William Tell - George Upton

Tell's Home in Burglen

The Lake of the Four Cantons is shaped like a cross with a curved stem. Its entire length is about twenty-three miles, and its width from half a mile to two miles. No other Swiss lake can compare with it in the beauty, grandeur, and diversity of the scenery along its shores. It is enclosed by mountain ranges whose peaks rise in marvellously impressive shapes from a thousand to ten thousand feet. The landscape is wonderfully varied. It enchants by its loveliness, arouses devout emotions in the soul, and again inspires it with awe.

The southern part of the lake, which lies wholly in Uri, is called the "Urner," and is about two and one-fourth miles in length. Upon its eastern side, a mile from the shore, is Burglen, the home of William Tell. It is there our story takes us. Ten years have passed since the festival on the Seedorf meadow, and the young Tell has grown to vigorous manhood. During the same year in which Furst's daughter, Hedwig, decorated him as victor, he sued for her hand, and she became his wife, and soon thereafter he led her to his home, followed by hearty congratulations and good wishes. These were ten happy years for both, and it added to their joy that heaven sent them two sons, whom they named William and Walter.

Tell's house stood upon a pleasant eminence in Burglen, and was built in the Swiss style, with a very flat, overhanging roof, and a porch. The roof was loaded in various places with stones, to protect it against the fury of the Fohn. At one side of this fine, comfortable house were stables, with ample room for cows, sheep, goats, and horses, opening upon a large yard, at the back of which, beneath a high walnut tree, was a spring. Not far from the gate was a dove-cote, the inmates of which already had sought their nests. The men and maid servants had cleaned up the premises and put everything in order, for it was Saturday evening, and on Sunday the house and grounds, as well as themselves, must appear in their finest attire. The house faced the west. A stout bench, of Tell's handiwork, stood beneath the windows, and on it sat the mother and her two sons. They were awaiting the return of the father, who had been hunting chamois since early morning. It was a charming picture, this of the blooming wife and her handsome boys, sitting before the house, its front covered with climbing ivies and wild vines, and illuminated with the red evening glow. Tall walnut trees shaded the outbuildings, behind which were trimly kept fields, luxuriant with waving grain.

The mother and children frequently waited for the father in this spot at evening time. As soon as they caught a glimpse of him in the distance the boys would run to meet him, and the mother would go in and prepare the supper. A lovely valley stretched out before them, through which ran a silver gleaming brook, back of which the mountain ridges rose in terraces. Here and there houses were visible in the glow from the distant mountains, but they hardly seemed larger than little card houses. Still farther away rose the giant peaks of higher mountain ranges, some of which, even in the warm summer days, wore glistening robes of snow.

"Mother," said William, "won't you tell us another story?" Walter also added his entreaties, saying: "Mother, I would rather have a good story than bread and honey."

Their mother replied: "Why, I hardly know another story, you rogues. I have about exhausted my stock."

"Oh, mother," replied William, "you certainly can find one more! I can see it in your eyes. Why, when I look away down into your dark eyes, I can see many things glistening there that I have never seen before, and I know they must be very beautiful stories "

His words touched the mother's heart, but she concealed her emotions, and said: "Well, would you believe it? I have just thought of two stories at once. Tell me which you would rather hear, the one that is pleasant or the one that is frightful."

"The one that is pleasant," cried Walter; but William, the older boy, said, "The one that is frightful." There was a little contention over the matter, but finally they agreed that their mother should first tell the frightful and then the pleasant one.

"Oh, you rogues," said their mother, smiling. "I will do the best I can for to-day. Now, listen.

"Many centuries ago there was a dragon in our country. No one knew whence it came. Its aspect was so terrible that many who saw it were transfixed to the spot with fright, and easily became its prey. There was great distress in the mountains and among the valleys, for the horrible dragon devoured both men and beasts, and there was no safety from it anywhere. No huntsman ventured among the mountains, no herdsman drove his flocks to the fields. The people crowded into the valleys, but even there they were not safe, for the monster followed them. Every day new and frightful stories were told about its ravages, and soon the whole country become wellnigh panic-stricken. Some proposed going to another land, but the people could not make up their minds to leave their homes. 'How can we live in another country?' they would say. 'The longing for the mountains would be fatal to us, as it has been to others who have left their homes and gone into strange lands, only to die wretched and broken-hearted. Our God gave us this country, and there is no other more beautiful in the wide world. Here will we live, and here will we die. Better die here at once than spend a long lifetime in a foreign land, even if such a thing were possible. We must try to avert this calamity, and overcome the dragon.' Then the question arose who would be so roused by the universal misery as to attack the monster and save them from its ravages. Soon the hero appeared. He armed himself, left his kindred, and having received priestly blessing, scaled the rocks among which the dragon made its lair. He never was seen again, however. One after another several brave, strong men encountered the same fate, and the people began utterly to despair. The country was like a churchyard filled with ghosts. People passed each other with mournful faces, and fled in alarm at every sound on the mountains or in the forests. Only little children in their cradles laughed and played; but the mothers wept when they saw their babies laughing, and all the joy of their lives was darkened.

