It had never been exposed to the light of day, not once in the 200 million years since it assumed its present form, and yet it seemed in itself to be a drop of distilled sunlight.
It had been conceived in heat as vast as that of the sun’s surface, in those unholy depths below the earth’s crust, in the molten magma that welled up from the earth’s very core.
In those terrible temperatures all impurity had been burned from it, leaving only the unadulterated carbon atoms, and under pressures that would have crushed mountains these had been reduced in volume and packed to a density beyond that of any other substance in nature.
This tiny bubble of liquid carbon had been carried up in the slow subterranean river of molten lava through one of the weak spots in the earth’s crust, and it had almost, but not quite, reached the surface before the laval flow faltered and finally stopped.
The lava cooled over the ensuing millennium, and it altered its form and became a mottled bluish rock, composed of gravelly fragments loosely cemented in a solid matrix. This formation was naturally unassociated with the country rock which surrounded it, and filled only a deep circular well whose mouth was shaped like a funnel almost a mile in diameter and whose tail descended sheer into the uncounted depths of the earth.
While the lava was cooling, the purged bubble of carbon was undergoing an even more marvellous transformation. It solidified into an eight-faced crystal of geometrical symmetry the size of a green fig, and so thoroughly had it been purged of impurity in the hellish furnace of the earth’s core that it was transparent and clear as the sun’s own rays. So fierce and constant had been the pressures to which the single crystal had been subjected and so evenly had it cooled that there was no cracking or shearing within its body.
It was perfect, a thing of cold fire so white that it would appear electric blue in good light – but that fire had never been awakened, for it had been trapped in total darkness across the ages, and no single glimmer of light had ever probed its lucid depths. Yet for all those millions of years the sunlight had been no great distance away, a matter only of two hundred feet or less, a thin skin of earth when compared to the immense depths from whence its journey to the surface had begun.
Now, in the last wink of time, a mere few years out of all those millions, the intervening ground had steadily been chipped and whittled and hacked away by the puny, inefficient but persistent efforts of an antlike colony of living creatures.
The forebears of these creatures had not even existed upon this earth when that single pure crystal achieved its present form, but now with each day the disturbance caused by their metal tools set up faint vibrations within the rock that had been dormant so long; and each day those vibrations were stronger, as the layer between it and the surface shrank from two hundred feet to a hundred and then to fifty, from ten feet to two, until now only inches separated the crystal from the brilliant sunlight which would at last bring to life its slumbering fires.
Major Morris Zouga Ballantyne stood on the lip of the aerial ropeway high above the deep circular chasm where once a small hillock had risen above the flat and dreary landscape of the African continental shield.
Even in the fierce heat he wore a silk scarf at his throat, the tail of which was tucked into the buttoned front of his flannel shirt. Though recently washed and pressed with a heated stroking-iron, his shirt was indelibly stained to a dull reddish ochre colour.
It was the pigment of the African earth, red earth, almost like raw meat, where the iron-shod wheels of the wagons had cut it or the shovels of the diggers had turned the surface. Earth that rose in dense red dust clouds when the hot dry winds scoured it, or turned to bleeding glutinous red mud when the thunderstorms thrashed its surface.
Red was the colour of the diggings. It stained the hair of dogs and beasts of burden, it stained the clothing of the men and their beards and the skin of their arms, it stained their canvas tents and coated the corrugated iron shanties of the settlement.
Only in the gaping hole below where Zouga stood was the colour altered to the soft yellow of a thrush’s breast.
The hole was almost a mile across, the rim of it nearly a perfect circle, and its bottom already two hundred feet deep in places. The men working down there were tiny insect-like figures, spiders perhaps, for only spiders could have spun the vast web that glittered in a silvery cloud over the entire excavation.
Zouga paused a moment to lift the wide-brimmed hat, its pointed peak stained by his own sweat and the blown red dust. Carefully he mopped the beads of sweat from the smooth paler skin along his hairline, and then inspected the damp red stain on the silk bandanna and grimaced with distaste.
His dense curling hair had been protected by the hat from the fierce African sunlight and was still the colour of smoked wild honey, but his beard had been bleached to pale gold and the years had laced it with silver strands. His skin was dark also, baked like a crust of new bread, only the scar on his cheek was porcelain white where the elephant gun had burst so many years before.
