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Tom Hickathrift

from Popular Rhymes And Nursery Tales - NURSEY STORIES





[Tom Hickathrift belongs to the same series as Jack the Giant-killer,
one of the popular corruptions of old northern romances. It seems to
allude to some of the insurrections in the Isle of Ely, such as that of
Hereward, described in Wright's Essays, ii. 91. Spelman, however,
describes a tradition, which he says was credited by the inhabitants of
Tylney, in which Hickifric appears as the assertor of the rights of
their ancestors, and the means he employed on the occasion correspond
with incidents in the following tale. The entire passage is worth
transcription. "In Marslandia sitae sunt Walsoka, Waltona, et Walpola. In
viciniis jacent Terrington et St. Maries--adjacet Tylney veteris utique
Tylneiorum familiae radix. Hic se expandit insignis area quae a planicie
nuncupatur Tylney Smeeth, pinguis adeo et luxurians ut Paduana pascua
videatur superasse. Tuentur eam indigenae velut aras et focos,
fabellamque recitant longa petitam vetustate de Hickifrico (nescio quo)
Haii illius instar in Scotorum Chronicis qui civium suorum dedignatus
fuga, aratrum quod agebat solvit; arreptoque temone furibundus insiliit
in hostes victoriamque ademit exultantibus. Sic cum de agri istius
possessione acriter olim dimicatum esset, inter fundi dominum et
villarum incolas, nec valerent hi adversus eum consistere, redeuntibus
occurrit Hickifrickus, axemque excutiens a curru quem agebat, eo vice
gladii usus; rota, clypei; invasores repulit ad ipsos quibus nunc
funguntur terminos. Ostendunt in coemeterio Tilniensi sepulchrum sui
pugilis, axem cum rota insculptum exhibens."--Icenia, Descriptio
Norfolciae, p. 138. Hearne mentions this gravestone, and perhaps some
Norfolk topographer will tell us if it now exists.]

The author of the renowned History of Tom Hickathrift prefaces his
narrative with the following consolatory exordium:--

And if thou dost buy this book,
Be sure that you do on it look,
And read it o'er, then thou wilt say
Thy money is not thrown away.

In the reign before William the Conqueror, I have read in ancient
history that there dwelt a man in the parish of the Isle of Ely, in the
county of Cambridge, named Thomas Hickathrift, a poor labouring man, but
so strong that he was able to do in one day the ordinary work of two. He
had an only son, whom he christened Thomas, after his own name. The old
man put his son "to good learning," but he would take none, for he was,
as we call them in this age, none of the wisest, but something soft, and
had no docility at all in him. God calling this good man, the father, to
his rest, his mother, being tender of him, maintained him by her hard
labour as well as she could; but this was no easy matter, for Tom would
sit all day in the chimney-corner, instead of doing anything to assist
her, and although at the period we are speaking of, he was only ten
years old, he would eat more than four or five ordinary men, and was
five feet and a half in height, and two feet and a half broad. His hand
was more like a shoulder of mutton than a boy's hand, and he was
altogether like a little monster, "but yet his great strength was not
known."

Tom's strength came to be known in this manner. His mother, it appears,
as well as himself, for they lived in the primitive days of merry old
England, slept upon straw. This was in character with the wretched mud
hovels then occupied by the labouring population, not half so good as
many pigsties are now-a-days. Now being a tidy old creature, she must
every now and then replenish her homely couch, and one day, having been
promised a "bottle" of straw by a neighbouring farmer, after
considerable entreaty, she prevailed on her son to go to fetch it. Tom,
however, made her borrow a cart-rope first, before he would budge a
step, without condescending to enter into any explanation respecting the
use he intended it for; and the poor woman, too glad to obtain his
assistance on any terms, readily complied with his singular request.
Tom, swinging the rope round his shoulders, went to the farmer's, and
found him with two men, thrashing in a barn. Having mentioned the object
of his visit, the farmer somewhat inconsiderately told him he might take
as much straw as he could carry. Tom immediately took him at his word,
and, placing the rope in a right position, rapidly made up a bundle
containing at least a cartload, the men jeering him on the absurdity of
raising a pile they imagined no man could carry, and maliciously asking
him if his rope was long enough. Their merriment, however, was not of
long duration, for Tom flung the enormous bundle over his shoulders, and
walked away with it without any apparent exertion, much to the
astonishment and dismay of the master and his men.

