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In a few moments, in whatever direction the eye was turned, the signal fires were seen to blaze from the summits of the mountains that inclosed the lakes; the horn sounded loud and shrill from every hill and valley, and the quick beat of the alarm bell, from town and village, came fearfully on the gale.
"The Landsthurm is summoned; the country will be up in mass," said the matron; "each pass and defile will be guarded; and your return will become impossible."
The terrified Bertha joined her mother in urging the knight's departure; but it was in vain, until, interrupting him in his torrent of prayers and protestations, the tender maiden blessed him with a full assurance of her unbroken love and confidence: it was then Eyloff wrapped his Swiss disguise more closely around his body, and disappeared.
The morning dawned on the most eventful day that Switzerland had known for nearly a century. Leopold had passed the walls of Zurich, where the confederates had hastened to meet him; and, directing his march on Lucerne, halted before the town of Sempach, which lay in his route, intending first to chastise the rebels of that place. The young knights, among whom a descendant of the tyrant Gesler was conspicuous, as they pranced gaily around the walls, taunted the honest burghers in the levity of their hearts, exhibiting, with bitter jests, the fetters meant for their magistrates. And, as the serfs and followers of the army were laying waste the fields of grain about the town, the youthful De Reinach called to the avoyer to send the reapers their breakfast.
"The confederates are preparing it," replied the calm avoyer.
It was in effect as the avoyer said. The Swiss force, penetrating the Austrian's design, and leaving Zurich to be defended by its own citizens against the troops detached by Leopold, had by a different route, and a rapid march, and joined by additional numbers, already gained the spot, and now occupied a station in a forest near the lake of Sempach.
Leopold, in the pride of power and youth, appeared at the head of a gendarmerie of full four thousand knights of approved valour, each attended by his esquire, and clad in complete steel, gorgeous and glittering in the panoply of war, and mounted on chargers of blood and fire; the host of burghers, of vassals, and of mercenaries, followed on foot their respective avoyers, or barons, or chieftains, to the field.
Opposed to this formidable array were but little more than a thousand Helvetians, from Uri and Underwalden, Schwytz and Lucerne, with trifling contingents from Glarus and Zug. Their weapons were chiefly the short sword, and halbert, and massy club, studded with iron. Some wielded the espadron, or heavy two-handed sword, others the battle-axe, or ancient cross-bow. Not a few of the weapons had been used at the field of Morgarten, and the descendants of the heroes of that fight, who now bore them, felt them.selves invincible. The shield of the Helvetians was simply a board fastened to the left arm, but some had corslet and cap, and even cuisse, the spoils and trophies of former victories. Each canton followed its peculiar leader and banneret, the avoyer of Lucerne commanding in chief. But the banner of Berne was not at Sempach. Her troops were stationed, as a corps of observation, two leagues from the field, towards Lucerne. When, in justification of her neutrality, Berne pleaded her truce with Austria, she could not have recollected that, in her utmost need, the Waldstetten had formerly sent their soldiers to her rescue, and enabled the immortal Rodolph D'Erlach to achieve the victory of Laupen. But has not retributive justice visited Berne? Morethan four hundred years after this event, when Laupen was again the post of danger, and Berne was in peril, and a descendant of the same Rodolph again defended her, those same Waldstetters held themselves aloof, as a corjis of observation. Berne fell before the ferocious Gaul, and the gallant but unfortunate D'Erlach, may have sighed as he remembered that the banner of Berne was not at Sempach.
It was now near the hour of noon,of a hotand sultry day in July; the young nobles, sweltering in their armour, became impatient for the onset, and the counsel of old John de Hasenberg, to wait till the corps came up from Zurich, was treated with scorn and scurrile jests. "We have waited too long, old Heart-of-hare," said they. "Give but the word," they added, to the duke, "and you shall see your knights, alone, exterminate yon ragged host of rebels." "Be it as you say," replied the duke; " dismount, form, and prepare ye for the charge." In a moment the steel of the knights rang, as they vaulted to the ground; their esquires led their chargers to the rear; and a phalanx of knights was formed, armed with pikes, whose length enabled them, even from the fourth rank, to prove effective. Such was the order of their front. A few archers formed on each wing; and the rest of the troops, with their heavy arquebuses and battering engines, intended for sieges, took post in the rear.
And now the confederates, debouching from the forest, saw, from the hill they occupied, that they no longer had to apprehend the dangerous charge of cavalry, and resolved to take immediate advantage of the ill-advised movementof their enemy. But first proclamation was made at the head of each detachment, bidding every soldier who felt himself unable to cope with four adversaries, to depart without censure. None leaving the ranks, the troops next fell upon their knees, in conformity to ancient usage, and uttered a short but fervent prayer to Heaven; while Leopold was dubbing knights upon the field, and the nobles cut off the long, turned-up points of their cavalry boots, and locked their helms, and fixed down their visors.
Firm and compact, with no part of their bodies assailable, the Austrians now moved on, to the music of their own clashing armour, an irresistible iron mass, bristling with spears. The confederates, formed in the shape of a wedge, with small corps of bowmen, thrown out in advance of their flanks, and directing their attack with intent to pierce the enemy's centre, came down the hill with loud shouts.
