly in the hope her father’s favourite catchphrase might clinch the matter.
It didn’t. ‘There’ll be plenty of outback ponies at Eleanor Downs,’ James said firmly, ‘I can assure you of that. And they’ll be tough and spirited and fast enough even for you, my girl.’
Realising the response was a definite ‘no’, Emily didn’t persist any further. But she would miss her Nell.
Now, as she urged the hardy little chestnut on to its very limits, Emily tried to keep her panic in check. Normally she would not work a horse so hard in such terrain; there were rocks and the mare could injure herself. But these were not normal circumstances. She must trust in the outback pony’s sure-footedness and ability to avoid danger.
‘Ride like the wind, Emily! Ride like the wind!’ She kept hearing her father’s voice in her head as she rode, little knowing that, a mile behind her at the rock pool, James McQuillan already lay dead.
She tried to recognise landmarks she might have passed on the ride out from the homestead. Was that red, rocky outcrop familiar? That clump of mulga over there? That ghostly white gum to the right? But there were so many rocky outcrops, so much mulga, so many white gums dotted about in the endless sea of spinifex and grasses – everything looked the same.
Then they were into slightly different terrain. The bush was becoming a little denser, more acacias, more casuarinas, more mulgas. A spindly dead tree lay on its side up ahead. The little chestnut sailed over it with ease. We must surely have travelled two miles by now, Emily thought. Once again, panic started to set in.
The horse had occasionally tried to veer to the right, but Emily forced it to stay on the course she had chosen, directly ahead. The animal now slowed its pace just a little, uncertain, indecisive, but Emily urged it on with her hands and her heels and her voice. In her terror-stricken state she had forgotten her father’s one instruction, ‘Head east, keep the sun behind you.’ The sun, which was now setting, was no longer behind them. She was heading not east, but north, and had been for some time.
The mare, well trained, would have continued to obey instructions, but sensing her rider’s panic she took the bit between her teeth and veered sharply off course. Emily kept her seat, but in fighting to regain control she jagged at the reins, dislodging the bit, which tore into the sensitive corner of the animal’s mouth.
The mare too was in a state of panic. Ignoring the pain and the harsh metal bit, she wheeled sharply about, prepared to bolt in the direction that she sensed was home.
Emily was thrown from the saddle. She had been thrown from horses before and instinctively let go of the reins as she’d been taught, protecting herself with her hands and rolling with the fall to land bruised but unhurt among the desert grasses.
She sat up, winded and nursing a painful elbow, and, as she watched the horse gallop off she knew she’d taken the wrong action. She should have kept hold of the reins, even if in doing so she’d checked the animal’s stride and risked an injury from its hooves.
Rising to her feet, she stood motionless, staring after the horse until she could barely see it in the surrounding scrublands, and as she stared there was strangely just one thought in her mind. Nell would never gallop off like that. Nell would never abandon me.
Then the horse was gone. Even the distant dust of its flight had settled, and she was alone. Alone in the gathering dusk, and soon darkness would fall.
The hours that followed were terrifying beyond Emily’s wildest imaginings. Night crept around her, sinister and threatening, and in its black cloak she could hear sounds. Sounds from all directions – strange animal sounds, encircling her, closing in, bent on attack.
She ran, crashing, stumbling, falling in the darkness, scrambling to her feet and running desperately on, but she could not outdistance the sounds. They were not following her: they were everywhere. There was no escape.
Finally, exhausted and unable to run any further, she curled herself into a ball among the undergrowth and dried branches of dead trees and waited. Shivering with terror and on the border of madness, she waited for whatever fearful animal was about to devour her.
But as time passed no animal came, and in her fatigued state she drifted into a fitful sleep.
She awoke she didn’t know how much later, perhaps minutes, perhaps hours, but still in darkness, still in the awful nightmare of her existence. Only there were no sounds, no noise at all, just a deathly silence. Had the sounds earlier been of her own making? Not able to tell, she stayed, curled up in a ball, not daring to move – the slightest rustle of the grasses could alert whatever might lie in wait out there in the night.
When next she awoke it was dawn, a radiant desert dawn, vibrant colours rising from the horizon to paint a cloudless sky and herald the sun. She uncurled her cramped body and stood stiffly, her bruised muscles aching, but feeling with the beauty of the dawn renewed hope. Surely the worst must be over. She had thought she was dead, but she was not and a new day was beginning.
Then as the first of the sun’s rays appeared over the horizon, she again heard her father’s voice, ‘Head east . . . head east . . .’, and she started towards the sunrise, walking now with purpose.
But the day, as it wore on, proved more horrific than the night. In only minutes the sun had made a mockery of the dawn. Dismissing all colour, even the very blueness of the sky itself, the sun glared down relentlessly, harsh and uncaring.
On and on Emily tramped towards the east. She knew it was far from midday for the sun was barely halfway up in the morning sky, and yet the heat was so intense. And she was so incredibly thirsty. Thinking of water, she involuntarily tried to swallow, but found she couldn’t, her mouth was too dry, her throat too parched. Doggedly she continued, one foot after another, plodding in time to the mantra that rang in her brain, head east . . . head east . . .
Two hours later, she was dizzy and disoriented. The sun was directly overhead now and she no longer had any idea where east was. Through squinted eyes she could barely see for the glare. Her face was burning, her lips cracked, her breathing dry and laboured, but still she walked on, perhaps in the hope she might find water. In her dazed state she didn’t know, just as she didn’t know where she was going, but she was too afraid to stop. If she stopped, she would die.
As she walked, flies settled on her face, gathering around her mouth and her eyes and her nostrils, seeking her moisture, but she made no attempt to brush them away. All energy was preserved for walking. Even thought was banished as her mind simply planted one foot after another.
She started to stagger, several times nearly falling, but saving herself, pausing briefly and moving on. She was hallucinating now. In a shimmering world somewhere on the brink of death, she could see lakes of water and the shapes of people waving, beckoning. She even waved back as she struggled towards them, although something told her they weren’t real.
Then she staggered a final time and couldn’t save herself. She collapsed, first to her knees, then forwards onto the hot, red earth, knowing that she would never get up. The long walk was over.
She rolled onto her back, looked up at the blinding sky of white light and, closing her eyes to the sun, she surrendered.
Emily was to all purposes dead, beyond thought, beyond hope, when something stirred her back to consciousness. Strange sounds, harsh and discordant, registered in the hazy recesses of her brain as something akin to the human voice.
She opened her eyes to find the blinding light of the sun blocked out and in its place the faces of black men. They were leaning over her, three of them, peering down closely and speaking to each other in their strange language.
One of the men prodded her roughly in the side with his foot, as if to see what life was left in her.
She tried to scream, but no sound came out. The man barked an order at one of the others, who bent down and picked her up with ease, flinging her over his shoulder as he might a kangaroo he’d speared.
Then, as the men loped off into the afternoon with their catch, Emily once again lost consciousness.