Morag McDonald curled up beside the ancient sea chest read again the faded writing on a yellowed sheet found amongst her mother’s treasures.
3rd November 1896
A Mining Company has offered me £5000 for a twelve-month option on the reef I wrote you about. Urquhart, their engineer knows me well and was very satisfied on his visit which resulted in the Company offer. I am however doubtful for I’m certain that a good partner who has a small stamp battery would be a better proposition. A quartz reef four feet wide going 30dwts gold to the tonne is worth a lot more than a few thousand pounds.
I’ve my mind on a likely partner but he’s scared of coming out as the Matabele are rather threatening just now and there’s talk of a rising. Hoping a few mails hence will bring you gladsome tidings.
Your affectionate brother,
Laying down the letter the girl picked up another also faded but good stout paper headed from one of the British South Africa Company’s Administrative offices.
March 10th 1897
I regret to inform you that no further information regarding Mr Donald MacDonald, Prospector, is available other than that his name is amongst those of outlying whites who are posted as missing. It is my painful duty to inform you that no hopes can be entertained of his still being alive.
As regards your query re Mr MacDonalds’ mining claims we find that two blocks of ten claims each are registered in his name.
Enquiries confirm your statement that these claims were inspected by the Bubi Mining Company‘s engineer and that the Company offered to take them on a £5000 option. Investigations have been made but we possess only the vaguest information regarding the location of Mr MacDonald’s claims and so far the search has proved fruitless.
We will bear in mind your letter and communicate immediately if any information reaches us.
I am Madam,
Your Obedient Servant, John Smith. Secretary
“Thirty-four years ago,” murmured Morag, “Father wrote several times but neither Donald’s mine or anything of him has ever been found. Now I’m alone and four hundred pounds to use as feathers for my wings. What’s the use of staying here? There’s nobody I’d like to marry and I’m sick of typing in Glasgow. If Amy Johnson can fly the Atlantic alone what’s to stop a strong healthy Hebridean lass travelling comfortably to Rhodesia to look for an Uncle’s grave and his mine.”
Morag MacDonald was Celtic whose vivid imagination worked as impulsively as any in her cousin’s race of Erin. Born and bred in Uist two years of typing in a Glasgow Shipping office had filled her with a distaste for the crofting life of her people. I’m Hielan through and through, as Hebridean as the Tangle she would laughingly declare “but I’d rather be singing “The Road to the Isles” than taking it, except for a holiday.”
A month ago her father had been lost at sea in a fishing boat, yesterday her mother had been bedded within the stone-walled enclosure over which the storms drove the Atlantic spray; her four brothers lay in bloodstained tartan under the poppies of Loos and Longueval. “Uncle Alan can have the Croft for the hundred pounds he offered and Father MacEachern will give me letters to the priests and nuns of Rhodesia” murmured Morag closing the chest. She went into the living room where waited, her Aunt and Cousin.
Father MacEachern as Morag had thought offered no opposition to her plans. An ex-Army Chaplain and an ex-Missionary the old priest had travelled widely about the world, a Gael who knew and understood his race the Father shrugged his shoulders when Morag’s tale was told, took snuff voluminously and patting her head told her to be of good cheer and comfort.
“There’re are aye Hielan folk wherever one goes in the world girleen and there’s always a Catholic Church. You’re a good looking less but your head’s not an empty one. I’ve brought you up in the knowledge of right and wrong and whilst you remember that you’re Catholic and McDonald no harm will come to you. When will you be faring forth Morag?”
“Within the month, Father, I hope! Uncle Alan and I will be going to Inverness the day after tomorrow and as soon as the business of transferring the croft and settling the estate is over I will book my passage.”
“And I will be coming up to London to find Rhodesian people to talk over the country with you and help as far as an old wanderer can.” said the priest violently blowing his nose as after shaking hands he watched the slim figure face the boisterous Atlantic Wind.
So, well furnished with letters of introduction to Hebrideans and Catholic priests scattered about Africa, well-stocked chests and suitcases of goods and gear recommended by members of the Rhodesian High Commissioner staff Morag McDonald waved a cheerful farewell from the second class deck of a Union Castle liner as the tugs drew her from the Southampton Wharf.
Morag was wholly unused to mixing with strangers a feeling that she was free to do as she liked. Her life in Glasgow had been lived with cousins whose interest was centred on their parish church and the Clan gatherings in the Highland Institute. Men had played no part whatever in her 22 years of life but Morag was quite aware that she was attractive and rich red blood flowed strongly through her veins.
Father MacEachern had seen to it that her cabin mate was one of her own Faith a Rhodesian lady of Irish extraction but Mrs O’Connor was a cheery happy-go-lucky lady still young and possessing a number of friends aboard.