Amidst a flight of arrows from the several wings, the two armies met midway on the rise of the hill, with a tremendous shock. The gallant Gundelinguen, the avoyer of Lucerne, who with the banneret led the advance, in vain endeavoured to break the Austrian front; in vain were many of the lances of the knights shivered by the Helvetians' massy clubs, they were instantly supplied from the ranks in the rear, and the battalia remained unshaken. After the most obstinate and deadly conflict, the Swiss began to give ground, while the Austrian gendarmerie, with their iron heels trampling over the bodies of the brave avoyer and more than a hundred of his companions, who had fallen at their posts, moved on steadily and unbroken. The banner of Lucerne was in their hands; they had forced the confederates back to the plain, and now fought on equal ground: the foremost Swiss were every where falling, pierced by their lances, without the possibility of reaching their assailants, while, each moment the Austrian reserve from Zurich might be expected in their rear. All seemed lost; the fate of Switzerland hung on the issue of a few short moments. At this instant, a voice was heard in the republician ranks: "Open," it cried, "open,confederates, and give me way." A leader of the contingent of Underwalden rushed to the front; no weapons was in his hands, nor shield upon his arm; he had torn the corslet from his breast, and the fire of the devoted patriot flamed in his eye. "Comrades," he cried, "I go to open your way to the enemy—protect my wife and children." Alone, he rushed towards the presented lances, extending wide his arms, then, with Herculean strength, closing them again around as many as he could grasp, he directed their united points into his body. With a shout like thunder, the confederates poured through the temporary breaches he had effected, and over the prostrate body of their compatriot. The tide of battle was instantly turned. The Austrian knights, cased in heavy steel, were unable to turn, and fell before the fury of the athletic and unencumbered mountaineers, who, with their axes and maces, clove and battered their crowned crests, on right and left, till they had hewn their way into the centre of the unwieldy phalanx. Havoc raged in every quarter. Many of the nobles met an ignoble fate, and died without a blow, overthrown and trampled to death in the melee, or suffocated in their armour. With others, the severed casque, the wide-gaping cuirass or habergeon, and the crushed helmet, bespoke the deadly force with which the Swiss weapons were wielded. The flower of the Austrian nobility lay extended on the field; the mercenaries and vassals in the rear had mounted and fled; yet still the gallant few sustained the fight. Twice had the ducal banner of Austria stooped, as its devoted bearers fell: Leopold, disdaining to survive the ruin of the day, seized the standard of his house, and, as he received his death wound, waved it over his head, and sunk in death, enshrouded in its folds. The conflict was at an end. The pious confederates knelt on the bloody field, in devout thanksgiving to Him who gave the victory, and returned to their respective cantons laden with spoil, and fifteen captured banners of their enemy. The remains of the ill-fated Leopold were taken from beneath the pile of devoted knights who had perished in defending his corse from insult, and conveyed with the bodies of many of his nobles, to the Abbey of Koenegsfelden, where their warlike effigies still frown along the walls. The brave avoyer, and his gallant townsmen, who had fallen at his side, sleep in the chapel raised over them in their native Lucerne, where are still to be seen, together with the coat of mail that Leopold wore, the iron collar intended by the invader for the neck of the avoyer, and the banner of the town, stained with the pure blood of that heroic citizen.
Such was the battle of Sempach, so glorious to Helvetia, so disastrous to her invader; in which were extinguished many of the noblest houses of Austria—in which were crushed for ever her hopes of conquest, and that secured for four hundred years the independence of Switzerland.
Is it asked, where in the fray fought Arnold of Winkclried? Is he not already recognized in the immortal martyr of his country's freedom? And where was the husband of Bertha, the gay and gallant Eyloff? Alas! his place was with the Austrian warriors, in the front of the fight, and at the moment when he would have perished for the father of his bride, his lance pierced that father's heart. Noi did the horror of the scene close here; the son of Arnold was the first to follow his brave father, and the husband of Bertha fell by her brother's hand.
The abbey of Eghelberg hid for ever from the world, the son rows of the heart-stricken widow and daughter of the knight of Uitderwalden; but, in the male line, his noble strain was long manifested; and, in the sixteenth century, at the field of Marignano, called by distinction, even at that day, the battle of the Giants, it was an Arnold of Winkelried who led the small Swiss advance, against the fifty thousand French, under the young hero Francis I.
The Swiss of the Waldstetten are not an enthusiastic people; nor, as simple and stern republicans, have they felt willing to make gods of their heroic citizens; and when, in the fervour of revolutionary feeling, a distinguished foreigner recently asked permission to erect a monument to William Tell, the magistrates of Uri answered "No; we need not monuments to remind us of our ancestors." Yet Tell has his chapel in Uri, as Arnold in Underwalden. Every spot, associated with their actions, is hallowed in the remembrance of the Helvetians. Their virtues and heroism are their theme and their example. They live in the hearts of their grateful countrymen, and, without statues or gorgeous monuments, are still venerated and distinguished by a nation of heroes—by a people of whom it has been said, that, for five hundred years, there has not been known among them an individual instance of cowardice or treason.
Dull clouds gather round the pale beams of the crescent,
The flngs of the infidel shine in the sun—
Is veil'd—let the will of high Allah be done.
We look to the future, it wears a black pall:
The mantle of destiny girdeth us all.
Time was, when the palms in Granada we planted;The palms flourish still, but the planters are gone:Time was when our song by the Darro we chanted;Al hamdu li illah!—the Darro flows on;But our voices are choked—our Alhelis faded—