Story of General Gordon - Jeanie Lang


Gordon left Egypt in December 1879, "not a day too soon," the doctor said, for he was ill, not only from hard work, but from overwork.

The burden he had carried on his shoulders through those years was the burden of the whole of the Soudan.

He was ordered several months of complete rest. But those days of rest were only castles that Gordon had built in his day-dreams, when burning days and bitter nights had made him long for ease.

Early in 1880 he became Secretary to Lord Ripon, Viceroy of India. He remained only a few months in India, and then went to China, in answer to an urgent message from his old friend, Li Hung Chang.

China and Russia were on the brink of a great war. The Chinese courtiers wished to fight, but Li Hung Chang longed for peace.

"Come and help me to keep peace," he said to Gordon. And "Chinese Gordon" did not fail him.

"I cannot desert China in her present crisis," he wrote.

His stay in China was not long, but when he returned to England he had made peace between two empires.

He had only been home for a short time when again he was on the wing.

One day at the War Office he met a brother officer, who complained of his bad luck at having to go and command the Engineers at such a dull place as the Island of Mauritius.

"Oh, don't worry yourself," said Gordon, "I will go for you: Mauritius is as good for me as anywhere else."

For a year he remained there—a peaceful, if dull year, but in March 1882 he was made a Major-General, and relieved from his post.

For a short time he was in South Africa, trying to put to rights affairs between the Basutos—a black race—and the Government at the Cape. The Government, who had asked him to come, treated him badly, and even put his life in danger. He made them very angry by telling them that they were wholly in the wrong, and that he would not fight the Basutos, who had right and justice on their side; and, having failed in his mission, he returned to England.

To find the rest and peace he so much needed, Gordon now went to the Holy Land.

Long ago, the day before a brave warrior was made a knight, he spent the hours from sunset till dawn alone in a chapel beside his armour, watching and praying. This was called "watching his armour."

Gordon was "watching his armour" now. Often he saw no one for weeks at a time. He prayed much, and the books he read were his Bible, his Prayer Book, Thomas Kempis, and Marcus Aurelius. He wandered over the ground where the feet of the Master he served so well had trod before him. He was much in Jerusalem. He went to where the grey olives grow in the Garden of Gethsemane. His own Gethsemane was still to come.

In those quiet days he planned great work that he meant to do in the East End of London.

But there was other work for him to do. "We have nothing to do when the scroll of events is unrolled but to accept them as being for the best," he once wrote.

In December 1883 he suddenly returned to London, and soon it was known that he was going, at the request of the King of the Belgians, to the Congo, to help to fight the slavers there. "We will kill them in their haunts," said Gordon.

Meantime, fresh things had been happening in the Soudan.

When Gordon left Egypt in 1879, he said to an English official there: "I shall go, and you must get a man to succeed me—if you can. But I do not deny that he will want three qualifications which are seldom found together. First, he must have my iron constitution; for Khartoum is too much for any one who has not. Then, he must have my contempt for money; otherwise the people will never believe in his sincerity. Lastly, he must have my contempt for death."

Such a man was not found, and well might the black people long for the return of Gordon Pasha, the only Christian for whom they offered prayers at Mecca.

When he went away, under the rule of the greedy Egyptian pashas the slave trade began again. Once more packed caravans of wretched slaves dragged across the desert, and the land was full of misery and of rebellion.

In 1881 the discontented Soudanese found a leader.

From the island of Abbas on the Nile, Mahommed Ahmed, a dervish or holy man, from Dongola, proclaimed to the people of Egypt and of the Soudan that he was a prophet sent from heaven to save them from the cruelty of their rulers.

El Mahdi el Muntazer, or The Expected One, he called himself, and said he was immortal and would never die.

Soon he had many followers. He was attended by soldiers, who stood in his presence with drawn swords, and he had all the power of a king. Because he was Mahdi, his followers all had to obey him. And as he was Mahdi, he himself did exactly as he pleased, and what he liked to do was all that was wicked and cruel.

The Governor-General at Khartoum, seeing that the Mahdi was growing much too powerful, sent two companies of soldiers to take him prisoner. The Mahdists made a trap for them, fell on them with their swords and short stabbing spears, and destroyed them. More troops were sent, and also destroyed. Then came a small army, and of that army almost no man escaped.

"This is in truth our Deliverer, sent from Heaven," said the wild people of the Soudan, and they flocked in tribes to join the Mahdi.

It was not long before he owned a great army, and there have never been any soldiers who fought more fiercely and with more magnificent courage, and who feared death less, than those followers of a savage dervish.

The Mahdi laid siege to one of the chief cities of the Soudan. It fell before him, and sack and massacre followed.

