6.THE CAT WHO BECAME HEAD-FORESTER
Cats always fall on their feet, on their four paws, and never hurt themselves. As in tumbling, so it is in life. No cat is ever unfortunate for very long. The worse things look for a cat, the better they are going to be.
Once upon a time, an old peasant had a cat and did not like him. He was a tom-cat, always fighting; and he had lost one ear, and was not very pretty to look at. The peasant thought he would get rid of his old cat, and buy a new one from a neighbour. He did not care what became of the old tom-cat with one ear, so long as he never saw him again.
So the old peasant took a sack, and bundled the tom-cat into the sack, and sewed up the sack and slung it over his back, and walked off into the forest. Off he went, trudging along in the summer sunshine, deep into the forest. When he had gone very many miles into the forest, he took the sack with the cat in it and threw it away among the trees.
“You stay there,” he said, “and if you do get out in this desolate place, it won’t do you any good, old quarrelsome bundle of bones and fur!”
With that he turned round and trudged home again, and bought a nice looking, quiet cat from a neighbour in exchange for a little tobacco, and settled down comfortably at home with the new cat in front of the stove.
The bag flew through the air, and plumped down through a bush to the ground. The old tom-cat landed on his feet inside it, very much frightened but not hurt. He thought to himself, “This bag, this flight through the air, this bump, mean that my life is going to change. Very well, there is nothing like something new now and again.”
Presently he began tearing at the bag with his sharp claws. Soon there was a hole he could put a paw through. He went on, tearing and scratching, and there was a hole he could put two paws through. He went on with his work, and soon he could put his head through. A minute or two after that he had wriggled out of the bag, and stood up on his four paws and stretched himself in the forest.
“The world seems to be larger than the village,” he said. “I will walk on and see what there is in it.”
He washed himself all over, curled his tail proudly up in the air, cocked the only ear he had left, and set off walking under the forest trees.
“I was the head-cat in the village,” he said to himself. “If all goes well, I shall be head here too.” And he walked along as if he were the Tzar himself.
Well, he walked on and on, and he came to an old hut that had belonged to a forester. There was nobody there, nor had been for many years, and the old tom-cat made himself quite at home. He climbed up into the loft under the roof, and found a little hay.
“A very good bed,” he said, and curled up and fell asleep.
When he woke he felt hungry, so he climbed down and went off in the forest to catch little birds and mice. There were plenty of them in the forest, and when he had eaten enough he came back to the hut, climbed into the loft, and spent the night there very comfortably.
You would have thought he would be content. Not him. He was a cat. He said, “This is a good enough lodging. But I have to catch all my own food. In the village they fed me every day, and I only caught mice for fun. I ought to be able to live like that here. A person of my dignity ought not to have to do all the work for himself.”
Next day he went walking in the forest. As he was walking he met a fox, a vixen, a very pretty young thing. The fox saw the cat, and was very much astonished.
“All these years,” she said—for though she was young she thought she had lived a long time—”all these years,” she said, “I’ve lived in the forest, but I’ve never seen a wild beast like that before. What a strange-looking animal! And with only one ear. How handsome!”
She came up and made her bows to the cat, and said,—
“Tell me, great lord, who you are. What fortunate chance has brought you to this forest? And by what name am I to call your Excellency?”
Oh! The fox was very polite. It is not every day that you meet a handsome stranger walking in the forest.
The cat arched his back, and set all his fur on end, and said, very slowly and quietly,—
“I have been sent from the far forests of Siberia to be Head-forester over you. My name is Cat Ivanovitch.”
“Oh Cat Ivanovitch!” said the pretty young fox, and she made more bows. “I did not know. I beg your Excellency’s pardon. Will your Excellency honour my humble house by visiting it as a guest?”
“I will,” said the cat. “And what do they call you?”
“My name, your Excellency, is Lisabeta Ivanovna.”
“I will come with you, Lisabeta,” said the cat.
