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Fifteen years have gone by, and a few months. In December 1775, on the rock of Quebec, Great Britain clung with a last desperate grip upon Canada, which on that September day in 1760 had passed so completely into her hands.
All through December the snow had fallen almost incessantly; and almost incessantly, through the short hours of daylight, the American riflemen, from their lodgings in the suburbs close under the walls, had kept up a fire on the British defenders of Quebec. For the assailants of Great Britain now were her own children; and the man who led them was a British subject still, and but three years ago had been a British officer.
Men see their duty by different lights, but Richard Montgomery had always seen his clearly. He had left the British Army for sufficient cause; had sought America, and married an American wife. He served the cause of political freedom now, and meant to serve it so as to win an imperishable name. The man whom King George had left for ten years a captain had been promoted by Congress Brigadier-General at a stroke. It recognised the greatness of which his own soul had always assured him. "Come what will," he had promised his young wife at parting, "you shall never be ashamed of me." His men adored him for his enthusiasm, his high and almost boyish courage, his dash, his bright self-confidence.
And his campaign had been a triumph. Ticonderoga and Crown Point had fallen before him. He had swept down the Richelieu, capturing St. John's, Chambly, Sorel. Montreal had capitulated without a blow. And so success had swept him on to the cliffs of Quebec--there to dash itself and fail as a spent wave.
He would not acknowledge this; not though smallpox had broken out among his troops and they, remembering that their term of service was all but expired, began to talk of home; not though his guns, mounted on frozen mounds, had utterly failed to batter a way into the city. As a subaltern he had idolised Wolfe, and here on the ground of Wolfe's triumphant stroke he still dreamed of rivalling it. In Quebec a cautious phlegmatic British General sat and waited, keeping, as the moonless nights drew on, his officers ready against surprise. For a week they had slept in their clothes and with their arms beside them.
From the lower town of Quebec a road, altered since beyond recognition, ran along the base of Cape Diamond between the cliff and the river. As it climbed it narrowed to a mere defile, known as Pres-de-Ville, having the scarped rock on one hand and on the other a precipice dropping almost to the water's edge. Across this defile the British had drawn a palisade and built, on the edge of the pass above, a small three-pounder battery, with a hangar in its rear to shelter the defenders.
Soon after midnight on the last morning of the year, a man came battling his way down from the upper town to the Pres-de-Ville barrier. A blinding snow-storm raged through the darkness, and although it blew out of the north the cliff caught its eddies and beat them back swirling about the useless lantern he carried. The freshly fallen snow encumbering his legs held him steady against the buffets of the wind; and foot by foot, feeling his way--for he could only guess how near lay the edge of the precipice--he struggled toward the stream of light issuing from the hangar.
As he reached it the squall cleared suddenly. He threw back his snow-caked hood and gazed up at the citadel on the cliff. The walls aloft there stood out brilliant against the black heavens, and he muttered approvingly; for it was he who, as Officer of the Works, had suggested to the Governor the plan of hanging out lanterns and firepots from the salient angles of the bastions; and he flattered himself that, if the enemy intended an assault up yonder, not a dog could cross the great ditch undetected.
But it appeared to him that the men in the hangar were not watching too alertly, or they would never have allowed him to draw so near unchallenged.
He was lifting a hand to hammer on the rough door giving entrance from the rear, when it was flung open and a man in provincial uniform peered out upon the night.
"Is that you, Captain Chabot?" asked the visitor.
The man in the doorway smothered an exclamation. "The wind was driving the snow in upon us by the shovelful," he explained. "We are keeping a sharp enough look-out down the road."
"So I perceived," answered John a Cleeve curtly, and stepped past him into the hangar. About fifty men stood packed there in a steam of breath around the guns--the most of them Canadians and British militiamen, with a sprinkling of petticoated sailors.
"Who is working these?" asked John a Cleeve, laying his hand on the nearest three-pounder.
"Captain Barnsfare." A red-faced seaman stepped forward and saluted awkwardly: Adam Barnsfare, master of the Tell transport.
"Your crew all right, captain?"
"All right, sir."
