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

Outside she cowered pitifully from the violent blast of the wind, the boundless, stirred space. They made their way about the corner of the house, leaving behind the pale, glimmering rectangle of the lighted window. In the thicket Woolfolk was forced to proceed more slowly. Millie stumbled weakly over the rough way, apparently at the point of slipping to the ground. He felt a supreme relief when the cool sweep of the sea opened before him and Halvard emerged from the gloom.

He halted for a moment, with his arm about Millie’s shoulders, facing his man. Even in the dark he was conscious of Poul Halvard’s stalwart being, of his rocklike integrity.

“I was delayed,” he said finally, amazed at the inadequacy of his words to express the pressure of the past hours. Had they been two or four? He had been totally unconscious of the passage of actual time. In the dark house behind the orange grove he had lived through tormented ages, descended into depths beyond the measured standard of Greenwich. Halvard said:

“Yes, sir.”

The sound of a blundering progress rose from the path behind them, the breaking of branches and the slipping of a heavy tread on the water-soaked ground. John Woolfolk, with an oath, realized that it was Nicholas, still animated by his fixed, murderous idea. Millie Stope recognized the sound, too, for she trembled violently on his arm. He knew that she could support no more violence, and he turned to the dim, square-set figure before him.

“Halvard, it’s that fellow Nicholas. He’s insane—has a knife. Will you stop him while I get Miss Stope into the tender? She’s pretty well through.” He laid his hand on the other’s shoulder as he started immediately forward. “I shall have to go on, Halvard, if anything unfortunate occurs,” he said in a different voice.

The sailor made no reply; but as Woolfolk urged Millie out over the wharf he saw Halvard throw himself upon a dark bulk that broke from the wood.

The tender was made fast fore and aft; and, getting down into the uneasy boat, Woolfolk reached up and lifted Millie bodily to his side. She dropped in a still, white heap on the bottom. He unfastened the painter and stood holding the tender close to the wharf, with his head above its platform, straining his gaze in the direction of the obscure struggle on land.

He could see nothing, and heard only an occasional trampling of the underbrush. It was difficult to remain detached, give no assistance, while Halvard encountered Iscah Nicholas. Yet with Millie in a semi-collapse, and the bare possibility of Nicholas’ knifing them both, he felt that this was his only course. Halvard was an unusually powerful, active man, and the other must have suffered from the stress of his long conflict in the hall.

The thing terminated speedily. There was the sound of a heavy fall, a diminishing thrashing in the saw grass, and silence. An indistinguishable form advanced over, the wharf, and Woolfolk prepared to shove the tender free. But it was Poul Halvard. He got down, Woolfolk thought, clumsily, and mechanically assumed his place at the oars. Woolfolk sat aft, with an arm about Millie Stope. The sailor said fretfully:

“I stopped him. He was all pumped out. Missed his hand at first—the dark—a scratch.”

He rested on the oars, fingering his shoulder. The tender swung dangerously near the corrugated rock of the shore, and Woolfolk sharply directed: “Keep way on her.”

“Yes, sir,” Halvard replied, once more swinging into his short, efficient stroke. It was, however, less sure than usual; an oar missed its hold and skittered impotently over the water, drenching Woolfolk with a brief, cold spray. Again the bow of the tender dipped into the point of land they were rounding, and John Woolfolk spoke more abruptly than before.

He was seriously alarmed about Millie. Her face was apathetic, almost blank, and her arms hung across his knees with no more response than a doll’s. He wondered desperately if, as she had said, her spirit had died; if the Millie Stope that had moved him so swiftly and tragically from his long indifference, his aversion to life, had gone, leaving him more hoplessly alone than before. The sudden extinction of Ellen’s life had been more supportable than Millie’s crouching dumbly at his feet. His arm unconsciously tightened about her, and she gazed up with a momentary, questioning flicker of her wide-opened eyes. He repeated her name in a deep whisper, but her head fell forward loosely, and left him in racking doubt.

