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



LIFE was very irksome to me at this period, being led to chapel morning and evening on Sundays, and led back; having the mortification of seeing other boys of the same age enjoying their liberty. The only way to alter these conditions was to apply for work. This was soon done, hiring myself out to an ironmonger, at a weekly wage of five shillings. The old people now began to take a pride in me, advising me to study my master's interests, and without doubt succeed to his business at his decease. My brother, two years my senior, who, as I have said before, was odd in his behaviour, took example by me, and succeeded in being employed at a large clothing establishment. It was there and then that he began and finished his life's work in half a day. Having been sent to the dock with a large parcel valued at two pounds ten shillings, he found on arrival that the Betsy Jane was moored in the middle of the dock. My brother, seeing this, and not being blessed with inventive faculties, placed the parcel on the quay and returned to his master. Naturally the shopkeeper thought it was safely delivered, until the captain of the Betsy Jane, coming straight from his ship, entered the shop to make enquiries about his goods. My brother, having a clear conscience, explained matters in his simple way to the open eyed astonishment of his hearers. The result was a summary dismissal, and a letter to my grandfather requesting him to make good the loss of the parcel; which was duly done, my grandfather being extremely afraid of the law. The old people would never admit that my brother was different from other boys, although it was apparent not only to grown folk, but to the smallest child in the street. Some days before the affair just mentioned my grandmother, having to answer the door, ordered my brother to watch some fish, which was being prepared for dinner. When she returned, the cat was enjoying a good meal under the sofa. To the old lady's cry of "Francis, did I not tell you to watch the fish," my brother answered truthfully: for he always told the truth and did what he was told - "So I did, grandmother, and the cat took it." If she had explained to him properly why she wanted the fish watched, at the same time making special mention of a cat's partiality for fish, no doubt he would have watched to better purpose.

Nothing could have happened better than this instance of the loss of the ship's goods to undeceive my grandfather as to my brother's state of mind. A sudden blaze of intelligence broke in on the old man's mind, which was not of the most brilliant kind. "Lydia," said he to his wife, "there's something wrong with the boy; to think he did not have sense enough to shout, Ship ahoy." I ventured to say, to show my cleverness, that there might have been several ships in the middle of the dock, and they would have all answered to Ship ahoy. Would it not have been better to cry, Betsy Jane, ahoy? The old man paused thunderstruck. "Avast there," he cried, "drop anchor: will ye have more pudding?'

In our street almost every woman had some one connected with the sea, and it was my grandfather's pleasure by day to parade the street and inform the women as to what winds and tides were favourable to their husbands or sons. One woman had a husband that had sailed away in a barque, which was never sighted or hailed after leaving port, and was now three months overdue. My grandfather feared to meet this sailor's wife, and would often peep around his door, trying to escape consultation from her, knowing well his own forebodings as to the fate of the barque and her crew.

I have mentioned Dave, who was a very studious lad, and who became my one companion and the sharer of my dreams. He had received an old copy of Byron, and we both became fascinated by the personality of that poet. His influence on Dave was so great that it was publicly shown to all the boys and girls in the chapel's schoolroom, where we had gathered for childish games, under the supervision of the elders. While we were playing kiss in the ring, singing and laughing, dancing with merriment, when small white teeth, red lips and bright eyes were all the rage - Dave would lean his figure (not so tall as he would like it) against a pillar, biting his lips and frowning at our merry-making. None but myself knew that his troubles and sorrows were purely imaginary, but they certainly succeeded in causing some sensation, even the notice of the elders being drawn to him. Some time after this we had more trouble with Dave, when we went for a day's trip to the sea-side. On this occasion he took his own path across the sands, a solitary figure, with his head bowed, and when we called him he would not heed us. That night, when it was time to return Dave stood perilously near the edge of the pier, gazing with melancholy eyes on the water. Several women hastened towards him, and drawing him gently away, enquired as to his trouble. On which Dave stood erect, was motionless, frowned, bit his lip, and stalked away into the darkness, without uttering a word. He came back in time to catch the boat. Dave soon got tired of these doings, but the influence of Byron was more lasting on me. It was the first time for me to read verse with enjoyment. I read Shelley, Marlowe, and Shakespeare, indifferent to Wordsworth, but giving him since the attention of wiser days.

My grandmother had only read one novel in her life, called "The Children of the Abbey," and had been severely punished by her mother for doing so. She therefore continually warned me against reading such works, but strongly recommended Milton's "Paradise Lost" and Young's "Night Thoughts"; her favourite quotation being from the latter - "Procrastination is the thief of time." It pleased her to tears when a friend saw a likeness between John Bunyan and myself, and she regretted that she saw no prospect of ever tracing a resemblance between our hearts.

I was now bound apprentice to the picture frame trade, but owing to my passion for reading, could not apply myself sufficiently to that business so as to become a good workman. The fact of the matter was that I was reading deep into the night and, having to be up early for work, was encroaching on Nature's allowance of sleep. Owing to being young and conceited and not being satisfied at having knowledge concealed, I showed at this time some parts that made older and wiser people of both sexes prophesy good results in manhood. Having no knowledge of metre and very little of harmony, I composed and caused to be printed a poem describing a storm at night, which a young friend recited at a mutual improvement class, making after mention of the author's name, when I was publicly congratulated. Some time after this I - having surreptitiously visited the playhouse on more than one occasion - boldly read out an article to the same class entitled - "In defence of the Stage." This daring performance caused some commotion among the full grown sheep, who thought they detected a wolf in lamb's clothing; but the young lambs - my companions - bleated for pride and joy. My grandmother was told of this, and as she did not take the trouble to enquire the subject of my address, and it was not told unto her, she was satisfied to know I had surprised several members of the congregation and in particular a deacon, for whom she had great respect.