They went together to the fox’s home. Very snug, very neat it was inside; and the cat curled himself up in the best place, while Lisabeta Ivanovna, the pretty young fox, made ready a tasty dish of game. While she was making the meal ready, and dusting the furniture with her tail, she looked at the cat. At last she said, shyly,—
“Tell me, Cat Ivanovitch, are you married or single?”
“Single,” said the cat.
“I too am unmarried,” said the pretty young fox, and goes busily on with her dusting and cooking.
Presently she looks at the cat again.
“What if we were to marry, Cat Ivanovitch? I would try to be a good wife to you.”
“Very well, Lisabeta,” said the cat; “I will marry you.”
The fox went to her store and took out all the dainties that she had, and made a wedding feast to celebrate her marriage to the great Cat Ivanovitch, who had only one ear, and had come from the far Siberian forests to be Head-forester.
They ate up everything there was in the place.
Next morning the pretty young fox went off busily into the forest to get food for her grand husband. But the old tom-cat stayed at home, and cleaned his whiskers and slept. He was a lazy and proud.
The fox was running through the forest, looking for game, when she met an old friend, the handsome young wolf, and he began making polite speeches to her.
“What has become of you?” he said. “I’ve been to all the best places and not found you at all.”
Formerly I was a young, unmarried fox; now I am a wife.”
“Whom have you married, Lisabeta Ivanovna?”
“What!” said the fox, “you have not heard that the great Cat Ivanovitch, who has only one ear, has been sent from the far Siberian forests to be Head-forester over all of us? Well, I am now the Head-forester’s wife.”
“No, I had not heard, Lisabeta Ivanovna. When can I pay my respects to his Excellency?”
“Not now, not now,” said the fox. “Cat Ivanovitch will be angry with me if I let anyone come near him. Presently he will be taking his food. Get a sheep, and make it ready, and bring it as a greeting to him, to show him that he is welcome and that you know how to treat him with respect. Leave the sheep nearby, and hide yourself so that he shall not see you; for, if he did, things might be awkward.”
“Thank you, thank you, Lisabeta Ivanovna,” said the wolf, and off he went to look for a sheep.
The pretty young fox went idly on, for she knew that the wolf would save her the trouble of looking for food.
Presently she met the bear.
“Good day to you, Lisabeta Ivanovna,” said the bear; “as pretty as ever, I see.”
Formerly I was a young, unmarried fox; now I am a wife.”
“I beg your pardon,” said the bear, “whom have you married, Lisabeta Ivanovna?”
“The great Cat Ivanovitch has been sent from the far Siberian forests to be Head-forester over us all. And Cat Ivanovitch is now my husband,” said the fox.
“Is it forbidden to have a look at his Excellency?”
“It is forbidden,” said the fox. “Cat Ivanovitch will be angry with me if I let anyone come near him. Presently he will be taking his food. Get along with you quickly; make ready an ox, and bring it by way of welcome to him. The wolf is bringing a sheep. Leave the ox nearby, and hide yourself so that the great Cat Ivanovitch shall not see you; or else, brother, things may be awkward.”
The bear shambled off as fast as he could go to get an ox.
The pretty young fox, enjoying the fresh air of the forest, went slowly home and crept in very quietly, so as not to awake the great Head-forester, Cat Ivanovitch, who had only one ear and was sleeping in the best place.
Presently the wolf came through the forest, dragging a sheep he had killed. He did not dare to go too near the fox’s home, because of Cat Ivanovitch, the new Head-forester. So he stopped, well out of sight, and stripped off the skin of the sheep, and arranged the sheep so as to seem a nice tasty morsel. Then he stood still, thinking what to do next. He heard a noise, and looked up. There was the bear, struggling along with a dead ox.
“Good day, brother Michael Ivanovitch,” said the wolf.
“Good-day, brother Levon Ivanovitch,” said the bear. “Have you seen the fox, Lisabeta Ivanovna, with her husband, the Head-forester?”
“No, brother,” said the wolf. “For a long time I have been waiting to see them.”
“Go on and call out to them,” said the bear.
“No, Michael Ivanovitch,” said the wolf, “I will not go. You go; you are bigger and bolder than I.”
