THE delegates from the Transvaal travelled down from Johannesburg to Durban by train. As well as Botha and Smuts there were the Englishmen who led the Opposition and represented the mining interests, and the old fighting-man, de la Rey, who knew nothing about law and procedure, who had not grasped even the significance of the meaning of this convention, and who was contemptuous of all conventions and discussions, having only one formula for deciding argument, and that was: "People talk too much. Take your rifle," but whose support was necessary because his prestige stood very high with all the Dutch and he represented the outlook of the back-veld farmers.
The train crossed the bare treeless steppe of the veld and then meandered down from the plateau between the soft green hills of Natal. Smuts sat in an easy-chair in one corner of the observation car. As usual, he was reading documents and papers and making notes with a pencil, but he was a very different Smuts from the liverish and impatient man who, during the last few months, both in his office and in the Parliament at Pretoria, had been short-tempered and overbearing. When it suited or pleased him, he could be an interesting and pleasant companion, and if he would take the trouble he could be a genial and absorbing talker. He was relaxed now and peaceful. Now and then he looked out of the window with interest. Several times he opened a discussion on general subjects, not connected with the papers in front of him.
As they came to Ladysmith and the battlefields of the war and crossed the Tugela River, Botha began to point out places of interest: Dundee, Colenso, Spion Kop. As he described, pointing out this position and that, he warmed up to his subject. He knew every inch of the ground. He had commanded here. He described the battles, the movements of the men, the courage of the Dutch, the sacrifices of the English. He grew enthusiastic explaining his own part, how that Piet Joubert and then Lucas Meyer, the nominal commanders, had not really commanded and how the effective work had been his. His dark face and black eyes lit up with excitement.
Close beside him, giving his queer sensation of stillness, and looking out of the window, pipe in mouth, his only movement an occasional stroking with his left hand of his square-cut brown beard, sat de la Rey. For a while he said nothing, his eyes shrouded. Suddenly he looked up fiercely at Botha and interrupted. Speaking slowly, with a measured candidness, his voice still and icy with contempt, he made light of each incident which Botha had described: Botha's "gallery play," as he called it. That Botha, twenty years younger than himself and without fighting experience, had in the war been put over him and was now trying to teach him how to fight stirred up his bile.
The attack was sudden and unexpected and quenched Botha's enthusiasm like cold water on a red-hot blade. He was staggered by the criticisms. He was a proud man and very sensitive to anything that humiliated him. His anger flared up. His eyes flashed and his face went sallow with emotion. He bit his lower lip in an effort to keep control, but de la Rey went steadily on. There was an awkward, uncomfortable silence in the coach, with everyone waiting for Botha to burst out, and the only sound above the roar of the train was the steady voice of de la Rey.
From his corner Smuts looked up once, his pale-blue eyes wide open, taking in the whole situation, and then he went on reading as if there was nothing the matter. After a while he slewed round and with a preoccupied air asked a question about some government business, pointing to a paper he was holding in his hand. The question broke the silence and cut across de la Rey's discourse. The others began to talk. De la Rey, temporarily put out of his stride, came back, however, to his subject. He criticised Botha's handling of his men and his tactics. He asked Botha a question and trapped him in the answer, and then showed how he had let the English at one point get away, when he ought to have wiped them out. Smuts started up another discussion and still with the preoccupied air of being in a difficulty over something in the papers in front of him, and when de la Rey would not stop he told him a story with a joke in it, laughed heartily himself, and made the others laugh with him. Without appearing to interfere actively he gradually eased Botha and de la Rey apart, until the tension had slackened off.
Smuts was acting and acting well, and he was acting with all his ingenuity and all his skill. He was playing for big stakes. There must be no quarrels amongst the Transvaal delegates. A quarrel, especially a personal quarrel of this sort, might complicate and upset everything. A quarrel was a thing to be used as a manouvre; it must be for some advantage. This personal quarrel seemed to him almost criminal in being useless and senseless, just friction which wasted time and effort. He worked to side-step it. He talked de la Rey off on to another line and led Botha shrewdly away and smoothed down his hurt feelings.
Smuts had no illusions about the difficulties ahead in Durban. There would be plenty of opposition and plenty of quarrels there. He must keep the Transvaal delegation at least solidity together.
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