There were little creases below his eyes from squinting in the sunlight at far horizons, and harsh lines cut his cheeks from the corner of his nose and ran down into the beard – lines of hardship and heartbreak. He looked down into the gaping pit below him and the green of his eyes clouded as he remembered the high hopes and bounding expectation that had brought him here – was it ten years before? It seemed like a day and an eternity.
He had first heard the name, Colesberg kopje, when he had stepped out of the bum-boat onto the beach at Rogge Bay below the vast square monolithic bulk of Table Mountain, and the sound of it had made his skin tingle and raised the hair at the nape of his neck.
‘They have struck diamonds at Colesberg kopje, diamonds big as grapeshot and so thick they’ll wear out the soles of your boots just walking across them!’
In a clairvoyant flash he had known that this was where his destiny would lead him. He knew that the two years he had just spent in old England, trying desperately to raise backing for his grand venture in the north, had been marking time for this moment.
The road to the north began in the diamond gravels of Colesberg kopje. He knew it with certainty as he heard the name.
He had one single wagon left, and a depleted span of draught oxen. Within forty-eight hours they were plodding through the deep sands that clogged the track across the Cape Flats, northwards six hundred miles to that kopje below the Vaal river.
The wagon carried all his possessions, and there were precious few of these. Twelve years following a grandiose dream had wasted his substance all away. The considerable royalties from the book that he had written after his travels to the unexplored lands below the Zambezi river, the gold and ivory that he had brought back from that remote interior, the ivory from four more hunting expeditions to that same haunting and yet sadly flawed paradise – all of it was gone. Thousands of pounds and twelve years of heartbreak and frustration, until the splendid dream had become clouded and soured and all he had to show for it was a tattered scrap of parchment on which the ink was beginning to yellow and the folds were almost worn through so that it had to be glued to a backing sheet to hold it together.
That parchment was ‘The Ballantyne Concession’ title for one thousand years to all the mineral wealth of a huge tract of the wild African interior, a tract the size of France which he had cajoled from a savage black king. In that vast territory Zouga had panned red native gold from the outcropping quartz reef.
It was a rich land and all of it was his, but it needed capital, huge amounts of capital, to take possession of it and to win the treasures that lay below it. Half his adult life had been spent in a struggle to raise that capital – a fruitless struggle, for he had not yet found a single man of substance to share his vision and his dream with him. Finally, he had in desperation appealed to the British public. He had journeyed to London once more to promote the formation of the ‘Central African Lands and Mining Co.’ to exploit his concession.
He had designed and had printed a handsome brochure, extolling the riches of the land he had named Zambezia. He had illustrated the pages with his own drawings of fine forests and grassy plains abounding with elephant and other game. He had included a facsimile of the original concession, with the great elephant seal of Mzilikazi, King of the Matabele, at its foot. And he had distributed the brochure throughout the British Isles.
He had travelled from Edinburgh to Bristol lecturing and holding public meetings, and he had backed up this campaign with full-page advertisements in The Times and other reputable newspapers.
However, the same newspapers that had accepted his advertising fees had ridiculed his claims, while the attention of the investing public was seduced by the flotations of the South American railway companies which unhappily coincided with Zouga’s promotion. He had been left with the bill for printing and distribution of the brochure, the fees for advertising and for the lawyers and the expenses of his own travelling, and when he had paid them and his passage back to Africa there remained only a few hundred sovereigns from what had once been considerable wealth.
The wealth was gone, but the responsibilities remained. Zouga looked back from the head of the span of dappled black oxen.
Aletta sat on the wagon box. Her hair was still pale gold and silky in the sunlight, but her eyes were grave and the line of her lips no longer sweet and soft, as though she had set herself against the hardships that she knew lay ahead.
Looking at her now it seemed impossible that she had once been a pretty carefree butterfly of a girl, the pampered darling of a rich father, with no thought in her head beyond London fashion newly arrived on the mailship and the preparations for the next ball in the glittering social whirl of Cape society.
She had been attracted by the romance surrounding young Major Zouga Ballantyne. He was the traveller and adventurer in far places of the African continent. There was the legend of the great elephant hunter that surrounded him, the glamour of the book that he had recently published in London. All Cape Town society was agog with this young man and envied her his suit.
