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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832)

Bruin’s Embassy

From “Reynard, the Fox”

NOW with his trusty staff the Bear set forth,

And with his best grease larded the lean earth;

Through forests vast he went, and deserts drear;

But his bold heart knew neither doubt nor fear.

At length the mountain region he approached,

Wherein Sir Reynard generally poached;

But Bruin would not tarry or delay;

Tow’rd Malepartus held he on his way,

The fav’rite fastness of the robber chief,

And there he hoped to catch the wily thief;

Thither for safety usually he fled,

When threat’ning danger overhung his head.

At length Sir Bruin stood before the gate,

And, finding it was shut, he scratched his pate,

Not knowing whether best to go or wait.

Then he began to cry, with mighty din:

“What, Cousin Reynard, ho! are you within?

Bruin the Bear it is who calls! I bring

A missive from our sovereign lord, the king!

He orders you, all business laid aside,

Repair to court and there your doom abide;

That equal right and justice may be done,

And satisfaction given to every one.

I am to fetch you. If you hesitate,

The gallows or the wheel will be your fate.

Better to come at once, fair cousin, sith

The king, you know, will not be trifled with.”

Reynard from the beginning to the end

Had heard this summons, and did now perpend

In what way he might punish his fat friend.

Into a private corner he had fled,

Where he could hear securely all was said.

His keep was built with many a secret door,

With traps above and pits beneath the floor;

With labyrinthine passages and channels,

With secret chambers and with sliding panels.

There he would often hide, the cunning hound,

When he was wanted, and would not be found.

Amid this intricate obscurity,

Where none could safely find his path but he,

Full many a simple beast has lost his way,

And to the wily robber fall’n a prey.

Reynard suspected there might be some cheat,

For the deceitful always fear deceit.

Was Bruin quite alone? He felt afraid

There might be others hid in ambuscade.

But soon as he was fully satisfied

His fears were vain, forth from the door he hied,

And, “Welcome, dearest uncle, here!” quoth he,

With studied look of deep humility,

And the most jesuitical of whispers,

“I heard you call, but I was reading vespers.

I am quite grieved you should have had to wait,

In this cold wind, too, standing at my gate.

How glad I am you’re come! for I feel sure,

With your kind aid, my cause will be secure;

However that may be, at least, I know

More welcome nobody could be than you.

But truly ’twas a pity, I must say,

T’ have sent you such a long and tedious way.

Good heavens! how hot you are! You’re tired to death!

How wet your hair is, and how scant your breath!

Although no slight our good king could have meant,

Some other messenger he might have sent

Than Bruin, the chief glory of his court,

His kingdom’s main adornment and support.

Though I should be the last to blame his choice,

Who have, in sooth, no cause but to rejoice.

How I am slandered well aware am I,

But on your love of justice I rely,

That you will speak of things just as you find them.

As for my enemies, I need not mind them;

Their malice vainly shall my cause assail;

For truth, we know, is great, and must prevail.

To court to-morrow we will take our way.

I should myself prefer to start to-day,

Not having cause—why should I have?—to hide;

But I am rather bad in my inside.

By what I’ve eaten I am quite upset,

And nowise fitted for a journey yet.”

“What was it?” asked Sir Bruin, quite prepared,

For Reynard had not thrown him off his guard.

“Ah,” quoth the Fox, “what boots it to explain?

E’en your kind pity could not ease my pain.

Since flesh I have abjured, for my soul’s weal,

I’m often sadly put to’t for a meal.

I bear my wretched life as best I can;

A hermit fares not like an alderman.

But yesterday, as other viands failed,

I ate some honey—see how I am swelled!

Of that there’s always to be had enough.

Would I had never touched the cursed stuff!

I ate it out of sheer necessity;

Physic is not so nauseous near to me.”

“Honey!” exclaimed the Bear; “did you say honey!

Would I could any get for love or money!

How can you speak so ill of what’s so good?

Honey has ever been my fav’rite food;

It is so wholesome, and so sweet and luscious,

I can’t conceive how you can call it nauseous.

Do get me some o’t, and you may depend

You’ll make me evermore your steadfast friend.”

“You’re surely joking, uncle!” Reynard cried.

“No, on my sacred word!” the Bear replied;

“I’d not, though jokes as blackberries were rife,

Joke upon such a subject for my life.”

