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The Archer of Schwitz
Long, long ago, before Switzerland became the united nation she is to-day, her cantons being more or less independent and knowing little of one another, one of her most powerful nobles became Emperor of Germany, and Switzerland came to be under the protection of the German Empire.
That was hardly an evil while Rudolph of Hapsburg ruled Germany. Rudolph was fiery, impetuous, often indiscreet; but he recognized the independence of the Swiss people, and had no desire to rob them of it. While they rendered him homage as their lord, and Emperor of Germany, he was willing to give them his protection, and to keep his fingers from too much meddling with their government and laws.
Germany in those days chose her rulers by election, so that wise men shook their heads dolefully when a good man's reign came to an end. A good son usually follows a good father; but the son of an unknown man comes with mixed credentials. Thus the Swiss rejoiced when, but a short time after Rudolph's death, his son Albrecht, Duke of Austria, was elected Emperor of Germany.
Switzerland's joy was short-lived. Albrecht proved to be an unworthy son of his father. His character was cruel, and harsh, and treacherous. The independence of the Swiss only roused in him a desire to crush them. So far, things were bad; but worse was to come.
Albrecht had ever a fine idea of his own importance. When, one day, a means occurred to him by which he might add to that importance, he hastened joyfully to use it.
The Emperor's idea was that he would make the Swiss subservient to him as Duke of Austria, not allowing them to remain an independent people under Germany's protection.
With this motive prompting him, he recalled the stewards who had visited the various cantons from time to time as the Emperor's representatives; and installed in each canton a governor to live there, and report of the people.
Albrecht chose for governors the harshest and most overbearing of men; for he meant by the aid of these men to oppress the people, and bring them into his power. But to the forest cantons he sent the worst of all, knowing that independent spirit which wind and space and storm breed in a man.
"Break ye the wings of these eagles," said he; "and with the fetters I put upon them I will fetter all Switzerland."
Then he smiled cruelly, for he hated the men of the forest cantons with their stanch beliefs and love of freedom; and he would have liked to pay off many an old score against them.
Round the Lake of Lucerne lay the three forest cantons of Schwitz, Uri, and Unterwalden. When Switzerland awakened to the fact of her oppression, and groaned beneath the yoke of the tyrant, these three cantons rebelled and claimed their freedom. For they had suffered most cruelly of all.
Albrecht had set over Uri and Schwitz a man of a haughty and cruel character, named Gesler; over Unterwalden he had put one not a whit better, named Landenberg. These men and their troopers so harassed the simple folk in their power that a mention of their names was enough to crush gladness out of the liveliest. The men of the forest cantons walked as men walk who are under an evil spell. For the governors lost no opportunity of showing their power. They fined those simple folk for every trivial offence, real or fancied, taxed them till they almost starved in order to meet the taxes, imprisoned them on any pretext, and used other means, even more cruel, to break their spirit.
Gesler, having observed a fine house which had been built by a rich freeman of Schwitz named Werner Stauffacher, stopped and enquired whose house it was.
But Stauffacher, looking into those crafty eyes, replied with caution, knowing well that the governor knew the house to be his: "The house is mine. I hold it through the Emperor, thy lord, and mine."
At this reply Gesler flew into a fury. "Shall it be," cried he, "that boors shall live in houses such as this? I trow not! The Emperor hath a better taste than to allow it. We shall soon see what his will is in the matter!"
And he rode away in anger, while Werner, a free man on his own land which he held from the Emperor, as might any noble, set himself to bear the insult as best he could, the while his thoughts ran into the future with heavy feet.
The folk of the forest cantons were simple in thought and deed. Their men pursued no complex occupations, some were fishermen, others hunters, others merely peasants. Their desire was to live out their lives at peace with all men and in the fear of God.
But the many acts of injustice and oppression they suffered from the governors roused them at last; the insults that flowed so glibly from the governors' lips began to work like a poison in their veins: the people of the forest cantons murmured.
Yet matters had not suddenly come to an issue, had not Landenberg, the governor of Unterwalden, stirred up with a careless hand this smouldering fire, and set it ablaze.
One of the richer farmers of Unterwalden possessed a fine team of oxen which Landenberg, casting an eye upon them, coveted.
Having cudgelled well his brains, he discovered an excuse which might serve his purpose, and priming his men with it, he sent them to seize the oxen.
Now when the governor's men appeared, the farmer's son was guiding this same team across a field. When he perceived the messengers, he asked them with what purpose they were come.
