"Quebec, the grey old city on the hill,
Lies with a golden glory on her head,
Dreaming throughout this hour so fair, so still,
Of other days and all her mighty dead.
The white doves perch upon the cannons grim,
The flowers bloom where once did run a tide
Of crimson, when the moon was pale and dim
Above the battlefield so grim and wide.
Methinks within her wakes a mighty glow
Of pride, of tenderness—her stirring
The strife, the valour, of the long ago
Feels at her heart-strings. Strong, and tall, and vast,
She lies, touched with the sunset's golden grace,
A wondrous softness on her grey old face."
The story of the first years of the great struggle in America is a story of mistakes, defeat, disaster, ill-luck, and bad management. "I dread to hear from America," wrote Pitt the great Commoner. "We are undone both at home and abroad. We are no longer a nation," sighed another gloomily. These were dark and perilous days for Britain and her colonies. There was war, there was disaster abroad; there was discord at home.
Then Pitt came into power. He was very certain of himself. "I am sure that I can save the country," he said, "and that no one else can." Then he set himself to the task.
Pitt cared not one jot whether people had great names or fine friends. He looked only for men—men fit for the work to which they were sent. So he recalled the blunderers, and sent in their places men whom he could trust.
Soon the tide began to turn. Soon, in place of news of disaster and defeat, came news of victory. Louisburg, the strongest fortress possessed by the French, fell. Frontenac was taken, so, too, was Fort Duquesne, and the memory of Braddock's defeat was wiped out. The name of the fort was changed to Pittsburg in honour of the great statesman. It bears that name still.
But while the outposts of Canada were falling, while British officers were drinking to "British colours on every French fort, port, and garrison, in America," Quebec, perched high upon its frowning rock, guarded the St. Lawrence. It was the key of Canada. So with eight thousand men at his back, Major-General Wolfe was sent to take it.
Up the St. Lawrence sailed the British warships making their way safely through the rocks and sand-banks of the treacherous passage, passing where the French would hardly have dared risk small merchant vessels. "Ay, ay, my dear," laughed one brave old salt, "I'll convince you that an Englishman shall go where a Frenchman dare not show his nose."
Wolfe made his camp upon the Island of Orleans, just below Quebec, and the siege began. But the days and weeks went past, and in spite of all that he could do, Quebec seemed no nearer being taken. The country round about was a desert. The houses of Quebec were shattered and ruined by the British guns, but safe within the walls the brave and wary French general, Montcalm, waited and watched. He waited the coming of winter, when the mighty St. Lawrence would be one frozen mass. For before then, he knew that the British ships must sail away, or be crushed like matchwood in the hungry jaws of the ice king.
"You may ruin the town," said one Frenchman, "but you will never get inside."
"I will have Quebec if I stay here till the end of November," replied Wolfe.
Day by day the British army was weakened by disease and death. Wolfe, himself, who had never been strong, became so ill that he could no longer go among his soldiers cheering them with brave words and smiles. He lay in bed, helpless and in pain, downcast, and almost in despair.
But as he lay there he resolved to make one more effort to gain the town. Up the steep cliffs there led a little pathway, so narrow that only one man could go at a time, so dangerous that it was but carelessly watched. Up this pathway Wolfe determined to lead his men. It was a plan daring almost to madness. Had it failed, it would have been called madness. It did not fail.
When Wolfe had once made up his mind, no danger made him afraid. Soon his plans were ready. Yet he had little hope of success. Before he made the attempt he wrote home to Pitt a letter showing how sad he was, "despairing as much as heroes can despair," it was said of him.
The night chosen for the adventure was dark and clear. There was no moon, but thousands of stars glittered and twinkled, as silently Wolfe's men stepped into the boats, and were carried across to the point where they were to land.
No one spoke, the gentle dip of muffled oars was the only sound. Wolfe, pale and thin, feeble of body, but eager of spirit, sat among his officers. As the boats moved slowly along, he repeated softly a poem called "An Elegy in a Country Churchyard," which had been written not long before by the poet Gray. "Gentlemen," said Wolfe, as he finished, "I would rather have written that poem than take Quebec."
Slowly the boats drifted on through the silent darkness. Suddenly a voice rang out through the night. "Who goes there?" cried a French sentry from the shore.
"France," replied a Highland officer, who was in one of the first boats, and who could speak French well.
"What regiment?" asked the sentinel.
"'The Queen's,'" replied the officer. Fortunately he knew that the French were expecting some boats with food to come down the river, and that "The Queen's" regiment would be guarding them.
The sentinel was satisfied. "Pass," he said, and the boats passed on with their loads of anxious, eager men.
