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Lytton Strachey (1880–1932). Eminent Victorians. 1918

The End of General Gordon

Paras. 1–30

DURING the year 1883 a solitary English gentleman was to be seen, wandering, with a thick book under his arm, in the neighbourhood of Jerusalem. His unassuming figure, short and slight, with its half-gliding, half-tripping motion, gave him a boyish aspect, which contrasted, oddly, but not unpleasantly, with the touch of grey on his hair and whiskers. There was the same contrast—enigmatic and attractive—between the sunburnt brick-red complexion—the hue of the seasoned traveller—and the large blue eyes, with their look of almost childish sincerity. To the friendly inquirer, he would explain, in a low, soft, and very distinct voice, that he was engaged in elucidating four questions—the site of the crucifixion, the line of division between the tribes of Benjamin and Judah, the identification of Gibeon, and the position of the Garden of Eden. He was also, he would add, most anxious to discover the spot where the Ark first touched ground, after the subsidence of the Flood: he believed, indeed, that he had solved that problem, as a reference to some passages in the book which he was carrying would show.

This singular person was General Gordon, and his book was the Holy Bible.

In such complete retirement from the world and the ways of men, it might have seemed that a life of inordinate activity had found at last a longed-for, a final peacefulness. For month after month, for an entire year, the General lingered by the banks of the Jordan. But then the enchantment was suddenly broken. Once more adventure claimed him; he plunged into the whirl of high affairs; his fate was mingled with the frenzies of Empire and the doom of peoples. And it was not in peace and rest, but in ruin and horror, that he reached his end.

The circumstances of that tragic history, so famous, so bitterly debated, so often and so controversially described, remain full of suggestion for the curious examiner of the past. There emerges from those obscure, unhappy records an interest, not merely political and historical, but human and dramatic. One catches a vision of strange characters, moved by mysterious impulses, interacting in queer complication, and hurrying at last—so it almost seems—like creatures in a puppet show to a predestined catastrophe. The characters, too, have a charm of their own: they are curiously English. What other nation on the face of the earth could have produced Mr. Gladstone and Sir Evelyn Baring and Lord Hartington and General Gordon? Alike in their emphasis and their lack of emphasis, in their eccentricity and their conventionality, in their matter-of-factness and their romance, these four figures seem to embody the mingling contradictions of the English spirit. As for the mise-en-scène, it is perfectly appropriate. But first let us glance at the earlier adventures of the hero of the piece.

Charles George Gordon was born in 1833. His father, of Highland and military descent, was himself a Lieutenant-General; his mother came of a family of merchants, distinguished for their sea-voyages into remote regions of the Globe. As a boy, Charlie was remarkable for his high spirits, pluck, and love of mischief. Destined for the Artiller, he was sent to the Academy at Woolwich, where some other characteristics made their appearance. On one occasion, when the cadets had been forbidden to leave the dining-room and the senior corporal stood with outstretched arms in the doorway to prevent their exit, Charlie Gordon put his head down, and, butting the officer in the pit of the stomach, projected him down a flight of stairs and through a glass door at the bottom. For this act of insubordination he was nearly dismissed; while the Captain of his Company predicted that he would never make an officer. A little later, when he was eighteen, it came to the knowledge of the authorities that bullying was rife at the Academy. The newcomers were questioned and one of them said that Charlie Gordon had hit him over the head with a clothes-brush. He had worked well, and his record was on the whole a good one; but the authorities took a serious view of the case, and held back his commission for six months. It was owing to this delay that he went into the Royal Engineers, instead of the Royal Artillery.

He was sent to Pembroke, to work at the erection of fortifications; and at Pembroke those religious convictions, which never afterwards left him, first gained a hold upon his mind. Under the influence of his sister Augusta and of a “very religious captain of the name of Drew,” he began to reflect upon his sins, look up texts, and hope for salvation. Though he had never been confirmed—he never was confirmed—he took the sacrament every Sunday; and he eagerly perused the Priceless Diamond, Scott’s Commentaries, and The Remains of the Rev. R. McCheyne.

  • No novels or worldly books [he wrote to his sister] come up to the Commentaries of Scott.… I remember well when you used to get them in numbers, and I used to laugh at them; but, thank God, it is different with me now. I feel much happier and more contented than I used to do. I did not like Pembroke, but now I would not wish for any prettier place. I have got a horse and gig, and Drew and myself drive all about the country. I hope my dear father and mother think of eternal things.… Dearest Augusta, pray for me, I beg of you.
  • He was twenty-one; the Crimean War broke out; and before the year was over he had managed to get himself transferred to Balaclava. During the siege of Sebastopol he behaved with conspicuous gallantry. Upon the declaration of peace, he was sent to Bessarabia to assist in determining the frontier between Russia and Turkey, in accordance with the treaty of Paris; and upon this duty he was occupied for nearly two years. Not long after his return home, in 1860, war was declared upon China. Captain Gordon was dispatched to the scene of operations, but the fighting was over before he arrived. Nevertheless, he was to remain for the next four years in China, where he was to lay the foundations of an extraordinary renown.

