We were out on a bear-hunting expedition. My comrade had shot at a bear, but only gave him a flesh-wound. There were traces of blood on the snow, but the bear had got away.
We all collected in a group in the forest, to decide whether we ought to go after the bear at once, or wait two or three days till he should settle down again. We asked the peasant bear-drivers whether it would be possible to get round the bear that day.
‘No. It’s impossible,’ said an old bear-driver. ‘You must let the bear quiet down. In five days’ time it will be possible to surround him; but if you followed him now, you would only frighten him away, and he would not settle down.’
But a young bear-driver began disputing with the old man, saying that it was quite possible to get round the bear now.
‘On such snow as this,’ said he, ‘he won’t go far, for he is a fat bear. He will settle down before evening; or, if not, I can overtake him on snowshoes.’
The comrade I was with was against following up the bear, and advised waiting. But I said:
‘We need not argue. You do as you like, but I will follow up the track with Damian. If we get round the bear, all right. If not, we lose nothing. It is still early, and there is nothing else for us to do to-day.’
So it was arranged.
The others went back to the sledges, and returned to the village. Damian and I took some bread, and remained behind in the forest.
When they had all left us, Damian and I examined our guns, and after tucking the skirts of our warm coats into our belts, we started off, following the bear’s tracks.
The weather was fine, frosty and calm; but it was hard work snow-shoeing. The snow was deep and soft: it had not caked together at all in the forest, and fresh snow had fallen the day before, so that our snow-shoes sank six inches deep in the snow, and sometimes more.
The bear’s tracks were visible from a distance, and we could see how he had been going; sometimes sinking in up to his belly and ploughing up the snow as he went. At first, while under large trees, we kept in sight of his track; but when it turned into a thicket of small firs, Damian stopped.
‘We must leave the trail now,’ said he. ‘He has probably settled somewhere here. You can see by the snow that he has been squatting down. Let us leave the track and go round; but we must go quietly. Don’t shout or cough, or we shall frighten him away.’
Leaving the track, therefore, we turned off to the left. But when we had gone about five hundred yards, there were the bear’s traces again right before us. We followed them, and they brought us out on to the road. There we stopped, examining the road to see which way the bear had gone. Here and there in the snow were prints of the bear’s paw, claws and all, and here and there the marks of a peasant’s bark shoes. The bear had evidently gone towards the village.
As we followed the road, Damian said:
‘It’s no use watching the road now. We shall see where he has turned off, to right or left, by the marks in the soft snow at the side. He must have turned off somewhere; for he won’t have gone on to the village.’
We went along the road for nearly a mile, and then saw, ahead of us, the bear’s track turning off the road. We examined it. How strange! It was a bear’s track right enough, only not going from the road into the forest, but from the forest on to the road! The toes were pointing towards the road.
‘This must be another bear,’ I said.
Damian looked at it, and considered a while.
‘No,’ said he. ‘It’s the same one. He’s been playing tricks, and walked backwards when he left the road.’
We followed the track, and found it really was so! The bear had gone some ten steps backwards, and then, behind a fir tree, had turned round and gone straight ahead. Damian stopped and said:
‘Now, we are sure to get round him. There is a marsh ahead of us, and he must have settled down there. Let us go round it.’
We began to make our way round, through a fir thicket. I was tired out by this time, and it had become still more difficult to get along. Now I glided on to juniper bushes and caught my snow-shoes in them, now a tiny fir tree appeared between my feet, or, from want of practise, my snow-shoes slipped off; and now I came upon a stump or a log hidden by the snow. I was getting very tired, and was drenched with perspiration; and I took off my fur cloak. And there was Damian all the time, gliding along as if in a boat, his snowshoes moving as if of their own accord, never catching against anything, nor slipping off. He even took my fur and slung it over his shoulder, and still kept urging me on.
We went on for two more miles, and came out on the other side of the marsh. I was lagging behind. My snow-shoes kept slipping off, and my feet stumbled. Suddenly Damian, who was ahead of me, stopped and waved his arm. When I came up to him, he bent down, pointing with his hand, and whispered:
‘Do you see the magpie chattering above that undergrowth? It scents the bear from afar. That is where he must be.’
We turned off and went on for more than another half-mile, and presently we came on to the old track again. We had, therefore, been right round the bear who was now within the track we had left. We stopped, and I took off my cap and loosened all my clothes. I was as hot as in a steam bath, and as wet as a drowned rat. Damian too was flushed, and wiped his face with his sleeve.
‘Well, sir,’ he said, ‘we have done our job, and now we must have a rest.’
The evening glow already showed red through the forest. We took off our snow-shoes and sat down on them, and got some bread and salt out of our bags. First I ate some snow, and then some bread; and the bread tasted so good, that I thought I had never in my life had any like it before. We sat there resting until it began to grow dusk, and then I asked Damian if it was far to the village.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘It must be about eight miles. We will go on there to-night, but now we must rest. Put on your fur coat, sir, or you’ll be catching cold.’
