Gateway to the Classics: A Child's Book of Stories by Penrhyn W. Coussens
A Child's Book of Stories by  Penrhyn W. Coussens

Dick Whittington and His Cat

I N the reign of the famous King Edward the Third of England lived a little boy called Dick Whittington. His father and mother dying when he was very young, he was left a ragged little fellow running about a country village.

As poor Dick was not old enough to work, he was very badly off, getting but little for his dinner and sometimes nothing at all for his breakfast; for the people who lived in the village were very poor themselves, and could not spare him much more than the parings of potatoes, and now and then a hard crust.

Dick Whittington was a very poor boy, but he was also a very sharp boy, and he was always listening to whatever was talked about. On Sunday he was sure to get near the farmers, talking in the churchyard before the clergyman had come; and once a week you might see him leaning against the sign-post of the village, where people stopped as they came from the next market town; and when the barber's shop door was open, there he was, all attention to what the gossipy customers were telling. In this manner Dick heard many strange things about the great city of London; for the simple country people of that day thought that the London folk were all fine gentlemen and ladies, and that the streets were paved with gold.

One day a large wagon, drawn by eight horses with bells at their heads, passed through the village while Dick was standing by the sign-post. He thought that the wagon must be going to the fine town of London; so he took courage, and asked the wagoner to let him walk with him by the side of the wagon. As soon as the wagoner heard that Dick had neither father nor mother, and saw by his ragged clothes that he could not well be worse off than he was, he told him that he might go. So they set off together.

Nobody knows how little Dick contrived to get meat and drink on the road, nor how he could walk so far,—for it was a long way,—nor what he did at night for a place to lie down and sleep in. Perhaps some good-natured people in the towns that he passed through, when they saw that he was a poor ragged boy, gave him something to eat; and perhaps the wagoner allowed him to get into the wagon at night and take a nap. However, Dick got safely to London, where he was in such a hurry to see the fine streets paved all over with gold that he did not even stay to thank the kind wagoner, but ran off as fast as his legs could carry him through many of the streets, thinking every moment to come to those that were paved with gold. Dick, who had seen a guinea three times in his own little village, remembered what a great deal of money it brought in change; and he thought he had nothing to do but to take up some little bits of the pavement, when he would have as much money as he could wish for.

Poor Dick ran till he was tired, and had quite forgotten his friend, the wagoner; but at last finding it grow dark, and that there was everywhere nothing but dirt instead of gold, he sat down in a dark corner and cried himself to sleep. Dick was all night in the streets. The next morning, being very hungry, he got up and wandered about, asking everybody he met to give him a halfpenny to keep him from starving. Only two or three persons gave him a halfpenny; so the poor boy was soon quite weak and faint for want of food.

At last a good-natured-looking gentleman saw how hungry he looked. "Why don't you go to work, my lad?" said he to Dick.

"That I would," answered Dick, "but I don't know how to get any work."

"If you are willing," said the gentleman, "come along with me"; and so saying he took him to a hay-field. In this field Dick worked briskly and lived merrily till the hay was all made. Soon, however, he found himself as badly off as before; and again being almost starved, he laid himself down at the door of Mr. Fitzwarren, a rich merchant. Here he was soon seen by the cook, an ill-tempered creature, who called out to him:—

"What business have you there, you lazy rogue? There is nothing else these days but beggars. If you don't take yourself away, we will see how you will like a sousing of some dish-water I have here that is hot enough to make you jump."

Just at this time Mr. Fitzwarren himself came home to dinner, and when he saw a dirty, ragged boy lying at the door, he said to him, "Why do you lie there, my lad? You seem old enough to work; I am afraid you are lazy."

"No, indeed, sir," said Dick to him, "that is not the case, for I would work with all my heart; but I don't know anybody, and I believe I am very sick for want of food."

"Poor fellow," answered Mr. Fitzwarren, "get up, and let us see what ails you."

Dick now tried to rise, but was obliged to lie down again, being too weak to stand; for he had not eaten anything for three days, and was no longer able to run about and beg halfpence of people in the street. So the kind merchant ordered him to be taken into the house, and a good dinner given to him, and that he should do what dirty work he was able for the cook.

