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 confessed.

"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 thought.

"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 enterprise.

"When do you open?" inquired an intelligent spectator, anxious to show savoir faire.

"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 the dog.

"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 be amiss.

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.