William Tell was born toward the close of the thirteenth century. I cannot tell you the precise year of his birth; but in the year 1307 he was a married man, and lived with his wife and children, in the village of Bürglen, near the great town of Altdorf, in the canton of Uri.
Tell maintained his family chiefly by hunting the chamois, and shooting other wild game. So skilful was he in the use of the bow, that the fame of his exploits in that way had obtained for him the name of "The Crossbowman of Bürglen." He was also very skilful in the management of boats upon the lakes. His father had followed the profession of a pilot, and William Tell, though he preferred the life of a hunter, understood the navigation of the lakes better than almost any boatman in the canton of Uri. It was a saying, "That William Tell knew how to handle the rudder as expertly as the bow." In short, he was a person of strong natural talents, who observed on everything he saw, and acquired all the knowledge he could.
Switzerland was at that time in a state of slavery to Albert, Duke of Austria, who had recently been selected Emperor of Germany. He had taken great offence with the Swiss, because they wished Count Adolph of Nassau to be elected Emperor of Germany instead of him. The first use he made of his power was to punish the Swiss for having favoured the cause of his rival; and he was so unwise as to declare publicly, "that he would no longer treat them as subjects, but as slaves." In pursuance of this wicked resolution he deprived them of many of their rights and privileges, and altered their ancient laws and customs.
By these proceedings the Emperor rendered his government very unpopular, and when he found that the people expressed dissatisfaction, he built castles and fortresses all over the country, and filled them with soldiers to awe the people into submission. In each of these fortresses he placed a governor, who exercised despotic power in the district over which his sway extended. The inhabitants of the canton Uri, in particular, had to complain of the oppression of their German governor, Gessler, who had committed several murders, and acted in such a manner as to excite general indignation, by his pride, cruelty, and injustice. The whole country was indeed ripe for a revolt, in case an opportunity should occur of throwing off the German yoke.
One cold autumnal evening, the blaze of the cheerful fire which the wife of William Tell had kindled on the hearth, against her husband's return, gleamed through the rude latticed casements of their cottage window. The earthern floor of the humble dwelling had been freshly swept; a clean cloth of the matron's own spinning, was spread on the homely board, which was garnished with wooden bowls and spoons of the most snowy whiteness; and a kettle of fish-soup, with herbs, was stewing over the fire. Some flat oaten cakes, designed to be eaten hot with butter, were baking on the hearth.
The babe was sleeping peacefully in the cradle; two or three of the other little ones, weary with their sportive play, had been laid in their cribs. Henric and Lewis, two lovely boys of five and six years old, having promised to be very good, if allowed to sit up till their father's return, were watching their mother, who was employed in roasting a fine fat quail which their cousin, Lalotte, who had arrived at the discreet age of fourteen, was basting, and spinning the string by which it was suspended before the fire.
"Mother," said Henric, "if my father does not come home very soon, that quail will be done too much."
"What then?" asked Lalotte.
"I was thinking, cousin Lalotte, that it would be a pity for it to be spoiled, after you and mother have taken so much pains in cooking it; and it smells so very good."
"Oh, fie! you greedy child; you want to eat the bird that is cooking for your father's supper," said Lalotte. "If I were my aunt, I would send you to bed only for thinking of such a thing."
"You are not the mistress—you are not the mistress!" cried the sturdy rebel Henric; "and I shall not go to bed at your desire."
"But you shall go to bed, young sir, if your cousin Lalotte tells you so to do," said his father, who had entered during the dispute.
"Alack!" cried Henric turning to his little brother, "if we had only been patient, Lewis, we should have tasted the nice quail, and heard all our father's news into the bargain."
"There now, see what you have lost by being naughty children," cried Lalotte, as she led the offenders into their little bedroom.
"Thy father's news is not for thy young ears, my boys," murmured William Tell, as the door closed after the unconscious children.
"There is a sadness in thy voice and trouble on thy brow," said the anxious wife of Tell, looking earnestly in his face. "Wilt thou not trust me with the cause of thy care?"
"Annette," replied Tell, "thou hast been a good and faithful wife to me—yea, and a prudent counsellor and friend in the time of need. Why, then, should I do a thing and conceal it from thee, my well-beloved?"
"What is it thou hast done, my husband?"
"That for which thou wilt blame me, perchance."
"Nay, say not so; thou art a good man."
