Eminent Victorians/The End of General Gordon
THE END OF GENERAL GORDON
During the year 1883 a solitary English gentleman was to be seen, wandering, with a thick book under his arm, in the neighbourhood of Jerusalem. His unassuming figure, short and slight, with its half-gliding, half-tripping motion, gave him a boyish aspect, which contrasted, oddly, but not unpleasantly, with the touch of gray on his hair and whiskers. There was the same contrast—enigmatic and attractive—between the sunburnt brick-red complexion—the hue of the seasoned traveller—and the large blue eyes, with their look of almost childish sincerity. To the friendly inquirer, he would explain, in a low, soft, and very distinct voice, that he was engaged in elucidating four questions—the site of the crucifixion, the line of division between the tribes of Benjamin and Judah, the identification of Gibeon, and the position of the Garden of Eden. He was also, he would add, most anxious to discover the spot where the Ark first touched ground, after the subsidence of the Flood: he believed, indeed, that he had solved that problem, as a reference to some passages in the book which he was carrying would show.
This singular person was General Gordon, and his book was the Holy Bible.
In such complete retirement from the world and the ways of men, it might have seemed that a life of inordinate activity had found at last a longed-for, a final peacefulness. For month after month, for an entire year, the General lingered by the banks of the Jordan. But then the enchantment was suddenly broken. Once more adventure claimed him; he plunged into the whirl of high affairs; his fate was mingled with the frenzies of Empire and the doom of peoples. And it was not in peace and rest, but in ruin and horror, that he reached his end.
The circumstances of that tragic history, so famous, so bitterly debated, so often and so controversially described, remain full of suggestion for the curious examiner of the past. There emerges from those obscure, unhappy records an interest, not merely political and historical, but human and dramatic. One catches a vision of strange characters, moved by mysterious impulses, interacting in queer complication, and hurrying at last—so it almost seems—like creatures in a puppet show to a predestined catastrophe. The characters, too, have a charm of their own: they are curiously English. What other nation on the face of the earth could have produced Mr. Gladstone and Sir Evelyn Baring and Lord Hartington and General Gordon? Alike in their emphasis and their lack of emphasis, in their eccentricity and their conventionality, in their matter-of-factness and their romance, these four figures seem to embody the mingling contradictions of the English spirit. As for the mise-en-scène, it is perfectly appropriate. But first let us glance at the earlier adventures of the hero of the piece.
Charles George Gordon was born in 1833. His father, of Highland and military descent, was himself a Lieutenant-General; his mother came of a family of merchants, distinguished for their sea-voyages into remote regions of the Globe. As a boy, Charlie was remarkable for his high spirits, pluck, and love of mischief. Destined for the Artillery, he was sent to the Academy at Woolwich, where some other characteristics made their appearance. On one occasion, when the cadets had been forbidden to leave the dining-room and the senior corporal stood with outstretched arms in the doorway to prevent their exit, Charlie Gordon put his head down, and, butting the officer in the pit of the stomach, projected him down a flight of stairs and through a glass door at the bottom. For this act of insubordination he was nearly dismissed; while the Captain of his Company predicted that he would never make an officer. A little later, when he was eighteen, it came to the knowledge of the authorities that bullying was rife at the Academy. The new-comers were questioned, and one of them said that Charlie Gordon had hit him over the head with a clothes-brush. He had worked well, and his record was on the whole a good one; but the authorities took a serious view of the case, and held back his commission for six months. It was owing to this delay that he went into the Royal Engineers, instead of the Royal Artillery.
He was sent to Pembroke, to work at the erection of fortifications; and at Pembroke those religious convictions, which never afterwards left him, first gained a hold upon his mind. Under the influence of his sister Augusta and of a "very religious captain of the name of Drew," he began to reflect upon his sins, look up texts, and hope for salvation. Though he had never been confirmed—he never was confirmed—he took the sacrament every Sunday; and he eagerly perused the Priceless Diamond, Scott's Commentaries, and The Remains of the Rev. R. McCheyne. "No novels or worldly books," he wrote to his sister, "come up to the Commentaries of Scott. … I remember well when you used to get them in numbers, and I used to laugh at them; but, thank God, it is different with me now. I feel much happier and more contented than I used to do. I did not like Pembroke, but now I would not wish for any prettier place. I have got a horse and gig, and Drew and myself drive all about the country. I hope my dear father and mother think of eternal things. … Dearest Augusta, pray for me, I beg of you."
He was twenty-one; the Crimean War broke out; and before the year was over he had managed to get himself transferred to Balaclava. During the siege of Sebastopol he behaved with conspicuous gallantry. Upon the declaration of peace, he was sent to Bessarabia to assist in determining the frontier between Russia and Turkey, in accordance with the treaty of Paris; and upon this duty he was occupied for nearly two years. Not long after his return home, in 1860, war was declared upon China. Captain Gordon was despatched to the scene of operations, but the fighting was over before he arrived. Nevertheless, he was to remain for the next four years in China, where he was to lay the foundations of an extraordinary renown.
Though he was too late to take part in the capture of the Taku Forts, he was in time to witness the destruction of the Summer Palace at Pekin—the act by which Lord Elgin, in the name of European civilisation, took vengeance upon the barbarism of the East.
The war was over; but the British army remained in the country, until the payment of an indemnity by the Chinese Government was completed. A camp was formed at Tientsin, and Gordon was occupied in setting up huts for the troops. While he was thus engaged, he had a slight attack of small-pox. "I am glad to say," he told his sister, "that this disease has brought me back to my Saviour, and I trust in future to be a better Christian than I have been hitherto."