An army of 11,000, under the command of a brave English officer, was then sent to attack the Mahdi. Like all the troops that had gone before them, they were led into a trap, and, out of 11,000 men, only eleven returned to Egypt.

From one victory to another went the Mahdi. His troops, armed with weapons taken from those they had slain, were rich with plunder.

Only two Englishmen were now left in the Soudan. At Khartoum were Colonel Coetlogan and Mr. Frank Power, correspondent of the Times.

Colonel Coetlogan telegraphed that it was hopeless for the Egyptian troops in the Soudan to hold out against the Mahdi. Soldiers were deserting daily, and people on every hand were joining the victorious army of the ruffian who claimed to have been sent from Heaven. Colonel Coetlogan begged for orders for the loyal troops to leave the Soudan and seek safety in Egypt.

Gordon believed that if the Soudan were given up to the Mahdi, there would presently be no limit to the tyrant's power. All the slavery and misery from which Gordon had tried to free the land would be worse than ever before. Egypt and Arabia might also, before long, take as their king the Mahdi who ruled the Soudan.

He held that at all costs Khartoum must be defended, and not handed over to the Mahdi, as Colonel Coetlogan and many others advised.

In England this belief of General Gordon, who knew more about the Soudan than any other living man, soon became known.

All his plans for going to the Congo were made, and he had gone to Brussels to take leave of the King of the Belgians when a telegram came to him from the English Government.

"Come back to London by evening train," it said. And, leaving all his luggage behind him, Gordon went.

Next morning he interviewed Lord Wolseley and some members of the Cabinet. He was asked if he would undertake a mission to the Soudan, to try to resettle affairs there, to bring away the Egyptian garrisons, and to divide, if possible, the country amongst the petty sultans whom he thought strong and wise enough to keep order.

Gordon was ready to go, and, to go at once. "I would give my life for these poor people of the Soudan," he said.

Late that afternoon he started.

Lord Wolseley has told the story of his going:—

"There he stood, in a tall silk hat and frock coat. I offered to send him anything he wanted.

" 'Don't want anything,' he said.

" 'But you've got no clothes.'

" 'I'll go as I am!' he said, and he meant it.

"He never had any money; he always gave it away. I know once he had 7000. It all went in the establishment of a ragged school for boys.

"I asked him if he had any cash.

" 'No,' was his calm reply. 'When I left Brussels I had to borrow 25 from the King to pay my hotel bill with.'

" 'Very well,' I said, 'I'll try and get you some, and meet you at the railway station with it.'

Charles Gordon


"I went round to the various clubs, and got 300 in gold. I gave the money to Colonel Stewart, who went with him: Gordon was not to be trusted with it. A week or so passed by, when I had a letter from Stewart. He said, 'You remember the 300 you gave me? When we arrived at Port Said a great crowd came out to cheer Gordon. Amongst them was an old Sheikh to whom Gordon was much attached, and who had become poor and blind. Gordon got the money, and gave the whole of it to him!' "

Before he started, he gave away some trinkets and things that he prized. It was as if he knew something of what lay before him.

At Charing Cross, the Duke of Cambridge (who had known him since he was a merry little boy at Corfu), Lord Wolseley, and others, came to bid him Godspeed.

He took with him Colonel Donald Stewart, whom he had chosen as his military secretary. Even in the rush before the train started he found time to say to one of Colonel Stewart's relations: "Be sure that he will not go into any danger which I do not share, and I am sure that when I am in danger he will not be far behind."

When, on January 18, 1884, Gordon went out to the Soudan like one of the Crusaders of old, all England was proud and glad.

In Egypt the people were gladder still.

Said the Arabs who had served under him: "The Mahdi's hordes will melt away like dew, and the Pretender will be left like a small man standing alone, until he is forced to flee back to his island of Abbas."

The Khedive again made him Governor-General of the Soudan, and, on the 26th of January 1884, Gordon started for Khartoum.

At Khartoum the people were in a panic. Colonel Coetlogan had his troops in readiness for flight. The rich people had already escaped. The poor who had not fled were in terror lest the Mahdi and his hosts might come any day and massacre them.

Across the desert spread the telegraph message: "General Gordon is coming to Khartoum."

"You are men, not women. Be not afraid; I am coming," followed Gordon's own message to the terrified garrison.

More swiftly than ever before, he crossed the lonely desert. Many skeletons of men and of camels, of oxen and of horses, now lay bleaching in the scorching sun on that dreary waste of treeless desolation.

On 18th February he reached Khartoum, and was greeted as their deliverer by the people, who flocked around him in hundreds, trying to kiss his hands and feet.

