Such were the preoccupations, the intrigues and the emotions which, all through that monotonous winter of 1900-1901, agitated the inhabitants of and the visitors to Groote Schuur. Rhodes himself seemed to be the one man who thought the least about them. It is certain that he felt hurt in his pride and in his consciousness that the good which he had wanted to do failed to be appreciated by those whom he had intended to benefit. But outwardly he made no sign that the matter interested him otherwise than from a purely objective point of view, that of the statesman who thinks that it is part of his duty to put his services at the disposal of his country whenever required to do so. He felt also slightly surprised to find, once he had expressed his willingness to use the experience of South African affairs which he had acquired and which no one in the Cape possessed with such thoroughness, that the people who had appealed to him, and whom he had consented to meet half-way, would not give him the whole of their confidence; indeed, they showed some apprehension that he would use his knowledge to their detriment.
When one reviews all the circumstances that cast such a tragic shade over the history of these eventful months, one cannot help coming to the conclusion that there was a good deal of misunderstanding on both sides and a deplorable lack of confidence everywhere. Rhodes had entirely lost ground among his former friends, and would not understand that it was more difficult, even on the part of those who believed in his good intentions, to efface the impression that he had been playing a double game ever since the Raid had deprived him of the confidence and support which previously were his all over Cape Colony.
The whole situation, as the new century opened, was a game of cross purposes. Sir Alfred Milner might have unravelled the skein, but he was the one man whom no one interested in the business wished to ask for help. And what added to the tragedy was the curious but undisputable fact that even those who reviled Rhodes hoped he would return to power and assume the Premiership in place of Sir Gordon Sprigg.
In spite of the respect which Sir Gordon Sprigg inspired, and of the esteem in which he was held by all parties, it was generally felt that if Rhodes were once more at the helm he might return to a more reasonable view of the whole situation. In such an office, too, it was believed that Rhodes would give the Colony the benefit of his remarkable gifts of statecraft, as well as wield the authority which he liked so much to exercise, for the greater good of the country in general and of the British Government in particular. I believe that if at that moment Cecil Rhodes had become the head of the Cabinet not one voice, even among the most fanatic of the Afrikander Bond, would have objected. Those most averse to such a possibility were Rhodes' own supporters, a small group of men whose names I shall refrain from mentioning.
All true friends of Rhodes, however, must surely have felt a keen regret that he wasted his talents and his energy on those entangled and, after all, despicable Cape politics. The man was created for something better and healthier than that. He was an Empire Maker by nature, one who might have won for himself everlasting renown had he remained "King of Rhodesia," as he liked to call himself. There, in the vast solitudes which by his enterprise and foresight had become a part of the British Empire, he ought to have gone on uninterruptedly in the glorious task of bringing civilisation to that hitherto unknown land. For such work his big nature and strange character were well fitted, and his wide-ranging mind appreciated the extent of the task. As he used to say himself sometimes, he was never so happy and never felt so free and so much at peace with the world and with mankind as among the Matoppo Hills.
The statesmanlike qualities which Cecil Rhodes undoubtedly possessed were weakened by contact with inferior people. It is impossible to create real politicians and sound ones at the same rapid pace as financial magnates sprang up at the Cape as well as in the Transvaal. The class who entered politics had as little real solidity about them as the houses and dwellings which were built at a moment's notice from corrugated iron and a few logs. They thought that they understood how to govern a nation because they had thoroughly mastered the mysteries of bookkeeping in problematical financial undertakings.
I remember one afternoon when, talking with Rhodes in the grounds of Groote Schuur, he took me to the summer-house which he had built for himself, whence one had a beautiful view over the country toward Table Mountain. He leaned on the parapet of the little observatory which surmounted the summer-house and lost himself in a day dream which, though long, I felt I had better not interrupt. I can see his face and expression still as, with his arms crossed over his chest, he gazed into space, thinking, thinking, and forgetting all else but the vision which he was creating in that extraordinary brain of his. I am sure that he remained so for over twenty minutes. Then he slowly turned round to me and said, with an accent indescribable in its intensity and poignancy:
"I have been looking at the North, at my own country—"
"Why do you not always remain there?" I exclaimed almost involuntarily, so painfully did the words strike me.
"Because they will not let me," he replied.
"They? Who?" I asked again. "Surely you can do what you like?"
"You think so," he said, "but you do not know; there are so many things; so many things. And they want me here too, and there is this place …"
He stopped, then relapsed once more into his deep meditation, leaving me wondering what was holding back this man who was reputed to do only what he chose. Surely there would have been a far better, far nobler work for him to do there in that distant North which, after all, in spite of the beauties of Groote Schuur, was the only place for which he really cared. There he could lead that absolutely free and untrammelled life which he loved; there his marvellous gifts could expand with the freedom necessary for them to shine in their best light for the good of others as well as for his own advantage. In Rhodesia he was at least free, to a certain extent, from the parasites.
How could one help pitying him and regretting that his indomitable will did not extend to the courage of breaking from his past associations; that he did not carry his determination far enough to make up his mind to consecrate what was left of his life to the one task for which he was best fitted, that of making Rhodesia one of the most glorious possessions of the British crown. Rhodes had done so much, achieved so much, had conceived such great things—as, for instance, the daring inception of the Cape to Cairo Railway—that it surely could have been possible for him to rise above the shackling weaknesses of his environment.