But the danger was not over. Again they were challenged. Again the Highland officer replied. He spoke softly, fearing to speak too clearly lest his accent should betray him. But the sentinel was suspicious. "Why don't you speak louder?" he asked.
"Hush!" said the Highlander, "we are boats with food. Don't make a noise, the British will hear us."
Once more the sentinel was deceived, and in safety the boats at length reached the landing-place.
Wolfe was among the first to spring to shore. Quickly the men followed. For a moment their leader stood looking up at the rugged, frowning cliff which rose two hundred feet sheer above him. It was far more steep than even he had thought. "You can try it," he said calmly to an officer near him, "but I don't think you will get up."
Not get up! With such a leader! The climb began. Hot and panting, clinging to roots of trees, branches, bushes, slipping and stumbling, the men went on.
As they neared the top, the rustling of the bushes caught the ear of the sentinel above. "Who goes there?"
"France," replied the same Highland officer who had already saved the boats from discovery.
But this time the sentinel was not deceived. A few shots were fired at random into the darkness. It was too late. The first man had gained the top. In a few minutes Highlanders swarmed over the edge of the cliff. The French guard was overpowered and silenced, and when the sun rose it shone upon four thousand red coats drawn up in battle array upon the Heights of Abraham, as the place was called.
Breathless, panic-stricken messengers hurried with the news to the brave French commander. With white set face, and eyes hard and fixed, Montcalm looked across the plain to where the silent army stood. The long, red line showed clear against the dark wood and heavy sky, and where the sun broke through the clouds it caught the glitter of steel.
"We must crush them," said Montcalm.
Not till ten o'clock did the battle begin. Then Montcalm's men advanced. Indians terrible in war-paint and scalps, gay French soldiers, daring reckless Canadians, on they came. In quivering silence the British awaited them. Then the order to charge was given. The air was rent with British cheers, and the defiant scream of the bagpipes mingled with the Indian war-cry.
"Slipping and stumbling, the men went on."
The fight was short and deadly. Everywhere amid the havoc strode Wolfe, pale and calm. A shot struck him in the wrist. Hastily tying his handkerchief round it, he went on. Again he was struck. Still he kept on. A third shot sent him staggering to the ground.
Quickly his officers carried him out of the fight. "It is all over with me," he said, as they laid him gently down. Then he lay still.
Suddenly one of the officers who stood beside him cried out, "They run! they run!"
"Who run?" asked Wolfe, raising himself.
"The enemy, sir," replied the officer; "they give way everywhere."
"Now, God be praised!" cried Wolfe, "I die in peace!" Then he turned on his side and spoke no more.
Carried along by the rush of fleeing soldiers, Montcalm, sorely wounded, was borne back to Quebec. Streaming with blood, reeling in pain, he still sat upon his horse, and so was hurried within the gate. There all was terror and confusion. "Alas! Alas!" cried a woman in the crowd, as she saw the general's stricken face and blood-stained coat, "Alas! Alas! the Marquess is killed!"
"It is nothing, it is nothing," he replied. "Do not trouble about me, my good friends." But even as he spoke he fell from his horse.
Montcalm too, like his gallant foe, was dying. "So much the better for me," he sighed; "I shall not live to see Quebec surrender." So he died, and with him died the hope of France in America.
Montcalm was buried in a convent within the walls of Quebec in a coffin hastily made, in a grave more hastily dug. Years later a British governor placed a marble slab over the spot. Upon it were the words, "Honour to Montcalm. Fate robbing him of victory gave him a glorious death."
When the great news of the taking of Quebec reached England there was much rejoicing. But it was a sort of mournful triumph, and although bonfires blazed and bells rang, hearts were sad for the loss of the brave young leader.
In one village there was no rejoicing. No bonfire was lit, no bell was rung, no cheer was heard in the street, for there, in a darkened house, a widowed mother mourned her boy. And the villagers, who had known and loved him too, felt her loss greater than a nation's triumph.
Upon the Heights of Abraham there stands a monument. It was placed there in memory of the heroes of the siege of Quebec. Upon the one side is carved "Montcalm," upon the other, "Wolfe."
"The breezy call of incense-breathing morn,
The swallow twitt'ring from the straw-built shed,
The cock's shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.
For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
Or busy housewife ply her evening care;
No children run to lisp their sire's return,
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th' inevitable hour,
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansions call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour's voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flatt'ry soothe the dull cold ear of Death?"
These are a few verses of the poem which Wolfe repeated as he crossed the St. Lawrence. Perhaps no more beautiful words could be found in which to mourn a hero's death.