In the heart of Switzerland, where the Alps tower above the Reuss, lies the town of Altdorf in the canton of Uri. To the North, the Reuss flows into Lake Lucerne, a long, winding lake, blue as the sky of the Swiss summers, ringed by mountains which sometimes come right down to the shores of the lake. To the South, the Gotthard Pass runs through the Alps, connecting the shores of blue Lake Lucerne to Airolo near the Italian border. To the East is the Klausen Pass, a high, steep road over the mountains to the village of Linthal. It was in the little town of Altdorf that, at the dawn of the fourteenth century, the first blows were struck for the founding of the Old Swiss Confederacy, against the Habsburgs.
The Habsburgs had originally come from Switzerland, and the first of the long and warlike dynasty to call himself "Count of Habsburg" was Otto II, who, at the time of his campaigns against the Hungarians and eventual murder, was no more than a minor nobleman of a Swiss province half-buried in the Alps. But the Habsburg star then went into the ascendant. In the thirteenth century they became rulers of Austria, calling it the Habsburg Hereditary Lands, and soon began hunting around for land and wealth. They could go to war, there was always money in war, especially in Jerusalem, but that was costly and difficult, so Albert I of Habsburg, Duke of Austria at that time, turned his attention to the Swiss mountains.
One of the few over-land routes from Northern Europe to Italy with her Mediterranean Ports was over the Gotthard Pass. He who controlled that Pass controlled the customs dues. And if there happened to be natives living there, well, he could tax them.
Count Albert of Habsburg paced his chamber in his castle in Austria. On his great wooden table were assorted documents, detailing minutely every inch of Habsburg turf in Europe, with figures added up in columns, the money in from taxes, fines, customs dues, dowries, bribes, extortions. The money out—well, there was precious little of that. He drew a rough sketch map of the Canton of Uri towards him, frowning at the lines of the mountains, the river, the villages. Nice district. Profitable district.
He turned to his wife, Elizabeth of Carinthia, daughter of Count Meinhard II of Tyrol, the last of the House of Babenberg, the rulers of Austria before the Habsburgs did. She was related to the mighty Dukes of Bavaria. Sometimes, thought Albert, the slightly too mighty Dukes of Bavaria. Could he sleep safe in his bed at night? But then, he had not inherited the Dukedom of Austria to be safe. He had inherited it to be wealthy. And about the wealth…
"Sent Franz here."
"Yes, sir." Elizabeth got up from where she had been sewing a tapestry and hurried out of the room.
She returned a moment later with Franz.
Franz was Count Albert's servant. He had been in the family for as long as long as Count Albert had been alive, and Count Albert did not trust him an inch. He knew too much about too many things. Perhaps one day he would get rid of him. But not yet. This was important and he needed Franz's brains.
"Franz, I want you to get some men together and send them to the town of Altdorf."
"When they get there I want a year's worth of taxes from them, do you understand?"
"A year's worth?"
"Yes, Franz, it's time we started taking proper control of the provinces. Let me see… each householder is to pay ten gulden. Each peasant is to pay five gulden."
"There's no way on this Earth the Swiss peasantry can pay five gulden sir," said Franz, for once in his life startled out his servile calm. "It's more than they'd earn in a year. It's more than they'd earn in five years…" His voice tailed off under Count Albert's glare.
"Given how negligent we've been when it comes to taxation, Franz, these past few years, they should have plenty of savings."
"Very well, sir." He could not help adding, though he knew it might cost him his head "I should warn you that taxation at anything like that right will completely cripple the town of Altdorf within a couple of years, sir".
"Which is precisely what I want to do, Franz. The nearer they're worked to the bone, the meeker they'll be. Isn't that right, Franz?"
"Indeed, sir. You've said so many times."
"Right. I then want you and your men to establish a customs post at Altdorf. Any goods coming over the Passes, any goods being carried up and down the Reuss, to or from Lucerne, I'll have taxed."
"Directly to the House of Habsburg, sir?"
"Absolutely. Let's say… one and a half gulden of customs dues for every two gulden of value. That's enough to keep the trade coming. But they'll have to tighten their belts a little, Franz. The nearer they're worked to the bone, the meeker they'll be."
"Right. Get onto it then, Franz."
Franz hurried out of the room, and Count Albert heard him shouting for horses and men.
It was almost a week later that the Austrians arrived in Altdorf. About a dozen men on horseback, under an unimportant knight called Charles of the Danube. Tired and saddle-sore, they arrived in Altdorf around noon, and the whole village came out to stare at them, men, women and children.
"Count Albert's men. Count Albert's men."
It was a while before Sir Charles spoke. He surveyed the people standing before him, barefoot, ragged people, shouting in their strange dialect, and shuddered. A few people scowled.
"People of Uri."
"Albert, by the grace of God king of the Romans, duke of Austria and Styria, lord of Carniola, over the Wendish Mark and of Port Naon, count of Habsburg and Kyburg, landgrave of Alsace, has sent me with a message."
Silence. Deep, ominous silence.
Sir Charles ploughed on.
"People of Uri, henceforth you are to pay regular taxes, like good citizens, to the Count of Habsburg. The standard tax for the Count's territories are as follows: each householder is to pay ten gulden, each peasant is to pay five gulden."
"How are those standard taxes?" It was Johan, the town elder. Johan had lived in a cottage on the market square in Altdorf for as long as anyone could remember. He had made some money and broken his heart in the Sixth Crusade, and since he had grown too old to drive the goats up and down the mountain, he had lived in his little house on his winnings. "How are those standard taxes?"
There was a murmur of agreement.
"Those taxes are more than Count Albert charges anywhere else. You know it."
Sir Charles shifted uncomfortably under the accusing glares. However, he had clear orders from Count Albert. Just collect the taxes and impose the customs dues. He continued. "As you have grown so shamefully negligent in this practice, you are to be charged extra this year. Every householder is to be charged twelve gulden."
Gasps. Twelve gulden… They all knew that the Count was a brutal extortionist, but twelve… Twelve gulden was unheard-of.
"Every peasant is to be charged six gulden."
The peasants of Altdorf turned to each other in horror.
They were speechless as Sir Charles' words washed over them. "The Count has sole right to charge customs dues for goods being brought over the mountains and down the river. These customs dues are set at one and a half gulden for every two gulden which the goods are worth. Perfectly simple. Anyone failing to comply with these rules must forfeit all his property to the Count."
"We have no property." It was Laura Schmidt, the blacksmith's wife.
"I'm sorry, did somebody speak?"
Mrs Schmidt looked as if she were sorry for breathing, but she had spoken now and there was no taking it back.
"We have no property. We just hold the land. It is not ours. It does not belong to us."
"You must have some property. Cups. Bowls. Spoons. Sewing needles. Buckets."
Mrs Schmidt buried her face in her hands.
"Anyone who does not have property to present, or anything of satisfactory value, has forfeit his liberty."
They all knew what that meant. Slave labour.
"We don't have to pay." It was Johan again. "We are not obliged to pay taxes to the Habsburgs."
"You live on his land."
Johan was blazing with anger now. He shook his stick as he shaken his sword as a young man. He bore down on Sir Charles.
"That we do not. We're reichfrei."
"Under Count Albert."
"He is not Count here. That is our final answer as the reichfrei people of Uri." He considered this pathetic playboy soldier with a warm glow of triumph. That had shown him. That had shown him exactly where he got off around here.
The murmur of voices was becoming a roar. Someone ran to get the priest, who emerged from the church brandishing a charter, which he waved in Sir Charles' face.
Sir Charles began to feel that he was losing control of the situation.
"Will you shut up and show Count Albert some respect?"
He had been wrong to frame it as a question.
"No!" shouted a few young men, bold in front the knights now the priest was here with his charter.
Laughter. Sir Charles felt, for the first time in his life, frustration. He expected help, at least, from the man of the Church.
He turned, with a great show of respect, to the priest. "Father. I am sure that this is merely a misunderstanding. Will you come with me to discuss it?"
"I certainly will, sir," huffed the priest.
They went into the church together, the priest still spluttering about his town's rights.
Several hours later, after a considerable sum of money had changed hands, they emerged. Now the priest was smiling, with his arm through Sir Charles'.
"Listen, good people of Uri," he began.
Very few of the good people of Uri remained in the market place. A few were still standing, watchful and motionless, but most had dispersed to their homes, and a few were making their way back, bearing pikes and bows and arrows.
The doors of houses were being nailed shut even as Sir Charles looked, with planks of wood across the entrance. There was no air of panic, only of grim determination.
One of the soldiers approached Sir Charles. "Sir, frankly, I doubt if this will be easy. There are a more men in this town than we have with us."
"You're a trained soldier, man."
"Afraid, are you? Of a few peasants?"
"No sir, but we are outnumbered and under-equipped."
"Do they have swords?"
"A few, sir, I think they or their ancestors took them in the Crusade, sir."
"Damn all Crusades!" He realised what he had just said. "I mean, they're very useful things. Liberate the Holy Land and all that… Great force of good, won't hear a word against them…"
"Mostly bows, sir, and knives."
"Knives! What do they think we are, bandits?"
"Knives can be very sharp sir."
"So you are afraid."
"Well, sir, with all due respect, you're quite welcome to deal with them yourself."
Sir Charles became very interested in his boots.
The priest was continuing to address those listening. "It is your clear duty, as servants of the Lord, to obey and serve he whom the Lord has chosen to watch over you, the Count Albert of Habsburg. My order to you is that you pay your taxes and customs duty. For money you give to your lord on Earth, the Lord will reward you in Heaven."
"What about the charter?"
"What about Reichfreiheit?"
The mood was getting uglier and uglier.
"We do have horses," said Sir Charles, though he sounded less enthusiastic.
"They have a few ponies, sir, some of these mountain folk. One cannot take an ox-cart over these passes, you see."
"How many ponies?"
"I should say that once they have gone round the out-lying hamlets, sir, about a ten."
"When will they have gone round the out-lying hamlets?"
"I believe some boys have already left, sir. I dare say it could take a while. But we can expect perhaps five donkeys by to-night."
Sir Charles was silent. He knew that with only a dozen men every single hour, every last donkey, counted.
The crowd re-assembling in the main square was growing increasingly restive. It was also surprisingly well-armed.
Sir Charles turned to his new friend the priest. "How hard do you think it would be to take this town?"
"Not easy, sir." The priest looked unhappy at the whole idea. He was not one of those men of God who went on arduous crusades. He stayed to, as he put it "minister my flock". Warfare was not his field of expertise. He was not stupid, though, and the obvious was obvious. "The town itself, sir, could be hard enough. They are rather fierce round these parts. But when one gets to the out-lying areas, to Eggberge and so forth, might become really something of a trial. The locals can take to the hills…"
"We can take to the hills, surely?"
"If you think you stand a chance on sheer cliffs, snow-falls and wild bears, you certainly can."
"Do you really they'll fight, or is it just show?"
That question was answered by a procession of towns-folk, accompanied by mountain shepherds wielding huge iron axes, the sun-light flashing on the blades, hunting knives and bows and arrows. A couple were riding donkeys as fierce as the men, ears back and eyes rolling. As they rounded the square into the market-place, they began to chant, loud and bold, laughing. "No taxes to the Austrians! No taxes to Albert! No taxes to the tyrant! No taxes to the tyrant! No taxes to the tyrant!"
The soldiers charged. The shepherds charged. Steel crashed on steel with a noise that nearly made the priest sick.
Sir Charles' men were trained, mounted soldiers. But the shepherds of Uri were driven with rage, strong from climbing cliffs after goats and absolutely fearless. Even when some were killed it just drove the rest to blazing fury. A few more people ran out of the houses, cheering, brandishing rusty swords or little wicked-sharp daggers.
Sir Charles began to panic. "Men, forward! Hold fast!"
The men ignored him. They fell back and back again. Sir Charles could almost wail with the embarrassment of it all.
They retreated to the only really sturdy building in Altdorf: the church. Here they bolted and barred the great wooden door, which had indeed been built for defense, against the barbarian tribes of centuries before.
Sir Charles was half-mad with fury, shrieking like a ferret on hot coals. "Call yourself soldiers! Call yourself men! Get out and fight! Get out and fight!"
But given the choice between Sir Charles and the people of Altdorf, the soldiers would have chosen Sir Charles any day.
Now the soldiers had the advantage. The door, despite battering and crunching, held firm. The church was solid rock and would not burn. The soldiers could fire out the arrow slits into the crowd and the people had no chance of getting near enough to fire back. For a little while, it seemed as if there would be a lull. The Swiss were standing out of arrow range, hurling insults, curses and stones. Some of them flung burning branches at the church, but the stone never caught, all that happened was that one of the nearby cottages caught fire, and its owner ran in to salvage what property he could before he was left utterly destitute.
Then came a cheer from the Swiss. A group of men with bows were appearing in the square, some of them only children, but all absolutely stony-faced. Re-enforcements. The fight began again in earnest outside the church of Altdorf.
Six men, Sir Charles and the priest were all left alive inside as the sun went down and the people of Altdorf gathered, cheering and singing, to crush the Austrians.
It was as the sun went down that Walter Tell ran up the mountain path, driving his goats before him, to the village of Burgeln, up on the mountain, to his father William standing at the door of the hut cutting wood.
"Father!" he called. "Father! Ella and Joseph are getting married at last. Oh, and father, Count Albert's men have come to town."
Burgeln was a small, poor hamlet, cold on the mountain, clinging to the rocky ground. The Tells had lived in Altdorf since the fall of Rome. They farmed goats, about the only things which could live on the sparse soil. It was what they always had done.
William Tell was born on a cold winter's day. He was the first child of Gunther and Hedwig Tell. His first memory was of his mother. He was playing outside in the steep meadow between the house and the wood, he had just learned to toddle and he was running after a butterfly. The butterfly bobbed away, just above his head, such a pretty little white thing. It was getting dark, the sky was purple and the stars were coming out, one by one. They were very pretty, but they looked so cold. He ran after the butterfly, the grass tickled his bare feet.
"William!" Hedwig was at the door of the hut. "William, come in now." She looked tired, she was old though, she was twenty, so no wonder she looked so tired and worn out. She had masses of fair hair around her worn, lined face and blue eyes which shone in the star-light. Her eyes never looked tired. She moved clumsily now, she was pregnant with her second baby.
He ignored her.
The butterfly fluttered off into the dark.
William turned back and ran back to his mother. She felt very warm and solid as she picked him up and held him against her hip.
"Goodness, you're getting big, now! Big and strong." She kissed him.
The fire was burning on the hearth, a very little fire, very smoky, but to William it looked very beautiful, so warm and kind.
"Butterfly flew away."
"They are, aren't they? There are lots round here."
She must have gone on talking, but William could not remember any more. That was his favorite memory. He tried to remember his mother like that, whatever happened.
His next memory, it must only have been a couple of months later, was of his little sister being born. Martha. Hedwig looked very tired as she sat on the edge of the family's only bed-stead and held the little bundle with a screwed-up face so William could see her. She was asleep, but when William took hold of her, she opened her huge blue eyes and looked at him. He felt the strange, squirming soft thing nervously. She seemed very fragile. What if he broke her? He did not want to break her after Mother had gone to so much effort. He was not sure that they could get a new one. Little Martha lay quite peacefully and looked at everything. She did not cry. She never cried.
"Such a good baby," Hedwig always said.
William liked to watch her, gurgling and sleeping and putting everything within reach in her mouth. Hedwig told him that he had once been like that, but he could not quite believe that.
Inevitably, two years later came another baby, Chloe. She did cry. She refused to suck and cried. She refused to sleep and cried. She knocked over the candle and nearly set the house on fire and cried.
William had less time to watch her. He was four years old now, he had to help his mother in the little vegetable patch, where some years they managed to scrape a few berries out of the stony soil and sometimes they never did. He had to help his father with the goats, which were as big as he was and as grumpy as little Chloe.
"Dad, can goats dream?"
"Why not?" They were scrambling up the path to the high meadow, where they always took the goats in summer, every day. A long, steep walk it was, up the mountain, and a long, dangerous walk down over the rocks. Sometimes William's legs ached very much and he wanted so much to sit down on a rock, but Gunther always made him continue—"goats don't eat, don't make milk, no milk, we don't eat".
"Because only human beings can dream."
"I don't know. Because that's the way God made it."
"Ask the priest."
"But everybody dreams, right?"
"But not goats?"
So the next day, after church, William asked the priest why God had made people dream and not goats. The priest told him he was a stupid little boy and to go back to herding goats.
Then Hedwig was pregnant again. It seemed that Hedwig was usually pregnant. But she was not usually this ill. She barely slept at night, she coughed constantly. She could no longer do the housework, she could barely stand. William had to cook, and try not to burn the house down. He had to try to clean, sweep the rats out of the walls. He had to leave the goats up on the mountain, sometimes, with nobody to watch them, because Gunther was nursing Hedwig. Sometimes he slept as little as his mother.
"You should go after the goats, Gunther," said Hedwig, when she was feeling a little better.
"I can't leave you here, sweetheart."
"But you can't send William after the goats on his own. There are wolves. There are bears, Gunther!"
"He can look after himself. He's good with a knife, our William."
"He's five. And what about the girls. They just sit in the field all day. William can't take them up the mountain, they can't walk up there, Chloe can barely walk at all! And he can't carry her."
"Not if he's driving goats, no."
"Does anyone even feed them?"
"Oh, love, I'm doing my best."
"I know you are." She suddenly sounded very tired, and William realised that she loved his father very much. "I know."
So Gunther would go after the goats. William looked after Chloe, tried to understand her infant babble, which usually meant that she wanted to be fed. He kept her away from the fire and the spring, tried to keep an eye on her while he made soup for them.
But always came the day when Hedwig got ill again, really ill, would just keel over in a faint where she stood. She would sleep like the dead—sometimes William thought she was dead—for days, or wake up, but she did not seem to know where she was. She called for Gunther in a half-smothered voice, as if she were fighting for breath.
Sometimes she bled. Awful hours of bleeding, until the bed was scarlet, all her dresses were drenched in blood, Gunther was trying to staunch the bleeding with his own shirt, William was trying to comfort a crying Chloe.
"Shall I get a doctor, Dad?"
"We can't pay the doctor." But watching Hedwig tossing on the bed, the sweat pouring off her forehead, Gunther looked as if he would gladly have sold his soul.
William wondered if he should fetch a priest. But mother was not going to die. Was she? He watched her fall asleep slowly, the bleeding stopped, Gunther hummed a lullaby and stroked her hair as if she had been a little child. It was frightening to see mother being treated like a little child.
But mother did not die. She lived, and she had the baby. A little girl. Sophie, they called her. She was like Martha: she never cried. But she was not "such a good baby". She was ill. That was what Hedwig said, sitting on the step of the hut, rocking Sophie and trying to make her feed. William was angry. How dare Sophie be sick, after how ill mother had been having her, after all that trouble. Was she not even grateful?
Just four days after she was born, Sophie died.
Hedwig cried. She sobbed with her head in her hands, wailing like Chloe when she was hungry. But she always stopped crying when someone came to the house, because she did not want to look like a sentimental fool who howled whenever she lost a baby.
"Dad?" said William
"Mmm?" Gunther looked up from milking.
"Why is Mum sad?"
"Because Sophie's dead."
"I didn't know grown-ups can cry."
"Yes, sometimes grown-ups cry."
"Do babies think?"
"Course they do. Or there would be no point in learning to talk, would there?"
"Chloe only ever thinks about being hungry."
Gunther smiled. "So did you, most of the time, at that age."
"Oh." It was difficult to imagine being young. "So can- could Sophie think?"
"Oh. What did she think about?"
"Probably about how ill she felt, and how cold the big world was, and how much she loved the beautiful, kind woman."
"Yes." Gunther smiled again. Very sadly.
"So Mum's sad because Sophie loved her and now she's dead?"
"Did Sophie love me?"
"Probably. I expect she liked it when you held her on your lap."
"Oh." William was feeling a good deal sadder than he ever remembered feeling before. "It's not very fair, is it?" he said eventually.
"No. But that's life."
"Are you sad? Only you never seem to cry."
"I…" Gunther winced as if he were in pain. Perhaps he was. "Very," he said. Suddenly he looked as if he almost might cry. "Every day. But you see, I have to not upset your mother. She's been so very ill, you see. And I want… I so want for her not to get hurt any more."
He looked very sad.
"I made you sad."
"No, you didn't. It's all right, son. It's all right. Promise." He looked tired, now.
That night William cried, but he made sure Hedwig never noticed. He must not worry her or make her upset.
Grandmother said that mother had had a really bad pregnancy. She was lucky to be alive, she told everyone in Burgeln. Above all, she said, she must not pregnant again. It might kill her. The village wives echoed this. "Be careful Hedwig, for God's sake. Any more children could kill you." "Be careful, remember how ill you got last time." "Be careful…"
But within a couple of weeks, Hedwig was pregnant again.
"Mum, why are you pregnant again?"
"So I can have another child."
"Why do you want another child? You heard everybody. It might kill you."
"Because I love children. I want to be a mother to a big family and bring you up to be good, clever children. Besides, I need children to help me when I'm an old woman."
"But I'll look after you when you're an old woman."
"I know, dear. You're a good boy. You're a real help." She smiled at him and made him feel warm inside.
"So if you already have three children to look after you when you're old, why do you need another?"
"Because you're the only boy, dear. Supposing your father were to die."
"Is he going to die?"
"We all might die, sweetheart. If father dies, who's responsible for your sisters?"
"Well, there's you."
"But if I'm looking after your sisters, who's going to go out after the goats?" She said what Gunther always said. "Goats don't eat, don't make milk, no milk, we don't eat. And remember that I get older and weaker every day."
"Yes," said William. "I see. I guess, I guess that would be me."
"Yes, it would. And if your father and I were both to die, then you would be the only bread-winner in the family. Your sisters would depend on you for support, for protection." She sighed. "I pray to God that your father will live until you're a little older, dear. You're such a strong, clever boy, but you're only six." She smiled. "That and that I love your father very much and I hope he lives a long time."
"And you want to have another son?"
"Yes. Because I know how good you would be, should you ever have to, at taking care of us all, being responsible for your sisters."
"Yes." He knew he could take care of his sisters, if mother were to get sick again, but "responsible" seemed such a long, frightening word.
"But what if you die, sweetheart?"
"Then Martha and Chloe will be all on their own."
"Exactly. I want to have a little brother for you. You must take good care of him and teach him to look after Chloe and Martha just as you do. And if it's another little girl" she laughed, "well, another sister for you to look after, William".
William smiled. He did like his little sisters, even Chloe, when she cried.
"Another present for my William. You'll look after her, I know you will."
"I will." And he meant it.
It was another little girl. It was a long, difficult birth, late into the night. William sat and nursed his little sisters, while grandmother and Gunther nursed Hedwig. For hours. Hedwig was crying, Gunther was crying, but it sounded as if he were trying not to.
"Mum's going to die, isn't she?" It was Martha, pale and frightened, shivering in her thin blanket.
Pity tore at William. She looked very small, very young very scared. "Look after her…" Oh, it would be so easy just to say "no, Martha, Mum's going to be fine". But he knew that that was not true. He could not say that, no matter how tempting it was. "Perhaps," he said, as calmly as he could, even though the words were tearing at his throat. "Perhaps Mum's going to die."
Martha cried and William could say nothing to comfort her. Martha barely ever cried. Chloe was whimpering like a little baby animal.
Gunther came out of the other room. His face was like a ghost's. "William, run for the doctor."
"But we can't afford-"
William had a horrible feeling his father, too was about to break down and weep. He ran, all the way to Altdorf where the doctor lived. He knew mother was going to die, now. The doctor had been called. There was no saving her. The doctor was in with mother for a very long time. Gradually, she grew quieter. The crying and wailing stopped. William's throat was dry. Martha was inconsolable. Chloe had fallen into a restless sleep, tossing and turning and moaning.
It was the break of dawn when the doctor came out of the other room. To William's astonishment, he was smiling. Then Gunther came out, on tip-toe.
"Yes, she's alive. Here, look at your new baby sister."
"She's very small."
"She is. But she's strong. Tough little thing."
William held the baby on his knee. It did not feel tough. It felt horribly, sickeningly fragile.
She opened her eyes and began to cry. That woke Chloe up. She saw the baby and beamed.
"See?" said Gunther. "She's crying. She's hungry."
"Can't mother feed her."
"Is she ill again?"
"Yes." The smile on Gunther's face faltered. "I'm afraid so. But she's all right. She'll live."
"We have to pay the doctor, don't we?"
"Yes. But we can."
William realised that his father was lying. At first that confused him. Then he realised why. Just as Gunther tried to worry Hedwig, so he tried not to worry William. And it would worry Gunther to know that William was worried. So he had to pretend to believe him, and then he would be happy.
"All right," he said.
Hedwig slept all day. They got rid of the doctor as quickly as possible—his fees increased by the hour.
