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



OF course at this homecoming I vowed that I would never again leave my native town. True, I found great difficulty in sleeping on a soft bed, and lay awake several hours through the night, tossing and turning from one side to another. The food itself did not seem so palatable coming out of clean pots and shining ovens, as that which was cooked in close contact with the embers, and in the smoke and blaze of a camp fire. The unplucked chicken, covered with a thick crust of mud and baked under a pile of hot ashes, after which the hard crust could be broken to show the chicken inside as clean as a new born babe, with al its feathers and down stuck hard in the mud-this meat to me was far more tasty than that one at home, that was plucked and gutted with care, and roasted or baked to a supposed nicety. This food of civilisation certainly seemed to suffer from a lack of good wholesome dirt, and I should like to have had my own wood fire at the end of the backyard, were it not for shame.

For several weeks I walked the streets, renewing old acquaintance, accosted here and there by my old school-mates. Most of them were married, but married or single, they all seemed to be poor and unsuccessful. I began to drink immoderately at this time, meeting one and the other, and very soon began to realise that my hundred and twenty pounds were going at the rate of a sovereign a day. Scarcely had I been home one month; when, to escape from so much drink, I made a trip to Bordeaux, on one of the local steamers. But it was of no use: for I saw the time coming when I would again be without prospects. I had not worked at my trade since leaving Bristol, six years before, and had no intention of doing so again. The fever of restlessness that had governed me in the past, broke out afresh, and after two months of this idle life, I suddenly made a pretence of being filled with a desire for business, saying it was my intention to open a bookshop in London, and as soon as possible, which I have often had thoughts of doing. With this end in view, I drew the remainder of my money, which in two months had dwindled by a half, divided a few pounds among the family, and took train for London. 'Yes,' I repeated to myself, several times on this journey. 'I will open a bookshop and settle down to a quiet life of study, for which there will be ample time during the intervals of business.' In London I saw a number of vacant shops that would have answered the purpose, but unfortunately, I had not the least notion of how or where to obtain books, the greater part of which were to be second-hand. If, when on this quest, I could have bought a bookshop ready fitted and filled, no doubt I would have closed with the offer at once, and settled quietly down. Not seeing any way out of this difficulty, I continued my rambles through the city, day after day, invariably visiting the theatre at night. This happened for over a week, and the money was still going out and none coming in, and poverty never appeared worse to me than at that time.

One afternoon, when passing through Trafalgar Square, I bought an early edition of an evening paper, and the first paragraph that met my eye had this very attractive heading-'A Land of Gold.' It was a description of the Klondyke, and a glowing account of the many good fortunes that daily fell to the lot of hardy adventurers. It would cost me sixty pounds, or more, to travel to that remote part of the world, and forty-four pounds were all I now possessed. This thought did not for long discourage me from making the attempt. I knew that I could beat my way across the Canadian continent, without using a cent for travelling, and I could save these few pounds for food, and cases in which payment would be absolutely necessary, when forced to travel on foot, at the other end of Canada.

That night I exchanged thirty pounds for their equivalent in paper dollars, placing the latter in a belt which I wore next to my skin, determined that this money should not see the light until my journey was nearly done.

It was now the month of March, and the navigation of the St. Lawrence had not yet opened, so that I would be compelled to beat my way from Halifax, or St. John's, to Montreal, which would not be necessary later in the Spring, when the latter port would be the destination of all emigrant ships. I was very happy at this time, with these prospects in view, which were really too bright to decoy any man who had an average amount of common-sense. My conception of that wonderful land, for all my travels, was childish in the extreme. I thought the rocks were of solid gold, which so dazzled the sun that he could not concentrate his glance on any particular part, and that his eye went swimming al day in a haze. I pictured men in possession of caves sitting helpless in the midst of accumulated nuggets, puzzled as to how to convey all this wealth to the marts of civilisation. What I wanted with all these riches I cannot say, for it was never a desire of mine to possess jewellery, fine raiment, yachts, castles or horses: all I desired was a small house of my own, and leisure for study. In fact I made up my mind not to waste time in hoarding more wealth than would be necessary to these small comforts, but to return home satisfied with a sum not exceeding two thousand pounds, the interest from which would, I thought, be ample for any student who remained true to his aims, and was sincere in his love for literature.

In this month of March, the first day in the second week, I left Euston Station at midnight, and arrived cold and shaking in Liverpool, early the next morning. On making enquiries, I learnt that a ship was leaving for St. John's on the following Wednesday, from which place emigrants must needs go by train to Quebec or Montreal, owing to the ice-bound condition of the river. I decided on making St. John's my destination, from which port I would beat my way towards the west, going easy at first, and faster as the spring of the year advanced.