    Though he was too late to take part in the capture of the Taku Forts, he was in time to witness the destruction of the Summer Palace at Pekin—the act by which Lord Elgin, in the name of European civilisation, took vengeance upon the barbarism of the East.

    The war was over; but the British army remained in the country, until the payment of an indemnity by the Chinese Government was completed. A camp was formed at Tientsin, and Gordon was occupied in setting up huts for the troops. While he was thus engaged, he had a slight attack of small-pox. “I am glad to say,” he told his sister, “that this disease has brought me back to my Saviour, and I trust in future to be a better Christian than I have been hitherto.”

    Curiously enough a similar circumstance had, more than twenty years earlier, brought about a singular succession of events which were now upon the point of opening the way to Gordon’s first great adventure. In 1837, a village schoolmaster near Canton had been attacked by illness; and, as in the case of Gordon, illness had been followed by a religious revulsion. Hong-siu-tsuen—for such was his name—saw visions, went into ecstasies, and entered into relations with the Deity. Shortly afterwards he fell in with a Methodist missionary from America, who instructed him in the Christian religion. The new doctrine, working upon the mystical ferment already in Hong’s mind, produced a remarkable result. He was, he declared, the prophet of God; he was more—he was the Son of God; he was Tien Wang, the Celestial king; he was the younger brother of Jesus. The times were propitious, and proselytes soon gathered around him. Having conceived a grudge against the Government, owing to his failure in an examination, Hong gave a political turn to his teaching, which soon developed into a propaganda of rebellion against the rule of the Manchus and the Mandarins. The authorities took fright, attempted to suppress Hong by force, and failed. The movement spread. By 1850 the rebels were overrunning the populous and flourishing delta of the Yang-tse-Kiang, and had become a formidable force. In 1853 they captured Nankin, which was henceforth their capital. The Tien Wang established himself in a splendid palace, and proclaimed his new evangel. His theogony included the wife of God, or the celestial Mother, the wife of Jesus, or the celestial daughter-in-law, and a sister of Jesus, whom he married to one of his lieutenants, who thus became the celestial son-in-law; the Holy Ghost, however, was eliminated. His mission was to root out Demons and Manchus from the face of the earth, and to establish Taiping, the reign of eternal peace. In the meantime, retiring into the depths of his palace, he left the further conduct of earthly operations to his lieutenants, upon whom he bestowed the title of “Wangs” (kings), while he himself, surrounded by thirty wives and one hundred concubines, devoted his energies to the spiritual side of his mission. The Taiping Rebellion, as it came to be called, had now reached its furthest extent. The rebels were even able to occupy, for more than a year, the semi-European city of Shanghai. But then the tide turned. The latent forces of the Empire gradually asserted themselves. The rebels lost ground, their armies were defeated, and in 1859 Nankin itself was besieged and the Celestial King trembled in his palace. The end seemed to be at hand, when there was a sudden twist of Fortune’s wheel. The war of 1860, the invasion of China by European armies, their march into the interior, and their occupation of Pekin, not only saved the rebels from destruction but allowed them to recover the greater part of what they had lost. Once more they seized upon the provinces of the delta, once more they menaced Shanghai. It was clear that the imperial army was incompetent, and the Shanghai merchants determined to provide for their own safety as best they could. They accordingly got together a body of troops, partly Chinese and partly European and under European officers, to which they entrusted the defence of the town. This small force, which, after a few preliminary successes, received from the Chinese Government the title of the “Ever Victorious Army,” was able to hold the rebels at bay, but it could do no more. For two years Shanghai was in constant danger. The Taipings, steadily growing in power, were spreading destruction far and wide. The Ever Victorious Army was the only force capable of opposing them, and the Ever Victorious Army was defeated more often than not. Its first European leader had been killed; his successor quarrelled with the Chinese Governor, Li Hung Chang, and was dismissed. At last it was determined to ask the General at the head of the British army of occupation for the loan of an officer to command the force. The English, who had been at first inclined to favour the Taipings, on religious grounds, were now convinced, on practical grounds, of the necessity of suppressing them. It was in these circumstances that, early in 1863, the command of the Ever Victorious Army was offered to Gordon. He accepted it, received the title of General from the Chinese authorities, and entered forthwith upon his new task. He was just thirty.

