Lytton Strachey (1880–1932). Eminent Victorians. 1918The End of General Gordon
Gordon’s last great adventure, like his first, was occasioned by a religious revolt. At the very moment when, apparently for ever, he was shaking the dust of Egypt from his feet, Mohammed Ahmed was starting upon his extraordinary career in the Sudan. The time was propitious for revolutions. The effete Egyptian Empire was hovering upon the verge of collapse. The enormous territories of the Sudan were seething with discontent. Gordon’s administration had, by its very vigour, only helped to precipitate the inevitable disaster. His attacks upon the slave-trade, his establishment of a government monopoly in ivory, his hostility to the Egyptian officials, had been so many shocks, shaking to its foundations the whole rickety machine. The result of all his efforts had been, on the one hand, to fill the most powerful classes in the community—the dealers in slaves and ivory—with a hatred of the government, and on the other to awaken among the mass of the inhabitants a new perception of the dishonesty and incompetence of their Egyptian masters. When, after Gordon’s removal, the rule of the Pashas once more asserted itself over the Sudan, a general combustion became inevitable: the first spark would set off the blaze. Just then it happened that Mahommed Ahmed, the son of an insignificant priest in Dongola, having quarrelled with the Sheikh from whom he was receiving religious instruction, set up as an independent preacher, with his headquarters at Abba Island, on the Nile, a hundred and fifty miles above Khartoum. Like Hongsiu-tsuen, he began as a religious reformer, and ended as a rebel king. It was his mission, he declared, to purge the true Faith of its worldliness and corruptions, to lead the followers of the Prophet into the paths of chastity, simplicity, and holiness; with the puritanical zeal of a Calvin, he denounced junketings and merry-makings, songs and dances, lewd living and all the delights of the flesh. He fell into trances, he saw visions, he saw the Prophet and Jesus, and the Angel Izrail accompanying him and watching over him for ever. He prophesied, and performed miracles, and his fame spread through the land.
There is an ancient tradition in the Mahommedan world, telling of a mysterious being, the last in succession of the twelve holy Imams, who, untouched by death and withdrawn into the recesses of a mountain, was destined, at the appointed hour, to come forth again among men. His title was the Mahdi, the guide; some believed that he would be the forerunner of the Messiah; others that he would be Christ himself. Already various Mahdis had made their appearance; several had been highly successful, and two, in mediæval times, had founded dynasties in Egypt. But who could tell whether all these were not impostors? Might not the twelfth Imam be still waiting, in mystical concealment, ready to emerge, at any moment, at the bidding of God? There were signs by which the true Mahdi might be recognised—unmistakable signs, if one could but read them aright. He must be of the family of the prophet; he must possess miraculous powers of no common kind; and his person must be overflowing with a peculiar sanctity. The pious dwellers beside those distant waters, where holy men by dint of a constant repetition of one of the ninety-nine names of God, secured the protection of guardian angels, and where groups of devotees, shaking their heads with a violence which would unseat the reason of less athletic worshippers, attained to an extraordinary beatitude, heard with awe of the young preacher whose saintliness was almost more than mortal and whose miracles brought amazement to the mind. Was he not also of the family of the prophet? He himself had said so; and who would disbelieve the holy man? When he appeared in person, every doubt was swept away. There was a strange splendour in his presence, an overpowering passion in the torrent of his speech. Great was the wickedness of the people, and great was their punishment! Surely their miseries were a visible sign of the wrath of the Lord. They had sinned, and the cruel tax-gatherers had come among them, and the corrupt governors, and all the oppressions of the Egyptians. Yet these things, too, should have an end. The Lord would raise up his chosen deliverer: the hearts of the people would be purified, and their enemies would be laid low. The accursed Egyptian would be driven from the land. Let the faithful take heart and make ready. How soon might not the long-predestined hour strike, when the twelfth Imam, the guide, the Mahdi, would reveal himself to the World? In that hour, the righteous would triumph and the guilty be laid low for ever. Such was the teaching of Mahommed Ahmed. A band of enthusiastic disciples gathered round him, eagerly waiting for the revelation which would crown their hopes. At last, the moment came. One evening, at Abba Island, taking aside the foremost of his followers, the Master whispered the portentous news. He was the Mahdi.
The Egyptian Governor-General at Khartoum, hearing that a religious movement was on foot, grew disquieted, and dispatched an emissary to Abba Island to summon the impostor to his presence. The emissary was courteously received. Mahommed Ahmed, he said, must come at once to Khartoum. “Must!” exclaimed the Mahdi, starting to his feet, with a strange look in his eyes. The look was so strange that the emissary thought it advisable to cut short the interview and to return to Khartoum empty-handed. Thereupon the Governor-General sent two hundred soldiers to seize the audacious rebel by force. With his handful of friends, the Mahdi fell upon the soldiers and cut them to pieces. The news spread like wild-fire through the country: the Mahdi had arisen, the Egyptians were destroyed. But it was clear to the little band of enthusiasts at Abba Island that their position on the river was no longer tenable. The Mahdi, deciding upon a second Hegira, retreated southwestward, into the depths of Kordofan.
The retreat was a triumphal progress. The country, groaning under alien misgovernment and vibrating with religious excitement suddenly found in this rebellious prophet a rallying point, a hero, a deliverer. And now another element was added to the forces of insurrection. The Baggara tribes of Kordofan, cattle-owners and slave-traders, the most warlike and vigorous of the inhabitants of the Sudan, threw in their lot with the Mahdi. Their powerful emirs, still smarting from the blows of Gordon, saw that the opportunity for revenge had come. A holy war was proclaimed against the Egyptian misbelievers. The followers of the Mahdi, dressed, in token of a new austerity of living, in the “jibbeh,” or white smock of coarse cloth, patched with variously shaped and coloured patches, were rapidly organised into a formidable army. Several attacks from Khartoum were repulsed; and at last the Mahdi felt strong enough to advance against the enemy. While his lieutenants led detachments into the vast provinces lying to the west and the south—Darfour and Bahr-el-Ghazal—he himself marched upon El Obeid, the capital of Kordofan. It was in vain that reinforcements were hurried from Khartoum to the assistance of the garrison: there was some severe fighting; the town was completely cut off; and, after a six months’ siege, it surrendered. A great quantity of guns and ammunition and £100,000 in specie fell into the hands of the Mahdi. He was master of Kordofan; he was at the head of a great army; he was rich; he was worshipped. A dazzling future opened before him. No possibility seemed too remote, no fortune too magnificent. A vision of universal empire hovered before his eyes. Allah, whose servant he was, who had led him thus far, would lead him onward still, to the glorious end.
