WHAT is there in the road that has ever made it the traditional home of romance and excitement? A certain man goes down from Jerusalem to Jericho and falls among thieves; King Cophetua meets his beggar maid, and Simple Simon his Pieman; Dick Whittington hears Bow Bells and turns again, and Dick Turpin rides to York; the Kellys range the Australian Bush, and the long trail of covered wagons lurch and creak their way into the Middle West. The road does make history.
But already I can see you shrugging your shoulders at me.
‘This man,’ you will say, ‘is a romanticist and his tales are old wives’ tales of days when the world was unsophisticated; when romance lurked excitingly round every corner; when life was cheap and passions ran high; when there were no motors or telephones, nor flying squads or gangsters. He may be picturesque with his Road of Romance, but he is very definitely old-fashioned. To-day the road, far from being a fierce highway of dramatic humanity, has deteriorated into being but a sophisticated cog in our appallingly materialistic world. And, into the bargain, the death which it daily breeds is no longer even elegant. No; the road is now sordid and its spirit is as dead as Queen Anne, in whose days this man seems to think he still lives. This is the twentieth century, and the road is just a public utility; and, as such, I pay for it and use it, and from it I demand service. Its surface is smooth and shiny to spare my back springs, not to mirror life.’ And then, after this sprightly sally, you will once more shrug your shoulders — this time until your ears almost meet your collar: ‘But, of course, the man is Irish, and every Irishman has a kink.’
I could argue with you, but I won’t; for the argumentative Irishman is a bellicose fellow, and I want to convince you to my way of thinking without strife. So I will merely — and I expect most annoyingly — state a fact and proceed to prove it. The spirit of the road is not dead; and the road is still the Road of Adventure and the mirror of the times and the setting of countless unwritten human dramas.
But do not imagine that it reveals itself to an eight-cylindered limousine doing its fifty miles an hour over a run of two hundred miles. The road has to be wooed, and the wooing must be gentle and unflurried. And that is where my luck comes in. I travel gently and without flurry. I take no credit. I have never been able to afford a good car. My transport reaches me at eighth or ninth hand, rattles along — downhill — at a maximum of thirty miles an hour, and is normally paintless and never cleaned. So I have no superiority complex on the road, and as a result no one is ever shy of me or my car. And that is what suits me.
Every lecturer leads a roving life, — here to-day, gone to-morrow, — with long stretches to be covered between one engagement and another and long tedium if he travels alone. And I hate to be companionless; for, with silence around me, I am inclined to wilt into unprofitable introspection and dumps. So I never travel long without a passenger, and my passengers belong to the great post-war army of the unemployed.
As I write, I am suddenly assailed with the thought that what I am saying sounds terribly priggish; so I hasten to add that I advance no claims as a Good Samaritan. My passengers give me far more than I give them, ‘Want a lift?’ — and in twenty miles I have learned something about the life I share with them which I should never have found in the columns of any of our journals or in any Parliamentary Paper, Blue or Pink or White or Green. That smooth surface which spares my back springs just as much as yours is still the mirror of life as it really is.
The Cambridge Fens are not unlike the Landes in France, and from afar the old man might have been a Gascon peasant. And what was odder still was that, when I caught him up, he was just like Clemenceau — stocky and squareshouldered, with Clemenceau’s bushy eyebrows and straggling white moustache. Even his shapeless cap reminded me of Clemenceau’s curious headdresses. Then he spoke, and the French illusion was gone. He was from Manchester, and his accent was broad Lancashire, full and hoarse.
I had a bit of bother getting him aboard, as his knees were stiff with old age, and he apologized gruffly for the trouble he was giving.
