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THE CAT, THE RATS AND THE KING

Once upon a time a curious cat set out into the world to seek his fortune. He traveled from land to land, sometimes by foot, sometimes by ship, sometimes by caravan.

After years of roaming, he came to a country where the people had never before seen a cat. At first they were frightened of him. As Puss wandered from town to village, people ran from him. "Monster!" they cried when they spied him. "What kind of animal can he be?" they asked each other. Finally, someone who had traveled widely told the others that Puss was a cat.As it happened, thousands of rats lived in this land. The people had always despised the rats. But now they saw that wherever Puss walked, the rats ran away as fast as they could.

Before long the people were impressed by Puss. "Hooray for the cat!" they cried as they saw the rats disappearing. "Our hero!"

They plucked up their courage and approached Puss. "Excuse us, but may we ask where you are heading?"

"I'm looking for your king," Puss answered. "I'm seeking my fortune in this big wide world, and I've heard that your king has a fortune."

"Come with us," the villagers said, and they led Puss to their king. The people told the court about Puss' courage and the way the rats ran from him. When the king heard the news, he named Puss the Royal Ratcatcher and gave him a generous salary.

Puss performed his duties well. He was courteous and obedient and careful and clean, and he and the king became friends. And then one day something happened that made the king praise Puss above all the other creatures in the land.

Every day the king took his afternoon nap beside an open window. Every day his servants placed a large golden bowl full of cherries on the windowsill beside the king's chair. The king loved to eat juicy red cherries when he awoke from his naps. But every day a huge black crow who lived in a neighboring village smelled the cherries. As soon as the king fell asleep, the crow swooped down and gulp! gulp! he ate almost all of the cherries.

Every day the servants tried to shoo away the crow. They chased him. They waved brooms at him. They tossed stones. But the crow managed, no matter what, to steal most of the cherries.

When Puss heard the servants' woes, he hid himself behind the curtains in the king's chamber. That day when the crow appeared in the window, Puss pounced. The crow screeched and flew away as fast as the wind. Never again did the crow return to steal the king's cherries.

When the king heard of Puss' heroism, he patted his fur and cried out to his royal banker. "Increase the cat's salary!"

Life went on peacefully for quite some time. Then one day the king's servants walked out to the fields to check on the royal sheep. As they approached, they saw a big brown bear loping across the green fields. The servants crouched behind the bushes and stared in alarm as the bear caught and killed several of the sheep.

When the king heard this news, he called to Puss. "You must rid my fields of the bear," he commanded.

"But sire," Puss said, "I can only do what I am able."

The king became quite cross. "I pay you well. I command you to rid this land of the bear!"

Puss ran to the fields and sat to fret about what to do. As Puss licked his paws, the bear wandered smack into a beehive. The angry bees flew out in swarms and stung the bear everywhere until at last he ran far away.

When the king heard the news, he called to Puss. "I award you the Order of the Royal Fields!"

"But sire," Puss said, "it was not me . . ."

But the king would not listen.

Not long afterward a huge gray elephant came to the land and stomped across the fields until every royal plant and royal flower was as flat as a pancake. The king called for Puss.

"Destroy the elephant!" he commanded.

"Sire, I can only do what I am able," Puss said quietly.

But once again the king would not listen.

Puss went out to the courtyard to lick his paws and stew. As he was wondering what to do, he heard a crash and a splash. The elephant had been ambling around when he fell into a stream. The fish tickled his toes and nipped his trunk and tickled his tummy and teased him so terribly that at last the poor elephant ran for the woods and was never seen again.

"Well done!" the king cried when he heard the news. "You are hereby rewarded with the Order of the Royal Grounds!"

"But sire," said Puss. "It was not me . . ."

The king, of course, would not listen.

Soon afterward a great army marched into the king's land and declared war on the kingdom. "Puss," the frightened king said to his cat, "put these troublesome fellows to rest!"

"Alas, your majesty," the unfortunate cat said, "I can only do what I am able."

"Obey me," cried the king. "You are my servant!"

The cat went outside again to lick his fur and worry. As he did, an enemy soldier picked him up and tossed him into a bag. He tied the bag tight.

Soon afterward the army overthrew the king's entire kingdom.

The king was sent to the royal dungeon. "That ungrateful, good-for-nothing-cat," the king raged. "Never, ever trust a cat! It will take all of your money and in the end it deserts you."

"Your majesty," the servants said, "your cat served you well. He was a fine cat, the best cat ever . . ."

But the king was stubborn, and never again listened to anyone's advice.

As for Puss, the soldiers returned to their own country and freed him. He hopped a passing ship and traveled to another land. There he roamed free, without a royal salary and without a single title to his name. But the people who met him say he lived happily ever after, satisfied to be a cat.

Adapted from "The King and Three Travelers" by Arlo Bates, copyright 1878. Courtesy of the Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books, The Boys' and Girls' House, Toronto Public Library, Toronto, Canada.