GOING to Stellenbosch filled Jan Smuts with some of the same fears as when he went to school in Riebeek West; and he prepared himself methodically. He took himself with an immense and portentous seriousness. Life was a grave and serious affair, and he must not lose or misuse a minute of it. He wrote to a professor at the college, asking his advice and his help...."I trust you will," the letter ran, "favour me by keeping your eye on me. . . ." for he considered Stellenbosch "as a place where a large and puerile element exists," and so "affords scope for moral, and, what is more important, religious temptation, which if yielded to will eclipse alike the expectation of my parents and the intentions of myself. . . . For of what use will a mind, enlarged and refined in all possible ways, be to me if my religion be a deserted pilot, and morality a wreck?"
Stellenbosch, this sink of possible iniquity as the boy thought of it, was a quiet old town centred round the College. It lay in a valley full of vineyards and gardens of flowers. In the centre was a square where the ox-wagons on trek down to Cape Town outspanned, and from which the streets branched off, each bordered with giant oaks which arched and met so that the streets, even in the hot midsummer days, were always in deep shadow, and down each, in the gutters, ran, from the hills above, rivulets of water which gurgled and laughed their way through the town on their way to a river beyond. It was a cloistered, peaceful old place of picturesque thatched houses and professors and scholars and schools and religious missions, and it slumbered placidly in the drowsy, languid shade under its great trees. Jan Smuts found it very different from the bare, treeless sweeps of the Zwartland, but he refused to allow it to make him relax or to become lazy.
He worked as he had worked at school, poring always over books, absorbing knowledge and retaining it, for his memory had become photographic in its exactness, in its power of retention and of reproduction. There were no regulated games and no compulsory communal life. The professors were nearly all Scotsmen who encouraged work, and work to the exclusion of all else, so that he could work without interruption. For his degree he took Literature and Science. He studied the English poets, especially Shelley and Keats, and Walt Whitman the American, and, though he did not appreciate the beauty of the words or of the metres, he sought out their ideas. He learned German and studied the German poets, especially Schiller, in the same way. And he learned High Dutch, the Dutch of Holland, fluently and exactly.
He wrote articles for the college magazine and even for the local papers, articles on subjects such as Slavery, Scenery, the Rights of the Individual—dull articles without originality; and some doggerel poetry, such as all youths write some time or other.
He was, however, still painfully shy and nervous. His physical weakness and his spindly body gave him a sense of inferiority; but he refused to be crushed down by it and he determined to overcome it. To cover his shyness he continued to develop an artificial manner which became abrupt and gauche, and the other students, not realising that he was shy, looked on him as conceited. He, in turn, avoided them, took no part in their social lives or their amusements. When asked to a dance he refused because he was too self-conscious and he was afraid of making an exhibition of himself, and his manner of refusing the invitation caused offence. But if anyone became flippant or tried to rag him or to waste his time with frivolities, his shyness disappeared; he was on his dignity at once and became indignant, short-tempered, and ill-natured. For recreation he walked over the hills, usually alone, thinking, and often talking to himself. On Sundays he held a Bible class for coloured men and solemnly propounded to them the Word of God; and with the same immense seriousness he joined the volunteers.
So much did he shut himself away from the life of the college that he would not live in a general boarding house with the other students, but lodged in a private house, that of Mr. Ackermann, because, as he explained to a professor, he wished "to avoid temptation and to make the proper use of my precious time . . . which in addition will accord with my retired and reserved nature."
With one person, however, he could relax and be natural — with a girl, a Miss Sibylla Margaretha Krige, known for short as Isie Krige, who was a fellow student, for at Victoria College co-education was encouraged.
The Kriges were an old family which had come from Cape Town and lived in Stellenbosch. Some of them had trekked away to the north. Many of them were politicians. All of them — in contrast to old Jacobus Smuts — were opponents, and bitter opponents, of the English and English ways. In this tradition Isle Krige was brought up.
She was a little, quiet girl with a round white face, who dressed simply and brushed her hair severely back from her forehead. She was very solemn, passed all her examinations, was steady and plodding without brilliance or attracting much attention — in every way a satisfactory student: and she was very prim and proper.
Jan Smuts fell in love with her in his own stilted way and they "walked out" together. The Kriges lived at the bottom of Dorp Street, on the corner where the road turned east to the sea, and they farmed some land that ran along the river-side below the town. Mr. Ackermann's house, where Smuts had his lodging, was half-way up the same street, where the oak trees were thickest. Every morning Jan Smuts waited at his door until the girl came by and then joined her, and each evening he saw her to her home. A queer couple they made, the little prim girl with the white round face and the lanky, spindly youth with the unsmiling cadaverous jowl, sedately side by side, their books tucked under their arms, silent or in solemn discussion, walking in the shade under the avenue of oaks up to the college gate. They found Life a very serious concern.
They were young to walk out — he was seventeen and she was sixteen — but they were not exceptional, as it was customary amongst the Dutch to marry early. Smuts made love to her in his dry way — as a fellow scholar. He did not lack sex and virility, but he repressed these as he repressed enthusiasm and any other natural youthful inclination. Being egocentric he talked of what interested him primarily — his work. He taught her the things that interested him: Greek, which he had learned out of a textbook: German, in which they read the poets together: Botany, and especially grasses, for that was his hobby.
And the girl adored him. She hero-worshipped. She worked for him. When he translated some Schiller, she wrote it out in copy-hand. But she gave him far more than that; he knew he was unpopular: he wanted to be liked, but he could not unbend, be normal and natural; but with her he could be natural. He was at heart a schoolmaster with the itch to teach and direct the lives of others: she was a ready and willing pupil. He needed applause: she gave him applause and with it self-respect.
Jacobus Smuts, however, was not so satisfied. The jovial, good-natured old man with his practical knowledge saw that he had, in some strange way, produced a son who was just all grey brain and little else. He wanted him on the farm, but Jannie was incompetent with his hands; he had no practical abilities or farm sense. He was a book-worm, and that was all there was to it. The old man accepted the fact: Jannie must be a pastor.
But Jan Smuts' outlook had changed. He was not so solidly religious as he used to be. His studies, especially of Shelley and Walt Whitman, and his new experiences had altered his outlook and he was doubtful whether he had the call to the ministry. At last he decided that he wished to read not theology, but the law and to complete his studies in England, and at Cambridge. His tutors encouraged him, for he had shown himself to be one of the cleverest students at the college. He had passed his matriculation and his first intermediary examinations with success and he was second on the passing-out list for the local degree of Bachelor of Arts.
To go he needed money, and, though he was never actually poor, he had not enough for this and his father was by no means inclined to help him in this new venture; but he won a scholarship, the Ebden, which was worth a hundred pounds a year and a number of small bursaries. Then, in 1891, taking his local degree, he collected all the spare cash he could lay his hands on, borrowed some from a tutor, shut down his Bible class, said good-bye to Isie Krige and took ship for England.