On the lakes of Switzerland storms of wind arise very quickly. The Swiss used to dread these storms so much that they gave names to the winds as if they were people. The south wind, which is the fiercest, they called the Föhn. There used to be a law that when the Föhn arose, all fires were to be put out. For the wind whistled and blew down the wide chimneys like great bellows, till the fires flared up so fiercely that the houses, which were built of wood, were in danger of being burned to the ground. Now one of these fierce storms arose.
No one noticed when Gessler's boat pushed off from the shore how dark the sky had grown nor how keenly the wind was blowing. But before the boat had gone very far the waves began to rise, and the wind to blow fiercer and fiercer.
Soon the little boat was tossing wildly on great white-crested waves. The rowers bent to the oars and rowed with all their might. But in spite of all they could do, the waves broke over the boat, filling it with water. They were tossed here and there, until it seemed every minute that they would sink.
Pale with fear, the captain stood at the helm. He was an Austrian who knew nothing of the Swiss lakes, and he had never before been in such a storm. He was helpless, and he knew that very soon the boat would be a wreck.
Wrapped in his mantle, Gessler sat silent and still, watching the storm. He, too, knew the danger.
As the waves dashed over him, one of Gessler's servants staggered to his master's feet. "My lord," he said, "you see our need and danger, yet methinks there is one man on board who could save us."
"Who is that?" asked Gessler.
"William Tell, your prisoner," replied the man. "He is known to be one of the best sailors on this lake. He knows every inch of it. If any one can save the boat, he can."
"Bring him here," said Gessler.
"It seems you are a sailor as well as an archer, Tell," said Gessler, when his prisoner had been brought before him. "Can you save the boat and bring us to land?"
"Yes," said Tell.
"Unbind him, then," said Gessler to the soldier, "but mark you, Tell, you go not free. Even although you save us, you are still my prisoner. Do not think to have any reward."
The rope which bound Tell's hands was cut, and he took his place at the helm.
The waves still dashed high, the wind still howled, but under Tell's firm hand the boat seemed to steady itself, and the rowers bent to their work with new courage and strength in answer to his commanding voice.
Tell, leaning forward, peered through the darkness and the spray. There was one place where he knew it would be possible to land—where a bold and desperate man at least might land. He was looking for that place. Nearer and nearer to the shore he steered. At last he was quite close to it. He glanced quickly round. His bow and arrows lay beside him. He bent and seized them. Then with one great leap he sprang ashore, and as he leaped he gave the boat a backward push with his foot, sending it out again into the stormy waters of the lake.
As Tell leaped he gave the boat a backward push with his foot
There was a wild outcry from the sailors, but Tell was free, for no one dared to follow him. Quickly clambering up the mountainside, he disappeared among the trees.
As Tell vanished, Gessler stood up and shouted in anger, but the little boat, rocking and tossing on the waves, drifted out into the lake, and the Austrian sailors, to whom the shore was unknown, dared not row near to it again, lest they should be dashed to pieces upon the rocks. Even as it was, they expected every moment that the boat would sink, and that all would be drowned. But despair seemed to give the sailors fresh strength, and soon the wind fell and the waves became quieter. A few hours later, wet, weary, but safe, Gessler and his company landed on the shore of Schwytz.