Lytton Strachey (1880–1932). Eminent Victorians. 1918The End of General Gordon
It is curious that Gordon himself never understood the part that Mr. Gladstone was playing in his destiny. His Khartoum Journals put this beyond a doubt. Except for one or two slight and jocular references to Mr. Gladstone’s minor idiosyncrasies—the shape of his collars, and his passion for felling trees—Gordon leaves him unnoticed, while he lavishes his sardonic humour upon Lord Granville. But in truth Lord Granville was a nonentity. The error shows how dim the realities of England had grown to the watcher in Khartoum. When he looked towards home, the figure that loomed largest upon his vision was—it was only natural that it should have been so—the nearest. It was upon Sir Evelyn Baring that he fixed his gaze. For him Sir Evelyn Baring was the embodiment of England—or rather the embodiment of the English official classes, of English diplomacy, of the English Government with its hesitations, its insincerities, its double-faced schemes. Sir Evelyn Baring, he almost came to think at moments, was the prime mover, the sole contriver, of the whole Sudan imbroglio. In this he was wrong; for Sir Evelyn Baring, of course, was an intermediary, without final responsibility or final power; but Gordon’s profound antipathy, his instinctive distrust, were not without their justification. He could never forget that first meeting in Cairo, six years earlier, when the fundamental hostility between the two men had leapt to the surface. “When oil mixes with water,” he said, “we will mix together.” Sir Evelyn Baring thought so too; but he did not say so; it was not his way. When he spoke, he felt no temptation to express everything that was in his mind. In all he did, he was cautious, measured, unimpeachably correct. It would be difficult to think of a man more completely the antithesis of Gordon. His temperament, all in monochrome, touched in with cold blues and indecisive greys, was eminently unromantic. He had a steely colourlessness, and a steely pliability, and a steely strength. Endowed beyond most men with the capacity of foresight, he was endowed as very few men have ever been with that staying-power which makes the fruit of foresight attainable. His views were long, and his patience was even longer. He progressed imperceptibly; he constantly withdrew; the art of giving way he practised with the refinement of a virtuoso. But, though the steel recoiled and recoiled, in the end it would spring forward. His life’s work had in it an element of paradox. It was passed entirely in the East; and the East meant very little to him; he took no interest in it. It was something to be looked after. It was also a convenient field for the talents of Sir Evelyn Baring. Yet it must not be supposed that he was cynical; perhaps he was not quite great enough for that. He looked forward to a pleasant retirement—a country place—some literary recreations. He had been careful to keep up his classics. His ambition can be stated in a single phrase; it was, to become an institution; and he achieved it. No doubt, too, he deserved it. The greatest of poets, in a bitter mood, has described the characteristics of a certain class of persons, whom he did not like. “They,” he says,
Though, as a rule, he found it easy to despise those with whom he came into contact, he could not altogether despise General Gordon. If he could have, he would have disliked him less. He had gone as far as his caution had allowed him in trying to prevent the fatal appointment; and then, when it had become clear that the Government was insistent, he had yielded with a good grace. For a moment, he had imagined that all might yet be well; that he could impose himself, by the weight of his position and the force of his sagacity, upon his self-willed subordinate; that he could hold him in a leash at the end of the telegraph wire to Khartoum. Very soon he perceived that this was a miscalculation. To his disgust, he found that the telegraph wire, far from being an instrument of official discipline, had been converted by the agile strategist at the other end of it into a means of extending his own personality into the deliberations at Cairo. Every morning Sir Evelyn Baring would find upon his table a great pile of telegrams from Khartoum—twenty or thirty at least; and as the day went on, the pile would grow. When a sufficient number had accumulated he would read them all through, with the greatest care. There upon the table, the whole soul of Gordon lay before him—in its incoherence, its eccentricity, its impulsiveness, its romance; the jokes, the slang, the appeals to the prophet Isaiah, the whirl of contradictory policies—Sir Evelyn Baring did not know which exasperated him most. He would not consider whether, or to what degree, the man was a maniac; no, he would not. A subacid smile was the only comment he allowed himself. His position, indeed, was an extremely difficult one, and all his dexterity would be needed if he was to emerge from it with credit. On one side of him was a veering and vacillating Government; on the other, a frenzied enthusiast. It was his business to interpret to the first the wishes, or rather the inspirations, of the second, and to convey to the second the decisions, or rather the indecisions, of the first. A weaker man would have floated helplessly on the ebb and flow of the Cabinet’s wavering policies; a rasher man would have plunged headlong into Gordon’s schemes. He did neither; with a singular courage and a singular caution he progressed along a razor-edge. He devoted all his energies to the double task of evolving a reasonable policy out of Gordon’s intoxicated telegrams, and of inducing the divided Ministers at home to give their sanction to what he had evolved. He might have succeeded, if he had not had to reckon with yet another irreconcilable; Time was a vital element in the situation, and Time was against him. When the tribes round Khartoum rose, the last hope of a satisfactory solution vanished. He was the first to perceive the altered condition of affairs; long before the Government, long before Gordon himself, he understood that the only remaining question was that of the extrication of the Englishmen from Khartoum. He proposed that a small force should be dispatched at once across the desert from Suakin to Berber, the point on the Nile nearest to the Red Sea, and thence up the river to Gordon; but, after considerable hesitation, the military authorities decided that this was not a practicable plan. Upon that, he foresaw, with perfect lucidity, the inevitable development of events. Sooner or later, it would be absolutely necessary to send a relief expedition to Khartoum; and, from that premise, it followed, without a possibility of doubt, that it was the duty of the Government to do so at once. This he saw quite clearly; but he also saw that the position in the Cabinet had now altered, that Mr. Gladstone had taken the reins into his own hands. And Mr. Gladstone did not wish to send a relief expedition. What was Sir Evelyn Baring to do? Was he to pit his strength against Mr. Gladstone’s? To threaten resignation? To stake his whole future upon General Gordon’s fate? For a moment he wavered; he seemed to hint that unless the Government sent a message to Khartoum promising a relief expedition before the end of the year, he would be unable to be a party to their acts. The Government refused to send any such message; and he perceived, as he tells us, that “it was evidently useless to continue the correspondence any further.” After all, what could he do? He was still only a secondary figure; his resignation would be accepted; he would be given a colonial governorship, and Gordon would be no nearer safety. But then, could he sit by, and witness a horrible catastrophe, without lifting a hand? Of all the odious dilemmas which that man had put him into, this, he reflected, was the most odious. He slightly shrugged his shoulders. No; he might have “power to hurt,” but he would “do none.” He wrote a dispatch—a long, balanced, guarded, grey dispatch, informing the Government that he “ventured to think” that it was “a question worthy of consideration, whether the naval and military authorities should not take some preliminary steps in the way of preparing boats, etc., so as to be able to move, should the necessity arise.” Then, within a week, before the receipt of the Government’s answer, he left Egypt. From the end of April till the beginning of September—during the most momentous period of the whole crisis—he was engaged in London upon a financial conference, while his place was taken in Cairo by a substitute. With a characteristically convenient unobtrusiveness, Sir Evelyn Baring had vanished from the scene.
