Friday, July 4, 2008

Tales from the Slippery Slope IX:
Dick Whittington

The other day The Slippery Slope was closed for a private party. There was no particular reason, except that the weather was fine and Keith was tired of the general public. So Canon Hawker, John the undertaker and his wife, Tom from the bookshop, Susan from Vanity of Vanities, and I all came. Keith’s son Mike presented a Roast Beef with Yorkshire Pudding and all that that entails, and though he and his friend David served, they were able to sit down to the table. The doors were opened onto the back deck, and the early evening breeze was lovely.
Tom looked at his beef. “This is fine, Mike, just fine: the Yorkshire pudding, the vegetables, the succulent jus! And I'm so glad you don’t have a little menu that proclaims roast beef with au jus!’
Mike raised his voice above the laughter, “I’ve seen that too often in pubs, and I resolved never to do it here.”
Keith said, “And you knew you’d be disinherited if you did it!"
Canon Hawker said to me, "Do you remember some of the menus at Trinity? Tomato Oregon Soup?"
"I was always fond of "Gralic Chicken," I said.
Just then a grey cat walked in through the open doors.
“Well, hello!” said Keith. “I don’t know you. … as long as you’re not planning to stay I don’t mind a visit.” And then he looked around his friends. “Anyone allergic to cats? Any ailurophobes?”
Apparently there weren’t.
I said, “That’s good. The church I help out at in Toronto always has a Church Cat. Now we have a fine black cat named Dragon. He’s very popular.”
Susan lamented the fact that there were probably regulations that meant Keith couldn’t have a Pub Cat. We talked about cats for a while, until I happened to remark on the fact that there were good stories about cats.
“’Puss In Boots’ comes to mind, of course, as well as others that are less well known, but one I’ve always loved is the story of Dick Whittington.”
David looked up, “I don’t know that story.” Mike said he didn’t either.
“What do they teach them in these schools?” I said, in my best old professor voice. “Shall we enlighten the younger generation?”
John Strype said that it wasn’t just the youngsters who might like to hear it; he hadn’t heard the story since he was a child.
So Keith made sure everyone had a drink, we all settled back, and I began: “I’ll retell the story from one of the eighteenth-century versions, a little condensed and a little modernized.

The Famous and Remarkable Story of Dick Whittington and his Cat
Dick Whittington’s parents died when he was a very little boy; and could never give account of his family or where he was born. Almost starved in the country, and finding neither work nor charity, he made his way to London, for he heard that the streets were paved with gold, and he thought he could go and gather a bushel or so. As he walked along he met a waggoner going to London, who offered to let Dick walk beside the wagon all the way for free.
At last Dick came to London. To his disappointment the streets were paved with stones and dirt. He was all alone, in a strange city, without food or the money with which to buy it. He did not like to beg, and he would not steal, but after three days there was nothing to do but ask for help. So Dick begged, but in vain. Everyone who saw him said, “Go to work, you idle rogue!’ At last Dick said to one man, “That I will! I will work for you if you will let me.”
The man took this answer for cheek and gave the poor boy a blow to the head with his stick, almost knocking him out. Hurt and hungry Dick could only lay himself down at the door of a large house. When the cook, who was an ill-natured woman coming out told him to be off. Just then Mr Fitzwarren, the merchant who owned the house came home and he too began to scold the poor boy.
Dick said, once again, that he would be glad to work if anyone would employ him, and that he would be able to work if anyone would give him food to eat, of which he had had none in three days, but that if he wasn’t wanted he would go away. He got up, but was so weak that he fell down again. At last compassion was roused in Mr Fitzwarren, who bade his people bring the boy in, give him some food and drink, and find some work by which he could help the cook

At this point out historian addressed the reader with a moral:
People are too apt to reproach those who beg with being idle, but give themselves no concern to put them in the way of getting business to do, or considering whether they are able to do it, which is not charity. "Think of this ye affluent, And when the overplus of your fortunes disturb Your minds, think how little stops the lash of penury, And makes the wretched happy!"
So Dick became a scullion, and would have been happy in that worthy home, except for two things. First, that the cook (whose name was Cicely) was cross and cruel, and the servants generally treated him badly. But Mr Fitzwarren’s daughter, Alice, who was a kind girl, made the servants treat him kindly (though the cook seems to have obeyed with an ill will). The second problem was that the garret, where he slept, was home to countless rats and mice which disturbed him in his sleep, even running over his nose.

One day a gentleman who was a guest at Fitzwarren’s house gave Dick a penny for brushing his shoes. Dick put the penny in his pocket, determined to make the best use he could of it. the next day he saw a woman in the street with a cat under her arm, and asked her how much she wanted for her. The woman asked a good deal, for the cat was a good mouser. Crestfallen Dick made to go on, saying, “I need a cat badly, but all I have is one penny.” At this the woman kindly let him have the cat. Though a penny went further in those days than it does today, ity still seems a bargain for a cat.

Dick brought the cat up to his garret, where he hid her from the cook. Soon the rats and mice were killed, or at least frightened away, and at last young Whittington could sleep in peace.

