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

He advanced more slowly, and a low, irregular house detached itself from the tangled growth pressing upon it from all sides. The doorway, dimly lighted by an invisible lamp from within, was now near by; and John Woolfolk saw a shape cross it, so swiftly furtive that it was gone before he realized that a man had vanished into the hall. There was a second stir on the small covered portico, and the slender, white-clad figure of a woman moved uncertainly forward. He stopped just at the moment in which a low, clear voice demanded: “What do you want?”

The question was directly put, and yet the tone held an inexplicably acute apprehension. The woman’s voice bore a delicate, bell-like shiver of fear.

“Nothing,” he hastened to assure her. “When I came ashore I thought no one was living here.”

“You’re from the white boat that sailed in at sunset?”

“Yes,” he replied, “and I am returning immediately.”

“It was like magic!” she continued. “Suddenly, without a sound, you were anchored in the bay.” Even this quiet statement bore the shadowy alarm. John Woolfolk realized that it had not been caused by his abrupt appearance; the faint accent of dread was fixed in the illusive form before him.

“I have robbed you too,” he continued in a lighter tone. “Your oranges are in my pocket.”

“You won’t like them,” she returned indirectly; “they’ve run wild. We can’t sell them.”

“They have a distinct flavor of their own,” he assured her. “I should be glad to have some on the Gar.”

“All you want.”

“My man will get them and pay you.”

“Please don’t—” She stopped abruptly, as if a sudden consideration had interrupted a liberal courtesy. When she spoke again the apprehension, Woolfolk thought, had increased to palpable fright. “We would charge you very little,” she said finally. “Nicholas attends to that.”

Silence fell upon them. She stood with her hand resting lightly against an upright support, coldly revealed by the moon. John Woolfolk saw that, although slight, her body was delicately full, and that her shoulders held a droop which somehow resembled the shadow on her voice. She bore an unmistakable refinement of being, strange in that locality of meager humanity. Her speech totally lacked the unintelligible, loose slurring of the natives.

“Won’t you sit down,” she at last broke the silence. “My father was here when you came up, but he went in. Strangers disturb him.”

Woolfolk moved to the portico, elevated above the ground, where he found a momentary place. The woman sank back into a low chair. The stillness gathered about them once more, and he mechanically rolled a cigarette. Her white dress, although simply and rudely made, gained distinction from her free, graceful lines; her feet, in black, heelless slippers, were narrow and sharply cut. He saw that her countenance bore an even pallor on which her eyes made shadows like those on marble.

These details, unremarkable in themselves, were charged with a peculiar intensity. John Woolfolk, who long ago had put such considerations from his existence, was yet clearly conscious of the disturbing quality of her person. She possessed the indefinable property of charm. Such women, he knew, stirred life profoundly, reanimating it with extraordinary efforts and desires. Their mere passage, the pressure of their fingers, were more imperative than the life service of others; the flutter of their breath could be more tyrannical that the most poignant memories and vows.

John Woolfolk thought these things in a manner absolutely detached. They touched him at no point. Nevertheless, the faint curiosity stirred within him remained. The house unexpectedly inhabited behind the ruined façade on the water, the magnetic woman with the echo of apprehension in her cultivated voice, the parent, so easily disturbed, even the mere name “Nicholas,” all held a marked potentiality of emotion; they were set in an almost hysterical key.

He was suddenly conscious of the odorous pressure of the flowering trees, of the orange blossoms and the oleanders. It was stifling. He felt that he must escape at once, from all the cloying and insidious scents of the earth, to the open and sterile sea. The thick tangle in the colorless light of the moon, the dimmer portico with its enigmatic figure, were a cunning essence of the existence from which he had fled. Life’s traps were set with just such treacheries—perfume and mystery and the veiled lure of sex.

He rose with an uncouth abruptness, a meager commonplace, and hurried over the path to the beach, toward the refuge, the release, of the Gar.

John Woolfolk woke at dawn. A thin, bluish light filled the cabin; above, Halvard was washing the deck. The latter was vigorously swabbing the cockpit when Woolfolk appeared, but he paused.

“Perhaps,” the sailor said, “you will stay here for a day or two. I’d like to unship the propeller, and there’s the scraping. It’s a good anchorage.”

“We’re moving on south,” Woolfolk replied, stating the determination with which he had retired. Then the full sense of Halvard’s words penetrated his waking mind. The propeller, he knew, had not opened properly for a week; and the anchorage was undoubtedly good. This was the last place, before entering the Florida passes, for whatever minor adjustments were necessary.

The matted shore, flushed with the rising sun, was starred with white and deep pink blooms; a ray gilded the blank wall of the deserted mansion. The scent of the orange blossoms was not so insistent as it had been on the previous evening. The land appeared normal; it exhibited none of the disturbing influence of which he had been first conscious. Last night’s mood seemed absurd.

“You are quite right,” he altered his pronouncement; “we’ll put the Gar in order here. People are living behind the grove, and there’ll be water.”

