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



ON my way towards Warwick I joined company with a grinder, and we travelled socially together towards that ancient town. When we arrived, we lost no time in seeking a lodging house, which we soon found, but, to my surprise, the landlady, a big raw-boned, slatternly woman said, looking sternly at my companion: 'I will have no grinders in my house.' Of course, I did not know at that time what I have heard subsequently. Of all the men on the road, following various occupations, the grinder is, I believe, the most thoroughly detested. As a rule he is a drunken dissolute fellow, a swearer, and one who, if he picks up a quarrel, which is usually the case, is in no hurry to drop it. The more unpretentious lodgers hate his presence, seeing that he makes himself more at home than the landlord himself. I have often heard travellers tell of a small village in the north of England, which grinders dare not enter, pass through or lodge therein for the night, and it is the regret of many travellers that there are not more villages of its kind distributed throughout the country. It seems that some years ago, a great wind had visited that particular town, and floored the roofs of the houses, and grounded the church steeple, many of the inhabitants being injured, and not a few killed. Now, it happened that the day following this great disaster, two unfortunate grinders, who had arrived in town the night before, and slept at the village inn, appeared in the streets and made a great shout in soliciting orders. Some way or another the inhabitants connected these poor wretches with the great wind, and set upon them, and proceeded to beat them out of the town, coming near to killing them; and, since that day the town has been visited by neither grinders nor great winds. Even in larger towns these people often experience great difficulty in procuring lodgings. This state of affairs was not known to me at this time, or I should certainly not have been anxious for the company of one of these despised people.

We were admitted at the next lodging house, but even here the landlady seemed to have some compunction at so doing; for she followed us to the kitchen and without saying a word, placed her two hands on her broad hips, at the same time looking severely at my grinder, as much as to say-'If you are going to start any of your capers, let it be at once, my hearty grinder, now I am watching you, and we'll soon see who's who.' We sat down quietly, and the landlady, thinking that this attitude had had its desired effect, left the kitchen, not forgetting to throw a last glance at my grinder, who was trying his best to hide his nervousness by puffing hard at his pipe and nearly choking in the attempt.

Some ten or fifteen men were in this room, some of them busy preparing work for the next day. Two were busy making artificial flowers; one was working with copper wire, turning and twisting it into toasting forks, plate holders, and hangers to suspend flower pots. Two others were in the rag and bone trade, for I had seen them when I first entered, overlooking their stuff in the backyard. One man was a pedlar, for there was his pack, towards which he often turned his eyes, in distrust of his company. One was a musician, for there, sticking out of the top pocket of his coat, was a common tin whistle. 'There,' said I to myself, glancing at a man on my right hand- 'here is the only respectable working man among them all.' This man had on a dean moleskin pair of trousers, a pilot cloth coat, and on his neck a large clean white muffler. 'Grinder?' asked this man, catching my eye before I could avoid it. 'No,' I answered, 'a pedlar.' 'Oh,' said he, 'I didn't notice you carrying a pack when you came in.' Alas! my little stock could easily be carried in my pockets. 'No,' I answered, 'as a rule I don't carry much stock.' 'I shouldn't think you would,' he said, glancing at my leg, 'a bible ought to be enough for you, and a good living too.' Now it happened when I left London, I had made room in my pockets for two books which, up till that time, I had very little opportunity of reading. One was the bible, and the other was a small printed and cheap paper cover edition of Wordsworth. So, hearing this man mention a bible, I became extremely curious to learn how a man could earn a living by carrying a book of this kind. Seeking this information I said to this man-'I shouldn't think that there was much money to be made by carrying a bible.' 'Why not,' he asked; 'if you carry in your hand a decent rake (a comb), a flashy pair of sniffs (scissors) and a card of good links and studs- that is certainly a good bible for a living; but there is not much profit in a pair of stretchers (laces) or a packet of common sharps (needles). As for me,' he continued, 'I am on the downright, and I go in for straight begging, without showing anything in my hand. That grinder, whom I thought you were with, and am glad you are not, works very hard at dragging that old rickety contrivance with him all over the country; and is he any better off than I am? I never fail to get the sixteen farthings for my feather (bed), I get all the scrand (food) I can eat; and I seldom lie down at night but what I am skimished (half drunk), for I assure you I never go short of my skimish.' Being curious to see this man at work, and to hear the tales with which he approached people, I told him I would accompany him the next day as far as Stratford, that was if he had no objection to my company, as I also intended to visit that town before I made my way towards London. To this proposal he seemed perfectly agreeable.

