The Death of Gordon
A Bronsed Pasha lies a prisoner, heavily chained, in the camp of a fanatical brotherhood pitched at the junction of the Blue and White Niles at Omdurman.
He is loyal to England and he has been made to suffer for his loyalty. He has been disturbed by the sound of heavy cannonading and fighting.
Now, over the river at Khartoum, there is silence, deep and ominous. Presently it is broken by wild barbaric yells, the terrible cries of savages maddened with lust for humaa blood. All through the night the fearful tumult continues.
In the red dawn the prisoner sees through the flap of his tent the victors returning from the night's wild orgy. Some of the exultant slave-guards turn aside and draw near to the enchained Pasha.
They are carrying something important wrapped in a bloodstained cloth. Proudly they uncover their prize a"nd invite the prisoner to recognise the severed head of his uncle, The Unbeliever.
Slatin Pasha, an Anglo-Austrian, gazes sadly on the well-known face of the Great One who had been his friend, the fine blue eyes still half-open, the short beard and the hair of his head now turned almost white. Accustomed though he is to gruesome sights he has to make a great effort to master his emotion:
"But what of it?" he presently asks. "A brave soldier has fallen at his post. Happy is he: his sufferings are over!"
Eleven years later that same prisoner is in very different surroundings. He is in England, received in audience by Queen Victoria, in whose ears he pours his tales of Sudan horrors, including that experience when he was shown the severed head of her favourite soldier, General Gordon, the warrior-saint.
Gordon, the soldier-martyr of Khartoum!
England has produced many great generals of whom she is justifiably proud; will she ever produce another who will command quite such a place in the admiration and affection of monarch and people as that held so strongly and so in-contestably by this lonely and tragic hero?
White Pasha Gordon was England's most romantic figure of the great days of Queen Victoria. He was so many things which make a man a popular hero. There was romance about his simplicity, his tenderness, his sincerity arid his amazing courage. He told one of his admirers in Khartoum that when his Maker was serving out fear he was overlooked until there was no more fear left to be shared. The moral force of the man was tremendous. One of the greatest surprises that he gave to Egypt was when he contemptuously ejected the men who dared to approach him with a bribe. His first job in Egypt was to reduce his own salary from £10,000 to £2,000 because he knew that the country could not afford to pay it, and that it must be raised by unjust taxes en the poor.
Gordon was England's crusading warrior and grand adventurer. Unfortunately for him he was one of those high-coloured adventurers whom Gladstone mistrusted. Yet he was our finest soldier and perhaps our most outstanding man of the past century. He was a genius though he disclaimed it. He denied that he possessed the intellectual qualities requisite for greatness; he declared too that he lacked the finesse of the diplomatist. He did unconventional things, but he also did exploits. He annoyed and distracted his superiors by telegraphing to them the ideas that came into his mind, as they came. And as these ideas were succeeded by fresh ones, sometimes inconsistent with those he had already sent, they thought him to be rash, unreliable and even insubordinate.
But he was a great general and a greater man. In China he was victorious; he would have saved Khartoum if his request for only a dozen or twenty red coats had been granted in time, as it might easily have been. He was surrounded by clouds of clever, tricky, daring, religious fanatics, and he was more clever, more vigorous, more courageous and more deeply spiritual than all. While he lived and wherever he went he was adulated by his own people and, strangely enough, by other Europeans; he was worshipped by the medley of native races whom he wisely ruled and whose lot he sought to improve, and especially by the multitude of slaves whom he liberated. When a subordinate mutinied he sped across the desert at the head of his camel corps, and then strode alone into the enemy headquarters and down their lines, giving orders to the sullen troops. They were so astounded by his cool daring that, instead of assassinating him, they quietly obeyed. Later, when the rebels had swelled in numbers to over 100,000 he seriously contemplated a repetition of the exploit. At the end he died by walking straight on to the Arabs' spearheads.
Gordon feared God, never any other. By his tragic death he threw his Queen into a rage with Gladstone and his Cabinet, he plunged the Empire into mourning and sent a shudder of horror round the civilised world.
