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



WE reached the fruit country a week or two before picking commenced, but although we were in advance of time, and without a cent, the generosity of the farmers supplied all our wants. The authorities did not in the least interfere with us, though we lit large camp fires on the outskirts of the towns, took possession of hay ricks and empty out-houses, and loafed for hours in their principal streets. They knew well that the assistance of every man would be needed to strip the vines of their berries, which pro- missed a supply exceeding that of former years. Friday morning, it being generally known that picking was to commence on the following Tuesday, Australian Red remarked that it was now time to interview the farmer, for whom he had previously worked. With this object in view, we left the pretty inland port of St. Joseph, and strolling leisurely, we reached that farm in two hours, it being only five miles from the town. The farmer and his wife, who employed several servants of both sexes, but were without children of their own, at once recognised Australian Red, and gave him a kindly welcome, which spoke well for Red's gentlemanly behaviour in the past. The old man told him, in his bad English, that there would always be plenty of work for Red, and for others whom he might bring with him.

I was about twenty-three years of age at this time, appeared much younger and not in any way looking like a dangerous youth, was soon on the best of terms with the old people. So much so, that at the end of the summer, when the pickers were leaving, the result being as satisfactory to themselves as to the farmer, the kind old couple inveigled me into a private place and proposed to adopt me as their own son, and that they would teach me how to run the farm, which they said would become mine at their death. The only way to answer these kind people was to say that I already had a good home, and parents living in England, and that I intended to return there with the profits of this summer's work.

The earliest fruit was the strawberry, whose vines grew from six inches to a foot above the ground. We knelt in the hot blazing sun which beat so powerfully on our bended necks that the flesh became in a day or two the dark colour of walnut stain. The soil, being dry and sandy, burned through the clothing until our knees were covered with a red rash. The effect of this extreme heat often affected people's reason, and sometimes killed them outright. Berry picking in the South has other dangers of a worse kind. I shall never forget seeing a man leap screaming to his feet, at the same time wringing his right hand in agony. He had parted the thick vines, in quest of the berries that were concealed under the leaves, and in doing so, had disturbed a deadly snake, which had bitten his offending hand. The snake was very small, but far more deadly than many others of twenty times its length and weight. Several deaths occurred this way in my berry picking experience in the South. There was not much fear of this happening in the State of Michigan, but we often wished we could crawl under the low green leaves of the vine to escape for a time the rays of the sun. The farm extended to the shores of the lake, and when our day's work was at an end, we hastened there, and plunged into the cold and unsalted water which never grew warm, and could be swallowed with impunity. After which we would return, cook supper in the open air, and wrapping ourselves in blankets lie all night under the thick foliage of a tree. The berries were sent every night to Chicago for the morrow's market; but, there being no market on Sunday our day of rest was Saturday, and we picked on Sunday for Monday's market. Early every Saturday morning Australian Red would go to town in the farmer's buggy, and return to us later in the day with papers, tobacco, matches, and such provisions as were needed; for eggs, butter, milk, potatoes and fruit could be had of the farmer, the latter delicacy being free for the trouble of picking.

Red seemed to me to be a man above the average intelligence, and, as far as my knowledge went, seldom made an error in grammar or the pronunciation of words. But that he should think words required a different pronunciation in reading from what they did in speaking, was a great shock to me, and made some of his most illiterate hearers look from one to another with stupefaction. Now, I was always greatly interested in fights and glove contests, and Red, claiming to have personal acquaintance with the best of Australia, and himself claiming to be an amateur middle weight, whose prowess many a professional had envied, often entertained me with little anecdotes of them, which had escaped the notice of sporting papers. So, on the first Saturday of our picking, Red had returned from town with a paper which gave a full and graphic account, round by round, of a contest for the light weight championship of the world, the principals hailing respectively from Australia and America. Red's sympathies, of course, were with the former, who, to his elation, had defeated his opponent. Being a very modest man, Australian Red had always quietly perused his paper, making a few comments, so as to avoid all argument; but on this occasion, he opened his paper and began to read with a boldness that astonished me. But what surprised me most was the way in which he made use of an expletive syllable, which sounded so quaint as to make laughter irresistible. For instance, this passage occurred in describing the fifth round: 'After he was knocked down, he picked himself up painfully, and the blood flowed from his nostrils in copious streams.' I could not help laughing out at his strange delivery, and Red, thinking my sympathies were with the bruiser from the Antipodes, chuckled with a real, but more quiet delight. We had enough food for conversation that day, in commenting on this contest. I like to see a good scientific bout by men who know the use of their hands, but would rather walk twenty miles than see animals in strife. Although of a quiet disposition, my fondness for animals is likely at any time to lead me into danger. After reading cases of vivisection I have often had dreams of boldly entering such places, routing the doctors with a bar of iron, cutting the cords and freeing the animals, despite of any hurt I might receive from bites and scratches. Perhaps I should cut a ridiculous figure, walking through the crowded streets with a poor meek creature under each arm, but that would not bother me much in the performance of a humane action.