Meanwhile, far to the southward, over the wide-spreading lands watered by the Upper Nile and its tributaries, the power and the glory of him who had once been Mahommed Ahmed were growing still. In the Bahr-el-Ghazal, the last embers of resistance were stamped out with the capture of Lupton Bey, and through the whole of that vast province—three times the size of England—every trace of the Egyptian Government was obliterated. Still further south the same fate was rapidly overtaking Equatoria, where Emin Pasha, withdrawing into the unexplored depths of central Africa, carried with him the last vestiges of the old order. The Mahdi himself still lingered in his headquarters at El Obeid; but, on the rising of the tribes round Khartoum, he had decided that the time for an offensive movement had come, and had dispatched an army of thirty thousand men to lay siege to the city. At the same time, in a long and elaborate proclamation, in which he asserted, with all the elegance of oriental rhetoric, both the sanctity of his mission and the invincibility of his troops, he called upon the inhabitants to surrender. Gordon read aloud the summons to the assembled townspeople; with one voice they declared that they were ready to resist. This was a false Mahdi, they said; God would defend the right; they put their trust in the Governor-General. The most learned Sheikh in the town drew up a theological reply, pointing out that the Mahdi did not fulfil the requirements of the ancient prophets. At his appearance, had the Euphrates dried up and revealed a hill of gold? Had contradiction and difference ceased upon the earth? And moreover, did not the faithful know that the true Mahdi was born in the year of the prophet 255, from which it surely followed that he must be now 1046 years old? And was it not clear to all men that this pretender was not a tenth of that age? These arguments were certainly forcible; but the Mahdi’s army was more forcible still. The besieged sallied out to the attack; they were defeated; and the rout that followed was so disgraceful that two of the commanding officers were, by Gordon’s orders, executed as traitors. From that moment the regular investment of Khartoum began. The Arab generals decided to starve the town into submission. When, after a few weeks of doubt, it became certain that no British force was on its way from Suakin to smash up the Mahdi, and when, at the end of May, Berber, the last connecting link between Khartoum and the outside world, fell into the hands of the enemy, Gordon set his teeth, and sat down to wait and to hope, as best he might. With unceasing energy he devoted himself to the strengthening of his defences and the organisation of his resources—to the digging of earthworks, the manufacture of ammunition, the collection and the distribution of food. Every day there were sallies and skirmishes; every day his little armoured steamboats paddled up and down the river, scattering death and terror as they went. Whatever the emergency, he was ready with devices and expedients. When the earthworks were still uncompleted he procured hundreds of yards of cotton, which he dyed the colour of earth, and spread out in long sloping lines, so as to deceive the Arabs, while the real works were being prepared further back. When a lack of money began to make itself felt, he printed and circulated a paper coinage of his own. To combat the growing discontent and disaffection of the townspeople he instituted a system of orders and medals; the women were not forgotten; and his popularity redoubled. There was terror in the thought that harm might come to the Governor-General. Awe and reverence followed him; wherever he went, he was surrounded by a vigilant and jealous guard, like some precious idol, some mascot of victory. How could he go away? How could he desert his people? It was impossible. It would be, as he himself exclaimed in one of his latest telegrams to Sir Evelyn Baring, “the climax of meanness,” even to contemplate such an act. Sir Evelyn Baring thought differently. In his opinion it was General Gordon’s plain duty to have come away from Khartoum. To stay involved inevitably a relief expedition—a great expense of treasure and the loss of valuable lives; to come away would merely mean that the inhabitants of Khartoum would be “taken prisoner by the Mahdi.” So Sir Evelyn Baring put it; but the case was not quite so simple as that. When Berber fell, there had been a massacre lasting for days—an appalling orgy of loot and lust and slaughter; when Khartoum itself was captured, what followed was still more terrible. Decidedly, it was no child’s play to be “taken prisoner by the Mahdi.” And Gordon was actually there among those people, in closest intercourse with them, responsible, beloved. Yes; no doubt. But was that, in truth, his only motive? Did he not wish in reality, by lingering in Khartoum, to force the hand of the Government? To oblige them whether they would or no, to send an army to smash up the Mahdi? And was that fair? Was that his duty? He might protest, with his last breath, that he had “tried to do his duty”; Sir Evelyn Baring, at any rate, would not agree.
But Sir Evelyn Baring was inaudible, and Gordon now cared very little for his opinions. Is it possible that, if only for a moment, in his extraordinary predicament, he may have listened to another and a very different voice—a voice of singular quality, a voice which—for so one would fain imagine—may well have wakened some familiar echoes in his heart? One day, he received a private letter from the Mahdi. The letter was accompanied by a small bundle of clothes.