Damian flattened down the snow, and breaking off some fir branches made a bed of them. We lay down side by side, resting our heads on our arms. I do not remember how I fell asleep. Two hours later I woke up, hearing something crack.
I had slept so soundly that I did not know where I was. I looked around me. How wonderful! I was in some sort of a hall, all glittering and white with gleaming pillars, and when I looked up I saw, through delicate white tracery, a vault, raven black and studded with coloured lights. After a good look, I remembered that we were in the forest, and that what I took for a hall and pillars, were trees covered with snow and hoar-frost, and the coloured lights were stars twinkling between the branches.
Hoar-frost had settled in the night; all the twigs were thick with it, Damian was covered with it, it was on my fur coat, and it dropped down from the trees. I woke Damian, and we put on our snowshoes and started. It was very quiet in the forest. No sound was heard but that of our snow-shoes pushing through the soft snow; except when now and then a tree, cracked by the frost, made the forest resound. Only once we heard the sound of a living creature. Something rustled close to us, and then rushed away. I felt sure it was the bear, but when we went to the spot whence the sound had come, we found the footmarks of hares, and saw several young aspen trees with their bark gnawed. We had startled some hares while they were feeding.
We came out on the road, and followed it, dragging our snow-shoes behind us. It was easy walking now. Our snow-shoes clattered as they slid behind us from side to side of the hard-trodden road. The snow creaked under our boots, and the cold hoar-frost settled on our faces like down. Seen through the branches, the stars seemed to be running to meet us, now twinkling, now vanishing, as if the whole sky were on the move.
I found my comrade sleeping, but woke him up, and related how we had got round the bear. After telling our peasant host to collect beaters for the morning, we had supper and lay down to sleep.
I was so tired that I could have slept on till midday, if my comrade had not roused me. I jumped up, and saw that he was already dressed, and busy doing something to his gun.
‘Where is Damian?’ said I.
‘In the forest, long ago. He has already been over the tracks you made, and been back here, and now he has gone to look after the beaters.’
I washed and dressed, and loaded my guns; and then we got into a sledge, and started.
The sharp frost still continued. It was quiet, and the sun could not be seen. There was a thick mist above us, and hoar-frost still covered everything.
After driving about two miles along the road, as we came near the forest, we saw a cloud of smoke rising from a hollow, and presently reached a group of peasants, both men and women, armed with cudgels.
We got out and went up to them. The men sat roasting potatoes, and laughing and talking with the women.
Damian was there too; and when we arrived the people got up, and Damian led them away to place them in the circle we had made the day before. They went along in single file, men and women, thirty in all. The snow was so deep that we could only see them from their waists upwards. They turned into the forest, and my friend and I followed in their track.
Though they had trodden a path, walking was difficult, but, on the other hand, it was impossible to fall: it was like walking between two walls of snow.
We went on in this way for nearly half a mile, when all at once we saw Damian coming from another direction — running towards us on his snowshoes, and beckoning us to join him. We went towards him, and he showed us where to stand. I took my place, and looked round me.
To my left were tall fir trees, between the trunks of which I could see a good way, and, like a black patch just visible behind the trees, I could see a beater. In front of me was a thicket of young firs, about as high as a man, their branches weighed down and stuck together with snow. Through this copse ran a path thickly covered with snow, and leading straight up to where I stood. The thicket stretched away to the right of me, and ended in a small glade, where I could see Damian placing my comrade.
I examined both my guns, and considered where I had better stand. Three steps behind me was a tall fir.
‘That’s where I’ll stand,’ thought I, ‘and then I can lean my second gun against the tree’; and I moved towards the tree, sinking up to my knees in the snow at each step. I trod the snow down, and made a clearance about a yard square, to stand on. One gun I kept in my hand; the other, ready cocked, I placed leaning up against the tree. Then I unsheathed and replaced my dagger, to make sure that I could draw it easily in case of need.
Just as I had finished these preparations, I heard Damian shouting in the forest:
‘He’s up! He’s up!’
And as soon as Damian shouted, the peasants round the circle all replied in their different voices.
‘Up, up, up! Ou! Ou! Ou!’ shouted the men.
‘Ay! Ay! Ay!’ screamed the women in high. pitched tones.
The bear was inside the circle, and as Damian drove him on, the people all round kept shouting. Only my friend and I stood silent and motionless, waiting for the bear to come towards us. As I stood gazing and listening, my heart beat violently. I trembled, holding my gun fast.
‘Now now,’ I thought. ‘He will come suddenly. I shall aim, fire, and he will drop — ‘
Suddenly, to my left, but at a distance, I heard something falling on the snow. I looked between the tall fir trees, and, some fifty paces off, behind the trunks, saw something big and black. I took aim and waited, thinking:
‘Won’t he come any nearer?’