    In eighteen months, he told Li Hung Chang, the business would be finished; and he was as good as his word. The difficulties before him were very great. A vast tract of country was in the possession of the rebels—an area, at the lowest estimate, of 14,000 square miles with a population of twenty millions. For centuries this low-lying plain of the Yang-tse delta, rich in silk and tea, fertilised by elaborate irrigation, and covered with great walled cities, had been one of the most flourishing districts in China. Though it was now being rapidly ruined by the depredations of the Taipings, its strategic strength was obviously enormous. Gordon, however, with the eye of a born general, perceived that he could convert the very feature of the country which, on the face of it, most favoured an army on the defence—its complicated geographical system of interlacing roads and waterways, canals, lakes and rivers—into a means of offensive warfare. The force at his disposal was small, but it was mobile. He had a passion for map-making, and had already, in his leisure hours, made a careful survey of the country round Shanghai; he was thus able to execute a series of manœuvres which proved fatal to the enemy. By swift marches and counter-marches, by sudden attacks and surprises, above all by the dispatch of armed steamboats up the circuitous waterways into positions from which they could fall upon the enemy in reverse, he was able gradually to force back the rebels, to cut them off piece-meal in the field, and to seize upon their cities. But, brilliant as these operations were, Gordon’s military genius showed itself no less unmistakably in other directions. The Ever Victorious Army, recruited from the riff-raff of Shanghai, was an ill-disciplined, ill-organised body of about three thousand men, constantly on the verge of mutiny, supporting itself on plunder, and, at the slightest provocation, melting into thin air. Gordon, by sheer force of character, established over this incoherent mass of ruffians an extraordinary ascendancy. He drilled them with rigid severity; he put them into a uniform, armed them systematically, substituted pay for loot, and was even able, at last, to introduce regulations of a sanitary kind. There were some terrible scenes, in which the General, alone, faced the whole furious army, and quelled it: scenes of rage, desperation, towering courage, and summary execution. Eventually he attained to an almost magical prestige. Walking at the head of his troops, with nothing but a light cane in his hand, he seemed to pass through every danger with the scatheless equanimity of a demi-God. The Taipings themselves were awed into a strange reverence. More than once their leaders, in a frenzy of fear and admiration, ordered the sharp-shooters not to take aim at the advancing figure of the faintly smiling Englishman.

    It is significant that Gordon found it easier to win battles and to crush mutineers than to keep on good terms with the Chinese authorities. He had to act in co-operation with a large native force; and it was only natural that the General at the head of it should grow more and more jealous and angry as the Englishman’s successes revealed more and more clearly his own incompetence. At first, indeed, Gordon could rely upon the support of the Governor. Li Hung Chang’s experience of Europeans had been hitherto limited to low-class adventurers, and Gordon came as a revelation.

  • It is a direct blessing from Heaven [he noted in his diary] the coming of this British Gordon.… He is superior in manner and bearing to any of the foreigners whom I have come into contact with, and does not show outwardly that conceit which makes most of them repugnant in my sight.
  • A few months later, after he had accompanied Gordon on a victorious expedition, the mandarin’s enthusiasm burst forth.
  • What a sight for tired eyes [he wrote], what an elixir for a heavy heart—to see this splendid Englishman fight! … If there is anything that I admire nearly as much as the superb scholarship of Tseng Kuo-fan it is the military qualities of this fine officer. He is a glorious fellow!
  • In his emotion, Li Hung Chang addressed Gordon as his brother, declaring that he “considered him worthy to fill the place of the brother who is departed. Could I have said more in all the words of the world?” Then something happened which impressed and mystified the sensitive Chinaman.
  • The Englishman’s face was first filled with a deep pleasure, and then he seemed to be thinking of something depressing and sad; for the smile went from his mouth and there were tears in his eyes when he thanked me for what I had said. Can it be that he has, or has had, some great trouble in his life, and that he fights recklessly to forget it, or that Death has no terrors for him?
  • But, as time went on, Li Hung Chang’s attitude began to change. “General Gordon,” he notes in July, “must control his tongue, even if he lets his mind run loose.” The Englishman had accused him of intriguing with the Chinese General, and of withholding money due to the Ever Victorious Army. “Why does he not accord me the honours that are due to me, as head of the military and civil authority in these parts?” By September the Governor’s earlier transports have been replaced by a more judicial frame of mind.
  • With his many faults, his pride, his temper, and his never-ending demand for money, Gordon is a noble man, and in spite of all I have said to him or about him, I will ever think most highly of him.… He is an honest man, but difficult to get on with.
  • Disagreements of this kind might perhaps have been tided over till the end of the campaign; but an unfortunate incident suddenly led to a more serious quarrel. Gordon’s advance had been fiercely contested, but it had been constant; he had captured several important towns; and in October he laid siege to the city of Soochow, once one of the most famous and splendid in China. In December, its fall being obviously imminent, the Taiping leaders agreed to surrender it, on condition that their lives were spared. Gordon was a party to the agreement, and laid special stress upon his presence with the imperial forces as a pledge of its fulfilment. No sooner, however, was the city surrendered than the rebel “Wangs” were assassinated. In his fury, it is said that Gordon searched everywhere for Li Hung Chang with a loaded pistol in his hand. He was convinced of the complicity of the Governor, who, on his side, denied that he was responsible for what had happened.

