This story is an early version of “Puss in Boots” from 16th-century Italy. My retelling is based on The Facetious Nights (published 1550-1553) by Gianfrancesco Straparola (c. 1485 – 1558).
Lots of times rich people suddenly become very poor, and poor people become very rich. I heard about a man who this happened to – he started out as a beggar and ended up as a king!
Once upon a time there was a woman named Soriana who lived in Bohemia. She was very poor, and she had three sons, Dusolino, Tesifone, and Lucky Costantino. Soriana had only three things in her house that were worth anything: a trough for kneading bread, a board for rolling out pastry, and a cat.
Soriana was getting old and knew that she would die soon, so she made her will. She left to her oldest son, Dusolino, the kneading trough. She left to her second son, Tesifone, the pastry board. And to her youngest, Costantino, she left the cat.
After Soriana died, sometimes the neighbors would come by to borrow the kneading trough or the pastry board, and since they knew that the three brothers were very poor, they would repay the loan by giving them cake. Dusolino and Tesifone were very hungry, and besides, the kneading trough and pastry board belonged to them, so they would not give Costantino any cake. And if Costantino happened to see them eating and asked them for a piece, they told him to go ask his cat.
Costantino and his cat were very hungry and annoyed.
As so often happens, Constantino’s cat happened to be a fairy in disguise. She felt sorry for Constantino, and she was awfully angry with his brothers for being so mean to him. So one day she said to Constantino, “Costantino, don’t be sad. I will take care of both of us.”
Saying that, she left the house and went into the field, where she lay down and pretended to sleep. She was so convincing that a little rabbit felt safe enough to play nearby, and when he came too close, she swiped her paw and killed him with one blow.
Then she put the little rabbit in a bag and went to the king’s palace. There were some courtiers standing outside, and the cat told them that she wanted to speak with the king.
When the king heard that a cat wanted to talk to him, he was very surprised. He called her into his feasting hall and asked her what it was that she wanted. The cat told him that her master, Costantino, had sent a baby rabbit as a present for the king’s supper, and she hoped that His Majesty would accept the gift. The king was flattered and pleased, because rabbit was his favorite food, and he asked the cat who Costantino was.
“He is the most handsome and virtuous young man in the kingdom,” the cat said, and the king gave her a bowl of cream and a fine cut of beef. The cat ate and drank all she wanted, and when she was done, she filled the bag in which she had been carrying the rabbit with meats and pies and breads and vegetables while no one was looking. She said goodbye to the king and took her loot back to Costantino.
When Costantino’s two brothers saw and smelled all of the delicious food he was eating, they asked him to share with them, but Costantino treated them like they had treated him, and he said no. His brothers were very jealous.
Now, Costantino had started off as a good-looking young man, but he had been so hungry and worked so hard, and he had so often been sick, that his skin was rough and his face was covered with spots and blotches, enough that he was a little bit embarrassed by his looks. So the cat took him to the river, washed him, and licked him from head to foot to clean him, as cats do. Then she took him home, put him to bed, and gave him good food, and in a few days he was completely healed.
Meanwhile, the cat continued bringing presents to the king in the same way as before, and this enabled her and Costantino to get enough to live on.
But after a while, the cat started to get tired of constantly going back and forth to and from the palace. And she worried that eventually the courtiers might get tired of taking her in to see the king. So she said to Costantino, “Costantino, if you do exactly what I say, you will soon be a very rich man.”
“How?” Costantino asked, but the cat said, “Don’t worry about that. I have a plan.”
The cat and Costantino went to the river near the king’s palace, and the cat told Costantino to take off all of his clothes and go for a swim. Then she started crying and shouting, “Help, help! Run, run! My master Costantino is drowning!”
The king happened to be driving by at that very moment. Remembering all the presents Costantino had given him, he immediately sent his servants to rescue Costantino. When Costantino had been dragged out of the water and given a set of beautiful, dry clothes, the servants brought him to see the king, who welcomed him into his carriage.
“How on earth did you happen to fall in the water?” the king asked, but Costantino was so nervous he couldn’t think of a good story.
“It was robbers!” said the cat quickly. “They’d been spying on my master, and they knew that he was bringing a chest full of jewels to you as a present. So they waited for us by the side of the road, and they stole the jewels, and they threw him in the river to drown! You have saved his life, Your Majesty!”
The king told everyone to treat Costantino like royalty, and since Costantino was good-looking and, the king thought, immensely wealthy, he decided to have Costantino marry his daughter Elisetta and planned to give them a wedding present befitting a prince and princess.
After the wedding had ended and the feast was over, the king had his servants load ten mules with gold and jewels and five mules with silks and furs, and the new bride and groom set off for Costantino’s house. Costantino was very worried, since he couldn’t take his new wife, the princess, back to the hut he shared with his brothers. So he asked the cat what he should do.
“Don’t worry about it,” said the cat. “I’ll take care of everything.”
As they rode down the road, the cat ran ahead. After a while, she came upon some cavalrymen. “What are you doing?” she cried. “You have to run away! There’s a huge army coming down this road, planning to attack you!”
The horsemen were very afraid. “What should we do?” they asked the cat. “Where can we go?”
“Well,” said the cat, “I think it would be best for you to just tell them that you serve Master Costantino. He’s important; they won’t bother you.”
She ran farther down the road until she met a huge flock of sheep and a herd of cattle. To the shepherd and the cowherd she told the same story and gave them the same advice. On and on down the road she went, alarming everyone with frightening tales about a marauding army and telling them that they’d better claim to work for Master Costantino.
Meanwhile, as the princess and her servants continued down the road, they kept meeting soldiers and peasants and townsfolk, all of whom said they worked for Master Costantino and that Master Costantino owned their lands and their horses. “You must be enormously rich,” the princess said to Costantino, impressed.
At last the cat came to a strong and beautiful castle, which happened to be guarded by a very small number of soldiers, all of whom were cowards. “What are you doing?” cried the cat. “Attackers will be at your castle within the hour! You’d better tell everyone that this castle belongs to Master Costantino, or you’ll be destroyed!”
So when Costantino and the princess arrived at the castle, they discovered that it belonged to them and went inside to live with their gold and jewels and fine clothes.
It turned out that the real owner of the castle, who was a brave soldier, had died a few days ago. So there was nobody to tell Costantino to move out. And when the king died, the people chose Costantino to be their new ruler, since he was married to the princess. And that is how Lucky Costantino went from a beggar to a king.