Justice for Bulgaria
While Mr. Gladstone was thus living in retirement, at Hawarden, among his books and his friends, England was being stirred to the depths by the course affairs were taking in the East.
In 1872 an insurrection had broken out in Bulgaria. It had been suppressed by the Turkish Government, but a hideous massacre had followed. Rumours reached Constantinople of the wholesale slaughter of women and children in Bulgaria. The Constantinople correspondent of The Daily News investigated the evidence and found it too true. A few days later accounts were laid before the British public of the deeds, which have since been known as the "Bulgarian atrocities."
Mr. Disraeli, the Prime Minister, treated the terrible stories with a levity which jarred harshly on the ears of almost all his listeners. It was plain he did not believe them, or attach the slightest importance to them. But the subject was too serious for such light-minded treatment.
While Mr. Disraeli sneered at the rumours, and the leader of the Liberal party, Lord Hartington, was weighing carefully the situation, the English people rose in disgust at the accounts of horrible cruelty which reached them. The agitation was as an "uprising of the English people." But it was an uprising without a leader. They were as sheep having no shepherd. Where was their leader? Where—
Then it was that Gladstone "rushed forth" from his peaceful library at Hawarden, and, "flinging aside" his books, sounded a tremendous note upon his bugle-horn. He addressed meetings, he wrote pamphlets, he cried on Christian England to act promptly, and end these horrors: he denounced the crimes of Turkey, and the policy that could support Turkey, with an eloquence that for a time set England aflame.
This was the substance of his cry, and his inspiring influence soon made itself felt both inside and outside the House.
"The reason of all this passion," says Mr. Russell, "is not difficult to discover. Mr. Gladstone is a humane man: the Turkish tyranny is founded on cruelty. He is a worshipper of freedom: the Turk is a slave-owner. He is a lover of peace: the Turk is nothing if not a soldier. He is a disciple of progress: the Turkish Empire is a synonym for retrogression."
For four years he "sustained the high and holy strife" with a versatility, a courage, and a resource which raised the enthusiasm of his followers to the highest pitch.
"My purpose," he said at Oxford, "is day and night, week by week, month by month, to counterwork what I believe to be the purpose of Lord Beaconsfield."
As the general election approached, one question alone was asked of the electors—"Do you approve or condemn Lord Beaconsfield's system of foreign policy?"
The answer was given at Easter 1880. Mr. Gladstone himself, standing for Midlothian, was returned with enthusiasm at the head of the poll. Lord Beaconsfield's Ministry received the most emphatic condemnation, and the Liberals were returned in an overwhelming majority.
Mr. Gladstone was the unquestioned chief, the idol and the pride of the victorious army of Liberals.
On the resignation of Lord Beaconsfield, the Queen sent for Lord Hartington, as nominal leader of the Liberal party in the House of Commons. He could do nothing, and Her Majesty sent for Lord Granville. The two statesmen travelled together to Windsor Castle. They both assured the Queen that the victory was Mr. Gladstone's, and his alone; that the Literal party would be satisfied with no other leader. They returned to London the same afternoon, and called on Mr. Gladstone. He was expecting them and their message. Without a moment's delay he went down to Windsor. That evening he kissed hands, and returned to London as Prime Minister for the second time. He was now seventy-one when he set to work with energy to form his government. With such a splendid Liberal majority, what might he not yet do for England?
"With a well-trimmed ship, splendidly manned, and the full breeze of popular favour behind it, Mr. Gladstone's second Administration set out on what promised to he a pleasant and prosperous voyage."
But alas for the pleasant and prosperous voyage, which was to end in final shipwreck!