Little Dick would have lived very happily in this good family life if it had not been for the ill-natured cook, who was finding fault and scolding him from morning till night; and besides, she was so fond of basting that when she had not roast meat to baste she would be basting poor Dick.

At last her ill usage of him was told to Miss Alice, Mr. Fitzwarren's daughter, who asked the ill-tempered creature if it was not a shame to use a little forlorn boy so cruelly, and said she should certainly be turned away if she did not treat him kindly. But though the cook was so ill-tempered, the footman was quite different; he had lived in the family many years, and was an elderly man and very kind-hearted; he had once a little son of his own who died when about the age of Dick, so he could not help feeling pity for the poor boy, and sometimes gave him a halfpenny to buy gingerbread or a top, for tops were cheaper at that time than they are now.

The footman was very fond of reading, and used often in the evening to entertain the other servants, when they had done their work, with some amusing book. Little Dick took great pleasure in hearing this good man, which made him wish very much to learn to read too; so the next time the footman gave him a halfpenny he bought a little book with it, and, with the footman's help, Dick soon learned his letters, and afterward learned to read.

About this time Miss Alice was going out one morning for a walk, and the footman happened to be out of the way, so as little Dick had a suit of good clothes that Mr. Fitzwarren gave him to go to church on Sundays he was told to put them on and walk behind her.

As they went along, Miss Alice saw a poor woman with one child in her arms and another on her back; she pulled out her purse and gave the woman some money, but as she was putting it back into her pocket again she dropped it on the ground and walked on. It was lucky that Dick was behind and saw what she had done; he picked up the purse and gave it to her again.

Another time when Miss Alice was sitting with the window open, and amusing herself with a favorite parrot, it suddenly flew away to the branch of a high tree, where all the servants were afraid to venture after it. As soon as Dick heard of this he pulled off his coat and climbed up the tree as nimbly as a squirrel, and after a great deal of trouble, for Poll hopped about from branch to branch, he caught her and brought her down safe to his mistress. Miss Alice thanked him, and liked him ever after this.

The ill-humored cook was now a little kinder; but besides her ugliness Dick had another hardship to get over. His bed stood in a garret where there were so many holes in the floor and the walls that every night he was waked up in his sleep by the rats and mice, which often ran over his face and made such a noise that he sometimes thought the walls were tumbling down about him. One day a gentleman, who came to see Mr. Fitzwarren, required his shoes to be cleaned; Dick took great pains to make them shine, and the gentleman gave him a penny. With this he thought he would buy a cat; so the next day, seeing a little girl with a cat under her arm, he went up to her and asked if she would let him have it for a penny. The girl said she would, with all her heart, for her mother had more cats than she could keep. She told him, besides, that this one was a very good mouser.

Dick hid his cat in the garret, and always took care to carry a part of his dinner to her. In a short time he had no more trouble from the rats and mice, and slept as soundly as he could wish.

Soon after this his master had a ship ready to sail, and as he thought it right that all his servants should have some chance for good fortune as well as himself, he called them into the parlor and asked them what they would send out to be sold to the natives. They all had something that they were willing to venture except Dick, who had neither money nor goods, and so could send nothing at all. For this reason he did not come into the parlor with the rest, but Miss Alice guessed what was the matter, and ordered him to be called in. She then said she would lay down some money for him from her own purse, but her father said this would not do, for Dick must send something of his own.

When poor Dick heard this, he said he had nothing but a cat, which he bought for a penny which was given him.

"Fetch your cat then, my good boy," said Mr. Fitzwarren, "and let her go."

Dick went upstairs and brought down his Puss, and with tears in his eyes gave her to the captain, for he said he should now be kept awake all night again by the rats and mice. All the company laughed at Dick's odd venture, and Miss Alice, who felt pity for the poor boy, gave him some halfpence to buy another cat.

This, and many other marks of kindness shown him by Miss Alice, made the ill-tempered cook jealous of poor Dick, and she began to use him more cruelly than ever, and always made fun of him for sending his cat to sea. She asked him if he thought his cat would sell for as much money as would buy a stick to beat him.

