The Cobblers And The Cuckoo

: 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
r /> 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


"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


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.