Read CHAPTER IX of Wild Oranges , free online book, by Joseph Hergesheimer, on ReadCentral.com.

In the morning a storm, driving out of the east, enveloped the coast in a frigid, lashing rain. The wind mounted steadily through the middle of the day with an increasing pitch accompanied by the basso of the racing seas. The bay grew opaque and seamed with white scars. After the meridian the rain ceased, but the wind maintained its volume, clamoring beneath a leaden pall.

John Woolfolk, in dripping yellow oilskins, occasionally circled the deck of his ketch. Halvard had everything in a perfection of order. When the rain stopped, the sailor dropped into the tender and with a boat sponge bailed vigorously. Soon after, Woolfolk stepped out upon the beach. He was without any plan but the determination to put aside whatever obstacles held Millie from him. This rapidly crystallized into the resolve to take her with him before another day ended. His feeling for her, increasing to a passionate need, had destroyed the suspension, the deliberate calm of his life, as the storm had dissipated the sunny peace of the coast.

He paused before the ruined façade, weighing her statement that it would have been better if he had not returned; and he wondered how that would affect her willingness, her ability, to see him today. He added the word “ability” instinctively and without explanation. And he decided that, in order to have any satisfactory speech with her, he must come upon her alone, away from the house. Then he could force her to hear to the finish what he wanted to say; in the open they might escape from the inexplicable inhibition that lay upon her expression of feeling, of desire. It would be necessary, at the same time, to avoid the notice of anyone who would warn her of his presence. This precluded his waiting at the familiar place on the rotting wharf.

Three marble steps, awry and moldy, descended to the lawn from a French window in the side of the desolate mansion. They were screened by a tangle of rose-mallow, and there John Woolfolk seated himself—waiting.

The wind shrilled about the corner of the house; there was a mournful clatter of shingles from above and the frenzied lashing of boughs. The noise was so great that he failed to hear the slightest indication of the approach of Nicholas until that individual passed directly before him. Nicholas stopped at the inner fringe of the beach and, from a point where he could not be seen from the ketch, stood gazing out at the Gar pounding on her long anchor chains. The man remained for an oppressively extended period; Woolfolk could see his heavy, drooping shoulders and sunken head; and then the other moved to the left, crossing the rough open behind the oleanders. Woolfolk had a momentary glimpse of a huge nose and rapidly moving lips above an impotent chin.

Nicholas, he realized, remained a complete enigma to him; beyond the conviction that the man was, in some minor way, leaden-witted, he knew nothing.

A brief, watery ray of sunlight fell through a rift in the flying clouds and stained the tossing foliage pale gold; it was followed by a sudden drift of rain, then once more the naked wind. Woolfolk was fast determining to go up to the house and insist upon Millie’s hearing him, when unexpectedly she appeared in a somber, fluttering cloak, with her head uncovered and hair blown back from her pale brow. He waited until she had passed him, and then rose, softly calling her name.

She stopped and turned, with a hand pressed to her heart. “I was afraid you’d gone out,” she told him. “The sea is like a pack of wolves.” Her voice was a low complexity of relief and fear.

“Not alone,” he replied; “not without you.”

“Madness,” she murmured, gathering her wavering cloak about her breast. She swayed, graceful as a reed in the wind, charged with potency. He made an involuntary gesture toward her with his arms; but in a sudden accession of fear she eluded him.

“We must talk,” he told her. “There is a great deal that needs explaining, that—I think—I have a right to know, the right of your dependence on something to save you from yourself. There is another right, but only you can give that—”

“Indeed,” she interrupted tensely, “you mustn’t stand here talking to me.”

“I shall allow nothing to interrupt us,” he returned decidedly. “I have been long enough in the dark.”

“But you don’t understand what you will, perhaps, bring on yourself—on me.”

“I’m forced to ignore even that last.”

She glanced hurriedly about. “Not here then, if you must.”

