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

On the morning following the breaking of his water cask John Woolfolk saw the slender figure of Millie on the beach. She waved and called, her voice coming thin and clear across the water:

“Are visitors—encouraged?”

He sent Halvard in with the tender, and as they approached, dropped a gangway over the Gar’s side. She stepped lightly down into the cockpit with a naïve expression of surprise at the yacht’s immaculate order. The sails lay precisely housed, the stays, freshly tarred, glistened in the sun, the brasswork and newly varnished mahogany shone, the mathematically coiled ropes rested on a deck as spotless as wood could be scraped.

“Why,” she exclaimed, “it couldn’t be neater if you were two nice old ladies!”

“I warn you,” Woolfolk replied, “Halvard will not regard that particularly as a compliment. He will assure you that the order of a proper yacht is beyond the most ambitious dream of a mere housekeeper.”

She laughed as Halvard placed a chair for her. She was, Woolfolk thought, lighter in spirit on the ketch than she had been on shore; there was the faintest imaginable stain on her petal-like cheeks; her eyes, like olive leaves, were almost gay. She sat with her slender knees crossed, her fine arms held with hands clasped behind her head, and clad in a crisply ironed, crude white dress, into the band of which she had thrust a spray of orange blossoms.

John Woolfolk was increasingly conscious of her peculiar charm. Millie Stope, he suddenly realized, was like the wild oranges in the neglected grove at her door. A man brought in contact with her magnetic being charged with appealing and mysterious emotions, in a setting of exotic night and black sea, would find other women, the ordinary concourse of society, insipid—like faintly sweetened water.

She was entirely at home on the ketch, sitting against the immaculate rim of deck and the sea. He resented that familiarity as an unwarranted intrusion of the world he had left. Other people, women among them, had unavoidably crossed his deck, but they had been patently alien, momentary; but Millie, with her still delight at the yacht’s compact comfort, her intuitive comprehension of its various details—the lamps set in gimbals, the china racks and chart cases slung overhead—entered at once into the spirit of the craft that was John Woolfolk’s sole place of being.

He was now disturbed by the ease with which she had established herself both in the yacht and in his imagination. He had thought, after so many years, to have destroyed all the bonds which ordinarily connect men with life; but now a mere curiosity had grown into a tangible interest, and the interest showed unmistakable signs of becoming sympathy.

She smiled at him from her position by the wheel; and he instinctively responded with such an unaccustomed, ready warmth that he said abruptly, seeking refuge in occupation:

“Why not reach out to sea? The conditions are perfect.”

“Ah, please!” she cried. “Just to take up the anchor would thrill me for months.”

A light west wind was blowing; and deliberate, exactly spaced swells, their tops laced with iridescent spray, were sweeping in from a sea like a glassy blue pavement. Woolfolk issued a short order, and the sailor moved forward with his customary smooth swiftness. The sails were shaken loose, the mainsail slowly spread its dazzling expanse to the sun, the jib and jigger were trimmed, and the anchor came up with a short rush.

Millie rose with her arms outspread, her chin high and eyes closed.

“Free!” she proclaimed with a slow, deep breath.

The sails filled and the ketch forged ahead. John Woolfolk, at the wheel, glanced at the chart section beside him.

“There’s four feet on the bar at low water,” he told Halvard. “The tide’s at half flood now.”

The Gar increased her speed, slipping easily out of the bay, gladly, it seemed to Woolfolk, turning toward the sea. The bow rose, and the ketch dipped forward over a spent wave. Millie Stope grasped the wheelbox. “Free!” she said again with shining eyes.

The yacht rose more sharply, hung on a wave’s crest and slid lightly downward. Woolfolk, with a sinewy, dark hand directing their course, was intent upon the swelling sails. Once he stopped, tightening a halyard, and the sailor said:

“The main peak won’t flatten, sir.”

The swells grew larger. The Gar climbed their smooth heights and coasted like a feather beyond. Directly before the yacht they were unbroken, but on either side they foamed into a silver quickly reabsorbed in the deeper water within the bar.

Woolfolk turned from his scrutiny of the ketch to his companion, and was surprised to see her, with all the joy evaporated from her countenance, clinging rigidly to the rail. He said to himself, “Seasick.” Then he realized that it was not a physical illness that possessed her, but a profound, increasing terror. She endeavored to smile back at his questioning gaze, and said in a small, uncertain voice:

“It’s so—so big!”

