In A Caravan by Henry Seton Merriman
"Which means, I think, that go or stay
Affects you nothing, either way."
"And that is where Parker sleeps."
We craned our necks, and, stooping low, saw beneath the vehicle a
parasitic square box like a huge barnacle fixed to the bottom of the van.
A box about four feet by two. The door of it was open, and Parker's
bedfellows—two iron buckets and a sack of potatoes—stood
"Oh yes—very nice," we murmured.
"Oh, it's awfully jolly!" said the host-in-himself.
We looked at Parker, who was peeling potatoes on the off-shaft—Parker,
six feet two, with a soldier's bearing—and we drifted off into
"And who drives?" we asked, with an intelligent interest.
"Oh, Parker. And we do all the rest, you know."
It was seven o'clock in the evening when we joined the caravan, in a
stackyard on the outskirts of an Eastern county town.
"That's 'im—that's Lord George Sanger," was said of the writer by
one of the crowd of small boys assembled at the stackyard gate. A
travelling menagerie and circus was advertised in a somewhat "voyant"
manner on the town walls, and a fancied resemblance to the aristocratic
manager thereof accredited us with an honourable connection in the
"When do you open?" inquired an intelligent spectator, anxious to show
"See small handbills," replied the host-in-himself, with equal courtesy.
"'Oo are yer, at any rate?" inquired an enlightened voter.
"Who are YOU?" we replied with spirit; and, passing through the gate, we
closed it to keep out the draught. Then we paid a domiciliary visit, and
were duly shown Parker's apartments.
In outward appearance the caravan suggested an overgrown bathing-machine.
The interior resembled the cabin of a yacht. The walls were gaily
decorated with painting on the panels; flowers bloomed in vases fixed upon
the wall; two prettily curtained windows—one a bay, the other flat—gave
a view of the surrounding country. At the forward end, against the
bulkhead, so to speak, was a small but enterprising chest of drawers, and
above it a large looking-glass which folded down, developed legs, and
owned to the soft impeachment of being a bed. Beneath the starboard window
a low and capacious sofa, combining the capacity of a locker. Under the
port window was fixed a table against the bulkhead, where four people
could and did dine sumptuously. When en voyage and between meals, charts,
maps, and literature littered this table pleasantly. A ship's clock hung
over it, and a corner cupboard did its duty in the port quarter. A heavy
plush curtain closed off the kitchen and pantry, which were roomy and of
marvellous capacity. Then the back door—in halves—and the back
step, brassbound, treacherous.
In front there was a little verandah with supporting columns of bamboo.
Here we usually sat when travelling—Parker in the right-hand corner
handling the ribbons of the tandem cart-horses with skill and discretion.
As dinner was not ready, we proceeded to pitch the small tent wherein the
two men were to sleep. It was a singular tent, with a vast number of
pendent ropes which became entangled at the outset. We began with zeal,
but presently left the ropes and turned our attention to the pegs. These
required driving in with a wooden mallet and a correct eye. Persons
unaccustomed to such work strike the peg on one side—the mallet goes
off at a tangent and strikes the striker with force upon the shin-bone.
Finally Parker said he would put up the tent "by'n-by."
There was a Bedlington terrier—Parker's dog—attached
(literally) to the caravan. He was tied to one of the bamboo columns on
the forecastle, and when Parker absented himself for long he usually
leaped off the platform and sought death by strangulation—this we
discovered later. When we abandoned the tent we thought we would cheer up
"Don't touch him, sir; he'll bite you," said Parker.
Of course we touched him; no man who respects himself at all is ready to
admit that a dog bites HIM. It was wonderful how that dog and Parker
understood each other. But the bite was not serious.
At last dinner was ready, and we are prepared to take any horrid oath
required that no professional cook could set before a king potatoes more
mealy. This only, of all the items in the menu, is mentioned, because
where potatoes are good the experienced know that other things will never
We waited on ourselves, and placed the dirty dishes, plates, and forks
upon the back step, where Parker replaced them in a few minutes, clean.
"Oh!" exclaimed the hostess-in-herself, about 10 p.m., when we were
smoking the beatific pipe, "by the way—Parker's dinner!"
In response to united shouts Parker appeared, and learned with apparent
surprise that he had omitted to dine. He looked pale and worn, and told us
that he had been blowing out the air-beds. At eleven o'clock we two men
left the ladies and went out into the cold moonlight, where our tent
looked remarkably picturesque. Of course we fell over a tent-peg each, and
the host lost his watchkey. Parker came forward—dining—to
explain where the ropes were, and fell over one himself, losing a piece of
cold boiled beef in the grass. We hunted for it with a lucifer match. Its
value was enhanced by the knowledge that when the bed was shut down and
had developed its legs the larder was inaccessible. After some time Parker
discovered that the dog had been let loose and had found the beef some
moments before. He explained that it was a singular dog and preferred to
live by dishonesty. Unstolen victuals had for him no zest. He added that
the loss was of no consequence, as he never had been very keen on that
piece of beef. We finally retired into the tent, and left Parker still at
work completing several contracts he had undertaken to carry through
"by'n-by." He said he preferred doing them overnight, as it was no good
getting up BEFORE five on these dark autumnal mornings.
As an interior the tent was a decided success. We went inside and hooked
the flap laboriously from top to bottom. Then we remembered that the
host's pyjamas were outside. He undid two hooks only and attempted to
effect a sortie through the resultant interstice. He stuck. The position
was undignified, and conducive to weak and futile laughter. At last Parker
had to leave the washing-up of the saucepans to come to the rescue, while
the dog barked and imagined that he was attending a burglary.
