The Complete Works of Lyof N. Tolstoï/Desire Stronger than Necessity

Original title: Охота пуще неволи, published (1872)


WE were on a bear hunt. My comrade had succeeded in shooting a bear; he had wounded him in some tender spot. There was a little blood on the snow, but the bear had escaped.

We went into the forest and began to plan what to do,—whether we should make a search then and there for the bear, or wait two or three days until he showed himself.

We began to ask the peasant bear-drivers whether it were possible now to get on the track of this bear. An old bear-driver said:—

"It is impossible! you must give the bear a chance to recover: in five days you can get round him; but now if you follow him it will only frighten him, and he won't go to his lair."

But a young bear-driver disagreed with the old peasant, and said that now was the time to get round the bear.

"In such deep snow as this the bear can't go a great distance—he is a fat bear. He won't go into his lair to-day. And if he does not go into his lair, I can track him on my snow-shoes."

My comrade also was disinclined to track the bear, and advised waiting till another time.

But said I:—

"What is the use of discussing it? You do as you please, but I am going with Demyan after the bear. If we track him, all right; if we don't track him, it's all the same whether we do anything more to-day or not: it is still early."

That was what we did.

The others got into the sledge and returned to the village, while Demyan and I took some bread with us and remained in the woods.

As soon as the rest were gone from us, Demyan and I inspected our arms, belted our shubas, and started after the bear.

The weather was fine,—frosty and still. But it was laborious traveling on snow-shoes, for the snow was deep and mealy. The snow had not yet settled in the forest, and the evening before there had been a fresh fall, so that the snow-shoes sank over the edge, and in some places even deeper. The bear's tracks were visible for a long distance. We could see how the bear had made off; how in some places he had sunk up to his belly, and had scratched away the snow.

At first we followed the tracks over the deep snow through tall forest trees, but at last they turned into a fir thicket. Demyan halted.

"Now," said he, "we must abandon the trail. He must have his lair here. Here he stopped to rest; you can see by the snow. We will turn away from the trail, and make a circuit. Only we must go quietly, and not shout or cough, else we shall scare him."

We turned away from the trail abruptly to the left. After going five hundred paces, we discovered the bear's tracks again, right in front of us. Again we followed the trail, and this time the trail led us to the road. We stopped on the road and tried to decide what direction the bear had taken.

In one place on the road we could see where the bear's whole paw, with its toes, was imprinted; and here in another place a peasant had walked along the road in his bark shoes.[2] Apparently it had gone toward the village.

We went along the road, and Demyan said:—

"We shan't find his trail on the road; but if he has turned off anywhere to the right or the left, then we shall see it in the snow. He will turn off somewhere; he won't go to the village."

Thus we walked along the road for a verst,[3] and then we discovered the trail turning from the road. We examined it, and wonder of wonders! the bear's tracks were not running from the road to the forest, but from the forest to the road, as we could see by the claws turned toward the road.

Said I, " This is another bear."

Demyan scrutinized it carefully, and thought for a moment.

"No," said he, "it is the same one, but he has been playing us a trick. He backed off the road."

We followed this trail, and it proved to be the case. The bear had evidently walked backward ten steps from the road, then gone behind a fir tree, turned about, and made straight off.

Demyan paused, saying:—

"Now we have really caught him. He probably would not make his lair anywhere else than in this marsh. We will encircle him."

We started on our circuit through thick fir forest. I was already weary, and the going became harder and harder. Sometimes I would stumble over a juniper bush or a young fir would get between my legs, or my snow-shoes would slide away from me without any reason, and sometimes I would trip over a stump or a log hidden under the snow. And I began to be tired out. I took off my shuba, for the sweat was pouring off from me. But Demyan glided along as if he were in a boat. His snow-shoes seemed of their own accord to bear him along. He never stumbled or slipped. He took my shuba also, and threw it over his shoulders, and kept encouraging me to come on.

