William Tell - George Upton

A Blow for Freedom

On the same day that Stauffacher conferred with Furst, an event occurred in Unterwalden which, though slight in itself, was fraught with significance to the welfare of Switzerland. There is a fertile valley between high mountains in the northern part of the canton called the Melchthal. A man dwelt there in the quiet enjoyment of his own possessions. He rarely visited the lower country, and up to that time was hardly aware of the Governor's despotic acts. A tax of five shillings had been levied upon this man,—Henry of the Halden was his name,—which he had agreed to pay on a certain day. It happened that a pair of Landenberg's oxen were injured at Sarnen, and he needed a new team. He asked his treasurer who was yet in arrears for taxes, and upon being informed it was this man in Melchthal, he ordered a servant to go up there and take a pair of oxen from his stable in the name of the Governor, as a penalty for delay in settlement. As he was talking to him, a lad came from Melchthal with the five shillings. The treasurer notified the Governor, but the boy was told it was too late, and was sent off with his money. The lad had hardly returned and related his experience to his master, and his master's son, Arnold von Melchthal, a powerful youth, before the Governor's servant arrived and demanded the oxen in the name of the Governor.

Henry of the Halden could scarcely believe he heard aright. He insisted there must be a mistake, and that some other person must have been designated for penalty. The servant replied in a surly manner that he knew what he was about, and thereupon went across the yard to the stable. Young Arnold's blood was up in an instant. "Father," he cried, "he is going to take them."

Be quiet, Arnold," replied his father. "Do nothing hasty. I will speak to him again, and if it does no good, I will go down and see the Governor."

The servant opened the stable door. "Let me say a word," said the father, hoping to pacify him. "Stay here and I will go down at once to the Governor and settle this matter. We shall need the oxen for the ploughing."

The servant replied: I am going to take them. If you peasants wish to do any ploughing, you can hitch yourselves up." With this he went to the crib, and took a chain which was hanging from a peg; but in an instant Arnold was at his side, and told him not to touch the oxen. The servant said he was acting in the name of the Governor, and he ought to know it.

"And if you were acting in the name of the evil one, still I would tell you not to touch the oxen."

The servant, who was used to this kind of robbery, paid no attention to him, whereupon Arnold struck him across the hand with his stick, and broke one of his fingers. The servant made no sign of pain, and merely said as he started to go: "You will find out now what the Governor will do to you peasants." The father tried to pacify him, but he left the yard with curses and threats, saying, "To strike a servant of the Governor entails the penalty of blood, and you will have to settle the account."

By degrees Arnold realized what he had done, and reflected upon the consequences. Without doubt they would immediately arrest him and confine him, how long no one could say, in the subterranean dungeons of the castle, unless he sought refuge in flight. His parents advised him to go, and provided him with all he needed, and that very hour he fled into the mountains.