Drift from Two Shores

My Friend, The Tramp

Bret Harte

I HAD BEEN sauntering over the clover downs of a certain noted New England seaport. It was a Sabbath morning, so singularly reposeful and gracious, so replete with the significance of the seventh day of rest, that even the Sabbath bells ringing a mile away over the salt marshes had little that was monitory, mandatory, or even supplicatory in their drowsy voices. Rather they seemed to call from their cloudy towers, like some renegade muezzin: “Sleep is better than prayer; sleep on, O sons of the Puritans! Slumber still, O deacons and vestrymen! Let, oh let those feet that are swift to wickedness curl up beneath thee! those palms that are itching for the shekels of the ungodly lie clasped beneath thy pillow! Sleep is better than prayer.”

And, indeed, though it was high morning, sleep was still in the air. Wrought upon at last by the combined influences of sea and sky and atmosphere, I succumbed, and lay down on one of the boulders of a little stony slope that gave upon the sea. The great Atlantic lay before me, not yet quite awake, but slowly heaving the rhythmical expiration of slumber. There was no sail visible in the misty horizon. There was nothing to do but to lie and stare at the unwinking ether.

Suddenly I became aware of the strong fumes of tobacco. Turning my head, I saw a pale blue smoke curling up from behind an adjacent boulder. Rising, and climbing over the intermediate granite, I came upon a little hollow, in which, comfortably extended on the mosses and lichens, lay a powerfully-built man. He was very ragged; he was very dirty; there was a strong suggestion about him of his having too much hair, too much nail, too much perspiration; too much of those superfluous excrescences and exudations that society and civilization strive to keep under. But it was noticeable that he had not much of anything else. It was The Tramp.

With that swift severity with which we always visit rebuke upon the person who happens to present any one of our vices offensively before us, in his own person, I was deeply indignant at his laziness. Perhaps I showed it in my manner, for he rose to a half-sitting attitude, returned my stare apologetically, and made a movement toward knocking the fire from his pipe against the granite.

“Shure, sur, and if I’d belaved that I was trispassin on yer honor’s grounds, it’s meself that would hev laid down on the say shore and takin’ the salt waves for me blankits. But it’s sivinteen miles I’ve walked this blessed noight, with nothin’ to sustain me, and hevin’ a mortal wakeness to fight wid in me bowels, by reason of starvation, and only a bit o’ baccy that the Widdy Maloney gi’ me at the cross roads, to kape me up entoirley. But it was the dark day I left me home in Milwaukee to walk to Boston; and if ye’ll oblige a lone man who has left a wife and six children in Milwaukee, wid the loan of twenty-five cints, furninst the time he gits worruk, God’ll be good to ye.”

It instantly flashed through my mind that the man before me had the previous night partaken of the kitchen hospitality of my little cottage, two miles away. That he presented himself in the guise of a distressed fisherman, mulcted of his wages by an inhuman captain; that he had a wife lying sick of consumption in the next village, and two children, one of whom was a cripple, wandering in the streets of Boston. I remembered that this tremendous indictment against Fortune touched the family, and that the distressed fisherman was provided with clothes, food, and some small change. The food and small change had disappeared, but the garments for the consumptive wife, where were they? He had been using them for a pillow.

I instantly pointed out this fact, and charged him with the deception. To my surprise, he took it quietly, and even a little complacently.

“Bedad, yer roight; ye see, sur” (confidentially), “ye see, sur, until I get worruk—and it’s worruk I’m lukin’ for—I have to desave now and thin to shute the locality. Ah, God save us! but on the say-coast thay’r that har-rud upon thim that don’t belong to the say.”

I ventured to suggest that a strong, healthy man like him might have found work somewhere between Milwaukee and Boston.

“Ah, but ye see I got free passage on a freight train, and didn’t sthop. It was in the Aist that I expected to find worruk.”

“Have you any trade?”

“Trade, is it? I’m a brickmaker, God knows, and many’s the lift I’ve had at makin’ bricks in Milwaukee. Shure, I’ve as aisy a hand at it as any man. Maybe yer honor might know of a kill hereabout?”

Now to my certain knowledge, there was not a brick kiln within fifty miles of that spot, and of all unlikely places to find one would have been this sandy peninsula, given up to the summer residences of a few wealthy people. Yet I could not help admiring the assumption of the scamp, who knew this fact as well as myself. But I said, “I can give you work for a day or two;” and, bidding him gather up his sick wife’s apparel, led the way across the downs to my cottage. At first I think the offer took him by surprise, and gave him some consternation, but he presently recovered his spirits, and almost instantly his speech. “Ah, worruk, is it? God be praised! it’s meself that’s ready and willin’. ’Though maybe me hand is spoilt wid brickmakin’.”