Now he could see the shortly swaying riding light of the Gar. Halvard was propelling them vigorously but erratically forward. At times he remuttered his declarations about the encounter with Nicholas. The stray words reached Woolfolk:

“Stopped him—the cursed dark—a scratch.”

He brought the tender awkwardly alongside the ketch, with a grinding shock, and held the boats together while John Woolfolk shifted Millie to the deck. Woolfolk took her immediately into the cabin; where, lighting a swinging lamp, he placed her on one of the prepared berths and endeavored to wrap her in a blanket. But, in a shuddering access of fear, she rose with outheld palms.

“Nicholas!” she cried shrilly. “There—at the door!”

He sat beside her, restraining her convulsive effort to cower in a far, dark angle of the cabin.

“Nonsense!” he told her brusquely. “You are on the Gar. You are safe. In an hour you will be in a new world.”

“With John Woolfolk?”

“I am John Woolfolk.”

“But he—you—left me.”

“I am here,” he insisted with a tightening of his heart. He rose, animated by an overwhelming necessity to get the ketch under way, to leave at once, for ever, the invisible shore of the bay. He gently folded her again in the blanket, but she resisted him. “I’d rather stay up,” she said with a sudden lucidity. “It’s nice here; I wanted to come before, but he wouldn’t let me.”

A glimmer of hope swept over him as he mounted swiftly to the deck. “Get up the anchors,” he called; “reef down the jigger and put on a handful of jib.”

There was no immediate response, and he peered over the obscured deck in search of Halvard. The man rose slowly from a sitting posture by the main boom. “Very good, sir,” he replied in a forced tone.

He disappeared forward, while Woolfolk, shutting the cabin door on the confusing illumination within, lighted the binnacle lamp, bent over the engine, swiftly making connections and adjustments, and cranked the wheel with a sharp, expert turn. The explosions settled into a dull, regular succession, and he coupled the propeller and slowly maneuvered the ketch up over the anchors, reducing the strain on the hawsers and allowing Halvard to get in the slack. He waited impatiently for the sailor’s cry of all clear, and demanded the cause of the delay.

“The bight slipped,” the other called in a muffled, angry voice. “One’s clear now,” he added. “Bring her up again.” The ketch forged ahead, but the wait was longer than before. “Caught,” Halvard’s voice drifted thinly aft; “coral ledge.” Woolfolk held the Gar stationary until the sailor cried weakly: “Anchor’s apeak.”

They moved inperceptibly through the dark, into the greater force of the wind beyond the point. The dull roar of the breaking surf ahead grew louder. Halvard should have had the jib up and been aft at the jigger, but he failed to appear. John Woolfolk wondered, in a mounting impatience, what was the matter with the man. Finally an obscure form passed him and hung over the housed sail, stripping its cover and removing the stops. The sudden thought of a disconcerting possibility banished Woolfolk’s annoyance. “Halvard,” he demanded, “did Nicholas knife you?”

“A scratch,” the other stubbornly reiterated. “I’ll tie it up later. No time now—I stopped him permanent.”

The jigger, reefed to a mere irregular patch, rose with a jerk, and the ketch rapidly left the protection of the shore. She dipped sharply and, flattened over by a violent ball of wind, buried her rail in the black, swinging water, and there was a small crash of breaking china from within. The wind appeared to sweep high up in empty space and occasionally descend to deal the yacht a staggering blow. The bar, directly ahead—as Halvard had earlier pointed out—was now covered with the smother of a lowering tide. The pass, the other had discovered, too, had filled. It was charted at four feet, the Gar drew a full three, and Woolfolk knew that there must be no error, no uncertainty, in running out.

Halvard was so long in stowing away the jigger shears that Woolfolk turned to make sure that the sailor had not been swept from the deck. The “scratch,” he was certain, was deeper than the other admitted. When they were safely at sea he would insist upon an examination.