For some months he remained at El Obeid, consolidating his dominion. In a series of circular letters, he described his colloquies with the Almighty and laid down the rule of living which his followers were to pursue. The faithful, under pain of severe punishment, were to return to the ascetic simplicity of ancient times. A criminal code was drawn up, meting out executions, mutilations, and floggings with a barbaric zeal. The blasphemer was to be instantly hanged, the adulterer was to be scourged with whips of rhinoceros hide, the thief was to have his right hand and his left foot hacked off in the market-place. No more were marriages to be celebrated with pomp and feasting, no more was the youthful warrior to swagger with flowing hair; henceforth the believer must banquet on dates and milk, and his head must be kept shaved. Minor transgressions were punished by confiscation of property, or by imprisonment and chains. But the rhinoceros whip was the favourite instrument of chastisement. Men were flogged for drinking a glass of wine, they were flogged for smoking; if they swore, they received eighty lashes for every expletive; and after eighty lashes it was a common thing to die. Before long, flogging grew to be so everyday an incident that the young men made a game of it, as a test of their endurance of pain. With this Spartan ferocity there was mingled the glamour and the mystery of the East. The Mahdi himself, his four Khalifas, and the principal emirs, masters of sudden riches, surrounded themselves with slaves and women, with trains of horses and asses, with bodyguards and glittering arms. There were rumours of debaucheries in high places; of the Mahdi, forgetful of his own ordinances, revelling in the recesses of his harem, and quaffing date syrup mixed with ginger out of the silver cups looted from the church of the Christians. But that imposing figure had only to show itself for the tongue of scandal to be stilled. The tall, broad-shouldered, majestic man, with the dark face and black beard and great eyes—who could doubt that he was the embodiment of a superhuman power? Fascination dwelt in every movement, every glance. The eyes, painted with antimony, flashed extraordinary fires; the exquisite smile revealed, beneath the vigorous lips, white upper teeth with a V-shaped space between them—the certain sign of fortune. His turban was folded with faultless art, his jibbeh, speckless, was perfumed with sandal-wood, musk, and attar of roses. He was at once all courtesy and all command. Thousands followed him, thousands prostrated themselves before him; thousands, when he lifted up his voice in solemn worship, knew that the heavens were opened and that they had come near to God. Then all at once the onbeia—the elephant’s tusk trumpet—would give out its enormous sound. The nahas—the brazen war-drums—would summon, with their weird rolling, the whole host to arms. The green flag and the red flag and the black flag would rise over the multitude. The great army would move forward, coloured, glistening, dark, violent, proud, beautiful. The drunkenness, the madness, of religion would blaze on every face; and the Mahdi, immovable on his charger, would let the scene grow under his eyes in silence.
El Obeid fell in January, 1883. Meanwhile events of the deepest importance had occurred in Egypt. The rise of Arábi had synchronised with that of the Mahdi. Both movements were nationalist; both were directed against alien rulers who had shown themselves unfit to rule. While the Sudanese were shaking off the yoke of Egypt, the Egyptians themselves grew impatient of their own masters—the Turkish and Circassian Pashas who filled with their incompetence all the high offices of state. The army, led by Ahmed Arábi, a Colonel of fellah origin, mutinied, the Khedive gave way, and it seemed as if a new order were about to be established. A new order was indeed upon the point of appearing: but it was of a kind undreamt of in Arábi’s philosophy. At the critical moment, the English Government intervened. An English fleet bombarded Alexandria, an English army landed under Lord Wolseley and defeated Arábi and his supporters at Tel-el-kebir. The rule of the Pashas was nominally restored; but henceforth, in effect, the English were masters of Egypt.
Nevertheless, the English themselves were slow to recognise this fact. Their government had intervened unwillingly; the occupation of the country was a merely temporary measure; their army was to be withdrawn so soon as a tolerable administration had been set up. But a tolerable administration, presided over by the Pashas, seemed long in coming, and the English army remained. In the meantime the Mahdi had entered El Obeid, and his dominion was rapidly spreading over the greater part of the Sudan.
Then a terrible catastrophe took place. The Pashas, happy once more in Cairo, pulling the old strings and growing fat over the old flesh-pots, decided to give the world an unmistakable proof of their renewed vigour. They would tolerate the insurrection in the Sudan no longer; they would destroy the Mahdi, reduce his followers to submission, and re-establish their own beneficent rule over the whole country. To this end they collected together an army of ten thousand men, and placed it under the command of Colonel Hicks, a retired English officer. He was ordered to advance and suppress the rebellion. In these proceedings the English Government refused to take any part. Unable, or unwilling, to realise that, so long as there was an English army in Egypt, they could not avoid the responsibilities of supreme power, they declared that the domestic policy of the Egyptian administration was no concern of theirs. It was a fatal error—an error which they themselves, before many weeks were over, were to be forced by the hard logic of events to admit. The Pashas, left to their own devices, mismanaged the Hicks expedition to their hearts’ content. The miserable troops, swept together from the relics of Arábi’s disbanded army, were despatched to Khartoum in chains. After a month’s drilling they were pronounced to be fit to attack the fanatics of the Sudan. Colonel Hicks was a brave man; urged on by the authorities in Cairo, he shut his eyes to the danger ahead of him, and marched out from Khartoum in the direction of El Obeid at the beginning of September, 1883. Abandoning his communications, he was soon deep in the desolate wastes of Kordofan. As he advanced, his difficulties increased; the guides were treacherous, the troops grew exhausted, the supply of water gave out. He pressed on, and at last, on November 5th, not far from El Obeid, the harassed, fainting, almost desperate army plunged into a vast forest of gum-trees and mimosa scrub. There was a sudden, an appalling yell; the Mahdi, with forty thousand of his finest men, sprang from their ambush. The Egyptians were surrounded, and immediately overpowered. It was not a defeat, but an annihilation. Hicks and his European staff were slaughtered; the whole army was slaughtered; three hundred wounded wretches crept away into the forest alive.
The consequences of this event were felt in every part of the Sudan. To the westward, in Darfour, the Governor, Slatin Pasha, after a prolonged and valiant resistance, was forced to surrender, and the whole province fell into the hands of the rebels. Southwards, in the Bahr-el-Ghazal, Lupton Bey was shut up in a remote stronghold, while the country was overrun. The Mahdi’s triumphs were beginning to penetrate even into the tropical regions of Equatoria; the tribes were rising, and Emin Pasha was preparing to retreat towards the Great Lakes. On the East, Osman Digna pushed the insurrection right up to the shores of the Red Sea, and laid siege to Suakin. Before the year was over, with the exception of a few isolated and surrounded garrisons, the Mahdi was absolute lord of a territory equal to the combined area of Spain, France, and Germany; and his victorious armies were rapidly closing round Khartoum.
