On May 6, 1899, we sailed from Southampton on the S.S. Norman. We purposed to spend a few months in Rhodesia, but such is the frailty of human plans that eventually we stayed in South Africa for one year and three months.
Dr. Jameson was our fellow-passenger to Cape Town, and with him we travelled up to Bulawayo, and passed five weeks there as the guests of Major Maurice Heaney. Part of this time we spent on the veldt, far from civilization, sleeping in tents, and using riding ponies and mule waggons as transport. I can recommend this life as a splendid cure for any who are run down or overworked. The climate of Rhodesia in the month of June is perfection; rain is unknown, except as the accompaniment of occasional thunderstorms; and it is never too hot to be pleasant. Game was even then practically non-existent in Matabeleland, but our object was to inspect the mines of Major Heaney's various companies. The country was pretty and well wooded, and we crossed many river-beds, amongst them the wide Umzingwani. This stream is a mighty torrent during the rains, but, like many others in South Africa, it becomes perfectly dry during the winter season, a peculiarity of the continent, which caused a disappointed man to write that South Africa produced "birds without song, flowers without smell, and rivers without water."
While camped on the banks of this vanished river, we used to hear lions roaring as evening fell, and could distinguish their soft pads in the dry sand next morning; but they were so shy that we never caught a glimpse of one, nor could they be tempted into any ambush.
During these weeks the abortive Bloemfontein Conference had been holding its useless sessions; the political world seemed so unsettled, and war appeared so exceedingly likely, that we decided to return to Cape Town, especially as Mr. Rhodes, who was expected out from England almost immediately, had cabled asking us to stay at Groot Schuurr, where we arrived early in July. A few days afterwards I had a ticket given me to witness the opening of the Legislative Council, or Upper House, by Sir Alfred Milner. It was an imposing ceremony, and carried out with great solemnity. The centre of the fine hall was filled with ladies—in fact, on first arriving, it gave one the idea of a ladies' parliament; but in a few minutes the members filed in, shortly before the state entry of His Excellency the Governor. Then, for the first time, I saw the man of the hour; dignified without being stiff, and looking every inch his part, he went through his rôle to perfection. The speech was, as usual, utterly devoid of interest, and, contrary to the hope of excited partisans, Transvaal affairs were studiously avoided. A few days later we went to Government House to be introduced to Sir Alfred; he at once impressed a stranger as a man of intense strength of mind and purpose, underlying a somewhat delicate physique, which was at that time, perhaps, enhanced by a decidedly worn and worried expression of countenance. Later on I had many conversations with Mr. Rhodes about the Governor. He used to say—and no one was better qualified to judge—that Sir Alfred Milner was one of the strongest men he had ever met. "In the business I am constantly having to transact with him, connected with the Chartered Company," he remarked, "I find him, his mind once made up, unmovable—so much so that we tacitly agree to drop at once any subject that we do not agree on, for nothing could be gained by discussing it. I allow he makes his decisions slowly, but once made they are irrevocable."
Mr. Rhodes used also to say he admired beyond words Sir Alfred's behaviour and the line he adopted in that most difficult crisis before the war. "He assumes," said his appreciator, "an attitude of perfect frankness with all parties; he denies himself to no one who may give him any information or throw fresh light on the situation; to all he expresses his views, and repeats his unalterable opinions of what is required."
Other people told me how true these words were, and how ingeniously and yet ingenuously Sir Alfred Milner contrived to treat a unique position. Standing alone, the central isolated figure, surrounded by a young and inexperienced staff, his political advisers men for whom he could have but little sympathy, and whose opinions he knew to be in reality diametrically opposed to his and to the present policy at home, the Governor steered clear of intrigue and personal quarrels by his intensely straightforward and able conduct. He was in the habit of almost daily seeing Mr. Rhodes, financiers from Johannesburg, military men thirsting for war, who were commencing to arrive from England, as well as his Cabinet Ministers. To these latter he probably volunteered information about the other interviews he had had, thereby disarming their criticisms.
