A page-turning adventure set in Cape Town and the Kalahari desert of the 1890's diamond rush to the Vaal and Orange rivers
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Jerold Richert Novels
Jerold Richert Novels
Bracelet of the Morning
Lured by the promise of riches when diamonds are discovered at the Vaal River in 1870, Charles Atherstone, a threadbare poster artist from a Brighton carnival, joins the rush, only to find on arrival at Cape Town that he has insufficient funds to pay the coach fare to the diggings - a journey of some seven hundred miles. An unsuspecting dreamer, he is the perfect mark for Fleetwood Erskine Tucker, a gentleman thief from London who is also in the colony to make his fortune, but who finds himself suddenly with a more pressing need to escape the local law.
An exciting, often both hazardous and humerous twin jouney of Charles and Fleetwood, their adventures and trials in the rugged wilderness of the Kalahari, their frantic search along with thousands of other hopefulls for diamonds along the Vaal River diggings. A colorful parade of characters in the byegone days of ox-wagons, coaches, waxed moustaches and mutton chops. A tangle of Boers, wild baboons, wild Bushmen and occassionally even wilder diggers. But at its heart it is a story of rich emotions and love.
The land breeze arrived at dawn. Warm and fragrant, it wafted across Table Bay like an awakening sigh, bringing to the weary passengers lining the rail of the barque, Avocet, their first scent of Africa, and they stirred anxiously, preparing themselves for what may lay ahead. The ship too, stirred and came reluctantly round to the wind, her ancient timbers groaning as if in protest at being aroused from her well-earned rest
'Hands on deck!'
The Bosun's bellow was echoed several times below amidst the grumbling of sleepy men and the thumping of bare feet.
'Foresail and mizzen for a starboard tack, Mister Franks.'
'As you say, Cap'n.'
The passengers moved hastily clear of the rail to give the crew room, standing in a tight group amidships, and strangely silent now as they peered into the gloom ahead for the first sight of the famous flat-topped mountain.
Charles Atherstone stood apart from the others. Seasickness and the resulting loss of appetite had pared him down to the extent his trousers bagged at the seat and the pale skin of his elbows showed through the threadbare sleeves of his coat. Much of his time had been spent shivering on deck, where he could at least inhale fresh air and receive forewarning from the waves of the otherwise unpredictable motion of the ship, and the equally unpredictable heaving of his stomach. Despite his exposure to the elements, they had done little to improve his sallow complexion. It came as no surprise to his fellow travellers when he informed them he was not joining the diamond rush as were they, but intended to take up employment in the colony as a clerk.
It was approaching noon by the time the barque finally docked and the wharf was in chaos. From one end to the other it was cluttered with dirty unpainted wagons, tangled mules, and hordes of black labourers, all of whom seemed intent on shouting louder than the next man as they carried the bales and barrels from the ship to the waiting jumble of wagons.
After disembarking Charles lingered to watch the activity from beside the security of a wagon. The blacks did not look at all like the dangerous savages he had been led to expect. They carried no spears or shields, and wore a strange mix of cast-off settler clothing in place of animal skins and feathers. Some even wore top hats, while others donned ladies’ bonnets worn back to front, and one, sporting only the brim of a Derby, wore also a pink gown that had been hacked off at the hips, presumably to better display the frilly lilac bloomers. An overseer, wielding a short length of tarred rope, charged into a group arguing over a fallen stack of barrels, one of which had broken and spilled its contents. The labourers scattered hastily, leaving the overseer engulfed and cursing in a white haze of flour.
The sudden crash of a cannon sent Charles scurrying and diving for cover under the wagon. He peered out anxiously. It did not appear to be an uprising. As if it had been a signal, the labourers surrendered their bundles to the ground where they stood and sauntered cheerily away towards the nearest shade.
Sheepishly, Charles retrieved his bag and picked his way warily through the deserted wagons and onto the streets of Cape Town.
Fleetwood Erskine Tucker considered himself a gentleman. It was evident in the the stylish quilting of his brocaded satin waistcoat, the fashionable yellow and brown check of his taylored trousers, and the perfect twin curls of his waxed moustache.
On a hot humid morning in the summer of 1870, he sat with his polished boots atop the balcony railing of the Hotel de Europe in Cape Town, smoking a cigar and watching the boatload of newly arrived hopefuls as they passed below on their way to Yorky's Bar.
