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



WE were determined to be in the fashion, and to visit the various delightful watering places on Long Island Sound. Of course it would be necessary to combine business with pleasure, and pursue our calling as beggars. With the exception of begging our food, which would not be difficult, seeing that the boarding houses were full, and that large quantities of good stuff were being made, there was no reason why we should not get as much enjoyment out of life as the summer visitors. We would share with them the same sun and breeze; we could dip in the surf at our own pleasure, and during the heat of the day we could stretch our limbs in the green shade, or in the shadow of some large rock that overlooked the Sound. However, we could no longer stand the sultry heat of New York, where we had been for several days, during which time we had been groaning and gasping for air. So I and Brum started out of the City, on the way towards Hartford, Connecticut, with the intention of walking no more than six miles a day along the seacoast. What a glorious time we had; the people catered for us as though we were the only tramps in the whole world, and as if they considered it providential that we should call at their houses for assistance. The usual order of things changed considerably. Cake-which we had hitherto considered as a luxury-became at this time our common food, and we were at last compelled to install plain bread and butter as the luxury, preferring it before the finest sponge cake flavoured with spices and eggs. Fresh water springs were numerous, gushing joyously out of the rocks, or lying quiet in shady nooks; and there was many a tramp's camp, with tin cans ready to hand, where we could make our coffee and consume the contents of paper bags. This part of the country was also exceptionally good for clothes. Summer boarders often left clothes behind, and of what use were they to the landladies, for no rag-and-bone man ever called at their houses. The truth of the matter was that in less than a week I was well dressed from head to foot, all of these things being voluntary offerings, when in quest of eatables. Brum, of course, had fared likewise, but still retained the same pair of dungarees, which he swore he would not discard except at the instance of a brand new pair of tweeds. It was this pair of working man's trousers which had caused a most regrettable mistake. We had just finished begging at one of these small watering-places and, loaded with booty, were on our way in the direction of the camp which, Brum informed me, was half a mile north of the town. When we reached this camp we found it occupied by one man, who had just then made his coffee and was about to eat. On which Brum asked this man's permission to use his fire, which would save us the trouble of making one of our own. The stranger gave a reluctant consent, and at the same time moved some distance away, as though he did not wish further intimacy. While we were gathering wood and filling our cans at the spring, I could not help but see this stranger glaring hatefully at my companion's trousers, and expected every moment to hear some insulting remark. At last we were ready and Brum proceeded to unload himself. He had eight or nine parcels of food distributed about his clothes, but in such a way that no one could be the wiser. It was then that I noted a change come over the stranger's face, who seeing the parcels, seemed to be smitten with remorse. In another moment he was on his feet and coming towards us, said impulsively-'Excuse me, boys, for not giving you a more hearty welcome, but really'- glancing again at my companion's trousers-'I thought you were working men, but I now see that you are true beggars.' Brum laughed at this, and mentioned that others had also been deceived. He explained that the said trousers had been given him against his wish, but on seeing that they were good, and were likely to outlast several pairs of cloth, he had resolved to stick to them for another month or two. 'I regret having had such an opinion of you,' said the stranger, in a choking voice, 'and trust, boys, that you will forgive me.' Thus ended in a friendly spirit what promised at first to become very unpleasant.

One of Brum's peculiarities was, on approaching a town, to look out for a church steeple with a cross, which denoted a Catholic church, and therefore a Catholic community. Making his way in the direction of that cross he would begin operations in its surrounding streets, 'and,' said he, 'if I fail in that portion of the town, I shall certainly not succeed elsewhere.'