We made a circuit of three versts, entirely inclosing the swamp. I had already begun to lag behind. I lost control of my snow-shoes; my legs gave way under me. Suddenly Demyan stopped in front of me and waved his arm. I caught up with him. Demyan bent over, and said in a whisper, pointing with his hand:—

"Hear the magpie screaming on yonder stump; the bird scents the bear from a long distance. He is there."

We set out again, and, after going another verst, we came upon our old track. Thus we had made a complete circuit around the bear, and the bear remained in the middle of our ring.

We paused.

I took off my cap also, and unbuttoned my coat. I was as hot as if I had been in a Russian bath, and my clothes were just as wet as a drowned rat. Demyan also was red with exertion, and wiped his face with his sleeve.

"Well," says he, "barin, we have finished the job; now we must rest."

The twilight was already beginning to throw its purple glow across the trees. We squatted down on our snow-shoes to get breath.

We took out the bread and salt from our bag; first I ate a little snow, and then my bread. And that bread was more delicious than anything I had ever eaten before in my life.

Thus we rested, and the nightfall was already beginning. I asked Demyan if it was far to the village.

"It will be about a dozen versts. We can get there to-night; but now we must rest. Put on your shuba, barin, or you will get cold."

Demyan broke off some fir boughs, brushed away the snow, made a bed, and he and I lay down together, side by side, with our arms for pillows. I don't remember how I fell off to sleep. But I woke up about two hours later. Something snapped.

I had been so sound asleep that I had forgotten where I was. I looked about me—what a marvelous spectacle! Where was I? I was in a strange white palace; there were white columns, and above all spangles were sparkling. I gazed up, and saw white arabesques, and beyond the arabesques an inky black vault, and variegated fires flashing.

As I gazed around I remembered that we were in the forest and that what had seemed to me a palace was the trees covered with snow and frost, and the fires were the stars beyond the branches, twinkling in the sky.

During the night the hoar-frost had fallen; there was frost on the branches, and frost on my shuba, and Demyan was all covered by frost, and the air was full of falling hoar-frost.

I awakened Demyan. We got up on our snow-shoes and started on our way. It was silent in the forest. The only sound was what we made gliding over the soft snow, and the occasional cracking of a tree under the frost, and the echo of it dying away through the aisles.

Once only some living creature rustled out from under our feet, and scurried away. I immediately thought it might be the bear. We went to the spot which the animal had left, and found the trail of a hare. The aspens were girdled. Hares had been nibbling there.

When we reached the road, we took off our snow-shoes and fastened them behind, and marched along the road. It was easy going. The snow-shoes behind us slipped along, clattering over the smooth road; the snow creaked under our boots, and the cold hoar-frost clung to our faces like down. And the stars above the tree-tops ran along apparently racing with us, flashing and disappearing, just as if the whole heaven were in motion.

My comrade was asleep; I awakened him.

We told him how we had surrounded the bear, and we told the landlord to collect the peasant whippers-in early in the morning. We got something to eat and turned in.

I was so weary that I should have been glad to sleep till dinner-time, but my comrade roused me. I leaped out of bed, and found him already dressed, and doing something to his gun.

"Where is Demyan?"

"He went long ago into the woods. He has already verified the circuit, and came running back, and now he has gone out to show the whippers-in the way."

After washing and dressing, I loaded my gun. We took our places in the sledge and set off.

The temperature still continued low; the air was motionless; the sun was not visible; heavy clouds had risen and the hoar-frost was falling.

We drove three versts along the road, and reached the forest. We could see in the valley columns of blue smoke, and people standing around—peasant men and women,[4] with cudgels.

We leaped out, and joined the throng. The peasants were sitting around, roasting potatoes, and jesting with the women.

Demyan also was among them. The people got up. Demyan posted them on the circular trail that we had made the evening before. The men and women formed the line,—thirty of them in all,—buried in snow up to their waists, and made their way into the woods. Then my comrade and I followed after them.