Curiously enough a similar circumstance had, more than twenty years earlier, brought about a singular succession of events which were now upon the point of opening the way to Gordon's first great adventure. In 1837, a village schoolmaster near Canton had been attacked by illness; and, as in the case of Gordon, illness had been followed by a religious revulsion. Hong-siu-tsuen—for such was his name—saw visions, went into ecstasies, and entered into relations with the Deity. Shortly afterwards he fell in with a Methodist missionary from America, who instructed him in the Christian religion. The new doctrine, working upon the mystical ferment already in Hong's mind, produced a remarkable result. He was, he declared, the prophet of God; he was more—he was the Son of God; he was Tien Wang, the Celestial king; he was the younger brother of Jesus. The times were propitious, and proselytes soon gathered around him. Having conceived a grudge against the Government, owing to his failure in an examination, Hong gave a political turn to his teaching, which soon developed into a propaganda of rebellion against the rule of the Manchus and the Mandarins. The authorities took fright, attempted to suppress Hong by force, and failed. The movement spread. By 1850 the rebels were overrunning the populous and flourishing delta of the Yang-tse-Kiang, and had become a formidable force. In 1853 they captured Nankin, which was henceforth their capital. The Tien Wang established himself in a splendid palace, and proclaimed his new evangel. His theogony included the wife of God, or the celestial Mother, the wife of Jesus, or the celestial daughter-in-law, and a sister of Jesus, whom he married to one of his lieutenants, who thus became the celestial son-in-law; the Holy Ghost, however, was eliminated. His mission was to root out Demons and Manchus from the face of the earth, and to establish Taiping, the reign of eternal peace. In the meantime, retiring into the depths of his palace, he left the further conduct of earthly operations to his lieutenants, upon whom he bestowed the title of "Wangs" (kings), while he himself, surrounded by thirty wives and one hundred concubines, devoted his energies to the spiritual side of his mission. The Taiping Rebellion, as it came to be called, had now reached its furthest extent. The rebels were even able to occupy, for more than a year, the semi-European city of Shanghai. But then the tide turned. The latent forces of the Empire gradually asserted themselves. The rebels lost ground, their armies were defeated, and in 1859 Nankin itself was besieged and the Celestial King trembled in his palace. The end seemed to be at hand, when there was a sudden twist of Fortune's wheel. The war of 1860, the invasion of China by European armies, their march into the interior, and their occupation of Pekin, not only saved the rebels from destruction but allowed them to recover the greater part of what they had lost. Once more they seized upon the provinces of the delta, once more they menaced Shanghai. It was clear that the imperial army was incompetent, and the Shanghai merchants determined to provide for their own safety as best they could. They accordingly got together a body of troops, partly Chinese and partly European and under European officers, to which they entrusted the defence of the town. This small force, which, after a few preliminary successes, received from the Chinese Government the title of the "Ever Victorious Army," was able to hold the rebels at bay, but it could do no more. For two years Shanghai was in constant danger. The Taipings, steadily growing in power, were spreading destruction far and wide. The Ever Victorious Army was the only force capable of opposing them, and the Ever Victorious Army was defeated more often than not. Its first European leader had been killed; his successor quarrelled with the Chinese Governor, Li Hung Chang, and was dismissed. At last it was determined to ask the General at the head of the British army of occupation for the loan of an officer to command the force. The English, who had been at first inclined to favour the Taipings, on religious grounds, were now convinced, on practical grounds, of the necessity of suppressing them. It was in these circumstances that, early in 1863, the command of the Ever Victorious Army was offered to Gordon. He accepted it, received the title of General from the Chinese authorities, and entered forthwith upon his new task. He was just thirty.
In eighteen months, he told Li Hung Chang, the business would be finished; and he was as good as his word. The difficulties before him were very great. A vast tract of country was in the possession of the rebels—an area, at the lowest estimate, of 14,000 square miles with a population of twenty millions. For centuries this low-lying plain of the Yang-tse delta, rich in silk and tea, fertilised by elaborate irrigation, and covered with great walled cities, had been one of the most flourishing districts in China. Though it was now being rapidly ruined by the depredations of the Taipings, its strategic strength was obviously enormous. Gordon, however, with the eye of a born general, perceived that he could convert the very feature of the country which, on the face of it, most favoured an army on the defence—its complicated geographical system of interlacing roads and waterways, canals, lakes and rivers—into a means of offensive warfare. The force at his disposal was small, but it was mobile. He had a passion for map-making, and had already, in his leisure hours, made a careful survey of the country round Shanghai; he was thus able to execute a series of manœuvres which proved fatal to the enemy. By swift marches and counter-marches, by sudden attacks and surprises, above all by the despatch of armed steamboats up the circuitous waterways into positions from which they could fall upon the enemy in reverse, he was able gradually to force back the rebels, to cut them off piece-meal in the field, and to seize upon their cities. But, brilliant as these operations were, Gordon's military genius showed itself no less unmistakably in other directions. The Ever Victorious Army, recruited from the riff-raff of Shanghai, was an ill-disciplined, ill-organised body of about three thousand men, constantly on the verge of mutiny, supporting itself on plunder, and, at the slightest provocation, melting into thin air. Gordon, by sheer force of character, established over this incoherent mass of ruffians an extraordinary ascendancy. He drilled them with rigid severity; he put them into a uniform, armed them systematically, substituted pay for loot, and was even able, at last, to introduce regulations of a sanitary kind. There were some terrible scenes, in which the General, alone, faced the whole furious army, and quelled it: scenes of rage, desperation, towering courage, and summary execution. Eventually he attained to an almost magical prestige. Walking at the head of his troops, with nothing but a light cane in his hand, he seemed to pass through every danger with the scatheless equanimity of a demi-God. The Taipings themselves were awed into a strange reverence. More than once their leaders, in a frenzy of fear and admiration, ordered the sharp-shooters not to take aim at the advancing figure of the faintly smiling Englishman.
