At the time, I didn't have a clue who Mazeppa was, nor what he did to deserve such a dreadful fate, but a black and white illustration is all I have to remember it by, though not this Delacroix one. There was more agony for horse and rider in the one in the reading book, I'm nearly sure, but I can't find a reproduction of the exact copy. It may be an etching. Maybe too, my childhood recollection exaggerates the torment, but I suspect not. (You know, the one in the Reader could even be a black and white reproduction of this very painting, the more I think of it. How deceptive is the brain!)
For some reason, Old Jim didn’t let us read this poem aloud, ever, and I didn't like the picture, having had numerous escapades on horses, but never one being bound so uncomfortably on a gingered-up crazy horse for what must have been ages.
Oh, OK, Now I think I get it! Now I know why Old Jim, a stern and sober Methodist, wouldn't let us near Byron's poem, set in the Ukrainian wilderness. According to one version at least, Mazeppa was having it away with some young countess called Teresa, and the old count discovered the affair, so bringing this terrible punishment on Mazeppa.
What happened to the countess I have no idea, but from the count's point of view there were bound to be plenty more where she came from. She was probably sixteen or so, and he would have been much older – an old geezer, about... oh, never mind. Ahem.
I was worried about the horse too. I thought that was a rotten thing to do to it. Whatever crime Mazeppa perpetrated dallying with the dame, it wasn't the nag's fault. In my illustration, it looked horribly distressed.
Of course none of that sexy wickedness with the countess would ever have been revealed in the Grade Eight Reader, and we wouldn't have had a clue what it was. No-one in Calliope ever would do such a thing ho ho, but you can see now why we didn’t want real foreigners from places like the Ukraine, wherever that was, in our beloved land. Oh, and that scrap of cloth conveniently covering Mazeppa's genitals, that wouldn't have been appropriate from Old Jim's perspective either – it wasn't decent not to be properly clothed, even while being punished for such a grave offence.
Old Jim, bless his strong old heart, wouldn't stand the faintest whiff of corrupting our morals, and if we read the poem, some child was bound to ask what in blazes Mazeppa had done. Old Jim, who never told a lie in his life I'm sure, would have had to make a choice he didn't want to risk. So the story remained terra incognita for me until now, but that painting didn't.
I was completely innocent in such matters. I had more than enough trouble trying to figure out what Louis XIV was up to with those pretty ladies in The Three Musketeers when he had a perfectly good Queen in the Versailles boudoir, and The Man in the Iron Mask left me totally bamboozled about the amorous stuff, even at the mature age of eleven when I was almost on the brink of knowing nearly everything. I didn't have the foggiest how many boudoirs there were at Versailles, and, so I discovered much later when reading European history at university, many other places dotted all over France.
Frenchmen – what could you expect, eh?
No Cossacks allowed either. The British were about as foreign as we could cope with in Calliope. At least they didn’t do that sort of thing, did they? Of course not.
Next: A Tale of Two Cities [336 words]
Fearsome tales in our Readers 1: Introduction [1000 words]
Fearsome tales in our Readers 2: The Daisy and the Lark [256 words]
Fearsome tales in our Readers 3: The Little Match Girl [206 words]
Fearsome tales in our Readers 4: The Crocodile and the Bull [280 words]
Fearsome tales in our Readers 5: Escape from the wolves [444 words]
Fearsome tales in our Readers 6: Mazeppa's Ride [438 words]
Fearsome tales in our Readers 7: A Tale of Two Cities [336 words]
Fearsome tales in our Readers 8: Gelert [343 words]