Although the path was somewhat trodden, it was hard walking; still there was no possibility of falling; you walk as it were between two walls.

Thus we proceeded half a verst, and then we caught sight of Demyan on the other side, hurrying on snow-shoes to meet us, beckoning us to come to him.

We joined him; he showed us our places. As soon as I reached my station, I looked around me.

On my left there was a high fir tree; beyond it there was a wide view, and behind the trees stood a peasant whipper-in making a black spot. Opposite me there was a growth of young fir trees as tall as a man. The branches of the little firs were weighed down and stuck together by the snow. Through the clump led a foot-path trodden through the snow. This path led straight to me. On my right was another clump of firs, and then began a clearing. And I saw that Demyan had posted my comrade on this clearing.

I examined my two muskets, cocking them, and tried to decide where would be the best place for me to take my position. Just behind me, three paces distant, was a tall pine tree.

"Let me stand by this pine and rest my second musket against it."

I made my way over to the pine, through snow that reached above my knees, and then under the pine I trampled down a little space of an arshin and a half,[5] and established myself in it. I held one musket across my arm; the other I leaned against the tree, ready cocked. I took out my dagger and put it in its sheath again, so as to see if in case of necessity it would come out easily.

I had just finished my preparations when I heard Demyan shouting in the woods:—

"He has started out![6] he has started! he has started!"

And in reply to Demyan's call, the peasants on all sides began to shout in various voices. "Pashol! u-u-u-u-u!" shouted the peasants. "Aï, i-i-ikh!" screamed the women, in their sharp voices.

The bear was inside the circle. Demyan was driving him. On all sides the people were shouting; only my comrade and I were standing silent and motionless, awaiting the bear. I stood and listened, and my heart within me was beating like a sledge-hammer. I had my musket in position ; I trembled a little.

"Now, now," I thought to myself, "he will come leaping by; I will aim, I will fire my gun at him, and down he will go." ….

Suddenly, on my left, I heard something rushing through the snow; only it was at some distance. I gazed at the tall fir; fifty paces away, behind the trees, stood something black and big. I raised my gun and waited. I asked myself:—

"Won't it come any nearer?"

As I looked, it moved its ears and started to retreat. As it turned around and presented its side, I got a full view of it. The tremendous beast! I took aim in hot haste.

Bang! I could hear my bullet bury itself in a tree. I gazed through the smoke; my bear was galloping back under cover, and disappeared in the forest.

"Well," I said to myself, "I have spoiled my game; now there's no hope of his coming back to me; either my comrade will hit him, or he will make his escape through the peasants; but I shall not have another chance at him."

Nevertheless I reloaded my musket, and stood there, listening. The peasants were shouting on all sides; but on my right, not far from where my comrade stood, I heard a woman screaming at the top of her voice:—

"Here he is! here he is! here he is! This way! this way! oï! oï! aï! aï! aï!"

Evidently she saw the bear. I no longer had any expectations of its coming my way, so I fixed my eyes on my comrade. I saw Demyan, with a cudgel, and not wearing his snow-shoes, running along the trodden path toward my comrade, crouching down behind him, and calling his attention to something, as if he were urging him to fire. I saw my comrade lift his musket and aim in the direction indicated by Demyan with his stick.

Bang! The gun went off.

"Well," said I to myself, "he has killed him!"

But when I saw that my comrade was not hurrying to the bear, I said to myself:—

"Missed, evidently; he could not have got a good aim. Now the bear will retreat, and there's no hope of his coming in my direction."

But what was this?

Suddenly I heard, directly in front of me, some one rushing along like a tornado, scattering the snow and puffing close to me. I looked up the path, and there he was, coming straight down upon me, over the little path between the thick fir bushes, galloping along with head down, and evidently frightened out of his wits.

