As soon as the Peace was signed, Botha left Paris. His one desire was to see South Africa again. The homing instinct that comes to animals when their time to die is near was in him, for he was very ill. Orpen, the painter, had painted a picture of him at the Conference, but Death stared so surely out of the eyes that Orpen put his painting aside and did another.
From his father, Botha had inherited an internal complaint. In Paris the great plague of influenza, which was scything down men like ripe grass, had almost killed him. He had recovered from it slowly, but it had inflamed his old complaint, which now affected his heart and legs. On the voyage he lay nerveless in a long chair on deck, longing only to see South Africa under her sunshine.
Smuts remained a little longer. In England he was honoured, listened to, wanted. Lloyd George wanted him to become Ambassador at Washington. A group of politicians wanted him to stand for parliament and lead them. In England he could take a part in great Issues, World Issues, the things that interested him, were life-blood to him—the British Empire, the League of Nations, the fight against Bolshevism.
From South Africa came no urgent call for him to return. Hertzog, Malan, and Tielman Roos and their followers said it would be better if he stayed where he was: he was obviously more at home in Europe. Many of the newspapers agreed with them.
But South Africa called Smuts as insistently as it called Botha. He was flesh of its flesh, bone of its bone. He was rooted in South Africa, deep in its soil as his fathers before him. He could well understand that Hertzog wanted him to stay away, but that the people of South Africa would not welcome him back, after all he had done for them, he did not believe. In England, he calculated, he would be only one of many and perhaps soon forgotten. In South Africa he stood a head above the rest. "Better," as Caesar said, "be first in your village than second in Rome." If he was to remain a world figure it must be with South Africa and with his own people behind him. And Botha needed him.
Hardly had he arrived when Botha became more seriously ill, and one night he slid peacefully into deep sleep, and from sleep into the deeper sleep, and was gone.
When Botha died, there went away a great man. Many men had greater capabilities and greater virtues; but there was about Botha a Majesty which all felt but which none could understand or explain by his looks, or by what he said, or even by what he did. It came of some Greatness inherent in the man himself.
Smuts came softly to the house in Sunnyside, on the hills above Pretoria, to say good-bye to his dead. He was stunned and lost. For twenty years Botha and he had stood together. They had often disagreed, but rarely quarrelled. Lord Buxton recorded how, during all the years he was Governor-General, he had once only had to settle a difference between them. They had stood loyally side by side; instinctively and without need of words, they had understood each other.
"I," said Smuts on one occasion, "deal with administration. Botha deals with people."
But the combination had meant far more than that. Botha had been the leader, and now Smuts was as if the shell in which he had cased himself had been torn away and he had been left exposed. He was alone, as he had never been alone while Botha had stood shoulder to shoulder with him. He was suddenly intensely conscious of himself. His grief tore through all superficialities and moved him to his depths as nothing else could. Often in the past years he had hesitated, doubted himself, whether he was right or wrong, and forced himself by will-power to know he was right; but now he was aware, vividly aware, of himself and his imperfections; and he was humble.
The Governor-General called him to be Prime Minister.
"I have," Smuts said at his first cabinet meeting, "I have neither tact nor patience, and you must take me for what I am worth"; and even in saying this, he did not wish anyone to know how he felt, and he spoke quickly and abruptly, almost roughly.
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