Landenberg was living at a castle called Sarnen. On New Year's morning he left the castle in great state, followed by soldiers and servants, to go to church. As he passed through the gates, he was met by a crowd of peasants coming in the direction of the castle. Some were driving goats and sheep before them, others carried bundles of corn, or baskets full of butter, cheese, and eggs.
"What is this crowd?" asked Landenberg, stopping to look at them.
"It is the people bringing their New Year's gifts to your lordship," answered a soldier.
Landenberg looked sharply at the peasants to see if any of them were armed, for it was forbidden for any one to take weapons into the castle. But seeing that they had only stout sticks in their hands, "Let them carry their gifts to the castle," he said. Then he passed on to church.
The peasants were allowed to go into the castle, as Landenberg had commanded. But no sooner were they well within the gates than each man drew from under his coat a sharp blade which he had hidden there, and fixed it upon his stick. Arnold of Melchthal, who led them, put his horn to his lips and blew a loud blast upon it. At the sound of it thirty men, who had been hiding near the castle walls, rushed in to join their comrades. Together they feel upon the Austrian soldiers, and a fierce struggle followed. But the Swiss soon had the best of it. All the Austrians were taken prisoner and the castle was set on fire.
Down in the valley in the little church Landenberg knelt in prayer. The church was very full of women—women who were praying for the success of their fathers and brothers. Suddenly in the quiet church the sound of a distant horn was heard. Landenberg stirred uneasily. The sound troubled him, he knew not why. The priest, too, had heard the horn. He paused a moment, then he went on reading the service, but in his calm and steady voice there was a ring of triumph. He knew why the horn blew.
A few minutes later the door of the church was burst wildly open, and pale, breathless, and bloodstained, an Austrian soldier rushed in. "Fly, my lord, fly!" he cried. "The Swiss have taken the castle, and it is in flames."
"What nonsense is this?" said Landenberg, rising, and speaking in an angry tone. "The Swiss have not the spirit to rebel. Are you drunk, man, already so early in the morning, that you come to me with such a tale?"
"It is true, my lord," gasped the man. "It is true, I swear it. Listen, you can hear their shouts."
As the man spoke, silence fell upon the church, and in the silence, through the wide open door, could indeed be heard the roar and crackle of flames, and the shouts of victory, borne upon the winter wind.
At the sound Landenberg grew pale. He turned as if he would flee.
"You cannot go back, my lord," said the soldier who had brought the news. "All ways are guarded. It were best to try and escape over the mountains. I know of a pass. It is difficult, but by it we may reach safety."
"Lead, and I follow," said Landenberg, and he and his servants and soldiers fled from the church and took the way to the mountains.
But when they came to the pass, the snow was so deep that they could not cross that way, and, dangerous though it was, they were obliged to turn back. The proud tyrants of a few days before were now like hunted animals. Starving with cold and hunger, they hid by day and crept about fearfully by night. Yet they had really little to fear. The Swiss knew very well where Landenberg and his followers were hiding. Many times they might have been taken prisoner and put to death. But the Swiss did not do so. It was not revenge but freedom for which they were fighting.
But at last Landenberg was taken prisoner and led before Henri and Arnold Melchthal. Arnold hated Landenberg because of his cruelty to his father.
"You robbed my father of his eyesight," he said. "Now you shall pay for it."
But Landenberg, who was a coward as well as a bully, threw himself upon his knees and begged Arnold to spare him. And Henri, who was a good old man, had pity upon the fallen tyrant and let him go. But first he made him swear to leave Switzerland, and never to return. This Landenberg promised. Then he and all his company, guarded by Swiss soldiers, were led to the borders of Switzerland and there set free. Glad to escape with their lives, they fled from the country and went back to their master, Albrecht of Austria.
On this New Year's Day, all the great castles which the Austrians had built were taken by the Swiss and laid in ruins. Even the Curb of Uri, which had never been quite finished, was destroyed. Whenever a castle was taken, beacon fires were lit, and from Alp to Alp the good news was signalled.
The first great blow for freedom had been struck. But in their joy the Swiss were merciful. None of the Austrian captains and but few soldiers were killed. They were only made prisoner and then sent out of the country.
A week after the taking of the castles all the Confederates met again on the Rütli. This time there was no need to meet in secret nor at night, for there were no Austrians left in the land of whom they need be afraid. But the Swiss knew that although they had already done great things, the struggle was not over. They knew that when the Emperor heard of what had happened, he would be very angry, and would come against them with his soldiers. So they bound themselves together once more by a solemn oath, promising that for ten years to come they would stand by each other and fight for each other.
The Emperor had meant to treat the Swiss so badly that they would at last rebel, and then he would have an excuse for fighting and conquering them. But when the news of what they had really done came to him, when he learned that they had not only killed one of his friends but banished all the rest, he was furiously angry. He was still, however, fighting in Austria, and he had no soldiers to spare to send to Switzerland.
So the Swiss were left in peace, and had time to prepare for the fight which they knew must come.