He was now only five paces away from me. I could see his black breast, and his huge head covered with red hair. He was rushing directly at me, scattering the snow in every direction. I could see by his eyes that he did not perceive me, but was so terrified that he was dashing off full tilt, no matter where. But his course was bringing him directly toward the tree near which I was standing. I raised my musket—I fired—he was directly upon me. I perceived that I missed; the bullet glanced off, but the bear did not notice; he dashed at me, and not even yet did he see me.

I aimed my gun, and almost touched him. Bang! I could see that I hit him, but that the shot had failed to kill him.

He lifted his head, put back his ears, and thrust his snout straight into my face.

I tried to snatch my second musket; but no sooner had I put out my hand, than he dashed at me, knocked me over into the snow, and sprang away.

"Well," said I to myself, "lucky for me that he left me."

I was just picking myself up, when I discovered that something was pressing me down, keeping me from rising. His momentum had carried him along, he had fallen beyond me; and then, coming back to me, he had fallen upon me with his full weight. I was conscious of something heavy resting upon me, I was conscious of something warm on my face, and I was conscious that he had taken my whole face into his jaws. My nose was already in his mouth, and I could smell the warm odor of his blood. He had planted his paws on my shoulders, and it was impossible for me to move.

I managed, however, to extricate my head from his jaws on to his breast, and I turned away my eyes and nose. But a second time he succeeded in setting his tusks into my face and eyes. I became conscious that he was setting the tusks of his upper jaw into my forehead, under the hair, and those of his lower jaw in the flesh under my eyes; he shut his teeth together and began to crush me. Like knives they cut into my head. I struggled, I pulled myself out of his clutches; but he made haste, and, snapping like a dog, hugged me closer and closer.

I got away from him, and again he clutched me.

"Well," said I to myself, "my end has come."

Suddenly I perceived that his pressure on me became less. I looked, and he had gone! he had bounded away from me, and was making off.

When my comrade and Demyan saw that the bear had knocked me down into the snow, and was gnawing me, they rushed toward me. My comrade, in his eagerness to get to me as speedily as possible, made a mistake; instead of running along the beaten path, he tried to cut across and fell. While he was struggling out of the deep snow, the bear was all the time biting me. But Demyan, though he was not armed with a musket, and had only a dry branch, ran along the path, and kept shouting:—

"He is killing the barin! he is eating up the barin!"

And then, as he approached the bear, he cried:—

"Oh, you beast! what are you doing? Let go! Let go!"[7]

The bear heard, let go of me, and made off.

When I picked myself up, there was as much blood on the snow as if they had been killing a wild boar, and the flesh under my eyes hung in shreds; but I was so excited that I felt no pain.

My comrade came to me; the people gathered together; they examined my wounds; they wet them with snow. But as for me I forgot all about my wounds; I asked:—

"Where is the bear? Where has he gone?"

Suddenly we heard them shouting:—

"Here he is! here he is!"

And we saw the bear rushing back in our direction. We seized our muskets; but before any one had time to fire, he had already dashed by. The bear was maddened; he wanted to finish devouring me; but when he saw that a crowd had collected, he was afraid. By the trail we could see that the blood came from the bear's head; they wanted to go in pursuit of him; but my head began to pain me, and we returned to the village, to the doctor.

The doctor sewed up my wounds with silk, and they began to heal.

At the end of a month we again went out in pursuit of this bear; but I did not have the chance of finishing him. The bear did not come out of his lair, but kept moving around and around, and roaring in a terrible voice.

Demyan put an end to him. The lower jaw of this bear had been broken by my shot, and a tooth knocked out.

This bear was huge, and he had a splendid black skin.

I had him stuffed, and he lies in my sleeping-room. The wounds in my face got well, so that there is scarcely any scar where they were made.

  1. Okhota pushche nyevoli: Russian proverb; but literally it might also mean, "Hunting more (or worse) than slavery."
  2. Lapti.
  3. 3500 feet.
  4. Muzhiks and babas.
  5. About five square feet.
  6. Pashol.
  7. The one word, bros, in Russian.