To teach William Tell a lesson, the evil governor of Uri, Gessler, challenges him to shoot an apple from his son's head with a crossbow.
William Tell knew that voice. It was harsh and loud. It sounded as if it belonged to a cruel man. Gritting his teeth with anger, William Tell went on striding across the square.
"Stop, I said!" roared the voice. "Or I swear I'll..." William halted and turned on his heel. He glared across the square at Vogt Gessler, the fat, evil-looking man to whom the voice belonged. William's fingers tightened around the shaft of the crossbow he carried in his hand. How he longed to shoot one good bolt straight into Gessler's black heart!
"Hey, you! Come back at once, unless you want to be killed on the spot!"
Vogt Gessler, the Austrian governor of the Swiss canton of Uri was a tyrant.
Seven hundred years ago, the freedom-loving Swiss were over-ruled by Austrians. As a result, they hated all Austrians, but Gessler most of all. Gessler delighted in making the people of Uri suffer as much as possible. He sent his men to steal their food and turn them out of their homes. He took their money, or he imprisoned them and beat them for no reason at all. The man was a fiend, with a soul as black as hell.
Now the latest humiliation Gessler imposed upon the people was a hat set upon a pole in the centre of the town square at Altdorf. Gessler had proclaimed this was the symbol of the mighty power of the Austrians, and everyone had to kneel before it.
The pole, with the ridiculous hat perched on top of it, stood only a short way from where William Tell stood now.
He had walked right past it, for he absolutely refused to kneel before that or any other symbol of Austrian power.
Gessler was swaggering across the square towards him. "You swear to do what, Gessler?" William snarled as the Austrian approached. "Kill me? Put me in prison? You would have a riot on your hands within the hour! Remember who I am, Gessler - and take care!"
Gessler knew who William Tell was all right! He was the greatest hero and the finest bowman in all Switzerland.
Everyone, not just the people in the canton of Uri, looked up to him. Gessler knew that if he laid a finger on William Tell, there were scores of Swiss who would be glad to kill him in order to avenge their hero.
Gessler decided to ignore William's words. Instead, he pointed to the pole in the square.
"You have been ordered to kneel before that hat!" the Austrian growled.
"You walked past it. This is an insult to the Emperor!"
William laughed. "The Emperor? That miserable creature! I would not let a hair of my head bend in honour to him."
Gessler began to get angry. "Kneel before that hat!" he shouted.
"I command you!"
"Never!" William replied stubbornly.
Before the infuriated Gessler could reply, William turned and stalked off - his head held high. Gessler watched the proud, straight-backed figure of the Swiss bowman and cursed and swore under his breath.
The impudence of the man, the sheer impudence! This was not the first time William Tell had openly defied Gessler and the Austrians.
"It must stop!" Gessler raged. "I must find some way to get the better of him."
For days afterwards, Gessler brooded over one plan after another. At last, the very idea he wanted came into his head. "What a splendid revenge I shall have!" Gessler chortled.
Gessler grabbed a quill pen and two pieces of parchment. On one parchment, he wrote a short, urgent message to his friend, the Governor of Zurich. On I the second parchment, Gessler wrote out a proclamation.
That same afternoon, Gessler's proclamation, signed and sealed with a splendid red wax seal, appeared on the door of the church in Altdorf. At once, people began crowding round, wondering what the black-hearted Gessler wanted to inflict upon them now.
However, the proclamation contained no orders. Instead, it contained a challenge.
'Walther of Zurich, the greatest crossbowman in the world, arrives in Altdorf in three days' time,' Gessler had written. 'It is well known that no Swiss bowman can match Walther for skill and accuracy with the crossbow, but any Swiss foolish enough to challenge him may do so. The people of Altdorf and all Switzerland will then see how puny their men are compared to a mighty Austrian warrior like Walther! So that all in Altdorf may witness Walther's triumph, men, women and children are commanded to attend the contest in the square under pain of death!'
