In the reign of King Edward the Third there was a poor orphan boy, named Dick Whittington, living in a country village a long way from London. He was a sharp little lad, and the stories that he heard of London being paved with gold made him long to visit that city.
One day, a large wagon and eight horses, with bells at their heads, drove through the village. Dick thought it must be going to London, so he asked the driver to let him walk by the side of the wagon. As soon as the driver heard that poor Dick had neither father nor mother, and saw by his ragged clothes that he could not be worse off than he was, he told him he might go if he would; so they set off together.
Dick got safely to London, and was in such a hurry to see the fine streets paved with gold, that he ran through many of them, thinking every moment to come to those that were paved with gold; for Dick had seen a guinea three times in his own little village, and remembered what a lot of money it brought in change; so he thought he had nothing to do but to take up some little bits of pavement, and he would then have as much money as he could wish for. Poor Dick ran till he was tired, and had quite forgotten his friend the driver. At last, finding it grow dark, and that every way he turned he saw nothing but dirt instead of gold, he sat down in a dark corner, and cried himself to sleep. Next morning, being very hungry, he got up and walked about, and asked everybody he met to give him a halfpenny to keep him from starving. At last, a good-natured-looking gentleman saw how hungry he looked.
"Why don't you go to work, my lad?" said he.
"I would," answered Dick, "but I do not know how to get any."
"If you are willing," said the gentleman, "come with me;" and so saying, he took him to a hayfield, where Dick worked briskly, and lived merrily till the hay was all made. After this, he found himself as badly off as before; and being almost starved again, he laid himself down at the door of Mr. Fitzwarren, a rich merchant. Here the cook, an ill-tempered woman, called out to poor Dick:
"What business have you there, you lazy rogue? If you do not take yourself away, we will see how you like a sousing of some dish-water I have here, that is hot enough to make you jump."
At this time Mr. Fitzwarren himself came home to dinner; and when he saw a dirty ragged boy lying at the door, he said, in a kind and gentle voice:
"Why do you lie there, my lad? you seem old enough to work; I am afraid you are lazy."
"No, sir," said Dick to him. "I would work with all my heart; but I do not know anybody, and I am sick for want of food."
"Poor fellow!" answered Mr. Fitzwarren; "get up, and let me see what ails you."
Dick tried to rise, but was too weak to stand, for he had not eaten anything for three days. So the kind merchant ordered him to be taken into the house, and have a good dinner given to him; and to be kept to do what dirty work he could for the cook.
Dick would have lived happily in this good family, 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 no roast meat to baste, she would be basting poor Dick.
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. The footman was fond of reading, and used often in the evening to entertain the other servants with some amusing book. Little Dick took 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 learnt his letters, and afterwards to read.
About this time, Miss Alice, Mr. Fitzwarren's daughter, was going out one morning for a walk, and Dick was told to put on a suit of good clothes that Mr. Fitzwarren gave him, and walk behind her. As they went, 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 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, for 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, caught her and brought her down safely to his mistress. Miss Alice thanked him, and liked him ever after for this.
The ill-humored cook was now a little kinder; but, besides this, 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 in his sleep by the rats and mice, which 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 wanted his shoes polished; 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, and that it was a very good mouser. Dick hid the cat in the garret, and always took care to carry a part of his dinner to her; and in a short time he had no more trouble from the rats and mice.
Soon after, his master had a ship ready to sail; and as he thought it right all his servants should have some chance for good fortune as well as himself, he called them into the parlor, and asked them if they wanted to take a share in the trading trip. They all had some money that they were willing to venture, except poor Dick, who had neither money nor goods. 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 put in money for him from her own purse; but her father told her 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.
"Fetch your cat then, my good boy," said Mr. Fitzwarren, "and let her go."
Dick went upstairs and brought down poor puss, and gave her to the captain with tears in his eyes. 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 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 Dick could not bear this any longer, and thought he would run away from his place; so he packed up his few things, and set out very early in the morning on the first of November. He walked as far as Highgate, 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 farther. While he was thinking what he should do, the bells of Bow Church began to ring, and he fancied their sounds seemed to say:
"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! I will go back and think nothing of the cuffing and scolding of the old 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 cook came down.
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. The people came in great numbers to see the sailors, and treated them very civilly; and, when they became better acquainted, were 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 the chief mate 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, before they had been on the table a minute, a vast number of rats and mice rushed in, and helped themselves from every dish. The captain wondered at this, and asked if these vermin were not very unpleasant.
"Oh, yes!" they said, "and the King would give half of his riches to get rid of them; for they not only waste his dinner, as you see, but disturb him in his bedroom, so that he is obliged to be watched while he is asleep."
The captain was ready to jump for joy when he heard of 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 creature that will do such service." Away went the captain to the ship while another dinner was got ready. He came back to the palace soon enough to see the table full of rats and mice again, and the second dinner likely to be lost in the same way as the first. The cat did not wait for bidding, but jumped out of the captain's arm, and in a few moments laid almost all the rats and mice dead at her feet. The rest, in a fright, scampered away to their holes.
The King and Queen were delighted to get rid of such a plague so easily. They desired that the creature might be brought for them to look at. On this, the captain called out: "Puss, puss!" and the cat ran and jumped upon his knee. He then held her out to the Queen, who was afraid to touch an animal 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, and was told that she would soon have young ones, which might in time kill all the rats and mice in his country, 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, and set sail with a fair wind, and arrived safe at London.
One morning, when Mr. Fitzwarren had come into the counting house, and seated himself at the desk, somebody came tap, tap, tap, at the door.
"Who is there?" asked Mr. Fitzwarren.
"A friend," answered someone; and who should it be but the captain, followed by several men carrying vast lumps 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 that the King had sent to Dick for her; upon which the merchantman 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 a really good man, for while some of his clerks said so great a treasure was too much for such a boy as Dick, he answered:
"I will not keep the value of a single penny from him! It is all his own, and he shall have every farthing's worth of it."
He sent for Dick, who happened to be scouring the cook's kettles, and was quite dirty; so that he wanted to excuse himself from going to his master. 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, and began to beg his master not to play tricks with a poor boy, but to let him go again to his work.
"Indeed, Mr. Whittington," said the merchant, "we are all in earnest with you; and I 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; 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 said, "Mr. Whittington has now nothing to do but to 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; and even to the ill-natured cook. After this, Mr. Fitzwarren advised him to 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 as any young 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 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 the year 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; 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.