But nothing broke the immovability of that hard horizon; and, indeed, how was it possible that help should come to him now? He seemed to be utterly abandoned. Sir Evelyn Baring had disappeared into his financial conference. In England, Mr. Gladstone had held firm, had outfaced the House of Commons, had ignored the Press. He appeared to have triumphed. Though it was clear that no preparations of any kind were being made for the relief of Gordon, the anxiety and agitation of the public, which had risen so suddenly to such a height of vehemence, had died down. The dangerous beast had been quelled by the stern eye of its master. Other questions became more interesting—the Reform Bill, the Russians, the House of Lords. Gordon, silent in Khartoum, had almost dropped out of remembrance. And yet, help did come after all. And it came from an unexpected quarter. Lord Hartington had been for some time convinced that he was responsible for Gordon’s appointment; and his conscience was beginning to grow uncomfortable.
Lord Hartington’s conscience was of a piece with the rest of him. It was not, like Mr. Gladstone’s, a salamander-conscience—an intangible, dangerous creature, that loved to live in the fire; nor was it, like Gordon’s, a restless conscience; nor, like Sir Evelyn Baring’s, a diplomatic conscience; it was a commonplace affair. Lord Hartington himself would have been disgusted by any mention of it. If he had been obliged, he would have alluded to it distantly; he would have muttered that it was a bore not to do the proper thing. He was usually bored—for one reason or another; but this particular form of boredom he found more intense than all the rest. He would take endless pains to avoid it. Of course, the whole thing was a nuisance—an obvious nuisance; and everyone else must feel just as he did about it. And yet people seemed to have got it into their heads that he had some kind of special faculty in such matters—that there was some peculiar value in his judgment on a question of right and wrong. He could not understand why it was; but whenever there was a dispute about cards in a club, it was brought to him to settle. It was most odd. But it was true. In public affairs, no less than in private, Lord Hartington’s decisions carried an extraordinary weight. The feeling of his idle friends in high society was shared by the great mass of the English people; here was a man they could trust. For indeed he was built upon a pattern which was very dear to his countrymen. It was not simply that he was honest: it was that his honesty was an English honesty—an honesty which naturally belonged to one who, so it seemed to them, was the living image of what an Englishman should be. In Lord Hartington they saw, embodied and glorified, the very qualities which were nearest to their hearts—impartiality, solidity, common sense—the qualities by which they themselves longed to be distinguished, and by which, in their happier moments, they believed they were. If ever they began to have misgivings, there, at any rate, was the example of Lord Hartington to encourage them and guide them—Lord Hartington, who was never self-seeking, who was never excited, and who had no imagination at all. Everything they knew about him fitted into the picture, adding to their admiration and respect. His fondness for field sports gave them a feeling of security; and certainly there could be no nonsense about a man who confessed to two ambitions—to become Prime Minister and to win the Derby—and who put the second above the first. They loved him for his casualness—for his inexactness—for refusing to make life a cut-and-dried business—for ramming an official dispatch of high importance into his coat-pocket, and finding it there, still unopened, at Newmarket, several days later. They loved him for his hatred of fine sentiments; they were delighted when they heard that at some function, on a florid speaker’s avowing that “this was the proudest moment of his life,” Lord Hartington had growled in an undertone “the proudest moment of my life, was when my pig won the prize at Skipton fair.” Above all, they loved him for being dull. It was the greatest comfort—with Lord Hartington they could always be absolutely certain that he would never, in any circumstances, be either brilliant or subtle, or surprising, or impassioned, or profound. As they sat, listening to his speeches, in which considerations of stolid plainness succeeded one another with complete flatness, they felt, involved and supported by the colossal tedium, that their confidence was finally assured. They looked up, and took their fill of the sturdy obvious presence. The inheritor of a splendid dukedom might almost have passed for a farm hand. Almost, but not quite. For an air, that was difficult to explain, of preponderating authority lurked in the solid figure; and the lordly breeding of the House of Cavendish was visible in the large, long, bearded, unimpressionable face.
One other characteristic—the necessary consequence, or indeed, it might almost be said, the essential expression, of all the rest—completes the portrait: Lord Hartington was slow. He was slow in movement, slow in apprehension, slow in thought and the communication of thought, slow to decide, and slow to act. More than once this disposition exercised a profound effect upon his career. A private individual may, perhaps, be slow with impunity; but a statesman who is slow—whatever the force of his character and the strength of his judgment—can hardly escape unhurt from the hurrying of Time’s wingèd chariot, can hardly hope to avoid some grave disaster or some irretrievable mistake. The fate of General Gordon, so intricately interwoven with such a mass of complicated circumstance—with the policies of England and of Egypt, with the fanaticism of the Mahdi, with the irreproachability of Sir Evelyn Baring, with Mr. Gladstone’s mysterious passions—was finally determined by the fact that Lord Hartington was slow. If he had been even a very little quicker—if he had been quicker by two days … but it could not be. The ponderous machinery took so long to set itself in motion; the great wheels and levers, once started, revolved with such a laborious, such a painful deliberation, that at last their work was accomplished—surely, firmly, completely, in the best English manner, and too late.