She walked from him, toward the second ruined pile that fronted the bay. The steps to the gaping entrance had rotted away and they were forced to mount an insecure side piece. The interior, as Woolfolk had seen, was composed of one high room, while, above, a narrow, open second story hung like a ledge. On both sides were long counters with mounting sets of shelves behind them.

“This was the store,” Millie told him. “It was a great estate.”

A dim and moldering fragment of cotton stuff was hanging from a forgotten bolt; above, some tinware was eaten with rust; a scale had crushed in the floor and lay broken on the earth beneath; and a ledger, its leaves a single, sodden film of grey, was still open on a counter. A precarious stair mounted to the flooring above, and Millie Stope made her way upward, followed by Woolfolk.

There, in the double gloom of the clouds and a small dormer window obscured by cobwebs, she sank on a broken box. The decayed walls shook perilously in the blasts of the wind. Below they could see the empty floor, and through the doorway the somber, gleaming greenery without.

All the patient expostulation that John Woolfolk had prepared disappeared in a sudden tyranny of emotion, of hunger for the slender, weary figure before him. Seating himself at her side, he burst into a torrential expression of passionate desire that mounted with the tide of his eager words. He caught her hands, held them in a painful grip, and gazed down into her still, frightened face. He stopped abruptly, was silent for a tempestuous moment, and then baldly repeated the fact of his love.

Millie Stope said:

“I know so little about the love you mean.” Her voice trailed to silence; and in a lull of the storm they heard the thin patter of rats on the floor below, the stir of bats among the rafters.

“It’s quickly learned,” he assured her. “Millie, do you feel any response at all in your heart—the slightest return of my longing?”

“I don’t know,” she answered, turning toward him a troubled scrutiny. “Perhaps in another surrounding, with things different, I might care for you very much—”

“I am going to take you into that other surrounding,” he announced.

She ignored his interruption. “But we shall never have a chance to learn.” She silenced his attempted protest with a cool, flexible palm against his mouth. “Life,” she continued, “is so dreadfully in the dark. One is lost at the beginning. There are maps to take you safely to the Guianas, but none for souls. Perhaps religions are—Again I don’t know. I have found nothing secure—only a whirlpool into which I will not drag others.”

“I will drag you out,” he asserted.

She smiled at him, in a momentary tenderness, and continued: “When I was young I never doubted that I would conquer life. I pictured myself rising in triumph over circumstance, as a gull leaves the sea.... When I was young.... If I was afraid of the dark then I thought, of course, I would outgrow it; but it has grown deeper than my courage. The night is terrible now.” A shiver passed over her.

“You are ill,” he insisted, “but you shall be cured.”

“Perhaps, a year ago, something might have been done, with assistance; yes—with you. Then, whatever is, hadn’t materialized. Why did you delay?” she cried in a sudden suffering.

“You’ll go with me tonight,” he declared stoutly.

“In this?” She indicated the wind beating with the blows of a great fist against the swaying sides of the demolished store. “Have you seen the sea? Do you remember what happened on the day I went with you when it was so beautiful and still?”

John Woolfolk realized, wakened to a renewed mental clearness by the threatening of all that he desired, that—as Millie had intimated—life was too complicated to be solved by a simple longing; love was not the all-powerful magician of conventional acceptance; there were other, no less profound, depths.

He resolutely abandoned his mere inchoate wanting, and considered the elements of the position that were known to him. There was, in the first place, that old, lamentable dereliction of Lichfield Stope’s, and its aftermath in his daughter. Millie had just recalled to Woolfolk the duration, the activity, of its poison. Here there was no possibility of escape by mere removal; the stain was within; and it must be thoroughly cleansed before she could cope successfully, happily, with life. In this, he was forced to acknowledge, he could help her but little; it was an affair of spirit; and spiritual values—though they might be supported from without—had their growth and decrease strictly in the individual they animated.

