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A non-fiction by Elbert Hubbard

William E. Gladstone

Title:     William E. Gladstone
Author: Elbert Hubbard [More Titles by Hubbard]

As the aloe is said to flower only once in a hundred years, so it seems to be but once in a thousand years that Nature blossoms into this unrivaled product and produces such a man as we have here.

--Gladstone, "Lecture on Homer"

American travelers in England are said to accumulate sometimes large and unique assortments of lisps, drawls and other very peculiar things. Of the value of these acquirements as regards their use and beauty, I have not room here to speak. But there is one adjunct which England has that we positively need, and that is "Boots." It may be that Boots is indigenous to England's soil, and that when transplanted he withers and dies; perhaps there is a quality in our atmosphere that kills him. Anyway, we have no Boots.

When trouble, adversity or bewilderment comes to the homesick traveler in an American hotel, to whom can he turn for consolation? Alas, the porter is afraid of the "guest," and all guests are afraid of the clerk, and the proprietor is never seen, and the Afro-Americans in the dining-room are stupid, and the chambermaid does not answer the ring, and at last the weary wanderer hies him to the barroom and soon discovers that the worthy "barkeep" has nothing to recommend him but his diamond-pin. How different, yes, how different, this would all be if Boots were only here! At the quaint old city of Chester I was met at the "sti-shun" by the Boots of that excellent though modest hotel which stands only a block away. Boots picked out my baggage without my looking for it, took me across to the Inn, and showed me to the daintiest, most homelike little room I had seen for weeks. On the table was a tastefully decorated "jug," evidently just placed there in anticipation of my arrival, and in this jug was a large bunch of gorgeous roses, the morning dew still on them.

When Boots had brought me hot water for shaving he disappeared and did not come back until, by the use of telepathy (for Boots is always psychic), I had sent him a message that he was needed. In the afternoon he went with me to get a draft cashed, then he identified me at the post-office, and introduced me to a dignitary at the cathedral whose courtesy added greatly to my enjoyment of the visit.

The next morning after breakfast, when I returned to my room, everything was put to rights and a fresh bouquet of cut flowers was on the mantel. A good breakfast adds much to one's inward peace: I sat down before the open window and looked out at the great oaks dotting the green meadows that stretched away to the north, and listened to the drowsy tinkle of sheep-bells as the sound came floating in on the perfumed breeze. I was thinking how good it was to be here, when the step of Boots was heard in the doorway. I turned and saw that mine own familiar friend had lost a little of his calm self-reliance--in fact, he was a bit agitated, but he soon recovered his breath.

"Mr. Gladstone and 'is Lady 'ave just arrived, sir--they will be 'ere for an hour before taking the train for Lunnon, sir. I told 'is clark there was a party of Americans 'ere that were very anxious to meet 'im, and he will receive you in the parlor in fifteen minutes, sir."

Then it was my turn to be agitated. But Boots reassured me by explaining that the Grand Old Man was just the plainest, most unpretentious gentleman one could imagine; that it was not at all necessary that I should change my suit; that I should pronounce it Gladstun, not Glad-stone, and that it was Harden, not Ha-war-den. Then he stood me up, looked me over, and declared that I was all right.

On going downstairs I found that Boots had gotten together five Americans who happened to be in the hotel. He introduced us to a bright little man who seemed to be the companion or secretary of the Prime Minister; he, in turn, took us into the parlor where Mr. Gladstone sat reading the morning paper, and presented us one by one to the great man. We were each greeted with a pleasant word and a firm grasp of the hand, and then the old gentleman turned and with a courtly flourish said, "Gentlemen, allow me to present you to Mrs. Gladstone."

Mr. Gladstone was wise: he remained standing; this was sure to shorten the interview. A clergyman in our party who had an impressive cough and bushy whiskers, acted as spokesman, and said several pleasant things, closing his little speech by informing Mr. Gladstone that Americans held him in great esteem, and that we only regretted that Fate had not decreed that he should have been born in the United States.

Mr. Gladstone replied, "Fate is often unkind." Then he asked if we were going to London. On being told that we were, he spoke for five minutes about the things we should see in the Metropolis. His style was not conversational, but after the manner of a man who was much used to speaking in public or to receiving delegations. The sentences were stately, the voice rather loud and declamatory. His closing words were: "Yes, gentlemen, the way to see London is from the top of a 'bus--from the top of a 'bus, gentlemen." Then there was an almost imperceptible wave of the hand, and we knew that the interview was ended. In a moment we were outside and the door was closed.

The five Americans who made up our little company had never met before, but now we were as brothers; we adjourned to a side-room to talk it over and tell of the things we intended to say but didn't. We all talked and talked at once, just as people do who have recently preserved an enforced silence.

"How ill-fitting was that gray suit!"

