Once upon a time, there was a young man who decided that a soldier’s life was for him and enlisted. In time he became such a brave, courageous soldier that he was always to be found in the front ranks. As long as the war lasted, he knew his place in the world, but when peace came he was discharged, and his captain told him he was free to go where he liked.
While he’d been away soldiering, his parents had died, which left him with no home to go to. He sought out his brothers, and asked them to give him shelter. But they refused, and insisting he could not be taught a trade, they turned him away.
Left with nothing but his musket, the soldier mounted this on his shoulder and set out, not knowing where he would go. After a time he came to a great heath with nothing on it but a circle of trees. He sat down, sorrowfully considering his fate. “I have no money, I have learnt nothing but soldiering and now, since peace is concluded, there is no need of me. I believe I will most likely starve.”
He heard a rustling behind him, and turned to see a stranger standing there, dressed in a stately grey coat. Yet the soldier noticed that the stranger’s foot, on which there was no boot, was cloven.
“I know what you need,” said the stranger. “Gold and richly possessions you shall have, as much as you can spend; but first I must know whether or not you are a coward, for I will not spend my money foolishly.”
Angered at the implication, the soldier retorted, “A soldier and a coward! That cannot be. Put me to whatever proof you require.”
Raising a brow, the stranger inclined his head. “Look behind you then.”
The soldier turned to see a huge, ferocious bear. Quick as anything, he grabbed his musket and shot the bear in the forehead; the beast tumbled to lie still on the ground.
“I see that you are not lacking in courage,” said the stranger. “But there is still one condition which you are required to fulfil.”
Having worked out who the stranger was, the soldier chose his words carefully so as not to ensnare his soul. “I shall not hesitate so long as it does not interfere with my future happiness.”
“Very well,” said the stranger. “For the next seven years, you must not wash yourself, nor comb your hair or beard, neither must you cut your nails nor utter one word of prayer. I will give you this coat and mantle, which you must wear during these seven years; and if you die within that time you are mine, but if you live you are rich, and free all your life long.”
The soldier spent a while thinking on the conditions. Remembering how often he had braved death, he finally consented and accepted the offer.
The devilish one pulled off the grey coat and handed it to the soldier. “If at any time you search in the pockets of this coat, you will always find your hand full of money.” Turning to the bear, he pulled off the creature’s skin. “This shall be your cloak and your bed; you must sleep on it and not lie in any other bed. From this day for the next seven years, you shall be called ‘Bearskin’.” With that, the devil-stranger disappeared.
The soldier put on the coat and dipped his hands into the pockets to make sure the stranger was true to his word. Then he hung the bear skin around himself, and went about the world, pleased with his good luck and buying whatever suited his fancy which money could buy.
His first year in this guise was easy enough, for his appearance was not very remarkable. But as he went through the second year, he began to look more of a monster. His hair covered almost all his face, his beard hung like frayed cloth, his nails were claws, and his countenance was covered all over with dirt. Whoever crossed his path ran away; but wherever he went he gave the poor gold coin and they prayed for him. Each night, he would find lodging without difficulty for he paid liberally.
In the fourth year, he came to an inn where the landlord refused to allow him in, refusing even to let him sleep in the stables in case he frightened the horses. But when Bearskin put his hand in his pocket and drew out gold coins, the landlord yielded and gave him a place in one of his outbuildings.
While Bearskin sat by himself in the evening, wishing once more that the seven years were over, he heard someone weeping. Having a compassionate heart, Bearskin went to investigate, and saw an old man weeping most violently. He stepped nearer but when the old man saw him, he cried out and tried to run away. But when he heard Bearskin speak in a human voice, he stopped and allowed himself to be persuaded to stay. Because Bearskin spoke to him kindly, the old man finally spoke of the cause of his distress. His property had gradually dwindled away, and surely his daughters would now be left to starve, for he was so poor that he had not the money to pay the host, and would be put into prison.
“Do not worry,” said Bearskin. “I have money enough.” He called for the innkeeper and paid him, then put a purse of gold into the pocket of the old man.
