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



NO doubt laces are the best stock to carry, for a gross of them can be had for eighteen pence, sometimes less, which, sold at a penny a pair, realises six shillings; and, counting the number of pennies that are tendered free in pity for the man's circumstances, who must be cunning enough to show only two or three pairs at a time-he has nothing to complain of in the end. Although he sometimes meets a lady who persists in regarding him as a trader and bargains for two pairs for three halfpence, and ultimately carries them off in triumph-in spite of his whine of not being able to make bed and board out of them -in spite of these rare instances, he must confess that in the end he has received eight or nine shillings for an outlay of eighteen pence, and, what is more, an abundance of free food. Then, again, laces are light, they are easy to carry and can be stored in one coat-pocket. Another great advantage is that although a man may get wet through, or roll on his laces in the grass, he does not spoil his living. In fact, if they become crumpled and twisted and their tags rusty, he makes them his testimony that he was wet through, being out all night, which story rarely fails in coppers and he still retains his laces.

But with all these advantages of a light and profitable stock, there are two men who scorn to carry even these and will not on any account make any pretence at selling. These two men are the gridler and the downrighter. The former sings hymns in the streets, and he makes his living by the sound of his voice. Professional singers are paid according to the richness, sweetness, and compass of their voices, but the gridler's profit increases as his vocal powers decline. The more shaky and harsh his voice becomes, the greater his reward. With a tongue like a rasp he smoothes the roughness off hard hearts. With a voice like an old hen he ushers in the golden egg. With a base mixture of treble, contralto and bass, he produces good metal which falls from top story windows, or is thrown from front doors, to drop at his feet with the true ring. Then, if the voice be immaterial, where lies the art of gridling? No more or less than in the selection of hymns, which must be simple and pathetic and familiar to all. Let the gridler supply the words sufficiently to be understood, and the simple air with variations-a good gridler often misses parts of the air itself for breathing spells and in stooping for coppers- let him supply the words, I say, and his hearers will supply the feeling. For instance, if a gridler has sung an old well known hymn fifty or sixty times a day for ten or fifteen years, he cannot reasonably be expected to be affected by the words. It would be extremely thoughtless to request of such a one an encore without giving a promise of further reward. In fact this man is really so weary of song that if there is any merry making at the lodging house, he is the one man who will not sing, not even under the influence of drink; and, what is more, no man would invite him for, being a gridler and earning his living by song, we know well that his voice is spoilt, and that he cannot sing. The gridler considers himself to be at the top of the begging profession, for his stock never gets low, nor requires replenishing; and his voice is only a little weak thing of no weight, the notes of which are born into the world from his throat, and was never roused from sleep in the depths of his chest. There is no strain or effort in giving these notes to the world-despite the gridler's affectations-and he neither grows pale nor red with the exertion.

But the downrighter not only scorns grinders, pedlars, etc., but he even despises the gridler for being a hard worker. 'I,' says he, 'do not carry laces, needles, matches, or anything else; and I do not advertise my presence to the police by singing in the streets. If people are not in the front of the house, I seek them at the back, where a gridler's voice may not reach them. I am not satisfied with getting a penny for a farthing pair of laces-I get the whole penny for nothing. People never mistake me for a trader, for I exhibit no wares, and tell them straightforward that I am begging the price of my supper and bed.'

The fact of the matter is that all these men have different ways of making a living, and each man thinks his own way the best and fears to make new experiments, such an opinion being good for the trade of begging. Sometimes, owing to the vigilance of the police, and their strict laws, the gridler has to resort to downright begging, but his heart is not in the business, and he is for that reason unsuccessful. He longs to get in some quiet side street where he can chant slowly his well known hymns. But everything is in favour of the more silent downrighter; who allows nothing to escape him, neither stores, private or public houses, nor pedestrians. All he is required to do is to keep himself looking something like a working man, and he receives more charity in the alehouse by a straightforward appeal as an unemployed workman, than another who wastes his time in giving a song and a dance. People often hurry past when they hear a man singing, or see one approaching with matches or laces, but the down-righter claims their attention before they suspect his business.

When I met Long John at Oxford, we had much talk of the merits of different parts of a beggar's profession. He, it seemed, had carried laces; he had also gridled sacred hymns in the streets, and sung sporting songs in the alehouses; he had even exerted himself as a dancer, 'but,' said he, 'I must confess, after all, that as a downrighter my profits are larger, at the expenditure of far less energy

. In the course of conversation Long John informed me that he also was travelling London way, and if I was agreeable we would start together on the following morning. 'And,' said he, in a whisper, so that other lodgers might not hear-'there is a house on our way that is good for a shilling each. He is a very rich man and has been an officer in the army. He pretends to be prejudiced against old soldiers, and when they appeal to him, he first abuses them, after which he drills them and, after abusing them again, rewards each with a two shilling piece. Do you know the drills?' 'No,' I answered, 'I have never been in the army.' 'That is a great pity' said Long John, 'for we lose a shilling each. However, we will not say that we are old soldiers, for fear of losing all, and be satisfied with the two shillings between us.' So it was agreed.

In less than two hours we were at the gentleman's lodge. Passing boldly through the gates we followed the drive until we saw before us a fine large mansion. Reaching the front door we rang the bell, which was soon answered by a servant. To our enquiries as to whether the master was in the servant replied in the negative, but intimated that the mistress was. Of course, this made not the least difference, as many a tramp knew, except that had we been old soldiers the lady not being able to test us by drills would therefore not have given more than the civilian's shilling. Now, almost unfortunately for us, the downrighter, knowing that the lady would not drill us, and thinking that there might be a possibility of getting the master's double pay to old soldiers, without danger of drill or cross examination-suddenly made up his mind to say that we were two old soldiers. For, thought he, if it does no good, it cannot do any harm. Therefore, when the lady appeared smiling at the door Long John, being spokesman, told a straightforward tale of hardship, and added that we had both served our country on the battlefield as soldiers. He had scarcely mentioned the word soldiers when a loud authoritative voice behind us cried- 'Shoulder Arms!' I was leaning heavily on a thick stick when this command was given, but lost my balance and almost fell to the ground. We both turned our faces toward the speaker and saw a tall military looking gentleman scrutinising us with two very sharp eyes. Giving us but very little time to compose ourselves he shouted again-'Present Arms'! This second command was no more obeyed than the first. Long John blew his nose, and I stood at ease on my staff, as though I did not care whether the dogs were set upon us or we were to be lodged in jail. After another uncomfortable pause the retired officer said, looking at us severely- 'Two old soldiers, indeed! You are two impostors and scoundrels! Perhaps you understand this cornmand'-and in a voice fiercer and louder than ever he cried 'Quick March!' Long John and I, although not old soldiers, certainly understood this command, for we started down the drive at a good pace, with the military looking gentleman following. When we reached the public road, he gave another command-'Halt!' But this was another of those commands which we did not understand. However, on its being repeated less sternly we obeyed. 'Here,' said he, 'you are not two old soldiers, but you may not be altogether scoundrels; and I never turn men away without giving them some assistance.' Saying which he gave us a shilling each. But what a narrow escape we had of being turned penniless away, all through Long John's greed and folly!