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



ON arriving at Liverpool, I made the acquaintance of a man who had been in America some years previously, and not having his hopes realised at that time, had returned desperate to England, taken in a fresh cargo of hopes, and was now making a second attempt with as much enthusiasm, if not more, than others in making their first. In him I placed implicit confidence, and received such an extraordinary description of that country, the number of stories of some of its highest buildings which were called skyscrapers; the houses of wood which could be moved from one street to another without in any way interfering with the comfort of the people within, cooking, sweeping and washing going on without hindrance; the loneliness of its prairies and deserts; engineering triumphs over high mountains; and how the glorious South was flushed with roses what time the North could not save a blade of green from the snow; all this happening under the one wide spreading flag: this made such an impression on me that I at once went to the steerage cabin and wrote a full description of the country, that very first evening aboard; telling of my arrival in America, and the difference between the old and the new world. This letter was given to the steward at Queenstown, and was written to save me the trouble of writing on my arrival, so that I might have more time to enjoy myself. Several years elapsed before it occurred to me how foolish and thoughtless I had been. The postmark itself would prove that I had not landed in America, and they would also receive the letter several days before it would be due from those distant shores. I can certainly not boast a large amount of common sense.

It was in the month of June, when we made this voyage, and the great Atlantic was as smooth as an inland river. Every one sought to escape the thoughts of home, and to do so, we often worked ourselves into a frenzy of singing and dancing. Sometimes our attention would be drawn to an iceberg on the port side, very innocent and beautiful to the eyes of passengers, but feared by mariners, who saw into its depths. And then a ship full sail; or another great Atlantic liner on the starboard bow. There was a total lack of ceremony aboard, strangers familiar with strangers, and the sexes doing each other little kindnesses, who had never met before and probably would never meet again, parting without even enquiring or giving each other a name. As we neared the coast we had a thunderstorm, and I was surprised and somewhat awed at the sound of its peals, and at the slower and larger flashes of lightning. Nature, it seemed, used a freer and more powerful hand in this country of great things than is her wont among our pretty little dales, and our small green hills. I thought the world was coming to an end, and in no way felt reassured when an American, noting my expression, said that it was nothing to what I would see and hear if I remained long in God's own country of free and law abiding citizens.

My impression of Americans from the beginning is of the best, and I have never since had cause to alter my mind. They are a kind, sympathetic race of people and naturally proud of their country. The Irish-American is inclined to be the most bitter, remembering from his youth the complaints of his parents, who were driven through unjust laws from their own beloved land; and such a man is not to be idly aggravated, for life is a serious subject to him. This man is not to be aggravated, especially under the consideration that our conscience is not too clean in this respect, and that we are apt to be very slow in making that open confession which is good for the soul. The most pleasing trait in Americans, which cannot for long escape us, is their respect for women and the way in which the latter do their utmost to deserve it. No sight of a woman behind the saloon bar listening to the ribald jests of drunken men, and no woman at the bar's front drinking glass for glass with her associates. However weak in this respect a woman may be in private, she is certainly too strong to make a public exhibition of her weakness. Husband and wife may be unhappy, but you seldom hear of a woman carrying the marks of a man's brutality as witnesses against him which is so common in the police courts of old England. A man in a fit of ungovernable passion may kill his wife; and better so, I should say, than to leave her half killed at the foot of the stairs every Saturday night and holidays for twenty or thirty years, and blacken her eyes before they can recover their natural colour, the brutality that shamed me so much in after years in the slums of London, hearing it so often recorded as a jest.

I was so anxious to see the different states of America that I did not stay long in New York before I succumbed to the persuasion of my Liverpool acquaintance to visit with him some friends in a small town in the state of Connecticut, at which place we soon arrived, with something like ten dollars between us. America, at this time, was suffering from a depression in trade, and people were daily returning to the old country, most of them with the intention of returning again to America at a more favourable time. Not being able to get employment at once, and resolved to be independent of the bounty of strangers, I walked out alone, and sat on a seat in the park, trying to conceive some plans for the future. My box, full of clothes, books, brushes, etc., would amply compensate, I thought, for the week's lodging which I had had. Yes, I would see Chicago: and, suddenly becoming aware of a man occupying the other end of the seat, I enquired of him the way to Chicago, as though the distance was a paltry ten miles, instead of a hundred times greater. This man looked at me in astonishment, and at last asked me if I intended to beat my way. Seeing my lack of understanding, he enquired as to my financial resources. On shaking my head in the negative, implying that I had no money, he said. "No more have I: and if you are agreeable, we will both beat our way to Chicago."

