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



WHO would have dreamt that so many well-known beggars would have met together at one camp, without any pre-arranged plans? The time was morning and the scene was on the outskirts of Pittsburg, and the characters were Philadelphia Slim and Wee Shorty, who had all night ridden the freight car and had now dismounted near the camp, which they knew of old. They both had cold victuals in plenty, with dry coffee and sugar, and they were not long in making a blaze and fetching water from the spring before they were seated comfortably to their breakfast, after which they intended to sleep, for they were more weary than working men.

They were not without money; for Wee Shorty and Slim had, the day previous, been encamped with others about a hundred miles from the present spot, at which place there had come to the camp an unfortunate blacksmith who possessed society papers but lacked courage to beg with them. On which Wee Shorty had conceived a most daring plan, which was to borrow the aforesaid papers, with the blacksmith's consent, and to make his way to the nearest blacksmith's shop. With this idea in his mind the Wee Man had bound his hand in white linen, so that he could plead disablement in case the blacksmith doubted him to be the legitimate owner of the papers, and to prove his veracity, would test him with a little job. After binding his hand in this way, Wee Shorty, who was no more than five feet in height, and who had small white hands and a pale face, and whose weight never exceeded seven stone and a half, and who looked more like a sickly tailor than a blacksmith-after taking this precaution, Wee Shorty made his way to the blacksmith's shop. In less than twenty minutes he had returned with a dollar in small change, and had returned the poor blacksmith his papers, and generously given him one fourth of his makings. Yes, it would indeed be a hard town if this wee fellow failed to make money.

As I have already said, Slim and the artful one were tired after their night's ride, and they were well pleased to find the camp unoccupied by strangers. But they had scarcely made their coffee and swallowed the first mouthful, when the dried twigs were heard to crack beneath a heavy tread and, the next moment, there walked into the camp the Indian Kid, whom the present proprietors had not seen for over twelve months.

What a meeting was there, and what confidences were exchanged. There was good reason for the Kid not having been seen, for he had been incarcerated in a jail. He had committed his first and last burglary, which had not been done with an eye to profit, but out of a mean spirit of revenge. He had been refused charity at a house and, on leaving the place, had spied a small outhouse in which he saw many things easy to carry, and easily to be converted into money. Bearing this in mind he had returned after dark, scaled the back wall, and was soon in possession of a large bundle consisting of shirts, frocks, shoes and various carpenter's tools. All this had been done through a spirit of revenge, for the Kid swore that he could have begged the worth of the bundle in half an hour. Being in possession of that bundle at that strange hour of the night, he was afraid to carry it into the town for fear that the police would enquire his business, so he hid it in the bushes, which in the night looked so dark and thick; after which he had artfully walked some distance away, and laid himself down to sleep until morning. It must have been daylight for several hours when the Kid rose hastily and went in quest of his bundle. But the bundle had disappeared, and the Kid had been cruelly robbed, by early workmen he at first thought, who had spied the bundle in the bushes, which appeared so much less heavy by day than by night. However it was not the early workman who had done this, but a plain clothes policeman who still hid behind the bushes and, seeing the Kid searching for his bundle, sprang from concealment, saying-'You are looking for a bundle, and I am looking for you.' Such was the Kid's story, recited at great pains, for he often rambled in his discourse to laud himself as a successful beggar who would, on no account, commit burglary for profit; all of which accounted for his twelve months' disappearance.

His story was scarcely at an end when who should walk into the camp but Windy, the talkative Windy, whose tongue had entertained many a camp with strange and unique experiences. Of course, at his heels was Pennsylvania Dutch, a faithful friend enough but a poor beggar, who was no more than a pensioner on Windy's bounty, and acted the part of a manservant.

But there was another surprise to follow; for English Harry, who had been in Pittsburg for sometime past, having now walked out of the city to take a glance at the camp, walked into it at this very time, and to his astonishment and joy found the place in possession of good beggars instead of common work seekers, as he had at first feared.

Only imagine all these notorious men meeting together hap- hazard in this manner. They could scarcely recover their astonishment. There was nothing else to be done but to make a muster of what money was in the camp, and to send Pennsylvania Dutch for its worth in whisky, so as to celebrate such an event by a carousal. This was at once done, and Windy's pensioner shook off his laziness from head to foot, which made Wee Shorty sarcastically remark-'Dutchy would rather buy than beg.' To which Windy, in a voice of despair, answered-'He will never make a beggar and, if I did not keep a sharp eye on him, or anything occurred to part us, he would live in orchards and turnip fields until he saw a chance to become a working man. He confessed, when I first met him, that he had lived for ten days on green corn and apples, so I took him in hand and kept him, thinking my example would rouse him to action, but it was of no use, for the poor fellow has not the heart. However, I never forget poor Dutchy when I am foraging,' said Windy, rather tenderly.

