Updated December 26, 2016.
The cat king of Catonia had one catling, a tom, who would inherit the kingdom. Prince Sylvester had only one fault: he was perverse. If someone said, “Go up, sire,” he’d go down. He didn’t mean to be difficult; it was just how he was.
One rainy morning, the king discovered he had lumbago. I’m getting old, he thought. I must see Sylvester married and the kingdom safe. (Catonia was the central jewel in a group of isolated kingdoms determined to avoid the encroachments of technology.) He called the prince to him and proposed a ball that eligible young queens (princesses, of course) would attend.
“Look ’em over,” he told the prince, “and pick one that pleases you, but don’t choose the princess from Wolstenholme. We must let her come, of course, but you must on no account choose her.”
When the prince had had an opportunity to view all the prospects, he announced, predictably, that his choice had fallen on Desiree, the princess from Wolstenholme.
“Anyone but her!” cried his father.
The prince grew cunning as their argument escalated. “Desiree is the best match,” he pointed out, “Politically and economically.”
The king remained adamant. No princess from Wolstenhome. “Don’t like her fur,” he muttered when pressed. “Redheads are always trouble.”
Prince Sylvester stormed out.
The old cat king called for lunch to be served early. While the prince and his friends tore up the kingdom hunting anything that moved, he settled down to an elegant meal with lashings of cream.
When the prince returned from the hunt, he locked himself in his apartment, incommunicado. The servants left food outside his door. He wouldn’t eat it.
After five days, his old nurse went wailing to the king. “He’s pining away!” she cried. “Please, my lord, remove this strange edict you have against the princess of Wolstenholme.”
“Good dame,” said the king; he seemed not a whit disturbed by his son’s behaviour. “He’s a prince. There’s no room for romance in royalty.”
The prince’s nurse departed more distressed than when she‘d arrived.
The king bell-pulled for the cook. He ordered a magnificent fish dinner for that night and retired to his library, smiling.
He’d plaited a rope from his silk sheets, rappelled down the wall of the castle and escaped into the wild on his best gelding. (These cats really were Luddites.) It had rained the previous night. All tracks had been obliterated.
“Go at once to the king of Wolstenholme,” said the king to his messenger. “Ask him if his daughter is missing.”
Three days later, the messenger returned, horse in the obligatory lather. He brought the news the whole palace had been dreading: the princess had disappeared on the very same night as the prince.
The servants crept about the castle. The prince could not have escaped without assistance. Terrible punishments were expected.
Meanwhile, the king went about the palace humming airs from Turandot. He loved Puccini. He hummed his way to the kitchen and ordered the cook to be ready to produce the meal of his life.
The cook was distraught. “When, sire?!” There were things he’d need to order if he were to produce the meal of his life.
“Any time now,” the king replied airily.
One morning, there was a great commotion at the palace gates. The prince had returned with a queen.
“What colour’s her fur?” the king demanded.
AIEEEE, THE PRINCESS FROM WOLSTENHOLME.
The servants shook in their boots. The royal pair had been alone, unchaperoned, for over a week. No way could the king send her back. The palace braced itself for a storm.
The king called again for the cook. “Get cracking,” he said. “I want barramundi, peacocks with gilded beaks and claws — the lot!” Then he summoned the young couple.
They entered the throne room, trembling. To their utter amazement, he rose from his throne and embraced them.
“Welcome to Catonia, my dear,” he said to Desiree. “This is indeed a joyous occasion.”
The prince was nonplussed. “You’re very calm, Father. I thought you’d be in a towering rage.”
The old king smiled. “Sometimes,” he said, “it pays to be a little devious. This way, we are all happy.”