From one great man I must pass to another. A few days after our arrival at Groot Schuurr, Mr. Rhodes and Sir Charles Metcalfe arrived from England. Incidentally I may mention the former's marvellous reception, and the fact that nearly five miles of road between Cape Town and Groot Schuurr were decorated with flags and triumphal arches, while the day was observed as a general holiday. This had happened to him in a minor degree so often before that it did not arouse much comment. The same evening we attended a monster meeting at the Drill Hall, where thousands of faces were turned simultaneously towards the platform to welcome back their distinguished citizen. The cheering went on for ten minutes, and was again and again renewed, till the enthusiasm brought a lump to many throats, and certainly deeply affected the central figure of the evening. This meeting, at which no less than a hundred addresses were presented from every part of Africa—from the far-off Zambesi to the fruit-growing district of the Paarl, almost entirely populated by Dutch—even this great demonstration that one great man was capable of inspiring quickly faded from my memory in view of the insight which three weeks as his guest gave me of the many sides of his life, occupations, and character. The extraordinary strength of will and tenacity of purpose, points always insisted on in connection with him, seemed on nearer acquaintance to be merely but a small part of a marvellous whole.
It often used to occur to me, when with Mr. Rhodes, how desirable it would be to induce our sons and young men in general to imitate some of the characteristics which were the motive power of his life, and therefore of his success. I noticed especially the wonderful power of concentration of thought he possessed, and which he applied to any subject, no matter how trivial. The variety and scope of his many projects did not lessen his interest in any one of them. At that time he was building four railways in Rhodesia, which country was also pinning its faith to him for its development, its prosperity, and, indeed, its modus vivendi. Apart from this, Cape politics, although he then held no official position, were occupying a great deal of his time and thoughts in view of future Federation. It was, therefore, marvellous to see him putting his whole mind to such matters as his prize poultry and beasts at the home farm, to the disposing of the same in what he termed "my country," or to the arranging of his priceless collection of glass—even to the question of a domicile for the baby lioness lately presented to him. Again, one moment he might be talking of De Beers business, involving huge sums of money, the next discussing the progress of his thirty fruit-farms in the Drakenstein district, where he had no fewer than 100,000 fruit-trees; another time his horse-breeding establishment at Kimberley was engaging his attention, or, nearer home, the road-making and improvements at Groot Schuurr, where he even knew the wages paid to the 200 Cape boys he was then employing. Mr. Rhodes was always in favour of doing things on a large scale, made easy, certainly, by his millionaire's purse. Sometimes a gardener or bailiff would ask for two or three dozen rose or fruit trees. "There is no use," he would exclaim impatiently, "in two dozen of anything. My good man, you should count in hundreds and thousands, not dozens. That is the only way to produce any effect or to make any profit." Another of his theories was that people who dwelt in or near towns never had sufficient fresh air. During one of our morning rides I remember his stopping a telegraph-boy, and asking him where he lived. When the lad had told him, he said: "I suppose there are no windows in your cottage; you had better go to Rhodesia, where you will find space, and where you won't get cramped ideas." Then he rode on, leaving the boy staring at him with open eyes. An attractive attribute was his love of his early associations, his father especially being often the theme of his conversation. He used freely to express his admiration for the type the latter represented, now almost extinct, of the old-fashioned country clergyman-squire. He held with tenacity to the traditions of his childhood in having always a cold supper on Sunday evenings, instead of the usual elaborate dinner, also in having the cloth removed for dessert, to display the mahogany, of which, alas! few of our tables are now made. With stupidity, or anything thereto approaching, he was apt to be impatient; neither could he stand young men who affected indifference to, or boredom with, the events and sights of the day. I often used to think, however, he frightened people, and that they did not show to their best advantage, nor was their intelligence at its brightest when talking with him. I now refer especially to those in his employ.