He had, for breakfast, oranges brought down the coast, and he was surprised at their sudden insipidity. They were little better than faintly sweetened water. He turned and in the pocket of his flannel coat found one of those he had picked the night before. It was as keen as a knife; the peculiar aroma had, without doubt, robbed him of all desire for the cultivated oranges of commerce.

Halvard was in the tender, under the stern of the ketch, when it occurred to John Woolfolk that it would be wise to go ashore and establish his assertion of an adequate water supply. He explained this briefly to the sailor, who put him on the small shingle of sand. There he turned to the right, moving idly in a direction away from that he had taken before.

He crossed the corner of the demolished abode, made his way through a press of sere cabbage palmettos, and emerged suddenly on the blinding expanse of the sea. The limpid water lay in a bright rim over corrugated and pitted rock, where shallow ultramarine pools spread gardens of sulphur-yellow and rose anémones. The land curved in upon the left; a ruined landing extended over the placid tide, and, seated there with her back toward him, a woman was fishing.

It was, he saw immediately, the woman of the portico. At the moment of recognition she turned, and after a brief inspection, slowly waved her hand. He approached, crossing the openings in the precarious boarding of the landing, until he stood over her. She said:

“There’s an old sheepshead under here I’ve been after for a year. If you’ll be very still you can see him.”

She turned her face up to him, and he saw that her cheeks were without trace of color. At the same time he reaffirmed all that he felt before with regard to the potent quality of her being. She had a lustrous mass of warm brown hair twisted into a loose knot that had slid forward over a broad, low brow; a pointed chin; and pale, disturbing lips. But her eyes were her most notable feature—they were widely opened and extraordinary in color; the only similitude that occurred to John Woolfolk was the grey greenness of olive leaves. In them he felt the same foreboding that had shadowed her voice. The fleet passage of her gaze left an indelible impression of an expectancy that was at once a dread and a strangely youthful candor. She was, he thought, about thirty.

She wore now a russet skirt of thin, coarse texture that, like the dress of the evening, took a slim grace from her fine body, and a white waist, frayed from many washings, open upon her smooth, round throat.

“He’s usually by this post,” she continued, pointing down through the clear gloom of the water.

Woolfolk lowered himself to a position at her side, his gaze following her direction. There, after a moment, he distinguished the sheepshead, barred in black and white, wavering about the piling. His companion was fishing with a short, heavy rod from which time had dissolved the varnish, an ineffectual brass reel that complained shrilly whenever the lead was raised or lowered, and a thick, freely-knotted line.

“You should have a leader,” he told her. “The old gentleman can see your line too plainly.”

There was a sharp pull, she rapidly turned the handle of the protesting reel, and drew up a gasping, bony fish with extended red wings.

“Another robin!” she cried tragically. “This is getting serious. Dinner,” she informed him, “and not sport, is my object.”

He looked out to where a channel made a deep blue stain through the paler cerulean of the sea. The tide, he saw from the piling, was low.

“There should be a rockfish in the pass,” he pronounced.

“What good if there is?” she returned. “I couldn’t possibly throw out there. And if I could, why disturb a rock with this?” She shook the short awkward rod, the knotted line.

He privately acknowledged the palpable truth of her objections, and rose.

“I’ve some fishing things on the ketch,” he said, moving away. He blew shrilly on a whistle from the beach, and Halvard dropped over the Gar’s side into the tender.

Woolfolk was soon back on the wharf, stripping the canvas cover from the long cane tip of a fishing rod brilliantly wound with green and vermilion, and fitting it into a dark, silver-capped butt. He locked a capacious reel into place, and, drawing a thin line through agate guides, attached a glistening steel leader and chained hook. Then, adding a freely swinging lead, he picked up the small mullet that lay by his companion.

“Does that have to go?” she demanded. “It’s such a slim chance, and it is my only mullet.”

He ruthlessly sliced a piece from the silvery side; and, rising and switching his reel’s gear, he cast. The lead swung far out across the water and fell on the farther side of the channel.

“But that’s dazzling!” she exclaimed; “as though you had shot it out of a gun.”

He tightened the line, and sat with the rod resting in a leather socket fastened to his belt.

“Now,” she stated, “we will watch at the vain sacrifice of an only mullet.”

The day was superb, the sky sparkled like a great blue sun; schools of young mangrove snappers swept through the pellucid water. The woman said:

“Where did you come from and where are you going?”

“Cape Cod,” he replied; “and I am going to the Guianas.”

“Isn’t that South America?” she queried. “I’ve traveled far—on maps. Guiana,” she repeated the name softly. For a moment the faint dread in her voice changed to longing. “I think I know all the beautiful names of places on the earth,” she continued: “Tarragona and Seriphos and Cambodia.”

“Some of them you have seen?”

“None,” she answered simply. “I was born here, in the house you know, and I have never been fifty miles away.”

This, he told himself, was incredible. The mystery that surrounded her deepened, stirring more strongly his impersonal curiosity.

