2.THE RAT’S WEDDING
Once upon a time a fat sleek Rat was caught in a shower of rain, and being far from shelter he set to work and soon dug a nice hole in the ground, in which he sat as dry as a bone while the raindrops splashed outside, making little puddles on the road.
Now while he was digging he came upon a fine bit of root, quite dry and suitable for burning, which he put aside carefully in order to take it home with him. So when the shower was over, he set off with the dry root in his mouth. As he went along, picking his way through the puddles, he saw a poor man vainly trying to light a fire, while a little circle of children stood by, and cried piteously.
‘Goodness gracious!’ exclaimed the Rat, who was both soft-hearted and curious, ‘what a dreadful noise to make! What is the matter?’
‘The children are hungry,’ answered the man; ‘they are crying for their breakfast, but the sticks are damp, the fire won’t burn, and so I can’t bake the cakes.’
‘If that is all your trouble, perhaps I can help you,’ said the good-natured Rat; ‘you are welcome to this dry root, and I am sure it will soon make a fine blaze.’
The poor man, with a thousand thanks, took the dry root, and in his turn presented the Rat with a piece of dough, as a reward for his kindness and generosity.
‘What a remarkably lucky fellow I am!’ thought the Rat, as he trotted off happily with his prize, ‘and clever too! Fancy making a bargain like that—food enough to last me five days in return for a rotten old stick! What it is to have brains!’
Going along, hugging his good fortune in this way, he came to a potter’s yard, where the potter, leaving his wheel to spin round by itself, was trying to calm his three little children, who were screaming and crying as if they would burst.
‘My gracious!’ cried the Rat, stopping his ears, ‘what a noise!—do tell me what it is all about.’
‘I suppose they are hungry,’ replied the potter .Their mother has gone to get flour in the market, for there is none in the house. In the meantime, I can neither work nor rest because of them.’
‘Is that all!’ answered the Rat; ‘then I can help you. Take this dough, cook it quickly, and fill their mouths with food.’
The potter thanked the Rat for his kindness, and choosing out a nice well made pot, gave it to the Rat.
The Rat was delighted at the exchange, and though the pot was just a little difficult for him to manage, he succeeded by balancing it on his head, and went away down the road, with his tail over his arm in case he should trip on it. And all the time he kept saying to himself, ‘What a lucky fellow I am! And clever too! ‘
After some time he came to where some cowherds were herding their cattle. One of them was milking a cow, and having no bucket he used his shoes instead.
‘Oh my goodness!’ cried the clean Rat, quite shocked at the sight.
‘What a nasty dirty way to do it!—why don’t you use a bucket?’
‘We haven’t got one!’ growled the cowherd.
‘If that is all,’ replied the Rat, ‘please use this pot, for I cannot bear dirt!’
The cowherd eagerly took the pot, and milked away until it was full; then turning to the Rat, who stood looking on, said, ‘Here, little fellow, you may have a drink, in payment.’
The Rat was good-natured but he was also shrewd. ‘No, no, my friend,’ he said, ‘that will not do! As if I could drink the worth of my pot! My dear sir, I couldn’t hold it! Besides, I never make a bad bargain, so I expect you at least to give me the cow that gave the milk.’
‘Nonsense!’ cried the cowherd; ‘a cow for a pot! Who ever heard of such a price? And what on earth could you do with a cow when you got it? Why, the pot was about as much as you could manage.’
At this the Rat drew himself up with dignity, for he did not like anyone to mention his size.
‘That is my affair, not yours,’ he replied; ‘your business is to hand over the cow.’
So just for the fun, and to amuse themselves at the Rat’s expense, the cowherds loosed the cow’s rope and began to tie it to the little animal’s tail.
‘No! No!’ he called, in a great hurry; ‘if the beast pulled, the skin of my tail would come off, and then where should I be? Tie it round my neck, if you please.’
So with much laughter the cowherds tied the rope round the Rat’s neck, and he, after a polite goodbye, set off happily towards home with his prize; that is to say, he set off with the rope, for he was stopped because the cow would not move until it had finished its tuft of grass, and then seeing another in a different direction marched off towards it, while the Rat, to avoid being dragged, had to trot behind,.
He was too proud to confess the truth, of course, and, nodding his head knowingly to the cowherds, said, ‘Goodbye, good people! I am going home this way. It may be a little longer, but it’s much shadier.’
And when the cowherds roared with laughter he took no notice, but trotted on, looking as dignified as possible.
‘After all,’ he reasoned to himself, ‘when one keeps a cow one has to look after it’s grazing. A cow must get a good bellyful of grass if it is to give any milk, and I have plenty of time.’
So all day long he trotted about after the cow, but by evening he was dead tired, and felt truly thankful when the great big animal, having eaten enough, lay down under a tree to rest.
Just then a wedding party came by. The bridegroom and his friends had evidently gone on to the next village, leaving the bride’s carriage to follow; so the carriage bearers, being lazy fellows and seeing a nice shady tree, put down their burden, and began to cook some food.
‘What meanness!’ grumbled one;’ a grand wedding, and nothing but plain rice to eat! Not a scrap of meat in it! It would serve the misers right if we dropped the bride into a ditch!’
‘Dear me!’ cried the Rat at once, seeing a way out of his difficulty, ‘that is a shame! I sympathize with your feelings so entirely that if you will allow me I’ll give you my cow. You can kill it, and cook it.’
‘Your cow!’ replied the discontented bearers, ‘what rubbish! Whoever heard of a rat owning a cow?’
