Kaspar: Prince of Cats
Kaspar: Prince of Cats
HarperCollins Children’s Books An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd. 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF
Text copyright © Michael Morpurgo 2008. Illustrations copyright © Michael Forman 2008
Cover photographs © Masterfile (cat); Shutterstock (sea and sky). Illustrations by Michael Foreman. Cover design layout © HarperCollinsPublishers 2009.
Micahel Morpurgo asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this ebook on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins ebooks
HarperCollinsPublishers has made every reasonable effort to ensure that any picture content and written content in this ebook has been included or removed in accordance with the contractual and technological constraints in operation at the time of publication
Source ISBN: 9780007267002
Ebook Edition © JUNE 2010 ISBN: 9780007385935
For all the good and kind people at The Savoy who looked after us so well.
For my brother Pud, a North Sea fisher-man and boy.
Prince Kaspar Kandinsky first came to the Savoy Hotel in a basket. I know because I was the one who carried him in. I carried all the Countess’ luggage that morning, and I can tell you, she had an awful lot of it.
But I was a bell-boy so that was my job: to carry luggage, to open doors, to say good morning to every guest I met, to see to their every need, from polishing their boots to bringing them their telegrams. In whatever I did I had to smile at them very politely, but the smile had to be more respectful than friendly. And I had to remember all their names and titles too, which was not at all easy, because there were always new guests arriving. Most importantly though, as a bell-boy – which, by the way, was just about the lowest of the low at the hotel – I had to do whatever the guests asked me to, and right away. In fact I was at almost everyone’s beck and call. It was “jump to it, Johnny”, or “be sharp about it, boy”, do this “lickedysplit”, do that “jaldi, jaldi”. They’d click their fingers at me, and I’d jump to it lickedysplit, I can tell you, particularly if Mrs Blaise, the head housekeeper, was on the prowl.
We could always hear her coming, because she rattled like a skeleton on the move. This was on account of the huge bunch of keys that hung from her waist. She had a voice as loud as a trombone when she was angry, and she was often angry. We lived in constant fear of her. Mrs Blaise liked to be called “Madame”, but on the servants corridor at the top of the hotel where we all lived – bell-boys, chamber maids, kitchen staff – we all called her Skullface, because she didn’t just rattle like a skeleton, she looked a lot like one too. We did our very best to keep out of her way.
To her any misdemeanour, however minor, was a dreadful crime – slouching, untidy hair, dirty fingernails. Yawning on duty was the worst crime of all. And that’s just what Skullface had caught me doing that morning just before the Countess arrived. She’d just come up to me in the lobby, hissing menacingly as she passed, “I saw that yawn, young scallywag. And your cap is set too jaunty. You know how I hate a jaunty cap. Fix it. Yawn again, and I’ll have your guts for garters.”
I was just fixing my cap when I saw the doorman, Mr Freddie, showing the Countess in. Mr Freddie clicked his fingers at me, and that was how moments later I found myself walking through the hotel lobby alongside the Countess, carrying her cat basket, with the cat yowling so loudly that soon everyone was staring at us. This cat did not yowl like other cats, it was more like a wailing lament, almost human in its tremulous tunefulness. The Countess, with me at her side, swept up to the reception desk and announced herself in a heavy foreign accent – a Russian accent, as I was soon to find out. “I am Countess Kandinsky,” she said. “You have a suite of rooms for Kaspar and me, I think. There must be river outside my window, and I must have a piano. I sent you a telegram with all my requirements.”
The Countess spoke as if she was used to people listening, as if she was used to being obeyed. There were many such people who came in through the doors of the Savoy: the rich, the famous and the infamous, business magnates, lords and ladies, even Prime Ministers and Presidents. I don’t mind admitting that I never much cared for their haughtiness and their arrogance. But I learned very soon, that if I hid my feelings well enough behind my smile, if I played my cards right, some of them could give very big tips, particularly the Americans. “Just smile and wag your tail.” That’s what Mr Freddie told me to do. He’d been working at the Savoy as a doorman for close on twenty years, so he knew a thing or two. It was good advice. However the guests treated me, I learned to smile back and behave like a willing puppy dog.
That first time I met Countess Kandinsky I thought she was just another rich aristocrat. But there was something I admired about her from the start. She didn’t just walk to the lift, she sailed there, magnificently, her skirts rustling in her wake, the white ostrich feathers in her hat wafting out behind her, like pennants in a breeze. Everyone – including Skullface, I’m glad to say – was bobbing curtsies or bowing heads as we passed by, and all the time I found myself basking unashamedly in the Countess’ aura, in her grace and grandeur.
