We always want more, don’t we? A man gets something he wants, and is he satisfied? Hardly. He wants something more. If a man has nothing, of course he’ll take anything he can get. Take that fellow by the fire. A soldier, I’ll wager. But now the wars are over and no one wants him. He’ll probably spend his last coin on that meal he’s eating.
I’ve seen his type before. There was one fellow so desperate he even gambled with his soul. He was a soldier too, having the last meal he could afford, when up walks the Devil and buys him a drink. There the Devil sits, a handsome fellow in a fine green coat, and offers him a bargain. If the soldier can keep to the terms for seven years, he will have riches to last him the rest of his days. If not, the Devil takes his soul.
The terms are simple enough. The Devil provides the soldier with a coat and a cloak he must wear. The coat is the Devil’s own fine green coat, and every time the soldier puts his hand in the pocket, he finds a pile of gold coins inside. The cloak is the skin of a bear. Hardly fashionable, but never mind. The soldier must not wash, nor comb his beard or hair, nor cut his nails. The soldier agrees. He’ll take anything he can get, remember?
“There is one thing more,” adds the Devil. “All the seven years long, you must never pray.” The soldier shrugs. He is not a praying man. So the soldier and the Devil trade coats, the soldier puts on the bearskin, and the bargain has begun.
Off goes our soldier, but let’s call him Bearskin now, shall we? Everyone else does. Off goes Bearskin to make his way in the world. At first, he doesn’t do too badly. He looks a little scruffy, but he has gold to pay for what he likes, so no one makes a fuss. But soon enough, he must pay a little more to sit by the fire. He must take the servants’ stairway to the finest room in the inn. And after a while, not even a pocket full of gold will entice a lady to keep him company.
Even the beggars in the street shrink from him. Who wouldn’t? Bearskin gives them money anyway. He has an endless supply, so why shouldn’t he help them? He knows how it is to be hungry and cold, to be unwanted.
He is a good man, our Bearskin, but he has another reason for his generosity. It occurs to him one rainy night as he gives a handful of coins to an urchin huddled under a bridge. The boy can’t believe his luck. His hands itch to take it, but he is the suspicious type. “What do you want for it?” he asks.
“Nothing,” is on Bearskin’s lips, but he catches it in time. Instead, he says, “Pray for me. Please.”
He wants more, you see? His belly is full, he has a warm place to sleep, but it is not enough. Even on the battlefield, he had his fellow soldiers, sweating and bleeding and dying beside him. But now—never has he been so alone. He couldn’t be bothered to before, but now he wants nothing more than to pray. So whenever this monster steps from the shadows, a pile of gold in his clawed hand, his request is always the same. Pray for me. Please. And they do.
Then one night, Bearskin meets someone who wants to do more than pray. Funny, these people who want to do more, not just have more. You do meet them sometimes, though. This one is a wealthy merchant. No, he was wealthy. But he has fallen upon hard times. He has given his carriages and horses to the debt collectors, and next they are coming for his house. What will become of his three daughters, he sobs into his glass of wine, while he is in debtors’ prison? Bearskin hears it all, from behind the screen where the innkeeper has hidden him. He beckons the merchant over to him. “I can help you.”
The merchant gratefully accepts—what else can he do? But praying for Bearskin is not enough. He insists that Bearskin come home with him and promises him one of his three daughters for a wife. The first two daughters refuse this hideous beast, even though he has been the saving of them. They are proud beauties, with cold blue eyes. But the youngest one is different. She is frightened of Bearskin, yes, but she holds his gaze with round green eyes, as green as his mud-caked coat once was. She tells her father that a promise must be kept, and she will keep it.
Bearskin is ashamed to take her now, the way he is, but he takes a ring from his finger, breaks it in two, and gives half of it to the girl with the green eyes. “I am not free,” he tells her, “and must wander the world for three years more. At the end of those three years I will return for you. If I do not return, then I am dead, and you are free.” With that he leaves her.
Bearskin continues on his way, but something is different. Now when he gives out his gold, he asks folks to pray for the girl with the green eyes. Not that she love him, only that she is safe and well and happy. Always wanting more, aren’t we?
At last the seven years are over, and Bearskin has won his bargain. He meets the Devil, who gives him back his old coat, somehow now as fine as the green one has become tattered. Gracious even in defeat, the Devil gives him a wash and a shave and trims his nails.
And off Bearskin goes to claim his bride. No one recognizes him at her house, of course. He cleaned up rather well, you see, and the proud sisters with the cold blue eyes are fighting one another to sit next to him. The youngest sister sits across from Bearskin with her eyes downcast. What difference does it make to her if a handsome stranger asks her father for one of his daughters? She is promised to another, one she fears a little, but pities more. She even prays for him, though he never asked her to. When the older sisters have run from the room to put on their finest gowns and her father has gone to order dinner, she does look up. The stranger offers her a glass of wine, and at the bottom what should she find but half a ring, exactly matching the one she wears in a locket around her neck. Isn’t she the lucky girl, getting more when she hoped for nothing?
Now that Bearskin and his girl with the green eyes have each other, they truly want nothing more. Like I said, you do meet these oddities from time to time. Most folks though, are like the blue eyed sisters—who, since they could not have Bearskin for themselves, both killed themselves in a bitter passion. You might think the Devil was disappointed as well, but don’t pity him for his lost bargain. He got those two haughty beauties for the price of one grubby soldier, after all. And if you think he wasn’t pleased about getting more, you’d be quite mistaken.
I do pity that fellow by the fire though. I think I’ll buy him a drink. Perhaps he’s the bargaining type.
Lissa’s work has appeared in the "Little Red Riding Hood" issue of Enchanted Conversation. She never wears bearskin, but would be very pleased to own a fine green coat.
Altered illustration by Arthur Rackham.