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



SITTING at home, thinking of future employment, manual labour being now out of the question, it was then for the first time that 1 expressed gratitude for my old grandmother's legacy, which, on my home coming from the States had been reduced from ten shillings to eight shillings per week. In the past it had been sniffed at and scorned, being called several ill-natured names, such as "a week's tobacco," "a day's grub," or "an evening's booze without cigars." I had been very bitter, on the reading of her will, that the property had not come into my hands, to sell or retain, spend or save; but a little common sense now told me that if such had been the case I would, at the present time, have been without either property or income, and had been so less than twelve months after her death. The old lady, no doubt, had noted my wildness, and to save me the temptation to squander my brother's share, who was incapable of taking charge of his own affairs, and whose share I must have ill managed, after the passing of my own she had wisely left this property to remain in the hands of a trustee, which now turned out as lucky for myself as for my brother.

I was now more content with my lot, determined that as my body had failed, my brains should now have the chance they had longed for, when the spirit had been bullied into submission by the body's activity.

It was now the middle of Summer, and daily I sat dreaming, reading, and occasionally writing in a leafy bower in the garden. I could now dispense with crutches, having just received from London an artificial limb, and on this was practising, taking short walks at night, with a success that was gratifying. A far different Klondyke had opened up be- fore my eyes, which corresponded with the dreams of my youth. I pictured myself returning home, not with gold nuggets from the far West, but with literary fame, wrested from no less a place than the mighty London. This secret was never divulged to my people, and, in the after years, this reticence saved them from many a pang of disappointment, and freed me from many an awkward question. Determined to lose no time in the conquest of that city, which I expected would be surrendered to me some time within twelve months, I began, without wasting more time in dreams, to make preparations for this journey. Alas! how many greater men failed in a lifetime at this attempt, although they now stand triumphant in death, holding in their spiritual hands the freedom and keys of the whole world's cities!

With a cotton shirt, a pair of stockings and a hand- kerchief in a brown paper parcel, and the sum of two pounds in my pocket, after the expense of train fare, I started for London, filled to the brim with the aforesaid designs. My failure in the States, and again in Canada, had made me a little more chary with my confidence, but I was not in the least the less optimistic. My first dreams were, and are, my best. I scorn clothes and jewellery; I would rather take a free country walk, leaving the roads for the less trodden paths of the hills and the lanes, than ride in a yacht or a coach; I would rather see the moon in the ruins than the gaslight of an assembly room; gluttony I despise, and drink is seldom taken except at the invitation of other eyes: then what, in the name of everything we know, would be to me the silver and gold of all Alaska!

I arrived in London early the following morning, and at once made my way towards Lambeth. Early that night, being tired with the exertion of an unusually long day, I went seeking for lodgings in Blackfriars Road, and, seeing several signs that claimed to accommodate working men with good clean beds at sixpence per night, entered one of these establishments, paid the amount demanded, and was then ushered into a long kitchen, preferring to sit and smoke for an hour before retiring for the night. Some thirty or forty men were in this kitchen, but the British Workman had either not yet arrived, was out drinking his pint, or had gone early to bed. This was not by any means my first experience in England of lodging houses, for I had been forced to live in similar places on my visits in cattle ships from America; but I certainly did not like the look of this place, where no sign of authority was to be seen, and which seemed to be entirely left to the control of these noisy men. Some of these lodgers had been old soldiers, had just received their pensions - the accumulation of three months. A number of them were bringing in cans of beer, and the kitchen was in an uproar. Many of them were too drunk to perform this task, but were sufficiently sober to sit awake and give money and orders to others, and there was no lack of willing hands to bring them what they required. I left the kitchen at once, determined to seek another place, without troubling the landlady to refund my money. As I left the kitchen, two drunken men began to fight; others interfered, and this fight threatened to become an all round affair. When I had reached the top of the stairs, feeling my way in the dark, I found the landlady standing at the office door. Seeing me, as I was about to pass her, she said, in a voice which was the worse for drink - "So you want to go to bed? Here, Jim, show this gentleman to his bed." Jim obeyed, a small, pale-faced child, whom I mechanically followed up two flights of stairs, which were better lighted than those leading to the kitchen, which was in the basement of the house. He then showed me into a room where there were a number of beds, and, pointing to one, said - "You are number forty-five," when he left the room. Many of the beds already contained sleepers. I sat down on the edge of mine, wondering if there would be any disturbance in the night, whether any of these men would take a fancy to my clothes, or in the dark were likely to rummage their contents. The man in the next bed coughed, and then, turning towards me, said gently - "The beds are good, I admit, but that is about all you can say of this house." Second voice, not far away: "You've come to a good house, you have, and yer don't know it." First voice: "If I hadn't been drunk last night and got chucked out of Rowton's, I wouldn't, on any account, be here." A third voice, distant, but loud and angry: "Give over, will yer: when are you coves going to sleep*? I ain't done any labour for three weeks, and now as I've got a chance at four in the mornin', blow me if I ain't robbed of my slumber. Take care I don't set about yer at once, yer blooming lot of bleeders. If I come arter yer body, yer'll know it, and no mistake about it, either." No more was said after this. I at once made up my mind to try Rowton House on the following day. That they had refused this man a bed owing to his being drunk, and, more than likely, quarrelsome in drink, was a strong recommendation to me after my experience here, where it would be impossible to either read, write or think, or to even partake of my meals in comfort.

