Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Life in the London Streets, by Richard Rowe, 1881 - Chapter 2 - A Philosophical Vagabond

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HE was shabbily dressed, but tolerably clean, and as honest as it is possible for a man to be who, haying nothing, thinks that he is not called upon to work for his living. He had a certain amount of cleverness also, and a tinge of humour, at any rate cynical quaintness, which made him rather an amusing fellow to talk with. Let him speak for himself:-
    "Oh, yes, I know all that about ,making two blades of corn grow where only one grew before, [-51-] but I have no ambition to be a benefactor to my species. I wasn't meant to work any more than the birds are. I was born lazy, - so I am lazy. That's what I call living agreeably to nature. I'd a decentish education, - at least, I might have had if I'd taken the trouble to get it, but you know the saying about leading a horse to water and not being able to make him drink. However, I was always fond of reading, and am now; books that don't bother your head and make you feel uncomfortable. The South Sea Islands I used to like to read about, - pretty women and palm trees and all that, and no trouble. Captain Cook, I think it is, says that when a man has planted ten bread-fruit trees he's done his duty, - provided for himself, and his family, and posterity. I think I could be equal to so much work.
    "It was playing truant from school gave me my taste for that state of life unto. which it hath pleased God to call me. I knew I should catch the cane at last, but of a fine day, when I heard the leaves rustling, and the birds singing, and a bumble bee, perhaps, buzzing in and out of the balsam blossoms, I couldn't help it; into the country I must go. Aunt was very proud of her balsams. She kept father's house: I never had a mother to know. So into the country I did go, and loll about till I was hungry, and then it was easy enough to get as much as I wanted, and so I've found it since. My wants [-52-] are simple; I don't object to the best of everything that's going, if it comes in my way; but if it don't, why I can just go without. So long as I can get enough of anything I'm satisfied. It was jolly lying there and thinking of the fellows grinding away in school; and then when they got out, refreshing themselves by playing at cricket, of all things in the world! I'd just as soon be put to hard labour at once. My father wanted to make a doctor of me, - just fancy me, never having a moment I could call my own, gobbling up my meals, and going to bed afraid the night-bell would begin to ring before I could get my eyes shut. However, the last year I was at school the chap that kept it shammed to hear me read Celsus and Gregory. It was easy for both of us. He got cribs, and I found out where he stowed them away, and took the liberty of borrowing them. Of course I didn't construe quite perfect. I cut the year I was apprenticed. The night-bell hung in my bed-room, and when I heard it, I was expected to get up and call the governor. So it happened that pretty often I didn't hear it. I'd let it ring away until the folks outside got savage, and pulled and tugged until you'd have thought that wire, and paper, and bell, and wall were all coming down together. Up my master would come, putting on his clothes, in an awful rage. But I'd take no notice of him,-snore on, the peaceful sleep [-53-] of the just, till he fair shook me out of bed. 'Bless my soul,' he used to say,-sometimes it wasn't 'bless,' for he was a very hot-tempered man,-' if ever I knew a lad sleep like this before. Wake! Turn out, you snoring pig; have you drunk up all my laudanum?'
    "Sometimes, when he came back, he used to give me long lectures about the narrow escape the patients had had through his coming so late. But that didn't trouble me much: I thought it didn't much matter whether he went or not, - indeed, that the odds were that they'd be all the better if he didn't go at all; besides, what did it matter to me?
    "For a time he let me go to bed at nine, instead of staying up till eleven, so that I might be readier to hear the bell; but he soon found out that that was no good. So when he stopped my two hours extra rest, I determined to cut. I was sick of pounding away with that confounded old pestle. It was so heavy that it made your arms ache, however easy you took your work. Besides, he was a deal too fond of making me trot about. When he'd no loblolly-boy, he'd send me out with the medicines, and that was so infra dig. I couldn' t stand it. I was his pupil, not his Buttons.
    "So I packed up a few things in a bundle, and started. There was only one reason why I was sorry to go away. The docter had a daughter,-a pretty girl,-about a year and a half [-54-] younger than me. She was always teasing me, chiefly about being lazy, and yet I couldn't help liking her. Though she did call me lazy, I put myself more out of my way to please her than I ever did for anybody else in my life.
