There was once upon a time a young fellow who enlisted for a soldier, and became so brave and courageous that he was always in the front ranks when there was danger. As long as the war lasted all went well, but when peace was concluded he received his release, and the captain told him he might go where he liked.
His parents meanwhile had died, and as he had no longer any home to go to he paid a visit to his brothers, and asked them to give him shelter until war broke out again. His brothers, however, were hard-hearted, and said, “What could we do with you? We could make nothing of you; see to what you have brought yourself”; and so turned a deaf ear.
The poor Soldier had nothing but his rifle left; so he put this on his shoulder and set out on a journey. By and by he came to a great heath with nothing on it but a circle of trees, under which he sat down, sorrowfully considering his fate. “I have no money,” thought he; “I don’t know how to do anything but be a soldier and now, since there is peace, there is no need of me. I see well enough I shall have to starve.”
All at once he heard a rustling, and as he looked round he perceived a stranger standing before him, dressed in a gray coat, who looked very stately, but had an ugly cloven foot, being a foot split in two parts.
“I know quite well what you need,” said this being; “gold and other possessions you shall have, as much as you can spend; but first I must know whether you are a coward or not, that I may not spend my money foolishly.”
“A soldier and a coward!” replied the other, “that cannot be; you may put me to any proof.”
“Well, then,” replied the stranger, “look behind you.”
The Soldier turned and saw a huge bear, which charged towards him in attack. “Oho!” cried he, “I will tickle your nose for you, that you shall no longer be able to grumble”; and, raising his rifle, he shot the bear in the forehead, so that he tumbled in a heap upon the ground, and did not stir. The stranger said, “I see quite well that you have courage; but there is yet one condition which you must fulfil.” “If it does not interfere with my future happiness,” said the Soldier, who had remarked who it was that addressed him; “if it does not interfere with that, I shall not hesitate.”
“That you must see about yourself!” 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 say one prayer. Then I will give you this coat and vest, 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 thought for a while, and, remembering how often he had braved death, he at length agreed to accept the offer. Thereupon the Evil One pulled off the gray coat, handed it to the soldier, and said, “If you at any time search in the pockets of your coat when you have it on, you will always find your hand full of money.” Then also he pulled off the skin of the bear, and said, “That shall be your cloak and your bed; you must sleep on it, and not dare to lie in any other bed, and on this account you shall be called ‘Bearskin.'” Immediately the Evil One disappeared.
The Soldier now put on the coat, and dipped his hands into the pockets, to assure himself of the reality of the transaction. Then he hung the bearskin around himself, and went about the world chuckling at his good luck, and buying whatever suited his fancy which money could purchase. For the first year his appearance was not very remarkable, but in the second he began to look quite a monster. His hair covered almost all his face, his beard appeared like a piece of dirty cloth, his nails were claws, and he was covered with dirt that you could have planted seeds in.
Whoever looked at him ran away; but because he gave the poor in every place gold coins, they prayed that he might not die during the seven years; and because he paid well everywhere, he found a night’s lodging without difficulty. In the fourth year he came to an inn where the landlord would not take him in, and refused even to give him a place in his stables, in case the horses should be frightened and become jumpy. However, when Bearskin put his hand into his pocket and drew it out full of gold ducats the landlord agreed and gave him a place in the outbuildings, but not till he had promised that he would not show himself, for fear the inn should get a bad name.
While Bearskin sat by himself in the evening, wishing from his heart that the seven years were over, he heard in the corner a loud groan. Now the old Soldier had a compassionate heart, so he opened the door and saw an old man weeping violently and wringing his hands. Bearskin stepped nearer, but the old man jumped up and tried to escape; but when he recognized a human voice he let himself be persuaded, and by kind words and soothings on the part of the old Soldier he at length disclosed the cause of his distress. His property had dwindled away by degrees, and he and his daughters would have to starve, for he was so poor that he had not the money to pay the landlord, and would therefore be put into prison.