The following morning, after having had breakfast at an eating house, I enquired for Rowton House, and when the first person I addressed asked which one I wanted, I answered him - "the nearest one." This proved to be in Newington Butts and, after receiving instructions, I proceeded accordingly, and was soon standing outside that place, where I was to remain for two years, without in the least impressing London. To my surprise, I found this house to be a fine large block of red buildings, with an imposing front, and a fine entrance, polished and clean; and, facing its many front windows, was an old church tower and clock, set in an old leafy churchyard that had stones for the dead and a number of wooden seats for the living.

On making an application for a bed, I learnt that this could not be granted until nine o'clock in the evening, but was courteously allowed the privilege of remaining indoors until that time. This place surprised me by its accommodation of dining rooms, library, sitting rooms, baths, lavatories, etc., all being kept clean and in thorough good order by a large staff of men, its charge being sixpence per night.

On making my way into the library, and seeing two large cases of books, one containing fiction, and the other being enriched by the poets, historians, essayists, with biography and miscellaneous literature, and hearing how quiet this room was, in spite of the presence of over a hundred men, I at once made up my mind to pay a week's lodgings down, indifferent whether the sleeping accommodation was good or bad. This I did at nine o'clock, after which I sat sometimes reading the paper, and again watching the faces of this mixed assembly. Some of them were of refined appearance, with their silk hats, their frock coats, cuffs and collars, and spoke in voices subdued and gentle. Some of them were of such a prosperous appearance that no doubt I had already passed them in the street, thinking they were either merchants or managers of great concerns; and, more likely than not, the paper boys had followed on their heels, and the cabmen had persistently hailed them.

If I wanted to devote my time to study, living on eight shillings per week, this was apparently a suitable place for my purpose. Being my own barber, doing my own plain cooking, and living abstemiously, renouncing drink and the pleasures of theatres, and other indoor entertainments, and retaining tobacco as my sole luxury - I saw no reason why this could not be done, at the same time making up my mind that it had to be done.

I had been here little more than a week, when I set to work in earnest, and the result of two months' diHgence was a tragedy, written in blank verse, and which I called 'The Robber." Never dreaming but what it would at once meet with success, owing to its being full of action - a very difficult thing to marry to verse, but which I thought was successfully accomplished - I was somewhat taken aback to have it returned to me on the third day, with the manager's regret. Now it seemed that the Rowton House had a bad name, owing to the great number of criminals that were continually in the Police Courts giving that address. Some of these lodgers, for that very reason, had their correspondence addressed to various small shops, where they were customers for tobacco, papers, and groceries.

