Swiss Heroes - George Upton

The Hero of Murten

Before midsummer Charles the Bold had repaired his losses as well as his means would permit, and levied a new army. His subjects had begun to murmur and lose faith in his success, but the Duke himself remained undaunted. He had advanced dangerously near to the Cantons of Berne and Freiburg, and was now laying siege to Murten, a strongly fortified town on the lake of that name. He expected it to share the fate of Granson; but the commander, Adrian von Bubenberg, was a very different sort of man from the leader of that ill-fated garrison. In vain the besiegers shot arrows into the town wound with slips of paper bearing such inscriptions as: "You are shut up here like rats in a hole. The Bernese churls cannot save you, and all the gold in the world would not buy you escape."

Threats and promises were alike of no avail. "The perjurers of Granson will never find credence in Murten," was the commander's reply to all proposals of surrender; nor was he less firm in suppressing all signs of wavering within the walls. Summoning the citizens and soldiers before him, he addressed them sternly:

"Hark ye, all! I hereby proclaim that he who dares to whisper of surrender, be he of the town or of the garrison, is a dastard and a poltroon, and shall be struck down on the spot. So shall we separate the wheat from the chaff. And if one word of fear or weakening escape my lips, let me be made the first example." This effectually silenced all murmurs or complaints; and the Confederates at last assembled an army and advanced to their relief.

Rough, mountainous country and thick forests separated the Swiss from the Burgundian camp, which had been pitched on the plateau of Grisach behind rising ground, and was protected by a so-called "hedge," a palisade surrounded on the outside by a wide trench, while within the earth had been thrown up to form a sort of breastwork for the defenders, and only the narrowest openings were left for outlet in case of need; to break through it in face of the mounted guns would seem wellnigh impossible. Moreover, behind this fortification stood the English archers ready with their deadly shafts to repulse any attempt at approach. The position was not badly chosen, and was disadvantageous only in that it afforded the cavalry no proper field for action.

Through these mountains two travellers were making their way. One of them was evidently laboring under some stress of mind, for he alternately spurred on and abruptly reined in his fiery steed, which was covered with foam, while the animal ridden by his more youthful companion still appeared fresh. He spoke little and kept his eyes fixed gloomily on the road that led to the camp of the Confederates. Soon they were challenged by the outposts, and the elder rider asked to be guided to the forces furnished by the city of Freiburg. A servant conducted them to that part of the encampment, and Hans Vogeli, the Captain of the band, stepped forward to learn their errand. Speech forsook him, however, when his eyes fell upon the older of the two horsemen, who reached down his hand kindly, saying, "You know me, then, brother Hans? I have come hither to fight beside you. That I am an exile from my native city, I well know, but to-morrow I hope to win back with my sword my right to citizenship."

A scornful look came over the face of Hans Vogeli. "So!" he said contemptuously, "now that your master is on the verge of destruction, you deem it well to work with us for the Fatherland! Now the vagabond comes back and expects us to believe that he means fairly by us—as fairly, no doubt, as by his Duke and by the Governor whom he betrayed for the sake of a few months' pay."

Heinrich made no reply to these harsh words. He knew it was useless to attempt to change his brother's sentiments toward him, but turning to his countrymen he reminded them of their boyhood days together; explained his reasons for entering the service of Burgundy, and besought permission to join them in the coming struggle, declaring he would prove himself not unworthy to fight in their ranks. Many were inclined in his favor, but Hans Vogeli cut matters short by roughly ordering both the riders to leave the camp at once. Perceiving the fruitlessness of his efforts, Heinrich turned his horse's head.

"Come, Walter," he said simply, and they made their way back through the camp to the outposts again. Walter Irmy, for he it was, did not venture to address his moody companion, and they galloped off in silence to the nearest farmhouse, where they obtained lodgings for the night. Early the next morning they were again in the saddle and rode back to the camp, only to find it already broken up and the army advancing to meet the enemy. From some horse-boys Vogeli learned that the Freiburgers were in the vanguard and were to begin the attack that day. Slowly they followed after, and soon overtook the Confederates, who had halted where a thick forest concealed them from the eyes of the enemy, to observe their old custom of knighting before battle those most deserving of the honor. The first to receive it was Rene the dispossessed Duke of Lorraine, who had joined the Confederates with three hundred faithful followers to fight against Charles the Bold.

The impatient Switzers loudly protested against this delay, the more so as a heavy rain had been falling for some time. But the solemn ceremonies were not to be curtailed, nor was Duke Rene, the new knight, sparing in conferring the coveted honor. Many an honest fellow, indeed, without the necessary means to maintain his dignities, was forced to submit to the stroke of knighthood. It came to an end at last, however, and the handsome young prince remounted and rode slowly back to join his friends, followed by the admiring gaze of the Swiss.

"'Tis a pity," they declared, "the noble lord is not of German blood: we cannot understand a word of his French gabble." The delay that had been so irksome to the Swiss proved to their advantage in the end, for the Burgundians, after waiting drawn up for battle in the drenching rain six long hours, with no sign of the enemy's approach, had been ordered to return to the camp, where they quickly laid aside arms and armor and dispersed in search of rest or refreshment. The jaded chargers were also divested of their trappings and fed; even the Duke himself, usually so vigilant, retired to his pavilion at some distance from the camp and seated himself with his officers at the board.

