The Cobblers and the Cuckoo by Unknown

Once upon a time there stood in the midst of a bleak moor, in the North Country, a certain village; all its inhabitants were poor, for their fields were barren, and they had little trade. But the poorest of them all were two brothers called Scrub and Spare, who followed the cobbler’s craft, and had but one stall between them. It was a hut built of clay and wattles. There they worked in most brotherly friendship, though with little encouragement.

The people of that village were not extravagant in shoes, and better cobblers than Scrub and Spare might be found. Nevertheless, Scrub and Spare managed to live between their own trade, a small barley-field, and a cottage-garden, till one unlucky day when a new cobbler arrived in the village. He had lived in the capital city of the kingdom, and, by his own account, cobbled for the queen and the princesses. His awls were sharp, his lasts were new; he set up his stall in a neat cottage with two windows.

The villagers soon found out that one patch of his would outwear two of the brothers’. In short, all the mending left Scrub and Spare, and went to the new cobbler. So the brothers were poor that winter, and when Christmas came they had nothing to feast on but a barley loaf, a piece of musty bacon, and some small beer of their own brewing. But they made a great fire of logs, which crackled and blazed with red embers, and in high glee the cobblers sat down to their beer and bacon. The door was shut, for there was nothing but cold moonlight and snow outside; but the hut, strewn with fir boughs, and ornamented with holly, looked cheerful as the ruddy blaze flared up and rejoiced their hearts.

“Long life and good fortune to ourselves, brother!” said Spare. “I hope you will drink that toast, and may we never have a worse fire on Christmas—but what is that?”

Spare set down the drinking-horn, and the brothers listened astonished, for out of the blazing root they heard “Cuckoo! cuckoo!” as plain  as ever the spring bird’s voice came over the moor on a May morning.

“It is something bad,” said Scrub, terribly frightened.

“May be not,” said Spare.

And out of the deep hole at the side which the fire had not reached flew a large gray cuckoo, and lit on the table before them. Much as the cobblers had been surprised, they were still more so when the bird began to speak.

“Good gentlemen,” it said slowly, “can you tell me what season this is?”

“It’s Christmas,” answered Spare.

“Then a merry Christmas to you!” said the cuckoo. “I went to sleep in the hollow of that old root one evening last summer, and never woke till the heat of your fire made me think it was summer again; but now, since you have burned my lodging, let me stay in your hut till the spring comes round—I only want a hole to sleep in—and when I go on my travels next summer be assured that I will bring you some present for your trouble.”

“Stay, and welcome,” said Spare.

“I’ll make you a good warm hole in the thatch. But you must be hungry after that long sleep. Here is a slice of barley bread. Come, help us to keep Christmas!”

The cuckoo ate up the slice, drank water from the brown jug—for he would take no beer—and flew into a snug hole which Spare scooped for him in the thatch of the hut. So the snow melted, the heavy rains came, the cold grew less, the days lengthened, and one sunny morning the brothers were awakened by the cuckoo shouting its own cry to let them know that at last the spring had come.

“Now,” said the bird, “I am going on my travels over the world to tell men of the spring. There is no country where trees bud or flowers bloom that I will not cry in before the year goes round. Give me another slice of barley bread to keep me on my journey, and tell me what present I shall bring you at the end of the twelve months.”

“Good Master Cuckoo,” said Scrub, “a diamond or pearl would help such poor men as my brother and I to provide something better than barley bread for your next entertainment.”

“I know nothing of diamonds or pearls,” said the cuckoo; “they are in the hearts of rocks and the sands of rivers. My knowledge is only of that which grows on the earth. But there are two trees hard by the well that lies at the world’s end. One of them is called the golden tree, for its leaves are all of beaten gold. As for the other, it is always green, like a laurel. Some call it the wise, and some the merry tree. Its leaves never fall, but they that get one of them keep a blithe heart in spite of all misfortunes, and can make themselves as merry in a poor hut as in a handsome palace.”

“Good Master Cuckoo, bring me a leaf off that tree!” cried Spare.

“Now, brother, don’t be foolish!” said Scrub. “Think of the leaves of beaten gold! Dear Master Cuckoo, bring me one of them.”

Before another word could be spoken, the cuckoo had flown.

The brothers were poorer than ever that year; nobody would send them a single shoe to mend. The new cobbler said, in scorn, they should come to be his apprentices; and Scrub and Spare would have left the village but for their barley field, their cabbage garden, and a maid called Fairfeather, whom both the cobblers had courted for more than seven years.

At the end of the winter Scrub and Spare had grown so poor and ragged that Fairfeather thought them beneath her notice. Old neighbors forgot to invite them to wedding feasts or merry-makings; and they thought the cuckoo had forgotten them, too, when at daybreak, on the first of April, they heard a hard beak knocking at their door, and a voice crying:

“Cuckoo! cuckoo! Let me in.”

Spare ran to open the door, and in came the cuckoo, carrying on one side of his bill a golden leaf, larger than that of any tree in the North Country; and in the other, one like that of the common laurel, only it had a fresher green.