Still, he argued, a normal existence, a sense of security, would accomplish a great deal; and that in turn hung upon the elimination of the second, unknown element—the reason for her backward glances, her sudden, loud banalities, yesterday’s mechanical repudiation of his offered assistance and the implied wish for him to go. He said gravely:

“I have been impatient, but you came so sharply into my empty existence that I was upset. If you are ill you can cure yourself. Never forget your mother’s ‘brave heart.’ But there is something objective, immediate, threatening you. Tell me what it is, Millie, and together we will overcome and put it away from you for ever.”

She gazed panic-stricken into the empty gloom below. “No! no!” she exclaimed, rising. “You don’t know. I won’t drag you down. You must go away at once, tonight, even in the storm.”

“What is it?” he demanded.

She stood rigidly erect with her eyes shut and hands clasped at her sides. Then she slid down upon the box, lifting to him a white mask of fright.

“It’s Nicholas,” she said, hardly above her breath.

A sudden relief swept over John Woolfolk. In his mind he dismissed as negligible the heavy man fumbling beneath his soiled apron. He wondered how the other could have got such a grip on Millie Stope’s imagination.

The mystery that had enveloped her was fast disappearing, leaving them without an obstacle to the happiness he proposed. Woolfolk said curtly:

“Has Nicholas been annoying you?”

She shivered, with clasped straining hands.

“He says he’s crazy about me,” she told him in a shuddering voice that contracted his heart. “He says that I must—must marry him, or—” Her period trailed abruptly out to silence.

Woolfolk grew animated with determination, an immediate purpose.

“Where would Nicholas be at this hour?” he asked.

She rose hastily, clinging to his arm. “You mustn’t,” she exclaimed, yet not loudly. “You don’t know! He is watching—something frightful would happen.”

“Nothing ‘frightful,’” he returned tolerantly, preparing to descend. “Only unfortunate for Nicholas.”

“You mustn’t,” she repeated desperately, her sheer weight hanging from her hands clasped about his neck. “Nicholas is not—not human. There’s something funny about him. I don’t mean funny, I—”

He unclasped her fingers and quietly forced her back to the seat on the box. Then he took a place at her side.

“Now,” he asked reasonably, “what is this about Nicholas?”

She glanced down into the desolate cavern of the store; the ghostly remnant of cotton goods fluttered in a draft like a torn and grimy cobweb; the lower floor was palpably bare.

“He came in April,” she commenced in a voice without any life. “The woman we had had for years was dead; and when Nicholas asked for work we were glad to take him. He wanted the smallest possible wages and was willing to do everything; he even cooked quite nicely. At first he was jumpy—he had asked if many strangers went by; but then when no one appeared he got easier.... He got easier and began to do extra things for me. I thanked him—until I understood. Then I asked father to send him away, but he was afraid; and, before I could get up my courage to do it, Nicholas spoke—

“He said he was crazy about me, and would I please try and be good to him. He had always wanted to marry, he went on, and live right, but things had gone against him. I told him that he was impertinent and that he would have to go at once; but he cried and begged me not to say that, not to get him ‘started.’”

That, John Woolfolk recalled, was precisely what the man had said to him.

“I went back to father and told him why he must send Nicholas off, but father nearly suffocated. He turned almost black. Then I got frightened and locked myself in my room, while Nicholas sat out on the stair and sobbed all night. It was ghastly! In the morning I had to go down, and he went about his duties as usual.

“That evening he spoke again, on the porch, twisting his hands exactly as if he were making bread. He repeated that he wanted me to be nice to him. He said something wrong would happen if I pushed him to it.

“I think if he had threatened to kill me it would have been more possible than his hints and sobs. The thing went along for a month, then six weeks, and nothing more happened. I started again and again to tell them at the store, two miles back in the pines, but I could never get away from Nicholas; he was always at my shoulder, muttering and twisting his hands.

“At last I found something.” She hesitated, glancing once more down through the empty gloom, while her fingers swiftly fumbled in the band of her waist.

“I was cleaning his room—it simply had to be done—and had out a bureau drawer, when I saw this underneath. He was not in the house, and I took one look at it, then put the things back as near as possible as they were. I was so frightened that I slipped it in my dress—had no chance to return it.”