There can only be one Gordon. He stands solitary, still the outstanding figure in Egypt, just as real to the mind of the traveller as the silent Sphinx or the Great Pyramid. Travel through Egypt and the Sudan to-day and the White Pasha will invisibly accompany you wherever you go. Though slain by whirling fanatical hordes of dervishes, drunk with blood and desire for the joys of Paradise, his honoured name is still whispered everywhere, and his mighty presence seems still to be gliding down the wondrous Nile in his "armoured penny steamboats" or speeding on his white camels across the desert on one of his lightning offensives against the slave-dealers and rebel tribes of the Sudan.
Just as there can never be another man quite like Gordon, there can never be again quite such a tragedy-drama as that which allowed him to go alone to his fate in picturesque Khartoum, capital of the Sudan.
One of his remembered sayings was: "Babylon was taken by the River Euphrates, and through the rising of the Tigris Nineveh fell. Euphrates and Tigris caused the fall of two Empires." He did not then foresee that within a year another of the great rivers of the world would be the cause of the fall of a famous city, and of the death of himself, its gallant defender.
At that time he was in Palestine, freshly returned from Africa, and quietly sorrowing because England apparently had no further need of his services. But he remembered St. Paul and was content. For St. Paul, who served the same Master as Gordon, had been kept for two years in a prison in that country before he was allowed to proceed to Rome to preach the Gospel before Caesar.
Gordon spent nearly a year in Palestine searching out the footsteps of his Master. He wandered about Jerusalem, surveyed with the eye of a critical engineer the Temple area and the reputed sites of the Crucifixion and the Entombment; and he evolved a theory of the site of the Holy Sepulchre which is probably correct. Gordon, as an Evangelical, believed in the Bible from cover to cover, and constantly read it. He was a man of prayer. The story of Gordon praying in his tent with the handkerchief outside warning everybody that he must not be disturbed has become legendary. He decided that Christ's Second Advent would take place on the Mount of Olives.
Gordon visited Mount Carmel, stood pensive where Elijah slew the priests of Baal and at the rock where Moses drew water for the thirsty Israelites; and he conceived a plan to pass the Mediterranean through a part of Palestine and so open a new waterway to the Red Sea. At one time he wondered vaguely if God had chosen him to restore Israel's old taskmaster Egypt to her place among the great nations. Happily he was unconscious that another religious, destined to play opposite to him in the great drama of Khartoum, had other dreams that would cancel his own.
This man, Mohammed Ahmed, like Gordon, was a mystic, and he had retired into seclusion to cultivate the religious life. He fasted and prayed as Gordon did in Khartoum. The day would come when he would send to Gordon an infuriating challenge to forsake Christianity and acknowledge the "true faith of Islam." By that time Gordon's vanquished friend, Slatin Pasha, would have obeyed the summons, declaring what no torture would have extracted from Gordon that "there is one God and Mohammed is His Prophet."
Mohammed Ahmed, having gone into retreat on an Island in the Nile, prayed and fasted, and pondered over the wrongs suffered by the Faithful. He meditated on the conquests of the Prophet and of Genghis Khan, the Scourge of God, and awaited a revelation, which came in due course, as it usually does to those who are determined to get it. In the night watches, said Mohammed Ahmed, the Prophet came and communed with him. Islam had been promised a Messiah or Guide, a Messenger or Mahdi, who would convert the whole Infidel world to the true faith. He was a Mohammed, a son of the Prophet, and he was the chosen - Mahdi. His age was 40, the traditional age for the Messenger of God. He would lead all true Believers to victory and would regenerate the land which the foreigner and the Infidel had despoiled. He would sweep away the false followers of the Prophet, the renegade Turks and Egyptians; he would take Khartoum, Cairo, the Holy Cities of Mecca and Jerusalem, Constantinople; and then he would sweep through Europe.
The Mahdi forestalled our Fascists and Nazis, by giving his followers, as uniform, a cotton smock or jibbah; he styled them Dervishes, or poor men, which is the meaning of the word.