Fleetwood had been watching them arrive for the past year; lured to the colony - as he himself had been - by the promise of easy riches. But having a cynically practical turn of mind when it came to easy money, Fleetwood, unlike most, had quickly assessed the situation for what it was. Only an imbecile, he believed, could be sucked in by the stories of diamonds lying on the ground simply waiting to be picked up, and the gullibility of the dreamers who believed the stories was a source of never ending amazement to him.
He knew that the vast majority of the new arrivals would fail, of course, like many had before, and those lucky enough to stumble over a gem would be forced to sell it at a bargain price to the first illicit diamond buyer - or kopje walloper as they had become known – that came along, so they could then buy supplies at grossly inflated prices to avoid starvation.
Fleetwood had learned that only the large consortiums, merchants, and registered diamond buyers made money, and the latter was an avenue he had explored thoroughly before rejecting. Authorised diamond buying required too large an outlay of ready cash, and illicit buying was too risky.
Not that the illegality of illicit dealing deterred Fleetwood - if anything that was a challenge - but wandering around with bags full of money and diamonds in a camp overflowing with the world’s riff-raff was a little too adventurous for his liking. A safer, more rewarding means had to be available other than scrabbling in the dirt or fighting off ruffians. A way more suited to his own particular talents, and which would also allow him to enjoy the luxurious hospitality of the Hotel de Europe rather than the primitive conditions at the diggings.
To Fleetwood’s unending delight and astonishment, it had proved to be not that difficult. The vast majority of diamonds found at the Vaal River eventually passed through Cape Town on their way to London, conveniently parceled and well guarded, but there was always a weak link, Fleetwood believed, and it had not taken him long to find it.
Despite the oppressive heat, Fleetwood was thoroughly enjoying himself. A bottle of the best French champagne nestled in the ice tub at his side, and the smoke from his cigar drifted slowly heavenwards in the still air, leaving behind a rich enveloping flavour of well-being.
He ran his fingers lovingly over the front of the waistcoat, once again enjoying the sensuous feel of the satin. He was immensely proud of the garment, which he had designed himself, and the diamond pattern of the quilting appealed hugely to his sense of humour.
Mister Mooljee, the renowned Indian tailor who had made it, would have been horrified had he known that the black silk lining he had sewn on with such meticulous care had been unceremoniously ripped out and replaced with coarse red sail cloth. He would have been even more alarmed had he known that before the lining was replaced with such a common and garish substitute, at least one carefully wrapped diamond had been pushed into each segment of the quilting.
Excluding the inflated fee for tailoring, Fleetwood estimated its worth at around fifteen thousand pounds; enough to set him up comfortably in Mayfair - where his former associates seldom ventured - for the rest of his life. He patted the quilting affectionately. It was a trifle bold perhaps, and rather warm in weather like this, but still a great comfort to have close to his skin.
That the contents were stolen did not bother Fleetwood in the slightest. The diamonds would no doubt be well insured, so the diggers - or more likely the buyers who had cheated them - would lose nothing. If anyone were to lose, Fleetwood reasoned, it should be the Department of Customs who had shown such criminal disregard for the safety of the diamonds while in their posession.
Smiling with contentment, Fleetwood silently toasted His Majesty’s Department of Customs and Excise with the last of the champagne. Then, with the Derby tilted forward against the glare, he settled lower in the canvas chair with a contented sigh and gave himself over to day-dreaming about the furore that would erupt when the package supposedly containing the gems finally reached London.
Tugging at his ear in indecision, the Chinese Malay stood hesitantly on the balcony behind the sleeping man. He had tried coughing politely, noisily shuffling his feet, and even a tentative 'Suh?' But the man in the chair snored on.
He reached to shake him by the shoulder, then paused. Such familiarity may provoke anger. Instead, he redirected his claw-like hand to the tilted Derby and rapped sharply on the crown as if it were a closed door.
With a snort of alarm, Fleetwood snatched the Derby from his face at the same instant as his feet clattered off the railing to the floor. Startled, he looked wildly about, and the Malay took a precautionary step back, glancing towards the open French doors.
'Ha!' Fleetwood caught the movement at the limit of his vision. 'What the devil do you think you're doing?' He reached quickly for the reassuring feel of the waistcoat and started to rise, then abruptly changed his mind. His head throbbed abominably. He shook it experimentally. The effect was not encouraging.