‘When you’re old,’ he gasped, ‘the stiffness won’t wear off. And this morning I am properly stiff, no mistake. Last night at that workhouse nearly did me in. Bare boards and three thin blankets and forty of us — all sorts — crammed into one ward anyhow. I did sleep; but, Lord, the aches this morning! It’s not right. Pigs are better bedded than we were. A bad place and a bad master over it. I met one fellow there who was nought but a prisoner. The master found that he was good in the garden and just would n’t let him out; and when he struck, and said he would n’t turn another shovelful, the master cut his food, and in the end he had to go back to the digging. He was a decent fellow, too; but once you become a workhouse lag it’s all up. In some ways, though, the place might have been worse. We were left with our ’baccy and the water was hot, though not a bit of soap would they give us to wash our clothes. Then, after the bath, I was sent along a stone corridor in my old bare feet with only a shirt on. I’m cold yet.'
He shivered and took my rug gratefully. ‘Of course,’ he went on, ‘we can’t expect hotels or even comfortable doss houses when it’s all free. But things could be better. And do you know why they are n’t? It’s because of the real tramps, — the pros, — them as have n’t done a day’s work in their lives and aren’t ever going to. Loafers, I call them; and you should hear their language and see the dirt. They’re the ones who make life hell for the rest of us on the road. But why should the Government make the workhouses comfortable or respectable for the likes of them? They’ve never done a hand’s turn for the Government or anyone else. But we suffer. I don’t grumble. I’m old and useless, and if I’m still going I ’ll be getting an old-age pension next New Year. But it’s the lads I’m sorry for — meeting those toughs, sleeping with them, listening to them, learning from them. That’s no life for lads. They ought to work, and most of them want to work; but the long and short of it is there’s no work — no; and there won’t never be none. So what have they to look forward to? Hiking weeks and months and years to find work which is n’t there; and in the end — you mark my words — they’ll become pros themselves — tens of thousands of them. That’s what England is coming to. You’ll see it; you ’re young. Thank God, I ’ll be dead and buried.
' And now the dole is cut. I’m a bit of a politician, — Manchester, you know; up there we’re all politicians, —and I don’t say that the cut was n’t right. Lots of them were drawing the dole who had no claim at all. But they’ve axed that lot out of it now, and only the genuines remain — the likes of me and, of course, the lads. And for us, now, the old rates ought to be put back. What is fifteen bob a week? It’s all gone in five days, no matter how one scrapes. So two days out of every seven it’s either beg or starve. It makes me mad, and the lads are all becoming Bolshie. And no wonder!
‘But I’ve only myself to blame. I had a job, and then the missus died, and without her the home went to pot. I’ve two sons, — both in work, — but they were no company of a night and I went on the drink, and the sons cut up rough when I came in sozzled; and then I lost my job — booze — and they got fed up. And so I cleared out. I’ve been six months on the road now, and I’m through the worst of the winter and odd jobs are easier to find in the summer time; and then, next New Year, I get my old-age pension. But it’s a pretty rotten end-up after being decent all my life. I used to pay rates and have a vote. But it’s all my own fault. ’
‘But can’t your sons help you?’ I asked.
He gave me a long look, and a hardness crept into his voice.
‘No,’ he said; ‘and I can’t ask them. I’d be ashamed after all I did after the missus died. I made their home a merry hell for them. I could n’t go back and beg. I’m too proud; and, after all, I’ve not so many more years to run.’
Spring was on the move, and I was sitting on the step of the car by a birch copse which was just beginning to burst, when I heard ‘John Peel’ loudly whistled and perfectly in tune. Round the corner came a man of about sixty-five, short, fairly erect, and beautifully shaved. As he passed me, he touched his hat and wished me the time of day.
I asked him where he was going. He was making for Oxford. Was I going that way and would I give him a lift? I was; and over the remainder of my packet of sandwiches he told me that he had been an ostler, but horses were no good now and the likes of him had no chance.
‘I’m too old to be a chauffeur, and the old lady whose cob I looked after for five years died on me the other day, and her place was sold up and no one wants me.’
‘But you won’t find any horses in Oxford,’ I said.