He took from her unresisting hand a folded rectangle of coarse grey paper; and, opening it, found a small handbill with the crudely reproduced photograph of a man’s head with a long, drooping nose, sleepy eyes in thick folds of flesh, and a lax under-lip with a fixed, dull smile:

WANTED FOR MURDER!

The authorities of Coweta offer THREE HUNDRED DOLLARS for the
apprehension of the below, Iscah Nicholas, convicted of the murder
of Elizabeth Slakto, an aged woman.

General description: Age about forty-eight. Head receding, with large nose and stupid expression. Body corpulent but strong. Nicholas has no trade and works at general utility. He is a homicidal maniac.

WANTED FOR MURDER!

“He told me that his name was Nicholas Brandt,” Millie noted in her dull voice.

A new gravity possessed John Woolfolk.

“You must not go back to the house,” he decided.

“Wait,” she replied. “I was terribly frightened when he went up to his room. When he came down he thanked me for cleaning it. I told him he was mistaken, that I hadn’t been in there, but I could see he was suspicious. He cried all the time he was cooking dinner, in a queer, choked way; and afterward touched me—on the arm. I swam, but all the water in the bay wouldn’t take away the feel of his fingers. Then I saw the boat—you came ashore.

“Nicholas was dreadfully upset, and hid in the pines for a day or more. He told me if I spoke of him it would happen, and if I left it would happen—to father. Then he came back. He said that you were—were in love with me, and that I must send you away. He added that you must go today, for he couldn’t stand waiting any more. He said that he wanted to be right, but that things were against him. This morning he got dreadful—if I fooled him he’d get you, and me, too, and then there was always father for something extra special. That, he warned me, would happen if I stayed away for more than an hour.” She rose, trembling violently. “Perhaps it’s been an hour now. I must go back.”

John Woolfolk thought rapidly; his face was grim. If he had brought a pistol from the ketch he would have shot Iscah Nicholas without hesitation. Unarmed, he was reluctant to precipitate a crisis with such serious possibilities. He could secure one from the Gar, but even that short lapse of time might prove fatal—to Millie or Lichfield Stope. Millie’s story was patently fact in every detail. He thought more rapidly still—desperately.

“I must go back,” she repeated, her words lost in a sudden blast of wind under the dilapidated roof.

He saw that she was right.

“Very well,” he acquiesced. “Tell him that you saw me, and that I promised to go tonight. Act quietly; say that you have been upset, but that you will give him an answer tomorrow. Then at eight o’clock—it will be dark early tonight—walk out to the wharf. That is all. But it must be done without any hesitation; you must be even cheerful, kinder to him.”

He was thinking: She must be out of the way when I meet Nicholas. She must not be subjected to the ordeal that will release her from the dread fast crushing her spirit.

She swayed, and he caught her, held her upright, circled in his steady arms.

“Don’t let him hurt us,” she gasped. “Oh, don’t!”

“Not now,” he reassured her. “Nicholas is finished. But you must help by doing exactly as I have told you. You’d better go on. It won’t be long, hardly three hours, until freedom.”

She laid her cold cheek against his face, while her arms crept round his neck. She said nothing; and he held her to him with a sudden throb of feeling. They stood for a moment in the deepening gloom, bound in a straining embrace, while the rats gnawed in the sagging walls of the store and the storm thrashed without. She reluctantly descended the stair, crossed the broken floor and disappeared through the door.

A sudden unwillingness to have her return alone to the sobbing menace of Iscah Nicholas, the impotent wraith that had been Lichfield Stope, carried him in an impetuous stride to the stair. But there he halted. The plan he had made held, in its simplicity, a larger measure of safety than any immediate, unconsidered course.

John Woolfolk waited until she had had time to enter the orange-grove; then he followed, turning toward the beach.

He found Halvard already at the sand’s edge, waiting uneasily with the tender, and they crossed the broken water to where the Gar’s cabin flung out a remote, peaceful light.