The subject of this consideration fell rather than stepped into the cockpit, and stood rocked by the motion of the swells, clinging to the cabin’s edge. Woolfolk shifted the engine to its highest speed, and they were driving through the tempestuous dark on to the bar. He was now confronted by the necessity for an immediate decision. Halvard or himself would have to stand forward, clinging precariously to a stay, and repeatedly sound the depth of the shallowing water as they felt their way out to sea. He gazed anxiously at the dark bulk before him, and saw that the sailor had lost his staunchness of outline, his aspect of invincible determination.

“Halvard,” he demanded again sharply, “this is no time for pretense. How are you?”

“All right,” the other repeated desperately, through clenched teeth. “I’ve—I’ve taken knives from men before—on the docks at Stockholm. I missed his hand at first—it was the night.”

The cabin door swung open, and a sudden lurch flung Millie Stope against the wheel. Woolfolk caught and held her until the wave rolled by. She was stark with terror, and held abjectly to the rail while the next swell lifted them upward. He attempted to urge her back to the protection of the cabin, but she resisted with such a convulsive determination that he relinquished the effort and enveloped her in his glistening oilskin.

This had consumed a perilous amount of time; and, swiftly decisive, he commanded Halvard to take the wheel. He swung himself to the deck and secured the long sounding pole. He could see ahead on either side the dim white bars forming and dissolving, and called to the man at the wheel:

“Mark the breakers! Fetch her between.”

On the bow, leaning out over the surging tide, he drove the sounding pole forward and down, but it floated back free. They were not yet on the bar. The ketch heeled until the black plain of water rose above his knees, driving at him with a deceitful force, sinking back slowly as the yacht straightened buoyantly. He again sounded; the pole struck bottom, and he cried:

“Five.”

The infuriated beating of the waves on the obstruction drawn across their path drowned his voice, and he shouted the mark once more. Then after another sounding:

“Four and three.”

The yacht fell away dangerously before a heavy diagonal blow; she hung for a moment, rolling like a log, and then slowly regained her way. Woolfolk’s apprehension increased. It would, perhaps, have been better if they had delayed, to examine Halvard’s injury. The man had insisted that it was of no moment, and John Woolfolk had been driven by a consuming desire to leave the miasmatic shore. He swung the pole forward and cried:

“Four and a half.”

The water was shoaling rapidly. The breaking waves on the port and starboard swept by with lightning rapidity. The ketch veered again, shipped a crushing weight of water, and responded more slowly than before to a tardy pressure of the rudder. The greatest peril, John Woolfolk knew, lay directly before them. He realized from the action of the ketch that Halvard was steering uncertainly, and that at any moment the Gar might strike and fall off too far for recovery, when she could not live in the pounding surf.

“Four and one,” he cried hoarsely. And then immediately after: “Four.”

Chance had been against him from the first, he thought, and there flashed through his mind the dark panorama, the accumulating disasters of the night. A negation lay upon his existence that would not be lifted. It had followed him like a sinister shadow for years to this obscure, black smother of water, to the Gar reeling crazily forward under an impotent hand. The yacht was behaving heroically; no other ketch could have lived so long, responded so gallantly to a wavering wheel.

“Three and three,” he shouted above the combined stridor of wind and sea.

The next minute would see their safe passage or a helpless hulk beating to pieces on the bar, with three human fragments whirling under the crushing masses of water, floating, perhaps, with the dawn into the tranquillity of the bay.

“Three and a half,” he cried monotonously.

The Gar trembled like a wounded and dull animal. The solid seas were reaching hungrily over Woolfolk’s legs. A sudden stolidity possessed him. He thrust the pole out deliberately, skillfully:

“Three and a quarter.”

A lower sounding would mean the end. He paused for a moment, his dripping face turned to the far stars; his lips moved in silent, unformulated aspirations—Halvard and himself, in the sea that had been their home; but Millie was so fragile! He made the sounding precisely, between the heaving swells, and marked the pole instantly driven backward by their swinging flight.

“Three and a half.” His voice held a new, uncontrollable quiver. He sounded again immediately: “And three-quarters.”

They had passed the bar.