Eighteen years ago Mr. Gladstone wrote on the fly-leaf of his journal: "For my part, my sole concern is to manage the third and last act of my life with decency, and to make a handsome exit off the stage." The "third and last act" of that drama had now been reached; the long life was drawing to its close.
The autumn of 1897 found him suffering a good deal of pain in his face. It was thought advisable for him to winter abroad, and his old friend Lord Rendel at once placed his villa at Cannes at his disposal. But the sunshine and the blue Mediterranean failed to restore his now-failing health as they had done before. From time to time uneasy rumours circulated. Now it was too cold for his daily drive; now he could no longer read, he was writing nothing; and those who had watched the energetic career of the now veteran statesman felt that his strength must indeed be failing, if he had to give up his favourite pursuits. Now news leaked out that he was suffering great pain, and all political differences of opinion were merged in pity for the man who, after a long life of work and toil, must now win his rest through nights and days of weariness.
A visit to Bournemouth in midwinter again failed to give relief, and in March 1898 he returned home to Hawarden—to die. "With Hawarden, if it please God, my last acquaintance with the light and with the air is likely to be connected," he had said in a recent speech. This wish was now to be fulfilled.
To the crowds who tried to catch a last glimpse of him on his journey, he turned in his pain, and with an attempt at cheerfulness he said, "God bless you all, and this place, and the land you love!"
"And God bless you, sir!" was the muttered prayer of the people as he passed from their sight for ever. His old interest in life now began to pale.
"There is no reason why you should not live another ten years," said a friend to him cheerily.
"God save me from so cruel a fate!" was the pathetic answer.
From the dignity and silence that now surrounded Hawarden Castle one touching little story crept out.
A little black Pomeranian, called Petz, had for the past nine years been the constant and faithful companion of Mr. Gladstone in all his walks and drives about Hawarden. Up to the time that his master left for Cannes Petz was happy and well. The Castle becoming very quiet after Mr. and Mrs. Gladstone's departure, Petz went to stay with Mr. and Mrs. Drew, and his special friend Dorothy Drew. But with his master's departure Petz's joyous spirit seemed to have left him. Again and again he ran back to Hawarden, and refused to be comforted. At last he refused his food, and became ill and low. On the day of Mr. Gladstone's return he was taken back to the Castle. But it was too late; he just lived to see his master again, and a few days later little Petz died.
As the cold spring months passed on, Mr. Gladstone grew worse. "I am dead to this world, dead to all public questions," he said constantly during those long, suffering days; and again, "I am waiting, only waiting."
With an heroic and unmurmuring patience he bore his pain, though it was "wellnigh intolerable."
"The greatest churchman of our day lies at Hawarden, with masterful eyes almost closed, stricken and bruised, with the strength of an old lion, as it were, sore wounded. He needs all the nation's prayers, for the days go hard with him," said Canon Scott Holland at St. Paul's—words which found an echo in every heart.
As the day was breaking to usher in Ascension morning, Mr. Gladstone passed quietly away. They carried him into his "Temple of Peace," and there, in his scarlet robes, he lay at rest amid the books he had loved with such passionate fondness.
All rivalries disappeared, all feuds were suppressed, all hatreds forgotten, in the universal wish of the nation that he should lie among the greatest and the best in Westminster Abbey. Thither accordingly he was borne, honoured by the presence of the highest in the land, followed by friends and foes, now united in a common bond of feeling, amid a dignified and respectful silence.