That had been many years ago, and the legend had tarnished.
Aletta’s delicate breeding had not been equal to the rigours of the savage interior beyond the gentle and temperate airs of the Cape littoral – and the rough country and rougher peoples had appalled her. She had succumbed swiftly to the fevers and pestilences which had weakened her so that she suffered repeated miscarriages.
All her married life she seemed to be in childbed, or lost in the mists of malarial fever, or waiting interminably for the golden-bearded, godlike figure whom she worshipped to return from across an ocean or from the hot and unhealthy hinterland to which she could no longer follow him.
On this journey to the diamond fields, Zouga had taken it for granted that she would once again remain at her father’s home at the Cape, to guard her failing health and to care for their two boys, fruit of the only pregnancies which she had succeeded in bringing to full term. However, she had suddenly shown an uncharacteristic determination, and none of his arguments to make her remain behind had prevailed. Perhaps she had some premonition of what was to follow – ‘I have been alone too long,’ she answered him, softly but stubbornly.
Ralph, the eldest boy, was old enough by then to ride ahead of the wagon with his father and take his shot at the springbuck herds which drifted like thin pale brown smoke across the scrubby plains of the wide Karoo. Already he sat his rugged little Basuto pony with the panache of a hussar and he shot like a man.
Jordan, the younger boy, would sometimes take his turn at leading the fore oxen of the span, or wander away from the wagons to chase a butterfly or pick a wild flower; but mostly he was content to sit beside his mother on the wagon box while she read aloud from a small leather-bound book of romantic poetry, his green eyes sparkling with the thrilling sound of the words that he was still too young properly to understand and the brilliant Karoo sunlight turning his golden curls into an angel’s halo.
It was six hundred miles from Good Hope to the fields, a journey that took the family eight weeks. They camped each night on the open veld and the night sky was clear and cold and brilliant with white stars that shone like the diamonds that they were certain awaited them at the end of the journey.
Sitting beside the watch-fire with his two sons flanking him, Zouga would talk in that magnetic compelling tone that had the two small boys rigid with attention. He spun descriptions of great elephant hunts and ancient ruined cities, of graven idols and red native gold in the land to the north, the land to which he would one day take them.
Listening quietly from across the fire, wrapped in a shawl against the night chill, Aletta would find herself enchanted with the romantic dream, as she had been as a girl, and she wondered again at herself and the strange attraction of this intense golden-bearded man who was her husband of so many years and still so often seemed a stranger to her.
She listened as he told the boys how he would fill their caps with diamonds, fat glistening diamonds, and then at last they would set out on the final journey northwards.
She found herself believing it all again, though she had long ago experienced the first disillusion. He was so persuasive, so vital and strong and convincing, that the failures and the frustrations seemed of no account, only a temporary check on the destiny he had set for all of them.
The days rolled by at the leisurely pace of the wagon wheels and became weeks, weeks in which they travelled across a great sun-washed plain that was furrowed by steep dry watercourses and studded with the dense dark-green camel-thorn trees in whose branches hung the enormous communal nests of thousands of dry-land weaver birds, each nest the size of a haystack, growing until it snapped off the sturdy branch that supported it.
The monotonous line of the horizon was relieved by the occasional low hillock, the kopje of the African continent, and the track led them directly towards one of these.
Colesberg kopje. It was only weeks after they had arrived at it that Zouga heard the story of how the diamond hillock had been discovered.
A few miles north of Colesberg kopje the plain was broken by the bed of a wide shallow river, along whose banks the trees were taller and greener. The trek Boers had called it the Vaal river, which in the African Dutch taal means ‘the grey river’, the colour of its sluggish waters. From its bed and from the alluvial gravels of the flood plains along its course, a small colony of diamond diggers had for years been gleaning the odd sparkling stone.
It was dreary, back-breaking work and after the first rush of hopeful diggers only the hardiest had remained. These doughty souls had known for years that it was possible to pick up an occasional small diamond of inferior quality on the dry ground thirty miles south of the river, in fact the surly old Boer named De Beer who owned the ground in that area was selling licences to diamond claims on his property – although he favoured diggers of his own people and was notoriously prejudiced against granting ‘briefies’ to Englishmen.