They fed the baby on warm goat's milk. She did seem stronger and more lively by each passing moment.
That night, when the children had gone to sleep on the floor in the big room—not that it was so very big, Hedwig woke up. William had not gone to sleep, he was too worried about mother and whether they would ever pay the doctor's bills. So he listened to his parents talking.
"We're not trying for another baby, love." It was Gunther, his voice raised, firm.
"Please, love, just one more."
"No. We can't afford any more children."
"What if something happens to you? What if you get killed?"
"You and William are quite capable of raising a family."
Silence. Then "William will soon grow up."
"And suppose he dies?"
"Yesterday, you might have died." Gunther's voice cracked. "What would we have done then?"
"You'd have managed?"
"You could have made William help you with the baby, he's so good with children."
"I didn't mean that kind of managing."
"Sh, darling, it's all right. It's fine."
William could hear his father crying, picture his mother stroking his hair, the way she stroked William's hair. He wanted to cry, too, but he managed not to.
"What are we going to do?" asked Hedwig, eventually.
"What?" Gunther managed to control himself. "You mean what are we going to call our daughter? How about Hedwig?"
Hedwig laughed. "Every time we have a daughter, you try to make me name her after myself."
"It's a pretty name. Pretty name for a pretty woman."
They both laughed.
"How about Angela?" said Hedwig.
"Angela? Yes, I like it. Our little angel."
"Our little miracle."
The silence from the other room felt happy.
"When I said "what are we going to do?" I meant about the doctor's bill."
There was another silence, this one had a dark cloud on it.
"We're going to manage."
"That's not an answer."
"It's the truth."
"Do we have to talk about it now? You're tired, you should be resting."
"When are we going to talk about it? To-morrow, the next day, when we're hopelessly in debt and get sent to the debtors' prison to end our days?"
"We'll… we'll sell some of the goats."
"Then how will we live?"
"I… I don't know!" Gunther almost exploded. He was angry, and loving and deeply, deeply despairing.
"You were stupid to do that, Gunther, you really were."
"Don't blame me! I warned you! You wanted to have another child."
"Don't shout! You'll wake the children!"
William felt sick. His parents were arguing. That never happened.
"Well, it's not my fault."
"You didn't think!"
"What else could I have done?"
"We'd have coped!"
"No, you wouldn't. I did the best I could, I'm sorry about how much it costs. Truly, I am, but what was I supposed to do."
"Kept calm and coped, dear."
"Well, that's not my fault."
"You don't know how ill you were. I… I was so scared." All the anger went out of his voice. He just sounded sad. And frightened. "I'm sorry, love."
"I'm sorry. It wasn't your fault. It's just… I'm scared. About the future."
"Easy to say."
"I mean it. Don't be. I'll look after you, love."
"I know. But… if you're not here."
"You don't ever have to worry about that, sweetheart. I'll always be here, love. Whatever happens, for what it's worth, this poor fool will always love you."
Hedwig said nothing, but William could hear her cry, then laugh and he knew that they were kissing.
"I've got a present. It's just a flower. It's a bit squashed."
"Oh, it's lovely, thank you."
"Nothing but the best snowdrops for my beautiful girl."
Gunther said something which William could not hear.
"Really, love, behave…"
"There's nobody watching…"
"I know. But really, now we're respectably married, should you be bringing me flowers?"
"Why ever not? Don't I love you?"
"I know you do. Really… you're such a romantic."
"And why not. We're only young once, aren't we?"
"We're hardly young. We've children of our own…"
"We're only twenty-five. Prime of life."
There was another silence—more kissing. Then giggling.
The next day they christened Angela. That night, grandmother died.
She was the only grand-parent whom William had met. And he had not realised how much he loved her until she was dead. He had loved her, even when she was irritable and nagged. He had never told her that, he realised. He had never said goodbye at all. He cried. So did Martha and Chloe, and Angela, but that was just because she had missed a feed. So did Hedwig.
"Mum's sad again," he told Gunther.
"I know she is. So are you, I think."
"Yes. Grandmother's dead. And…" He had no idea "and" what. Only that it was deeply unfair. "She always seemed very strong. I didn't expect her to die."
"She was an old lady."
"I know. I just… well, I feel tired. And sad. And I want… well, I wish grandmother weren't dead."
"So do I."
"But I don't understand why Mum's sad. Do you?"
"Because grandmother's dead."
"But grandfather's dead. Was she not upset then?"
"Very. I remember."
"Sophie's dead. She was upset then, I remember. I think she still is. She cried on her birthday."
"She'll always be upset about Sophie."
"So why is she so upset about grandmother?"
"Because she was her mother, she loved her. You know, just because people grow up, and have children of their own, it doesn't mean they don't need their own parents."
"I know that. It's just… surely she'd be used to people dying by now."
Gunther was silent for a long time. "I don't think that it's the sort of thing people ever get used to."
"No. I never have in my life. Not my parents, not my brother and sister, not Sophie, not my grandparents, my friends…" He looked really old. He looked… tired. Weak. William remembered that one day his father would die and it would be his duty to look after his family.
"So I feel sad about grandmother. And I'll always feel that bad?"
"I wish I could say it gets easier, sweetheart, I really do." Gunther pulled William onto his lap. William normally considered himself too old for hugs, but not to-day. "But if anything, it gets harder."
"It… wears at you, William. The graveyard behind the church getting fuller and fuller. Every coffin gets lowered into the grave, there's always a family that mourns… except when there isn't… that's worse. Same old story… Everyone always dies, and it's always worse when it happens to people you love. There's no sense in it. It should get easier, but…yes, it… it gets worse."
"Oh." There seemed to be nothing else to say.
For the time, though, life seemed not to get worse. Hedwig lived, Angela lived.
They had to sell some goats, to pay doctor's bills. Hedwig muttered that he would have them out of every penny they owned.
William and Gunther went out after the goats up the mountain. Martha and Chloe helped Hedwig with Angela and went out to the threadbare patch of soil to try to grub for berries. Hedwig's health was fragile. Even she knew that. William expected her to get pregnant again and was glad when she did not. He wished she could rest, but they could not afford to let her rest. She and Martha had to take in sewing and mending work, to earn a little extra money. Even little Chloe had to help. Whenever Hedwig was ill, a huge back-log of sewing work built up in the corner of the little hut. She had to rush to finish it, exhausted herself and made herself ill again.
Often Gunther had to stay at home and nurse Hedwig when she was too ill to look after Angela. But that did not matter much, now, as Hedwig had finally accepted that William could go up the mountain after the goats by himself. He quite liked this work. From down in the valley the mountain heights looked green and lush. In fact the grass was sparse, the sharp stones cut his bare feet and the path to the high meadow was treacherous, with steep ravines and hidden drops.
However, William would rather be wandering up on the mountain looking down into the valley below than trudging around after a plough and oxen, as some folk had to do, down in the valley. That, he heard, was mind-numbing, back-breaking work. He did not in the least mind being alone. He could talk to his goats. There was one goat in particular, called Old Man, who was very old but as sturdy as ever, with the air of wisdom a venerable old man might have. He also had sharp horns, and when he wanted to, a fierce temper.
William would ask Old Man's opinion about things. "Why did God make mountains?"
"Do you really think so, Old Man?"
"Why did God make glaciers?"
"Why did God make rent?"
As for wolves and bears, he had his bow—he was only seven, but he was very good—and his great hunting knife.
Besides, he was not always alone. Often he met his cousin, Peter, up on the mountain with more goats and they would herd goats together.
"Did you know there are eagles nesting up on the old pine tree again?" said Peter.
They went to look at the pine trees—the goats never cared where they went, provided there were plenty of rocks for them to climb on—and for a while they saw nothing at all, merely enjoyed the excuse to sit down in the shade. Then, high over-head, an eagle. She wheeled above them, a little dark speck against the clear blue sky. She screamed once. Then she dropped like a stone at some invisible rustling thing in the grass. They watched her take the whatever-it-was up the branches of the old tree to where her clutch of eggs nestled in the branches. Soon there would be baby eagles! William had seen baby eagles before, sometimes, but usually dead, because the farmers had killed them. William understood this, of course. Eagles were a pest, they snatched goats. But the fluffy bundles were so intrinsically adorable, it was hard not feel sad when they died.
"It's so beautiful," said Peter.
"I wish I could fly."
"So do I."
"We should shoot it." Peter pulled his bow and arrow from his back. "Now. While we have the chance."
The eagle was talking to her mate. He leaned over and pruned the feathers on the back of her neck and she screeched softly.
"We'll have to so it at the same time," said William. "So they don't startle."
"Right. On three."
William took his bow from his back, and, as slowly and quietly as possible, drew an arrow and set it to the string. Pull the string back, look along the arrow and… release. Two floppy, feathery bundles landed on the grass. William gathered them up and Peter went up the tree for the eggs, which they divided between them. They would eat well that night.
Sometimes, when nobody was ill, William would take Martha with him up the mountain. Martha seemed to rather dislike goats and climbing mountains, she preferred to stay at home, but she had no choice. The goats must be taken up the mountain. The more eyes to watch against wolves and bears and precipices the better. So, if Hedwig could spare Martha, up the mountain with Martha. She sat and sewed patches on her frocks on the rocks, and William tried not to tire her out or let her get eaten by a wolf.
There were two baby goats gambling about on the mountain that Summer. They could sell a couple, now. Money in the little wooden box under the trap-door in the dirt floor of the hut. Money to pay the doctor with. Money was a rare and precious thing. Chloe and Angela played with the little bronze coins, rolling them along the floor, watching them sparkle in the sun-light. Angela put one in her mouth and nearly choked on it.
But at least they had money for when the winter came, when every night brought blizzards shrieking round the mountain and in the morning they woke up to find themselves buried under great drifts of snow. Then William had to dig his way out of the house, break the ice in the stream, smash the sheet of ice coating the fire-wood and set a fire going so they would not freeze. He wanted something hot to eat, but there was only bread. There was little enough of that, soon. Then Angela cried around mid-day because she was hungry.
Even at Christmas there was no nice food. They could not afford it.
Spring came again on the mountain however. With warmer weather came berries, mushrooms, wild herbs. They fetched water from the stream and boiled up stews over the fire.
Up the mountain with the goats and Peter.
"What are stars made of?"
"My aunt says they're made of angels," said Peter.
"Has she seen an angel?"
"No. Have you?"
"No. I'd like to, though."
"Have you seen a daemon?"
"Heidi Stein says her cousin's husband's brother saw one, once."
"Yes. Admittedly, he was dead drunk at the time and he always used to run off to monasteries and say he'd seen things so they would give him bread, but what do you reckon?"
"If I were going to tell a monk I had seen something so he'd feed me, it would be an angel, not a daemon."
"So you do think it's true?"
"No! I didn't say that. It's just not a very good way of getting people to give things to him, is it?"
"Believe me, he was hardly the angel-seeing type." Peter spoke as one would who had deep acquaintance with the angel-seeing type. "A daemon's much more likely, any day."
"Do you believe he did?"
"No, pile of rubbish!"
"Where do angels live?"
"In Heaven, don't they?"
"But where's that?"
"Jesus, I don't know!"
"Now you sound like grandmother."
That ended in a punch-up. When they sat up, pulled bits of grass out of their mouths and hurriedly chased a couple of straying goats back from the edge of the precipice, Peter had forgotten all about stars and angels, but William had not.
He asked the priest where Heaven was, and was told to go away for the love of God.
He told Peter this the next day.
"Maybe he doesn't know."
"He's the priest, of course he knows."
"Then why's he not telling me?"
"Maybe it's something you only get to know if you're a priest."
"Where do you think Heaven is?"
"Well, it's in the sky, isn't it? That's what's on the painting in church."
"With the stars?"
"So birds can get there?"
"Well, I guess, if they can fly…"
"So if I could fly I could fly beyond the stars to Heaven."
"Well, yes, if you could fly."
"Why can't I fly?"
"Because God didn't give you wings."
"I'll get wings. I'll make some."
That night he told Gunther about flying to the stars. Gunther laughed. "You can't fly, William."
"I know. But I want to be able to."
"And how are you going to do that?"
"Do you believe in miracles?"
"Yes. Of course."
"William, have you ever seen a miracle?"
"Right. Then what makes you think you ever will get one?"
"Because I really believe in them." William was stunned. What could a miracle need except belief?
Hedwig came out of the back door. "Gunther? What are you saying to the poor lad?"
"I'm just giving him a realistic idea of reality."
"You can't teach him that miracles don't exist. It's blasphemy."
"I never said that, did I? All I said was that it was no use his waiting around for one." He turned to William. "Sure, miracles happen. But not to our kind of people. We're just not the sort, understand?"
Chloe was listening. "I don't see why we shouldn't be able to fly to the stars. Birds do."
Gunther lost his temper. "We are not birds!" He stormed into the house.
That night, Chloe and William stayed awake and sat up talking about the stars, and what monsters, angels and daemons they might fid there.
Soon after that, William first heard about a man, an Italian called Marco Polo, who was travelling in the East.
Italy was far away enough, over steep, high mountains and dangerous ravines. But the East… the East was unheard-of. It was something which William could not even imagine.
As he explained to Peter, he, himself, was going to sail there. Further than Marco Polo, further than anybody. He was going to make his fortune in the East and return to Switzerland a rich man.
"What are going to find in the East?" asked Peter, sitting down on the high rocks where the grass was sweet and letting the goats wander.
"Dragons. Gold. Unicorns! And then I'll come to the end of the world and sail into the Sun."
"What makes you think you'll find the Sun there?"
"Well, it rises in the East, doesn't it?"
In fact, why stop with the East?"
"I'll sail to every country in the world. I'll sail to Africa. I'll sail to Atlantis."
"No, don't be daft. Nobody sails to Africa. It's hundreds and hundreds of miles away, across a vast sandy desert with daemons in, and a vast ocean seething with sea serpents. You're a Swiss peasant."
"I'll be a soldier. See the world and make my fortune."
"You'll see Jerusalem. Maybe France."
"Jerusalem's a good enough start. The Holy City. Do you reckon I'll find an angel there, to take me to the stars?"
"I doubt it," said Peter. But he looked wistful. After all, there were angels, everybody said so, and if one were to find and particularly agreeable one and ask very nicely, especially if one were a crusader, he could see no reason why an angel would not take one to the stars.
In the mean-time, however, there was work to be done, and survival. Hedwig grew a little better, but not much. Angela seemed to be getting worse. By the time she was two, she could only take two little faltering steps, before collapsing on her thin, shaking little legs. William knew that the doctor would be able to help her, but there was no way they were calling the doctor again. They were still paying him from the last time.
So he tried to keep her happy, to make herb poultices for her legs and throat and head when they hurt her. The worst times were when she coughed and coughed. There was nothing any of them could do about it, no way to help. They just had to try to keep her warm and give her plenty to drink—which was practically impossible in the Winter.
They had to give most of their milk and cheese to the doctor, to pay the bills. The only way they were spared living off wild honey and herbs was that William went hunting for them. He was a master of the bow and arrow, now, a natural, said Hedwig, glowing with pride. He shot geese for them, so that they would have a bit of meat to eat. He always managed to get one for Christmas, now, at least. He shot doves, too, and rabbits. He went fishing for the wild salmon in the mountain streams. Sometimes, on hot Summer days, William looked up, hearing a whir of wings over-head, to see the sky dark with pigeons and ducks. He shot himself out of arrows, then, and gave the spares to the doctor. Needless to say, they were not allowed to hunt deer.
For a few years, it looked as if life would get better for the Tell family.
When William was ten, as winter set in, the cold set in earlier and harder than usual. One day the village shepherds went out to their goats to find the wolves had got in and snatched half of them.
Fortunately, the Tells had only lost two. Neither of them was Old Man or the new babies born that year (in fact, Old Man had blood on his horns and looked even more pleased with himself than usual). William rushed into the family preparing breakfast and blurted the news out to them. Hedwig cried with relief that they had only lost two.
Gunther cursed the wolf in language, Hedwig told him, which no well-brought-up man should use in front of children.
Chloe paced the hut, making oaths of vengeance.
Wolves were nothing new, of course. They snatched goats every winter. But this was on a new scale. "If this goes on, said Heidi Stein, "we'll have no goats left at all".
The next night, the villagers were more vigilant. The wolf still came though, and he got two. The village dogs went berserk, howling in rage they burst out across the meadow like wolves themselves, streaked across the frosty ground, growling deep in their throat at the shadows. The men went out after the dogs, too angry to mind the cold, seizing cross-bows and axes and anything they could find. They were as frenzied as any Wild Hunt.
However, they came back groaning and tutting. The wolf had been slow, he had limped (Old Man looked superlatively smug at this), they had so nearly caught him but he had gone down the mountain into the rocky woods beyond the stream and the dogs had lost the scent in the stream.
The next day, the men went out with their axes and bows and dogs to hunt the wolf. Hedwig was ill, so Gunther could not go, but he sent William.
The air was cool and crisp. The dogs were lively and skittish—they kept finding trails on the mountain and running, howling, after it, only for it to be a rabbit.
It was afternoon when a change came over the dogs. They started sniffing in an intense way at a patch of ground. The men became alert, the archers set arrows on the string. Then the dogs let out a great howl and they were off, bounding over the rough ground so fast the men struggled to keep up. Up the mountain, higher and higher, William bouncing from rock to rock trying not to break his neck. Then a dark shape broke for cover from behind a rock. The dogs were after it like arrows from a bow, and it did indeed limp, but it knew it was running for its life. Over the rocks to the gorge, a running jump across the gorge and into the gulley beyond. William grinned and set an arrow to his string. The angle was awkward. The target was moving. But this might be the best chance he got.
"Don't waste your arrow." It was Martin, Heidi's husband.
Whizzz. Thud. Gasp as a little grey body plummeted forty feet.
They scrambled down the gorge to retrieve the body and bring it proudly home. He must have been a proud specimen once, though now he was old and grey, and had been gored half through by what looked like a goat horn.
William was the hero of the hour. He was carried home on the men's shoulders, toasted in the village church, the nine day wonder. It was his first taste of glory. The way some of the men talked, one would have thought William had slain the foul beast with his bare hands after hours of single combat. That was a good day.
It was a summer morning. William was eleven. Gunther went up onto the mountain with William and they settled to spend the heat of the day by a steep, beautiful ravine. Here the goats could climb on the rocks to their hearts' content, eat the lush green plants which grew above the ravine, sleep on the sun-baked rocks.
One of the kids stayed dangerously high up the side of the ravine. William, exasperated, chased after it. It was high on the rocks above the gorge and it climbed higher, teasing William. He scrambled after it and chivvied it back down from the edge of the water-fall.
When he got back, he could not find Gunther for a moment.
A groan from over the edge of the ravine attracted his attention. He scrambled over and peered down. Gunther was lying on the side of the ravine, clutching his leg. Blood was flowing down the rock. Looking up, William could already see the hawks gathering, smelling blood and hoping for fresh meat.
"Father? What did you do?"
"I should know I'm too old for these athletic exercises now. I went chasing after that damn goat."
William peered up the gorge and found a large, white goat, with a black spot on one eye, watching him with cheerful self-satisfaction.
"You! You pest!"
The goat bleated, pleased with this description.
"You go and get him back, William."
William had to scramble up the gorge again. This goat led him a very merry dance, and it was about ten minutes, before he could return to Gunther, who was now lying at an odd angle, bleeding heavily.
William then had to get him, and a flock of self-willed goats, home safely. This took hours. Gunther could barely walk, he was obviously in pain just standing, the goats were never sensitive or helpful companions for a sick man.
Night fell. The wolves howled on the mountain. A cold wind was blowing.
Then they met Hedwig, dashing up the mountain with a lantern.
"Oh, thank God. I was so worried… What on Earth is wrong with you, love?"
Gunther explained what had happened. Hedwig helped with the goats so William could drag Gunther back down the mountain into the hut.
They settled Gunther with blankets and fed him hot beer and some soup, and spirits to ease the pain. His leg was broken in so many places it was bent completely out of shape. Hedwig did her best to set it, but every time she pushed the bones around, all that happened was Gunther's leg got more and more out of shape.
"Shall I go for the doctor?" It was Chloe.
"No," spluttered Gunther. "No more doctors."
"But, father, you're ill."
"I know. But I'm fine. I'll get better."
William saw the look on Hedwig's face and doubted it.
He sat by Gunther's bed and rubbed his forehead with hot water and herbs. Bring the swelling down, stop the fever, keep him conscious...
But keeping him conscious was impossible. As the hours slipped by, as Hedwig knelt by the bed drenched in blood with tourniquets made out of sheets, herb poultices, sewing needles and tears, as Angela wailed because she had not been fed, so Gunther slipped into restless, feverish sleep. Not the healing sleep which brought strength and hope, but painful, weak sleep, Gunther's eyes wandering about the room without seeing anything, not even Hedwig when she shook his shoulder and asked him if he was getting better.
His brisk manner and helpful conversation became incoherent mumbling.
"Father?" said William, choking on tears. "Father?"
Silence. Gunther was not even looking at him.
"Father, do you feel any better?"
William looked at Hedwig. She was no longer crying. In the darkness of the hut William could just see her eyes dry and bright, her white, set face. She was trying to set Gunther's leg. She was failing. Fragments of white bone were pushing through his flesh, blood was dripping onto the floor as slowly and steadily as blood from a dead pig.
How much blood could a man lose and live? William bit his lip.
Towards dawn, Gunther's temperature rocketed. Fever. Despite their best efforts. No amount of mountain herbs in blood-stained sheets could keep it down.
Gunther's forehead was pale and drenched in sweat. His eyes were closed, his breathing fast and shallow. William looked around the hut at Hedwig, still mangling her husband's leg, at Martha, stirring a bowl of boiling water on the hearth, Chloe sitting by Gunther's head, motionless as a statue, her eyes fixed imploringly on William's face.
Angela had finally fallen asleep, just as the Eastern sky blushed pink with the rising Sun. She slept as restlessly as Gunther, tossing and turning and calling out little incoherent noises.
William looked from Hedwig to Gunther. "I'm going for the doctor," he said.
"Yes," said. "Yes, go now."
They could not afford it. They both knew that. They had not paid the doctor the bills from last time, and that was four years ago. But what choice did they have? This was Hedwig's husband and William's father.
The doctor came, looking pleased at this chance of more payment.
"He's in here," said William.
The doctor knelt down by Gunther and studied his face and leg.
"Broken leg?" he said.
"Clearly," said William. "It's a shattered wreck."
The doctor was peering at Gunther's head. He frowned. "There's more wrong with him than just his leg," he said. "Unless I'm wrong, he has a head wound as well. Bleeding in his head, you see."
"Doctor." Hedwig's voice was thin and hollow. "Doctor, what… can you…?"
"You should have called me before."
"But we haven't finished paying you from last time."
"Then you can put this time on the bill. Perhaps if you had called me earlier, he would have stood more of a chance."
Hedwig collapsed on the ground like a shot hart. "Doctor." Breathless, physical agony. "Doctor, there's no… there's no… no hope?" And she buried her head in her arms and wept like a lost child. William patted her on the back but she barely seemed to notice that he was there.
"There's always hope, Mrs Tell."
"No, there isn't," said Chloe, with a gently contemplative air. "You're just saying that, aren't you? Because you charge by the hour."
The doctor went scarlet, whether with rage or shame, William could not tell.
"Chloe," he said. Or at least he tried to say, but there was something wrong with his voice. "Chloe, be civil to the doctor." He could not stand the idea that the doctor might walk out of the room in bad temper and never come back. He could not stand the idea that there was no hope.
The doctor set to work. For many hours, he was silent. He ignored the entire Tell family standing round watching his every move. Even little Angela, who was only four, had forgotten how hungry she was.
"Doctor," said William, when the Sun was high in the sky, Gunther was pale and still and barely seemed to breathe and the goats were making a fuss because they were hungry and had missed two milks. "Doctor, is he going to live?"
The doctor said nothing.
"The fever's high," said the doctor. "The wound must be infected. There's something wrong with his head."
"What are you going to do?"
"I don't see what I can do. I could bleed him, I suppose."
"He's already bled!"
The doctor frowned. "Bleeding is my standard treatment."
William looked at him. "You really don't have a clue what you're doing, do you?"
The doctor said nothing. Gunther was slumped on the bed, his eyes closed, his face white, motionless except for heaving gulps of air. It was the same ragged gasping, weaker and weaker, more and more desperate, as had been going on all night. Except for growing weaker and more desperate, there was no change.
He did not die—yet. But nor did he get better.
Angela snapped. Flinging herself at him, she burst into tears. "Daddy! Daddy, please! Don't die!"
Gunther did not even seem to notice her. He drew one last rattling breath, then, as the clock on the church tower struck eight, never breathed again.
William looked at the doctor. He said nothing. His throat was too dry. But in his eyes he asked is he dead? And he already knew the answer. The doctor bent down, his face grave.
He felt Gunther's wrist, peered into his eyes and shook his head.
