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The Colony Of Cats

from The Crimson Fairy Book





Long, long ago, as far back as the time when animals spoke, there lived
a community of cats in a deserted house they had taken possession of not
far from a large town. They had everything they could possibly desire
for their comfort, they were well fed and well lodged, and if by any
chance an unlucky mouse was stupid enough to venture in their way, they
caught it, not to eat it, but for the pure pleasure of catching it. The
old people of the town related how they had heard their parents speak
of a time when the whole country was so overrun with rats and mice
that there was not so much as a grain of corn nor an ear of maize to be
gathered in the fields; and it might be out of gratitude to the cats who
had rid the country of these plagues that their descendants were allowed
to live in peace. No one knows where they got the money to pay for
everything, nor who paid it, for all this happened so very long ago.
But one thing is certain, they were rich enough to keep a servant; for
though they lived very happily together, and did not scratch nor fight
more than human beings would have done, they were not clever enough to
do the housework themselves, and preferred at all events to have some
one to cook their meat, which they would have scorned to eat raw. Not
only were they very difficult to please about the housework, but most
women quickly tired of living alone with only cats for companions,
consequently they never kept a servant long; and it had become a saying
in the town, when anyone found herself reduced to her last penny: 'I
will go and live with the cats,' and so many a poor woman actually did.

Now Lizina was not happy at home, for her mother, who was a widow, was
much fonder of her elder daughter; so that often the younger one fared
very badly, and had not enough to eat, while the elder could have
everything she desired, and if Lizina dared to complain she was certain
to have a good beating.

At last the day came when she was at the end of her courage and
patience, and exclaimed to her mother and sister:

'As you hate me so much you will be glad to be rid of me, so I am going
to live with the cats!'

'Be off with you!' cried her mother, seizing an old broom-handle from
behind the door. Poor Lizina did not wait to be told twice, but ran off
at once and never stopped till she reached the door of the cats' house.
Their cook had left them that very morning, with her face all scratched,
the result of such a quarrel with the head of the house that he had very
nearly scratched out her eyes. Lizina therefore was warmly welcomed,
and she set to work at once to prepare the dinner, not without many
misgivings as to the tastes of the cats, and whether she would be able
to satisfy them.

Going to and fro about her work, she found herself frequently hindered
by a constant succession of cats who appeared one after another in the
kitchen to inspect the new servant; she had one in front of her
feet, another perched on the back of her chair while she peeled the
vegetables, a third sat on the table beside her, and five or six others
prowled about among the pots and pans on the shelves against the wall.
The air resounded with their purring, which meant that they were pleased
with their new maid, but Lizina had not yet learned to understand
their language, and often she did not know what they wanted her to do.
However, as she was a good, kindhearted girl, she set to work to pick
up the little kittens which tumbled about on the floor, she patched
up quarrels, and nursed on her lap a big tabby--the oldest of the
community--which had a lame paw. All these kindnesses could hardly fail
to make a favourable impression on the cats, and it was even better
after a while, when she had had time to grow accustomed to their strange
ways. Never had the house been kept so clean, the meats so well served,
nor the sick cats so well cared for. After a time they had a visit from
an old cat, whom they called their father, who lived by himself in a
barn at the top of the hill, and came down from time to time to inspect
the little colony. He too was much taken with Lizina, and inquired, on
first seeing her: 'Are you well served by this nice, black-eyed little
person?' and the cats answered with one voice: 'Oh, yes, Father Gatto,
we have never had so good a servant!'

At each of his visits the answer was always the same; but after a time
the old cat, who was very observant, noticed that the little maid had
grown to look sadder and sadder. 'What is the matter, my child has any
one been unkind to you?' he asked one day, when he found her crying in
her kitchen. She burst into tears and answered between her sobs: 'Oh,
no! they are all very good to me; but I long for news from home, and I
pine to see my mother and my sister.'

Old Gatto, being a sensible old cat, understood the little servant's
feelings. 'You shall go home,' he said, 'and you shall not come back
here unless you please. But first you must be rewarded for all your kind
services to my children. Follow me down into the inner cellar, where you
have never yet been, for I always keep it locked and carry the key away
with me.'

Lizina looked round her in astonishment as they went down into the
great vaulted cellar underneath the kitchen. Before her stood the big
earthenware water jars, one of which contained oil, the other a liquid
shining like gold. 'In which of these jars shall I dip you?' asked
Father Gatto, with a grin that showed all his sharp white teeth, while
his moustaches stood out straight on either side of his face. The little
maid looked at the two jars from under her long dark lashes: 'In the oil
jar,' she answered timidly, thinking to herself: 'I could not ask to be
bathed in gold.'

But Father Gatto replied: 'No, no; you have deserved something better
than that.' And seizing her in his strong paws he plunged her into the
liquid gold. Wonder of wonders! when Lizina came out of the jar she
shone from head to foot like the sun in the heavens on a fine summer's
day. Her pretty pink cheeks and long black hair alone kept their natural
colour, otherwise she had become like a statue of pure gold. Father
Gatto purred loudly with satisfaction. 'Go home,' he said, 'and see
your mother and sisters; but take care if you hear the cock crow to turn
towards it; if on the contrary the ass brays, you must look the other
way.'

The little maid, having gratefully kissed the white paw of the old cat,
set off for home; but just as she got near her mother's house the cock
crowed, and quickly she turned towards it. Immediately a beautiful
golden star appeared on her forehead, crowning her glossy black hair.
At the same time the ass began to bray, but Lizina took care not to look
over the fence into the field where the donkey was feeding. Her
mother and sister, who were in front of their house, uttered cries of
admiration and astonishment when they saw her, and their cries became
still louder when Lizina, taking her handkerchief from her pocket, drew
out also a handful of gold.

