Long, long ago, in England in the reign of the famous King Edward the third, there lived a little boy named Dick Whittington. His father and mother had died when he was very small, so that he remembered nothing at all about them. A kind neighbor had then taken him to raise. All had gone well with him for a year or two, but when this good neighbor died Dick was left a homeless, ragged little fellow running about a country village.
Since poor Dick was not old enough to work, he was very badly off. He got little for his dinner, and sometimes nothing at all for his breakfast, for the people in the village were poor themselves and they could not afford to give him much more than the peelings of the potatoes and, occasionally, a hard crust of bread.
Dick was a bright boy and, wanting to learn a great many things, he was always listening to what everybody talked about. In this way he came to hear many strange things about the great city of London; for at that time many country people thought that London was a wonderful place, where the streets were all paved with gold and there was nothing but music and singing and laughter all the day long.
One day, as Dick was leaning against a signpost, wondering where he might find something to eat, a large wagon and eight horses, all with bells at their heads, drove through the village. Dick thought this wagon must surely be going to the fine city of London, so he asked the driver if he might walk along beside the wagon. When the driver heard that he had no home, and saw how ragged he was, he knew that the little fellow could be no worse off, so he consented. The good-natured people along the road gave Dick food, and at night the driver let him climb into the wagon and sleep on some of the boxes.
And so at last Dick arrived in London. He was in such a hurry to see the fine streets paved with gold that he hardly stopped to thank the kind driver, but ran off as fast as his legs would carry him, through street after street, thinking every moment that he would come to those paved with gold. Dick had seen a golden coin three times in his little village and he remembered what a great many things it would buy. Now, he thought, when he came to the golden streets, he had only to pick up some of the pavement and he would have all the money he could wish for.
Poor little Dick ran until he was tired, and then when it grew dark and he found that,
no matter which way he turned, there was nothing but dirt instead of gold, he sat down in a lonely corner and cried himself to sleep.
All night the boy spent in the streets and when morning came, 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." He took Dick to a hayfield, where he worked briskly and lived merrily until the hay was all made. After this, he found himself as badly off as before.
Several days passed and at last, when he could walk no farther, he laid himself down at the door of a rich merchant, Mr. Fitzwarren. Here he was found by the cook, a cross and mean woman. But before she had a chance to send Dick away, the merchant himself came to the door.
"Why do you lie there, my boy?" he asked. "You seem old enough to be at work."
"But I can find no work," said Dick, "and I am very weak for want of food."
Poor fellow!" said the merchant. And, being a kindhearted man, he had Dick taken into his home and given a good dinner. Then he told the boy he might stay and help the cook by doing such things as peeling the potatoes, scouring the pots and kettles, and running errands.
Dick would have been very happy in this good family had it not been for the ill-natured cook who always found fault with him and scolded and beat him from morning till night. But although the cook was so ill-tempered, the footman was quite different. An elderly man, he had lived in the family for many years, and was very kindhearted. He felt sorry for the boy and sometimes gave him a halfpenny to buy gingerbread or a top. The footman was fond of reading and often in the evening he would entertain the other servants with some amusing book. Little Dick took pleasure in listening to 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 to read.
The ill-humored cook was now a little kinder. But Dick had another problem. His bed was in a garret where there were so many holes in the floor and the walls that every night he was awakened by the rats and mice, which 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 Dick decided he would buy a cat. 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 told him that the cat was a very good mouser.
Dick kept the cat in the garret, and always took care to carry part of his dinner to her. And in a short time he had no more trouble from the rats and mice.
Mr. Fitzwarren was a merchant who filled his ships with all kinds of goods and sent them to foreign countries. Since he was a kind man, he let his servants send anything they wanted to sell.
One of the ships was now ready to sail. Mr. Fitzwarren called all his servants in, and they came, one by one, and left with him the things they wanted to send. They all had something 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 Mr. Fitzwarren ordered him to be called in.
Poor Dick said he had nothing but a cat.
"Why don't you send your cat?" said the merchant's young and pretty daughter, Alice. "You must send something!"
Dick could not bear to part with the faithful mouser, but Alice had always been kind to him and he wished to please her. So the cat was given to the merchant and he laughingly sent it along with his rich cargo.
But Dick missed his cat sorely. The rats and the mice came back to his garret and bothered him so that he could not sleep at night. The cook began to beat and scold him even more than she had done before. It was a hard life for the boy.