It is significant that Gordon found it easier to win battles and to crush mutineers than to keep on good terms with the Chinese authorities. He had to act in co-operation with a large native force; and it was only natural that the General at the head of it should grow more and more jealous and angry as the Englishman's successes revealed more and more clearly his own incompetence. At first, indeed, Gordon could rely upon the support of the Governor. Li Hung Chang's experience of Europeans had been hitherto limited to low-class adventurers, and Gordon came as a revelation. "It is a direct blessing from Heaven," he noted in his diary, "the coming of this British Gordon. … He is superior in manner and bearing to any of the foreigners whom I have come into contact with, and does not show outwardly that conceit which makes most of them repugnant in my sight." A few months later, after he had accompanied Gordon on a victorious expedition, the mandarin's enthusiasm burst forth. "What a sight for tired eyes," he wrote, "what an elixir for a heavy heart—to see this splendid Englishman fight! … If there is anything that I admire nearly as much as the superb scholarship of Tseng Kuo-fan it is the military qualities of this fine officer. He is a glorious fellow!" In his emotion, Li Hung Chang addressed Gordon as his brother, declaring that he "considered him worthy to fill the place of the brother who is departed. Could I have said more in all the words of the world?" Then something happened which impressed and mystified the sensitive Chinaman. "The Englishman's face was first filled with a deep pleasure, and then he seemed to be thinking of something depressing and sad; for the smile went from his mouth and there were tears in his eyes when he thanked me for what I had said. Can it be that he has, or has had, some great trouble in his life, and that he fights recklessly to forget it, or that Death has no terrors for him?" But, as time went on, Li Hung Chang's attitude began to change. "General Gordon," he notes in July, "must control his tongue, even if he lets his mind run loose." The Englishman had accused him of intriguing with the Chinese General, and of withholding money due to the Ever Victorious Army. "Why does he not accord me the honours that are due to me, as head of the military and civil authority in these parts?" By September the Governor's earlier transports have been replaced by a more judicial frame of mind. "With his many faults, his pride, his temper, and his never-ending demand for money, Gordon is a noble man, and in spite of all I have said to him or about him, I will ever think most highly of him. … He is an honest man, but difficult to get on with."
Disagreements of this kind might perhaps have been tided over till the end of the campaign; but an unfortunate incident suddenly led to a more serious quarrel. Gordon's advance had been fiercely contested, but it had been constant; he had captured several important towns; and in October he laid siege to the city of Soo-chow, once one of the most famous and splendid in China. In December, its fall being obviously imminent, the Taiping leaders agreed to surrender it, on condition that their lives were spared. Gordon was a party to the agreement, and laid special stress upon his presence with the Imperial forces as a pledge of its fulfilment. No sooner, however, was the city surrendered than the rebel "Wangs" were assassinated. In his fury, it is said that Gordon searched everywhere for Li Hung Chang with a loaded pistol in his hand. He was convinced of the complicity of the Governor, who, on his side, denied that he was responsible for what had happened. "I asked him why I should plot, and go round a mountain, when a mere order, written with five strokes of the quill, would have accomplished the same thing. He did not answer, but he insulted me, and said he would report my treachery, as he called it, to Shanghai and England. Let him do so; he cannot bring the crazy Wangs back." The agitated Mandarin hoped to placate Gordon by a large gratuity and an imperial medal; but the plan was not successful. "General Gordon," he writes, "called upon me in his angriest mood. He repeated his former speeches about the Wangs. I did not attempt to argue with him. … He refused the 10,000 taels, which I had ready for him, and, with an oath, said that he did not want the Throne's medal. This is showing the greatest disrespect."
Gordon resigned his command; and it was only with the utmost reluctance that he agreed at last to resume it. An arduous and terrible series of operations followed; but they were successful, and by June, 1864, the Ever Victorious Army, having accomplished its task, was disbanded. The Imperial forces now closed round Nankin; the last hopes of the Tien Wang had vanished. In the recesses of his seraglio, the Celestial King, judging that the time had come for the conclusion of his mission, swallowed gold leaf until he ascended to Heaven. In July, Nankin was taken, the remaining chiefs were executed, and the rebellion was at an end. The Chinese Government gave Gordon the highest rank in its military hierarchy, and invested him with the yellow jacket and the peacock's feather. He rejected an enormous offer of money; but he could not refuse a great gold medal, specially struck in his honour by order of the Emperor. At the end of the year he returned to England, where the conqueror of the Taipings was made a Companion of the Bath.
That the English authorities should have seen fit to recognise Gordon's services by the reward usually reserved for industrious clerks was typical of their attitude towards him until the very end of his career. Perhaps if he had been ready to make the most of the wave of popularity which greeted him on his return—if he had advertised his fame and, amid high circles, played the part of Chinese Gordon in a becoming manner—the results would have been different. But he was by nature farouche; his soul revolted against dinner-parties and stiff shirts; and the presence of ladies-especially of fashionable ladies—filled him with uneasiness. He had, besides, a deeper dread of the world's contaminations. And so, when he was appointed to Gravesend to supervise the erection of a system of forts at the mouth of the Thames, he remained there quietly for six years, and at last was almost forgotten. The forts, which were extremely expensive and quite useless, occupied his working hours; his leisure he devoted to acts of charity and to religious contemplation. The neighbourhood was a poverty-stricken one, and the kind Colonel, with his tripping step and simple manner, was soon a familiar figure in it, chatting with the seamen, taking provisions to starving families, or visiting some bedridden old woman to light her fire. He was particularly fond of boys. Ragged street arabs and rough sailor-lads crowded about him. They were made free of his house and garden; they visited him in the evenings for lessons and advice; he helped them, found them employment, corresponded with them when they went out into the world. They were, he said, his Wangs. It was only by a singular austerity of living that he was able to afford such a variety of charitable expenses. The easy luxuries of his class and station were unknown to him: his clothes verged upon the shabby; and his frugal meals were eaten at a table with a drawer, into which the loaf and plate were quickly swept at the approach of his poor visitors. Special occasions demanded special sacrifices. When, during the Lancashire famine, a public subscription was opened, finding that he had no ready money, he remembered his Chinese medal, and, after effacing the inscription, despatched it as an anonymous gift.