When the news of the Hicks disaster reached Cairo, the Pashas calmly announced that they would collect another army of ten thousand men, and again attack the Mahdi; but the English Government understood at last the gravity of the case. They saw that a crisis was upon them, and that they could no longer escape the implications of their position in Egypt. What were they to do? Were they to allow the Egyptians to become more and more deeply involved in a ruinous, perhaps ultimately a fatal, war with the Mahdi? And, if not, what steps were they to take? A small minority of the party then in power in England—the Liberal Party—were anxious to withdraw from Egypt altogether and at once. On the other hand, another and a more influential minority, with representatives in the Cabinet, were in favour of a more active intervention in Egyptian affairs—of the deliberate use of the power of England to give to Egypt internal stability and external security; they were ready, if necessary, to take the field against the Mahdi with English troops. But the great bulk of the party, and the Cabinet, with Mr. Gladstone at their head, preferred a middle course. Realising the impracticability of an immediate withdrawal, they were nevertheless determined to remain in Egypt not a moment longer than was necessary, and, in the meantime, to interfere as little as possible in Egyptian affairs. From a campaign in the Sudan conducted by an English army they were altogether averse. If, therefore, the English army was not to be used, and the Egyptian army was not fit to be used against the Mahdi, it followed that any attempt to reconquer the Sudan must be abandoned; the remaining Egyptian troops must be withdrawn, and in future military operations must be limited to those of a strictly defensive kind. Such was the decision of the English Government. Their determination was strengthened by two considerations: in the first place, they saw that the Mahdi’s rebellion was largely a nationalist movement, directed against an alien power, and, in the second place, the policy of withdrawal from the Sudan was the policy of their own representative in Egypt, Sir Evelyn Baring, who had lately been appointed Consul-General at Cairo. There was only one serious obstacle in the way—the attitude of the Pashas at the head of the Egyptian Government. The infatuated old men were convinced that they would have better luck next time, that another army and another Hicks would certainly destroy the Mahdi, and that, even if the Mahdi were again victorious, yet another army and yet another Hicks would no doubt be forthcoming, and that they would do the trick, or, failing that … but they refused to consider eventualities any further. In the face of such opposition, the English Government, unwilling as they were to interfere, saw that there was no choice open to them but to exercise pressure. They therefore instructed Sir Evelyn Baring, in the event of the Egyptian Government refusing to withdraw from the Sudan, to insist upon the Khedive’s appointing other Ministers who would be willing to do so.
Meanwhile, not only the Government, but the public in England were beginning to realise the alarming nature of the Egyptian situation. It was some time before the details of the Hicks expedition were fully known, but when they were, and when the appalling character of the disaster was understood, a thrill of horror ran through the country. The newspapers became full of articles on the Sudan, of personal descriptions of the Mahdi, of agitated letters from Colonels and clergymen demanding vengeance, and of serious discussions of future policy in Egypt. Then, at the beginning of the new year, alarming messages began to arrive from Khartoum. Colonel Coetlogon, who was in command of the Egyptian troops, reported a menacing concentration of the enemy. Day by day, hour by hour, affairs grew worse. The Egyptians were obviously outnumbered; they could not maintain themselves in the field; Khartoum was in danger; at any moment, its investment might be complete. And, with Khartoum once cut off from communication with Egypt, what might not happen? Colonel Coetlogon began to calculate how long the city would hold out. Perhaps it could not resist the Mahdi for a month, perhaps for more than a month; but he began to talk of the necessity of a speedy retreat. It was clear that a climax was approaching, and that measures must be taken to forestall it at once. Accordingly, Sir Evelyn Baring, on receipt of final orders from England, presented an ultimatum to the Egyptian Government: the Ministry must either sanction the evacuation of the Sudan, or it must resign. The Ministry was obstinate, and, on January 7, 1884, it resigned, to be replaced by a more pliable body of Pashas. On the same day, General Gordon arrived at Southampton.
He was over fifty, and he was still, by the world’s measurements, an unimportant man. In spite of his achievements, in spite of a certain celebrity—for “Chinese Gordon” was still occasionally spoken of—he was unrecognised and almost unemployed. He had spent a life-time in the dubious services of foreign Governments, punctuated by futile drudgeries at home; and now, after a long idleness, he had been sent for—to do what?—to look after the Congo for the King of the Belgians. At his age, even if he survived the work and the climate, he could hardly look forward to any subsequent appointment; he would return from the Congo, old and worn out, to a red-brick villa and extinction. Such were General Gordon’s prospects on January 7, 1884. By January 18th, his name was on every tongue, he was the favourite of the nation, he had been declared to be the one man living capable of coping with the perils of the hour, he had been chosen, with unanimous approval, to perform a great task, and he had left England on a mission which was to bring him not only a boundless popularity but an immortal fame. The circumstances which led to a change so sudden and so remarkable are less easily explained than might have been wished. An ambiguity hangs over them—an ambiguity which the discretion of eminent persons has certainly not diminished. But some of the facts are clear enough.
The decision to withdraw from the Sudan had no sooner been taken than it had become evident that the operation would be a difficult and hazardous one, and that it would be necessary to send to Khartoum an emissary armed with special powers and possessed of special ability, to carry it out. Towards the end of November, somebody at the War Office—it is not clear who—had suggested that this emissary should be General Gordon. Lord Granville, the Foreign Secretary, had thereupon telegraphed to Sir Evelyn Baring asking whether, in his opinion, the presence of General Gordon would be useful in Egypt; Sir Evelyn Baring had replied that the Egyptian Government were averse to this proposal, and the matter had dropped. There was no further reference to Gordon in the official dispatches until after his return to England. Nor, before that date, was any allusion made to him, as a possible unraveller of the Sudan difficulty, in the Press. In all the discussions which followed the news of the Hicks disaster, his name is only to be found in occasional and incidental references to his work in the Sudan. The Pall Mall Gazette, which, more than any other newspaper, interested itself in Egyptian affairs, alluded to Gordon once or twice as a geographical expert; but, in an enumeration of the leading authorities on the Sudan, left him out of account altogether. Yet it was from the Pall Mall Gazette, that the impulsion which projected him into a blaze of publicity finally came. Mr. Stead, its enterprising editor, went down to Southampton the day after Gordon’s arrival there, and obtained an interview. Now when he was in the mood—after a little b. and s., especially—no one was more capable than Gordon, with his facile speech and his free-and-easy manners, of furnishing good copy for a journalist; and Mr. Stead made the most of his opportunity. The interview, copious and pointed, was published next day in the most prominent part of the paper, together with a leading article, demanding that the General should be immediately dispatched to Khartoum with the widest powers. The rest of the Press, both in London and in the provinces, at once took up the cry. General Gordon was a capable and energetic officer, he was a noble and God-fearing man, he was a national asset, he was a statesman in the highest sense of the word; the occasion was pressing and perilous; General Gordon had been for years Governor-General of the Sudan; General Gordon alone had the knowledge, the courage, the virtue, which would save the situation; General Gordon must go to Khartoum. So, for a week, the papers sang in chorus. But already those in high places had taken a step. Mr. Stead’s interview appeared on the afternoon of January 9th, and on the morning of January 10th, Lord Granville telegraphed to Sir Evelyn Baring proposing, for a second time, that Gordon’s services should be utilised in Egypt. But Sir Evelyn Baring, for the second time, rejected the proposal.
While these messages were flashing to and fro, Gordon himself was paying a visit to the Rev. Mr. Barnes at the Vicarage of Heavitree, near Exeter. The conversation ran chiefly on Biblical and spiritual matters—on the light thrown by the Old Testament upon the geography of Palestine, and on the relations between man and his Maker; but there were moments when topics of a more worldly interest arose. It happened that Sir Samuel Baker, Gordon’s predecessor in Equatoria, lived in the neighbourhood. A meeting was arranged, and the two ex-Governors, with Mr. Barnes in attendance, went for a drive together. In the carriage, Sir Samuel Baker, taking up the tale of the Pall Mall Gazette, dilated upon the necessity of his friend’s returning to the Sudan as Governor-General. Gordon was silent; but Mr. Barnes noticed that his blue eyes flashed, while an eager expression passed over his face. Late that night, after the Vicar had retired to bed, he was surprised by the door suddenly opening, and by the appearance of his guest swiftly tripping into the room. “You saw me to-day?” the low voice abruptly questioned.—“You mean in the carriage?” replied the startled Mr. Barnes,—“Yes,” came the reply; “You saw me—that was myself—the self I want to get rid of.” There was a sliding movement, the door swung to, and the Vicar found himself alone again.
