In Memoriam

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In Memoriam

W. T. Stead (The Pall Mall Gazette, February 11, 1885)

Cruel suspense has given place to sad certainty. All conjectures as to the survival of General Gordon must now be put on one side. The news published this morning appears to place beyond any doubt the fact that he fell stabbed by traitors in the midst of his faithful troops when Khartoum was betrayed.

The end came as he expected it. Treachery achieved what overwhelming force had failed to effect, and the forces of the Madhi, admitted within the fortification by one of Gordon’s Pashas, made short work of all who would not espouse their cause. The Notables were cut down to a man, the faithful remnant of Gordon’s garrison seem to have been killed fighting hard to the last. Their children were spitted on the Arab spears; their women – but there is no need to detail the ghastly incidents of the sack of a city by the savage hordes of the African desert. The streets of the city, we are told, ran with blood. “The flame of the sword and the lightning of the spear” shone in the doomed city for a space, and when our relieving steamer arrived there was a “multitude of slain and there was no end of their corpses.” The terrible formula which summed up our policy in the Soudan has been as terribly fulfilled. The garrisons have been speared, and over the whole of the Soudan the Mahdi has now passed his bloody sponge. Nothing has happened that was not foreseen. Far be it from us to profane such a moment as this with any vain recriminations. In the sanctuary of our sorrow such revilings jar like the hootings of some ill-omened bird as we weep over the grave of our dead. But it is precisely because he realized so vividly the approach of that savage orgie of carnage and of lust that General Gordon twelve months ago pleaded so earnestly against the evacuation of the Soudan, and it was in order to stave off this great tragedy that he consented to go to Khartoum to do what he could. He has done what he could, and the catastrophe which, with such heroic courage and such marvellous resource, he has averted for a whole year, has at last overwhelmed him and those whom he sought to save. “Red ruin” has fallen upon Khartoum – her children have been dashed to pieces in the midst of her, the women have become a prey to the spoiler, and the few brave men who through all the long siege have endured faithful to the end in spite of sore privation, constant attacks, and a haunting sense of desertion and despair, have paid the penalty of their loyalty with their lives. The telegrams from Korti this morning read like the scrolls of the Hebrew prophets on which were written the judgment of God upon the cities of old time. All is over, and the curtain falls upon a scene of bloodshed and desolation, only to be realized by those who remember the carnage of Cawnpore or the more recent horrors of Batak.

Khartoum has been evacuated by massacre, and with Khartoum General Gordon has perished. Of that there can be no longer any doubt. A career of unsullied splendour has now culminated in a death worthy of the life which it closed. “The angels of Martyrdom and Victory,” said Mazzini, “are twin sisters, for Martyrdom is also the benediction of Heaven.” It is difficult for those of us who knew Gordon as a man and as a friend to speak without tear-dimmed eyes and choking utterance of him whom we shall now see no more. None of those who know that noble heart, so tender and true, who have felt the warm grasp of that generous hand now cold in death, who have been gladdened by the radiance of his ready smile, or inspired to striving after nobler things by the glowing ardour of his simple faith, can dissociate their keen sense of personal bereavement from those more general considerations which must necessarily be before the nation to-day. There was no one who knew him but loved him. So brave he was and so gentle, so great and yet so humble, inspired at once by the sublimest ideals and yet ever alive to the humorous underside of the world’s affairs. No woman could have been more tenderly sympathetic, no paladin more utterly fearless. He realized more than almost any man the ideal of the little child of whom it is said, “Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” The transient sincerity and genuineness of soul, the direct frankness of speech, the utter absence of make-believe, even his tempestuous gusts of wrath at injustice and deceit, and the unreserved penitence with which he would confess his faults, were all childlike to the last degree. But of all these things the outer world knows little, and it is perhaps almost a sacrilege upon the privacy of sorrow to advert even in passing to these touching memories. But even in the midst of our grief, as “with uncovered head we salute the sacred dead who went and who return not,” we are thrilled with a proud joy as we reflect upon the splendour of that stainless life now crowned with the aureole of martyrdom. Even with that terrible telegram of massacre and treachery before their eyes there is not one of his friends who for a moment regrets that General Gordon was sent to the Soudan to suffer and to die in the defence of Khartoum. Looking back over the whole of the dark, confused welter of bloodshed and blunder that filled last year, the mission of General Gordon stands out distinct and clear as the one great achievement of England for which every one has indeed good cause to thank God and take courage. Of all the gifts of Heaven to earth, the hero is infinitely the greatest In him the race sees incarnate its highest ideals, and his existence is in itself an inspiration. For some time past it had seemed as if England were indeed in that decadence which Prince Bismark believes has already overtaken her. Her old ideals had been obscured. The call of duty no longer rang in our ears as the clarion of God-wrapped in ease and luxury and in unbelief we were losing faith both in England and in all that had made England great. The individual seemed so helpless. Belief in the transcendent importance of a single brave man’s intense conviction had burned low. Patriotism seemed in danger of being sacrificed to party. And even in the midst of that clay of darkness and gloom, when Ministers and Opposition alike seemed indifferent to the fate of thousands doomed by our policy to massacre and outrage, a man was raised up who for twelve long months displayed in the sight of the whole world the heroic virtues which our gainsayers believed were all but extinct. On the ramparts of the beleaguered capital of the Libyan Desert, as on some vast world-pedestal, General Gordon has demonstrated before all men the might that lies in the arm of a single Englishman who has faith in his country and his God. In him were incarnate the characteristics of the heroes of our national story. The chivalry of Arthur, of the Table Round, the indomitable valour and saintly life of the Great Alfred, and the religious convictions of Oliver the Protector – all were united in that slight form, now, alas! laid low in death, upon which, with ever increasing fascination, the eyes of the world have so long been fixed. The inspiration of his great example, now consecrated by his death, will not be lost upon the nation which, alas! too late, poured forth its millions into the desert sands in order to fulfil the duty to whose supreme claims he has sacrificed his life.

It is a great world-sorrow that has overtaken us to-day. Far away in the distant East the Chinese will suspend for a moment their preparations against their foreign foes in order to fire a funeral salute to the memory of our heroic dead. But in the midst of our sorrow let no thought of anger obtrude towards those whose blind fury slew the man whose supreme desire was to save them from the oppressor. If in the defence of England’s honour it is necessary to go to Khartoum, it is not to avenge Gordon’s death. Over and over again he said before he went out on his last great mission: “I would give my life for these poor people of the Soudan. How can I help feeling for them? All the time I was there, every night I used to pray that God would lay upon me the burden of their sins, and crush me with it instead of these poor sheep. I really wished it and longed for it.”

And now that his prayer and longing have been realized, it is not for us to justify any operations, which we may have to undertake against the Mahdi to atone for our slackness, by pleas of vengeance. If Lord Wolseley goes to Khartoum he will not go on a mission of vengeance on General Gordon’s account; nor ought he to go to Khartoum at all unless we are to establish some decent government there for “the poor Soudanese.” Not from the Soudanese, but from us and from our children, will be exacted the penalty for the sacrifice of General Gordon. He has fallen a victim to the short-sighted selfishness which has characterized much of our recent policy in the Soudan and elsewhere, If we now begin a new policy, with Gordon’s watchwords of Duty and Responsibility, and carry it out in Gordon’s spirit, even in this hour of wrath and trouble and distress, we may discern the dawn of a new day, in which, though Gordon be no more, Gordon’s high faith and noble courage will mould the future destinies of our land.