"The governor hath sent us to fetch his oxen," said they. Without more ado they began to release the oxen from the plough. And as they released them they made themselves merry with the joke.
"Sirs, ere ye steal my father's oxen," cried Arnold hotly, "I pray ye tell me of what offence he hath been guilty."
At this speech one of the fellows but half-jerked an ear toward him, continuing his task. Said he: "That matter it is permitted to thee to discover, since thou art of a curious turn of mind. For the rest, I am bidden to say that, if the peasants of Unterwalden desire their land ploughed, they may plough it themselves, since it is a task for which they are well fit."
When he heard this speech, the youth was so incensed that he struck the fellow, breaking two of his fingers. And immediately after, fearing the governor's wrath, which he knew would be out of all proportion to his offence, he fled.
The path through the mountains was better known to him than to Landenberg's men, who pursued him; and in no great period of time young Arnold Melchtal reached the lake.
A storm was upon it, lashing the waters into great billows and showers of spindrift spray. The sky was dark and violent, the wind ran down from the mountains in a roar.
At the side of the lake the fishermen were gathered, watching this war of the elements. When young Melchtal arrived they listened with darkening faces to his story, casting glances of sympathy at the youth's set pale face. But they refused him his prayer, that they would bear him across the lake.
"Look upon the waters!" cried they. "A boat launched there would be as an egg-shell upon the stream. Nay, to put out would be to court death. We cannot do it."
"I court a-more cruel death by remaining here, where Landenberg's troopers will surely find me!" said the youth gloomily; and the others shuddered, thinking of the governor's revenge. But they had wives and children, every one, and they would not put out a boat.
"Then I go alone," said Melchtal in a reckless tone.
He had done so, there and then, had not the figure of a man at that moment been seen coming down from the hills.
"'Tis Tell; he knows the lake as well as any fisher," said the fishermen. "Ask him if any boat can cross the lake in a storm such as this."
But Tell, having heard the young man's story, had but one reply to give. "Bear him across," said he to the fishers, "and may God speed ye! If ye gain the other side, ye gain the other side; but if the lad remains here, he surely dies."
"We cannot put out in such a storm," said a fisherman moodily. "We have wives and children; we have to think of these."
And this was the answer of them all.
"God speed us" said he under his breath. "Only His power can hold up the boat."
And, indeed, a dozen times it seemed as if they must have gone to the bottom; and none of the fishermen who watched with bated breath had hope of a good end to the boat's journey. Yet, by the grace of God, and by virtue of the stout arm and cool head of William Tell, that good end was secured; and Arnold Melchtal sought refuge in the house of the brave free-man Werner Stauffacher, knowing well that his hiding-place would not be betrayed.
Landenberg sought him high and low, but without hearing the spot in which he lay hidden. Whereupon, finding that the young man had escaped him, he summoned to him the father of the youth, a man of a good age, grey-headed and feeble, and had his eyes put out.
This cruel deed sent the forest cantons into a blaze, so that the people would have risen with one voice to protest against it had not they feared that the protest would but double the governor's cruelties.
There is a steep promontory that rears its jutting head over the Lake of Lucerne. On this promontory lay a lovely meadow, secluded and lonely, which was named Rutli. Here, when the night was still and the lucent skies sparkling with stars, three men met to discuss a matter that had little to do with the brilliant stars and quiet lake: how to rid the cantons of their oppressors and prevent the recurrence of evil deeds.
These three men were: Werner Stauffacher of Schwitz, he who was threatened with the loss of the house he had built; Arnold Melchtal of Unterwalden, who burned to avenge his father's wrongs; and Walter Furst of Uri, who was the father-in-law of William Tell.
As for William Tell, he met not in the council. "I am a man of deeds," said he, "and of words I know little. When ye have a work for me to do, then comes mine hour."
And they, knowing well the great bravery of the man, his dauntless heart, and the skill he had in archery, were well content this should be so.
These three men offered prayer to God to direct them, and having done so, they decided after much discussion that they were not required to bear the wrongs that had been put upon them by Albrecht and his governors – though they doubted somewhat whether Albrecht knew of all the ill deeds of his men – and might defend themselves from them.
Therefore they decided to discover, each man in his own canton, if the people were minded to make a stand against their oppressors.
On St. Martin's Eve, a little time later, they met again, and each man brought with him ten trusty men from his own district, that in a wider council the true mind of the people might be discovered.
