‘By God,’ he said, ‘dere’s sixpennorth o’ good baccy here! Where de hell d’you get hold o’ dat? You ain’t been on de road long.’
‘What, don’t you have tobacco on the road?’ I said.
‘Oh, we has it. Look.’
He produced a rusty tin which had once held Oxo Cubes. In it were twenty or thirty cigarette ends, picked up from the pavement. The Irishman said that he rarely got any other tobacco; he added that, with care, one could collect two ounces of tobacco a day on the London pavements.
‘D’you come out o’ one o’ de London spikes [casual wards], eh?’ he asked me.
I said yes, thinking this would make him accept me as a fellow tramp, and asked him what the spike at Romton was like. He said:
‘Well, ’tis a cocoa spike. Dere’s tay spikes, and cocoa spikes, and skilly spikes. Dey don’t give you skilly in Romton, t’ank God—leastways, dey didn’t de last time I was here. I been up to York and round Wales since.’
‘What is skilly?’ I said.
‘Skilly? A can o’ hot water wid some bloody oatmeal at de bottom; dat’s skilly. De skilly spikes is always de worst.’
We stayed talking for an hour or two. The Irishman was a friendly old man, but he smelt very unpleasant, which was not surprising when one learned how many diseases he suffered from. It appeared (he described his symptoms fully) that taking him from top to bottom he had the following things wrong with him: on his crown, which was bald, he had eczema; he was shortsighted, and had no glasses; he had chronic bronchitis; he had some undiagnosed pain in the back; he had dyspepsia; he had urethritis; he had varicose veins, bunions and flat feet. With this assemblage of diseases he had tramped the roads for fifteen years.
At about five the Irishman said, ‘Could you do wid a cup o’ tay? De spike don’t open till six.’
‘I should think I could.’
‘Well, dere’s a place here where dey gives you a free cup o’ tay and a bun. Good tay it is. Dey makes you say a lot o’ bloody prayers after; but hell! It all passes de time away. You come wid me.’
He led the way to a small tin-roofed shed in a side-street, rather like a village cricket pavilion. About twenty-five other tramps were waiting. A few of them were dirty old habitual vagabonds, the majority decent-looking lads from the north, probably miners or cotton operatives out of work. Presently the door opened and a lady in a blue silk dress, wearing gold spectacles and a crucifix, welcomed us in. Inside were thirty or forty hard chairs, a harmonium, and a very gory lithograph of the Crucifixion.
Uncomfortably we took off our caps and sat down. The lady handed out the tea, and while we ate and drank she moved to and fro, talking benignly. She talked upon religious subjects—about Jesus Christ always having a soft spot for poor rough men like us, and about how quickly the time passed when you were in church, and what a difference it made to a man on the road if he said his prayers regularly. We hated it. We sat against the wall fingering our caps (a tramp feels indecently exposed with his cap off), and turning pink and trying to mumble something when the lady addressed us. There was no doubt that she meant it all kindly. As she came up to one of the north country lads with the plate of buns, she said to him:
‘And you, my boy, how long is it since you knelt down and spoke with your Father in Heaven?’
Poor lad, not a word could he utter; but his belly answered for him, with a disgraceful rumbling which it set up at sight of the food. Thereafter he was so overcome with shame that he could scarcely swallow his bun. Only one man managed to answer the lady in her own style, and he was a spry, red-nosed fellow looking like a corporal who had lost his stripe for drunkenness. He could pronounce the words ‘the dear Lord Jesus’ with less shame than anyone I ever saw. No doubt he had learned the knack in prison.
Tea ended, and I saw the tramps looking furtively at one another. An unspoken thought was running from man to man—could we possibly make off before the prayers started? Someone stirred in his chair—not getting up actually, but with just a glance at the door, as though half suggesting the idea of departure. The lady quelled him with one look. She said in a more benign tone than ever:
‘I don’t think you need go quite yet. The casual ward doesn’t open till six, and we have time to kneel down and say a few words to our Father first. I think we should all feel better after that, shouldn’t we?’
The red-nosed man was very helpful, pulling the harmonium into place and handing out the prayerbooks. His back was to the lady as he did this, and it was his idea of a joke to deal the books like a pack of cards, whispering to each man as he did so, ‘There y’are, mate, there’s a—nap ’and for yer! Four aces and a king!’ etc.
Bareheaded, we knelt down among the dirty teacups and began to mumble that we had left undone those things that we ought to have done, and done those things that we ought not to have done, and there was no health in us. The lady prayed very fervently, but her eyes roved over us all the time, making sure that we were attending. When she was not looking we grinned and winked at one another, and whispered bawdy jokes, just to show that we did not care; but it stuck in our throats a little. No one except the red-nosed man was self-possessed enough to speak the responses above a whisper. We got on better with the singing, except that one old tramp knew no tune but ‘Onward, Christian soldiers’, and reverted to it sometimes, spoiling the harmony.
The prayers lasted half an hour, and then, after a handshake at the door, we made off. ‘Well,’ said somebody as soon as we were out of hearing, ‘the trouble’s over. I thought them — prayers was never goin’ to end.’
‘You ’ad your bun,’ said another; ‘you got to pay for it.’
‘Pray for it, you mean. Ah, you don’t get much for nothing. They can’t even give you a twopenny cup of tea without you go down on you — knees for it.’
There were murmurs of agreement. Evidently the tramps were not grateful for their tea. And yet it was excellent tea, as different from coffee-shop tea as good Bordeaux is from the muck called colonial claret, and we were all glad of it. I am sure too that it was given in a good spirit, without any intention of humiliating us; so in fairness we ought to have been grateful—still, we were not.