“No, no, Levon Ivanovitch, I will not go. There is no use in risking one’s life without need.”
Suddenly, as they were talking, a little hare came running by. The bear saw him first, and roared out,—
“Hi, Squint eye! Come here.”
The hare came up, slowly, two steps at a time, trembling with fright.
“Now then, you squinting rascal,” said the bear, “do you know where the fox lives, over there?”
“I know, Michael Ivanovitch.”
“Get along there quickly, and tell her that Michael Ivanovitch the bear and his brother Levon Ivanovitch the wolf have been ready for a long time, and have brought presents of a sheep and an ox, as greetings to his Excellency …”
“His Excellency, mind,” said the wolf; “don’t forget.”
The hare ran off as hard as he could go; glad to have escaped so easily. Meanwhile the wolf and the bear looked about for good places in which to hide.
“It will be best to climb trees,” said the bear. “I shall go up to the top of this fir.”
“But what am I to do?” said the wolf. “I can’t climb a tree for the life of me. Brother Michael, Brother Michael, hide me somewhere or other before you climb up. I beg you, hide me, or I shall certainly be killed.”
“Crouch down under these bushes,” said the bear, “and I will cover you with the dead leaves.”
“May you be rewarded,” said the wolf; and he crouched down under the bushes, and the bear covered him up with dead leaves, so that only the tip of his nose could be seen.
Then the bear climbed slowly up into the fir tree, to the very top, and looked out to see if the fox and Cat Ivanovitch were coming.
They were coming; oh yes, they were coming! The hare ran up and knocked on the door, and said to the fox,—
“Michael Ivanovitch the bear and his brother Levon Ivanovitch the wolf have been ready for a long time, and have brought presents of a sheep and an ox as greetings to his Excellency.”
“Get along, Squinteye,” said the fox; “we are just coming.”
So the fox and the cat set out together.
The bear, up in the top of the tree, saw them, and called down to the wolf,—
“They are coming, Brother Levon; they are coming, the fox and her husband. But what a little one he is, to be sure!”
“Quiet, quiet,” whispered the wolf. “He’ll hear you, and then we are done for.”
The cat came up, and arched his back and set all his furs on end, and threw himself on the ox, and began tearing the meat with his teeth and claws. As he tore he purred. The bear listened, and heard the purring of the cat, and it seemed to him that the cat was angrily muttering, “Small, small, small….”
The bear whispered: “He’s no giant, but what a glutton! Why, we couldn’t get through a quarter of that, and he finds it not enough. Heaven help us if he comes after us!”
The wolf tried to see, but could not, because his head, all but his nose, was covered with the dry leaves. Little by little he moved his head, so as to clear the leaves away from in front of his eyes. Try as he would to be quiet, the leaves rustled, so little, ever so little, but enough to be heard by the one ear of the cat.
The cat stopped tearing the meat and listened.
“I haven’t caught a mouse today,” he thought.
Once more the leaves rustled.
The cat leapt through the air and dropped with all four paws, and his claws out, on the nose of the wolf. How the wolf yelped! The leaves flew like dust, and the wolf leapt up and ran off as fast as his legs could carry him.
The wolf was frightened, but he was not as frightened as the cat.
When the great wolf leapt up out of the leaves, the cat screamed and ran up the nearest tree, and that was the tree where Michael Ivanovitch the bear was hiding in the topmost branches.
“Oh, he has seen me. Cat Ivanovitch has seen me,” thought the bear. He had no time to climb down, and the cat was coming up in long leaps.
The bear jumped from the top of the tree. He broke many branches as he fell and many bones also when he crashed to the ground. He picked himself up and stumbled off, groaning.
The pretty young fox sat still, and cried out, “Run, run, Brother Levon! Quicker Brother Michael! His Excellency is behind you; his Excellency is close behind!”
Ever since then all the wild beasts have been afraid of the cat and the cat and the fox live merrily together, and eat fresh meat all the year round, which the other animals kill for them and leave a little way off.
That is what happened to the old tom-cat with one ear, who was sewn up in a bag and thrown away in the forest.