The Mahdi was taller and more powerfully-built than Gordon. His beard was black and carefully trimmed; his face was a handsome brown, his head noble, his eyes dark and smiling. Possessed of a voice that was pleasing and eloquent the Mahdi would use it to inflame the Arabs to a religious frenzy. As he rode down the lines of his followers some of the Dervishes declared that they saw the Prophet riding by his side. When a cloud overshadowed him the Dervishes saw in it the outspread wings of angels who had been sent to give their leader shade from the burning sun. Though the Mahdi's uncle had been merely one of Gordon's servants, and he himself, though a son of a priest, had been so unimportant that he had found no opening in his own town, he soon achieved an ascendancy over the crowds who flocked to him in his retreat. His devotees smothered his hands with kisses, they vowed obedience to him in everything, and they submitted to terrible punishments, including the severance of hands and feet, and death, for acts of disobedience.
Astounding stories of the Mahdi began to percolate through the Sudan. He could work miracles, read the future, ascend into Heaven, and he had done so. He preached poverty and purity, but neither he nor his followers consistently practised these virtues. It became known that the Mahdi and his inner circle of khalifas and emirs indulged in the most frightful debaucheries. When Khartoum was fallen and Gordon was dead, loot and rapine were practised by all.
The Mahdi, though probably genuine at first, was not above hoodwinking the Faithful. To make himself weep as he read the sacred word he would put pepper into his fingernails; to enhance the lustre of his eyes and the beauty of his countenance, he would paint himself like a chorus girl. He was not averse from the use of scent, but this was a secret. Those who attended him said that he exhaled a delicious perfume which they believed to be the odour of Paradise. Nor were they surprised at this; it was only to be expected from one who communed with the Prophet, with the angels of God and with the Creator.
So long as the fanatic kept himself in his island retreat the Government at Khartoum were unconcerned. The Governor-General at that time was Rauof Pasha who had been installed after Gordon's resignation and return to England. He sent out for particulars of this Mahdi who wras now touring through Kordofan and was told that he was only a madman. But he was too sane to obey the order to come to Khartoum, knowing that if he did so, he would not leave it alive. For the dusky Rauof had not the tender heart of Gordon.
When soldiers came from Khartoum to take the Mahdi by force, he strode forth, faced them, mid defiantly exclaimed: "By the Grace of Allah and His Prophet I am master of this country and never shall I go to Khartoum to justify myself." His followers drove the soldiers away.
This picturesque defiance meant war; it also meant that Gordon would one day be recalled to Khartoum to deal with a situation that was becoming increasingly desperate.
Before the day when the Mahdi appeared with a vast army at the gates of Khartoum he had given many further proofs that he was not a madman. For he had aroused most of the Sudan and enlisted it under his banner. His military skill may not have been masterly; but he had put courage, the courage that comes from religious fervour, into the breast of his followers; and for a time it seemed that the spirit of the conquering Prophet had entered into him.
The Mahdi succeeded in everything that he attempted. His Baggara horsemen - the Red Indians of the Sudan - gained victory after victory over the troops sent out from Khartoum to crush him. Eventually, by the capture of El Obeid, he established himself as the ruler of Kordofan, an important province. Only one more victory was necessary and the capital would be within his reach.
Khartoum grew more and more alarmed. Col. Hicks, a retired British officer, was put at the head of a force 10,000 strong and sent out to meet the Mahdi. Khartoum waited for news of this ragged badly trained army. Presently the news was whispered in the bazaars that he and his army had met the terrible Mahdi, and that they would never return. It was true - the 10,000 had been annihilated.
The city becomes panic-stricken. Who shall deliver them from the Terror of the Desert? A whisper is heard. It runs fast through the city and the excitement is electrical.
"Gordon is coming back to Khartoum!"
Gordon, who had done wonders for the city during his term of office as Governor-General, is returning to her in her hour of need. England is sending her greatest name as a pledge of future action. Who cares now for the Khedive or Cairo? Gordon is coming. That means British redcoats, who will stem the fury of the Mahdi as Khartoum's ill-trained native cowards could never do. They will exterminate him and his followers.
The besieged defenders of Lucknow waited no more eagerly for Havelock than did the medley of coloured inhabitants of Khartoum wait for the arrival of Gordon. The "deliverer" did not arrive until Feb. 18, 1884, and when he came he came alone! But what did that matter. Gordon had a habit of doing by himself things which often took many troops to achieve. What about that day when he walked into the rebels' camp and made them obey his orders?
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