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

The sailor immediately set about his familiar, homely tasks, while Woolfolk made a minute inspection of the ketch’s rigging. He descended to supper with an expression of abstraction, and ate mechanically whatever was placed before him. Afterward he rolled a cigarette, which he neglected to light, and sat motionless, chin on breast, in the warm stillness.

Halvard cleared the table and John Woolfolk roused himself. He turned to the shelf that ran above the berths and secured a small, locked tin box. For an hour or more he was engaged alternately writing and carefully reading various papers sealed with vermilion wafers. Then he called Halvard.

“I’ll get you to witness these signatures,” he said, rising. Poul Halvard hesitated; then, with a furrowed brow, clumsily grasped the pen. “Here,” Woolfolk indicated. The man wrote slowly, linking fortuitously the unsteady letters of his name. This arduous task accomplished, he immediately rose. John Woolfolk again took his place, turning to address the other, when he saw that one side of Halvard’s face was bluish and rapidly swelling.

“What’s the matter with your jaw?” he promptly inquired.

Halvard avoided his gaze, obviously reluctant to speak, but Woolfolk’s silent interrogation was insistent. Then:

“I met that Nicholas,” Halvard admitted; “without a knife.”

“Well?” Woolfolk insisted.

“There’s something wrong with this cursed place,” Halvard said defiantly. “You can laugh, but there’s a matter in the air that’s not natural. My grandmother could have named it. She heard the ravens that called Tollfsen’s death, and read Linga’s eyes before she strangulated herself. Anyhow, when you didn’t come back I got doubtful and took the tender in. Then I saw Nicholas beating up through the bushes, hiding here and there, and doubling through the grass; so I came on him from the back and—and kicked him, quite sudden.

“He went on his hands, but got up quick for a hulk like himself. Sir, this is hard to believe, but it’s Biblical—he didn’t take any more notice of the kick than if it had been a flag halyard brushed against him. He said ‘Go away,’ and waved his foolish hands.

“I closed in, still careful of the knife, with a remark, and got onto his heart. He only coughed and kept telling me in a crying whisper to go away. Nicholas pushed me back—that’s how I got this face. What was the use? I might as well have hit a pudding. Even talk didn’t move him. In a little it sent me cold.” He stopped abruptly, grew sullen; it was evident that he would say no more in that direction. Woolfolk opened another subject:

“Life, Halvard,” he said, “is uncertain; perhaps tonight I shall find it absolutely unreliable. What I am getting at is this: if anything happens to me—death, to be accurate—the Gar is yours, the ketch and a sum of money. It is secured to you in this box, which you will deliver to my address in Boston. There is another provision that I’ll mention merely to give you the opportunity to repeat it verbally from my lips: the bulk of anything I have, in the possibility we are considering, will go to a Miss Stope, the daughter of Lichfield Stope, formerly of Virginia.” He stood up. “Halvard,” Woolfolk said abruptly, extending his hand, expressing for the first time his repeated thought, “you are a good man. You are the only steady quantity I have ever known. I have paid you for a part of this, but the most is beyond dollars. That I am now acknowledging.”

Halvard was cruelly embarrassed. He waited, obviously desiring a chance to retreat, and Woolfolk continued in a different vein:

“I want the canvas division rigged across the cabin and three berths made. Then get the yacht ready to go out at any time.”

One thing more remained; and, going deeper into the tin box, John Woolfolk brought out a packet of square envelopes addressed to him in a faded, angular hand. They were all that remained now of his youth, of the past. Not a ghost, not a remembered fragrance nor accent, rose from the delicate paper. They had been the property of a man dead twelve years ago, slain by incomprehensible mischance; and the man in the contracted cabin, vibrating from the elemental and violent forces without, forebore to open them. He burned the packet to a blackish ash on a plate.

It was, he saw from the chronometer, seven o’clock; and he rose charged with tense energy, engaged in activities of a far different order. He unwrapped from many folds of oiled silk a flat, amorphous pistol, uglier in its bleak outline than the familiar weapons of more graceful days; and, sliding into place a filled cartridge clip, he threw a load into the barrel. This he deposited in the pocket of a black wool jacket, closely buttoned about his long, hard body, and went up on deck.

Halvard, in a glistening yellow coat, came close up to him, speaking with the wind whipping the words from his lips. He said: “She’s ready, sir.”

For a moment Woolfolk made no answer; he stood gazing anxiously into the dark that enveloped and hid Millie Stope from him. There was another darkness about her, thicker than the mere night, like a black cerement dropping over her soul. His eyes narrowed as he replied to the sailor: “Good!”