At last, when he felt that he could not bear it any longer, he tied his few belongings in a handkerchief and, early one morning, crept out of the house and started to walk back to the little village from which he had come.
He walked as far as Highgate, and there, at a crossroad, he sat down on a stone, which to this day is called Whittington's Stone, and tried to decide on the road he should take. And as he sat there the bells of Bow Church began to ring, and the sound carried far across the fields. Dick thought he heard them say:
Lord Mayor of London! he said to himself. They mean for me to take this road.
But scarcely had he taken three steps along the road to the left,when the bells rang once more:
So Dick turned and started along the road to the right. But again the bells rang out:
After all, thought Dick, it is only the cook who treats me badly. I will turn and go back to the city. What do I care for her scoldings and beatings if some day I am to be Lord Mayor of London!
Dick went back and was lucky enough to get into the house, and set about his work, before the cook even knew he had been gone.
The merchant's ship, with Dick's cat on board, was a long time at sea. But at last it arrived in a country on the coast of Barbary. The people came in great numbers to see the sailors and to buy the fine things with which the ship was laden. The captain, as was his custom on arriving in a foreign country, sent the king some rich presents. The king was so delighted that he invited the captain to the palace to dine with him.
The dining hall was magnificent. The walls were studded with jewels and the carpetwas strewn with flowers of gold and silver. The king and queen, in gorgeous robes, welcomed the captain and they sat down to dinner. A number of servants brought in many dishes piled high with rich food. But, to the amazement of the captain, a vast horde of rats and mice rushed in and ate everything in sight. "There!" sighed the king. "My dinner is gone again today! I would give half the wealth of my kingdom to get rid of them!" "Why don't you get a cat?" asked the captain."
A cat?" said the king. "What is that? Is that a new kind of tiger? I have tried tigers and lions, but not one of them will kill a mouse for me."
The captain, remembering poor Whittington's cat, hurriedly sent a sailor down to the ship to bring it. In the meantime, the king had another dinner prepared. The cat and dinner arrived at about the same time. When the sailor entered the dining hall with the cat in his arms, the table was full of rats and mice. When the cat saw them she did not wait for anybody's bidding, but made one spring into their midst. In a few minutes most of the rats and mice lay dead at her feet and the others had scampered off to their holes.
The king and queen were so delighted to be thus rid of their plague that they bought the captain's whole cargo, and then gave him ten bags of gold for the cat.
And so it was that shortly after Dick returned to London, the merchant's ship reached port and the captain hurried to Mr. Fitzwarren to tell him of his great success and of Dick's good fortune.
"I have ten bags of gold for him," the captain reported.
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, "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."
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.
"Indeed, Mr. Whittington," said the merchant, "we are all in earnest with you. I heartily rejoice in the news these gentlemen have brought you. The captain has sold your cat to the King of Barbary and he has brought you, in return for her, more riches than I possess. I wish you may long enjoy them!"
Mr. Fitzwarren then told the men to give Dick 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."
Dick hardly knew how to behave himself for joy. He begged his master to take what part of the gold 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 Alice, to accept a part of his good fortune. But they would not, and told him that his success gave them great pleasure. Dick was too kindhearted to keep all the gold for himself. He made handsome presents to the captain, the mate, and every one of the sailors, and afterward to his good friend the footman and the rest of Mr. Fitzwarren's servants, 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 until he could provide himself with a better home.
When Dick's face was washed, his hair combed, and he was dressed in a nice suit of clothes, he was as handsome as any young man who visited at Mr. Fitzwarren's. Alice, who had always been kind to him, 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 please her and giving her the prettiest presents. Mr. Fitzwarren soon became aware of their love for each other and proposed to join them in marriage. To this they both readily agreed. A day for the wedding was soon set and it was attended by the Lord Mayor, the Court of Aldermen, the Sheriffs, and a great number of the richest merchants in London.
History tells us that Dick Whittington and his lady had several children. He was Sheriff of London in the year 1360 and several times afterwards served as 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, because of Whittington's gallantry, said, "Never had prince such a subject." 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 built a hospital. The Bow Church bells had spoken truly when they chimed: "Turn-a-gain, Whitt-ing-ton, Thrice-Lord-Mayor of-Lon-don!"
He and Alice lived happily and in great splendor for many, many years.