He lead weight fell in William's chest.
"Doctor!" he moaned, before he could stop himself. "Doctor, please! Do something…" He knew the idea was ridiculous. He knew no doctor could bring a man back from the dead. But he said, anyway, "doctor, is there nothing you can do? Nothing? Nothing…?" His voice faded to nothing. A damp, burning feeling was rising in his throat, crushing his words. They echoed, hollow, in the little dark hut. Then he fell, half-fainting, on the foot of the bed and cried. The tears came from deep in his writhing, sick stomach, which seemed to realise before he did what had happened.
His father was dead.
His father was dead.
He was holding his corpse.
The thing lying stretched out on the bed in front of him was a dead body.
He cried and cried, the tears gushed out of his eyes until they ran dry. He was aware of Angela curled up by her father's head, crying with heavy, snuffling sobs which shook her whole small, thin body.
Chloe was clinging to William's waist. She was not crying, just shaking, shaking like a little rabbit when a hawk flies over-head. He turned to look at her, because she was gripping him so tight it hurt, and saw her whey-pale face and huge, frightened eyes. He felt a fresh stab in his gut. Guilt. He knew he had done nothing wrong. His father had died the way all people die. But when he looked at her face, staring blankly up at his, he felt guilt twist. He should be able to do… something.
Then he noticed Martha, tears streaming down her face, tugging at Hedwig's hand. "Mother!" she was saying. "Mother, wake up. Father's dead. Wake up."
Hedwig was sitting on the floor by the bed, staring in front of her. She was not crying. She was barely breathing. She did not seem to notice Martha shaking her arm.
"Mother," said William loudly. "Father's dead."
She never moved.
Very slowly she raised her head. Her lips moved but barely any sound came out. "I heard."
"She'll get better later," said William to Martha.
He turned to the doctor. "How much do we owe you?"
"Jesus and Mary!" said Chloe. "Three gulden! How are we going to…?"
"It'll be fine, Chloe," said William firmly, sharply. "We can spare three gulden." To the doctor, "you'll get your money, sir, have no fear of that". But in his chest the lead weight settled a little lower, as he looked at Hedwig still sitting on the floor.
William showed the doctor out. He knew that Angela got ill if she were allowed to get hungry, so he told Martha to get some bread and milk for breakfast, while he went to the priest, to bury Gunther. Hedwig showed no sign of hearing any of this. She still sat in the middle of the floor, staring at the wall. William asked her several times, loudly, to come with his to the priest, but she neve moved.
"William, what's wrong with Mother?" asked Angela.
"Nothing," said William. "She'll be fine. Chloe could you put Mother to bed, please? Maybe… maybe she's just tired." He hoped that was all it was. "Then help Martha with the breakfast."
"What about the goats?" asked Martha.
"I'll deal with them when I get back," said William.
The priest charged them two gulden for burial. They had been saving up that money for months to pay the doctor. William felt something like panic as he handed it over.
Then he returned home to milk the goats—tired, grumpy goats who kicked, because they had not been milked for so long. Only then could he get a bite to eat and see Hedwig, who was fast asleep. She looked ill as she slept. What if she were to get sick? What if she were die? How would William support the girls then?
He needed to take the goats up the mountain. There was some work which needed doing in the garden. William needed someone to take care of Angela, who was crying and refusing to eat, resisting all Martha's urging. There was a dress which needed making over, and someone needed to take care of Hedwig, in case she woke up ill. William did not want to leave them all. However, the goats had to go up the mountain. "Goats don't eat, don't make milk, no milk, we don't eat."
He spent a very miserable day. He worried about Hedwig and the girls back home. Was Hedwig all right? Had Martha persuaded Angela to eat? How… how… how the Hell were they going to pay the doctor? They would of course save every Rappen they had, but they had precious few Rappen to spare. They could not sell the house, because they did not own it. Nothing for it but to sell some of the goats.
He sighed and watched them scramble over the mountain-side, cropping the rough grass. Their most valuable property—his most valuable property, for he had inherited them from his father—was a few goats, shaggy, scrawny little animals, with coarse wool and muddy faces. But if they were to sell the goats, what would they eat? They needed the milk, the cheese, the wool. Hunger was already gnawing in William's stomach. How much worse would it get?
When he got back that evening, Hedwig was no better. She simply sat, on her bed, her face pale, refusing to eat anything set before her. In vain they chivvied her, nagged her, pleaded with her. William went to bed that night really afraid. If she refused to eat, she might die. Surely, surely mother would not die? Would not leave them orphaned, alone…? William and his little sisters and their goats.
The next day, they persuaded Hedwig to eat a little food, but not to work, or speak, or cry. That day was the day Gunther was buried. William stood silent, his face dry, through the whole service. The only part of his surroundings he seemed to notice, today, the day his father was buried, was Berta Braun's blue hair ribbon, the only pretty thing in the cold, bleak mountain grave-yard, where the corpses of ages jostled for room under a thin layer of grass. His little sisters cried. Hedwig was shaking like a leaf and William had to hold her up. Only as the last clods of earth fell over the coffin did William notice a tear in her eyes. Then she sank to her knees on the grave, curled over like a new-born baby and wept. She was inconsolable. She ignored their hugs and tears and words of comfort. She cried and cried for hours. Literally hours. Everybody else had long gone from the grave-yard, embarrassed and with work to do, leaving the Tells alone in the gathering dusk.
William needed to go back home and milk the goats, but he hated the thought of leaving Hedwig alone in the grave-yard.
"Mother," he pleaded. "Mother, come home."
Hedwig ignored him. She had cried herself physically exhausted and now lay on the grave, half-asleep and dead to the world.
"Is mother going to die?" It was Angela.
"No," said William. "Mother's fine." He shook her. "You're fine, aren't you, mother?" he asked loudly. She said nothing.
After a long time "I'm cold," said Angela.
They were all cold. William could feel his teeth chattering. In the distance, the wolves were howling.
They had to half-drag Hedwig away from Gunther's grave. She was too weak and stunned to resist. They put her to bed and ate a piece of bread each for supper.
That night William did not sleep at all.
The next day William went down to Altdorf to sell half the goats—the youngest, strongest, healthiest goats in the flock. His heart sank as he watched their new owners lead them away, but there was nothing he could do. Even if he and his sisters had to go hungry for a few years, anything was better than ending up in debtors' prison. That would finish Angela off. At least he had not been swindled—a few people had tried, but he had taught them better.
He sighed. Life was not looking bright for the Tells at the moment. But that, he told himself, was life.
He brightened to see Berta meet him when he got back to Burgeln.
"Have you been selling your goats?"
William smiled at the sympathetic expression on her face. It made him feel a little better.
"I think it's wicked of that doctor to charge so much," said Berta suddenly, looking around guiltily as if she were afraid of being over-heard.
"Isn't it?" said William, with the warm glow of satisfaction of having an alley.
When he got home, Hedwig was ill and so was Angela, who had stayed out far too late last night and got far too cold.
The next few days were Hell. Hedwig seemed to be wasting away. She never spoke, she never helped William to milk the goats or with Angela. She seemed to do nothing but wander listlessly round the house, picking things up and putting them down again, sitting in the back door-way looking out over the mountain, humming to herself. At night, she cried, usually, William thought, in her sleep. But she seemed to get very little sleep, if the black rings under her eyes were anything to go by. Sometimes she moaned, as if she were having night-mares.
Angela was slumped on a blanket on the floor, a shivering wreck, her teeth chattering, barely eating or drinking. She cried in the night too, mostly in pain. William spent most of the night tending to her, but he had to leave her in the day to take the goats up the mountain. That terrified him. Every day he thought he might come home and find her dead. What on the Earth would Martha and Chloe do if she were to die on them?
Watching his little sister—his little sister who so desperately needed a doctor and could not possibly get one—fighting for every breath all night was terrifying. William sat by her side, held her hand and mopped her brow and felt absolutely helpless.
Gradually, however, Angela got better. She could sit up, she could talk, her appetite came back. William began to sleep at night.
Hedwig got no better, though and William watched her thinking she might die any day. Part of him wanted to punch her in the face. How dare she just abandon them? They were her children. All right, she was sad, but so were they all. She could not simply wander off into her little dream world and leave them to cope. They could not afford it. They could quite literally not afford it.
But part of him felt guilty for being angry. That was the worst thing. She was suffering and he told himself he should not blame her. When he went to bed at night, he cried, but only then, so nobody else could hear him.
For the Summer, at least, they could cope. William went up the mountain after the goats, and Martha went out to gather herbs and wild mushrooms, but William always told her not to stray too far from the house, as there might be wolves.
When Hedwig and Angela were sick, they had to nurse them back to health, hard to do with no medicine, little food and cold nights. Sometimes Angela would collapse so badly that William, afraid she might die, was afraid to go up the mountain after the goats. She never did die, however, and William gradually got used to their new situation, the five of them in their isolated hut on the mountain, doing their best to survive. They were coping. That was what he told himself every night. They were coping.
When he went up the mountain with Peter, they talked about their future travels in legendary kingdoms and swapped village gossip. William, however, no longer felt so enthusiastic about his future travels. He began to see practical difficulties, such as how on Earth he was going to leave the farm and the goats.
Village gossip, however, never palled. Chicken break-outs, people holding hands in the lane after church, goats eating cabbages…
When a goat belonging to Heidi Stein ate the Brauns' cabbages, William pricked up his ears. "Have you seen Berta Braun's blue ribbon?" he said.
"Well yes," said Peter. "She wears it every day, it's the only one she has."
"It looks nice, doesn't it?"
"Yes, I suppose."
"Berta," said William, his face turning rather pink, "is a very nice girl, isn't she?".
"She spoke to me the other day. Said the doctor shouldn't charge so much."
"Really?" Peter looked only mildly interested. William was becoming so excited he looked as if he might explode, although he could not explain why himself.
A few days after that, Berta Braun spoke to him again.
"Hello," said William.
"What are you doing today?"
"Taking the goats up the mountain." It was what he did every day.
"When you get back from the mountain, do you want to come for a walk with me? To, erm…" Berta squinted around her at the huge, rocky mountains. "To, erm… somewhere… like… a mountain!"
"When I get back from the mountain, I have to feed my mother and sisters."
"In the evening?"
William nodded, a huge grin of ecstatic happiness spreading over his face.
So they went for a walk. It was a rather silent, awkward walk along the side of the mountain to a large boulder, much like any other boulder, and back.
They returned late. Hedwig was sitting by the fire, wrapped in her shawl. Angela was awake and in good spirits, playing with a blade of grass. There was soup on the fire and William sat down in the dark hut feeling oddly pleased with himself and life.
The winter was grim. The snow blew down from the mountain and swirled round their little cottage, a million whirling flakes, trying to bury it. Every day, William had to dig a path from the door of the hut to fetch fire-wood so they would not freeze and get some water, with a foot-thick sheet of solid ice over the top.
The goats gave hardly any milk, because they were hungry. The Tells were hungry too. "Damn you, you stupid animals," said William. "You're there to feed us, not mope around starving." But the goats were at least warm.
William did his best to keep his little sisters entertained, telling them stories of the gods and heroes who had lived in days gone by. They laughed and begged him for more and for a while they could gather round the fire and forget the cruel winter outside and the wind moaning over-head. And if William felt a cold lurch of dread in his stomach every time they shared the black bread to eat, and he saw the pile dwindling, he gave them no sign of it.
Somehow they survived the winter, carefully rationing food. As the snow finally relaxed its grip on the Swiss mountains, William hoped Hedwig might return to them, but she did not. He pointed out the pretty flowers to her, showed her the baby squirrels scurrying in the pine trees below the village, coaxed her to eat freshly-picked green herbs. Still she drifted around like a ghost, oblivious to her family. That was when William finally accepted that she was never going to come back. This was their life now, this was how it always would be. He cried harder, up on the mountain when he was alone, than he had done since Gunther died.
So the years dragged by. William cut wood to earn a bit of extra money, he took other people's goats up on the mountain for a few Rappen (once he took too many goats and a couple got lost, the furious owner demanded ten Rappen for that). The girls sewed and took in washing. Martha spent all day sitting on the grass outside the cottage, a vast pile of cloth on her knee, pathing up smocks and mending frayed hems. It hurt her back and made her eyes ache, but there was nothing else to be done. They needed the money.
William went hunting with his great bow. He became very, very good with this bow. He could shoot birds out of the sky as they swooped past at full speed over-head. Climbing about on the mountain, scrambling over rocks, chasing goats made him strong. Things were looking up for the Tells.
And William went for more and more walks with Berta Braun. Gradually the walks became less stonily silent and more friendly and sociable. They discussed birds and goats and how pretty the sun-light looked on the mountain-side and whatever came into their heads. Nothing important. Berta had a little pet bat called Fluffig. She showed him to William, a fragile, fluttering little bundle with big brown eyes. He nibbled at William's fingers and William tickled him under the chin. He squeaked softly and clambered up William's arm to snuggle into his shoulder.
"He's adorable," said William.
"Isn't he just? Who's a precious poppet then? Who's Mummy's own boy?"
"Squeak," said Fluffig.
About the only time when William could forget his stunned, silent mother and three little sisters was when he was with Berta. And, looking shyly at Berta as she stared at the clouds turning pink over the mountains in the distance, he suspected that about the only time that she could forget about her aging grandmother and sick baby niece was when she was with him. And he did not want to ever get up and go home. But of course he did.
William was fourteen when he first kissed Berta Braun. They had taken the goats up the mountain to a little stream and were splashing around, picking white Edelweiss flowers and sparkling green moss while Fluffig snapped at may-flies on the bank. The little fish were nibbling at their toes, making Berta giggle. The Sun was warm on their faces and the surface of the water—making how cold it really was all the more a shock.
"Here," on an impulse William handed an armful of Edelweisses to Berta. "For you."
"Thanks," she smiled and, detaching one of the flowers, put it in her hair. "They're lovely."
"So are you," said William gallantly.
Berta burst out laughing. "Jesus," she said. "The expression on your face. You looked like a dying duck in a blizzard."
It was not the most encouraging reply, but William, giddy with love, tried again. After all, he had begun now, so what did he have to lose by continuing.
"Berta Braun," he said. "Your eyes… your eyes…"
"What about them?"
"They look like… erm…" Truth be told, Berta Braun's eyes resembled nothing so much as eyes. "Like the Moon."
"I didn't realise the Moon is green with a black dot in the middle."
"And," quickly, before she could destroy his nerve entirely, "I love you".
To his utter astonishment, Berta Braun did not laugh. She seized him round the shoulders and kissed him on the mouth. William was astonished, but very, very pleased. For a moment, he was the happiest man on Earth. Then he fell over backwards in the stream, soaking himself to the skin.
Then she laughed.
When he got home that night, his clothes were still damp.
"What on Earth have you been doing?" asked Martha.
"Drowning yourself or chasing fish?" asked Chloe.
"Neither," said William with great dignity, blushing red to the roots of his hair. "I just fell."
From the other room came the sound of sobbing.
"What's up?" asked William.
"Mother again," said Martha. "Crying over father."
William's heart sank like a stone.
Soon after that, Fluffig died. He was a very old bat and he had had a good life, but that did not make it any easier for Berta, sitting on the step of her hut, holding the little stiff corpse on her lap, sobbing hot, bitter tears. William sat down next to her and held her while she cried, but he could say nothing to comfort her and do nothing to make it better.
"I know I shouldn't cry," she said, mopping at her tears. "He was only a stupid bat and… and animals don't have souls anyway, the priest says so, but… but… but…" She dissolved again.
"It never gets any easier," said William. "It doesn't matter if it's a bat or what it is."
Berta smiled weakly.
They buried Fluffig in the meadow behind the hut and had a little funeral. William wondered if this were sacrilegious, but he did not really care.
That Autumn the Tells finished paying off the doctor for the first visit. There was singing and dancing round the fire in the Tell hut until well after midnight. For once, they had enough food— decent bread and crumbly white cheese. William went to bed that night feeling extremely relieved and really rather proud. After all, they had done this, the four of them. They had paid off a debt and were still alive at the end of it.
Old Man died at the end of Autumn, quietly in his sleep, not grumpy for once. William cried and buried him. He knew what his father would say: that is not a pet, boy, it is a valuable farm animal. But, though he felt he was being shamelessly sentimental, he comforted himself with the thought that at least they would not have to sell any food this year. They could keep up with paying the remaining debts by taking in odd jobs.
Winter set in suddenly that year. One day, the Sun was warm on the Swiss mountain-sides, the next the North wind was shrieking round the hut, the first flurries of snow cold and sharp on William's head as he ran down the meadow after the goats.
That night the wind picked up, it moaned and howled and crashed. The hail on the roof was like so many cannon balls. Outside, things rumbled and bumped about and William lay awake wondering what had been destroyed.
The next morning, the door outside refused to budge. They had to take an axe to it and dig their way through the snow-drift, only to find the entire village half-buried in snow. Some of the huts were invisible and if William had not known where they were he would never have been able to find them.
"You get breakfast," he told the girls. "I'll go out and inspect the damage."
The villagers were gradually emerging from their homes, all looking cold and tired and hungry.
"We'll be in for a bad Winter," said Peter, surveying the mounds of snow lying everywhere.
"Not half," said William. "It's only October now."
It took the villagers a long time to clear the snow enough to get everybody out of their homes. The roof of one of the huts had fallen in and the Fischer family were sitting shivering under mounds of snow. William pulled out little Emma, who was only five and was turning blue around the mouth, and tried to warm her up. However, his own clothes were soaked with melted snow and wrapping in his jacket only made her colder.
When he returned to his family, he found that Martha had not been able to get much breakfast as the fire was out and the stream was invisible under mounds of snow. After a whole lot more digging—by which time it was nearly lunchtime and Angela was limp with cold and hunger—they found the stream. William had to take an axe to the ice and the water was so cold it hurt. Finding dry wood was almost impossible. William, his hands swollen, blue and bleeding gently but persistently, hacked at the log-pile, after about an hour scraping together a little dry kindling. Then they all fell to a meal of dry bread and boiled water and ate like hungry wolves.
And then he had to milk the goats, who were furious at the delay.
It was a bad winter.
The snow was constant. Sometimes it came in a blizzard, all at once, battering at the little hut, sometimes it fell silently but relentlessly, smothering everything beneath a rock-hard shell of ice. By the time December came, the Tells had already used up most of their Winter food and fuel supply. William, watching their dwindling store of bread, felt a dull, sick terror gnaw at his gut. He was used to living on very little: no Swiss peasant knew luxury. But now, for the first time in his life, he saw starvation, out-and-out, staring him in the face. In all their faces. His mother's. His little sisters'. Berta Braun… did she have enough to last out the Winter? Did she need his help? Because he would help her, if she needed it, whether they could really spare the food or not.
Angela fell ill. Very ill. Her face white, her breathing fast and shallow as a bird's, blood sometimes dripping out of her mouth when she coughed, she lay in the corner of the Tells' hut. William sat and watched her, a dull, throbbing ache in his stomach. The ache was fear that Angela would die. It was a fear that lived in him, day after day, night after sleepless, bitter night. He kept his fears to himself, though. Must not frighten his mother—if she were around of her surroundings at all, these days—must not frighten his sisters. They must not see him cry, they must not see him falter, they must only see him smiling and hopeful and helpful, even when despair and helplessness built to a tidal wave inside him and made him want to bang on the walls and throw things.
They ate the goats (all but three, no matter how great the temptation they knew that if there were no baby goats when Spring came they were done for, and they might as well lie down and die now and get it over with). They ate the fire-wood—he knew they could die of cold, but they needed food, Angela was crying because she had nothing to eat. They tried to eat the wooden spoon. William went outside every day he was able to, to search for water or wood. He searched for food, but usually found nothing. Not so much as a blade of grass. Not so much as some moss. Snow. Ice. Bare rock. Bare, stony, Sun-starved soil.
In January there was a blizzard which went on for days. They ran out of food. They ate their leather belts and still hungered. The fire burnt out and William could not revive it, no matter how many times he poked a red spark from the pile of ashes through, it seemed, sheer desperation, it flickered and died again.
They ran out of water. They were thirsty. God, how they were thirsty.
How long had they been in this house for? One day? Two? The wind did not die. The snow still rattled the hut. There was no way to tell whether it was day or night, or how much time had passed, but for William, with his aching stomach and dry mouth, staring at the ceiling with eyes that no longer had the strength to see, it felt like years.
When the blizzard finally died enough for William to go outside, he found the world buried in mountains of snow. Huge, gleaming mounds of it, rock-hard, mocking him. His knees buckled and he touched deathly despair. He came very near to simply keeling over in the snow and dying there and then. Two faces drove him forwards, put a little, living spark in his internal motor. One of them was Angela's. One of them was Berta's. She looked the way she had looked that day by the stream, it felt like life-times ago now, with the Edelweiss in her hair.
He staggered over to a mound of snow and ate it. It was so cold he was nearly sick. But it was water. Blessed, blessed water. He could live. He could think. He took huge gasps of air. All right. Survival.
He trudged to the stream to get water. He hacked at the ice on the stream for as long as there was breath in his body, eventually finding a trickle of water.
He found a few dry twigs, not many, and went home to stoke up the fire. Then he went to the church, because the priest had a clock, to check how long the blizzards had gone on for.
"Three days," said the vicar.
Three days. No wonder they were all so hungry. They could eat that day, though, not much but food was food.
They survived that blizzard, but the long, cruel winter dragged on.
Every night they lay and stared at the ceiling and tried to remember what grass looked like. Every day they huddled round a pile of smoking cinders which they optimistically called the fire and tried to rub the blue off their hands. And always whenever William closed his eyes, even to blink, death came and stared him in the face, not just his death but Angela's. The wind howled, the snow fell, Martha and Chloe cried in their sleep, half the village died of cold and starvation and they never saw the Sun.
It was a cold night in February. For once, the wind was not howling. No snow fell on the roof. William, lying on the floor of the hut, knew that it lay all around them in gleaming mounds, utterly desolate and deadly cold under the bloated Winter Moon.
Outside there was silence. Inside there was silence except for the noise of two people breathing quietly, two sobbing in their sleep and one gasping bluely on the floor.
Then, on the side of the hut, was a deliberate, heavy thud. William sat bolt upright. Was it snow, falling off some great pile of it? Was it a boulder from up the mountain, tumbling free of a glacier?
No. It was a thud. A living, thinking kind of thud.
Then it came again.
William swallowed and stared around him, barely able to see anything in the dark.
"William." It was Chloe. "William, what was that?"
"Nothing," said William quietly, trying to sound casual. Now there was a slow, heavy scraping noise in the dark. "Go back to sleep."
He reached out in the dark and fumbled for the fire. He coaxed a spark into life and, scrambling up, rummaged for a candle.
The yellow flame hissed in the dark.
The scraping noise was getting louder.
Now Martha was awake, he could see her eyes glittering in the dark. She was sitting up, her blanket wrapped round her, barely breathing. William could tell because he saw all their breath in the air like smoke.
"Make it go away." Martha was trying to be calm, but William heard her voice slightly higher than usual and slightly strained.
What was it? A deer? A wolf? A… dear Lord don't let it be… a bear?
"Ssshh!" he said. The last thing he wanted was for the… whatever it was to hear them. Or smell their fear.
Trying to make as little noise as possible, he found his bow, hanging on the wall, and waited for the thing to go away. It did not go away.
Instead there came a rough noise of panting through the crack under the door. Everybody in the hut, except perhaps Angela in her fever dreams, saw the wet muzzle gleam in the Moon-light as the thing pushed it under the door and snorted, smelling human blood. Even Hedwig was alert, her eyes glittering with fear. William smiled at her and she smiled nervously back. It would be just his luck if he were finally to re-connect with his mother just before they were all killed.
Then came three very decided thuds at the door. The flimsy bolt rattled on its hinges. It was not going away. It was trying to get in. William had an arrow on his string, holding the bow steady, pointed at the door.
Then came a low, mumbling growl. All William's fears were realised. Wolves did not make that noise. Wild cats did not make that noise. Only one animal made that noise. It was, of course, a bear.
Then came the fourth crash against the door, a roar of rage, and the door splintered. In a flurry of fangs and talons, the last fragments of wood were clawed aside.
There, framed in the door-way against the full Moon, was a huge brown bear. Head down, breathing heavily, claws as long as William's knife, cold eyes glittering. The bow in William's hand suddenly felt very small and his arm felt very weak. He now had approximately two seconds to save all their lives.
Somehow his arm swung into position. He looked along the bow, to where the bear's jugular vain must be. One second. There were no second chances. His heart beat. The bear gathered itself to spring. The arrow flew.
It thudded in the bear's neck. Blood, a howl of pain cut off half-way through, a furry heap slumped at William's feet.
"Looks like we're going to need another door," he said.
Making the new door took the whole of the next day, and late into the night—for of course they could not go to sleep while anything could just wander into their house.
