On a Dutch plantation in South Africa, two bored children are throwing rocks when their mother calls them inside and notices that one of her sons is holding a glittering, uncut diamond. These two children do not know it, but they have changed the course of a continent forever. When word reaches Europe that there are diamonds in South Africa just waiting to be plucked from the ground, men and women of all nations race south to make their fortune. Among them is young Barney Isaacs, a brawling Jewish boy who has dreams of becoming a gentleman—but who will be lucky to escape with his life.
When Barney joins his brother in the diamond fields of Kimberley, they find riches beyond their wildest dreams. But with wealth comes peril, and Barney soon finds that there are those who would kill for diamonds.
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About the Author
Fish died February 23, 1981, at his home in Connecticut. Each year at the annual Mystery Writers of America dinner, a memorial award is presented in his name for the best first short story. This is a fitting tribute, as Fish was always eager to assist young writers with their craft.
Read an Excerpt
By Robert L. Fish
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1981 Robert L. Fish
All rights reserved.
From the railing of the combination steam and sailing ship Anglian, anchored in the roadstead of Table Bay in Cape Town after its record run from its dock in the Thames in London, the sight was truly incredible. Young Barney Isaacs, hanging over the rail and trying to realize that he was indeed here in South Africa, had never seen or even imagined anything like it. Short months before he would have sworn he never would see anything like it in his life. The early summer sun was already heating the morning air and under its growing strength the wide harbor shimmered. Ships from all nations dotted the large bay, come to discharge sheets of corregated iron from Birmingham, machinery from Liverpool, cloth from Leeds, tin plate from Spain, casks and bales, cases and crates, all the welter of wares that make up the lifeblood of commerce—and also to offload adventurers intent upon reaching the diamond fields along the Orange and the Vaal Rivers, come, like Barney Isaacs, to make their fortunes.
The lighters that streamed back and forth across the bay, moving goods and men from the anchored ships to the crowded docks, made the normally placid waters choppy; the bright sun winked back at the young boy on the Anglian, reflected from the ruffled waters. To Barney Isaacs the scene looked and sounded like a court regatta he had once seen on the lower Thames staged for the amusement of the Queen, only here the activity was on a truly grand and confused scale. And when he raised his eyes from the bustle and stir in the bay—the shouting of the lightermen as they narrowly avoided one another, the creak of sail, the scream of steam whistles, the grating rattle of anchors being raised or dropped on one ship or another, the rasp of steam-driven winches—when he looked up from these, there was the calm spectacle of Table Mountain rising abruptly from the land, aloof from the tumult beneath it, satisfied to protect the city with its walled strength.
And the city itself, white and gleaming in the sunlight, running from the busy docks to flood the shallow plain between the sea and the mountain with houses and buildings, and even beginning to scatter itself on the little rivulets of land that ran up the slopes leading to the sheer cliffs, giving their inhabitants, Barney was sure, a superb view. It was a far cry from Cobb's Court and Petticoat Lane where he had been raised in London's East End slums; a far cry, indeed, from any part of sprawling, crowded London. It was tiny by any comparison with the British metropolis, of course, but distinct in every way. Everything seemed so clean. Especially the air, Barney thought, remembering the pea-soup fogs along the Thames, the coal-fired dank air that made his father choke and cough over his tailor's bench. Here a man could breathe! And the buildings were so white, not the sooty dark gray that seemed to be the only color to be found in the East End—
He looked around. It was Tommy Thomas, a stoker on the ship. The two had held a boxing bout for the entertainment of the first-class passengers about a week before landing; the hat passed around for the winner after the bout had gone to Barney. It had brought his total capital up to nearly twenty pounds, still no great amount as he well knew, and one that had to last him to Kimberley and probably awhile afterward.
"Hi," Barney said. "What's up?"
"Ain't you goin' ashore?"
"Sure, in a while. Why?"
"Last lighter's gettin' ready to shove off. Want a 'and with your gear?"
Barney grinned derisively. "What? Me sixty-four trunks full of me extensive wardrobe? Me fifty-five cases of jools and me eighteen crates of quid notes I carry just to tip the lower classes?" He shook his head. "I guess I can manage a couple of bags."
The stocky young stoker wet his lips. A more direct approach, it appeared, would be required. "Say, Barney, what I was tryin' to say—'ow about th' loan o' a quid?"
"Loan?" Young Barney looked at Tommy with amusement, the amusement of a person who had heard and seen everything in his young life, but nothing quite as comically outrageous as this. It was as good as anything anyone ever tried to pull back home in the King of Prussia. "And when d'you suppose we'd ever see each other so's you could pay me back me loan? We both know the answer to that 'un. Never."
Tommy Thomas grinned, the brash grin of a person with nothing to lose. "All th' better, then. Come on, Barney, be a sport! Y'picked up over eight quid when y'dumped me on me arse. An' y'got a brother struck it rich in th' diamonds up Kimberley way, y'said!"