I assured him that the work I would give him would require no delicate manipulation, and so we fared on over the sleepy downs. But I could not help noticing that, although an invalid, I was a much better pedestrian than my companion, frequently leaving him behind, and that even as a “tramp,” he was etymologically an impostor. He had a way of lingering beside the fences we had to climb over, as if to continue more confidentially the history of his misfortunes and troubles, which he was delivering to me during our homeward walk, and I noticed that he could seldom resist the invitation of a mossy boulder or a tussock of salt grass. “Ye see, sur,” he would say, suddenly sitting down, “it’s along uv me misfortunes beginnin’ in Milwaukee that—” and it was not until I was out of hearing that he would languidly gather his traps again and saunter after me. When I reached my own garden gate he leaned for a moment over it, with both of his powerful arms extended downward, and said, “Ah, but it’s a blessin’ that Sunday comes to give rest fur the wake and the weary, and them as walks sivinteen miles to get it.” Of course I took the hint. There was evidently no work to be had from my friend, the Tramp, that day. Yet his countenance brightened as he saw the limited extent of my domain, and observed that the garden, so called, was only a flower-bed about twenty-five by ten. As he had doubtless before this been utilized, to the extent of his capacity, in digging, he had probably expected that kind of work; and I daresay I discomfitted him by pointing him to an almost leveled stone wall, about twenty feet long, with the remark that his work would be the rebuilding of that stone wall, with stone brought from the neighboring slopes. In a few moments he was comfortably provided for in the kitchen, where the cook, a woman of his own nativity, apparently, “chaffed” him with a raillery that was to me quite unintelligible. Yet I noticed that when, at sunset, he accompanied Bridget to the spring for water, ostentatiously flourishing the empty bucket in his hand, when they returned in the gloaming Bridget was carrying the water, and my friend, the Tramp, was some paces behind her, cheerfully “colloguing,” and picking blackberries.

At seven the next morning he started in cheerfully to work. At nine, A.M., he had placed three large stones on the first course in position, an hour having been spent in looking for a pick and hammer, and in the incidental “chaffing” with Bridget. At ten o’clock I went to overlook his work; it was a rash action, as it caused him to respectfully doff his hat, discontinue his labors, and lean back against the fence in cheerful and easy conservation. “Are you fond uv blackberries, Captain?” I told him that the children were in the habit of getting them from the meadow beyond, hoping to estop the suggestion I knew was coming. “Ah, but, Captain, it’s meself that with wanderin’ and havin’ nothin’ to pass me lips but the berries I’d pick from the hedges,—it’s meself knows where to find thim. Sure, it’s yer childer, and foine boys they are, Captain, that’s besaching me to go wid ’em to the place, known’st only to meself.” It is unnecessary to say that he triumphed. After the manner of vagabonds of all degrees, he had enlisted the women and children on his side—and my friend, the Tramp, had his own way. He departed at eleven and returned at four, P.M., with a tin dinner-pail half filled. On interrogating the boys it appeared that they had had a “bully time,” but on cross-examination it came out that they had picked the berries. From four to six, three more stones were laid, and the arduous labors of the day were over. As I stood looking at the first course of six stones, my friend, the Tramp, stretched his strong arms out to their fullest extent and said: “Ay, but it’s worruk that’s good for me; give me worruk, and it’s all I’ll be askin’ fur.”

I ventured to suggest that he had not yet accomplished much.

“Wait till to-morror. Ah, but ye’ll see thin. It’s me hand that’s yet onaisy wid brick-makin’ and sthrange to the shtones. An ye’ll wait till to-morror?”

Unfortunately I did not wait. An engagement took me away at an early hour, and when I rode up to my cottage at noon my eyes were greeted with the astonishing spectacle of my two boys hard at work laying the courses of the stone wall, assisted by Bridget and Norah, who were dragging stones from the hillsides, while comfortably stretched on the top of the wall lay my friend, the Tramp, quietly overseeing the operation with lazy and humorous comment. For an instant I was foolishly indignant, but he soon brought me to my senses. “Shure, sur, it’s only larnin’ the boys the habits uv industhry I was—and may they niver know, be the same token, what it is to worruk fur the bread betune their lips. Shure it’s but makin’ ’em think it play I was. As fur the colleens beyint in the kitchen, sure isn’t it betther they was helping your honor here than colloguing with themselves inside?”

Nevertheless, I thought it expedient to forbid henceforth any interruption of servants or children with my friend’s “worruk.” Perhaps it was the result of this embargo that the next morning early the Tramp wanted to see me.

“And it’s sorry I am to say it to ye, sur,” he began, “but it’s the handlin’ of this stun that’s desthroyin’ me touch at the brick-makin’, and it’s better I should lave ye and find worruk at me own thrade. For it’s worruk I am nadin’. It isn’t meself, Captain, to ate the bread of oidleness here. And so good-by to ye, and if it’s fifty cints ye can be givin’ me ontil I’ll find a kill—it’s God that’ll repay ye.”