Not long after this, Mr Fitzwarren called all his household together. He said to them, “I have a ship, The Unicorn, ready to sail, to travel and trade in far countries, and it is my custom, as you know, to let all my household try their luck on the venture.” All the servants came and put some money or goods into the venture; all except young Dick Whittington, who had nothing to send but his luck. Miss Alice, thinking that he stayed away for shame of his poverty, called for Dick, and even offered to put something on the ship for him. Her father said, “No that will not do; it must be something of his own.” Dick said, “I have only a cat, which I bought for a penny that was given me.” “That will do,” said his master. “Fetch thy cat, boy, send her.” So Whittington brought his puss and gave her to the captain. (The historian says that his tears were because he would once again be kept awake by the vermin, but we might think that he had some fondness for the cat.) Many of the company laughed at making a venture of a cat, but Miss Alice, as always, took pity. Secretly she gave poor Dick money for another cat.

So the cat went to sea. At home the cook made Dick’s life as unpleasant as she could; not only did she beat him at every opportunity, but made fun of him for sending the cat to sea. Finally this treatment became too much to bear, and Dick resolved to run away. He packed his few possessions and set out very early the next morning, which was All Saints’ Day. When he had got up the Great North Road as far as Holloway, he sat down on a stone to think which way he should go. While he pondered this, the bells of St Mary-le-Bow began to ring, and he thought they were addressing him:
Turn again, Whittington
Lord Mayor of great London
Sometimes you will hear that the sound of the bells was:

Turn again, turn again, Whittington,
Three times Lord Mayor of London.
or even
Turn again, Whittington,
Once Mayor of London!
Turn again, Whittington,
Twice Mayor of London!
Turn again, Whittington,
Thrice Mayor of London!
These versions do not seem to appear until the nineteenth century. But I digress.
“Lord Mayor of London,” said Dick to himself. “I could put up with a lot to be Lord Mayor of London, and ride in a fine coach. Back I’ll go, and put up with the worst Cicely can give me rather than miss the chance of being Lord Mayor!” So back he went, luckily getting home before the cook was up and at her work.

Now The Unicorn was bound for the Mediterranean and the coast of Africa, but it was driven off course and came to an unknown part of the coast. They were treated kindly by the inhabitants, and the captain began to trade. When the king of that land saw the goods on offer, he invited the captain and the factor to dine. When they had all sat down, on the carpeted floor, as was the custom in those parts, and the many dishes were set before them, an amazing number of rats and mice came from all sides, and ate up all the food. The nobles told the ship’s factor that their king would give half his treasure to be freed of these vermin that not not only
destroy his dinner, but assault him in his chamber, so that he must be guarded while he sleeps.
The factor was joyful as he told the king that on ship they had a creature that would do away with all these vermin in a trice. The king was excited and demanded that he bring him this amazing creature at once. “If she can do what you say, I will load your ship with gold and jewels in exchange for her.” The factor said that the cat was needed on the ship to keep rats and mice away, but that to oblige his Majesty, he would fetch her.. He ran, and returned with the cat just as the rats and mice were beginning to attack the new meal that was set out. As soon as he set the puss down, she set about her work and drove the vermin away. The king and queen rejoiced that such a small animal could solve their problem.
Now it happened that the cat was with young. Our historian does not explain how this could happen to one lone cat on a long sea voyage, so we too must let that pass. The result was that, with the promise of a litter, in the bargaining for the ship’s cargo, the king offered ten times as much for the cat as for all the rest. And at last the company sailed back to England.
Mr Fitzwarren arose early one morning to work in his counting house, when there came a tap, tap, at the window. “Who’s there at such an hour?” he called. The answer came. “It is never a bad hour for a friend. I have news of The Unicorn.” It was the captain and with him the factor, who presented him with such a casket of jewels and such a bill of lading, that he gave thanks to God for a prosperous voyage. The captain told him the tale of the cat, and said, “This casket of jewels is Mr Whittington’s”. So the merchant called a servant and said,
Go, send him in and tell him of his fame
And call him Mr Whittington by name,
which achieves in good spirit what it may lack as poetry.
As he waited for the boy to come, quite a crowd assembled in Fitzwarren counting house. Some grumbled, as some always will. “That’s too much for auch a poor boy!” they said. Fitzwarren was an honest man and replied, "God forbid that I should deprive him or a penny; it is his own, and he shall have it to a farthing."
At last Dick came in from the kitchen, and to his surprise was set in a chair. “Oh, please sir,” he said, “I don’t know what you want. Do not mock me! Let me go back to the kitchen.”
Fitzwarren took him by the hand and said, "In truth, Mr Whittington, I am in earnest. I have called you to tell you of your good fortune and to congratulate you. Your cat has earned you more money than I have in the world. Mat you long enjoy it and be happy.”
Dick took some convincing, but at last he accepted his fortune, and falling on his knees gave thanks to God. He gave gifts to all the household, including his enemy Cicely.
The rest of the story is quickly told. Dick went into trade and was hugely successful – rich enough to lend money to the king. He married Miss Alice, and they lived happily, and as the bells foretold, he was three times elected Lord Mayor of London.
“Of course, it’s not true,” said Canon Hawker. “The real Sir Richard Whittington was a younger son of a knight of Gloucestershire, born probably about 1350 or 60. He did go to London to learn the trade of a mercer, was hugely successful and was elected Lord Mayor four times. He was a good and just man and a great benefactor of charities. He did marry an Alice Fitzwarren. The story of the cat was probably grafted on to his legend from one of those other stories Will alluded to. The Bow Bells are a much later addition to the story. Anyway, you can look it all up in an encyclopaedia.”
“Indeed, Father,” said Tom, “but it is a good story nonetheless, and one that is worth knowing.”
To that we all agreed.

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