But the bear was a blessing in disguise. William made its fur into a coat for Angela, and for the first time the blue went out of her cheeks. Bear-meat, carefully rationed, saw them through until Spring.
For just as William began to believe that Spring would come and they were not in the grip of some eschatonic Winter, Spring came.
He woke up one morning and the snow was thawing. It was soft and slushy to touch. It crumbled under his hands. Great globs began to break of the snow-drifts and tumble and splat down in the valley. The stream thawed, the snow-melt washed into it and for a few weeks it was a roaring river.
The snow-melt itself was a hazard for a time. A flood-cum-avalanche missed Burgeln by a few feet, sweeping away trees. Drawing water from the stream was dangerous, and for a while the villagers formed people-chains, hanging onto each other so no one fell in. But Winter had at last relaxed its grip on the Swiss mountains. Before the bear-meat ran out the herbs were growing and the mushrooms sprouted at the roots of the remaining trees. The three remaining goats lived to give the Tells milk and baby goats.
William smiled as he saw the new-born twin kids stretching their bandy legs as they clambered around on the mountain. The Sun was warm, the sky was blue. Life was looking up. He had just turned fifteen and he felt invincible.
He wanted to marry Berta. The problem with that plan was that he could barely keep his mother and younger sisters alive as it was, never mind support a wife and growing family. He needed more goats before he could even think about getting married. He needed to pay his debt to the doctor and then have some cash to spare. He should probably wait until his mother was better—if she were going to get better, which he knew in his heart she never would, but he said that to himself anyway. He needed to marry off his little sisters and pay their dowries, so that meant more money.
Money, money, money. There never seemed to be enough. Why could somebody not plant a money tree? In his dreams…
When he got down from the mountain that evening, Chloe came running out of the house to meet him.
"William, William, can I marry Thomas?"
"Not now, no. When you're older." He did not mention "when I can pay your dowry".
He left Chloe giggling in the door of the hut and went to see his mother.
"Mother, are you all right?"
"No… no… your father's dead… Don't you remember?"
"I remember very well. He died four years ago."
"Four years? But that's such a long time. It feels like yesterday…" Her voice faded away and her eyes drifted off into the distance."
"Chloe fancies young Thomas."
But Hedwig was not listening to him. Her eyes were fixed on some point he could not see. The familiar, gnawing feeling of despair settled on him.
"Well, there's food, if you're hungry."
She ignored him.
The years passed on the mountain. Every year brought the Tells more baby goats. Now that William was so god with a bow he could shoot birds and rabbits to feed them and they could sell some of the milk and cheese. William always had to make sure that they did not sell too much in the Summer, but kept some cheese carefully wrapped up on a high shelf and some wild berries dried or pickled for when it snowed too much to forage for food.
Peter joined the army and travelled all over Europe. One day, he said earnestly, he would go to the end of the world and see what he found there. William listened and tried not to be envious. It was impossible.
Nevertheless, after four years of scrambling for every last Rappen and clinging onto it like grim death, William was able to do two things: pay his remaining debt to the doctor and pay the dowry for his sister Martha to get married to a young, highly respectable goat-herd called Conrad.
Martha blushed scarlet when everyone in Burgeln came to congratulate her and nearly cried when she tied a crown of mountain flowers to her hair. And the church! Everyone in Burgeln was there! The rafters were drooping with flowers, the morning sunlight streaming through the window made it look, said Angela "like a fairy palace". William was glowing with pride. This was what he had hoped for years. The first of his sisters, married off to live happily ever after, or as happily as possible in the face of blizzards, avalanche, starvation or some dreadful goat disease. But today he hardly thought about it. He just sang the hymns and looked at Martha's radiant happy face and smiled wider than he had done in years. And he took Berta's hand and squeezed it.
Nobody in the Tell family went to bed until the dawn. They and Berta sat around the fire, singing and eating more bread and cheese than William remembered ever eating before, while trying not to look at the one blot on their happiness: Hedwig Tell still sat in the corner of the room, the fire-light flickering on her shadowy face, seemingly oblivious to her daughter being married that very day. Every time William met her vacant eyes, it physically wrenched in his gut.
The next day, William went to see Berta. "I'm sorry," he began.
"That I'm keeping you hanging round for years and years. I know I shouldn't. It's just that money's tight at the moment and…" he trailed off.
"I know, it's just, well, if you can't wait…" Oh, God he was crying. "Then, well…" Don't cry. Please, Lord, don't let me cry… "Then you can always say, and… and… marry someone else." The end of the sentence was lost in a sob he could not control.
Berta kissed him on the mouth. "William Tell," she said. "I'll wait as long as it takes and don't you doubt it for an instant."
Two days later, Hedwig Tell succumbed to years of gradually wasting away and died. She was, after all, quite old. forty-seven, going on forty-eight. That was nearly fifty. The Tell family buried her in the little grave-yard, next to Gunther. William, sick with guilt and grief and anger, collapsed next to the grave and cried. It was cathartic. In a way, he had been wanting to break down and cry for eight years.
Two years after that, it was Chloe's turn to walk up the aisle of the church, glowing with happiness and with flowers in her hair.
Again William was nearly crying with pride and relief that another Tell had survived and made it to marriage. Not that that meant nothing could kill you. Quite the contrary. Childbirth, he remembered, was deadly. It had nearly killed Hedwig…
Nobody was thinking about that, though, today. Everyone was too happy to have enough to eat and plenty to drink. And Chloe was looking like an angel.
So it was just William and Angela in the little hut. Angela gained health and strength, although she still terrified William in the Winter with how thin she got. For the first time in her life, William relaxed a little mentally and stopped sickening with anxiety every time he opened the cottage door, in case she had died.
So, after a couple of years—bumper goat years with kids to sell—William Tell proposed to Berta Braun. And she said Yes. William flung his arms round her and cried with happiness. Berta was laughing, William kissed her and she burst into tears, still laughing.
William was hardly able to believe… anything. That he was awake, and not just dreaming. That Berta Braun, the love of his life, had actually said that she would marry him. That he was alive and… and… just alive. God, it felt good to be alive. Good, good, good. It was a wonderful world.
Not as wonderful as it was three weeks later, the banns read, the church decked with wild flowers, when William Tell walked up the aisle of Burgeln church and took Berta Braun for his wife in the eyes of God. He was choking so much he could hardly speak his vows. And when Berta agreed that yes, she would become Mrs Berta Tell, would take him as her own for better or for worse, yes, yes, yes, he did not wait for the priest to solemnly allow him to kiss the bride but flung his arms round her and kissed her in front of the entire church until both of them could barely breathe.
The next nine months were the happiest of William Tell's life.
He and Berta and Angela lived together in the little hut, and no matter how hard the work, or grim the weather, William felt as if he were in paradise.
And they were going to have a child. A baby all of their own. They would be a family. What more could he want out of life?
One cold Spring night, as the last traces of snow faded from the field behind the hut, the baby was born.
It took hours. Well, that was normal. Sometimes it did take a long time for a baby to be born. William knew that. He knelt by Berta's side and mopped her forehead with herb mixtures while Angela and Martha mopped up the blood. There did seem to be rather a lot of blood… But no sign of the baby. William, a cold anxiety settling in his heart, turned to look at Angela and Martha. Angela's eyes were fixed on the herb poultice she was grinding, but he met Martha's eyes and saw them wide with worry.
Feeling slightly sick, he turned back to Berta. "Are you all right, sweetheart?" He tried to keep his voice level.
"Yes," she said, but she did not sound it. Her voice was faint and slightly wobbly and her eyes were wide with fear.
She's just saying that so I don't worry, William realised.
He opened his mouth to say something reassuring but nothing came out. His mouth was so dry he could hardly breathe and there was a lump in his throat.
"I don't understand," said Martha. "The baby's stuck or something. It just won't come out."
"Angela, go for the doctor."
"But-" said Martha.
"Just go!" said William, harsher than he had intended to.
Angela ran outside.
"Angela," called Martha. "Put a shawl on. You'll freeze! Don't run so fast, you'll get tired."
She turned back to Berta, biting her lip so hard it was bleeding.
William sat in the blood-drenched dark and felt utterly helpless. His throat was too dry for tears, his hand was shaking so much he could barely push the wet hair back from Berta's face.
Angela came crashing back in with the doctor. Her legs were trembling and she collapsed on the floor.
"Angela," said Martha. "You're exhausted. Go to sleep at once."
"I'm fine," said Angela, between chattering teeth.
"Angela, you shouldn't stay up so late," said William. "Go into the other room and try to get some sleep."
"All right," said Angela. She slipped away.
The doctor, who had been laying out his instruments, was looking doubtfully at Berta.
"Mr Tell," he said quietly. "Mr Tell, I'm not sure…"
"Not sure of what?"
"Not sure if it's possible…"
"To do what?" William heard his voice rasping chokily.
"To save your wife."
William had known that, somewhere buried where he would not have to look at it, but to hear it said, by a doctor, was different. He could no longer bury the horror, the pain, the dreadful, icy fear.
"Do it," he said quietly, desperately, almost threatening. "Just do it."
"It might cost-"
"I don't care what it costs."
The doctor turned to Berta and began to examine her. The expression on his face grew bleaker and bleaker and William's heart tore into smaller and smaller pieces.
That night was the longest of William's life. He held Berta's hand and tried not to despair. The air was cold and the stars outside the window stared down cruelly and the Sun never rose. The fire had gone out long ago and the hut was dark.
Berta's grip on William's hand slackened. She was tiring.
"Berta," said William, very faintly but she heard and turned her head. "Berta stay awake."
"I'm trying." Her voice was so weak he had to squint through the dark to read her lips.
"Mrs Tell," said the doctor. "If you want either you or your child to live, you have to put some effort in."
"She has!" said William. "You can't ask any more of her!"
"I'm not asking more of her, medical fact is."
"Hey!" said Martha. "The baby!"
"What?" said William.
"The baby. It's alive."
The doctor held up a tiny, wriggling bundle. "Well, it seems healthy," he said.
Sure enough, the little bundle spluttered and began to cry.
Martha went to take it off him, but William took it first, and held it up for Berta.
"Look," he said, trying to sound cheerful. "Our baby. A little boy."
"He's beautiful." Berta reached up her arms for him and William passed him to her.
"Mrs Tell, you're very weak, you should rest…"
"I'm going to hold my baby, doctor."
"What do we call him?"
"William." Her voice was very faint, with a rasping tone to it, and she was trembling so much she could hardly hold the baby.
"No," said William, his voice shaking. "That's too embarrassing. How about Walter, after your father?"
For a horrible moment, Berta's eyes remained closed and she did not move. Then she opened her eyes and smiled at William. She nodded slightly.
"Berta," said William frantically, knowing in his guts what was going to happen, driven by deadly fear. "I love you!"
But as the Sun rose over the mountain above Burgeln, William knew she had not heard him. He was holding the hand of Berta's body.
Then he did cry, long and inconsolably, clutching Berta's hand, sobbing into her hair. Her beautiful, golden hair. Somewhere, he was aware of someone stroking his back. It must be Martha. He ignored her, though, and went on staring at Berta's face. So warm. So soft. So nearly alive. He could have believed she had fallen asleep on that bed and was just going to wake up in the sunlight. But she was dead and when he held her hand he was holding a dead, unfeeling body.
She had been so young and so beautiful. She had wanted a baby so badly. They both had. He clung to her body until he cried himself to sleep. He could no longer dream and he had cried until his eyes were dry.
When he woke the next morning, he was still kneeling by Bertha's bed and resting his head next to her. Now her body was stiff and cold and did not really look like his wife Berta.
He sat up, his eyes sore from crying, and looked round. The doctor was gone. Martha must have got rid of him.
Now she was asleep in the corner, holding Walter on her knee. He was asleep too, but woke up when William stirred.
Angela came out of the other room, looking as if she had barely slept.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
"Not really," said William. "How are you? Slept well?"
Then Walter woke up and began to cry. William rushed to him so he would not wake up Martha, but he was too late. She started awake.
"Oh! Goodness, are you hungry, pet?"
"I'll take him," said William. He picked up Walter and settled him onto his hip. "Come and have some milk, eh, Walter?"
He heated some goats' milk on the stove and fed Walter. Much more settled, he stopped crying.
"Did you settle the bill with the doctor?" he asked Martha.
"Yes," said Martha. "It's… it's five gulden…"
"Five gulden!" The number hit William like a brick in the chest. "Where are we going to get that from?"
"I don't know," said Martha. "I'm sorry…"
"Don't worry about it. Thanks for coming, and all. You go home now."
"Are you sure?" said Martha. "Will you be all right here? With Walter?"
"I'll be fine," said William. "Honest. Angela's here."
"All right," said Martha. She gathered up her shawl and hurried off.
Walter was christened the next day. William held him and rocked him back and forth on his knee while the priest gave a long sermon. Walter had big blue eyes, so like Berta's eyes. He was such a lovely, good baby and so like his mother. When the priest poured cold water on his head he began to cry, but stopped as soon as William took him back. He bounced his, big, healthy boy up and down on his knee and was as happy and proud as any father could be.
The funeral was two days later. The priest delivered a lengthy sermon about God's infinite wisdom and mercy and the inscrutability of His ways while all that remained of Berta Braun was laid in a shallow grave in a rocky mountain church-yard. William stood by the grave and told Walter would a good, beautiful mother he had.
"She was so lovely," he said. "When she smiled, it… it just lit up the whole room," he whispered, as the priest ploughed on with the miracle of Christ's resurrection. "She loved you so much, Walter, she was so proud of you. She wanted you so much."
And he cried while little Walter, not understanding, but worried because his father was crying, patted at his face.
Life was hard for the Tells after that. The doctor needed paying for failing to save Berta. Little William needed feeding and looking after. William wondered how his own mother had done it all. Perhaps, he thought, he had been too hard on her for breaking down after Gunther died. She had done so well for so long. And Angela was still ill a lot of the time. William sold the goats. He went hunting late into the night for their food so they could sell the milk and cheese. He herded other people's goats for a couple of Rappen. He cut wood and mended furniture and dug in the neighbours' vegetable patches, did anything, anything at all, to earn a few Rappen, for every Rappen counted towards freedom from debt and the shadow of the debtors' prison. Not that this was easy, for the people of Burgeln were poor, and reluctant to part with what money they had.
Also, work distracted William from grief. By day, as he chased goats or shot birds out of the sky, he could push bitterness, loneliness and guilt to one side. But in the evening, when he had put Walter to bed and lay down to sleep himself, he felt the dull, throbbing ache he buried in the pit of his stomach swell to a crushing tide, and he buried his face in his arms so as not to wake Angela or Walter and cried. Then he truly understood how his mother had drifted off. It was so dangerously easy, in the night in the dark, to lie down and slide into the dark forever and never wake up again.
It was Walter, crying with hunger every morning, who got him to wake up and get up and keep living.
For most of the day, Walter stayed at home with Angela while William went after the goats, but William would always feed him, morning and evening, and sing him to sleep. To see Walter sleeping like a baby angel, or gurgling with happiness when a squirrel or rabbit ran along the grass outside, was the only thing that could make William truly happy.
Angela gained health and strength with every year that passed. By the time little Walter was four years old and could struggle up the mountain after William and flop on his stomach on the rocks at the top, like a lizard, she could work in the little garden. Not that it ever yielded much, up here on the barren mountain heights.
As Walter grew up, William would sit down with him on the top of the mountain and let the goats do their own thing for a while as he told him about his mother. Sometimes he wondered how much Walter understood of what he was saying, whether he were just rabbiting on like an old man whose best days were behind him, but then Walter, would look up from where he was weaving blades of grass together and say "go on, dad, what were you saying about her eyes?".
"They were blue," said William. "Blue…" he struggled for the words. The words which would capture the beauty of Berta Tell's eyes, the spark in them. "Blue like the sky," he said finally, though that did not say the half of what he wanted to say. "Blue like yours."
Little Walter, about six by now, smiled proudly.
"She had such a lovely smile. You saw it, though you've forgotten now."
"I think she smiled like the angels in the painting in church."
"I want to be like her."
"You're amazing. She'd be so proud to see how big you are now, what a good boy you are."
So the years passed. Walter grew up fast, strong and good with a bow. He could go up the mountain himself now by himself. He could hunt for himself and shoot rabbits for their supper. William was relieved that he was such a bright, independent boy. After all, if he should die, if Angela's health should deteriorate… But he shook such fears from his mind. Everything was all right. Life was getting better. Every year returned better and better milk yields from the goats. Walter lived and grew. Everything would be fine.
On Walter's twelfth birthday, two things happened. Firstly, Peter returned unexpectedly from fighting the Turks and asked Angela to do him the honour of becoming his wife. Angela said yes. William, recovering from the slight protective jealousy of a man watching his younger sister marry his best friend, was delighted. Angela was glowing with health and spirits. Walter sang and danced up the mountain with excitement, frightening the larks, which fluttered up chirruping into the blue Spring sky.
The second thing which happened was William gave Walter a new bow he had made, secretly, a beautiful rowan bow, smooth and supple, gleaming in Spring light, but not as bright as Walter's eyes gleamed with joy as he saw it.
"That… that's… really mine?"
"Thank you," said Walter, in a small, stunned voice.
William could have burst with pride as he watched him practice, sliding the arrow onto the string, taking aim quickly and carefully, smoothly and silently letting fly. Dead on target. He would be a good archer, one day.
Three weeks later, Peter and Angela were married in the little church in Burgeln. Walter escorted Angela up the aisle, as solemn as a young angel. Angela was crying with joy, Peter was choking up as he promised to take her for his wife in the eyes of God. Martha and Chloe were wild with excitement, their children— goodness, how fast the children had grown!— giddy with the prospect of dancing and good food.
"Why are you crying?" Walter asked Angela indignantly. "You're supposed to be happy! He's not that bad!"
Angela burst out laughing then. William laughed too, and was nearly crying. With happiness for Angela, with the beauty of the day, with how grown-up Walter had been.
He would remember it afterwards as the last really happy day of his life.
Because it was a week after that, as the sun went down, that Walter Tell ran up the mountain path to William, breathless with excitement.
"Father!" he called. "Father! Ella and Joseph are getting married at last. Oh, and father, Count Albert's men have come to town."
William dropped his axe at once in surprise.
"Well, you remember a year ago she said she never wanted to see his face again for as long as she lived? He's been groveling for ages-"
"Not that! The other bit. What about Count Albert's men?"
"They've come to Altdorf. They're taxing everybody…"
"And who exactly does this preposterous upstart think he is?"
"He probably thinks he's Count Albert."
William seized his axe and slung it over his shoulder. "That was metaphorical, Walter. Now, we're going to give Count Spoiled Brat a piece of our mind, I think." He went into the hut and came out with his bow. "Got your bow and knife, Walter?"
William drew his own knife and adjusted his axe. "Come on then."
They arrived in Altdorf just as things were getting interesting. The soldiers had surrendered, it appeared, and those who were still alive were emerging sheepishly from the church. Stern shepherds relieved them of their weapons and the laughing, jeering crowd dragged them to their horses.
"What's going on?" William asked Laura Schmidt.
"Oh, we won." She was laughing. "It was a push-over, really. They call themselves soldiers. Hey, sunshine!" she called to the nearest knight. "Want your sword? Well, I've got it! Come and get it when you call for those six gulden."
A roar of laughter from everyone who could hear, which was not many people, as one of the soldiers, rather bruised and weary, was struggling to get back onto his horse and the people of Altdorf were shoving him up. Every time he fell off, dozens of grabbing hands were there to give him another shove and plenty of curses.
"Father!" choked Walter. "He's a knight. They're insulting a knight!"
"I know." William was grinning hugely. "Isn't it amazing?"
"Won't God punish us for this, father? For attacking knights?"
"Let him," said William Tell. "Let him."
"Now," called Johan, the light of triumph glowing in his eyes. "You can go back to Count Albert, Sir Charles, and tell him that your knights were no match for a bunch of peasants! But then, we're not just any peasants, are we? We're Swiss for one and from Altdorf for another!"
Cheers for Johan mingled with jeers and the departing, bruised, bewildered knights, who set their snorting horses' noses towards Austria. A few boys ran after them, to pelt them with mud and stones, then Altdorf fell to general rejoicing.
Of course, two shepherds had been killed and one family's house had been burnt down, so three families grieved that night. And the entire province of Uri, allies in a common cause and a common victory, helped to re-build the house and cried at the shepherds' funerals.
But the general atmosphere was jubilant, no amount of sincere sympathy could constrain the glorious heady rush of triumph. They, bare-foot, ragged, penniless, had crushed the forces of the Count himself. Oh, he would be furious. How would he live down the shame? The expression on Sir Charles' face… The expression on all their faces! The next day was an impromptu holiday, with feasting and dancing in the square in Altdorf until the dawn.
The Count was indeed furious.
"You couldn't get the money?" he shrieked at Sir Charles. "What do you mean you couldn't get the money?"
"The peasants revolted sir. They attacked us."
"A bunch of bare-foot thugs. Smelling of goat. They live in caves up mountains and their goats share their beds. You, Sir Charles, are a knight at arms. Of ancient family. A fighter by blood and destiny. And you rode away from this miserable bundle of hovels with your head down, leaving your sword behind you, while some filthy rabble threw mud at you?"
"Yes, sir." Sir Charles fled.
"Franz," called Count Albert. "Franz!"
"Yes, sir." Franz materialised silently at the Count's side.
The Count turned to him, shaking with fury, and hissed. "Get me Gessler."
Count Albert exploded. "You heard me, idiot! Get me Gessler."
"Gessler is away fighting the Turks, just at present, sir."
"Then bring him back. To Hell with the Turks, you hear me?"
Franz met Count Albert's eye and it went through him like a knife made of ice. "Yes, sir," he said, barely audibly.
"Thank you," said Count Albert.
Franz gulped. "Thank you" meant real trouble.
Gessler arrived within two weeks. A page had ridden four good horses into the ground to get him from the Turks and Gessler had worn four more into the ground getting back. He had ridden himself to a shadow. But that was the way things were done for Count Albert. If he said come at once, anyone who valued his head came at once, humanly possible or not. Gessler was terrified of Count Albert. And from Gessler, that was really something.
He collapsed out of the saddle and hauled himself upstairs on the arm of a servant to the Count's room.
"You're late, Gessler."
"I said, come at once. That was a week ago."
"I'm sorry sir. Horse gave out in Hungary. Had to buy a replacement."
Any hope that Count Albert might reimburse him for the horse faded.
"Then you ought to have taken better care of it, Gessler."
"I'm here now, sir."
"Don't argue with me, Gessler."
"I didn't, sir."
"You did just then."
"To business. You've wasted enough time." Count Albert spread a map of Uri out on the table before him. "Now, Gessler, I'm encountering problems with some of my subjects. They're based in a town called Altdorf. They're refusing to pay taxes and customs dues." He smiled hugely. "I'd like you, please, to go and deal with them."
Gessler smiled back. It was the look a spitting cobra gives to a mouse before burning its eyes out and tearing it in half. "Nothing would give me greater pleasure, sir."
"Good. Get going."
"Except perhaps a decent night's rest, sir?"
The Count waved him away boredly. "Oh, go on Gessler. We must have you on top form for dealing with recalcitrant peasants, after all. And remember, the nearer they're worked to the bone, the meeker they'll be."
So, one fine morning, the people of Altdorf woke to find a bright shape riding over the pass towards them. Then they heard the hoof-beats.
"Soldiers!" called the children. "Soldiers are coming!"
The soldiers swept down the ridge, Gessler grim at the front, brandishing his sword. They did not stop when they reached the village. They ploughed on, scattering villagers before them. Anyone within reach they killed.
Frozen with horror, unable to believe what they were seeing, the people of Altdorf were slaughtered by the dozen. Men, women, children. Such was the shock that for a moment they did nothing but run and try to hide among the houses. Then someone began to scream.
Within moments, the streets of Altdorf rang with screams of dying villagers. Half the huts were burning now. The surviving villagers came running back to the down from the fields or scrambling out of their houses brandishing axes and bows and arrows. One knight fell. Then another. But then, only a few minutes after the first screams of "soldiers!", it was over. Half the people of Altdorf were dead, the other half, bleeding, stunned, silent, were standing in a circle in the town square, before the only houses that had not been burnt down, surrounded by soldiers who rode round and round them, swords gleaming, torches crackling, like wolves round a flock. Gessler, not seeming to realise that the battle, for what it was a battle, was over, laughed with glee as he chased a young woman round and round the huts. His horse could ran faster than the trembling, fear-crazed girl, but every now and then he would rein in the horse to give her a chance to get ahead, playing with her. Round and round the houses she ran, gasping like a fish out of water, without breath even to scream for help—and who could have helped her?
"Gessler," said one of the knights, calmly. "We require your attention."
Gessler sighed, put on a final burst of speed, bore down on the girl with his sword and ran her through.