‘Not often, I admit,’ replied the Rat proudly; ‘but look for yourselves. Can you not see that I am leading the animal by a string?’
‘Oh, never mind the string!’ cried a great big hungry bearer; ‘master or no master, I mean to have meat for my dinner!’
Immediately they killed the cow, and, cooking its meat, ate their dinner hungrily. Then, offering what was left to the Rat, said, ‘Here, little Rat, that is for you!’
‘Now look here!’ cried the Rat hotly, ‘I’ll have none of your leftovers. You don’t suppose I am going to give my best cow, that gave quarts and quarts of milk—the cow I have been feeding all day—for a little bit of rice? No!—I got a loaf for a bit of stick; I got a pot for a little loaf; I got a cow for a pot; and now I’ll have the bride for my cow—the bride, and nothing else!’
By this time the servants, having satisfied their hunger, began to consider what they had done, and becoming alarmed at the consequences, decided it would be wisest to make their escape while they could. So, leaving the bride in her carriage, they fled in various directions.
The Rat, went up to the carriage, and drawing aside the curtain, with the sweetest of voices and best of bows begged the bride to come out. She hardly knew whether to laugh or to cry, but as any company, even a Rat’s, was better than being quite alone, she did as she was asked, and followed the lead of her guide, who set off as fast as he could for his hole.
As he trotted along beside the lovely young bride, who, by her rich dress and glittering jewels, seemed to be some king’s daughter, he kept saying to himself, ‘How clever I am! What bargains I do make, to be sure!’
When they arrived at his hole, the Rat stepped forward with the greatest politeness, and said, ‘Welcome, madam, to my humble home! Please step in, or if you will allow me, and as the passage is somewhat dark, I will show you the way.’
He ran in first, but after a time, finding the bride did not follow, he put his nose out again, saying, ‘Well, madam, why don’t you follow? Don’t you know it’s rude to keep your husband waiting?’
‘My good sir,’ laughed the pretty young bride, ‘I can’t squeeze into that little hole!’
The Rat coughed; then after a moment’s thought he replied, ‘There is some truth in what you say—you are too big, and I suppose I shall have to build you a hut somewhere. For tonight you can rest under that wild plum-tree.’
‘But I am so hungry!’ said the bride.
‘Dear, dear! everybody seems to be hungry today!’ replied the Rat unhappily. ‘However, that’s easily settled—I’ll fetch you some supper.’
So he ran into his hole, returning immediately with a grain of rice and a dry pea.
‘There!’ said he, triumphantly, ‘isn’t that a fine meal?’
‘I can’t eat that!’ whimpered the bride; ‘it isn’t a mouthful; and I want rice, and cakes, and sweet eggs, and candy. I shall die if I don’t get them!’
‘Oh dear me!’ cried the Rat in a rage, ‘what a nuisance a bride is, to be sure! Why don’t you eat the wild plums?’
‘I can’t live on wild plums!’ cried the weeping bride; ‘nobody could; besides, they are only half ripe, and I can’t reach them.’
‘Rubbish!’ cried the Rat; ‘ripe or unripe, they must do you for tonight, and tomorrow you can gather a basketful, sell them in the city, and buy candy and sweet eggs to your heart’s content!’
So the next morning the Rat climbed up into the plum-tree, and nibbled away at the stalks till the fruit fell down into the bride’s basket. Then, unripe as they were, she carried them into the city, calling out through the streets—
‘Green plums I sell! Green plums I sell!
Princess am I, Rat’s bride as well!’
As she passed by the palace, her mother the Queen heard her voice, and, running out, recognized her daughter. Great was the rejoicing, for everyone thought the poor bride had been eaten by wild beasts. In the midst of the feasting and merriment, the Rat, who had followed the Princess at a distance, and had become alarmed at her long absence, arrived at the door, against which he beat with a big stick, calling out fiercely, ‘Give me my wife! Give me my wife! She is mine by fair bargain. I gave a stick and I got a loaf; I gave a loaf and I got a pot; I gave a pot and I got a cow; I gave a cow and I got a bride. Give me my wife! Give me my wife!’
‘What? Son-in-law! What a fuss you make!’ said the wily old Queen, through the door, ‘and all about nothing! Who wants to run away with your wife? On the contrary, we are proud to see you, and I only keep you waiting at the door till we can spread the carpets, and receive you in style.’
Hearing this, the Rat was satisfied, and waited patiently outside whilst the cunning old Queen prepared for him, which she did by cutting a hole in the very middle of a stool, putting a red-hot stone underneath, covering it over with a metal lid, and then spreading a beautiful cloth over it.
Then she went to the door, and receiving the Rat with the greatest respect, led him to the stool, asking him to be seated.
‘Dear dear! How clever I am! What bargains I do make, to be sure!’ said he to himself as he climbed on to the stool. ‘Here I am, son-in-law to a real live Queen! What will the neighbours say?’
At first he sat down on the edge of the stool, but even there it was warm, and after a while he began to fidget, saying, ‘Dear me, mother-in-law! How hot your house is! Everything I touch seems burning!’
‘You are out of the wind there, my son,’ replied the cunning old Queen; ‘sit more in the middle of the stool, and then you will feel the breeze and get cooler.’
But he didn’t! for the metal lid by this time had become so hot, that the Rat fairly frizzled when he sat down on it; and it was not until he had left all his tail, half his hair, and a large piece of his skin behind him, that he managed to escape, howling with pain, and vowing that never, never, never again would he make a bargain!