    "I didn't take to begging at first. It was from Harwich I cut, and at Colchester fair, when the little money I'd had in my pocket was gone, I fell in with a posturer, who tried to make something out of me in his line, but I was too old; and however well I could have done it, I'd never have taken all that trouble to earn so little. One or two other things I went in for, but I soon found that I could get all I wanted just for the trouble of asking for it. So ever since then I've lived the life of a lord, so far as work goes. They call me the lord, the people in my line, because I keep myself so much to myself, - I don't care about company. Of course I must sometimes mix with them in the casual wards and the lodging-houses; and when I do I make myself agreeable: I shouldn't have a very easy life if I didn't. But when I can, I like to be by myself. I don't care about drunken racket, and that's most tramps' notion of fun: I like to take things easy. When it's fine weather there's no king I'd call my cousin. I'm free to go where I please and I've no pikes to pay or railway fare, and no hotel bill neither, except now and again for my bed. . But in fine weather I sleep out of doors, and enjoy the [-55-] country night and day. Of course there are plenty who don't care a farthing for the country, except for what they can get out of it: but I'm different. If I've food and drink, and any kind of decent raiment, - I don't relish rags, and I like to go sound shod, - I am therewith content, and can find time to enjoy the beauties of nature better, perhaps, than some that think themselves my betters.
    "Say it's hay-making time. Well, I get a snug corner of the field, and there I've bed and bedding, scented too, and sleep as if I lay on down. I'm not like Cheap Jack's man who caught cold through sleeping in a field. He left the gate open, you see, and so there was a draught. Well, I wake before the sun's up,, and when I put my head out into the air, it's just as if I plunged it into a pail of iced lavender water. Then I lie listening to the hedge-sparrows chirping, and the blackbirds beginning to sing, and then leaving off as if they couldn't take the trouble to finish the tune; and the cocks crowing and such like. It's curious to listen to the cocks; one'll crow, and another'll answer him, and after that however many may be crowin,' those two will take no notice of the rest, but always wait for each other before they begin to crow again: it's just as if they were having an argument, or bullying one another. When one of 'em has given a special long loud crow, the other'll wait [-56-] a bit as if he was shut up at last, and then out he'll come with a longer crow, and a louder, and finish off with a flourish, as if he was saying, 'There, old boy, you. beat that if you can!'
    "Sometimes I hear an early goods-train going by, a dozen fields off, shrieking and panting. 'Puff, puff, puff,' in a hurry, it'll go a score of times running, as if it had lost its breath already; and thinks I to myself, ' I'd. rather be myself than a railway engine-driver, or a railway director either.'
    "Then I get another snooze, and wake up again about the time the people are coming into the field. Then I get up and shake myself, and walk off to perform my toilette and choose a breakfast parlour. I'm pretty sure to find water clean enough for a wash, in a pond or a ditch somewhere handy, or perhaps there's a little riyer, and I can have a bathe, or a brook I can dip my feet in to cool and strengthen 'em, as I sit by it having my breakfast. Sometimes I light a fire to boil my pot or toast a herring at; sometimes I've cold tea in my tin. Most times I can get new milk when I want it, if I'm near where cows are kept. If the girls are milking they'll give me some, if it's only to get rid of me; and if the cows are by themselves in the meadows, why I can save the girls the trouble and help myself. No, I don't call that stealing, because they'd give me the milk if they were there. If I haven't good scran, I lay in enough [-57-] for my breakfast the night before; but it isn't often I've to buy anything, and sometimes I can make a regular spread out of the things that have been given to me,- bread and butter, cold toast, sandwiches, cake, ham bones, cold fowl, fruit pie, meat pie,- all kinds of things, and they're none the worse for being a bit crumbly. When I've had my breakfast, I light my pipe and smoke it at my leisure. I haven't to rush off to take down shutters, or to perch myself on a stool and begin at a whole day's quill driving. I can take my time. If I havn't a whole newspaper with me, I'm pretty sure to find something I haven't seen before in the bits the scran has been wrapped up in. They're rather greasy, but that don't affect the reading.
