CHAPTER I. THE BOY 1727-1741
Wolfe was a soldier born. Many of his ancestors had stood ready to fight for king and country at a moment's notice. His father fought under the great Duke of Marlborough in the war against France at the beginning of the eighteenth century. His grandfather, his great-grandfather, his only uncle, and his only brother were soldiers too. Nor has the martial spirit deserted the descendants of the Wolfes in the generation now alive. They are soldiers still. The present head of the family, who represented it at the celebration of the tercentenary of the founding of Quebec, fought in Egypt for Queen Victoria; and the member of it who represented Wolfe on that occasion, in the pageant of the Quebec campaign, is an officer in the Canadian army under George V.
The Wolfes are of an old and honourable line. Many hundreds of years ago their forefathers lived in England and later on in Wales. Later still, in the fifteenth century, before America was discovered, they were living in Ireland. Wolfe's father, however, was born in England; and, as there is no evidence that any of his ancestors in Ireland had married other than English Protestants, and as Wolfe's mother was also English, we may say that the victor of Quebec was a pure-bred Englishman. Among his Anglo-Irish kinsmen were the Goldsmiths and the Seymours. Oliver Goldsmith himself was always very proud of being a cousin of the man who took Quebec.
Wolfe's mother, to whom he owed a great deal of his genius; was a descendant of two good families in Yorkshire. She was eighteen years younger than his father, and was very tall and handsome. Wolfe thought there was no one like her. When he was a colonel, and had been through the wars and at court, he still believed she was 'a match for all the beauties.' He was not lucky enough to take after her in looks, except in her one weak feature, a cutaway chin. His body, indeed, seems to have been made up of the bad points of both parents: he had his rheumatism from his father. But his spirit was made up of all their good points; and no braver ever lived in any healthy body than in his own sickly, lanky six foot three.
Wolfe's parents went to live at Westerham in Kent shortly after they were married; and there, on January 2, 1727, in the vicarage - where Mrs Wolfe was staying while her husband was away on duty with his regiment - the victor of Quebec was born. Two other houses in the little country town of Westerham are full of memories of Wolfe. One of these was his father's, a house more than two hundred years old when he was born. It was built in the reign of Henry VII, and the loyal subject who built it had the king's coat of arms carved over the big stone fireplace. Here Wolfe and his younger brother Edward used to sit in the winter evenings with their mother, while their veteran father told them the story of his long campaigns. So, curiously enough, it appears that Wolfe, the soldier who won Canada for England in 1759, sat under the arms of the king in whose service the sailor Cabot hoisted the flag of England over Canadian soil in 1497. This house has been called Quebec House ever since the victory in 1759. The other house is Squerryes Court, belonging then and now to the Warde family, the Wolfes' closest friends. Wolfe and George Warde were chums from the first day they met. Both wished to go into the Army; and both, of course, 'played soldiers,' like other virile boys. Warde lived to be an old man and actually did become a famous cavalry leader. Perhaps when he charged a real enemy, sword in hand, at the head of thundering squadrons, it may have flashed through his mind how he and Wolfe had waved their whips and cheered like mad when they galloped their ponies down the common with nothing but their barking dogs behind them.
Wolfe's parents presently moved to Greenwich, where he was sent to school at Swinden's. Here he worked quietly enough till just before he entered on his 'teens. Then the long-pent rage of England suddenly burst in war with Spain. The people went wild when the British fleet took Porto Bello, a Spanish port in Central America. The news was cried through the streets all night. The noise of battle seemed to be sounding all round Swinden's school, where most of the boys belonged to naval and military families. Ships were fitting out in English harbours. Soldiers were marching into every English camp. Crowds were singing and cheering. First one boy's father and then another's was under orders for the front. Among them was Wolfe's father, who was made adjutant-general to the forces assembling in the Isle of Wight. What were history and geography and mathematics now, when a whole nation was afoot to fight! And who would not fight the Spaniards when they cut off British sailors' ears? That was an old tale by this time; but the flames of anger threw it into lurid relief once more.
Wolfe was determined to go and fight. Nothing could stop him. There was no commission for him as an officer. Never mind! He would go as a volunteer and win his commission in the field. So, one hot day in July 1740, the lanky, red-haired boy of thirteen-and-a-half took his seat on the Portsmouth coach beside his father, the veteran soldier of fifty-five. His mother was a woman of much too fine a spirit to grudge anything for the service of her country; but she could not help being exceptionally anxious about the dangers of disease for a sickly boy in a far-off land of pestilence and fever. She had written to him the very day he left. But he, full of the stir and excitement of a big camp, had carried the letter in his pocket for two or three days before answering it. Then he wrote her the first of many letters from different seats of war, the last one of all being written just before he won the victory that made him famous round the world.
Newport, Isle of Wight, August 6th, 1740.