Suddenly the Confederates issued from the forest which had concealed their approach and, halting once more, after the custom of their forefathers, knelt to invoke the aid of the God of Battles. An old gray-beard made the short prayer, all devoutly joining in the "Amen." Just at that moment the sun broke through the clouds. "Heaven has heard our prayer!" shouted the leaders joyfully. "Comrades, be stanch and bold! Think of your wives, your children, and your sweethearts! Forward, Confederates!"

They fling themselves furiously against the breastwork, but the enemy's guns tear great gaps in their ranks, and arrow after arrow is sped with deadly aim by the English bowmen. Vainly the assailants strive to surmount or demolish the sharp palisades. The bannerman of Freiburg is struck down. Suddenly the sound of galloping hoofs approaches, and the powerful voice of Heinrich Vogeli is heard shouting encouragement to his wavering countrymen. Hailing his appearance with shouts of joy, they rally, and like a torrent the Swiss vanguard sweeps through a gap in the "hedge," Vogeli at their head. Hans is forgotten; all eyes are fixed on the gallant soldier fighting so bravely in the foremost rank, as gun after gun is captured and turned against the enemy's camp. On clatter the squadrons of Lombard cuirassiers, but the deadly fire of their own guns, and a furious assault from the Swiss foot soldiers, led by Vogeli, soon put them to rout.

Still the Confederates pour through the intrenchment. Charles retreats, hoping to obtain a better position, but close upon him press the Freiburgers, Vogeli bearing their banner aloft in his left hand while with the right he wields his victorious sword. The English archers rally once more; but their ranks are thinning fast, and when their leader, the Duke of Somerset, is slain they break and give way. Only one band still holds its ground, the Swiss pikemen, who will not yield. Vogeli, loath to continue this unnatural warfare, promises them pardon, but they reject his offer and fight on more fiercely than before. Suddenly one of them, whom both he and Walter Irmy—who has never left his side—recognize as Heini Sussbacher, springs at Vogeli.

"Traitor!" he shouts, and with one blow brings Heinrich's horse to the ground. Others now have recognized the Captain, and he and Walter are instantly surrounded and cut off from their comrades. Heini's hand is already outstretched to seize the banner when Vogeli's sword cleaves his helm and down he falls. Like a wounded boar, the Freiburger struggles to defend his standard, and Walter keeps stoutly at his side, while the Swiss strive to come to their rescue. Hacking and hewing madly, they cut their way through the throng that presses about the two heroes, and reach them just as Heinrich, mortally wounded, sinks beside his horse, still clutching firmly the banner of his native city, while the enemy turn and flee.

Hans Vogeli kneels beside his dying brother and, taking the hand that holds the banner, implores forgiveness for all the wrongs he has done him. Tightly clasping the other, young Irmy, speechless with grief, awaits the death of the man who for two years has been the best and kindest of friends to him.

"Hans," says Heinrich faintly, "will you acknowledge now my right to citizenship?"

"Aye, truly, Heinrich," his brother assures him, sobbing, and in hushed tones the Freiburgers standing by confirm the promise. With a sigh of content the dying man sinks back and soon expires, his pallid features lit with a smile of blissful peace.

Meanwhile the victorious Confederates had reached the shore of Lake Murten, where a singular spectacle met their eyes. The Burgundians, finding their retreat by the south shore cut off, were endeavoring by wading and swimming to reach the other side and join the Count de Rornont's force, which had been lying before the city of Murten, but was now skirting the shore of the lake in rapid retreat. It was a mad attempt. Already hundreds of the heavily armed soldiers were sticking fast in the oozy bed of the lake, while those who succeeded in reaching deep water soon sank or were slain by the arrows despatched at every head that showed above the surface. Even the trees afforded no safety. Many of the despairing Lombards had sought concealment among the dense foliage, but they were soon discovered.

Ho, look at the crows," shouted the pursuers, jocularly, "and yonder are some squirrels!" and the unfortunate fugitives were remorselessly shot down, despite their prayers for mercy.

That night the conquerors camped upon the field of battle, rejoicing over their easy and decisive victory, but much disappointed at the lack of plunder. The following morning the Freiburgers and all who had loved Captain Vogeli assembled about his bier. Supported by a band of his faithful followers, the body was borne in solemn procession to Freiburg, whither news of the event had already preceded them. Beside the bier rode Hans Vogeli and Walter Irmy. Tolling of bells greeted their approach to the city, at the gates of which the Mayor and Council awaited the return of the wanderer; and when some days later all that was mortal of Heinrich Vogeli was laid to rest in the family vault, the banner of Freiburg was draped about his coffin, while at the dead man's head lay a certificate of citizenship placed there by order of the Council. Thus was Vogeli's dearest wish accomplished, and in his beloved Fatherland he rested forever from the storms of life.