  • I asked him why I should plot, and go round a mountain, when a mere order, written with five strokes of the quill. would have accomplished the same thing. He did not answer, but he insulted me, and said he would report my treachery, as he called it, to Shanghai and England. Let him do so; he cannot bring the crazy Wangs back.
  • The agitated Mandarin hoped to placate Gordon by a large gratuity and an imperial medal; but the plan was not successful.
  • General Gordon [he writes] called upon me in his angriest mood. He repeated his former speeches about the Wangs. I did not attempt to argue with him.… He refused the 10,000 taels, which I had ready for him, and, with an oath, said that he did not want the Throne’s medal. This is showing the greatest disrespect.
  • Gordon resigned his command; and it was only with the utmost reluctance that he agreed at last to resume it. An arduous and terrible series of operations followed; but they were successful, and by June, 1864, the Ever Victorious Army, having accomplished its task, was disbanded. The imperial forces now closed round Nankin: the last hopes of the Tien Wang had vanished. In the recesses of his seraglio, the Celestial King, judging that the time had come for the conclusion of his mission, swallowed gold leaf until he ascended to Heaven. In July, Nankin was taken, the remaining chiefs were executed, and the rebellion was at an end. The Chinese Government gave Gordon the highest rank in its military hierarchy, and invested him with the yellow jacket and the peacock’s feather. He rejected an enormous offer of money; but he could not refuse a great gold medal, specially struck in his honour by order of the Emperor. At the end of the year he returned to England, where the conqueror of the Taipings was made a Companion of the Bath.

    That the English authorities should have seen fit to recognise Gordon’s services by the reward usually reserved for industrious clerks was typical of their attitude towards him until the very end of his career. Perhaps if he had been ready to make the most of the wave of popularity which greeted him on his return—if he had advertised his fame and, amid high circles, played the part of Chinese Gordon in a becoming manner—the results would have been different. But he was by nature farouche; his soul revolted against dinner-parties and stiff shirts; and the presence of ladies—especially of fashionable ladies—filled him with uneasiness. He had, besides, a deeper dread of the world’s contaminations. And so, when he was appointed to Gravesend to supervise the erection of a system of forts at the mouth of the Thames, he remained there quietly for six years, and at last was almost forgotten. The forts, which were extremely expensive and quite useless, occupied his working hours; his leisure he devoted to acts of charity and to religious contemplation. The neighbourhood was a poverty-stricken one, and the kind Colonel, with his tripping step and simple manner, was soon a familiar figure in it, chatting with the seamen, taking provisions to starving families, or visiting some bedridden old woman to light her fire. He was particularly fond of boys. Ragged street arabs and rough sailor-lads crowded about him. They were made free of his house and garden; they visited him in the evenings for lessons and advice; he helped them, found them employment, corresponded with them when they went out into the world. They were, he said, his Wangs. It was only by a singular austerity of living that he was able to afford such a variety of charitable expenses. The easy luxuries of his class and station were unknown to him: his clothes verged upon the shabby; and his frugal meals were eaten at a table with a drawer, into which the loaf and plate were quickly swept at the approach of his poor visitors. Special occasions demanded special sacrifices. When, during the Lancashire famine, a public subscription was opened, finding that he had no ready money, he remembered his Chinese medal, and, after effacing the inscription, despatched it as an anonymous gift.

    Except for his boys and his paupers, he lived alone. In his solitude, he ruminated upon the mysteries of the universe; and those religious tendencies, which had already shown themselves, now became a fixed and dominating factor in his life. His reading was confined almost entirely to the Bible; but the Bible he read and re-read with an untiring, an unending, assiduity. There, he was convinced, all truth was to be found; and he was equally convinced that he could find it. The doubts of philosophers, the investigations of commentators, the smiles of men of the world, the dogmas of Churches—such things meant nothing to the Colonel. Two facts alone were evident: there was the Bible, and there was himself; and all that remained to be done was for him to discover what were the Bible’s instructions, and to act accordingly. In order to make this discovery it was only necessary for him to read the Bible over and over again; and therefore, for the rest of his life, he did so.

