Once upon a time…
Far away on the other side of the world there lived, long ago, a lion and his younger brother, the wild cat, who were so fond of each other that they shared the same hut. The lion was much the bigger and stronger of the two–indeed, he was much bigger and stronger than any of the beasts that dwelt in the forest; and, besides, he could jump father and run faster than all the rest. If strength and swiftness could gain him a dinner he was sure never to be without one, but when it came to cunning, both the grizzly bear and the serpent could get the better of him, and he was forced to call in the help of the wild cat.
Now the young wild cat had a lovely golden ball, so beautiful that you could hardly look at it except through a piece of smoked glass, and he kept it hidden in the thick fur muff that went round his neck. A very large old animal, since dead, had given it to him when he was hardly more than a baby, and had told him never to part with it, for as long as he kept it no harm could ever come near him.
In general the wild cat did not need to use his ball, for the lion was fond of hunting, and could kill all the food that they needed; but now and then his life would have been in danger had it not been for the golden ball.
One day the two brothers started to hunt at daybreak, but as the cat could not run nearly as fast as the lion, he had quite a long start. At least he thought it was a long one, but in a very few bounds and springs the lion reached his side.
‘There is a bear sitting on that tree,’ he whispered softly. ‘He is only waiting for us to pass, to drop down on my back.’
‘Ah, you are so big that he does not see I am behind you,’ answered the wild cat. And, touching the ball, he just said: ‘Bear, die!’ And the bear tumbled dead out of the tree, and rolled over just in front of them.
For some time they trotted on without any adventures, till just as they were about to cross a strip of long grass on the edge of the forest, the lion’s quick ears detected a faint rustling noise.
‘That is a snake,’ he cried, stopping short, for he was much more afraid of snakes than of bears.
‘Oh, it is all right,’ answered the cat. ‘Snake, die!’ And the snake died, and the two brothers skinned it. They then folded the skin up into a very small parcel, and the cat tucked it into his mane, for snakes’ skins can do all sorts of wonderful things, if you are lucky enough to have one of them.
All this time they had had no dinner, for the snake’s flesh was not nice, and the lion did not like eating bear–perhaps because he never felt sure that the bear was really dead, and would not jump up alive when his enemy went near him. Most people are afraid of some thing, and bears and serpents were the only creatures that caused the lion’s heart to tremble. So the two brothers set off again and soon reached the side of a hill where some fine deer were grazing.
‘Kill one of those deer for your own dinner,’ said the boy- brother, ‘but catch me another alive. I want him.’
The lion at once sprang towards them with a loud roar, but the deer bounded away, and they were all three soon lost to sight. The cat waited for a long while, but finding that the lion did not return, went back to the house where they lived.
It was quite dark when the lion came home, where his brother was sitting curled up in one corner.
‘Did you catch the deer for me?’ asked the boy-brother, springing up.
‘Well, no,’ replied the man-brother. ‘The fact is, that I did not get up to them till we had run half way across the world and left the wind far behind us. Think what a trouble it would have been to drag it here! So–I just ate them both.’
The cat said nothing, but he did not feel that he loved his big brother. He had thought a great deal about that deer, and had meant to get on his back to ride him as a horse, and go to see all the wonderful places the lion talked to him about when he was in a good temper. The more he thought of it the more sulky he grew, and in the morning, when the lion said that it was time for them to start to hunt, the cat told him that he might kill the bear and snake by himself, as HE had a headache, and would rather stay at home. The little fellow knew quite well that the lion would not dare to go out without him and his ball for fear of meeting a bear or a snake.
The quarrel went on, and for many days neither of the brothers spoke to each other, and what made them still more cross was, that they could get very little to eat, and we know that people are often cross when they are hungry. At last it occurred to the lion that if he could only steal the magic ball he could kill bears and snakes for himself, and then the cat might be as sulky as he liked for anything that it would matter. But how was the stealing to be done? The cat had the ball hung round his neck day and night, and he was such a light sleeper that it was useless to think of taking it while he slept. No! the only thing was to get him to lend it of his own accord, and after some days the lion (who was not at all clever) hit upon a plan that he thought would do.
‘Dear me, how dull it is here!’ said the lion one afternoon, when the rain was pouring down in such torrents that, however sharp your eyes or your nose might be, you could not spy a single bird or beast among the bushes. ‘Dear me, how dull, how dreadfully dull I am. Couldn’t we have a game of catch with that golden ball of yours?’
‘I don’t care about playing catch, it does not amuse me,’ answered the cat, who was as cross as ever; for no cat, even to this day, ever forgets an injury done to him.
‘Well, then, lend me the ball for a little, and I will play by myself,’ replied the lion, stretching out a paw as he spoke.