‘Maybe no. But that’s only a stage. I’m really going to Brighton. There was a gentleman I knew in one place I was in, a Major Parke; and when he left he gave me a good tip, — I was with a jobbing master then, — and he told me that he had got too old to hunt and was going to settle in Brighton. So I’m going there to see if I can find him and ask him for a job. ’
‘But that was long ago, if you were five years with the old lady. Do you think you’ll find Major Parke?’
‘Maybe yes, maybe no. Anyhow, Brighton is not far from Eastbourne, and the Little Sisters of the Poor are there; and they won’t shut the gate in my face. They are all right for the likes of me at my age. They will give me somewhere to sleep, and they will give me food to eat and clothes to wear, and I’ll work for them in the garden or anywhere; and when I’m dead they’ll give me a shroud and say a prayer for me — and that is all I can be expecting these days. It is the women who are good to us; and when I get to Oxford it’s to some more women I’m going. There is a place there — I don’t know the name of it, but I know where it is, because a fellow told me last night in the barn where I slept that they were all right, and that if I went there, and could say the Lord’s Prayer, they would give me a cup of tea and some bread and butter, and maybe a bit of meat; and that I could stay by the fire and they would give me somewhere to sleep until I was ready to go on in the morning. That’s a decent sort of place.’
‘But,’ I said, ‘you’re a Catholic, are n’t you? And your Lord’s Prayer, you know, is in Latin. The ladies won’t want that.’
‘Well, I thought of that,’ he replied. ‘But last night in the barn the man knew the English way, and we had a go at it together, and I think I remember it all right. But you’re a Protestant, are n’t you? Perhaps you would hear me say it over, to see that I don’t make any mistakes.’
He made lots — especially about forgiving us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us; but he slogged hard at it, and I got quite as keen as he was, until eventually, after about an hour, he had it pretty well all right.
Then we talked of other things: of horses and the season he had spent over in Ireland; of wars — his was the South African War. And then, suddenly, he seemed to become preoccupied. After a long pause, he turned to me.
‘Did n’t I see on that last signpost, “Oxford 3 miles”? It’s getting a bit close and I’m feeling a bit nervous over that Lord’s Prayer. It would be terrible if I did n’t get through after all and had to go to the workhouse. Would you mind trying it over again with me?’
So the two of us did the Lord’s Prayer solidly until we got well into the Banbury Road. He then asked me to go slow, because the place where the ladies were was up a side street. After two false alarms we got into the right road, and he made me his last request.
‘You’ve been so good to me that I’m ashamed to pester you any more; but would it be too much to ask you to wait near by for a quarter of an hour while I go within? You see, they’ll put me at the Lord’s Prayer straightaway, and if I make a mess of it, and they won’t let me stay, I ’ll be out in a quarter of an hour; and perhaps if you were waiting you could take me on to Reading, where there is another lot of old ladies who run the same sort of party down there; and if I’ve made mistakes here, you and I between us could correct them between this and Reading.’
I stopped the car down a little lane, three doors from the house of the charitable ladies. The old man got out.
‘I wonder,’ he said, ‘is it “good-bye” or only “so long”?’
It was good-bye. I heard the door close behind him, and I gave him half an hour instead of the quarter he had asked. But he did n’t come out again. He had proved a credit to my tuition.
He hailed my car between Newhaven and Lewes, and I was at once interested. His strong flaxen beard was neatly trimmed; his eyes were blue; and there was something clean and rollicking in his face which made me think that he had heard the call of the sea. Only the square black box which he balanced on his knee beside me puzzled me. It was not a sailor’s box, and I suggested that he might be more comfortable if he put it on the back seat. His reply was frank, if not particularly gracious.
‘Your back springs are too rough, and I ’m taking no risks,’ he said. ‘The box would get bumped to bits back there.’
That was that, and I said nothing. It was the way to make him talk; and, sure enough, after bearing my indifference for perhaps ten minutes, ‘Ever seen a box like this?’ he said. ‘It’s my own patent; I made it myself. I used to be a cobbler.’