Except for his boys and his paupers, he lived alone. In his solitude, he ruminated upon the mysteries of the universe; and those religious tendencies, which had already shown themselves, now became a fixed and dominating factor in his life. His reading was confined almost entirely to the Bible; but the Bible he read and re-read with an untiring, an unending, assiduity. There, he was convinced, all truth was to be found; and he was equally convinced that he could find it. The doubts of philosophers, the investigations of commentators, the smiles of men of the world, the dogmas of Churches—such things meant nothing to the Colonel. Two facts alone were evident: there was the Bible, and there was himself; and all that remained to be done was for him to discover what were the Bible's instructions, and to act accordingly. In order to make this discovery it was only necessary for him to read the Bible over and over again; and therefore, for the rest of his life, he did so.
The faith that he evolved was mystical and fatalistic; it was also highly unconventional. His creed, based upon the narrow foundations of Jewish Scripture, eked out occasionally by some English evangelical manual, was yet wide enough to ignore every doctrinal difference, and even, at moments, to transcend the bounds of Christianity itself. The just man was he who submitted to the Will of God, and the Will of God, inscrutable and absolute, could be served aright only by those who turned away from earthly desires and temporal temptations, to rest themselves whole-heartedly upon the indwelling Spirit. Human beings were the transitory embodiments of souls who had existed through an infinite past and would continue to exist through an infinite future. The world was vanity; the flesh was dust and ashes. "A man," Gordon wrote to his sister, "who knows not the secret, who has not the indwelling of God revealed to him, is like this—. He takes the promises and curses as addressed to him as one man, and will not hear of there being any birth before his natural birth, in any existence except with the body he is in. The man to whom the secret (the indwelling of God) is revealed is like this—. He applies the promises to one and the curses to the other, if disobedient, which he must be, except the soul is enabled by God to rule. He then sees he is not of this world; for when he speaks of himself he quite disregards the body his soul lives in, which is earthy."
Such conceptions are familiar enough in the history of religious thought: they are those of the hermit and the fakir; and it might have been expected that, when once they had taken hold upon his mind, Gordon would have been content to lay aside the activities of his profession, and would have relapsed at last into the complete retirement of holy meditation. But there were other elements in his nature, which urged him towards a very different course. He was no simple quietist. He was an English gentleman, an officer, a man of energy and action, a lover of danger and the audacities that defeat danger, a passionate creature, flowing over with the self-assertiveness of independent judgment and the arbitrary temper of command. Whatever he might find in his pocket-Bible, it was not for such as he to dream out his days in devout obscurity. But, conveniently enough, he found nothing in his pocket-Bible indicating that he should. What he did find was that the Will of God was inscrutable and absolute; that it was man's duty to follow where God's hand led; and, if God's hand led towards violent excitements and extraordinary vicissitudes, that it was not only futile, it was impious, to turn another way. Fatalism is always apt to be a double-edged philosophy; for while, on the one hand, it reveals the minutest occurrences as the immutable result of a rigid chain of infinitely predestined causes, on the other, it invests the wildest incoherences of conduct or of circumstance with the sanctity of eternal law. And Gordon's fatalism was no exception. The same doctrine that led him to dally with omens, to search for prophetic texts, and to append, in brackets, the apotropaic initials D.V. after every statement in his letters implying futurity, led him also to envisage his moods and his desires, his passing reckless whims and his deep unconscious instincts, as the mysterious manifestations of the indwelling God. That there was danger lurking in such a creed he was very well aware. The grosser temptations of the world—money and the vulgar attributes of power—had, indeed, no charms for him; but there were subtler and more insinuating allurements which it was not so easy to resist. More than one observer declared that ambition was, in reality, the essential motive in his life—ambition, neither for wealth nor titles, but for fame and influence, for the swaying of multitudes, and for that kind of enlarged and intensified existence "where breath breathes most—even in the mouths of men." Was it so? In the depths of Gordon's soul there were intertwining contradictions—intricate recesses where egoism and renunciation melted into one another, where the flesh lost itself in the spirit, and the spirit in the flesh. What was the Will of God? The question, which first became insistent during his retirement at Gravesend, never afterwards left him: it might almost be said that he spent the remainder of his life in searching for the answer to it. In all his Odysseys, in all his strange and agitated adventures, a day never passed on which he neglected the voice of eternal wisdom as it spoke through the words of Paul or Solomon, of Jonah or Habakkuk. He opened his Bible, he read, and then he noted down his reflections upon scraps of paper, which, periodically pinned together, he despatched to one or other of his religious friends, and particularly his sister Augusta. The published extracts from these voluminous outpourings lay bare the inner history of Gordon's spirit, and reveal the pious visionary of Gravesend in the restless hero of three continents.
His seclusion came to an end in a distinctly providential manner. In accordance with a stipulation in the Treaty of Paris, an international commission had been appointed to improve the navigation of the Danube; and Gordon, who had acted on a similar body fifteen years earlier, was sent out to represent Great Britain. At Constantinople, he chanced to meet the Egyptian minister, Nubar Pasha. The Governorship of the Equatorial Provinces of the Sudan was about to fall vacant; and Nubar offered the post to Gordon, who accepted it. "For some wise design," he wrote to his sister, "God turns events one way or another, whether man likes it or not, as a man driving a horse turns it to right or left without consideration as to whether the horse likes that way or not. To be happy, a man must be like a well-broken, willing horse, ready for anything. Events will go as God likes."
And then followed six years of extraordinary, desperate, unceasing, and ungrateful labour. The unexplored and pestilential region of Equatoria, stretching southwards to the great lakes and the sources of the Nile, had been annexed to Egypt by the Khedive Ismail, who, while he squandered his millions on Parisian ballet-dancers, dreamt strange dreams of glory and empire. Those dim tracts of swamp and forest in Central Africa were—so he declared—to be "opened up," they were to receive the blessings of civilisation, they were to become a source of eternal honour to himself and Egypt. The slave-trade, which flourished there, was to be put down; the savage inhabitants were to become acquainted with freedom, justice, and prosperity. Incidentally, a government monopoly in ivory was to be established, and the place was to be made a paying concern. Ismail, hopelessly in debt to a horde of European creditors, looked to Europe to support him in his schemes. Europe, and, in particular, England, with her passion for extraneous philanthropy, was not averse. Sir Samuel Baker became the first Governor of Equatoria, and now Gordon was to carry on the good work. In such circumstances it was only natural that Gordon should consider himself a special instrument in God's hand. To put his disinterestedness beyond doubt, he reduced his salary, which had been fixed at £10,000, to £2,000. He took over his new duties early in 1874, and it was not long before he had a first hint of disillusionment. On his way up the Nile, he was received in state at Khartoum by the Egyptian Governor-General of the Sudan, his immediate official superior. The function ended in a prolonged banquet, followed by a mixed ballet of soldiers and completely naked young women, who danced in a circle, beat time with their feet, and accompanied their gestures with a curious sound of clucking. At last the Austrian Consul, overcome by the exhilaration of the scene, flung himself in a frenzy among the dancers; the Governor-General, shouting with delight, seemed about to follow suit, when Gordon abruptly left the room, and the party broke up in confusion.