Seven stages may be discerned in the history of Lord Hartington’s influence upon the fate of General Gordon. At the end of the first stage, he had become convinced that he was responsible for Gordon’s appointment to Khartoum. At the end of the second, he had perceived that his conscience would not allow him to remain inactive in the face of Gordon’s danger. At the end of the third, he had made an attempt to induce the Cabinet to send an expedition to Gordon’s relief. At the end of the fourth, he had realised that the Cabinet had decided to postpone the relief of Gordon indefinitely. At the end of the fifth, he had come to the conclusion that he must put pressure upon Mr. Gladstone. At the end of the sixth, he had attempted to put pressure upon Mr. Gladstone, and had not succeeded. At the end of the seventh, he had succeeded in putting pressure upon Mr. Gladstone; the relief expedition had been ordered; he could do no more. The turning-point in this long and extraordinary process occurred towards the end of April, when the Cabinet, after the receipt of Sir Evelyn Baring’s final dispatch, decided to take no immediate measures for Gordon’s relief. From that moment it was clear that there was only one course open to Lord Hartington—to tell Mr. Gladstone that he would resign unless a relief expedition was sent. But it took him more than three months to come to this conclusion. He always found the proceedings at Cabinet meetings particularly hard to follow. The interchange of question and answer, of proposal and counter-proposal, the crowded counsellors, Mr. Gladstone’s subtleties, the abrupt and complicated resolutions—these things invariably left him confused and perplexed. After the crucial Cabinet at the end of April, he came away in a state of uncertainty as to what had occurred; he had to write to Lord Granville to find out; and by that time, of course, the Government’s decision had been telegraphed to Egypt. Three weeks later, in the middle of May, he had grown so uneasy that he felt himself obliged to address a circular letter to the Cabinet, proposing that preparations for a relief expedition should be set on foot at once. And then he began to understand that nothing would ever be done until Mr. Gladstone, by some means or other, had been forced to give his consent. A singular combat followed. The slippery old man perpetually eluded the cumbrous grasp of his antagonist. He delayed, he postponed, he raised interminable difficulties, he prevaricated, he was silent, he disappeared. Lord Hartington was dauntless. Gradually, inch by inch, he drove the Prime Minister into a corner. But in the meantime many weeks had passed. On July 1st, Lord Hartington was still remarking that he “really did not feel that he knew the mind or intention of the Government in respect of the relief of General Gordon.” The month was spent in a succession of stubborn efforts to wring from Mr. Gladstone some definite statement upon the question. It was useless. On July 31st, Lord Hartington did the deed. He stated that, unless an expedition was sent, he would resign. It was, he said, “a question of personal honour and good faith, and I don’t see how I can yield upon it.” His conscience had worked itself to rest at last.
When Mr. Gladstone read the words, he realised that the game was over. Lord Hartington’s position in the Liberal party was second only to his own; he was the leader of the rich and powerful whig aristocracy; his influence with the country was immense. Nor was he the man to make idle threats of resignation; he had said he would resign, and resign he would: the collapse of the Government would be the inevitable result. On August 5th, therefore, Parliament was asked to make a grant of £300,000 in order “to enable Her Majesty’s Government to undertake operations for the relief of General Gordon, should they become necessary.” The money was voted; and even then, at that last hour, Mr. Gladstone made another, final, desperate twist. Trying to save himself by the proviso which he had inserted into the resolution, he declared that he was still unconvinced of the necessity of any operations at all. “I nearly,” he wrote to Lord Hartington, “but not quite, adopt words received to-day from Granville. ‘It is clear, I think, that Gordon has our messages, and does not choose to answer them.’” Nearly, but not quite! The qualification was masterly; but it was of no avail. This time, the sinuous creature was held by too firm a grasp. On August 26th, Lord Wolseley was appointed to command the relief expedition; and on September 9th, he arrived in Egypt.
The relief expedition had begun; and at the same moment a new phase opened at Khartoum. The annual rising of the Nile was now sufficiently advanced to enable one of Gordon’s small steamers to pass over the cataracts down to Egypt in safety. He determined to seize the opportunity of laying before the authorities in Cairo and London, and the English public at large, an exact account of his position. A cargo of documents, including Colonel Stewart’s Diary of the siege and a personal appeal for assistance addressed by Gordon to all the European powers, was placed on board the Abbas; four other steamers were to accompany her until she was out of danger from attacks by the Mahdi’s troops; after which she was to proceed alone into Egypt. On the evening of September 9th, just as she was about to start, the English and French consuls asked for permission to go with her—a permission which Gordon, who had long been anxious to provide for their safety, readily granted. Then Colonel Stewart made the same request; and Gordon consented with the same alacrity. Colonel Stewart was the second in command at Khartoum; and it seems strange that he should have made a proposal which would leave Gordon in a position of the gravest anxiety without a single European subordinate. But his motives were to be veiled for ever in a tragic obscurity. The Abbas and her convoy set out. Hence-forward the Governor-General was alone. He had now, definitely and finally, made his decision. Colonel Stewart and his companions had gone, with every prospect of returning unharmed to civilisation. Mr. Gladstone’s belief was justified; so far as Gordon’s personal safety was concerned, he might still at this late hour, have secured it. But he had chosen; he stayed at Khartoum.
