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



THE greatest enemy to the man who has to carry on his body all his wardrobe, is rain. As long as the sun shines he is indifferent, but if he is caught in a wet condition after sunset he is to be pitied. He does not fear any ill consequences to health from being wet through, as does his more fortunate brother, but he does not like the uncomfortable sensation of shivering and not being able to keep warm. This unsettled feeling is often made worse by an empty stomach. in fact a full stomach is his one safeguard against the cold, and he cares not then if the rain and the wind penetrate his clothes. No seaman ever searched the heavens for a dark speck, or astronomer for a new light, as does this homeless man for a sign of rain. To escape from the coming deluge he seeks shelter in the public library, which is the only free shelter available; and there he sits for hours staring at one page, not a word of which he has read or, for that matter, intends to read, if he cannot at once get a seat, he stands before a paper and performs that almost impossible feat of standing upright fast asleep so as to deceive the attendants, and respectable people who are waiting a chance to see that very paper. To be able to do this requires many unsuccessful efforts, which fail on account of hard breathing, nodding and stumbling against the paper stand; but success has at last been attained, and there he stands fast asleep and apparently absorbed in a most interesting paragraph. He attains such perfection in this one act that he has been known to stand like a marble statue before a large sheet of costly plate glass, what time sleep had overpowered him in the act of admiring a baker's art. The homeless man must always remember one thing, that though he may sit on wooden seats and stone parapets, eat in public and go in rags, he must not, on any account, sleep. Working men only are allowed that privilege and those who can afford to remain idle. No policeman would think of indulging in a short nap until he made sure that there was no vagrant sleeping on his beat. And what respectable householder could rest in bed knowing that a tramp was sleeping in his doorway? If necessity is the mother of invention, sleep must certainly be necessary to a human being, or the tramp, according to his many chances of experiments, would be the first to prove the contrary. So much for the very lowest men.

But there are others who, in that they have a shelter at night, scorn the name of being called homeless men. These men live in common lodging houses, and are well satisfied with a place to sleep and enough food to keep body and soul together. Most of these men earn their living, such as it is, in the open air, and they earn so little that they are seldom prepared for a rainy day. Therefore, when comes this rainy morn, and the poor fellow rises penniless from his bed, it is then that you see a little seriousness come over him; for he cannot expose his wares to spoil in the rain and, did they not spoil, who would be foolish enough to tarry in bad weather to make an idle purchase? The rain would spoil his paper-toys, his memorandum-books, or his laces and collar studs. In truth, as long as the rain continues his occupation is gone. The paper seller can take his stand regardless of weather, and earn enough for the day thereof, at the expense of a wet skin. Sometimes he is fortunate enough to be stationed near some shelter, but sometimes his stand happens to be outside an aristocratic club or hotel, and he dare not enter its porch, not even if the devil was at his heels.

Then there is the 'downrighter,' the man who makes no pretence to selling, but boldly asks people for the price of his bed and board. On a rainy day he has to make sudden bursts between the heaviest showers and forage the surrounding streets, which, being near a lodging house, are invariably poor and unprofitable, whereas his richest pastures are in the suburbs or better still the outskirts of them. The bad weather is, of course, a blessing to those distant housekeepers, however hard it is on the 'downrighter,' for it comes as the Sabbath day to their bells and knockers.

Then there are the market men who work two or three early hours in the morning, when the majority of people are asleep. These men are returning in their wet clothes between eight and nine o'clock and their day's work is done. Often they have no change of clothing, therefore it is not unusual for two men to be standing at the same fire, the one drying his wet socks and the other toasting his dry bread, with the articles in question almost embracing one another on the most friendly terms.

It is on this rainy day that one sees those little kindnesses which are only seen among the very poor: one who has not sufficient for himself assisting some other who has nothing. One man who has made eighteen pence at the market, returns, pays fourpence for his bed, buys food, and then in addition to paying for another man's bed, invites yet another to dine with him and in the end gives his last copper to another. One, who happens to have done well the previous day, gives here and there until he is himself penniless. The consequence of all this is that whereas you saw in the morning dull and anxious faces, at midday you see more than half of the lodgers cooking, their beds already paid for. All worry is at an end, and they are whistling, humming songs, or chaffing one another.

It is on this rainy day when they are made prisoners without spare money to pay into the beer house, that they mend and wash their clothes, repair their boots, and have abundant time to cook vegetables. It is a day for Irish stews and savoury broths.

It was on one of these days, when the kitchen was so crowded, that I unfortunately attempted to make pancakes. I knew that such an unusual experiment could not fail to cause a sensation which I did not desire, so I placed myself in a dark corner and quietly and without being observed, made the flour into paste, exactly as I had seen another lodger do some time previous. The flour had been in my possession ever since that occasion, but my courage had up to the present failed. Three or four men were now at the stove, and a number of others were idly walking up and down. I had made half a basin of paste, and this was to make one big thick fat pancake. But how was I to get it into the frying pan without attracting notice? I covered the basin with a saucer, placed the frying pan on the stove, with butter therein, and waited my chance. I had taken the precaution of having in readiness a large plate. At last my chance came, for two cooks were having high words as to whether cabbage should be put into cold or boiling water. Others joined in this argument, so without receiving notice, I dropped the paste into the frying pan and quickly covered it with a large plate. So far, so good: my only difficulty now would be to turn it; for after it was cooked I could carry the pan and its covered contents to the dark corner where I intended to dine; and where, although men might see me eat, none would be the wiser as to what I was eating. Five minutes had passed and no doubt its one side was cooked. The argument was still in full swing, for each man stoutly maintained his opinions, and almost every man who took part cited his mother or sister as an authority, except one, who proudly mentioned a French chef in an Australian gold diggings. Now was my chance. I cast one furtive glance around, rose the hot plate with a stocking, which I had been washing, made one quick turn of the wrist, spun the pancake in the air, caught it neatly and promptly, clapped the plate over it-the whole process done, I believe, in less than ten seconds. The difficulty was now over and I breathed relief. I went to my dining corner and sat down, intending to fetch the pancake in five minutes' rime.

Three minutes perhaps I had been seated when I heard a loud voice cry-'Whose pancake is this burning on the stove?' How I did detest that man: he was always shouting through the kitchen 'Whose stew is this boiling over?' or 'Whose tea is stewing on the fire?' The man always seemed to be poking his nose into other people's business. I did not think it worth while drawing every one's attention by answering him, but made my way as quietly as possible towards the stove. Alas! the idiot, not thinking that I was the owner of the pancake, and was then on my way to attend to it, shouted the second time, louder and it seemed to me, too impatiently-'Whose pancake is this?' If I was vexed when I heard that second enquiry, imagine how I felt when every lodger in the kitchen, not seeing or hearing from the pancake's lawful claimant, began to shout in angry voices 'Whose pancake is that burning on the fire?' My own patience was now exhausted. 'The pancake is mine,' I said, 'and what about it? What is all this fuss about? It is the first pancake 1 have ever attempted to make and by heavens! if it is to cause such a stir as this, it will be the last.' But while I was making this speech another voice, which froze the blood in my veins, cried angrily-'Whose pancake is this?' It was a woman's voice, it was the Mrs. of the house; and I knew that something more serious was happening than the burning of a pancake-I was burning her frying pan. If Il dallied in respect to my pancakes, I must certainly not make further delay in saving the frying pan. To her I at once apologised, but I gave that meddler a look that for ever again kept him silent as to what belonged to me. Such are the doings in a lodging house, vexatious enough at the time, but amusing to recall.