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

He formed in his mind the general aspect of the house: its width faced the orange grove, the stair mounted on the hall’s right, in back of which a door gave to the billiard room; on the left was the chamber of the lamp, and that, he had seen, opened into a room behind, while the kitchen wing, carried to a chamber above, had been obviously added. It was probable that he would find the same general arrangement on the second floor. The hall would be smaller; a space inclosed for a bath; and a means of ascent to the roof.

John Woolfolk mounted the stair quickly and as silently as possible, placing his feet squarely on the body of the steps. At the top the handrail disappeared; and, with his back to a plaster wall, he moved until he encountered a closed door. That interior was above the billiard room; it was on the opposite floor he had heard the footfall, and he was certain that no one had crossed the hall or closed a door. He continued, following the dank wall. At places the plaster had fallen, and his fingers encountered the bare skeleton of the house. Farther on he narrowly escaped knocking down a heavily framed picture—another, he thought, of Lichfield Stope’s mezzotints—but he caught it, left it hanging crazily awry.

He passed an open door, recognized the bathroom from the flat odor of chlorides, reached an angle of the wall and proceeded with renewed caution. Next he encountered the cold panes of a window and then found the entrance to the room above the kitchen.

He stopped—it was barely possible that the sound he heard had echoed from here. He revolved the wisdom of a match, but—he had progressed very well so far—decided negatively. One aspect of the situation troubled him greatly—the absence of any sound or warning from Millie. It was highly improbable that his entrance to the house had been unnoticed. The contrary was probable—that his sudden appearance had driven Nicholas above.

Woolfolk started forward more hurriedly, urged by his increasing apprehension, when his foot went into the opening of a depressed step and flung him sharply forward. In his instinctive effort to avoid falling the pistol dropped clattering into the darkness. A sudden choked cry sounded beside him, and a heavy, enveloping body fell on his back. This sent him reeling against the wall, where he felt the muscles of an unwieldly arm tighten about his neck.

John Woolfolk threw himself back, when a wrist heavily struck his shoulder and a jarring blow fell upon the wall. The hand, he knew, had held a knife, for he could feel it groping desperately over the plaster, and he put all his strength into an effort to drag his assailant into the middle of the floor.

It was impossible now to recover his pistol, but he would make it difficult for Nicholas to get the knife. The struggle in that way was equalized. He turned in the gripping arms about him and the men were chest to chest. Neither spoke; each fought solely to get the other prostrate, while Nicholas developed a secondary pressure toward the blade buried in the wall. This Woolfolk successfully blocked. In the supreme effort to bring the struggle to a decisive end neither dealt the other minor injuries. There were no blows—nothing but the straining pull of arms, the sudden weight of bodies, the cunning twisting of legs. They fought swiftly, whirling and staggering from place to place.

The hot breath of an invisible gaping mouth beat upon Woolfolk’s cheek. He was an exceptionally powerful man. His spare body had been hardened by its years of exposure to the elements, in the constant labor he had expended on the ketch, the long contests with adverse winds and seas, and he had little doubt of his issuing successful from the present crisis. Iscah Nicholas, though his strength was beyond question, was heavy and slow. Yet he was struggling with surprising agility. He was animated by a convulsive energy, a volcanic outburst characteristic of the obsession of monomania.

The strife continued for an astonishing, an absurd, length of time. Woolfolk became infuriated at his inability to bring it to an end, and he expended an even greater effort. Nicholas’ arms were about his chest; he was endeavoring by sheer pressure to crush Woolfolk’s opposition, when the latter injected a mounting wrath into the conflict. They spun in the open like a grotesque human top, and fell. Woolfolk was momentarily underneath, but he twisted lithely uppermost. He felt a heavy, blunt hand leave his arm and feel, in the dark, for his face. Its purpose was to spoil, and he caught it and savagely bent it down and back; but a cruel forcing of his leg defeated his purpose.

This, he realized, could not go on indefinitely; one or the other would soon weaken. An insidious doubt of his ultimate victory lodged like a burr in his brain. Nicholas’ strength was inhuman; it increased rather than waned. He was growing vindictive in a petty way—he tore at Woolfolk’s throat, dug the flesh from his lower arm. Thereafter warm and gummy blood made John Woolfolk’s grip insecure.

The doubt of his success grew; he fought more desperately. His thoughts, which till now had been clear, logically aloof, were blurred in blind spurts of passion. His mentality gradually deserted him; he reverted to lower and lower types of the human animal; during the accumulating seconds of the strife he swung back through countless centuries to the primitive, snarling brute. His shirt was torn from a shoulder, and he felt the sweating, bare skin of his opponent pressed against him.

The conflict continued without diminishing. He struggled once more to his feet, with Nicholas, and they exchanged battering blows, dealt necessarily at random. Sometimes his arm swept violently through mere space, at others his fist landed with a satisfying shock on the body of his antagonist. The dark was occasionally crossed by flashes before Woolfolk’s smitten eyes, but no actual light pierced the profound night of the upper hall. At times their struggle grew audible, smacking blows fell sharply; but there was no other sound except that of the wind tearing at the sashes, thundering dully in the loose tin roof, rocking the dwelling.

They fell again, and equally their efforts slackened, their grips became more feeble. Finally, as if by common consent, they rolled apart. A leaden tide of apathy crept over Woolfolk’s battered body, folded his aching brain. He listened in a sort of indifferent attention to the tempestuous breathing of Iscah Nicholas. John Woolfolk wondered dully where Millie was. There had been no sign of her since he had fallen down the step and she had cried out. Perhaps she was dead from fright. He considered this possibility in a hazy, detached manner. She would be better dead—if he failed.

He heard, with little interest, a stirring on the floor beside him, and thought with an overwhelming weariness and distaste that the strife was to commence once more. But, curiously, Nicholas moved away from him. Woolfolk was glad; and then he was puzzled for a moment by the sliding of hands over an invisible wall. He slowly realized that the other was groping for the knife he had buried in the plaster. John Woolfolk considered a similar search for the pistol he had dropped; he might even light a match. It was a rather wonderful weapon and would spray lead like a hose of water. He would like exceedingly well to have it in his hand with Nicholas before him.

Then in a sudden mental illumination he realized the extreme peril of the moment; and, lurching to his feet, he again threw himself on the other.

The struggle went on, apparently to infinity; it was less vigorous now; the blows, for the most part, were impotent. Iscah Nicholas never said a word; and fantastic thoughts wheeled through Woolfolk’s brain. He lost all sense of the identity of his opponent and became convinced that he was combating an impersonal hulk—the thing that gasped and smeared his face, that strove to end him, was the embodied and evil spirit of the place, a place that even Halvard had seen was damnably wrong. He questioned if such a force could be killed, if a being materialized from the outer dark could be stopped by a pistol of even the latest, most ingenious mechanism.

They fell and rose, and fell. Woolfolk’s fingers were twisted in a damp lock of hair; they came away—with the hair. He moved to his knees, and the other followed. For a moment they rested face to face, with arms limply clasped about the opposite shoulders. Then they turned over on the floor; they turned once more, and suddenly the darkness was empty beneath John Woolfolk. He fell down and down, beating his head on a series of sharp edges; while a second, heavy body fell with him, by turns under and above.