The Shadow of the East (Chapter 8, page 2 of 24)


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Chapter 8

Outside, the Arab camp was in an uproar. Groups of tribesmen passed the tent continually, conversing eagerly, their raucous voices rising shrill, shouting, arguing, in noisy excitement. The neighing of horses came from near by and once a screaming stallion backed heavily against the canvas wall where Yoshio was sitting, rousing the phlegmatic Japanese to an unwonted ejaculation of wrath as he ducked and grabbed into safety the remaining rifle before the animal was hauled clear with a wealth of detailed Arabic expletives, and he grinned broadly when an authoritative voice broke into the Arabs' clamour and a subsequent sudden silence fell in the vicinity of the stranger's tent.

Regardless of the disturbance resounding from all quarters of the camp Craven wrote on steadily for some time longer. Then with a short sigh he shuffled the scattered sheets together, brushed clear the clinging accumulation of scorched wings and tiny shrivelled bodies, and without re-reading the closely written pages stuffed them into an envelope, and having closed and directed it, leaned back with an exclamation of relief.

The letter to Peters was finished but there remained still the more difficult letter he had yet to address to his wife--a letter he dreaded and yet longed to write. A letter which, reaching her after the death he confidently expected and earnestly prayed for, would reveal to her fully the secret of his past and the passion that had driven him, unworthy, from her. For never during the two years of adventure and peril had death seemed more imminent than now, and before he died he would give himself this one satisfaction--he would break the silence of years that had eaten like a canker into his soul. At last she would know all he had never dared to tell her, all his hopeless love, all his remorse and shame, all his passionate desire for her happiness.

Scores of times during the last two years he had attempted to write such a letter and had as often refrained, but to-night his need was imperative. It was his last chance. In the early hours of the dawn he would ride with his Arab hosts on a punitive expedition from which he had no intention of returning alive. Death that he had courted openly since leaving England would surely be easy to find amid the warring tribes with whom he had thrown in his lot. A curious smile lit his face for an instant, then passed abruptly at the doubt that shook his confidence. Would fate again refuse him release from a life that had become more than ever intolerable?

Haunted as he was with the memory of O Hara San, tortured with longing for the woman he had made his wife, the double burden had become too heavy to bear. He had grasped at the opportunity offered by the scientific mission. The dangerous nature of the country, the fever that saturated its swamps and forests, was known to him and he had gone to Africa courting a death that would free him and yet leave no stain on the name borne by his wife. And the death that would free him would free her too! The bitter justice of it made him set his teeth. For he had left her his fortune and his great possessions unrestrictedly to deal with as she would. Young, rich and free! Who would claim what he had surrendered? Even now, after months of mental struggle, the thought was torment.

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