To his opponents in the political world he was generous when discussing them in private, however bitter and stinging his remarks were in public. I remember one evening, on Mr. Merriman's name being mentioned, how Mr. Rhodes dilated for some time on his charms as a friend and as a colleague; he told me I should certainly take an opportunity of making his acquaintance. "I am so fond of Merriman," he added; "he is one of the most cultivated of men and the most charming of companions that I know. We shall come together again some day." And this of the man who was supposed then to hate Cecil John Rhodes with such a deadly hatred that he, an Englishman born, was said to have been persuaded to Dutch sympathies by his vindictive feelings against one great fellow-countryman. Before leaving the subject of Mr. Rhodes, I must note his intense kindness of heart and genuine hospitality. Groot Schuurr was a rendezvous for people of all classes, denominations, and politics; they were all welcome, and they certainly all came. From morn till eve they passed in and out, very often to proffer a request, or, again, simply to pay their respects and have the pleasure of a few minutes' chat. After his morning ride, Mr. Rhodes, if nothing called him to town, usually walked about his beautiful house, the doors and windows of which stood open to admit the brilliant sunshine and to enable him to enjoy glimpses of his beloved Table Mountain, or the brilliant colours of the salvia and plumbago planted in beds above the stoep. I often call to mind that tall figure, probably in the same costume in which he had ridden—white flannel trousers and tweed coat—his hair rather rough, from a habit he had of passing his hand through it when talking or thinking. He would wander through the rooms, enjoying the pleasure of looking at his many beautiful pieces of furniture and curiosities of all sorts, nearly all of which had a history. Occasionally shifting a piece of rare old glass or blue Delft china, he would the while talk to anyone who chanced to come in, greeting heartily his old friends, and remembering every detail of their circumstances, opinions, and conduct. Concerning the latter, he did not fail to remind them of any failings he had taken note of. Those who were frauds, incompetent, or lazy, he never spared, and often such conversations were a source of much amusement to me. On the other hand, those who had been true to him, and had not veered round with the tide of public opinion after 1896, were ever remembered and rewarded. It was remarkable to note the various Dutch members of the Assembly who dropped in, sometimes stealthily in the early morning hours, or, like Nicodemus, by night. One such gentleman came to breakfast one day, bringing as a gift two curious antique pipes and a pouch of Boer tobacco. The pipes were awarded a place in a glass cabinet, and the giver most heartily thanked; he finally departed, well pleased with himself. Now comes a curious trait in the man's character. Before leaving he whispered to a friend the request that the fact of his visit should not be mentioned in Cape Town circles. This request was naturally repeated at once to Mr. Rhodes, much to the latter's amusement. As ill-luck would have it, the cautious gentleman left his umbrella behind, with his name in full on the handle; this remained a prominent object on the hall table till, when evening fell, a trusted emissary came to recover it.
I often used to visit the House of Assembly or Lower House during that session, and it was instructive to note the faces of the Opposition when Rhodesia and its undoubted progress were subjects of discussion, and especially when Mr. Rhodes was on his feet, claiming the undivided attention of the House. It was not his eloquence that kept people so attentive, for no one could call him eloquent; it was the singularly expressive voice, the (at times) persuasive manner, and, above all, the interesting things his big ideas gave him to say, that preserved that complete silence. But, as I said before, the faces of his then antagonists—albeit quondam friends—hardly disguised their thoughts sufficiently. They were forced to consider the country of the man they feared—the country to which he had given his name—as a factor in their colony; they had to admit it to their financial calculations, and all the time they would fain have crushed the great pioneer under their feet. They had, indeed, hoped to see him humbled and abashed after his one fatal mistake, instead of which he had gone calmly on his way—a Colossus indeed—with the set purpose, as a guiding star ever before his eyes, to retrieve the error which they had fondly imagined would have delivered him into their hands. Truly an impressive and curious study was that House of Assembly in the session of 1899.