“You are surprised,” she added; “it’s mad, but true. There—there is a reason.” She stopped abruptly, and, neglecting her fishing rod, sat with her hands clasped about slim knees. She gazed at him slowly, and he was impressed once more by the remarkable quality of her eyes, grey-green like olive leaves and strangely young. The momentary interest created in her by romantic and far names faded, gave place to the familiar trace of fear. In the long past he would have responded immediately to the appeal of her pale, magnetic countenance.... He had broken all connection with society, with—

There was a sudden, impressive jerk at his line, the rod instantly assumed the shape of a bent bow, and, as he rose, the reel spindle was lost in a grey blur and the line streaked out through the dipping tip. His companion hung breathless at his shoulder.

“He’ll take all your line,” she lamented as the fish continued his straight, outward course, while Woolfolk kept an even pressure on the rod.

“A hundred yards,” he announced as he felt a threaded mark wheel from under his thumb. Then: “A hundred and fifty. I’m afraid it’s a shark.” As he spoke the fish leaped clear of the water, a spot of molten silver, and fell back in a sparkling blue spray. “It’s a rock,” he added. He stopped the run momentarily; the rod bent perilously double, but the fish halted. Woolfolk reeled in smoothly, but another rush followed, as strong as the first. A long, equal struggle ensued, the thin line was drawn as rigid as metal, the rod quivered and arched. Once the rockfish was close enough to be clearly distinguishable—strongly built, heavy-shouldered, with black stripes drawn from gills to tail. But he was off again with a short, blundering rush.

“If you will hold the rod,” Woolfolk directed his companion, “I’ll gaff him.” She took the rod while he bent over the wharf’s side. The fish, on the surface of the water, half turned; and, striking the gaff through a gill, Woolfolk swung him up on the boarding.

“There,” he pronounced, “are several dinners. I’ll carry him to your kitchen.”

“Nicholas would do it, but he’s away,” she told him; “and my father is not strong enough. That’s a leviathan.”

John Woolfolk placed a handle through the rockfish’s gills, and, carrying it with an obvious effort, he followed her over a narrow, trampled path through the rasped palmettos. They approached the dwelling from behind the orange grove; and, coming suddenly to the porch, surprised an incredibly thin, grey man in the act of lighting a small stone pipe with a reed stem. He was sitting, but, seeing Woolfolk, he started sharply to his feet, and the pipe fell, shattering the bowl.

“My father,” the woman pronounced: “Lichfield Stope.”

“Millie,” he stuttered painfully, “you know—I—strangers—”

John Woolfolk thought, as he presented himself, that he had never before seen such an immaterial living figure. Lichfield Stope was like the shadow of a man draped with unsubstantial, dusty linen. Into his waxen face beat a pale infusion of blood, as if a diluted wine had been poured into a semi-opaque goblet; his sunken lips puffed out and collapsed; his fingers, dust-colored like his garb, opened and shut with a rapid, mechanical rigidity.

“Father,” Millie Stope remonstrated, “you must manage yourself better. You know I wouldn’t bring any one to the house who would hurt us. And see—we are fetching you a splendid rockfish.”

The older man made a convulsive effort to regain his composure.

“Ah, yes,” he muttered; “just so.”

The flush receded from his indeterminate countenance. Woolfolk saw that he had a goatee laid like a wasted yellow finger on his chin, and that his hands hung on wrists like twisted copper wires from circular cuffs fastened with large mosaic buttons.

“We are alone here,” he proceeded in a fluctuating voice, the voice of a shadow; “the man is away. My daughter—I—” He grew inaudible, although his lips maintained a faint movement.

The fear that lurked illusively in the daughter was in the parent magnified to an appalling panic, an instinctive, acute agony that had crushed everything but a thin, tormented spark of life. He passed his hand over a brow as dry as the spongy limbs of the cypress, brushing a scant lock like dead, bleached moss.

“The fish,” he pronounced; “yes ... acceptable.”

“If you will carry it back for me,” Millie Stope requested; “we have no ice; I must put it in water.” He followed her about a bay window with ornamental fretting that bore the shreds of old, variegated paint. He could see, amid an incongruous wreckage within, a dismantled billiard table, its torn cloth faintly green beneath a film of dust. They turned and arrived at the kitchen door. “There, please.” She indicated a bench on the outside wall, and he deposited his burden.

“You have been very nice,” she told him, making her phrase less commonplace by a glance of her wide, appealing eyes. “Now, I suppose, you will go on across the world?”

“Not tonight,” he replied distantly.

“Perhaps, then, you will come ashore again. We see so few people. My father would be benefited. It was only at first, so suddenly—he was startled.”

“There is a great deal to do on the ketch,” he replied indirectly, maintaining his retreat from the slightest advance of life. “I came ashore to discover if you had a large water supply and if I might fill my casks.”

“Rain water,” she informed him; “the cistern is full.”

“Then I’ll send Halvard to you.” He withdrew a step, but paused at the incivility of his leaving.

A sudden weariness had settled over the shoulders of Millie Stope; she appeared young and very white. Woolfolk was acutely conscious of her utter isolation with the shivering figure on the porch, the unmaterialized Nicholas. She had delicate hands.

“Good-by,” he said, bowing formally. “And thank you for the fishing.”

He whistled sharply for the tender.