And the true mind of the people was that they should rise against the governors; but whereas the men of Schwitz and Uri were for immediate action, those of Unterwalden, being of a more cautious mind, counselled a further waiting that the people might be the better prepared, and victory the more sure.
Now it is likely that Unterwalden would have prevailed in her counsel of delay had not a new act of tyranny hastened matters, sending the cantons into action almost before they realized what they did.
Gesler, governor of Schwitz and Uri, being drunk with power, and stupid with his own harrying of the people, bethought him of a new tyranny, as dangerous as it was absurd. In his folly he commanded that the ducal hat of Austria should be raised on a pole in the market-place, and that every man should do obeisance to it as he passed by. (And there are chroniclers who declare that the hat was the hat of Gesler, making the matter so much the worse; but as to that I can say nothing, for it is not properly known what hat it was.)
Said Gesler: "To this hat every man shall bow the knee as he passes by, in token of his fealty. And if any be traitor, and will not do this thing, he shall be cast into prison, and lose all that he hath."
And he stationed soldiers by the pole that they should see to the observance of his command.
Then were the people of the cantons greatly troubled, for they had no wish to bow to the power of Austria, since they recognized .in Albrecht their lord only as Emperor of Germany; but neither did they wish to fall into the hands of the governor's soldiers, and suffer insult and disgrace.
Then came forward a good priest, who was fain to save the honour of the men of Uri and Schwitz, and he set himself by the pole, so that men doing reverence there might give that reverence to Heaven. But when Gesler heard of this evasion he was filled with anger, and although he dared not molest the man of God, he ordered that he should be removed from beside the pole.
Now it happened that William Tell, the archer, was passing through the market-place of Altoff with his son when he observed a group of men talking together, as if there were some disturbance, and coming close upon them, he perceived the pole which the soldiers guarded, and upon it the ducal hat.
And, not understanding the meaning of these things, he was about to question a neighbour, when a soldier seized him roughly by the arm, and commanded him that he should make his obeisance to the hat.
"This is a fool's trick," said Tell, "and I will not be deceived by it." And with that he turned away.
But the soldier, retaining his grip of him, replied: "This is no fool's trick, but an invention of Gesler, the lord governor, by which he may test the loyalty of the men of Uri and Schwitz. For well the governor knows that there are traitors in these cantons. Now, look well upon the hat, for it is the ducal hat of Austria; and when thou hast observed it, yield the reverence which thou owest and the governor demands."
"Nay," said Tell, "I am a freeborn Swiss, and owe no allegiance to Austria. I will never bow to the Austrian yoke."
These words he could not be made to retract, no matter what was said.
Therefore the soldiers seized him and his son, and brought them before the governor.
"This man," said they, "hath refused with contempt to obey thine order and do reverence to the hat, for which reason we have seized him and brought him before thee."
When Gesler heard this report he was seized with an anger so great that he would have had Tell put to death there and then had he dared. But since the prisoner was a man of some fame as an archer, and welL esteemed in the cantons, he dared not do this. Therefore Gesler meditated some other device of cruelty.
And when he had meditated for some time a smile began to grow upon his lips, and it grew greater and greater, as if the governor harboured some thought that pleased him well.
Then said he at last to his soldiers: "Is not this William Tell that cunning archer of whose skill as a marksman I have heard great things?"
"He is indeed that archer, my lord," said the guard. "So great is my father's skill," cried young Walter Tell, "that he can hit a bird on the wing; or, at one hundred paces, split an apple so that it falls from the tree."
"I am well content," said Gesler. "Listen, good archer, and know my merciful punishment of thine offence. Know that my first purpose was that thou shouldst suffer death for this great disobedience. Later came more merciful thoughts – as is ever the case with me – and I considered how by thine own skill thy life might be gained to thee.
"Guard, take the boy, bind him to yonder linden tree, and place an apple upon his head. Archer, if thine eye be as true, and thine arm as steady as hath been said, all goes well with thee. Let the apple on the boy's head be pierced and fall, and thy life is again thine. 'My father can make the hit at one hundred paces,' saith the boy. I will be generous, and will allow thee twenty paces. Therefore, guard, set the archer but eighty paces distant from the boy; and let no man say that I am not merciful."
The governor had no sooner finished speaking than a cry of horror broke from the soldiers, and from the nobles who were with Gesler; for even the most hardened liked little to see a father thus forced to risk the life of his son. But Tell was silent. One might have said that he was a man carven of stone.