The crowd, who had been hypnotised, turned away in disgust. One old woman, the girl's great aunt, her last surviving relative, burst into tears and collapsed on the ground
"I was just teaching these people some respect," said Gessler. "She asked for my mercy, I gave her a few seconds longer to live. Mercy, see?"
He strode over to the huddle of peasants, some of whom were weeping now, in shock and horror. Some of them were curled up on the floor, staring fixedly into the middle distance, or rocking back and forth, their whole body shaking with grief. They were the people whose husbands, wives, parents, children lay stiff and dead like blood-soaked bundles of rags in the smoking ruins of Altdorf.
"Now listen. People, if that's what you claim to be, of Uri."
Silence, except for the low moans of the dying and bereaved.
"Albert, by the grace of God king of the Romans, duke of Austria and Styria, lord of Carniola, over the Wendish Mark and of Port Naon, count of Habsburg and Kyburg, landgrave of Alsace, had sent Sir Charles with a message, which I'm sure you all remember, but if you don't I'll remind you."
Silence. Crushed, helpless silence. The people of Altdorf bowed their heads and took the words like blows.
"Henceforth you are to pay regular taxes, like good citizens, to the Count of Habsburg. The standard tax for the Count's territories are as follows: each householder is to pay ten gulden, each peasant is to pay five gulden. As you have grown so shamefully negligent in this practice, you are to be charged extra this year. Every householder is to be charged twelve gulden. Every peasant is to be charged six gulden. The Count has sole right to charge customs dues for goods being brought over the mountains and down the river. These customs dues are set at one and a half gulden for every two gulden which the goods are worth. Perfectly simple. Anyone failing to comply with these rules must forfeit all his property to the Count. And if that means the clothes off your backs that's what it shall be. If goats can go naked, I don't see why you can't. Anyone who does not have property to present, or anything of satisfactory value, has forfeit his liberty."
Gessler beamed round at them all, letting those words sink in.
"The property of the dead, of course, is mine."
"But you can't do that!" It was a young woman with two small children clinging to her skirts. "You killed my husband. What am I supposed to do?" He face was pale, her voice cracking with desperation. "Just let my children starve?"
"Sell them to a house of charity and pay your taxes with the money. They'll put them to work. No room for idle mouths around here."
"I am not selling my children! I have no money, you've murdered my husband, you've stolen our money. You're not getting my children!" She was crying now but she drew herself up, looked Gessler dead in the eye and shouted at him. "Murderer! Monster! Monster!" Her wails rang off the ruined cottages. Monster… monster… monster…
Gessler's eyes flashed. "To Hell with your brats, woman! You think you'll struggle to support them without your husband?" He swung himself down from his horse, sword in hand. "Then let's see how they cope without you, impertinent bitch."
He grabbed her hair and wrenched her head back.
"Not in front of my children!"
For a moment he laid the sword at different angles across her throat, watching her eyes roll wildly with fear. Then he slashed her throat and tossed her body at his feet. Her children were curled up together in a ball, their eyes shut, whimpering.
"And that can be a lesson," his voice was like steel. "To all of you."
He cleared his throat. "As a punishment for your previous rebellion," he paused to let the helpless villagers squirm. "Every householder is to pay fourteen gulden. Every peasant is to pay seven gulden."
Groans. The peasants of Altdorf closed their eyes in pain and despair and a good many of them wished that they could join the dead, for it was better than the debtors' prison.
"I am Gessler. I am the punishment of God and Count Albert on him who dares question him."
He smiled and for a moment the tension relaxed. Surely, here in the depths of Hell, it could not get any worse?
"I see you've killed two of my men. Well, an eye for an eye as the Good Book says." He strolled around the group of survivors. He swung his sword lazily back and forth and grinned as the villagers drew back flinching before it.
"You." He pointed the sword at a young man. Two knights leapt off their horses, seized him and dragged him before Gessler.
A young woman began to scream. High, agonised, wordless screaming. Gessler paused to listen to her screaming with interest and pleasure. "Don't… don't kill my fiancé…" she gasped out, breathless with screaming.
"Oh, you can talk. You sounded like a broody hen." Gessler raised his sword.
"Please." It was the helpless whisper of a woman who knew it was no good.
Gessler pretended to consider.
"I love-" began the man, meeting the young woman's eye.
"Silence, goat-boy!" Then he rammed the point of his sword into the young man's head.
He began parading along the line again. The villagers, knowing what was coming, winced in fear. Some of them drew themselves up and looked Gessler in the eye, refusing to shudder as the sword whished so close above their heads they could feel the cold air. So Gessler put an extra jab of the sword, just for them, just at their throats.
Then he stopped in front of a mountain shepherd boy. He was very young, hardly more than a child, but he did not cry and he refused to tremble. Not even when Gessler wrenched his arms behind his back and began stroking the sword slowly across his throat.
A woman began to moan, so low that for a moment she seemed to be in physical pain. Then she raised her head, her face contorted with rage and grief and hatred. Her eyes were filmed over with pain but her voice was sharp as a sword.
She dragged herself to her feet.
She staggered towards him. She had no weapon, but there was the light of murder in her eye. "Not my son, Gessler."
"Mother!" The boy looked afraid for the first time. "Mother don't. They'll hurt you. They'll kill you." He began to struggle against the men holding him.
Gessler laughed. "This is all very touching for a bunch of Swiss goat-herds. I wonder whether it would more painful for the son to watch his mother die or the mother to watch her son die…"
"If you hurt my son…" she was in a frenzy now. She lunged at Gessler, aiming for his throat, but Gessler held her off easily, laughing.
"Steady on, steady on old fool. We don't want you hurting yourself yet."
"He's my only child." She was clutching at him. "I had three others and they all died before they could say "mother". He's my last. Have a heart, have a heart… You must be a Christian, you must be a human… Do you have children of your own?"
Gessler was laughing so hard he was nearly crying. Most of the villagers were crying in pity.
"You've killed my husband." As appeal to pity failed, anger flared. "You killed my husband. His body's on the ground at your feet and do you even care?"
"Mother," the boy was calling. "Mother, be careful. Go back, mother, you can't help."
"Please, not my little boy, not my only boy, my Adam…"
Gessler's voice rose sharp and clear above them.
"The mother can watch her son die, I think. After all, even sows feel some attachment to the piglets."
The sword flashed in the clear Spring sunshine. Adam's blood spattered his mother's hair and the front of her dress.
"Adam." She stretched out her hands for his dead body. "Adam…" It was little more than a howl of raw pain. "Let me hold my son. I want to hold my son… Monster! Devil! Spawn of Satan… Let me hold my-"
A gurgle, a flop, and she lay on top of Adam's body, his blood gradually soaking her.
"United in death," sad Gessler. "How touching."
He looked with open disgusted and the disgusted, loathing faces which stared back at him. Nobody looked down. He had killed their people. He had burned their houses. He could slaughter them, he could starve them, he could mock them, but he was a sadistic, loathsome thug and the people of Altdorf would not give him the satisfaction of seeing them look down. Defiance spread like an invisible wave through the villagers.
Gessler, still sneering with triumph from the slaughter, merely laughed. "Father," he called. "Father."
"Yes, sir?" The priest hurried forward.
"According to Sir Charles you were the only person willing to help him."
"Indeed, sir. Obedience to one's natural lord is the first step to obedience to the all-powerful, all-mighty Lord in Heaven above."
"Well, thank you father. And well done. Now, bury my men, would you? With all honours. And deal with the vermin, somehow, could you, father? I'd hate to have a plague among Count Albert's new tax-payers and I'm sure their houses are filthy enough from goat dung without rotting corpses all over the place. Although the way some of these people carry on, I'm surprised they don't just eat corpses, if they're starving as badly as they say. One rutting sow had two brats and no way to feed them… Now that's what I call carelessness, don't you father?"
"Indeed, sir. The local peasants are all too willing to indulge in families they can't afford. I think it provides them with a delusion of purpose in their lives, sir."
The flame of defiance flickered. The villagers of Altdorf remembered the goats they kept in their houses. They remembered their diet of black bread and milk. They remembered the children they had lost, could never stop thinking they could have saved if they had really tried…
"Do you eat corpses?" Gessler turned to the villagers. "I wouldn't be surprised. Look at you, sitting on the ground, moaning like a bunch of animals."
The flame of defiance died. The peasants of Altdorf looked at themselves. Their ragged clothes, bare feet. Their cramped, smoky huts and skinny goats. They knew they were helpless against sword and shield. They had nothing to say to this man. They saw themselves how he saw them: a defeated people. Their eyes dropped and blinked back fresh tears.
"Now get out of my sight!"
The people of Altdorf scrambled to their feet and fled. Some went to the bodies of their loved ones, but Gessler's men pushed them away.
"Get gone, goat-herds."
Weeping with grief and rage and humiliation, they got gone.
Word got round Uri fast.
By evening, Joseph—Ella's new husband—made his way to the Tells' house. "Have you heard the news?" he burst out.
"What?" William was helping Walter to lock the goats into the shed.
"Count Albert's men have come to town."
"Yes, but it's different this time. This new men, Gessler, calls himself the punishment of God and Count Albert on he who disobeys him."
"God or Count Albert?" asked Walter.
Joseph gave a brief, grim smile. "Is there a difference? Because the priest in Altdorf doesn't seem to think so. But, honest to God, I've never seen anything like this Gessler…"
"Firm hand, has he?" Anxiety was settling in William's gut. The people of Uri had fought of the last of the tyrant's men, but how many more times could they do it?
"Well, he's slaughtered half the villagers, not even people who stood up to him—there was no time for anyone to stand up to him—just people whom he found in Altdorf. He's burnt their houses down. And you'll never guess how much tax he charges…"
"How much?" William braced himself for the worst.
"Fourteen gulden for a householder. Seven gulden for a peasant."
"What?" William had not braced himself for this. "Seven gulden!" His head spun. He clutched at the hut door frame and took great gulps of air. When he could breathe again he choked. "That's ridiculous."
"Father?" said Walter. "Father, are you all right?"
William was most certainly not all right.
"Fine," he gasped.
Seven gulden. It was more than he had ever seen in his life before. More than he could even imagine. Even the doctor's extortionate bills had never come to more than five gulden.
"Well," he said, fighting for breath and hope. "Perhaps they won't come up here."
"They will," said Walter quietly. "Count Albert is a cruel man. He wouldn't come all this way and not check every village in Altdorf."
"Walter please," said William. "Please, I'm trying to keep sane." He knew that as a father he should never say things like that, but he could not help himself. Then he gathered his strength. He was going to cope, with whatever life and Count Albert and his thuggish henchman threw at him, for Walter.
"I thought you'd like to know," said Joseph. "So you can do…" He trailed off helplessly. "So you can do whatever you can do," he said at last.
"Thanks," said William. "How will you cope, Joseph?"
Joseph's eyes were bleak and his voice was hollow but he said "Ella and I are tough. We'll cope".
"All right," said William. "Well, if you need a hand, I'd be happy to… to try to do… something."
"Thanks," said Joseph. "Better go now, the goats need milking."
William and Walter went into the hut in silence. Tea was a very grim meal.
That evening when they had settled down to sleep, Walter said "Those poor people, the ones Gessler murdered".
William just sighed, and could not sleep that night. In his mind were seven gulden, glinting like the Devil's eyes.
The next day, while Walter took the goats up the mountain, William went down to Altdorf to see what was going on now the new Governor was in town.
Even though it was morning by the time he got down to the village, the streets of Altdorf wore a silent, subdued air. The locals were scurrying from hut to hut with furtive glances round them, knowing they were being watched. Gessler's soldiers strode up and down the street or stood outside the doors of huts, grinning when the villagers flinched as they passed in and out of the doors.
In the market square there was usually a noisy crowd, buying and selling livestock and farm produce from all along the Reuss Valley. Today it was almost silent. A few people loitered in the corners of the square, clutching goats by strings, trembling and turning their faces to the wall when soldiers passed, but there was nobody buying. Who could afford to buy anything with Gessler bleeding every penny out of them? A large bonfire was being built in the middle of the square by Gessler's knights.
William wandered aimlessly to the ruined end of Altdorf. Here the cottages lay in piles of blackened rubble, some of it still gently smouldering. The families who had lived there were now in the streets, in front of the rubble of the homes they had once been proud of and lived in for generations. Now the adults of most families had gone about their business—probably begging from door to door, among folk barely less destitute than they were—but the children were still sitting in forlorn heaps, wrapped in blankets and shawls. Probably borrowed ones, which the rightful owners would want back to sell before very long.
A few families had set to work trying to re-build their homes, their neighbours pitching in to help them and lending them the few rocks and planks of wood they could spare, but they were shivering with cold and exhaustion.
"Hello, how's it going?"
The woman smiled thinly as she tried to fish recognisable objects out of the ruins of her house. "Oh, not bad." Her voice cracked.
At that moment came the high, shrill note of a horn from the square. William hurried with everyone else to see what was going on, dread hanging over him? What was Gessler doing now?
Gessler had come out of the church, followed by the priest, who was holding the charter of Reichfreiheit. The knights had finished with the bonfire now, and were standing around it, holding torches.
"People of Uri," called Gessler. His voice boomed off the cottage wall in the dead silence. "People of Uri, I have in my hand a fraudulent, illegal, treasonous document, which goes against your natural, rightful lord."
He raised the charter high in the air and everybody realised what he was going to do. A great groan went up.
Gessler flung the charter into the fire. For a moment there was numb silence. The people of Altdorf could not believe what they were seeing. This was their sacred, their glorious charter, guaranteeing them the rights and liberties which they were entitled to. And now it was blackening and curling round the edges, now engulfed by flames, now reduced to dust, like any common piece of rubbish flung on a bonfire. Just when they had believed it could get no worse, it was now, before their very eyes, getting worse.
"People of Uri." Gessler was looking happier and happier. "Thus perish all who cross their lord Count Albert or his true knight errant: me!"
The people of Uri were beyond speech. Crushed, they turned away. Resigned, they returned to their homes.
But they were not to be left in peace to mourn their lost liberty for long. That day Gessler, ever prompt, established his soldiers in the customs hut down by the river, with a strong-box to keep the money in, so the townsfolk could not get any and keep it from Count Albert, and began to collect his taxes.
The first house he came to, with his armed men, was on the South edge of the town. There was nobody there but a young woman and her two young children, for her husband had been killed by Gessler's men. William stood in the street and watched, helpless, disgusted, yet unable to look away as the woman pleaded with the soldiers. "Good sir, good sir, it's all the money I have… Please, I can't get any more money. I have to feed my children."
The children were crying. Their mother was trying to comfort them in between pleading with the soldiers. The soldiers, swearing and threatening, pushed past her into the hut.
"What are you doing?" cried the woman. "What are you doing?"
For answer they came out of the hut, with pots and pans under their arms, a bed-spread rolled up between them, a couple of candles.
"No!" the woman called.
"Stop mewling, woman, you sound like a drowned kitten," said Gessler.
At that, she burst into tears and was left crying on the road-side, with her hungry crying children around her.
William Tell, sick to the pit of his stomach and close to tears himself, turned and trudged up the road after Gessler's men.
It was the same in every house they came to. They seized every coin, every thing of value, they could find in the house, and when that failed they seized the livestock, the linen, the plates, the cups, the buckets, the candles, the little wooden images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, the food out of the cupboards. Even then, few of the people of Altdorf had truly paid their taxes. They were left utterly destitute, slandered, humiliated, and three or four gulden in debt.
In the burnt-down part of town, there were people with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Then the crying and pleading was louder and more desperate than ever. Gessler was pitiless. By the end of the day he had a great list of all the debtors in Altdorf—essentially everyone in Altdorf—whom he intended to deal with later.
But William Tell saw none of this, for he had returned, ill with horror, fuming with rage and shaking with fear, to Burgeln. Strongest was rage. Near his hut he cut the wood and tried to coax a few plants out of the soil behind the hut. By sun-set, when Walter came home with the goats, rage had boiled down to its distilled essence of smouldering hatred which simmered and simmered inside him. He wanted to kill Gessler… He wanted to kill Gessler… But he knew he never would.
He told Walter about everything he had seen that day. Walter was pale and shaking by the end of it, but he did not cry or beg for comfort. He only said "I see".
The next day, news got around quickly about exactly what Gessler had done and was doing. Today, apparently, he had finished with Altdorf and was going round the out-lying hamlets. The villagers, up on the mountain-side driving their goats, followed Gessler's men around at a safe distance. They watched him threaten and bully and loot the homes of the peasants. Anyone who failed to produce money was dragged away to prison in Altdorf, as a debtor.
"But how," a shepherd was saying to the soldiers as they dragged him away was his crying wife and terrified children "am I supposed to pay if I'm in prison in Altdorf and can't work? How will my family make money? This isn't right. It isn't fair…".
"It's the law," said Gessler.
By evening, the canton of Uri was in a state of general panic. The people of Burgeln called a spontaneous meeting in the church.
"This can't be allowed to continue," said Ella.
"No, indeed," said Martha. "It's a disgrace, that's what it is, a disgrace."
"Something ought to be done about it." That was Arnulf, a shepherd and the bell-ringer at the church.
"It ought, it ought." Old Maria, who must be at least eighty by now.
William and Walter sat slumped in the corner of the church, listening to the voices rise and fall and the murmur of conversation go on and on.
William listened until he heard the thirty-fourth "disgrace" then got up.
"Come on," he said to Walter. "They might be here all night. We'll know in the morning if they actually decide to do anything."
Needless to say, by morning they had not actually decided to do anything. They woke up in the morning, tired and aching, after a night spent venting their feelings.
But soon they were gripped by fresh horrors.
It was old Maria who hobbled over to the Tells' hut to tell them all about it.
"Have you heard?" she said breathlessly.
"Heard what?" William was listening for once. Normally it was just the scandalous behaviour of younger villages which roused Maria's excitement to fever pitch, but today it might actually be something important.
"Some of the homeless debtors tried to escape over the mountains and down the river," she said. "You know, to avoid debtors' prison? And Gessler's passed a law now saying that no Swiss are allowed to leave their own area without a letter of permission from the Governor. So if ever we want to leave Uri…" She paused for effect. "We'll have to get permission from Gessler! The river-bank and all the passes over the mountains are absolutely lined with soldiers, of course…"
William could tell that beneath her gloomy relish at telling bad news there was genuine fear, so he tried to comfort her. "It'll be all right," he said.
"It might." He tried to force himself, for his own sake as much as for hers, to be optimistic. "We just have to pay out taxes, then everything will be fine."
"And how are we supposed to do that?"
"I haven't told you everything yet." She arranged herself into a more comfortable position on the hearth. "He's building a big new prison in Altdorf square. There are so many debtors he can't fit them all in the old one. Right on top of the ruins of some burnt-out cottages, too. I do think that's a bit much."
Later that morning Gessler's men officially proclaimed the travel ban to the hamlet of Burgeln in the village church, but everybody knew about it already.
William thought it was a bit much, too. He had hoped to go up the mountain with William after the goats that day, as he did not want him to get lonely up there, but instead he made his inevitable way down to Altdorf.
It was exactly as Maria had said. By the market square, where the ruined cottages had stood, a group of thin, shivering, exhausted looking people wearing clanking chains were building a prison. They must have started yesterday, and probably worked all night, because they had already made good progress. William stood and watched Gessler's debtors building their own prison, some of them on top of the ruins of their own homes, and his fists shook with rage. But there was nothing he or anybody else could do. Gessler was Count Albert's man and the law was on his side.
The next day, Gessler's tax-men came to Burgeln. Gessler could have got his taxes collected much more quickly by sending his men round in twos or threes, but he liked to collect the taxes himself, in person. He found it deeply satisfying.
Walter saw them coming first. "Gessler's men," he called. "Gessler's men!"
William came running out of the hut, and so did every other peasant in Burgeln.
Gessler's men were riding up the hill towards them in battle formation, swords out and gleaming. Gessler was at their head, smiling as if Christmas had come early.
They set to work quickly, grimly methodically.
They started with Maria.
"Householder or peasant?" said Gessler. He looked her up and down, lip curling. "Peasant."
"Oh, sir, sir, I'm not sure I can manage that. Here's all the money I have in the world, sir. Three gulden. My life's savings, it is."
"I said seven. Are you deaf or just too stupid to count?"
"I heard you sir-"
"Then give me seven!"
"But sir, I only have three gulden."
"Get to work then, earn the rest."
"But I'm too old to work sir, I am, really. My back gets so tired sometimes…" She realised that Gessler did not care about her back. "Besides, who around here has any money to pay me for work, after your taxes?"
"Are you questioning my judgement?"
"Are you questioning my authority?"
Gessler hesitated, smirking. "Empty the house."
William had the people of Burgeln could do nothing but watch as the soldiers burst into Maria's house. William could hear them ransacking the place. Maria was crying now. "Not my chair, sir, it's my only chair… Not my mother's cooking pot. Please, sir. I'm begging you, as a gentleman, as a Christian."
Her wails became increasingly distraught and incoherent.
The soldiers ignored her. Gessler was laughing at her.
William wanted to torture Gessler slowly to death.
"Only four gulden of goods," said Gessler. "Well, you can work the rest off, old woman."
"No," screamed Maria. "No, please…" Indomitable Maria, who had lasted eighty years on the brutal Swiss mountains, was crying and whimpering. The soldiers seized her by the arms and dragged her away, kicking and thrashing weakly but desperately.
"Torch the house," said Gessler. "That'll teach you to answer me back, old woman."
Maria was beyond pleading, she merely stared back at Gessler, her beloved childhood home going up in smoke behind her, with anguish and despair in her eyes.
"Now," said Gessler. "This young man has been watching proceedings with great fascination. Let's go on to him, shall we?" And he turned to William Tell.
William had known that it was inevitable, that Gessler would come to him eventually, it was inescapable. Yet the inescapability merely made it all the more terrifying now it had finally come.
William, his throat dry, shaking so much he swayed to stand, tried to find words to speak. Eventually he managed, "come this way, sir".
"Oh, very hospitable," sneered Gessler. "Going to play Lord of the Manor, are we, peasant?"
Don't rise, William told himself. Don't rise to it. It's what he wants you to do. The only way to stay alive is to ignore him.
Walter was standing in the doorway of the hut. His face was pale and he looked very young and very small, but he was not crying or complaining. Instead he stood up very straight and looked Gessler dead in the eye. William was proud of him
"Right," said Gessler. "I'd like my seven gulden please."
"Your seven gulden now, are they?" said Walter. "I thought they were Count Albert's."
"Silence, goat-herd," said Gessler, without even looking at Walter. But he looked annoyed.
William concealed his grin to frown sternly at Walter and shake his head. Walter was just grinning.
"Here," said William, in the most respectful voice he could muster. "Is all the money I have."
Gessler glared at him. "Three gulden and two Rappen? I asked for seven gulden, peasant."
"I don't have seven gulden. My sincere apologies, sir."
"I'm uninterested in your apologies, peasant."
How many times can he call me that? thought William.
"I'm interested in your money."
"Yes, of course, sir. I'm sorry sir."
"Now give me seven gulden."
"I don't have seven gulden sir. I've given you all the money I have in my possession."
"Well, it's not enough. What about fruit and vegetables, got any fruit and vegetables?"
"A few, sir, but actually they don't grow right now. It won't be harvest until autumn. Most years we don't even get a harvest, because the mountain soil is so thin. When was the last time we had a harvest?"
"Two years ago, I think, father. We got a small bowl-full of berries, I seem to remember."
"Hmph!" Gessler insisted in inspecting the pile of rocks, which the Tells optimistically called their garden, anyway.
"Pathetic," was his verdict. "You're right. You'll get nothing out of this lot. How incompetent can you people be? Can't even grow vegetables… honestly."
"It's not our fault, sir." William knew it could be lethal to protest, but he could not help it, Gessler had goaded him too much. "The soil here is very poor."
"I'd like to see you grow vegetables anywhere," said Walter. "My fine knight-at-arms Gessler."
Gessler turned eyes on Walter which were bulbous and glowing with fury. "Now listen, you lousy brat. Just because you think you're so smart and brilliant doesn't mean you can talk to your betters that way."
"What makes you my better Gessler?"
"Be silent, you little grub." Gessler was hissing like a knife on the grinder.
"Walter," said William in panic. "Be quiet."
"So that's your name, is it?" said Gessler. "Walter. And what's the name of the father louse, peasant?"
"William Tell," said William clearly.
"Well, William Tell," Gessler snarled, literally snarled, like an angry dog, it was the most disturbing thing William had ever seen. "I suggest that you keep your spawn under better control. Otherwise he could meet with a most disagreeable end in the near future, do you understand?"
"Now," said Gessler. "Let's see what else the idle peasants of Uri can contribute to the coffers of good Count Albert."
They went back into the house.
"Cheese," said Gessler. "You seem to have plenty of cheese, peasant. Do you think you can spare us a few? Or all of it? Do you think at all, peasant, or do you just eat and sleep, like a goat?"