    The faith that he evolved was mystical and fatalistic; it was also highly unconventional. His creed, based upon the narrow foundations of Jewish Scripture, eked out occasionally by some English evangelical manual, was yet wide enough to ignore every doctrinal difference, and even, at moments, to transcend the bounds of Christianity itself. The just man was he who submitted to the Will of God, and the Will of God, inscrutable and absolute, could be served aright only by those who turned away from earthly desires and temporal temptations, to rest themselves whole-heartedly upon the indwelling Spirit. Human beings were the transitory embodiments of souls who had existed through an infinite past and would continue to exist through an infinite future. The world was vanity; the flesh was dust and ashes.

  • A man [Gordon wrote to his sister] who knows not the secret, who has not the indwelling of God revealed to him, is like this—[figure] He takes the promises and curses as addressed to him as one man, and will not hear of there being any birth before his natural birth, in any existence except with the body he is in. The man to whom the secret (the indwelling of God) is revealed is like this—[figure] He applies the promises to one and the curses to the other, if disobedient, which he must be, except the soul is enabled by God to rule. He then sees he is not of this world; for when he speaks of himself he quite disregards the body his soul lives in, which is earthy.
  • Such conceptions are familiar enough in the history of religious thought: they are those of the hermit and the fakir; and it might have been expected that, when once they had taken hold upon his mind, Gordon would have been content to lay aside the activities of his profession, and would have relapsed at last into the complete retirement of holy meditation. But there were other elements in his nature, which urged him towards a very different course. He was no simple quietist. He was an English gentleman, an officer, a man of energy and action, a lover of danger and the audacities that defeat danger, a passionate creature, flowing over with the self-assertiveness of independent judgment and the arbitrary temper of command. Whatever he might find in his pocket-Bible, it was not for such as he to dream out his days in devout obscurity. But, conveniently enough, he found nothing in his pocket-Bible indicating that he should. What he did find was that the Will of God was inscrutable and absolute; that it was man’s duty to follow where God’s hand led; and, if God’s hand led towards violent excitements and extraordinary vicissitudes, that it was not only futile, it was impious, to turn another way. Fatalism is always apt to be a double-edged philosophy; for while, on the one hand, it reveals the minutest occurrences as the immutable result of a rigid chain of infinitely predestined causes, on the other, it invests the wildest incoherences of conduct or of circumstance with the sanctity of eternal law. And Gordon’s fatalism was no exception. The same doctrine that led him to dally with omens, to search for prophetic texts, and to append, in brackets, the apotropaic initials D.V. after every statement in his letters implying futurity, led him also to envisage his moods and his desires, his passing reckless whims and his deep unconscious instincts, as the mysterious manifestations of the indwelling God. That there was danger lurking in such a creed he was very well aware. The grosser temptations of the world—money and the vulgar attributes of power—had, indeed, no charms for him; but there were subtler and more insinuating allurements which it was not so easy to resist. More than one observer declared that ambition was, in reality, the essential motive in his life—ambition, neither for wealth nor titles, but for fame and influence, for the swaying of multitudes, and for that kind of enlarged and intensified existence “where breath breathes most—even in the mouths of men.” Was it so? In the depths of Gordon’s soul there were intertwining contradictions—intricate recesses where egoism and renunciation melted into one another, where the flesh lost itself in the spirit, and the spirit in the flesh. What was the Will of God? The question, which first became insistent during his retirement at Gravesend, never afterwards left him: it might almost be said that he spent the remainder of his life in searching for the answer to it. In all his Odysseys, in all his strange and agitated adventures, a day never passed on which he neglected the voice of eternal wisdom as it spoke through the words of Paul or Solomon, of Jonah or Habakkuk. He opened his Bible, he read, and then he noted down his reflections upon scraps of paper, which, periodically pinned together, he dispatched to one or other of his religious friends, and particularly his sister Augusta. The published extracts from these voluminous outpourings lay bare the inner history of Gordon’s spirit, and revealed the pious visionary of Gravesend in the restless hero of three continents.

    His seclusion came to an end in a distinctly providential manner. In accordance with a stipulation in the Treaty of Paris, an international commission had been appointed to improve the navigation of the Danube; and Gordon, who had acted on a similar body fifteen years earlier, was sent out to represent Great Britain. At Constantinople, he chanced to meet the Egyptian minister, Nubar Pasha. The Governorship of the Equatorial Provinces of the Sudan was about to fall vacant; and Nubar offered the post to Gordon, who accepted it.