"Now, it happened that in a solitary spot there lived a man of the famous race of Winkelried, and his name was Struth. He was not only brave, but had great presence of mind, without which, strength alone cannot accomplish heroic deeds. He resolved to risk a fight with the dragon."

Walter clung close to his mother. She watched him, and saw that his eyes were fixed upon the mists down in the valley.

"Is he going to be afraid, mother?" asked William.

Walter smiled uneasily and said, pointing downward, "I was just thinking what if the dragon were down there."

Gradually the dark cliffs also were enveloped in the vapory veil. The mother quieted her son whose fancy had pictured the figure of the monster in the waving mist. "You know," said she, "the mist always follows the setting sun. But look at the summits of the distant mountains. See how God's bright sun has beautified them as with a garment of light, while it is growing dark down here."

What a sublime spectacle it was! Enveloped in golden glory, the mountains raised their heads to the azure heavens.

"Thou hast erected Thy columns

And laid the foundations of Thy temple."

Neither mother nor children knew the poem from which these lines are taken, but the sentiment they express filled her heart. She folded her hands and gently said, "Oh, my children, how beautiful God has made this world! How many times I have seen the mountains in this evening light, and yet it always seems as if the last were the most beautiful of all. And so it seems now. But I must tell you the story of Struth, the hero.

"With much skill and trouble he made a figure of a dragon in a cavern, gave it great glittering eyes, and painted it in hideous colors. He fastened long claws on its toes, and fixed six sharp teeth in its strong jaws. When the figure was completed he took with him his two powerful dogs, which had not seen it, and led them into the cavern. As soon as they saw the figure their hair bristled up, and they ran back howling, and slunk into their kennels. Another day Struth fastened straps about their necks and forcibly dragged them to the mouth of the cavern, where he tied them securely. They howled and tried to break loose, but the straps held them. As no harm came to them, they gradually recovered from their fright. On the next day they offered no resistance when taken to the cavern, and even followed their master of their own accord. His next step was to set them on the beast, at the same time attacking it himself with his sharp sword. With loud yelps they circled about the figure, keeping well behind their master; but when they saw him turn to attack it, they sprang forward to help him. Little by little they grew bolder, and began to sink their sharp teeth here and there into the long scaly body. After repeating this on several successive days, Struth accomplished his purpose. Every time he set his dogs on they would fly at the figure and bite it in places which he indicated by word or sign. Now the hero was ready for the terrible combat with the real dragon. With resolute courage he took his dogs and went next day to the rocks among which his grim enemy was concealed. Deep in a dark cavern lay the cruel monster, and Struth could hear its heavy breathing. He boldly threw a stone into the cavern, and instantly a horrible roar issued from its mouth, sounding like the bellowing of a wild bull, and accompanied by a peculiar rattling, grinding sound, as if heavy tree trunks were being dragged over the rocks. The dragon quickly emerged, not from the main entrance, as Struth had expected, but from a somewhat distant opening. When the dogs saw the frightful animal, its eyes rolling wildly around in its head and hot steam issuing from its nostrils, they crouched down under the overhanging rocks of the cliff and whined when their master called them. Struth commended his soul to God and boldly advanced upon his enemy. 'Gladly will I die,' thought he, 'if only I can succeed in giving the monster its death wound and make an end of it.' He shot an arrow, but it glanced harmless from the scaly breast and fell to the ground. When the dogs saw their master advance with drawn sword, they recovered courage. They leaped about, furiously yelping, and circled around the dragon, which, finding itself menaced now by three enemies, snapped first at this one and then at that, shutting its teeth together with a loud clash. A blow upon its head made the sparks fly from Struth's sword. Its scaly coat was not broken through, but the sword had pierced one eye, and the monster's blood ran down its slimy green neck. Furious with pain, it struck at Struth with its paw. He evaded the blow, and slashed the paw so that it hung only by the skin. Thereupon it emitted a hollow, dreadful roar, and its long tail writhed convulsively. If you had seen the hero now as he boldly advanced upon the monster, you would have thought its doom was sealed; but as he struck at it, his sword broke with a loud clang exactly at the hilt, and at the same instant the dragon struck him down with the other paw, and lowered its head to rend him with its teeth. When the faithful dogs saw their master fall, they hurled themselves savagely upon the dragon and sank their teeth into its body. In the meantime the monster raised its head painfully. Struth drew his long knife from his girdle, deftly inserted its point between the scales, and ran it into the dragon to the hilt. The brute made one quick, convulsive movement, and then fell dead upon him.