It was clear that a disturbing influence had found its way into Gordon’s mind. His thoughts, wandering through Africa, flitted to the Sudan; they did not linger at the Congo. During the same visit, he took the opportunity of calling upon Dr. Temple, the Bishop of Exeter, and asking him, merely as a hypothetical question, whether, in his opinion, Sudanese converts to Christianity might be permitted to keep three wives. His Lordship answered that this would be uncanonical.
A few days later, it appeared that the conversation in the carriage at Heavitree had borne fruit. Gordon wrote a letter to Sir Samuel Baker, further elaborating the opinions on the Sudan which he had already expressed in his interview with Mr. Stead; the letter was clearly intended for publication, and published it was, in the Times of January 14th. On the same day, Gordon’s name began once more to buzz along the wires in secret questions and answers to and from the highest quarters.
“Might it not be advisable,” telegraphed Lord Granville to Mr. Gladstone, “to put a little pressure on Baring, to induce him to accept the assistance of General Gordon?” Mr. Gladstone replied, also by a telegram, in the affirmative; and on the 15th Lord Wolseley telegraphed to Gordon begging him to come to London immediately. Lord Wolseley, who was one of Gordon’s oldest friends, was at that time Adjutant-General of the Forces; there was a long interview; and, though the details of the conversation have never transpired, it is known that, in the course of it, Lord Wolseley asked Gordon if he would be willing to go to the Sudan, to which Gordon replied that there was only one objection—his prior engagement to the King of the Belgians. Before nightfall, Lord Granville by private telegram, had “put a little pressure on Baring.” “He had,” he said, “heard indirectly that Gordon was ready to go at once to the Sudan on the following rather vague terms. His mission to be to report to Her Majesty’s Government on the military situation, and to return without any further engagement. He would be under you for instructions and will send letters through you under flying seal.… He might be of use,” Lord Granville added, “in informing you and us of the situation. It would be popular at home, but there may be countervailing objections. Tell me,” such was Lord Granville’s concluding injunction, “your real opinion.” It was the third time of asking, and Sir Evelyn Baring resisted no longer.
Such was the sequence of events which ended in General Gordon’s last appointment. The precise motives of those responsible for these transactions are less easy to discern. It is difficult to understand what the reasons could have been which induced the Government, not only to override the hesitations of Sir Evelyn Baring, but to overlook the grave and obvious dangers involved in sending such a man as Gordon to the Sudan. The whole history of his life, the whole bent of his character, seemed to disqualify him for the task for which he had been chosen. He was before all things a fighter, an enthusiast, a bold adventurer; and he was now to be entrusted with the conduct of an inglorious retreat. He was alien to the subtleties of civilised statesmanship, he was unamenable to official control, he was incapable of the skilful management of delicate situations; and he was now to be placed in a position of great complexity, requiring at once a cool judgment, a clear perception of fact, and a fixed determination to carry out a line of policy laid down from above. He had, it is true, been Governor-General of the Sudan; but he was now to return to the scene of his greatness as the emissary of a defeated and humbled power; he was to be a fugitive where he had once been a ruler; the very success of his mission was to consist in establishing the triumph of those forces which he had spent years in trampling under foot. All this should have been clear to those in authority, after a very little reflection. It was clear enough to Sir Evelyn Baring, though, with characteristic reticence, he had abstained from giving expression to his thoughts. But, even if a general acquaintance with Gordon’s life and character were not sufficient to lead to these conclusions, he himself had taken care to put their validity beyond reasonable doubt. Both in his interview with Mr. Stead and in his letter to Sir Samuel Baker, he had indicated unmistakably his own attitude towards the Sudan situation. The policy which he advocated, the state of feeling in which he showed himself to be, were diametrically opposed to the declared intentions of the Government. He was by no means in favour of withdrawing from the Sudan: he was in favour, as might have been supposed, of vigorous military action. It might be necessary to abandon, for the time being, the more remote garrisons in Darfour and Equatoria; but Khartoum must be held at all costs. To allow the Mahdi to enter Khartoum would not merely mean the return of the whole of the Sudan to barbarism, it would be a menace to the safety of Egypt herself. To attempt to protect Egypt against the Mahdi by fortifying her southern frontier was preposterous. “You might as well fortify against a fever.” Arabia, Syria, the whole Mohammedan world, would be shaken by the Mahdi’s advance. “In self-defence,” Gordon declared to Mr. Stead, “the policy of evacuation cannot possibly be justified.” The true policy was obvious. A strong man—Sir Samuel Baker, perhaps—must be sent to Khartoum, with a large contingent of Indian and Turkish troops and with two millions of money. He would very soon overpower the Mahdi, whose forces would “fall to pieces of themselves.” For in Gordon’s opinion it was “an entire mistake to regard the Mahdi as in any sense a religious leader”; he would collapse as soon as he was face to face with an English general. Then the distant regions of Darfour and Equatoria could once more be occupied; their original Sultans could be reinstated; the whole country would be placed under civilised rule; and the slave-trade would be finally abolished. These were the views which Gordon publicly expressed on January 9th and on January 14th; and it certainly seems strange that on January 10th and on January 14th, Lord Granville should have proposed, without a word of consultation with Gordon himself, to send him on a mission which involved, not the reconquest, but the abandonment, of the Sudan. Gordon, indeed, when he was actually approached by Lord Wolseley, had apparently agreed to become the agent of a policy which was exactly the reverse of his own. No doubt, too, it is possible for a subordinate to suppress his private convictions and to carry out loyally, in spite of them, the orders of his superiors. But how rare are the qualities of self-control and wisdom which such a subordinate must possess! And how little reason there was to think that General Gordon possessed them!
In fact, the conduct of the Government wears so singular an appearance that it has seemed necessary to account for it by some ulterior explanation. It has often been asserted that the true cause of Gordon’s appointment was the clamour in the Press. It is said—among others, by Sir Evelyn Baring himself, who has given something like an official sanction to this view of the case—that the Government could not resist the pressure of the newspapers and the feeling in the country which it indicated; that Ministers, carried off their feet by a wave of “Gordon cultus,” were obliged to give way to the inevitable. But this suggestion is hardly supported by an examination of the facts. Already, early in December, and many weeks before Gordon’s name had begun to figure in the newspapers, Lord Granville had made his first effort to induce Sir Evelyn Baring to accept Gordon’s services. The first newspaper demand for a Gordon mission appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette on the afternoon of January 9th; and the very next morning Lord Granville was making his second telegraphic attack upon Sir Evelyn Baring. The feeling in the Press did not become general until the 11th, and on the 14th Lord Granville, in his telegram to Mr. Gladstone, for the third time proposed the appointment of Gordon. Clearly, on the part of Lord Granville at any rate, there was no extreme desire to resist the wishes of the Press. Nor was the Government as a whole by any means incapable of ignoring public opinion: a few months were to show that, plainly enough. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that if Ministers had been opposed to the appointment of Gordon, he would never have been appointed. As it was, the newspapers were in fact forestalled, rather than followed, by the Government.