“Well, you surprise me!” said the knavish beast.

“There’s no accounting, certainly, for taste;

And one man’s meat is oft another’s poison.

I’ll wager that you never set your eyes on

Such store of honey as you soon shall spy

At Gaffer Joiner’s, who lives here hard by.”

In fancy o’er the treat did Bruin gloat,

While his mouth fairly watered at the thought.

“Oh, take me, take me there, dear coz,” quoth he,

“And I will ne’er forget your courtesy!

Oh, let me have a taste, if not my fill;

Do, cousin.” Reynard grinned, and said, “I will.

Honey you shall not long time be without.

’Tis true just now I’m rather sore of foot;

But what of that? The love I bear to you

Shall make the road seem short, and easy too.

Not one of all my kith or kin is there

Whom I so honor as th’ illustrious Bear.

Come, then, and in return I know you’ll say

A good word for me on the council day.

You shall have honey to your heart’s content,

And wax, too, if your fancy’s that way bent.”

Whacks of a different sort the sly rogue meant.

Off starts the wily Fox, in merry trim,

And Bruin blindly follows after him.

“If you have luck,” thought Reynard, with a titter,

“I guess you’ll find our honey rather bitter.”

When they at length reached Goodman Joiner’s yard,

The joy that Bruin felt he might have spared.

But hope, it seems, by some eternal rule,

Beguiles the wisest as the merest fool.

’Twas ev’ning now, and Reynard knew, he said,

The goodman would be safe and sound in bed.

A good and skilful carpenter was he;

Within his yard there lay an old oak-tree,

Whose gnarled and knotted trunk he had to split.

A stout wedge had he driven into it;

The cleft gaped open a good three foot wide;

Toward this spot the crafty Reynard hied.

“Uncle,” quoth he, “your steps this way direct;

You’ll find more honey here than you suspect.

In at this fissure boldly thrust your pate;

But I beseech you to be moderate.

Remember, sweetest things the soonest cloy,

And temperance enhances every joy.”

“What!” said the Bear, a shock’d look as he put on

Of self-restraint; “d’ye take me for a glutton?

With thanks I use the gifts of Providence,

But to abuse them count a grave offense.”

And so Sir Bruin let himself be fooled—

As strength will be whene’er by craft ’tis ruled.

Into the cleft he thrust his greedy maw

Up to the ears, and either foremost paw.

Reynard drew near, and tugging might and main

Pulled forth the wedge, and the trunk closed again.

By head and foot was Bruin firmly caught,

Nor threats nor flatt’ry could avail him aught.

He howled, he raved, he struggled, and he tore,

Till the whole place reechoed with his roar,

And Goodman Joiner, wakened by the rout,

Jumped up, much wond’ring what ’twas all about.

He seized his ax, that he might be prepared,

And danger, if it came, might find him on his guard.

Still howled the Bear, and struggled to get free

From the accursed grip of that cleft tree.

He strove and strained, but strained and strove in vain;

His mightiest efforts but increased his pain;

He thought he never should get loose again.

And Reynard thought the same, for his own part,

And wished it, too, devoutly from his heart.

And as the joiner coming he espied,

Armed with his ax, the jesting ruffian cried:

“Uncle, what cheer? Is th’ honey to your taste?

Don’t eat too quick; there’s no such need of haste.

The joiner’s coming, and I make no question,

He brings you your dessert, to help digestion.”

Then, deeming ’twas not longer safe to stay,

To Malepartus back he took his way.

The joiner, when he came and saw the Bear,

Off to the ale-house did with speed repair,

Where oft the villagers would sit and swill;

There a good many sat carousing still.

“Neighbors,” quoth he, “be quick! In my courtyard

A Bear is trapped! Come, and come well prepared.

I vow ’tis true.” Up started every man,

And pell-mell, helter-skelter off they ran,

Seizing whatever handiest they could take,

A pitchfork one, another grasps a rake,

A third a flail; and armed was ev’ry one

With some chance weapon, stick or stake or stone.

The priest and sacristan both joined the throng,

One with a mattock, t’other with a prong.

The parson’s maid came, too, Judith her name,

And fair was she of face and fair of fame.

(His Rev’rence could not live without her aid;

She cooked his victuals, and she warmed his bed.)

