They continued in this way for some time, and covered perhaps half a mile of forest- which was, after all, a sunny and pleasant forest, so that they began to feel that the danger was past and that beaver and boy would reach the princess without much difficulty. They continued feeling this way until, as they came to a specially dark and thick portion of the forest, there came a great crashing and howling sound, as of a terrible beast quite nearby; and they both turned around and around, wondering which way they should go, though the boy did his best to appear resolute and not at all as if he was hoping nothing would turn up.
But even as he tried, something did turn up, and the something was a bear. And if you have never encountered one at close quarters, you already know that you are very lucky, because they are fearsome and possessed of great claws and great teeth and mad eyes, and will knock off your head as soon as look at you (or so people say, although how they heard this they never reveal). It was clear to the boy and the baroness that here was the sound of the great crashing and howling, but the beaver held onto the boy so that he might not run away, for, from her years of weeping and crying, she recognized those sounds even when they were warped in the mouth of a bear.
And shortly, the boy realized, too, that the bear was not knocking his head into the bushes, but only whimpering and muttering to itself and looking surprised and perhaps a little ashamed to see someone else there. He realized that this, too, was a talking animal of the enchanted wood, and he must be specially and profoundly polite and careful.
“Hello, bear; I am sorry to find you in such a state, and to have come upon you unexpectedly,” and he smiled his most winning smile, “because I would have sent ahead, only I did not know you were there; but it seems to me that you are a most handsome and fine bear, with a fine coat and teeth.”
These compliments seemed only to increase the sad and morose expression of the bear, who replied in a slow despairing voice, thick with rue.
“It is all very well for you to say that I am a fine bear, with a good coat; but I know in truth you are only afraid of me,” she snuffled and wept, “and hateful to me, and I have troubles enough without that.”
“I am very sorry for your troubles,” said the boy, “but I assure you that, if I am afraid, it is only from my great surprise, and I have no hate for you, and indeed great compassion; and I had no intention to trouble you, but only to find the cursed princess, so I can marry her.”
The bear found this a little hard to swallow, but shortly saw that the beaver-baroness (who was with him) was nodding in confirmation, and took another glance at the boy, top to toe, not failing to notice his strong arms nor his bright eyes. She stopped crying and stood coquettishly, as best a bear can, and she at once went to him and tousled his hair with her great paw, with some affection.
“I am sorry to have thought so ill of you;” said the bear, “for you have come to aid me in my distress. I am the very princess you seek, and you need but do one thing for my curse to be lifted and us to be married.”
The boy heard her out fairly, although he thought that this was perhaps a familiar story; but he asked, nonetheless, what the task might be, and in response the bear produced from a place among some tree roots a tinderbox- but unlike his ordinary tinderbox, such as a humble man might use to aid in the cooking of beans, this one shimmered and was made of bright gold, so he knew it was quite magic.
“You have but to take this tinderbox, and set it to anything, be it wood or stone or even iron, and it will burn as if it were dry paper. In this way, you need only pass through that thick bramble,” and here she gestured to a thicket that was indeed marvelously thick, “and, having passed this threshold, the curse shall be lifted and we married.”
So saying, she looked on him with eyes presumably filled with womanly approval (with a bear it is hard to tell). But the boy was not quite taken in this time, and paced back and forth, and the bear sank to her haunches disconsolately at last, and scratched the back of her neck nervously.
“Good bear,” he began, and charitably enough, “I cannot do as you ask, and here is why: if the fire of this tinderbox be magic, it will burn up not only the thicket, but also all the trees around, and spread and spread until the whole wood is burned up, and we with it- and also the village, where my loving father and doting mother live still. Besides which, there are many beasts of enchantment, and also a princess, in this forest, and I should feel terrible if I should burn them all up.”
The bear princess, overcome with emotion, embraced him (this was quite uncomfortable for the boy, but he bore it), and replied to him. “These are very practical objections, my sweet boy, but will you not do it for your princess? For I assure you, I am passing fair in my true form, and also possessed of some wealth.” We may see from this that the bear had some little experience of the world, which the beaver had not.
The boy, because he was very polite, held the bear’s great paw in his two hands, and stroked it tenderly, because he knew his response must be something she would not wish to hear. “I am sorry, bear, but I do not believe you; for, though I might perhaps believe that a princess would be turned into a bear, I have already been told that once that a beast was a princess, and in that case it was a lie.” He gave the beaver a glance as he said this, so she knew he did not mean it as condemnation. “Therefore I am less trusting than, perhaps, I might have been before.” It is not good to doubt others with so little cause, but as it happens, he was right, and the bear wept great salt tears onto the top of his head where she stood above him, and when she spoke it was to tell him the whole truth.
“It is so; I am no princess, though cursed I am. I was a countess, once, who offended a witch by not offering her a seat at my table when she arrived unexpectedly.” The bear’s weeping was heart-rending as she continued. “She set me to watching this thicket, and told me to offer her magic tinderbox to anyone who came by, for she had a grudge against the thorns thereof; I suspect she was once pricked by them, or else her clothes were torn. At any rate it has been a terrible trial, for I do not like being a bear, and I feared to leave lest the witch find me and curse me still further, and I feared also what might dwell in the thicket.”
The boy stroked her great bear’s back, for he felt some pity, but he also straightaway closed up the tinderbox deep in his sack, for he felt it was a very dangerous thing and should not be left lying about. He spoke gaily (if a little muffled) to the bear:
“Come now, it is not so bad; you have your thick hide, and your great claws, so that the ticket should part before you like rotten lace; and, having passed that barrier, we shall go see the princess. Perhaps, having lived in this forest a great while, she will know something about enchantments.”
The bear-countess was not perhaps so sure this was indeed the case, but the boy had so indulged her, and she so wished to relieve her fear of the thicket and no longer be alone, that before one could pull out a chair, the bear had crashed straightaway through the thicket as if it were no more than a curtain, and they kept walking, the boy singing as they went:
Baroness and countess now found I,
And also bear and beaver;
I’ll find a princess by and by,
And never more shall leave her!
And because he was a good boy and had shown them kindness, the bear and beaver came in on the choruses (which was all there was), though they might perhaps have preferred he stay and keep them company, cursed though they were.