A people's literature is the great textbook for real knowledge of them. The writings of the day show the quality of the people as no historical reconstruction can. — Edith Hamilton

Adventures of Baron Munchausen - R. E. Raspe

More of the Baron's Adventures at Sea

When Captain Phipps (the present Lord Mulgrave) went on a voyage of discovery to the North Pole I accompanied him—not as an officer, but as a friend. We passed Spitzbergen safely, nothing but sea and sky and immense icebergs, some of them three times as high as our masts. I took my telescope and began gazing at the objects round us, for I consider it very helpful to look round from time to time when travelling in order to miss nothing of interest

"On the nearest iceberg, which was about a mile away, I saw two large polar bears apparently engaged in a deadly fight. I immediately took my rifle and walked across the ice, but the ascent to the summit was exceedingly toilsome and dangerous. At times I was obliged to leap over immense chasms, at others, I had to crawl over a surface as smooth as a mirror, and it took me some time to reach the bears, who after all were only at play. I at once began to calculate the value of their skins, for each bear was as large as a well-fed ox. Unfortunately, as I was about to fire, my right foot slipped and I fell on my back. I lost consciousness owing to the violence of the blow, and when I came to my senses again, in about half an hour, I found myself in a very unpleasant situation.

[Illustration] from Baron Munchausen by R. E. Raspe

"One of these monstrous animals had turned me upon my face, and had just seized my leathern belt between his teeth in order to carry me off! Heaven only knows where the brute would have dragged me, had I not pulled out my hunting-knife—this very one you see here—seized his left hind paw, and chopped off three of the toes; he at once relaxed his grip and roared most horribly. I hastily picked up my rifle, which was lying a couple of paces off, and shot the bear through the heart.

"The sound of the shot roused several thousand of these white bears who had been sleeping on the ice about half a mile away. Then all came at full speed in my direction, and I set my wits to work, for I knew I was lost unless I could hit on a means of escape.

"In about the same time as is taken by an expert hunter to skin a rabbit I stripped off Master Bruin's fur coat and enveloped myself in it, placing my head immediately under his. The whole herd gathered round me directly, and I grew hot and cold with fright. However, my disguise turned out admirably, for the bears evidently took me for one of themselves, and even invited me to join in their games. I imitated their gestures and movements as well as I could, planning meantime how to escape from their unwelcome society.

[Illustration] from Baron Munchausen by R. E. Raspe

"Suddenly I remembered hearing an old army surgeon say that a wound in the spine was instant death. I determined to try the experiment and, taking up my knife again, I struck the largest bear in the neck near the shoulders.

"I am sure you must think that was a very rash thing to do, and you are quite right, for had the creature survived my blow I should without the slightest doubt have been torn to pieces. But the stroke was a fatal one, and the bear fell dead at my feet without a groan. I resolved to kill all the others in the same manner, and this I easily accomplished, for although the bears saw their companions fall they had no idea there was anything wrong. When the whole herd lay dead before me, 1 felt myself a second Samson, having slain my thousands.

[Illustration] from Baron Munchausen by R. E. Raspe

"To cut my story short, I went back to the ship and summoned the greater part of the crew to assist me in skinning the bears and carrying the pelts and hams on board. We finished this business by sunset, and the captain's only regret was that his share in the day's doings had been so small.

"My next sea voyage was made with Captain Hamilton to the East Indies, and I took with me a valuable pointer, whose scent was most extraordinarily keen. One day, when by our calculations we were at least three hundred miles from land, my dog pointed. In great astonishment I mentioned this fact to the captain and officers, asserting that we must be near land, for my dog smelt game. This occasioned general laughter, but my confidence in my dog was undiminished, and I therefore offered to wager the captain an hundred guineas that we should find game within half an hour. The captain, a rare good fellow, laughed heartily, and whispered to the ship's surgeon: 'Munchausen is out of his senses. I cannot accept such a wager.'

"The doctor replied in an audible whisper, 'Indeed, captain, he is as sane as you or I, but he puts greater confidence in his dog's scent than in the opinion of all the officers on board. He will certainly lose, but he richly deserves to do so.'

"'But I scarcely think the wager would be fair on my side,' objected the captain. 'However, I could always return him the money afterwards.'

[Illustration] from Baron Munchausen by R. E. Raspe

"My dog's behavior in the meantime had confirmed me still more in my opinion, and when I proposed the wager for the second time Hamilton accepted it. We had scarcely shaken hands on the wager, when some of the sailors, who had been fishing in the stern, drew an exceedingly large shark out of the water. My dog became very excited, and I merely remarked, 'Here is the game.' And sure enough, when the shark was cut open we found no less than six brace of live partridges inside it!

"They had been so long in that situation, that one of the hens was sitting on seventeen eggs, one of which was just hatching when the shark was opened! This young one we brought up with a litter of young kittens, and the old cat became as fond of it as of any of her own young. During the whole voyage we were plentifully supplied with fresh eggs and young tender partridges. I won my wager, and my trusty dog was supplied with bones for dinner every day."