‘You can’t play in the rain, and if you did, you would only lose it in the bushes,’ said the cat.
‘Oh, no, I won’t; I will play in here. Don’t be so ill-natured.’ And with a very bad grace the cat untied the string and threw the golden ball into the lion’s lap, and composed himself to sleep again.
For a long while the lion tossed it up and down gaily, feeling that, however sound asleep the boy-brother might look, he was sure to have one eye open; but gradually he began to edge closer to the opening, and at last gave such a toss that the ball went up high into the air, and he could not see what became of it.
‘Oh, how stupid of me!’ he cried, as the cat sprang up angrily, ‘let us go at once and search for it. It can’t really have fallen very far.’ But though they searched that day and the next, and the next after that, they never found it, because it never came down.
After the loss of his ball the cat refused to live with the lion any longer, but wandered away to the north, always hoping he might meet with his ball again. But months passed, and years passed, and though he travelled over hundreds of miles, he never saw any traces of it.
At length, when he was getting quite old, he came to a place unlike any that he had ever seen before, where a big river rolled right to the foot of some high mountains. The ground all about the river bank was damp and marshy, and as no cat likes to wet its feet, this one climbed a tree that rose high above the water, and thought sadly of his lost ball, which would have helped him out of this horrible place. Suddenly he saw a beautiful ball, for all the world like his own, dangling from a branch of the tree he was on. He longed to get at it; but was the branch strong enough to bear his weight? It was no use, after all he had done, getting drowned in the water. However, it could do no harm, if he was to go a little way; he could always manage to get back somehow.
So he stretched himself at full length upon the branch, and wriggled his body cautiously along. To his delight it seemed thick and stout. Another movement, and, by stretching out his paw, he would be able to draw the string towards him, when the branch gave a loud crack, and the cat made haste to wriggle himself back the way he had come.
But when cats make up their minds to do anything they generally DO it; and this cat began to look about to see if there was really no way of getting at his ball. Yes! there was, and it was much surer than the other, though rather more difficult. Above the bough where the ball was hung was another bough much thicker, which he knew could not break with his weight; and by holding on tight to this with all his four paws, he could just manage to touch the ball with his tail. He would thus be able to whisk the ball to and fro till, by-and-by, the string would become quite loose, and it would fall to the ground. It might take some time, but the lion’s little brother was patient, like most cats.
Well, it all happened just as the cat intended it should, and when the ball dropped on the ground the cat ran down the tree like lightning, and, picking it up, tucked it away in the snake’s skin round his neck. Then he began jumping along the shore of the Big Water from one place to another, trying to find a boat, or even a log of wood, that would take him across. But there was nothing; only, on the other side, he saw two girls cooking, and though he shouted to them at the top of his voice, they were too far off to hear what he said. And, what was worse, the ball suddenly fell out of its snake’s skin bag right into the river.
Now, it is not at all an uncommon thing for balls to tumble into rivers, but in that case they generally either fall to the bottom and stay there, or else bob about on the top of the water close to where they first touched it. But this ball, instead of doing either of these things, went straight across to the other side, and there one of the girls saw it when she stooped to dip some water into her pail.
‘Oh! what a lovely ball!’ cried she, and tried to catch it in her pail; but the ball always kept bobbing just out of her reach.
‘Come and help me!’ she called to her sister, and after a long while they had the ball safe inside the pail. They were delighted with their new toy, and one or the other held it in her hand till bedtime came, and then it was a long time before they could make up their minds where it would be safest for the night. At last they locked it in a cupboard in one corner of their room, and as there was no hole anywhere the ball could not possibly get out. After that they went to sleep.
In the morning the first thing they both did was to run to the cupboard and unlock it, but when the door opened they started back, for, instead of the ball, there stood a handsome young man.
‘Ladies,’ he said, ‘how can I thank you for what you have done for me? Long, long ago, I was enchanted by a wicked fairy, and condemned to keep the shape of a ball till I should meet with two maidens, who would take me to their own home. But where was I to meet them? For hundreds of years I have lived in the depths of the forest, where nothing but wild beasts ever came, and it was only when the lion threw me into the sky that I was able to fall to earth near this river. Where there is a river, sooner or later people will come; so, hanging myself on a tree, I watched and waited. For a moment I lost heart when I fell once more into the hands of my old master the wild cat, but my hopes rose again as I saw he was making for the river bank opposite where you were standing. That was my chance, and I took it. And now, ladies, I have only to say that, if ever I can do anything to help you, go to the top of that high mountain and knock three times at the iron door at the north side, and I will come to you.’
So, with a low bow, he vanished from before them, leaving the maidens weeping at having lost in one moment both the ball and the prince.