71:  Of Reading, Writing, and My Greatness

I was not born great.  I first oped my eyes in the old Earl’s stable.  That’s why I do love a stable.  A place of scents and sounds most dear to me.

But my lord’s stable was not so peaceful after my little niece lodged there.  She oft told me that she longed to be akwaynted with a book.  I believe it was our play that put this maggot in her head.

A row of books, jumbled on a shelf.

One day when my house was quiet (most gone to a fair or somesuch) I offered to show her the book chamber.

My niece – unaccustomed to so great a house – was doubtful.  She crept in low-bellied, her eyes wide and dark.  I told her we would hear if any came.  She could hide herself while I feigned mouse-watch.

A close=up of the nose and squinting eyes of Gib's niece - a blacl, white, and orange cat.She whispered that she feared the books who sat so still.  “They mean to spring on us,” she sayt.

“They lack the power of motion,” I sayt, and plucked one from the shelf.

She sprang away, but then sat swivel-eared.  “It tells of nowt.  I cannot hear it, nor take its thoughts.”

When she grew bold enough to nose it, she sayt, “It tells of you, and of a man.  He had his hand on a dog not long since.”

I sayt, “Your nose tells who last pawed it.  If you could read, your eyes would tell of hawks.  This book is of falconry.”

Her innocent questions made me merry.  But I was mazed, too.

I entered my lord’s service before I was weaned.  I sat with him and his lady sister in the schoolroom and took my learning there.

I’ve lived long among great folks and forgot how strange all must seem to one reared in a barn.  I offered to show her another part of the house.  I arrkst if she would like to swing from a curtain, or see her self in a mirror.

She refused.  “I wish to know what reading is,” she sayt.

So I leapt onto a table where a soiled, sour thing lay.  Some knave had thumbed it in an alehouse before he left it here.  But it would serve.

“Now see,” sayt I, “these black marks?  Like to a host of little worms?  They are sounds imprinted.”

She joined me, and sayt she could see nowt.

“You’re too near,” sayt I.  “You must sit a way off.”

She drew back, then poked the page.  “They will not move,” she sayt.

“They’re not true worms,” sayt I.  “But they can creep from your eyes to your brain and grow wings there.  Look!  Here it says: tread on a worm and it will turn.  I believe that means a snake will bite you.” 

A page from Robert Greene's Groatsworth of Wit containing his famous attack on 'the upstart crow', generally believed to be Shakespeare.

I read a little more, and sayt, “Here it tells of a tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide.  I have a tiger’s heart, as do you, for all are cats.  But how came a mere player to have the heart of a cat? Perchance he thieved it.  We must read more to know. ” 

“Worms! Eyes! Tigers! Flies!” She struck the page four times.

“Have a care,” I warned her.  “If any page be clawed or torn, this chamber might be closed to me.”

Another lesson I learnt young.  But how learnt I to read?

Then it come to me.  First I learnt to write.  I listened to the sounds my lord made, and watched him make marks with his pen.

And after I could write these marks, I looked for them in books.

The marks in books are many, and oft unknown to me.  Some books are imprinted fair; others are foul and hard to read.

But I found a book of little tales I could read, and then I came upon the Bevis book.  From that I made my first tale.

I believe there are some in this world who can read what’s imprinted, but know not how to write. There are others who can hold a pen and make their names or another pretty mark, but cannot read.

I can do both.  “And that,” as I told my niece, “is why I achieved greatness as a poet.”

“And why my mother told me you never caught owt in your life save a jewel hung from our Earl’s ear,” she sayt.  “But now I know you watch for worm-words, not mice.”

I sayt, “If you are as witty [clever] as your mother was, I can teach you to write.  You need not trouble yourself with reading.”

“Good,” sayt she.  “For books are false.  I believe my nose, mine eyes, mine ears, and my whiskers.  And what my mother told me.  Nowt else.”

As I led her from the house I sayt, “I’ll fetch you when next I find all that’s needful for writing left readie.”

