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



I HAD now been in the United States of America something like five years, working here and there as the inclination seized me, which, I must confess, was not often. I was certainly getting some enjoyment out of life, but now and then the waste of time appalled me, for I still had a conviction that I was born to a different life. The knowledge that I had the advantage over the majority of strangers in that country, often consoled me when feeling depressed. For my old grandmother had left me one third profit of a small estate, my share at that time amounting to ten shillings per week, and during these five years I had not drawn one penny, therefore having over a hundred pounds entered to my account. So, when one would say how much he desired to return to his native land, but had no means of doing so, I would then explain how it could easily be done on the cattle boats. And if he protested, saying that he had not the courage to return penniless after so many years abroad, although I had no answer to console him, his objection was a pleasant reminder of my own expectations. It was this knowledge that made me so idle and so indifferent to saving; and it was this small income that has been, and is in a commercial sense, the ruin of my life.

It was now the end of October, and I was in Chicago squandering a summer's earnings, having during the previous months worked on a fruit farm in Illinois. I had been idling for three weeks, visiting the various theatres at night, and reading during the day. One Sunday, I had bought a weekly paper, wherein I read an appreciation of the poet Burns, with numerous quotations from his work. My thoughts wandered back to the past, the ambition of my early days, and the encouraging work of my elders.

'Ah!' I said, with a sigh, 'if during these five years I had had the daily companionship of good books, instead of all this restless wandering to and fro in a strange land, my mind, at the present hour, might be capable of some little achievement of its own.'

These thoughts haunted me all day, and that night a great joy came over me; for after my thoughts had tugged and pulled at my heart, all pointing in the one direction, which I saw was towards England, I settled with myself to follow them to that place. So, that night I resolved to leave Chicago early the following day, beat my way to Baltimore, work a cattle boat to either Liverpool or London, and from one of these places make my way back to where I belonged. With this object, I was up early the next morning, had breakfast, and in as happy a mood as when I first landed in America, left Chicago for the last time.

The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was an easy road to beat. I had taken with me a good lunch, with a small flask of whisky, so that I might attend to travelling for twenty or thirty hours without suffering thirst or hunger. At the end of thirty-six hours I got off a train, now being hungry and thirsty, at a small town, having by then traversed half the distance between Chicago and Baltimore. Without staying any length of time in Pittsburg, I caught a train for Connesville, and, arriving there in a few hours, had to dismount and wait the next train for Cumberland, in the state of Maryland. A train was now being made up, consisting of flat cars loaded with iron rails, and coal cars, also loaded. There was not much necessity on this road of concealing oneself, so I boldly mounted a coal car and there I sat, exposed to the elements, and to the curious gaze of people at various small towns through which we passed. What surprised me not a little was that I seemed to be the only man that was beating his way on this train, whereas, this being such an easy road, most trains had a number of tramps, some of them having two score or more. It did not take me long to notice that these people at the different stations and villages stared at me with something like awe, had pale faces, pointed at me in an unusual manner and whispered to each other. Now, between Connesville and Cumberland, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad crosses the Alleghenny mountains, and often the train, if heavy, can scarcely crawl up, after which it runs down at a terrific speed. We had just mounted a steep elevation, had reached the top, and the train men were making fast their brakes for the steep incline on the other side of the mountain, when my attention was drawn to a large number of people assembled in the valley below, some distance ahead. I then saw that the mountain side was covered with coal, and between forty and fifty trucks lay in a heap at the foot of the mountain. This train had apparently through some cause or another, jumped the rails, and the cars had rolled over and over from top to bottom. When I reached Cumberland, still being stared at, and pointed out at various stations and villages on the way, it was not long before an explanation was forthcoming. I, it seemed, had followed a train that had killed forty-four men-two brakesmen, the engineer, conductor and forty tramps who were beating their way. On coming down the mountain side, the brakes had refused to work, the fireman had jumped off in time to save his own life, and the others had all been precipitated with the train into the valley and killed. It had run with such a reckless speed that it could not possibly maintain its hold of the rails. And this accounted for the one traveller on this train, and how horror- stricken the people had seemed at my temerity, which, of course, was no more than ignorance of the mishap. After this ride I never again felt comfortable on a train, much preferring to take my chance on the water, however stormy it might be. It made me pause when this same night an unknown man was struck down by a fast express train, mangled and cut into pieces. Two or three trains left this town of Cumberland before I could summon sufficient courage to ride. I was standing, still wondering whether I should ride or walk from this town to Baltimore, when a switchman, who had just helped finish making ready a train, said- 'Halo, lad; which way are you going, to Baltimore?' On answering in the affirmative, he said, pointing to this train, 'Jump on: you will be there early in the morning!' Which I did, at the same time saying to myself, 'This is my last train ride in America, whether I live or die.' No sleep that night, and I was not sorry to reach Baltimore.

I had something like fifty dollars at this time, and intended go at once to the cattleman's office, and to ship at the first opportunity, so that I might still have a few pounds left when I landed in England. So, when I reached Baltimore, I soon made my way to that place, and on entering, recognised several of the old cattlemen, among whom was no less a person than Australian Red, who it seemed had lost all ambition for a more respectable life. I invited him out, with two others, and we had several drinks, and at night visited the theatre. 'Now,' I said, after leaving the theatre, well knowing that these men would unscrupulously bleed me to the last cent, and would take a cunning delight in robbing me and bearing all expenses themselves-'now,' I said, 'one drink more, and we have reached the end of my resources.'