"Thou knowest, my loving wife, the sad state of slavery to which this unhappy country of Switzerland is reduced by the unlawful oppression of our foreign rulers," said Tell.
"I do," she replied; "but what have peasants to do with matters so much above them?"
"Much!" returned Tell. "If the good laws made by the worthies of the olden time, for the comfort and protection of all ranks of people, be set at naught by strangers, and all the ancient institutions, which were the pride and the glory of our land, be overthrown, by those to whom we owe neither the love of children, nor the allegiance of subjects, then, methinks, good wife, it becomes the duty of peasants to stand forth in defence of their rights. I have engaged myself, with three-and-thirty of my valiant countrymen, who met this night on the little promontory of land that juts into a lonely angle of the Lake, to concert with them means for the deliverance of my country."
"But how can three-and-thirty men hope to oppose the power of those who enthral Switzerland?" asked the wife of Tell.
"Great objects are often effected by small instruments," replied he. "The whole population of Switzerland is exasperated against the German tyrants, who have of late abused their power so far as to rouse the indignation even of women and of children against them. The father of Arnold Melchthal, one of the 'Brothers of Rütli,' as our band is called, was recently put to a cruel death by the unjust sentence of Gessler, the governor of our own canton of Uri; and who knoweth, gentle wife, whether his jealous caprice may not induce him to single me out for his next victim?"
"Single thee out, my husband!" exclaimed Annette turning pale. "Nay, what accusation could he bring against thee?"
"That of being the friend of my country, which is, of course, a crime not to be forgiven by a person of Gessler's disposition."
"But Gessler is too much exalted above our humble sphere of life, to be aware of a peasant's sentiments on such matters," said Annette.
"Gessler will not permit us to indulge the thoughts of our hearts in secret," said Tell; "for he hath recently devised a shrewd test, whereby he is enabled to discern the freeman from the slave throughout this province."
"And what is the test which the governor of Uri employeth for that purpose?"
"Thou hast heard our good pastor read in the Scripture of the prophet Daniel, of the golden image, which the tyrant Nebuchadnezzar caused to be erected. He made a decree that all nations and people of the world should bow down and worship it, and that those who refused to do so should be cast into a burning fiery furnace. Rememberest thou this, my beloved?"
"Certainly," Annette replied. "But what hath Gessler to do with that presumptuous folly of the King of Babylon?"
"Gessler," replied Tell, "imitates the presumption, albeit it is not in his power to rival the grandeur, of Nebuchadnezzar; for he hath set up an idol in the market-place of Altdorf, to which he requireth blind homage to be paid by fools and cowards. Now, the King of Babylon's idol, the prophet tells us, was of solid gold, a metal which the world is, I grieve to say, too prone to worship; but Gessler's paltry Baal is but the empty ducal bonnet of Austria, which he hath exalted on a pole; and he commands the men of Uri to bow down before it, under penalty of death. Wouldst thou wish thy husband to degrade the name of a Swiss, by stooping to such an action?"
"No," she replied, "I should blush for thee, if thou wert capable of such baseness."
"Thou hast spoken like a free woman," he exclaimed. "Yea, and thou shalt be the mother of free children: for the first time I go to Altdorf I will resist the edict, which enjoins me and my countrymen to pay homage to the senseless bauble which the German governor hath exalted in the market-place."
"But why go to Altdorf at all, my husband?" said the wife to Tell.
"My business calls me to Altdorf, and I shall go thither like an honest man, in the performance of my duty," replied Tell. "Thinkest thou that I am either to confess myself a slave, by bending my body to an empty cap, or to permit it to be a scarecrow, that shall fright me from entering the capital city of my native province, lest I should draw upon myself the penalty of refusing to perform a contemptible action, enjoined by a wicked man? No, no, my sweet wife; I shall go to Altdorf, when occasion may require, without considering myself bound to observe Gessler's foolish edict."
The return of Lalotte put an end to this discourse; and Annette began to assist her in taking up the supper.
Lalotte was the orphan of Tell's brother. Her parents had both died when she and her brother Philip were very young, and they had been adopted into the family of her kind uncle soon after his marriage with Annette. Lalotte was affectionate, sprightly, and industrious. She assisted her aunt in the household work and the dairy; and it was her business to take charge of the children, whom she carefully instructed in such things as she knew, and laboured to render them virtuous and obedient.
Philip, her brother, who was about a year older than herself, had been unfortunately a spoiled child. He was self-willed and intractable, and, though far from a bad disposition, was always getting himself and others into scrapes and difficulties.