"That's right on," Barney said. His voice had become quiet, intent. "Me brother struck it rich in the diamonds. Only what's his is his, it ain't mine. I ain't struck it rich yet. When I do, look me up. You'll get yer loan of a quid." He winked broadly and started toward his cabin to pick up his suitcases.
"'Ow about arf a quid, then? Ten stinkin' shillin'?"
"When I strike it rich in the fields, I'll make that a quid, ten shillin'," Barney promised expansively, and walked away.
Behind him, Tommy Thomas shrugged. He hadn't really had any great hopes of getting the money. The fault, he knew, was his own. He should have knocked the cheeky little Jew on his arse in the ring, instead of being knocked on his own. And the thing was he still couldn't figure out why he hadn't ...
There were seamen's quarters at the waterfront, rooming bins over the chandler's shops and the fish-and-chips shops, and bins they were and no more. Little cubicles with doors that did not lock, slivers of glass for windows in those cubbyholes lucky enough to be placed on an outer wall and then only giving a view of a similar wall a few inches away, with inner walls that were warped partitions that did not reach the ceiling of the long lofts, a small candle for illumination and the proprietor to put the candle out after nine at night. And the constant smell of rancid oil from the chips shops below, or worse, from the slops buckets put out in the narrow passageways for collection and which often waited there a day before being picked up. But the bin was a shilling a night, better than the three to five shillings it would have cost at a fancier rooming place. Barney started to push his two cardboard suitcases under the sagging cot and then with a frown drew them back. It didn't look the sort of place where his few possessions would be safe the minute they left his sight. He considered a moment and then picked them up, carrying them down the steps. The proprietor eyed him with a frown, and spoke around his cigar.
"No refunds, son."
"I'll be back to sleep. Just goin' out to see the town."
The proprietor removed his cigar from his mouth as if it helped him to stare. "Carrying two heavy suitcases? Leave them here. They'll be safe."
"They'll be safer in me hands," Barney said flatly, and turned, about to walk out into the street. Then he turned back. "Where d'they take off from, headin' for the fields? The diamond fields?"
The proprietor tucked his cigar back into his mouth and jerked his thumb toward the ceiling.
"Son," he said almost sadly, "half the rooms upstairs are filled with men come back from the fields. Ain't none of them come back rich or they wouldn't be staying here, and that's the fact. They're waiting for ships to get out, ships they can work their passage, but the crews are all full. A year or so ago a ship come into Cape Town and the crew was gone as soon as the anchor went down, off to the fields, all going to get rich! But now it's a different story. Men who've found diamonds in India and Brazil; if they're giving up it's because they know more than you and me. No, sir, son. The diamonds are all run out, and that's the fact."
"And I'm goin' up there anyways," Barney said, "so if you'll be so kind as to tell me where they take off from—?"
The proprietor heaved another sigh, shaking his head. "Son, how old are you?"
"You're short but you look fairly husky. There's work to be had, here in Cape Town. Not a bad place to live, either. Damn sight better than Kimberley. I could use a kid in here to help, myself—"
"I'll find the bloody place meself," Barney said flatly, and started to walk out into the street again.
"Hey! It's the Grand Parade, son. Up Dock Road to Adderley—that's the main street—then up a block on the left to Darling. It's just before the castle. You can't miss it."
"Thanks," Barney said dryly, and walked out.
The proprietor removed his cigar and studied it, as if it could help him make sense of the world about him. That's a tough little monkey, he thought, but a lot tougher than him got taught their lesson up in Colesberg Kopje and the other mines. I'll give him six months and he'll be back, tough as he is. And with a lot less lip. Still, if anyone ought to get by I suppose it would be someone like him. Looks like a bloody Boer with that light hair and them blue eyes, and thinks like an Englishman, with the streetwise brains of an East End kid. But even so, I give him six months. If he was any less tough, the proprietor told the unresponsive cigar, I'd give him three ...
The city, seen at close range, was far from as clean as it had appeared from the deck of the Anglian. Heavy traffic choked the Dock Road, wide as it was: carts, coaches, drays, men on horseback, ox wagons, each jostling to pass, raising clouds of dust that settled on everything; and always the danger of a load being dropped from one of the swinging davits that jutted from the decks of ships lucky enough to have found space along the crowded docks. And the wagons awaiting the crate or bale from the ships, blocking the road, their drovers exchanging insults with those forced to try and find passage around them. Still, Barney thought, it was different from the mud of the roads along the Thames, and at least there were not the piles of filth one had to step high to clear in almost every lane or narrow alley that led from the river in London into the city itself.