For some days the mother and her two daughters lived very happily
together, for Lizina had given them everything she had brought away
except her golden clothing, for that would not come off, in spite of all
the efforts of her sister, who was madly jealous of her good fortune.
The golden star, too, could not be removed from her forehead. But all
the gold pieces she drew from her pockets had found their way to her
mother and sister.

'I will go now and see what I can get out of the pussies,' said Peppina,
the elder girl, one morning, as she took Lizina's basket and fastened
her pockets into her own skirt. 'I should like some of the cats' gold
for myself,' she thought, as she left her mother's house before the sun
rose.

The cat colony had not yet taken another servant, for they knew they
could never get one to replace Lizina, whose loss they had not yet
ceased to mourn. When they heard that Peppina was her sister, they all
ran to meet her. 'She is not the least like her,' the kittens whispered
among themselves.

'Hush, be quiet!' the older cats said; 'all servants cannot be pretty.'

No, decidedly she was not at all like Lizina. Even the most reasonable
and large-minded of the cats soon acknowledged that.

The very first day she shut the kitchen door in the face of the
tom-cats who used to enjoy watching Lizina at her work, and a young and
mischievous cat who jumped in by the open kitchen window and alighted on
the table got such a blow with the rolling-pin that he squalled for an
hour.

With every day that passed the household became more and more aware of
its misfortune.

The work was as badly done as the servant was surly and disagreeable;
in the corners of the rooms there were collected heaps of dust; spiders'
webs hung from the ceilings and in front of the window-panes; the beds
were hardly ever made, and the feather beds, so beloved by the old and
feeble cats, had never once been shaken since Lizina left the house.
At Father Gatto's next visit he found the whole colony in a state of
uproar.

'Caesar has one paw so badly swollen that it looks as if it were
broken,' said one. 'Peppina kicked him with her great wooden shoes on.
Hector has an abscess in his back where a wooden chair was flung at him;
and Agrippina's three little kittens have died of hunger beside their
mother, because Peppina forgot them in their basket up in the attic.
There is no putting up with the creature--do send her away, Father
Gatto! Lizina herself would not be angry with us; she must know very
well what her sister is like.'

'Come here,' said Father Gatto, in his most severe tones to Peppina. And
he took her down into the cellar and showed her the same two great
jars that he had showed Lizina. 'In which of these shall I dip you?' he
asked; and she made haste to answer: 'In the liquid gold,' for she was
no more modest than she was good and kind.

Father Gatto's yellow eyes darted fire. 'You have not deserved it,' he
uttered, in a voice like thunder, and seizing her he flung her into
the jar of oil, where she was nearly suffocated. When she came to the
surface screaming and struggling, the vengeful cat seized her again
and rolled her in the ash-heap on the floor; then when she rose, dirty,
blinded, and disgusting to behold, he thrust her from the door, saying:
'Begone, and when you meet a braying ass be careful to turn your head
towards it.'

Stumbling and raging, Peppina set off for home, thinking herself
fortunate to find a stick by the wayside with which to support herself.
She was within sight of her mother's house when she heard in the meadow
on the right, the voice of a donkey loudly braying. Quickly she turned
her head towards it, and at the same time put her hand up to her
forehead, where, waving like a plume, was a donkey's tail. She ran home
to her mother at the top of her speed, yelling with rage and despair;
and it took Lizina two hours with a big basin of hot water and two cakes
of soap to get rid of the layer of ashes with which Father Gatto had
adorned her. As for the donkey's tail, it was impossible to get rid of
that; it was as firmly fixed on her forehead as was the golden star on
Lizina's. Their mother was furious. She first beat Lizina unmercifully
with the broom, then she took her to the mouth of the well and lowered
her into it, leaving her at the bottom weeping and crying for help.

Before this happened, however, the king's son in passing the mother's
house had seen Lizina sitting sewing in the parlour, and had been
dazzled by her beauty. After coming back two or three times, he at last
ventured to approach the window and to whisper in the softest voice:
'Lovely maiden, will you be my bride?' and she had answered: 'I will.'

Next morning, when the prince arrived to claim his bride, he found her
wrapped in a large white veil. 'It is so that maidens are received from
their parents' hands,' said the mother, who hoped to make the king's son
marry Peppina in place of her sister, and had fastened the donkey's tail
round her head like a lock of hair under the veil. The prince was young
and a little timid, so he made no objections, and seated Peppina in the
carriage beside him.

Their way led past the old house inhabited by the cats, who were all at
the window, for the report had got about that the prince was going to
marry the most beautiful maiden in the world, on whose forehead shone a
golden star, and they knew that this could only be their adored Lizina.
As the carriage slowly passed in front of the old house, where cats
from all parts of world seemed to be gathered a song burst from every
throat:

Mew, mew, mew! Prince, look quick behind you!
In the well is fair Lizina,
And you've got nothing but Peppina.

When he heard this the coachman, who understood the cat's language
better than the prince, his master, stopped his horses and asked:

'Does your highness know what the grimalkins are saying?' and the song
broke forth again louder than ever.

With a turn of his hand the prince threw back the veil, and discovered
the puffed-up, swollen face of Peppina, with the donkey's tail twisted
round her head. 'Ah, traitress!' he exclaimed, and ordering the horses
to be turned round, he drove the elder daughter, quivering with rage, to
the old woman who had sought to deceive him. With his hand on the hilt
of his sword he demanded Lizina in so terrific a voice that the mother
hastened to the well to draw her prisoner out. Lizina's clothing and her
star shone so brilliantly that when the prince led her home to the king,
his father, the whole palace was lit up. Next day they were married, and
lived happy ever after; and all the cats, headed by old Father Gatto,
were present at the wedding.





Next: How To Find Out A True Friend

Previous: The Story Of The Sham Prince Or The Ambitious Tailor



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