The box opened in two like a Gladstone bag. One side was partitioned into pigeonholes of all sizes and shapes, and each pigeonhole was full. In one was a cake of soap, in another a sponge, in another a nailbrush, in a fourth a hairbrush and comb. And dovetailed among these larger compartments were smaller slots full of different-colored chalks. Strapped into the other side of the box was a clarionet in two sections. I congratulated my friend and told him I could read his character from his box. ‘A man of parts,’ I said; ‘and you certainly know how to look after your things. And you follow the arts?’ He gave me a slow smile of condescension.
‘Not bad,’ he replied. ‘I gave up being a cobbler two years ago, because they said that my lungs were going and that I must try an open-air life. Nowadays I get quite as much open air as I want. Of course, I don’t sleep out. I don’t need to. Now that I am getting known in my district as a clean man, I never have any trouble about getting good lodgings cheap. But the open air is no fun in weather like yesterday. Were you out in that storm? It came down like hell in Newhaven, where I was, and ruined my week-end.’
I told him that my week-end had been ruined, too, and that I had had to stay indoors all day.
‘It’s easy to see that you don’t have to work for your living,’ he retorted contemptuously. ‘I had to stay out of doors all day, playing my clarionet outside the pubs; and my hands got so cold that I could hardly play a note. Not that that made much difference. In that weather everybody stayed in their houses and the pubs had just as bad a time as I had. I only made one and ninepence in two days. The week before I was at Seaford and made twelve bob.’
I asked him if he had always been fond of music.
‘Never touched a note until a year ago, when another street artist, who was fed up with the clarionet and wanted to buy a saxophone on the hire system, swapped his clarionet with me for a pair of boots.’
‘And did he teach you how to play?’
‘Oh, no. No one ever taught me how to play. I play by ear and I know about ten tunes. I play them one after the other, and when they’re finished I start all over again.’
‘And what tunes do you find go down best ?’
‘Well, that depends on where I am. At a place like Seaford, when the weather is good, all the old ladies are sitting out on the free seats on the Front and I give them a bit of Trovatore and Tosti and “Pale Hands.” They like that sort of stuff. Once an old lady asked for “Good-bye” twice, and gave me half a crown. I told her to make it another bob and I’d play it four times. But the pubs want different sort of stuff. You’ve got to study them like the old ladies. There are ex-service pubs. I give them “Tipperary” and “Pack Up Your Troubles”; and because Newhaven is on the sea, yesterday I played nothing but “Tom Bowling” and “All the Nice Girls.” Give each of them what they want and they pay. But, as a matter of fact, I’m getting fed up with this clarionet. It requires a lot of wind, and it’s blooming hard to blow on a cold day, and there is blooming little noise even when you do blow. If I get a chance, I’m going to sell it and get a concertina. That plays itself.’
‘ Does it ? ’ I queried. ‘You ’ve tried ? ’
He gave me another of his condescending smiles.
‘No, but I’m all right on a mouth organ, and it’s the same idea — suck and blow. I’ve always said to myself that I could make a concertina talk. Do you play anything?’
I told him that I could play the piano quite well with my right hand.
‘You’d be no good in my line,’ he shrugged. ‘You can’t cart pianos about with you.’
I preferred to change the subject.
‘I saw those chalks in your box,’ I began.
‘Well, I paint a bit.’
‘ When I’m not a musician. Over the week-ends, when the pubs are full, I play; the rest of the time I draw at the street corner. But the profession is getting a bit crowded. Not that it matters to me much, because I’m well known now and have a regular beat. Everywhere I have a pitch of my own, and if the others know that I’m about there’s no poaching. As a matter of fact, they’re scared of me. About two months after I started on the game, a fellow pinched a bit of pavement I’d been working on; so I socked him one in the eye and told him to have a good look at my face and never to get the wrong side of it again. Since then I’ve had no trouble. You see, if you go in for being a street artist you get to know everybody and everybody gets to know you; and if you stand no nonsense and pay your bills in the lodging houses you will always be respected, and other fellows won’t try to jump you. ’
‘But do you always get into lodging houses? Don’t you ever have to go to the workhouse?’
