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

Throughout the afternoon, with a triangular scraping iron, he assisted Halvard in removing the whitened varnish from the yacht’s mahogany. They worked silently, with only the shrill note of the edges drawing across the wood, while the westering sun plunged its diagonal rays far into the transparent depths of the bay. The Gar floated motionless on water like a pale evening over purple and silver flowers threaded by fish painted the vermilion and green of parrakeets. Inshore the pallid cypresses seemed, as John Woolfolk watched them, to twist in febrile pain. With the waning of day the land took on its air of unhealthy mystery; the mingled, heavy scents floated out in a sickly tide; the ruined façade glimmered in the half light.

Woolfolk’s thoughts turned back to the woman living in the miasma of perfume and secret fear. He heard again her wistful voice pronounce the names of far places, of Tarragona and Seriphos, investing them with the accent of an intense hopeless desire. He thought of the inexplicable place of her birth and of the riven, unsubstantial figure of the man with the blood pulsing into his ocherous face. Some old, profound error or calamity had laid its blight upon him, he was certain; but the most lamentable inheritance was not sufficient to account for the acute apprehension in his daughter’s tones. This was different in kind from the spiritual collapse of the aging man. It was actual, he realized that; proceeding—in part at least—from without.

He wondered, scraping with difficulty the under-turning of a cathead, if whatever dark tide was centered above her would, perhaps, descend through the oleander-scented night and stifle her in the stagnant dwelling. He had a swift, vividly complete vision of the old man face down upon the floor in a flickering, reddish light.

He smiled in self-contempt at this neurotic fancy; and, straightening his cramped muscles, rolled a cigarette. It might be that the years he had spent virtually alone on the silence of various waters had affected his brain. Halvard’s broad, concentrated countenance, the steady, grave gaze and determined mouth, cleared Woolfolk’s mind of its phantoms. He moved to the cockpit and from there said:

“That will do for today.”

Halvard followed, and commenced once more the familiar, ordered preparations for supper. John Woolfolk, smoking while the sky turned to malachite, became sharply aware of the unthinkable monotony of the universal course, of the centuries wheeling in dull succession into infinity. Life seemed to him no more varied than the wire drum in which squirrels raced nowhere. His own lot, he told himself grimly, was no worse than another. Existence was all of the same drab piece. It had seemed gay enough when he was young, worked with gold and crimson threads, and then—

His thoughts were broken by Halyard’s appearance in the companionway, and he descended to his solitary supper in the contracted, still cabin.

Again on deck his sense of the monotony of life trebled. He had been cruising now about the edges of continents for twelve years. For twelve years he had taken no part in the existence of the cities he had passed, as often as possible without stopping, and of the villages gathered invitingly under their canopies of trees. He was—yes, he must be—forty-six. Life was passing away; well, let it ... worthless.

The growing radiance of the moon glimmered across the water and folded the land in a gossamer veil. The same uneasiness, the inchoate desire to go ashore that had seized upon him the night before, reasserted its influence. The face of Millie Stope floated about him like a magical gardenia in the night of the matted trees. He resisted the pressure longer than before; but in the end he was seated in the tender, pulling toward the beach.

He entered the orange grove and slowly approached the house beyond. Millie Stope advanced with a quick welcome.

“I’m glad,” she said simply. “Nicholas is back. The fish weighed—”

“I think I’d better not know,” he interrupted. “I might be tempted to mention it in the future, when it would take on the historic suspicion of the fish story.”

“But it was imposing,” she protested. “Let’s go to the sea; it’s so limitless in the moonlight.”

He followed her over the path to where the remains of the wharf projected into a sea as black, and as solid apparently, as ebony, and across which the moon flung a narrow way like a chalk mark. Millie Stope seated herself on the boarding and he found a place near by. She leaned forward, with her arms propped up and her chin couched on her palms. Her potency increased rather than diminished with association; her skin had a rare texture; her movements, the turn of the wrists, were distinguished. He wondered again at the strangeness of her situation.

She looked about suddenly and surprised his palpable questioning.

“You are puzzled,” she pronounced. “Perhaps you are setting me in the middle of romance. Please don’t! Nothing you might guess—” She broke off abruptly, returned to her former pose. “And yet,” she added presently, “I have a perverse desire to talk about myself. It’s perverse because, although you are a little curious, you have no real interest in what I might say. There is something about you like—yes, like the cast-iron dog that used to stand in our lawn. It rusted away, cold to the last and indifferent, although I talked to it by the hour. But I did get a little comfort from its stolid painted eye. Perhaps you’d act in the same way.

“And then,” she went on when Woolfolk had somberly failed to comment, “you are going away, you will forget, it can’t possibly matter. I must talk, now that I have urged myself this far. After all, you needn’t have come back. But where shall I begin? You should know something of the very first. That happened in Virginia.... My father didn’t go to war,” she said, sudden and clear. She turned her face toward him, and he saw that it had lost its flower-like quality; it looked as if it had been carved in stone.

“He lived in a small, intensely loyal town,” she continued; “and when Virginia seceded it burned with a single high flame of sacrifice. My father had been always a diffident man; he collected mezzotints and avoided people. So, when the enlistment began, he shrank away from the crowds and hot speeches, and the men went off without him. He lived in complete retirement then, with his prints, in a town of women. It wasn’t impossible at first; he discussed the situation with the few old tradesmen that remained, and exchanged bows with the wives and daughters of his friends. But when the dead commenced to be brought in from the front it got worse. Belle Semple—he had always thought her unusually nice and pretty—mocked at him on the street. Then one morning he found an apron tied to the knob of the front door.

