In 1963, the small mountain kingdom of Basutoland (now Lesotho) was a British protectorate three years from Independence. Diamonds had been discovered in 1957 at Letseng-la-Terai (now the Letseng Diamond Mine), but its inaccessibility at 10,000ft made it unviable as a commercial venture and in 1959 it was declared a government digging. Optimistic and enterprising local Basuto registered small leases, battled up a single mule track and used picks and shovels through baking heat in summer and thick winter snowfalls to discover generally low grade ore. However, some extraordinary finds, such as the 601 carat Lesotho Brown in 1967 and the 478 carat Leseli La Letšeng distinguish the Letseng Diamond Mine for having the highest dollar value per carat of any diamond mine.
If Basutoland’s mineral wealth was not internationally appreciated at the time my novel, Diamond Mountain, is set, its geographical location was. Landlocked by apartheid South Africa, its strategic importance was recognised by world powers such as China, Russia and South Africa, who enticed Basutoland’s fledgling political parties with money and overseas scholarships in the years prior to Britain formally granting Independence on 4 October 1966.
Prior to Independence, Basutoland was divided into ten districts, each administered by a District Commissioner, ultimate authority residing with the Resident Commissioner who was based in the capital, Maseru, which had a population of about 500 Europeans and 5000 Africans.
By contrast, the remote, mountainous region of Mokhotlong, where much of my story is set (and where I was born), consisted of a small African village, a few African public servants, half a dozen European Government employees, a few European traders, and none of Maseru’s amenities such as running water, sewerage and electricity. A ten-bed government hospital employed a doctor and a few nurses.
Mokhotlong’s District Commissioner, Charles Tremain, is a fictional character based on my father only in terms of his position and responsibilities. As the resident representative of the British Government, he had wide administrative authority that included performing the functions of magistrate. The DC worked with, and respected, the traditional chieftainship system, but intervened if there were criminal issues such as medicine murder and other breaches of a criminal nature, including Illegal Diamond Buying (IDB), two key themes in my novel.
Although my father served as Mokhotlong’s District Commissioner in 1963, I have taken liberty with dates and it is emphasised that all characters and day-to-day events are from the author’s imagination and should not be confused with fact.
Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
Philippa Tremain pursed her mouth and applied a generous coating of Love that Red! as she swayed in time to Frank Sinatra’s honeyed tones drifting through the corridors of Fuller Hall.
In front of the mirror near the door, her roommate Susan interrupted her wailing over the coffee stain that had forced her into her less flattering pale blue chiffon for tonight’s party and pointed through the window of their corner room at Cape Town University’s Women’s Residence.
“Don’t tell me the Maluti Mountains look better than the sun shining on Table Mountain!” The rival merits of the mountains they’d left behind in the tiny African kingdom of Basutoland where they’d grown up, and the majestic backdrop to South Africa’s beautiful legislative capital where they were studying, was a source of ongoing friendly rivalry.
Philippa flicked a brief glance away from the mirror. The only view she was interested in was her reflection since Matthew was due to arrive any moment.
“Beautiful,” she said, ignoring the opportunity to make the usual case for her home country as she stepped into the middle of the room and did a twirl in her favourite, wasp-waisted, full skirted evening dress. “Now, should I wear my green silk stole or the red? Oh! Surely that’s not Matthew already!”
Ignoring Susan’s squeal of indignation, she dashed across the worn carpet and opened the door to the smiling, fair haired young man in a well-cut dinner suit she’d been waiting for all evening.
“My word, don’t you look gorgeous, Philippa?” To her delight, he kissed her on the lips then offered her his arm. “Shall we go? Oh, hello Susan. I didn’t see you there.”
Susan hurriedly put away her makeup bag and smoothed her wayward wispy hair that was neither blonde nor red as she greeted Matthew with a plea to give her a few more minutes.
