William Tell - George Upton

The Festival at the Meadow

In the very centre of Switzerland lies the beautiful and world-famous Lake of the Four Forest Cantons. Upon an eminence on its southern shore, between the villages of Attinghausen and Seedorf, may still be seen the lofty, massive ruins of the ancestral seat of the barons of Attinghausen, and near by it the ruins of a large farmhouse, which, tradition relates, was once the home of Walter Furst, who played so important a part in securing the freedom of Switzerland.

Our story takes us back into the gray past,—the year 1296. It was a beautiful May morning. The sun shed its golden rays over mountain and valley, and the bells of Seedorf summoned the willing herdsmen and peasants, with their magical music, to celebrate the consecration festival in God's house. The service over, the long procession of church-goers dispersed in various directions. They walked along seriously and quietly, and it was easy to read in their faces that the sermon and song had inspired in their souls sacred feelings.

Two venerable men were conspicuous among them,—Walter Furst and the Baron von Attinghausen. Their heads were silvered by age, but the fire in their eyes and their resolute mien betokened the energy which still animated them to heroic purpose. Hedwig, Furst's daughter, a noble girl, famous through the whole country for her beauty and her virtue, walked beside them.

They parted at Furst's door after exchanging a few words about the games which were to take place the next afternoon. Furst and Hedwig entered the house, and the Baron took the mountain road which led to his castle. These two men were held in the highest respect, not only in their own canton, Uri, but also in the cantons Schwyz and Unterwalden. So far as material circumstances are concerned, both were fortunate, but it would have been difficult to decide which stood the higher in nobility of soul. The virtues of their fathers were sacred legacies, which kept them true in word and deed. They were the living statute books of their people, and their authority was never questioned.

An hour after dinner there was an exciting time under the lofty maple-trees in front of Furst's house. It was the day of the spring shooting festival. Furst heard the sounds of flutes and alpine horns, and, going to the window with his daughter, beheld a stirring spectacle on the mountain-side. A crowd of peasants had fetched the Baron from his castle, and the jubilant procession was winding its way down the mountain road. The musicians, their instruments and hats tied with gayly colored fluttering ribbons, led the way. A tall young herdsman, carrying the Uri banner, followed them, and after him came Baron von Attinghausen in glistening armor; for carrying a weapon at that period was the distinctive mark of a freeman on all public occasions. Some carried swords, some crossbows, and others iron-spiked clubs. Furst took down his sword from the wall and buckled it on, and his daughter handed him his hat with its decoration of gay feathers.

As the procession stopped before the house, Furst went out, and a general shout of welcome greeted him. He advanced to pay his respects to the Baron, and the two shook hands, after which the procession resumed its march, reinforced at short intervals by others, who waited for it in groups or singly among the trees and at their house doors. Near Attinghausen there is a large meadow bordered with high maples and nut trees, under which tables and benches had been placed. The procession wended its way to this spot, followed by a crowd of rosy-cheeked girls and boys. How all eyes glistened in expectation of the coming events of the day! Gradually the meadow assumed the appearance of a living flower-bed. Picturesque groups engaged in eager conversation were scattered here and there. The archers, stone-throwers, runners, and wrestlers were the subject of general criticism, and many were the surmises as to which of them would win the prizes. Here and there boys were practising sports in which some day they hoped to distinguish themselves. Furst and the Baron measured off the ground for the various games, and then selected judges from among the older men. The musicians, who went away immediately after the arrival of the procession, now returned at the head of a second procession, made up of women and girls from the villages of Attinghausen and Seedorf. Many had also joined them who lived among the mountains. Hedwig, Furst's daughter, was selected to distribute the prizes,—silver medals adorned with gay ribbons, which she carried on a red cushion.

An alpine horn sounded the signal for the beginning of the sports, and Furst and Baron von Attinghausen took the seats of honor reserved for them. Hedwig, "the Rose of Uri," as she was often called, modestly accepting the honor which had been bestowed upon her, sat near her father. Some of the judges took their places at his right, and the others seated themselves by the side of the Baron.