  • For some wise design [he wrote to his sister] God turns events one way or another, whether man likes it or not, as a man driving a horse turns it to right or left without consideration as to whether the horse likes that way or not. To be happy, a man must be like a well-broken, willing horse, ready for anything. Events will go as God likes.
  • And then followed six years of extraordinary, desperate, unceasing, and ungrateful labour. The unexplored and pestilential region of Equatoria, stretching southwards to the great lakes and the sources of the Nile, had been annexed to Egypt by the Khedive Ismail, who, while he squandered his millions on Parisian ballet-dancers, dreamt strange dreams of glory and empire. Those dim tracts of swamp and forest in Central Africa were—so he declared—to be “opened up,” they were to receive the blessings of civilisation, they were to become a source of eternal honour to himself and Egypt. The slave-trade, which flourished there, was to be put down; the savage inhabitants were to become acquainted with freedom, justice, and prosperity. Incidentally, a government monopoly in ivory was to be established, and the place was to be made a paying concern. Ismail, hopelessly in debt to a horde of European creditors, looked to Europe to support him in his schemes. Europe, and, in particular, England, with her passion for extraneous philanthropy, was not averse. Sir Samuel Baker became the first Governor of Equatoria, and now Gordon was to carry on the good work. In such circumstances it was only natural that Gordon should consider himself a special instrument in God’s hand. To put his disinterestedness beyond doubt, he reduced his salary, which had been fixed at £10,000, to £2,000. He took over his new duties early in 1874, and it was not long before he had a first hint of disillusionment. On his way up the Nile, he was received in state at Khartoum by the Egyptian Governor-General of the Sudan, his immediate official superior. The function ended in a prolonged banquet, followed by a mixed ballet of soldiers and completely naked young women, who danced in a circle, beat time with their feet, and accompanied their gestures with a curious sound of clucking. At last the Austrian Consul, overcome by the exhilaration of the scene, flung himself in a frenzy among the dancers; the Governor-General, shouting with delight, seemed about to follow suit, when Gordon abruptly left the room, and the party broke up in confusion.

    When, fifteen hundred miles to the southward, Gordon reached the seat of his government, and the desolation of the Tropics closed over him, the agonising nature of his task stood fully revealed. For the next three years he struggled with enormous difficulties—with the confused and horrible country, the appalling climate, the maddening insects and the loathsome diseases, the indifference of subordinates and superiors, the savagery of the slave-traders, the hatred of the inhabitants. One by one the small company of his European staff succumbed. With a few hundred Egyptian soldiers, he had to suppress insurrections, make roads, establish fortified posts, and enforce the government monopoly of ivory. All this he accomplished; he even succeeded in sending enough money to Cairo to pay for the expenses of the expedition. But a deep gloom had fallen upon his spirit. When, after a series of incredible obstacles had been overcome, a steamer was launched upon the unexplored Albert Nyanza, he turned his back upon the lake, leaving the glory of its navigation to his Italian lieutenant, Gessi. “I wish,” he wrote, “to give a practical proof of what I think regarding the inordinate praise which is given to an explorer.” Among his distresses and self-mortifications, he loathed the thought of all such honours, and remembered the attentions of English society with a snarl.

  • When, D.V., I get home, I do not dine out. My reminiscences of these lands will not be more pleasant to me than the China ones. What I shall have done will be what I have done. Men think giving dinners is conferring a favour on you.… Why not give dinners to those who need them?
  • No! His heart was set upon a very different object.
  • To each is allotted a distinct work, to each a destined goal; to some the seat at the right-hand or left of the Saviour. (It was not His to give; it was already given—Matthew xx. 23. Again, Judas went to “his own place”—Acts i. 25.) It is difficult to the flesh to accept “Ye are dead, ye have naught to do with the world.” How difficult for any one to be circumcised from the world, to be as indifferent to its pleasures, its sorrows, and its comforts as a corpse is! That is to know the resurrection.
  • But the Holy Book was not his only solace. For now, under the parching African sun, we catch glimpses, for the first time, of Gordon’s hand stretching out towards stimulants of a more material quality. For months together, we are told, he would drink nothing but pure water; and then … water that was not so pure. In his fits of melancholy, he would shut himself up in his tent for days at a time, with a hatchet and a flag placed at the door to indicate that he was not to be disturbed for any reason whatever; until at last the cloud would lift, the signals would be removed, and the Governor would reappear, brisk and cheerful. During one of these retirements, there was grave danger of a native attack upon the camp. Colonel Long, the Chief-of-Staff, ventured, after some hesitation, to ignore the flag and hatchet, and to enter the forbidden tent. He found Gordon seated at a table, upon which were an open Bible and an open bottle of brandy. Long explained the circumstances, but could obtain no answer beyond the abrupt words—“You are commander of the camp,”—and was obliged to retire, nonplussed, to deal with the situation as best he could. On the following morning Gordon, cleanly shaven, and in the full-dress uniform of the Royal Engineers, entered Long’s hut with his usual tripping step, exclaiming—“Old fellow, now don’t be angry with me. I was very low last night. Let’s have a good breakfast—a little b. and s. Do you feel up to it?” And, with these veering moods and dangerous restoratives, there came an intensification of the queer and violent elements in the temper of the man. His eccentricities grew upon him. He found it more and more uncomfortable to follow the ordinary course. Official routine was an agony to him. His caustic and satirical humour expressed itself in a style that astounded government departments. While he jibed at his superiors, his subordinates learnt to dread the explosions of his wrath. There were moments when his passion became utterly ungovernable; and the gentle soldier of God, who had spent the day in quoting texts for the edification of his sister, would slap the face of his Arab aide-de-camp in a sudden access of fury, or set upon his Alsatian servant and kick him till he screamed.

