William Tell and His Great Shot
William Tell did not live in Altorf, but in another village some way off, called Bürglen. His wife, who was called Hedwig, was Walter Fürst's daughter. Tell and Hedwig had two sons, William and Walter. Walter, the younger, was about six years old.
William Tell loved his wife and his children very much, and they all lived happily together in a pretty little cottage at Bürglen.
"Hedwig," said Tell one morning, some days after the meeting on the Rütli, "I am going into Altorf to see your father."
Hedwig looked troubled. "Do be careful, William," she said. "Must you really go? You know the Governor is there just now, and he hates you."
"Oh, I am quite safe," said Tell; "I have done nothing for which he could punish me. But I will keep out of his way," and he lifted his cross-bow and prepared to go.
"Do not take your bow," said Hedwig, still feeling uneasy. "Leave it here."
"Why, Hedwig, how you trouble yourself for nothing," said Tell, smiling at her. "Why should I leave my bow behind? I feel lost without it."
"O father, where are you going?" said Walter, running into the room at this minute.
"I am going to Altorf to see grandfather. Would you like to come?"
"Oh, may I? May I, mother?"
"Yes, dear, if you like," said Hedwig. "And you will be careful, won't you?" she added, turning to Tell.
"Yes, I will," he replied, and Walter, throwing his arms around her neck, said, "It's all right, mother, I will take care of father." Then they set off merrily together.
It was a great thing to go to Altorf with father, and Walter was so happy that he chattered all the way, asking questions about everything.
"How far can you shoot, father?"
"Oh, a good long way."
"As high as the sun?" asked Walter, looking up at it.
"Oh dear no, not nearly so high as that."
"Well, how high? As high as the snow mountains?"
"Why is it always snow on the mountains, father?" asked Walter, thinking of something else. And so he went on, asking questions about one thing after another, until his father was quite tired of answering.
Walter was chattering so much that Tell forgot all about the hat upon the pole, and, instead of going round by another way to avoid it, as he had meant to do, he went straight through the market-place to reach Walter Fürst's house.
"Father, look," said Walter, "look, how funny! there is a hat stuck up on a pole. What is it for?"
"Don't look, Walter," said Tell, "the hat has nothing to do with us, don't look at it." And taking Walter by the hand, he led him hurriedly away.
But it was too late. The soldier, who stood beside the pole to guard it and see that people bowed in passing, pointed his spear at Tell and bade him stop. "Stand, in the Emperor's name," he cried.
"Let be, friend," said Tell, "let me past."
"Not until you obey the Emperor's command. Not till you bow to the hat."
"It is no command of the Emperor," said Tell. "It is Gessler's folly and tyranny. Let me go."
"Nay, but you must not speak of my lord the Governor in such terms. And past you shall not go until you bow to the cap. And, if you bow not, to prison I will lead you. Such is my lord's command."
"Why should I bow to a cap?" said Tell, his voice shaking with rage. "Were the Emperor himself here, then would I bend the knee and bow my head to him with all reverence. But to a hat! Never!" and he tried to force his way past Heinz the soldier. But Heinz would not let him pass, and kept his spear pointed at Tell.
Hearing loud and angry voices, many people gathered to see what the cause might be. Soon there was quite a crowd around the two. Every one talked at once, and the noise and confusion were great. Heinz tried to take Tell prisoner, and the people tried to take him away. "Help! Help!" shouted Heinz, hoping that some of his fellow-soldiers would hear him and come to his aid,—"Help, help! treason, treason!"
Then over all the noise of the shouting there sounded the tramp of horses' hoofs and the clang and jangle of swords and armour.
"Room for the Governor. Room, I say," cried a herald.
The shouting ceased and the crowd silently parted, as Gessler, richly dressed, haughty and gloomy, rode through it, followed by a gay company of his friends and soldiers. He checked his horse and, gazing angrily round the crowd, "What is this rioting?" he asked.
"My lord," said Heinz, stepping forward, "this scoundrel here will not bow to the cap, according to your lordship's command."
