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The Story of France by  Mary Macgregor

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THE TAKING OF QUEBEC

[362] LOUIS XV. was still at the head of his army when the next great battle in the War of the Austrian Succession was fought. The dauphin also was there with his father.

On the eve of the battle the king was in good spirits saying to those around him that it was a long time since a King of France had had his son with him on the battlefield, not, indeed, since the battle of Poitiers.

The commander of the French army was Marshal Saxe who was ill, yet determined to fight even when he was unable to sit his horse. He was, indeed, drawn about in a carriage of osier-work during the latter part of the battle.

It was near the village of Fontenoy, in May 1745, that the French flung themselves in the path of the Dutch and English allies, determined that a battle should be fought.

Close to the village was a ravine held by the French but which the English made up their mind should be theirs.

The Duke of Cumberland ordered his men to advance. Thirty or forty abreast, the English soldiers marched forward as steady as though they were on parade.

From right and left the French cannon played upon them, until whole rows of men fell to the ground. But their places were quickly filled, while steadily the English soldiers marched onward, dragging with them their guns.

At length the English reached the very centre of the French army, and Marshal Saxe began to fear that the king [363] and the dauphin were in danger. He begged them to withdraw from the battlefield, but Louis refused.

Then, urged on by the king himself. Marshal Saxe and the French guards made a determined attack on the solid ranks of the enemy, while their guns still played upon the whole length of the French column.

Had the English at that moment had a great general to direct them, the day might still have been theirs. As it was, after reaching the centre of the French army they hesitated, not knowing what to do next, and before the renewed attack of Marshal Saxe they turned and fled. The French had won the battle of Fontenoy.

This victory so encouraged the French that they took town after town in Holland and Flanders, until the English and Dutch sued for peace.

So, in 1748, peace was signed at Aix-la-Chapelle. All the conquests that had been made during the war were given up, while Maria Theresa was recognised as Queen of Hungary.

After this Louis XV. went back to his palace at Versailles, where he shut himself up, away from his subjects, and as the years passed, saw them less and less.

It was now that he fell under the influence of a clever woman called Madame de Pompadour, who for twenty years ruled France.

The court ladies were indignant that Madame de Pompadour should have so much power. She was of humble birth, they were nobly born, and in their eyes it was more fitting that they should influence the king that this lowly favourite. But they did not dare to show their dislike to her.

The courtiers, too, were forced to be polite to Madame de Pompadour, for she had many gifts to give to those who pleased her. It is true that she often sold the offices of State to whoever offered the largest sum, yet any one who had offended her might be willing to pay the largest sum in vain.

[364] While she ruled France the court lived more gaily every year, spending large sums of money on its amusements and luxuries. And all the while the nobles were feasting the people were starving.

Sometimes a lord more fearless than the others would brave Madame de Pompadour's anger, and try to rouse Louis XV.from his indolence by telling him how his people were suffering, and how his kingdom was being ruined by the extravagance of his favourite.

But the king had not enough energy even to resent such language. Listlessly he would answer, "It (meaning his kingdom) will last as long as I live; those who come after me may do the best they can."

After the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, France had no wars to add to her misery for eight years. Then, in 1756, the Seven Years' War began, in which England and Prussia fought against France and Austria.

Frederick II.,King of Prussia, was a strong and resolute soldier, with whom the French officers, who had been idling their time at the court of Madame de Pompadour, were utterly unfit to cope.

At first, it is true, the French won two or three victories, but before long the Prussians, with only a small part of their army, completely defeated them at Rosbach.

Three years later they lost town after town, and at length in despair the French army fled from the enemy, and leaving eleven thousand soldiers behind as prisoners, succeeded in crossing the Rhine. Even then it could not escape the fury of the Prussians, who followed, and, overtaking the French at Crefeld, forced them to fight. Again they were defeated, and before 1758 they had lost all their possessions on the Rhine, both banks having been seized by the Germans.

One more great battle was fought at Minden, in August 1759, when six regiments of English soldiers marched straight at the centre of the French army, which was ten thousand strong.

[365] The French charged repeatedly, but the English still advanced, steadily, persistently, and actually put to flight the strong body of cavalry which formed the chief strength of the French army.

While these battles were being fought in Germany, the French were also fighting against the English in India and in Canada.

It is of the war in Canada that I wish to tell you now. Canada at this time belonged to France, as did also a large tract of country called Louisiana. Unfortunately the British colonies were so placed that they could not add to their possessions without encroaching on French territory.

Accordingly the British looked sullenly at their neighbours' land, wishing to add it to their own. When they had an opportunity they took French ports, seized French ships, and did all they could to harass their neighbours, while the French longed to drive the British out of Canada altogether.

At last, in 1756, war broke out.

Pitt, who was Prime Minister in England, resolved to put an end to the French power, and sent a young officer called General Wolfe to Canada with an army of eight thousand men.

Wolfe had orders to take Quebec, the capital, for if Quebec fell the French would soon be driven out of the rest of their dominions.

The Canadians were already worn out by conflicts with the English, yet they rose as one man to defend their city.

Even old men and children of twelve years of age, who might have stayed at home without shame, came into the French camp and begged to be allowed to help.

Quebec was built on a high rock, and looked down upon the river St. Lawrence. The town was defended by the brave French general, Montcalm.