"If his skill be as great as hath been said, he chances little," said Gesler coldly. "If not, then had he better have restrained the boasting of his son."
Tell had heard nothing of the cry from the nobles or of the governor's reply; but he woke now from his stupor to throw himself at Gesler's feet.
"My lord," cried he in anguish, "take my life if thou wilt, for a brave man fears not his own death; but bid me not thus threaten the life of my son! The hand of the marksman should be sure and steady when he speeds the shaft; how shall mine be calm, when my son's life hangs upon my skill?"
"Nay," said Gesler cruelly, "the hunter's aim is surest when danger presses closest. Haste thee, Tell, take thy bow into thy hand, lest men ask of thee where is thy vaunted cunning."
"My father," cried Walter, "have no fear for me. Well I know the sureness of thine aim, and that I shall come to no ill by thy shaft. But, sirs, I pray ye, bind me not to the tree. I shall stand quite still the while I await my father's aim. Is not this the best day of my life – when I show my belief in him?"
Hearing those brave words from the boy, the nobles besought Gesler that he would consider another means of punishment; but he turned a deaf ear, declaring that the archer should send his arrow, and prove his skill.
Now the child took up his position beneath the linden tree, and his face said that he was not afraid. And Tell was placed eighty paces distant, amid the murmurs of the lookers-on.
And when Tell had lifted one arrow, and set it ready to use it, he lifted another, and hid that one in his bosom.
Then he made ready, and, taking aim, the shaft sped through the air. And its flight had almost been heard, so great was the silence, for there was not a man that dared to draw a breath.
Now the silence was broken by the fall of the apple, and close upon the heels of that click-click came a shout from the nobles near Gesler, for they forgot the governor, and thought not what his humour must be as the apple fell.
Gesler was indeed dark and silent, for as William tell bent his head in thanksgiving, the governor saw the second arrow fall from his bosom.
And when the silence had endured for a few moments so that all the crowd began to wonder at it, the governor spake.
"See," said he to Tell, "the arrow which hath fallen from thy bosom to the ground. Thinkest thou that I marked not thy choice of a second arrow? Full well I marked the deed. Now tell me why thou madest choice of more arrows than one?"
Tell would not at first answer this question. But when the governor pressed him rudely, his anger became too much for him, and remembering how his life was promised to him, he replied: "My lord, had the first shaft taken my son's life, the second had surely found a resting-place in thine own heart."
At these words Gesler turned pale with wrath and dread, fearing the desperation of this man; and he regretted that he had promised him his life. Nor dared he break that promise, since it had been given in the hearing of all.
"Wretch," cried he in a fury, "it is true that thy life is promised thee, but know that it shall be spent where neither the sun's light nor the moon's shall reach thee!"
And he ordered that the archer should be bound and borne to his – Gesler's – boat; for the governor's intention was to bear him to his castle, Kussnacht, which stood at the other end of the lake.
The people who had gathered to watch the trial, murmured at this unjust order; but none would interfere; and the governor's boat, containing him, his men, and the prisoner, went on its way.
But it had not gone far before a storm arose, such as is common upon that lake; and there was none present in the boat who could guide it, save only William Tell.
Therefore the governor commanded that Tell should be released from his bonds that he might guide the boat. And when he had taken it some distance, the archer steered his course toward a rocky peak on the side of the great Axenberg. And having neared the peak, he seized bow and arrows, and with a great leap left the boat, which went onward down the lake.
This last act Of injustice on Gesler's part had so excited the archer that he decided to rid his country of this tyrant. With this intention he secreted himself near the governor's castle, and when Gesler, having escaped in some marvellous fashion the fury of the lake, passed on his way, the archer gave the second arrow the lodgment he had promised it in the tyrant's heart.
Thus died Gesler, and of Tell's share in the matter this only shall be said, that it was the action of a man sorely tried, and distraught with anxiety and grief.
Gesler's last act of tyranny so roused the cantons that they forgot any difference of opinion, and rose together forthwith against the governors. With the help of the God they served they seized the castles of these men and destroyed them, overthrew their soldiers, and defied the harsh laws they had made.
Having succeeded in these things, and swearing to stand by one another, the forest cantons were able to prove to Austrian power that they were, and would remain, a free people. And with the Emperor they made this condition on which rested their allegiance to Germany – that they should never be asked to receive a governor who was not a man of Uri, Schwitz, or Unterwalden.
These things having been accomplished, they were content to go on living their simple lives.