And the chandlers' shops along the Dock Road! Some of them even had samples of their wares stacked before their doors, something no Petticoat Lane merchant would have considered for an instant; he would have been stolen blind in five minutes if not in two. Barney marched along, his bowler far back on his head in the growing heat, his suitcases banging against his legs, his wide eyes trying to take in everything at once and still avoid being ridden down by a rider or a coach forcing its way through the crowd. Up the Dock Road to Adderley Street, no chance of mistaking that main road with its neat buildings on either side; and beyond the head of the road ending in gardens the majesty of Table Mountain giving a feeling of security and beauty to the scene. Then across Adderley, watching out again for the wagons, and up to Darling Street—and there it was, hard to mistake, the Grand Parade, off to the left, a vast space in a city where spaces apparently were ample and far different from crowded London. How fine this is! Barney thought, pleased to be there, pleased with the warmth of the day at a time when he knew London would be starting to get chilly and nasty and damp now that late fall had come, and wondered that he had passed his entire life in conditions he never would have questioned had he not, by pure accident, started out to join his successful brother. Well, the fact was that here he was in Cape Town, in southern Africa, mind you, thousands of miles from home, and to his surprise he was very happy about it.
The Grand Parade had once been exactly that, a parade ground adjoining the castle; now it was the center for the coaches and the mule trains to gather their custom and take off for Durban or Port Elizabeth, or the Colesberg Kopje—now, together with Dutoitspan and Bultfontein, renamed Kimberley in honor of the new Colonial Secretary—or Pretoria in the distant Transvaal, or to the Orange Free State, or places with exciting names waved before each coach or mule train on placards, places with names like Pietermaritzburg, or Bloemfontein; Roodepoort or Potchefstroom.
Barney set his suitcases down and stared about him. The scene was one of utter confusion. Hostlers attended to their charges, leading them to and from the area to stables across Darling Street and down Parliament and Plein streets, while drivers waved their placards and bawled their destinations and their hoped-for prices. Potential passengers moved from coach to coach, or from mule train to mule train, bargaining, attempting to select the least uncomfortable vehicle, studying the seats of the mule wagons or the springs of the coaches upon which they would be painfully jostled for the following weeks, asking after the food they would eat, or the places they would sleep. Arriving coaches discharged bone-weary passengers and immediately took up their place for new custom, the driver being exchanged for a brother or a cousin or an uncle while the exhausted man staggered off for a drink and a pallet. The sweating horses were backed from their traces and replaced with fresh ones while young lads swarmed over the newly arrived coaches with heavy feather dusters, attempting with small success to sweep away some of the grime of the trip coming through the Great Karroo or the Kalahari, depending upon the source of the trip, and older boys packed the wheel hubs with ox grease and made sure in a rapid inspection that the coach was sufficiently intact for the next trip.
Mules stood and stared in their sleepy uninterested way, while their drivers bargained not just for passengers but mainly for freight, freight that had a certain urgency for its delivery to justify its cost but was too heavy for the more fragile horse-drawn coaches, while still being light enough not to require the slower transport by ox wagon. The sight was something Barney could never have imagined, and he was still staring about almost in disbelief when he felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up into a familiar, friendly face. It was a middle-aged man who had been on the Anglian, a first-class passenger; the one, actually, who had started to pass the hat for contributions after his boxing bout, insisting that an exhibition such as Barney had put on deserved a decent reward.
"Ah! Young Barney Isaacs! Ready to go off and make your fortune in the diamond fields, I see."
"Yes, sir. You, too?"
The man smiled and shook his head. "No, no. I'm a Capetonian and prefer it that way. I'm merely here to see that some equipment of mine gets to Bloemfontein within a reasonable period of time. When are you leaving?"
"I—I dunno, sir." Barney hesitated and then cleared his throat. "Sir—I can't get what they're all sayin', there's so much yellin' and such. How much d'they want to get to Kimberley?"
"Oh, they bargain, but in general the cheapest is around sixty pounds to go by coach, and about twenty to go by mule train. Mule train takes almost twice as long, of course. Almost a month, I'm afraid."
"Sixty quid!" Barney swallowed. "Sir, how d'you get there if you ain't got nowhere near money like that? I mean, if you can't spare even the twenty quid for the mules?"
"Well, now." The man looked at Barney a bit speculatively and then smiled. "You won a bit better than eight pounds on your boxing skills aboard ship, as I recall. And I will be honest and say I did a bit better than that by wagering on you. I liked the way you looked. So suppose I lend you another twelve pounds to add to your eight, and off you go by mule train? You'll repay me when you can."
Barney shook his head decisively. "No, sir. 'Nei'der a borrower ner a lender be.'" He suddenly grinned. "Me, I just said no to Tommy Thomas on board ship to be the one, and I ain't about to start bein' the other right after."
The man's eyebrows went up. Shakespeare? From this youngster from the London slums? Incredible! Almost unbelievable. "Tell me, Barney," he said. "Are you familiar with Hamlet? Or was that just something you once heard someplace?" His eyes were steady on the lad, prepared for almost any answer.
Excerpted from Rough Diamond by Robert L. Fish. Copyright © 1981 Robert L. Fish. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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