I felt suddenly centre stage and very important. As a fourteen-year-old bell-boy, abandoned as an infant on the steps of an orphanage in Islington, I had not had many opportunities to feel so important. So by the time we all got into the lift, the Countess and myself and the cat still wailing in its basket, I was feeling cock-a-hoop. I suppose it must have showed.
“Why are you smiling like this?” The Countess frowned at me, ostrich feathers shaking as she spoke.
I could hardly tell her the truth, so I had to think fast. “Because of your cat, Countess,” I replied. “She sounds funny.”
“Not she. He. And he is not my cat,” she said. “Kaspar is no one’s cat. He is the Prince of cats. He is Prince Kaspar Kandinsky, and a prince belongs to no one, not even to a Countess.” She smiled at me then. “I tell you something, I like it when you smile. English people do not smile so often as they should. They do not laugh, they do not cry. This is a great mistake. We Russians, when we want to laugh, we laugh. When we want to cry, we cry. Prince Kaspar is a Russian cat. At this moment he is a very unhappy cat, so he cries. This is natural, I think.”
“Why’s he so unhappy?” I found myself asking her.
“Because he is angry with me. He likes to stay in my house in Moscow. He does not like to travel. I tell him, ‘how can I go to sing in opera in London if we do not travel?’ He does not listen. When we travel he always make big fuss, big noise. When I let him out of his basket, he will be happy again. I will show you.”
Sure enough, the moment Kaspar climbed out of the basket in the Countess’ sitting room, he fell completely silent. He tested the carpet with one paw, and then leaped nimbly out and began at once to explore. That was when I first understood just why the Countess called him a Prince of cats. From his whiskers to his paws he was black all over, jet black, and sleek and shiny and beautiful. And he knew he was beautiful too. He moved like silk, his head held high, his tail swishing as he went.
I was about to leave the room to fetch the rest of her luggage, when the Countess called me back, as guests often did when they were about to give me a tip. Because of her title, and her ostrich feathers, and all the fine luggage she had arrived with, I was very hopeful by now that the tip might be a generous one. As it turned out she didn’t want to give me a tip at all.
“Your name? I wish to know your name,” she said, removing her hat with a flourish.
“Johnny Trott, Countess,” I told her. She laughed at that, and I didn’t mind, because I could tell at once that she was not mocking me.
“That is a very funny name,” she said. “But who knows? Maybe for you Kandinsky is a funny name too.”
By this time Kaspar had leaped up on to the sofa. He sprang off again almost at once, and went to sharpen his claws, first on the curtain, then on one of the armchairs. After that he went on a tour of the room, behind the desk, in under the piano, up on the window ledge, for all the world like a prince inspecting his new palace, claiming it, before settling down on the armchair by the fireplace, from where he gazed up at us both, blinking his eyes slowly, and then licking himself, purring contentedly as he did so. Clearly the prince approved of his palace.
“He’s a very smart looking cat,” I said.
“Smart? Smart? Kaspar is not smart, Johnny Trott.” The Countess was clearly not at all pleased with my description of her cat. “He is beautiful – the most beautiful cat in all of Russia, in all of England, in all of the whole world. There is no other cat like Prince Kaspar. He is not smart, he is magnificent. You agree, Johnny Trott?”
I nodded hurriedly. I could hardly argue.
“You wish to stroke him?” she asked me.
I crouched down by the chair, reached out my hand tentatively and stroked his purring chest with the back of my finger, but only for a second or two. I sensed that, for the moment, this was all he would allow. “I think maybe he likes you,” said the Countess. “With Prince Kaspar, if you are not a friend, you are an enemy. He did not scratch you, so I think you must be a friend.”
As I stood up again I noticed she was fixing me with a searching look.
“I wonder, are you a good boy, Johnny Trott? Can I trust you?”
“I think so, Countess,” I replied.
“This is not good enough. I have to know for sure.”
“Yes,” I told her.
“Then I have a very important job for you. During each day I am here in London you will look after Prince Kaspar for me. Tomorrow morning I begin rehearsal at the opera. Covent Garden. Magic Flute. Mozart. I am Queen of the Night. You know this opera?”
I shook my head.
“One day you will hear it. Maybe one day I shall sing it for you on the piano, when I practice. Every morning after breakfast I must practice. Prince Kaspar, he is happy when I sing. At home in Moscow he likes to lie on my piano to listen to me, and he waves his tail, just like now. Look at him. This is how I know he is happy. But when I am at rehearsal I must know that you look after him well, that he is happy. You will do this for me? Feed him for me? Talk to him? Take him for a walk outside, once in the morning, once in the evening? He likes this very much. You will not forget?”
The Countess Kandinsky was not an easy person to say no to. And anyway, the truth is I was flattered to be asked. I did wonder how I would be able to manage it in between my other duties downstairs. But I wondered also whether maybe she’d give me a good tip for it, though I certainly didn’t dare say anything about that.
