In Unterwalden there lived a good old man, called Henri of Melchthal. He was known and loved by all around, and he lived happily with his son in their little farmhouse. Henri of Melchthal was rich. Flocks of sheep and goats fed upon the hillside above the farm; herds of cattle browsed upon the meadowland which sloped from the door of the house; in the farm-yard, among the stacks of corn, were cocks and hens and geese and ducks.
Henri was old and grave and his son Arnold was young and gay, but they loved each other dearly and were always together. All day long Arnold worked hard on the farm, feeding the cattle, ploughing and reaping. In the evening, when work was over, the two would sit together by the fire, while Henri told stories of bygone days, or Arnold played wild mountain tunes upon his bagpipes.
When Landenberg came to rule over Unterwalden, he noticed the neat farmhouse, and he envied the flocks and herds. He soon found out that Henri was a rich man, and he made up his mind to take his riches from him. But Henri was so quiet and orderly that even Landenberg found it difficult to find any cause for which he might be punished.
Arnold, however, was young and careless. He hated the Austrian ruler, and he took no pains to hide his hatred. At last one day Landenberg, hearing of some boyish nickname Arnold had used in speaking of him, resolved to punish him.
Landenberg knew that Henri of Melchthal possessed the best yoke of oxen in all the countryside. He had long envied them, and now he meant to have them. So, calling his servant Rudolph, he ordered him to go to Henri of Melchthal's house and bring away the oxen.
Rudolph, taking some soldiers with him, set out for the farm. When he arrived there he found Arnold in the field ploughing. In Switzerland, at this time, oxen were used to draw the ploughs instead of horses. Rudolph saw that Arnold was using the very oxen which he had been sent to take, so he and the soldiers rode across the field to where Arnold was.
Arnold checked his oxen and looked up in astonishment as they came. What could they want? he asked himself. It made him angry to see the fresh-turned furrows being trampled by horses' hoofs. "The Austrian peacocks," he growled to himself, "could they not keep to the road?"
"Men," said Rudolph, when he was quite near to Arnold, "unyoke these oxen."
Arnold sprang forward. "Do not dare," he said, "do not dare to lay a finger upon them. They are mine."
"Yours!" said Rudolph, "yours! Nay, they belong to my lord of Landenberg. You will perhaps think twice in the future ere you call my lord an "Austrian peacock."
"Master Rudolph," said Arnold, trying to keep down his anger and to speak calmly, "I may have been foolish, but I meant no ill, and surely a yoke of oxen is too great a fine to pay for a few idle words."
"Who made you a judge?" asked Rudolph. "How shall an ignorant peasant say what punishments are just?"
"Nay," said Arnold, "I do not make myself a judge. I do but ask justice. If I have done wrong let me be taken before the court, and I will cheerfully pay what fine is lawful—but to take my oxen—ah, good Master Rudolph, how can I plough if you take my oxen?"
"I care not how you plough," said Rudolph. "I have been sent to take your oxen and take them I shall. If peasants will plough, let them yoke themselves to the shafts. It is all they are fit for. Come, men," he added, laying his hand upon the wooden collar to which the oxen were yoked, "unbind the beasts."
Then Arnold's rage burst out. "Hands off!" he cried, and with the stick which he carried he aimed a blow at Rudolph's hand, as it lay upon the wooden collar.
Rudolph uttered a howl of pain and anger. Two of his fingers were broken. "At him, men, and seize him," he cried. "He shall smart for this."
The men sprang forward, but Arnold was too quick for them. He turned and fled away over the field, for he had no weapon except his stick.
Arnold was one of the fastest runners in the country, and the soldiers were weighted with their heavy armour. They could not run fast, and they stumbled and fell in the newly-ploughed field. So Arnold got safely away to the shelter of the pine forest on the mountain beyond.
"Fools and idiots," yelled Rudolph, as the soldiers returned. "Why could you not catch him? Fools, unyoke the oxen and let us be going."
The men did as they were told, and the gentle, patient beasts, which had stood quietly all the time, now lowed piteously, as if they knew that they were leaving their kind master for ever.
That night it was known far and wide that Arnold of Melchthal had struck the Governor's servant and that he had fled away. And Henri sat alone by his fireside, sadly wondering what would happen, and if he would ever again see his dear son.
Rudolph went straight to the Governor and told him all that had happened. Landenberg was furiously angry, and he sent soldiers through all the country to search for Arnold. But no trace of him could be found, for Arnold was already far away, and was safely hidden by his friends.
"Bring the father here to me," said Landenberg at last. "He must know where his son is hiding."
So the soldiers went to the pretty farmhouse, where Henri now lived all by himself, and, seizing him, brought him before the Governor.
"What is your name?" asked Landenberg.
"I am called Henri of Melchthal."
"Ah! then tell me, where is your rebellious son?"
"I know not, my lord."
"Do not tell me that," said Landenberg fiercely. "I do not believe you. You must know. You are in league together. Tell me at once."
"I know not, my lord," said Henri again. "My son has not come near the house since the day on which he fled."
"Ah," said Landenberg again, "I do not believe you. But I will soon make you tell. Ho! headsman, without there."
The headsman entered.
"Take him away," said Landenberg, pointing at Henri, "and if he will not speak, put out his eyes."
"My lord, my lord, I know not, I know not!" cried Henri in agony. But the headsman led him away and put out his eyes.
"Now," said Landenberg to Rudolph, with a cruel laugh," he has paid with his two eyes for your two fingers."
"That makes me no richer," grumbled Rudolph.
"True," said Landenberg, "but there is much money in his house, and he has herds and flocks enough. You shall have a share of them, for you serve me well."
So Landenberg took Henri of Melchthal's house and lands and cattle, and all that he had. And the old man, who only a few days before had been rich and happy, was left to wander away alone, a poor, blind beggar.
But kind people had pity on Henri of Melchthal. They remembered how good and generous he had been when he was rich and happy, so, now that he was poor and in trouble, they took him to their homes and tried to comfort him and make him forget all that he had lost.