(She did not ask what was needful.  For which I offer thanks: I had not the strength to explain the use of quills, ink, and paper.)

She sayt, “Then I’ll have greatness thrust upon me.”

Saucie.  Like unto her mother.


Toutparmoi - Note from the EditorThe first book Gib read “of little tales” was probably a collection of Aesop’s fables.  We know he read some of these, because his tale of The Fox and the Cat is derived from Aesop.

The “sour thing” – he means its smell – that he shows his niece is Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, first published in 1592 and attributed to the playwright Robert Greene (1558-1592).  It’s famous nowadays for its attack on an actor referred to as an “upstart crow” who, owing his success to the work of writers such as Greene, thinks he can “bombast out a blank verse” and is “in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.”  This is almost universally accepted as an attack on William Shakespeare.

However, astute readers of this blog have spotted that Shakespeare appears to have pilfered some of Gib’s work.  Oh dear.  Who wrote what is just so complicated. 

18: My Tale of the Fox and the Cat

I told it plain.  I sayt:  An Earl once gave a great dinner, and the kitchen door stood wide for air because all the ovens were at work.

Cheese Bread and Fruit, from a painting by Floris van Dyck.A lurking fox guessed that after the cooks were done they would have their own feast.  He could smell the soft breads and the wheels of cheese they’d set forth on their board. 

Then a joint of roasted mutton came back scarce touched from the Earl’s table.  The cooks put it on theirs.

The fox watched and waited, and when all backs were turned he crept into the kitchen and hid behind the breads.  He coiled hisself tight and lay there like a loaf new-baked, with a tawny crust.

The cooks went to the buttery to draw themselves some ale.  It was well for the kitchen cat that he went too, else he had been blamed for what came next.

The fox uncurled hisself, seized the mutton, and made off.

He ran till he came to a pond, where a cat had crouched long with her paws in the water waiting for a fish.  She was about to scoop one when the fox came up beside her, and frightened it away.

The fox was joyed to see her lose her fish.  He oped his mouth to tell her she’d get nowt for sitting like a statue; she must be both sly and swift if she wished to eat.  But instead, he dropped his meat into the pond.

Then he raged at that poor cat, saying:  See what you made me do?

She ran from him, and up a tree.  Now it was the fox’s turn to wet his paws, but he could not lift his dinner from the water.

A Fox and a Cat in a tree from a painting by Franz SnydersSo he begged the cat to come and hook it with her claws.

“No,” sayt she.  “All you mean to do is punish me for your folly.”

He sayt he would go into the pond.  Were he to push and she to pull, together they might carry it away.

He even promised her a share.  She sat fast in the tree.

The fox went home most sorrowful.  The cat came down and tried to lift the meat, but it was heavy.  She watched a while, and saw that fish were coming by to nibble on it.  She hooked out one that she ate there, and took another for her kitlings.

And she went back many a day to catch more, for fish came to eat of the mutton till nowt remained but bone.

So, friends, thus we learn that while foxes may be tricksie, we cats have prudence and patience enough to win the day!

And so my tale ended.

Gib Portrait.Now, in truth, the cats of my old household would have scorned it, for there was not one word of scandal.

But the dullards here praised it, and called for another.  I sayt I would bring a better one to our next assembly, and all went away most cheerful.

I hastened after the cats who led me to the meeting place, for I feared that the gate to the house might be closed.  I knew no other entry.

They went to the kitchen door.  One called for admittance, and we all ran in.

From there I followed the brinded cat across a little court [courtyard] to where a door to the house was open.  And as we walked along the passage I struck him on his backside to remind him that he was now below me.  (There being none to see, there was no need to front him as a cat of honour should.) 

Then I did jet it ahead of him into the great hall, taking long strides and swinging my shoulders most powerful.  Like a cat who takes his rightful place, which I now do.

Though I pray my sweet maggot will return to help me with my next tale, for I fear much may be expected of me.