William could not breathe. No amount of expectation could numb the sharp, horrifying shock which shot through him from head to toe when he realised that Gessler was actually going to do it. He was actually going to take all their cheese. His and Walter's cheese. From their goats. The cheese they needed. The cheese they ate. And their one means of independence, of self-sufficiency. As long as their goats could make cheese for them they need have no fear of being reduced to starvation, begging or slave labour. Well, this was the end of that.
And so, though he knew it futile, he knew it was what Gessler wanted him to do, he knew it was humiliating and would make him feel like a fool, he pleaded.
"Gessler, sir, good sir…" He knew Gessler was anything but a good sir but the words tumbled frantically out of his mouth. "Good, kind, Christian sir. Have pity on a humble peasant who does his best."
"It's my duty as a good Christian master, as I've told all you other idiot hicks, to teach you your duty to your master, peasant. And your duty means paying your taxes, because that's all your fit to do."
"But sir, we need the cheese… to eat! Or how are we going to live?"
"You could always eat children," said Gessler. "You peasants normally have enough of the grubby little brats roaming around."
William tried, to save his life, for the sake of Walter, because it would not do any good, to avoid punching Gessler in the teeth. He had never seen a man whom he found so physically repellent.
"Sir, I only have one child. My wife's dead, you see…"
"Oh your wife's dead? Well, that's one fewer mouth to feed. I don't see what you're complaining about..."
There was a moment's silence.
Then William Tell lashed Gessler back-handed across the face so hard it knocked him into the wall.
"Don't you ever," he said. "Ever, talk like that about my wife."
For a moment Gessler was gawping like a minnow who had just been clouted round the head with a carp. His eyes popped. His breath came in heaves like a bull before it charges.
Oh dear Lord, thought William. What have I done?
Had he just slapped Gessler round the face, or had he dreamed it? Surely to God he had dreamed it? He would never do a thing like that. Never…
"Tell," said Gessler, barely audibly but in a voice that cut through the air like a knife. "Did you just raise your hand to a gentleman, peasant?"
"No," said Tell, promptly.
For a moment, it seemed that Gessler might believe him, if only because being slapped round the face by a peasant was something which only that morning had not been in Gessler's list of things which were physically possible under the laws of God.
But then a trickle of blood slid down Gessler's cheek. He reached up and brushed at it, and his fingers came away red.
"You did," he hissed. "You slapped me, Tell."
He regained a little of his breath and dignity. "Listen to me peasant. Your cheese comes to less than four gulden. That means you're in debt, peasant." He was snarling like a tiger newly released from its cage and smelling blood. "You're in debt by more than three gulden. That means that you forfeit your valuables." He grinned like a wolf in the sheep-fold. Or Satan in Hell, thought William.
"Men," said Gessler. "Men, the cooking pot. The kitchen knives. The blankets."
"Not that blanket," said Tell. He knew it was no good, but he could not help himself. "You see, that blanket was a blanket my wife made."
"I really think it would be healthy for you, peasant, to move on from your wife," said Gessler, his voice like a honey-covered razor-blade. "After all, it's not good for us to live in the past. Men, put the blanket in the sack."
The dull wound which had been healing for twelve years in William's heart opened a little wider. He could not help it: tears formed in his eyes.
Gessler saw. He was ecstatically happy now, gloating in his glee, a huge grin plastered over his face like a toad on a rock, gulping after flies.
"That's four gulden," he said, his voice dripping triumph. "The rest you owe me in labour, peasant."
William opened his mouth to reply but did not get a chance.
"That boy of yours, you're only son," Gessler continued. "How old is he? About twelve?"
"He looks a strong, healthy boy," said Gessler, and he sounded so genuinely pleasant that William had to blink his eyes to make sure he was still talking to the same person. "The Count, you know, is a very busy man. Always fighting against the Dutch, the Hungarians, the petty princes of the Rhineland, the Swabians, and of course, as a good Christian, the Turks."
"Of course," said Walter. "Our Lord God's interests in a trade route with the Far East must be maintained at all costs…"
Gessler seemed to have decided that the best way to deal with Walter was simply to ignore him. At any rate, he did not respond. He continued. "I see two bows above the door. Handy archer, your only child, is he? Count Albert always needs good archers. And what better way for a boy to die than fighting the Turk? Absolve his sins and your debt at the same time. And liberate the Holy Land, of course."
The words gradually sank into William's skull. He felt dizzy, he felt ill, he clutched at the table for support.
"Are you telling me," he said hoarsely, "to give my child to Count Albert as an archer in his army?".
"Yes, peasant. Smarter than you look. But it's a very good to work off a debt. Nice and simple. You spare yourself debtors' prison, you see…"
"I would rather go to debtors' prison a hundred times over," said William, "than give my Walter to that thug".
"Oh, well, if you really feel that way I'd be happy to agree. Leaving your precious Walter an orphan and a beggar… Really, the way you talk about that brat you might almost be civilised people."
"Listen," said William, frantically. "I'll sell my goats. I'll sell them for at least three gulden, I'll sell all of them and we'll live off wild rabbit and berries for ever more. You'll get your three gulden, sir, I promise. Word of honour."
Gessler burst out laughing. "Word of honour, eh? Fine talk for a goat-herd. All right, peasant, I'm a kind man-"
No, you're not. You just enjoy watching me squirm.
"You'll sell your goats to-morrow. You'll have the money before me by the next morning. And I mean at sun-up, by cock-crow, without dawdling. If you fail, why then…" His leer became so wide that William sincerely expected, and hoped, his face to crack in half. "Then your son goes to fight the Turk in the deserts of Arabia and you will toil in chains to build your own prison, where you'll rot for the rest of your days and pay your debt in hard labour. Understood, peasant?"
"Understood, sir," said William, with all the boldness he could muster.
And Gessler turned on his heel and stormed out of the hut, his men snaking after him like an armoured worm.
That night, William could barely sleep. What on Earth was he going to do? If he were to go down to Altdorf to-morrow to sell his goats, would anybody buy them? If they did buy them, what then? William and Walter could survive, not easily, but survive, on wild rabbit and berries in the Summer, but when Winter came, what then? They would starve. As a peasant, he could not even leave the land in the winter to find seasonal work in a city, in Zurich or somewhere. And if he did not sell the goats… that did not even bare thinking about. There was nothing for it: he would do his damnedest to sell the goats. And if he could not get the money by then, he and William would flee to-morrow night. Let the soldiers guard the passes, they would take their chances on the heights. Better to freeze to death in a blizzard than to suffer more agony and humiliation at the hand of Count Alfred or his henchman Gessler.
When he did finally fall into a light, restless sleep, it was haunted by nightmares, horrible, blood-soaked nightmares of screaming and darkness and things clawing at him in the darkness, but he could not, mercifully, remember the details, except for the most horrible image of Walter's blood-soaked face, with its empty, staring eye sockets.
When he woke the next morning, he sprang out of bed and staggered outside for a drink, shocking himself back into wakefulness with splashes of cold water, gulping it down until his head stopped spinning, plunging his face right into it and realising how easy it would be to do drown himself, just to drift away, and to Hell with Gessler and the damned goats… But he could not do that, however tempting it was, because Walter needed him. He still missed his own father, every day.
That morning the villagers were ushered into the little church in Burgeln for an announcement. William's heart felt heavy as lead but slammed against his ribs like a trapped fish.
"I hope it's that Gessler's dead," said Walter, grinning.
"I hope so, too." Walter's grin was infectious.
The announcement however, was that the new prison had been finished in Altdorf. (Gessler had worked his debtors to the bone, for the nearer they were worked to the bone the meeker they would be, and while he was always getting more debtors to work on the prison, he saw need to make the prison bigger to fit them in. After all, if goats could sleep in piles in the mud, why not Swiss peasants? Besides, not many of the debtors who had started building the prison were alive to live in it.)
There were groans from the crowd.
"Let's lock Gessler in it!" shouted Peter. The crowd laughed. They all knew, however, that they would never really lock Gessler in the new prison.
Furthermore, said the priest, glaring over the top of his pulpit at his unruly congregation, Gessler had hung up his hat outside it, and the people of Uri now had to bow every time they passed the hat, on pain of death.
There was more laughter, contemptuous, despairing, slightly hysterical.
When William left the church with Walter, he told him to get his bow and they went down to Altdorf together, driving the goats before them. The town of Altdorf lay in an even sorrier state than that which they had left it in two days ago.
The whole town seemed to be assembled, silent and mournful, in the village square, to stare at the finished prison. It was cut out of huge lumps of black rock, the only stone building in town except the church. It was as high as the church too, and loomed above the little cottages and sheds which lay huddled in the shadows around its base. The sides were sheer, smooth rock, with few windows, only narrow slits with darkness behind them. None of the windows were on the ground floor, the only way in or out of the prison was a huge iron door, a solid sheet with wicked-looking fangs at the bottom. William had no idea what might lie on the other side of that door and he was quite happy for it to stay that way. The sound of sobbing drifting down from the windows was enough.
Between the prison and the church stood the town linden tree, and there was Gessler's hat hanging from one of the low branches. Every villager who passed, after looking hopefully around to see if there were any possibility of escape, met the eyes of the guards outside the prison, stopped, removed their hat and bowed.
William, watching them, was filled with helpless rage. The Swiss mountaineers had always been poor, but they had been reichfrei, they had not bowed to anyone since the time of the Romans, and certainly not to his hat.
But those days, it seemed, were gone. Now he who lived on Count Albert's land had to bow to Count Albert's henchman's hat. Very well, he would simply walk to that side of town by the back-street, and avoid passing the hat. It seemed that a good many villagers had already had that idea, slipping out of sight behind the church and re-appearing on the other side.
A good many of them appeared to have assembled around a small bundle of rags on the other side of the square, under the prison walls. But it was not, William realised, a bundle of rags. It was Maria's dead body.
Leaving Walter with the goats he crossed the square and joined the knot of people forming around the body on the ground. Maria looked older than she had ever done before, thin and frail and crushed-looking. Her hands and bare feet were blue and her eyes were red, she must have been crying.
Another hot flash of anger joined the simmering pile in William's stomach. Gessler had murdered Maria. He had murdered an old woman who had never done him any harm, whose only crime was being poor. Had Gessler even bothered to find out her name before he worked her to death?
"Hey!" Someone was shouting behind William. "Hey, you, Tell!" He was shouting at him. A prison guard? William turned. No. Worse. Gessler. Standing on the church steps, glowing with triumph.
"Yes, sir?" he called, as politely as he could.
"William Tell." Gessler's voice was a low hiss. "William Tell, I was wondering how long it would take you to forget your manners again."
"What?" said William. "Sir," he added quickly.
"I am here to govern this district on behalf of your true and noble lord, Albert, by the grace of God king of the Romans, duke of Austria and Styria, lord of Carniola, over the Wendish Mark and of Port Naon, count of Habsburg and Kyburg, landgrave of Alsace. This means, peasant, that you must show him the respect he deserves."
"The hat," someone next to William was hissing.
Oh, Lord. He had forgotten to bow to the hat.
"And that means you must show me the respect I deserve."
"Which is precisely none," said Walter.
"Shut up," William told him. "You're not helping."
"It vents my feelings, though."
"Be quiet, idiot peasant boy," said Gessler. "You have been told, because I have seen to it that you have been told, that everyone who passes my hat on the linden tree must bow down to it. And you did not."
"No. Because I was too busy with the body of Maria." It blurted out, before William could stop it and replace it with something like "I'm sorry," or "I beg of you, my Lord, forgive me, it was as accident and I just forgot" or something else Gessler would want him to say.
"Who's Maria?" Gessler's voice was bored and dripping with contempt.
William's anger was slowly working itself up. "She's my friend and you murdered her."
"What do you mean I murdered her?"
"You worked her to death!" He was in it now, why not carry on? "She was too old to build your prison and you knew it, but you made her do it anyway. Did she have any sleep? Did you feed her? Do you know, by your warm fire, how cold the nights are round here? No. And you don't care. And now you just say "Who's Maria?" as if she doesn't even matter because you couldn't even be bothered finding out who she was, because provided you got every last scrap of cash and labour out of her it doesn't matter to you."
Gessler laughed. "Is it my fault that you Swiss peasants are so idle that the slightest bit of work kills you off?"
"She was not idle. She was old and ill. What have you done in your life which counts as work?"
"I have had the pain of suffering a bunch of ignorant, bloody-minded mountain monkeys, that's what I have. Now, doubtless even a stupid Swiss goat-herd knows that the punishment for refusing to bow to my hat is death."
"Sir... Gessler," William began. He knew that there was nothing for it but the old, pathetic, hopeless routine. Be kind. Have mercy. Remember I have a child. Begging, he decided, was always the last resort of the desperate.
That was when William made his decision. He would not beg. Not that that gave him the slightest idea of what he was going to do, but it was a start.
He stood up and looked Gessler in the eye. "I don't care if you kill me," he said. "I only care about what will happen to my child. It's futile to ask you to have pity on him," he looked down at Maria's dead, blue body, "because you're a cruel, spiteful, vicious monster and you don't give a damn about the suffering of a bunch of poor Swiss peasants". He drew out every syllable, let the pent-up anger drip from his voice. Anger was stronger than fear or sorrow or humiliation. It drove him forward. The passionate longing to smash Gessler's head in… Ah, the pleasures death snatches from us… "But I know people will take care of my son if I need them to. The same people who have helped each other re-build their houses when you burned them down, who have lent blankets to those sleeping in the street in the dirt. Do you remember the woman whom you killed for trying to save her son, and the son you killed for trying to protect her? Probably not. But I do. That's why I know someone will see to it that my boy doesn't starve."
William was suddenly very conscious of what he had just said, of the silence in the square, of everybody looking at him.
"Er… that's all…" he said. "That's all I wanted to say."
Right. On with it then. He wondered how Gessler would kill him. Hanging? Burning? He looked at Walter, very small and pale and absolutely defiant. Shaking with grief, but shaking with rage. Good boy. Lovely, beautiful boy. So like your mother. I was so proud of you, more than I can ever tell you if I had a million years.
He looked up at the iron grey sky. Goodbye, world, I would say that it was nice knowing you, but… well, maybe it was nice knowing Berta and Walter.
Gessler, however, was smiling. Oh dear, this was not good.
"Oh, peasant fool, don't move so fast. Who says I'm going to kill you?"
"You're not." Giddy, dizzying hope.
"No. Come here, young mouthy Walter."
An icy lightning bolt lashed through William's soul. He could no longer breathe. Walter… Walter… Of course he should have known that Gessler, that sadist, wanted to hurt him, so would hurt Walter.
"Don't you dare," he gasped, hearing the words come out as a hiss, "hurt my son".
And for a moment he felt the satisfaction of seeing fear in Gessler's eyes. Not that it was a long satisfaction. There was too much deadly fear for Walter. Cold, sick fear which ran shivering up and down his spine. His legs would not move. But he had frightened Gessler.
"I wouldn't dream of hurting your son, peasant. You're going to hurt him."
"What do you mean?" He could barely breathe, but somehow his voice was steady.
"I understand that you mountain goat people, wandering around the place like monkeys as you do, are rather handy with bows. And very conveniently you have a bow. Men! Seize the boy! Tie him to the tree!"
Walter looked stunned and confused, but William suspected he was the only one who could see the corner of his mouth twitching in fear. The face he turned to Gessler was impassive. Gessler's men tied him to the linden tree while Gessler watched and smiled. Then he reached into his pocket and drew out a big, red, shiny apple. The sort of apple William had longed to see all his life. Ripe, sweet, good, not a little shrunken yellow worm-eaten thing like the apples he had eaten as a child for a Christmas treat.
Gessler strolled over the tree and set the apple on Walter's head. William realised what he was going to say a second before he said it. So did everyone else in the square. They gasped, a collective choke of pure horror. Never had any of them seen something like this before. Never, even, from Gessler, had they dreamed of it. This was too much. A collective paralysis descended on Altdorf.
"You are going to shoot the apple of young Walter's head, Tell. If you miss, you will both be put to death in ways which I'm sure you will not like to imagine. Well," he shrugged. "You will. Along with what's left of your son."
Walter was laughing. "Father's the best arrow-shot north of the Alps, Gessler. You won't get your satisfaction to-day."
He looked at William and smiled. "What's the matter? Lost your confidence, you Swiss savage? Come, now, I'm sure there's no good waiting around for divine intervention or some such."
William drew two arrows from his quiver and stuck one in his belt. For what choice did he have? You can hit the apple or you can miss, he told himself. That's your choice.
He looked at William, still grinning with a confidence he longed for. Then he looked at Gessler's leering face, mocking him, tormenting him. Your triumph is premature. As if Gessler had heard William, he scowled at him. He was still standing high on the church steps above the peasants, surrounded by armed guards, two in front of him and two behind.
He's just a coward, he realised. He's just a coward and a bully. And he thinks that we're the same.
Well, he was not. He was a peasant, just as Gessler was so fond of saying, but he was a Swiss peasant and Gessler was right about one thing. The "mountain goat people" were very handy with bows.
He was going to shoot an arrow at his own son's head. And he was going to get it clean in the middle of the lovely red apple. Yes, he was, because the alternative was… unthinkable. William could not imagine it, not even as a nightmare. It was too horrible. He was going to get it clean in the middle of that lovely red apple.
Time to show Gessler what a Swiss peasant was made of.
He set one arrow on the string and let it fly. Perhaps he prayed, perhaps he simply whispered "Berta", we shall never know. What we do know is that the arrow landed plump in the middle of the lovely red apple and split it clean in half.
"Nice one, dad," said Walter. "Waste of a good apple, though."
William gasped in air, blinked for a moment to make sure this was real, and flung himself across the square to the linden tree—once again, he forgot to bow to Gessler's hat. He tore the ropes of Walter, clung to him, nearly crushed him and burst into tears of relief.
"Dad," came Walter's muffled voice. "Dad, you're embarrassing me." He wriggled free and, picking the apple halves up of the ground, gave one to William and began to crunch the other.
William, giddy with relief, almost flying with joy, gulped the apple half without thinking about it, then turned to face Gessler.
Gessler's face was contorted with rage. His mouth was opening and shutting with no sound coming out. He looked as if he were about to drop dead with shock. William sincerely hoped that he would.
However, he recovered himself. He stopped choking and began to breathe. Heavy, deliberate breathing, quiet hissing in and out. It was slightly terrifying. Not nearly terrifying enough to bring William down off his victory high, though. Nothing could ever do that again. He, William, had seen Gessler with his mouth hanging open. Nothing which happened now or ever could change that.
And everyone in the town square could tell. For the first time in days, the people of Altdorf raised their eyes from the mud. A few began to laugh. Then someone called "three cheers for the hero, William Tell".
The square resounded with the three cheers. And just at that moment, Gessler did not have the mental strength to stop them.
Then he spoke. "Very nice, peasant."
William could feel waves of futile rage from Gessler trying to bore into him. But victory was an armour. This grand-standing, idiotic ego-maniac could fume all he liked. Let him.
So William grinned at him and made sure he saw the grin. Long and clear. "Thank you," he said.
"However, I notice that you took two arrows from your quiver, peasant. Unless you are too stupid to count-" but that spell was broken—he earned William's anger and William's hatred but he could not steal his self-respect, and perhaps he knew it, because he continued more quietly- "surely you know that you only required one arrow to break that apple".
William considered. Why had he done it? He had not thought about what he was doing at the time. He knew now, though. Oh yes.
"I think I've earned my life, sir. So when I tell you, do you promise not to kill me?"
Gessler smiled. It was a smile which sickened William's stomach. But he said quietly "yes".
William, still buoyed up on victory, told him exactly why. "Because if I'd killed Walter, my lord Gessler, I would have killed you before you could blink."
Gessler's smile widened. "Ah, I see. Very well. Guards, seize him."
William was seized by six guards, who tore his bow from him and threw it away. They pulled the arrow out of his belt and threw it on the ground.
"No I won't kill you William Tell, but I'll take you to prison and let me assure you that when your brat sees you in, oh, I don't know, I month or so, he won't even recognise the remains as human, or, indeed, Swiss peasant."
He paused a moment to let that sink in. He was a grand orator, this Gessler, learned all the tricks.
As for William, he was feeling very sick. But he was damned if his lord Gessler were going to get the satisfaction of knowing that. Not yet, anyway. Let him put some work in for his fear. So he smiled, broadly and sunnily, and said, "I wouldn't be too sure of that, Governor, we're tough, we Swiss… what did you call us?... mountain goat people."
A guard coughed. "Excuse me, my lord Gessler, the prison it Altdorf is full."
Relief, sweet relief flooded through some part of his stomach. But his mind was too numb to understand what was going on. In these past ten minutes, his death had swung towards him and away from him like a pendulum. Relief, horror, relief again, rage, horror for Walter, relief, God knew what… It was all too much. So in a way he stood and listened to Gessler talking as if he were watching all this happen to somebody else.
"If the prison in Altdorf is full, borrow the priest's boat and we'll take him across the river to Küssnacht and imprison him there. The most interesting equipment is in Küssnacht anyway."
William did not want to know what kind of equipment Gessler found interesting. He was sure he would find out soon enough, and wish that he had not.
"Walter," he said. If Walter had to cope without him for months—and he dreaded to think what kind of state he would be in by the end of it—then he ought to give him a few words of advice now. How to cope on his own. He, William, had never been alone. Not really. Even in his mother's mental absence, he had had her there, physically, and that, he realised, mattered. And he had his sisters, he had had Berta, his wife, he had Walter. Walter would be alone.
"Walter, don't die," he said. This might be the last chance he would ever have to speak to his son, and everything he wanted to say tumbled over itself until his tongue seized up. "Don't smart off Gessler." He was being dragged across the square now, away from Walter. Walter bent down and seized William's bow.
"Take care of that," he said. "Be careful."
Walter was running after him.
"No, stay where you are!" he shouted in panic. Suppose Gessler killed Walter?
"Seize the boy." Gessler was almost howling in frenzy. "Seize the boy…"
The guards and Angela reached Walter at the same moment, and Angela tore Walter out of the guards' arms and clung to him while he thrashed and fought to get near William.
Walter was in tears. Gessler was howling, Martha and Chloe and joined in restraining Walter. Over the chaos, William could barely hear himself think but he shouted over the head of the crowd what he hoped was a last piece of good advice. "Obey your aunts!"
Walter was trying to say something but through his own tears and his aunts' pleading it was lost. William opened his mouth to say "I love you" but was swept round the corner and down the lane to the river.
Then he was bundled into a little rowing boat, with chains on his hands and feet, and they set off down the Reuss. William, Gessler and six guards. It was a small, uncomfortable boat and the chains were heavy and chafed but that was the last of William's worries. He was thinking about Walter. Will I ever see him again? What will happen to him? The thoughts swam round and round and round his head and there was no escaping them. He tried to shut them off in a box as too painful to think about, but they always swam back through the fuzz of fear of pain and death to hover at the front of his mind, in front of eyes, mocking him.
He tried very hard to think about something, anything else. Even how horrible prison was going to be. Even how much he would hate being tortured. Even dying. Anything, anything at all to distract, so he would not have to see the desperate face, clutching hands and desperate, angry, grieving tears. Especially not the blue eyes which were so like his mother's.
Maybe it would be easy to die. Maybe it would be happy to die. Maybe he could get to Heaven or something. See Berta again. Or, just… not have to be alive any more. That would be good too, to be honest. No more pain, no more watching people die, no more endless money troubles.
But he was going to live. He was going to live for Walter. Because Walter was his son, and if ever there were reason for a man in chains on his way to be tortured to live, that was it.
They had reached the lake now. A lovely lake, clear and blue and peaceful. Such huge, timeless mountains. Such a big blue sky. The world was a beautiful place. It truly was. Callous bastard.
But gathering in the distance, high above the mountains, were thick, black clouds. Gessler and his men had not seen them, but William had. Perhaps Mother Nature had a little mercy after all.
The wind began to blow chill across Lake Lucerne. The little ripples in the lake became wavelets, quite friendly wavelets still, lapping at the sides of the boat. Now they were about half-way across the lake, where it ran cold and deep, the currants were strong and the shore was distant. Gessler's men were starting to notice that the weather had changed.
"Sir," said one of the soldiers. "Is it just me or is the wind picking up?"
"The wind is picking up," said another soldier, who had peering anxiously over the side of the boat into the water for a long time.
"Then go faster," said Gessler, coldly and scornfully—but his eyes were frightened.
"Sir, we can't," said the first soldier.
So they continued to sail, onwards across the lake, straight towards the gathering storm because that was where the nearest shore was, now. William could see, rising as if from the lake itself, the prison at Küssnacht. A huge, rambling fortress, three or four stories high. Plain, functional, every stone designed to scare the wits of its victims. It might have worked. But William Tell had shot an apple of his son's head. He was scared, but not out of his wits.
He watched the storm. Come on, come on…
The first few drops of rain landed on his face.
