Mazeppa is known to history mainly by reason of his marvellous ride tied on to a wild horse, which bore him swiftly away over miles and miles of country, finally carrying him into the land of the Cossacks.
But there is a great deal more that is interesting about his life than this. Many and varied were the scenes of his life: first he was page in the court of Warsaw to the King of Poland; then came the unwilling ride to the land of the Cossacks, and his life there as statesman; finally the curtain drops on Mazeppa, the traitor and deserter!
With all his faults, it is hard not to admire his chivalrous character, though the man who alone knew how to rule the wild hearts of the lawless Cossacks was the same man who played false to his friend Peter the Great, in order to throw in his lot with the greater king, Charles the Twelfth of Sweden. Yet, with all his treachery, he never realized the dream of his life, which was to make the land of the Cossacks an independent kingdom.
Mazeppa's first appearance was at the court at Warsaw in 1660. He was of Russian origin, but of his boyhood nothing is known. He was made page by the King of Poland, and lived quietly at court for six years. But he was hot-headed and impetuous, and with his Russian blood he could not get on with the haughty Polish courtiers. As time went on, he began to quarrel, and soon swords were drawn in the palace. This, according to the ideas of the time, was high treason; young Mazeppa was obliged to leave the court, and live in exile in Russia.
Not far from where he settled lived an old Polish count, who had married a young and very beautiful wife. Mazeppa was handsome, brilliant at sports, a good rider, attractive, and withal young. He spent a great deal of his time at the count's house, and the old man grew very jealous of him.
One night he waylaid him in the road, and accused him of paying too much attention to the young countess.
"Seize him! strip him of his clothes, and set him on a horse!" cried the enraged husband to his servants.
Mazeppa was seized and stripped. Then a splendid horse was brought forward, a "Tartar of the Ukraine breed." The animal had only been caught and brought in the day before; he was as wild as the wild deer, untrained, unmanageable: There he stood, snorting and struggling, while the count ordered Mazeppa to be bound on to his back.
With cords and thongs he was tightly tied on; then suddenly the maddened animal was loosened. The noise of firearms and lashes from the servants' whips started it off at a tearing pace, with young Mazeppa tied helplessly on its back.
Away and away they darted, fiery steed and half fainting rider!
" 'Twas scarcely yet the break of day,
And on he foamed—away—away."
All human dwellings were soon left behind—so the poet Byron tells the story—towns, villages disappeared, and ever the wild horse made its way toward a vast plain bounded by black forests—on towards its native land, the land of the Ukraine, where the Cossacks lived. Byron tells the story graphically—
"The sky was dull and dim and grey
And a low breeze crept moaning by,
I could have answered with a sigh,
But fast we fled—away—away,
And I could neither sigh nor pray,
And my cold sweat-drops fell like rain
Upon the courser's bristling mane;
But, snorting still with rage and fear,
He flew upon his far career.
Meantime my cords were wet with gore,
Which, oozing through my limbs, ran o'er;
And in my tongue the thirst became
A something fierier than flame."
On went the horse, furious and untired, on towards the wide and boundless forest studded with short, sturdy trees and narrow footpaths. At last the wild animal dashed into a river, swam across, struggled up the steep bank, up on to the silent shore, and rushed on again as before.
"And all behind was dark and drear,
And all before was night and fear."
Across another boundless plain, and then the horse's strength failed, his pace slackened. Slowly the sun rose, and the "mists were curled back from the solitary world." Still there were no signs of human life, not an insect, not a bird to break the silence of those dreary plains. The weary brute still staggered on. But at last it could go no further; one convulsive effort, and then it fell down—dead!
Mazeppa was yet bound to the dead horse; together they lay helpless on the ground. There he lay the whole day, unable to move hand or foot, faint and bleeding, till the sun again went down, and he lost consciousness.
He awoke to find himself in a peasant's cottage, with Cossacks to look after him, and they soon nursed him back to life again.
Now this is the legend of Mazeppa.
That he found his way to the land of the Cossacks is true; whether he was carried thither, as Byron describes, is uncertain.
Exiled from court and from his own estates, Mazeppa lived for a time among the Cossack peasants. Now the Cossacks lived in a vast tract of land in South Russia, bordering on the Crimea. They were an independent people, but they were surrounded by foes.
"We are not strong enough to stand without a master among so many great kingdoms," cried the leader or "hetman" of the Cossacks one day when he had called them together. "We have four neighbours, to any of which we may give ourselves—the King of Poland, the Sultan of Turkey, the Khan of the Crimea, or the Tsar of Russia. Which do you choose?"