It was nearly midnight before we made our first acquaintance with an
air-bed, and it took us until seven o'clock the next morning to get on to
speaking terms with it. The air-bed, like the Bedlington terrier, must be
approached with caution. Its manner is, to say the least of it, repellent.
Unless the sleeper (save the mark!) lies geometrically in the centre, the
air rushes to one side, and the ignorant roll off the other. If there were
no bedclothes one could turn round easily, but the least movement throws
the untucked blanket incontinently into space, while the instability of
the bed precludes tucking in. Except for these and a few other drawbacks,
the air-bed may safely be recommended.
The next morning showed a white frost on the grass, and washing in the
open, in water that had stood all night in a bucket, was, to say the least
of it, invigorating. Parker browned our boots, put a special edge of his
own upon our razors, attended to the horses, oiled the wheels, fetched the
milk, filled the lamps of the paraffin stove, bought a gallon of oil, and
carried a can of water from a neighbouring farm before breakfast, just by
way—he explained—of getting ready to start his day's work.
An early start had been projected, but owing to the fact that after
breakfast Parker had to beat the carpet, wash the dishes, plates, cups and
saucers, knives and forks, and his own face, strike the tent, let the air
out of the air-beds, roll up the waterproof sheets, clean the saucepans,
groom the horses, ship the shafts, send off a parcel from the station, buy
two loaves of bread, and thank the owner of the stackyard—owing, I
say, to the fact that Parker had these things to accomplish while we "did
the rest," it was eleven o'clock before all hands were summoned to get
"her" out of the narrow gateway. This was safely accomplished, by Parker,
while we walked round, looked knowingly at the wheels, sternly at the
gate-posts, and covertly at the spectators.
Then we clambered up, the host-in-himself cracked the whip, Parker
gathered up his reins.
"Come up, Squire! Come up, Nancy!"
And the joy of the caravaneer was ours.
This joy is not like the joy of other men. For the high-road, the
hedgerows, the birds, the changing sky, the ever-varying landscape, belong
to the caravaneer. He sits in his moving home and is saturated with the
freedom of the gipsy without the haunting memory of the police, which sits
like Care on the roof of the gipsy van. Book on lap, he luxuriates on the
forecastle when the sun shines and the breeze blows soft, noting idly the
passing beauty of the scene, returning peaceably to the printed page. When
rain comes, as it sometimes does in an English summer, he goes inside and
gives a deeper attention to the book, while Parker drives and gets wet.
Getting wet is one of Parker's duties. And through rain and sunshine he
moves on ever, through the peaceful and never dull—the incomparable
beauty of an English pastoral land. The journey is accomplished without
fatigue, without anxiety; for the end of it can only be the quiet corner
of a moor, or some sleepy meadow. Speed is of no account—distance
immaterial. The caravaneer looks down with indifference upon the dense
curiosity of the smaller towns; the larger cities he wisely avoids.
The writer occupied the humble post of brakesman—elected thereto in
all humility by an overpowering majority. The duties are heavy, the glory
small. A clumsy vehicle like a caravan can hardly venture down the
slightest incline without a skid under the wheel and a chain round the
spoke. This necessitates the frequent handling of a heavy piece of iron,
which is black and greasy at the top of a hill, and red-hot at the bottom.
A steep hill through the town dispelled the Lord George Sanger illusion at
one fell blow, the rustic-urban mind being incapable of conceiving that
that self-named nobleman could demean himself to the laying of the skid.
Of the days that followed there remains the memory of pleasant sunny days
and cool evenings, of the partridge plucked and cleaned by the roadside,
fried deliciously over the paraffin flame, amidst fresh butter and
mushrooms with the dew still on them. We look back with pleasure to the
quiet camp in a gravel-pit on a hill-top far from the haunts of men—to
the pitching of the tent by moonlight in a meadow where the mushrooms
gleamed like snow, to be duly gathered for the frying-pan next morning by
the host-in-himself, and in pyjamas. Nor are the sterner sides of caravan
life to be forgotten—the calamity at the brow of a steep hill, where
a nasty turn made the steady old wheeler for once lose his head and his
legs; the hard-fought battle over a half-side of bacon between the
Bedlington terrier and the writer when that mistaken dog showed a marked
preference for the stolen Wiltshire over the partridge bone of charity.
And there are pleasant recollections of friends made, and, alas! lost so
soon; of the merry evening in a country house, of which the hospitable
host, in his capacity of justice of the peace, gave us short shrift in the
choice between the county gaol and his hospitality. Unless we consented to
sleep beneath his roof and eat his salt, he vowed he would commit us for
vagabonds without visible means of support. We chose the humiliation of a
good dinner and a sheeted bed. The same open-handed squire hung partridges
in our larder, and came with us on the forecastle to pilot us through his
own intricate parish next day.
Also came the last camp and the last dinner, at which the writer
distinguished himself, and the host-in-himself was at last allowed to
manipulate (with accompanying lecture) a marvellous bivouac-tin containing
a compound called beef a la mode, which came provided with its own spirits
of wine and wick, both of which proved ineffectual to raise the
temperature of the beef above a mediocre tepidity. Parker, having heard
that the remains of this toothsome dish were intended for his breakfast,
wisely hid it with such care that the dog stole it and consumed it, with
results which cannot be dwelt upon here.
Of the vicissitudes of road travel we recollect but little. The incipient
sea-sickness endured during the first day has now lost its sting; the
little differences about the relative virtues of devilled partridge and
beef a la mode are forgotten, and only the complete novelty, the heedless
happiness of it all, remains. We did not even know the day of the week or
the date; which ignorance, my masters, has a wealth of meaning nowadays.
"Date—oh, ask Parker!" we would say.
And Parker always knew.