In Gessler's Castle
They were in high glee at Gessler's castle at Kussnacht, for he was giving a splendid dinner to his fellow-tyrant, Landenberg, the Governor. Their confederates sat with them at table, and assisted in suggesting plans for the destruction of the liberty of the three cantons as they emptied many silver beakers of wine.
"Which of the three cantons shall first be humbled?" said a young Austrian nobleman, who had arrived in Switzerland a few days before to visit Gessler. "They are greatly surprised at court that the peasants did not send messengers long ago to tell you that their goods and their lives were at your disposal if you would only be gracious to them."
"Yes, but the court does not know the obstinate peasants of these mountains," replied Landenberg. "I have systematically loaded them down with taxes and penalties, and when they complained I have told them: 'I am ruling you in the name of the Empire. It would be better for each and all of you to annex yourselves to Austria;' but it has been of no avail. There was a case in point here only a few days ago. A peasant over in Melchthal was five shillings in arrears. At that time I needed oxen, so I thought I would take a yoke of his and let him keep his money."
"Well, you know how to get cattle cheap," said a guest, laughing.
"Listen!" answered Landenberg. "I sent a servant to this peasant and, what do you think? He came back with a broken finger, and said the peasant's son had assaulted him."
"It is to be hoped you ordered the insolent fellow to be strung up," said Gessler with icy coolness.
"He is not in my power," replied Landenberg. "He has escaped. I have seized his father and put him in prison, but he will not tell where his son is hidden. I have threatened him with the loss of all his possessions, but he remains silent. Enraged at his obstinacy, I told him I would put out his eyes if he did not answer me correctly, but he only replied that with the help of God he would bear the worst tortures rather than reveal his son's whereabouts or deliver him into the hands of a hangman. I said to him, 'Why do you call me, the supreme authority in this canton, ruling here as the representative of the Emperor, a hangman?' To this he replied: 'He who rules in the name of the Emperor should also rule in the name and in the spirit of God. But you do not. You rule in the name of the evil one, and treat us shamefully and unjustly. That is why I call you hangman.' "
"There you have a slight illustration of the obstinacy of the peasants with whom we have to contend," said Gessler to the Austrian nobleman. "But this is the case of only one family. I tell you, however, I will yet curb this wild steed, and make it as tame as a child's playhorse. We are dealing with a race of men such as you will find nowhere else in the world. On his own soil every peasant imagines he is a prince. It seems as if these lofty mountains fostered the idea of liberty. How haughtily they carry their heads! But just wait! I will load their proud necks so that they will either bend or break."
"I have not failed in my duty," said Landenberg.
"Doubtless you have not coddled the people," interrupted Gessler, "but—do not be offended—I must find fault with you. You have let your Wolfshot be killed, and no one seems to care much about it."
"Some one would have cared about it," replied Landenberg, "if my men had caught Baumgarten."
"But why did you not seize his own people? The fugitive should have known that those he left behind would suffer. Had you taken your revenge upon Baumgarten's wife, that affair at Melchthal would not have been likely to happen. Of course, they will say to themselves: 'What does it matter? I will execute my purpose and then fly to the mountains.' The 'hangman ' should look after those at home. Under similar circumstances I would have inflicted the severest penalties, not only upon the family, but upon the whole village."
"You are right, Gessler," replied Landenberg. "I propose to proceed in this matter with the utmost severity, and you will have a sample of it in the case of this old peasant at Melchthal. He has richly deserved the worst."
"Spare not," said Gessler. "Examples must be made. The most important part of the castle I propose to have built in Uri is the prison. I have an idea. These men of Uri are the toughest of the lot, therefore they shall build it themselves. I will call it 'Zwing-Uri' and once in there, I will take the obstinacy out of many of these fellows. I thought of a scheme to-day to test their allegiance. As soon as I get back to Altdorf I shall raise a pole with a royal cap on it and order the people to take off their hats to the emblem. You will see how quickly I will catch a lot of these obstinate ones. I will punish the man who refuses to salute as my anger at the moment may suggest; but you can imagine the penalty will not be light. I expect to catch the worst of them by winter. Perhaps William Tell of Burglen may find himself in the trap."
"He has long deserved the severest punishment," said Landenberg, for he took the fugitive Baumgarten across the lake. He must be a courageous man, but they also say that he is cunning, so I am afraid you will not catch him with the cap."
"I will outwit him," replied Gessler. "I will raise the cap when he is in Altdorf and on the very spot which he must pass. Much depends upon catching him and making him harmless. He is a powerful man. You should see his face. I met him not long ago upon the edge of a precipice in the Oberalp, where I was hunting, and I confess I did not feel comfortable in passing him. I have often wished since that I could have pitched him over."
The party lingered long over their cups, devising schemes to extinguish the freedom of the three cantons.