"Eh, what?" said Gessler, his dark face growing more dark and angry still. "Who dares to disobey my orders?"
" 'Tis William Tell of Bürglen, my lord."
"Tell," said Gessler, turning in his saddle and looking at Tell as he stood among the people, holding little Walter by the hand.
There was silence for a few minutes while Gessler gazed at Tell in anger.
"I hear you are a great shot, Tell," said Gessler at last, laughing scornfully, "they say you never miss."
"That is quite true," said little Walter eagerly, for he was very proud of his father's shooting. "He can hit an apple on a tree a hundred yards off."
"Is that your boy?" said Gessler, looking at him with an ugly smile.
"Yes, my lord."
"Have you other children?"
"Another boy, my lord."
"You are very fond of your children, Tell?"
"Yes, my lord."
"Which of them do you love best?"
Tell hesitated. He looked down at little Walter with his rosy cheeks and curly hair. Then he thought of William at home with his pretty loving ways. "I love them both alike, my lord," he said at last.
"Ah," said Gessler, and thought a minute. "Well, Tell," he said after a pause. "I have heard so much of this boast of yours about hitting apples, that I should like to see something of it. You shall shoot an apple off your boy's head at a hundred yards' distance. That will be easier than shooting off a tree."
"My lord," said Tell, turning pale, "you do not mean that? It is horrible. I will do anything rather than that."
"You will shoot an apple off your boy's head," repeated Gessler in a slow and scornful voice. "I want to see your wonderful skill, and I command you to do it at once. You have your cross-bow there. Do it."
"I will die first," said Tell.
"Very well," said Gessler, "but you need not think in that way to save your boy. He shall die with you. Shoot, or die both of you. And, mark you, Tell, see that you aim well, for if you miss you will pay for it with your life."
Tell turned pale. His voice trembled as he replied, "My lord, it was but thoughtlessness. Forgive me this once, and I will always bow to the cap in future." Proud and brave although he was, Tell could not bear the thought that he might kill his own child.
"Have done with this delay," said Gessler, growing yet more angry. "You break the laws, and when, instead of punishing you as you deserve, I give you a chance of escape, you grumble and think yourself hardly used. Were peasants ever more unruly and discontented? Have done, I say. Heinz, bring me an apple."
The soldier hurried away.
"Bind the boy to that tree," said Gessler, pointing to a tall lime-tree near by.
Two soldiers seized Walter and bound him fast to the tree. He was not in the least afraid, but stood up against the trunk straight and quiet. Then, when the apple was brought, Gessler rode up to him and, bending from the saddle, himself placed the apple upon his head.
All this time the people crowded round silent and wondering, and Tell stood among them as if in a dream, watching everything with a look of horror in his eyes.
"Clear a path there," shouted Gessler, and the soldiers charged among the people, scattering them right and left.
When a path had been cleared, two soldiers, starting from the tree to which Walter was bound, marched over the ground measuring one hundred paces, and halted. "One hundred paces, my lord," they said, turning to Gessler.
Gessler rode to the spot, calling out, "Come, Tell, from here you shall shoot."
Tell took his place. He drew an arrow from his quiver, examined it carefully, and then, instead of fitting it to the bow, he stuck in his belt. Then, still carefully, he chose another arrow and fitted it to his bow.
A deep silence fell upon every one as Tell took one step forward. He raised his bow. A mist was before his eyes, his arm trembled, his bow dropped from his hand. He could not shoot. The fear that he might kill his boy took away all his skill and courage.
A groan broke from the people as they watched. Then from far away under the lime-tree came Walter's voice, "Shoot, father, I am not afraid. You cannot miss."
Once more Tell raised his bow. The silence seemed deeper than ever. The people of Altorf knew and loved Tell, and Fürst, and little Walter. And so they watched and waited with heavy hearts and anxious faces.
"Ping!" went the bowstring. The arrow seemed to sing through the frosty air, and, a second later, the silence was broken by cheer after cheer. The apple lay upon the ground pierced right through the centre.
