Post-classical history

The Stories of William Tell and Arnold von Winkelried

IN early times, some tall, strong people who had light hair, blue eyes, and fair complexions took up their homes in Switzerland. They were a proud, independent race; and proudest of all were those who dwelt in three districts far up in the mountains, known later as the Forest Cantons. Even after those who lived in the lower parts of the land had been obliged to give up much of their liberty, the Forest Cantons were still free. They yielded to the Emperor of Germany, they said, and to no one else.

At one time Rudolph of the family of Hapsburg was emperor. He was of Swiss birth. He loved his people and protected them; but after him came his son Albert, a cruel tyrant. He was determined to bring the Swiss under the rule of Austria, and he was especially bitter against the Forest Cantons. He set governors over them who were free to insult the people, steal from them, imprison them, or even put them to death. The worst of all the governors was a man named Gessler, and the land was full of tales of his insolence and wickedness.

Gessler seemed determined to humble the Swiss in every possible way. One day he put an Austrian hat on a pole and set it up in the market-place with the command that every one who passed should bow down to it as if it were the emperor himself. William Tell, a bold mountaineer, walked through the place with his little son, and did not salute the hat, wherefore he was seized by the guards. Gessler, in cruel sport, told him that since he carried a bow, he might display his archery by shooting an apple from the head of his son, and if he succeeded in doing it without killing the child his own life should be spared. Tell pleaded not to be compelled to make so unnatural a trial, but the tyrant forced him to do it. The mountaineer was a skilful archer, and he hit the apple, to the great joy of all the people who stood round; but Gessler had noticed that Tell had taken another arrow in his hand, and he demanded suspiciously, "Why did you take out a second arrow?" Tell replied boldly, "If I had slain my child this should have found your heart." Gessler was furious. He threw Tell into chains and that night started to take him across the Lake of the Four Cantons to a prison on the other side. It is not at all uncommon for a storm to rise suddenly amidst the mountains that surround the beautiful lake. Without warning the waters will be lashed into fury, and woe betide the boats that are not lying safely at anchor. Such a storm now overtookGessler and his company. "Tell knows the lake, and he is the only man that can save us," declared the peasants who were rowing. "Unbind him, then!" bade the frightened governor, "and give him the helm." Tell did know the lake and he guided the boat through the darkness to where a rock jutted out into the water. Coming as near as he dared, he made a bold spring to the rock, gave a thrust to the boat, and in a moment was free on the land while Gessler and his men were fighting for their lives to prevent the boat from being swamped. Eventually the governor was saved, but the next day he and his escort had to pass through some deep woods. He was exclaiming, "Let him surrender, or one of his children dies to-morrow, another on the second day, and his wife on the third," when suddenly an arrow whizzed through the branches, and the tyrant fell dead. Whether the arrow came from Tell's bow, no one knew.



Before this some of the bold mountaineers had met under the stars one night on a little point that stretched out into a lake, and had sworn to stand together to free themselves from the tyranny of the Hapsburgs. The duke himself came with an army to subdue the rebellious Swiss; but as his troops were marching through a deep, narrow pass, suddenly rocks and trunks of trees were hurled down upon them. Then came the Swiss with their clubs and pikes, and the proud Austrians were overpowered and driven back by the mountain peasants.

Again, some seventy years later, the Austrians tried to conquer Switzerland. When the moment of battle had come, the knights dismounted and stood with their long spears in rest, a wall of bristling steel. The Swiss had only swords and short spears, and they could not even reach their enemies. The Austrians were beginning to curve their lines so as to surround the Swiss, when Arnold von Winkelried, a brave Swiss, suddenly cried, "My comrades, I will open a way for you!" and threw himself upon the lances, clasping in his arms as many as he could and dragging them to the ground. In an instant his comrades sprang into the opening. The Austrians fought gallantly, but they were routed. It was by such struggles as these that Switzerland freed herself from the yoke of Austria.



These two stories have been handed down in Switzerland from father to son for many years. People doubt their truth; but in one way at least there is truth in them; namely, they show how earnestly the Swiss loved liberty. They came to hate everything connected with Austria, even peacock feathers, because they were the symbol of Austria. It is said that once an ardent patriot was drinking from a glass when the sun shone through it and the detested colors appeared. Straightway the man dashed the glass to the floor, and it was shattered into a thousand pieces.

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