Six youths, some of them shepherds, the others huntsmen, entered for the race. The Baron pointed to a spring, sparkling like silver as it gushed from a gray rock about a thousand paces distant, to which they must run three times and back, and one of the judges was stationed at the spring to see that every one fairly reached it. The signal was given by raising a staff, and the youths flew over the sunlit meadow, closely watched by the spectators. Three of them reached the spring almost at the same instant, and when the other three had covered only a part of the distance, the runners returned to the trees in about the same positions. In the second dash for the spring many of the onlookers gave up all hope for one of the contestants who was farthest in the rear. All over the ground the exclamation was heard, "Who would have believed that Seppi would be the slowest?" There were some, however, who still had faith in Seppi, because they had noticed his steady, even running from the very outset. The runners now came back the second time amid applause on all sides. The crowd welcomed the leader, and urged him not to let the prize get away from him, while Seppi's friends appealed to him to brace up, and at least not be the last one at the finish. Seppi smiled so roguishly that his friends again took courage, and were strengthened in the confidence they had reposed in him. In the third run to the spring the order was changed, and Seppi was the third to reach it. Then he summoned all his strength, and when half-way back to the starting point, passed the two in advance of him. With a smile on his face, and greeted with music and acclamations, he reached the goal ahead of them all. The two nearest him also finished the race, but the other three suddenly stopped, and, withdrawing to one side, threw themselves down upon the grass exhausted. Furst greeted the victor and complimented the two who had also reached the goal. Then, at his signal, his daughter advanced, and fastened a medal upon Seppi's breast.

Five strong men next came forward. They were to throw a perfectly round stone of a hundred pounds' weight as far as they could. The first one seized the stone with one hand, raised it to his shoulder with a powerful swing of his arm, and hurled it a long distance with a peculiar motion of the body, assisted by the shoulder and hand. It was not necessary to mark the spot where the stone fell, for it made a deep hole in the turf. The others threw in the same way, and the last one was acclaimed victor, and awarded the prize.

Wrestling was the next sport on the programme. Quite a number had intended to participate in the ring contest, but the most of them gave up all hope when they saw Reding, the strong mountaineer and chamois hunter of Schwyz, who was famous far and near for his strength and dexterity, come forward. Only three men from the Urner Alps ventured to contest with him. To win the match it was necessary that the victor should throw his opponent to the ground three times. The first two were speedily vanquished by the alpine hunter. Uli, a herdsman, next engaged him. What strength and skill Reding displayed as he tried to throw his opponent! It was in vain, however. For a time they stood clinched and facing each other, as if they were made of iron. The heaving of their chests was the only sign of life. Then they strove to disable each other; but at last, by a tremendous effort, the hunter lifted Uli from the ground. In vain the herdsman strove to regain his footing. The next instant he was lying on his back in the grass. The hunter's strength, however, was so far exhausted that he continued the struggle with the utmost caution, and manifestly was rather bent upon saving himself from being thrown, than upon beating his opponent. After the fruitless struggle had been continued for some time in this manner, the judges stepped forward, and notified the wrestlers to give up the contest. The hunter was awarded the prize, though he had not completed his task according to the conditions, and the herdsman was praised for his effort.

"Make way for the archers," was the judges' order, and the crowd drew back on both sides so that the target could be seen from the stand. Twelve archers entered for the competition, and the order of shooting was determined by lot. Reding, the alpine hunter and strong wrestler, stood back of them, wiping the sweat from his forehead. He drew twelfth place. Behind the target was a clown cut out of wood and painted in gay colors, with a bell on its pointed cap. It was so arranged that when the bull's-eye, which was about the size of a groschen, was hit, the figure would jump up, and the bell would ring, to the great delight of the youngsters.

Just as the first archer was about to bend his bow, a slender, handsome youth appeared upon the mountain path to the right of the meadow, waving his beribboned hat in the air and singing a loud and joyous yodel, which was instantly repeated by many voices.

"It is Tell, a gallant youth and a good archer," said Furst to the Baron.

