ORE THAN ONCE the little maiden thought of turning back, but the remembrance of Philip's rash and inconsiderate temper filled her with alarm for the safety of the child whom he had tempted away from home. She reflected that, as her uncle was at Altdorf, it would be her wisest course to proceed thither to seek him out, and to inform him of his little boy being then in the fair.
Lalotte entered the market-place of Altdorf, at the moment when her uncle, having disposed of his chamois-skins to advantage, was crossing from the carriers' stalls to a clothier's booth to purchase woollen cloths for winter garments. Fairs were formerly marts, where merchants and artisans brought their goods for sale; and persons resorted thither, not for the purpose of riot and revelling, but to purchase useful commodities, clothing, and household goods at the best advantage.
William Tell had been requested by his careful wife to purchase a variety of articles for the use of the family. He was so intent in performing all her biddings, to the best of his ability, that he never once thought of the cap which the insolent governor, Gessler, had erected in the market-place, till he found himself opposite to the lofty pole on which it was exalted. He would have passed it unconsciously had he not been stopped by the German soldiers, who were under arms on either side the pole, to enforce obedience to the insulting edict of the governor of Uri. Tell then paused, and, raising his eyes to the object to which the captain of the guard, with an authoritative gesture, directed his attention, beheld the ducal cap of Austria just above him.
The colour mounted to the cheek of the free-born hunter of the Alps, at the sight of this badge of slavery of his fallen country. Casting an indignant glance upon the foreign soldiers who had impeded his progress, he moved sternly forward, without offering the prescribed act of homage to the cap.
"Stop!" cried the captain of the guard; "you are incurring the penalty of death, rash man, by your disobedience to the edict of his excellency the Governor of Uri."
"Indeed!" replied Tell. "I was not aware that I was doing anything unlawful."
"You have insulted the majesty of our lord the Emperor by passing that cap without bowing to it," said the officer.
"I wist not that more respect were due to an empty cap, than to a cloak and doublet, or a pair of hose," replied Tell.
"Insolent traitor! dost thou presume to level thy rude gibes at the badge of royalty?" cried the governor, stepping forward from behind the soldiers, where he had been listening to the dispute between Tell and the officer.
Poor Lalotte, meantime, having caught a glimpse of her uncle's tall, manly figure through the crowd, had pressed near enough to hear the alarming dialogue in which he had been engaged with the German soldiers. While, pale with terror, she stood listening with breathless attention, she recognised Philip at no great distance, with little Henric in his arms, among the spectators.
The thoughtless Philip was evidently neither aware how near he was to his uncle, nor of the peril in which he stood. With foolish glee, he was pointing out the cap to little Henric; and though Lalotte could not hear what he was saying, she fancied he was rashly boasting to the child of the share in the exploit of pelting it down a few nights previous.
While her attention was thus painfully excited she heard some of the people round her saying,
"Who is it that has ventured to resist the governor's decree?"
"It is William Tell, the crossbow-man of Burglen," replied many voices.
"William Tell!" said one of the soldiers; "why it was his kinsman who raised a rabble to insult the ducal bonnet the other night."
"Ay, it was the scapegrace, Philip Tell, who assailed the cap of our sovereign with stones, till he struck it down," cried another.
"Behold where the young villain stands," exclaimed a third, pointing to Philip.
"Hallo, hallo! seize the young traitor, in the name of the Emperor and the governor!" shouted the Germans.
"Run, Philip, run--run for your life!" cried a party of his youthful associates.
Philip hastily set his little cousin on his feet, and started off with the speed of the wild chamois of the Alpine mountains; leaving little Henric to shift for himself.
"The child, the child! the precious boy! he will be trampled to death!" shrieked Lalotte.
Henric had caught sight of his father among the crowd while Philip was holding him up to look at the ducal cap, and he had been much alarmed lest his father should see him. But the moment he found himself abandoned by Philip, he lifted up his voice, and screamed with all his might, "Father, father!"
The helplessness, the distress, together with the uncommon beauty of the child, moved the heart of a peasant near him, to compassion. "Who is your father, my fair boy?" said he. "Point him out, and I will lead you to him."
"My father is William Tell, the crossbow-man of Burglen," said the child. "There he is close to the cap on the pole yonder."
"Is he your father, poor babe?" said the peasant. "Well, you will find him in rare trouble, and I hope you may not be the means of adding to it, my little man."
No sooner had the kind man cleared the way through the crowd for his young companion, and conducted him within a few yards of the spot where William Tell stood, than the urchin drew his hand away from his new friend, and running to his father, flung his little arms about his knees, sobbing, "Father, dear father, pray forgive me this once, and I will never disobey you again."
Henric made his appearance at an unlucky moment both for his father and himself; for the cruel governor of Uri, exasperated at the manly courage of Tell, seized the boy by the arm and sternly demanded if he were his son.
"Harm not the child, I pray thee," cried Tell: "he is my first born."
"It is not my intention to do him harm," replied the governor. "If any mischief befall the child, it will be by thy own hand, traitor. Here," cried he to one of his soldiers, "take this boy, tie him beneath yon linden-tree, in the centre of the market-place, and place an apple on his head--"
"What means this?" cried Tell.
"I am minded to see a specimen of your skill as an archer," replied Gessler. "I am told that you are the best marksman in all Uri; and, therefore, your life being forfeited by your presumptuous act of disobedience, I am inclined, out of the clemency of my nature, to allow you a chance of saving it. This you may do, if you can shoot an arrow so truly aimed as to cleave the apple upon thy boy's head. But if thou either miss the apple, or slay the child, then shall the sentence of death be instantly executed."
"Unfeeling tyrant!" exclaimed Tell; "dost thou think that I could endeavour to preserve my own life by risking that of my precious child?"
"Nay," replied Gessler, "I thought I was doing thee a great favour by offering thee an alternative, whereby thou mightest preserve thy forfeited life by a lucky chance."