“Here!” it said, giving the gold to Scrub and the green to Spare.

So much gold had never been in the cobbler’s hands before, and he could not help exulting over his brother.

“See the wisdom of my choice,” he said, holding up the large leaf of gold. “As for yours, as good might be plucked from any hedge. I wonder a sensible bird should carry the like so far.”

“Good Master Cobbler,” cried the cuckoo, finishing the slice, “your conclusions are more hasty than courteous. If your brother be disappointed this time, I go on the same journey every year, and, for your hospitable entertainment, will think it no trouble to bring each of you whichever leaf you desire.”

“Darling cuckoo,” cried Scrub, “bring me a golden one.”

And Spare, looking up from the green leaf on which he gazed, said:

“Be sure to bring me one from the merry tree.”

And away flew the cuckoo once again.

Scrub vowed that his brother was not fit to  live with a respectable man; and taking his lasts, his awls, and his golden leaf, he left the wattle hut, and went to tell the villagers.

They were astonished at the folly of Spare, and charmed with Scrub’s good sense, particularly when he showed them the golden leaf, and told them that the cuckoo would bring him one every spring. The new cobbler immediately took him into partnership; the greatest people sent him their shoes to mend; Fairfeather smiled graciously upon him, and in the course of that summer they were married, with a grand wedding feast, at which the whole village danced, except Spare, who was not invited.

As for Scrub, he established himself with Fairfeather in a cottage close by that of the new cobbler, and quite as fine. There he mended shoes to everybody’s satisfaction, had a scarlet coat for holidays, and a fat goose for dinner every wedding-day anniversary. Spare lived on in the old hut and worked in the cabbage garden. Every day his coat grew more ragged, and the hut more weather-beaten; but people remarked that he never looked sad or sour; and the wonder was that, from the time they began to keep his company the tinker grew kinder to the poor ass with which he traveled the country, the beggar-boy kept out of mischief, and the old woman was never cross to her cat or angry with the children.

I know not how many years passed in this manner, when a certain great lord, who owned that village, came to the neighborhood. His castle was ancient and strong, with high towers and a deep moat. All the country, as far as one could see from the highest turret, belonged to this lord; but he had not been there for twenty years, and would not have come then, only he was melancholy.

The cause of his grief and sorrow was that he had been prime minister at court, and in high favor, till somebody told the Crown Prince that he had spoken disrespectfully concerning the turning out of his Royal Highness’s toes, whereon the North Country lord was turned out of office, and banished to his own estate. There he lived for some weeks in very bad temper; but one day in the harvest time his lordship chanced to meet Spare gathering watercresses at a meadow stream, and fell into talk.

How it was nobody could tell, but from the hour of that discourse the great lord cast away his melancholy, and went about with a noble train, making merry in his hall, where all travelers were entertained and all the poor were welcome.

This strange story soon spread through the North Country, and a great company came to the cobbler’s hut—rich men who had lost their money, poor men who had lost their friends, beauties who had grown old, wits who had gone out of fashion—all came to talk with Spare, and, whatever their troubles, all went home merry. The rich gave him presents, the poor gave him thanks.

By this time his fame had reached the Court. There were a great many discontented people there besides the King, who had lately fallen into ill humor because a neighboring princess, with seven islands for her dowry, would not marry his eldest son. So a royal messenger was sent to Spare, with a command that he should go to court.

“To-morrow is the first of April,” said Spare, “and I will go with you two hours after sunrise.”

The messenger lodged all night at the castle, and the cuckoo came at sunrise with the merry leaf.

“Court is a fine place,” he said, when the cobbler told him he was going; “but I cannot go there—they would lay snares and catch me. So be careful of the leaves I have brought you, and give me a farewell slice of barley bread.”

Spare was sorry to part with the cuckoo, but he gave him a thick slice, and, having sewed up the leaves in the lining of his leather doublet, he set out with the messenger on his way to the royal court.

His coming caused great surprise; but scarce had his Majesty conversed with him half an hour when the princess and her seven islands were forgotten, and orders given that a feast for all comers should be spread in the banquet-hall. The princes of the blood, the great lords and ladies, ministers of state, and judges of the land, after that discoursed with Spare, and the more they talked the lighter grew their hearts, so that such changes had never been seen.

As for Spare, he had a chamber assigned him in the palace, and a seat at the King’s table; one sent him rich robes and another costly jewels; but in the midst of all his grandeur he still wore the leathern doublet, which the palace servants thought remarkably mean. One day the King’s attention being drawn to it by the chief page, his Majesty inquired why Spare didn’t give it to a beggar. But the cobbler said:

“High and mighty monarch, this doublet was with me before silk and velvet came—I find it easier to wear than the court cut; moreover, it serves to keep me humble, by recalling the days when it was my holiday garment.”

The King thought this a wise speech, and commanded that no one should find fault with the  leathern doublet. So things went, and Spare prospered at court until the day when he lost his doublet, of which we read in the next story.

Merry Cobbler and his Coat