Eminent Victorians
Lytton Strachey

Part 6 out of 6

uneasy respect.

He spent long hours upon the palace roof, gazing northwards; but
the veil of mystery and silence was unbroken. In spite of the
efforts of Major Kitchener, the officer in command of the
Egyptian Intelligence Service, hardly any messengers ever reached
Khartoum; and when they did, the information they brought was
tormentingly scanty. Major Kitchener did not escape the
attentions of Gordon's pen. When news came at last, it was
terrible: Colonel Stewart and his companions had been killed. The
Abbas, after having passed uninjured through the part of the
river commanded by the Mahdi's troops, had struck upon a rock;
Colonel Stewart had disembarked in safety; and, while he was
waiting for camels to convey the detachment across the desert
into Egypt, had accepted the hospitality of a local Sheikh.
Hardly had the Europeans entered the Sheikh's hut when they were
set upon and murdered; their native followers shared their fate.
The treacherous Sheikh was an adherent of the Mahdi, and to the
Mahdi all Colonel Stewart's papers, filled with information as to
the condition of Khartoum, were immediately sent. When the first
rumours of the disaster reached Gordon, he pictured, in a flash
of intuition, the actual details of the catastrophe. 'I feel
somehow convinced,' he wrote, they were captured by treachery...
Stewart was not a bit suspicious (I am made up of it). I can see
in imagination the whole scene, the Sheikh inviting them to
land... then a rush of wild Arabs, and all is over!' 'It is very
sad,' he added, 'but being ordained, we must not murmur.' And yet
he believed that the true responsibility lay with him; it was the
punishment of his own sins. 'I look on it,' was his unexpected
conclusion, 'as being a Nemesis on the death of the two Pashas.'

The workings of his conscience did indeed take on surprising
shapes. Of the three ex-governors of Darfur, Bahr-el-Ghazal, and
Equatoria, Emin Pasha had disappeared, Lupton Bey had died, and
Slatin Pasha was held in captivity by the Mahdi. By birth an
Austrian and a Catholic, Slatin, in the last desperate stages of
his resistance, had adopted the expedient of announcing his
conversion to Mohammedanism, 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 envoye deux
lettres, sans avoir recu une reponse 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 empeche votre excellence de
m'ecrir une reponse que je sais quoi faire. JE VOUS PRIE,
Excellence, de m'honore avec une reponse. P.S. Si votre
Excellence ont peutetre entendu que j'ai fait quelque chose
contre l'honneur d'un officier et cela vous empeche de m'ecrir,
je vous prie de me donner l'occasion de me defendre, et jugez
apres la verite.' 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. Clavier 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 Jesus 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 desormais le commerce de toutes ces
cotes. Ils ont voulu tout remanier et ils sont arrives a faire
pire que les Egyptiens et les Turcs, ruines par eux. Leur Gordon
est un idiot, leur Wolseley un ane, et toutes leurs entreprises
une suite insensee d'absurdites et de depredations.' 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--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 around 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 continuous 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 around
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 200 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. G0RD0N.

'You send me no information, though you have lots of money. C. 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.

'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 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 1,100
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
reconnoitering the country, and strengthening the position of the
camp. 0n 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 around 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 cursed 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 made me 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 dispatches, 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 forever 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 20,000 Arabs, a vast addition to the
British Empire, and a step in the Peerage for Sir Evelyn Baring.


General Gordon. Reflections in Palestine. Letters. Khartoum
E. Hake. The Story of Chinese Gordon.
H. W. Gordon. Events in the Life of C. G. Gordon.
D. C. Boulger. Life of General Gordon.
Sir W. Butler. General Gordon.
Rev. R. H. Barnes and C. E, Brown. Charles George Gordon: A
A. Bioves. Un Grand Aventurier.
Li Hung Chang. Memoirs.*
Colonel Chaille-Long. My Life in Four Continents.
Lord Cromer. Modern Egypt.
Sir R. Wingate. Mahdiism and the Sudan.
Sir R. Slatin. Fire and Sword in the Sudan.
J. Ohrwalder. Ten Years of Captivity in the Mahdi's Camp.
C. Neufeld. A Prisoner of the Khaleefa.
Wilfrid Blunt. A Secret History of the English Occupation of
Gordon at Khartoum.
Winston Churchill. The River War.
F. Power. Letters from Khartoum.
Lord Morley. Life of Gladstone.
George W. Smalley. Mr Gladstone. Harper's Magazine, 1898.
B. Holland. Life of the Eighth Duke of Devonshire.
Lord Fitzmaurice. Life of the Second Earl Granville.
S. Gwynn and Gertrude Tuckwell. Life of Sir Charles Dilke.
Arthur Rimbaud. Lettres.
G. F. Steevens. With Kitchener to Khartoum.

* The authenticity of the Diary contained in this book has been
disputed, notably by Mr. J. 0. P. Bland in his Li Hung Chang.
(Constable, 1917)


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