The next morning arrived and after having had breakfast, we set out. We had scarcely set foot outside the lodging house, when I saw this downrighter dodge in and out of shops with an astonishing alacrity, more like a customer than a beggar; but with what success I could not tell. He seemed to go in smiling, and to come out the same, until we were at last at the business end of the town. He did not confide in me as to his success or failure; but generously invited me to a smoke. We filled our pipes, but just as I was about to strike a match, my companion interrupted me with-'Wait until we are on the other side of the sky pilot.' Looking down the road I saw a clergyman approaching us at a fast rate, carrying something in his hand which proved on nearer view to be a book of prayers. When this black cloth was within three or four feet of us, my companion began to address him in a very serious voice, calling him in his ignorance, or perhaps, excitement-'your reverend highness.' The gentleman in black cloth seemed to have been expecting something of this kind, for, without turning his head either to the right or left, he passed on, going if possible, at greater speed. On seeing which my companion shouted in a jeering voice-'Go it, old hearty, and remember me in yer prayers.' As we proceeded on our way he laughed immoderately. 'Yes,' he said, ' I have always found a bible or a prayer book in a person's hand to be the sign of an uncharitable disposition. Seldom do I get anything from them, but I like to pester them. Now, if this had been a man with a bottle, or a jug of beer in his hand, I would have had a civil answer at the very least.' The indifference of this reverend gentleman, and the experience my companion seemed to have had of this kind in general, surprised me not a little; for this man I was with certainly had the appearance of an honest working man of the better class; his clothes were good, and his flesh was clean, and he certainly had not forgotten the barber.

My companion allowed no person to pass us without making an appeal, and it was made apparent to me that he was successful in a number of cases. In times of failure people listened to this respectable looking fellow, and regretted that they had left home without having brought coppers with them. At one time we saw a man who had dismounted to examine his bicycle, probably having heard some part of it go click and fearing an accident, had paused for an investigation. We stood before this man, and my companion in straightforward, manly tones, asked him for assistance. The gentleman began to stanuner, to hem and to haw, at the same time saying that he regretted that he was not at that moment exactly in the position to- 'Friend', broke in my bold downrighter, in a stem solemn voice, laying his heavy hand On the man's shoulder; 'friend, you see before you two men in extreme want, who must be relieved in this very hour.' We were standing in the man's way, and he could not possibly escape without knocking us over. Apparently the man was afraid, for he first looked at our faces, and after looking backward and then forward, he produced a silver sixpence, saying he trusted that that amount would be of some service to us. We made sure of this and then cleared ourselves from his path, allowing him space to mount and ride, an opportunity of which he quickly availed himself. This looked very much like highway robbery, but strangely, I was better satisfied at this open independent way of transacting business than by whining forth pitiful tales of want, however true they might be.

We were now entering the town of Stratford-on-Avon, and my companion was advising me as to my behaviour at the common lodging house. 'It is the only lodging house in the town', he said, 'and the old lady is very particular and eccentric. Our very appearance may dissatisfy her, and then we will be compelled to walk some miles to the next town. She keeps a shop attached to the lodging house,' continued the downrighter, 'and if strangers, not knowing this to be the case, when applying for lodgings, have bread, tea, sugar, meat, etc. in their hands, that is bought elsewhere, this eccentric old landlady declines to receive them as lodgers, and they are forced, often late at night, to walk to the next town. Some time ago,' he continued, 'a lodger bought at her shop a half pound of corn-beef, which he thought was underweight. Going to the public house opposite for a glass of beer, he requested the publican to weigh this meat, which being done, it was found to be two ounces short of the required weight. On returning to the house this lodger went quietly to bed, but the next morning he spoke his mind to her in a very straightforward manner, making mention of the publican as a witness. Ever since that time, any man who visits that public house is not allowed to sleep on her premises. If seen entering that place by day, they are objected to at night, and if seen visiting that house after their beds are already paid for, on their return their money is at once refunded without the least explanation.'

