An Old Irish Tale
In the County of Armagh, there was once a poor widow woman, who had an only son called Bernard, but known to all as ‘Bear’. There were some neighbours who would have had a good word for the boy and said that he was as sharp a boy as one would care to meet. There were others, however, that thought he was not much better than an idiot. His mother, meanwhile, was a hard-working woman who struggled night and day to ensure that there would be a roof over their heads. One day his mother called to him and told him, “ ‘Bear’, my son, bad luck is not very far from us these days. There is no food in the house, and the day will soon be here when the landlord will be coming around to collect our rent. So, I want you to take our white cow, for she is the poorest of the three, and bring her over to the fair, and sell her to whoever will give you the best price for her.”
‘Bear’ was very happy to undertake this task for his mother, because it was better fun to go to the fair than to work on the farm. He brushed his clothes down, cocked his hat, and he headed off to the fair whistling a merry tune, driving the white cow ahead of him along the road. It was still early morning. The sun was not yet high, and the dew was lying thick on the hedgerows. The birds were singing on either side of the narrow country road, almost as if they joining ‘Bear’ as joyfully whistled to himself as he walked. It was one of those beautiful mornings that made you feel good about life and ‘Bear’ soaked in the fresh morning air as he drove the white cow ahead of him.
After a while ‘Bear’ came to a stile and sitting on the top of this stile there was a little man who was scarcely two feet high, and he was dressed all in green with a small red cap lying beside him. “Good morning to you, ‘Bear’,” said the little man.
‘Bear’ answered him politely, just as his mother had taught him, but he wondered how this strange little man sitting in the bright sunshine knew that he was known to all as ‘Bear’. “And how much do you think you’ll get for the white cow at the fair?” the stranger asked.
This concerned ‘Bear’ even more as he began to wonder just how this little man knew about his business at the fair, as well as his name. “Well, my mother told me to get that I should get the best price I could,” he answered.
“Aye, but the best price for your cow may not be in gold or silver, young man. But, if you wait a bit, I’ll show you a thing or two worth that is worth seeing.” ‘Bear watched as the little man reached down into a deep pocket of his coat and brought out a tiny harp and a tiny stool. He set these on the top step of the stile and then he reached down into his pocket again, bringing out a ‘May Bug’ gently with his hand. The ‘May Bug’ was dressed in a tiny long-tailed coat and breeches, and the moment the little man set him on the stile, he drew the stool up in front of the harp and began to try the strings and tune them up. When ‘Bear’ saw this he was so surprised that he let out a great whoop of joy.
“Just wait a minute or two, for the story is not yet completed,” said the little man in green. He then took out a mouse dressed as a gentleman of quality, and a bumble-bee in a flowered silk skirt and overdress. The ‘May Bug’ began to play a tune, the mouse bowed to the bumblebee, she curtsied to him and the white cow he was driving before him. Then, as the sound of the joyful music filled the morning air, ‘Bear’ threw back his head and laughed loudly. In time with the music his feet began to jig, causing his hat to bounce on his head, and the even the cow herself began to jump about, waving her tail very happily.
After Barney had danced and laughed himself weak, the music came to an end. The dancers stopped to rest their weary legs, and Barney and the cow also stood still. “Well, and what do you think of that?” asked the little man.
“I think it’s a better sight than any that I’ll be seeing at the fair.”
“Listen to me now,” the little man said. “I am in a great need for a good cow. To tell you the truth, it is those who live under the hill who have sent me out to buy one, and if you want them, I will give you the little harp and the musician for your white cow.”
Barney looked at what he was being offered and scratched his head for a few moments before saying, “It’s not the sort of price my mother thought I’d be getting for the cow.”
“It’s a price that, eventually, will be worth more than gold and silver to you,” said the little man. A few minutes later ‘Bear’ gave the little man the cow and in exchange, he took the harp, the stool, and the little ‘May Bug’. When he took out his handkerchief and wrapped them up in it very carefully, he turned back to the little man and discovered that he had disappeared entirely. There was no sign of him or the cow anywhere.
