THE delegates did not receive the draft complaisantly. Steyn was a very sick man. His sight was going. The doctors had given him three weeks to live unless he gave up work and rested. His great beard was long since streaked with grey and his face drawn and wan. His sickness had made him ill-natured, cantankerous, and unreasonable. He saw the delegates in his tent, and denounced them and the draft treaty because it gave away the independence of the two Dutch republics. Then he resigned and left the conference. He had much influence still in the Free State and after his denunciation many delegates hesitated to agree.
For two days they debated, bringing forward all the old arguments, but they knew they must agree. Many of their men had surrendered already and whole commandos would surrender at once if they did not make peace now. They sought for sound reasons to explain why they made this peace, excuses with which they could face their men and the people with straight eyes and without shame. One delegate put it bluntly:
"We say we shall fight until we die," he said, ". . . a fine speech, but was it not made so that it might be a fine speech for other generations to call us 'the men who were brave to the end'?"
De la Rey spoke for peace. De Wet stood out for war until Botha took him to his tent and at last persuaded him of his folly, when he spoke also for peace.
Hertzog spoke for peace, but with reservations. Things were bad, he said, but he would have gone on fighting. But by calling the conference and by their speeches, Botha—and Smuts also—had made "a fatal error," had confessed that they could fight no more, and so "had taken the heart out of the burghers." They had, said Hertzog, cut the ground from under his feet, and it was only left for him to agree to peace. His hand had been forced by the others. Thus he agreed to peace and yet remained "a brave man to the end "—before his own people.
Botha and Smuts supplied the reasons for the burghers to salve their pride.
"No other nation," said Botha, "could have fought as we have! But shall the nation die? No! We will save it by wise counsel."
Smuts had not spoken. He was not a delegate, but now they called for him to speak. The time for the ultimatum to expire, for war to recommence, was coming close. The light in the great tent was bad. Outside, up from the river, had crept a white mist—the South African winter was on them—which covered the veld and pressed up to the opening of the tent. He faced the delegates, rows of harsh-featured, dour men watching him in the gloom. He was no longer the lanky, cadaverous, white-faced barrister of the days before the war, but a man, used to leadership and to taking decisions.
He began to speak and there came on him the desire to persuade these men, one and all, to reach out to them and impress himself on their wills and on their judgment, to make them agree to peace. He was so convinced, so intense in his conviction, so concentrated, that he ceased to act a part or to think of himself. In his sincerity he ceased to be awkward and self-conscious.
"I," he said, " am one of those who provoked this war. I accept the responsibility and it gives me the right to speak. As soldiers none of you are afraid. As a military force you are unconquered and you can fight on; but here to-day you represent not the commandos only but the nation as a whole...The nation calls out. . . . From the prison, from the camps, the graves, the veld, from the womb of the future, the nation cries out to us to make a wise decision....We fought for independence, but we must not sacrifice the nation on the altar of independence. . .
He spoke of the concentration camps, of the twenty-three thousand women and children who had died there, of the English methods of devastating the land so that all would soon be a desert, of those who were from the Cape and had joined them and must suffer as rebels, but which this treaty would protect. These, he said, and not military defeat, were the reasons why they must sign the peace.
Brethren, we have sworn to stand to the bitter end. Let us be brave, and acknowledge that the bitter end has come. Death itself would be sweet compared to the step we are about to take. Let us bow before the will of God.
The future is dark indeed, but we will not give up courage and hope and trust in God. No one shall ever convince me that this unparalleled sacrifice which the African nation has laid upon the altar of freedom will be in vain. It has been a war for freedom. . . .... Its results we leave in God's hands. Perhaps it is His will to lead our nation through defeat, through abasement, yea, and even through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, to the glory of a nobler future, to the light of a brighter day.
Here there was no attempt at cleverness, no trickery, no splitting of hairs, no "slimness." He had given the burghers good reasons for making peace, reasons which were no shame to them, because he was determined to convince them, because he believed in peace. His words came free and eloquent because they came out of his belief in his people, out of his love for Africa. They rang out clear like blows of a hammer on metal— on the metal, the steel, that was deep down and the very foundation of the man—and they found an answering ring in the hearts of the men before him.
The delegates agreed. They voted for acceptance. They signed their agreement giving away their independence, and these hard, gruff, weather-beaten men in their ragged clothes wept openly as they signed, and were not ashamed of their tears.
One hour before the ultimatum expired the peace was accomplished.