After this exploit, Tom was no longer suffered to enjoy his idle
humours. Every one was endeavouring to secure his services, and we are
told many remarkable tales of his extraordinary strength, still more
wonderful than the one just related. On one occasion, having been
offered as great a bundle of firewood as he could carry, he marched off
with one of the largest trees in the forest! Tom was also extremely fond
of attending fairs; and in cudgelling, wrestling, or throwing the
hammer, there was no one who could compete with him. He thought nothing
of flinging a huge hammer into the middle of a river a mile off, and in
fact performed such extraordinary feats, that it was currently reported
throughout the country he had dealings with the Evil One.

Tom Hickathrift, too, was a very care-for-nothing fellow, and there were
very few persons in all the Isle of Ely who dared to give him an ill
word. Those who did paid very dearly for their impertinence, and Tom
was, in fact, paramount over his companions. His great strength,
however, caused him to be much sought after by those who were in want of
efficient labour, and at length a brewer at Lynn, who required a strong,
lusty fellow to carry his beer to the Marsh and to Wisbech, after much
persuasion, and promising him a new suit of clothes, and as much as he
liked to eat and drink, secured Tom for this purpose. The distance he
daily travelled with the beer was upwards of twenty miles, for although
there was a shorter cut through the Marsh, no one durst go that way for
fear of a monstrous giant, who was lord of a portion of the district,
and who killed or made slaves of every one he could lay his hands upon.

Now in the course of time, Tom was thoroughly tired of going such a
roundabout way, and without communicating his purpose to any one, he was
resolved to pass through the giant's domain, or lose his life in the
attempt. This was a bold undertaking, but good living had so increased
Tom's strength and courage, that, venturesome as he was before, his
hardiness was so much increased that he would have faced a still greater
danger. He accordingly drove his cart in the forbidden direction,
flinging the gates wide open, as if for the purpose of making his daring
more conspicuous. At length he was espied by the giant, who was
indignant at his boldness, but consoled himself with the reflection that
Tom and the beer would soon become his prey. "Sirrah," said the monster,
"who gave you permission to come this way? Do you not know how I make
all stand in fear of me? and you, like an impudent rogue, must come and
fling my gates open at your pleasure! How dare you presume to do so? Are
you careless of your life? Do not you care what you do? But I will make
you an example for all rogues under the sun! Dost thou not see how many
thousand heads hang upon yonder tree, heads of those who have offended
against my laws; but thy head shall hang higher than all the rest for an
example!" But Tom made him this impudent answer, "A dishclout in your
teeth for your news, for you shall not find me to be one of them!" "No!"
said the giant, in astonishment and indignation; "and what a fool you
must be if you come to fight with such a one as I am, and bring never a
weapon to defend yourself!" Quoth Tom, "I have a weapon here will make
you know you are a traitorly rogue." This impertinent speech highly
incensed the giant, who immediately ran to his cave for his club,
intending to dash out Tom's brains at one blow. Tom was now much
distressed for a weapon, that necessary accoutrement in his expedition
having by some means escaped his memory, and he began to reflect how
very little his whip would avail him against a monster twelve feet in
height, and six feet round the waist, small dimensions certainly for a
giant, but sufficient to be formidable. But while the giant was gone for
his club, Tom bethought himself, and turning his cart upside down,
adroitly takes out the axletree, which would serve him for a staff, and
removing a wheel, adapts it to his arm in lieu of a shield; very good
weapons indeed in time of trouble, and worthy of Tom's ingenuity. When
the monster returned with his club, he was amazed to see the weapons
with which Tom had armed himself, but uttering a word of defiance, he
bore down upon the poor fellow with such heavy strokes, that it was as
much as Tom could do to defend himself with his wheel. Tom, however, at
length managed to give the giant[31] a heavy blow with the axletree on
the side of his head, that he nearly reeled over. "What!" said Tom, "are
you tipsy with my strong beer already?" This inquiry did not, as we may
suppose, mollify the giant, who laid on his blows so sharply and heavily
that Tom was obliged to act on the defensive. By and by, not making any
impression on the wheel, he got almost tired out, and was obliged to ask
Tom if he would let him drink a little, and then he would fight again.
"No," said Tom, "my mother did not teach me that wit; who would be fool
then?" The sequel may readily be imagined, and Tom having beaten the
giant, and, disregarding his supplications for mercy, cut off his head,
entered the cave, which he found completely filled with gold and silver.

