Eminent Victorians
by Lytton Strachey
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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. 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. G0RD0N.

'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 Journals. 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 Sketch. 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 Egypt. 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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