    At the end of three years, Gordon resigned his post in Equatoria, and prepared to return home. But again Providence intervened: the Khedive offered him, as an inducement to remain in the Egyptian service, a position of still higher consequence—the Governor-Generalship of the whole Sudan; and Gordon once more took up his task. Another three years were passed in grappling with vast revolting provinces, with the ineradicable iniquities of the slave-trade, with all the complications of weakness and corruption incident to an oriental administration extending over almost boundless tracts of savage territory which had never been effectively subdued. His headquarters were fixed in the palace at Khartoum; but there were various interludes in his government. Once, when the Khedive’s finances had become peculiarly embroiled, he summoned Gordon to Cairo, to preside over a commission which should set matters to rights. Gordon accepted the post, but soon found that his situation was untenable. He was between the devil and the deep sea—between the unscrupulous cunning of the Egyptian Pashas and the immeasurable immensity of the Khedive’s debts to his European creditors. The Pashas were anxious to use him as a respectable mask for their own nefarious dealings; and the representatives of the European creditors, who looked upon him as an irresponsible intruder, were anxious simply to get rid of him as soon as they could. One of these representatives was Sir Evelyn Baring, whom Gordon now met for the first time. An immediate antagonism flashed out between the two men. But their hostility had no time to mature; for Gordon, baffled on all sides, and deserted even by the Khedive, precipitately returned to his Governor-Generalship. Whatever else Providence might have decreed, it had certainly not decided that he should be a financier.

    His tastes and his talents were indeed of a very different kind. In his absence, a rebellion had broken out in Darfour—one of the vast outlying provinces of his government—where a native chieftain, Zobeir, had erected, on a basis of slave-traffic, a dangerous military power. Zobeir himself had been lured to Cairo, where he was detained in a state of semi-captivity; but his son, Suleiman, ruled in his stead, and was now defying the Governor-General. Gordon determined upon a hazardous stroke. He mounted a camel, and rode, alone, in the blazing heat, across eighty-five miles of desert, to Suleiman’s camp. His sudden apparition dumfounded the rebels; his imperious bearing overawed them; he signified to them that in two days they must disarm and disperse; and the whole host obeyed. Gordon returned to Khartoum in triumph. But he had not heard the last of Suleiman. Flying southwards from Darfour to the neighbouring province of Bahr-el-Ghazal, the young man was soon once more at the head of a formidable force. A prolonged campaign, of extreme difficulty and danger, followed. Eventually, Gordon, summoned again to Cairo, was obliged to leave to Gessi the task of finally crushing the revolt. After a brilliant campaign, Gessi forced Suleiman to surrender, and then shot him as a rebel. The deed was to exercise a curious influence upon Gordon’s fate.

    Though Suleiman had been killed and his power broken, the slave-trade still flourished in the Sudan. Gordon’s efforts to suppress it resembled the palliatives of an empiric treating the superficial symptoms of some profound constitutional disease. The root of the malady lay in the slave-markets of Cairo and Constantinople: the supply followed the demand. Gordon, after years of labour, might here and there stop up a spring or divert a tributary, but, somehow or other, the waters would reach the river-bed. In the end, he himself came to recognise this. “When you have got the ink that has soaked into blotting-paper out of it,” he said, “then slavery will cease in these lands.” And yet he struggled desperately on; it was not for him to murmur. “I feel my own weakness, and look to Him who is Almighty, and I leave the issue without inordinate care to Him.”

    Relief came at last. The Khedive Ismail was deposed; and Gordon felt at liberty to send in his resignation. Before he left Egypt, however, he was to experience yet one more remarkable adventure. At his own request, he set out on a diplomatic mission to the Negus of Abyssinia. The mission was a complete failure. The Negus was intractable, and, when his bribes were refused, furious. Gordon was ignominiously dismissed; every insult was heaped on him; he was arrested, and obliged to traverse the Abyssinian Mountains in the depths of winter under the escort of a savage troop of horse. When, after great hardships and dangers, he reached Cairo, he found the whole official world up in arms against him. The Pashas had determined at last that they had no further use for this honest and peculiar Englishman. It was arranged that one of his confidential dispatches should be published in the newspapers; naturally, it contained indiscretions; there was a universal outcry—the man was insubordinate, and mad. He departed under a storm of obloquy. It seemed impossible that he should ever return to Egypt.

