Old Time Tales - Lawton Evans

Dmitri, the Pretender

When Ivan the Terrible, Czar of Russia, died, he left his throne to Feodor, a feeble, timid and sickly ruler, who became a mere tool in the hands of Boris Godunof, his ambitious minister. The other son of Ivan was a child named Dmitri, about ten years of age, when this story begins. Feodor and Dmitri were the sole survivors of their line, and with both dead Boris saw how he could be chosen czar, for there would be no successor to claim the throne.

One day a number of boys were playing in the yard of the palace at Uglitch. The principal child was Dmitri, who was attended by his governess and nurse and a servant woman. The child had a knife in his hand, with which he was playing. The attention of the women attending him was drawn aside for a moment. When the nurse looked around she saw him bathed in blood and fallen on the ground with a deadly wound in his throat. The shrieks of the women attracted a crowd of people, who rushed into the courtyard.

A great cry arose, "Dmitri, the son of the czar, the heir to the throne, has been killed," and immediately the populace began to fall upon those who were with the child at the time of the accident. The governess was stretched dead upon the ground and one of her slaves was killed. The keeper of the palace himself and his son were slain. The lives of others were threatened, and a wholesale slaughter was barely prevented by the arrival of the guard.

Boris, the crafty minister, may have been secretly delighted at the death of the child, and may have arranged for it to happen, but in order to avert suspicion, he set about clearing himself of any guilt. The first thing he did was to order an inquest into the cause of the boy's death. The verdict was that the child came to his death by accident, and that he was not murdered.

The next thing was to punish those who had tried to avenge his death. The mother of Dmitri, who had been the first to cry out that the child had been murdered, was forced to enter a monastery. Her brothers, who had also incited the riot, and who had said the act was one of murder, were put in prison.

Boris turned his attention to the people of Uglitch, and in a short while had two hundred of them put to death. Many fled, and others were banished, so that all evidence of his own guilt might be destroyed. All this violence, however, did him more harm than good, for the people looked upon him as an assassin and began to suspect his motives.

It was whispered around, "Boris, the minister, contrived the death of Dmitri, and is seeking to hide the crime by punishing others." Once the rumor began, it spread rapidly, and whatever Boris did made the people suspicious.

A great fire broke out and left much of Moscow in ruins. Boris set about rebuilding it and distributed aid to those who had suffered. But the people said, "He set fire to the town himself, or had his agents do it, that he might show us how generous he could be."

A Tartar army appeared at the gates of Moscow, and threatened to destroy the city. Boris assembled his forces, and defeated the Tartars, and drove them back with great slaughter. But the people said, "He has called in the Tartars to make us forget Dmitri."

A child was born to the wife of Feodor the Czar. It was a girl, but the people said, "Doubtless it was a son, and Boris has substituted a girl for it. He would do such a thing." The child died, and there were many who said Boris poisoned it. And so it went, for nothing that Boris did pleased the people, and nobody knew whether he was the knave which they accused him of being or not.

Still Boris was an able minister, and Feodor the Czar was too feeble and sickly to take any part in the government. Boris ignored his enemies and gained power as he went. Those who opposed him were banished or crushed.

"I shall be ruler of Russia some day; whatever stands in my way shall be pushed aside or crushed out," he said to his most trusted advisers.

In a few years Feodor died, leaving no heirs. With him the dynasty of Rurik came to an end. It had lasted for seven centuries, and he was the very last of his race. The remote members of the family were too much afraid of the powerful minister to aspire to the throne.

A new ruler must be chosen, and the people dared choose no other than Boris. Nobles, priests and people asked him to keep the power he already had, for they knew the army was with him and that he could be czar whether they willed it or not.

At the end of six weeks, Boris replied, "I shall accept the head of this great people to be their czar in name as I have been in fact for many years." And so Boris accepted the throne of Russia. All his hesitance had been mere pretence, for the throne of Russia was the object of his ambition all the time.

Boris was a strange mixture of prodigality and cruelty. He showed many favors to the people, he built cities, he strengthened the fortresses, he defeated the enemies of Russia and he brought Siberia under firm control. In all this he was an able ruler.

On the other hand, he destroyed all those whom he feared, forbade the members of the powerful families to marry, hoping thereby to exterminate them, and seized the wealth of all whom he ruined. The peasants were treated with great hardship and many of them fled from the country.

In the midst of all this turmoil the ghost of the slain boy rose to plague him and accuse him of murder. This story forms one of the strangest and most interesting incidents in the history of Russia.

Upon one occasion, twelve years after the death of Dmitri in the courtyard of the palace, a Polish prince became angry at some negligence on the part of a young man he had employed and struck him a blow in the face, calling him some insulting names.

"You do not know who I am, prince," said the boy, "or you would not strike me, or call me by such a name."

"Who are you indeed, and what is your name then?" said the prince with some astonishment.

"I am Dmitri, son of Ivan, and the rightful Czar of Russia," replied the young man. "I was not murdered, as you suppose, but I escaped from the horrible plot by the help of my physician. It was a peasant boy who was murdered in my place and Boris Godunof was cheated of his cruel design. I have been in a monastery for twelve years."