It was not long before the object of these remarks returned and placed before his companions two bottles of whisky. 'Now, boys,' said Windy, after he had become affected by several lots of spirits-'Now, boys, I propose that we hold this camp down for a whole week, and we will all rag up'-meaning that they would beg clothes and put on the appearance of gentlemen. His proposal was unanimously seconded, and was quickly followed by a suggestion from the Indian Kid that they should finish the whisky, which also met with no objection. 'We will hold the camp,' cried Windy, 'against all corners.' They would certainly find no necessity for defending their privacy, for one glance at these six men, especially in their present condition, would have been sufficient to deter any decent-minded person from entering. This camp was now far more private than Mrs. Brown's house in town, who had a neighbour that never entered other people's doors without first knocking; but which neighbour never gave Mrs. Brown, or anyone else, the chance to remove sundry things that were better concealed, nor waited to hear the cry 'come in'; for she entered as she knocked, saying-'Don't be alarmed, Mrs. Brown, it is only Mrs. White.'

Alas, the whisky soon gave out, and there was no more money, and what was to be done? 'I propose,' said English Harry, 'that we leave Pennsylvania Dutch in charge of the camp while we go out foraging for an hour.' To this they all agreed, and made their way towards the town. On reaching the suburbs they divided and went in different directions, with the understanding that each man should be returned to the camp in less than two hours, and that each one should have no less than half a dollar.

How it was done was a mystery, but Wee Shorty was back in less than an hour, not only with half a dollar but with twenty cents' worth of whisky in a bottle. He was soon followed by Windy, who had begged fifty-five cents. After which came in English Harry and the Indian Kid together, each with half a dollar. But where was Philadelphia Slim, Wee Shorty's boon companion? For these were good beggars all, who could have almost persuaded the birds to feed them in the wilderness, and Slim was by no means the worst, even though the Wee Man was by a small degree the best. Until they knew the fate of poor Slim they felt very little inclination to continue their carousal.

It might have been three quarters of an hour after the return of English Harry and the Kid, when they heard a step coming through the bush and, turning their eyes that way, were soon confronted by their late companion Slim. He had a large bundle under his arm, but to the surprise and anxiety of his companions, was holding to his nose a blood-stained pocket handkerchief. 'Who has done that, Slim?' cried Wee Shorty, who had surreptitiously fortified himself with whisky, and who, being the smallest man, was naturally the most ferocious-'Who has done that?' he cried, springing to his feet and, with his hands dangerously clenched, standing to his full height. Slim did not answer this question at once, but threw down his bundle; after which he produced a dollar bill and placed it thereon. Pointing then to the twain with his right hand-his left hand still being occupied with his bleeding nose-he said, 'Here is a suit of clothes and a dollar bill, and I have well earned them.' Such words were mysterious to his associates, for they knew that Slim would never at any price perform labour, and they came to the conclusion in their own minds that he had forcibly taken these things in a very high handed fashion, and had suffered in the act. What a disgrace to the profession!

After enquiring if there was any whisky to be had, and being supplied with the same by his particular friend Wee Shorty, Slim proposed that Pennsylvania Dutch should be again despatched with all speed for a fresh supply. Seeing this done he then seated himself and proceeded to give his experience.

It seems that Slim had had more difficulty than was expected. A full half hour had elapsed, and Slim had not received one cent, although he had told his pitiful story to a number of people. He almost began to despair of success, but firmly resolved not to return without something to show for his trouble. Seeing a very large house he went to the front door and rang the bell, but the door remained unanswered. Not to be baffled by this, and beginning to feel desperate, he made his way to the back of the house, and was just about to knock at the back door when a voice hailed him from an adjoining shed. Turning his eyes in that direction he saw a man in his white shirt sleeves, who seemed to be the master of the house. Now, as Slim looked across, he saw into the shed, and behold there was a punching bail hanging from the ceiling, which was still moving as though this gentleman had only that moment finished practising. On Slim explaining his wants, which had been increasing in number through his ill-success, the gentleman quietly went to a shelf and taking there from a pair of boxing gloves told Slim that if he would oblige him with ten minutes' practice with the same, he would reward him with a dollar. Now it happened that these things were not entirely unknown to Slim, and once or twice in his life he had actually had them in his hands-but not on-and he had come to the conclusion that they could do but very little hurt. Therefore he donned the gloves, being as eager to earn an easy dollar as the master of the house was eager to practise. Alas! it was this difference in their motives which gave the gentleman an overwhelming victory and poor Slim a bloody nose and such aching bones. 'For,' said Slim to us, 'suppose I had knocked him out, who was to pay me my dollar? He attacked me like a mad bull, and all I dare do was to act on the defence. Several times he left an opening which, had I taken advantage of, would have ended in his collapse; and if he had died, there had been no witness to hear what bargain had been made between us. Being at such a disadvantage as I was,' Slim continued, 'he would, no doubt, have made matters worse if my nose had not bled, which I began to wipe with the gloves. Seeing this he was afraid my blood would be conveyed by means of the gloves to his own person, so he asked me if I had had enough. I thanked him that I had and, as we made our way towards the house, told him I would be thankful for any old clothes to replace my own, which were now stained with blood. He seemed to be so pleased at having drawn my blood that I believe he would have given me anything I asked for. Here are the clothes, but I don't know what they are like.'

Such was Slim's experience. On an inspection of the bundle it was found to contain a clean shirt, a pair of socks, two handkerchiefs, and an almost brand new suit of clothes.

Just as Philadelphia Slim ended his story, Pennsylvania Dutch returned with the whisky, and we all caroused until sleep overpowered us.