“After that he went out only at night. His servants had deserted him, and he lived by himself in a biggish, solemn house. Sometimes the news of losses and deaths would be shouted through his windows; once stones were thrown in, but mostly he was let alone. It must have been frightful in his empty rooms when the South went from bad to worse.” She paused, and John Woolfolk could see, even in the obscurity, the slow shudder that passed over her.

“When the war was over and what men were left returned—one with hands gone at the wrists, another without legs in a shabby wheelchair—the life of the town started once more, but my father was for ever outside of it. Little subscriptions for burials were made up, small schemes for getting the necessities, but he was never asked. Men spoke to him again, even some of the women. That was all.

“I think it was then that a curious, perpetual dread fastened on his mind—a fear of the wind in the night, of breaking twigs or sudden voices. He ordered things to be left on the steps, and he would peer out from under the blind to make sure that the walk was empty before he opened the door.

“You must realize,” she said in a sharper voice, “that my father was not a pure coward at first. He was an extremely sensitive man who hated the rude stir of living and who simply asked to be left undisturbed with his portfolios. But life’s not like that. The war hunted him out and ruined him; it destroyed his being, just as it destroyed the fortunes of others.

“Then he began to think—it was absolute fancy—that there was a conspiracy in the town to kill him. He sent some of his things away, got together what money he had, and one night left his home secretly on foot. He tramped south for weeks, living for a while in small place after place, until he reached Georgia, and then a town about fifty miles from here—”

She broke off, sitting rigidly erect, looking out over the level black sea with its shifting, chalky line of light, and a long silence followed. The antiphonal crying of the owls sounded over the bubbling swamp, the mephitic perfume hung like a vapor on the shore. John Woolfolk shifted his position.

“My mother told me this,” his companion said suddenly. “Father repeated it over and over through the nights after they were married. He slept only in snatches, and would wake with a gasp and his heart almost bursting. I know almost nothing about her, except that she had a brave heart—or she would have gone mad. She was English and had been a governess. They met in the little hotel where they were married. Then father bought this place, and they came here to live.”

Woolfolk had a vision of the tenuous figure of Lichfield Stope; he was surprised that such acute agony had left the slightest trace of humanity; yet the other, after forty years of torment, still survived to shudder at a chance footfall, the advent of a casual and harmless stranger.

This, then, was by implication the history of the woman at his side; it disposed of the mystery that had veiled her situation here. It was surprisingly clear, even to the subtle influence that, inherited from her father, had set the shadow of his own obsession upon her voice and eyes. Yet, in the moment that she had been made explicable, he recalled the conviction that the knowledge of an actual menace lurked in her mind; he had seen it in the tension of her body, in the anxiety of fleet backward glances.

The latter, he told himself, might be merely a symptom of mental sickness, a condition natural to the influences under which she had been formed. He tested and rejected that possibility—there could be no doubt of her absolute sanity. It was patent in a hundred details of her carriage, in her mentality as it had been revealed in her restrained, balanced narrative.

There was, too, the element of her mother to be considered. Millie Stope had known very little about her, principally the self-evident fact of the latter’s “brave heart.” It would have needed that to remain steadfast through the racking recitals of the long, waking darks; to accompany to this desolate and lonely refuge the man who had had an apron tied to his doorknob. In the degree that the daughter had been a prey to the man’s fear she would have benefited from the stiffer qualities of the English governess. Life once more assumed its enigmatic mask.

His companion said:

“All that—and I haven’t said a word about myself, the real end of my soliloquy. I’m permanently discouraged; I have qualms about boring you. No, I shall never find another listener as satisfactory as the iron dog.”

A light glimmered far at sea. “I sit here a great deal,” she informed him, “and watch the ships, a thumbprint of blue smoke at day and a spark at night, going up and down their water roads. You are enviable—getting up your anchor, sailing where you like, safe and free.” Her voice took on a passionate intensity that surprised him; it was sick with weariness and longing, with sudden revolt from the pervasive apprehension.

“Safe and free,” he repeated thinly, as if satirizing the condition implied by those commonplace, assuaging words. He had, in his flight from society, sought simply peace. John Woolfolk now questioned all his implied success. He had found the elemental hush of the sea, the iron aloofness of rocky and uninhabited coasts, but he had never been able to still the dull rebellion within, the legacy of the past. A feeling of complete failure settled over him. His safety and freedom amounted to this—that life had broken him and cast him aside.

A long, hollow wail rose from the land, and Millie Stope moved sharply.

“There’s Nicholas,” she exclaimed, “blowing on the conch! They don’t know where I am; I’d better go in.”

A small, evident panic took possession of her; the shiver in her voice swelled.

“No, don’t come,” she added. “I’ll be quicker without you.” She made her way over the wharf to the shore, but there paused, “I suppose you’ll be going soon?”

“Tomorrow probably,” he answered.

On the ketch Halvard had gone below for the night. The yacht swayed slightly to an unseen swell; the riding light moved backward and forward, its ray flickering over the glassy water. John Woolfolk brought his bedding from the cabin and, disposing it on deck, lay with his wakeful dark face set against the far, multitudinous worlds.