On having this tragedy returned, I, thinking of this, came to the conclusion that no respectable person would be likely to consider or respect any work, or application for the same, that emanated from a house of this name. I spoke to a gentleman with whom I had become acquainted, on this difficult subject, and he agreed with me, saying that such were the true facts of the case. "But," said he, after a thoughtful pause, "as your means are so limited, and the shopkeepers charge one penny for every letter they receive on a customer's behalf, would it not be as well to still have your correspondence addressed here, but in another way, of which you probably have not heard"? Give your address as number one Churchyard Row, and, although people will not recognise this house under that name, yet the post office authorities will know it for its proper address." This I did, without further question, and "The Robber" was despatched on a second journey. Fourteen days after my robber returned to number one Churchyard Row. Bothering my head to account for this, I came to the conclusion that my tragedy had not been read farther than the front page, and that a tragedy that was born and bred in such a place as Churchyard Row - the address being so appropriate to the nature of the work - was enough to make any man, who had the least sense of humour, condemn it with a laugh. My conceit, at this time, was foolish in the extreme, and yet I was near my thirtieth year.

The next work was a very long poem, in which the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and even the fishes of the sea, met in a forest glade to impeach man for his cruelty to them, and went on to describe their journey at midnight to the nearest town, and the vengeance they then took on the sleeping inhabitants. My confidence in this work being accepted could not have been altogether whole-hearted, for the following reason: I made two copies of this poem, and posted them simultaneously to different publishers. I felt quite satisfied that one of these would be accepted, but when a whole week had passed on, and I had received no communication from either publisher, I was then horrified to think that they both were giving the poem such a consideration that there was a probability that both of them would accept it, and that both publishers would call on me to make terms, perhaps at the very same hour. This thought so preyed on my mind that I did not feel at all easy until I had one of the copies returned; but it was a great disappointment to receive the second copy on the following day.

Thinking that short poems would stand a better prospect of being accepted, I set to work on a hundred sonnets, writing five, and sometimes six a day, but when this number had been accomplished and submitted, this work met with the same failure. After this I wrote another tragedy, a comedy, a volume of humorous essays, and hundreds, I believe, of short poems. I was always writing at this time, either beginning or finishing a work, but, strange to say, none of this work was being sent out, but was safely treasured, under the impression that it would some day find its market.

After having had twelve months' practice, in the last months of which no attempt had been made at publication, I decided to make one more effort, this time with a small volume of short poems. This was immediately sent to a well known publisher, who in a few days returned answer, offering to publish at the author's expense, the sum needed being twenty-five pounds. This success completely turned my head. With all my heart I believed that there would not be the least difficulty in pro- curing money for such a grand purpose, and at once wrote to several well known philanthropists, writing six letters. Two of them never murmured, and the other four set their secretaries to snap me up in a few words. Exasperated at this I wrote to several others, all my trouble being to no purpose.

Now, when I first entered this lodging house, I had something like thirty shillings to the good, being ahead of my income, and up to the present had no reason for spending this amount. Could I put this to some use? My mind had several plans, and one in particular seemed good and feasible. I would write three or four short poems on a page, get them printed, and sell them from door to door. Two thousand of these sheets, sold at threepence per copy, would be twenty-five pounds, and, no doubt, I could sell quite a hundred of these copies a day, providing I went from house to house, from street to street, from early morning till late at night. With this object I lost no time in seeing a job printer, and was told that thirty-five shillings would be needed to defray expenses. This large amount disappointed me not a little, but I paid a deposit and went back to the house, where I lived and nearly starved in saving four shillings that were short, which was done in two weeks out of the sixteen shillings that were to maintain me in food and lodgings for fourteen days. At last, after great privation and sacrifice, it was done, and I received from the printer two thousand and some odd copies. Early the next morning I was to be seen in the suburbs of London, with my hands and pockets full of these copies, going from door to door. I mentioned to the inhabitants that I had had an offer from a publisher, and that he could not undertake to publish my work under twenty-five pounds. All these people did was to stare, none of them seeming to understand, and no one seemed inclined to ask questions. I had, I believe, visited the doors of some thirty houses or more, and had not sold one copy. Most of these people were poor, and some had become sufficiently interested to enquire the price of my copies, seeming inclined and willing to trade with me in a small way, but none of them seemed to be anxious to give threepence for a sheet of paper which they did not understand. At last I chanced upon a house that was much larger than the others, at which place a servant answered the door. I lost no time in relating to her the true facts of the case, and she was standing there silent and puzzled as to my meaning, when her mistress called to her from the top of the stairs - "Mary, who's there?" On which the maiden gave answer in a halting voice - "Some man selling some paper." At this there was a pause, and then the same voice said, from the direction of the stairs - "Give him this penny, and tell him to go away," and, almost instantly, that copper coin fell at the bottom of the stairs, and came rolling rapidly towards us, as though aware of its mission. The girl handed me this penny, which I took mechanically, at the same time persisting in her taking a copy to her mistress. That lady, hearing our further conversation, and perhaps, guessing its import, cried again, this time in a warning voice - "Mary, mind you don't take anything from him." This crushed the last hope, for I began to think that if this lady, who might be a woman of some cultivation and rich, could only see and read what had been done, she might have at once, in her deep interest, merged the whole twenty-five pounds, at the same time befriending me for life. Alas I I have been unfortunate all my life in believing that there were a great number of rich people who were only too eager to come forward and help talent in distress.