"The people, who had watched the combat from a distance, found him in this position. They quickly restored him, and then examined him to see if he had any wounds. As they found none upon his body they were overjoyed, and were confident he would recover. But he was doomed, for he had inhaled the dragon's poisonous breath too long. When he saw the monster lying dead, a wonderful smile lit up his pale face. He folded his hands, his lips moved a little—then he was dead. All the people mourned for their hero, and old men and children called him their liberator."

By this time it was growing dark. A violet gray haze enveloped the distant mountains, whose highest peaks were transfused with a dim purple lustre, and tipped with a golden cloud. The glimmer gradually died away. Once again the peaks were illuminated and seemed suspended in the dome of heaven; then the glory departed for that day.

The mother was thinking of the joyous face of the dying Struth. An alpine horn rang in the distance, and a loud yodel was heard on the mountain-side which was answered from another direction.

Mother," said William, "what if that were a dragon!"

Would you fight it?" said Walter to him.

"Yes, if I were big enough," replied William. "But I know who would kill the dragon, and not die either, if it should appear in our country."

"Oh, so do I," said Walter. "Father would kill it."

"Don't you remember, mother," continued William, "how father tamed the wild bull when it tossed poor Gratli in the air? He seized it by the horns, and threw it down. There it lay, trembling in every limb, as father put his foot on its neck."

"Look, mother, Spitzi is bounding down the road; perhaps he scents father. Ah, no! he is coming back again."

"Mother, do you know what I have heard?" said William, rising excitedly. "When I was with the servants on the meadow the other day, and they were sitting down to eat their bread, a huntsman, whom I had never seen before, came and sat with them. They offered him bread and cheese, and he ate with them, and they talked about one thing and another. The huntsman said three governors had been sent into the country, and that they would bind us with chains. They were not men, but monsters. I laughed, and supposed the servants would laugh also, but they looked serious, and winked at the huntsman, whereupon he began talking about other things. Tell me, mother, are these governors monsters, and have they brought chains for us? If they have, we will tell father."

"My son," replied the mother in alarm, "you must not talk of such things. These governors have been sent by our royal protector to rule in his stead. If you should say anything about it to your father he would be angry with you. He already has rebuked the servants for talking about this matter. He told them that if the governors do wrong God will punish them; that they must attend to their duties, and beware of disrespect to their rulers. God expects this of every Christian person, and that means you also, children."

"Now tell us the pleasant story, mother," implored Walter; but it was too late, for they heard in the distance the welcome bark of Spitzi, who had disappeared while they were talking.

"Father, father!" shouted the children, as they ran forward to meet him while their mother went into the house. A hundred paces away the boys saw the tall figure of their father approaching through the darkness. They gave him a hearty welcome, and begged him to let them carry something. William, being the strongest, took the heavy crossbow and quiver, and Walter the curved alpenstock. Their father carried the two chamois he had killed.

A bright, cheerful fire was burning when Tell entered the room. Hedwig was delighted to see her husband again, for she was often anxious about him, although he was unequalled as a strong and skilful huntsman. She could not overcome her fears when in fancy she saw him among the treacherous rocks or on the deceitful snow-fields. She would think to herself, "Now perhaps he is jumping over a chasm in pursuit of a chamois. A stone which he thought was secure loosens and hurls him into the black depths, where a horrible death is his certain fate." Many a prayer she sent to heaven in his behalf, though she never alluded to it nor to her anxiety. Her joyous countenance attested her happiness at seeing her dear husband safely back at home, and he understood her love without the necessity of expression in words.

When supper was over, Tell related to them the story of his adventures through the day, and mother and children listened eagerly. Then, as it was growing late, all retired to rest in the best of spirits.