That night his place at the board was vacant, which his uncle observing, said,
"Lalotte, where is your brother Philip?"
"Absent, uncle, I am sorry to say," replied Lalotte.
"It is not usual for Philip to desert the supper meal," observed Tell, "even if he be absent the rest of the day. I am afraid he is after no good."
A hasty step was heard; and Lalotte exclaimed, "I should not wonder if that were my scrapegrace brother!"
"It does not sound well of you to call him so, Lalotte, though he is a sad plague to us all," said Tell.
The door was hastily opened, and Philip bounced in out of breath, and covered with mud. He flung himself on a wooden settle beside the fire, and gave way to fits of laughter.
"How now, Philip! what is the cause of all this?" asked Tell gravely.
"Hurrah!" shouted he, springing from his seat, and capering about, "I have done such a deed!"
"Some notable piece of folly, no doubt," observed his uncle; "what is it, boy?"
"A deed that will render my name famous throughout the whole province of Uri, my good uncle. Everybody is talking about it in Altdorf at this very moment," exclaimed Philip, rubbing his hands.
"You have long been celebrated there as the ringleader of mischief," observed Tell; "but I doubt whether you will have much reason to exult in the evil reputation you have acquired, Philip. Therefore go to bed, and when you say your prayers, ask for grace to reform your evil habits."
"My good uncle," replied Philip, "be content. This night I have turned patriot, raised a rabble of boys, and pelted down the fool's cap which old Gessler had stuck up in the market-place of Altdorf, for Switzers to pay homage to. Is not that a glorious deed!"
"It is of a piece with the rest of your folly. Were you called upon to pay homage to the cap?"
"By no means, uncle, else must I perforce have made my obeisance to the empty bonnet of the Emperor-Duke of Austria. But this exploit of mine was after dark, when one boy could not be distinguished from another; and there were fully fifty of us engaged in pelting at the mock majesty till down it came, feathers and all, souse into the mud. Then, oh stars! how we all ran! But it was my stone that hit it, take notice: ha! ha! ha!"
"Your head must be as devoid of brains as the empty cap you pelted, Philip, or you never would have engaged in any such adventure."
"How, uncle!" cried Philip in amaze; "would you have me pay homage to the ducal bonnet without a head in it?"
"It seems you were not required to do so, Philip; therefore you had no pretext for raising a riot to break the peace."
"But, uncle, do you intend to yield obedience to the governor's tyrannous edict?"
"Philip," replied Tell, "I am a man, and of age to form a correct judgment of the things which it may be expedient to do or proper to refuse. But it is not meet for idle boys to breed riots and commit acts of open violence, calculated to plunge a whole country into confusion."
Philip withdrew with an air of great mortification and the family soon after retired to rest.
The next day William Tell took his thoughtless nephew with him, on a hunting excursion, since it was necessary he should find some better occupation than throwing stones. After several days they returned, loaded with the skins of the chamois that had been slain by the unerring arrow of Tell.
His wife and children hastened to the cottage door to welcome him, when they beheld him coming. "Behold, my beloved," said Tell, "how well I have sped in the chase! These skins will bring in a mine of wealth against the winter season. To-morrow is Altdorf fair and I shall go thither to sell them."
"Hurrah!" shouted Philip. "Is Altdorf fair to-morrow? Oh, my faith, I had forgotten it. Well, I shall go thither, and have some fun."
"And I mean to go too, cousin Philip," said Henric.
"Not so fast, young men," cried Tell. "Altdorf fair will be full of soldiers and turbulent people, and is not a proper place for rash boys and children."
"But you will take care of us, father, dear father," said Henric, stroking his father's arm caressingly.
"I shall have enough to do to take care of myself, Henric," replied Tell. "So you must be a good boy, and stay with your mother."
"But I won't be a good boy, if you leave me at home," muttered the little rebel.
"Then you must be whipped, sir," said his father; "for we love you too well to permit you to be naughty without punishing you."
On hearing this, Henric began to weep with anger. So his father told Lalotte to put him to bed without his supper.
Now Philip was a silly, good-natured fellow, and fancied that his little cousin, Henric, of whom he was very fond, was ill-treated by his father. So he took an opportunity of slipping a sweet-cake into his pouch, from the supper-board, with which he slily stole to Henric's crib.