At last poor little Dick could not bear this usage any longer, and he thought he would run away from his place; so he packed up his few things and set out very early in the morning on All-hallow's Day, which is the first of November.

He walked as far as Holloway and there sat down on a stone, which to this day is called Whittington's stone, and began to think which road he should take. While he was thinking what he could do, the bells of Bow Church, which at that time were only six, began to ring, and he fancied their sounds seemed to say to him:

"Turn again Whittington,

Lord Mayor of London."

"Lord Mayor of London!" said he to himself. "Why, to be sure, I would put up with almost anything now to be lord mayor of London, and ride in a fine coach when I grow to be a man! Well, I will go back and think nothing of all the cuffing and scolding of the cook if I am to be lord mayor of London at last."

Dick went back, and was lucky enough to get into the house and set about his work before the old cook came downstairs.

The ship with the cat on board was a long time at sea, and was at last driven by the winds on a part of the coast of Barbary, where the only people are Moors, whom the English had never known before. The people of this country came in great numbers to see the sailors, who were all of a different color than themselves, and treated them very civilly; and when they became better acquainted, were very eager to buy the fine things with which the ship was laden. When the captain saw this, he sent patterns of the best things he had to the king of the country, who was so much pleased with them that he sent for the captain and his chief mate to be brought to the palace.

Here they were placed, as is the custom of the country, on rich carpets, marked with gold and silver flowers. The king and queen were seated at the upper end of the room; and a number of dishes of the greatest rarities were brought in for dinner. But beore they had been set on the table a minute a vast number of rats and mice rushed in and helped themselves from every dish, throwing the gravy and pieces of meat all about the room. The captain wondered very much at this, and asked the king's servants if these vermin were not very unpleasant.

"Oh! yes," they said, "and the king would give half his riches to get rid of them; for they not only waste his dinner, as you see, but disturb him even in his bedroom, so that for fear of them he is obliged to be watched while he is asleep."

The captain was ready to jump for joy when he heard this. He thought of poor Dick's cat, and told the king he had a creature on board his ship that would kill all the rats and mice.

The king was still more glad than the captain. "Bring this creature to me," said he, "and if it can do what you say, I will give you your ship full of gold for her."

The captain, to make quite sure of his good luck, answered, that she was such a clever cat for catching rats and mice that he could hardly bear to part with her; but that to oblige his Majesty he would fetch her.

"Run, run," said the queen, "for I long to see the dear creature that will do us such a service."

Away ran the captain to the ship while another dinner was got ready. He took Puss under his arm, and came back to the palace soon enough to see the table covered with rats and mice again, and the second dinner likely to be lost in the same way as the first. When the cat saw them, she did not wait for bidding, but jumped out of the captain's arms, and in a few moments laid almost all the rats and mice dead at her feet. The rest of them, in a fright, scampered away to their holes.

The king and queen were quite charmed to get rid so easily of such plagues; for ever since they could remember they had not had a comfortable meal by day or any quiet sleep by night. They desired that the creature who had done them so great a kindness might be brought for them to look at.

On this the captain called out, "Puss, Puss," and the cat ran up to him and jumped upon his knee. He then held her out to the queen, who started back, and was afraid to touch a creature that was able to kill so many rats and mice; but when she saw how gentle the cat seemed, and how glad she was at being stroked by the captain, she ventured to touch her too, saying all the time, "Poot, Poot," for she could not speak English. At last the queen took Puss on her lap, and by degrees became quite free with her, till Puss purred herself to sleep.

When the king had seen the actions of Mistress Puss, he bought the captain's whole ship's cargo, and afterwards gave him a great deal of gold besides, which was worth still more, for the cat. The captain then took leave of the king and queen and the great persons of their court, and with all his ship's crew set sail with a fair wind for England, and after a happy voyage arrived safe at London.

One morning when Mr. Fitzwarren had just come into his counting-house, and had seated himself at the desk, somebody came tap, tap, tap at the door.

"Who is there?" said Mr. Fitzwarren.

