His Last Fight
For six years after this the Home Rule Bill lay on the shelf. It had failed for one reason—because it proposed to exclude Ireland from representation in the Parliament at Westminster. In Mr. Gladstone's second Home Rule measure Ireland was to be represented by eighty members in the House of Commons.
It was not till the year 1893 that he had an opportunity of introducing this second Bill. The Conservative Government under Lord Salisbury had come to an end in the summer of 1892, and a general election had given Mr. Gladstone a small majority.
During the years that had intervened between the two Bills blow after blow had fallen to hinder the cause, and it required a brave man indeed to carry on the scheme in the face of so much opposition and difficulty.
One of the greatest blows was the fall of Mr. Parnell, leader of the Irish party, in 1890. This was a keen disappointment to Mr. Gladstone, who had been a friend, and more than a friend, to this man; who had embraced the idea of Home Rule, and worked side by side with him to procure it.
Mr. Parnell died in 1891, just when it seemed more than possible that the Home Rule Bill might succeed.
Mr. Gladstone was eighty-two when he launched forth into his final Midlothian campaign. One of his first speeches was made at Chester, on his way northwards. A woman in the crowded streets threw a gingerbread nut at the statesman, and this struck him full in the eye. Though the eye became very painful, Mr. Gladstone courageously delivered his speech, and went through the whole election campaign. But for long the injured eye was under treatment.
The new Parliament, with Mr. Gladstone as Prime Minister for the fourth time, met on February 1, 1893. No time was lost in bringing in the Home Rule Bill. On the fourteenth, Mr. Gladstone rose in a densely-crowded house to ask leave to introduce what, through the long fight, he had always called "A Bill for the Better Government of Ireland." The moment was one of supreme triumph. Out of the depths of opposition, forsaken by friends and colleagues, he had toiled upwards, till now he rose once more as Prime Minister with a Home Rule Bill in his hands.
From the Peers' Gallery the Prince of Wales looked down and listened; on his left sat the Duke of York. Foreign Ambassadors and Ministers crowded the Diplomatic Gallery. When Mr. Gladstone stood at the table, Liberal and Irish members sprang to their feet. The first sentences spoken by the Premier showed that he was still in full possession of his splendid voice. He spoke eloquently and earnestly for two hours.
"Sir," he ended, in a voice struggling with emotion, it would be a misery to me if I had omitted in these closing years any measures possible for me to take towards upholding and promoting what I believe to be the cause of all parties and all nations inhabiting these islands. Let me entreat you," he added in a low voice—"if it were with my latest breath, I would entreat you—to let the dead bury its dead. Cast behind you every recollection of bygone evils; cherish, love, and sustain one another through all the vicissitudes of human affairs in the times that are to come."
The Bill passed on its third reading, by a majority of thirty-four, only to be thrown out by the Lords after four days' debate.
Mr. Gladstone was now eighty-four, and the infirmities of old age were at last growing on him. At the beginning of 1894 he snatched a brief holiday at Biarritz. During his stay there his eyesight became rapidly worse. One day he took out his Herodotus; it had often accompanied him on his holidays before. The printed page was the same, but he found he could no longer read it with any ease. Time had struck a blow in one of his tenderest parts.
His friends were not unprepared for his next step. On his return from abroad he attended his last Cabinet meeting, after which he tendered his resignation.
"God bless you all!" he had said, in a strong, deep, well-remembered voice, with the fervour of a mind accustomed to give every word its full value. A few days later he made his last speech as Prime Minister in the House of Commons. Few realized that this was his farewell to the House—that a knight was laying down his well-worn sword, hanging up his dinted armour, to look for the future on the lists where others strove. Shortly after he sat down, Mr. M'Carthy met Mr. Morley in the lobby.
"Is that, then, the very last speech?" he asked.
"The very last," was Mr. Morley's sad reply.
"I don't believe one quarter of the men in the House understand it so," answered M'Carthy.
It was true. There were no fireworks, there were no tableaux, there was no melodramatic fall of the curtain. When all was over, he just rose and walked out with springy steps by his usual pathway behind the Speaker's chair.