Men of Men, стр. 1

Men of Men - _1.jpg

Wilbur Smith - B2 Men Of Men

This book is for my wife, Danielle, with all my love for ever

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 distilled drop of dirtied 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 rope-way 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 at 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 burn-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.

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