Many hundreds of years ago, there lived far up in the mountains of Switzerland, a race of hardy and independent people that most of the conquerors of the day had passed by. Their land was so bare and mountainous, that it did not attract the Huns and Vandals who were moving upon the rich plains and valleys of Europe. Century after century passed, and the hardy mountaineers lived on undisturbed.
At last, one of the Dukes of Austria claimed that the land of these Swiss people belonged to him, and went to make good his claims. He sent a governor and a band of soldiers to take charge of the country and force the people to submit to his authority.
The rulers were very cruel and oppressed the people mightily. In Unterwald, there was a Swiss countryman whose name was Henry Melchthal. He was a good citizen and much beloved by his people, but the governor was his enemy.
Now Henry had some fine oxen which the governor ordered his servants to seize, telling the messenger, "The governor says that the peasants should plow the fields themselves and not own such fine stock."
Henry unharnessed the oxen and delivered them to the servant. His son Arnold, however, was so angry that he struck the servant with a stick and broke his hand. Upon this, Arnold fled for fear of his life, and hid himself in the country of Uri. When the servant returned and told the governor what had happened, he was so enraged that by his orders old Henry was seized and his eyes were torn from their sockets. It was such actions as this that made the Austrian governor hated by the Swiss people.
Arnold called together several of his friends and told them his story. At last there was quite a large band of Swiss patriots who declared that they were tired of the Austrian rule and would not stand it much longer. This was the beginning of the revolt on the part of the Swiss that finally ended in their freedom.
Of all tyrannical governors which Albert of Austria sent to govern the Swiss people, none was worse than Gessler. He lived in a fortress in Uri, which he had built as a place of safety in case of revolt. Everywhere he went he was attended by a body of guards, and was most insulting to the people. They followed him with sullen looks and took no pains to conceal their enmity.
Moreover, Gessler took no pains to conciliate or gain their friendship. One day he had a pole erected in the market place at Altdorf, under the elm trees which were growing there, and directed that his hat should be placed on top of the pole.
An officer stood in the market place and called aloud to the people, "The governor orders that all who pass through the market place shall bow or kneel to his hat, as if it were to the king himself. All who refuse shall be beaten with rods and their property shall be confiscated."
To this insulting order the people gave no response. A guard was placed near the pole, with drawn swords, and all who passed that way were compelled to bow to the hat of Gessler, whether they liked it or not.
On the Sunday following the erection of the pole a peasant from the mountains of Uri, by the name of William Tell, came into the market place and stood viewing the crowd bowing to the hat of Gessler.
Tell was one of those who had sworn to rid the country of the Austrian rule. He looked on quietly for awhile, not knowing what they were doing, for he had not heard of the order. Quietly he walked through the market place, very haughtily, and neither bowed his head nor bent his knee. The guards did not force him to do so, because they rather feared the people, but they did not hesitate to send word to Gessler.
Gessler summoned Tell before him at once. "Why did you not obey my order and bow your head and bend your knee to my hat in the market place?" was the imperious demand.
"I had not heard of such an order and I did not know that it was your hat. I could not imagine why the people in the market place were making such adoration," replied Tell.
Gessler did not like the explanation, nor did he like the haughty manner of the peasant. He looked at the bold mountaineer and determined upon a singular and cruel punishment.
"Where are you from?" asked he.
"I am from Uri, my lord."
"Have you any children with you?" asked Gessler.
"My son is with me," replied Tell.
"I hear you are a famous marksman, and so you shall prove your skill in my presence by shooting an apple from the head of your son. If you hit the apple, I shall spare your life, if not, it is forfeit," was the unfeeling order of the tyrant.
Tell was the most famous archer of the mountains, and rarely missed his mark, but this was a trial to test the strength of the bravest heart and the most quiet nerves. He turned to Gessler in surprise and horror. "I shall not risk the life of my son. Let me die first, but spare him." But Gessler was obdurate and Tell was forced to the terrible ordeal.