When, fifteen hundred miles to the southward, Gordon reached the seat of his government, and the desolation of the Tropics closed over him, the agonising nature of his task stood fully revealed. For the next three years he struggled with enormous difficulties—with the confused and horrible country, the appalling climate, the maddening insects and the loathsome diseases, the indifference of subordinates and superiors, the savagery of the slave-traders, the hatred of the inhabitants. One by one the small company of his European staff succumbed. With a few hundred Egyptian soldiers, he had to suppress insurrections, make roads, establish fortified posts, and enforce the government of ivory. All this he accomplished; he even succeeded in sending enough money to Cairo to pay for the expenses of the expedition. But a deep gloom had fallen upon his spirit. When, after a series of incredible obstacles had been overcome, a steamer was launched upon the unexplored Albert Nyanza, he turned his back upon the lake, leaving the glory of its navigation to his Italian lieutenant, Gessi. "I wish," he wrote, "to give a practical proof of what I think regarding the inordinate praise which is given to an explorer." Among his distresses and self-mortifications, he loathed the thought of all such honours, and remembered the attentions of English society with a snarl. "When, D.V., I get home, I do not dine out. My reminiscences of these lands will not be more pleasant to me than the China ones. What I shall have done will be what I have done. Men think giving dinners is conferring a favour on you. … Why not give dinners to those who need them? "No! His heart was set upon a very different object. "To each is allotted a distinct work, to each a destined goal; to some the seat at the right-hand or left of the Saviour. (It was not His to give; it was already given—Matthew xx. 23. Again, Judas went to "his own place"—Acts i. 25.) It is difficult to the flesh to accept 'Ye are dead, ye have naught to do with the world.' How difficult for any one to be circumcised from the world, to be as indifferent to its pleasures, its sorrows, and its comforts as a corpse is! That is to know the resurrection."
But the Holy Book was not his only solace. For now, under the parching African sun, we catch glimpses, for the first time, of Gordon's hand stretching out towards stimulants of a more material quality. For months together, we are told, he would drink nothing but pure water; and then … water that was not so pure. In his fits of melancholy, he would shut himself up in his tent for days at a time, with a hatchet and a flag placed at the door to indicate that he was not to be disturbed for any reason whatever; until at last the cloud would lift, the signals would be removed, and the Governor would reappear, brisk and cheerful. During one of these retirements, there was grave danger of a native attack upon the camp. Colonel Long, the chief of staff, ventured, after some hesitation, to ignore the flag and hatchet, and to enter the forbidden tent. He found Gordon seated at a table, upon which were an open Bible and an open bottle of brandy. Long explained the circumstances, but could obtain no answer beyond the abrupt words—"You are commander of the camp,"—and was obliged to retire, nonplussed, to deal with the situation as best he could. On the following morning Gordon, cleanly shaven, and in the full-dress uniform of the Royal Engineers, entered Long's hut with his usual tripping step, exclaiming—"Old fellow, now don't be angry with me. I was very low last night. Let's have a good breakfast—a little b. and s. Do you feel up to it?" And, with these veering moods and dangerous restoratives, there came an intensification of the queer and violent elements in the temper of the man. His eccentricities grew upon him. He found it more and more uncomfortable to follow the ordinary course. Official routine was an agony to him. His caustic and satirical humour expressed itself in a style that astounded government departments. While he jibed at his superiors, his subordinates learnt to dread the explosions of his wrath. There were moments when his passion became utterly ungovernable; and the gentle soldier of God, who had spent the day in quoting texts for the edification of his sister, would slap the face of his Arab aide-de-camp in a sudden access of fury, or set upon his Alsatian servant and kick him till he screamed.
At the end of three years, Gordon resigned his post in Equatoria, and prepared to return home. But again Providence intervened: the Khedive offered him, as an inducement to remain in the Egyptian service, a position of still higher consequence—the Governor-Generalship of the whole Sudan; and Gordon once more took up his task. Another three years were passed in grappling with vast revolting provinces, with the ineradicable iniquities of the slave-trade, with all the complications of weakness and corruption incident to an oriental administration extending over almost boundless tracts of savage territory which had never been effectively subdued. His headquarters were fixed in the palace at Khartoum; but there were various interludes in his government. Once, when the Khedive's finances had become peculiarly embroiled, he summoned Gordon to Cairo, to preside over a commission which should set matters to rights. Gordon accepted the post, but soon found that his situation was untenable. He was between the devil and the deep sea—between the unscrupulous cunning of the Egyptian Pashas and the immeasurable immensity of the Khedive's debts to his European creditors. The Pashas were anxious to use him as a respectable mask for their own nefarious dealings; and the representatives of the European creditors, who looked upon him as an irresponsible intruder, were anxious simply to get rid of him as soon as they could. One of these representatives was Sir Evelyn Baring, whom Gordon now met for the first time. An immediate antagonism flashed out between the two men. But their hostility had no time to mature; for Gordon, baffled on all sides, and deserted even by the Khedive, precipitately returned to his Governor-Generalship. Whatever else Providence might have decreed, it had certainly not decided that he should be a financier.