No sooner were the steamers out of sight than he sat down at his writing-table and began that daily record of his circumstances, his reflections, and his feelings, which reveals to us, with such an authentic exactitude the final period of his extraordinary destiny. His “Journals,” sent down the river in batches to await the coming of the relief expedition, and addressed, first to Colonel Stewart, and later to the “Chief-of-Staff, Sudan Expeditionary Force,” were official documents, intended for publication, though, as Gordon himself was careful to note on the outer covers, they would “want pruning out” before they were printed. He also wrote, on the envelope of the first section, “No secrets as far as I am concerned.” A more singular set of state papers was never compiled. Sitting there, in the solitude of his palace, with ruin closing round him, with anxieties on every hand, with doom hanging above his head, he let his pen rush on for hour after hour in an ecstasy of communication, a tireless unburdening of the spirit, where the most trivial incidents of the passing day were mingled pell-mell with philosophical disquisitions, where jests and anger, hopes and terrors, elaborate justifications and cynical confessions, jostled one another in reckless confusion. The impulsive, demonstrative man had nobody to talk to any more, and so he talked instead to the pile of telegraph-forms, which, useless now for perplexing Sir Evelyn Baring, served very well—for they were large and blank—as the repositories of his conversation. His tone was not the intimate and religious tone which he would have used with the Rev. Mr. Barnes or his sister Augusta; it was such as must have been habitual with him in his intercourse with old friends of fellow officers, whose religious views were of a more ordinary caste than his own, but with whom he was on confidential terms. He was anxious to put his case to a select and sympathetic audience—to convince such a man as Lord Wolseley that he was justified in what he had done; and he was sparing in his allusions to the hand of Providence, while those mysterious doubts and piercing introspections, which must have filled him, he almost entirely concealed. He expressed himself, of course, with eccentric abandon—it would have been impossible for him to do otherwise; but he was content to indicate his deepest feelings with a fleer. Yet sometimes—as one can imagine happening with him in actual conversation—his utterance took the form of a half-soliloquy, a copious outpouring addressed to himself more than to any one else, for his own satisfaction. There are passages in the Khartoum Journals which call up in a flash the light, gliding figure, and the blue eyes with the candour of childhood still shining in them; one can almost hear the low voice, the singularly distinct articulation, the persuasive—the self-persuasive—sentences, following each other so unassumingly between the puffs of a cigarette.
As he wrote, two preoccupations principally filled his mind. His reflections revolved round the immediate past and the impending future. With an untiring persistency he examined, he excused, he explained, his share in the complicated events which had led to his present situation. He rebutted the charges of imaginary enemies; he laid bare the ineptitude and the faithlessness of the English Government. He poured out his satire upon officials and diplomatists. He drew caricatures, in the margin, of Sir Evelyn Baring, with sentences of shocked pomposity coming out of his mouth. In some passages, which the editor of the Journals preferred to suppress, he covered Lord Granville with his raillery, picturing the Foreign Secretary, lounging away his morning at Walmer Castle, opening the Times and suddenly discovering to his horror, that Khartoum was still holding out. “Why,
From the past, he turned to the future, and surveyed, with a disturbed and piercing vision, the possibilities before him. Supposing that the relief expedition arrived, what would be his position? Upon one thing he was determined: whatever happened, he would not play the part of “the rescued lamb.” He vehemently asserted that the purpose of the expedition could only be the relief of the Sudan garrisons; it was monstrous to imagine that it had been undertaken merely to ensure his personal safety. He refused to believe it. In any case,
As for the government which was to replace him, there were several alternatives: an Egyptian Pasha might succeed him as Governor-General, or Zobeir might be appointed after all, or the whole country might be handed over to the Sultan. His fertile imagination evolved scheme after scheme; and his visions of his own future were equally various. He would withdraw to the Equator; he would be delighted to spend Christmas in Brussels; he would … at any rate he would never go back to England. That was certain.
But would an English General ever have the opportunity of asking him to dinner in Khartoum? There were moments when terrible misgivings assailed him. He pieced together his scraps of intelligence with feverish exactitude; he calculated times, distances, marches; “if,” he wrote on October 24th, “they do not come before 30th November, the game is up, and Rule Britannia.” Curious premonitions came into his mind. When he heard that the Mahdi was approaching in person, it seemed to be the fulfilment of a destiny, for he had “always felt we were doomed to come face to face.” What would be the end of it all? “It is, of course, on the cards,” he noted, “that Khartoum is taken under the nose of the expeditionary force which will be just too late.” The splendid hawks that swooped about the palace reminded him of a text in the Bible:—“The eye that mocketh at his father and despiseth to obey his mother, the ravens of the valley shall pick it out, and the young eagles shall eat it.” “I often wonder,” he wrote, “whether they are destined to pick my eyes, for I fear I was not the best of sons.”
So, sitting late into the night, he filled the empty telegraph forms with the agitations of his spirit, overflowing ever more hurriedly, more furiously, with lines of emphasis, and capitals and exclamation-marks more and more thickly interpersed so that the signs of his living passion are still visible to the inquirer of to-day on those thin sheets of mediocre paper and in the torrent of the ink. But he was a man of elastic temperament; he could not remain for ever upon the stretch; he sought, and he found, relaxation in extraneous matters—in metaphysical digressions, or in satirical outbursts, or in the small details of his daily life. It amused him to have the Sudanese soldiers brought in and shown their “black pug faces” in the palace looking-glasses. He watched with a cynical sympathy the impertinence of a turkey-cock that walked in his courtyard. He made friends with a mouse who “judging from her swelled-out appearance,” was a lady, and came and ate out of his plate. The cranes that flew over Khartoum in their thousands and with their curious cry, put him in mind of the poems of Schiller, which few ever read, but which he admired highly, though he only knew them in Bulwer’s translation. He wrote little disquisitions on Plutarch and purgatory, on the fear of death and on the sixteenth chapter of the Koran. Then the turkey-cock strutting with “every feather on end, and all the colours of the rainbow on his neck,” attracted him once more, and he filled several pages with his opinions upon the immortality of animals, drifting on to a discussion of man’s position in the universe, and the infinite knowledge of God. It was all clear to him. And yet—“what a contradiction is life! I hate Her Majesty’s Government for their leaving the Sudan after having caused all its troubles; yet I believe our Lord rules heaven and earth, so I ought to hate Him, which I (sincerely) do not.”
One painful thought obsessed him. He believed that the two Egyptian officers, who had been put to death after the defeat in March, had been unjustly executed. He had given way to “outside influences”; the two Pashas had been “judicially murdered.” Again and again he referred to the incident, with a haunting remorse. The Times, perhaps, would consider that he had been justified; but what did that matter? “If the Times saw this in print, it would say ‘Why, then, did you act as you did?’ to which I fear I have no answer.” He determined to make what reparation he could, and to send the families of the unfortunate Pashas £1000 each.
