Read Men of Men Online

Authors: Wilbur Smith

Men of Men

BOOK: Men of Men
2.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

This book is for my wife

MOKHINISO

who is the best thing

that has ever happened to me

Contents

Men of Men

VICIOUS CIRCLE

I
t 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.

M
ajor 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.

H
e had first heard the name, Colesberg kopje, when he had stepped out of the bum-boat onto the beach at Rogger 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 Karroo. Already he sat his rugged little Basuto pony with the panache of a hussar and he shot like a man.

BOOK: Men of Men
2.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

For a Few Demons More by Kim Harrison
The New Year's Wish by Dani-Lyn Alexander
Corkscrew and Other Stories by Dashiell Hammett
Dating For Decades by Tracy Krimmer
From Harvey River by Lorna Goodison
Exposure by Kathy Reichs