"I come without soldiers," he said to them, "but with God on my side, to redress the evils of the land."

At once he was ready, as in past days, to listen to tales of wrong from the poorest, and to try to set them right. He had all the whips and instruments of torture that Egyptian rulers had used piled up outside the Palace and burned. In the gaol he found two hundred men, women, and children lying in chains and in the most dismal plight. Some were innocent, many were prisoners of war. Of many their gaolers could give no reason for their being there. One woman had been imprisoned for fifteen years for a crime committed when she was a child.

Gordon had their chains struck off, and set them free. At nightfall he had a bonfire made of the prison, and men, women, and children danced round it in the red light of the flames, laughing and clapping their hands.

All the sick in the city he sent by the river down to Egypt.

In Khartoum itself, by the mercy of its Governor, peace soon reigned.

"Gordon is working wonders," was the message Mr. Power sent to England.

But the Mahdi's power was daily growing, and he feared no one. When Gordon sent him messages of peace he sent back insolent answers, calling upon Gordon to become a Mussulman, and to come and serve the Mahdi.

"If Egypt is to be quiet, the Mahdi must be smashed up," Gordon telegraphed to the English Government.

By means of his steamers he laid in stores. The defences of Khartoum he strengthened by mines and wire entanglements. He made some steamers bullet-proof, and on 24th August was able to write that they were doing "splendid work." His poor "sheep," as he called his troops, were being turned into tried soldiers. "You see," he wrote, "when you have steam on, the men can't run away, and must go into action."

Daily, from the top of a tower that he had built, he would gaze long with his glass down the river and into the country round. From there he could see if the Mahdi's armies were approaching, or if help were coming to save Khartoum and the Soudan. All the time he kept up the hearts of the people, and encouraged work at the school and everywhere else.

In his journal he wrote: "I toss up in my mind, whether, if the place is to be taken, to blow up the Palace and all in it, or else to be taken, and, with God's help, to maintain the faith, and if necessary suffer for it (which is most probable). The blowing up of the Palace is the simplest, while the other means long and weary humiliation and suffering of all sorts. I think I shall elect for the last, not from fear of death, but because the former is, in a way, taking things out of God's hands."

"Haunting the Palace are a lot of splendid hawks. I often wonder whether they are destined to pick out my eyes."

Gradually the Mahdi's forces were gathering round the city. Their drums rang in the ears of the besieged like the sound of a gathering storm. The outlying villages were besieged, and many of those villagers went over to the enemy. In some cases Gordon managed to drive back the rebels from the parts they attacked, and bring back arms and stores taken from them. More often the troops that were expected to defend Khartoum put Gordon to shame by their feebleness and cowardice, and suffered miserable defeat. Once, when attacking the Mahdists, five of Gordon's own commanders deserted, and helped to drive their own soldiers back to Khartoum.

As the year wore on, the siege came closer. Daily the Palace and the Mission House were shelled, and men were killed as they walked in the streets.

Money was scarce, and Gordon had little bank-notes made and used in place of money, so that business still went on. But food grew scarcer than money. Biscuits were the officers' chief food; dhoora that of the men.

Again and again news was sent to him: "The English are coming."

Again and again he found that the English army that was to relieve Khartoum had not yet started.

"The English are coming!" mocked the dervishes.

Day by day, Gordon's glass would sweep the steely river and the yellow sand for the first sight of the men who were coming to save him and his people.

At last, with sinking heart, he wrote: "The Government having abandoned us, we can only trust in God."

"When our provisions, which we have, at a stretch, for two months, are eaten, we must fall," wrote, to the Times,&nbps; Frank Power, a brave man and a true friend of Gordon.

In April the telegraph wires were cut by the enemy. After that, news from England was only rarely to be had, and only through messengers who were not often to be trusted.

Still hoping that an English army was coming, Gordon determined to send his steamers half way to meet it. It meant that his garrison would be weaker, should the Mahdi make any great attack, but Gordon felt that England could  not fail him, and that in a very short time the steamers would return, bringing a splendid reinforcement.

On September loth, three steamers, with Colonel Stewart and Frank Power in command, sailed down the Nile.

Gordon was left the only Englishman in Khartoum.

"I am left alone . . . but not alone," he wrote.

The steamer with Stewart and Power on board ran aground. The crew was treacherously taken by a native sheikh, and Stewart, Power, and almost all the others were cruelly murdered and their bodies thrown into the Nile.

The news of the death of his two friends, and the ruin of his plan to hasten on the relief of Khartoum, cut Gordon's brave heart to the quick.

Before Mr. Power left, Gordon had given him a little book that he loved. It is called The Dream of S. Gerontius. Gordon had marked many passages in it. Here are some:

"Pray for me, O my friends."

