Read CHAPTER X of The Land of Thor , free online book, by J. Ross Browne, on ReadCentral.com.

THE EMPEROR’S BEAR-HUNT.

The present emperor, Alexander III., is more distinguished for his liberal views respecting the rights of his subjects than for his military proclivities. In private life he is much beloved, and is said to be a man of very genial social qualities. His predominating passion in this relation is a love of hunting. I have been told that he is especially great on bears. With all your experience of this manly pastime in America, I doubt if you can form any conception of the bear-hunts in which the Autocrat of all the Russias has distinguished himself. Any body with nerve enough can kill a grizzly, but it requires both nerve and money to kill bears of any kind in the genuine autocratic style. By an imperial ukase it has been ordered that when any of the peasants or serfs discover a bear within twenty versts of the Moscow and St. Petersburg Railway, they must make known the fact to the proprietor of the estate, whose duty it is to communicate official information of the discovery to the corresponding secretary of the Czar. With becoming humility the secretary announces the tidings to his royal master, who directs him to advise the distant party that his majesty is much pleased, and will avail himself of his earliest leisure to proceed to the scene of action. In the mean time the entire available force of the estate is set to work to watch the bear, and from three to five hundred men, armed with cudgels, tin pans, old kettles, drums, etc., are stationed in a circle around him. Dogs also are employed upon this important service. The advance trains, under the direction of the master hunter, having deposited their stores of wines, cordials, and provisions, and telegraphic communications being transmitted to head-quarters from time to time, it is at length privately announced that his imperial majesty has condescended to honor the place with his presence, and, should the saints not prove averse, will be there with his royal party at the hour and on the day specified in the imperial dispatch. The grand convoy is then put upon the track; dispatches are transmitted to all the stations; officers, soldiers, and guards are required to be in attendance to do honor to their sovereign master privately, of course, as this is simply an unofficial affair which nobody is supposed to know any thing about. The emperor, having selected his chosen few that is to say, half a dozen princes, a dozen dukes, a score or two of counts and barons all fine fellows and genuine bloods proceeds unostentatiously to the depot in his hunting-carriage (a simple little affair, manufactured at a cost of only forty thousand rubles or so), where he is astonished to see a large concourse of admiring subjects, gayly interspersed with soldiers, all accidentally gathered there to see him off. Now hats are removed, bows are made, suppressed murmurs of delight run through the crowd; the locomotive whizzes and fizzes with impatience; bells are rung, arms are grounded; the princes, dukes, and barons jolly fellows as they are laugh and joke just like common people; bells ring again and whistles blow; a signal is made, and the Autocrat of all the Russias is off on his bear-hunt!

In an hour, or two or three hours, as the case may be, the royal hunters arrive at the destined station. Should the public business be pressing, it is not improbable the emperor, availing himself of the conveniences provided for him by Winans and Co., in whose magnificent present of a railway carriage he travels, has in the mean time dispatched a fleet of vessels to Finland, ten or a dozen extra regiments of Cossacks to Warsaw, closed upon terms for a loan of fifty millions, banished various objectionable parties to the deserts of Siberia, and partaken of a game or two of whist with his camarilla.

