Lord Palmerston never met his new Parliament He died on the eighteenth of October, within a few days of completing his eighty-first year. All eyes were turned towards Mr. Gladstone as a possible successor but the Queen wrote on the nineteenth of October that she could turn to no other than Lord Russell, an old and tried friend of hers, to undertake the arduous duties of Prime Minister, and to carry on the Government.''
Mr. Gladstone resumed office as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and for the first time he now became Leader of the House of Common. He was at one with the new Prime Minister on the subject of reform.
Lord Russell had brought in a Reform Bill in 1852, he had brought in another just before the Crimean War, and in 1860 he had brought in a third. All had failed; and now he gladly embraced the chance of completing in his old age the work to which he had devoted his youth and early manhood.
Mr. Gladstone's first appearance as Leader of the House of Commons was awaited with curiosity. To him fell the task of introducing the Reform Bill dealing with the franchise.
"Gladstone has risen entirely to his position and done all his most sanguine friends hoped for as leader," wrote Bishop Wilberforce. "There is a general feeling of the insecurity of the Ministry, and the Reform Bill to be launched to-night is thought somewhat hopeless."
The Chancellor of the Exchequer introduced the Reform Bill that night with singular skill.
Some of his speeches on it were the finest he ever made. One of his most celebrated was made on the eighteenth of April. Rising at one o'clock in the morning, he spoke as he had never spoken before. His whole heart was in his subject. He knew the risk to the government. "We have crossed the Rubicon," he said, "and burned our boats."
With kindling eye and expressive gesture, in a voice responsive to every phase of the orator's feelings, musical, deep, sonorous, the spoke to that crowded and eager assembly of men.
"I can see him now as he delivered the beautiful peroration," said a close friend. "The impassioned manner and voice of the combatant suddenly changed, and, leaning his elbow on the table, he faced the Opposition, and in a gentle voice of pleading pathos and seer-like warning, which thrilled through the stilled assembly, he spoke this fine passage:—
"You cannot fight against the future. Time is on our side. The great social forces which move onwards in their might and majesty, and which the tumult of these debates does not for a moment impede or disturb—those great social forces are against you. They work with us; they are marshaled in our support. And the banner which we now carry in the tight, though perhaps, at some moment of the strife, it may droop over our sinking heads, yet will float again in the eye of heaven, and will be borne by the firm hands of the united people of the three kingdoms, perhaps not to an easy, but to a certain and to a not distant, victory.'"
The division took place amid the greatest excitement.
"The House was charged with electricity like a vast thundercloud," said one who was present. "Strangers rose in their seats, the crowd at the bar pushed half-way up the House, the royal princes leaned forward in their places, and all was confusion."
When the teller had proclaimed that the majority for the government was only five, there arose a wild, raging, mad-brained shout from floor and gallery such as has never been heard in the House; hats were waved, hands were clapped, and hurrahs sounded through the building.
In vain did Mr. Gladstone lift up his hand to bespeak silence. At length the noise died away, and, amid a strange hush, the Chancellor of the Exchequer spoke a few words.
Twilight was brightening into day as the flesh air in New Palace Yard refreshed the heated brows of the excited members.
The government resigned, but Mr. Gladstone was the hero of the hour.
Some ten thousand people assembled in Trafalgar Square and passed vehement resolutions in favour of reform. They then marched to Carlton House Terrace, singing litanies and hymns in honour of Mr. Gladstone; his name was received everywhere with tumultuous cheers, and he was hailed as the true Leader of the Liberal party.
A new Ministry was formed by Lord Derby, and time soon proved the truth of Mr. Gladstone's great speech.
The spirit of the people had been aroused by the dismissal of their trusted leaders, Lord Russell and Mr. Gladstone; public opinion was now thoroughly aroused in favour of reform. Meeting after meeting was held in Hyde Park of crowds clamouring for an extension of the suffrage. Fearful of a disturbance to the public peace, the gates of the park were closed and barred. But the formers were not to be so easily daunted. They pulled down the railings, rushed through the breach, and took forcible possession of the park.
Reform was so loudly demanded by public opinion that the Conservative Ministers were compelled to listen; and Lord Derby, the Prime Minister, with Mr. Disraeli as Leader of the House, found themselves driven to introduce a Reform Bill of a far more sweeping character than that which had failed in the names of Lord Russell ant Mr. Gladstone.
The Ministry that so successfully carried the Reform Bill was not of long duration. In 1565, Lord Derby retired in ill-health, to be succeeded by Mr. Disraeli as Prime Minister.
No one doubted that. Mr. Gladstone would be the next.
One afternoon in November 1868, Mr. Gladstone, in his shirt sleeves, was cutting down a tree in Hawarden Park, while a friend of his, Evelyn Ashley, was holding his coat and watching the proceedings. Suddenly up came a messenger with a telegram. Mr Gladstone opened it and read it.
"Very significant," he said, handing it to his friend to read. Then, without saying another word, he resumed his work.
The telegram stated that an order was coming front the Queen. The well-directed blows continued. Presently they ceased.
Mr. Gladstone, resting on the handle of his axe, looked up, and, with deep earnestness in his voice and a look of great intensity in his face, exclaimed, "My mission is to pacify Ireland."
He then resumed his task and never said another word till the tree was down.
Soon after, the royal summons came. Mr Gladstone stool on the topmost rung of the ladder. He was Prime Minister of England!