The Countess smiled at me and held out her gloved hand to me for me to take. I hesitated. I had never before shaken hands with a guest. Bell-boys just didn’t ever shake hands with guests. But I knew she meant me to, so I did. Her hand was small and the glove very soft.
“You and me and Prince Kaspar, we shall be good friends. I know this. You may leave us now.”
So I turned to go.
“Johnny Trott,” she said, laughing again. “I am sorry, but you have a very funny name, maybe the funniest name I ever heard. I have decided you are a good boy, Johnny Trott. You know why I think this? You never ask for money. I shall pay you five shillings every week for three months – I am here for three months at the opera. Ah, so now you smile again, Johnny Trott. I like it when you smile. If you had a tail, you would be waving it like Prince Kaspar, I think.”
When I brought up her trunks later on and left them in the hallway of her suite, I heard her in the sitting room singing at the piano. I caught a glimpse of Kaspar lying there right in front of her, gazing at her, his tail swishing contentedly. When I left I stayed outside the door for a while just listening. I knew even then as I stood there in the corridor that this was a day I would never forget. But I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams how the arrival of the Countess and the coming of Kaspar would change my life for ever.
I never had a mother, nor a father come to that, nor any brothers or sisters, none that I know of anyway. Not that I have ever felt sorry for myself. The truth is that you don’t miss what you’ve never had. But you do wonder. As a small boy growing up in the orphanage in Islington, I often used to try to imagine who my mother was, what she looked like, how she dressed, how she spoke. For some reason I never much bothered about my father.
I must have been about nine years old, and on the way back from school one day, walking down Tollington Road, when I saw a fine lady passing by in a carriage. The carriage happened to stop right by me. She was dressed all in black and I could see she had been crying. I don’t know why, but I smiled at her and she smiled back. At that moment I was sure she was my mother. Then the carriage moved on, and she was gone. For months afterwards I dreamed about her. But as the memory of that moment faded, so did the dream. I had other imaginary mothers of course. They didn’t have to be posh or rich, but I certainly didn’t want to believe that my mother might be down on her hands and knees scrubbing someone’s doorstep, her nose and hands red and raw with the cold. Above all my mother had to be beautiful. She couldn’t be too old and she couldn’t be too young. She mustn’t have children. It was essential to me that I was the only child. And of course, she would have to have fair hair, because I had fair hair.
It was natural then, I suppose, that within a few days I had quite made up my mind that Countess Kandinsky fitted the bill perfectly. She was fair-haired, supremely beautiful and elegant, about the right age to be my mother, and so far as I could tell, childless. So if she was my mother, it followed that I had to be a Russian count or prince – I didn’t much mind which. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea, and the more I’d daydream about it. I would lie awake in my little attic room up on the servant’s corridor, where the roof leaked and the water pipes gurgled and groaned, and I’d dream my dream, knowing of course that it was probably all nonsense, but believing in it just enough for me to be able to enjoy it all the same. Thinking back, I’m sure it was this silly fantasy, as much as my cat-minding duties that made me look forward so much to visiting the Countess’ rooms while she was at rehearsals. I went up there at every possible opportunity, as often as I could manage, without my absence in the lobby being noticed. I was always up and down in the lift, carrying luggage, and each time I’d just slip away for a minute or two and check on Kaspar. Mr Freddie noticed of course – he noticed everything.
“What have you been up to, lad?” he asked me once when I came back down.
“Nothing,” I told him with a shrug.
“Well, one day,” he said, “maybe that nothing will get you into a whole lot of trouble with Skullface. So you’d better watch your step.” I knew Mr Freddie wouldn’t snitch on me, he wasn’t like that.
Usually I’d find Kaspar sitting at the bedroom window, watching the barges steaming by on the river, or sometimes he’d be curled up asleep in his chair in the sitting room. Either way, he’d hardly deign to give me a second glance until the food was in his bowl, and until he decided he was ready for it. Those first few days, I felt he was treating me in much the same way as most of the guests who came to the Savoy, with a certain cold disdain. I wanted to like him and be liked by him, but he kept his distance. I wanted to stroke him again, but I didn’t dare because he made it perfectly clear by the way he looked at me that he didn’t want me to. I did dare talk to him though – probably because he couldn’t answer me back. I would crouch beside him as he lay in his chair cleaning himself after his meal, and I’d tell him how my name was not Johnny Trott at all, but Count Nicholas Kandinsky – the Tsar of Russia was called Nicholas, I knew that, so I thought the name would do fine for me. I told Kaspar that I was in fact the long lost son of the Countess, that she had come to London to look for me, and that therefore I was to be treated with greater respect, even if he was a Prince, and that anyway there wasn’t much difference between a Prince and a Count.