It has always been a wonder to me where my conversational power has gone: at the present time I cannot impress the most ordinary men. It must be through associating so many years with companions uncongenial to my taste, a preference for indulging in my own thoughts, and forcing myself to comment on subjects uninteresting to me. I remember at one time being in a lodging house where one man stood out as an authority on books, disease, politics, military tactics, and more especially the meaning and right pronunciation of words. Several times different men have said to me, "That man is a scholar; he is not an ignoramus, as the likes of you and me." It was a secret satisfaction to know that this gentleman to whom they referred, often paid the compliment of knowing more than himself by asking information, which, on my part, was imparted with much secrecy, as I did not wish to appear in any way superior to those with whom I was forced by circumstances to associate. Yet, in those happy days of my apprenticeship, I rarely visited a house but what a second invitation was assured, although a painful shyness marred the beginning. We enjoyed ourselves so much one evening at a friend's house, where the lady had been all day indisposed, that her husband said, on leaving, "My wife has been laughed out of her sickness, and you have certainly saved me an item on the doctor's bill." Instead of this giving more confidence and overcoming my shyness, when I received from them an invitation for a second party I became so overpowered at the thought of what would be expected of me, that for the life of me I could not accept it, knowing I would have made an ass of myself. It is not altogether shyness that now makes me unsuccessful in company. Sometimes it is a state of mind that is three parts meditation that will not free the thoughts until their attendant trains are prepared to follow them. Again, having heard so much slang my thoughts often clothe themselves in that stuff from their first nakedness. That being the case, shame and confusion in good company make me take so long to undress and clothe them better, in more seemly garments, that other people grow tired of waiting and take upon themselves the honour of entertainers. It was in the second year of my apprenticeship that I met a young woman living in a small village adjoining this town of my birth, who was very clever, a great reader of fine literature; and it was to her hands, after I had enjoyed her conversation on several occasions, that I submitted a small composition of my own. Her encouragement at that early time has been the star on which these eyes have seldom closed, by which I have successfully navigated the deeps of misery, pushing aside Drink, my first ofBcer, who many a day and many a night endeavoured to founder me. She was the first to recognise in my spirit something different from mere cleverness, something she had seen and recognised in her books, but had never before met in a living person. I had known her only six months when she died, but her words of encouragement have been ringing in my ears ever since they were uttered.

My grandfather had also died; a straightforward, honest, simple man, with a mortal dread of being in debt, and always well prepared to pay his rates and taxes. He had a horror of being a principal in the police courts, but appeared there three times for no offence of his own. Called upon once to examine a rope supposed to be stolen from a ship he proved the rope was of the land, and different from a ship's rope - discharge of the prisoner. On another occasion, Sunday morning, and grandfather being in bed, a detective, disguised as a poor working man that was almost dying for a drink, wheedled the old man's daughter to sell him some liquor over the back wall - the result being a summons for supplying drink during closed hours, followed by a heavy fine, which was at once paid. The third time was at my trial with five other desperadoes, as described in the preceding chapter. There was nothing false about this man, and he had the heart of a lion. He claimed to have beaten the champion of Portsmouth, but undoubtedly this was some drunken fellow who had taken on himself this much coveted title. Grandfather's pet yarn, which I have heard him recount a hundred times, took place in a public house, where a thin partition divided him from another person who was loudly extolling himself to the admiration of others. Grandfather allowed this man to continue for some time, but at last, losing patience, he looked around the partition and cried in a stern voice, "Avast there. Captain Jones: I knew thee when thou wert glad to eat barley bread without butter." Captain Jones looked disconcerted at this remark and then, quickly putting his own head around the partition, whispered: "Hush, hush, Captain Davies; there's nothing like making one's self look big in a strange place."

I was now in the last year of my apprenticeship, and was running a bit wild, taking no interest in my trade, and determined in a few months to throw off all restraint. When my time had expired, my master wanted me to continue working for him, which I did for a short time; and, for one who had not yet reached his twenty-first year, received a very fair wage. In three or four months I found some excuse for leaving. I was eager to start for the new world; but my grandmother would not, on any account, supply money for that purpose; so I applied for work at Bristol, was accepted, and worked there six months, being then called home through the death of the good old lady. The licence indulged in during these six months, being in a strange town and unknown, was sufficient to wreck the brains and health of any man beyond recovery, and for the time being deadened all literary ambition. It could not have continued this way much longer, and no doubt, it was her death that prevented the collapse of my life, by a change of circumstances. Her estate was in the hands of a trustee, and its profits were to be divided weekly among her three grandchildren. She was a good old soul, and I have lived long enough to cherish every hair of her head. She was a Baptist, stoutly opposed to other creeds - called the stage the Devil's Playground - abhorred second marriages - and thought as much of me in life as I think of her in death. Many of the little kindnesses that were given to her in life were done more out of a sense of duty than from the gratitude of which she was so worthy. But the good old soul died without suspecting any other than gratitude. Mine is the shame and sorrow that she did not receive it, as I am even now, thirteen years after her death, living on her bounty. When my grandmother died, I joined home with mother and her second family, but after a month or two of restlessness, I sought the trustee, got an advance from him of some fifteen pounds, and full of hope and expectation embarked for America.