“Sharky’s meeting us at the bottom of the stairs. Follow when you’re ready,” Matthew said, not taking his eyes off Philippa as he led her out of the girls’ dorm room and into the corridor.
Outside, the spring night air was crisp and clear. As they paused at the top of the stairs to gaze at the mountain backdrop, Philippa rested her head on Matthew’s shoulder and imagined this view from the terrace of the home she dreamed of owning with Matthew one day. In Bishopscourt, perhaps. Certainly it would be in one of the smartest addresses. A Myburgh wouldn’t live anywhere else.
“A bit different from your mountain, isn’t it?” he remarked. And then, to her delight and astonishment, added, “I’d love to see your mountain.” He cleared his throat and looked down at her. “Actually, I wondered if I could go on trek with your dad some time. Perhaps when he’s got something interesting on. An Illegal diamond buying investigation, for instance.”
“Philippa! Telephone call from Maseru!”
Philippa caught the irritation in Matthew’s expression as she glanced over her shoulder at Josie’s shout from across the dorm.
“Tell Josie to say you’ve left for the party! We’re already late!” Susan joined them, slightly breathless at the top of the steps, and took Matthew’s other arm, while Philippa reluctantly disengaged herself.
“That’s a wonderful idea, Matthew,” Philippa responded to his earlier remark, wishing she could say more but conscious of the expense for every second she kept her father waiting, and concerned because a telephone call from Maseru usually meant something was happening at home. “I’ll ask daddy. I’m sure he’d love the company.” She turned, waving over her shoulder as Susan hurried her boyfriend – she couldn’t wait until she could call him that in public – towards the green MG that had just drawn up, Sharky at the wheel brandishing a bottle of stout. “I’ll get a lift with Frank and Josie, later. Daddy’s probably waited an hour to get through.”
“See you at the party, then!”
It would have been nice if Matthew had offered to stay. Philippa paused before going inside but her friends seemed to have forgotten her as the car drove down the drive and out of sight, its occupants making a lot of noise as they headed towards the much-anticipated party.
Settling herself on a chair in the corridor, she picked up the receiver Josie had left hanging by the cord, itching to be with her friends but knowing she must lift her father’s gloomy spirits.
“Sorry, daddy. Everyone’s in a mad rush here. We’re off to Angela Myers’s twenty-first birthday.” It was an effort to keep her tone light and bright. “How’s things in the mountains?”
“Oh, same as usual.” Her father’s measured voice came back down the line followed by the long pause that usually signalled whether he was deciding whether to impart weighty news.
“There was another murder last week in the Qthing district. I doubt you’d have read it in the Cape Times.”
She ran her tongue over suddenly dry lips. “Do you think-” Philippa wasn’t sure if she should ask the question but carried on anyway – “the same chief is responsible for this one, too? I’m sorry, daddy.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “It’s been more than six months since the last one so I’d hoped it was all over.”
“It’s the same chief, obviously. But let’s see what the investigation turns up, eh?”
The line crackled and Philippa strained to catch what her father was saying before his voice returned, crisp and business-like. “Now…I wondered if you’d thought about coming home for half term.”
Philippa smoothed her chignon, reluctant to say no. Before she could answer he went on, his voice a little more hopeful, “I know there’s room on the Saturday flight from Maseru to Mokhotlong. Deborah from Drakensberg Air said Mrs Vermoed has just cancelled as she’s staying in Durban another week. Of course, it’s a long journey to make from Cape Town but thought I’d put it to you, nonetheless.”
Philippa breathed out slowly. Mrs Myburgh was hosting a tennis party the following Saturday and Philippa desperately hoped Matthew would use this opportunity to invite her to the family home. “I’m so sorry, but I can’t, daddy,” she said in a rush. “There are quite a few things on and …. Matthew’s introducing me to his parents,” she lied.
To his credit, her father hid his disappointment. “Of course, of course. And is this boy worthy of you, my darling? Mrs Lehmann asked if she’d be hearing wedding bells soon.”