She and Morag took to one another at sight. “Heaven be praised, Miss MacDonald! When Father O’Reilly asked me to look after a young Scottish girl I thought my good nature was going to land me with some uninteresting kid who’d spoil my whole voyage. You and I are going to be friends, however. Let’s wander around and see what sort of men we’ve shipped.”
A tour of the vessel proved quite satisfactory to the Rhodesian. “Three excellent bridge partners at least, Colonel Devereaux to look after our chairs and cushions, several charming boys for you to play with – and they’ll all be very nice to me or I’ll shoo them away from the bonnie wee lassie. Quite satisfactory Morag, my dear. Now let’s go and see what frocks you possess.”
Mrs O’Connor shook her head over Morag’s wardrobe – “Looks as though you let the nuns choose it, Old Dear!” she laughed “Fortunately what you have is good and I’m excellent with the needle beside possessing a few spare frocks we could alter. Jane and no-nonsense about her has a thin time these days Morag.”
Liking her new friend, feeling her judgement to be trusted and full of feminine desire to be at her best Morag made no demur to her companion’s advice and devoutly thanked her patron saint that so good at friend had come her way. Morag possessed a slim well-rounded figure, beautiful brown eyes, a mass of silky black hair, a perfect skin and firm white teeth.
Dressed by Mrs O’Connor and finished off by the Liner’s barber, the girl proved as irresistible to the menfolk aboard as honey to bees.
Three weeks of games, dances, whist drives, and concerts, Morag ever laughing and merry, the pet of all aboard. The honour of taking tea on the Captain’s Bridge, the fun of the sitting betwixt two grinning tars helping to paint the ship, her violin and voice much in request at concerts, and her pick of partners at dances. “Heavens Mrs O’Connor just think if I’d stayed on the croft or gone back to the office.” cried Morag.
The other laughed “It’s good fun, isn’t it? But the party’s soon over and cake gives place to bread and butter. Another fortnight and we’ll all be in harness scattered over the length and breadth of Africa. What are actually your plans, Morag, all I know of you is that you’re travelling to Bulawayo in connection with an Uncle’s mining property? They’ve shoals of MacDonalds in Rhodesia especially Bulawayo and as I don’t know many of the mining people I haven’t questioned you – this shows what an unfeminine woman I am. My husband’s ranching as you know and I’ve begged you to come to us for as long as you like. Where do you intend staying?”
Morag laughed “You’ll think me entirely daft, Mollie, but here are the facts. I’ve four hundred pounds and one of my uncles was a pioneer who found a rich gold mine. He was killed in a rebellion amongst the natives but neither the mine nor his body was ever found. I’ve come to look for them.”
Mollie O’Connor held up her hands. “Morag you foolish little devil buy a hundred tickets in our Unity Club and the Dublin Sweepstakes, put the rest of your money in the bank and come and live with me till I’ve found you a husband. Rhodesia’s full of lost prospectors’ bones and gold mines and if one does find a mine one’s troubles have only begun. The country’s full of topping youngsters who’ll look on you with more favour than on any mine that’s ever been found and you’d make a bonnie Rhodesian.”
Many thanks, Mollie. I’d love to spend a few weeks with you if I might, but I’ve a queer feeling that instinct or my Uncle’s spirit will lead me to the Ben na Conn claims.”
“More likely into losing your money and getting a typist job, you goose.” announced Mrs O’Connor “anyway I’ll look after you.”
As Mollie O’Connor said the party was nearing its end. A few more days and Morag watched a looming mass of white cloud and grey rock showing through the dawn. Table Mountain with its flanking peaks towering over the ancient Tavern of the Seas warning the happy crowd of ships’ friends that the time of parting had come.
A wonderful week at the Cape with Mollie, “you couldn’t afford to miss it, Morag.” declared her friend “I’ll wire Pat that I am unavoidably detained to look after a friend.” So a party of merry Rhodesians surfed in the long lines of smashing waves amongst the thousands of bathers at Muizenberg, climbed the dizzy heights of Table Mountain and travelled restfully down in the wonderful aerial railway; yachted in Table Bay, explored quaint Dutch Villages hidden in mountain glens amidst a wealth of oak and vine and fruit blossom; flirted, laughed and sang.
Then ‘Bundle and Go’ on the bagpipes cried. Mollie and faces turned Northwards as she and Morag watched hills and orchards flit past the thundering mail, looked down the giddy depths of the Hex River Valley and stared wonderingly out at the wastes of the Great Karroo.
“What’s come over you, Morag?” asked Mrs O’Connor. The Highland girl shook her head “I’ll be alright soon” she whispered “but och the country is waesome and unfriendly. Nothing but graves and stones and ports and bigness. I’m seeing kilts waving, the bayonets flashing in the hills, the pipers sounding on the march and at the onset and I’m hearing nothing but Lochaber No More and Mo Dachaidh being played over poor torn bundles of tartan. Thanks be, my brothers sleep in the flowers and kindly soil of France but there’s plenty of my kin lying in the ground we’re passing.”
