Long before William the Conqueror, there dwelt a man in the Isle of Ely, named Thomas Hickathrift, a poor laboring 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 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, kept him by her hard labor 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 help her, and although at the time we were 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 seems, as well as himself, for they lived in the days of merry old England, slept upon straw. Now, being a tidy old creature, she must every now and then have a new bed, and one day having been promised a bottle of straw by a neighboring farmer, after much begging she got her son to fetch it. Tom, however, made her borrow a cart-rope first, before he would budge a step, without saying what he wanted it for; but the poor woman, too glad to gain his help upon any terms, let him have it at once. Tom, swinging the rope round his shoulder went to the farmer's, and found him with two men threshing in a barn. Having told what he wanted, the farmer said he might take as much straw as he could carry. Tom at once 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 at him all the while. Their merriment, however, did not last long, for Tom flung the enormous bundle over his shoulders, and walked away with it without any difficulty, and left them all gaping after him.
After this exploit Tom was no longer allowed to be idle. Every one tried to secure his services, and we are told many tales of his mighty strength. On one occasion, having been offered as great a bundle of fire wood 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 cudgeling, 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 the folk began to have a fear of him.
At length a brewer at Lynn, who required a strong lusty fellow to carry his beer to the Marsh and to Wisbeach, after much persuasion, and promising him a new suit of clothes and as much as he liked to eat and drink, secured Tom for his business. The distance he daily traveled 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 telling his plans to any one, he 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 plain to be seen.
At length he was espied by the giant, who was in a rage at his boldness, but consoled himself by thinking that Tom and the beer would soon become his prey. "Sir," 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! 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 answer: "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 that will make you know you are a traitorous rogue." This 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, as by some chance he had forgot one, and he began to reflect how very little his whip would help him against a monster twelve feet in height and six feet round the waist. But while the giant was gone for his club, Tom bethought himself, and turning his cart upside down, adroitly took out the axletree, which would serve him for a staff, and removing a wheel, fitted it to his arm instead of a shield—very good weapons indeed in time of trouble, and worthy of Tom's wit. 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 cut the giant such a blow with the axletree on the side of his head, that he nearly reeled over. "What!" said Tom, "have you drunk of 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 defend himself. By-and-by, not making any impression on the wheel, the giant grew tired, 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 end may readily be imagined; Tom having beaten the giant, cut off his head, and entered the cave, which he found completely filled with gold and silver.
The news of this victory rapidly spread throughout the country, for the giant had been a common enemy to the people about. They made bonfires for joy, and showed 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 as for the land stolen by the giant, part of it he gave to the poor for their common, merely keeping enough for himself and his good old mother, Jane Hickathrift.
Tom was now a great man and a hero with all the country folk, so that when any one was in danger or difficulty, it was to Tom Hickathrift he must turn. It chanced that about this time many idle and rebellious persons drew themselves together in and about the Isle of Ely, and set themselves to defy the king and all his men.
By this time, you must know, Tom Hickathrift had secured to himself a trusty friend and comrade, almost his equal in strength and courage, for though he was but a tinker, yet he was a great and lusty one. Now the sheriff of the country came to Tom, under cover of night, full of fear and trembling, and begged his aid and protection against the rebels, "else," said he, "we be all dead men!" Tom, nothing loth, called his friend the tinker, and as soon as it was day, led by the sheriff, they went out armed with their clubs to the place where the rebels were gathered together. When they were got thither, Tom and the tinker marched up to the leaders of the band, and asked them why they were set upon breaking the king's peace. To this they answered loudly, "Our will is our law, and by that alone we will 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 throng of men, bearing all before them, and laying twenty or thirty sprawling with every blow. The tinker struck off heads with such violence that they flew like balls for miles about, and when Tom had slain hundreds and so broken his trusty club, he laid hold of a lusty raw-boned miller and made use of him as a weapon till he had quite cleared the field.
If Tom Hickathrift had been a hero before, he was twice a hero now. When the king heard of it all, he sent for him to be knighted, and when he was Sir Thomas Hickathrift nothing would serve him but that he must be married to a great lady of the country.
So married he was, and a fine wedding they had of it. There was a great feast given, to which all the poor widows for miles round were invited, because of Tom's mother, and rich and poor feasted together. Among the poor widows who came was an old woman called Stumbelup, who with much ingratitude stole from the great table a silver tankard. But she had not got safe away before she was caught and the people were so enraged at her wickedness that they nearly hanged her. However, Sir Tom had her rescued, and commanded that she should be drawn on a wheelbarrow through the streets and lanes of Cambridge, holding a placard in her hand on which was written—
"I am the naughty Stumbelup,
Who tried to steal the silver cup."
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