He got the money. But he got also conditionally a note from me to my next neighbor, a wealthy retired physician, possessed of a large domain, a man eminently practical and businesslike in his management of it. He employed many laborers on the sterile waste he called his “farm,” and it occurred to me that if there really was any work in my friend, the Tramp, which my own indolence and preoccupation had failed to bring out, he was the man to do it.

I met him a week after. It was with some embarrassment that I inquired after my friend, the Tramp. “Oh, yes,” he said, reflectively, “let’s see: he came Monday and left me Thursday. He was, I think, a stout, strong man, a well-meaning, good-humored fellow, but afflicted with a most singular variety of diseases. The first day I put him at work in the stables he developed chills and fever caught in the swamps of Louisiana—”

“Excuse me,” I said hurriedly, “you mean in Milwaukee!”

“I know what I’m talking about,” returned the Doctor, testily; “he told me his whole wretched story—his escape from the Confederate service, the attack upon him by armed negroes, his concealment in the bayous and swamps—”

“Go on, Doctor,” I said, feebly; “you were speaking of his work.”

“Yes. Well, his system was full of malaria; the first day I had him wrapped up in blankets, and dosed with quinine. The next day he was taken with all the symptoms of cholera morbus, and I had to keep him up on brandy and capsicum. Rheumatism set in on the following day, and incapacitated him for work, and I concluded I had better give him a note to the director of the City Hospital than keep him here. As a pathological study he was good; but as I was looking for a man to help about the stable, I couldn’t afford to keep him in both capacities.”

As I never could really tell when the Doctor was in joke or in earnest, I dropped the subject. And so my friend, the Tramp, gradually faded from my memory, not however without leaving behind him in the barn where he had slept a lingering flavor of whisky, onions, and fluffiness. But in two weeks this had gone, and the “Shebang” (as my friends irreverently termed my habitation) knew him no more. Yet it was pleasant to think of him as having at last found a job at brick-making, or having returned to his family at Milwaukee, or making his Louisiana home once more happy with his presence, or again tempting the fish-producing main—this time with a noble and equitable captain.

It was a lovely August morning when I rode across the sandy peninsula to visit a certain noted family, whereof all the sons were valiant and the daughters beautiful. The front of the house was deserted, but on the rear veranda I heard the rustle of gowns, and above it arose what seemed to be the voice of Ulysses, reciting his wanderings. There was no mistaking that voice, it was my friend, the Tramp!

From what I could hastily gather from his speech, he had walked from St. John, N. B., to rejoin a distressed wife in New York, who was, however, living with opulent but objectionable relatives. “An’ shure, miss, I wouldn’t be askin’ ye the loan of a cint if I could get worruk at me trade of carpet-wavin’—and maybe ye know of some mannfacthory where they wave carpets beyant here. Ah, miss, and if ye don’t give me a cint, it’s enough for the loikes of me to know that me troubles has brought the tears in the most beautiful oiyes in the wurruld, and God bless ye for it, miss!”

Now I knew that the Most Beautiful Eyes in the World belonged to one of the most sympathetic and tenderest hearts in the world, and I felt that common justice demanded my interference between it and one of the biggest scamps in the world. So, without waiting to be announced by the servant, I opened the door, and joined the group on the veranda.

If I expected to touch the conscience of my friend, the Tramp, by a dramatic entrance, I failed utterly; for no sooner did he see me, than he instantly gave vent to a howl of delight, and, falling on his knees before me, grasped my hand, and turned oratorically to the ladies.

“Oh, but it’s himself—himself that has come as a witness to me carrakther! Oh, but it’s himself that lifted me four wakes ago, when I was lyin’ with a mortal wakeness on the say-coast, and tuk me to his house. Oh, but it’s himself that shupported me over the faldes, and whin the chills and faver came on me and I shivered wid the cold, it was himself, God bless him, as sthripped the coat off his back, and giv it me, sayin’, ‘Take it, Dinnis, it’s shtarved with the cowld say air ye’ll be entoirely.’ Ah, but look at him—will ye, miss! Look at his swate, modist face—a blushin’ like your own, miss. Ah! look at him, will ye? He’ll be denyin’ of it in a minit—may the blessin’ uv God folly him. Look at him, miss! Ah, but it’s a swate pair ye’d make! (the rascal knew I was a married man). Ah, miss, if you could see him wroightin’ day and night with such an illigant hand of his own—(he had evidently believed from the gossip of my servants that I was a professor of chirography)—if ye could see him, miss, as I have, ye’d be proud of him.”