"The Governor sends me down with word that he believes the enemy means business to-night. Where's your artilleryman?"
"Sergeant McQuarters, sir? He stepped down, a moment since, to the barrier, to keep the sentry awake."
John a Cleeve glanced up at the lamp smoking under the beam.
"You have too much light here," he said. "If McQuarters has the guns well pointed, you need only one lantern for your lintstocks."
He blew out the candle in his own, and reaching up a hand, lowered the light until it was all but extinct. As he did so his hood fell back and the lamp-rays illumined his upturned face for two or three seconds; a tired face, pinched just now with hard living and wakefulness, but moulded and firmed by discipline. Fifteen years had bitten their lines deeply about the under-jaw and streaked the temples with grey. But they had been years of service; and, whatever he had missed in them, he had found self-reliance.
He stepped out upon the pent of the hangar, and, with another glance up at the night, plunged into the deep snow, and trudged his way down to the barricade.
"Here sir!" The Highlander saluted in the darkness, "Any word from up yonder, sir?" A faint glow touched the outline of his face as he lifted it toward the illuminated citadel.
"The Governor looks for an assault to-night. So you know me, McQuarters?"
"By your voice, sir," answered McQuarters, and added quaintly, "Ah, but it was different weather in those days!"
"Ay," said John, "we have come around by strange roads; you an artilleryman, and I--" He broke off, musing. For a moment, standing there knee-deep in snow, he heard the song of the waters, saw the forests again, the dripping ledges, the cool, pendant boughs, and smelt the fragrance of the young spruces. The spell of the woodland silence held him, and he listened again for the rustle of wild life in the undergrowth.
"Hist! What was that?"
"Another squall coming, sir. It's on us too, and a rasper!"
But, as the snow-charged gust swept down and blinded them in its whirl, John leaned towards McQuarters and lifted his voice sharply.
"It was more than that--Hark you!" He gripped McQuarters' arm and pointed to the barricade, over which for an instant a point of steel had glimmered. "Back, man!--back to the guns!" he yelled to the sentry. But the man was already running; and together the three floundered back to the hangar. Behind them blows were already sounding above the howl of the wind; blows of musket-butts hammering on the wooden palisade.
"Steady, men," grunted McQuarters as he reached the pent. "Give them time to break an opening--their files will be nicely huddled by this."
John a Cleeve glanced around and was satisfied. Captain Chabot had his men lined up and ready: two ranks of them, the front rank kneeling.
"Give the word, my lad," said Captain Barnsfare cheerfully, lintstock in hand.
"Fire then!--and God defend Quebec!"
The last words were lost in an explosion which seemed to lift the roof off the hangar. In the flare of it John saw the faces of the enemy--their arms outstretched and snatching at the palisade. Down upon them the grape-shot whistled, tearing through the gale it outstripped, and close on it followed the Canadians' volleys.
Barnsfare had sprung to the second gun. McQuarters nodded to him. . . .
For ten minutes the guns swept the pass. The flame of them lit up no faces now by the shivered palisade, and between the explosions came no cheering from down the road. The riflemen loaded, fired, and reloaded; but they aimed into darkness and silence.
Captain Chabot lifted a hand.
The squall had swept by. High in the citadel, drums were beating; and below, down by the waterside to the eastward, volleys of musketry crackled sharply. But no sound came up the pass of Pres-de-Ville.
"That will be at the Sault-au-Matelot barrier," said McQuarters, nodding his head in the direction of the musketry.
"We've raked decks here, anyhow," Captain Barnsfare commented, peering down the road; and one or two Canadians volunteered to descend and explore the palisade. For a while Captain Chabot demurred, fearing that the Americans might have withdrawn around the angle of the cliff and be holding themselves in ambush there.
"A couple of us could make sure of that," urged John. "They have left their wounded, at all events, as you may hear by the groans. With your leave, Captain--"
Captain Chabot yielded the point, and John with a corporal and a drummer descended the pass.
A dozen bodies lay heaped by the palisade. For the moment he could not stay to attend to them, but, passing through, followed the road down to the end of its curve around the cliff. Two corpses lay here of men who, mortally wounded, had run with the crowd before dropping to rise no more. The tracks in the snow told plainly enough that the retreat had been a stampede.