For these reasons, and also for the more pleasant living conditions along the river, the diggers had not taken too much interest in the ‘dry diggings’ to the south.
Then one day a Hottentot servant of one of the river diggers rendered himself blind falling-down drunk with Cape Smoke, the fierce Cape brandy, and while in that state accidentally set fire to his master’s tent and burned it to the ground.
When he was once again sober, his master beat him with a sjambok whip of cured rhinoceros hide until he was once more unable to stand. When he recovered from his treatment, his master ordered him, still in disgrace, to go into the dry country ‘and dig until you find a diamond’.
Chastened and still wobbly on his feet, the Hottentot had shouldered his shovel and pack and limped away. His master promptly forgot him, until he returned unannounced two weeks later and placed in his master’s hand half a dozen fine white stones – the largest the size of the first joint of a lady’s little finger.
‘Where?’ demanded Fleetwood Rawstorne, the single word all that he could choke through a throat suddenly parched and closed with excitement.
Minutes later, Fleetwood galloped furiously out of camp, a cartload of scrapings from the river bed left untreated and his diamond ‘cradle’ abandoned halfway through the process of concentrating the heavier diamondiferous gravel. Daniel, the Hottentot servant, hung from his stirrup leather, his bare feet kicking up little puffs of dust as they skimmed the dry earth, and the red woollen cap that was the insignia of Fleetwood’s party blowing back from his bald head to flap like a flag beckoning others to follow.
Such behaviour instantly precipitated a wild panic amongst the fiercely competitive little community of diggers along the river. Within an hour a tall column of red dust rose above the flat dry land; a headlong column of horsemen flogged their mounts while behind them the Scotch carts rumbled and the less fortunate stumbled and slipped in the sandy footing as they ran the miles back southwards to old man De Beer’s barren hard-scrabble little farm on which rose another bald stony little kopje, just like ten thousand others that studded the plains.
The kopje was that same day in the bleak, dry winter of 1871 named ‘Colesberg’ kopje, for Colesberg was Fleetwood Rawstorne’s birthplace, and De Beer’s New Rush came swarming out of the dusty sun-bleached distances towards it.
It was almost dark when Fleetwood reached the kopje, only just ahead of his followers. His horse was blown, lathered with sweat and white froth, but the Hottentot servant clung to the stirrup leather still.
Master and servant flung themselves from the heaving staggering animal and ran at the slope. Their scarlet caps bobbing above the scrub thorn could be seen from a half mile distance, and a hoarse excited cheer went up from the ragged column that pursued them.
On the crest of the hill, the Hottentot servant had burrowed a shaft ten feet into the hard earth, a tiny scratch when compared to what was to follow. Frantic with haste, casting fearful glances down the hillside at the horde that raced up towards him, Fleetwood drove the centre line of his claim pegs across the narrow mouth of the shallow prospect shaft.
Night fell over a battlefield on which brawny diggers cursed each other and swung punches and pick-handles to clear the ground and drive their own claim pegs. By noon the next day, when farmer De Beer rode across from his primitive two-roomed dwelling to begin writing out the ‘briefies’, which was taal for ‘letters’, the entire kopje was covered with claim pegs; even the flat plain for a quarter of a mile below the slopes was bristling with pegs.
Each claim was thirty feet square, its centre and corners marked with a sharpened wood stake cut from a camel-thorn branch. On payment of an annual fee of ten shillings to farmer De Beer, the digger received his written ‘briefie’ which entitled him to hold and work the claim in perpetuity.
Before nightfall that first day the lucky diggers who had pegged the centre of the new rush had merely scratched the stony earth, but had turned up over forty stones of the first water; and already horsemen were away southwards carrying the word to the world that Colesberg kopje was a mountain of diamonds.
When Zouga Ballantyne’s single wagon creaked the last few miles down the rutted red earth track towards Colesberg kopje, it was already half demolished, eaten away as though by the maggots in a rotten cheese, and men still swarmed over what remained. On the dusty plain below it were encamped almost ten thousand souls, black and brown and white. The smoke from their cooking fires blurred the high china-blue sky with dirty grey, and for miles in each direction the diggers had almost denuded the plain of the beautiful camel-thorn trees to feed those fires.