“And that’s a curious thing, too,” said ‘Bear’ to himself as he set out for home. He put a get pace on his step and when he came within sight of the house, he saw his mother was at the window watching for him, and she came out to meet him.
“I see you sold the cow, son,” she said excitedly. “How much did you get for it?”
“Come inside and I’ll show you,” smiled ‘Bear’, eager to show his mother the treasures he had been given. They went into the house and Barney dusted off the table. Putting his hand in his pocket ‘Bear’ took out the handkerchief, untied it and put the harp, the stool, and the little musician upon the table. The ‘May Bug’ made a bow to Barney’s mother, then he seated himself and began to play. If ‘Bear’ had laughed the last time he had seen the performance, he roared even more loudly now. The old woman, too, began to laugh and that was something that she had not done for many a year before. She laughed until the tears ran down her face, and then she dropped weakly into an armchair and laughed some more. But, when the music finally came to an end, the old woman wiped the tears from her eyes, and she began to return to her normal self. Then, she remembered that the food cupboard was still bare and that the rent was still due to be paid to the landlord despite the wonderful objects that ‘Bear had brought home. “You worthless excuse for a man!” she cried out to her son. “Is that what you sold the cow for? Tell me how you expect us to fill our stomachs and pay the landlord with such nonsense as this?”
‘Bear’ couldn’t give an answer to his mother, for he didn’t have one. The money, however, had to be gathered some way or other, and the next morning, ‘Bear’s’ mother sent him off to the fair again, and this time it was the dappled cow he was driving before him, which was a much finer and larger cow than old ‘Whitey’ had been. As he came nearer and nearer the stile he kept looking and looking to see whether the little man in green was there. It was not until the young man came quite close to the stile that he spied him. There sat the small man on the top step in the sunlight, with his red cap lying beside him. “Well, how did your mother like the price you got for old ‘Whitey’?” the small man asked.
“She didn’t think very much of it, and the trouble I got into with her is all thanks to you.”
“Sure, don’t worry about it! The woman will be thankful enough someday for the price I paid you. Now, is the dappled cow for sale, too?”
“Aye, it is for sale but not to you,” answered ‘Bear’.
“Ah, ‘Bear’, ‘Bear’! I’m beginning to think you must be the eejit that some people call you. There’s no one can pay you as good a price as I can offer you. If you had this well-dressed gentleman of a mouse to dance to the music your mother would split her sides with laughter, and you can have him for yourself in exchange for that cow.”
‘Bear’ stood his ground and would not listen to any deal the little man put forward. But the little man coaxed and wheedled, until finally ‘Bear’ gave him the cow, and took the little mouse in exchange for it. When he reached home again, he found his mother was on the lookout for him. “How much money did you get for the cow?” she asked him.
‘Bear’ made no answer, but he untied his handkerchief, and let the little mouse step out on the table. The old widow looked at this new prize with its cocked hat under its arm, and with its claws on its hip, as he made a grand bow to her. She could say or do nothing but stare and grin with admiration. Then, ‘Bear’ put the ‘May Bug’ and the harp on the table too, and as soon as it had tuned up, it began to play, and the tune was pleasant that it caused his very heart dance in the bosom. The mouse then began to dance and twirl and jig up and down, and ‘Bear’ and his mother stood and laughed until they almost split their sides.
But after the tune ended, the old woman came to herself again, and she was a very angry soul. She began to cry just as hard as she had previously laughed, for both the white cow and the dappled cow were gone, and the landlord’s rent was no nearer to being paid than it had been two days before. But they had to have the money, and there was nothing left but to allow ‘Bear’ to set off the next day for the fair with the red cow, which was the finest of the three animals she once had. ‘Bear’ trudged along, driving the cow before him, and after a while, he once again came to the stile, and there, once again, was the little man in green seated upon it. “Good-day to you, ‘Bear’,” said he.
‘Bear’ never said a word.
“That’s a fine cow you have there,” said the little man, but ‘Bear’ trudged along the narrow road as though he had not heard him, and he never so much as turned his head. “No, ‘Bear’, just hold on a minute, friend,” the little man said. “We have made two bargains, and now we ought to make the third, for there is said to be good luck in odd numbers.”
