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Life of Sir George Grey: Governor, High commissioner, and Premier. An Historical Biography.

Chapter XXVIII. — His Last Yeaes

page 207

Chapter XXVIII.
His Last Yeaes.

His work in New Zealand was done, and he had long been eager to be gone. His departure at last was unexpected. In 1894 he left his home in Auckland, intending only to journey to the south of the Colony. Then, finding on his arrival at Wellington, that a steamer was on the point of sailing for England, he suddenly decided to return to the Old Country. There was some merriment in the Colony when the sudden decision was made known. He was irreverently compared with a humorous character in Dickens who was on his way to be married, when he came to a church. "Hilloa! here's a church; let's go in and get married." "Hilloa! here's a steamer," Grey seemed to have said to himself; "we will go to England."

The comparison was amusing, but it did him less than justice. He had always been impulsive in his actions, and when he was in England in 1868-69, he would order his luggage to be packed at an hour's notice and depart for who knew where. He had no mind to spend his last days in the colony that had cast him off, and where every familiar scene reminded him of past glories. He had long before intended to return. In 1883 he cancelled his orders for periodicals in order to leave at the beginning of 1884. Then things happened which rendered it advisable or imperative that he should remain. He remained sorely against his will. His longing still pointed homewards.

An unexpected event seemed to open a door. Mr. Gladstone, from whom he had nothing to hope for, resigned the office of Premier, and Lord Rosebery, who might welcome the support of a distinguished name, succeeded him. This it was that, happening just then, precipitated his departure. The stern Puritan was gone; page 208the good-natured patrician, whose political position was a little shaky, would be more avvenante. Grey had a gala voyage and enjoyed a little of the consideration that had for years been denied him. London saw—

'' Old Salinguerra back again; I say, Old Salinguerra in the town once more.''

But it was not on the baleful errand of the Florentine chief. It was on a mission of international peace, racial union, and world-wide federation. A few gleams of wintry sunshine gladdened the old man's heart. He was granted the as yet untarnished honour of a Privy Councillorship, and he really seems to have believed that the high but empty distinction would give him free access to the Sovereign, who could consult him on State affairs apart from her responsible advisers. He was fêted, interviewed, biographied, and made the lion of a brief London season. Before a gathering of the National Liberal Club he delivered a great address on federation, which the Marquis of Ripon, who presided, described as ''the most eloquent speech he had ever heard," and which showed how much public life had lost by his exile. He had thus some apparent success. He was none the less disappointed. He found little interest in Pan-Anglican federation. He kindled no enthusiasm. He gained no adhesions. No leading public man identified himself with the cause or accepted his policy. Its time was not yet come.

His final return to England was fruitful in reconciliations. He was reconciled to the Colonial Office and to his country. Still more pathetically, within sight of the eternal shores, the stern heart softened, and the long-widowed man was formally reconciled (through the intervention of the Queen, it was said) to the wife from whom he had been parted for four and thirty years. And so, amid the roar of Pall Mall or, later, in the stillness of Bath, the world-wearied statesman found the "Sabbath" he had vainly sought in Pacific solitudes.

It is not publicly known whether his wife was with the old man at the last, or whether she survived him.

page 209

Apparently, she did not. Otherwise he would hardly have bequeathed his entire means to his relatives in New Zealand. Like so many other great men, he left no son to perpetuate his name. A son had been born to him in Adelaide, but he lived only a few months. Grey's belief that his wife neglected her child was said by well-informed persons to have been the root of the later unhappy differences. Here a veil must be drawn. The matter concerned themselves alone, and he never invited discussion on the subject. But it affected his public position, took the halo off the reverence that should have accompanied old age, and possibly contributed to embitter his temper.

None of the loved scenes was around him when he passed away, no old familiar faces. New Zealand acquaintances had urged him to return to the Colony, where he would have had a fitting end and national exequies. He would not go back. Every town had been the arena of triumphs, indeed, but also of slights and humiliations, of painful remembrances, of angry contests and disastrous defeats. He died at Bath on the night of September 18, 1898. But for the generous action of the Colonial Office, he might have been buried, as he died, in obscurity. Much to its honour, the Department, forgetting its long-buried animosity against its insurgent servant, appealed through Lord Selborne, Under-Secretary for the Colonies, to the Dean of St. Paul's to bestow on the old Governor the honour of a tomb in the cathedral where some of England's greatest men of action lie buried. There he was solemnly laid by the side of one of his successors in South Africa, Sir Henry Bartle Frere. All England felt that his memory had been deservedly honoured.

Group-deaths.

Genius sets, as it rises, in constellations. In 1832 no fewer than four of the dii majores passed away—Scott, Goethe, Bentham, and Cuvier, while three at least of the dii minores—Crabbe, Mackintosh, and Gentz—attended page 210the august shades. In 1859 the great names of Macaulay, the younger Hurnboldt, and Mrs. Browning, of Hallam and De Quincey, were eclipsed. Again, in 1880-2 a still loftier group—Carlyle and Emerson, Lord Beaconsfield and George Eliot—ascended Olympus, with Longfellow and Dante Rossetti to hymn their threnodies. So was it when George Grey was gathered to his fathers. He had been coeval in birth with a band of distinguished men—poets, novelists, scholars, and men of action; he was coeval in death with two of the most illustrious statesmen of the age. Bismarck, the terror of Europe, fell like a mighty tower that had before been rent by an earthquake from base to summit. Gladstone, the standard-bearer of Liberalism throughout the world, fell like a secular oak that had for centuries battled with storms. Even by the side of such giants Grey's departure was not unobserved. They were almost peers in greatness. All alike belonged to the race of nature's kings, and in this respect one was not unworthy of the others. For Gladstone alone can sanctity—such sanctity as is predicable of men of action—be claimed, but Bismarck, though merciless, was true to his own stern conscience even as Cromwell was, and if Grey was savage and vindictive, he was possessed by aims and animated by aspirations that burned to ennoble his kind. Gladstone alone, perhaps, winged his flight to the paradise of a pure fame; Bismarck and Grey will expiate their undoubted offences through a generation of cleansing purgatorial fire. Already have death and a single decade partly wiped the stains from the brow once radiant and a character intrinsically noble.