AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A SUPERTRAMP.
CHAPTER XX1X. A DAY'S COMPANION
I HAD many a strange experience in those days, especially one with an old man, who must have been between seventy and eighty years of age. He accosted me through the hedges and, looking in that direction, I saw him in the act of filling a quart can with blackberries, aided by a thick long stick with a crooked end. 'Wait a moment,' said he, 'for I also am going Bedford way.' I was nothing loth to wait, for I was a stranger in that part of the country, and required information as to which was the best cheap lodging house for the night. I knew that in a town of the size of Bedford there must be more than one common lodging house, and one must be better than another, if only in the extra smile of a landlady, regardless of clean blankets or cooking accommodation.
For this reason I waited, and, in less than three minutes, the old man joined me. His answer to my first question was disappointing, for it seemed that the number of lodging houses which Bedford could boast were all public houses, and there was not one private house that catered for beggars. This was a real disappointment, for I knew that whosoever made tea at such a place, did so under the ill favoured glance of a landlady or landlord, perhaps both, who sold beer ready made. In fact the facilities for making tea, cooking, or even washing one's shirt, were extremely limited at such a place, which made it very undesirable for a poor beggar like myself, who had great difficulty in begging sufficient for his bed and board, and did not wish to be reminded of beer.
'Surely,' I said, 'there must be in a town the size of Bedford one private lodging house, at least, to accommodate tramps.'
'Well,' said he, 'as a tramp I have been going in and out of that town for over thirty years, and I never heard of such a place. You can make enquiries, and I should like to know different,' he continued, rather sarcastically that I had doubted his knowledge. 'The two best houses are the "Boot" and the "Cock," but seeing that the former takes in women, the latter I think would be the best for us. Are you going to do business on the road?' he enquired. 'Not to-day,' I answered him, 'for I have enough for my bed, and an extra few coppers for food.' 'All right,' said he, 'we will travel together, and if I do a little business on the way it won't interfere with you, and we have plenty of time to reach the lodging house before dark.' Having no objection to this proposal we jogged pleasantly along.
We were now descending a steep incline and my companion, seeing a man coming in the opposite direction, walking beside a bicycle, lost no time in confronting that gentleman and pushing the blackberries under his nose. 'No,' said the man, gruffly, 'do you think I am going to carry those things? but here's a copper for you.' Well, thought I, this man will never sell his berries if he does not show more discretion and offer them to more likely customers.
Just after this we met a lady and gentleman, both well dressed and apparently well to do. Touching his cap to these people my companion soon had his blackberries within a few inches of their eyes, at the same time using all his persuasive powers to induce them to make a purchase. In this he failed, as was to be expected, but continued to walk step by step with them for several yards, until the gentleman hastily put his hand in his pocket and gave the old fellow sixpence, the smallest change that he had.
Several others were stopped after this, and although my fellow traveller failed to sell his perishable goods, a number of people assisted him with coppers. In one instance I thought he surely could not be of sound mind, for he had seen a party of ladies and gentlemen seating themselves in a motor car, and was hurrying with all speed in that direction. In this case he failed at getting a hearing, for before he was half way towards them, the party had seated themselves and the car was moving rapidly away. My companion's lips trembled with vexation at seeing this.
'Wait a moment,' said he, crossing the road to a baker's shop- 'I am going to exchange these berries for buns.' Waiting outside I was soon joined again by this strange old fellow who then carried in his left hand four buns, his right hand still being in possession of the blackberries.
'You will never sell them,' I said, 'if you do not offer them at more likely places. See, there is a shop with fruit and vegetables:try there.' 'Why,' he answered with a grin, 'how do you think I could make a living if I sold them? The market value of these berries is about one farthing, and it takes sixteen farthings to pay for my feather (bed) not reckoning scrand, (food) and a glass or two of skimish (drink). In fact,' said he, 'my day's work is done, and I am quite satisfied with the result.' Saying which he tumbled the blackberries into the gutter and placed the can-which he used for making tea-into a large self-made inside pocket. On getting a better view of them, I remarked that no person could buy such berries, for they were about the worst assortment I had ever seen in my life. 'It would not pay to make them very enticing,' said he, 'or they would find a too ready sale.' 'But what do you do when the season is over?' I asked, 'for you cannot pick blackberries all the year round.' 'Oh,' he answered, 'I have other ways of making a living. If I can get a good audience in a public house, I can often make a day's living in a quarter of an hour, with several drinks in the bargain.' 'What, by singing or dancing?' I asked. 'No,' said he, 'but by reciting. Listen to this.' With that he began to recite a long poem, line after line, until I began to hope his memory would fail him. What a memory it was! Hundreds of lines without a break. When he came to the most dramatic parts he paused for action, and I knew that he was heedless of the approach of night, and had forgotten that Bedford was still afar off. There was now no stopping him; poem after poem he recited, and he introduced his subjects with little speeches that were so different from his ordinary conversation, that it was apparent that he had committed them also to memory for the benefit of a fit audience. if he was so zealous after a weary day's walk, and without stimulants, what would he be under the influence of several glasses of strong ale? I shuddered to think of it.
We were now about a mile from Bedford, and my companion had for the last hour been reciting; as for myself I was travelling alone, for I had forgotten him. Sometimes to my confusion he would startle me by a sudden question, but seeing that he made no pause for an answer, I soon understood that no answer was required of me, for that he was still reciting.
As we entered the outskirts of Bedford, my companion found it necessary, owing to increase of traffic, to raise his voice, which he continued to do until at last the traffic became so very great that he could not make himself heard. I had not heard his voice for the last five minutes, when he suddenly clutched my shoulder and demanded what I thought of that. 'You have a wonderful memory,' I said. 'Oh,' said he, 'that is nothing; I could entertain you for several days in like manner, with fresh matter each day. Here we are at the "Cock." I like your company and, if you are travelling my way to-morrow, let us go together. It is not every man that I would travel with two days in succession.' And, thought I, it is not every man would travel in your company two days in succession. 'Which way are you going?' I asked him. 'Towards Northampton,' said he. 'Alas,' I answered, 'my direction is altogether different.'
We now entered the 'Cock,' and after calling for two glasses of ale, enquired as to accommodation for travellers, which we were informed was good, there being plenty of room. Sometimes, if ale is not called for, they are disinclined to letting beds, especially in the winter, when they find so little difficulty in filling the house.
On entering the kitchen we found it occupied by a number of men, some of whom recognised my fellow traveller, and spoke to him. But, strange to say, although this man had proved so garrulous with one for a companion, with the many he had very little to say, and sat in a corner all through the evening smoking in silence, and paying no heed to others either by tongue, eye, or ear. Once or twice I saw his lips move, when filling his pipe, or knocking out its ashes, and I thought that he was perhaps rehearsing and training his memory for the following day, in case he would be again fortunate in picking up with an easy fool like myself. For, no doubt, the poor old fellow had been often commanded to desist from reciting, and ordered to hell by impatient and unsympathetic men whom he had at first mistaken for quiet and good natured companions. I had not by a look or a word sought to offend him, but one day of his company was certainly enough.