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

He rose with the ludicrous alacrity of a man who had taken a public and awkward misstep. The wan lamplight, diffused from within, made just visible the bulk that had descended with him. It lay without motion, sprawling upon a lower step and the floor. John Woolfolk moved backward from it, his hand behind him, feeling for the entrance to the lighted room. He shifted his feet carefully, for the darkness was wheeling about him in visible black rings streaked with pale orange as he passed into the room.

Here objects, dimensions, became normally placed, recognizable. He saw the mezzotint with its sere and sunny peace, the portfolios on their stands, like grotesque and flattened quadrupeds, and Lichfield Stope on the floor, still hiding his dead face in the crook of his arm.

He saw these things, remembered them, and yet now they had new significance—they oozed a sort of vital horror, they seemed to crawl with a malignant and repulsive life. The entire room was charged with this palpable, sentient evil. John Woolfolk defiantly faced the still, cold inclosure; he was conscious of an unseen scrutiny, of a menace that lived in pictures, moved the fingers of the dead, and that could take actual bulk and pound his heart sore.

He was not afraid of the wrongness that inhabited this muck of house and grove and matted bush. He said this loudly to the prostrate form; then, waiting a little, repeated it. He would smash the print with its fallacious expanse of peace. The broken glass of the smitten picture jingled thinly on the floor. Woolfolk turned suddenly and defeated the purpose of whatever had been stealthily behind him; anyway it had disappeared. He stood in a strained attitude, listening to the aberrations of the wind without, when an actual presence slipped by him, stopping in the middle of the floor.

It was Millie Stope. Her eyes were opened to their widest extent, but they had the peculiar blank fixity of the eyes of the blind. Above them her hair slipped and slid in a loosened knot.

“I had to walk round him,” she protested in a low, fluctuating voice, “there was no other way.... Right by his head. My skirt—” She broke off and, shuddering, came close to John Woolfolk. “I think we’d better go away,” she told him, nodding. “It’s quite impossible here, with him in the hall, where you have to pass so close.”

Woolfolk drew back from her. She too was a part of the house; she had led him there—a white flame that he had followed into the swamp. And this was no ordinary marsh. It was, he added aloud, “A swamp of souls.”

“Then,” she replied, “we must leave at once.”

A dragging sound rose from the hall. Millie Stope cowered in a voiceless accession of terror; but John Woolfolk, lamp in hand, moved to the door. He was curious to see exactly what was happening. The bulk had risen; a broad back swayed like a pendulum, and a swollen hand gripped the stair rail. The form heaved itself up a step, paused, tottering, and then mounted again. Woolfolk saw at once that the other was going for the knife buried in the wall above. He watched with an impersonal interest the dragging ascent. At the seventh step it ceased; the figure crumpled, slid halfway back to the floor.

“You can’t do it,” Woolfolk observed critically.

The other sat bowed, with one leg extended stiffly downward, on the stair that mounted from the pale radiance of the lamp into impenetrable darkness. Woolfolk moved back into the room and replaced the lamp on its table. Millie Stope still stood with open, hanging hands, a countenance of expectant dread. Her eyes did not shift from the door as he entered and passed her; her gaze hung starkly on what might emerge from the hall.

A deep loathing of his surroundings swept over John Woolfolk, a sudden revulsion from the dead man on the floor, from the ponderous menace on the stair, the white figure that had brought it all upon him. A mounting horror of the place possessed him, and he turned and incontinently fled. A complete panic enveloped him at his flight, a blind necessity to get away, and he ran heedlessly through the night, with head up and arms extended. His feet struck upon a rotten fragment of board that broke beneath him, he pushed through a tangle of grass, and then his progress was held by soft and dragging sand. A moment later he was halted by a chill flood rising abruptly to his knees. He drew back sharply and fell on the beach, with his heels in the water of the bay.

An insuperable weariness pinned him down, a complete exhaustion of brain and body. A heavy wind struck like a wet cloth on his face. The sky had been swept clear of clouds, and stars sparkled in the pure depths of the night. They were white, with the exception of one that burned with an unsteady yellow ray and seemed close by. This, John Woolfolk thought, was strange. He concentrated a frowning gaze upon it—perhaps in falling into the soiled atmosphere of the earth it had lost its crystal gleam and burned with a turgid light. It was very, very probable.

He continued to watch it, facing the tonic wind, until with a clearing of his mind, a gasp of joyful recognition, he knew that it was the riding light of the Gar.

Woolfolk sat very still under the pressure of his renewed sanity. Fact upon fact, memory on memory, returned, and in proper perspective built up again his mentality, his logic, his scattered powers of being. The Gar rode uneasily on her anchor chains; the wind was shifting. They must get away!—Halvard, waiting at the wharf—Millie—

He rose hurriedly to his feet—he had deserted Millie; left her, in all her anguish, with her dead parent and Iscah Nicholas. His love for her swept back, infinitely heightened by the knowledge of her suffering. At the same time there returned the familiar fear of a permanent disarrangement in her of chords that were unresponsive to the clumsy expedients of affection and science. She had been subjected to a strain that might well unsettle a relatively strong will; and she had been fragile in the beginning.