Mollie swallowed hard “I’d one brother – Away Morag what matters where a soldier lays his bones or a Rhodesia either. The veld is kindlier than a town cemetery. Let’s wander into the Dining Saloon. Kimberley of the Diamonds, then grass and trees taking the place of a desolate waste of stones, hills and tiny bushes. Bechuanaland with the country growing forestlike and every halt filled with interest as the swarming hoards of scantily dressed natives strove to find customers for their toys and skins and fruit.
“Seven o’clock tomorrow, Morag and the fun’s over” laughed Mrs O’Connor.
But at Seven next morning, Morag felt that the fun had only begun. Pat O’Connor was a denizen of the new world into which she was entering and he, large sun-blackened and picturesque in Double Terai hat, shorts and khaki shirt seemed a fitting person to introduce her into it. Laughingly Pat waved aside his wife’s suggestion of the Majestic “What’s wrong with the old Criterion, Molly? I’ve got a room there as usual and Malcolm will fix up Miss MacDonald – here’s the porter he’ll see to your gear.”
Morag liked the atmosphere of O’Connor’s choice of hotels and after a steaming bath and change set down to make an excellent breakfast with half a dozen Rhodesian men who seemed to her like masquerading schoolboys. The O’Connors were undoubtedly popular and well known. Men came from all parts of the dining room to shake hands with and tease Mrs O’Connor, brought chairs, cups of tea and plates of food to further crowd their corner, argued over cattle, mines and contracts.
Puzzled and amused the Hebridean girl listened to the gay chatter wondering how on earth so queer a collection could be found. Some seemed rich and others poor, some were owners and others workers, some employers, some employed yet all used one another’s Christian names, ignored if they possessed, any social differences and treated each other and apparently life in general as one huge joke.
“Take Miss MacDonald up to the Mining Commissioner, Joe,” called Mollie when breakfast was at last finished “She’s come out to look for a lost mine found by one of the pioneers.”
“Gosh,” said a burly individual in shirtsleeves and khaki trousers “Is Miss MacDonald one of our crowd? I’ll sell you as bonnie a mine lassie as anyone can wish for the £6000 pounds I’ve put into it.”
“And taken £2000 out.” laughed a short, unshaven tough looking specimen.
“Now Miss MacDonald I’ve…”
“No, he hasn’t – come on Miss MacDonald.” following her guide whom Morag took to be a workman, the girl was amazed to find him provided with a big expensive car amongst whose luxury fittings were tossed picks, shovels and two cases one marked gelignite and the other White Horse Whiskey.
“Push the cases out of the road Jock” ordered the burly one called Joe – the short unshaven man obeyed.
“Climb in next to me Miss McDonald, Jock can cuddle the dynamite or the whiskey – we’ve all the world’s curses in the car, Miss MacDonald.”
“What are they, Mr… Mr…?”
Maxwell commonly called Joe answered the other “a pretty girl, a case of whiskey, one of dynamite and a bar of gold worth £2000” and he kicked at a plain wooden box – “lift it, Miss MacDonald.”
As Maxwell started the car Morag tried to lift the little box
“Oh,” she exclaimed, “It’s lead.”
“Hope the Bank doesn’t think so.” Roared the others, “It’s my month’s output of gold.” Awed Morag gazed at the box.
“Oh, I hope I find my Uncle’s Mine” she cried as the car stopped a little way above the hotel.
“Well here’s where you’ll be a regular caller then Miss MacDonald – come and be introduced to the Mining Commissioner.
Morag introduced to a quiet and courteous gentleman thought of Mrs O’Connor’s hint. Her story told, the Mining Commissioner proceeded to end the fun.
“The story of Mr MacDonald and the Ben Na Conn claims is a well-known one Miss MacDonald.” said the Commissioner “A score of prospectors have hunted over the supposed locality of the claims. We know that property well and that the claims must lie within a certain small area. Both geological formation and areas in which men still living were working, limit the locality to an area which has been industriously combed. Neither threats nor promises of reward have extracted any information from natives in and about the area. It’s heavily timbered country, badly broken by erosion and through geological causes. One might hunt for years and never find the reef for quite likely there were native lands in its vicinity and the natives ploughed or hoed over the claims concealing all signs of them ever having been worked. If you take my advice, Miss MacDonald, you’ll have a trip to the Falls and the Matoppos, take a run to Zimbabwe and Umtali then either accept a billet or return to Scotland. If you’ll keep in touch with me I think I can safely promise you a fairly decent office post. In the meantime, if you’d care to meet my wife I’m sure she’d be delighted to call on you. May I bring in one or two experienced mining men who will undoubtedly confirm my opinion?”
The Mining Commissioner spoke truly. The three cheery gentlemen asked, expressed opinions that confirmed the Commissioners….