"Yes, the sleeves too long."

"Did you notice the absence of the forefinger of his left hand--shot off in Eighteen Hundred Forty-five while hunting, they say."

"But how strong his voice is!"

"He looks like a farmer."

"Eighty-five years of age! Think of it, and how vigorous!"

Then the preacher spoke and his voice was sorrowful:

"Oh, but I made a botch of it--was it sarcasm or was it not?"

"Was what sarcasm?"

"When Mr. Gladstone said that Fate was unkind in not having him born in the United States!"

And we were all silent. Then Boots came in, and we put the question to Boots, who decided it was not sarcasm.

The next day, when we went away, we rewarded Boots bountifully.

* * * * *

William Gladstone is England's glory. Yet there is no English blood in his veins; his parents were Scotch. Aside from Lord Brougham, he is the only Scotchman who has ever taken a prominent part in British statecraft. The name as we first find it is Gled-stane, "gled" being a hawk--literally, a hawk that lives among the stones. Surely the hawk is fully as respectable a bird as the eagle, and a goodly amount of granite in the clay that is used to make a man is no disadvantage. The name fits.

There are deep-rooted theories in the minds of many men (and still more women) that bad boys make good men, and that a dash of the pirate, even in a prelate, does not disqualify. But I wish to come to the defense of the Sunday-school story-books and show that their very prominent moral is right after all: it pays to be "good."

William Ewart Gladstone was sent to Eton when twelve years of age. From the first, his conduct was a model of propriety. He attended every chapel service, and said his prayers in the morning and before going to bed at night; he could repeat the catechism backwards or forwards, and recite more verses of Scripture than any other boy in school.

He always spoke the truth. He never played "hookey"; nor, as he grew older, would he tell stories of doubtful flavor, or allow others to relate such in his presence. His influence was for good, and Cardinal Manning has said that there was less wine drunk at Oxford during the Forties than would have been the case if Gladstone had not been there in the Thirties.

He graduated from Christchurch with the highest possible honors the college could bestow, and at twenty-two he seemed like one who had sprung into life full-armed.

At that time he had magnificent health, a fine form, vast and varied knowledge, and a command of language so great that he was a master of forensics. His speeches were fully equal to his later splendid efforts. In feature he was handsome: the face bold and masculine; eyes of piercing luster; and hair, which he tossed when in debate, like a lion's mane. He could speak five languages, sing tenor, dance gracefully, and was on more than speaking terms with many of the best and greatest men in England. Besides all this he was rich in British gold.

Now, here is a combination of good things that would send most young men straight to perdition--not so Gladstone. He took the best care of his health, systematized his time as a miser might, listened not to the flatterers, and used his money only for good purposes. His intention was to enter the Church, but his father said, "Not yet," and half-forced him into politics. So, at this early age of twenty-two, he ran for Parliament, was elected, and has practically never been out of the shadow of Westminster Palace during these sixty-odd years.

At thirty-three, he was a member of the Cabinet. At thirty-six, his absolute honesty compelled him for conscience' sake to resign from the Ministry. His opponents then said, "Gladstone is an extinct volcano," and they have said this again and again; but somehow the volcano always breaks out in a new place, stronger and brighter than ever. It is difficult to subdue a volcano.

When twenty-nine, he married Catherine Glynne, sister and heir of Sir Stephen Glynne, Baronet. The marriage was most fortunate in every way. For over fifty years this most excellent woman has been his comrade, counselor, consolation, friend--his wife.

"How can any adversity come to him who hath a wife?" said Chaucer.

If this splendid woman had died, then his opponents might truthfully have said, "Gladstone is an extinct volcano"; but she is still with him, and a short time ago, when he had to undergo an operation for cataract, this woman of eighty was his only nurse.

The influence of Gladstone has been of untold value to England. His ideals for national action have been high. To the material prosperity of the country he has added millions upon millions; he has made education popular, and schooling easy; his policy in the main has been such as to command the admiration of the good and great. But there are spots on the sun.

On reading Mr. Gladstone's books I find he has vigorously defended certain measures that seem unworthy of his genius. He has palliated human slavery as a "necessary evil"; has maintained the visibility and divine authority of the Church; has asserted the mathematical certainty of the historic episcopate, the mystical efficacy of the sacraments; and has vindicated the Church of England as the God-appointed guardian of truth.

He has fought bitterly any attempt to improve the divorce-laws of England. Much has been done in this line, even in spite of his earnest opposition, but we now owe it to Mr. Gladstone that there is on England's law-books a statute providing that if a wife leaves her husband he can invoke a magistrate, whose duty it will then be to issue a writ and give it to an officer, who will bring her back. More than this, when the officer has returned the woman, the loving husband has the legal right to "reprove" her. Just what reprove means the courts have not yet determined; for, in a recent decision, when a costermonger admitted having given his lady "a taste of the cat," the prisoner was discharged on the ground that it was only needed reproof.