She brought the distaff she had used all day,

With which she hoped the luckless Bear to pay.

Bruin with terror heard th’ approaching roar,

And with fresh desperation tugged and tore.

His head he thus got free from out the cleft;

But hide and hair, alack! behind he left;

While from the hideous wound the crimson blood

Adown his breast in copious currents flow’d.

Was never seen so pitiable a beast!

It holp him naught his head to have released!

His feet still being fastened in the tree,

These with one more huge effort he set free.

But than his head no better fared his paws,

For he rent off alike the skin and claws.

This was, in sooth, a different sort of treat

From what he had expected there to meet.

He wished to Heav’n he ne’er had ventured there;

It was a most unfortunate affair!

Bleeding upon the ground he could but sprawl,

For he could neither stand nor walk nor crawl.

The joiner now came up with all his crew;

To the attack with eager souls they flew:

With thwacks and thumps belaboring the poor wight,

They hoped to slay him on the spot outright.

The priest kept poking at him with his prong,

From afar off—the handle being long.

Bruin in anguish rolled and writhed about;

Each howl of his called forth an answering shout.

On every side his furious foemen swarmed,

With spits and spades, with hoes and hatchets armed;

Weapons all wielded, too, by nerves of pith.

His large sledge-hammer bore the sinewy smith.

They struck, they yelled, they pelted, and they hallooed,

While in a pool of filth poor Bruin wallowed.

To name these heroes were too long by half:

There was the long-nosed Jem, the bandy Ralph;

These were the worst; but crooked-fingered Jack,

With his flail fetched him many a grievous thwack.

His stepbrother, hight Cuckelson the Fat,

Stood, but aloof, with an enormous bat.

Dame Judith was not idle with her distaff,

While Gaffer Grumble stirred him with his staff;

And men and women many more were there,

All vowing vengeance ’gainst th’ unhappy Bear.

The foremost—in the noise—was Cuckelson;

He boasted that he was Dame Gertrude’s son;

And all the world believed that this was true,

But who his father no one ever knew.

Fame, indeed, said—but fame is such a liar—

That Brother Joseph, the Franciscan friar,

Might, if he chose, claim the paternity,

Or share the same with others, it might be.

Now stones and brickbats from all sides were shower’d,

And Bruin, tho’ he scorned to die a coward,

Was by opposing numbers all but overpower’d.

The joiner’s brother then, whose name was Scrub,

Whirling around his head a massive club,

Rushed in the midst, with execrations horrid,

And dealt the Bear a blow, plump on the forehead.

That blow was struck with such tremendous might,

Bruin lost both his hearing and his sight.

One desp’rate plunge he made, though, and, as luck

Would have it, ’mong the women ran amuck.

Ye saints! how they did scream and shriek and squall!

Over each other how they tumbled all!

And some fell in the stream that ran hard by,

And it was deep just there, unluckily.

The pastor cried aloud, “Look, neighbors, look!

See, yonder, in the water, Jude, my cook,

With all her wool—she’s left her distaff here!

Help! Save her! You shall have a cask of beer,

As well as absolution for past crimes,

And full indulgence for all future times!”

Fired with the promised boon, they left the Bear,

Who lay half dead, all stunned and stupid there;

Plunged to the women’s rescue, fished out five—

All that had fallen in, and all alive.

The miserable Bear, while thus his foes

Were busied, finding respite from their blows,

Managed to scramble to the river’s brim;

Then in he rolled—but not with hopes to swim,

For life a very burden was to him.

Those shameful blows no more could he abide;

They pierced his soul more than they pained his hide.

He wished to end his days in that deep water,

Nor feared t’ incur the perils of self-slaughter.

But no! against his will he floated down;

It seemed, in truth, he was not born to drown.

Now when the Bear’s escape the men descried,

“Oh, shame, insufferable shame!” they cried;

Then in a rage began to ’rate the women:

“See where the Bear away from us is swimming!

Had you but stayed at home—your proper place—

We should not have encountered this disgrace.”

Then to the cleft tree turning, they found there

The bleeding strips of Bruin’s hide and hair.

At this into loud laughter they broke out,

And after him thus sent a jeering shout:

“You’ll sure come back again, old Devil-spawn,

As you have left your wig and gloves in pawn.”