I shall never forget the happy summer months I spent with Brum at the seaside. Some of the rich merchants there could not spare more than a month or six weeks from business, but, thanks be to Providence, the whole summer was at our disposal. If we grew tired of one town or, as more often the case, the town grew tired of us, we would saunter leisurely to the next one and again pitch our camp; so on, from place to place, during the summer months. We moved freely among the visitors, who apparently held us in great respect, for they did not address us familiarly, but contented themselves with staring at a distance. We lay across their runs on the sands and their paths in the woods; we monopolised their nooks in the rocks and took possession of caves, and not a murmur heard, except from the sea, which of a certainty could not be laid to our account. No doubt detectives were in these places, but they were on the look out for pickpockets, burglars and swindlers; and, seeing that neither the visitors nor the boarding house keepers made any complaint, these detectives did not think it worth while to arrest tramps; for there was no promotion to be had by doing so. 'Ah,' I said to Brum, as we sat in a shady place, eating a large custard pudding from a boarding house, using for the purpose two self-made spoons of wood-'Ah, we would not be so pleasantly occupied as tramps in England. We would there receive tickets for soup; soup that could be taken without spoons; no pleasant picking of the teeth after eating; no sign of a pea, onion or carrot; no sign of anything except flies.' Two-thirds of a large custard pudding between two of us, and if there was one fault to be found with it, it was its being made with too many eggs. Even Brum was surprised at his success on this occasion. 'Although,' as he said, 'she being a fat lady, I expected something unusual.' Brum had a great admiration for fat women; not so much, I believe, as his particular type of beauty, but for the good natured qualities he claimed corpulence denoted. 'How can you expect those skinny creatures to sympathise with another when they half starve their own bodies?' he asked. He often descanted on the excellencies of the fat, to the detriment of the thin, and I never yet heard another beggar disagree with him.

After seeing Brum wash the dish, and wipe it with his pocket-handkerchief, with a care that almost amounted to reverence, and trusting in my own mind that the good lady would have the thought and precaution to wash it again-I settled to a short nap, till Brum's return. For there was no knowing how long he might be away; he might take a notion to beg a shirt, a pair of trousers or shoes, or anything else that came to his mind.

Now, when Brum left, he had on a dark shirt, but I was so accustomed to seeing him change his appearance with a fresh coat, or a different shaped hat, that I was not at all surprised on waking to see him sitting before me in a clean white shirt with a starched front. I said nothing about this change, and he was too good a beggar to give unsolicited information, which would look too much like boasting of his own exploits. That he had met another of his favourite fat ladies, or perhaps the same one had added to her kindness-there was not the least doubt.

Brum's first words rather startled me, for he continued the conversation from the place I left off previous to my sleep. 'When I was in England,' he began, 'I did not experience such hardship as is commonly supposed to exist. Beggars there, as here, choose the wrong places, and not one in three knows which are the best.' 'Surely,' I said, 'a good clean street of houses with respectable fronts, of moderate size, and kept by the better class mechanics, are the best?' 'And so they would be,' he answered, 'if every beggar did not think so. But let me tell you, for your benefit if ever stranded in England, the best places for beggars to operate.' How I learned the truth of his wise teaching, in after days! Every fine looking street you chance upon, pass it; but every little court or blind alley you come across, take possession without delay, especially if its entrance is under an arch, which hides the approach to the houses, making them invisible from the street. Such little out of the way places are not only more profitable than good streets, but are comparatively safe where the police are unusually severe. Then again you should avoid every town that has not either a mill, a factory, or a brewery; old fashioned towns, quiet and without working people-except a few gardeners, coachmen, domestic servants etc.; such places where you see a sign at the free libraries warning tramps not to enter, and every plot of land has its sign-'Beware of the Dog.' In towns where working men are numerous, and the idle rich are few, such signs are not to be seen. 'Of course,' he continued, 'your object in England must be money, for you cannot expect to get meat, cake and custard pudding in a land where even the rich live poorer, with regards to diet, than the labouring classes of this country.' I remembered these wise thoughts of Brum, uttered on the shores of the Atlantic, and if I did not profit much by them in my own experience in England, I certainly made enough attempts to test their truth. I always kept a keen eye for blind alleys, and quiet courts under arches, and I invariably came out of one richer than I went in. And what nice quiet places they are for drinking cups of tea on a doorstep, with only a neighbour or two to see you, and perhaps thousands of people passing to and fro in the street at the other side of the arch. There is no thoroughfare for horses and carts; no short cut for business men, and the truth of the matter is that a number of the inhabitants themselves, born and bred in the town, know not of the existence of such places; and others, knowing them, would be ashamed to confess their acquaintance with them. But Brum knew where to find the kindest hearts in England, not in the fine streets and new villas, but in the poor little white-washed houses in courts and alleys.