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



NOW followed a strange experience, an experience for which there is no name; for I managed to exist, and yet had neither the courage to beg or sell. Certainly at times I was desperately inclined to steal; but chance left nothing for my eyes to covet, and I passed harmlessly on. When I suffered most from lack of rest, or bodily sustenance-as my actual experience became darker, the thoughts of the future became brighter, as the stars shine to correspond with the night's shade.

I travelled alone, in spite of the civilities of other tramps who desired company, so as to allow no strange voice to disturb my dreams. Some of these men had an idea that I was mad, because I could give them little information as to the towns and villages through which I had that very day passed. They inquired as to the comforts and conditions of a town's workhouse, of which I knew nothing, for I had not entered it. They inquired as to its best lodging-house, of which I was again ignorant, having slept in the open air. They inquired how far I had come that day, which I could not immediately tell them, and they were curious to know how far I was going, which I did not know. The strangest part of this experience was that I received help from people without having made a glance of appeal, and without having opened my mouth. When I asked for water, tea or milk was often brought, and food invariably followed. I began to look on this as a short life of sacrifice, killing a few worthless hours so as to enjoy thousands of better ones; and I blessed every morning that ushered in a new day, and worshipped every sabbath night that closed another week.

After tramping from town to town, from shire to shire, in two months I was in Devonshire, on my way to Plymouth. I felt continually attracted to these large centres of commerce, owing, I suppose, to feeling the necessity of having an object in view; but was generally starved out of them in a very short time. A gentleman on horseback, whom I met near Totnes, saved me from suffering from want, for a couple of days, at least, when I would reach Plymouth. This gentleman drew his horse to a halt, so that he might inquire my destination. He seemed to be much surprised when I told him it was the town of Plymouth.

'Ah, well,' he said, glancing towards the ground, 'there is only one foot to get sore, if that is any consolation to you; perhaps this wifi help you a little on the way,' dropping into my hands three silver shillings.

Without having this case in mind, I certainly fared better in Devonshire than in other counties, and found its people more like the prosperous settlers in new lands. In spite of this, my roughest experience was in this county, owing to the inclemency of the weather, and the difficulty of finding shelter. One night I had gone into the fields, and, getting together a dozen or more wheatsheaves, proceeded to build a house with them, making a dry floor On the damp earth, with walls to shelter from the wind, and a roof to shelter from the dew, leaving just space enough at one end to admit my body. I had been in here comfortable and warm for some time, when it began to rain. In half an hour the rain leaked in large drops through the roof, and in less than an hour these drops had become streams. There was nothing to do but to remain, for it was now too dark to seek shelter. For ten hours it rained incessantly, and I was literally wet to the skin, and no drier than a person immersed in water-not wet to the skin as people commonly express it when they are damp after a few showers. I was nothing daunted, looking on this as one of the many hard experiences that I was compelled to undergo. The next morning I chose a secluded spot in the open air, so as to lie down where the sun, coming out warm and strong, would dry me while I slept. Two or three times have I suffered in this way, but have never felt any ill effects after.