She must be a part of no more scenes of violence, he told himself, moving hurriedly through the orange grove; she must be led quietly to the tender—that is, if it were not already too late. His entire effort to preserve her had been a series of blunders, each one of which might well have proved fatal, and now, together, perhaps had.

He mounted to the porch and entered the hall. The light flowed undisturbed from the room on the right; and, in its thin wash, he saw that Iscah Nicholas had disappeared from the lower steps. Immediately, however, and from higher up, he heard a shuffling, and could just make out a form heaving obscurely in the gloom. Nicholas patently was making progress toward the consummation of his one fixed idea; but Woolfolk decided that at present he could best afford to ignore him.

He entered the lighted room, and found Millie seated and gazing in dull wonderment at the figure on the floor.

“I must tell you about my father,” she said conversationally. “You know, in Virginia, the women tied an apron to his door because he would not go to war, and for years that preyed on his mind, until he was afraid of the slightest thing. He was without a particle of strength—just to watch the sun cross the sky wearied him, and the smallest disagreement upset him for a week.”

She stopped, lost in amazement at what she contemplated, what was to follow.

“Then Nicholas—But that isn’t important. I was to meet a man—we were going away together, to some place where it would be peaceful. We were to sail there. He said at eight o’clock. Well, at seven Nicholas was in the kitchen. I got father into his very heaviest coat, and laid out a muffler and his gloves, then sat and waited. I didn’t need anything extra, my heart was quite warm. Then father asked why I had changed his coat—if I’d told him, he would have died of fright—he said he was too hot, and he fretted and worried. Nicholas heard him, and he wanted to know why I had put on father’s winter coat. He found the muffler and gloves ready and got suspicious.

“He stayed in the hall, crying a little—Nicholas cried right often—while I sat with father and tried to think of some excuse to get away. At last I had to go—for an orange, I said—but Nicholas wouldn’t believe it. He pushed me back and told me I was going out to the other.

“‘Nicholas,’ I said, ’don’t be silly; nobody would come away from a boat on a night like this. Besides, he’s gone away.’ We had that last made up. But he pushed me back again. Then I heard father move behind us, and I thought—he’s going to die of fright right now. But father’s footsteps came on across the floor and up to my side.”

“‘Don’t do that, Nicholas,’ he told him; ’take your hand from my daughter.’ He swayed a little, his lips shook, but he stood facing him. It was father!” Her voice died away, and she was silent for a moment, gazing at the vision of that unsuspected and surprising courage. “Of course Nicholas killed him,” she added. “He twisted him away and father died. That didn’t matter,” she told Woolfolk; “but the other was terribly important, anyone can see that.”

John Woolfolk listened intently, but there was no sound from without. Then, with every appearance of leisure, he rolled and lighted a cigarette.

“Splendid!” he said of her recital; “and I don’t doubt you’re right about the important thing.” He moved toward her, holding out his hand. “Splendid! But we must go on—the man is waiting for you.”

“It’s too late,” she responded indifferently. She redirected her thoughts to her parent’s enthralling end. “Do you think a man as brave as that should lie on the floor?” she demanded. “A flag,” she added obscurely, considering an appropriate covering for the still form.

“No, not on the floor,” Woolfolk instantly responded. He bent and, lifting the body of Lichfield Stope, carried it into the hall, where, relieved at the opportunity to dispose of his burden, he left it in an obscure corner.

Iscah Nicholas was stirring again. John Woolfolk waited, gazing up the stair, but the other progressed no more than a step. Then he returned to Millie.

“Come,” he said. “No time to lose.” He took her arm and exerted a gentle pressure toward the door.

“I explained that it was too late,” she reiterated, evading him. “Father really lived, but I died. ‘Swamp of souls,’” she added in a lower voice. “Someone said that, and it’s true; it happened to me.”

“The man waiting for you will be worried,” he suggested. “He depends absolutely on your coming.”

“Nice man. Something had happened to him too. He caught a rockfish and Nicholas boiled it in milk for our breakfast.” At the mention of Iscah Nicholas a slight shiver passed over her. This was what Woolfolk hoped for—a return of her normal revulsion from her surroundings, from the past.

“Nicholas,” he said sharply, contradicted by a faint dragging from the stair, “is dead.”

“If you could only assure me of that,” she replied wistfully. “If I could be certain that he wasn’t in the next shadow I’d go gladly. Any other way it would be useless.” She laid her hand over her heart. “I must get him out of here—My father did. His lips trembled a little, but he said quite clearly: ‘Don’t do that. Don’t touch my daughter.’”

“Your father was a singularly brave man,” he assured her, rebelling against the leaden monotony of speech that had fallen upon them. “Your mother too was brave,” he temporized. He could, he decided, wait no longer. She must, if necessary, be carried away forcibly. It was a desperate chance—the least pressure might result in a permanent, jangling discord. Her waist, torn, he saw, upon her pallid shoulder, was an insufficient covering against the wind and night. Looking about he discovered the muffler, laid out for her father, crumpled on the floor; and, with an arm about her, folded it over her throat and breast.

“Now we’re away,” he declared in a forced lightness. She resisted him for a moment, and then collapsed into his support.

John Woolfolk half led, half carried her into the hall. His gaze searched the obscurity of the stair; it was empty; but from above came the sound of a heavy, dragging step.