"Never mind my cross uncle, sweet cousin," said he: "see, I have brought you a nice cake."
"Oh! I don't care about cakes," cried Henric. "I want to go to Altdorf fair to-morrow."
"And you shall go to Altdorf fair," said Philip.
"But how can I go, when father says he won't take me?" sobbed Henric.
"There, dry your eyes, and go to sleep," whispered Philip; "as soon as my uncle is gone I will take you to the fair with me; for I mean to go, in spite of all he has said to the contrary."
"But what will mother say?" asked Henric.
"We won't let her know anything about it," said Philip.
"But Lalotte won't let us go; for Lalotte is very cross, and wants to master me."
"A fig for Lalotte!" cried the rude Philip; "do you think I care for her?"
"I won't care for Lalotte when I grow a great big boy like you, cousin Philip; but she makes me mind her now," said Henric.
"Never fear; we will find some way of outwitting Mademoiselle Lalotte to-morrow," said Philip.
The next morning William Tell rose at an early hour, and proceeded to the fair at Altdorf, to sell his chamois skins.
Philip instead of getting up, and offering to carry them for his uncle, lay in bed till after he was gone. He was pondering on his undutiful scheme of taking little Henric to the fair, in defiance of Tell's express commands that both should stay at home that day.
Henric could eat no breakfast that morning for thinking of the project in which Philip had tempted him to engage. His kind mother patted his curly head, and gave him a piece of honeycomb for not crying to go to the fair. He blushed crimson-red at this commendation, and was just going to tell his mother all about it, when Philip, guessing his thoughts, held up his finger, and shook his head at him.
When his mother and Lalotte went into the dairy to churn the butter they begged Henric and Philip to take care of Lewis and the other little ones, so that they should not get into any mischief. No sooner, however, were they gone, than Philip said,
"Now, Henric, is our time to make our escape, and go to the fair."
"But," said Henric, "my mother gave me some sweet and honeycomb just now, for being a good boy; and it will be very naughty of me to disobey my father's commands after that. So, dear Philip, I was thinking that I would stay at home to-day, if you would stay too, and make little boats for me to float on the lake."
"I shall do no such thing, I promise you," replied Philip; "for I mean to go to the fair, and see the fun. You may stay at home, if you like—for I don't want to be plagued with your company."
"Oh, dear!" cried Henric, "but I want very much to go to the fair, and see the fun too."
"Come along then," said Philip; "or we shall not get there in time to see the tumblers, or the apes and dancing bears, or the fire-eaters, or any other of the shows."
It was nearly two hours before the truants were missed by Henric's mother and Lalotte; for they were all that time busy in the dairy. At length they heard the children cry; on which, Lalotte ran into the room, and found no one with them but Lewis.
"What a shame," cried Lalotte, "for that lazy boy Philip, to leave all these little ones, with only you, Lewis. Where is Henric, pray?"
"Oh! Henric is gone to the fair with cousin Philip," lisped little Lewis.
"Oh that wicked Philip!" cried Lalotte. "Aunt! aunt! Philip has run off to Altdorf fair, and taken Henric with him!"
"My dear Lalotte," said her aunt, "you must put on your hood and sabots, and run after them. Perhaps, as you are light-footed, you can overtake them, and bring Henric back. I am sure, some mischief will befall him."
Lalotte hastily threw her gray serge cloak about her, and drew the hood over her head. She slipped her little feet into her sabots, or wooden shoes, and took the road to Altdorf, hurrying along as fast as she could, in hope of overtaking the truants before they reached the town.
More than once the little maiden thought of turning back, but the remembrance of Philip's rash and inconsiderate temper filled her with alarm for the safety of the child whom he had tempted away from home. She reflected that, as her uncle was at Altdorf, it would be her wisest course to proceed thither to seek him out, and to inform him of his little boy being then in the fair.
Lalotte entered the market-place of Altdorf, at the moment when her uncle, having disposed of his chamois-skins to advantage, was crossing from the carriers' stalls to a clothier's booth to purchase woollen cloths for winter garments. Fairs were formerly marts, where merchants and artisans brought their goods for sale; and persons resorted thither, not for the purpose of riot and revelling, but to purchase useful commodities, clothing, and household goods at the best advantage.