Philippa tried for a light-hearted laugh and to not to think of the horrible rumours that Matthew’s stellar rugby career might be sufficient incentive for him to fail his final law exams so he could play for Cape Town University another year. That was a topic she intended to tackle with Matthew after she’d made a good impression on his parents. “We’ve only been seeing each other for a few weeks. I can’t wait for you to meet him, though. Oh, and, daddy! He said he’d love to go on trek with you when you’re involved in some interesting investigation that coincides with holidays, maybe.”
“I’m sure that could be arranged. Just as long as he makes you happy.” Her father sounded more relaxed, now. “Why don’t you bring him home with you at Christmas? So I can reassure your dear mother that I’ve done my due diligence when it’s my time to meet her at the Pearly Gates.”
There was a short, awkward silence. Philippa hated it when he used levity to broach the painful subject of her mother’s death.
“Mummy would have definitely approved of not just Matthew but of Mrs Myburg, too,” Philippa said firmly. “Or, at least her dress sense.” She laughed to diffuse the tension. “Mrs Myburgh was in the social columns of Saturday’s Argus and this month’s issue of Fair Lady.”
The line crackled as their connection was interrupted, before Philippa heard, “Well, good for her. Now, you’ve got a party to go to so I won’t keep you talking.”
“And you enjoy your weekend sleep-in, daddy.”
She was about to replace the handset but he took advantage of the opportunity to refute her assumption. “Early start for me, I’m afraid. The Resident Commissioner wants the preliminary report on the medicine murder investigation by next week. Stuart will pick it up en route to Letseng La Terai. Anyway, I mustn’t keep you.”
Despite Philippa’s urgency to be gone, she was suddenly curious. “Stuart, the pilot? I thought he went back to England.”
“For his mother’s funeral. He returned last week.” Her father chuckled. “I wondered if you’d ask. You had quite a crush on him, if I recall. I have no doubt the Lehmanns and Oosthuysens were all involved in making sure he was rostered to fly you out to school when you were sixteen.”
“Oh, daddy, really!” Philippa felt her cheeks burn. “What gossipers they are. Didn’t they have anything else to do?” She turned at the sound of heels clicking down the stairs.
Josie, clinging to the arm of her latest boyfriend Frank who played left wing with Matthew, had come to a half before her, looking cool and elegant in a green, full-skirted evening gown, her dark elfin looks complemented by her fashionable pixie cut. “Daddy, I have to go now. My friends are waiting. Have a good weekend. Bye!”
“Don’t you two look a sight for sore eyes?” remarked Frank gallantly as Philippa replaced the hand set. He offered her his free arm and led the girls down the steps towards his car, Philippa shivering at the sharp breeze that cut through her silk stole and with anticipation for the evening ahead.
Surely his parents would kybosh any ideas their eldest son had about delaying his entry into the family law firm simply so he could play rugby? Nothing seemed more important right now.
“Sorry we took so long,” said Josie as they hurried along the corridor. “Matthew will be champing at the bit. He probably doesn’t want a late night because of tomorrow’s match.”
Frank gave a snide laugh. “He’ll probably not worry about that after a few beers.”
Philippa laughed, hoping he was right. Even if her relationship with Matthew hadn’t raced ahead with the speed she’d have liked, things looked like they were ticking along nicely. Tonight, she fondly hoped, he’d even prioritise her over tomorrow’s rugby match at Newlands.
Frankie drove fast, turning into the jacaranda-lined avenue on two wheels before screaming to a halt in front of the cottage where music could be heard from the street. Excited, the girls smoothed the skirts of their dresses and bit colour into their lips as their escort helped them out of the car.
It was impossible to locate Matthew with so many densely packed bodies crowded into the small sitting room but Philippa was happy to be waylaid by a group of admirers in the passageway.