But now the important affair of the day is at hand the bear the terrible black bear, which every body is fully armed and equipped to kill, but which every body knows by instinct is going to be killed by the emperor, because of his majesty’s superior skill and courage on trying occasions of this sort. What a blessing it is to possess such steadiness of nerve! I would not hesitate one moment to attack the most ferocious grizzly in existence if I felt half as much confidence in my ability to kill it. But the carriages are waiting; the horses are prancing; the hunters are blowing their bugles; the royal party are mounting on horseback or in their carriages, as best may suit their taste, and the signal is given! A salute is fired by the Guard, huzzas ring through the air, and the Czar of all the Russias is fairly off on his hunt. Trees fly by; desert patches of ground whirl from under; versts are as nothing to these spirited steeds and their spirited masters, and in an hour or so the grand scene of action is reached. Here couriers stand ready to conduct the imperial hunters into the very jaws of death. The noble proprietor himself, bareheaded, greets the royal pageant; the serfs bow down in Oriental fashion; the dashing young Czar touches his hunting-cap in military style and waves his hand gallantly to the ladies of the household, who are peeping at him from their carriages in the distance. Once more the bugle is sounded, and away they dash knights, nobles, and all the handsome and gallant Czar leading the way by several lengths. Soon the terrific cry is heard “Halt! the bear! the bear! Halt!” Shut your eyes, reader, for you never can stand such a sight as that a full-grown black bear, not two hundred yards off, in the middle of an open space, surrounded by five hundred men hidden behind trees and driving him back from every point where he attempts to escape. You don’t see the men, but you hear them shouting and banging upon their pots, pans, and kettles. Now just open one eye and see the emperor dismount from his famous charger, and deliver the rein to a dozen domestics, deliberately cock his rifle, and fearlessly get behind the nearest tree within the range of the bear. By this time you perceive that Bruin is dancing a pas seul on his hind legs, utterly confounded with the noises around him. Shut your eyes again, for the emperor is taking his royal aim, and will presently crack away with his royal rifle. Hist! triggers are clicking around you in every direction, but you needn’t be the least afraid, for, although the bear is covered by a reserve of forty rifles, not one of the hunters has nerve enough to shoot unless officially authorized or personally desirous of visiting the silver-mines of Siberia. Crack! thug! The smoke clears away. By Jove! his imperial majesty has done it cleverly; hit the brute plumb on the os frontis, or through the heart, it makes no difference which. Down drops Bruin, kicking and tearing up the earth at a dreadful rate; cheers rend the welkin; pots, pans, and kettles are banged. High above all rises the stern voice of the autocrat, calling for another rifle, which is immediately handed to him. Humanity requires that he should at once put an end to the poor animal’s sufferings, and he does it with his accustomed skill.

Now the bear having kicked his last, an intrepid hunter charges up to the spot on horseback, whirls around it two or three times, carefully examines the body with an opera-glass, returns, and, approaching the royal presence with uncovered head, delivers himself according to this formula: “May it please your most gallant and imperial majesty, THE BEAR IS DEAD!” The emperor sometimes responds, “Is he?” but usually contents himself by waving his hand in an indifferent manner, puffing his cigar, and calling for his horse. Sixteen grooms immediately rush forward with his majesty’s horse; and, being still young and vigorous, he mounts without difficulty, unaided except by Master of Stirrups. Next he draws an ivory-handled revolver a present from Colt, of New York and, dashing fearlessly upon the bear, fires six shots into the dead body; upon which he coolly dismounts, and pulling forth from the breast of his hunting-coat an Arkansas bowie-knife a present from the poet Albert Pike, of Little Rock plunges that dangerous weapon into the bowels of the dead bear; then rising to his full height, with a dark and stern countenance, he holds the blood-dripping blade high in the air, so that all may see it, and utters one wild stentorian and terrific shout, “Harasho! harasho!” signifying in English, “Good! very well!” The cry is caught up by the princes and nobles, who, with uncovered heads, now crowd around their gallant emperor, and waving their hats, likewise shout “Harasho! harasho!” “Good! very well!” Then the five hundred peasants rush in with their tin pans, kettles, and drums, and amid the most amazing din catch up the inspiring strain, and deafen every ear with their wild shouts of “Harasho! harasho!” “Good! very well!” Upon which the emperor, rapidly mounting, places a finger in each ear, and, still puffing his cigar, rides triumphantly away.

The bear is hastily gutted and dressed with flowers. When all is ready the royal party return to the railroad depot in a long procession, headed by his majesty, and brought up in the rear by the dead body of Bruin borne on poles by six-and-twenty powerful serfs. Refreshments in the mean time have been administered to every body of high and low degree, and by the time they reach the depot there are but two sober individuals in the entire procession his royal majesty and the bear. Farther refreshments are administered all round during the journey back to St. Petersburg, and, notwithstanding he is rigidly prohibited by his physician from the use of stimulating beverages, it is supposed that a reaction has now taken place, which renders necessary a modification of the medical ukase. At all events, I am told the bear is sometimes the only really steady member of the party by the time the imperial pageant reaches the palace. When the usual ceremonies of congratulation are over, a merry dance winds up the evening. After this the company disperses to prayer and slumber, and thus ends the great bear-hunt of his majesty the Autocrat of all the Russias.