One man sprang forward and cut the rope with which Walter was bound to the tree; another picked up the apple and ran with it to Gessler. But Tell stood still, his bow clutched in his hand, his body bent forward, his eyes wild and staring, as if he were trying to follow the flight of the arrow. Yet he saw nothing, heard nothing.
"He has really done it!" exclaimed Gessler in astonishment, as he turned the apple round and round in his hand. "Who would have thought it? Right in the centre, too."
Little Walter, quite delighted, came running to his father. "Father," he cried, "I knew you could do it. I knew you could, and I was not a bit afraid. Was it not splendid?" and he laughed and pressed his curly head against his father.
Then suddenly Tell seemed to wake out of his dream, and taking Walter in his arms he held him close, kissing him again and again. "You are safe, my boy. You are safe," was all he said. But strong man though he was his eyes were full of tears, and he was saying to himself, "I might have killed him. I might have killed my own boy."
Meanwhile Gessler sat upon his horse watching them with a cruel smile upon his wicked face. "Tell," he said at last, "that was a fine shot, but for what was the other arrow?"
Tell put Walter down and, holding his hand, turned to Gessler, "It is always an archer's custom, my lord, to have a second arrow ready," he said.
"Nay, nay," said Gessler, "that answer will not do, Tell. Speak the truth."
Tell was silent.
"Speak, man," said Gessler, "and if you speak the truth, whatever it may be, I promise you your life."
"Then," said Tell, throwing his shoulders back and looking straight at Gessler, "since you promise me my life, hear the truth. If that first arrow had struck my child, the second one was meant for you, and be sure I had not missed my mark a second time."
Gessler's face grew dark with rage. For a moment or two he could not speak. When at last he did speak, his voice was low and terrible, "You dare," he said, "you dare to tell me this. I promised you your life indeed. Your life you shall have, but you shall pass it in a dark and lonely prison, where neither sun nor moon shall send the least glimmer of light. There you shall lie, so that I may be safe from you. Ah, my fine archer, your bows and arrows will be of little use to you henceforth. Seize him, men, and bind him, lest he do murder even now."
In a moment the soldiers sprang forward, and Tell was seized and bound.
As Gessler sat watching them, he looked round at all the angry faces of the crowd. "Tell has too many friends here," he said to himself. "If I imprison him in the Curb of Uri, they may find some way to help him to escape. I will take him with me in my boat to Küssnacht. There he can have no friends. There he will be quite safe." Then aloud he said, "Follow me, my men. Bring him to the boat."
As he said these words, there was a loud murmur from the crowd. "That is against the law," cried many voices.
"Law, law?" growled Gessler. "Who makes the law, you or I?"
Walter Fürst had been standing among the crowd silent and anxious. Now he stepped forward and spoke boldly. "My lord," he said, "it has ever been a law among the Swiss that no one shall be imprisoned out of his own canton. If my son-in-law, William Tell, has done wrong, let him be tried and imprisoned here, in Uri, in Altorf. If you do otherwise you wrong our ancient freedom and rights."
"Your freedom! your rights!" said Gessler roughly. "I tell you, you are here to obey the laws, not to teach me how I shall rule." Then turning his horse and calling out, "On, men, to the boat with him," he rode towards the lake, where, at a little place called Fluelen, his boat was waiting for him.
But Walter clung to his father, crying bitterly. Tell could not take him in his arms to comfort him, for his hands were tied. But he bent over him to kiss him, saying, "Little Walter, little Walter, be brave. Go with thy grandfather and comfort thy mother."
So Tell was led to Gessler's boat, followed by the sorrowing people. Their hearts were full of hot anger against the tyrant. Yet what could they do? He was too strong for them.
Tell was roughly pushed into the boat, where he sat closely guarded on either side by soldiers. His bow and arrows which had been taken from him were thrown upon a bench beside the steersman.
Gessler took his seat. The boat started, and was soon out on the blue water of the lake. As the people of Altorf watched Tell go, their hearts sank. They had not known, until they saw him bound and a prisoner, how much they had trusted and loved him.