It certainly spoke highly for our respectable appearance when this particular landlady received our money, and admitted us without much scrutiny into the kitchen; although she lost no time in following us there, and stood for several minutes watching our movements. No doubt if one of us had thrown a match on the floor, or sat too near the fire; or complained that the kitchen only contained two tea pots, cracked and half spoutless, among the ten lodgers now patiently waiting a chance to make tea; and that there were only three cups, and one half rimmed plate like a vanishing moon-no doubt if we had uttered one complaint, our money would have been returned without advice or warning, and we would have found no other lodgings that would have answered our small means in the town. But we fortunately knew the old lady too well to implicate ourselves and we gave her no chance to complain.

After tea I wandered alone about the town, and as I went here and there in this enchanted place, ambition again took possession of me, stronger than ever. It filled me with vexation to think that I was no nearer my object, for I was, comparatively speaking, penniless. Two months had I wandered, during which time I had not been able to concentrate my thoughts on any noble theme, taking all day to procure the price of a bed, and two or three coppers extra for food. True I had by now some three pounds saved, the income that I had not touched, but at this rate, I would never be able to attain my ends. November was here, and I was suddenly confronted with a long winter before me, and I pictured myself starved and snow bound in small out of the way villages, or mercilessly pelted by hailstones on a wild shelterless heath. Side by side with these scenes I placed my ideal, which was a small room with a cosy fire, in which I sat surrounded by books, and I sickened at the comparison.

The following morning I was up and on my way before the downrighter had put in an appearance. In two or three days I was again back on the outskirts of London, walking it round in a circle; sometimes ten miles from its mighty heart, or as far distant as twenty miles; but without the courage to approach nearer, or to break away from it altogether. Whatever luck I had good or bad, I always managed to escape the workhouse; and was determined to walk all night, if needs be, rather than seek refuge in one of those places. One desperate hour possessed me every day, sometimes in the morning, or in the afternoon, but more often in the evening, when I would waylay people on the high roads, go boldly to the front doors of houses, interview men in their gardens, stables or shops at the same time flourishing before their eyes a whip of a dozen laces. In this hour I seemed to be impelled by a fatality like that of the wandering Jew, cursed at having to perform something against my will. When this mad fit was at an end, during which I generally succeeded in getting a shilling or more, people might then come and go without fear of being molested, for I was satisfied that the workhouse was once more defeated for another night.

One morning at the beginning of December, I made up my mind to tramp home for Christmas. This was a new idea, and not much to my liking, for I had always written them hopeful letters, and although they knew that I had left London, they knew nothing of my present condition. As usual, under these active impulses I made astonishing progress, being on the borders of Wales in less than a week. The greater part of the journey accomplished, being now less than thirty miles from my native town, I regretted having started with such an intention, and tramped over the Welsh Hills day after day, ultimately finding my way to Swansea. I did not remain long in that town, but began other rambles, and the day before Christmas eve, was in a town twenty-seven miles from home; sleeping there that night I rose early the following morning and started for home. Keeping up a pace of three miles an hour, in spite of the one leg and the rough uneven roads of the hills, I accomplished the journey in nine hours, arriving home just after dark, without having once rested on the way.

I had now been tramping for over three months and thought myself entitled to a little rest, if such could be had. After all, why had I done this, and to what end had I suffered? For I would now draw the few pounds that were due to me, would return to London in a week or two, and would again commence writing without any prospect of success, for I would once more be living on a small income. And such was the case: three weeks' comfort improved me wonderfully and vitality returned stronger than ever after the low state into which it had fallen. What cut me to the heart was not so much that I had not practised writing during these four months, but that I had been forced to neglect reading and had therefore been taking in no means to justify my hopes in the future of being capable of writing something of my own. The poor man, who has his daily duties to perform, has his quiet evenings at home, with friends to lend him books, and being known in the locality, a library from which to borrow them, but what privileges has the wanderer?

Feeling myself fit, I drew what money was due to me and returned to London.