I would not complain of this law if it worked both ways; but no wife can demand that the State shall return her "man" willy-nilly. And if she administers reproof to her mate, she does it without the sanction of the Sovereign.

However, in justice to Englishmen, it should be stated that while this unique law still stands on the statute-books, it is very seldom that a man in recent years has stooped to invoke it.

On all the questions I have named, from slavery to divorce, Mr. Gladstone has used the "Bible argument." But as the years have gone by, his mind has become liberalized, and on many points where he was before zealous he is now silent. In Eighteen Hundred Forty-one, he argued with much skill and ingenuity that Jews were not entitled to full rights of citizenship, but in Eighteen Hundred Forty-seven, acknowledging his error, he took the other side.

During the War of Secession the sympathies of England's Chancellor of the Exchequer were with the South. Speaking at Newcastle on October Ninth, Eighteen Hundred Sixty-two, he said, "Jefferson Davis has undoubtedly founded a new nation." But five years passed, and he publicly confessed that he was wrong.

Here is a man who, if he should err deeply, is yet so great that, like Cotton Mather, he might not hesitate to stand uncovered on the street-corners and ask the forgiveness of mankind. Such men are saved by their enemies. Their own good and the good of humanity require that their balance of power shall not be too great. Had the North gone down, Gladstone might never have seen his mistake. In this instance and in many others, he has not been the leader of progress, but its echo: truth has been forced upon him. His passionate earnestness, his intense volition, his insensibility to moral perspective, his blindness to the sense of proportion, might have led him into dangerous excess and frightful fanatical error, if it were not for the fact that such men create an opposition that is their salvation.

To analyze a character so complex as Mr. Gladstone's requires the grasp of genius. We speak of "the duality of the human mind," but here are half a dozen spirits in one. They rule in turn, and occasionally several of them struggle for the mastery.

When the Fisk Jubilee Singers visited England, we find Gladstone dropping the affairs of State to hear their music. He invited them to Hawarden, where he sang with them. So impressed was he with the negro melodies that he anticipated that idea which has since been materialized: the founding of a national school of music that would seek to perfect in a scientific way these soul-stirring strains.

He might have made a poet of no mean order; for his devotion to spiritual and physical beauty has made him a lifelong admirer of Homer and Dante. Those who have met him when the mood was upon him have heard him recite by the hour from the "Iliad" in the original. And yet the theology of Homer belongs to the realm of natural religion with which Mr. Gladstone has little patience.

A prominent member of the House of Commons once said, "The only two things that the Prime Minister really cares for are religion and finance." The statement comes near truth; for the chief element in Mr. Gladstone's character is his devotion to religion; and his signal successes have been in the line of economics. He believes in Free Trade as the gospel of social salvation. He revels in figures; he has price, value, consumption, distribution, import, export, fluctuation, all at his tongue's end, ready to hurl at any one who ventures on a hasty generalization.

And it is a significant fact that in his strong appeal for the disestablishment of the Irish Church, the stress of his argument was put on the point that the Irish Church was not in the line of the apostolic succession.

Mr. Gladstone is grave, sober, earnest, proud, passionate, and at times romantic to a rare degree. He rebukes, refutes, contradicts, defies, and has a magnificent capacity for indignation. He will roar you like a lion, his eyes will flash, and his clenched fist will shake as he denounces that which he believes to be error. And yet among inferiors he will consult, defer, inquire, and show a humility, a forced suavity, that has given the caricaturist excuse.

In his home he is gentle, amiable, always kind, social and hospitable. He loves deeply, and his friends revere him to a point that is but little this side of idolatry. And surely their affection is not misplaced.

Some day a Plutarch without a Plutarch's prejudice will arise, and with malice toward none, but with charity for all, he will write the life of the statesman, Gladstone. Over against this he will write the life of an American statesman. The name he will choose will be that of one born in a log hut in the forest; who was rocked by the foot of a mother whose hands meanwhile were busy at her wheel; who had no schooling, no wise and influential friends; who had few books and little time to read; who knew no formal religion; who never traveled out of his own country; who had no helpmeet, but who walked solitary--alone, a man of sorrows; down whose homely, furrowed face the tears of pity often ran, and yet whose name, strange paradox! stands in many minds as a symbol of mirth.

And when the master comes, who has the power to portray with absolute fidelity the greatness of these two men, will it be to the disadvantage of the American?

* * * * *

The village of Hawarden is in Flintshire, North Wales. It is seven miles from Chester. I walked the distance one fine June morning--out across the battlefield where Cromwell's army crushed that of Charles; and on past old stone walls and stately elms.