The accommodation for steerage passengers on this ship was abominable, and their comfort seemed to be hot in the least considered. This was owing to the small number of English speaking people that were travelling as steerage passengers, and the disgusting, filthy habits of the great majority, who were a low class of Jews and peasantry from the interior of Russia. None of the ship's crews could be expected to treat these people as one of themselves, seeing them sit to eat in the filth of their skin and fur clothes, without the least thought of washing; and again, hiding food in their bed clothes, making the cabin too foul to sleep in. After seeing the first meal fought for, and scrambled for on the steerage floor, where it had falen, we Englishmen, five in number, took possession of a small table to ourselves, only allowing one other, a Frenchman, to sit with us. This did not succeed without some protest. On the second day out, when we went below for our mid-day meal, we found the table to be already occupied by these people, who maintained our seats, looking defiantly at us to show that they had taken no accidental possession of the same. It was owing to these defiant looks that we determined to re-possess this table. 'Stick close together,' said a young Englishman, who was a blacksmith, with the accredited brawny arms. Saying which he caught one of the usurpers in his arms, and, with great force, threw him in the midst of his people, knocking several of them down. There was great commotion at this. Two hundred of these haters of soap and water began to jabber and wildly gesticulate, and no doubt every foul word in that unknown tongue was used against us. Instead of seating ourselves at once at the table, which was now unoccupied, we stood in our small body waiting with a quiet determination which did not seem at all to their relish. This attitude conquered them; and, as none of us were quarrelsome, and did not again in any way interfere with them, either on deck or below, the trip was ended without any further trouble.

So many of these aliens were landing in Canada at this time, that when I approached the Custom House officers, one of them, judging by my features and complexion, which were not much unlike those of a native of the south, addressed me in an unknown tongue. I looked at him in surprise, which made him repeat his question, probably in another tongue, equally unknown. Being rather incensed at this, and flushing indignantly at this tone to a dog, I lost no time in answering him according to Billingsgate. 'Ho, ho!' he laughed, 'so you are a blooming cockney, and so am I. Why didn't you say so at once!'

The blacksmith had booked through to Quebec, and would take train to that place before morning. Three other Englishmen had booked through to Winnipeg, and would travel with him by the same train. The other Englishman, a carpenter by trade, had relatives in Montreal, and, having only a couple of dollars in his possession, was willing to take instructions from me how to get there. I promised to get this man to Montreal in three or four days, providing he did not at any time question my actions. He kept his promise, and I kept mine, for on the fourth day after landing, I wished him good-bye outside his sister's house, which he had had some difficulty in finding. I was now alone, and seeking a companion for my journey west.

Now, once upon a time, there lived a man known by the name of Joe Beef, who kept a saloon in Montreal, supplying his customers with a good free lunch all day, and a hot beef stew being the mid-day dish. There was not a tramp throughout the length and breadth of the North American Continent, who had not heard of this and a goodly number had at one time or another patronised his establishment. Often had I heard of this famous hostelry for the poor and needy, and the flavour of its stew discussed by old travellers in the far States of the South. When I thought of this, I knew that a companion for any part of America could most certainly be found on this man's premises, and I would there hear much valuable information as to the road I was about to travel. So I went strolling along quietly, intending to wait until I met some needy looking individual before I made enquiries. Now, whenever Joe Beef's name had been mentioned it had invariably led to the mention of French Marie, and the name of the latter as invariably introduced the name of Joe Beef, for these two establishments seemed to be patronised by the same class. These names were well-known to me, for, as I have said,their fame was abroad throughout America.

I was strolling along with these thoughts, when I met the man of my desire, leaning lazily against a post. Not wishing to accost him outright, and yet eager for his conversation, I stood beside him lighting my pipe, striking several matches for this purpose and failing owing to the wind blowing in small gusts. Seeing my dilemma, the man quickly produced matches of his own, and striking one, held it lighted between the palms of his hands, leaving just enough space for the bowl of my pipe to enter. For this I thanked him, and secondly, invited him to a drink, asking him where we should go, being in hopes he would mention Joe Beef. 'Well,' he answered, pointing to the opposite corner, 'the nearest place is French Marie's.' We entered that place and, in the course of conversation, I told him how I had beat my way from state to state, but that this was my first experience in Canada. 'The United States,' said this man sagely, 'are nearly played out, and of late years there are far too many travellers there. You will find the Canadian roads better to beat, and the people's hearts easier to impress, for they are not overrun. When did you get here?' Knowing that this man was under the impression that I had just beat my way into Canada from the States, and not willing to undeceive him, I answered quickly 'This morning,' and for a time changed the conversation into a praise of the beer. 'Where are you going to sleep?' he asked. 'Meet me here in half an hour, after I have begged the price of my bed, and a drink or two-and we will both go to Joe Beef's, where I have been for this last week.' Not wishing to lose sight of this man, I told him that my pocket could maintain the two of us until the next day. 'All right,' said he, appearing much relieved, 'we will go at once and settle for our beds, and come out for an hour or so this evening.' Leaving French Marie's we walked beside the river for some distance, when my companion halted before a building, which I knew must be Joe Beef's, having just seen two seedy looking travellers entering. We followed, and to my surprise, I saw it was a rather clean looking restaurant with several long tables, with seats and a long bar on which the food was served. But what surprised me most was to see a number of Salvation Army men and officers in charge of this place. Without saying a word to my companion, I took a seat at one of the tables, to order a beef stew, asking him what he would have, and, for his sake, the order was doubled. 'When Joe Beef kept this place,' whispered my companion, 'he was a true friend to travellers, but you don't get much out of these people except you pay for it!' Although I winked at him, as though the same thoughts were mine, I noticed that the meals were well worth what was charged for them, and, in after days, I often compared this place favourably with similar institutions in London, that were under the same management, and where men did not get the worth of their money.