How, then, are we to explain the Government’s action? Are we to suppose that its members, like the members of the public at large, were themselves carried away by a sudden enthusiasm, a sudden conviction that they had found their saviour, that General Gordon was the man—they did not quite know why, but that was of no consequence—the one man to get them out of the whole Sudan difficulty—they did not quite know how, but that was of no consequence either—if only he were sent to Khartoum? Doubtless even Cabinet Ministers are liable to such impulses; doubtless it is possible that the Cabinet of that day allowed itself to drift, out of mere lack of consideration, and judgment, and foresight, along the rapid stream of popular feeling towards the inevitable cataract. That may be so; yet there are indications that a more definite influence was at work. There was a section of the Government which had never become quite reconciled to the policy of withdrawing from the Sudan. To this section—we may call it the imperialist section—which was led, inside the Cabinet, by Lord Hartington, and outside by Lord Wolseley, the policy which really commended itself was the very policy which had been outlined by General Gordon in his interview with Mr. Stead and his letter to Sir Samuel Baker. They saw that it might be necessary to abandon some of the outlying parts of the Sudan to the Mahdi; but the prospect of leaving the whole province in his hands was highly distasteful to them; above all, they dreaded the loss of Khartoum. Now, supposing that General Gordon in response to a popular agitation in the Press, were sent to Khartoum, what would follow? Was it not at least possible that, once there, with his views and his character, he would, for some reason or other, refrain from carrying out a policy of pacific retreat? Was it not possible that in that case he might so involve the English Government that it would find itself obliged, almost imperceptibly perhaps, to substitute for its policy of withdrawal a policy of advance? Was it not possible that General Gordon might get into difficulties, that he might be surrounded and cut off from Egypt? If that were to happen, how could the English Government avoid the necessity of sending an expedition to rescue him? And, if an English expedition went to the Sudan, was it conceivable that it would leave the Mahdi as it found him? In short, would not the dispatch of General Gordon to Khartoum involve, almost inevitably, the conquest of the Sudan by British troops, followed by a British occupation? And, behind all these questions, a still larger question loomed. The position of the English in Egypt itself was still ambiguous; the future was obscure; how long, in reality, would an English army remain in Egypt? Was not one thing, at least, obvious—that if the English were to conquer and occupy the Sudan, their evacuation of Egypt would become impossible?
With our present information, it would be rash to affirm that all, or any, of these considerations were present to the minds of the imperialist section of the Government. Yet it is difficult to believe that a man such as Lord Wolseley, for instance, with his knowledge of affairs and his knowledge of Gordon, could have altogether overlooked them. Lord Hartington, indeed, may well have failed to realise at once the implications of General Gordon’s appointment—for it took Lord Hartington some time to realise the implications of anything; but Lord Hartington was very far from being a fool; and we may well suppose that he instinctively, perhaps subconsciously, apprehended the elements of a situation which he never formulated to himself. However that may be, certain circumstances are significant. It is significant that the go-between who acted as the Government’s agent in its negotiations with Gordon was an imperialist—Lord Wolseley. It is significant that the “Ministers” whom Gordon finally interviewed, and who actually determined his appointment, were by no means the whole of the Cabinet, but a small section of it, presided over by Lord Hartington. It is significant, too, that Gordon’s mission was represented both to Sir Evelyn Baring, who was opposed to his appointment, and to Mr. Gladstone, who was opposed to an active policy in the Sudan, as a mission merely “to report”; while, no sooner was the mission actually decided upon, than it began to assume a very different complexion. In his final interview with the “Ministers,” Gordon, we know (though he said nothing about it to the Rev. Mr. Barnes), threw out the suggestion that it might be as well to make him the Governor-General of the Sudan. The suggestion, for the moment, was not taken up; but it is obvious that a man does not propose to become a Governor-General in order to make a report.
We are in the region of speculations; one other presents itself. Was the movement in the Press during that second week of January a genuine movement, expressing a spontaneous wave of popular feeling? Or was it a cause of that feeling, rather than an effect? The engineering of a newspaper agitation may not have been an impossibility—even so long ago as 1884. One would like to know more than one is ever likely to know of the relations of the imperialist section of the Government with Mr. Stead.
But it is time to return to the solidity of fact. Within a few hours of his interview with the Ministers, Gordon had left England for ever. At eight o’clock in the evening, there was a little gathering of elderly gentlemen at Victoria Station. Gordon, accompanied by Colonel Stewart, who was to act as his second-in-command, tripped on to the platform. Lord Granville bought the necessary tickets; the Duke of Cambridge opened the railway-carriage door. The General jumped into the train; and then Lord Wolseley appeared, carrying a leather bag, in which were two hundred pounds in gold, collected from friends at the last moment, for the contingencies of the journey. The bag was handed through the window. The train started. As it did so, Gordon leant out, and addressed a last whispered question to Lord Wolseley. Yes, it had been done, Lord Wolseley had seen to it himself; next morning, every member of the Cabinet would receive a copy of Dr. Samuel Clarke’s Scripture Promises. That was all. The train rolled out of the station.
Before the travellers reached Cairo, steps had been taken which finally put an end to the theory—if it had ever been seriously held—that the purpose of the mission was simply the making of a report. On the very day of Gordon’s departure, Lord Granville telegraphed to Sir Evelyn Baring as follows: “Gordon suggests that it may be announced in Egypt that he is on his way to Khartoum to arrange for the future settlement of the Sudan for the best advantage of the people.” Nothing was said of reporting. A few days later, Gordon himself telegraphed to Lord Granville suggesting that he should be made Governor-General of the Sudan, in order to “accomplish the evacuation,” and to “restore to the various Sultans of the Sudan their independence.” Lord Granville at once authorised Sir Evelyn Baring to issue, if he thought fit, a proclamation to this effect in the name of the Khedive. Thus the mission “to report” had already swollen into a Governor-Generalship, with the object, not merely of effecting the evacuation of the Sudan, but also of setting up “various Sultans” to take the place of the Egyptian Government.
In Cairo, in spite of the hostilities of the past, Gordon was received with every politeness. He was at once proclaimed Governor-General of the Sudan, with the widest powers. He was on the point of starting off again on his journey southwards, when a singular and important incident occurred. Zobeir, the rebel chieftain of Darfour, against whose forces Gordon had struggled for years, and whose son, Suleiman, had been captured and executed by Gessi, Gordon’s lieutenant, was still detained at Cairo. It so fell out that he went to pay a visit to one of the Ministers at the same time as the new Governor-General. The two men met face to face, and, as he looked into the savage countenance of his old enemy, an extraordinary shock of inspiration ran through Gordon’s brain. He was seized, as he explained in a State paper, which he drew up immediately after the meeting, with a “mystic feeling” that he could trust Zobeir. It was true that Zobeir was “the greatest slave-hunter who ever existed”; it was true that he had a personal hatred of Gordon, owing to the execution of Suleiman—“and one cannot wonder at it, if one is a father”; it was true that, only a few days previously, on his way to Egypt, Gordon himself had been so convinced of the dangerous character of Zobeir that he had recommended by telegram his removal to Cyprus. But such considerations were utterly obliterated by that one moment of electric impact, of personal vision; henceforward there was a rooted conviction in Gordon’s mind that Zobeir was to be trusted, that Zobeir must join him at Khartoum, that Zobeir’s presence would paralyse the Mahdi, that Zobeir must succeed him in the government of the country after the evacuation. Did not Sir Evelyn Baring, too, have the mystic feeling? Sir Evelyn Baring confessed that he had not. He distrusted mystic feelings. Zobeir, no doubt, might possibly be useful; but before deciding upon so important a matter it was necessary to reflect and to consult.
