At the court of Casimir, King of Poland, there was at one time a young page named Mazeppa. He was the son of a poor nobleman, who was anxious that his boy should receive the training that could be given only at the courts of the ruling men of the nation. At the court of Casimir, Mazeppa attracted a great deal of attention because he was very handsome and excelled in all manly sports.
Here he waited upon the king, went on messages for the ladies of the court and was flattered by them in every possible way. Being young and attractive, a lady of high rank fell in love with him, which greatly enraged her husband, a man of jealous temperament, and though Mazeppa, with a high sense of honor, gave him no cause for his jealousy, the infuriated nobleman declared he would be revenged upon the young man. Calling Mazeppa to him, he accused him bitterly of stealing his wife's affections.
"Nay, sire, you do me wrong, for your noble lady has but smiled kindly upon me as a poor squire in your service," replied the young man.
The nobleman was implacable, however, and in those rude times, having complete control over his subjects, declared in his wrath, "I shall rid this court and this country of you forever; I shall bind you upon a horse and set him free, that the wolves may devour you both."
The young Mazeppa was led away, amazed and horrified at this unjust punishment. The next day, out from the nobleman's stables was led one of the finest and fiercest horses that he had. It was a wild and beautiful steed, the noblest of its kind, which could race for hours without being tired and could out-strip any other horse racing with him.
Leading Mazeppa into the court the cruel master ordered the young squire to be stripped, and with many a thong to be bound securely on the back of the already maddened horse. His arms were tied behind him and his body and legs were securely bound so that there was no chance of his being loosed in the mad race which was before him. Leading the horse out from the gates of the castle, he ordered his men to lash the beast into fury and turn him loose.
The splendid animal, infuriated by his punishment and maddened with the unaccustomed weight upon his back, fled away, bearing Mazeppa to his fate. With no bit or rein to guide him, the maddened horse galloped for miles and miles through forest and over plains. All day long he ran and far into the night. Mazeppa was tortured almost beyond endurance by the thongs that bound his body and the fierce action of the horse's movements.
The maddened horse galloped for miles and miles through forest and over plains.
Resting every now and then for a few moments, and frightened at every sound, the beast fled again over the mountains and across streams, seeking the savage wilds of the Cossacks, which was its native home.
At last, after some time, the almost exhausted animal was staggering by the hut of some poor peasant Cossack, who noticed the strange burden upon its back. It was not difficult to catch the animal, for he was sorely in need of food and almost dead with his hours of running. The thongs that bound the young man were quickly severed, and more dead than alive, he was taken into the peasant's hut.
"This is a strange sight," said the peasant to his wife. "The young man seems comely, but is so covered with dirt and blood that one knows not what he is or whence he came. I fear he is already dead."
After being laid upon a bed and having his bruised body washed, it was not long before Mazeppa showed signs of life. In a few days he was well enough to tell his dreadful story.
Of course, Mazeppa made his home with his new-found friends. Life with the Cossacks was different from the life he had been accustomed to lead at the court of Casimir, in Poland. He was a young man of much courage and learning and sagacity, so that he soon made many friends among the Cossack tribes. He learned to ride a horse with the fiercest of those wild men, who knew more about riding than any other people in Europe. He learned their ways of warfare and their customs, and soon became a noted figure in their councils and one of their bravest leaders in the petty warfares of their tribes.
From the fact that he was educated, he was made secretary to the chief of the Cossacks and attended him upon many excursions and advised with him in many matters of state. Upon the death of this chief, Mazeppa, who was now a well-grown man, was made leader of the tribe.
Among all the daring leaders of the Cossacks, none could ride faster or farther, or fight with more fierceness than Mazeppa. For many years he was their leader, allying himself first with one party and then another in the turbulent politics of Russia.
The daring leader of the Cossacks became the friend of Peter the Great, who laughed good humoredly at the story of his early life and told him that he needed him in his service. Peter conFerréd on Mazeppa the title of Prince and refused to believe any of the tales that were told against him by his enemies.
One day, when Mazeppa was visiting the Russian court and Peter was in bad humor, he told the prince that the Cossacks were very ungovernable. "They fight like devils in time of war, but they act the same way in time of peace. There is no discipline nor any control among them. I would have them submit to my military orders."
Mazeppa, who was very proud of the way his band could fight, but did not desire that they should be reduced to military discipline, replied very boldly, "Sire, the Cossacks are fierce by nature. They ride without bridle and saddle, that they might hold lance in one hand and sword in the other. Their horses know their cries and they fight their own way. You may not like the Cossacks, but you cannot change them. You must take them as they are, if you take them at all."
Peter flared up in wrath. "Every Russian must do my bidding," said he to Mazeppa, who had now become an old chief. "You will curb these wild riders of the plains, otherwise you are an enemy and a traitor, and I shall run my sword through your body if you do not my bidding." The czar was furious, and Mazeppa left his presence in deep offence.
Mazeppa was so angry that he sent word to Charles of Sweden, the bitter enemy of Peter the Great, that if he would advance into Russia the Cossacks would join with him in his warfare against the czar.
This plot, however, failed, because the Cossacks, though they were very wild, still were very loyal to Russia and never wanted to betray the czar into the hands of his enemies. When the plot was discovered, Mazeppa was deprived of his office and the Cossacks chose a new leader.
The rest of his story is easily told. Mazeppa, with a few of his followers, made his way into the Swedish camp, and after a great battle, in which the Swedish army was defeated, made his way to Turkey. Here, a fugitive in a foreign land, feeling that he had betrayed his country and was without friends, the old chief decided that he would destroy himself. One night he took poison, and the next day those who came to look for him found him dead.
Thus ended the dramatic life of the fiercest leader that the Cossacks have ever known.