The number of people, more or less interesting, whom we met at Groot Schuurr, seemed to pass as actors on a stage, sometimes almost too rapidly to distinguish or individualize. But one or two stand out specially in my recollection. Among them, a type of a fine old gentleman, was Colonel Schermbrucker. A German by birth, and over seventy years of age, he had served originally in the Papal Guard, and had accompanied Pio Nono on the occasion of his famous flight from Rome. Somewhere in the fifties, at the time of the arrival of the German Legion, he had settled at the Cape, and had been a figure in politics ever since. His opinions were distinctly English and progressive, but it was more as an almost extinct type of the courtly old gentleman that he impressed me. His extreme activity for his years, his old-world manners, and his bright intelligence, were combinations one does not often meet, and would have made him an interesting figure in any assembly or country. Another day came Judge Coetzee, erstwhile Kruger's confidant and right hand, but then of a very different way of thinking to his old master. His remark on the warlike situation was as follows: "Kruger is only a white Kaffir chief, and as such respects force, and force only. Send sufficient soldiers, and there will be no fighting." This was also Mr. Rhodes's view, but, as it turned out, both were wrong. In the meantime the sands were running out, and the troops were almost on the water, and yet the old man remained obdurate.
Outside the hospitable haven of Groot Schuurr I one day met Mr. Merriman at lunch as the guest of Mr. and Mrs. Richard Solomon. Considerably above the average height, with a slight stoop and grey hair, Mr. Merriman was a man whose appearance from the first claimed interest. It was a few days after his Budget speech, which, from various innovations, had aroused a storm of criticism, as Budgets are wont to do. Whatever his private feelings were about the English, to me the Finance Minister was very pleasant and friendly. We talked of fruit-farming, in which he takes a great interest, of England, and even of his Budget, and never did he show any excitement or irritation till someone happened to mention the word "Imperialist." Then he burst out with, "That word and 'Empire' have been so done to death by every wretched little Jew stockbroker in this country that I am fairly sick of them." "But surely you are not a Little Englander, Mr. Merriman," I said, "or a follower of Mr. Labouchere?" To this he gave an evasive reply, and the topic dropped. I must relate another incident of our sojourn at Cape Town. Introduced by Mr. Rhodes's architect, Mr. Baker, we went one day to see a Mrs. Koopman, then a well-known personage in Cape Town Dutch society, but who, I believe, is now dead. Her collection of Delft china was supposed to be very remarkable. She lived in a quaint old house with diamond-paned windows, in one of the back streets, the whole edifice looking as if it had not been touched for a hundred years. Mrs. Koopman was an elderly lady, most suitably dressed in black, with a widow's cap, and she greeted us very kindly and showed us all her treasured possessions. I was disappointed in the contents of the rooms, which were certainly mixed, some very beautiful things rubbing shoulders with modern specimens of clumsy early Victorian furniture. A room at the back was given up to the Delft china, but even this was spoilt by ordinary yellow arabesque wall-paper, on which were hung the rare plates and dishes, and by some gaudy window curtains, evidently recently added. The collection itself, made by Mrs. Koopman at very moderate prices, before experts bought up all the Dutch relics, was then supposed to be of great value. Our hostess conversed in good English with a foreign accent, and was evidently a person of much intelligence and culture. She had been, and still was, a factor in Cape politics, formerly as a great admirer of Mr. Rhodes, but after 1896 as one of his bitterest opponents, who used all her considerable influence—her house being a meeting-place for the Bond party—against him and his schemes. We had, in fact, been told she held a sort of political salon, though hardly in the same way we think of it in England as connected with Lady Palmerston, her guests being entirely confined to one party—viz., the Dutch. This accounted for a blunder on my part. Having heard that Mrs. Koopman had been greatly perturbed by the young Queen of Holland's representations to President Kruger in favour of the Uitlanders, and seeing many photographs of this charming-looking girl in the room, I thought I should be right in alluding to her as "your little Queen." "She is not my Queen," was the indignant reply; "Queen Victoria is my Queen." And then, quickly turning to Mr. Baker, she continued: "What have you been telling Lady Sarah to make her think I am not loyal?" Of course I had to disclaim and apologize, but, in view of her well-known political opinions and sympathies, I could not help thinking her extreme indignation a little unnecessary.
Lord Randolph Churchill died in January, 1895.
The soldiers' graves in South Africa have since then been carefully tended by the Loyal Women's Guild.
The President's favourite psalm was said to be the 144th, which he always believed was written to apply specially to the Boers.
Major Heaney is an American, and was one of the pioneers who accompanied Dr. Jameson to Mashonaland in 1891.
Mr. Richard Solomon, then Attorney-General, now Sir Richard Solomon.