‘Never been in one in my life. They’re too rough for me. Not that lodging houses are n’t a bit rough, too, sometimes. But I look after myself. It’s the only way; otherwise everything gets pinched. When I started, if a fellow asked me the loan of my soap in the morning I used to lend it to him, and five times out of six I never got it back. That’s why I keep it in a little box of its own. The same with the toothbrush — not that anybody’s ever asked me to borrow that. So one way and another I’ve made good, and I don’t know that one day or another I won’t settle down and marry. I met a woman the other week who wanted to marry me. She danced a bit and played the bones, and we might, have made a sort of touring show. But I found out that she was a bit close with her money. I told her I’d take her on if she paid me five pounds down on the nail. Then it was all off.’
We parted company in a village, and as it was noon, and very hot, I suggested that he should have a pint of beer with me.
‘Never touch a drop before evening,’ he said. ‘Gives me the hiccoughs — and no one can play the clarionet with the hiccoughs.’
My old car was cruising along at its modest maximum speed when suddenly, about three hundred yards ahead, a black figure emerged from the hedge, advanced into the very middle of the road, and proceeded to honor me and the car with a tolerable imitation of the Fascist Salute of Ceremony. I naturally drew up, and was at once accosted in broad Lancashire by a gaunt and weather-beaten woman of perhaps forty-five, who looked as though she had seen the wine when it was red pretty consistently during the last ten years of her life. I opened the door of the front seat to take her in; but she demurred.
‘No. Back seat for me. I’m a woman.’
I shrugged my shoulders. ‘All right, and you’ll be bumped to blazes. Though why you should be afraid of me I don’t know. I ’m looking after myself just as much as you’re looking after yourself.’ And I kept the front door swinging.
She gave me a good grin. ‘Well, you sound all right. I don’t mind if I do.’ And in she clambered.
‘It’s poor fun being a woman on the road these days. Did you see those two louts in that village we passed just now, grinning and nudging each other when they saw me alongside of you? I could have got out and clouted them. Oh, some men are no good. That’s why I keep myself to myself. It pays. Once you become one of them, it’s all up with you. No, not for this girl. Not that I ve not had lots of chances, and good-looking fellows, too; but, as I say, I was married proper in a church, and none of your easy virtue for me.’
‘What happened to your husband?’ I asked.
‘God knows. He’s a sailor. I got fed up with him. He was a terror for the booze.’
‘Dead. There was only one, and while we had him things were n’t too bad and my man did give me a bit to keep the home together. Then the kid died, and he said it was my fault and put me out on the street. Drunk, of course. I never went back. He’d only have beaten me more. That’s ten year gone and I’ve tramped all the time. And if I have drunk a bit myself when I had the chance, it’s his fault. The dirty dog, to turn a woman out of her home! But I’ve kept my wedding ring. It reminds me of the kid. Croup, you know. Took him off in three days. Dearie me, I often wonder whether, if he’d grown up, he’d ever have been big enough to give his father one or two for me. He was a grand baby.’
As she talked, she gazed straight ahead with her hands resting one on each knee, and now she was silent, but her pose remained, and for a quarter of an hour neither of us spoke. Then we came in sight of the town whither I was bound.
‘I’ll have to put you down here,’ I said. ‘Sorry.’
‘You live here?’
‘ Then you ’re known, once we get in.’
‘Well, then, I think I’ll get out here outside the place. You’ve been decent to me, and it would be a poor way to pay you back if some friend of yours saw us together and took me for a gay one. Besides, it would n’t do me any good, either. Good-bye.’
I was well on my way to making London by nightfall when my muchtried old car suddenly elected to give up the ghost. For ten minutes I vainly strove to bring it back to life, and I was getting pretty desperate when a young man, clean and tidily dressed and carrying a sack over his shoulder, overtook me. ‘Let me have a try,’ he said amiably. I was only too willing. He was efficiency and energy personified, and in two minutes the car was again roaring.