[Footnote 31: In the original it is lent the
giant, the term lent being old English or
Saxon for gave. The expression sufficiently
proves the antiquity of the version.]

The news of this celebrated victory rapidly spread throughout the
country, for the giant had been a common enemy to the inhabitants. They
made bonfires for joy, and testified their respect to Tom by every means
in their power. A few days afterwards, Tom took possession of the cave
and all the giant's treasure. He pulled down the former, and built a
magnificent house on the spot; but with respect to the land forcibly
obtained by the giant, part of it he gave to the poor for their common,
merely reserving enough to maintain himself and his good old mother,
Jane Hickathrift. His treasure, we may suppose, notwithstanding this
great liberality, enabled him to maintain a noble establishment, for he
is represented as having numbers of servants, and a magnificent park of
deer. He also built a famous church, which was called St. James's,
because it was on that saint's day that he had killed the giant. And
what was as good and better than all this, he was no longer called Tom
Hickathrift by the people, but "Mr. Hickathrift," a title then implying
a greater advancement in social position that can now scarcely be
imagined.

Like many other persons who have become suddenly possessed of great
wealth, Tom was sadly at a loss to know what to do with his money; nor
does this sage history condescend to inform us in what manner he
expended it. He seems, however, to have amused himself rarely, attending
every sport he could hear of for miles round, cracking skulls at
cudgel-playing, bear-baiting, and all the gentlemanly recreations
current in those days. At football he could scarcely have been a welcome
addition to the company, for one kick from his foot, if he caught it in
the middle, was sure to send the ball so great a distance over hedges
and trees that it was never seen again. Tom was, also, one evening
attacked by four robbers; but they sadly mistook the person they had to
deal with, for he quickly killed two of them, made the others sue for
mercy, and carried off their booty, which amounted to the large sum of
two hundred pounds. One would have thought the Hickathrifts were wealthy
enough before, but this addition to their store was, somehow or other, a
source of great delight and merriment to Tom's aged mother.

Tom was a long time before he found any one that could match him; but,
one day, going through his woods, he met with a lusty tinker, who had a
great staff on his shoulder, and a large dog to carry his bag and tools.
Tom was not particularly courteous; it may readily be supposed that his
unvarying successes had made him rather overbearing; and he somewhat
rudely asked the tinker what was his business there. But the tinker was
no man to succumb, and as rudely answered, "What's that to you? Fools
must needs be meddling!" A quarrel was soon raised, and the two laid on
in good earnest, blow for blow, till the wood re-echoed with their
strokes. The issue of the contest was long doubtful, but, the tinker was
so persevering, that Tom confessed he was fairly vanquished; and they
then went home together, and were sworn brothers in arms ever
afterwards. It happened, from the events that followed, to be a
fortunate occurrence.

