Sacred Texts  Household Tales Index  Previous: The Spirit In The Bottle  Next: The Willow-Wren And The Bear 


     There was once a young fellow who enlisted as a soldier, conducted
himself bravely, and was always the foremost when it rained bullets. So long
as the war lasted, all went well, but when peace was made, he received his
dismissal, and the captain said he might go where he liked. His parents were
dead, and he had no longer a home, so he went to his brothers and begged them
to take him in, and keep him until war broke out again. The brothers, however,
were hard-hearted and said, "What can we do with thee? thou art of no use;
go and make a living for thyself." The soldier had nothing left but his gun;
he took that on his shoulder, and went forth into the world. He came to a wide
heath, on which nothing was to be seen but a circle of trees; under these
trees he sat sorrowfully down, and began to think over his fate. "I have no
money," thought he, "I have learnt no trade but that of fighting, and now that
they have made peace they don't want me any longer; so I see beforehand that I
shall have to starve." All at once he heard a rustling, and when he looked
round, a strange man stood before him, who wore a green coat and looked right
stately, but had a hideous cloven foot. "I know already what thou art in need
of," said the man; "gold and possessions shalt thou have, as much as thou
canst make away with, do what thou wilt, but first I must know if thou art
fearless, that I may not bestow my money in vain." "A soldier and fear - how
can those two things go together?" he answered; "thou canst put me to the
proof." "Very well, then," answered the man, "look behind thee." The soldier
turned round, and saw a large bear, which came growling towards him. "Oho!"
cried the soldier, "I will tickle thy nose for thee, so that thou shalt soon
lose thy fancy for growling," and he aimed at the bear and shot it through the
muzzle; it fell down and never stirred again. "I see quite well," said the
stranger, "that thou art not wanting in courage, but there is still another
condition which thou wilt have to fulfil." "If it does not endanger my
salvation," replied the soldier, who knew very well who was standing beside
him. "If it does, I'll have nothing to do with it." "Thou wilt look to that
for thyself," answered Greencoat; "thou shalt for the next seven years neither
wash thyself, nor comb thy beard, nor thy hair, nor cut thy nails, nor say one
paternoster. I will give thee a coat and a cloak, which during this time thou
must wear. If thou diest during these seven years, thou art mine; if thou
remainest alive, thou art free, and rich to boot, for all the rest of thy
life." The soldier thought of the great extremity in which he now found
himself, and as he so often had gone to meet death, he resolved to risk it now
also, and agreed to the terms. The Devil took off his green coat, gave it to
the soldier, and said, "If thou hast this coat on thy back and puttest thy
hand into the pocket, thou wilt always find it full of money." Then he pulled
the skin off the bear and said, "This shall be thy cloak, and thy bed also,
for thereon shalt thou sleep, and in no other bed shalt thou lie, and because
of this apparel shalt thou be called Bearskin." After this the Devil vanished.

     The soldier put the coat on, felt at once in the pocket, and found that
the thing was really true. Then he put on the bearskin, and went forth into
the world, and enjoyed himself, refraining from nothing that did him good and
his money harm. During the first year his appearance was passable, but during
the second he began to look like a monster. His hair covered nearly the whole
of his face, his beard was like a piece of coarse felt, his fingers had claws,
and his face was so covered with dirt that if cress had been sown on it, it
would have come up. Whosoever saw him, ran away, but as he everywhere gave the
poor money to pray that he might not die during the seven years, and, as he
paid well for everything, he still always found shelter. In the fourth year,
he entered an inn where the landlord would not receive him, and would not even
let him have a place in the stable, because he was afraid the horses would be
scared. But as Bearskin thrust his hand into his pocket and pulled out a
handful of ducats, the host let himself be persuaded and gave him a room in an
outhouse. Bearskin was, however, obliged to promise not to let himself be
seen, lest the inn should get a bad name.