"The Tsar of Russia," cried the Cossacks with one accord, and a treaty with Russia was concluded.
And this was the condition of the Cossacks when Mazeppa first came to live among them.
He soon won his way into their hearts. They discovered that he was a man of learning—he spoke Russian, Polish, and Latin with ease—and before long he was made a sort of foreign secretary to the hetman.
He was sent on various missions, which he fulfilled cleverly, though on one occasion he nearly lost his life. The Cossacks were beginning to feel the oppression of Russia, and Mazeppa was sent to ask help from the Grand Vizier of Turkey. Somehow he fell into the enemy's hands, and was seized and sent to Moscow. Others would have paid dearly for this accident in this land of suspicion, but Mazeppa won over his judges, and somehow regained his liberty. He gradually rose in importance, till the day came which was to see him proclaimed hetman of the Cossacks.
It was the twenty-fifth of July, when, by a deeply-laid plot, the old hetman was suddenly and falsely accused of tyranny, treason, and many other crimes. He was seized on his way from church, placed in a dilapidated old cart, and brought before a made—up tribunal. He appeared before his accusers, leaning on his silver-headed staff. They all spoke at once, and a tumult ensued. In vain the hetman tried to speak and defend himself. His accusers threw themselves on him to prevent his speaking, and in another moment blows would have followed.
One voice rose above the rest: "Exile him to Siberia!" The old man's sentence was spoken. He was not the first Cossack hetman doomed to this fate.
"Choose another hetman, according to your ancient custom," cried one in authority standing on a bench.
On a table in the tent was placed the hetman's standard, mace, and pennon of horses' tails.
For a moment there was silence. Then cries of "Mazeppa! Mazeppa!" filled the air.
And so, on July 25, 1687, Mazeppa was proclaimed hetman of the Cossacks.
It was no easy task to rule over those lawless Cossacks, and the new hetman was ambitious, grasping, cruel. To raise the country to an independent position, to gain liberty for the oppressed people, now became the dream of his life; and further dreams of seeing himself a king over them induced him to stoop, as stoop he did, to base intrigue and treachery.
He lived in great luxury at the capital, Batourin, the usual residence of the hetmans, on the border of the great forests which still cover that part of Russia.
He dressed in the style of a Polish count, with rich Oriental caftan, carved sabre, plumed bonnet, and head and face shaven except for a long moustache. He formed a company of bodyguards, entertained his friends at splendid banquets, and lived as a king among his subjects.
Openly Mazeppa avowed his passionate devotion to Russia, his loyalty to the Tsar, Peter the Great, whose servant he was; at heart he was still a Pole. On the other hand, Peter the Great, so slow to confide in any .one, had given his whole confidence to Mazeppa; nothing shook his trust in the Cossack hetman. Though secret letters appeared from time to time, though evil reports were poured into the ever-open ears of the secret police at Moscow, the trustful Tsar only sent the letters lightly back to Mazeppa, as if the contents were but some light sport.
If Mazeppa could manage to trace the writer of these secret letters, a gibbet was quickly erected at Batourin, and the wretch was nailed up as a warning to others.
On the other hand, Mazeppa forwarded to the Tsar letters from the King of Poland and other enemies of Russia begging for Cossack help, and he was rewarded with great presents of land and money from his confiding ruler.
One day he was at table with the Tsar at Moscow on the most friendly terms, when the Tsar proposed to him that he should try to make his people more dependent on Russia, more disciplined and quiet.
"The position of the Ukraine and the genius of the Cossacks make this impossible," answered Mazeppa. The Tsar was over-heated with wine.
"Traitor! traitor!" he cried excitedly.
The hetman hurried back to the Ukraine. The idea long dreamt of should be a dream no more! He planned out his long-cherished design—the ruin of the Tsar, the independence of the Ukraine.
Mazeppa has been compared to Brutus, disguising his wishes and flattering his master for twenty long years, in order to strike more surely when the moment came. Yet this was a rough and barbarous age, and Russia was a land of intrigue and suspicion.
His power of deception defied all. If he wanted to find out a secret of the Russian court, he would stoop to any strategy. Sometimes he would feign illness, and doctors attended him night and day. Such was his apparent weakness that he could neither rise nor walk; lying in bed covered with plasters, ointments, and bandages, he would groan as one at the point of death. The crisis past, he would recover quickly. He could abuse his friends and praise his enemies, till he succeeded in getting some profound secret disclosed.