William Tell had been requested by his careful wife to purchase a variety of articles for the use of the family. He was so intent in performing all her biddings, to the best of his ability, that he never once thought of the cap which the insolent governor, Gessler, had erected in the market-place, till he found himself opposite to the lofty pole on which it was exalted. He would have passed it unconsciously had he not been stopped by the German soldiers, who were under arms on either side the pole, to enforce obedience to the insulting edict of the governor of Uri. Tell then paused, and, raising his eyes to the object to which the captain of the guard, with an authoritative gesture, directed his attention, beheld the ducal cap of Austria just above him.
The colour mounted to the cheek of the free-born hunter of the Alps, at the sight of this badge of slavery of his fallen country. Casting an indignant glance upon the foreign soldiers who had impeded his progress, he moved sternly forward, without offering the prescribed act of homage to the cap.
"Stop!" cried the captain of the guard; "you are incurring the penalty of death, rash man, by your disobedience to the edict of his excellency the Governor of Uri."
"Indeed!" replied Tell. "I was not aware that I was doing anything unlawful."
"You have insulted the majesty of our lord the Emperor by passing that cap without bowing to it," said the officer.
"I wist not that more respect were due to an empty cap, than to a cloak and doublet, or a pair of hose," replied Tell.
"Insolent traitor! dost thou presume to level thy rude gibes at the badge of royalty?" cried the governor, stepping forward from behind the soldiers, where he had been listening to the dispute between Tell and the officer.
Poor Lalotte, meantime, having caught a glimpse of her uncle's tall, manly figure through the crowd, had pressed near enough to hear the alarming dialogue in which he had been engaged with the German soldiers. While, pale with terror, she stood listening with breathless attention, she recognised Philip at no great distance, with little Henric in his arms, among the spectators.
The thoughtless Philip was evidently neither aware how near he was to his uncle, nor of the peril in which he stood. With foolish glee, he was pointing out the cap to little Henric; and though Lalotte could not hear what he was saying, she fancied he was rashly boasting to the child of the share in the exploit of pelting it down a few nights previous.
While her attention was thus painfully excited she heard some of the people round her saying,
"Who is it that has ventured to resist the governor's decree?"
"It is William Tell, the crossbow-man of Bürglen," replied many voices.
"William Tell!" said one of the soldiers; "why it was his kinsman who raised a rabble to insult the ducal bonnet the other night."
"Ay, it was the scapegrace, Philip Tell, who assailed the cap of our sovereign with stones, till he struck it down," cried another.
"Behold where the young villain stands," exclaimed a third, pointing to Philip.
"Hallo, hallo! seize the young traitor, in the name of the Emperor and the governor!" shouted the Germans.
"Run, Philip, run—run for your life!" cried a party of his youthful associates.
Philip hastily set his little cousin on his feet, and started off with the speed of the wild chamois of the Alpine mountains; leaving little Henric to shift for himself.
"The child, the child! the precious boy! he will be trampled to death!" shrieked Lalotte.
Henric had caught sight of his father among the crowd while Philip was holding him up to look at the ducal cap, and he had been much alarmed lest his father should see him. But the moment he found himself abandoned by Philip, he lifted up his voice, and screamed with all his might, "Father, father!"
The helplessness, the distress, together with the uncommon beauty of the child, moved the heart of a peasant near him, to compassion. "Who is your father, my fair boy?" said he. "Point him out, and I will lead you to him."
"My father is William Tell, the crossbow-man of Bürglen," said the child. "There he is, close to the cap on the pole yonder."
"Is he your father, poor babe?" said the peasant. "Well, you will find him in rare trouble, and I hope you may not be the means of adding to it, my little man."
No sooner had the kind man cleared the way through the crowd for his young companion, and conducted him within a few yards of the spot where William Tell stood, than the urchin drew his hand away from his new friend, and running to his father, flung his little arms about his knees, sobbing, "Father, dear father, pray forgive me this once, and I will never disobey you again."
Henric made his appearance at an unlucky moment both for his father and himself; for the cruel governor of Uri, exasperated at the manly courage of Tell, seized the boy by the arm and sternly demanded if he were his son.
"Harm not the child, I pray thee," cried Tell: "he is my first born."
"It is not my intention to do him harm," replied the governor. "If any mischief befall the child, it will be by thy own hand, traitor. Here," cried he to one of his soldiers, "take this boy, tie him beneath yon linden-tree, in the centre of the market-place, and place an apple on his head——"
"What means this?" cried Tell.