My worst experience of this kind was in the adjoining county of Somerset, at the end of September, when I was again making my way back to London. But it was not the blowing of the wind, or the patter of the rain; not the rustle of the leaves on the swaying branches; not the discomforts of having wet clothes, and being without sign of a barn or empty house in which to shelter; it was none of these that took the courage out of me, it was a wild laugh, harsh, and apparently in savage mockery. I had skirted what appeared to be a park, for something like two miles, and was weary to see the end of it. This at last seemed to come, for I could see through the trees a large open field wherein were wheat-sheaves, stacked in their threes, and in their usual rows. Now, had this been a field right up to the roadside, I would most certainly have had no compunction in spending the night there, being tired of carrying such a distance my wet and heavy clothes. As it was, I paused, not feeling inclined to proceed further on my journey, and yet not half liking to cross that narrow strip of park, thinking it might contain game that would be well looked after, making trespassing a serious offence. When in this irresolute state of mind, I caught sight of a white gate, and a small footpath leading to the field. Night seemed to be coming on at the rate of a darker shade to the minute, and I knew well that in another quarter of an hour it would be difficult to distinguish a house from a barn. Seeing this, I summoned courage, opened the gate, and made my way quickly along the path that led to the wheatsheaves. Standing amidst these I waited silently, listening for any that might be in that locality. Satisfied that there were not, I picked up a sheaf, and was about to lay it flat, when I heard a loud startling laugh, coming from the direction of the road. Dropping the sheaf at once, I bent low, not for a moment doubting but what someone had seen me from the road, and was taking a heartless delight in letting me know his discovery. Although I regretted this, thinking he would inform others, and I would surely be disturbed before morning, perhaps that very hour I determined to travel no further that night, if I could help it, and proceeded to make my bed, under the impression that he had passed on. I stood up in full, but had scarcely done so, when my appearance was greeted by several long shouts of derisive laughter. Now, a homeless man has no time to be superstitious, he fears the living and not the dead. If he is sleepy he is not particular about feeling in the darkness of cellars or vaults; and, if he were sleeping On a grave, and was awakened by a voice crying-'Arise from off this grave,' he would at once think it the voice of a grave digger, or the keeper of the cemetery, rather than the ghostly owner of the same. Therefore, I had not the least idea but what this was the voice of a human being, although it sounded uncanny and strange. I moved again, and again heard that loud peal of laughter. This voice evidently only mocked when I moved, for when I stood still, not a sound was to be heard. This time I gave up all thoughts of making a bed, and being now filled with fear, picked up the thick stick with which I travelled, and stood on the defensive, every moment expecting to see a madman burst from under the trees and in three leaps and a bound be at my side. These movements seemed to cause some merriment, but the laughter again ceased when I stood watching and waiting, and puzzled how to act. Rest was now out of the question, and I made up my mind to leave that accursed place instantly. With this intention I made my way towards the gate. I had scarcely moved in that direction, when the laughing began, this time continuing for a long time, as though jeering its last at my defeat. When I reached the gate, and passed through to the open road, my courage returned, and I looked with some bitterness to see the figure of some country lout hurrying into the darkness, after succeeding in robbing me of my sleep; but, to my surprise, I heard no one, and could see no figure on the road before or behind. It was now that superstition took hold of me, and I got off with all possible speed, often looking back to see if I was pursued; and I did not stop until a human settlement lay between me and that accursed park. Often have I thought of that night. It is natural to suppose that a thoughtless ploughman, or farm labourer, would have stood at the roadside and laughed or shouted once or twice, and then passed on, but it is scarcely probable that he would have remained there to carry his joke so far. Granted that he had had the courage to laugh so many times, taunting one at a distance, where was his courage now that lie had run away, or still stood concealed behind the trees? The voice sounded human, but still seemed wild and a little natural. After much consideration the only conclusion I could put to the affair was that the voice came from a bird in the trees; an escaped pet bird that could imitate the human voice. This solution of the mystery did not altogether satisfy me, for I have never had cause to believe that any bird could so perfectly imitate the human voice. Superstition must have thoroughly possessed me for the once in my life, or I should not have walked all night, after the painful exertion of the day.

If I settled towards night time in any place where a bird came hopping restlessly from branch to branch, making a series of short cries of fear, to let me know that I was lying too close to its nest, I would without hesitation shift my position, often to my own discomfort; but at the same time, people could pass to and fro to my indifference.

I would never beg, unless forced to the last extremity, for I feared the strange fascination that arises from success, after a man has once lost his shame. On one occasion I saw a well dressed couple wheeling their bicycles up an incline, which was too steep to ride. Evidently they were lovers, for they seemed to be in no hurry to reach the top of the hill and end their conversation by riding. As I drew near the lady produced her purse, and, placing something in her companion's hand, motioned over her shoulder in my direction. On which the gentleman nodded, and immediately glanced back towards me. Now, these people could not very well make the first overtures, for the simple reason that they know not whether a man is in want, or is a poor, but proud and respectable inhabitant of one of the adjacent villages. I preferred to impress them with the latter opinion, for, when I reached them, I put on an extra spurt, and was soon beyond their hearing. No, I would never make a good beggar, for here was money in readiness, to come at the sound of my voice, or to be drawn by the simple side glance of my eye. When I was some distance away, I looked back, and saw the lady looking rather disappointed, receiving back her coin. Her companion was laughing, no doubt consoling her by saying that I was hardly likely to be in actual need, or I would have asked for assistance, and probably my home was somewhere near. The truth of the matter was that at this time I had not a copper to bless myself with.

