ILLIAM TELL WAS born toward the close of the thirteenth century. I cannot tell you the precise year of his birth; but in the year 1307 he was a married man, and lived with his wife and children, in the village of Burglen, near the great town of Altdorf, in the canton of Uri.
Tell maintained his family chiefly by hunting the chamois, and shooting other wild game. So skilful was he in the use of the bow, that the fame of his exploits in that way had obtained for him the name of "The Crossbowman of Burglen." He was also very skilful in the management of boats upon the lakes. His father had followed the profession of a pilot, and William Tell, though he preferred the life of a hunter, understood the navigation of the lakes better than almost any boatman in the canton of Uri. It was a saying, "That William Tell knew how to handle the rudder as expertly as the bow." In short, he was a person of strong natural talents, who observed on everything he saw, and acquired all the knowledge he could.
Switzerland was at that time in a state of slavery to Albert, Duke of Austria, who had recently been selected Emperor of Germany. He had taken great offence with the Swiss, because they wished Count Adolph of Nassau to be elected Emperor of Germany instead of him. The first use he made of his power was to punish the Swiss for having favoured the cause of his rival; and he was so unwise as to declare publicly, "that he would no longer treat them as subjects, but as slaves." In pursuance of this wicked resolution he deprived them of many of their rights and privileges, and altered their ancient laws and customs.
By these proceedings the Emperor rendered his government very unpopular, and when he found that the people expressed dissatisfaction, he built castles and fortresses all over the country, and filled them with soldiers to awe the people into submission. In each of these fortresses he placed a governor, who exercised despotic power in the district over which his sway extended. The inhabitants of the canton Uri, in particular, had to complain of the oppression of their German governor, Gessler, who had committed several murders, and acted in such a manner as to excite general indignation, by his pride, cruelty, and injustice. The whole country was indeed ripe for a revolt, in case an opportunity should occur of throwing off the German yoke.
One cold autumnal evening, the blaze of the cheerful fire which the wife of William Tell had kindled on the hearth, against her husband's return, gleamed through the rude latticed casements of their cottage window. The earthern floor of the humble dwelling bad been freshly swept; a clean cloth of the matron's own spinning, was spread on the homely board, which was garnished with wooden bowls and spoons of the most snowy whiteness; and a kettle of fish-soup, with herbs, was stewing over the fire. Some flat oaten cakes, designed to be eaten hot with butter, were baking on the hearth.
The babe was sleeping peacefully in the cradle; two or three of the other little ones, weary with their sportive play, had been laid in their cribs. Henric and Lewis, two lovely boys of five and six years old, having promised to be very good, if allowed to sit up till their father's return, were watching their mother, who was employed in roasting a fine fat quail which their cousin, Lalotte, who had arrived at the discreet age of fourteen, was basting, and spinning the string by which it was suspended before the fire.
"Mother," said Henric, "if my father does not come home very soon, that quail will be done too much."
"What then?" asked Lalotte.
"I was thinking, cousin Lalotte, that it would be a pity for it to be spoiled, after you and mother have taken so much pains in cooking it; and it smells so very good."
"Oh, fie! you greedy child; you want to eat the bird that is cooking for your father's supper," said Lalotte. "If I were my aunt, I would send you to bed only for thinking of such a thing."
"You are not the mistress--you are not the mistress!" cried the sturdy rebel Henric; "and I shall not go to bed at your desire."
"But you shall go to bed, young sir, if your cousin Lalotte tells you so to do," said his father, who had entered during the dispute.
"Alack!" cried Henric turning to his little brother, "if we had only been patient, Lewis, we should have tasted the nice quail, and heard all our father's news into the bargain."
"There now, see what you have lost by being naughty children," cried Lalotte, as she led the offenders into their little bedroom.
"Thy father's news is not for thy young ears, my boys," murmured William Tell, as the door closed after the unconscious children.
"There is a sadness in thy voice and trouble on thy brow," said the anxious wife of Tell, looking earnestly in his face. "Wilt thou not trust me with the cause of thy care?"
"Annette," replied Tell, "thou hast been a good and faithful wife to me--yea, and a prudent counsellor and friend in the time of need. Why, then, should I do a thing and conceal it from thee, my well- beloved?"
"What is it thou hast done, my husband?"
"That for which thou wilt blame me, perchance."
"Nay, say not so; thou art a good man."
"Thou knowest, my loving wife, the sad state of slavery to which this unhappy country of Switzerland is reduced by the unlawful oppression of our foreign rulers," said Tell.
"I do," she replied; "but what have peasants to do with matters so much above them?"
"Much!" returned Tell. "If the good laws made by the worthies of the olden time, for the comfort and protection of all ranks of people, be set at naught by strangers, and all the ancient institutions, which were the pride and the glory of our land, be overthrown, by those to whom we owe neither the love of children, nor the allegiance of subjects, then, methinks, good wife, it becomes the duty of peasants to stand forth in defence of their rights. I have engaged myself, with three-and-thirty of my valiant countrymen, who met this night on the little promontory of land that juts into a lonely angle of the Lake, to concert with them means for the deliverance of my country."
"But how can three-and-thirty men hope to oppose the power of those who enthral Switzerland?" asked the wife of Tell.
"Great objects are often effected by small instruments," replied he. "The whole population of Switzerland is exasperated against the German tyrants, who have of late abused their power so far as to rouse the indignation even of women and of children against them. The father of Arnold Melchthal, one of the 'Brothers of Rutli,' as our band is called, was recently put to a cruel death by the unjust sentence of Gessler, the governor of our own canton of Uri; and who knoweth, gentle wife, whether his jealous caprice may not induce him to single me out for his next victim?"
"Single thee out, my husband!" exclaimed Annette turning pale. "Nay, what accusation could he bring against thee?"
"That of being the friend of my country, which is, of course, a crime not to be forgiven by a person of Gessler's disposition."
"But Gessler is too much exalted above our humble sphere of life, to be aware of a peasant's sentiments on such matters," said Annette.