     As Bearskin was sitting alone in the evening, and wishing from the bottom
of his heart that the seven years were over, he heard a loud lamenting in a
neighbouring room. He had a compassionate heart, so he opened the door, and
saw an old man weeping bitterly, and wringing his hands. Bearskin went nearer,
but the man sprang to his feet and tried to escape from him. At last when the
man perceived that Bearskin's voice was human he let himself be prevailed on,
and by kind words Bearskin succeeded so far that the old man revealed the
cause of his grief. His property had dwindled away by degrees, he and his
daughters would have to starve, and he was so poor that he could not pay the
innkeeper, and was to be put in prison. "If that is your only trouble," said
Bearskin, "I have plenty of money." He caused the innkeeper to be brought
thither, paid him and put a purse full of gold into the poor old man's pocket

     When the old man saw himself set free from all his troubles, he did not
know how to be grateful enough. "Come with me," said he to Bearskin; "my
daughters are all miracles of beauty, choose one of them for thyself as a
wife. When she hears what thou hast done for me, she will not refuse thee.
Thou dost in truth look a little strange, but she will soon put thee to rights
again." This pleased Bearskin well, and he went. When the eldest saw him she
was so terribly alarmed at his face that she screamed and ran away. The second
stood still and looked at him from head to foot, but then she said, "How can I
accept a husband who no longer has a human form? The shaven bear that once was
here and passed itself off for a man pleased me far better, for at any rate it
wore a hussar's dress and white gloves. If it were nothing but ugliness, I
might get used to that." The youngest, however, said, "Dear father, that must
be a good man to have helped you out of your trouble, so if you have promised
him a bride for doing it, your promise must be kept." It was a pity that
Bearskin's face was covered with dirt and with hair, for, if not, they might
have seen how delighted he was when he heard these words. He took a ring from
his finger, broke it in two, and gave her one half, the other he kept for
himself. He wrote his name, however, on her half, and hers on his, and begged
her to keep her piece carefully, and then he took his leave and said, "I must
still wander about for three years, and if I do not return then, thou art
free, for I shall be dead. But pray to God to preserve my life."

     The poor betrothed bride dressed herself entirely in black, and when she
thought of her future bridegroom, tears came into her eyes. Nothing but
contempt and mockery fell to her lot from her sisters. "Take care," said the
eldest, "if thou givest him thy hand, he will strike his claws into it."
"Beware!" said the second. "Bears like sweet things, and if he takes a fancy
to thee, he will eat thee up." "Thou must always do as he likes," began the
elder again, "or else he will growl." And the second continued, "but the
wedding will be a merry one, for bears dance well." The bride was silent, and
did not let them vex her. Bearskin, however, travelled about the world from
one place to another, did good where he was able, and gave generously to the
poor that they might pray for him.

     At length, as the last day of the seven years dawned, he went once more
out on to the heath, and seated himself beneath the circle of trees. It was
not long before the wind whistled, and the Devil stood before him and looked
angrily at him; then he threw Bearskin his old coat, and asked for his own
green one back. "We have not got so far as that yet," answered Bearskin, "thou
must first make me clean." Whether the Devil liked it or not, he was forced to
fetch water, and wash Bearskin, comb his hair, and cut his nails. After this,
he looked like a brave soldier, and was much handsomer than he had ever been

     When the Devil had gone away, Bearskin was quite light-hearted. He went
into the town, put on a magnificent velvet coat, seated himself in a carriage
drawn by four white horses, and drove to his bride's house. No one recognized
him, the father took him for a distinguished general, and led him into the
room where his daughters were sitting. He was forced to place himself between
the two eldest, they helped him to wine, gave him the best pieces of meat, and
thought that in all the world they had never seen a handsomer man. The bride,
however, sat opposite to him in her black dress, and never raised her eyes,
nor spoke a word. When at length he asked the father if he would give him one
of his daughters to wife, the two eldest jumped up, ran into their bedrooms to
put on splendid dresses, for each of them fancied she was the chosen one. The
stranger, as soon as he was alone with his bride, brought out his half of the
ring, and threw it in a glass of wine which he reached across the table to
her. She took the wine, but when she had drunk it, and found the half ring
lying at the bottom, her heart began to beat. She got the other half, which
she wore on a ribbon round her neck, joined them, and saw that the two pieces
fitted exactly together. Then said he, "I am thy betrothed bridegroom, whom
thou sawest as Bearskin, but through God's grace I have again received my
human form, and have once more become clean." He went up to her, embraced her,
and gave her a kiss. In the mean time the two sisters came back in full dress,
and when they saw that the handsome man had fallen to the share of the
youngest, and heard that he was Bearskin, they ran out full of anger and rage.
One of them drowned herself in the well, the other hanged herself on a tree.
In the evening, some one knocked at the door, and when the bridegroom opened
it, it was the Devil in his green coat, who said, "Seest thou, I have now got
two souls in the place of thy one!"