"Yes, it is Tell, it is Tell," shouted the crowd. "Now," said one, "watch the bull's eye closely and you will soon see who will take the prize." Some of the archers sniffed at the speaker, but Reding growled to himself: "The unlucky thirteen is now full."

William Tell, for it was really he, came up to the stand and greeted the archers, and then paid his special respects to the Baron, Furst, and Hedwig. When asked why he was so late, he replied: "I came by a footpath over the mountains from Burglen. When near the lake I met a woman and two children in a pitiful plight. They had lost their way in the woods, and spent the whole night in a cave. It was my duty, first of all, to conduct them to the right road." He did not mention, however, that he had carried the children in his arms over the mountains to Burglen, his native place, and brought food and drink to the woman (who had remained behind), and a servant as her guide.

"If you were thus detained," said the Baron, "it is no more than right that you should enter the contest, if you so desire."

"With your permission, worthy gentlemen," replied Tell, "I will."

Furst watched with pleasure the handsome youth, whose large, dark-blue eyes shone with more than ordinary brilliancy because of the generous deed he had performed.

Now the first archer raises his bow. The string twangs, the arrow flies through the air, and strikes the target, but it does not hit the bull's-eye. It sticks in the fifth of the twelve red rings. The image does not move. The archers come to the stand in regular order. A moment of eager expectation, then follow the twanging of the strings, the sharp hissing of the arrows, and the blows upon the target; for not one missed it. Eleven archers had shot, and two arrows were in the first ring, close to the bull's-eye. Then the hunter Reding came to the stand. Every one watched the target with increased eagerness, for he had been famous for years as a skilful marksman. He shot, and the next instant the figure behind the target jumped, so that its bell rang clearly. Music and shouts of applause rent the air.

"Do that if you can," said Reding, elated with his success, and turning to Tell, who was standing behind him. "I will try," said Tell, in a quiet and modest manner. With considerable exertion a judge pulled the arrow out of the bull's-eye, and amid the joyous outcry of the children put the image back in place, to remain there until some skilful hand should again release it.

Tell stepped up to the stand, stretched his bow, and fixed the arrow, but he did not raise the bow nor look at the target. His gaze was directed upward. The trees to the right and left of the meadow were filled with nuthatches, and some of them were flying across with much noisy chattering. Suddenly Tell raised his bow, the string twanged, and a nuthatch, flying above him, fluttered its shining blue wings together, and plunged down into the soft grass, which it dyed red with its blood. A universal outcry of astonishment followed this feat. Doubtless if any one in that crowd had been called upon to designate a crowning feat in archery, he would have said this or that hunter must shoot a bird on the wing; but no one had ever seen it done before. Tell looked around to Reding, who was standing behind him as motionless as a statue, and laughingly said, "Do that if you can." There was no lack of birds flying across, but there was decided lack of confidence upon the part of Reding, as well as of the other archers, that he could hit one, and all freely acknowledged Tell's skill.

"Tell, you are our master to-day" said Reding, at the same time extending his hand.

"Yes, that you are," said the other archers.

At Furst's signal the musicians played, and the people applauded, while Hedwig joyously fastened the medal upon the breast of the skilful archer, whom she was regarding with genuine admiration.

The match games were now finished, and as evening was coming on supper was served under the trees and out on the meadow, and Tell was Furst's guest. There were picturesque groups on all sides. Here, old men told of the sports which took place in their youthful days, or of the adventures which they had had in war and the chase in the mountains; there, youths and maidens danced to the strains of music, or went singing about the meadow in happy groups.

When the dark veil of evening shut down upon the scene, the festival closed with some fitting addresses to the crowd by Furst and the Baron. They reminded their hearers of the virtues of their fathers, and urged them to recognize right living and the fear of God as the highest duties of life, without which no people ever could prosper. They also appealed to them to continue their exercises and drills, so that they might be ready to defend themselves when the time came to maintain the freedom of their country.

The larger number of those who had participated in the festival made their way to the villages of Attinghausen and Seedorf. Some went up the mountains to the right and left, and their yodels were heard far up the heights.

Tell was the guest of Furst that night.