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Historical Tales: Russian by  Charles Morris

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MAZEPPA, THE COSSACK CHIEF

[149] AMONG the romantic characters of history none have attained higher celebrity than the hero of our present tale, whose remarkable adventure, often told in story, has been made immortal in Lord Byron's famous poem of "Mazeppa." Those who wish to read it in all its dramatic intensity must apply to the poem. Here it can only be given in plain prose.

Mazeppa was a scion of a poor but noble Polish family, and became, while quite young, a page at the court of John Casimir, King of Poland. There he remained until he reached manhood, when he returned to the vicinity of his birth. And now occurred the striking event on which the fame of our hero rests. The court-reared young man is said to have engaged in an intrigue with a Polish lady of high rank, or at least was suspected by her jealous husband of having injured him in his honor.

Bent upon a revenge suitable to the barbarous ideas of that age, the furious nobleman had the young man seized, cruelly scourged, and in the end stripped naked and firmly bound upon the back of an untamed horse of the steppes. The wild animal, terrified by the strange burden upon its back, was then set free on the borders of its native wilds of the Ukraine, and, uncontrolled by bit or rein, gal. loped madly for miles upon miles through forest and [150] over plain, until, exhausted by the violence of its flight, it halted in its wild career. For a dramatic rendering of this frightful ride our readers must be referred to Byron's glowing verse.

The savage Polish lord had not dreamed that his victim would escape alive, but fortune favored the poor youth. He was found, still fettered to the animal's back, insensible and half dead, by some Cossack peasants, who rescued him from his fearful situation, took him to their hut, and eventually restored him to animation.

Mazeppa was well educated and fully versed in the art of war of that day. He made his home wit his new friends, to whom his courage, agility, an sagacity proved such warm recommendations that he soon became highly popular among the Cossack clans. He was appointed secretary and adjutant to Samilovitch, the hetman or chief of the Cossacks, and on the disgrace and exile of this chief in 1687 Mazeppa succeeded him as leader of the tribe. He distinguished himself particularly in the war waged by the army of the Princess Sophia against the Turks and Tartars of the Crimea, in which Mazoppa led his Cossack followers with the greatest courage and skill.

On the return of the army to Moscow, Prince Galitzin, its leader, brought into the capital a strong force of Cossacks, with Mazeppa at their bead. It was the first time the Cossacks had been allowed to enter Moscow, and their presence gave great offence. It was supposed to be a part of the plot of Sophia to dethrone her young brother and seize the throne for herself. [151] It was known that they would execute to the full any orders given them by their chief; but their motions were so restricted by the indignant people that the ambitious woman, if she entertained such a design, found herself unable to employ them in it.

The daring hetman of the Cossacks became afterwards a cherished friend of Peter the Great, who conferred on him the title of prince, and severely punished those who accused him of conspiring with the enemies of Russia. Having the fullest confidence in his good faith, Peter banished or executed his foes as liars and traitors. Yet they seem to have been the true men and Mazeppa the traitor, for at length, when sixty-four years of age, he threw off allegiance to Russia and became an ally of the Swedish enemies of the realm.

The fiery and ungovernable temper of Peter is said to have been the cause of this. The story goes that one day, when Mazeppa was visiting the Russian court, and was at table with the czar, Peter complained to him of the lawless character of the Cossacks, and proposed that Mazeppa should seek to bring them under better control by a system of organization and discipline.

The chief replied that such measures would never succeed. The Cossacks were so fierce and uncontrollable by nature, he said, and so fixed in their irregular habits of warfare, that it would be impossible to get them to submit to military discipline, and they must continue to fight in their old, wild way.

These words were like fire to flax. Peter, who [152] never could bear the least opposition to any of his plans or projects, and was accustomed to have everybody timidly agree with him, broke into a furious rage at this contradiction, and visited his sudden wrath on Mazeppa, as usual, in the most violent language. He was an enemy and a traitor, who deserved to be and should be impaled alive, roared the furious czar, not meaning a tithe of what he said, but saying enough to turn the high-spirited chief from a friend to a foe.

Mazeppa left the czar's presence in deep offence, muttering the displeasure which it would have been death to speak openly, and bent on revenge. Soon after he entered into communication with Charles XII. of Sweden, the bitter enemy of Russia, which he was then invading. He suggested that the Swedish army should advance into Southern Russia, where the Cossacks would be sure to be sent to meet it. He would then go over with all his forces to the Swedish side, so strengthening it that the army of the czar could not stand against it. The King of Sweden might retain the territory won by his arms, while the Cossacks would retire to their own land, and become again, as of old, an independent tribe.

The plot was well laid, but it failed through the loyalty of the Cossacks. They broke into wild indignation when Mazeppa unfolded to them his plan, most of them refusing to join in the revolt, and threatening to seize him and deliver him, bound hand and foot, to the czar. Some two thousand in all adhered to Mazeppa, and for a time it seemed as if a bloody battle would take place between the two sec- [153] tions of the tribe, but in the end the chief and his followers made their way to the Swedish camp, while the others marched back and put themselves under the command of the nearest Russian general.

Mazeppa was now sentenced to death, and executed,—luckily for him, in effigy only. In person he was out of the reach of his foes. A wooden image was made to represent the culprit, and on this dumb block the penalties prescribed for him were inflicted. A pretty play—for a savage horde—they made of it. The image was dressed to imitate Mazeppa, while representations of the medals, ribbons, and other decorations he usually wore were placed upon it. It was then brought out before the general and leading officers, the soldiers being drawn up in a square around it. A herald now read the sentence of condemnation, and the mock execution began. First Mazeppa's patent of knighthood was torn to pieces and the fragments flung into the air. Then the medals and decorations were rent from the image and trampled underfoot. Finally the image itself was struck a blow that toppled it over into the dust. The hangman now took it in hand, tied a rope round its neck, and dragged it to a gibbet, on which it was hung. The affair ended in the Cossacks choosing a new chief.

The remainder of Mazeppa's story may soon be told. The battle of Pultowa, fought, it is said, by his advice, ended the military career of the great Swedish general. The Cossack chief made his escape, with the King of Sweden, into Turkish territory, and the reward which the czar offered for his [154] body, dead or alive, was never claimed. Mentchikof took what revenge he could by capturing and sacking his capital city, Baturin, while throughout Russia his name was anathematized from the pulpit. Traitor in his old days, and a fugitive in a foreign land, the disgrace of his action seemed to weigh heavily upon the mind of the old chief of the Ukraine, and in the following year he put an end to the wretchedness of his life by poison.


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