In and about the Isle of Ely, many disaffected persons, to the number of
ten thousand and upwards, drew themselves up in a body, presuming to
contend for their ancient rights and liberties, insomuch that the gentry
and civil magistrates of the county were in great danger. The danger was
so great, that the sheriff was obliged to come to Tom Hickathrift, under
cover of the night, for shelter and protection, and gave him a full
account of the rebellion. The tinker and Tom immediately promised their
assistance, and they went out as soon as it was day, armed with their
clubs, the sheriff conducting them to the rendezvous of the rebels. When
they arrived there, Tom and the tinker marched up to the leaders of the
multitude, and asked them the reason of their disturbing the government.
To this they answered loudly, "Our will is our law, and by that alone
will we be governed." "Nay," quoth Tom, "if it be so, these trusty clubs
are our weapons, and by them alone you shall be chastised." These words
were no sooner uttered, than they madly rushed on the immense multitude,
bearing all before them, laying twenty or thirty sprawling with every
blow. It is also related, as something rather remarkable, that the
tinker struck a tall man on the nape of the neck with such immense force
that his head flew off, and was carried forty feet from the body with
such violence that it knocked down one of the chief ringleaders, killing
him on the spot. The feats of Tom were no less wonderful; for, after
having slain hundreds, and at length broke his club, he seized upon "a
lusty rawboned miller" as a substitute, and made use of him as a weapon,
till he had quite cleared the field.

The king of course received intelligence of these extraordinary
exploits, and sent for the two heroes to his palace, where a royal
banquet was prepared for their honour and entertainment, most of the
nobility being present. Now after the banquet was over, the king made a
speech, neither too short nor too long, but having the extraordinary
merit of being much to the purpose. We cannot omit so remarkable a
specimen of royal eloquence. "These, my guests," said the king, "are my
trusty and well-beloved subjects, men of approved courage and valour;
they are the men that overcame and conquered ten thousand rebels who
were combined for the purpose of disturbing the peace of my realm.
According to the character I have received of Thomas Hickathrift and
Henry Nonsuch, my two worthy guests here present, they cannot be matched
in any other kingdom in the world. Were it possible to have an army of
twenty thousand such as these, I dare venture to assert I would act the
part of Alexander the Great over again. In the meanwhile, as a proof of
my royal favour, kneel down, Thomas Hickathrift, and receive the ancient
order of knighthood. And with respect to Henry Nonsuch, I will settle
upon him, as a reward for his great services, the sum of forty shillings
a year for life." After the delivery of this excellent address, the king
retired, and Tom and Henry shortly afterwards took their departure,
attended for many miles by a portion of the court.

When Sir Thomas Hickathrift returned home, he found, to his great
sorrow, that his mother had died during his stay at the court. It can
scarcely be said that he was inconsolable for her loss, but being "left
alone in a large and spacious house, he found himself strange and
uncouth." He therefore began to consider whether it would not be
advisable to seek out for a wife, and hearing of a wealthy young widow
not far from Cambridge, he went and paid his addresses to her. At his
first coming, she appeared to favour his suit, but, before he paid her a
second visit, her fancy had been attracted by a more elegant wooer, and
Sir Thomas actually found him at her feet. The young spark, relying on
the lady's favour, was vehemently abusive to the knight, calling him a
great lubberly whelp, a brewer's servant, and a person altogether
unfitted to make love to a lady. Sir Thomas was not a likely man to
allow such an affront to go unpunished, so going out in the courtyard
with the dandy to settle the matter, he gave him a kick which sent him
over the tops of the houses into a pond some distance off, where he
would have been drowned, had not a poor shepherd, passing by, pulled him
out with his crook.

The gallant studied every means of being revenged upon the knight, and
for this purpose engaged two troopers to lie in ambush for him. Tom,
however, according to the story, "crushed them like cucumbers."[32] Even
when he was going to church with his bride to be married, he was set
upon by one-and-twenty ruffians in armour; but, borrowing a back-sword
from one of the company, he laid about him with such dexterity, that,
purposely desiring not to kill any one, at every blow he chopped off a
leg or an arm, the ground being strewed with the relics, "as it is with
tiles from the tops of the houses after a dreadful storm." His intended
and friends were mightily amused at all this, and the fair one jokingly
observed, "What a splendid lot of cripples he has made in the twinkling
of an eye!" Sir Thomas only received a slight scratch, and he consoled
himself for the trifling misfortune by the conviction he had only lost a
drop of blood for every limb he had chopped off.

[Footnote 32: The author is not very particular
in his similes, but this appears to be quite
peculiar to this history.]