He’d listen for a while to my fantastical ramblings, but he’d soon tire of them, break into a great roaring purr, close his eyes and go to sleep. But then, after only a few days he surprised me by jumping up to sit on my lap after he’d finished his meal. I dared to hope that at last he was beginning to treat me as an equal, that he must have believed my story after all, that we might now be friends. So I stroked him.
Clearly I presumed too much. Kaspar sank his claws into my knee just to remind me who the Prince was, then sprang off my lap and went to the window, where he sat deliberately ignoring me, swishing his tail with quiet satisfaction and watching the barges on the river. I went to stand by him to try to make it up to him.
“And I love you too,” I told him. I said it sarcastically, but even as I was saying it, I knew I really did mean it. He was an ungrateful, supercilious creature, and not at all endearing in any way. Yet despite all this I loved him, and I wanted him to love me too. There were moments when, if I’m honest, I relished Kaspar’s aristocratic aloofness. Twice a day, during my work breaks, I’d take him out for his walk. We went to the park down by the river, but to get to the park I had to walk Kaspar on his lead from the lift all the way across the lobby to the front door. I swear that Kaspar knew perfectly well that everyone was looking at him, admiring him. He certainly knew how to put on the style, stepping out all high and mighty like the Prince of Cats he was, his tail waving majestically. Did I feel proud! Mr Freddie would doff his top hat to us as we passed by. There was some mockery in the gesture, I knew, but there was something else too. Mr Freddie knew class when he saw it, and Prince Kaspar was class. He left no one in any doubt about that. Even the dogs in the park knew it. One withering look from Kaspar, and any notions they might have had of the prospect of a good cat-chase withered away instantly. Tails between their legs they would bark at us, but only from a safe distance. Kaspar made it plain that he simply despised them, and then he ignored them.
It was on a bench in the park one spring day, perhaps six weeks or so later, that Kaspar first showed me any real affection. He was sitting up on the park bench beside me basking in the sunshine, when without even thinking about it I found myself stroking his head. He looked up at me to let me know it was all fine by him, and then he smiled, I promise you he smiled. I felt his head pushing into my hand, felt the purr coming over him. His tail was trembling with pleasure. I know it sounds silly, but at that moment I felt so happy that I was almost purring myself. I looked into his eyes and for the first time I could tell that he liked me, that at last he thought of me as his friend. I felt honoured.
The next morning I met the Countess hurrying through the lobby.
“Ah Johnny Trott,” she said, as I opened the front door for her. “I am late for rehearsals. All my life I am late. You will walk with me. I have an important thing I must say to you.”
It was raining, so I held the umbrella for her as we crossed the Strand and walked up into Covent Garden, past the barrel organ with the monkey who turned the handle, and the blind soldier playing his accordion by the fruit stalls. She stopped to pat the coalman’s horse, who was standing between the shafts of his cart, hanging his head in the rain, and looking thoroughly miserable and soaked through. The Countess berated the coalman soundly when he came out of the pub, and told him in no uncertain terms that he should put a blanket on the horse in such weather, that in Russia they treated horses properly. The coalman was speechless, too stunned and shamefaced to argue. We walked on.
“I have much to thank you for, Johnny Trott. Prince Kaspar is a very happy cat, happy to be in London. And when Kaspar is happy, I am happy. I sing better when I know Kaspar is happy. This is true. You know how I know he is happy, because he smiled at me this morning. And this he does not do very often, so I know you must look after him very well.”
I was about to tell her all about Kaspar smiling at me the day before, but she was in full flow and I didn’t dare to interrupt her.
“Because you make us both so happy, Johnny Trott, I wish to invite you to The Magic Flute, to the opera at Covent Garden. Tomorrow evening. It is the first night. You will come?”
I was so taken aback I did not even think to thank her. “Me?” I said.
“Why not? You will sit in the best seat. Dress circle. You are a guest of the Queen of the Night.”
“I’d really like to, Countess, honest I would,” I told her, “but I can’t. I’ll be working. I don’t finish till ten o’clock.”
“Don’t worry, I fixed this already with the manager at the hotel,” she said, with an imperious wave of her hand. “I told him you do not work tomorrow, you have the whole day off.”
“But you’ve got to be smart to go to the opera, Countess.” I said. “I’ve seen all the grand gentlemen and the ladies. I haven’t got the right clothes.”
“I’ll fix this too, Johnny Trott. You’ll see. I’ll fix everything.”
And so she did. She hired me a suit to wear – the first proper suit I ever put on. I could hardly believe it when I found myself the next day standing in front of her in her sitting-room, all washed and brushed up, while she adjusted my tie and collar. I remember that I was looking up into her face, and all I wanted to do was to call her “mother”, to hug her tight and never let go.