“Hey, Philippa, are you going to top the class again and make Tommy cry?” one asked, handing her a glass of champagne. Philippa liked John the resident clown who mocked himself as much as anyone else. He might be clever but brains didn’t count for much on their own in their circles. John was popular because he made people laugh while Matthew enjoyed star billing because not only was he Adonis-handsome, he was their best rugby hope. The only reason Philippa had any sort of cachet was because she’d been Cape Town University’s Rag Queen earlier that year.
And because she was going out with Matthew.
“Tommy, you didn’t really cry, did you? It was just a silly philosophy paper!” she cried in mock concern as Tommy, dressed in a dinner suit like the others, emerged beside John, brandishing a champagne bottle.
“Cried? I nearly drowned in anguish. Everyone consults me on the meaning of life whereas you…” he pointed an accusing finger at her, “know nothing if you insist on going out with no-hoper Matthew Myburgh!” He grinned as he carelessly emptied champagne into the various upturned glasses held out towards him, seeming unperturbed by the shrieks of those whose feet got wet in the process.
Everyone was in high spirits and Philippa always had a full glass of bubbles in her hand. Someone asked her a question but she was so shocked to hear the clock struck ten, she couldn’t reply. Not only was it hard to hear, but after an hour of she didn’t know how many glasses of champagne, it was becoming harder to focus.
“Sorry, I must find Matthew,” she excused herself, blinking rapidly to clear her mind. A few couples were jitterbugging on the Chinese rug that occupied a tiny rectangle of space amongst the crowd and furniture that had been pushed against the walls. “Has anyone seen Matthew?” she called into the din. She hadn’t caught a glimpse of him all night.
“Philippa… your hair! You look just like Audrey Hepburn! And I love your dress!” Marcia Didcott was smiling at her as she lounged upon the arm of a comfy chair, ruffling the hair of a young man who appeared to be asleep. “Where did you get it?”
“I made it.” Philippa was proud of her dressmaking skills. Despite her father’s position in the Colonial Service there wasn’t a lot of money to splash around but her mother had come from a wealthy family in England where she and her three sisters were known for their style. The burnt orange, wasp-waisted Ciel creation was Philippa’s favourite.
It also brought back bittersweet memories of her mother directing operations from her sick bed while Philippa and Francina, their housemaid, had cut it out and sewn the pieces together.
“You haven’t seen Matthew have you, Marcia?” She didn’t want to think about her mother right now.
Marcia pointed to the ceiling. “He was up there half an hour ago.”
Philippa pushed through the crowded sitting room then picked her way past people sitting on the stairs. Upstairs, a couple was kissing in the corridor, swaying to the mellifluous tones of Bobby Darin playing below, their arms wrapped tightly around each other.
It was quieter up here and Philippa’s head began to clear just a little. The Persian runner muted her kitten-heeled pumps as she trailed from room to room in search of Matthew. She felt guilty that so much time had passed since she’d arrived at Angela’s party before she’d even started to look for him.
The first door she tried was locked. The second bedroom was unoccupied.
Her frustration grew as she turned back. Where was Matthew? He surely wouldn’t have left the party without her?
At the far end of the corridor she noticed an alcove which hid another room. The cottage was like a rabbit warren and much bigger than it looked from the outside.
Pushing open the door and murmuring a tentative greeting for fear of interrupting something, Philippa blinked at the sound of a muffled shriek before her attention was diverted by some furtive scrambling and smoothing of skirts and hair as someone rolled off the bed.
Cringing at the realisation she had interrupted a lovers’ tryst, she was about to back out again when the high pitched, feminine wail, “It’s not what you think, Philippa!” made her instinctively pull the cord by the door to turn on the light.
“Susan?” Philippa took a few steps forward, gasping when she saw Matthew scrambling off the bed, straightening his tie while Susan, now sitting on the ground, smoothed back her passion-spoiled chignon and straightened her blue net skirts.
“We weren’t doing anything, really!”