    "When I've done, I put on my boots and start. I've a general kind of notion of the way I mean to go, but I don't tie myself down to any particular road, and I don't stick to the dusty highway neither. I cut across meadows, and go in and out and round about, by the lanes that have got grass on each side of 'em. That's very pleasant when dog-roses are in the hedges, and the leaves are thick overhead: the country's very pretty at that time, - long grass and hay, and green corn all round about, and there's so many flowers, in the woods and the hedges, and the ditches, and in the gardens, too, I'm very fond of flowers. When I can, I sport a button-hole, as smart as I can get,-except when I'm [-59-] begging. The folks I was begging of might think I'd stolen it out of their garden, and, besides, you're expected to be very humble when you're begging,-leastways as long as there's a chance of getting anything,-and flowers 'ud make you look too jolly for a beggar that's supposed to have lost his all, and to have no time to think o' vanities. I don't beg more than I need, - just enough to keep me going pretty comfortable, and I can manage that without much trouble mostly. Some folks, of course, are screws, and some will cut up rough, and threaten to get you locked up it you're not off in two two's; but a great many people will give you something or other out of good nature. 'Well,' they'll, say, 'I have no money to give you, but I can't deny you food, my poor man, if you're hungry;" and a good dollop of it, and good stuff, too, they'll give you. If that ain't money, it's money's worth to me, in two ways. It saves me buying grub, and what I don't want for myself I can sell. And those that won't give out of kindness, will if they're scared. It's curious bow lonely some houses stand.. You may have been walking for ever so far without seeing so much as an old black barn in a field, and then all of a sudden, just as if you'd found a. bird's nest, you come upon a snug little house almost hidden in trees. But the people who live in those snug little houses don't like to have a tramp loitering [-59-] about their premises, any more than birds do to have a cat prowling round their nests, and will, bribe you like to move on. 
    "When I've got enough for the day and night, I don't trouble any more. I'm a true Christian. When I've got my daily bread I take no thought for the morrow, saying, 'What shall I eat, and what shall I drink, and wherewithal shall I be clothed?' No, I just dander on, this way and that way, till I come to what'll make a good camping-place, and there I stop, whatever the time is, so long as there's nobody about. I fight shy of company: it's such a bother to have to talk, - especially in hot weather. I wouldn't mind company now and again if it wasn't for the talking. Why must men and women always let their tongues go clack, clack, clack, directly they get together, when mostlike they've got nothing to tell each other? Why can't they be quiet like the beasts? You don't hear bullocks begin to bellow as soon as they see each other, unless they've some good reason. They'll stand quiet for hours with their heads over one another's shoulders, and so will horses. But men and women, if they can't find anything else to talk about, will go on about the weather, as if anyone couldn't tell whether it was hot or cold, without somebody else telling him.
    "Hot and cold,- at least cold enough to make me glad to find a barn to sleep in,- I've [-60-] had pleasant times by myself in the country. Comical places I've slept in, besides barns: in an old wind-mill they said was haunted, and in a church; I crawled through a window that was open, and made myself a snug bed on the floor of one of the pews with the cushions and hassocks; and I've slept in a saw-pit, snuggled up in the saw-dust; and often in an old tree, and on a cut haystack, and under a cart. Once when I was down by the sea-side, I got into a bathing machine, and the two ladies that took it the next morning didn't notice me,- they were so busy talking, I suppose, - until the horse had dragged 'em a good way into the sea (the sands there are very flat), and they were beginning to undress. When they did find me out, I was precious soon woke by their screeching. I didn't wait for the man to lug me out. Into the water I splashed, and made off as fast as my wet clothes, and the sand that had got into my shoes, would let me, soon as ever I got ashore. I was afraid that I should be pulled up:, there was a bit of a shouting after me, but it was early, and so there weren't many people about, and I got off. 