On a similar, but a less serious, occasion, he put the same principle into action. He boxed the ears of a careless telegraph clerk—“and then, as my conscience pricked me, I gave him $5. He said he did not mind if I killed him—I was his father (a chocolate-coloured youth of twenty).” His temper, indeed, was growing more and more uncertain, as he himself was well aware. He observed with horror that men trembled when they came into his presence—that their hands shook so that they could not hold a match to a cigarette.
He trusted no one. Looking into the faces of those who surrounded him, he saw only the ill-dissimulated signs of treachery and dislike. Of the 40,000 inhabitants of Khartoum he calculated that two-thirds were willing—were perhaps anxious—to become the subjects of the Mahdi. “These people are not worth any great sacrifice,” he bitterly observed. The Egyptian officials were utterly incompetent; the soldiers were cowards. All his admiration was reserved for his enemies. The meanest of the Mahdi’s followers was, he realised, “a determined warrior, who could undergo thirst and privation, who no more cared for pain or death than if he were stone.” Those were the men whom, if the choice had lain with him, he would have wished to command. And yet, strangely enough, he persistently underrated the strength of the forces against him. A handful of Englishmen—a handful of Turks—would, he believed, be enough to defeat the Mahdi’s hosts and destroy his dominion. He knew very little Arabic, and he depended for his information upon a few ignorant English-speaking subordinates. The Mahdi himself he viewed with ambiguous feelings. He jibed at him as a vulgar impostor; but it is easy to perceive, under his scornful jocularities, the traces of an uneasy respect.
He spent long hours upon the palace roof gazing northwards; but the veil of mystery and silence was unbroken. In spite of the efforts of Major Kitchener, the officer in command of the Egyptian Intelligence service, hardly any messengers ever reached Khartoum; and when they did, the information they brought was tormentingly scanty. Major Kitchener did not escape the attentions of Gordon’s pen. When news came at last, it was terrible: Colonel Stewart and his companions had been killed. The Abbas, after having passed uninjured through the part of the river commanded by the Mahdi’s troops, had struck upon a rock; Colonel Stewart had disembarked in safety; and, while he was waiting for camels to convey the detachment across the desert into Egypt, had accepted the hospitality of a local sheikh. Hardly had the Europeans entered the sheikh’s hut when they were set upon and murdered; their native followers shared their fate. The treacherous sheikh was an adherent of the Mahdi, and to the Mahdi all Colonel Stewart’s papers, filled with information as to the condition of Khartoum, were immediately sent. When the first rumours of the disaster reached Gordon, he pictured, in a flash of intuition, the actual details of the catastrophe. “I feel somehow convinced,” he wrote, “they were captured by treachery.… Stewart was not a bit suspicious (I am made up of it). I can see in imagination the whole scene, the sheikh inviting them to land, … then a rush of wild Arabs, and all is over!” “It is very sad,” he added, “but being ordained, we must not murmur.” And yet he believed that the true responsibility lay with him: it was the punishment of his own sins. “I look on it,” was his unexpected conclusion, “as being a Nemesis on the death of the two Pashas.”
The workings of his conscience did indeed take on surprising shapes. Of the three ex-governors of Darfour, Bahr-el-Ghazal, and Equatoria, Emin Pasha had disappeared, Lupton Bey had died, and Slatin Pasha was held in captivity by the Mahdi. By birth an Austrian and a Catholic, Slatin, in the last desperate stages of his resistance, had adopted the expedient of announcing his conversion to Mahommedanism, in order to win the confidence of his native troops. On his capture, the fact of his conversion procured him some degree of consideration; and, though he occasionally suffered from the caprices of his masters, he had so far escaped the terrible punishment which had been meted out to some other of the Mahdi’s European prisoners—that of close confinement in the common gaol. He was now kept prisoner in one of the camps in the neighbourhood of Khartoum. He managed to smuggle through a letter to Gordon, asking for assistance, in case he could make his escape. To this letter Gordon did not reply. Slatin wrote again and again; his piteous appeals, couched in no less piteous French, made no effect upon the heart of the Governor-General.
A more ghastly fate awaited another European who had fallen into the hands of the Mahdi. Olivier Pain, a French adventurer, who had taken part in the Commune, and who was now wandering, for reasons which have never been discovered, in the wastes of the Sudan, was seized by the Arabs, made prisoner, and hurried from camp to camp. He was attacked by fever; but mercy was not among the virtues of the savage soldiers who held him in their power. Hoisted upon the back of a camel, he was being carried across the desert, when, overcome by weakness, he lost his hold, and fell to the ground. Time or trouble were not to be wasted upon an infidel. Orders were given that he should be immediately buried; the orders were carried out; and in a few moments the cavalcade had left the little hillock far behind. But some of those who were present believed that Olivier Pain had been still breathing when his body was covered with the sand.
Gordon, on hearing that a Frenchman had been captured by the Mahdi, became extremely interested. The idea occurred to him that this mysterious individual was none other than Ernest Renan, “who,” he wrote, “in his last publication takes leave of the world, and is said to have gone into Africa, not to reappear again.” He had met Renan at the rooms of the Royal Geographical Society, had noticed that he looked bored—the result, no doubt, of too much admiration—and had felt an instinct that he would meet him again. The instinct now seemed to be justified. There could hardly be any doubt that it was Renan; who else could it be? “If he comes to the lines,” he decided, “and it is Renan, I shall go and see him, for whatever one may think of his unbelief in our Lord, he certainly dared to say what he thought, and has not changed his creed to save his life.” That the mellifluous author of the Vie de Jésus should have determined to end his days in the depths of Africa, and have come, in accordance with an intuition, to renew his acquaintance with General Gordon in the lines of Khartoum, would indeed have been a strange occurrence; but who shall limit the strangeness of the possibilities that lie in wait for the sons of men? At that very moment, in the southeastern corner of the Sudan, another Frenchman, of a peculiar eminence, was fulfilling a destiny more extraordinary than the wildest romance. In the town of Harrar, near the Red Sea, Arthur Rimbaud surveyed with splenetic impatience the tragedy of Khartoum.
