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

John Woolfolk peered through the night toward the land.

“Put me ashore beyond the point,” he told Halvard; “at a half-sunk wharf on the sea.”

The sailor secured the tender, and, dropping into it, held the small boat steady while Woolfolk followed. With a vigorous push they fell away from the Gar. Halvard’s oars struck the water smartly and forced the tender forward into the beating wind. They made a choppy passage to the rim of the bay, where, turning, they followed the thin, pale glimmer of the broken water on the land’s edge. Halvard pulled with short, telling strokes, his oarblades stirring into momentary being livid blurs of phosphorescence.

John Woolfolk guided the boat about the point where he had first seen Millie swimming. He recalled how strange her unexpected appearance had seemed. It had, however, been no stranger than the actuality which had driven her into the bay in the effort to cleanse the stain of Iscah Nicholas’ touch. Woolfolk’s face hardened; he was suddenly conscious of the cold weight in his pocket. He realized that he would kill Nicholas at the first opportunity and without the slightest hesitation.

The tender passed about the point, and he could hear more clearly the sullen clamor of the waves on the seaward bars. The patches of green sky had grown larger, the clouds swept by with the apparent menace of solid, flying objects. The land lay in a low, formless mass on the left. It appeared secretive, a masked place of evil. Its influence reached out and subtly touched John Woolfolk’s heart with the premonition of base treacheries. The tormented trees had the sound of Iscah Nicholas sobbing. He must take Millie away immediately; banish its last memory from her mind, its influence from her soul. It was the latter he always feared, which formed his greatest hazard—to tear from her the tendrils of the invidious past.

The vague outline of the ruined wharf swam forward, and the tender slid into the comparative quiet of its partial protection.

“Make fast,” Woolfolk directed. “I shall be out of the boat for a while.” He hesitated; then: “Miss Stope will be here; and if, after an hour, you hear nothing from me, take her out to the ketch for the night. Insist on her going. If you hear nothing from me still, make the first town and report.”

He mounted by a cross pinning to the insecure surface above; and, picking his way to solid earth, waited. He struck a match and, covering the light with his palm, saw that it was ten minutes before eight. Millie, he had thought, would reach the wharf before the hour he had indicated. She would not at any cost be late.

The night was impenetrable. Halvard was as absolutely lost as if he had dropped, with all the world save the bare, wet spot where Woolfolk stood, into a nether region from which floated up great, shuddering gasps of agony. He followed this idea more minutely, picturing the details of such a terrestrial calamity; then he put it from him with an oath. Black thoughts crept insidiously into his mind like rats in a cellar. He had ordinarily a rigidly disciplined brain, an incisive logic, and he was disturbed by the distorted visions that came to him unbidden. He wished, in a momentary panic, instantly suppressed, that he were safely away with Millie in the ketch.

He was becoming hysterical, he told himself with compressed lips—no better than Lichfield Stope. The latter rose greyly in his memory, and fled across the sea, a phantom body pulsing with a veined fire like that stirred from the nocturnal bay. He again consulted his watch, and said aloud, incredulously: “Five minutes past eight.” The inchoate crawling of his thoughts changed to an acute, tangible doubt, a mounting dread.

He rehearsed the details of his plan, tried it at every turning. It had seemed to him at the moment of its birth the best—no, the only—thing to do, and it was still without obvious fault. Some trivial happening, an unforeseen need of her father’s, had delayed Millie for a minute or two. But the minutes increased and she did not appear. All his conflicting emotions merged into a cold passion of anger. He would kill Nicholas without a word’s preliminary. The time drew out, Millie did not materialize, and his anger sank to the realization of appalling possibilities.

He decided that he would wait no longer. In the act of moving forward he thought he heard, rising thinly against the fluctuating wind, a sudden cry. He stopped automatically, listening with every nerve, but there was no repetition of the uncertain sound. As Woolfolk swiftly considered it he was possessed by the feeling that he had not heard the cry with his actual ear but with a deeper, more unaccountable sense. He went forward in a blind rush, feeling with extended hands for the opening in the tangle, groping a stumbling way through the close dark of the matted trees. He fell over an exposed root, blundered into a chill, wet trunk, and finally emerged at the side of the desolate mansion. Here his way led through saw grass, waist high, and the blades cut at him like lithe, vindictive knives. No light showed from the face of the house toward him, and he came abruptly against the bay window of the dismantled billiard room.

A sudden caution arrested him—the sound of his approach might precipitate a catastrophe, and he soundlessly felt his passage about the house to the portico. The steps creaked beneath his careful tread, but the noise was lost in the wind. At first he could see no light; the hall door, he discovered, was closed; then he was aware of a faint glimmer seeping through a drawn window shade on the right. From without he could distinguish nothing. He listened, but not a sound rose. The stillness was more ominous than cries.