Into the market place Tell was hurried, and under a tree his son was placed, with an apple upon his head.
"My son, sit very still, and be not afraid. Your father never yet has missed his mark," said the mountaineer to his son, in a trembling voice.
"I am not afraid, my father," replied the boy, who knew the unerring marksmanship that the mountaineer had shown upon many occasions.
The paces were stepped off and Tell took his stand. Gessler watched him closely. The archer selected two arrows with great care; one he placed in his bow, and the other he slipped into his jacket. Looking at his son, he said to those around him, "Turn the child to one side; his smile disturbs me. Should I slay him, I would not see his face as he falls."
Everything was ready and the crowd held its breath. Gessler smiled, expecting the boy to be slain. Tell carefully raised his bow and took deliberate aim. The rocks of the mountains were not steadier than he when his strong arm bent the bow and sped the arrow on its way. His son stood immovable, trusting to the skill of his father. Then the crowd shouted, "A fair mark; the apple is split in two and the child is safe."
The crowd surrounded the boy and took him in their arms, but Gessler scowled with dismay. Turning to Tell, he angrily demanded, "What means that other arrow in thy jacket?"
Tell turned to him and, taking the arrow from his jacket, said, "With this shaft I would have slain thee, thou tyrant, had I killed my child." And there was great silence in the market place when Tell uttered these brave and defiant words.
The face of Gessler was suffused with anger. "I promised you your life and you shall have it," said he; "but you shall have it in a place where you can never again behold the light of day." Turning to his guards, he said, "Seize that man and bind his hands."
The crowd was too overawed at Gessler to make any resistance. The guards were many and well-armed. Tell was seized, his arms were bound and he was hurried to the side of the lake, accompanied by Gessler and the guards. Here he was placed in a boat, his bow being laid beside the steersman.
Gessler himself entered the boat with a few of his guards, and ordered the oarsmen to push off from shore and head towards the landing where Tell could be taken to the governor's fortress. Half-way across the lake a sudden storm arose, which frightened Gessler and all of his men. "My lord," cried one of them, "unless some one who knows how to manage it takes charge of this boat we shall all go to the bottom."
Gessler was a coward, and turning to Tell, said to him, "If you can bring us out of this danger I will release you from your bonds, and will let you return to your home." But he had no intention of keeping his promise.
To this Tell replied, "I know something of managing a boat; untie these hands and I can bring it to the shore."
Tell's hands were then unbound, and he was given the helm of the boat. He was a skilful boatman, and knew all about how to manage a craft upon the mountain lakes. In a short while, he had the boat under command and headed for the shore.
As he came near the land, he cried out to the oarsmen, "Steady, while I turn the boat towards yonder rock." In a moment the boat was beside a great stone, and underneath its shelter, so that it was in comparative safety.
Dropping the helm and seizing his bow, Tell leaped upon the rock, at the same time giving the boat a shove back into the lake. With a cry of defiance, he disappeared in the woods, while the enraged Gessler saw his victim escape.
In a short while the oarsmen succeeded in reaching the shore at the point to which they had intended to go, and Gessler and his party landed on their way to his fortress.
In the meanwhile, Tell had quickly made his way through the woods and had concealed himself behind a tree, near a narrow passage, through which he knew Gessler and his party had to go on their way home. Here Tell waited, bow in hand and arrow in place.
He did not have long to wait. The angry governor came, swearing vengeance against Tell. "If I ever lay my hands upon him again, I shall have him torn to pieces at once. He and all like him must be taught a lesson."
In the midst of his wrath, there was suddenly heard the twang of a bow and the noise of a shaft as it sped through the air. A moment more and the deadly arrow had pierced the heart of the tyrant, and he reeled upon his horse. His servants caught him as he fell. He was laid upon the ground, and in a short while his days of cruelty and his powers of revenge were over.
Thus did William Tell rid his country of an oppressive governor, and on that spot there stands to-day a chapel built by the people of Switzerland in memory of the brave deed of the bold mountaineer.