the supertramp - W.H.Davies - proseClick image for Davies home



IT was now the beginning of October, and the mornings and the evenings were getting colder. Although Baltimore is a southern town, and was therefore free from the severe cold of towns further north, it was not so far south as to make plenty of clothes dispensable. We two, Australian Red and myself, tramped this city day after day for work, but without success. There were only two courses left open to us: to make three or four more trips on cattle boats, until the coming of spring, when there would probably be work in abundance, or to go oyster dredging down the Chesapeake Bay, a winter employment that was open to any able-bodied man in Baltimore, experience not being necessary. Red soon placed the latter beyond consideration by relating his own hard experience of the same. First of all the work was very hard, and of a most dangerous kind; the food was of the worst; and, worse than all, the pay was of the smallest. A man would often cut his hands with the shells, which would poison and swell, and render him helpless for some time to come. 'Again,' said Red, 'a man is not sure of his money, small as it is. A few years ago,' he continued, 'it was a common occurrence for a boat to return and have to report the loss of a man. These dredgers were never lost On the outward trip, but when homeward bound, and the most hazardous part of their work was done. The captain on coming to shore, would report a man lost, drowned, and his body unrecovered. This drowned man, being an unknown, no relative came forward to claim wages from the captain. How the man met his death was no secret among the dredgers, and they had to keep a wary eye on their own lives; for a captain would often move the tiller so suddenly as to knock a man overboard, accidentally, of course. A board of enquiry looked into these things, and a captain was tried for murder, and escaped with a sentence of seven years' imprisonment. There were not so many accidents after this, but they have not altogether ceased.' After hearing this account, I was not very eager for more practical knowledge of this profession, called dredging, so I agreed with Red to make three or four more trips as cattlemen, until the spring of the year made other work easy to be obtained.

We returned to the office, where between thirty and forty men were waiting an opportunity to ship. As I have said before, some of these men were notorious beggars, and the kind-hearted people of Baltimore never seemed to tire of giving them charity. One man, called Wee Scotty, who had been a cattleman for a number of years, begged the town so much in some of the rather long intervals when he was waiting a ship, that he could take a stranger with him three times a day for a month, to be fed by the different good people that were known to him. He could take up a position on a street corner, and say-'Go to that house for breakfast; come back to this house for dinner, and yonder house with the red gate will provide you a good supper.' In this way he kept me going for two weeks when, at last, I was asked to sign articles to go with cattle to Glasgow.

Some days before this, a man came to the office, whose peculiar behaviour often drew my attention to him. He asked to be allowed to work his passage to England, and the shipper promised him the first opportunity, and a sum often shillings on landing there. This was the reason why some of us had to wait so long, because, having made trips before, more or less, we required payment for our experience. The man referred to above, had a white clean complexion, and his face seemed never to have had use for a razor. Although small of body, and not seeming capable of much manual labour, his vitality of spirits seemed overflowing every minute of the day. He swaggered more than any man present, and was continually smoking cigarettes-which he deftly rolled with his own delicate fingers. In the intervals between smoking he chewed, squirting the juice in defiance of all laws of cleanliness. It was not unusual for him to sing a song, and his voice was of surprising sweetness; not of great power, but the softest voice I have ever heard from a man, although his aim seemed to make it appear rough and loud, as though ashamed of its sweetness. It often occurred to me that this man was playing a part, and that all this cigarette smoking, chewing tobacco and swaggering, was a mere sham; an affectation for a purpose. I could not, after much watching, comprehend. He was free of speech, was always ridiculing others, and swore like a trooper, yet no man seemed inclined to take advantage of him. Blackey took him under his protection, laughing and inciting him to mischief. He was certainly not backward in insulting and threatening Blackey, which made the latter laugh until the tears came into his eyes. The men were spellbound at his volubility. He shook that red rag of his, and a continuous flow of speech ensued, and the surrounding creatures were mute, but not at all infuriated. His audacity may have slightly irritated one or two, but no man had the least idea of inflicting on him corporal punishment. I and Red were called to the office to sign articles for Glasgow, and, when doing so, Blackey and this strange new companion of his were signing for England, the two ships leaving for their destination on the same tide. We were sorry to lose this man's company, knowing that his tongue would have gone far to amuse our leisure hours aboard.

We had a very pleasant voyage, and this line of boats gave us very little cause to complain, either of sleeping accommodation or diet, the officers and ship's crew also being sociable in their dealings with us. The same thing happened at the end of this voyage, and we would have suffered the same privation-had it not been for an accident. On the fourth morning ashore there was not a penny among us, and the boat would not sail for another two days. Australian Red was rummaging his pockets and piling before him a large assortment of miscellaneous articles. 'It wouldn't care much,' said he, 'if I had the paltry price I paid for this,' at the same time throwing on the table a thick, heavy, white chain. Picking this up, for an indifferent examination, I became interested, and enquired as to how it came into his possession. It seemed that a poor fellow had offered to sell Red the chain for a penny. Red, seeing the man's condition of extreme want, had given him sixpence, at the same time refusing to accept the chain. The poor fellow had then persisted that Red should accept it as a gift. Red, being now filled with his own troubles, wished that he could dispose of the chain to the same advantage. The chain was, without doubt, silver, being stamped on every link. 'What!' cried Red, suddenly roused, while the cattlemen in their deep interest moved forward, making our circle several feet smaller- 'What!' he cried, 'silver did you say? Let me see it!' He snatched the chain and, without looking at it, or putting it in his pocket, rushed out of the room without another word. In five minutes he returned, and throwing towards me eight shillings, the value of the chain in pawn, said: 'None of this for drink; keep a tight hand on it for our food supply until the boat sails.' He knew his own weakness. On first coming to shore I had taken the precaution to buy several books, to make sure of them, indifferent whether we suffered hunger or no. For this reason I thoroughly enjoyed the voyage back, and we arrived safely at Baltimore, having been away a little over five weeks.

