Read CHAPTER I of Wild Oranges , free online book, by Joseph Hergesheimer, on

The ketch drifted into the serene inclosure of the bay as silently as the reflections moving over the mirrorlike surface of the water. Beyond a low arm of land that hid the sea the western sky was a single, clear yellow; farther on the left the pale, incalculably old limbs of cypress, their roots bare, were hung with gathering shadows as delicate as their own faint foliage. The stillness was emphasized by the ceaseless murmur of the waves breaking on the far, seaward bars.

John Woolfolk brought the ketch up where he intended to anchor and called to the stooping white-clad figure in the bow: “Let go!” There was an answering splash, a sudden rasp of hawser, the booms swung idle, and the yacht imperceptibly settled into her berth. The wheel turned impotently; and, absent-minded, John Woolfolk locked it. He dropped his long form on a carpet-covered folding chair near by. He was tired. His sailor, Poul Halvard, moved about with a noiseless and swift efficiency; he rolled and cased the jib, and then, with a handful of canvas stops, secured and covered the mainsail and proceeded aft to the jigger. Unlike Woolfolk, Halvard was short—a square figure with a smooth, deep-tanned countenance, colorless and steady, pale blue eyes. His mouth closed so tightly that it appeared immovable, as if it had been carved from some obdurate material that opened for the necessities of neither speech nor sustenance.

Tall John Woolfolk was darkly tanned, too, and had a grey gaze, by turns sharply focused with bright black pupils and blankly introspective. He was garbed in white flannels, with bare ankles and sandals, and an old, collarless silk shirt, with sleeves rolled back on virile arms incongruously tattooed with gauzy green cicadas.

He stayed motionless while Halvard put the yacht in order for the night. The day’s passage through twisting inland waterways, the hazard of the tides on shifting flats, the continual concentration on details at once trivial and highly necessary, had been more wearing than the cyclone the ketch had weathered off Barbuda the year before. They had been landbound since dawn; and all day John Woolfolk’s instinct had revolted against the fields and wooded points, turning toward the open sea.

Halvard disappeared into the cabin; and, soon after, a faint, hot air, the smell of scorched metal, announced the lighting of the vapor stove, the preparations for supper. Not a breath stirred the surface of the bay. The water, as transparently clear as the hardly darkened air, lay like a great amethyst clasped by its dim corals and the arm of the land. The glossy foliage that, with the exception of a small silver beach, choked the shore might have been stamped from metal. It was, John Woolfolk suddenly thought, amazingly still. The atmosphere, too, was peculiarly heavy, languorous. It was laden with the scents of exotic, flowering trees; he recognized the smooth, heavy odor of oleanders and the clearer sweetness of orange blossoms.

He was idly surprised at the latter; he had not known that orange groves had been planted and survived in Georgia. Woolfolk gazed more attentively at the shore, and made out, in back of the luxuriant tangle, the broad white façade of a dwelling. A pair of marine glasses lay on the deck at his hand; and, adjusting them, he surveyed the face of a distinguished ruin. The windows on the stained wall were broken in—they resembled the empty eyes of the dead; storms had battered loose the neglected roof, leaving a corner open to sun and rain; he could see through the foliage lower down great columns fallen about a sweeping portico.

The house was deserted, he was certain of that—the melancholy wreckage of a vanished and resplendent time. Its small principality, flourishing when commerce and communication had gone by water, was one of the innumerable victims of progress and of the concentration of effort into huge impersonalities. He thought he could trace other even more complete ruins, but his interest waned. He laid the glasses back upon the deck. The choked bubble of boiling water sounded from the cabin, mingled with the irregular sputter of cooking fat and the clinking of plates and silver as Halvard set the table. Without, the light was fading swiftly; the wavering cry of an owl quivered from the cypress across the water, and the western sky changed from paler yellow to green. Woolfolk moved abruptly, and, securing a bucket to the handle of which a short rope had been spliced and finished with an ornamental Turk’s-head, he swung it overboard and brought it up half full. In the darkness of the bucket the water shone with a faint phosphorescence. Then from a basin he lathered his hands with a thick, pinkish paste, washed his face, and started toward the cabin.

He was already in the companionway when, glancing across the still surface of the bay, he saw a swirl moving into view about a small point. He thought at first that it was a fish, but the next moment saw the white, graceful silhouette of an arm. It was a woman swimming. John Woolfolk could now plainly make out the free, solid mass of her hair, the naked, smoothly turning shoulder. She was swimming with deliberate ease, with a long, single overarm stroke; and it was evident that she had not seen the ketch. Woolfolk stood, his gaze level with the cabin top, watching her assured progress. She turned again, moving out from the shore, then suddenly stopped. Now, he realized, she saw him.

The swimmer hung motionless for a breath; then, with a strong, sinuous drive, she whirled about and made swiftly for the point of land. She was visible for a short space, low in the water, her hair wavering in the clear flood, and then disappeared abruptly behind the point, leaving behind—a last vanishing trace of her silent passage—a smooth, subsiding wake on the surface of the bay.

John Woolfolk mechanically descended the three short steps to the cabin. There had been something extraordinary in the woman’s brief appearance out of the odorous tangle of the shore, with its ruined habitation. It had caught him unprepared, in a moment of half weary relaxation, and his imagination responded with a faint question to which it had been long unaccustomed. But Halvard, in crisp white, standing behind the steaming supper viands, brought his thoughts again to the day’s familiar routine.

The cabin was divided through its forward half by the centerboard casing, and against it a swinging table had been elevated, an immaculate cover laid, and the yacht’s china, marked in cobalt with the name Gar, placed in a polished and formal order. Halvard’s service from the stove to the table was as silent and skillful as his housing of the sails; he replaced the hot dishes with cold, and provided a glass bowl of translucent preserved figs.

Supper at an end, Woolfolk rolled a cigarette from shag that resembled coarse black tea and returned to the deck. Night had fallen on the shore, but the water still held a pale light; in the east the sky was filled with an increasing, cold radiance. It was the moon, rising swiftly above the flat land. The moonlight grew in intensity, casting inky shadows of the spars and cordage across the deck, making the light in the cabin a reddish blur by contrast. The icy flood swept over the land, bringing out with a new emphasis the close, glossy foliage and broken façade—it appeared unreal, portentous. The odors of the flowers, of the orange blossoms, uncoiled in heavy, palpable waves across the water, accompanied by the owl’s fluctuating cry. The sense of imminence increased, of a genius loci unguessed and troublous, vaguely threatening in the perfumed dark.