To support himself in this remarkable statement the young man showed the prince a Russian seal which bore the arms and the name of Dmitri; also a gold cross which was known to have belonged to the child. He showed certain marks upon his face and body which everyone knew the murdered Dmitri bore. It was a plausible story, and the young man had fine manners, a good education, and besides all that, the prince was too glad to believe his story.

Dmitri, for we shall now call him so, became the guest of the prince. He was given clothes, horses, and a fine retinue, and presented to other Polish nobles, to whom he related his story. His manners were so engaging and his knowledge of Russia so extensive that the Polish nobles did not inquire too closely into the truth of his statements, but accepted them as facts.

The story soon spread from town to town. After awhile it reached Russia. Dmitri had not been murdered, after all. The plans of Boris had failed, and a peasant boy had been substituted for the lad. The real Dmitri was alive and was on his way to call the usurper to a terrible account for his deed. The story spread like fire on a prairie.

Boris on his throne heard what the people were saying. "What? Dmitri alive! It is false. The man is an impostor. I must have him here at once. Send to Poland and have him brought to me." His messengers tried to bribe the Polish prince to give up Dmitri to Boris, but this was a bad move, for it confirmed the suspicions of those who believed that Boris was really concerned in the child's murder.

Events now moved rapidly. Dmitri, backed by the Polish nobles, raised an army of five thousand men and marched into Russian territory. The force grew rapidly as it advanced. Town after town submitted to him as soon as he appeared, bringing the governors that Boris had appointed bound and gagged to him. Dmitri set them free and treated them with courtesy.

Boris gathered his army to oppose the advance of Dmitri. At one town his force of fifteen thousand men opposed Boris' army of fifty thousand. Dmitri proved himself an able leader and a brave soldier. At the head of six hundred knights he charged the center of the Russian army, threw it into confusion, while the soldiers fled in disorder.

A month later he was defeated by Boris and had to take refuge in a distant city. Here the agents of the ruler attempted to poison him, but the plot was discovered and the agents punished. Dmitri wrote a letter to Boris, saying, "Descend from the throne you have usurped, and seek refuge in a cloister and reconcile yourself with Heaven. I shall then forgive you, else I shall not cease until I shall punish you for your wicked crimes."

Boris shuddered when he read the letter. The phantoms of all the dreadful things he had done arose to haunt him and keep him from sleep. He feared Dmitri; he feared his attendants; he feared everything. He knew that so long as Dmitri lived, his throne was not safe, yet he also knew he could not keep on killing people in order to save himself. He knew that everybody that came into his presence hated him, and in his heart he was sore afraid.

One day he was dining in state with some foreigners. After the meal had been served he was seized with a sudden illness. Blood burst from his mouth, his nose, his ears. He fell on the floor and was borne to his room, where, after two hours' suffering, he died. No one ever knew, or at least ever said, what was the cause of his sudden death. And thus ended the strange career of Boris, whom nobody ever proved to be really a murderer.

Now, Boris had a son Feodor, named for the late czar. Feodor was not like his father, for his hold on the throne was very weak indeed. He was made czar, but within six weeks he was deposed and executed, and nobody seemed to care one way or the other. Thus was the way made clear for Dmitri.

The army and the people of Moscow proclaimed themselves in favor of Dmitri. He entered the city and was made czar amid great pomp and ceremony. The young man who two years before had his ears boxed by a prince, was now the head of the mighty Russian nation.

Dmitri proved himself to be a kind and generous ruler. He remitted heavy taxes, punished offenders, paid the debts of Ivan, and in many ways endeared himself to the people. His knowledge of affairs was remarkable for one of his age, and his disposition was unusually gentle.

He, himself, however, could not escape from the conspiracies and intrigues that beset all rulers of Russia at that day. Most of them died violent deaths, and Dmitri was not spared this fate. His boyish humor had offended the nobles, who he declared had the manners of savages. They never forgave him for this.

After ruling for nearly a year a conspiracy was formed to put him to death. Moscow broke out in rebellion and a body of soldiers appeared before the palace of Dmitri, crying, "Death to the impostor! Down with the false Dmitri!"

Dmitri retired before the conspirators as they broke into the palace and forced his guards from room to room. With his own hands he slew several of his assailants, and then leaped from a window to the ground, thirty feet below, breaking his leg in the fall.

Here he was seized by the mob, his royal garments were taken off, and the cap of a pastry cook was placed on his head instead of his crown. Thus attired, he was carried back to his own palace, for a mock trial.

"You impostor! Tell us who you are and whence you came!" cried one of the Russians.

"I am your czar," said he. "The son of Ivan, and in my veins flows the blood of the Ruriks, who for seven hundred years have ruled this nation."

"You are a heretic dog, and the son of a slave!" cried one of the Russian nobles who was in the conspiracy, and aiming his gun, shot Dmitri through the heart.

The same people who a few weeks before had followed his imperial train now hacked his body in pieces, until none could recognize the features of the young czar. A few days afterward his body was burned and his ashes were mixed with gun-powder and rammed into a cannon, which was dragged to the very gate by which Dmitri had entered Moscow.

Here the match was applied and the ashes of the czar were blown down the road toward Poland, from which he had come. And to this day no one knows whether he was the son of Ivan, or whether he was merely Dmitri, the Pretender.