On the Brighton Road
Slowly the sun had climbed up the hard white downs, till it broke with little of the mysterious ritual of dawn upon a sparkling world of snow.
There had been a hard frost during the night, and the birds, who hopped about here and there with scant tolerance of life, left no trace of their passage on the silver pavements.
In places the sheltered caverns of the hedges broke the monotony of the whiteness that had fallen upon the coloured earth, and overhead the sky melted from orange to deep blue, from deep blue to a blue so pale that it suggested a thin paper screen rather than illimitable space.
Across the level fields there came a cold, silent wind which blew a fine dust of snow from the trees, but hardly stirred the crested hedges.
Once above the skyline, the sun seemed to climb more quickly, and as it rose higher it began to give out a heat that blended with the keenness of the wind.
It may have been this strange alternation of heat and cold that disturbed the tramp in his dreams, for he struggled tor a moment with the snow that covered him, like a man who finds himself twisted uncomfortably in the bed-clothes, and then sat up with staring, questioning eyes.
I thought I was in bed," he said to himself as he took in the vacant landscape, "and all the while I was out here."
He stretched his limbs, and, rising carefully to his feet, shook the snow off his body.
As he did so the wind set him shivering, and he knew that his bed had been warm.
"Come, I feel pretty fit," he thought.
"I suppose I am lucky to wake at all in this.
Or unlucky—it isn't much of a business to come back to."
He looked up and saw the downs shining against the blue, like the Alps on a picture-postcard.
"That means another forty miles or so, I suppose," he continued grimly.
"Lord knows what I did yesterday.
Walked till I was done, and now I'm only about twelve miles from Brighton.
Damn the snow, damn Brighton, damn everything!"
The sun crept higher and higher, and he started walking patiently along the road with his back turned to the hills.
"Am I glad or sorry that it was only sleep that took me, glad or sorry, glad or sorry?" His thoughts seemed to arrange themselves in a metrical accompaniment to the steady thud of his footsteps, and he hardly sought an answer to his question.
It was good enough to walk to.
Presently, when three milestones had loitered past, he overtook a boy who was stooping to light a cigarette.
He wore no overcoat, and looked unspeakably fragile against the snow,
"Are you on the road, guv'nor?" asked the boy huskily as he passed.
"I think I am," the tramp said.
"Oh! then I'll come a bit of the way with you if you don't walk too fast.
It's bit lonesome walking this time of day."
The tramp nodded his head, and the boy started limping along by his side.
"I'm eighteen," he said casually.
"I bet you thought I was younger."
"Fifteen, I'd have said."
"You'd have backed a loser.
Eighteen last August, and I've been on the road six years.
I ran away from home five times when I was a little 'un, and the police took me back each time.
Very good to me, the police was.
Now I haven't got a home to run away from."
"Nor have I," the tramp said calmly.
"Oh, I can see what you are," the boy panted; "you're a gentleman come down.
It's harder for you than for me."
The tramp glanced at the limping, feeble figure and lessened his pace.
"I haven't been at it as long as you have," he admitted.
"No, I could tell that by the way you walk.
You haven't got tired yet.
Perhaps you expect something at the other end?"
The tramp reflected for a moment.
"I don't know," he said bitterly,
"I'm always expecting things."
"You'll grow out of that;" the boy commented.
"It's warmer in London, but it's harder to come by grub.