He stopped out of breath. I was so completely astounded I could say nothing: the tremendous indictment I had framed to utter as I opened the door vanished completely. And as the Most Beautiful Eyes in the Wurruld turned gratefully to mine—well—

I still retained enough principle to ask the ladies to withdraw, while I would take upon myself the duty of examining into the case of my friend, the Tramp, and giving him such relief as was required. (I did not know until afterward, however, that the rascal had already despoiled their scant purses of three dollars and fifty cents.) When the door was closed upon them I turned upon him.

“You infernal rascal!”

“Ah, Captain, and would ye be refusin’ me a carrakther and me givin’ ye such a one as Oi did! God save us! but if ye’d hav’ seen the luk that the purty one give ye. Well, before the chills and faver bruk me spirits entirely, when I was a young man, and makin’ me tin dollars a week brick-makin’, it’s meself that wud hav’ given—”

“I consider,” I broke in, “that a dollar is a fair price for your story, and as I shall have to take it all back and expose you before the next twenty-four hours pass, I think you had better hasten to Milwaukee, New York, or Louisiana.”

I handed him the dollar. “Mind, I don’t want to see your face again.”

“Ye wun’t, captain.”

And I did not.

But it so chanced that later in the season, when the migratory inhabitants had flown to their hot-air registers in Boston and Providence, I breakfasted with one who had lingered. It was a certain Boston lawyer,—replete with principle, honesty, self-discipline, statistics, aesthetics, and a perfect consciousness of possessing all these virtues, and a full recognition of their market values. I think he tolerated me as a kind of foreigner, gently but firmly waiving all argument on any topic, frequently distrusting my facts, generally my deductions, and always my ideas. In conversation he always appeared to descend only half way down a long moral and intellectual staircase, and always delivered his conclusions over the balusters.

I had been speaking of my friend, the Tramp. “There is but one way of treating that class of impostors; it is simply to recognize the fact that the law calls him a ‘vagrant,’ and makes his trade a misdemeanor. Any sentiment on the other side renders you particeps criminis. I don’t know but an action would lie against you for encouraging tramps. Now, I have an efficacious way of dealing with these gentry.” He rose and took a double-barreled fowling-piece from the chimney. “When a tramp appears on my property, I warn him off. If he persists, I fire on him—as I would on any criminal trespasser.”

“Fire on him?” I echoed in alarm.

“Yes—but with powder only! Of course he doesn’t know that. But he doesn’t come back.”

It struck me for the first time that possibly many other of my friend’s arguments might be only blank cartridges, and used to frighten off other trespassing intellects.

“Of course, if the tramp still persisted, I would be justified in using shot. Last evening I had a visit from one. He was coming over the wall. My shot gun was efficacious; you should have seen him run!”

It was useless to argue with so positive a mind, and I dropped the subject. After breakfast I strolled over the downs, my friend promising to join me as soon as he arranged some household business.

It was a lovely, peaceful morning, not unlike the day when I first met my friend, the Tramp. The hush of a great benediction lay on land and sea. A few white sails twinkled afar, but sleepily; one or two large ships were creeping in lazily, like my friend, the Tramp. A voice behind me startled me.

My host had rejoined me. His face, however, looked a little troubled.

“I just now learned something of importance,” he began. “It appears that with all my precautions that Tramp has visited my kitchen, and the servants have entertained him. Yesterday morning, it appears, while I was absent, he had the audacity to borrow my gun to go duck-shooting. At the end of two or three hours he returned with two ducks and—the gun.”

“That was, at least, honest.”

“Yes—but! That fool of a girl says that, as he handed back the gun, he told her it was all right, and that he had loaded it up again to save the master trouble.”

I think I showed my concern in my face, for he added, hastily: “It was only duck-shot; a few wouldn’t hurt him!”

Nevertheless, we both walked on in silence for a moment. “I thought the gun kicked a little,” he said at last, musingly; “but the idea of—Hallo! what’s this?”

He stopped before the hollow where I had first seen my Tramp. It was deserted, but on the mosses there were spots of blood and fragments of an old gown, blood-stained, as if used for bandages. I looked at it closely: it was the gown intended for the consumptive wife of my friend, the Tramp.

But my host was already nervously tracking the bloodstains that on rock, moss, and boulder were steadily leading toward the sea. When I overtook him at last on the shore, he was standing before a flat rock, on which lay a bundle I recognized, tied up in a handkerchief, and a crooked grape-vine stick.

“He may have come here to wash his wounds—salt is a styptic,” said my host, who had recovered his correct precision of statement.

I said nothing, but looked toward the sea. Whatever secret lay hid in its breast, it kept it fast. Whatever its calm eyes had seen that summer night, it gave no reflection now. It lay there passive, imperturbable, and reticent. But my friend, the Tramp, was gone!

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