‘Going to London?’ I said. ‘Want a lift?'
He put his sack into the back with studied care. ‘That’s all I’ve got left and I’m taking good care of it. I’ve just gone on the dole and I want to get off it; but unless I can keep myself tidy, what chance have I of another job?’
He had just left a big motor company in the Midlands after four years with them, and I expressed surprise that a firm that was apparently so popular should be cutting down its staff.
‘Oh, don’t think that I got the sack. I gave it. Mass production breaks a fellow’s heart. Anybody can do the job so long as he has eyes in his head and ten fingers and a bit of sense. It’s a kid’s job and kid’s pay, and it’s kids they’re using. I went in when I was fourteen. At my bench the job was to fit the same four bolts, day in, day out. At first I was a bit clumsy, but in the end I could do it with my eyes shut. But I never did anything else. At the end of the first year I got a rise — not much, but something — and another after two years more. Then, after another twelve months, I went and asked for some more. They were quite civil, said there were no complaints against me, but that I had reached the maximum of my job and that, although they did n’t want to lose me, there would be no more rises for me. And next day my place was taken by another fourteen-year-old at the same wages as I had to start with, and I suppose in another four years he’ll get the sack or give it. What sort of a job is that for a fellow who wants to get on? And I want to get on. And that’s why I’m on the dole. In a way it’s better than doing kid’s work all your life. But I tell you I’m fed up fed up.’
‘What does your trade-union say about it?’
‘Oh, they’re no good. They don’t care what sort of a job we’ve got — whether it’s a trap or what it is — so long as they draw their salaries. I’m fed up with the whole lot of them, and I’m fed up with England. Who’s going to help me? Ramsay MacDonald? He can only talk. Baldwin? He’s so scared of all the high-andmighties about him that he only feels safe when he’s spouting the Bible. And those Labor Exchanges. The one at Coventry was just like a blasted club. There were about four youngsters at the desks, smoking and as sleek as be damned, — clean nails, clean collars, coats that button either way, — and not one of them had ever done a tap of work in his life. In the room I went into a lot of old stiffs, who had never been off the dole, were sort of dropping in to have a crack with the clerks; and it was “George” this and “George” that and “See you next week, old cock.” When my turn came, a Piccadilly Johnnie buzzed a lot of papers at me and asked me a lot of questions I could n’t answer; and in the end all I got out of it was that my name would be put on a list — and then the fellow lit another cigarette. I was a fool, perhaps. I got wild and told him to go to hell; and then two of the old stiffs hoofed me out of the place and told me not to queer everybody’s pitch. And now I ’m padding it to London. You don’t want a chauffeur, I suppose? ’
I told him that I could n’t afford one, and that anyhow a car like mine did n’t deserve one.
‘No,’ he replied. ‘I knew you were n’t one of the rich ones. My God, sometimes I hate them! They can mess up things any old how and always get another chance. We never get a chance at all.’
The old woman wore a rusty old hat; her coat had once trailed a manorial lawn at a garden fete; her full and bunchy skirt dragged noisily in the dust; and in the crook of her arm she carried a big basket. She was tall but bent, and as she plodded along her feet kicked up the dust as though she were very tired. I drew up and gave her a hail. She crossed the road and put her basket down on my running board, and asked, in a voice which came from Cork: ‘And is it laces that you’ll be wanting?’
I gave her what I thought was a winning smile. ‘That’s a grand Irish voice you have, ma’am, and I hope you ’ll be letting me give you a lift to wherever you’re going.’
She bent toward me. ‘What’s that you’re saying?’
I repeated my offer.
Her faced blazed with passion and she snatched her basket from the running board.
‘Me ride with the likes of you? Me, a respectable woman? So that’s what you’re after with your smooth tongue and foxy face. Here, take that, you dirty spalpeen!’ —and she gave me a terrific box on the ear. ‘And now get you gone with you before I lay my hands on you again. You an Irishman? You’re a dying disgrace to the mother that bore you, you with your dirty tricks!’