After a good month's work at the strawberries, we had three weeks at picking raspberries, followed by four weeks' blackberry picking. There was good money to be made at the strawberries, but much less at the raspberries. The blackberry picking was as lucrative as the strawberry, and, being cultivated on low bushes that seldom required us to stoop, was not such a tedious occupation as the latter, whose vines were often half buried in the soil. After paying all expenses, I had, at the end of the season, cleared over a hundred dollars.

It was now the last of the picking, and the farmer paid us off. He was a German, and nearly all the farmers in that part of the country were the same, or of that descent, and they used the German language at every opportunity, and never used English except when it was necessary to do so. 'You vos come again, next summer,' said he to Australian Red and myself as we were leaving-'for I know you two plenty.' This remark made me blush, for it seemed as much as to say that his knowledge of us was more than he desired-but we understood his meaning. He offered to drive us to St. Joseph, but we preferred to walk, as we had all day and half the night to wait before the boat started from that place to Chicago.

'Now,' I said to Australian Red, as we jogged along, 'I am going to hoard the bulk of my dollars, and shall just keep two or three handy for food and incidental expenses, for I am now about to beat my way from Chicago to New York. From the latter place I shall pay my passage to Liverpool, clothe myself better, and then take train for South Wales, and still have a pound or two left when I arrive home.' 'Come and have a drink,' said Red, 'and I will then inform you how any man without former experience on sea or ship, neither being a sailor, fireman or cook, can not only work his passage to England, but be paid for doing so.

We had had no intoxicating liquor for several months, and, though we had passed one or two of these places on our way to St. Joseph, on which he had gazed in a rather too friendly manner, his courage, up to this moment, had not been equal to an invitation. 'Well,' I said, pleased with the prospect of not only saving my passage money, but also of earning my train fare in England-'it will certainly be cold, taking this deck voyage across the lake in the early hours of morning, and a glass of whiskey will keep some warmth in us.' Alas! the usual thing happened-we got full; and what with the dead effects of the drink, and a rough passage across, we arrived in Chicago feeling cold, stiff, and in many other ways uncomfortable.

I have often heard salt water mariners sneer at these fresh water sailors, but, after crossing the Atlantic some eighteen times, and making several passages across the lakes, my opinion is that these vast inland lakes are more dangerous to navigate, and far less safe than the open seas.

Of course we had to have more whiskey, after the voyage, and, having had no sleep, its effect was almost instantaneous. Not altogether losing my senses, I suggested to Red that we should go to some hotel, have breakfast, and then go to bed for an hour or two, say till dinner time, which would refresh us. It was now eight o'clock in the morning, and Red had unfortunately got into conversation with a gentleman who knew something of Australia. 'Yes,' he said, gravely, after listening to my proposal- 'you are young, and you certainly look drunk and sleepy, and had better follow your own advice. The hotel is next door but one to this, and you will find me here when you return.' Not liking to take him by the shoulder, and to gently try to force him away from this stranger in whose conversation he evidently seemed to take a great delight, not to mention doing such an action before the landlord's face, I left him, made arrangements at the hotel for two, and then went to bed. Having had a good sleep, and a substantial meal, and feeling thoroughly refreshed, I now returned to Red, whom I found in the centre of half a dozen loafers, besides the gentleman to whom I have already referred. On my appearance, he staggered to his feet and came to meet me, and then, taking me on one side, began in this way: 'You have just come in the nick of time, for the glasses, as you see, are empty. Pay for all drinks called for, and I will make it all right with you in the morning.' 'What is the matter?' I asked. 'What have you done with over eighty dollars?' Winking artfully, and with a smile meant to be cunning, he said-'I have hidden my money, as I usually do in these cases. Most likely it is in the lining of my coat; but wherever it is, you may depend on it as being quite safe.' if he had had the assistance of a score of the most inveterate drunkards, I know he could not in this short time have squandered between eighty and ninety dollars. Red had earned ninety-five dollars and a half, and, up to the time of my leaving him, had spent but very little. I came to the conclusion that he had been robbed, and that this befell him in all his sprees. After calling for a round of drinks, I left the house, knowing that Red would Soon follow, which he did, and at once. I persuaded him to bed, and the next morning saw the same peculiarities as before-his going into corners, up side streets, to feel the lining of his clothes. He was not satisfied at seeing no tear in the lining of his cap, but must hold it in his hand and feel every inch of it. 'Somewhere on my person,' he reiterated, 'I have secreted three twenty dollar bills. I have a distinct recollection of doing so, but for the life of me I cannot remember what part.' 'You have been robbed,' I answered, with a little disgust. Not willing to leave him in his present circumstances, and only too sorry that I had not done so when he was almost as well off as myself, I shared my dollars with him, saying in an offended manner-'The sooner we squander this stuff the better it will please us.' We spent it in one week in Chicago, and were again without a cent. 'Again,' I said with some exaggeration, 'winter is here, and we are in the same position as at the end of last summer. What now?' 'We are without money,' said Red, 'but there is still nothing to prevent us from our first intention of visiting England. We will beat our way to Baltimore without delay. I am known in that port by the cattle foremen and owners, and we are almost sure of a ship as soon as we arrive.' After all, I thought, eager for a new experience, one trip will not come amiss.