Three weeks passed, and the Wednesday before Martinmas arrived. The short winter's day was over. The lights in the cottages went out. All seemed at rest.
It was then, in the starlight and the quiet, that Walter, Werner and Arnold crept out from their darkened houses.
The air was clear and crisp, and the ground was covered with frost, although no snow had yet fallen, as through the dim forest by secret ways the three came silently stealing.
Each of them had worked well. But they had worked in fear, for Austrian spies were everywhere. It was hard to know at times who was friend and who was foe. Since the night they had talked together in Walter Fürst's house, they had not dared to meet again, and each of the three wondered how the others had succeeded.
The moon shone brightly, as the dark figures stole silently through the forest Arnold came from Unterwalden bringing with him ten men. He knew every path and byway in the forest or mountain-side, and hardly a word was spoken till they arrived at the place of meeting.
"We are the first," said Arnold, as he stepped from the shadow of the trees into the moonlit space and found no one there. As he spoke a bell rang out clear and sharp across the lake. All listened. "It is the great bell of Altorf ringing twelve," said Arnold; "how well one hears it in the frosty air. The others will not be long."
As the men stood around waiting they talked in low voices, and presently the distant splash of oars was heard.
"That must be Werner Stauffacher," said Arnold, looking across the moonlit water. "I can see his boat. Wait here, I will meet him on the shore and bring him to you."
Arnold disappeared in the bushes, and the men could hear him scrambling down the rocky pathway to the shore.
Then all was silence again until the boat was quite near. "Who goes there?" called Arnold sharply.
"Friends of Freedom," replied Stauffacher's voice.
"Welcome," said Arnold as the boat touched the shore, "you do not come alone, I see."
"No," replied Werner, "I have brought ten trusty men with me. And you?"
"I too have brought ten men," replied Arnold, as he turned to lead the way upward.
"And what of Walter Fürst?" said Werner, as they reached the open space.
"He cannot now be long," said Arnold. "Ah, here he comes," and as he spoke Walter Fürst came into the ring of moonlight. Several men followed him, and beside him walked a young man. He was straight and tall, his eyes were clear and honest. He looked strong and brave, yet gentle and kind.
"William Tell," said Arnold, springing forward and seizing his hand. "God be thanked you are with us."
"So that is William Tell," said one of the men from Schwytz. "He is Walter Fürst's son-in-law, is he not? I have often heard of him. They say he is the best shot in all Switzerland."
"And so he is," replied another. "I have seen him shoot an apple from a tree a hundred paces off."
Then in the moonlight the men gathered together, Walter, Werner, and Arnold in the middle, the others around them.
"You know well, good friends," said Walter, "why we are here. It is our own free country in which we meet, yet we have to creep together at midnight and in fear. Much cruelty and injustice we have patiently borne, but now we can bear no more, and we have sworn, we three, to free our land from the power of Austria. Are you willing to join us?"
"That we are," cried every one.
"Then hear the oath which we swear," said Walter. And while the others stood silently around them, the three raised their hands to heaven and solemnly spoke. "We hereby promise never to betray or forsake each other; never to think of ourselves, but in everything to think only of our country; we promise not to try to take away from the Austrians any lands which by right belong to them, but only to free our own land from them. We will keep true to the Emperor, but the Austrian Governor, his friends, his servants, and his soldiers, we will utterly drive out of the land. If it may be, we will do this without fighting or shedding of blood. But if that may not be, we are ready to die, so that we free our country and hand on to our sons the freedom which our fathers left us. God and His holy ones helping us, in this bond we will live and die. Amen."
The three raised their hands to heaven and solemnly spoke
Grandly and solemnly the words rang out on the still night air. No other sound was heard; above was the deep blue sky glittering with stars; around, the dark and silent pine forest. These three-and-thirty men seemed alone in all the world. When the voices of the three ceased, a shout rose from the others. "Amen, amen," they cried, "we too would take the oath." And each of the thirty, raising his hand to heaven, repeated the solemn words.
Long they talked, for what they meant to do was difficult and dangerous, and needed much thought and careful planning. But at last everything was settled. The stars began to fade, the first light of dawn streaked the sky, and the snow-topped mountains were reddened by the rising sun before these three-and-thirty men parted. "Look," said Tell, pointing to the glowing hill-tops, "it is the dawn of a new day."
Then they parted, each man going back to his home resolved to be patient but a little longer, for on New Year's Day the Austrian tyranny was to end.