Gateway to the Classics: Stories of William Tell Told to the Children by H. E. Marshall
Stories of William Tell Told to the Children by  H. E. Marshall

The Story of Gessler and Stauffacher

Meanwhile, in Schwytz and Uri, Hermann Gessler was making himself as much hated as was Berenger of Landenberg in Unterwalden.

Gessler lived in a great castle at Küssnacht in Schwytz. It was a strong and gloomy castle, and in it were dreadful dungeons where he imprisoned the people and tortured them according to his own wicked will. But he was not pleased to have only one castle, and he made up his mind to build another in Uri. So he began to build one near the little town of Altorf, which lay at the other end of the Lake of the Four Forest Cantons.

Gessler forced the men of Uri to build this castle, and he meant to use it not only as a house for himself, but as a prison for the people.

The men of Uri worked unwillingly. Their hearts sank within them as they hewed the stones and laid them one on another, for they knew that they were building a prison for themselves.

As the walls rose and the dark and gloomy prison cells took shape, the men grew more and more sullen. "Who would be the first," they asked themselves, "to lie in these dark dungeons?"

Gessler often came to watch the building and to jeer and laugh at the unwilling workers. "You do not want to build my castle," he said. "O you fierce lions! O you stiff-necked peasants! Wait a little, and I will make you tame and soft enough to wind around my finger."

"What will you call your castle?" asked a friend one day, as they stood to watch the building.

"I will call it the Curb of Uri," said Gessler, with a cruel laugh, "for with it I will curb the proud spirit of these peasants"; and the hearts of the men who heard him sank still further. Were they thus to be bridled and beaten like beasts of burden?

After watching the work for some time, Gessler and his friend rode away. They were gaily clad, they looked splendid and grand, but as they rode along they were followed by the silent curses of the men of Uri.

"My friend," said Gessler, as he rode, "we will go back to Küssnacht by another way. I have heard that an insolent peasant called Werner Stauffacher has built himself a new house. I wish to see it. There is no end to the impudence of these peasants."

"But what will you do?" asked his friend.

"Do," said Gessler, "why, turn him out, to be sure. What need have these peasants of great houses?"

So they rode on, Gessler talking of the great things he would do, and of how he would grind these "peasant nobles," as he called them, to the earth.

At last they came to a bridge which crossed the little river by which they rode, and there, on the hillside opposite, stood the house which they had come to see.

It was far more beautiful than Gessler had expected, and he stood still gazing at it in wonder and anger.

The house was long and low, and built of wood. The roof was of red tiles, and the walls were painted white. The many windows glittered in the sunlight, and round their black frames, as was the custom in those days, names and proverbs were painted in white letters.

"This house was built by Werner Stauffacher and Gertrude of Iberg, his wife, in the year of Grace 1307. Who labour well, rest well," read Gessler. Pale with rage, he rode across the bridge and stopped before the house. It made him furious to think of the money which had been spent upon it.

Beside the door grew a tall lime-tree, and under it, on a wooden bench, sat Werner Stauffacher.

As Gessler rode up Stauffacher rose, and taking off his cap, greeted him politely. "Welcome, my lord," he said.

Gessler took no notice of Stauffacher's greeting. "Whose house is this?" he demanded, although he knew very well to whom it belonged. He wanted an excuse for robbing Stauffacher, and hoped to find it in his answer.

But Stauffacher, seeing how angry Gessler was, and being a wise man, answered quietly, "My lord, the house belongs to His Majesty the Emperor, and is yours and mine in fief to hold and use for his service."

"I rule this land," said Gessler in a voice shaking with anger. "I rule this land in the name of the Emperor, and I will not allow peasants to build houses as they please without asking leave. I will not permit them to live as lords and gentlemen. I will have you understand that." And turning, he rode from the doorway, followed by his gay train of knights and soldiers.

Werner Stauffacher looked long after them as they clattered away. Then full of sad thoughts he sat down again on the wooden bench under the tall lime-tree.

As he sat there, leaning his head upon his hand, and looking with troubled eyes across the valley to the snow-topped mountains beyond, Gertrude, his wife, came and sat beside him. For some time they sat in silence. Then laying her hand on his arm, "Werner," she said softly, "what troubles you?"

"Dear wife, it is nothing," he said, smiling at her.

"No, no," replied Gertrude, "do not treat me as if I were a child. Tell me what has happened. The Governor has been here I know, and that frightens me. What has he said or done to you?"

"He has done nothing yet," said Werner, "but he is very angry that we have built this house. He looked so fierce as he rode away that I am sure he means to take it from us. Yes, I am sure of it. He will take our house, and our goods and our money as well. Do you wonder that I am sad? Yet what can we do?"

As Werner spoke Gertrude grew pale, then her cheeks flushed red and her eyes sparkled with anger. "Oh," she cried, "it is shameful, shameful! How long are we to suffer the Austrian tyrants? Oh that I were a man!"

Gertrude rose and walked up and down in front of the house for a few minutes, thinking deeply. "Werner," she said at last, stopping before him, "listen to me. Every day we hear cries of despair from our friends around us. Every day we hear some new tale of injustice and wrong. We know that the people of Schwytz are weary to death of the Governor's rule. Can you doubt that in Uri and Unterwalden the people are weary too? You know that they must be. Now listen to me. Go secretly to your friends, talk to them and discuss with them how best we can rid ourselves of Austria. Do you know any one in Uri and Unterwalden whom you could trust and who would help you?"

"Yes," said Werner, "I known all the chief people. Many of them I could trust with my life. There is Walter Fürst in Uri and Henri of Melchthal in Unterwalden. They, I am sure, would help us."

"Then go to them," said Gertrude throwing her head proudly back. "Let us be free, free once more. What matter though we die, if we lose our lives fighting for freedom."

"Gertrude," said Werner rising, "you have put heart into me. I will go this very night. God help me if I fail."

"We will not fail," said Gertrude, smiling at him bravely. And now her eyes, which had before sparkled with anger, were wet with tears.

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