‘Bear’ would have willingly walked on if he could, but when the little man said, “Wait a bit,” it seemed as though he were rooted to the ground, and he could not stir a step, however hard he tried. Then the little man began to beg and plead with ‘Bear’ to let him have the cow in exchange for the bumble-bee, and for a very long time, Barney continued to refuse. At last, however, he could hold out no longer and the trade was made. No sooner had the young man agreed and taken the bumblebee in his handkerchief than, “pouff!” the little man and the cow both disappeared like a warm breath on a window-pane.
‘Bear’ stared and wondered, and then he turned toward home again, but the nearer he came to the house the slower he walked, for he had some notion as to what his mother would have to say about the bargain he had made. Needless to say, things turned out just the way he had thought they would. When he first put the bumblebee and the others on the kitchen table, when the ‘May Bug’ began to play and the others to dance, his mother laughed and laughed as she had never laughed before in all her life. But when they stopped, and she had come to herself again, she was so angry that simply scolding the young man not enough punishment for him. She grabbed hold of a broom, and if ‘Bear’ had not run out and hidden in the cow byre, he would have had a beating that would have more than dusted his coat for him. However, what was done was done, and what they were to do now to get food and money was more than either of them could say. But the next morning, ‘Bear’ suddenly had a grand scheme in his head.
“Listen, mother, I have a great plan in mind that might bring us in a few pennies,” he said. “I will take the ‘May Bug’, the mouse and the bumble-bee with me to the fair to-day. When we are there the ‘May Bug’ will play the harp and the mouse and the bumble-bee will dance, and it may be the people will be so happy with their tricks that they will give me some pennies.” There was nothing better than this that she could think of, and so the widow gave her consent, and off Bear set for the fair. But I can tell you that if his heart was light his stomach was lighter, for he had had nothing to put in it that morning. He trudged along and trudged along the road, and after a time he came to the stile, and there was the little green man sitting on it just as he had sat before.
“Good-day, Bear,” the little man greeted him.
“Good-day, and bad luck to you,” answered Bear sternly. “It was a dirty trick you played on me when you took our three cows from me and gave me only such nonsense as I carry here in my pocket as payment.”
“Bear,” said the little man in a solemn tone, “I tell you that never again in all your life will you make as good a bargain as you made with me. I will tell you now, truthfully, that the price I paid you shall be the making of you.”
“Aye, and how will that come about?” asked Bear sarcastically.
“Sure, isn’t that what I came here to tell you,” replied the little man. “I’m sure that you already know that the king of Erin has a daughter.”
“Aye,” answered Bear.
“But you may not know that this princess is so beautiful that there never was likes of her seen anywhere in all the world before and that the poor girl is as sad as she is beautiful. It is feared, indeed, that unless something happens to cheer her up, she will grieve her life away. Therefore, the king, her father, has promised that whoever can make her laugh three times shall have her for his wife.”
“But what has all that to do with me?” asked Bear.
“What? Can’t you see that you may be the lad to raise the laugh from her and win her for your wife, and it is with the ‘ May Bug’, the mouse and the bumble-bee that you shall be able to do it.”
“Man dear isn’t that the truth!” exclaimed Bear slapping his leg, “there’s surely nobody in all of this world that could look at those creatures playing their wee tricks and keep a sober face on him.”
The little man then laid out to Bear exactly how he was to proceed and act, and Bear listened intently until he had made sense of all the little man had to say, and then in a flash, he vanished from sight, and Barney saw him no more. He now turned his face away from the direction of the fair and toward where the palace stood, and off he set, one foot before the other, just as fast as he could go.
After a long journey Bear and came to the place, he wished to go, and a very grand fine palace it was when he reached it. But in front of it, there was a strange, terrifying sight, which did nothing for Bear’s confidence or his will to continue. There in front of the door stood twelve tall stakes, and upon eleven of these stakes were eleven heads, but upon the twelfth stake, there was no head at all. Bear decided he would not stare long at this scene and, gathering all the courage he still had he went forward, marching up to the palace door and rapping it loudly with his stick. A few moments later it opened and there stood a man, all in gold lace, looking out at him. “What do you want here?” he asked.