So many years have passed since the death of Rhodes that, now, one can judge him objectively. To me, knowing him so well as I did, it seem that as his figure recedes into the background of history, it acquires more greatness. He was a mystery to so many because few had been able to guess what it was that he really meant, or believed in, or hoped for. Not a religious man by any means, he yet possessed that religion of nature which pervades the soul of anyone who has ever lived for long face to face with grandeurs and solitudes where human passions have no entrance. It is the adoration of the Greatness Who created the beauty which no touch can defile, no tongue slander, and nobody destroy. Under the stars, to which he confided so much of the thoughts which he had kept for himself in his youth and early manhood, Rhodes became a different man. There in the silence of the night or the dawn of early morning, when he started for those long rides of which he was so fond, he became affectionate, kind, thoughtful and tender. There he thought, he dreamt, he planned, and the result of these wanderings of his mind into regions far beyond those where the people around him could stray was that he revealed himself as God had made him and such as man hardly ever saw him.
Rhodes had always been a great reader; books, indeed, had a great influence over his mind, his actions and opinions. He used to read slowly, and what he had once assimilated he never forgot. Years after he would remember a passage treating of some historical fact, or of some social interest, and apply it to his own work. For instance, the idea of the Glen Grey Act was suggested to him by the famous book of Mackenzie Wallace dealing with Russia, in which he described the conditions under which Russian peasants then held their land. When Rhodes met the author of the aforementioned volume at Sandringham, where both were staying with the then Prince and Princess of Wales, he told him at once, with evident pleasure at being able to do so, that it was his book which had suggested that particular bit of legislation.
Another occasion I remember when Rhodes spoke of the great impression produced upon his opinions by a book called "The Martyrdom of Man," the work of Winwood Reade, an author not very well known to the general public. The essay was an unusually powerful negation of the Divinity. Rhodes had, unfortunately for him, chanced across it just after he had left the University, and during the first months following upon his arrival in South Africa he read it in his moments of leisure between looking for diamonds in the sandy plains of Kimberley. It completely upset all the traditions in which he had been nurtured—it must be remembered that he was the son of a clergyman—and caused a revolt against the teachings of his former masters.
The adventurous young man who had left his native country well stocked with principles which he was already beginning to find embarrassing, found in this volume an excuse for becoming the personage with whom the world was to become familiar later on, when he appeared on the horizon as an Empire Maker. He always kept this momentous book beside him, and used to read it when he wanted to strengthen himself in some hard resolution or when he was expected to steel his mind to the performance of some task against which his finest instincts revolted even whilst his sense of necessity urged him onward.
Talking with me on the occasion I have referred to above, in respect to this volume which had left such weeds in his mind, he expressed to me his great enthusiasm about the ideas it contained, and spoke with unmeasured approval of its strong and powerful arguments against the existence of a Deity, and then exclaimed, "You can imagine the impression which it produced on me when I read it amid all the excitement of life at Kimberley not long after leaving Oxford University." And he added in a solemn tone, "That book has made me what I am."
I think, however, that Rhodes exaggerated in attaching such influence to Reade's essay. He was very interested in the supernatural, a feature which more than once I have had occasion to observe in people who pretend that they believe in nothing. I suspect that, had he been able to air the doubts which must have assailed him sometimes when alone in the solitudes of Rhodesia, one would have discovered that a great deal of carelessness, of which he used to boast in regard to morality and to religion, was nothing but affectation. He treated God in the same offhand way he handled men, when, in order to terrify them, he exposed before their horrified eyes abominable theories, to which his whole life gave the lie. But in his inmost heart he knew very well that God existed. He would have felt quite content to render homage to the Almighty if only this could have been done incognito. In fact, he was quite ready to believe in God, but would have felt extremely sorry had anyone suspected that such could be the case. The ethical side of Cecil Rhodes' character remained all through his life in an unfinished state. It might perhaps have been the most beautiful side of his many-sided life had he not allowed too much of what was material, base and common to rule him. Unwillingly, perhaps, but nevertheless certainly, he gave the impression that his life was entirely dedicated to ignoble purposes. Perhaps the punishment of his existence lay precisely in the rapidity with which the words "Rhodesian finance" and "Rhodesian politics" came to signify corruption and bribery. Even though he may not have been actually guilty of either, he most certainly profited by both. He instituted in South Africa an utter want of respect for one's neighbour's property, which in time was a prime cause of the Transvaal War. Hated as he was by some, distrusted as he remained by almost everybody, yet there was nothing mean about Cecil Rhodes. Though one felt inclined to detest him at times, yet one could not help liking and even loving him when he allowed one to see the real man behind the veil of cynicism and irony which he constantly assumed.
With Rhodes' death the whole system of Rhodesian politics perished. It then became relatively easy for Sir Alfred Milner to introduce the necessary reforms into the government of South Africa. The financial magnates who had ruled at Johannesburg and Kimberley ceased to interest themselves politically in the management of the affairs of the Government. They disappeared one after the other, bidding good-bye to a country which they had always hated, most of them sinking into an obscurity where they enjoy good dinners and forget the nightmare of the past.
The Dutch and the English elements have become reconciled, and loyalty to England, which seemed at the time of the Boer War, and during the years that had preceded it, to have been confined to a small number of the English, has become the rule. British Imperialism is no mere phantom: the Union of South Africa has proved it to have a very virile body, and, what is more important, a lofty and clear-visioned soul.
1 "Russia" (Cassell).
2 Published in the U.S.A., 1875.