"A friend," answered some one, opening the door, when who should it be but the captain and mate of the ship just arrived from the coast of Barbary. They were followed by several men carrying the vast number of pieces of gold that had been paid him by the king of Barbary for the ship's cargo. They then told the story of the cat, and showed the rich present the king had sent to Dick for her, upon which the merchant called out to his servants:—

"Go fetch him, we will tell him of the same,

Pray call him Mr. Whittington by name."

Mr. Fitzwarren now showed himself to be a really good man; for when some of his clerks said so great a treasure was too much for such a boy as Dick, he answered: "God forbid that I should keep the value of a single penny from him! It is all his own, and he shall have every farthing's worth of it to himself."

He then sent for Dick, who at that time happened to be scouring the cook's kettles, and was quite dirty; so that he wanted to excuse himself from going to his master by saying that the great nails in his shoes would spoil the fine polished floor.

Mr. Fitzwarren, however, made him come in, and ordered a chair to be set for him; so that poor Dick thought they were making fun of him, as the servants often did in the kitchen, and began to beg his master not to play tricks with a poor simple boy, but to let him go down again to his work.

"Indeed, Mr. Whittington," said the merchant, "we are all quite in earnest with you, and I most heartily rejoice in the news these gentlemen have brought you; for the captain has sold your cat to the king of Barbary, and brought you in return for her more riches than I possess in the whole world; and I wish you may long enjoy them!"

Mr. Fitzwarren then told the men to open the great treasure they had brought with them, and he said: "Mr. Whittington has now nothing to do but put it in some place of safety."

Poor Dick hardly knew how to behave himself for joy; he begged his master to take what part of it he pleased, since he owed it all to his kindness.

"No, no," answered Mr. Fitzwarren, "this is all your own, and I have no doubt you will use it well."

Dick next asked his mistress, and then Miss Alice, to accept a part of his good fortune; but they would not, and at the same time told him that his success afforded them great pleasure.

But the poor fellow was too kind-hearted to keep it all to himself; so he made a handsome present to the captain, the mate, and every one of the sailors, and afterwards to his good friend the footman, and the rest of Mr. Fitzwarren's servants, even to the ill-natured old cook. After this Mr. Fitzwarren advised him to send for proper tradesmen, and get himself dressed like a gentleman; and told him he was welcome to live in his house till he could provide himself with a better.

When Whittington's face was washed, his hair curled, his hat cocked, and he was dressed in a nice suit of clothes, he was as handsome and genteel as any man who visited at Mr. Fitzwarren's; so that Miss Alice, who had been so kind to him, and thought of him with pity, now looked upon him as fit to be her sweetheart; and the more so, no doubt, because Whittington was now always thinking what he could do to oblige her, and making her the prettiest presents that could be. Mr. Fitzwarren soon saw their love for each other, and proposed to join them in marriage; and to this they both readily agreed. A day for the wedding was soon fixed; and they were attended to church by the lord mayor, the court of aldermen, the sheriffs, and a great number of the richest merchants in London. whom they afterwards treated with a very fine feast.

History tells us that Mr. Whittington and his lady lived in great splendor and were very happy. They had several children. He was sheriff of London in 1360, and several times afterwards lord mayor; the last time he entertained King Henry the Fifth on his Majesty's return from the famous battle of Agincourt.

In this company the king, on account of Whittington's gallantry, said, "Never had prince such a subject"; and when Whittington was told this at the table, he answered: "Never had subject such a king." Going with an address from the city on one of the king's victories, he received the honor of knighthood.

Sir Richard Whittington supported many poor people; he built a church and also a college, with a yearly allowance to poor scholars, and near it raised a hospital. The figure of Sir Richard Whittington, with his cat in his arms, carved in stone, was to be seen till the year 1780 over the archway of the old prison of Newgate that stood across Newgate Street. The following epitaph was written on the tomb of Sir Richard and Lady Whittington, and continued perfect till destroyed by the fire in London:

"Here lies Sir Richard Whittington, thrice mayor,

And his dear wife, a virtuous, loving pair;

His fortune raised to be beloved and great

By the adventure only of a cat.

Let none that read it of God's love despair,

Who trust in Him, He will of them take care;

But growing rich, choose humbleness, not pride,

Let these dead virtuous persons be your guide."

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