The Emperor Albrecht was hated by many people besides the Swiss. He was so greedy and so cruel that it would have been strange indeed if many had loved him.
Among those who hated the Emperor was his nephew, Duke John. Duke John's father had died when he was quite a little boy, and his uncle Albrecht had brought him up and had taken charge of his money and land. But now Duke John was twenty years old, and he wanted to rule his own land and take care of his own money. But the Emperor, who was greedy, and hoped to be able to keep Duke John's possessions, would not give them up. Again and again Duke John asked for his land and his money. Again and again the Emperor refused. "You are not old enough yet," he said, "you are not old enough."
But this answer only made Duke John more angry and more determined, for the Emperor's own sons, who were no older, were given lands to rule and were treated as great princes.
At last the Emperor finished his war in Austria and returned to fight against the three Forest Cantons. While he was gathering his soldiers together, his friends came to his castle to advise him how best to conquer the Swiss. Among them came Duke John.
On the last day of April, Duke John and his uncle rode together through a wood. The sky was blue, the birds were singing, and all the world seemed gay and beautiful. "Let me rule my own Dukedom, uncle," said Duke John. "It is full time that the crown was set upon my head."
"You are only a boy," returned his uncle scornfully, "too young to rule."
"I am no younger than my cousins," replied John bitterly, "and they have crowns and kingdoms given to them."
"Oh," said the Emperor, "you must have a crown, must you?" He checked his horse, and leaning over, broke a twig from a willow-tree close by. He twisted the twig quickly into the form of a crown. Then with another scornful laugh he gave it to his nephew. "There," he said, "is a crown good enough for you. To-morrow is May Day. Go make yourself a May Day king."
"There is a crown good enough for you"
Duke John dashed the willow crown to the ground. He was white and trembling with passion. "You scorn and scoff at me," he cried. "But you shall do so no longer. From this day there is hatred and war between you and me. I will ask no more for my crown and kingdom. I will take them." Then he put spurs to his horse and rode away.
"Silly boy," laughed the Emperor, "what can he do against me?"
That night Duke John talked long with his friends. There was only one way in which he could win his own land. His uncle would not give it up, so his uncle must die.
Next day the Emperor rode out, followed by his train of soldiers and servants. It was May Day, and everywhere people were feasting and rejoicing. The Emperor with one friend rode on alone, far before his soldiers, who came slowly trotting behind. They came to a bridge over a river, and as they were crossing it Duke John was seen galloping towards them. In his hand he held a drawn sword which flashed in the sunlight. "Now will I well reward your scorn," he cried, as he came dashing along; "now must you yield up my land to me," and before the Emperor was aware of what Duke John meant to do, he had been struck on the breast, so that he reeled in his saddle. The Duke's two friends then rushed upon the Emperor, one aiming a blow at his head, the other thrusting his sword through his body. Albrecht fell to the ground, and the knight who had been with him fled away in fear of his life.
Duke John and his friends, fearful now of the deed they had done, fled too, and the Emperor was left on the bridge alone. There a poor beggar woman found him lying in great pain, and having pity on him, she did what she could to ease him. But nothing could save his life. So this great Emperor died on the lonely roadside in the arms of a poor beggar woman.
When Duke John fled away, he fled to Switzerland. But the Swiss, when they heard of his deed, would not receive him. "We had no quarrel with the Emperor," they said. "It was against Austria that we fought."
So the gates of all the Swiss towns were closed against Duke John. The gates of one town called Zurich had not been shut for twenty years. Now the hinges were so rusty that at first they would not turn. But the men of Zurich were eager to show that they were true to the Empire, so they bent their backs to the task. When the great gates moved at last, they seemed to groan and cry aloud as they slowly closed. Then the bars were drawn against the murderer.
But although the Swiss would not shelter Duke John, neither would they punish him. "We will not avenge the Emperor, who never did us any good," they said. "We will not punish Duke John, who never did us any harm. We have no part in his deed. We only wish peace and freedom."
For two years Duke John wandered about disguised as a monk, and at last he reached Italy, where it is said he died in loneliness and misery.
After the murder of Albrecht, the Princes chose another Emperor called Henri. He was not a Prince of Austria, and he was kind to the Swiss. He gave them letters saying that they were free as they had always been, that Austria had no power over them, and that they owed obedience only to the Emperor, and not to the Austrian Princes.