There had been a shower the night before, but the morning sun came out bright and warm and made the raindrops glisten like beads as they clung to each leaf and flower. Larks sang and soared, and great flocks of crows called and cawed as they flew lazily across the sky. It was a time for silent peace, and quiet joy, and serene thankfulness for life and health.

I walked leisurely, and in a little over two hours reached Hawarden--a cluster of plain stone houses with climbing vines and flowers and gardens, which told of homely thrift and simple tastes. I went straight to the old stone church, which is always open, and rested for half an hour, listening to the organ on which a young girl was practising, instructed by a white-haired old gentleman.

The church is dingy and stained inside and out by time. The pews are irregular, some curiously carved, and all stiff and uncomfortable. I walked around and read the inscriptions on the walls, and all the time the young girl played and the old gentleman beat time, and neither noticed my presence. One brass tablet I saw was to a woman "who for long years was a faithful servant at Hawarden Castle--erected in gratitude by W.E.G."

Near this was a memorial to W.H. Gladstone, son of the Premier, who died in Eighteen Hundred Ninety-one. Then there were inscriptions to various Glynnes and several others whose names appear in English history. I stood at the reading-desk, where the great man has so often read, and marked the spot where William Ewart Gladstone and Catherine Glynne knelt when they were married here in July, Eighteen Hundred Thirty-nine.

A short distance from the church is the entrance to Hawarden Park. This fine property was the inheritance of Mrs. Gladstone; the park itself seems to belong to the public. If Mr. Gladstone were a plain citizen, people, of course, would not come by hundreds and picnic on his preserve, but serving the State, he and his possessions belong to the people, and this democratic familiarity is rather pleasing than otherwise. So great has been the throng in times past, that an iron fence had to be placed about the ivy-covered ruins of the ancient castle, to protect it from those who threatened to carry it away by the pocketful. A wall has also been put around the present "castle" (more properly, house). This was done some years ago, I was told by the butler, after a torchlight procession of a thousand enthusiastic admirers had come down from Liverpool and trampled Mrs. Gladstone's flowers into "smithereens."

The park contains many hundred acres, and is as beautiful as an English park can be, and this is praise superlative. Flocks of sheep wander over the soft, green turf, and beneath the spreading trees are sleek cows which seem used to visitors, and with big, open eyes come up to be petted.

Occasional signs are seen: "Please spare the trees." Some people suppose that this is an injunction which Mr. Gladstone himself has never observed. But when in his tree-cutting days, no monarch of the forest was ever felled without its case being fully tried by the entire household. Ruskin, once, visiting at Hawarden, sat as judge, and after listening to the evidence gave sentence against several trees that were rotten at the core or overshadowing their betters. Then the Prime Minister shouldered his faithful "snickersnee" and went forth as executioner.

I looked in vain for stumps, and on inquiry was told that they were all dug out, and the ground leveled so no trace was left of the offender.

The "lady of the house" at Hawarden is the second daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Gladstone. All accounts agree that she is a most capable and excellent woman. She is her father's "home secretary" and confidante, and in his absence takes full charge of the mail and looks after important business affairs. Her husband, the Reverend Harry Drew, is rector of Hawarden Church. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Drew and found him very cordial and perfectly willing to talk about the great man who is grandfather to his baby. We also talked of America, and I soon surmised that Mr. Drew's ideas of "The States" were largely derived from a visit to the Wild West Show. So I put the question to him direct:

"Did you see Buffalo Bill?"

"Oh, yes."

"And did Mr. Gladstone go?"

"Not only once, but three times, and he cheered as loudly as any boy."

The Gladstone residence is a great, rambling, stone structure to which additions have been made from one generation to another. The towers and battlements are merely architectural appendiculae, but the effect of the whole, when viewed from a distance, rising out of its wealth of green and backed by the forest, is very imposing.

I entered only the spacious front hallway and one room--the library. Bookshelves and books and more books were everywhere; several desks of different designs (one an American roll-top), as if the owner transacted business at one, translated Homer at another, and wrote social letters from a third. Then there were several large Japanese vases, a tiger-skin, beautiful rugs, a few large paintings, and in a rack a full dozen axes and twice as many "sticks."

The whole place has an air of easy luxury that speaks of peace and plenty, of quiet and rest, of gentle thoughts and calm desires.

As I walked across toward the village, the church-bell slowly pealed the hour; over the distant valley, night hovered; a streak of white mist, trailing like a thin veil, marked the passage of the murmuring brook. I thought of the grand old man over whose domain I was now treading, and my wonder was, not that one should live so long and still be vigorous, but that a man should live in such an idyllic spot, with love and books to keep him company, and yet grow old.

[The end]
Elbert Hubbard's Writings: William E. Gladstone