Eton College stands under the very shadow of Windsor Castle, amid some of the most beautiful scenery in all England. The school and its surroundings impressed itself deeply on the mind of the little school-boy, and all his life long he became fired with enthusiasm at the bare mention of Eton.
When, fifty-seven years later, he returned to address some young Etonians, he said: "My attachment to Eton increases with the lapse of years. It is the queen of schools!"
What wonder, then, that Eton boys stood with arms reversed and heads bent low as one of the greatest of Etonians was borne past them to his last resting-place in Westminster Abbey?
He seems to have worked hard as a student, both in and out of school hours, which, when all told, hardly exceeded eleven hours a week. There was no teaching of mathematics, so the young scholar devoted his half-holidays to teaching himself.
He took part in the cricket and football of the school without distinguishing himself at them. His favourite recreation was walking; he was always a great walker. He walked very fast, and went long distances. To roam about the lovely country with a few boys of his own age and tastes was his ideal way of spending his leisure.
He was fond of sculling on the river, and kept his own boat.
"When I was at Eton," he has told us, "I sculled constantly—more than almost any other boy in the school. Our boats were not so light as they are now, but they went along merrily, with no fear of getting them under water.
The story of how he stood forth boldly as champion of some wretched pigs at Eton is well known.
It was Ash Wednesday, and the Eton boys had a barbarous custom of hustling the drovers at the annual fair, and then chopping off the tails of the pigs. Young William Gladstone—he was a Fifth Form boy at the time—could not bear to see such wanton cruelty practised on dumb animals. He openly denounced the boys who had been guilty of it! The following Ash Wednesday he found three newly-amputated pigs' tails hanging in a bunch on his door, with a paper bearing this inscription:—
Gladstone challenged the boys who had done this to come forth, and he would answer them "in good round hand upon their faces;" but as a boy he was a tough foe to deal with, and his invitation met with no response.
It must have been a proud moment in young Gladstone's life when Canning came to Eton one fourth of June, and found time for a talk with the son of his old friend and supporter. His advice to the boy on this occasion was long remembered. "Give plenty of time to your verses," he said, among other things. "Every good copy you do will set in your memory some poetical thought or well-turned form of speech which you will find useful when you speak in public." It was Canning's visit and conversation that gave Gladstone the idea of editing a magazine at Eton; and in The Eton Miscellany, as it was called, some of his restless energy found vent.
In this he wrote largely himself, sometimes poetry, sometimes prose. An able article on Eloquence showed how fascinated he was, even at this time, by debates in the House of Commons.
Was he, boy-like, dreaming even now of a successful Parliamentary career?
His first poem was in praise of the schoolboy's hero, Richard Cœur de Lion.
"Who foremost now?" asks the young Etonian—
The boy Gladstone seems to have exercised an influence for good on those around him. "I was a thoroughly idle boy," said one of his school-fellows, who afterwards became Bishop of Salisbury; "but I was saved from worse things by getting to know Gladstone."