And so the hetman lived and planned to undermine the Tsar's power.
It is somewhat of a relief to turn for a moment from these dark passages in the hetman's life, to find that he had yet some tender feelings left. And these were for his godchild, Matrena, the daughter of his secretary of state.
"My little heart, my rosebud! my heart is grieved at the idea that I cannot see thy eyes and little, fair face. With this letter I salute thee, and embrace all thy little person.
But Matrena's father was not pleased at the old hetman's love for his little daughter, and he took every opportunity of undermining Mazeppa's power.
One day Mazeppa was away on an expedition, and his secretary was taking his place, when a party of monks passed through Batourin on their way back to Russia after a pilgrimage to the south. Weary with their day's journey, they were resting on a bench near the hetman's house, when a Cossack peasant suggested to them to see the vice-hetman, who was known to be charitable to pilgrims. He was right. The monks were generously entertained at the hetman's house, and just as they were going, the vice-hetman called one of them back. Drawing him to a tent under the trees in the garden, he whispered,—
"Art thou trustworthy? We wish to confide a secret to thee. Art thou the man to keep it?"
The monk swore to reveal nothing.
"As God died for us, we should be ready to die for the Great Tsar," cried the vice-hetman.
The monk agreed with him.
"The hetman Mazeppa designs to betray the Great Tsar and pass over to the Poles," continued the vice-hetman. "He is planning the ruin of Russia and the slavery of the Ukraine. Thou must depart immediately and carry these words to Moscow."
Pressing seven gold florins into the monk's hand he departed. Arrived in Moscow, he went straight to the "Informers' Office." But Peter the Great was busy with other matters. Moreover, he still believed implicitly in Mazeppa, and would hear of nothing against him. So the poor monk was sent to prison for his pains.
Again and again did the vice-hetman try to get his news to the ears of the unsuspecting Tsar. At last the latter grew so tired of these repeated complaints against his favourite that he begged Mazeppa to seize the informers, which he did with pleasure. Five hundred Cossacks were sent to arrest the vice-hetman and his wife, and one July day, 1708, their heads were chopped off before the whole Cossack army. A few weeks later things reached a crisis.
Charles the Twelfth of Sweden, who had hitherto swept all before him, was threatening Moscow.
"Call out your forces and join me with all speed," was the urgent message from Peter the Great to his favourite.
"I am suffering from the gout," was the hetman's answer; "and further, the troubled state of the country will not allow me to be absent from home."
The "gout" did not prevent his writing to Charles the Twelfth. He arranged to meet the King of Sweden on the Cossack frontier at the head of thirty thousand men. His time had come. He had cherished the notion for twenty long years—had played his double game. The Tsar should not call him traitor any more on baseless grounds, the whole world would cry traitor soon. But his dream would be realized; the Cossacks would have an independent kingdom, and he, Mazeppa, their hetman, would be their king. He called together a council of Cossack elders, and appeared before them irresolute. He placed the alternatives before them.
"We must obey the call of the Tsar," he said, with apparent loyalty.
"Go not to him," cried the chiefs, "or thou wilt ruin. us and the Ukraine together. Send to Charles, who awaits us."
"Is this your counsel?" asked Mazeppa. "I alone, then, will join his Imperial Majesty; as for you, you will all perish!"
Then suddenly he changed his manner.
"Shall we send some one to the king?" he said, softly, as if it was a new idea. "Yes or no?"
"Send without delay," they cried in chorus.
So the hetman wrote his note in Latin and sent it to Charles.
At the same time he took to his bed, wrote to the Tsar's general that he was extremely ill, and felt the end was near.
Hearing of the serious illness of Mazeppa, the Russian general hastened to Batourin to confer with the hetman. Arrived at the castle, he found the drawbridge up, and was refused admission. While waiting in astonishment at this unlooked-for change, he was informed that, far from being ill and about to die, Mazeppa was at that moment on his way to the Swedish camp to join forces with Charles the Twelfth, the Swedish hero.
When the news of the hetman's treason reached the Tsar, he plunged into one of those outbursts of rage that made his courtiers tremble. He at once marched to Batourin, stormed the hetman's residence, and reduced it to ashes. Then he sent his general in pursuit of Mazeppa.
Meanwhile Mazeppa had arrived at the banks of the river with some sixty thousand Cossacks yet ignorant of his treachery. Forming them round him in a circle, he addressed them in a loud voice. He went over the services that he had rendered to their nation, the zeal with which he had defended their rights; he showed them to what slavery Peter the Great was scheming to reduce them.