In the meantime, failing Zobeir, something might perhaps be done with the Emir Abdul-Shakour, the heir of the Darfour Sultans. The Emir, who had been living in domestic retirement in Cairo, was with some difficulty discovered, given £2000, an embroidered uniform, together with the largest decoration that could be found, and informed that he was to start at once with General Gordon for the Sudan, where it would be his duty to occupy the province of Darfour, after driving out the forces of the Mahdi. The poor man begged for a little delay; but no delay could be granted. He hurried to the railway station in his frock-coat and fez, and rather the worse for liquor. Several extra carriages for his twenty-three wives and a large quantity of luggage had then to be hitched on to the Governor-General’s train; and at the last moment some commotion was caused by the unaccountable disappearance of his embroidered uniform. It was found, but his troubles were not over. On the steamer, General Gordon was very rude to him, and he drowned his chagrin in hot rum and water. At Assuan he disembarked, declaring that he would go no further. Eventually, however, he got as far as Dongola, whence, after a stay of a few months, he returned with his family to Cairo.
In spite of this little contretemps, Gordon was in the highest spirits. At last his capacities had been recognised by his countrymen; at last he had been entrusted with a task great enough to satisfy even his desires. He was already famous; he would soon be glorious. Looking out once more over the familiar desert, he felt the searchings of his conscience stilled by the manifest certainty that it was for this that Providence had been reserving him through all these years of labour and of sorrow—for this! What was the Mahdi to stand up against him? A thousand schemes, a thousand possibilities sprang to life in his pullulating brain. A new intoxication carried him away. “Il faut être toujours ivre. Tout est là: c’est l’unique question.” Little though he knew it, Gordon was a disciple of Baudelaire. “Pour ne pas sentir l’horrible fardeau du Temps qui brise vos épaules et vous penche vers la terre, il faut vous enivrer sans trêve.” Yes; but how feeble were those gross resources of the miserable Abdul-Shakour! Rum? Brandy? Oh, he knew all about them; they were nothing. He tossed off a glass. They were nothing at all. The true drunkenness lay elsewhere. He seized a paper and pencil, and dashed down a telegram to Sir Evelyn Baring. Another thought struck him, and another telegram followed. And another, and yet another. He had made up his mind; he would visit the Mahdi in person, and alone. He might do that; or he might retire to the equator. He would decidedly retire to the equator, and hand over the Bahr-el-Ghazal province to the King of the Belgians. A whole flock of telegrams flew to Cairo from every stopping-place. Sir Evelyn Baring was patient and discreet; he could be trusted with such confidences; but unfortunately Gordon’s strange exhilaration found other outlets. At Berber, in the course of a speech to the assembled chiefs, he revealed the intention of the Egyptian Government to withdraw from the Sudan. The news was everywhere in a moment, and the results were disastrous. The tribesmen, whom fear and interest had still kept loyal, perceived that they need look no more for help or punishment from Egypt, and began to turn their eyes towards the rising sun.
Nevertheless, for the moment, the prospect wore a favourable appearance. The Governor-General was welcomed at every stage of his journey, and on February 18th he made a triumphal entry into Khartoum. The feeble garrison, the panic-stricken inhabitants, hailed him as a deliverer. Surely they need fear no more, now that the great English Pasha had come among them. His first acts seemed to show that a new and happy era had begun. Taxes were remitted, the bonds of the usurers were destroyed, the victims of Egyptian injustice were set free from the prisons; the immemorial instruments of torture—the stocks and the whips and the branding-irons—were broken to pieces in the public square. A bolder measure had been already taken. A proclamation had been issued sanctioning slavery in the Sudan. Gordon, arguing that he was powerless to do away with the odious institution, which, as soon as the withdrawal was carried out, would inevitably become universal, had decided to reap what benefit he could from the public abandonment of an unpopular policy. At Khartoum the announcement was received with enthusiasm, but it caused considerable perturbation in England. The Christian hero, who had spent so many years of his life in suppressing slavery, was now suddenly found to be using his high powers to set it up again. The Anti-Slavery Society made a menacing movement, but the Government showed a bold front, and the popular belief in Gordon’s infallibility carried the day.
He himself was still radiant. Nor, amid the jubilation and the devotion which surrounded him, did he forget higher things. In all this turmoil he told his sister, he was “supported.” He gave injunctions that his Egyptian troops should have regular morning and evening prayers; “they worship one God,” he said, “Jehovah.” And he ordered an Arabic text, “God rules the hearts of all men,” to be put up over the chair of state in his audience chamber. As the days went by, he began to feel at home again in the huge palace which he knew so well. The glare and the heat of that southern atmosphere, the movement of the crowded city, the dark-faced populace, the soldiers and the suppliants, the reawakened consciousness of power, the glamour and the mystery of the whole strange scene—these things seized upon him, engulfed him, and worked a new transformation in his intoxicated heart. England land, with its complications and its policies, became an empty vision to him; Sir Evelyn Baring, with his cautions and sagacities, hardly more than a tiresome name. He was Gordon Pasha, he was the Governor-General, he was the ruler of the Sudan. He was among his people—his own people, and it was to them only that he was responsible—to them, and to God. Was he to let them fall without a blow into the clutches of a sanguinary impostor? Never! He was there to prevent that. The distant governments might mutter something about “evacuation”; his thoughts were elsewhere. He poured them into his telegrams, and Sir Evelyn Baring sat aghast. The man who had left London a month before to “report upon the best means of effecting the evacuation of the Sudan,” was now openly talking of “smashing up the Mahdi” with the aid of British and Indian troops. Sir Evelyn Baring counted up on his fingers the various stages of this extraordinary development in General Gordon’s opinions. But he might have saved himself the trouble, for, in fact, it was less a development than a reversion. Under the stress of the excitements and the realities of his situation at Khartoum, the policy which Gordon was now proposing to carry out had come to tally, in every particular, with the policy which he had originally advocated with such vigorous conviction in the pages of the Pall Mall Gazette.
