"Care not, you have done great work; and if even now you rested, your name would be read in one of the fairest pages of English history." —Tennyson to Gladstone, 1874.
But the end was not far off. Mr. Gladstone had lived hard. He had accomplished in four sessions an amount of work which would have lasted most Prince Ministers through four Parliaments. His economy of time was carried into every part of his life, public and private. He used to say that it took him five minutes exactly to dress for dinner, and when alluding to this habit of dressing quickly, he was wont to quote Sidney Herbert, "I take five minutes if I potter," because, if necessary, he could be ready in three minutes.
There is a story told of him, which, if it is a little trivial, shows how he economized his time. He was going to drive into Chester one day, from Hawarden, after luncheon. His pudding was very hot, so he went away from the table, changed his clothes, got ready for the drive, and returned to finish his lunch, thus saving the precious minutes during which his pudding cooled!
But to return to the close of the five years of brilliant reform he had carried through for England—the Golden Age of Liberalism, as it has been called.
An attempt to settle the question of higher education in Ireland, in the Irish University Bill, brought matters to a crisis. It was admitted to be ingenious, but it satisfied no one.
"Mr. Gladstone rose with the House dead against him and his Bill, and made a wonderful speech—easy, almost playful, with passages of great power and eloquence," said Mr. Forster; and two days later he added, when the Bill had been thrown out by three votes,—
"Cabinet again at twelve. Decided to resign. Mr. Gladstone made us quite a touching little speech. He began playfully. This was the last of some one hundred and fifty-Cabinets or so, and he wished to say to his colleagues with what profound gratitude—and here he completely broke down and could say nothing. Tears came to my eyes, and we were all touched."
On January 23, 1874, when Mr. Gladstone was confined to the house by a cold, he suddenly announced the dissolution of Parliament, because, as he said, his authority had now "sunk below the point necessary for the due defence and prosecution of the public interests." If he were re-elected, he promised to repeal the income tax.
But he was not re-elected. He stood for Greenwich again, hut only to find himself second on the poll, which was headed by a local distiller.
And so the Golden Age of Liberalism was ended; the Liberal chief was free to do as he liked.
"It would take very little to make me retire from public life," the had said two years before. "Office has no attraction for me, except when I am dealing with important questions. The administrative routine of ordinary government work, except in connection with some great measure, does not attract me, and any one else can do it as well."
Before the new Parliament had met for the rather humdrum work which lay before it, Mr. Gladstone burst upon the world with a new surprise. He was going to retire altogether from public life!
"At the age of sixty-five, and after forty-two years of a laborious public life, I think myself entitled to retire," he wrote in the winter of 1875. "This retirement is dictated to me by my personal views as to the best method of spending the closing years of my life."
"Gentlemen," said Burke, when he was addressing the House for the last time, I have had my day."
Had Mr. Gladstone, then, had his day? Was this to be the end? Complaints arose all around. He had pleaded old age, but he seemed the very embodiment of strength, and spirit, and energy. His party represented themselves as sheep having no shepherd; they complained that he had led them on, and they had followed him, followed him faithfully and devotedly, and now he was leaving them. To whom?
His doctor affirmed that, after such years of laborious work, retirement would be physically bad for him.
"Dr. Clark does not know how completely I should employ myself" answered Mr. Gladstone firmly.
Here was his secret. Retirement for him did not mean rest. His recreation was merely a change of work; it was not idleness. If he was not legislating for the country, he had other work to do.
His life had been a continuous round of exhausting work. Even his iron constitution was at last beginning to show signs of wear and tear. His private affairs, too, required his personal attention, for little enough could he give during his terms of office. The absorption of a Prime Minister in the work of a nation leaves him very little time for domestic intercourse. Mrs. Gladstone used to complain that she saw nothing of her husband, insomuch that at an evening party she would constantly try to get near him, so that she might have some conversation with him.
Now that he had leisure, having resigned the leadership of the Liberal party, Mr. Gladstone devoted himself to the further study of theology, especially to the state of the Church of England.
A pamphlet on "The Vatican Decrees in their Bearing on Civil Allegiance" was the first sign of his energy in this direction. It roused a great controversy at the time, and Mr. Gladstone was bitterly assailed for such free expression of his opinions.