His tastes and his talents were indeed of a very different kind. In his absence, a rebellion had broken out in Darfour—one of the vast outlying provinces of his government-where a native chieftain, Zobeir, had erected, on a basis of slave-traffic, a dangerous military power. Zobeir himself had been lured to Cairo, where he was detained in a state of semi-captivity; but his son, Suleiman, ruled in his stead, and was now defying the Governor-General. Gordon determined upon a hazardous stroke. He mounted a camel, and rode, alone, in the blazing heat, across eighty-five miles of desert, to Suleiman's camp. His sudden apparition dum-founded the rebels; his imperious bearing overawed them; he signified to them that in two days they must disarm and disperse; and the whole host obeyed. Gordon returned to Khartoum in triumph. But he had not heard the last of Suleiman. Flying southwards from Darfour to the neighbouring province of Bahr-el-Ghazal, the young man was soon once more at the head of a formidable force. A prolonged campaign, of extreme difficulty and danger, followed. Eventually, Gordon, summoned again to Cairo, was obliged to leave to Gessi the task of finally crushing the revolt. After a brilliant campaign, Gessi forced Suleiman to surrender, and then shot him as a rebel. The deed was to exercise a curious influence upon Gordon's fate.
Though Suleiman had been killed and his power broken, the slave-trade still flourished in the Sudan. Gordon's efforts to suppress it resembled the palliatives of an empiric treating the superficial symptoms of some profound constitutional disease. The root of the malady lay in the slave-markets of Cairo and Constantinople: the supply followed the demand. Gordon, after years of labour, might here and there stop up a spring or divert a tributary, but, somehow or other, the waters would reach the river-bed. In the end, he himself came to recognise this. "When you have got the ink that has soaked into blotting-paper out of it," he said, "then slavery will cease in these lands." And yet he struggled desperately on; it was not for him to murmur. "I feel my own weakness, and look to Him who is Almighty, and I leave the issue without inordinate care to Him."
Relief came at last. The Khedive Ismail was deposed; and Gordon felt at liberty to send in his resignation. Before he left Egypt, however, he was to experience yet one more remarkable adventure. At his own request, he set out on a diplomatic mission to the Negus of Abyssinia. The mission was a complete failure. The Negus was intractable, and, when his bribes were refused, furious. Gordon was ignominiously dismissed; every insult was heaped on him; he was arrested, and obliged to traverse the Abyssinian Mountains in the depths of winter under the escort of a savage troop of horse. When, after great hardships and dangers, he reached Cairo, he found the whole official world up in arms against him. The Pashas had determined at last that they had no further use for this honest and peculiar Englishman. It was arranged that one of his confidential despatches should be published in the newspapers; naturally, it contained indiscretions; there was a universal outcry—the man was insubordinate, and mad. He departed under a storm of obloquy. It seemed impossible that he should ever return to Egypt.
On his way home, he stopped in Paris, saw the English ambassador. Lord Lyons, and speedily came into conflict with him over Egyptian affairs. There ensued a heated correspondence, which was finally closed by a letter from Gordon, ending as follows:—"I have some comfort in thinking that in ten or fifteen years' time it will matter little to either of us. A black box, six feet six by three feet wide will then contain all that is left of Ambassador, or Cabinet Minister, or of your humble and obedient servant."
He arrived in England early in 1880 ill and exhausted; and it might have been supposed that after the terrible activities of his African exile he would have been ready to rest. But the very opposite was the case: the next three years were the most mouvementés of his life. He hurried from post to post, from enterprise to enterprise, from continent to continent, with a vertiginous rapidity. He accepted the Private Secretaryship to Lord Ripon, the new Viceroy of India, and, three days after his arrival at Bombay, he resigned. He had suddenly realised that he was not cut out for a Private Secretary, when on an address being sent in from some deputation, he was asked to say that the Viceroy had read it with interest. "You know perfectly," he said to Lord William Beresford, "that Lord Ripon has never read it, and I can't say that sort of thing, so I will resign, and you take in my resignation." He confessed to Lord William that the world was not big enough for him, that there was "no king or country big enough"; and then he added, hitting him on the shoulder, "Yes, that is flesh, that is what I hate, and what makes me wish to die."
Two days later, he was off for Pekin. "Every one will say I am mad," were his last words to Lord William Beresford; "but you say I am not." The position in China was critical; war with Russia appeared to be imminent; and Gordon had been appealed to, in order to use his influence on the side of peace. He was welcomed by many old friends of former days, among them Li Hung Chang, whose diplomatic views coincided with his own. Li's diplomatic language, however, was less unconventional. In an interview with the Ministers, Gordon's expressions were such that the interpreter shook with terror, upset a cup of tea, and finally refused to translate the dreadful words; upon which Gordon snatched up a dictionary, and, with his finger on the word "idiocy," showed it to the startled mandarins. A few weeks later, Li Hung Chang was in power, and peace was assured. Gordon had spent two and a half days in Pekin, and was whirling through China, when a telegram arrived from the home authorities, who viewed his movements with uneasiness, ordering him to return at once to England. "It did not produce a twitter in me," he wrote to his sister; "I died long ago, and it will not make any difference to me; I am prepared to follow the unrolling of the scroll." The world, perhaps, was not big enough for him; and yet how clearly he recognised that he was "a poor insect!" "My heart tells me that, and I am glad of it."