"Now that the hour is come, my fear is fled . . ."

"Into thy hands

Lord, into Thy hands . . ."

So it seemed that even then Gordon knew that Death was drawing near him, and was greeting with a fearless face the martyrdom that he was soon to endure.

Yet all the while he never wavered, and his bravery seemed to give courage to the feeblest hearted.

He who had never taken any pride in decorations or in medals—save one—tried to cheer his soldiers by having a decoration made and distributed—"three classes: gold, silver, pewter."

A Circassian in the Egyptian Service, speaking of Gordon in after years, said: "He never seemed to sleep. He was always working and looking after the people."

In the early days of those dark months, Frank Power had written of him that all day he was cheering up others, but that through the night he heard his footfall overhead, backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, sleepless, broken in heart, bearing on his soul the burden of those he had no power to save.

At dawn he slept. All day he went the rounds, cheering up the people, seeing to the comfort of every one, feeding the starving as well as he could. For two days at a time he would go without food, that his portion might go to others. They were living on roots and herbs when the siege was done.

All the night he spent on the top of his tower, watching and praying. Many times in the day did men see the spare figure standing on that yellow-white tower, staring, with eyes that grew tired with longing, into the far-away desert, looking for the help that never came.

But, after many delays, an English army was actually on the march.

It was a race of about 1800 miles up the Nile from the sea—a race between Victory and the Salvation of the beleaguered city and its defender on one side, and Defeat, Death, and the Mahdi on the other.

Lord Wolseley, who commanded the expedition, offered 100 to the regiment that covered the distance first.

Some fierce battles were fought on the way, and many brave lives were lost.

On 14th December 1884, Gordon wrote to his sister: "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 am quite happy, thank God, and, like Lawrence, I have 'tried  to do my duty.' "

On the same day he wrote in his journal "I have done my best for the honour of our country. Good-bye.—C. G. Gordon."

The last message of all was one that bore no date, and was smuggled out of Khartoum in a cartridge case by one who had been his servant:—

"What I have gone through I cannot describe. The Almighty God will help me."

In the camp of the Mahdi lay an Austrian prisoner, Slatin Pasha.

On the 15th of January 1885 he heard 'vigorous firing from Khartoum. Gordon and his garrison were preventing the Mahdists from keeping in their possession a fort which they had just taken.

In the days that followed, the firing went on, but Gordon's ammunition was nearly done, and he and his men were weak and spent with hunger.

On the night of the 25th Slatin heard "the deafening discharge of thousands of rifles and guns; this lasted for a few minutes, then only occasional shots were heard, and now all was quiet again."

He lay wide awake, wondering if this was the great attack on Khartoum that the Mahdi had always planned.

A few hours later, three black soldiers entered the prison bearing something in a bloody cloth. They threw it at the prisoner's feet, and he saw that it was the head of General Gordon.

When the relieving army reached Khartoum, they found the Mahdi's banners of black and green flaunting from its walls, and the guns that had so bravely defended it turned against them. They had come too late.

A traitor in the camp had hastened the end, and Gordon had fallen, hacked to pieces, while trying to rally his troops.

For hours after he fell, massacre and destruction went on in the city.

Fourteen years later, Lord Kitchener and his soldiers avenged that massacre, and marched into Khartoum.

The Mahdi was dead. He who boasted that he was immortal had died from poison given him by a woman whom he had cruelly used. The Mahdi's successors had fallen before a conquering English army.

When the Mahdists sacked and burned the Governor's Palace, they forgot to destroy the trees and the rose bushes that Gordon with his own hands had planted.

And in a new and lovely garden, beside a new Palace from which a brave Scottish soldier rules the Soudan, the roses grow still, fragrant and beautiful.

Khartoum is a great town now, peaceful and prosperous.

The Gordon College, where the boys of the Soudan are taught all that English schoolboys learn, is the monument that England gave to a hero. A statue of him stands in one of the squares, and to it came a poor old black woman to whom Gordon had been very kind.

"God be praised!" she cried, "Gordon Pasha has come again!"

For a whole day she sat beside the statue, longing for a look from him who had never before passed her without a friendly nod.

"Is he tired? or what is it?" she asked.

After many visits, she came home one evening quite happy.

"The Pasha has nodded his head to me!" she said.

And so, in the hearts of the people of the Soudan, Gordon Pasha still lives.

Winds carry across the desert the scent of the roses that he planted, and that drop their fragrant leaves near where his blood was shed.

And to the Eastern country for whose sake he died, and to our own land for whose honour his life was given, he has left a memory that must be like the roses—for ever fragrant, and for ever sweet.