William Tell - George Upton

Hifeli and the Vulture

One not familiar with mountainous regions would hardly believe it possible that the mountains are ten and sometimes twenty times as high as the spires of his native place, and yet there are meadows and even lakes among them. There are many of these high-lying meadows in the Swiss Alps. As they are usually so far distant from the villages that it takes the larger part of a day to drive the herds back and forth, and as the roads generally are very rough, it has been customary from the earliest times to leave them on the mountains all summer, driving them up in the spring and back in the autumn. Those who attend to this business pass their summers on the Alps, and are called the master herdsmen, and their droves, whether large or small, are called herds. There is a wooden building called the herdsman's hut upon every mountain where the herd is driven. The master herdsman is expected not only to be faithful and experienced in this duty, but also to understand the art of making good cheese, which has always been an important staple of Swiss food.

Tell owned one of these meadows, high in the range, and Joggeli, his herdsman, had driven up eleven cows on the first of May. The latter, as well as Hedwig and the children, was greatly disappointed because Hifeli, the favorite cow, who wore the finest bell and usually led the herd, could not go with it. She had to remain behind to give birth to her calf. The day when the herdsman drove the herd to the mountains was always observed as a festival, and upon this occasion Joggeli proudly led the procession. His yellow trousers were held up by red suspenders crossing his white shirt. He also wore a new hat, decorated with flowers, and carried a beautifully carved milk-bowl at his side. Hifeli should have followed him, but she remained in her stall, lowing piteously. Next came three handsome goats, and after them the two bell cows, so called because each wore a bell nearly equal in value to Hifeli's. The other cows followed in pairs, and the bull brought up the rear, carrying the milking-stool upon his stout horns. The herdsman enthusiastically advanced, singing the Ranz des Vaches, and Tell, Hedwig, and the boys watched their departure. Joggeli did not begin his song in the yard as usual, but waited until he had gone quite a distance, out of consideration for the feelings of Hifeli.

There are no relations between men and animals so intimate as those between the Swiss herdsman and his cows. He carries neither whip nor stick. His word is sufficient to lead and govern the herd. He guides it and calls it together with song. He cares for his animals with such scrupulous nicety that they are as sleek from head to foot as the best groomed horses.

Hifeli's calf was born not long after the departure of the herd. It was the image of its mother. Like her, it was glossy and black, and had a star on its snow-white forehead as well as white marks on its feet. Hifeli was no longer lonesome, for she was now kept busy with her calf, at one time licking it, at another scolding it in a motherly way, and often following it with solicitous eyes when it came frisking into the stall with awkward jumps.

It would be hard to say which of the two, Hifeli or the calf, was the favorite of Hedwig and the boys.

The day came at last for William to drive Hifeli and her calf to the mountains. He had never been so happy before. His parents had shown unusual confidence in his ability by intrusting their most valuable animal to his care. To drive one cow on the mountain roads is a more difficult task than driving a whole herd on level meadows. On the previous day William had told Hifeli at least ten times that she and her calf were going to leave their dark stall in the morning and that he was to drive them to the mountains. He dreamed of it all night long.

The next day he appeared in his little herdsman's attire, but without a milk-bowl at his side. In its place he carried a herdsman's bag, which his mother had filled abundantly with bread, cheese, and dried fruits. After breakfast his parents went with him to the yard, and his father led Hifeli out of her stall. Then he hung the bell of honor to her neck, which she had worn for two years, signifying that she was the most beautiful cow in the herd. The bell was nearly a foot in length, with an inward and outward curve and thin edges, and various figures were stitched on the leather strap which held it.

The custom of decorating handsome cows with costly bells, where the owners can afford it, is an old one in Switzerland. Even nowadays considerable business is done in buying and selling them. It seems incredible that from 130 to 140 gulden have been asked for these bells, but it is true. It often happens that a herdsman's wife and daughters begrudge the cost of these neck ornaments. How much Hifeli's bell cost cannot be stated, but it was a fine one and had a beautiful tone. When it was hung to her neck she turned her head toward the mountains, lowing with delight. William smiled when his father said: "She knows well enough where you are going to take her. She also knows she wears the bell of honor at her neck. Now go, my son, and do your work like a man."

"I will, father," said William, shaking his parents' hands and kissing them good-bye. Then he took his staff, and singing with a loud, clear voice, started on. Hifeli promptly followed him with measured step, looking round now and then at her calf, which was frisking about in youthful delight. As Hedwig watched her dear boy there were tears in her eyes.

"He is a brave little fellow," said his father. "Now wake up Walter. He must go to the field with me."