Days, weeks, and months went on, and it was now the month of October. It was now that I began to find the necessity of having a bed every night, having been satisfied up till then with a bed once or perhaps twice a week, according to the coppers received. I was back again in Swindon, having been there some time previous, when on my way to Devonshire. The first three months of sacrifice were over, and I was very little the worse for it; but the next three months required different means, to correspond with the difference in the time of year. Shelter was necessary every night, and to meet these stern demands, I needed something to sell, so as to be sure of coppers for this purpose. With this idea, I bought two dozen laces with the last three coppers I had, and re-opened business as a hawker. The success with which I met in this town astonished me, owing, I believe, to its being a working man's town, and not filled with half-pay officers and would-be aristocrats that cannot afford, but still feel it their duty, to live in fine villas in the locality of a royal residence. The poor, sympathetic people seemed to understand a man's wants. Business was often transacted without the utterance of words. Taking a pair of laces, they would give a copper, and, smiling their sympathy, close the door. Often one would pay for these useless things and not take them. The kindness of these people so filled me with gratitude, that I found it impossible to continue selling after I had received enough to supply the day's wants, which would often be in less than half an hour. I remained here for two weeks, being able to allow myself half an ounce of tobacco and a halfpenny paper every day. The only thing that worried me in this town was the persistence of an old beggar in the lodging house. Night after night, this man would advise me to go out and stand pad. This was, he explained, that a man, who is aflicted with the loss of an arm, a hand or a leg, blind, paralysed or lame, should stand or sit in a public place in the town, holding in his hand matches, laces or any other cheap trifle, so that he might invite the charity of passers by. This old man could not understand why this was not done, seeing that it required no eloquence-the very act and the affliction speaking for themselves-and was so successful a dodge that even able-bodied men could often pick up a shilling or two in this way. At last I became so impressed with this old man's eloquence, that I left the lodging house three times in one night with a firm resolution to stand pad, and three times I returned without having done so. On the last occasion I did make a little attempt, but foolishly took up a position where no one could see me.

Before I left Swindon I wrote to a friend of mine in Canada, requesting him to forward me a pound to London, as soon as possible, which would be returned to him at the beginning of the new year. I did this so that I might have a couple of weeks at the end of December to prepare my MS. and to be ready for business as soon as that time arrived. It was now the latter end of October, and this pound could not reach London far short of a month. Thinking I was not likely again to suffer for want of a bed or food, after this success in Swindon, I bought a good stock of laces and left that town, with the intention of working the towns on the outskirts of London, so that when ready to enter I would be within a day's march. Unfortunately, after leaving Swindon, success deserted me, which was certainly more my fault than that of the people, for I made very little appeal to them. Arriving at Maidenhead, I had the bare price of my bed, with a dry bread supper and breakfast. My laces were being exhausted, and I was without means to replenish them. From town to town I walked around London, sometimes making sixpence, and always less than a shilling a day; and this small amount had to purchase bed, food, and occasionally a couple of dozen laces. The monotony of this existence was broken a little at Guildford, where I was arrested on suspicion of crime. A plain clothes officer happened to be in the office of the lodging house, who, when he set eyes upon me, requested a few moments' conversation, at the same time leading the way out into the yard. He then came to a halt under a lamp, and, taking from his pocket some papers, began to read, often raising his eyes to scrutinise my person. 'Yes,' he said, at last, 'no doubt you are the man I want, for you answer his description.' 'I suppose,' was my answer, 'it is a case of arrest?' 'It is,' he said, 'and you must accompany me to the station.' On my way to that place he asked many a question of what I had done with my overcoat, and as to the whereabouts of my wife. It had been several years since I had owned the former, and the latter I had never possessed; but this man could not be convinced of either. 'Which way have you come?' he asked. To which I mentioned one or two shires. At this he pricked up his ears, and asked if I had been in a certain town in one of those shires, which I had, and saw no reason to say otherwise. Unfortunately this was the town where the guilty man had operated. The detective was certainly not very smart when he took this confession as evidence of guilt, for the guilty man would have mentioned that particular town as one of the last places to visit. I certainly answered to the description of the man wanted, with the exception of not having a blotchy face, which had been characteristic of the guilty man. But on my face they saw no blotches, nor signs of any having been there in the past. Of course, I was discharged in an hour, and returned to the lodging house for the night. The following day I happened to be in Dorking, and was walking through that town, when I heard quick steps behind me, and a voice cry-'Halt: I want you.' Turning my head I saw it was a police officer. This man at once took possession of me, saying that he fortunately had been looking through the police station window, when he saw me passing, and that I answered to the description of a man wanted-'for that affair at Cheltenham,' I added. 'Ha,' he said, his face lighting with pleasure, 'how well you know.' We returned quietly to the police station, and when I confronted his superior officer, I asked that person if I was to be arrested in every town through which I passed; telling my experience the night before at Guildford. After one or two questions, and a careful reading of the description paper, also an examination of my pedlar's certificate, he told me I was at liberty to go my way, at the same time saying that no man with any sense would have arrested me. After this I was not again troubled by police officers, owing, perhaps, to their having arrested the guilty man.