This was Brum, a notorious beggar, who made himself at home in all parts of the country, from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast, and from the northern provinces of Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The easy and sumptuous way of his catering made me indifferent to all manual labour. In that country, where food was to be had for the asking, where it often went begging to be received, and people were not likely to suffer for their generosity, I became, under Brum's tutorage, a lazy wretch with but little inclination for work. Cockneys make good beggars. They are held in high esteem by the fraternity in America. Their resources, originality and invention, and a never faltering tongue, enable them to often attain their ends where others fail, and they succeed where the natives starve. But my friend Brum held them in great scorn, for their methods were not his methods. Brum was a genuine beggar, who did not make flashes in the dark, having one day plenty and nothing on the next day. What he required he proceeded to beg, every morning making an inventory of his wants. Rather than wash a good handkerchief he would beg an old one that was clean, and he would without compunction discard a good shirt altogether rather than sew a button on - thus keeping up the dignity of his profession to the extreme. He scorned to carry soap, but went to a house like a Christian, and asked to be allowed to wash, with a request for warm water if the morning was cold. Begging was to him a fine art, indeed, and a delight of which he never seemed to tire. I have known him, when surfeited with an abundance of common food, such as steak, chops, etc. - to beg lozenges and sweets, complaining I suppose, of throat troubles. Even in a new country like America, there are quite a number of hostile towns, owing to their lying on the main roads between large cities that are not far apart; but Brum never seemed to fail, and would certainly never lower his dignity by complaining of difficulty. In every street, he said, there lived a good Samari- tan, and seeing that a good beggar knocks at every door, he must ultimately succeed. She may live in the last house, and therefore the unsuccessful beggar, having no patience and perseverance, fails in his calling. Brum was a slow man in action and went about his business in a dogged way. And that reminds me of how this slowness of action once saved his life. We had built a camp fire in the woods, within a mile or more of a small town. Now, it was Brum's habit, before lying down for the night, to wind his handkerchief around his neck, and this he had done. Next morning I was the first to rise, and Brum, deliberately following my example, began in his own easy way to slowly unwind this handkerchief, when to my horror a large tarantula fell from its folds. Now, had Brum been an impulsive man, no doubt the spider would have been squeezed, and would have then fastened on his neck and poisoned his blood mortally. I was soon initiated into the mysteries of beating my way by train, which is so necessary in parts of that country, seeing the great distances between towns. Somethimes we were fortunate enough to get an empty car; sometimes we had to ride the bumpers; and often, when travelling through a hostile country, we rode on the roof of a car, so as not to give the brakesman an opportunity of striking us off the bumpers unawares. It is nothing unusual in some parts to find a man, always a stranger, lying dead on the track, often cut in many pieces. At the inquest they invariably bring in a verdict of accidental death, but we know different. Therefore we rode the car's top, so as to be at no disadvantage in a struggle. The brakesman, knowing well that our fall would be his own, would not be too eager to commence hostilities. Sometimes we were desperate enough to ride the narrow iron rods, which were under the car, and only a few feet from the track. This required some nerve, for it was not only uncomfortable, but the train, being so near the line, seemed to be running at a reckless and uncontrollable speed, whereas, when riding on the car's top, a much faster train seems to be running much slower and far more smooth and safe. Sometimes we were forced to jump off a moving train at the point of a revolver. At other times the brakesmen were friendly, and even offered assistance in the way of food, drink or tobacco. Again, when no firearm was in evidence, we had to threaten the brakesman with death if he interfered with us. In this way Brum and myself travelled the States of America, sleeping at night by camp fires, and taking temporary possession of empty houses. One night, when darkness had overtaken us, be- fore we could find a fit and comfortable place for camping, we spied a house, and seeing no light in the window, presumed it to be unoccupied. We knocked at the door, and the hollow sound which followed convinced us that no living person was then on the premises. When we lifted the latch and entered we were surprised to see chairs, a table and various articles of domestic utility scattered in confusion on the floor. In spite of this we proceeded to make ourselves easy for the night, and coming out again began to feel in the darkness for wood. Being successful in our search we returned and made a fire, and there we slept until morning. As usual, I was the first to rise on the following day, and went forth in quest of water to make our break fast coffee. This I soon found, and was bearing it along, when my attention was drawn to a board nailed to the front of the house. There I saw the letters "Haunted," painted large, and ragged, as though by a hand that had shaken with fear. If we had seen this board on the night previous, no doubt we would have hurried on in dread of our lives, but as it was, we made our coffee and laughed heartily in the daylight. At this time I took a notion to work for a few days, but Brum showed his grinning face so often that I grew ashamed of him, and discharged myself. He seemed to have taken a strange liking to me, and would not leave me, but swore that not even for my sake would he become a working man.