John Woolfolk took the pistol from his pocket and, automatically releasing the safety, moved to the door, opening it with his left hand. The hall was unlighted; he could feel the pressure of the darkness above. The dank silence flowed over him like chill water rising above his heart. He turned, and a dim thread of light, showing through the chink of a partly closed doorway, led him swiftly forward. He paused a moment before entering, shrinking from what might be revealed beyond, and then flung the door sharply open.

His pistol was directed at a low-trimmed lamp in a chamber empty of all life. He saw a row of large black portfolios on low supports, a sewing bag spilled its contents from a chair, a table bore a tin tobacco jar and the empty skin of a plantain. Then his gaze rested upon the floor, on a thin, inanimate body in crumpled alpaca trousers and dark jacket, with a peaked, congested face upturned toward the pale light. It was Lichfield Stope—dead.

Woolfolk bent over him, searching for a mark of violence, for the cause of the other’s death. At first he found nothing; then, as he moved the body—its lightness came to him as a shock—he saw that one fragile arm had been twisted and broken; the hand hung like a withered autumn leaf from its circular cuff fastened with the mosaic button. That was all.

He straightened up sharply, with his pistol levelled at the door. But there had been no noise other than that of the wind plucking at the old tin roof, rattling the shrunken frames of the windows. Lichfield Stope had fallen back with his countenance lying on a doubled arm, as if he were attempting to hide from his extinguished gaze the horror of his end. The lamp was of the common glass variety, without shade; and, in a sudden eddy of air, it flickered, threatened to go out, and a thin ribbon of smoke swept up against the chimney and vanished.

On the wall was a wide stipple print of the early nineteenth century—the smooth sward of a village glebe surrounded by the low stone walls of ancient dwellings, with a timbered inn behind broad oaks and a swinging sign. It was—in the print—serenely evening, and long shadows slipped out through an ambient glow. Woolfolk, with pistol elevated, became suddenly conscious of the withdrawn scene, and for a moment its utter peace held him spellbound. It was another world, for the security, the unattainable repose of which, he longed with a passionate bitterness.

The wind shifted its direction and beat upon the front of the house; a different set of windows rattled, and the blast swept compact and cold up through the blank hall. John Woolfolk cursed his inertia of mind, and once more addressed the profound, tragic mystery that surrounded him.

He thought: Nicholas has gone—with Millie. Or perhaps he has left her—in some dark, upper space. A maddening sense of impotence settled upon him. If the man had taken Millie out into the night he had no chance of following, finding them. Impenetrable screens of bushes lay on every hand, with, behind them, mile after mile of shrouded pine woods.

His plan had gone terribly amiss, with possibilities which he could not bring himself to face. All that had happened before in his life, and that had seemed so insupportable at the time, faded to insignificance. Shuddering waves of horror swept over him. He raised his hand unsteadily, drew it across his brow, and it came away dripping wet. He was oppressed by the feeling familiar in evil dreams—of gazing with leaden limbs at deliberate, unspeakable acts.

He shook off the numbness of dread. He must act—at once! How? A thousand men could not find Iscah Nicholas in the confused darkness without. To raise the scattered and meager neighborhood would consume an entire day.

The wind agitated a rocking chair in the hall, an erratic creaking responded, and Woolfolk started forward, and stopped as he heard and then identified the noise. This, he told himself, would not do; the hysteria was creeping over him again. He shook his shoulders, wiped his palm and took a fresh grip on the pistol.

Then from above came the heavy, unmistakable fall of a foot. It was not repeated; the silence spread once more, broken only from without. But there was no possibility of mistake, there had been no subtlety in the sound—a slow foot had moved, a heavy body had shifted.

At this actuality a new determination seized him; he was conscious of a feeling that almost resembled joy, an immeasurable relief at the prospect of action and retaliation. He took up the lamp, held it elevated while he advanced to the door with a ready pistol. There, however, he stopped, realizing the mark he would present moving, conveniently illuminated, up the stair. The floor above was totally unknown to him; at any turning he might be surprised, overcome, rendered useless. He had a supreme purpose to perform. He had already, perhaps fatally, erred, and there must be no further misstep.

John Woolfolk realized that he must go upstairs in the dark, or with, at most, in extreme necessity, a fleeting and guarded matchlight. This, too, since he would be entirely without knowledge of his surroundings, would be inconvenient, perhaps impossible. He must try. He put the lamp back upon the table, moving it farther out of the eddy from the door, where it would stay lighted against a possible pressing need. Then he moved from the wan radiance into the night of the hall.