William Tell - George Upton

The Shot at the Apple

Tell was not at the conference on the Rutli meadow. When they invited him he said: "I know the necessities of the fatherland. When there is something to be done, call upon me. I shall not fail you."

Some weeks after this Tell and his son William went one day to the market-place at Altdorf, where there was a scene of unusual activity. Gessler had also arrived, to see how the work on his castle was progressing. As soon as he heard that Tell was there, he determined to carry out his long-cherished scheme of the cap. The people in the market-place were astonished at sight of an advancing troop of soldiers, the first of whom carried a pole upon which was a cap with the royal insignia. They halted in the centre of the place, and a soldier, heavily armed, read in a harsh tone of voice an order, stating in effect that the Governor had noticed more and more that there still were men among them full of defiance and stubbornness; that the pole was to be set up, and that the Governor commanded that the same honor should be paid to the cap as was paid to the Emperor,—that is, every one must uncover his head and bow before it; and it would go hard with any one who refused.

The people were astonished at this despotic order. They had endured much since the conference on the Rutli, and endured it patiently because they knew the day was approaching when the banner of freedom would be unfurled and lead them to victory, of which they had confident hopes. Such an order as this was a severe strain upon their patience. They looked on indignantly as the soldiers filed through the market-place. The air was filled with muttered execrations, eyes flashed with anger, and many a fist was clenched.

Tell had intended to remain in Altdorf until evening, but now he decided to finish up his necessary business and leave as soon as possible, so that he should not see the uplifted emblem of ignominy. Having transacted his business, he took his son's hand, and they walked along a street leading toward Burglen, which turned to the right. As they reached the turn, he suddenly saw the pole and cap with two guards near them. For an instant he paused. He had supposed they would set the pole up in the market-place, but here it was right before him 1 What should he do? Should he turn back, or should he steal through the gardens on either hand? Whatever course he might pursue would be of little use, for he was so near the cap that he could not go back or turn aside without giving offence. The guards watched him with contemptuous smiles. At last William said: "Look, father; there are soldiers behind us, and Gessler is coming from the market-place." Tell quietly walked along, and passed the cap as if he did not see it. At this the guards sprang forward, presented halberds, and ordered him to halt, for he had incurred a penalty by not showing respect to the emblem of royal supremacy, as had been commanded.

"What is the penalty?" asked Tell.

"The Governor will inform you," replied one of the guards. "There he comes."

A number of armed attendants followed the Governor, also many men and women of the place, eager to see what would come of the matter. Gessler rode slowly up, his pale face betraying an expression of malicious delight. Tell watched him unmoved.

"Why are you detaining Tell?" he asked the guards.

One of them answered: "Herr Governor, this man passed the royal emblem without uncovering his head."

Gessler knew that Tell had listened to the reading of the order in the market-place, for he had been told so, but he cunningly suggested: "He may not have heard the order. Am I right, Tell?"

"I heard it, Herr Governor," replied Tell.

"So you also are stubborn, Tell," replied Gessler. "You are aware that you owe respect to the emblem of royal sovereignty, and also to me as the representative of that sovereignty. Therefore you need not think it strange if I impose a severe penalty upon you."

"Tell me how much fine I must pay," said Tell.

"Who told you that you would be let off for money?" replied Gessler. "Am I not master here, and have I not sole authority to fix penalties?"

Pointing to Tell's crossbow, he asked, "Why do you carry weapons? The game in this country belongs to the Emperor, and when the land is threatened by hostile forces, it can be protected by the Emperor's soldiers."

Tell answered that he carried weapons because it was one of the ancient privileges of his countrymen. Hunting in the woods and among the mountains was also an ancient right, of which no one, whoever he might he, had yet dared to despoil the Swiss.

This bold language from a freeman infuriated the Governor. "No one?" said he. "We will see about that. If you peasants will carry weapons, you must be prepared for the consequences."

Many were alarmed by these words and the significant manner in which they were spoken. Gessler was silent for a time, but he showed by his manner that he was devising a cruel penalty. Suddenly he asked, "Is that your son?"

"Yes, my lord."