“If you have no care except that,” replied Bearskin, “I have money enough”; and causing the landlord to be called, he paid him, and put a purse full of gold besides into the pocket of the old man. The old man, when he saw himself released from his troubles, was very grateful and said to the Soldier, “Come with me; my daughters are all wonders of beauty, so choose one of them for a wife. When they hear what you have done for me they will not refuse you. You appear certainly an unusual man, but they will soon put you to rights.”
This speech pleased Bearskin, and he went with the old man. As soon as the eldest daughter saw him, she was so terrified at his appearance that she screamed and ran away. The second one stopped and looked at him from head to foot; but at last she said, “How can I take a husband who has not a bit of a human appearance?
But the youngest daughter said, “Dear father, this must be a good man who has helped you out of your troubles; if you have promised him a bride for the service your word must be kept”
It was a pity the man’s face was covered with dirt and hair, else one would have seen how glad at heart these words made him. Bearskin took a ring off his finger, broke it in two, and, giving the youngest daughter one half, he kept the other for himself. On her half he wrote his name, and on his own he wrote hers, and begged her to preserve it carefully. Thereupon he left, saying, “For three years longer I must wander about; if I come back again, then we will celebrate our wedding; but if I do not, you are free, for I shall be dead. But 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 burst into tears. From her sisters she received nothing but scorn and mocking. “Pay great attention when he shakes your hand,” said the eldest, “and you will see his beautiful claws!”
“Take care!” said the second, “bears are fond of sweets, and if you please him he will eat you up, perhaps!” “You must mind and do his will,” continued the eldest, “or he will begin growling!” And the second daughter said further, “But the wedding will certainly be merry, for bears dance well!” The bride kept silence, and would not be drawn from her purpose by all these taunts; and meanwhile
Bearskin wandered about in the world, doing good where he could, and giving generously to the poor, for which they prayed heartily for him. At length the last day of the seven years approached, and Bearskin went and sat down again on the heath beneath the circle of trees. In a very short time the wind whistled, and the Evil One presently stood before him and looked at him with an angry face. He threw the Soldier his old coat and demanded his gray one back. “We have not got so far as that yet,” replied Bearskin; “you must clean me first.” Then the Evil One had, whether he liked it or no, to fetch water, wash the old Soldier, comb his hair out, and cut his nails. This done, he appeared again like a brave warrior, and indeed was much more handsome than before.
As soon as the Evil One had disappeared, Bearskin became quite light-hearted; and going into the nearest town he bought a fine velvet coat, and hired a carriage drawn by four white horses, in which he was driven to the house of his bride. Nobody knew him; the father took him for some celebrated general, and led him into the room where his daughters were.
He was asked to sit down between the two eldest, and they offered him wine, and heaped his plate with the most delicious food; for they thought they had never seen any one so handsome before. But the bride sat opposite to him dressed in black, neither opening her eyes nor speaking a word.
At length the Soldier asked the father if he would give him one of his daughters to wife, and immediately the two elder sisters arose, and ran to their chambers to dress themselves out in their best clothes, for each thought she should be chosen.
Meanwhile the stranger, as soon as he found himself alone with his bride, pulled out the half of the ring and threw it into a cup of wine, which he handed across the table. She took it, and as soon as she had drunk it and seen the half ring lying at the bottom her heart beat rapidly, and she produced the other half, which she wore round her neck on a chain.
She held them together, and they joined each other exactly, and the stranger said, “I am your bridegroom, whom you first saw as Bearskin; but through God’s mercy I have regained my human form, and am myself once more.” With these words he embraced and kissed her; and at the same time the two eldest sisters entered in full costume. As soon as they saw that the very handsome man had fallen to the share of their youngest sister, and heard that he was the same as “Bearskin,” they ran out of the house full of jealousy.
The happy couple sat down and planned their wedding, which took place with great enjoyment the following month. At this stage the jealous sisters had calmed down and even agreed to be bridesmaids for the occasion!