With a groan he dipped his handkerchief in the now tepid water of the ice tub and dabbed gently at his forehead. Noticing that a mouthful of champagne still lingered in the bottle, he swigged it back, grimacing at the sour flat taste. He turned his head cautiously to peer once more at the waiting Malay.
'Good Lord! What a wretched fellow you are... what the devil do you think you're doing waking me in such a manner?' He squeezed the handkerchief dry then held it to his face. 'What the blazes do you want?' He lowered the cloth to squint suspiciously up at the Malay. 'Me no gottee money. Me no givee money Chinee... understand?'
The Malay bobbed his head and smiled, the action causing his eyes to disappear into the folds of his yellow skin at the same time as his lips split wide to reveal foul-looking purple gums. He shuffled forward and held out a soiled scrap of paper.
Fleetwood recoiled slightly, eyeing the paper suspiciously but making no move to take it, and the Malay shook it as if to reassure him it was quite safe.
Fleetwood took it warily by the corner, as if it may suddenly come alive. It was so tattered and grubby as to be barely recognisable as a note but, with a final accusing look at the Malay, he turned it the right way up and began to read.
Fleetwood read the note three times.
The first time he was inclined to believe he was still dreaming and things had simply taken a nasty turn.
The second time he snorted in derision as if it were some cheap practical joke, and was barely able to restrain himself from tossing the note over the balcony in disgust.
On the third reading, a sufficient quantity of information penetrated the champagne fog to make sense, and Fleetwood began to melt into his chair. Blisters of sweat broke out on his forehead and dripped from his nose to splatter on the note, further blurring the words, which his shaking fingers caused to swim before his eyes. His shoulders slumped as if a heavy chain had been draped around his neck. The wax on his moustache had become a victim of the heat and the once proud upward sweeps had uncurled into forlorn droops. They began to twitch spasmodically.
Fleetwood fumbled in his waistcoat pocket for a coin and held it out without looking, and the Malay clasped it with both hands then backed away through the doors.
Fleetwood sat for a long time staring vacantly at the note, his eyes clouding with self pity. All he had needed was another two days. Two short days before the ship sailed for England, taking Toby Hollings with it and out of his life forever. But the imbecile had not been able to wait even that short a time. Like all his low criminal class he had to get himself drunk and arrested at the first opportunity. And there was no doubt whatsoever he would squeal at the first glimpse of the cat. It had been a mistake to give him the money so soon. He should have made him wait until the very last moment, then escorted him to the ship himself.
Fleetwood eased slowly out of the chair to pace the balcony, cursing Toby Hollings with as much vigour as his throbbing head would allow.
He would have to leave Cape Town immediately, that was certain. By now, not only Hollings, but also most of the inmates of Newmarket Gaol would know where he was living. It was little comfort they knew him by a false name. Even the most simple-minded clod in the police force would be able to trace him to the hotel.
Fleetwood lit a cigar with a trembling flame and tried to think. It was not the first time he had been in a tight spot. It was only the first time he had been in a tight spot in the colony, and he had hoped to avoid such unpleasantness in his fresh start on life
He made a concerted effort to evaluate his situation. As yet, no diamonds had been reported missing. At least that was something in his favour. But eventually they would be, and to save his neck, Hollings would lead the police directly to him. It was only a matter of time.
The waistcoat pressed heavily against Fleetwood's chest, and for the first time he regretted having had it made in such a heavy and ostentatious style. He loosened the buttons and took a deep breath, dabbing at the beginnings of a heat rash on his chest with the handkerchief.
A cannon thundered from the fort on the hill, signalling noon, and the flock of pigeons dozing overhead on the ornate facade of the hotel exploded in a panicky flapping of wings. Fleetwood also started, then automatically checked his pocket watch. Thinking on the run was a prerequisite of his profession. He took another deep breath then gave his full attention to solving his latest predicament.
What he needed, he finally decided, was a red herring; someone to lead the police astray and keep them amused while he was going in the opposite direction. And if the police were going to be looking for a parcel, it seemed only right that he should provide one. It would have to be obvious, of course, so their limited intelligence would not be unduly over-taxed - and he would need a sucker to carry the parcel.
Fleetwood tossed the cigar over the rail with sudden purpose. That should not be too difficult. An entire boatload of suckers had arrived only that morning from England.