Thus insult added they to injury,

And Bruin heard them, and sore hurt was he.

He cursed them all, and his own wretched fate;

He cursed the honey that had been his bait;

He cursed the Fox who led him in the snare;

He even cursed the king who sent him there.

Such were his prayers as quick he swept along,

For the stream bore him onward, swift and strong.

So, without effort, in a little while

He floated down the river near a mile;

Then with a heavy heart he crawled on shore,

For he was wet and weary, sick and sore.

The sun throughout his course would never see

A beast in such a shocking plight as he.

Hard and with pain he fetched his lab’ring breath,

And every moment looked and wished for death.

His head swam round with a strange sort of dizziness,

As he thought o’er the whole perplexing business.

“Oh, Reynard!” he gasped out, “thou traitor vile!

Oh, scoundrel, thief!” and more in the same style.

He thought upon the tree, the gibes and knocks

He had endured, and once more cursed the Fox.

Reynard, well pleased t’ have cozened Uncle Bruin,

And lured him, as he thought, to his sure ruin,

Had started off upon a chicken-chase;

He knew, close by, a tried and fav’rite place.

A fine fat pullet soon became his prey,

Which in his felon clutch he bore away;

This he devoured, bones and all, right speedily,

And, if the truth be spoken, somewhat greedily.

Prepared for any chance that might betide,

He slowly sauntered by the riverside,

Stopping from time to time to take a draft;

And thought aloud, while in his sleeve he laugh’d:

“How pleased I am t’ have trick’d that stupid Bear!

Honey he longed for, and has had his share.

I’m not to blame; I warned him of the wax.

By this he knows how tastes a joiner’s ax.

I’m glad t’ have shown him this good turn, as he

Has ever been so good and kind to me.

Poor uncle! Well, by chance should he be dead,

I’ll for his soul have scores of masses said.

It is the least, methinks, that I can do.”

While musing thus, he chanced to look below,

And saw Sir Bruin on the other shore,

Writhing and welt’ring in a pool of gore.

Reynard could scarce, so great was his surprise,

Believe the evidence of his own eyes.

“Bruin alive! And in this place!” quoth he.

“Why, joiner, what a booby you must be!

A Bear’s hams make the most delicious food!

You could not surely know they were so good.

A dish by which a duke would set vast store,

To be so slighted by a stupid boor!

My friend has left, though, I am glad to see,

A pledge for your kind hospitality.”

Thus spake the Fox, as he beheld the Bear,

Lying all weary-worn and bleeding there.

Then he called out, “Why, uncle, is that you?

What upon earth can you have here to do?

You’ve something at the joiner’s left, I fear;

Shall I run back and let him know you’re here?

Prithee, is stolen honey very sweet?

Or did you pay, as right was, for your treat?

How red your face is! You have ate too quick;

I trust you have not gorged till you are sick.

Really you should have been more moderate;

I could have got you lots at the same rate.

Nay, I declare—I trust there is no harm in’t—

You seem t’ have on some sort of priestly garment,

With scarlet gloves, and collar, too, and hat;

Rather a dangerous prank to play is that!

Yet, now I look more close, your ears are gone, sure;

Have you of late submitted to the tonsure,

And did the stupid barber cut them off?”

Thus did the cruel-hearted Reynard scoff,

While Bruin, all unable to reply,

Could only moan with grief and agony.

No longer could he these sharp gibes sustain,

So crept into the water back again.

He floated downward with the stream once more,

And again landed on the shelving shore.

There in a miserable state he lay,

And piteously unto himself did say:

“That some one would but slay me here outright!

Ne’er shall I reach the court in this sad plight,

But on this spot in shame and grief shall die,

A mortal proof of Reynard’s treachery.

Oh, I will have a dire revenge, I swear,

If it please Providence my life to spare.”

With firm resolve his pain to overcome,

At length he started on his journey home;

And after four long toilsome days were past,

Crippled and maimed, he reached the court at last.

When the king saw the Bear so sorely maimed,

“Great Heaven! is this Sir Bruin?” he exclaimed—

“My trusty messenger in such a state!”

“Ah, Sire!” said Bruin, “and is this the fate

That should a king’s ambassador befall?

But spare my breath—the Fox has done it all.”