On his return to England, he telegraphed to the Government of the Cape of Good Hope, which had become involved in a war with the Basutos, offering his services; but his telegram received no reply. Just then, Sir Howard Elphinstone was appointed to the command of the Royal Engineers in Mauritius. It was a thankless and insignificant post; and, rather than accept it, Elphinstone was prepared to retire from the army—unless some other officer could be induced, in return for £800, to act as his substitute. Gordon, who was an old friend, agreed to undertake the work—upon one condition: that he should receive nothing from Elphinstone; and accordingly he spent the next year in that remote and unhealthy island, looking after the barrack repairs and testing the drains. While he was thus engaged, the Cape Government, whose difficulties had been increasing, changed its mind, and early in 1882, begged for Gordon's help. Once more he was involved in great affairs: a new field of action opened before him; and then, in a moment, there was another shift of the kaleidoscope, and again he was thrown upon the world. Within a few weeks, after a violent quarrel with the Cape authorities, his mission had come to an end. What should he do next? To what remote corner or what enormous stage, to what self-sacrificing drudgeries or what resounding exploits, would the hand of God lead him now? He waited, in an odd hesitation. He opened the Bible, but neither the prophecies of Hosea nor the epistles to Timothy gave him any advice. The King of the Belgians asked if he would be willing to go to the Congo. He was perfectly willing; he would go whenever the King of the Belgians sent for him; his services, however, were not required yet. It was at this juncture that he betook himself to Palestine. His studies there were embodied in a correspondence with the Rev. Mr. Barnes, filling over two thousand pages of manuscript—a correspondence which was only put an end to when, at last, the summons from the King of the Belgians came. He hurried back to England; but it was not to the Congo that he was being led by the hand of God.
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, Mahommed 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 Hong-siu-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 merrymakings, 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 despatched 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 Madhi 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 south-westward, 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 over-run. 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 7th 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 7th, 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 despatches 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 despatched 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. "Gordon," he telegraphed on the 16th, "would be the best man if he will pledge himself to carry out the policy of withdrawing from the Sudan as quickly as is possible consistently with saving life. He must also understand that he must take his instructions from the British representative in Egypt. … I would rather have him than any one else, provided there is a perfectly clear understanding with him as to what his position is to be and what line of policy he is to carry out. Otherwise, not. … Whoever goes should be distinctly warned that he will undertake a service of great difficulty and danger." In the meantime, Gordon, with the Sudan upon his lips, with the Sudan in his imagination, had hurried to Brussels, to obtain from the King of the Belgians a reluctant consent to the postponement of his Congo mission. On the 17th he was recalled to London by a telegram from Lord Wolseley. On the 18th the final decision was made. "At noon," Gordon told the Rev. Mr. Barnes, "Wolseley came to me and took me to the Ministers. He went in and talked to the Ministers, and came back and said: 'Her Majesty's Government want you to undertake this. Government are determined to evacuate the Sudan, for they will not guarantee future government. Will you go and do it?' I said: 'Yes.' He said: 'Go in.' I went in and saw them. They said: 'Did Wolseley tell you your orders?' I said: 'Yes.' I said: 'You will not guarantee future government of the Sudan, and you wish me to go up and evacuate now.' They said: 'Yes,' and it was over."
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 despatch 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, 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, 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, with instructions 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 despatch 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. "Either I must believe He does all things in mercy and love, or else I disbelieve His existence, there is no half way in the matter. What holes do I not put myself into! And for what? So mixed are my ideas. I believe ambition put me here in this ruin." Was not that the explanation of it all? "Our Lord's promise is not for the fulfilment of earthly wishes; therefore, if things come to ruin here He is still faithful, and is carrying out His great work of divine wisdom." How could he have forgotten that? But he would not transgress again. "I owe all to God, and nothing to myself, for, humanly speaking, I have done very foolish things. However, if I am humbled, the better for me."
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
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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 Madhi," 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."
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,
"that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the things they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmovèd, cold, and to temptation slow,
They rightly do inherit heaven's graces,
And husband nature's riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces. … "
The words might have been written for Sir Evelyn Baring.
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 despatched 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 despatch—a long, balanced, guarded, grey despatch, 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 despatched 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. "In the name of God!" wrote the Mahdi, "herewith a suit of clothes, consisting of a coat (jibbeh), an overcoat, a turban, a cap, a girdle, and beads. This is the clothing of those who have given up this world and its vanities, and who look for the world to come, for everlasting happiness in Paradise. If you truly desire to come to God and seek to live a godly life, you must at once wear this suit, and come out to accept your everlasting good fortune." Did the words bear no meaning to the mystic of Gravesend? But he was an English gentleman, an English officer. He flung the clothes to the ground, and trampled on them in the sight of all. Then, alone, he went up to the roof of his high palace, and turned the telescope once more, almost mechanically, towards the north.
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 every one 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 despatch 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 blow—whatever the force of his character and the strength of his judgment—can hardly escape unhurt from the hurrying of Time's winged 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, end 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 despatch, 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 counterproposal, 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. Henceforward 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 or 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, he said distinctly he could only hold out six months, and that was in March (counts the months). August! why he ought to have given in! What is to be done? They'll be howling for an expedition. … It is no laughing matter; that abominable Mahdi! Why on earth does he not guard his roads better? What is to be done?" Several times in his bitterness he repeats the suggestion that the authorities at home were secretly hoping that the fall of Khartoum would relieve them of their difficulties. "What that Mahdi is about," Lord Granville is made to exclaim in another deleted paragraph, "I cannot make out. Why does he not put all his guns on the river and stop the route? Eh what? 'We will have to go to Khartoum!' Why, it will cost millions, what a wretched business! What! Send Zobeir? Our conscience recoils from that, it is elastic, but not equal to that, it is a pact with the Devil. … Do you not think there is any way of getting hold of HIM, in a quiet way?" If a boy at Eton or Harrow, he declared, had acted as the Government had acted, "I think he would be kicked, and I am sure he would deserve it." He was the victim of hypocrites and humbugs. There was "no sort of parallel to all this in history—except it be David with Uriah the Hittite"; but then "there was an Eve in the case," and he was not aware that the Government had even that excuse.
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, "I declare positively," he wrote, with passionate underlinings, "and once for all, that I will not leave the Sudan until every one who wants to go down is given the chance to do so, unless a government is established, which relieves me of the charge; therefore if any emissary or letter comes up here ordering me to come down, I will not obey it, but will stay here, and fall with town, and run all risks." This was sheer insubordination, no doubt; but he could not help that; it was not in his nature to be obedient. "I know if I was chief, I would never employ myself, for I am incorrigible." Decidedly, he was not afraid to be "what club men call insubordinate, though, of all insubordinates, the club men are the worst."
