The Cobblers And The Cuckoo
: STORIES FROM IRELAND
: Boys And Girls Bookshelf
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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.