Gladstone was a strong man, but he was now over seventy, and the wear and tear of his life was tremendous. He had been through the Midlothian campaign—no light work for a man of his years; he had arranged his new Cabinet, and stood through the strain of the first session, spending his evenings and a great part of his nights in the heated atmosphere of the House of Commons. He was so "terribly in earnest" in everything, that the strain was all the greater.
At length the time came when Mr. Gladstone had to confess himself beaten. On the third of August 1880 the news thrilled through England that the Prime Minister was ill. The next news was that he was suffering from high fever, and was lying seriously ill at Downing Street. Sympathy flowed in front all sides, from the Queen downwards to the poorest in the land. The illness of Mr. Gladstone formed the topic of conversation through those long August days in London. But with his great strength and tough constitution he made a good recovery, and by the end of the month he was strong enough to go for a trip round England, as the guest of Sir Donald Currie, in one of the great mail steamers that ply between England and the Cape, the Grantully Castle.
There were great rejoicings at the Premier's recovery, and the following lines from Punch, of this date, are typical of the country's feelings:—
The Grantully Castle, with Mr. and Mrs. Gladstone and several members of the family on board steamed round the Devonshire coast to Plymouth, and on to Kingstown, where the Premier was received with loud cheers by an enthusiastic crowd. The streets of Dublin were lined with people, all anxious to catch a glimpse of the statesman who had done his best to do them justice by his legislation.
One is reminded of the conversation between the American and Englishman on the subject of the Prime Minister going over to America.
"What reception would you give Mr. Gladstone in your country?" asked the Englishman.
"He would never be allowed to land." was the answer. "What do you mean?" asked the Englishman, somewhat puzzled.
"Because when the time of his arrival was known there would be a solid block of men that would stretch right back from New York to Chicago, and it would be impossible so to break it up as to give Mr. Gladstone room to get on shore."
Everywhere the Premier was received with enthusiasm. He received addresses, he spoke to deputations, he seemed in the best of health and spirits. The Grantully Castle returned home in September. His speech on landing savoured of light-heartedness:—
"You have only to look round amongst us to see if the excursion has done us any good. I remember a very famous caricature, which perhaps none of you have seen or heard of before. This caricature, in one part represented an Englishman when he was setting out on his travels—pale, wan, and meagre; while the other part showed him wheeled in a wheelbarrow because he was too fat to walk. We have not had time to undergo that change; but I believe there are none of us who are not better for our delightful change.
Well indeed for him that he had had a good rest and change, for the work before him was almost terrific in its immensity.
Mr. Gladstone had inherited responsibilities from the last government which were by no means easy to settle. One of these cropped up in the very early days of his Premiership, and his settlement of the Transvaal question gave rise to tremendous controversy and has never been forgiven him by a large number of English people. When Mr. Gladstone came into power he found the Transvaal seething with a sense of injustice for the action of the of the last government— the hoisting of the British flag over their land by Sir Theophilus Shepstone in 1877. They had been assured at the time that the Transvaal for the future would remain an integral portion of Her Majesty's dominions in South Africa," and that "so long as the sun shines the Transvaal would remain British territory." But the sun kept on shining, and the Transvaal, under Gladstone's Administration, ceased to be British territory.
In vain deputations of Boers had come over to England to plead for deliverance from what they called an act of tyranny. But now in Mr. Gladstone they found a sympathizer. He openly denounced the policy that had led to the annexation of the Transvaal. He described the Boers as "a people vigorous, obstinate, and tenacious in character even as we are ourselves."
Before the new Government had been in power nine months, the Transvaal was up in arms, declaring herself once more a republic. Still adhering outwardly to the policy of the last Administration, British troops were sent against them. The disaster of Majuba Hill is a well-known story: our troops fled, our officers were killed, our soldiers shot down by the Boers. There was an outcry in England for troops to be sent to reduce the Transvaal Republic to humiliation, to wipe out the disgrace of Majuba Hill.
But Mr. Gladstone thought otherwise. He did not see any credit or glory in killing a large number of Boers in order to satisfy our heroic sense of honour. The glory of England, according to him, was that England should prove herself to be just, and fair, and Christian. It had been, he thought, an act of injustice to seize the Transvaal, and therefore he gave them back their independence. He sent out Sir Evelyn Wood with orders to come to honourable terms of peace with the Boers, which he did, and the Transvaal Republic was once more independent.
"He had asked." said Mr. McCarthy, sparking of Mr. Gladstone at this time—"he had asked of his own mind and heart and conscience what was the right thing to do, and he had done it. It was a brave act. But it was an act only in keeping with the whole of Mr. Gladstone's career."