The first man we met, on entering the cattlemen's office, was Blackey, who, having made a shorter trip, had returned some days previous. 'What became of your strange friend, Blackey?' I asked. 'Did he remain in England, or return to America?' 'Why, haven't you heard about it all?' asked Blackey, 'the English papers were full of the case.' 'We have heard nothing,' I said, thinking the poor fellow had either been kicked to death by one of the wild steers, or that he had either leaped at the waves in a mad fit of suicide, or that the waves had leaped at him and taken him off. 'He worked side by side with me for eleven days,' said Blackey, 'and by his singing, laughing and talking, he made a play of labour. Down in the forecastle at night he sang songs and, in spite of our limited space, and the rolling of the ship, he gave many a dance, and ended by falling into his low bunk exhausted, and laughing still. In all my experience this was the first time that I was not eager to sight land, and fill myself with English ale. On the eleventh day out, we were hoisting bales of hay for the cattle, and he was assisting me in the hold of the vessel. I know not whether we failed to fasten properly the bales, or whether the cattlemen on deck blundered when receiving them, but all at once I heard a shout of-"Look out, below!" and down came a heavy bale, striking my companion on the shoulder. He spun around once or twice, and then fell unconscious into my arms. The ship's doctor was at once called, and the poor fellow was taken aft. Several times a day I made enquiries about him, and heard that he was out of danger, but needed rest. I never saw him again. When we landed in England he was not to be seen, and I thought, perhaps, that he was too ill to be removed without the assistance of a vehicle. Next day I happened to pick up a paper, in which was a full and lengthy account of how a woman had worked her way as a cattleman from the port of Baltimore, - making mention of the ship's name. My companion was that woman, and I never had the least suspicion,' continued Blackey, 'although, I will say, that I always thought him a queer man.'

I had scarcely been in the office a week, when I was offered a boat for London. Only one two pound man was required, all the others, with the exception of one, who was to receive fifteen shillings, were ten shilling men. Red had no chance on this boat, and I was not sorry, knowing how his extravagant habits would spoil the trip's enjoyment. This was a voyage of some delight, both aboard and ashore. Having been in London before, I knew what enjoyment could be had with but little expense-of museums, parks, gardens, picture galleries, etc. I made friends with a decent fellow, who had been a schoolmaster, and, persuading him out of Deptford, we procured lodgings in Southwark, and from that place we paid our visits to the different scenes. We saw none of the other cattlemen until the hour of sailing. Many of the poor fellows had lost their money on the first night ashore, and now had strange experiences to relate of workhouses, shelters, soup-kitchens, and unsuccessful begging. When we arrived at Baltimore it wanted one week to Christmas Day, and there was not much chance to ship again for two or three weeks, owing to the number of men waiting.

As I have said before, the people of Baltimore are extremely kind-hearted, and no man need starve if he has the courage to express his wants. The women seem to be as beautiful as they are good, for I have never seen finer women than those of Baltimore, and a man would not be making the worst of life if he idled all day in a principal street, reading the face of beauty, and studying the grace of forms that pass him by. But it is of their kindness and generosity that I would now speak. For Christmas Eve had come, and Australian Red, accompanied by Blackey, had taken me on one side, the former beginning in this way: 'Will you join this night's expedition? What we want you to do is to carry a small bag, no more, and all the begging will be done by us.' I had visions of the police stopping me and enquiring the contents of such a strange burden, but being an unsuccessful beggar, and feeling too independent to have others perform this office for me, without making some little effort to deserve their maintenance, I agreed to their proposal, and that evening at six p.m., we sallied forth together. They both started on a long street, Red taking one side and Blackey the other, whilst I waited the result some yards in advance-a safe distance away. They could scarcely have been refused in one house, for in less than ten minutes they were both at my side, dropping paper parcels into the empty bag, the mouth of which I held open. All at once Blackey disappeared, having been called into supper. The same thing happened to Red, two or three minutes after. When they approached me again with other parcels, they both agreed to accept no more invitations to supper, but that they would excuse themselves as having families at home. They continued this for half an hour, hardly more, when the bag was full to the mouth. 'Now,' said Blackey, 'take this to the office, and we will remain tofill our pockets, after which we will follow as soon as possible. Or do you prefer to wait for us?' I preferred to go, and, avoiding the main streets and lighted places, succeeded in getting back without rousing the curiosity of the police. They soon followed, with another supply stored in their capacious pockets. What delighted them most- but of which I took very little account, knowing to what use it would be put-was that they had received several small amounts in money, the total being one dollar and seventy five cents. I shall never forget this begging expedition. When the different parcels were unrolled, we beheld everything that the most fastidious taste could desire, for not one parcel, I believe, consisted of simple bread and butter, much less the former by its own common self. There were fried oysters, turkey, chicken, beef, mutton, ham and sausages; Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes and yams; brown bread, white bread; pancakes, tarts, pie and cake of every description; bananas, apples, grapes and oranges; winding up with a quantity of mixed nuts and a bag of sweets. Such were the contents of over sixty parcels, got with such ease. Blackey had been refused at three doors; and Red had failed at five, but had been requested to call back at two of them, and had not troubled to do so, not having properly located the houses.