“I have come to see the princess and to make her laugh,” Bearn answered boldly and with confidence.
“Well, you have a hard task before you,” said the man. “However, I am not the one to tell you can or can’t, and I will go and tell the king you are here.”
He went away and then presently he not much later he returned with the king at his side. The king looked at Bear intensely for a moment or two and then he said, “You are a fine stout lad, but I doubt that you are the one to make the princess laugh. Nevertheless, you can try if you wish, although there are certain conditions must know about before you begin. You must make her laugh three times before you can have her for a wife, and if you fail your head will be cut off and set upon a stake, for the princess has made me promise that this shall be the punishment for failure.” The king went on to tell him that eleven stout lads had already lost their heads,“and there they are to prove it,” he said, as he pointed to the stakes before the palace door.
Bear looked and saw again that the twelfth stake had nothing on it, and he liked the looks of it even less than before, for it seemed to him to be waiting for his head to be fitted on top. However, he was not the type of man to turn back at this stage and he told them, “Your majesty, I will give it a try, whether I succeed or fail.”
“Very well,” said the king; “and when will you try?”
“Now,” said Bear, “if you will just give me a moment or two.”
He then took out the ‘May Bug’, the mouse and the bumble-bee and tied them all together with a long piece of string, one in front of the other. Then, setting them on the floor, he took the end of the string in his hand. Now, when the king saw that, he began to laugh, and the man in gold lace began to laugh. They laughed and laughed until the tears ran down their cheeks and they had to wipe them away. “Do you know, boy,” said the king, “you may be the one to win the princess for a wife, after all.” With that they set off down a long hall, the king first, and the man in gold lace next, and, last of all, Bear with the three little creatures following.
At the end of the hall, there was a grand fine room with a grand fine throne placed in it. Upon the throne sat the princess, and she was looking very sad. And, all the ladies that were standing around her looked very sad too, for that was the polite and safest thing for them to do when she was sorrowful. She frowned deeply when she saw the king enter, and when she saw the man in gold lace follow, she scowled. But when she saw Bear in all his tattered clothes, holding one end of the string, and the three little creatures hopping along behind him, first she smiled and then she grinned, and then she threw back her head and let out such a laugh you could have heard it a mile away.
“That’s one!” cried Bear. Then he untied the little creatures and called for a table and set them upon it, and he drew out the harp and stool and gave it to the ‘May Bug’. It seated itself and tuned the harp, while the princess and all her ladies stared and stared. Then, it began to play and the mouse and the bumble-bee began to dance. They danced so fine and light, you’d have thought they’d had wings to their feet. At this spectacle, the princess let out a laugh that was twice as loud as the other.
“Thank you, princess,” said Bear, “that’s two.” But, at that, the princess stopped laughing and looked as glum as the grave. The ‘ May Bug’ played, the others danced, faster and faster, but not a third laugh could they get out of the princess, and it seemed as though Bear would lose his head after all. But the little mouse saw as well as Bear what was happening and suddenly, he whirled around and brought his tail, whack! across the bumble-bee’s mouth. That set the bumble-bee to coughing. It coughed and coughed as though it would cough its head off and the princess began to laugh for the third time. The more it coughed the more she laughed until it seemed as though she might die of laughing.
“That makes the third time,” cried Bear ecstatically, “and now I think you’ll agree that I’ve won the princess fairly.” Well, no one could deny that, so he was taken to another grand room in the palace and there he was washed and combed and dressed in fine clothes, and when that was done, he looked so brave and straight and handsome that the princess was glad enough to have him for a husband. They were married the next day, and a coach and four were sent to bring the old mother to the wedding. When she came and saw her own son, Bear, dressed in that way and holding a royal princess by the hand, she could hardly believe her eyes, and almost died of joy as the princess had of laughing. A great feast was held in celebration, and the little man in green was there, too, and feasted with the best of them, but nobody saw him for he had his red cap on his head, and that made him invisible