“No, darling, you’ve got quite the wrong idea-”
Philippa jerked her arm back as Matthew reached forward, his aftershave enveloping her like a cloud of betrayal. “How could you, Matthew?” Tears stung the back of her eyes though her anger was more for Susan as she clung to the door frame. “And you, Susan! I thought you were my best friend!”
“Please, Philippa. Don’t go!” It was Matthew now, pleading innocence. “It’s not what you think.”
But in the harsh light there was no mistaking the lipstick on Matthew’s shirt collar and around his mouth, nor the guilt on both of their faces.
Without waiting to hear another word, Philippa spun round and ran from the room.
Circling vultures had led the two herd boys to the body at the base of the ravine. Petreous, regaling the crowd of miners with the grisly news from the top of a boulder, shivered in rags flapping in the icy wind that howled through the diggings, his cheeks growing pinker and his gestures more extravagant as his equally ragged listeners gasped at every detail.
Stuart gathered that the victim was an albino, his ears and testicles cut away, familiar hallmarks of medicine murder or diretlo. After four years in Basutoland he had a smattering of Sesotho but he was having trouble understanding Petreous whose responses reflected the fast and furious questioning of the men jostling each other on the barren ground.
He leant across to Moses, the young police trooper he’d just flown from the lowlands into Letseng la Terai and who was also straining to catch the main points of Petreous’s theatrical account.
“Where did they find the body? Buthe Buthe? The second in two weeks?” Stuart knew, as a white man, he was in no danger of becoming the next victim. Medicine murder was a chief’s way of instilling fear into his villagers.
“Mokhotlong district,” Moses confirmed, rubbing his eyes as a handful of gritty snow swept across the barren landscape. “Tell the DC you heard it from me, Rra,” he added with a grin, hoisting the box of provisions he’d brought for his two-week rotation at the diamond diggings onto his shoulder. “Ah, but it is a very bad business.”
A second murder was very bad business indeed. Only that morning Stuart had picked up Charles Tremain’s preliminary report on the previous murder to deliver to the Resident Commissioner in Maseru.
“I’ll make sure he knows.” Stuart turned in search of his passengers for the return journey down the mountain now that the group of miners was beginning to disperse.
With the facts disseminated there’d be wild speculation to follow but dark storm clouds were gathering with the speed of vultures alerted to fresh carrion. Stuart glanced at his watch. He couldn’t afford to miss his window of opportunity to be airborne when tonight’s dinner date with Lizzie Dunlop at Lancers Inn was going to decide his future.
The District Commissioner’s request that Stuart pick up his daughter, Philippa, on an unscheduled stop in Mokhotlong part way down the mountain en route to Maseru, had really thrown a spanner in the works.
“Muketsi!” he shouted to a grizzle-headed miner cackling with a group of friends around the rocky detritus of his diamond lease. Petreous had disappeared amongst the miners, some huddled in traditional colourful Basuto blankets, as they discussed the news amidst the rocks and debris of the barren diggings. “We’re going now, now!”
He raised his collar against the biting cold as he waded through thick snow to untie the plane. Fortunately the wind hadn’t changed direction but with such a short east-west runway, conditions could become unflyable in an instant.
Stamping his feet to keep warm, he sent an anxious glance at the sky. Stuart wasn’t going to spend his Friday night freezing in a flapping tent, listening to the clang of loose sheets of corrugated iron if he could help it.
In just a few hours he wanted to be gazing into Lizzie’s cornflower blue eyes, chinking wine classes as they listened to a blues pianist at a table in the smartest restaurant around. He’d chosen it specially.
Because, who knew what might happen after dinner?
Lizzie was contemplating a nursing position that had come up at Grey’s Hospital in Pietermaritzburg but if tonight went well, she’d stay. All Stuart had to do was suggest she turn down the job offer across the border and it would be tantamount to a marriage proposal.
And while Stuart wasn’t sure Lizzie was the girl he wanted to spend the rest of his life with, there’d been precious few alternatives during his four years in this remote Colonial outpost.