The marriage ceremony took place without any further adventure, and Sir
Thomas gave a great feast on the occasion, to which all the poor widows
for miles round were invited in honour of his deceased mother, and it
lasted for four days, in memory of the four last victories he had
obtained. The only occurrence at this feast worth mentioning was the
theft of a silver cup, which was traced to the possession of an old
woman of the name of Stumbelup,[33] and the others were so disgusted at
her ingratitude to their kind host, that she would have been hanged on
the spot, had not Sir Thomas interfered, and undertook the appointment
of the punishment. Nor was it otherwise than comical, for she was
condemned to be drawn through all the streets and lanes of Cambridge on
a wheelbarrow, holding a placard in her hands, which informed the
public,--

I am the naughty Stumbelup,
Who tried to steal the silver cup.

[Footnote 33: This incident has been slightly
altered, the original narrative being of a nature
that will not bear an exact transcription.]

The news of Tom's wedding soon reached the court, and the king,
remembering his eminent services, immediately invited him and his lady,
who visited their sovereign immediately, and were received by him most
affectionately. While they were on this visit, intelligence arrived that
an extraordinary invasion had taken place in the county of Kent. A huge
giant riding on a dragon, and accompanied with a large number of bears
and lions, had landed on the coast of that unfortunate county, and was
ravaging it in all directions. The king, says the history, was "a little
startled," and well he might be, at such a visitation; but, taking
advantage of the opportune presence of Tom Hickathrift, he solved the
difficulty by creating him governor of the Isle of Thanet,[34] and thus
making him responsible for the protection of the inhabitants from this
terrible monster.

[Footnote 34: In the heading of the chapter in
the original it is East Angles, now called the
Isle of Thanet, an error which favours the
supposition of the story having been adapted from
a much older original.]

There was a castle in the island, from which the country was visible for
miles round, and this was the governor's abode. He had not been there
long before he caught a view of the giant, who is described as "mounted
upon a dreadful dragon, with an iron club upon his shoulders, having but
one eye, the which was placed in his forehead; this eye was larger in
compass than a barber's bason, and appeared like a flame of fire; his
visage was dreadful to behold, grim and tawny; the hair of his head hung
down his back and shoulders like snakes of an enormous length; and the
bristles of his beard were like rusty wire!" It is difficult to imagine
a being more terrible than this, but Tom was only surprised, not
frightened, when he saw one day the giant making his way to the castle
on his formidable dragon. After he had well viewed the edifice with his
glaring eye, he tied the dragon up to a tree, and went up to the castle
as if he had intended to thrust it down with his shoulder. But somehow
or other he managed to slip down, so that he could not extricate
himself, and Tom, advancing with his two-handed sword, cut off the
giant's head at one blow, and the dragon's at four, and sent them up in
a "waggon" to the court of his sovereign.

The news of Tom's victories reached the ears of his old companion, the
tinker, who became desirous of sharing in his glory, and accordingly
joined him at his castle. After mutual congratulations, Tom informed
him of his wish to destroy, without delay, the beasts of prey that
infested the island. They started for this purpose in company, Tom armed
with his two-handed sword, and the tinker with his long pikestaff. After
they had travelled about four or five hours, it was their fortune to
meet with the whole knot of wild beasts together, being in number
fourteen, six bears and eight lions. The two heroes waited for them with
their backs against a tree, and whenever they came "within cutting
distance" they cut their heads off, and in this manner killed all but
one lion, who, unfortunately, by an inconsiderate movement on the part
of Tom, crushed the poor tinker to death. The animal was, however,
ultimately slain by Sir Thomas.

Sir Thomas Hickathrift had killed the giants, dragon, and lions, and he
had conquered the rebels, but his happiness was by no means completed,
for he was inconsolate for the loss of his friend. He, however, returned
home to his lady, and made a grand feast in commemoration of his
important victories. The history terminates with the following brilliant
metrical speech he made on this festive occasion:

My friends, while I have strength to stand,
Most manfully I will pursue
All dangers, till I clear this land
Of lions, bears, and tigers, too.

This you'll find true, or I'm to blame,
Let it remain upon record,--
Tom Hickathrift's most glorious fame,
Who never yet has broke his word!





Next: Tom Thumb

Previous: Jack And The Giants



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