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The Awakening of Europe by  M. B. Synge


 

 

CHARLES XII. OF SWEDEN

"He left a name, at which the world grew pale,

To point a moral or adorn a tale."

—JOHNSON.

RUSSIA —the largest State in Europe—took no part in public affairs. She lay unheeded amid the snow and ice of her northern clime, until Peter the Great made her mighty enough to play her part in the world's history.

Sweden, on the other hand, had already made her mark. Under Gustavus Adolphus, the Lion of the North, she had become a power among the States of Europe. How she lost everything under Charles XII., and how Russia rose to fame, is one of the most romantic stories in history. Born in 1682, Charles of Sweden was ten years younger than his rival, Peter the Great of Russia. [202] He early showed signs of future greatness. At four years old he could perform military exercises on his pony, at seven he shot his first fox, at eleven his first bear. He loved stories of war. His hero in history was Alexander the Great. He would like to be such a man, he would say.

"But he only lived thirty-two years," said his tutor.

"One has lived long enough when one has conquered a whole kingdom," answered the boy with a wisdom beyond his years.

His father, the king, died in 1697, leaving Sweden at the height of her power. Charles was a tall, thin boy of fifteen when he was crowned. It was Christmas time, and the snow fell heavily. A story says that as the boy-king sprang on his horse, sceptre in hand, the crown fell off his head into the snow. A dull murmur went through the crowd. It was an evil omen.

While Peter the Great was learning shipbuilding in Holland, Charles was learning to endure hardships bravely. He would get up at night and lie on bare planks with no clothes over him; for three nights running he slept in the stables with no covering but hay. But the moment came when the boy should suddenly become a man. He was bear-hunting one day when the news arrived that the King of Poland had invaded his dominions.

"We will soon make King Augustus return by [203] the way he came," said Charles calmly, turning with a smile to the messenger.

He hurried to his capital, Stockholm, to prepare for war, only to learn that Russia was in league with Poland. His coolness in the face of danger filled every one with surprise.

"I have resolved," he said, "never to begin an unrighteous war, but I have also resolved never to finish a righteous war till I have utterly crushed my enemies."

He left Stockholm, never to return. Peter the Great had besieged a town on the shores of the Baltic, and thither Charles marched with a force of 14,000 Swedes to drive back the Russians. As the boy-king led his troops towards the enemy's lines the sky became dark with a sudden storm; heavy snow fell, which was driven by the wind into the faces of the Russians. Charles saw his advantage, and advanced rapidly. The Russians were not used to warfare. Their Tsar Peter was serving as a soldier among them, to teach them what he himself had learned; but he could not stay them in the face of the Swedes, and they fell back in confusion. So Charles gained the victory and entered Narva in triumph. It was but the first of many victories. The youthful conqueror now marched against the King of Poland, with the result that in 1707 the king had formally to resign his crown, which was at once offered to Charles XII., King of Sweden.

[204] The eyes of all Europe were now fixed on this Swedish hero, who was carrying all before him.

Marlborough rushed over to interview Charles in person, and to find out whether he had intentions of joining France; but he noted how the young king's face kindled on mention of Peter the Great, and how the table was strewn with maps of Russia. Charles cared nothing for Europe's wars so long as he could overthrow his rival in Russia.

At last the longed-for moment came, and Charles XII. at the head of a huge army marched into Russia, hoping to reach Moscow in time to deal a deadly blow to the Russians. He was making his way thither when a terrible frost, the like of which had not been known for many years, froze all Europe. Birds dropped dead from the trees; men who fell asleep were frozen to death. Nowhere was it more terrible than in Russia. The sufferings of the Swedes were intense. Yet the king's plans had to be carried out and the daily march made. Thousands perished in the snow, and the situation of the Swedish army became alarming. Supplies were running short, and all communication with Central Europe was now cut off by the Russians.

Since the days of Narva, nine years before, the whole of Russia had awakened. Peter the Great had retaken Narva and built his city of Petersburg. He had built a navy and taught his people modern warfare. So in the spring of [205] the year 1709 he was ready with a magnificent army, fresh and well supplied, for the invasion of Charles. At the head of his troops he now forced the Swedish king to give battle under the walls of Pultowa, a fortress to the south of Moscow.

A fresh misfortune now befell the Swedes. Charles was riding within range of the enemy's fire when a bullet struck him in the foot. He did not flinch, but blood dropping fast from his boot, and his own ghastly paleness, revealed the truth. In great pain he spent another hour in the trenches giving orders, until his foot became so swollen that his boot had to be cut off. Bones were broken, and the splinters had to be cut away, the king assisting with a knife himself. But he could no longer retain the command.

The day of battle dawned, and Charles put on his uniform, wore a spurred boot on the sound foot, and placed himself in a litter to be drawn to the scene of action. The Swedes, whose uniforms were ragged from their long campaigns, tied a wisp of straw in their caps and adopted as their watchword "With God's help." Never was Charles more wanted to command his forces than to-day. The Swedes fought fearlessly; but the Russian host was too strong for them, and before evening fell Peter the Great stood victorious on the field of Pultowa. Charles, whose litter had been smashed by a cannon-ball, was borne out of the battle by his soldiers.

[206] When the Swedish officers surrendered their arms to the Tsar, he asked the commander how he dared to invade a great empire like Russia with a mere handful of men.

"Because the king commanded it," was the loyal answer, "and it is the first duty of a loyal subject to obey his king."

"You are an honest fellow," answered Peter the Great, "and for your loyalty I return you your sword."

Thus Peter triumphed over Sweden.

"The foundations of St Petersburg are firm at last," he cried joyously as the defeated Swedes hastened away from his inhospitable country.


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