THE England to which Jan Smuts came was the England of the early nineties of the nineteenth century — rich, imperially expanding, haughty and powerful, but it was also England at its most florid and turgid; over-fat with money and self-satisfaction; a land of dowager duchesses; of top-hats and high collars; the working classes, servants, and such like kept out of sight and out of mind; the upper classes very exclusive, nose-in-air and select. It had little interest in or welcome for a colonial, and especially for a poor and unknown colonial. For Jan Smuts, with no ability at making friends, it was a very inhospitable place, but in his own lonely way he ferreted round and learned much.
At Cambridge he went to Christ's College, but he got little out of university life; he did not like it or the undergraduates. He did not understand them. He was older than the average and had another viewpoint. He came to work with a specific object. They, with their lackadaisical drawling ways, appeared to him to have come just to pass time. He did not understand that no man in England of their class should be openly serious or show that he was making an effort: he must succeed without apparent effort or there was no virtue in his success; the undergraduate who worked openly was a "nasty little swot"; he might work as hard as he liked, but he must not be caught working. To Smuts, not knowing these things, these languid young men seemed to be only frivolous time-wasters, wasters of "my precious time." He kept away from them lest they should corrupt him. He worked hard and openly. He remained lonely, aloof, and lost, reserved even to ill-nature.
He repelled or ignored advances and attempts at friendship or intimacies. He wished to be noticed, but if anyone took any interest in him he played the part of being unconscious of the interest. His original sense of inferiority and his shutting himself in himself had made him introspective and self-centred.
He was still thin and weedy, with a big forehead, a long jowl, a slight chin, and pale-blue eyes in a pasty, drawn face; and he grew pastier, for he worked all day and far into the night. Like many of the Dutch of South Africa, he had a flair for the law, for its intricacies and its dry subtleties.
Of the joy of living, of the pride of the body and of physical fitness, of the thrill of sport and of competition with others — he shrank from competition — he knew nothing. The heart-leap of revolt against accepted things, the fire in the blood, the follies and the inconsequentials which are the privileges of youth and which if a man has not felt and suffered he has never lived, were outside his comprehension: he despised them.
In return the undergraduates disliked him, this lanky, standoffish, nose-in-air, self-opinionated colonial with the amazing accent — he had the broad accent of the Dutch from the Malmesbury district, which was nasal and sing-song — who was either silent or spoke with an air of contempt; a brusque, uncouth fellow; a dull dog, a prig. They felt that some kicking and bullying in the rough and tumble of an English public school would have done him good. They would have liked to rag and torment him, but there was something about him which made them sheer off, and they left him alone.
At his work Smuts was very successful. He had no difficulty in passing examinations, for when asked a question he could, with the eye of his memory, see the answer with page open in front of him, the exact wording with chapter and verse. And he could, if it was necessary, still in the eye of his memory, turn over a page and read on.
He took superlative honours in the Cambridge finals. Maitland, the Professor of Law, said of him that he was far the best student he had ever examined. He was admitted to the Middle Temple in May 1894 and passed the Honours Examinations with exceptional success and won a number of special prizes. He was offered a professorship at Christ's College, but refused it, and without waiting to be called to the English Bar he set out back to Cape Town.
He went back to South Africa with joy in his heart. He was homesick. Africa was his home and Africa called him back insistently.
One who stood near him as the ship came into the harbour of Cape Town told how the silent, reserved young man became suddenly alive and vibrating as he saw before him the city along the shore and behind it Table Mountain towering up with the clouds spilling down over it and collecting towards the peaks of the Twelve Apostles. For a while he stood staring out, his blue eyes shining and alive, rejoicing. For a minute he had ceased to repress himself. He was natural and unconscious of anyone looking at him. He was human and a young man rejoicing simply. Then quickly, like the sudden dragging down of a steel shutter over a lighted window, the light went out of his eyes and the joy out of his body, and as if he were ashamed that, even for one minute, he should have shown himself and his inner feelings, he turned abruptly away and went below deck.