I was so disgusted at receiving this single penny, and being so dismissed, that I at once put the sheets back in my pockets and returned to the city. How long would it take to get twenty-five pounds, at this rate"? What am I talking about! Money was lost, not even this single copper was a gain; for this penny-a-day experience had cost me three pennies in tram fare, without mention of a more expensive breakfast than I usually had.

When I got back to the house I started, with the fury of a madman, to burn the copies, and did not rest until they were all destroyed, taking care not to save one copy that would at any time in the future remind me of my folly.

It was at this time that I came under the influence of Flanagan. That gentleman, seeing me often writing and apparently in deep thought, at once gave me credit for more wisdom than I possessed. He was a very illiterate man, having no knowledge of grammar, punctuation or spelling. The upshot of this acquaintance was that he informed me in confidence that he was the lawful heir to nearly half the county of Mayo, in Ireland; on which estate was a house like the King's palace. In exchange for this confidence I told him that I was the author of a book of verse, which could not be published except the author defrayed expenses. On which Flanagan expressed much sympathy - more especially when I read him aloud a few lines expressing my disapproval of landowners and rich tyrants - and promised sincerely to relieve me of all difficulty providing, of course, that he made good his claims to the estate. Flanagan then proposed that I should put some of his arguments in grammatical form, which he would immediately forward to the proper authorities. This I began to do at once, and some of Flanagan's arguments were so strong that I am surprised at the present day at being a free man. I told one eminent statesman that he should retire and give place to a more honest man, and another that though he was born in Ireland and bore the name of an Irishman, yet he was a traitor, for his heart had ever been in England. Despite these powerful letters, the County Mayo never to my knowledge changed hands, and I was disappointed in my expectations, and Flanagan grieved daily. At that time, I must confess, I thoroughly believed Flanagan, perhaps through being blinded by my own ambitions as an author. Even at the present time, though I have cut down the estate considerably, from half a county to half an acre, and have taken out quite a number of windows from the estate's residence - after doing this, I still believe that poor Flanagan was robbed of a cottage and garden by an avaricious landlord.

This was at the time of the Boer War and Flanagan's long dark beard and slouched hat gave him the exact appearance of one of those despised people. Therefore we seldom took a walk together but what we were stoned by boys in the street, and even grown up people passed insulting remarks. In fact everywhere we went we were regarded with suspicion. Our clothes not being of the best, drew the attention of attendants at museums and art galleries, and we, being swarthy and alien in appearance, never paused near a palace but what sentry and police watched our every movement. One morning we were passing through Whitehall, what time a regiment of soldiers were being drilled and inspected by a gentleman in a silk hat. Now Flanagan was a man of great courage and never thought it necessary to whisper. Therefore a vein of savage satire broke in Flanagan's heart when he beheld a man in a silk hat inspecting a troop of soldiers. "See I" he cried, "there's a sight for the Boers." A number of bystanders resented this remark, and there were loud murmurs of disapproval. On which Flanagan asked the following question: "Will the best man in the crowd step forward?" But no man seemed inclined to attempt Flanagan's chastisement, without being assisted. Although I did not entirely approve of him on this occasion, still, seeing that the words could not be recalled, I was quite prepared to be carried with him half dead on a stretcher to the nearest hospital; for I liked the man, and he certainly seemed to like me, since he always took his walks alone when I did not accompany him.