Gessler continued: "You are famous as the best shot in the mountains. So your penalty shall be to shoot an apple from your son's head." Turning to a soldier, he said: "Pick an apple from the branch of that tree and then lead the boy to yonder lime-tree. Tell shall shoot from where he is standing, and I warn you, keep this in mind: if you do not hit the apple, you shall die."

Had the earth suddenly opened under them and a dragon appeared, the crowd would not have been more terrified than they were by these words. Even the faces of the soldiers around Tell grew pale.

Tell stood motionless for a minute, and then looked at his son, who was regarding him appealingly, as if he were not sure he had heard aright.

"How long do you propose to wait?" said Gessler. "It did not take you long to decide when you met the fugitive Baumgarten."

The soldier returned with an apple, which he had knocked off with his halberd. "My lord," said Tell, you cannot be in earnest in demanding such a monstrous thing of a father! Take half, take all my property, as a penalty, but save me from aiming an arrow at the head of my own child."

Several women standing near by raised their hands, and begged him to show mercy to Tell; the men stood pale and motionless. A priest in his robes, who chanced to be passing that way, attended by two boys, advanced and said: "Oh, my lord, have pity upon this poor man. If he deserves punishment, he has already been punished a hundredfold by your words. My lord, do not cruelly sport with a father's feelings any longer."

"Who says I am making sport?" answered Gessler, laying his hand upon his sword hilt. "My order shall be executed without delay. Drive the people to one side with your halberds, and lead the boy to the lime-tree."

The soldier who was holding the apple took the boy by the hand, but Tell sprang forward and tore him away, whereupon Gessler said: "If you will not bow your neck I will crush your head. Now hear my last words, Tell. If you do not shoot, both you and your son shall die."

Tell closely embraced his son, who looked up with innocent eyes and said to his father, as soon as he heard his life was in danger: "Shoot, father. I will stand still, and you will not miss the apple." With that he released himself from his father's arms, took the apple from the soldier's hand, ran to the lime-tree, placed himself in position, and put the apple on his curly head himself. His father stood leaning on his crossbow, more agitated than he had ever been before. Women wept and wrung their hands. The men, apparently, were thinking of the possible results which might follow an attack upon the soldiers.

Tell suddenly recovered his composure, and selected two arrows from his quiver. He placed one in the groove of the bow and the other in his belt. "Shoot, father," cried William, in a loud, firm voice; "I am not afraid. I am standing still." At this the women lamented still more, and many covered their faces, that they might not witness the cruel sight. One even exclaimed, "Merciful Heavens! he has hit the boy!"

Tell raised his eyes for a moment toward heaven, and then placed his bow in position. Almost in an instant the string twanged, the arrow flew and pierced the apple, which dropped to the ground. A joyful exclamation arose when the boy picked up the apple and the arrow. Tell stood pale and silent as his son joyfully ran to him. He embraced the boy, uttered a piteous exclamation, and then fell fainting. William knelt over him, crying out: "My father, my father! My father dead." Men and women, with tears in their eyes, came forward and consoled him. "He has only fainted" said a man to him. "Your father is not dead."

Tell and son


At last Tell opened his eyes, saw his weeping son, and the apple and arrow in his hands. He arose, folded his hands, and looked upward, then he said: "Take the apple to the Governor, that he may be satisfied the task he assigned me has been accomplished." William went to Gessler and gave him the apple. The Governor took it with an angry expression on his face. He would have liked to destroy Tell on the spot, but he realized that that would glorify his achievement still more. "He must not get away unpunished," he thought to himself, "but how can it be done? there must at least be some appearance of justification."

Tell took his son by the hand, and they started away. Then a pretext occurred to Gessler for inflicting a fresh penalty. He called, and Tell turned round. "Tell, why did you take two arrows from your quiver and hide one in your belt?"

Tell could no longer control himself. Fixing a piercing glance upon the "Governor, he answered:

"The second arrow was for you if I had hit my son with the first."

His reply delighted the Governor. "Now, Tell," he said, "for doing that I will hide you where I shall be safe in the future from your arrows. Arrest him, and bind him."

Tell's first inclination was to seize the halberd of the soldier nearest him, and defend himself at the peril of his life. Then he thought of the day when the uprising would occur, and let them bind him without making any resistance. William clung to him, crying, but a soldier tore him away, and pushed him to one side. A countryman took him by the hand and tried to comfort him.