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Wilson Renshaw, the most brilliant member of the House of Commons, was on the verge of a complete breakdown at the end of the memorable Session of 1930, a session in which the marshalled forces of Socialism, allied with the insurgent women of England, had almost, but not quite, swept the board.
The Vacation of that year had brought a truce in the fiercest Parliamentary campaign known to modern times, and Renshaw, under the peremptory advice of medical specialists, left England for a prolonged holiday.
He went to Egypt, recruited his health at Cairo, and then, in pursuance of a long-cherished wish, set out by a circuitous route for Khartum. With the exception of Jerusalem, the Nubian capital was regarded by the young English statesman as the most sacred spot on earth, sanctified, as it was, by the blood of General Gordon, a Christian soldier, who, to the indelible disgrace of the political clique then in power, had been left unsupported in the midst of his blood-thirsty enemies, until it was too late to rescue him.
That for which Gordon had paved the way; that which Kitchener and Macdonald had gallantly achieved, in these latter days political sentimentalists, Englishmen of parochial mind, had gradually undone. Egypt, brought to a pitch of high prosperity under the civil administration of Lord Cromer, had been gradually allowed to lapse back into native hands. There had been no absolute evacuation at the date of Renshaw's arrival in the country, but the British garrison had been reduced to insignificant proportions.
But Renshaw did not come back! He had vanished from the ken of civilization—swallowed up as effectually in the Nubian desert as when the earth had opened and swallowed up Dathan and covered the congregation of Abiram. The history of Egypt and the Soudan, written in blood at the period in question, only accorded with that written in ink, in advance of the event, by those who in the first decade of the twentieth century foresaw the outcome of Little Englandism all the world over. The native movement—the strength of which the dominant party in Parliament had chosen to ignore—manifested itself in scenes of sudden and overwhelming violence, while at the same time the Holy War, preached by a Mahdi in whose existence great numbers of people had refused to believe, claimed as sacrificial victims nearly every white-skinned man throughout the length and breadth of the Soudan.
The caravan with which Renshaw was travelling fell into the hands of the Mahdi's adherents, betrayed by a treacherous guide, who then spread the news—anticipating what he had every reason to believe would really happen—of the death of The White Kaffir, as a consequence of the resistance he had offered to a band of "True Believers." The news was received in England with grief and lamentation by those who esteemed Renshaw, appreciated his talents, and knew how essential were his services if the aims of the Socialist-Labour Leader, Nicholas Jardine, and his party were to be defeated. But the public in general saw in the disappearance of the rising statesman the almost inevitable result of a rash enterprise. It came to be regarded only as an incidental episode in the wholesale upheaval of which India, Egypt, and other lands once dominated by the British sceptre soon became the scene.
All this had happened ten years and more before the critical events of 1940. From time to time during that period little-credited reports reached England concerning a certain white prisoner in the hands of the Mahdi, who was believed by some to be none other than Renshaw, the missing man. But, except with a few, these rumours carried little weight. It was not the first time that tales of that sort had reached home after the disappearance of well-known men in remote regions of the Dark Continent. Many, recalling the explorations of Dr. Livingstone, and Stanley's expedition for the rescue of Emin Pasha, said that when Renshaw was found and brought home they would believe that he was alive—and not before.
Meanwhile, in England, Nicholas Jardine carried everything before him. The Constitutional Party, leaderless and disorganized, seemed to sink into helpless apathy, and right and left the rapid shrinkage of the British Empire bore witness to the ruinous success of new and revolutionary parties in the State. Sometimes, in the House of Commons, old followers of the Labour Leader's missing rival asked questions, which, for the moment, attracted marked attention and, in some minds, roused most sinister suspicions. Had the President received any information that tended to confirm the rumour that Mr. Renshaw was still living and undergoing the tortures of a barbarous imprisonment? Was it a fact that, after a specified date, the Government, or any members of it, had been notified, not only that Mr. Renshaw was alive, but that on payment of a ransom he might be restored to his country? Had any confidential information been received from certain oriental visitors who, from time to time, had come to this country? Was it, or was it not, a fact that certain periodical payments of large amount had been made out of secret service funds in relation to Mr. Renshaw and his alleged imprisonment?
These searching questions were evaded in the usual Parliamentary manner, and it was observed that never was President Jardine—such was his official title as chief of the new Council of State—so black and taciturn as when this suggestive topic was from time to time revived in Parliament.