The man, unable to believe his good fortune and not knowing how to be sufficiently grateful, said to Bearskin, “Come with me. My daughters are all wonders of beauty, and you may choose one of them for a wife. When they hear what you have done for me, and also for them, they will not refuse you. You certainly appear a most uncommon man, but they will soon put you to rights.”
Pleased at the thought of, perhaps, being able to have a wife, Bearskin went with the old man. But, despite the man’s words, as soon as his eldest daughter saw Bearskin, she was so terrified that she shrieked and ran away. The second one stopped long enough to look at him from head to foot before she said, “How can I take a husband who does not look at all human, but more of a grizzly bear?”
But the youngest daughter, having heeded her father’s words, said, “Dear father, this must be a good man indeed who has assisted you out of your troubles, and in doing so, assisted us also. If you have promised him a bride for the service, then your word must be kept.”
It was a pity that Bearskin’s face was so covered with dirt and hair for none could see how glad the young woman’s words made him. He took a ring off his finger and broke it in two. On one half, he wrote the daughter’s name, which he kept for himself, and on the other half he wrote his name, which he gave to her. He begged her to preserve it carefully. When it came time for him to leave he said, “For three years longer must I wander about. If I return, then we will celebrate our wedding. But if I do not, you are free, for I shall be dead. But, I beseech you, pray to God that he will preserve my life.”
When he was gone, the poor bride clothed herself in black, and whenever she thought of her bridegroom, she burst into tears. From her sisters, she received nothing but scorn and mocking. “Pay attention when he takes you by the hand,” said the eldest, “and you will see his beautiful claws.” “You must mind and do his will,” said the second, “or he will begin growling.” But the bride kept silence, and would not be drawn from her purpose by their taunts.
Bearskin, meanwhile, wandered about the world, doing good where he could, giving generously to the poor, and they prayed for him. At length, the last day of the seven years approached and Bearskin made his way back to the heath with the circle of trees, there to await the stranger.
The wind whistled around the trees, and around Bearskin, heralding the arrival of the devil-stranger, who looked most vexed indeed. Without a word, he threw the soldier his old coat and demanded his grey one back.
“Not so fast,” replied Bearskin. “You must clean me first.”
Tied by his own words, and left with no choice, the devil-stranger fetched water to wash the soldier. He combed his hair out and cut his nails. By the time he was finished, he left the soldier looking once more like a brave warrior, but this time much handsomer than before.
Left alone once more, the soldier merrily made his way to the nearest town where he bought a fine velvet coat, and hired a carriage drawn by four white horses, and made his way to the house of his bride. Nobody knew him, and the father, taking him for some great general, led him into the room where his daughters were.
Seated between the two eldest daughters, he was plied with wine and the choicest morsels, for they thought they had never seen anyone so handsome before. The youngest daughter, meanwhile, still dressed in black, sat opposite them, neither looking up nor speaking a word.
The soldier then asked the father if he would be allowed to have one of the daughters as his wife. Immediately, the two eldest ran to their chambers to dress themselves in their most becoming clothes, for each believed she would be chosen.
Finding himself, at last, alone with his bride, the soldier pulled out his half of the ring, placed it in a cup of wine and handed it to her across the table. She politely took it, and upon emptying the cup, saw the half-ring lying at the bottom. Eyes wide, she produced the other half, which she wore around her neck on a ribbon. She held them together, and they joined each other exactly.
The soldier went to her side and said, “I am your groom, whom you first saw as Bearskin, but through God’s mercy I have regained my human form, and am myself once more.” He embraced her and kissed her, and she thought her heart would burst with happiness.
At that moment, the two eldest sisters entered. On hearing the truth of the soldier’s identity, instead of being happy for their sister, they ran from the house, full of rage and jealousy. The youngest, meanwhile, readied herself for her new life as a wife.
There are various aspects to this story that I enjoy … the stranger may well have been the devil but I thought him rather generous, making sure the soldier was never lacking in money, not something that usually happens. Even though he had to endure people’s horror at his appearance, at least he had enough funds to get through those seven years.
I also liked that the soldier’s generosity and kind spirit won over the father despite his awful appearance; and that the young woman recognised that and consented to be his bride, and waited for him as he was – it seems to me that they were both attracted to the other’s character, and that it wasn’t all based on looks alone.