As I waited I saw him move his ears, turn, and go back; and then I caught a glimpse of the whole of him in profile. He was an immense brute. In my excitement, I fired, and heard my bullet go ‘flop’ against a tree. Peering through the smoke, I saw my bear scampering back into the circle, and disappearing among the trees.
‘Well,’ thought I. ‘My chance is lost. He won’t come back to me. Either my comrade will shoot him, or he will escape through the line of beaters. In any case he won’t give me another chance.’
I reloaded my gun, however, and again stood listening. The peasants were shouting all round, but to the right, not far from where my comrade stood, I heard a woman screaming in a frenzied voice: ‘Here he is! Here he is! Come here, come here! Oh! Oh! Ay! Ay!’
Evidently she could see the bear. I had given up expecting him, and was looking to the right at my comrade. All at once I saw Damian with a stick in his hand, and without his snow-shoes, running along a footpath towards my friend. He crouched down beside him, pointing his stick as if aiming at something, and then I saw my friend raise his gun and aim in the same direction. Crack! He fired.
‘There,’ thought I. ‘He has killed him.’
But I saw that my comrade did not run towards the bear. Evidently he had missed him, or the shot had not taken full effect.
‘The bear will get away,’ I thought. ‘He will go back, but he won’t come a second time towards me. — But what is that?’
Something was coming towards me like a whirlwind, snorting as it came; and I saw the snow flying up quite near me. I glanced straight before me, and there was the bear, rushing along the path through the thicket right at me, evidently beside himself with fear. He was hardly half a dozen paces off, and I could see the whole of him — his black chest and enormous head with a reddish patch. There he was, blundering straight at me, and scattering the snow about as he came. I could see by his eyes that he did not see me, but, mad with fear, was rushing blindly along; and his path led him straight at the tree under which I was standing. I raised my gun and fired. He was almost upon me now, and I saw that I had missed. My bullet had gone past him, and he did not even hear me fire, but still came headlong towards me. I lowered my gun, and fired again, almost touching his head. Crack! I had hit, but not killed him!
He raised his head, and laying his ears back, came at me, showing his teeth.
I snatched at my other gun, but almost before I had touched it, he had down at me and, knocking me over into the snow, had passed right over me.
‘Thank goodness, he has left me,’ thought I.
I tried to rise, but something pressed me down, and prevented my getting up. The bear’s rush had carried him past me, but he had turned back, and had fallen on me with the whole weight of his body. I felt something heavy weighing me down, and something warm above my face, and I realized that he was drawing my whole face into his mouth. My nose was already in it, and I felt the heat of it, and smelt his blood. He was pressing my shoulders down with his paws so that I could not move: all I could do was to draw my head down towards my chest away from his mouth, trying to free my nose and eyes, while he tried to get his teeth into them. Then I felt that he had seized my forehead just under the hair with the teeth of his lower jaw, and the flesh below my eyes with his upper jaw, and was closing his teeth. It was as if my face were being cut with knives. I struggled to get away, while he made haste to close his jaws like a dog gnawing. I managed to twist my face away, but he began drawing it again into his mouth.
‘Now,’ thought I, ‘my end has come!’
Then I felt the weight lifted, and looking up, I saw that he was no longer there. He had jumped off me and run away.
When my comrade and Damian had seen the bear knock me down and begin worrying me, they rushed to the rescue. My comrade, in his haste, blundered, and instead of following the trodden path, ran into the deep snow and fell down. While he was struggling out of the snow, the bear was gnawing at me. But Damian just as he was, without a gun, and with only a stick in his hand, rushed along the path shouting:
‘He’s eating the master! He’s eating the master!’
And as he ran, he called to the bear:
‘Oh you idiot! What are you doing? Leave off! Leave off!’
The bear obeyed him, and leaving me ran away. When I rose, there was as much blood on the snow as if a sheep had been killed, and the flesh hung in rags above my eyes, though in my excitement I felt no pain.
My comrade had come up by this time, and the other people collected round: they looked at my wound, and put snow on it. But I, forgetting about my wounds, only asked:
‘Where’s the bear? Which way has he gone?’
Suddenly I heard:
‘Here he is! Here he is!’
And we saw the bear again running at us. We seized our guns, but before any one had time to fire he had run past. He had grown ferocious, and wanted to gnaw me again, but seeing so many people he took fright. We saw by his track that his head was bleeding and we wanted to follow him up; but, as my wounds had become very painful, we went, instead, to the town to find a doctor.
The doctor stitched up my wounds with silk, and they soon began to heal.
A month later we went to hunt that bear again, but I did not get a chance of finishing him. He would not come out of the circle, but went round and round growling in a terrible voice.
Damian killed him. The bear’s lower jaw had been broken, and one of his teeth knocked out by my bullet.
He was a huge creature, and had splendid black fur.
I had him stuffed, and he now lies in my room. The wounds on my forehead healed up so that the scars can scarcely be seen.