Then lightning rent the sky clear across. Thunder crashed and the echoes of it crashed again and again, off the mountains round the lake. And the sky was as black as if someone had snuffed out the Sun.
Gessler's men gasped. Gessler crossed himself. William smiled. As the waves rose around the boat, rose dizzyingly fast until within minutes they howled like wolves, he went on smiling. The rain was lashing so hard that Gessler could no longer steer the boat.
"Where are we going?" he shouted to his men.
"We thought you knew, sir," said the first soldier, irritation plain and fear concealed slightly.
"I know where we're going," said William.
"You know?" Gessler turned to him with the light of hope in his eyes.
William grinned. Victory again. "Yes, sir."
"Well, go on then," said Gessler. "What are you waiting for?"
"I'm chained up, sir." William permitted himself a small glow of smugness.
"You want to actually take hold of the sail?"
"How else do I sail the boat?"
"Well, you could always give directions to my men."
"Sailing doesn't work like that, sir," said William, with what he hoped was the mystical air of one who had a deep and profound knowledge of the details of sailing.
Gessler looked around, as if for inspiration. But really he had no choice and he knew it. The boat was in the middle of a deep and foreign lake, in a storm which was tossing her around like drift-wood, in the dark. And Gessler wanted to live.
"Unchain the peasant!" he ordered.
The men, almost gasping with relief, scrambled to release William from his chain.
All right. So far, so good. Now for the tricky bit.
William sailed the boat, trying to look more confident than he felt, for he was really a mountaineer, not a sailor, straight towards the nearest bit of shore, where he thought, if his steering was right, there were rocks, and tried not to die. And so far, he was alive. But whether he had found the right bit of shore was a different matter… Something loomed out of the torrential rain.
He had one chance to save his life or be dashed to pieces. He stood up and was almost knocked over by the waves lashing broadside at the little boat. He stepped onto the narrow, trembling side of the boat, and, just as Gessler shrieked "What are you doing man? Seize him!", leaped.
For a horrible moment he hung above the icy, storm-seethed waters of Lake Lucerne and knew, just knew, that he would plunge down into them and vanish without trace, but then his face smashed into rain-slicked rock. His hands scrabbled for hold, latched onto one and almost broke his fingers.
He looked back over his shoulder and caught a glimpse of the little boat, tossed helplessly on the bucking waves, before the rain and waves whisked her out of sight into the dark.
He smiled to himself. They would die, he knew. Gessler and his dogsbodies—not alas, all the dogsbodies, but what use were the rest without their lord and master? Whisked down to Hell in their own boat, drowned as they hauled their prisoner off for torture and, doubtless, a cold and lonely death. What could be more fitting than that? Even the mountains themselves of Switzerland took their revenge on the foul Gessler. But would it not have been better—oh!, not so much more deeply satisfying—to slay the man who had destroyed his homeland, enslaved his people, slandered his wife and so nearly murdered his only child by his own hand? Bless the storm who had delivered Switzerland from the tyrant. Curse the storm who had snatched his revenge from William Tell.
He clambered up the rocks, cold, wet, lost, exhausted. He could not see more than a foot or so in front of him, was in constant danger of falling into the lake, but the thought of sitting down to rest while Walter and his sisters might need him was shameful. Somehow, he would surely find a way home, or at least to some path or lane which might lead to home or help.
He was now, in so far as he could tell, in some kind of wood, and just when he was wondering whether he was moving towards the lake or away from it, and whether it was possible for his clothes to become any more water-logged, the storm cleared as suddenly as it had arrived, the Sun was visible again, floating on a bank of gently dissolving fluffy white clouds, the wind dropped, the first flush of pink twilight was visible, it was a beautiful clear Spring evening.
He was indeed in a wood, very near the shore of Lake Lucerne, and just a little further away was a path and a huddle of fisherman's cottages.
He hurried over to these huts, dripping wet, his teeth chattering, and began to knock on the door of the nearest.
It was opened by an elderly woman, in a heavy woollen shawl, who looked a little surprised to find this man suddenly turn up on her door-step, looking as if he had climbed out of the lake.
"Good evening," said William.
"I was wondering if you could please direct me to Burgeln."
"To Burgeln?" said the woman. "You mean in a boat?"
"You're planning to walk to Burgeln? Tonight? It's miles, can't you wait until tomorrow? And you look half-drowned."
"No," said William. "I'm sorry, it's urgent."
The woman sighed and shrugged. "Come in," she said. "You look half frozen."
"Thank you," said William. "But I'd better be getting on."
"Lord, it must be urgent. But surely I can at least give you something to eat, and then my son can give you a lift up the Reuss. It's only a little way across the lake, see."
"All right," said William. "Thank you very much."
He followed her into the little hut, which was very much like his own hut, only with less goat and more fish, and she called for someone called Karl to come out of the next room and have supper. Karl came hurrying out of the other room, he was a young man, he must have been her son who was going to give him a lift.
She woman fed them bread and soup and asked him to explain exactly "why you turned up here looking like a drowned vole".
So he explained, while eating the bread and soup, which was very good, all about Gessler and the apple and the journey to Küssnacht and his escape.
"That," said Karl, at the end of it, "is amazing".
William opened his mouth but no sound came out. He was feeling acutely embarrassed, and it was quite a relief when the fisher-woman declared him warm and dry enough to go outside again and they went out to Karl's fishing boat.
The journey back across Lake Lucerne and up the Reuss was much more enjoyable than the first one, now that there was no torture and death at the end of it. The silence of the lake, the distant barges moving like toy boats along the shore, the violet glow on the mountain-tops, now seemed cheerful and soothing.
By night-fall, they arrived back at the river bank below the village. William disembarked, now much dryer from the sun-light, and scrambled up the bank.
"Thanks for the lift," he said.
"Oh, any time," said Karl. "I hope everything's all right at home, your son and all."
William climbed the steep path and before long came to the village square where there were still mournful knots of people hanging around in the gathering dark, if only because some of them had no home to go to.
A young woman saw him and gasped. She stood, pointing and staring, in the middle of Altdorf square, looking as if she had seen a ghost.
Now, everybody was looking, and the whisper ran round the huddles of villagers: "William Tell!", "William Tell!".
Then they burst into clapping and cheering. William Tell stood before them looking rather sheepish and embarrassed. Then the questions began. "What happened?", "How did you escape?", "What's happened to Gessler?", "Is he dead? I hope he's dead".
William tried to explain exactly what had happened, but the villagers were so overwhelmed with joy that their hero lived that he had to repeat everything three or four times before everyone had heard.
"Look," he said eventually, "I've told you what happened, I've told everybody about a dozen times. Please let me through, it's late and I want to make sure that Walter's all right".
The crowd, slowly and reluctantly, parted and allowed William through. He hurried up the path out of Altdorf, the half-dead ghost town crawling with Gessler's men, to Burgeln, where at least the houses still stood, even if some of them were empty and Maria's in particularly stood out, dark and silent for the first time in eighty years.
In William's hut, there was a lamb burning in the window, a deep relief. The knot of anxiety in his stomach loosened slightly. Walter must be all right.
He hurried across the meadow to the hut door and had barely pushed it open when the breath was knocked out of him by a small whirlwind.
"I was here waiting for you," said Walter. "I knew you weren't dead." His eyes were wide and his whole face was glowing with excitement.
"Have you been all right, Walter?"
"Yes. Oh, here's your bow. And here's the other arrow."
"Thanks." It was a relief to see the bow again. William was not used to being without it and it had made him feel most uncomfortable.
"What's happened to Gessler?"
"Oh, he probably dead."
Walter skipped and danced around the hut, singing at the top of his lungs, while William explained to him what had happened.
"Right," he said. "It is now past your bed-time, young man. Go to sleep, freedom or no freedom."
That night they went to bed and slept easy, confident that Gessler had drowned horribly in Lake Lucerne in the storm.
At least, they slept easy when they could sleep at all: most of the locals shared their view of Gessler's death. As word went round the neighbourhood of William Tell's miraculous escape, more and more people arrived at the Tells' front door to congratulate him and hear the story in his own words, over and over again.
By the small hours, William was hoarse from talking and, judging from the expression in Walter's eyes, he could happily hear the story a hundred more times or more. Still the excited neighbours kept pouring in, including, of course, William's sisters, with tousled hair and anxious, sleepless eyes, which widened for joy when they saw him alive and well. They all broke down and wept, especially Angela, who gave him a half-hour diatribe on how good Walter had been and how proud William should be of him.
"I am," said William. "I am."
The villagers, they explained to Walter, were planning a feast the next day—well, by this point it already was the next day—with plenty of food, more than at Christmas and harvest festivals, more than had ever been seen in the village before. In fact, why not start right now? Just as the Sun was rising over the horizon and a group of young lads began to ransack William's beer supply, getting the party off to a nice start, a young woman from Altdorf ran breathlessly up the path and began to shriek.
The villagers poured out of their homes to listen to her, William and Walter hurrying down the path with their bows, and as she explained their faces grew paler and paler and a dead hush descended on Burgeln, except for the ringing of goat bells in the distance.
"Gessler's alive! One of the fishermen at Küssnacht came over early this morning to tell us." Her face crumpled and she began to cry. "The boat was dashed to pieces on the rocks and everybody on board drowned except Gessler. Now he's furious."
The villagers stood spell-bound.
As for William, he could quite easily have lain down and cried. He had been so sure. He had allowed himself triumph, relief, confidence, hope for the future. And in the simple words "Gessler's alive!" that was dashed to pieces. He turned to look at Walter, but Walter's face was impassive.
"We should have known this, shouldn't we dad?" he said quietly. "That it was too good to be true."
William nodded, lead-souled with disappointment and despair. Of course it was true good to be true. He thought of Gunther's words, from all those years ago: "Miracles happen. But not to our kind of people".
The girl was still speaking. He wants to burn Altdorf to the ground, to torture the prisoners to death, to sell all survivors into slavery in Turkey. And he particularly has it in for William Tell." She almost laughed through her tears. "According to the fisherman, words failed him when he tried to describe the horrible fate awaiting William Tell!" She gulped down the tears and raised her head with a kind of pathetic dignity. "I'm sorry, everyone. The party has been cancelled."
She turned to walk back down the path to Altdorf.
"Is he here now?" burst out William in the silent crowd.
The girl stopped and turned. "No, I don't think so. After all, there's no smoke on the horizon yet, is there?"
"He's coming by boat?" William's mind was whirling. He was not thinking of anything in particular—he hardly dared to think, for fear of what he might think of—except how much he hated Gessler. How many things he wanted revenge on Gessler for. How much he wanted to… to kill him.
It struck him so hard it knocked the breath out of him. What else had he been dreaming of for days? What else had he longed to do in the boat, in chains? What else had he cursed the storm for seizing from him? Killing Gessler.
His own resolution was so dizzying, overwhelmed him so utterly, that he barely heard the girl's reply.
"You wouldn't get him into a boat again! No, he's riding round the shore, that's why he's taking such a long time to get here."
"Right," said William. "Thanks."
The girl, puzzled, shrugged and set off back to Altdorf.
"Listen," said William, just as the silent, helpless crowd burst into helpless rage, tears, prayers and wails of grief. "Listen, we're going to kill Gessler."
There was silence. Utter, incredulous silence. Then laughter. Not triumphant laughter. Bitter, mocking, angry laughter.
"Everybody take bows and-" he began.
"Are you mad?" said Joseph. "If we kill Gessler, the Austrians will kill us. And torture us, and lock us in an oubliette where we'll never see daylight again and we'll go slowly mad, with only the rats for company."
"He'll do that anyway."
"So there's no need to increase his temptation, is there?"
"I think we should do it, dad," said Walter, quietly. But William's mind was already made up. He would do it, all right, whether he could get any help or not.
"Listen," he said. "Gessler attacked Altdorf and we let him. He stole our money and we let him. He murdered women and children and we let him. How much longer are we going to keep letting him?"
"It isn't a question of letting him," said Clara Johansson. "He's the Governor. Count Albert appointed him. Do you want him to send his armies against us?" She spoke very slowly, as if he were an idiot. "Do you want them to punish us until we suffer even more than we are already?"
"No," said William. "I just don't want to live as the slave of a foreign tyrant any more. And I suspect you don't either. You're just afraid of him."
"Yes," said Mrs Johansson. "Yes I am afraid of him. He's evil and cruel."
"But he's not a monster. He's just a coward, and a bully, and an ego-maniac. We can fight him. We don't have to just sit here and mourn as if it were too late."
"It is too late," said Joseph. "It's been too late ever since Gessler first came here."
And the villagers began to drift away, sad, helpless, grieving a miserable future.
William Tell stood in the lane of Burgeln and blinked back tears. He had so confidently believed that the villagers so ecstatic at their liberation only hours ago could carry a little of that spirit over into rebellion. But apparently not.
Not that that affected his own resolution in the least. He had made up his mind. He could not unmake it.
"Walter," he said. "Stay here."
"What? I want to come with you. I want to help…!"
"You can best help by not getting yourself killed."
"But father, I'm Swiss too. I want to be free too."
William looked at him and saw the desperate earnestness on his face. His eyes were glowing with hope of liberty and the thirst for revenge.
"He's a murderer," said Walter quietly. "He's evil. He's killed women and children. He pretends this Count Albert is our lord, but he's not. We had a charter of Reichfreiheit, we don't have a lord. He insulted mother, as if… as if… as if you hadn't loved her. He thinks we're all dirt." His voice rose, harsh, blood-drenched, but cold with iron self-control. "He thinks we're dirt, but we're not, and we've got to show him."
"I'm your father," said William. He felt Walter's rage and grief fuelling his own to greater and greater heights. He was proud of him, he sympathised with him, because he felt the same way himself. And there was no reason, really, why he should have revenge but Walter should not. But this business was too dangerous for children, and Walter, for all his fearlessness, was only a child. And William had lost too many people whom he loved. He had nearly killed Walter once. He had survived that time, but he was not putting his life in danger again. Even the thought of losing his boy was agony. "I'm your father and it's my duty to look after you."
"I'll be fine," Walter sounded surprised.
"You might get killed."
"I don't care."
William knew he was in earnest. Berta, he thought, had such a good son. But then, she was probably the one who had made him such a good son…
"I care," he said. "I want you to promise me to stay here."
"Cross your heart and on your honour?"
William slung his bow over his back and set out for the road along the edge of the lake from Küssnacht.
He had not gone very far when he heard hoof-beats. Gessler, accompanied by soldiers whom he must have sent across the lake in a boat to escort him from Küssnacht, was riding down the steep gorge on the Küssnacht road like grim death.
His face was a mask of fury, rigid, pale, with burning eyes.
The villagers had come, in morbid grief, to watch the return of the tyrant. They stood, as quiet and subdued as a crowd at a funeral, for it was likely that this was their own funeral for many of them, and watched him ride down the gorge on his fine charger, his rich silks shining in the sun-light. But a few of them raised their eyes to meet his, showed him their anger and loathing and with sheer, seething hatred stared him down.
This was his chance. Now. He would rid Switzerland of the tyrant forever, to avenge the dead and save the future. He raised his bow and set his arrow—the arrow he had set aside specially for Gessler— on the string. A moving target. Difficult. But he had shot an apple of his son's head. He could kill a man riding at full gallop. Easy. He felt powerful, standing on the ridge, bow in his hand, waiting for revenge. Power was a new feeling, a good feeling. Power gave him strength. He smiled.
Gessler was almost level with him now. In a few seconds he would let the arrow fly. But that was no good. It would rid Switzerland of the tyrant, yes. But Gessler would never know what had hit him, and William wanted him to know.
"Gessler," he shouted, in a voice like a dagger.
Gessler looked up. He saw. His eyes met William's and widened in fear, in stark terror.
You really have no spine at all, do you Gessler?
William Tell let his arrow fly. It hit Gessler in the neck, went clear through his neck, landed on the path. Gessler froze, there was a fountain of blood, spattering the horse, the path, the villagers, then he slumped from the saddle and crashed to the earth, rolling over and over like a rag doll. William leaped down the side of the gorge to join the stunned crowd.
Then they began to cheer. They laughed, they danced in the road. Everybody, it seemed, wanted to touch William. They grabbed his hands, his arms, his shoulders, they leaped on top of him and flung their arms around him. Someone seized William's arrow and waved it above his head.
"This is the arrow!" he said. "William Tell's arrow! Three cheers for William Tell!"
The mountains echoed with the three cheers and more. The people did not seem to want to stop cheering. William Tell was a hero and they loved him. He had killed Gessler. He done the unthinkable. It was the greatest act of giant killing any of them had ever seen. As William looked into the shining eyes, brimming with tears of happiness, excitement, freedom, he felt for the first time the scale of what he had just done, saw what they saw—the peasant who had killed a Governor. He was hoisted up onto hundreds of shoulders and carried down the road, while the children danced along-side, hopping and skipping like kids put out to grass after a long winter. More cheering, more gasps of amazement as the villagers, even now, were fully realising what had just happened, what they had just seen.
But the work was not over yet: it was just beginning. William Tell had given the villagers hope. Now they must claim freedom for themselves.
They reached Altdorf and the soldiers came out to meet Gessler, saw the crowd of people with William on their shoulders and froze, dumb-struck, utterly bewildered.
"Where's Gessler?" called one of the soldiers.
William jumped down from the villagers' shoulders. "Lying dead in the road back there," he said. "Unless a fox has dragged his corpse away into a ditch." He smiled, all sunshine and cheerfulness. "I hope so."
The soldiers were stunned. They looked at each other. They looked at William. They looked at the villagers around him.
Then they were crushed by a great crowd of furious villagers and found themselves fighting for their lives.
The villagers, armed with the soldiers' pikes and swords and bits of armour, joined by others who came running out of their homes and away from their fields to see what was happening, flooded through Altdorf like a river in the rainy season when a dam bursts.
The soldiers, hurrying from their positions outside church and prison, barely had time to believe their eyes before they were cut down.
William Tell lead the villagers on, down street after street where they met no opposition, where the soldiers, stunned at the sight of armed, angry peasants, turned and fled.
There was no method, no discipline. The Swiss mountaineers were not soldiers, they did not understand complicated tactics. But they had the strength of numbers and the advantage of surprise.
The soldiers, however, were gathering their wits about them and pulling themselves together. They remembered their equipment, their training, their innate social superiority, and gathered themselves together outside the church, determined to hunt down the peasants and make them suffer for their impertinence—killing the Governor, stealing knights' armour, weapons and horses! The peasants, rejoicing, gathered outside the walls of Gessler's new prison, to set about it with rocks and axes, to batter the doors down with their fists if they had to.
But the soldiers gathered there to meet them, a thin, silver, armoured line of them, swords out and glittering in the sun-light. They meant business. And William and the peasants, on a wave of liberty and sweet, sweet revenge, ran to meet them. Steel crashed on steel. The whole air rang with it.
The Battle of Altdorf Prison was short. William lifted his great axe and swung it at the nearest soldier. He raised his sword— and fell dead from a great blow of the axe. Another soldier, silent and grim, materialised in his place. William struck with axe again and again, beating the soldier back against the prison door with the sheer number of blows. The sword was sent spinning from his hand as he tumbled and slipped on the steps. Then he fell in the sticky puddle of tyrants' blood which was gushing down the steps and out into the street.
Now a hundred hands were pounding on the great door. The villagers leaped against it, battered at it, tore at it with their hands until their nails were bloody. From inside came the battering of many fists, the half-hopeful, half-terrified cries of Gessler's debtors.
William and a few other shepherds pushed their way to the front of the crowd and began to hack at the door with their axes. After what felt like centuries, but must only have been about a minute, the hinges began to quiver.
Fresh cheers and whoops broke out at this. Some of the smaller children, overwhelmed with the excitement of it all, turned hand-stands in the square.
But now more soldiers were hurrying into the square, presumably roused by the din and coming into town from the out-lying villagers.
William barely had time to think. "Two lines!" he shouted. "Archers to deal with them!"
But the people understood. Those who had no axes swung up their bows, clutched their daggers and throwing knives, and turned to face the soldiers. William kept on battering at the door. The hinges were creaking but did not give. He had no idea what was happening behind him, only hearing the twang of bow strings and the whiz of arrows, sharp cries and grunts of pain. Then a great cheer went up. A group of cottagers had arrived, dragging a wooden beam.
"A battering ram!" gasped William. "Genius! Where did you get it?"
"The church," said one of the cottager women, grinning hugely.
He rested his axe back on his shoulder, lifted one end of the battering ram and swung it at the door.
Crash! Hinges shattered.
They charged again and again, shattering the hinges into splinters.
"Stand back!" shouted William. "There she goes!"
The huge iron door tottered, toppled and fell with a resounding crash.
When the dust fell, William saw the thin figures moving in the darkness. Men, women, children. Frailer than moths. Thin enough to see their bones through their rags. Now blinking in the glare of the light they had thought they would never see again. They shuffled towards the door, trying to run, tripping and falling in their chains and from weakness.
The townsfolk ran to meet them, finding their husbands, wives, parents, children, alive if not exactly well, wringing their thin hands and clutching at shivering, starvingly skeletal frames.
Now there was little to do except ransack the place.
The townsfolk, chased by the remaining soldiers, ran through the prison tearing it to pieces. They hewed down the walls, wrenched the doors from their hinges, leaped upon the money and weapons. The guards, springing from dark corners in the hope of ambushing and slaughtering the Swiss, were ambushed and slaughtered themselves.
William, with his axe, found himself in the lower dungeons on chain duty. The battered, coughing, limping, debtors, now free forever, shuffled and stumbled and were dragged and carried over to him, were he rid them of their chains with a few blows of the axe or turns of a wrench which someone had found on a wall. The prisoners, their faces wreathed with smiles, thanked him and many, to his embarrassment, fell weeping on his neck, overcome with relief and incredulity.
And now fires were being started. Acrid smoke was billowing though the basement door. Form upstairs came the noise of running, shouting, galloping horses, crashes, thuds and cheering and still more cheering.
Then a small, grubby figure, wreathed in smoke appeared at the door at the top of the steps—or rather in the door frame, for the door had been ripped off its hinges and dashed to pieces.
"Walter!" choked William. "Just what do you think you're doing here?"
"Hey dad. You didn't think I'd let you have all the fun, did you? I promised not to come the assassination, but I said nothing about the party afterwards."
Walter's clothes were torn, he was covered in mud, he had a black eye, a bust lip and cuts and burns all over his hands and arms. He also looked happier than he had ever done in his entire life. "This," he said breathlessly, taking a mouthful of smoke, "is amazing".
William looked at him, looked at the flames dancing on the stone wall behind him, engulfing the shadow of the remains of Gessler's prison, and had to agree.
He made sure that everybody had been de-chained and rushed up the steps to join Walter. The air was filled with burning white flakes of ash, which looked like snow but burned. Everybody running through the prison seemed to be in much the same state as Walter, very battered-looking but deeply happy.
"How did you know we were here?" William asked Walter.
"We saw the smoke up on the mountain, so we came to see what was happening. But most people thought it was Gessler torching Altdorf again, so most of the people from the villages haven't brought any weapons."
"It doesn't matter," said William. "Some of these fallen soldiers are armed to the teeth."
"But I did, father, I brought my bow." Walter's eyes were burning with excitement. "And, oh, father," triumph radiated from him, his eyes, his voice, through the shattered rubble of the prison, "I killed a soldier, father. Myself. I killed one!". His voice quavered with incredulity at his own feat. He was so breathless William thought he might collapse.
"Walter… oh Lord. You're… you're amazing…" William himself could barely breathe. "I… I don't know what to say. Other than… you're amazing."
"Come on!" It was old Johan, the old war-like gleam back in his eye and his old crusading sword back in his hand. "Some young lads say all our money and food is in the old church. We're going there now to get it back."
"All right," said William, and he and Walter joined the crowd of townsfolk, laughing and singing, armed and dangerous, across the square to the church. On the way they passed the linden tree, where Gessler's hat still hung from the branch.
The villagers pounced on it, jeering and laughing. They kicked it through the mud, tore at it with their nails, jumped up and down on, the children shrieking with delight. When it was a damp, filthy, blood-stained, unrecognisable rag they hurled it onto the bonfire and it went up in white light and a puff of smoke. Fresh cheering at this.
William cheered along with them, though his throat was already so hoarse he could barely breathe. Not only was Gessler dead, Gessler's hat was destroyed. Gessler was completely destroyed.
Then he and the other villagers trooped into the church. Here, the priest had battened himself into his vestry and was mumbling prayers and incantation through the door. They ignored him and set about looting. They quickly found their belongings, their money, food, produce and possessions, in a pile it the cellar behind the alter and pounced on it with glee.
Soon a great crowd of families were crammed into the cellar, rummaging through piles of plates, cups and linen to find theirs. "That's my blanket!" came the indigent cries. "Look what they've done to my plate!", "My comb! The teeth are broken off…", "Has anyone seen my shawl?"…
The livestock was in the garden of the priest's house, looking cramped and uncomfortable, and there were many reunions between tearful owners and their completely indifferent goats.