William meanwhile climbed the sunny heights, and his song was ever strong and clear. He was as happy as the lark, which sings as it soars into the crystalline sky. He stopped a little while at a place which his father had designated, and Hifeli improved the opportunity to try the fresh grass, and the calf refreshed itself with its mother's milk. After it was satisfied, William resumed his song, and the cow at once followed him. Sometimes he would make pauses in his singing, but they were short. After a time, he came to a place in the road which skirted a precipice. He had been warned about it by his father, who told him to go cautiously and keep as close as possible to the side of the rocks, which he did. He was just leaving the dangerous way behind him, when he heard a peculiar rushing sound. Looking around, he was astonished to behold a vulture, which was driving the calf to the edge of the precipice by flapping its huge wings furiously. William raised his staff, which had a stout point, and struck at the vulture with all his strength. He hit it on the under side of one of its wings, but the staff glanced off without doing the bird any harm. The boy probably would have been more successful if Hifeli had not thrust at the bird with her horns, thus making his blow uncertain. Distressed and enraged, he raised his staff a second time,—when the calf plunged downward, and the vulture shot after it.

William stood speechless, deadly pale, and trembling in every limb. Then he heard a heavy thud below. Hifeli looked down into the abyss and called piteously. For the first time William broke down, and cried bitterly, as he tried to find some way of descending. It appeared impossible; but there is no telling what he would have done had he not seen his last hope of rescuing the calf disappear. The vulture was bearing away its prey through the air. It had struck its talons into the back of the dead calf, whose head and legs were dangling.

William wrung his hands in utter wretchedness. Now he would call to the calf, and now to the cow—"Hifeli, poor Hifeli," while Hifeli lowed mournfully, and her bell tolled as if in sympathy. Soon, however, he began to consider what he must do. He could not remain there with Hifeli, who was so near the edge of the precipice that he was afraid she would plunge over. Suddenly she began doing what he already had done. She went here and there along the edge, trying to find some way of going down. His chief concern now was to get her away from that dangerous spot. He went up to her, stroked her neck, talked to her coaxingly, and went on a few steps; but it was all in vain. She would not follow him. It was hard for him under such circumstances to sing and yodel, but it was a case of necessity. Yodeling, with the tears running down his cheeks, he went some distance, hoping he could induce Hifeli to follow; but it was useless. She would look after him, turn round and low, and then go back to the rocky edge. She did this fully ten times, and all the time the boy sang all the more loudly and beautifully. If you had heard him in the distance, you would have thought his soul was inspired with the raptures of the May; but there was no joy in his heart. His anxiety for the finest cow in the herd was even greater than his sorrow over the loss of the calf. Then he remembered his father had put a long rope in the bag, which he was to take to the herdsman. He formed a plan at once. He returned to the cow, and led her to a stout fir-tree near by. There he tied the rope about her horns in a hard knot, and fastened her securely to the tree, after which he hurried back to Burglen as fast as he could. He saw his father at a distance in the field, ran up to him, and told him a tearful story of the tragedy. Tell started for the mountains at once with William, and soon they heard the lowing of the cow. He sent his son to the range with an order to the herdsman to bring down the whole herd. When they reached the spot where Tell was waiting it was long past noon.

At sight of the herd, Hifeli seemed to forget her loss. She strove to get to the cows who were grazing on an open spot near by. As soon as she was unfastened, she took her place at the head of the herd, and went forward without any delay. Tell and William followed them until the former was sure she would not come back again. William went home as sad as he had been joyful in the morning, when he started for the mountains; but he was much consoled when his father promised that they would go together and hunt this vulture, whose nesting-place he well knew.

Tell related for the first time that day the adventures of Baumgarten, and told his wife that he took him across the lake. Hedwig grew pale when she heard the story. The thought pierced her soul like a sword, "0 God, how could Tell undertake such a dangerous deed? Had he no consideration for his wife and children?" Any other woman under similar circumstances would have had the same thought, but few would have kept silent as she did, and some would have sulked and even harbored ill-will. But the expression of Hedwig's face and tearful eyes only mutely said, "Dear one, how could you do so?" Tell understood his wife, and taking her hand, said: "Hedwig, when Baumgarten raised his hands to heaven, and I saw the horsemen furiously approaching, it seemed as if the voice of God said to me, 'Have pity.' I obeyed His voice, and soon we were on the lake. Death threatened us for a long time, and I cried to God above for help."

"Tell," said his wife, "you acted bravely before God and man. You did what your conscience approved, but oh, suppose you had not come back to us!"

"You would have lost the housefather, but not your Heavenly Father, who protected me so that I am still with those who are the dearest ones to me on earth."

Tell was greatly agitated, but he controlled his emotions, and in reply to a question from Hedwig said that he had taken Baumgarten to the brave Stauffacher in Schwyz.

"Tell," said his wife, "I have long noticed that the cruelty of the Governor, who rules over us in violation of all right and precedent, has greatly troubled you. Tel] me, how will it all end?"

"Justice overtook Wolfshot," replied Tell. "God grant that it may be a warning to the Governor and induce him to cease his injustice. We must all avoid whatever may provoke that injustice; but if worst comes to the worst—"

Tell abruptly stopped. Perhaps he remembered that his boys were sitting by his side.