When the contents of Colonel Stewart’s papers had been interpreted to the Mahdi, he realised the serious condition of Khartoum, and decided that the time had come to press the siege to a final conclusion. At the end of October, he himself, at the head of a fresh army, appeared outside the town. From that moment, the investment assumed a more and more menacing character. The lack of provisions now for the first time began to make itself felt. November 30th—the date fixed by Gordon as the last possible moment of his resistance—came and went; the Expeditionary force had made no sign. The fortunate discovery of a large store of grain, concealed by some merchants for purposes of speculation, once more postponed the catastrophe. But the attacking army grew daily more active, the skirmishes round the lines and on the river more damaging to the besieged, and the Mahdi’s guns began an intermittent bombardment of the palace. By December 10th it was calculated that there was not fifteen days’ food in the town; “truly I am worn to a shadow with the food question,” Gordon wrote; “it is one continued demand.” At the same time he received the ominous news that five of his soldiers had deserted to the Mahdi. His predicament was terrible; but he calculated, from a few dubious messages that had reached him, that the relieving force could not be very far away. Accordingly, on the 14th, he decided to send down one of his four remaining steamers, the Bordeen, to meet it at Metemmah, in order to deliver to the officer in command the latest information as to the condition of the town. The Bordeen carried down the last portion of the Journals, and Gordon’s final messages to his friends. Owing to a misunderstanding, he believed that Sir Evelyn Baring was accompanying the expedition from Egypt, and some of his latest and most successful satirical fancies played round the vision of the distressed Consul-General perched for days upon the painful eminence of a camel’s hump. “There was a slight laugh when Khartoum heard Baring was bumping his way up here—a regular Nemesis.” But, when Sir Evelyn Baring actually arrived—in whatever condition—what would happen? Gordon lost himself in the multitude of his speculations. His own object, he declared, was “of course, to make tracks.” Then in one of his strange premonitory rhapsodies, he threw out, half in jest and half in earnest, that the best solution of all the difficulties of the future would be the appointment of Major Kitchener as Governor-General of the Sudan. The Journal ended upon a note of menace and disdain.
You send me no information, though you have lots of money.—C. G. G.
To his sister Augusta, he was more explicit.
P.S. I am quite happy, thank God, and, like Lawrence, I have tried to do my duty.”
The delay of the expedition was even more serious than Gordon had supposed. Lord Wolseley had made the most elaborate preparations. He had collected together a picked army of 10,000 of the finest British troops; he had arranged a system of river transports with infinite care. For it was his intention to take no risks; he would advance in force up the Nile; he had determined that the fate of Gordon should not depend upon the dangerous hazards of a small and hasty exploit. There is no doubt—in view of the opposition which the relieving force actually met with—that his decision was a wise one; but unfortunately he had miscalculated some of the essential elements in the situation. When his preparations were at last complete, it was found that the Nile had sunk so low that the flotillas, over which so much care had been lavished, and upon which depended the whole success of the campaign, would be unable to surmount the cataracts. At the same time—it was by then the middle of November—a message arrived from Gordon indicating that Khartoum was in serious straits. It was clear that an immediate advance was necessary; the river route was out of the question; a swift dash across the desert was the only possible expedient after all. But no preparations for land transport had been made; weeks elapsed before a sufficient number of camels could be collected; and more weeks before those collected were trained for a military march. It was not until December 30th—more than a fortnight after the last entry in Gordon’s Journal—that Sir Herbert Stewart, at the head of 1100 British troops, was able to leave Korti on his march towards Metemmah, 170 miles across the desert. His advance was slow, and it was tenaciously disputed by the Mahdi’s forces. There was a desperate engagement on January 17th at the wells of Abu Klea; the British square was broken; for a moment victory hung in the balance; but the Arabs were repulsed. On the 19th, there was another furiously contested fight, in which Sir Herbert Stewart was killed. On the 21st, the force, now diminished by over 250 casualties, reached Metemmah. Three days elapsed in reconnoitring the country, and strengthening the position of the camp. On the 24th, Sir Charles Wilson, who had succeeded to the command, embarked on the Bordeen, and started up the river for Khartoum. On the following evening, the vessel struck on a rock, causing a further delay of twenty-four hours. It was not until January 28th that Sir Charles Wilson, arriving under a heavy fire within sight of Khartoum, saw that the Egyptian flag was not flying from the roof of the palace. The signs of ruin and destruction on every hand showed clearly enough that the town had fallen. The relief expedition was two days late.
The details of what passed within Khartoum during the last weeks of the siege are unknown to us. In the diary of Bordeini Bey, a Levantine merchant, we catch a few glimpses of the final stages of the catastrophe—of the starving populace, the exhausted garrison, the fluctuations of despair and hope, the dauntless energy of the Governor-General. Still he worked on, indefatigably, apportioning provisions, collecting ammunition, consulting with the townspeople, encouraging the soldiers. His hair had suddenly turned quite white. Late one evening, Bordeini Bey went to visit him in the palace, which was being bombarded by the Mahdi’s cannon. The high building, brilliantly lighted up, afforded an excellent mark. As the shot came whistling round the windows, the merchant suggested that it would be advisable to stop them up with boxes full of sand. Upon this, Gordon Pasha became enraged.