William and Walter, down in the cellar, shifted a basket of onions out of the way to find their cheese.
"Walter," said William. "I want you to take this basket of cheese up to the cottage and… where's our money? Are yes, here we are." He counted the money out into Walter's hand. "While you're up there, try to get the people up on the heights to come and join the revolution."
"Is that what this is?"
"Well, the Governor's dead. We're probably traitors, we're certainly thieves and vandals, it looks as if we're iconoclasts now too. If that doesn't make this a revolution, I don't know what does."
"All right," said Walter. He seemed to have reached the pitch of excitement, beyond which nothing came as a surprise. If William said they were having a revolution, he was happy to believe that they were. "I should get going," he said, and hurried out of the church, joining a straggling crowd of villagers heading up the mountain with their recovered property, to Eggberge and Burgeln and the scattered mountain huts on the rocks.
The released prisoners, understandably, mostly wanted to go home to eat and rest, so they returned to their cottages, exhausted. A few people had to go with them to look after them, but the remaining villagers were as keen on stamping out every last trace of Gessler as ever. They stormed up the mountain-side, hunting Gessler's men.
And they found them.
William, leading a band of peasants from Altdorf and Burgeln, met half a dozen of them at the mouth of the Klausen Pass. They were expecting them and it was a hard fight, short, fierce and ugly. Two villagers were killed before they took the Pass. One of them was a boy William knew, from Burgeln, called Thomas. The other was a boy from Altdorf whom he did not know at all. He told some of the villagers to take the men's bodies home and told the rest of the men—because they were all standing in a circle waiting disconcertingly for his instructions—to pile up some boulders over the mouth of the Pass, so that they could hold it against Austrian soldiers.
They spent most of the afternoon building a wall of stones across the mouth of the Pass, and then William left two men to guard it and scrambled back down the mountain with the rest of them, to see what was going on in Altdorf, which appeared to have become a rebel headquarters.
When he got there, he found the ghost town thoroughly alive. Camp-fires were burning in the streets and peasant families sang and danced around them. People were roasting meat on spits, they had brought barrels of beer from the barns and they intended to have a very good time indeed.
William Tell was hailed as a saviour.
As he walked into the main square, a great wave of people ran to him, laughing and cheering.
"William Tell! William Tell!"
"What are we going to do now?"
"How long do you think it will take for the Count to find out what we've done?"
"Do you think he's found out yet?"
"Which way will he come when he does find out?"
"What will we do when he comes?"
"We'll fight," said William. "Beyond that I don't really know."
"But we'll win." It was Johan. "We'll win because we always do. Because we're the free people of Switzerland."
"That's right," shouted the crowd. "We're the free people of Switzerland! We fight tyrants and we win!"
The singing and dancing went on all night, except for in those houses which were mourning their dead.
William set up a rota for guards on the river side and the mountain passes, and spent most of the night shivering up at the mouth of the Klausen Pass.
By the next day, news of the William Tell rebellion had spread all along the valley of the Reuss and along the shores of Lake Lucerne.
The fisher-men plying their trade across the lake plied their usual trade in gossip. There were riots in every town in the area. The peasants in the countryside had stormed prisons and castles, ransacked, looted and burned. The bailiffs were fleeing for their lives, they took refuge behind the walls of their fortresses only to be crushed by the peasants, dragged out into the streets and hanged from the linden trees and drowned in the lake.
It was music to the ears of William Tell. He and Walter spent the morning grazing the goats by the shores of the Reuss, the better to get news from the fisher-men when they arrived, and, hearing that a big attack was planned on the village of Küssnacht in the afternoon, led a band, along with men from the near-by villages, across the lake to Küssnacht, borrowing the fishermen's boats.
When they landed at Küssnacht, the fighting for the fortress had already begun. The villagers were swarming over it like ants, smashing down the walls and tearing the fortress to pieces. On the other side of the lane, the local bailiff and his men were charging again and again at a thin, ragged line of peasants, most of them without proper swords, with nothing but axes and knives.
They were losing, and losing heavily. The lane was littered with dead and wounded villagers, but the bailiff's soldiers were up and fighting. There was no time to lose.
William and the other villagers leaped ashore, dragging their weapons out of the boat after them. They had not only bows and knives but stolen swords, and suddenly the bailiff's men, seeing them, hesitated, wavered. It was fatal.
The peasants ran up to meet them in a wave, swamped them, crushed them. The soldiers were beaten back and back again. William was hot, his arms were aching, but he charged and charged again, tirelessly. He felt as if he could fight for years, for centuries. Even the pain in his arms felt good. Every step took him nearer to the walls of the fortress. Every step took Switzerland nearer to freedom. They would seize this fortress. Then they would seize the next, and the next, until there were none left in the whole of Switzerland. He knew it as surely as he knew that the Sun would rise to-morrow.
Now the remaining soldiers had fled, the peasants were climbing up the walls, helping themselves to money and weapons, to the power and plenty they had been deprived of for so long.
William burst open the doors of the cells, roused the prisoners from their stupors of despair and freed them from their chains, and then the prisoners ran out of the cells after him, out to the shores of the lake, to fling the chains into it.
The soldiers garrisoned at the fortress were barely even trying to fight. Most of them seemed too stunned at the thought of being attacked by peasants to put up any resistance. When the peasants stormed the guardroom, they fell on their knees and begged for mercy.
The villagers led them outside, down to the edge of the lake.
One of the soldiers, who wore silk finery and good leather gloves, was on the brink of hysteria.
"Spare me!" he screamed. "Spare me! I never meant any of it…" He clutched at Tell's shoulders and howled into his face. "Have mercy! Please, someone, anyone, have mercy. God, don't let me die!"
"Did you have mercy on my children?" It was a young woman, spectrally thin in a blood-stained white shift dress. She had the marble face and red-rimmed burning eyes of an angel. An angel of vengeance on the shores of Lake Lucerne. "When I begged? Or did you kill them? Answer me that!"
"I didn't mean to!" He was frenzied now, thrashing and flailing. "I didn't care about your children! Please… Now listen, you punch of peasants, I'm a knight, please God, have mercy, put me down, you disgusting rabble, have mercy, have mercy, put me down…" His eyes rolled like a goat with colic.
"You never cared about anyone," said the young woman. She raised her sword.
"You know," said William. "I've met peasant children worth ten of you." He wanted it to be the last thing the man ever heard.
The sword came down.
Now the vast fortress was on fire, the villagers scuttled like ants over the walls, throwing the stones into the lake, where they vanished forever. A whole tower came down, scattering sparks on the people below, who were then drenched with spray as it crashed into the lake. William ducked out of the way of the burning beams as they came crashing down above him, out of the charred, hollow skeleton of the fortress. Lists of debts and taxes fuelled the bonfires and the flames climbed ever higher into the evening air, casting weird shadows on the faces of the hungry, angry peasants next to William, casting weird shadows on the blood that ran across the paved courtyard and down into the lake, turning the water black. The torture machines from the dungeons, caked in dried blood, went next, tumbling down out of sight.
And then came one final groan from Küssnacht fortress. The timbers bent, screamed, twisted. And the whole lot came down, crumbling, dissolving, the mighty prison small and pathetic now, collapsing into itself and crashing into the lake.
A veritable tidal wave from the black waters of Lake Lucerne, crashed into William's face and fell back, sweeping every last trace of the fortress at Küssnacht out of sight.
And William knew, they all knew, as they stood tired, bloody and covered in ash, watching the Sun sink over the mountains and the once almighty fortress at Küssnacht crumble and fall, that they were watching a great deal more crumble and fall, the whole tyrants' regime, and something new was rising from Lake Lucerne, that whatever happened now, there was no going back to the way things were before.
It was only then that William noticed, quite to his surprise, that he was bleeding, rather a lot, it was gushing out of a deep gash in his arm. Actually, now he noticed, it quite hurt. He reached out his uninjured arm and laid it round William's shoulders.
"Come on," he said. "Let's go home."
The atmosphere back in Altdorf was even more electric that night. It seemed that nobody slept. They were out in the street, running from cottage to cottage, laden with weapons and food. They were gathered in the square, talking in hushed voices. They were dancing round the camp-fires in a party which never seemed to stop. The only houses which were shuttered and silent were those of the families whose members had been killed. They were very noticeable dark patches in the brightly-lit, excited hubbub.
The next morning, a young man on a stolen cavalry charger galloped along the side of the lake, up the Reuss and down the lane in Altdorf.
"The Austrians are coming," he said. "The Austrians are coming!"
"We've already dealt with the Austrians," said Heidi Schmidt, tossing her head and laughing.
"These are different Austrians," spluttered the boy, who seemed as exhausted as his horse, holding his sides and panting. "Not just some bailiffs' bully-boys, these are the pride of Duke Leopold."
Groans went up. Duke Leopold was an infamous thug.
"How many?" said William quietly.
"I'd say about six thousand foot and three thousand horse."
"Fine." It was worse than William had expected. It was far worse than he had hoped. But there was no good fretting about it. If six thousand foot and four thousand horse were what Duke Leopold chose to send, six thousand foot and four thousand were what they would conquer, that was all.
"And you're sure about this?"
The young man smiled, a twisted grimace. "Oh yes," he said with gloomy relish. "Seen them. Raced them all the way from the frontier."
"They're already across the frontier?" That was a shock, a cruel one, but again he took it in his stride, because he had no choice.
"Oh yes, I'm afraid they're wasting no time. They're going to Lake Aegeri and over the Morgarten Pass. Then they're going to spring on the Swiss villages without warning and massacre the inhabitants until the whole countryside is laid waste."
"Really?" William was not surprised at the news that the Austrians planned to massacre everybody and brightened at the news that they were going to try to come over the Morgarten Pass. After all, there might be thousands of Count Leopold's finest, and they might be better armed and better trained, but there was no way that they knew the mountain passes like the Swiss.
"Yes. And they'll be there quickly, they're disciplined, Leopold's lot. So we have to move fast. I've already seen the smoke from two burned villages, so I think they're serious about the slaughter. I don't want to see any more."
"We do," said William. "And we need more men." He considered for a moment. How on Earth was he going to do this? What was the best—and quickest—plan?
"Right," he said. "I want all the men to take their weapons and meet me in the town square at once. I want the women to get food and bandages. I need fast boys. Who's a fast boy?"
A few hands waved in the air.
"I want you to go round the out-lying villages. Get all the men and weapons you can find and bring them down to Altdorf, understood?"
The boys nodded, eyes round with earnestness, and scampered off up the mountain-side.
"Right," said William to the remaining men. "Get set. I'll see you in a couple of minutes."
The next few minutes were organised chaos as a few hundred mountain shepherds tried to turn themselves into an army. The men rushed back and forth, dragging swords and armour and axes and wondering whether they could turn a couple of sheep-shears into a weapon.
The blacksmith's forge was smoking like a dragon, as the Schmidts scrambled to mend weapons, improve them, turn pitch-forks into weapons of war. It could easily have been hopeless. The last scramble before death. Instead it was grimly purposeful. The chaos was of excitement, not panic.
When Walter arrived, with bow and two knives nearly as long as his fore-arm, William sent him out with the runners, over the mountain passes to the nearby cantons of Schwyz and Unterwalden, to tell them that the Austrians were coming and that Switzerland needed every young man and every last knife she had.
Walter set off at once, after the other boys William had sent.
Then came the business of fortifying the village, even if it were just with heaps of rocks from the ruined prison. The goats were fetched down from the heights. The fowl were locked in the cottages.
Then the look-outs on the mountain-side above Altdorf began to shout and cheer.
"The Schwyz army! The Schwyz army!"
Sure enough, the Schwyz army was hurrying down the hill towards Altdorf.
There were a few hundred men, some of them with bows and arrows, others with pikes, and some horses, looking decidedly bewildered but all, whether they liked it or not, an army now.
The army of Uri ran out to meet them, and something of their enthusiasm, or even just the joy of seeing friends and allies, must have reached the peasants from Schwyz, because they grinned, tentatively at first but then wider and wider. Then they gathered on the meadow at Rütli to discuss what they were going to do now, or at least when the troops from Unterwalden arrived.
Walter darted through the crowd, exhausted from running, he stumbled up to William.
"Father, in Unterwalden they think that the Austrians are going to come Arth, they're building fortifications there, nothing I can say will make them come."
"Why do think the Austrians will come from Arth?"
"They say that that's the logical direction for them to come in, but that's just what makes attacking from Morgarten a surprise attack, isn't it?"
"Yes, Walter. I see you're a better tactician than the entire canton of Unterwalden put together."
"What's this?" Werner Stauffacher, the leader of the soldiers of the canton of Unterwalden arrived, looking anxious.
"Nothing doing from Unterwalden," said William. He explained and Werner Stauffacher began to pull his hair out.
"Oh Lord," he said. "Just what we need."
"It'll be fine," said Walter. "We'll just have to make do with the men we've got, that's all."
"You're right there, my lad," said Werner. "That's good advice. Right." He turned to survey his restless, tense men. "I think this is it then."
"Yes," said Walter.
Werner raised his voice. "Listen, people of Switzerland. The Duke of Leopold is leading the best of the Austrian army against us today. In fact, he's leading the entire Austrian army against us. But that's to our advantage, he's gambling too much. If we beat the Austrians this time, we beat them for good and all." He paused. "We know what we're made of. Now let's show them. That's all folks, let's go."
But that was not quite all. A young boy not much older than Walter burst out.
"Three cheers for William Tell."
"For William Tell," the crowd echoed, solemnly now. "And for Switzerland!"
Wild cheers at that. "For Switzerland!"
Then they seized their weapons and bags of supplies and set off.
William did not notice that Walter was accompanying them, with his bow and knives and rucksack, until they were up on the mountain.
"What are you doing here?" he choked.
"Coming with you."
"Walter, no!" William was thunderstruck. "Walter, it's a battle. People are going to die. For my sake don't be one of them."
"How many men do the Austrians have, father? Eight thousand, by my arithmetic. How many do we have? Fewer than two thousand, I'd say. You need me."
"He's right," said Werner. "We need him."
"Are you mad?" William could not believe what he was hearing. "He's a child."
"Are you a good archer, Walter?"
"Don't "yes, sir" me, boy. You heard that, didn't you?" he said to William. "He's a good archer."
"He is," said William. "I'm not denying that." He turned away helplessly. "He's just my son," he said quietly to a boulder, as it was the only thing which appeared to be listening. "And I don't want him to die."
It was late in the day when the Swiss reached Lake Aegeri. But they reached it in time. The Austrians had not yet arrived.
"Right," said William to Werner. "I see before me a lake, a mountain pass and absolutely no trace of a plan."
"Neither have I. Unless…" Werner's eyes travelled over the Morgarten Pass. "They have to get over this thing to crush us, right?"
"And if they don't know the terrain, that gives us a big advantage."
"It does," said William slowly.
"I'm no soldier, but surely we can do something with that?"
"We wait for them to get to the Pass," said William slowly. "And we climb up the sides of the Pass and then we've got them trapped. Bottle-necked."
"At least that way we stand a chance. Well that sounds good."
"Every last one of them. That should send a clear, unequivocal message to the tyrant. When it comes to us, we're just rabble to be slaughtered. Let them feel a taste of their own medicine, for once. For the dead women and children, if for nothing else."
"Right," said Werner.
They set to it, collecting the boulders and piling them up where the path was steep and narrow, with a sheer slope rising on one side and a drop into a bog on the other. Now the Austrians would come riding up from the lake and into the Pass, only to find themselves trapped. Whereupon the Swiss, up on the mountain-sides, could drop boulders upon them and shoot arrows down, while remaining safe on the ledges above the Pass.
By the time the Sun was setting, the Swiss had got into position.
And not a moment too soon. No sooner had William lain down next to Walter on the mountain-side, perching his hands and feet on ledges and rocks, than he heard hooves coming along the side of the lake.
He tensed. Next to him he felt Walter freeze and then the man on his other side and so on, down the line. He looked across the Pass. Opposite him were more pale, rigid figures balanced on their precarious footholds up in the air.
Then the Austrians, under the Duke Leopold, stormed up from the lake-shore. The cavalry were at the front, armour gleaming, lances set ready even though they could not have been expecting to meet anybody for hours. The man at the front, in golden armour and a plumed helmet, with two squires riding behind, must be the Duke himself. Behind, the infantry hurried after the horses, jogging along, trying to keep up and not managing it. Even from up above the Pass William could tell that they looked exhausted and thoroughly miserable, it simply radiated off them.
The Austrians swept into the Pass, saw the road-block, stopped. For a moment there was complete bewilderment, while the men at the front looked around them to see what had caused the blockage and the men at the back, who could not see the blockage, grumbled and cursed. But only for a moment. Then one of the Austrians, clearly brighter than the rest, thought to look up.
His eyes met William. The hatred in them seared into his soul. William only hoped that the soldier got the same feeling from his own hatred.
"You lot," he snarled. "You Swiss mountain goat people."
William did not reply. Let this man insult them if he chose. They could still kill him.
"Now listen, you rabble." He spoke slowly and loudly, as if he were addressing idiots. "I am Sir Henry Huenenberg, knight of Duke Leopold here. You are nothing. You're horrendously out-numbered. You're peasants against trained knights. You do not stand a chance in Hell, so I suggest that you come out from lurking in your mountain holes and behave like reasonable people. The Austrian army is going to proceed through Morgarten Pass now. You are going to return to your homes."
"With all due respect, Sir Henry," said William.
"Which means none," said Walter.
"Very well," said Sir Henry. "If you insist."
And with that the Austrians charged the road-block.
They were met with a hail of arrows.
Angry and bewildered, the Austrians shot back, and came scrambling up the slope of the mountains after the Swiss. They slipped on the rocks, though, they stumbled and fell, and the Swiss held their positions.
For a few minutes, William's heart was light as sun-beams victory was so close he could taste it on the air, above the smell of blood and frightened rage. They were going to win, he knew it. They were going to free Switzerland from the tyrants once and for all. Every arrow that William fired was one more arrow for liberty, one more arrow for the Swiss against the invaders. And that felt good. Even up here in the bloody valley of death, where thousands of men, driven by mutual hatred, fought tooth and nail for life and limb, that felt good.
But he was running out of arrows, and still the Austrians kept coming and coming, thousands of them, like waves on a lake in a storm.
He did not want to think about what would happen when he ran out of arrows, because he knew it would be nothing good. So he kept shooting, because he had to, it was a battle and what good were his arrows if he never used them? He felt the chilling suspicion, then certainty, of failure in the buried, unwelcome, truthful part of his heart. But what could he do about it if they were to fail? There could be no return to the apathy of despair, to the dead, dull acceptance of whatever fate threw at them. It was not what they had decided at Rütli meadow. Only cowards, thought William, give up.
Walter was as bright and keen as ever, firing arrow after arrow down the slope, dead on target every time. William watched his face bright with concentration and his clever, busy hands choosing an arrow, setting it to the string, aiming and firing, as if he had been born for it.
Below, the Austrians were rallying. The survivors, drenched in blood and fuming with frustration and shame at being beaten by the "rabble" were gathering in a tight knot on the path. They formed themselves into an arrow formation. And they charged the road-block again and again. Sheer anger drove them forward, like a natural force of destruction. William had three arrows left… two… one. The clash of steel on steel, steel on rock the screaming of the horses, was horrifying, sickening, like something from another world, which William had never dreamed off. Black clouds rolled across the sky, the setting Sun was bleeding red, it looked like the end of the world. And there, that was his last arrow, gone.
The Austrians were nearing the road-block now. Before he could think, William slid down the mountain side, leaving his bow and empty quiver behind.
"Dad," screamed Walter, fear in his voice for the first time. "Dad, what are you doing?"
William was too breathless to answer him, bouncing over the sharp rocks. He landed hard on the path, lurching to his feet before he could see or breathe. He was surrounded by bodies. He was the only living Swiss man here in the bottom of the Pass. And bearing down on him was a lightning bolt of glittering silver death, bristling with bloody swords.
The easy, some would say the sensible thing to do was turn and run. But William Tell was a hero, and heroes do not do the easy thing.
A raised his axe. The great chargers bore down upon him. Two faces rose before William's eyes—Berta, young and laughing, with flowers in her hair, and Walter, as a little toddling, tottering thing before he had killed anybody. He raised his axe and charged.
He could no longer see, he could barely breathe. He charged on instinct, in a last bid for freedom, driven beyond hope or despair. He crashed into something hard, tasted his own blood, and brought his axe lashing down. He just had time to kill Sir Henry before something sharp and cold brushed past him, brushed into him, and there was a splash of red from somewhere, no pain, no Grim Reaper looming out of the dark, just nothing ever again.
The few surviving Swiss, a ragged bundle with no arrows left to fire of rocks left to throw, were stunned into frozen silence. Death for themselves they could risk. But William Tell, their leader, their guiding light, the slayer of Gessler. Dead and broken on the mountain-side. They could scarcely believe what they were seeing. The mountains were suddenly very quiet as the eight hundred surviving men held their breath.
Walter sat frozen on his rock, shaking like a baby rabbit under the hawk's shadow. His eyes were blurring over, not with tears but with black floating spots. He opened his mouth to scream but no sound came out. He could not breathe. He could not move. His stomach was heaving, making him choke. His father was dead. His father was dead. He had seen him die… But the words made no sense.
And then he saw something which cut through the frozen blankness in his mind. Duke Leopold breaking the road barrier and sweeping on into the Pass, sword raised in triumph. Walter did not think. He was too stunned, too wracked with the searing pain of shock, to think. But some part of him knew what he had to do and he did it.
He hurled himself off his boulder down into the Pass. And just as Duke Leopold passed beneath him he landed on top of him, knocking off his horse. They rolled over and over on the ground, Walter half stunned on the rocks, with no idea what he was going to do now. The horse snorted, stumbled and fell, crashing down on top of Duke Leopold's legs. The Duke lay on top of Walter cursing. Walter, his head reeling, was kicked in the shin by another horse, who tripped, catapulting his rider forwards over the saddle and into the bog. Then another man crashed into this horse at full speed, then another, then another, until the ground around William was littered with men and horses, he was crushed with boots and hooves, he could not move. The Duke had flopped on the path, rolling over and over. His head reeled, the black spots swarmed in good earnest, he thought he was going to be sick and was horribly aware of a cold, damp, empty feeling in his chest.
He scrambled up—he had to keep fighting, they had not won yet—but reeled on his feet. The Swiss, running down the mountain-side, carrying William's and Walter's bow, caught a glimpse of a small, pale trembling figure, drenched in blood, raise from the tangle of men and horses on the floor, stare at them with vacant eyes, his own blood trickling into them, then collapse in a dead faint as a torrent of blood gushed from a gash across his chest. The last thing Walter heard was cheering and he raised his head to see men and horses flooding into the Pass under the banner of Unterwalden, before the ground rose to hit him in the face and the black spots overwhelmed him.
The remaining fighting was short and brutal. Within minutes, the surviving Austrians were fleeing back to the border and the Swiss, numb, cold, hungry, bleeding, grieving, but victorious and free, began to gather up their belongings and the bodies of their fallen comrades.
They stitched up the wounded as best they could on the battle field, then carried them back home to rest. Among them was Walter, still silent, shaking, speechless. He was badly wounded, his chest slashed open with a sword, he was on death's doorstep with his hand on the knocker when they finally got back to Burgeln.
When his aunts saw him, with one gash across the chest and another across the forehead, they nearly fainted with horror, but their patient and devoted care through the night returned him from his trance to the land of the living. Towards dawn, as the black sky faded to grey, Walter woke, buried his face in the blanket to shut out the world and wept as if his heart would break, because his father was dead.
They buried William Tell the next day, beside Berta. Walter huddled over the grave and cried, his aunts sitting beside him, trying to comfort him but crying themselves. Indeed, the entire canton of Uri seemed to have arrived to cry and lay flowers on William's grave. And Walter, even through the tears, looked around at the faces glowing with pride joy in liberty and felt proud too, of his father. "I love you, dad," he whispered.
There was a good deal of weeping in Switzerland in the days that followed, and a good many funerals, but there was joy too, and celebration, for the end of tyranny. The Austrians gave up ever trying to conquer whom they still called "the mountain goat people" and formally confirmed their Reichfreiheit. And when the people of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden met to sign their Federal Charter, Walter Tell, still pale and trembling and covered in bandages, was one of those who read it out to the waiting crowd, very wobbilily, because he had never really learned to read, but to the people of Switzerland it sounded very fine indeed. And the knowledge that they were free and independent, and no tyrant would dare to attack them again, was magnificent. The ragged mountain shepherds stood in the Rütli meadow in the morning sun-light, scarcely able to believe what they had achieved. But they did achieve it. And the proof today is Switzerland on the map.
Lay the proud usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty's in every blow!
Let us do or die.
The End—and the Beginning