The Lesson of the Cats (A Tale From Italy)
Once upon a time in Venice, there lived two neighbors. Both men were merchants with fine homes and large gondolas, with lovely wives and good-natured children. The families were also friends.
The two men were, in every other way, completely different from each other. Paolo was greedy and wanted everything he saw. Antonio was generous and always gave to others before thinking of himself.
One day Antonio set out on a journey. He loaded his ships with silks and glassware. He sailed for days and came to lands to the east, where he traded silks for spices and glass for cinnamon. He traveled from place to place, and everywhere he went, he left the people happy, for as you know, Antonio was a generous man and often gave more than he received.
One beautiful morning he sailed into a quiet harbor. Not a soul was in sight. Antonio and his men landed and walked about, searching for some sign of life. They came upon some children playing in a field, and the children led them to their king. The king sat upon his throne, a frown on his face.
“I would like to trade with your people,” Antonio of Venice said.
“Oh, merchant,” said the king, “our spices are destroyed from the terrible plague that has come to our land. We are near ruin and have nothing to offer.”
“And what has caused such ruin?” Antonio asked.
“Mice and rats have taken over our land. We cannot rid ourselves of them. They eat wood and spices. Soon everything we have will be lost.”
“But haven’t your cats chased them down?” Antonio asked.
“Cats? What are cats?” the king asked.
Antonio sent his men to fetch the two cats who rode on his ship — big, black Tom and tiger-striped Jasmine.
The king and his people were amazed at the sight. They had never seen such creatures. Antonio set the cats to work, and in a week Tom and Jasmine had nearly rid the land of mice.
The king showered Antonio and his crew with spices, jewels, sandalwood and carved ivory in thanks for their generous gift. Antonio sailed home contented, pleased with their gifts and happy to have been able to help.
Now, when Paolo saw his neighbor and all his treasures, he grew envious. And when he heard that Antonio had given in return only two useless cats, he could not sleep.
Day and night Paolo could think of nothing else but how he might gain a treasure by giving away something worthless. At last, he decided he must go to that same land and return with a treasure even larger than Antonio’s.
And so he set off, following the directions Antonio gladly gave to him. He reached the land and went to see the king.
“I am a friend of Antonio of Venice,” Paolo said.
The king, remembering the most generous Venetian, greeted Paolo with kindness.
“I have brought you gifts,” Paolo said and presented the king with gold cups and rich brocades.
“You are very generous,” the king said, and Paolo bowed.
But the king could think of nothing to give the kind man in return, and so he excused himself from his visit to meet in private with his counselors.
“What shall I give this generous merchant?” he asked his men.
“Oh, King,” one of the counselors said, “this man from Venice has given you things that will bring joy to you for years. We could give him spices in return, but these grow so freely they are worth almost nothing.”
“Yes,” said the king, “and I must give him something equal to his generosity.”
“Ah,” said a second counselor, “we do have one thing that is worth more than everything we own. We received a priceless gift, and we are in a position now to give away just such a gift.”
The king smiled and sent his men to fetch it.
He returned to Paolo. “My men are bringing you a gift in thanks for your generosity, merchant,” and when Paolo heard the trumpets sound and the drums begin to beat, his heart pounded with excitement. He turned to see the counselors approach.
They walked proudly toward him, two men carrying a large, solid gold cage. Paolo could not believe his eyes, for inside sat two pretty black cats, Jasmine’s kittens.
His heart sank.
“My friend,” the king said to Paolo, “we give you the greatest gift known to us.” Others made fine speeches too, and everyone promised that Paolo would enjoy the same pleasure and peace the cats had brought to them.
Paolo could say nothing. He tried to smile as he accepted his gift.
Early the next day he set off for home, filled with fury and despair. But as he sailed, he began to think, and soon he realized that fate had played a joke on him. He knew that envy and greed were not the seeds to plant to grow the riches he hoped to harvest. By the time he arrived home, he had decided that from now on he would act with kindness and generosity like his neighbor Antonio, and this decision served him well the rest of his days.