    "Well, yes, I've been locked up before now. If a hare comes galloping right across your feet, it's human nature that you should knock it over with your stick if you can, but the law calls it poaching. But why should I mind the law? I'm an outlaw. What good do I get [-61-] from the law, that I should care for it? It isn't the policeman that protects me, but myself - person and property both (though my property ain't much of an anxiety to me), just as if I was living in a savage land. Fruit, too, is tempting in hot weather, and when you see it so plenty in gardens and orchards,-strawberries, and gooseberries, and currants, and cherries, and raspberries, and plums, and apples, and pears,-it seems hard you shouldn't help yourself, specially since what you take can't be missed, if you're not seen taking it, and there's no one to see, as you think. Well, yes, it's possible that a tramp may now. and again appropriate a stray goose, if he wants a good supper or is near a good market. Those that ain't tramps do the same when they go into London with their masters' hay and straw; at least, so I've heard. I don't make a practice of stealing geese for the London market, and, therefore, I can't tell you much about it. Not that I think there would be any harm in my taking one whenever I wanted one. As Shakspeare says- 
    " Steal! Foh! A fico for the phrase.'
    I'm a law unto myself. I don't acknowledge your English law; I don't get any benefit from it, and I'm not bound by it. I believe in the good old law of taking what you find, and keeping what you can. As to the eggs I've fished out of hedges and ditches, I should like [-62-] to know who has a better right to them than me, according to any system o' law? Who's to prove his hens laid 'em? P'r'aps it's likely enough one man's did, but who's to prove it? And most. like they'd have been addled if I hadn't taken them. Sometimes I've been put into the cage, but cages aren't over strong for the most part. If you can't get out by the door, you can by the roof. No, I was never in the stocks. I've seen stocks still standing, for I've been all over England nearly, but I don't think they're ever used now. Once, though, I saw a rare game. I was lying in a field .by the roadside, close by where there was some stocks, but there was a hole in the hedge, and I saw some kind of a young parson, not a Church of England clergyman, - that was easy. to see, - coming along with a young lady. I suppose they were sweethearting. Well, the young lady wanted the young man to explain the stocks to her. I daresay she knew as much about them as he did, but, of course, he had to look wise, and do the polite. So he sits down and, puts his legs through the holes, and she shoves down the board, and blest if she can get it up again when she tries! She tugs and tugs, but it's no go. So off she has to run into the village, half-laughing, half-crying, to get some one to let her darling out; and there he sat, looking uncommon flustered and sulky, both. A countryman came along, and the young par-[-63-]son asked him to help him out. 'Na, na,' says the yokel; 'let them take ye out as put ye in; - yow wasn't put in for nowt, I guess.'
    "So away he goes, when who should come up but the clergyman o' the parish? He grinned a bit when he saw the young opposition chap stuck in there; still he tried to get him out,- anyhow shammed to, but he couldn't,- anyhow he didn't. There the young fellow had to sit till his girl came back with the constable, and half-a-dozen more of the village folk, and the young chap was got out at last, and he was chaffed a bit, as you may think. He didn't look best pleased when he walked off with his young woman. But I came across them that afternoon again, looking as if the world was made o' barley-sugar, and they hadn't grown sick of it yet. I should like to know what they think of it now, if they're alive. Perhaps she wishes she'd left him in the stocks, and he wishes he'd. been hanged before ever he clapped eyes on her. We manage that kind of thing a deal better in my line of life. You can have wife and children if you like, but you needn't keep 'em a day after you're tired of 'em. Ashamed o' myself? Why should I be? It's a deal better for all parties. Just think what a lot o' nagging would be saved, and mayhap murder, too, if married folk could slip their necks out o' the noose as soon as it began to gall them. Lonely? Well, that's [-64-] my own look out: for my part I like loneliness, 'cept just when I'm in the mood for company, and that ain't often; but when I do want it, you see I can get such as suits me, and cut it just as soon as it don't suit me. Yes, it like loneliness mostly. I'm like the miller on the banks of Dee
    "'I care for nobody, no, not I,
    For nobody cares for me.'
It's humbug, best part of it, all that professin' to care for other folk; and I ain't a humbug, thank God. That's why I like the country better than town,-you can keep yourself more to yourself in the country. But, of course, we are obliged to come to London in winter to get the flats to feed us, just as the starved-out birds come up to the windows when the snow lies thick.
    "Selfish, am I? Well, I guess I am: who ain't? Anyhow I'm more considerate than some o' them who call themselves - anyhow think themselves - the most unselfish folk going. I've taken care that my death shan't leave any disconsolate friends and inconsolable widows. When I die I shan't be missed any more than the flies; but we've a jolly time of it,- me and the flies,- for all that.

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