Shipping, Red explained to me on the following day, was rather slow for experienced hands. He had been begging Baltimore for more than six weeks, and was still without prospect of making a trip. He explained that he could go at any time for a pound, and had had a chance or two to go for thirty shillings, but very few two-pound men had been called for during the last three months. 'Are you going out for breakfast?' he asked. 'If you have any more money left, don't be foolish enough to spend it on food, for I can get you more than you want of that, and the money can be used for pleasure.' 'You already know that I have no more money,' I said to him, feeling myself change colour with guilt, which he did not notice. 'Wait here till I return,' he said. 'If you don't feel inclined to beg, for a day or two, you need have no fear of starving.' He then left me, and, after he had gone, I followed, and feeling guilty and ashamed, turned into a restaurant for breakfast. Later on, when I returned to the office, Red was waiting for me with an abundance of food, for he had made extra exertion on this particular morning. 'Come,' he said, 'you must be hungry by this time.' Knowing that I had this part to keep up, I sat down, but after slowly eating a morsel or two, which had been difficult to swallow, I found it necessary to plead a full stomach. Red was persistent, and so dissatisfied at this that I could not help but feel grateful for such kindness, and, feeling more shame than ever at playing such a part, I arose, telling him I would wait for him outside the office. He soon followed, and, leading the way to another part of the city, I commenced with him a spree that ended in a week's debauchery. Both of us then being penniless, we returned to the cattleman's office, to find that a good chance had been lost in our absence, when the skipper had enquired for us.

'What,' cried Red, 'go home for good next trip, eh? Why, you are cursed, like myself, by restlessness, and, mark me, you will not remain six months in your native town.' 'Perhaps not,' I said, 'but I assure you, that neither this town, nor this country, shall again feel my tread!'

Some days after this I was sent with several others to rope -cattle at the yards, and there met a foreman under whom I had made a former trip. 'Hallo,' said he, 'I have not seen you for sometime; are you going with this lot of cattle?' 'I don't know,' was my answer, 'but I should certainly like to, if there is need of a two-pound man.' 'Well,' he said, 'I'll put in a good word for you at the office.' That night the shipping master approached me on the subject. 'Look here,' he said, 'I can only give you thirty shillings for this trip. If you like to wait, you can have two pounds, but I warn you, the chance may be a long time coming. What do you say?' 'I'll sign for thirty shillings,' I said, with difficulty trying to conceal my eagerness; which was at once done. I was alone on this trip, among strangers. Had Australian Red accompanied me, no doubt I should have spent my train-fare, and been forced to return to America on the same boat.

What an enjoyable trip this was from beginning to end! What music heard in the weighing of the anchor, and what a delightful sensation when the good ship moved slowly from her dock! I performed my duty with a new pleasure, leaping here and there at any sign of danger, giving one steer longer or shorter rope, as the case required, knowing what pleasant dreams would be mine at night, when the day's work was done. And when this pleasant time came, I would lie in my bunk and take an inventory of all the old familiar things which had been stored in my memory, unthought of for over five years, and nothing would now escape me. I had written home only three times during this long absence, three short letters in my first year abroad. Probably they had given me up for dead, and I would appear at their door as a visitant from another world. One thought often troubled me, and that was to be going home without money, after such a long stay in a flew country. For every man thinks that fortunes are more easily made in other lands than his own, and I knew that people would expect me to be in possession of ranches, flourishing towns and gold mines; and I felt much shame in having to admit that I had returned poorer than ever. Had it not been for the money saved during my absence, which had not been convenient for use, this thought had been likely to prevent my return for some years longer, perhaps for my whole life. On the tenth day we were passing Ireland, on which I gazed with deep feeling, taking her to my heart as a sister isle, knowing at the same time that her heart was her distressful own. When I reached Liverpool, and the cattle had gone ashore, I received my pay, and, slipping away from the other cattlemen, went alone up town, made a few purchases in the way of clothes, and arrived at the railway station with three shillings and a few coppers over my fare. With this insignificant amount, the result of five years in a rich country, and something like one hundred and twenty pounds standing to my account, I arrived that evening at my native town.

Here I wandered lost for several hours, making enquiries for my people, who, during my stay abroad, had moved from the place I knew. I had just made up my mind to seek a favourite aunt of mine, who, previous to my leaving England, had been a number of years in one house, and did not then seem likely to leave, when a strange woman in the street where I was making enquiries, recognised me by my likeness to mother, and at once directed me to her place. I knocked at the door and mother, who always was and is full of premonitions, and is very superstitious in the way of signs and dreams, opened the door at once, knew who I was in the dark, though we could not see much of each other's form or face, and, to my surprise, called me by name. 'That's me, mother,' I said. 'Yes,' she answered, 'I thought it was your knock, 'just as though I had only been out for an evening's stroll. She said in the course of the evening, that they had all given me up for dead, except herself, and that she had also, three years before, given up all hopes of seeing me again, having had a dream wherein she saw me beat about the head and lying bloody at the feet of strangers. She mentioned the year, and even the month of this year, and a little consideration on my part placed its date with that of the outrage at New Orleans, but I did not then trouble her with an account of this.

When I was very small an aunt took me to live with her for a couple or more months in a small town in Gloucestershire, a county in which mother had never been. But she had a dream in which she saw me leaving the house with my uncle's dinner, -and that I had to follow the canal bank to his works. She saw me returning that same way, and, beginning to play near the water, fall in head first, she, in her dream, just reaching the spot in time to save me. Early the following morning, after this dream, mother came by train to this village, walked the canal bank to my aunt's house, without enquiring its whereabouts, and demanded her son before he was drowned. There was certainly a possibility of this happening, for I was very small at that time, and the canal was deep. She had never before been in this place, but the locality seemed to be well-known to her as it was seen in her sleep.