There was once a young man who was a fine soldier, always the bravest when the battle was fierce. At the end of the war, he was dismissed from the army, and he had no place to go because his parents had died and his brothers refused to take him in. So he began to wander through the world, with his only possession, his gun, on his shoulder.
He sat down under a tree, and thought about his problem: “I have no money, and I have no trade; I only know how to fight. Now that it is peacetime, they don’t need me anymore.”
Suddenly, he heard a noise, and when he looked around, a strange man wearing a green jacket was standing in front of him. The man looked elegant, but also looked evil.
“I know what you need.” said the man. “You will have plenty of money, as much as you want, but first I have to know if you are really courageous. I don’t want to waste my money.”
“I’m a soldier,” he said, “Go ahead and put me to the test.”
“Very well,” “said the man, “Look behind you.”
The soldier turned around, and saw a large bear, which came towards him, growling loudly.
“Oh!” cried the soldier, “I will tickle your nose, and that will stop you from growling!” He aimed his gun and killed the bear with a single shot.
“I can see,” said the stranger, “that you are courageous,” but there is something else you have to do.” “If I don’t lose my soul,” said the soldier, who now understood who the man was. “If I have to lose my soul, I’ll have nothing to do with it.”
“That’s up to you,” said the man in the green jacket. “For the next seven years, you can’t wash yourself, comb your beard, or your hair, nor cut your nails, nor pray. And you have to wear a jacket and an overcoat that I will give you. If you die during these seven years, your soul is mine. If you are still alive after seven years, you are free, and you will have plenty of money for the rest of your life.
The soldier thought about his situation, and how often he had faced death in the past and agreed to take the risk. The Devil took off his green jacket, gave it to the soldier, and said, “If you wear this jacket, and put your hand in the pocket, you will always find it full of money. Then he pulled the skin off the dead bear and said, “This will be your overcoat, and it will also be your bed. You are not allowed to sleep in any other bed. And you will be called Bearskin.” After saying this, the Devil disappeared.
The soldier put the jacket on, felt in the pocket, and found that the man had been telling the truth. Then he put on the bearskin and went out into the world.
During the first year, his appearance was acceptable, but in the second year, he began to look like a monster. His hair nearly covered his entire face, his beard was rough, his fingers had claws, and his face was covered with dirt. People ran away when they saw him, but he always found shelter, because everywhere he went he gave the poor money to pray for him, so he wouldn’t die during the seven years, and he was generous with his money.
In the fourth year, he came to an inn where the innkeeper would not let him in. He wouldn’t even let him stay in the stable, because he thought that the horses would be afraid. But Bearskin put his hand into his pocket and pulled out a great deal of money; the innkeeper then gave Bearskin a room in a small house in the rear, on the condition that Bearskin would not let himself be seen by the other guests.
As Bearskin was sitting alone in the evening, and wishing from the bottom of his heart that the seven years were over, he heard someone crying in a neighboring room. He opened the door and saw an old man weeping bitterly. The man was frightened when he first saw Bearskin, but when he heard Bearskin’s kind human voice, he calmed down and told Bearskin why he was so upset.
He explained that over the years, little by little, he had lost all his money, and he and his daughters were going to starve. He was so poor that he could not pay the innkeeper his rent, and he was going to be sent to prison.
“If that’s your only problem,” said Bearskin, “don’t worry. I have plenty of money.” Bearskin paid the innkeeper and gave the old man a purse full of gold. The old man was so relieved that he couldn’t thank Bearskin enough.
“Come with me,” he said to Bearskin, “my daughters are all fabulously beautiful; choose one of them as a wife. After you choose one, she will not refuse you because of what you have done for me. Bearskin liked this idea and agreed.
When the oldest daughter saw him, 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 looks human?”
The youngest, however, said, “Dear father, a man who helped you so much must be a good man, so if you promised him a wife for doing it, your promise must be kept.”
Bearskin’s face was so dirty and hairy that nobody could see how happy he was when he heard these words. He took a ring from his finger, broke it in two, and gave her half, keeping the other half for himself.
He wrote his name on her half, and her name on his half, and begged her to keep her piece in a safe place. He then told her, “I must wander for three years. If I don’t return, you are free, because I will be dead. But please pray that I will survive.” Then he left.
The poor bride dressed herself entirely in black, and when she thought of her future husband, tears came into her eyes, but her sisters made fun of her. “Watch out,” said the oldest sister, “if you give him your hand, he will hurt you with his claws.” “Be careful,” said the middle sister, “bears like sweet things; he might just eat you up!” “You will always have to do whatever he wants,” said the oldest, “or he will growl at you.” And the middle sister continued, “The wedding will be a great party, because bears can really dance well.”
The bride didn’t say anything, and didn’t let her sisters annoy her. Meanwhile, Bearskin wandered far and wide, doing good deeds wherever he could, and gave generously to the poor so they would pray for him.
Finally, the seven years were over. On the last day, Bearskin sat in the same place where he had first met the man in the green jacket. Soon the Devil stood before him, clearly displeased. He threw Bearskin his old coat and demanded his own coat back.
“Not so fast,” answered Bearskin, “first you have to clean me up.” The Devil had no choice: He had to get some water and wash Bearskin, comb his hair, and cut his nails. When he was finished, Bearskin looked like a brave soldier, and was much handsome than he had ever been before.
When the Devil had gone away, Bearskin was in very good spirits. 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 thought that Bearskin was a distinguished general, and brought him into a room where his daughters were sitting.
He was asked to sit between the two older sisters; they served him wine, gave him the best pieces of meat, and thought that they had never seen a handsome man. His bride, however, sat across from him in her black dress, and never raised her eyes, nor spoke a word.
When he asked the father if he would give him one of his daughters in marriage, the two older sisters jumped up, ran into their bedrooms to put on beautiful dresses, each thinking she was the chosen one.
As soon as he was alone with his bride, Bearskin brought out his half of the ring, and put it in a pitcher of wine, and a poured her a glass to drink. She took the wine, but when she drank it and found the half ring lying at the bottom, and her heart began to beat wildly.
She got the other half, which she wore on a ribbon around her neck, joined the two halves together, and saw that the two pieces fit together perfectly.
Then he said, “I am your husband-to-be. You knew me as Bearskin. I have regained my original, clean human form.” He went to her, embraced her, and kissed her.
In the meantime, the two sisters came back in their elegant dresses, and when they saw that the handsome man was to be the husband of the youngest sister, and that he was Bearskin, they ran out of the house in a rage. One of them drowned herself in the well, the other hanged herself from a tree.
In the evening, there was a knock at the door, and when the bridegroom opened it, it was the Devil in his green coat, who said, “You see, I now have two souls, instead of just your one.”