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

John Woolfolk had said nothing to Halvard of the woman he had seen swimming in the bay. He was conscious of no particular reason for remaining silent about her; but the thing had become invested with a glamour that, he felt, would be destroyed by commonplace discussion. He had no personal interest in the episode, he was careful to add. Interests of that sort, serving to connect him with the world, with society, with women, had totally disappeared from his life. He rolled and lighted a fresh cigarette, and in the minute orange spurt of the match his mouth was somber and forbidding.

The unexpected appearance on the glassy water had merely started into being a slight, fanciful curiosity. The women of that coast did not commonly swim at dusk in their bays; such simplicity obtained now only in the reaches of the highest civilization. There were, he knew, no hunting camps here, and the local inhabitants were mere sodden squatters. A chart lay in its flat canvas case by the wheel; and, in the crystal flood of the moon, he easily reaffirmed from it his knowledge of the yacht’s position. Nothing could be close by but scattered huts and such wreckage as that looming palely above the oleanders.

Yet a woman had unquestionably appeared swimming from behind the point of land off the bow of the Gar. The women native to the locality, and the men, too, were fanatical in the avoidance of any unnecessary exterior application of water. His thoughts moved in a monotonous circle, while the enveloping radiance constantly increased. It became as light as a species of unnatural day, where every leaf was clearly revealed but robbed of all color and familiar meaning.

He grew restless, and rose, making his way forward about the narrow deck-space outside the cabin. Halvard was seated on a coil of rope beside the windlass and stood erect as Woolfolk approached. The sailor was smoking a short pipe, and the bowl made a crimson spark in his thick, powerful hand. John Woolfolk fingered the wood surface of the windlass bitts and found it rough and gummy. Halvard said instinctively:

“I’d better start scraping the mahogany tomorrow, it’s getting white.”

Woolfolk nodded. Halvard was a good man. He had the valuable quality of commonly anticipating spoken desires. He was a Norwegian, out of the Lofoden Islands, where sailors are surpassingly schooled in the Arctic seas. Poul Halvard, so far as Woolfolk could discover, was impervious to cold, to fatigue, to the insidious whispering of mere flesh. He was a man without temptation, with an untroubled allegiance to a duty that involved an endless, exacting labor; and for those reasons he was austere, withdrawn from the community of more fragile and sympathetic natures. At times his inflexible integrity oppressed John Woolfolk. Halvard, he thought, was a difficult man to live up to.

He turned and absently surveyed the land. His restlessness increased. He felt a strong desire for a larger freedom of space than that offered by the Gar, and it occurred to him that he might go ashore in the tender. He moved aft with this idea growing to a determination. In the cabin, on the shelf above the berths built against the sides of the ketch, he found an old blue flannel coat, with crossed squash rackets and a monogram embroidered in yellow on the breast pocket. Slipping it on, he dropped over the stern of the tender.

Halvard came instantly aft, but Woolfolk declined the mutely offered service. The oars made a silken swish in the still bay as he pulled away from the yacht. The latter’s riding light, swung on the forestay, hung without a quiver, like a fixed yellow star. He looked once over his shoulder, and then the bow of the tender ran with a soft shock upon the beach. Woolfolk bedded the anchor in the sand and then stood gazing curiously before him.

On his right a thicket of oleanders drenched the air with the perfume of their heavy poisonous flowering, and behind them a rough clearing of saw grass swept up to the debris of the fallen portico. To the left, beyond the black hole of a decaying well, rose the walls of a second brick building, smaller than the dwelling. A few shreds of rotten porch clung to its face; and the moonlight, pouring through a break above, fell in a livid bar across the obscurity of a high single chamber.

Between the crumbling piles there was the faint trace of a footway, and Woolfolk advance to where, inside a dilapidated sheltering fence, he came upon a dark, compact mass of trees and smelled the increasing sweetness of orange blossoms. He struck the remains of a board path, and progressed with the cold, waxen leaves of the orange trees brushing his face. There was, he saw in the grey brightness, ripe fruit among the branches, and he mechanically picked an orange and then another. They were small but heavy, and had fine skins.

He tore one open and put a section in his mouth. It was at first surprisingly bitter, and he involuntarily flung away what remained in his hand. But after a moment he found that the oranges possessed a pungency and zestful flavor that he had tasted in no others. Then he saw, directly before him, a pale, rectangular light which he recognized as the opened door of a habitation.