Nor was the adoption of that policy by the English Government by any means out of the question. For, in the meantime, events had been taking place in the Eastern Sudan, in the neighbourhood of the Red Sea port of Suakin, which were to have a decisive effect upon the prospects of Khartoum. General Baker, the brother of Sir Samuel Baker, attempting to relieve the beleaguered garrisons of Sinkat and Tokar, had rashly attacked the forces of Osman Digna, had been defeated, and obliged to retire. Sinkat and Tokar had then fallen into the hands of the Mahdi’s general. There was a great outcry in England, and a wave of warlike feeling passed over the country. Lord Wolseley at once drew up a memorandum advocating the annexation of the Sudan. In the House of Commons even Liberals began to demand vengeance and military action, whereupon the Government despatched Sir Gerald Graham with a considerable British force to Suakin. Sir Gerald Graham advanced, and in the battles of El Teb and Tamai inflicted two bloody defeats upon the Mahdi’s forces. It almost seemed as if the Government was now committed to a policy of interference and conquest; as if the imperialist section of the Cabinet were at last to have their way. The dispatch of Sir Gerald Graham coincided with Gordon’s sudden demand for British and Indian troops with which to “smash up the Mahdi.” The business, he assured Sir Evelyn Baring, in a stream of telegrams could very easily be done. It made him sick, he said, to see himself held in check and the people of the Sudan tyrannised over by “a feeble lot of stinking Dervishes.” Let Zobeir at once be sent down to him, and all would be well. The original Sultans of the country had unfortunately proved disappointing. Their place should be taken by Zobeir. After the Mahdi had been smashed up, Zobeir should rule the Sudan as a subsidised vassal of England, on a similar footing to that of the Ameer of Afghanistan. The plan was perhaps feasible; but it was clearly incompatible with the policy of evacuation, as it had been hitherto laid down by the English Government. Should they reverse that policy? Should they appoint Zobeir, reinforce Sir Gerald Graham, and smash up the Mahdi? They could not make up their minds. So far as Zobeir was concerned, there were two counterbalancing considerations: on the one hand, Sir Evelyn Baring now declared that he was in favour of the appointment; but, on the other hand, would English public opinion consent to a man, described by Gordon himself as “the greatest slave-hunter who ever existed,” being given an English subsidy and the control of the Sudan? While the Cabinet was wavering, Gordon took a fatal step. The delay was intolerable, and one evening, in a rage, he revealed his desire for Zobeir—which had hitherto been kept a profound official secret—to Mr. Power, the English Consul at Khartoum, and the special correspondent of the Times. Perhaps he calculated that the public announcement of his wishes would oblige the Government to yield to them; if so, he was completely mistaken, for the result was the very reverse. The country, already startled by the proclamation in favour of slavery, could not swallow Zobeir. The Anti-Slavery Society set on foot a violent agitation, opinion in the House of Commons suddenly stiffened, and the Cabinet, by a substantial majority, decided that Zobeir should remain in Cairo. The imperialist wave had risen high, but it had not risen high enough; and now it was rapidly subsiding. The Government’s next action was decisive. Sir Gerald Graham and his British Army were withdrawn from the Sudan.
The critical fortnight during which these events took place was the first fortnight of March. By the close of it, Gordon’s position had undergone a rapid and terrible change. Not only did he find himself deprived, by the decision of the Government, both of the hope of Zobeir’s assistance and of the prospect of smashing up the Mahdi, with the aid of British troops; the military movements in the Eastern Sudan produced, at the very same moment, a yet more fatal consequence. The adherents of the Mahdi had been maddened, they had not been crushed, by Sir Gerald Graham’s victories. When, immediately afterwards, the English withdrew to Suakin, from which they never again emerged, the inference seemed obvious: they had been defeated, and their power was at an end. The warlike tribes to the north and the north-east of Khartoum had long been wavering. They now hesitated no longer, and joined the Mahdi. From that moment—it was less than a month from Gordon’s arrival at Khartoum—the situation of the town was desperate. The line of communications was cut. Though it still might be possible for occasional native messengers, or for a few individuals on an armed steamer, to win their way down the river into Egypt, the removal of a large number of persons—the loyal inhabitants or the Egyptian garrison—was henceforward an impossibility. The whole scheme of the Gordon mission had irremediably collapsed; worse still, Gordon himself, so far from having effected the evacuation of the Sudan, was surrounded by the enemy. “The question now is,” Sir Evelyn Baring told Lord Granville on March 24th, “how to get General Gordon and Colonel Stewart away from Khartoum.”
The actual condition of the town, however, was not, from a military point of view, so serious as Colonel Coetlogon, in the first moments of panic after the Hicks disaster, had supposed. Gordon was of opinion that it was capable of sustaining a siege of many months. With his usual vigour, he had already begun to prepare an elaborate system of earthworks, mines, and wire entanglements. There was a five or six months’ supply of food, there was a great quantity of ammunition, the garrison numbered about 8000 men. There were, besides, nine small paddle-wheel steamers, hitherto used for purposes of communication along the Nile, which, fitted with guns and protected by metal plates, were of considerable military value. “We are all right,” Gordon told his sister on March 15th. “We shall, D.V., go on for months.” So far, at any rate, there was no cause for despair. But the effervescent happiness of three weeks since had vanished. Gloom, doubt, disillusionment, self-questioning, had swooped down again upon their victim.
News of the changed circumstances at Khartoum was not slow in reaching England, and a feeling of anxiety began to spread. Among the first to realise the gravity of the situation was Queen Victoria. “It is alarming,” she telegraphed to Lord Hartington on March 25th. “General Gordon is in danger; you are bound to try to save him.… You have incurred fearful responsibility.” With an unerring instinct, Her Majesty forestalled and expressed the popular sentiment. During April, when it had become clear that the wire between Khartoum and Cairo had been severed, when, as time passed, no word came northward, save vague rumours of disaster, when at last a curtain of impenetrable mystery closed over Khartoum, the growing uneasiness manifested itself in letters to the newspapers, in leading articles, and in a flood of subscriptions towards a relief fund. At the beginning of May, the public alarm reached a climax. It now appeared to be certain, not only that General Gordon was in imminent danger, but that no steps had yet been taken by the Government to save him. On the 5th, there was a meeting of protest and indignation at St. James’s Hall; on the 9th there was a mass meeting in Hyde Park; on the 11th there was a meeting at Manchester. The Baroness Burdett-Coutts wrote an agitated letter to the Times begging for further subscriptions. Somebody else proposed that a special fund should be started, with which “to bribe the tribes to secure the General’s personal safety.” A country vicar made another suggestion. Why should not public prayers be offered up for General Gordon in every church in the kingdom? He himself had adopted that course last Sunday. “Is not this,” he concluded, “what the godly man, the true hero, himself would wish to be done?” It was all of no avail. General Gordon remained in peril; the Government remained inactive. Finally, a vote of censure was moved in the House of Commons; but that too proved useless. It was strange. The same executive which, two months before, had trimmed its sails so eagerly to the shifting gusts of popular opinion, now, in spite of a rising hurricane, held on its course. A new spirit, it was clear—a determined, an intractable spirit—had taken control of the Sudan situation. What was it? The explanation was simple, and it was ominous. Mr. Gladstone had intervened.