The people of Uri were infuriated by the insult in the proclamation. They rushed to William Tell to inform him of the contest. It was quite unnecessary Gessler realised, to threaten everyone in Altdorf with death unless they attended, for everyone would want to come. Gessler just wanted to make sure, though, that William Tell brought his small son with him. That was a very important part of the plan.
Three days later, the entire population of Altdorf gathered in the town square. Gessler arrived with Walther, who had come speedily from Zurich. The Austrian was a large man, with great arms. He was an extremely the best crossbowman in the army. The people of Altdoirf, naturally, believed that William Tell was much better and the looked forward to seeing Walther well and truly beaten.
Walther positioned himself in the centre of the square, and when a fanfare of trumpets blew, the crowd fell silent. Gessler stepped forward.
"Who comes to challenge the best crossbowman in the world?" he cried.
"Does anyone dare?"
At once, William Tell came out into the square, crossbow in hand. "I dare!" he cried in ringing tones. "Show me the target, and I will show you how a crossbow should be used. Come, what is the target?"
This was the moment Gessler had been waiting for. He nodded to three soldiers whom he had stationed close by. Before anyone could stop them they pushed into the crowd, grabbed William Tell's young son and pulled him out into the square.
"What is this, Gessler?" cried William. "What evil trick are you playing?"
Gessler smiled grimly. "You asked what the target was!" he said, pointing to William's son. "The target is your own child!"
At this, screams and wails of shock and amazement sounded in the crowd.
William Tell turned very pale. He knew he could not back down from, the challenge now. That would bring him great dishonour. But to shoot at his own son! It was Gessler's most fiendish plot yet.
"You devil, Gessler! You shall roast in Hell for this!" William cried. He was trembling violently - half with fear, half with rage.
"I think not," Gessler said. "I am not asking you to shoot towards him. See!"
Gessler pulled a large red apple out of his pocket. "This is what you shall aim for. This apple will be placed on your son's head. If you are as good a crossbowmen as people say, you and your son should have nothing to fear. But if not... " Gessler chuckled wickedly. He had no need to say more.
Still trembling, William Tell took the apple and placed it carefully on top of the boy's fair hair.
"Keep very still, my dearest boy," he whispered to him. "Do not ?inch. Do not move, for if you do, my aim cannot be true!"
The boy attempted to smile.
"I will try, Father," he said in a small, frightened voice.
William kissed the boy farewell. Praying hard that fear of killing him would not spoil his aim, he walked slowly back across the square. A line had been marked for the crossbowmen, and William put his foot on it. He raised his crossbow, and with tremendous effort managed to hold it steady. He took aim everyone in the square had their eyes glued on William Tell - including Gessler.
'He will be too afraid to shoot straight,' Gessler thought gleefully. 'His son is sure to die!'
William looked along the shaft of his crossbow. He saw his son's small, frightened face staring at him and started to tremble. He struggled to control himself. Slowly, William raised the crossbow until the shaft and the bolt inside it were in line with the apple on top of his son's head. A second later, William pulled the bowstring and then swiftly closed his eyes. He could not bear to watch.
William Tell need not have worried. His aim was as perfect as always. The bolt sped through the air and plunged straight into the apple. It fell apart, in two neat, clean halves.
A tremendous cheer went up from the crowd and people began running across the square to congratulate Williamon his amazing marksmanship. They reached him to find him sobbing with relief.
Gessler was furious. His plan had failed completely. He turned and began to stalk angrily away from the square, taking Walther with him. Before he had gone far, William Tell called to him.
"Gessler! See this!" he cried. Gessler looked, to see William holding a second crossbow bolt in his hand. "If I had killed my son, Vogt Gessler," he growled at the Austrian, "this bolt would have entered your wicked heart!
Here - take it." William tossed the bolt towards Gessler, who jumped back quickly in case it hit him. The crowd laughed. "Keep it as a souvenir of this contest," William shouted as Gessler stalked away. "I have plenty more, and I swear that on the day we Swiss drive the Austrians out of Switzerland, one of them will be especially reserved for you!"
Last updated on: Monday 3rd September 2018