Returning to the palisade he shouted up that the coast was clear, and fell to work searching the faces of the fallen. The fresh snow, in which they lay deep, had already frozen about them; and his eye, as he swung the lantern slowly round, fell on a hand and arm which stood up stiffly above the white surface.
He stepped forward, flashing his lantern on the dead man's face--and dropped on his knees beside it.
"Do you know him, sir?" McQuarters' voice was speaking, close by.
"I know him," answered John dully, and groped and found a thin blade which lay beside the corpse. "He was my cousin, and once my best friend."
He felt the edge of the sword with his gloved hand, all the while staring at the arm pointing upwards and fixed in the rigor of death, frozen in its last gesture as Richard Montgomery had lifted it to wave forward his men. And as if the last thirty or forty minutes had never been, he found himself saying to McQuarters:
"We have come around by strange roads, sergeant, and some of us have parted with much on the way."
He looked up; but his gaze, travelling past McQuarters who stooped over the corpse, fell on the figure of a woman who had approached and halted at three paces' distance; a hooded figure in the dress of the Hospitalieres.
Something in her attitude told him that she had heard. He arose, holding the lantern high; and stared, shaking, into a face which no uncomely linen swathings could disguise from him--into eyes which death only would teach him to forget.
The fatigue-party lifted the corpse. So Richard Montgomery entered Quebec as he had promised--a General of Brigade.
The drums had ceased to call the alarm from the Citadel; musketry no longer crackled in the riverside quarter of Sault-au-Matelot. The assault had been beaten off, and close on four hundred prisoners were being marched up the hill followed by crowds of excited Quebecers. But John a Cleeve roamed the streets at random, alone, unconscious that all the while he gripped the hilt of his cousin's naked sword.
He was due to carry his report to the Governor. By and by he remembered this, and ploughed his way up the snowy incline to the Citadel. The sentry told him that the Governor was at the Seminary; had gone down half an hour ago, to number and take the names of the prisoners. John turned back.
Some two hundred prisoners were drawn up in the great hall of the Seminary, and from the doorway John spied the Governor at the far end, interrogating them.
"Eh?" Carleton turned, caught sight of him and smiled gaily. "I fancy, Mr. a Cleeve, your post is going to be a sinecure after to-night's work. Chabot reports that you were at Pres-de-Ville and discovered General Montgomery's body."
He turned at the sound of a murmur among the prisoners behind him. One or two had turned to the wall and were weeping audibly. Others stared at John and one or two pointed.
John, following their eyes, looked down at the sword in his hand and stammered an apology.
"Excuse me--I did not know that I carried it. . . . Sirs, believe me, I intended no offence! Richard Montgomery was my cousin."
From the Seminary he walked back to his quarters, meaning to snatch a few hours' sleep before daybreak. But having lit his candle, he found that he could not undress. The narrow room stifled him. He flung the sword on his bed, and went down to the streets again.
Dawn found him pacing the narrow sidewalk opposite a small log house in St. Louis Street. Lights shone from the upper storey. In the room to the right they had laid Montgomery's body, and were arraying it for burial.
The house door opened, and a lamp in the passage behind it cast a broadening ray across the snow. A woman stepped out, and, in the act of closing the door, caught sight of him. He made no doubt that she would pass up the street; but, after seeming to hesitate, she came slowly over and stood before him.
"You knew me, then?" she asked.
He bent his head humbly.
"I have seen you many times, and heard of you," she continued. "I heard what you said, down yonder. . . . Has life been so bitter for you?"
He turned towards the house. "He has a noble face," she said, gazing up at the bright window.
"He was a great man."
"And yet he fought in the end against his country."
"He believed that he did right."
"Should you have believed it right?"
John was silent.
He gave a start at the sound of his name and she smiled faintly.
"I have learnt to say it in English, you see."
"Do not mock me, mademoiselle! Fifteen years--"
"That is just what I was going to say. Fifteen years is a very long time--and--and it has not been easy for me, John. I do not think I can do without you any longer."
So in the street, under the dawn, they kissed for the first time.
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