The old statesman was now entering upon the penultimate period of his enormous career. He who had once been the rising hope of the stern and unbending Tories, had at length emerged, after a life-time of transmutations, as the champion of militant democracy. He was at the apex of his power. His great rival was dead; he stood pre-eminent in the eye of the nation; he enjoyed the applause, the confidence, the admiration, the adoration, even, of multitudes. Yet—such was the peculiar character of the man, and such the intensity of the feelings which he called forth—at this very moment, at the height of his popularity, he was distrusted and loathed; already an unparalleled animosity was gathering its forces against him. For, indeed, there was something in his nature which invited—which demanded—the clashing reactions of passionate extremes. It was easy to worship Mr. Gladstone; to see in him the perfect model of the upright man—the man of virtue and of religion—the man whose whole life had been devoted to the application of high principles to affairs of State—the man, too, whose sense of right and justice was invigorated and ennobled by an enthusiastic heart. It was also easy to detest him as a hypocrite, to despise him as a demagogue, and to dread him as a crafty manipulator of men and things for the purposes of his own ambition. It might have been supposed that one or other of these conflicting judgments must have been palpably absurd, that nothing short of gross prejudice or wilful blindness, on one side or the other, could reconcile such contradictory conceptions of a single human being. But it was not so; “the elements” were “so mixed” in Mr. Gladstone that his bitterest enemies (and his enemies were never mild) and his warmest friends (and his friends were never tepid) could justify, with equal plausibility, their denunciations or their praises. What, then, was the truth? In the physical universe there are no chimeras. But man is more various than nature; was Mr. Gladstone, perhaps, a chimera of the spirit? Did his very essence lie in the confusion of incompatibles? His very essence? It eludes the hand that seems to grasp it. One is baffled, as his political opponents were baffled fifty years ago. The soft serpent coils harden into quick strength that has vanished, leaving only emptiness and perplexity behind. Speech was the fibre of his being; and, when he spoke, the ambiguity of ambiguity was revealed. The long, winding, intricate sentences, with their vast burden of subtle and complicated qualifications, befogged the mind like clouds, and like clouds, too, dropped thunderbolts. Could it not then at least be said of him with certainty that his was a complex character? But here also there was a contradiction. In spite of the involutions of his intellect and the contortions of his spirit it is impossible not to perceive a strain of naïveté in Mr. Gladstone. He adhered to some of his principles—that of the value of representative institutions, for instance,—with a faith which was singularly literal; his views upon religion were uncritical to crudeness; he had no sense of humour. Compared with Disraeli’s, his attitude towards life strikes one as that of an ingenuous child. His very egoism was simpleminded: through all the labyrinth of his passions there ran a single thread. But the centre of the labyrinth? Ah! the thread might lead there, through those wandering mazes, at last. Only, with the last corner turned, the last step taken, the explorer might find that he was looking down into the gulf of a crater. The flame shot out on every side, scorching and brilliant, but in the midst there was a darkness.
That Mr. Gladstone’s motives and ambitions were not merely those of a hunter after popularity was never shown more clearly than in that part of his career which, more than any other, has been emphasised by his enemies—his conduct towards General Gordon. He had been originally opposed to Gordon’s appointment, but he had consented to it partly, perhaps, owing to the persuasion that its purpose did not extend beyond the making of a “report.” Gordon once gone, events had taken their own course; the policy of the Government began to slide, automatically, down a slope at the bottom of which lay the conquest of the Sudan and the annexation of Egypt. Sir Gerald Graham’s bloody victories awoke Mr. Gladstone to the true condition of affairs; he recognised the road he was on and its destination; but there was still time to turn back. It was he who had insisted upon the withdrawal of the English army from the Eastern Sudan. The imperialists were sadly disappointed. They had supposed that the old lion had gone to sleep, and suddenly he had come out of his lair, and was roaring. All their hopes now centred upon Khartoum. General Gordon was cut off; he was surrounded, he was in danger; he must be relieved. A British force must be sent to save him. But Mr. Gladstone was not to be caught napping a second time. When the agitation rose, when popular sentiment was deeply stirred, when the country, the press, the sovereign herself, declared that the national honour was involved with the fate of General Gordon, Mr. Gladstone remained immovable. Others might picture the triumphant rescue of a Christian hero from the clutches of heathen savages; before his eyes was the vision of battle, murder, and sudden death, the horrors of defeat and victory, the slaughter and the anguish of thousands, the violence of military domination, the enslavement of a people. The invasion of the Sudan, he had flashed out in the House of Commons, would be a war of conquest against a people struggling to be free. “Yes, those people are struggling to be free, and they are rightly struggling to be free.” Mr. Gladstone—it was one of his old-fashioned simplicities—believed in liberty. If, indeed, it should turn out to be the fact that General Gordon was in serious danger, then, no doubt, it would be necessary to send a relief expedition to Khartoum. But he could see no sufficient reason to believe that it was the fact. Communications, it was true, had been interrupted between Khartoum and Cairo but no news was not necessarily bad news, and the little information that had come through from General Gordon seemed to indicate that he could hold out for months. So his agile mind worked, spinning its familiar web of possibilities and contingencies and fine distinctions. General Gordon, he was convinced, might be hemmed in, but he was not surrounded. Surely, it was the duty of the Government to take no rash step, but to consider and to inquire, and, when it acted, to act upon reasonable conviction. And then, there was another question. If it was true—and he believed it was true—that General Gordon’s line of retreat was open, why did not General Gordon use it? Perhaps he might be unable to withdraw the Egyptian garrison, but it was not for the sake of the Egyptian garrison that the relief expedition was proposed; it was simply and solely to secure the personal safety of General Gordon. And General Gordon had it in his power to secure his personal safety himself; and he refused to do so; he lingered on in Khartoum, deliberately, wilfully, in defiance of the obvious wishes of his superiors. Oh! it was perfectly clear what General Gordon was doing: he was trying to force the hand of the English Government. He was hoping that if he only remained long enough at Khartoum he would oblige the English Government to send an army into the Sudan which should smash up the Mahdi. That, then, was General Gordon’s calculation! Well, General Gordon would learn that he had made a mistake. Who was he that he should dare to imagine that he could impose his will upon Mr. Gladstone? The old man’s eyes glared. If it came to a struggle between them—well, they should see! As the weeks passed, the strange situation grew tenser. It was like some silent deadly game of bluff. And who knows what was passing in the obscure depths of that terrifying spirit? What mysterious mixture of remorse, rage, and jealousy? Who was it that was ultimately responsible for sending General Gordon to Khartoum? But then, what did that matter? Why did not the man come back? He was a Christian hero, was he? Were there no other Christian heroes in the world? A Christian hero! Let him wait till the Mahdi’s ring was really round him, till the Mahdi’s spear was really about to fall! That would be the test of heroism! If he slipped back then, with his tail between his legs—! The world would judge.
One of the last telegrams sent by Gordon before the wire was cut seemed to support exactly Mr. Gladstone’s diagnosis of the case. He told Sir Evelyn Baring that, since the Government refused to send either an expedition or Zobeir, he would “consider himself free to act according to circumstances.” “Eventually,” he said, “you will be forced to smash up the Mahdi,” and he declared that if the Government persisted in its present line of conduct, it would be branded with an “indelible disgrace.” The message was made public, and it happened that Mr. Gladstone saw it for the first time in a newspaper, during a country visit. Another of the guests, who was in the room at the moment, thus describes the scene. “He took up the paper, his eye instantly fell on the telegram, and he read it through. As he read, his face hardened and whitened, the eyes burned as I have seen them once or twice in the House of Commons when he was angered—burned with a deep fire, as if they would have consumed the sheet on which Gordon’s message was printed, or as if Gordon’s words had burnt into his soul which was looking out in wrath and flame. He said not a word. For perhaps two or three minutes he sat still, his face all the while like the face you may read of in Milton—like none other I ever saw. Then he rose, still without a word, and was seen no more that morning.”