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



COCKNEY MORE was a cattleman, hailing from the port of Baltimore. He was a born thief and, strange to say, nearly blind; but, without doubt, he was a feeler of the first magnitude. If he borrowed a needle, and the said article was honestly returned, it behoved the lender, knowing the borrower's thievish propensities, to carefully examine it to see that the eye had not been abstracted; for, as Donovan remarked-'Cockney More could steal the milk out of one's tea.'

When I have looked at Cockney's long thin fingers, I have often wondered whether he had power to disjoint them at will, letting them down the legs of his trousers to rummage the locality, while he stood innocently talking to us with his hands in his pockets. That honour which is supposed to exist among thieves was not known to Cockney More, for he would rob his best friend, and do it in such a way that no man could take umbrage. For instance, six of us had landed in Liverpool, having been paid off that morning. Cockney, knowing the ins and outs of that city, and its numerous pitfalls for strangers, escorted us at once to a cheap lodging-house, where we paid in advance for a week's bed, thus being assured of shelter until the ship was ready to return. The next morning we sat six disconsolate men in the lodging-house kitchen, not one of us having the price of his breakfast. Cockney, being the last to rise, entered at last, and noting our despondent looks enquired as to the cause. On being told he went out and returned in a few moments with tea, sugar, bread and sausages. In fact, he continued these kind deeds during our week ashore. The others, being mostly strangers, blessed him for a good fellow, but it occurred to me that he was simply returning us our own, for he spent three times more money during those few days than he had received for the trip.

I remembered a mean little trick that he had performed on one of the cattlemen that very first morning ashore. True, we were all getting drunk fast, but I never thought Cockney would be daring enough to attempt such a deed in our first stage of intoxication. He had asked this cattleman for a chew of tobacco and the man had generously offered him the whole plug to help himself. Cockney took this plug and, biting off a piece, returned the bitten part to the owner, and himself pocketed the plug. I was speechless with astonishment at seeing this: and more so when the strange cattleman innocently received the bitten part, and put it in his pocket without having perceived anything wrong.

Cockney and myself were on the best of terms, and yet, some time previous to the above episode, he had served me a trick which ought to have severed our friendship for ever. I was at tbe shipping office and had that morning signed for a trip to London. 'Have you sufficient tobacco, and a spoon, knife, fork and plate?' enquired Cockney. 'Yes,' I replied, 'and I have also a new pack of cards, so that we may enjoy our leisure hours aboard.' Cockney was pleased to hear this, although he was not to accompany me on this trip. 'Let me see them,' said he. This I did and being, as I have said, nearly blind, he took them to the window for examination, but returned them almost immediately. Then came a shout for all men who had signed for the London trip, and, hastily wishing Cockney and others good-bye, I left the office. On the second day out we were all at leisure for an hour or more, and enquiries went round as to who had a pack of cards. My cards were at once produced and, taking partners, we were about to settle to a little enjoyment. Alas, when my cards were taken out of the new case, they were found to be a dirty, greasy old pack with several missing, and, of course, card playing was out of the question. I at once knew what had happened: Cockney had substituted these old ones for the new, what time he pretended to be interested at the window. That little trick; meant twelve days' misery for eight men, for we could not get another pack until we landed in London.

On that trip, when I had the pleasure of Cockney's company, we had with us Donovan who, as a thief, certainly ran Cockney a good second. The truth of the matter is that all cattlemen are thieves, and the one who complains of going ashore without his razor, often has in his possession another's knife, comb or soap. On the second day out I missed my pocket-knife and, without loss of time, boldly accused Cockney More to his face, telling him that however much I admired his dexterity in other people's pockets I had not the least suspicion that he would be guilty of such a trick on an old pal. 'No more have I,' said he. 'What kind of knife was it?' On being told, he advised me to say no more about it, and that he would endeavour to find it. He succeeded in doing so, and the next day Donovan was shouting indignantly-'Who has been to my bunk and stolen a knife?' After this I lost my soap, but did not think it worth while mentioning such a petty loss. On approaching Cockney More for the loan of his, he-giving me strict injunctions to return it at once, and not leave it exposed to the eyes of thieves-lent me my own soap.

This trip was a memorable one, and no doubt Cockney made the best haul of his life. We were together in Liverpool, Cockney, Donovan and myself, and as usual drinking. A stranger, hearing by our conversation that we hailed from America, invited us to drink; and in the course of conversation expressed a regret that he was out of work, and had no means of visiting America. 'Nothing is easier,' said Cockney, 'if you place yourself unreservedly in our hands. We are to sail on Thursday, and I can stow you away, as I have successfully done with others.' 'Many thanks,' replied the other, and so it was agreed.

On the following Thursday we went aboard, the Cockney carrying a large bag which contained the stowaway's clothes, etc. When the ship's officers entered our forecastle the stowaway was, of course, not present, but when they were searching other places, the stowaway was then sitting comfortably among us, these things being well managed by Cockney More. After this search they would pay us no more visits, and the stowaway was safe, and could go on deck at night for fresh air. The only danger now was to land him in America. This, the Cockney affirmed, was a danger of little account.

Now, as I have said, this stowaway had a bag, and Cockney More and Donovan were great thieves. Therefore, it was not at all surprising to hear that the poor fellow was soon without a second shirt to his back. He had lent me a book, the value of which I did not think him capable of appreciating, and I had made up my mind that it should not be returned until asked for. But when I heard him complain of losing so many things, through pity I became honest and returned it. But where was his watch and chain, his brushes, and where were his clothes, his tools, razor, strop, and many other useful articles? All these things were in possession of Donovan, and Cockney knew it and appeared to be grieving over lost chances; for he was supposed to have that honour which is among thieves, and as Donovan had been too fast for him, he had no other option than to sit quiet under the circumstances.

On the day before our arrival at Baltimore, I happened to enter the forecastle and found Donovan, his face pale, feverously rummaging Cockney More's bunk. 'What do you think?' said he. 'That blasted Cockney has robbed me of everything.' And so he had. He had allowed Donovan to do all the dirty work, of abstracting the goods one by one, as the chance occurred; he had allowed him the pleasure of their care and possession for many days, and then he had robbed him. But the artful part of the business was this: he had not left Donovan any chance to recover the goods, for he had made friends with one of the sailors-the latter having a forecastle to themselves-and had prevailed on that person to take charge of a parcel for him until all the cattlemen landed; 'for,' said he, 'these cattlemen are born thieves.' Yes, he had done the business neatly, for the desperate and much aggrieved Donovan who intended on landing to recover the goods by force, saw Cockney More walk ashore as empty handed as himself, and he was almost shaken in his belief that the said Cockney was, after all, the thief triumphant.