    On his way home, he stopped in Paris, saw the English ambassador, Lord Lyons, and speedily came into conflict with him over Egyptian affairs. There ensued a heated correspondence, which was finally closed by a letter from Gordon, ending as follows:—

  • I have some comfort in thinking that in ten or fifteen years’ time it will matter little to either of us. A black box, six feet six by three feet wide will then contain all that is left of Ambassador, or Cabinet Minister, or of your humble and obedient servant.
  • He arrived in England early in 1880 ill and exhausted; and it might have been supposed that after the terrible activities of his African exile he would have been ready to rest. But the very opposite was the case: the next three years were the most mouvementés of his life. He hurried from post to post, from enterprise to enterprise, from continent to continent, with a vertiginous rapidity. He accepted the Private Secretaryship to Lord Ripon, the new Viceroy of India, and, three days after his arrival at Bombay, he resigned. He had suddenly realised that he was not cut out for a Private Secretary, when on an address being sent in from some deputation, he was asked to say that the Viceroy had read it with interest. “You know perfectly,” he said to Lord William Beresford, “that Lord Ripon has never read it, and I can’t say that sort of thing, so I will resign, and you take in my resignation.” He confessed to Lord William that the world was not big enough for him, that there was “no king or country big enough”; and then he added, hitting him on the shoulder, “Yes, that is flesh, that is what I hate, and what makes me wish to die.”

    Two days later, he was off for Pekin. “Everyone will say I am mad,” were his last words to Lord William Beresford; “but you say I am not.” The position in China was critical; war with Russia appeared to be imminent; and Gordon had been appealed to, in order to use his influence on the side of peace. He was welcomed by many old friends of former days, among them Li Hung Chang, whose diplomatic views coincided with his own. Li’s diplomatic language, however, was less unconventional. In an interview with the Ministers, Gordon’s expressions were such that the interpreter shook with terror, upset a cup of tea, and finally refused to translate the dreadful words; upon which Gordon snatched up a dictionary, and, with his finger on the word “idiocy,” showed it to the startled mandarins. A few weeks later, Li Hung Chang was in power, and peace was assured. Gordon had spent two and a half days in Pekin, and was whirling through China, when a telegram arrived from the home authorities, who viewed his movements with uneasiness, ordering him to return at once to England. “It did not produce a twitter in me,” he wrote to his sister; “I died long ago, and it will not make any difference to me; I am prepared to follow the unrolling of the scroll.” The world, perhaps, was not big enough for him; and yet how clearly he recognised that he was “a poor insect!” “My heart tells me that, and I am glad of it.”

    On his return to England, he telegraphed to the Government of the Cape of Good Hope, which had become involved in a war with the Basutos, offering his services; but his telegram received no reply. Just then, Sir Howard Elphinstone was appointed to the command of the Royal Engineers in Mauritius. It was a thankless and insignificant post; and, rather than accept it, Elphinstone was prepared to retire from the army—unless some other officer could be induced, in return for £800, to act as his substitute. Gordon, who was an old friend, agreed to undertake the work—upon one condition: that he should receive nothing from Elphinstone; and accordingly he spent the next year in that remote and unhealthy island, looking after the barrack repairs and testing the drains. While he was thus engaged, the Cape Government, whose difficulties had been increasing, changed its mind, and early in 1882 begged for Gordon’s help. Once more he was involved in great affairs: a new field of action opened before him; and then, in a moment, there was another shift of the kaleidoscope, and again he was thrown upon the world. Within a few weeks, after a violent quarrel with the Cape authorities, his mission had come to an end. What should he do next? To what remote corner or what enormous stage, to what self-sacrificing drudgeries, or what resounding exploits, would the hand of God lead him now? He waited, in an odd hesitation. He opened the Bible, but neither the prophecies of Hosea nor the epistles to Timothy gave him any advice. The King of the Belgians asked if he would be willing to go to the Congo. He was perfectly willing; he would go whenever the King of the Belgians sent for him; his services, however, were not required yet. It was at this juncture that he betook himself to Palestine. His studies there were embodied in a correspondence with the Rev. Mr. Barnes, filling over two thousand pages of manuscript—a correspondence which was only put an end to when, at last, the summons from the King of the Belgians came. He hurried back to England; but it was not to the Congo that he was being led by the hand of God.