"I am minded to see a specimen of your skill as an archer," replied Gessler. "I am told that you are the best marksman in all Uri; and, therefore, your life being forfeited by your presumptuous act of disobedience, I am inclined, out of the clemency of my nature, to allow you a chance of saving it. This you may do, if you can shoot an arrow so truly aimed as to cleave the apple upon thy boy's head. But if thou either miss the apple, or slay the child, then shall the sentence of death be instantly executed."
"Unfeeling tyrant!" exclaimed Tell; "dost thou think that I could endeavour to preserve my own life by risking that of my precious child?"
"Nay," replied Gessler, "I thought I was doing thee a great favour by offering thee an alternative, whereby thou mightest preserve thy forfeited life by a lucky chance."
"A lucky chance!" exclaimed Tell: "and dost thou believe that I would stake my child's life on such a desperate chance as the cast of an arrow launched by the agitated hand of an anxious father, at such a mark as that? Nay, look at the child thyself, my lord. Though he be no kin to thee, and thou knowest none of his pretty ways and winning wiles, whereby he endeareth himself to a parent's heart—yet consider his innocent countenance, the artless beauty of his features, and the rosy freshness of his rounded cheeks, which are dimpling with joy at the sight of me, though the tears yet hang upon them—and then say, whether thou couldst find in thine heart to aim an arrow that perchance might harm him?"
"I swear," replied Gessler, "that thou shalt either shoot the arrow, or die!"
"My choice is soon made," said Tell, dropping the bow from his hand. "Let me die!"
"Ay, but the child shall be slain before thy face ere thine own sentence be executed, traitor!" cried the governor, "if thou shoot not at him."
"Give me the bow once more!" exclaimed Tell, in a hoarse, deep voice; "but in mercy let some one turn the child's face away from me. If I meet the glance of those sweet eyes of his, it will unnerve my hand; and then, perchance, the shaft, on whose true aim his life and mine depend, may err."
Lalotte, knowing that all depended on his remaining quiet, as soon as the soldiers had placed him with his face averted from his father, sprang forward, and whispered in Henric's ear, "Stand firm, dear boy, without moving, for five minutes, and you will be forgiven for your fault of this morning."
There was a sudden pause of awe and expectation among the dense crowd that had gathered round the group planted within a bow-shot of the linden-tree beneath which the child was bound. Tell, whose arms were now released, unbuckled the quiver that was slung across his shoulder, and carefully examined his arrows, one by one. He selected two: one of them he placed in his girdle, the other he fitted to his bow-string; and then he raised his eyes to Heaven, and his lips moved in prayer. He relied not upon his own skill but he asked the assistance of One in whose hands are the issues of life and death; and he did not ask in vain. The trembling, agitated hand that a moment before shook with the strong emotion of a parent's anxious fears, became suddenly firm and steady; his swimming eyes resumed their keen, clear sight, and his mind recovered its wonted energy of purpose at the proper moment.
Lalotte's young voice was the first to proclaim, aloud, "The arrow hath cleft the apple in twain! and the child is safe."
"God hath sped my shaft, and blessed be His name!" exclaimed the pious archer, on whose ear the thunders of applause, with which the assembled multitude hailed his successful shot, had fallen unheeded.
The soldiers now unbound the child; and Lalotte fearlessly advanced, and led him to his father. But before the fond parent could fold his darling to his bosom, the tyrant Gessler sternly demanded for what purpose he had reserved the second arrow, which he had seen him select and place in his belt.
"That arrow," replied Tell, giving way to a sudden burst of passion, "that arrow was designed to avenge the death of my child, if I had slain him with the other."
"How to avenge?" exclaimed the governor, furiously. "To avenge, saidst thou? and on whom didst thou intend thy vengeance would fall?"
"On thee, tyrant!" replied Tell, fixing his eyes sternly on the governor. "My next mark would have been thy bosom, had I failed in my first. Thou perceivest that mine is not a shaft to miscarry."
"Well, thou hast spoken frankly," said Gessler; "and since I have promised thee thy life I will not swerve from my word. But as I have now reason for personal apprehensions from thy malice, I shall closet thee henceforth so safely in the dungeons of Küssnacht, that the light of sun or moon shall never more visit thine eyes; and thy fatal bow shall hereafter be harmless."
On this the guard once more laid hands on the intrepid archer, whom they seized and bound, in spite of the entreaties of Lalotte, and the cries and tears of little Henric, who hung weeping about his father.