"Will you submit to this humiliating yoke that has already crushed the Russians, will you tolerate "the changes in your army, will you bear the taxes which are imposed on you?" he cried. "No; let us seize the grand opportunity of passing under the colours of a hero who will grant us independence."
As the full import of these words dawned on the Cossack soldiers, they became stupefied and immovably silent. Then they began to murmur. "Treason, treason," was whispered through the ranks. With one accord they made their way back to the Ukraine. Only two regiments remained loyal to Mazeppa.
Meanwhile Charles of Sweden was marching to the banks of the river where Mazeppa had arranged to meet him. He intended to take up his winter quarters in the Ukraine, and having secured the affection of the Cossacks and united his army with Mazeppa's, to conquer Russia in the spring. He was fearfully delayed on his way, and his army was reduced by hunger and fatigue before it arrived at the river bank. And then, instead of finding Mazeppa with a great Cossack army at his back, he found him with his two regiments only; more a fugitive than an ally, more an adventurer than the would-be Cossack king. His only hope of helping the Swedish king now was by his knowledge of the country, unknown to the Swedes.
But before any active measures could be taken, the terrible winter of 1709 set in. It was so cold that "the very birds froze in the air," said Peter the Great. But Charles was indefatigable. He insisted on making long marches through the Ukraine, during one of which two thousand men fell dead with cold before his very eyes. Most of the men had no boots or shoes; they were forced to make stockings of the skins of wild beasts as best they could; and the famous Swedish army that had once carried all before it, was now perishing with cold and hunger.
It was during this winter that the Tsar offered pardon to his favourite Mazeppa if he would only return. But Mazeppa's answer was firm.
"Only to save my nation from the yoke of Russia," answered the hetman, "have I joined the King of Sweden. As for me, I am old, wifeless, childless; I would sooner have retreated to some unknown corner to spend my last few years. But having governed the Ukraine for twenty years, I cannot see the tyranny of Russia without wishing to deliver my country."
The Battle of Pultowa
It was in July 1709 that the armies of Peter the Great and Charles the Twelfth of Sweden met at Pultowa. The King of Sweden and the hetman of the Cossacks were reckless. They had little chance against the great Russian army. Charles, too, had been badly wounded shortly before, and had to lead his army carried in a litter.
The battle began at half-past four in the morning. Before night Charles and Mazeppa were in full flight, nine thousand Swedes and Cossacks had been killed, and some six thousand taken prisoners.
"We will never be prisoners to the Russians. Come, let us go to the Turks," said Charles, as the defeated men made their escape.
Horse after horse broke down under the fugitives, for the Russians were in pursuit. The night after the battle they spent in a wood at the foot of a tree, in danger every moment of being taken by the enemy. Charles was in high fever from his wound.
Next day they had to cross the river Dnieper. Charles was lifted into the boat, almost unconscious now. Mazeppa entered the boat with him, but the current was very strong. The Cossack threw out the few treasures with which he had escaped, to lighten the boat and save the king's life and his own. Suddenly a great wind sprang up from the desert, the horizon became covered with clouds; a storm was brewing. Waves rose as on the sea; other boats sank. It seemed as if the Swedish king and the Ukraine hetman must perish now.
But they managed to get ashore, and plunged at once into the desert on their way to Turkey. It was a vast solitude they had to cross; there was no water, no trees, no grain, no trace of vegetation, no animals; the dry sand made the heat of the sun more burning, the cold of the nights more keen.
After five terrible days of marching they arrived on the Turkish frontier, and sought refuge with the Turks. But they were not safe here. The Tsar demanded that Mazeppa should be given up to him.
Mazeppa was old now, and broken with disappointment; and at the moment when he was about to be given up to his enemies he died—died at the age of eighty, leaving the Cossack nation that he had found large and powerful a mere shadow of its former self.
And the Cossacks? They survived their great hetman but a short time as an independent people.
Mazeppa's name is not allowed to die in Russia. As the first Sunday in Lent comes round, "Anathema Sunday," as it is called, Mazeppa, with other great rebels of former times, is cursed solemnly by the priests and the great Russian congregations. This is but a relic of a more severe excommunication, when, in the Tsar's presence, the portrait of Mazeppa hanging in one of the cathedrals was lifted down with a rope and suspended upon a gibbet, as a fit ending to the rebel traitor "who designed to give the Christian people over to Polish infidels."