The Shadow of the East (Chapter 6, page 1 of 20)

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Chapter 6

December had brought a complete change of weather. It was within a few days of Christmas, a typical old-fashioned Yuletide with a firm white mantle of snow lying thick over the country.

Underneath the ground was iron and for two weeks all hunting had been stopped.

Craven was returning to the Towers after an absence of ten days. The motor crawled through the park for in places the frozen road was slippery as glass and the chauffeur was a cautious North-countryman whose faith in the chains locked round the wheels was not unlimited; he was driving carefully, with a wary eye for the worst patches noted on the outward run, and, beside him, equally alert, sat Yoshio muffled to the ears in an immense overcoat, a shapeless bundle.

It was early afternoon, calm and clear, and in the air the intense stillness that succeeds a heavy snowfall. The pale sun, that earlier in the day had iridised the snow, was now too low to affect the dead whiteness of the scene against which the trees showed magnified and sharply black. Here and there across the smooth surface stretching on either side of the road lay the curiously differing tracks of animals. From the back seat of the car where he sat alone Craven marked them mechanically. He knew every separate spoor and could have named the owner of each; ordinarily they would have claimed from him a certain interest but today he passed them without a second thought. He did not resent the slow progress of the car, he was in no hurry to reach the Towers. He had come to a momentous decision but shrank from the action that must necessarily follow; once at the house he knew that he would permit himself no further delay, he would put his purpose into effect at the earliest opportunity--today if possible; here there was still time--vaguely he wondered for what? Not for reflection, that was done with. He had striven with all his strength to arrive at a right determination; he had thought until reasoning became a mere repetition of fixed ideas moving in a circle and arriving always at an unvaried starting point. There seemed no consequence that he had not weighed in his mind, no issue that he had not considered. To ponder afresh would be to cover again uselessly ground that he had gone over a hundred times.

Three days ago he had made his choice, he had no intention of departing from it. For good or ill the thing must go forward now. And, after all, the ultimate decision did not lie with him. Admitting it his thoughts became introspective. Throughout his deliberations he had put self on one side, there had been no question of his own wishes; now for the first time he allowed personal considerations to rise unchecked. For what did he hope? He knew the reason of his reluctance to reach the house--he desired success and yet he feared it, feared the consequences that might result, feared the strength of his own will to persevere in the course he had chosen. For him there was no other way but, merciful God, it would be hard! He set his teeth and stared at the frozen landscape with unseeing eyes. Since her outburst four weeks ago Miss Craven had not spoken again of the wish that was nearest her heart, but he knew that she was waiting for an answer, knew that that answer must be given. One way or the other.

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