"Take him home to his mother, Lalotte; and bear my last fond greetings to her and the little ones, whom I, peradventure, shall see no more," said Tell, bursting into tears. The mighty heart which had remained firm and unshaken in the midst of all his perils and trials, now melted within him at the sight of his child's tears, the remembrance of his home, and anticipations of the sufferings of his tender wife.
The inhuman Gessler scarcely permitted his prisoner the satisfaction of a parting embrace with Henric and Lalotte, ere he ordered him to be hurried on board a small vessel in which he embarked also with his armed followers. He commanded the crew to row to Brunnen, where it was his intention to land, and, passing through the territory of Schwyz, to lodge the captive Tell in the dungeon of Küssnacht, and there to immure him for life.
The sails were hoisted and the vessel under weigh, when suddenly one of those storms common on the lake of Uri overtook them, accompanied with such violent gusts of wind, that the terrified pilot forsook the helm; and the bark, with the governor and his crew, was in danger of being ingulfed in the raging waters. Gessler, like most wicked people, was in great terror at the prospect of death, when one of his attendants reminded him that the prisoner, William Tell, was no less skilful in the management of a boat than in the exercise of the bow. So he ordered that Tell should be unbound, and placed at the helm.
The boat, steered by the master-hand of the intrepid Tell, now kept its course steadily through the mountain surge; and Tell observed, "that by the grace of God, he trusted a deliverance was at hand."
As the prow of the vessel was driven inland, Tell perceived a solitary table rock and called aloud the rowers to redouble their efforts, till they should have passed the precipice ahead. At the instant they came abreast this point he snatched his bow from the plank, where it was lying forgotten during the storm, and, turning the helm suddenly toward the rock, he sprang lightly on shore, scaled the mountain, and was out of sight and beyond reach of pursuit, before any on board had recovered from consternation.
Tell, meantime, entered Schwyz, and having reached the heights which border the main road to Küssnacht, concealed himself among the brushwood in a small hollow of the road, where he knew Gessler would pass on his way to his own castle, in case he and his followers escaped and came safely to shore. This, it appeared they did, and having effected a landing at Brunnen, they took horse, and proceeded towards Küssnacht, in the direction of the only road to the castle.
While they were passing the spot where Tell lay concealed, he heard the cruel tyrant denouncing the most deadly vengeance, not only on himself, but his helpless family: "If I live to return to Altdorf," he exclaimed, "I will destroy the whole brood of the traitor Tell, mother and children, in the same hour."
"Monster, thou shalt return to Altdorf no more!" murmured Tell. So, raising himself up in his lair, and fitting an arrow to his bow, he took deadly aim at the relentless bosom that was planning the destruction of all his family.
The arrow flew as truly to the mark as that which he had shot in the market-place of Altdorf, and the tyrant Gessler fell from his horse, pierced with a mortal wound.
The daring archer thought that he had taken his aim unseen by human eye; but, to his surprise, a familiar voice whispered in his ear, "Bravo, uncle! that was the best-aimed shaft you ever shot. Gessler is down, and we are a free people now."
"Thou incorrigible varlet, what brings thee here?" replied Tell, in an undervoice, giving Philip a rough grip of the arm.
"It is no time to answer questions," returned Philip. "The Rütli band are waiting for thee, if so be thou canst escape from this dangerous place; and my business here was to give thee notice of the same."
On this, Tell softly crept from the thicket, and, followed by his nephew, took the road to Stienen, which under cover of darkness, they reached that night.
Philip, by the way, after expressing much contrition for having seduced little Henric to go to the fair with him, informed his uncle that Henric and Lalotte had been safely conducted home by one of the band of the Rütli who chanced to be at Altdorf fair.
When they reached Stienen Tell was received with open arms by Stauffacher, the leader of the Rütli band; and with him and the other confederates, he so well concerted measures for the deliverance of Switzerland from the German yoke, that, in the course of a few days, the whole country was in arms. The Emperor of Germany's forces were everywhere defeated; and on the first day of the year, 1308, the independence of Switzerland was declared.
His grateful countrymen would have chosen William Tell for their sovereign, but he nobly rejected the offer, declaring that he was perfectly contented with the station of life in which he was born, and wished to be remembered in history by no other title than that of the Deliverer of Switzerland.
This true patriot lived happily in the bosom of his family for many years, and had the satisfaction of seeing his children grow up in the fear of God and the practice of virtue.