On January 5th, Omdurman, a village on the opposite bank of the Nile, which had hitherto been occupied by the besieged, was taken by the Arabs. The town was now closely surrounded, and every chance of obtaining fresh supplies was cut off. The famine became terrible; dogs, donkeys, skins, gum, palm fibre, were devoured by the desperate inhabitants. The soldiers stood on the fortifications like pieces of wood. Hundreds died of hunger daily: their corpses filled the streets; and the survivors had not the strength to bury the dead. On the 20th the news of the battle of Abu Klea reached Khartoum. The English were coming at last. Hope rose; every morning the Governor-General assured the townspeople that one day more would see the end of their sufferings; and night after night his words were proved untrue.
On the 23rd a rumour spread that a spy had arrived with letters, and that the English army was at hand. A merchant found a piece of newspaper lying in the road in which it was stated that the strength of the relieving forces was 15,000 men. For a moment, hope flickered up again, only to relapse once more. The rumour, the letters, the printed paper, all had been contrivances of Gordon to inspire the garrison with the courage to hold out. On the 25th, it was obvious that the Arabs were preparing an attack, and a deputation of the principal inhabitants waited upon the Governor-General. But he refused to see them; Bordeini Bey was alone admitted to his presence. He was sitting on a divan, and, as Bordeini Bey came into the room, he snatched the fez from his head and flung it from him.
When the English force reached Metemmah, the Mahdi, who had originally intended to reduce Khartoum to surrender through starvation, decided to attempt its capture by assault. The receding Nile had left one portion of the town’s circumference undefended; as the river withdrew, the rampart had crumbled; a broad expanse of mud was left between the wall and the water, and the soldiers, overcome by hunger and the lassitude of hopelessness, had trusted to the morass to protect them, and neglected to repair the breach. Early on the morning of the 26th, the Arabs crossed the river at this point. The mud, partially dried up, presented no obstacle; nor did the ruined fortification, feebly manned by some half-dying troops. Resistance was futile, and it was scarcely offered: the Mahdi’s army swarmed into Khartoum. Gordon had long debated with himself what his action should be at the supreme moment. “I shall never (D.V.),” he had told Sir Evelyn Baring, “be taken alive.” He had had gun-powder put into the cellars of the palace, so that the whole building might, at a moment’s notice, be blown into the air. But then misgivings had come upon him; was it not his duty “to maintain the faith, and, if necessary, to suffer for it?”—to remain a tortured and humiliated witness of his Lord in the Mahdi’s chains? The blowing up of the palace would have, he thought, “more or less the taint of suicide,” would be, “in a way, taking things out of God’s hands.” He remained undecided; and meanwhile, to be ready for every contingency, he kept one of his little armoured vessels close at hand on the river, with steam up, day and night, to transport him, if so he should decide, southward, through the enemy to the recesses of Equatoria. The sudden appearance of the Arabs, the complete collapse of the defence, saved him the necessity of making up his mind. He had been on the roof, in his dressing-gown, when the attack began; and he had only time to hurry to his bedroom to slip on a white uniform, and to seize up a sword and a revolver, before the foremost of the assailants were in the palace. The crowd was led by four of the fiercest of the Mahdi’s followers—tall and swarthy Dervishes, splendid in their many-coloured jibbehs, their great swords drawn from their scabbards of brass and velvet, their spears flourishing above their heads. Gordon met them at the top of the staircase. For a moment, there was a deathly pause, while he stood in silence, surveying his antagonists. Then it is said that Taha Shahin, the Dongolawi, cried in a loud voice, “Mala’ oun el yom yomek!” (O cursèd one, your time is come), and plunged his spear into the Englishman’s body. His only reply was a gesture of contempt. Another spear transfixed him; he fell, and the swords of the three other Dervishes instantly hacked him to death. Thus, if we are to believe the official chroniclers, in the dignity of unresisting disdain, General Gordon met his end. But it is only fitting that the last moments of one whose whole life was passed in contradiction should be involved in mystery and doubt. Other witnesses told a very different story. The man whom they saw die was not a saint but a warrior. With intrepidity, with skill, with desperation, he flew at his enemies. When his pistol was exhausted, he fought on with his sword; he forced his way almost to the bottom of the staircase; and, among a heap of corpses only succumbed at length to the sheer weight of the multitudes against him.
That morning, while Slatin Pasha was sitting in his chains in the camp at Omdurman, he saw a group of Arabs approaching, one of whom was carrying something wrapped up in a cloth. As the group passed him, they stopped for a moment and railed at him in savage mockery. Then the cloth was lifted, and he saw before him Gordon’s head. The trophy was taken to the Mahdi: at last the two fanatics had indeed met face to face. The Mahdi ordered the head to be fixed between the branches of a tree in the public highway, and all who passed threw stones at it. The hawks of the desert swept and circled about it—those very hawks which the blue eyes had so often watched.
The news of the catastrophe reached England, and a great outcry arose. The public grief vied with the public indignation. The Queen, in a letter to Miss Gordon, immediately gave vent both to her own sentiments and those of the nation.
And yet it was not with the Mahdi that the future lay. Before six months were out, in the plenitude of his power, he died, and the Khalifa Abdullahi reigned in his stead. The future lay with Major Kitchener and his Maxim-Nordenfeldt guns. Thirteen years later the Mahdi’s empire was abolished for ever in the gigantic hecatomb of Omdurman; after which it was thought proper that a religious ceremony in honour of General Gordon should be held at the Palace at Khartoum. The service was conducted by four chaplains—of the Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Methodist persuasions—and concluded with a performance of “Abide with me”—the General’s favourite hymn—by a select company of Sudanese buglers. Everyone agreed that General Gordon had been avenged at last. Who could doubt it? General Gordon himself, possibly, fluttering, in some remote Nirvana, the pages of a phantasmal Bible, might have ventured on a satirical remark. But General Gordon had always been a contradictious person—even a little off his head, perhaps, though a hero; and besides, he was no longer there to contradict.… At any rate it had all ended very happily—in a glorious slaughter of twenty thousand Arabs, a vast addition to the British Empire, and a step in the Peerage for Sir Evelyn Baring.