For a month, encouraged by their commander, Quebec [366] held out against the repeated assaults of the English. General Wolfe began to grow ill with anxiety lest he should be unable to take the town. He wrote home that he had only "a choice of difficulties left."

There was one path to the city which was carelessly guarded, the French thinking that no army would attempt to climb so steep and rough a road. Sometimes we read that this path was up the face of an apparently impassable cliff, but those who have seen it tell us that it was scarcely so formidable as that.

This difficult path was the one Wolfe chose by which to reach the city.

One dark night, when there was no moonlight to show what was going on, Wolfe ordered his soldiers to embark in boats that were already drawn up close to the bank of the St. Lawrence. Silently the men embarked, silently they were rowed across to the other side, the boats going backward and forward until the whole army stood beneath the town they had come to capture.

"Qui vive?"  ("Who goes there?") cried a sentinel, as the soldiers landed. The British officers answered in such perfect French that the sentinel paid no more attention to the intruders, thinking they were a convoy with long-expected provisions.

On and up the steep pathway the English soldiers then began to scramble. At each step the way seemed steeper, yet with little foothold the men struggled on, getting ever a little nearer and a little nearer to the summit. Quietly as they moved, it was not possible to reach the top unnoticed.

All at once a sentinel, posted on the heights, caught the rustle of leaves, the fall of stones, and quick as lightning his voice rang out, "Qui vive?"  and at the same moment a shot was fired down into the gloom.

But it was too late to hope to stop the English soldiers. On and up they swarmed, and when day broke the English [367] army was drawn up ready for battle on the Plains of Abraham, as the heights were called.

If General Montcalm was dismayed to see the position that his enemy had gained, he showed no fear. Fiercely and courageously he attacked the foe. General Wolfe was wounded, but he paid no attention save to wrap his handkerchief round his wrist, as he went on fighting.

Again he was struck, but still he fought on. A third ball hit him, and this time, sorely wounded, he fell to the ground.

General Wolfe was dying. His officers could do nothing to save him.

Suddenly one of them cried, "See, they run, they run!"

"Who run?" asked the dying soldier, raising himself with a great effort.

"The French, sir," answered the officer.

"Then I am content to die," murmured Wolfe as he fell back and breathed his last.

General Montcalm was also killed, and the town, left without a leader, surrendered.

Thus the French lost Quebec, and with Quebec Canada.

In England this victory caused great joy, but in France the people were dismayed, and it may be also ashamed that they had sent no help to their brave countrymen over the seas.

In 1763 the Seven Years' War came to an end, and a treaty was signed at Paris by which France had to give up to England nearly all that she had ever owned in Canada, as well as the towns she had conquered in India, retaining only a few trading-stations. The Peace of Paris showed plainly that the glory of war had departed from the French.

The year after this treaty Madame de Pompadour died. Calamity after calamity then overtook the king. In 1765 the dauphin died, leaving a little son of eleven years old heir to the throne. Soon after this the queen also died, and [368] for a time it seemed that Louis, sobered by his losses, meant to rouse himself from his selfish ways.

But he soon forgot his new resolutions, finding another favourite to take the place of Madame de Pompadour, and then allowing her to manage his kingdom while he enjoyed his selfish ease.

A few years later, in 1774, Louis XV. died of smallpox, not even mourned by those who had once named him "the Well-beloved."

"Kings owe no account of their conduct save to God alone," Louis XV. had been used to say to his courtiers. But it may be that beneath his breath he would sometimes add, "It is just He whom I fear."

During the reign of Louis XV. a great man named Voltaire lived and wrote. His books, as well as those of Rousseau, who followed him, moulded the thoughts of the French people.

When Voltaire was a lad he was left a legacy on condition that the money should be spent on books. This was no hardship, but a joy to the boy, who even in those early days loved literature.

While he was still a youth he used to give little supper parties. "We are all princes or poets," he cried in sheer delight, as he looked round the table upon his friends. You may guess the kind of lad he was by the companions he had invited.

As he grew older Voltaire got into trouble through his writings. Seeing the indolence and folly of Louis XV., he said, among other bold things, that the country would be better without a king. For this he was sent to the Bastille, and afterwards exiled.

For three years Voltaire lived in England, the pen never dropping from his busy fingers. When he went back to France he gradually became the idol of the people.

In his old age he lived withdrawn from the noise and gaiety of Paris, but when he was eighty-four years of age [369] he returned to the capital to receive the homage of the people. He had always dearly loved their homage, and now it was lavished on the tottering old man to his heart's content. He was fêted, he was taken to the theatre, where one of his own plays was performed. When Voltaire appeared in his box, the whole house rose with shouts of welcome, while a garland was placed on his head by the chief actor. He tried to resist the honour in vain, then, seeing himself crowned, he wept tears of joy.

When all was over he got into his carriage to go home. But the people, in their wild enthusiasm, threw themselves upon the horses and kissed them, while one or two youthful poets tried to unyoke the animals that they might draw the carriage themselves. In this they were unsuccessful, and the old man was allowed to drive away, followed by the loud hurrahs of the people.

Two months later, in May 1778, Voltaire was dead.

In the reign of Louis XVI. you will see in what a terrible way the people fought to gain the liberty of which Voltaire had written in many of his books.


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