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. "I dwell on the joy of never seeing Great Britain again, with its horrid, wearisome dinner parties and miseries. How we can put up with those things, passes my imagination! It is a perfect bondage. … I would sooner live like a Dervish with the Mahdi, than go out to dinner every night in London. I hope, if any English General comes to Khartoum, he will not ask me to dinner. Why men cannot be friends without bringing the wretched stomachs in, is astounding."
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 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.", 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
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 Khartomn; 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, Bahrel-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. "Excellence!" he wrote. "J'ai envoyé deux lettres, sans avoir reçu une réponse de votre excellence. … Excellence! j'ai me battu 27 fois pour le gouvernement contre l'ennemi—on m'a feri deux fois, et j'ai rien fait contre l'honneur—rien de chose, qui doit empêché votre excellence de m'ecrir une réponse que je sais quoi faire. … Je vous prie, Excellence, de m'honoré avec une réponse. … P.S. Si votre Excellence ont peutêtre entendu que j'ai fait quelque chose contre l'honneur d'un officier et cela vous empêche de m'ecrir, je vous prie de me donner I'occasion de me defendre, et jugez apres la verité." The unfortunate Slatin understood well enough the cause of Gordon's silence. It was in vain that he explained the motives of his conversion, in vain that he pointed out that it had been made easier for him since he had "perhaps unhappily, not received a strict religious education at home." Gordon was adamant. Slatin had "denied his Lord," and that was enough. His communications with Khartoum were discovered and he was put in chains. When Gordon heard of it, he noted the fact grimly in his diary, without a comment.
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 he 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 south-eastern 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. "C'est justement les Anglais," he wrote, "avec leur absurde politique, qui minent désormais le commerce de toutes ces côtes. Ils ont voulu tout remanier et ils sont arrivés à faire pire que les Egyptiens et les Turcs, ruinés par eux. Leur Gordon est un idiot, leur Wolseley un âne, et toutes leurs entreprises une suite insensée d'absurdités et de déprédations." So wrote the amazing poet of the Saison D'Enfer amid those futile turmoils of petty commerce, in which, with an inexplicable deliberation, he had forgotten the enchantments of an unparalleled adolescence, forgotten the fogs of London and the streets of Brussels, forgotten Paris, forgotten the subtleties and the frenzies of inspiration, forgotten the agonised embraces of Verlaine.
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— 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.
"Now mark this, if the Expeditionary Force, and I ask for no more than two hundred men, does not come in ten days, the town may fall; and I have done my best for the honour of our country. Good-bye.—C. G. Gordon.
"You send me no information, though you have lots of money.—C. G. G."
To his sister Augusta, he was more explicit. "I decline to agree," he told her, "that the expedition comes for my relief; it comes for the relief of the garrisons, which I failed to accomplish. I expect Her Majesty's Government are in a precious rage with me for holding out and forcing their hand." The admission is significant. And then came the final adieux. "This may be the last letter you will receive from me, for we are on our last legs, owing to the delay of the expedition. However, God rules all, and, as He will rule to His glory and our welfare, His will be done. I fear, owing to circumstances, that my affairs are pecuniarily not over bright … your affectionate brother, C. G. Gordon.
"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. "He called up the guard, and gave them orders to shoot me if I moved; he then brought a very large lantern which would hold twenty-four candles. He and I then put the candles into the sockets, placed the lantern on the table in front of the window, lit the candles, and then we sat down at the table. The Pasha then said, 'When God was portioning out fear to all the people in the world, at last it came to my turn, and there was no fear left to give me. Go, tell all the people in Khartoum that Gordon fears nothing, for God has created him without fear.'"
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. "What more can I say?" he exclaimed, in a voice such as the merchant had never heard before. "The people will no longer believe me. I have told them over and over again that help would be here, but it has never come, and now they must see I tell them lies. I can do nothing more. Go, and collect all the people you can on the lines, and make a good stand. Now leave me to smoke these cigarettes." Bordeini Bey knew then, he tells us, that Gordon Pasha was in despair. He left the room, having looked upon the Governor-General for the last time.
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 gunpowder 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. "How shall I write to you," she exclaimed, "or how shall I attempt to express what I feel! To think of your dear, noble, heroic Brother, who served his Country and his Queen so truly, so heroically, with a self-sacrifice so edifying to the World, not having been rescued. That the promises of support were not fulfilled—which I so frequently and constantly pressed on those who asked him to go—is to me grief inexpressible! indeed, it has me made ill. . . . Would you express to your other sisters and your elder Brother my true sympathy, and what I do so keenly feel, the stain left upon England for your dear Brother's cruel, though heroic, fate!" In reply, Miss Gordon presented the Queen with her brother's Bible, which was placed in one of the corridors at Windsor, open, on a white satin cushion, and enclosed in a crystal case. In the meanwhile, Gordon was acclaimed in every newspaper as a national martyr; state services were held in his honour at Westminster and St. Paul's; £20,000 was voted to his family; and a great sum of money was raised by subscription to endow a charity in his memory. Wrath and execration fell, in particular, upon the head of Mr. Gladstone. He was little better than a murderer; he was a traitor; he was a heartless villain, who had been seen at the play on the very night when Gordon's death was announced. The storm passed; but Mr. Gladstone had soon to cope with a still more serious agitation. The cry was raised on every side that the national honour would be irreparably tarnished if the Mahdi were left in the peaceful possession of Khartoum, and that the Expeditionary Force should be at once employed to chastise the false prophet and to conquer the Sudan. But it was in vain that the imperialists clamoured, in vain that Lord Wolseley wrote several despatches, proving over and over again that to leave the Mahdi unconquered must involve the ruin of Egypt, in vain that Lord Hartington at last discovered that he had come to the same conclusion. The old man stood firm. Just then, a crisis with Russia on the Afghan frontier supervened; and Mr. Gladstone, pointing out that every available soldier might be wanted at any moment for a European war, withdrew Lord Wolseley and his army from Egypt. The Russian crisis disappeared. The Mahdi remained supreme lord of the Sudan.
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. Every one 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.
A. Biovès. Un Grand Aventurier.
Arthur Rimbaud. Lettres.