For a moment he saw in her a clear resemblance to the shrinking figure of Lichfield Stope. It was as though suddenly she had lost her fine profile and become indeterminate, shadowy. The grey web of the old deflection in Virginia extended over her out of the past—of the past that, Woolfolk thought, would not die.

The Gar rose higher still, dropped into the deep, watery valley, and the woman’s face was drawn and wet, the back of her straining hand was dead white. Without further delay John Woolfolk put the wheel sharply over and told his man, “We’re going about.” Halvard busied himself with the shaking sails.

“Really—I’d rather you didn’t,” Millie gasped. “I must learn ... no longer a child.”

But Woolfolk held the ketch on her return course; his companion’s panic was growing beyond her control. They passed once more between the broken waves and entered the still bay with its border of flowering earth. There, when the yacht had been anchored, Millie sat gazing silently at the open sea whose bigness had so unexpectedly distressed her. Her face was pinched, her mouth set in a straight, hard line. That, somehow, suggested to Woolfolk the enigmatic governess; it was in contradiction to the rest.

“How strange,” she said at last in an insuperably weary voice, “to be forced back to this place that I loathe, by myself, by my own cowardice. It’s exactly as if my spirit were chained—then the body could never be free. What is it,” she demanded of John Woolfolk, “that lives in our own hearts and betrays our utmost convictions and efforts, and destroys us against all knowledge and desire?”

“It may be called heredity,” he replied; “that is its simplest phase. The others extend into the realms of the fantastic.”

“It’s unjust,” she cried bitterly, “to be condemned to die in a pit with all one’s instinct in the sky!”

The old plea of injustice quivered for a moment over the water and then died away. John Woolfolk had made the same passionate protest, he had cried it with clenched hands at the withdrawn stars, and the profound inattention of Nature had appalled his agony. A thrill of pity moved him for the suffering woman beside him. Her mouth was still unrelaxed. There was in her the material for a struggle against the invidious past.

In her slender frame the rebellion took on an accent of the heroic. Woolfolk recalled how utterly he had gone down before mischance. But his case had been extreme, he had suffered an unendurable wrong at the hand of Fate. Halvard diverted his thoughts by placing before them a tray of sugared pineapple and symmetrical cakes. Millie, too, lost her tension; she showed a feminine pleasure at the yacht’s fine napkins, approved the polish of the glass.

“It’s all quite wonderful,” she said.

“I have nothing else to care for,” Woolfolk told her.

“No place nor people on land?”


“And you are satisfied?”

“Absolutely,” he replied with an unnecessary emphasis. He was, he told himself aggressively; he wanted nothing more from living and had nothing to give. Yet his pity for Millie Stope mounted obscurely, bringing with it thoughts, dim obligations and desires, to which he had declared himself dead.

“I wonder if you are to be envied?” she queried.

A sudden astounding willingness to speak of himself, even of the past, swept over him.

“Hardly,” he replied. “All the things that men value were killed for me in an instant, in the flutter of a white skirt.”

“Can you talk about it?”

“There’s almost nothing to tell; it was so unrelated, so senseless and blind. It can’t be dressed into a story, it has no moral—no meaning. Well—it was twelve years ago. I had just been married, and we had gone to a property in the country. After two days I had to go into town, and when I came back Ellen met me in a breaking cart. It was a flag station, buried in maples, with a white road winding back to where we were staying.

“Ellen had trouble in holding the horse when the train left, and the beast shied going from the station. It was Monday, clothes hung from a line in a side yard and a skirt fluttered in a little breeze. The horse reared, the strapped back of the seat broke, and Ellen was thrown—on her head. It killed her.”

He fell silent. Millie breathed sharply, and a ripple struck with a faint slap on the yacht’s side. Then: “One can’t allow that,” he continued in a lower voice, as if arguing with himself; “arbitrary, wanton; impossible to accept such conditions—

“She was young,” he once more took up the narrative; “a girl in a tennis skirt with a gay scarf about her waist—quite dead in a second. The clothes still fluttered on the line. You see,” he ended, “nothing instructive, tragic—only a crude dissonance.”

“Then you left everything?”

He failed to answer, and she gazed with a new understanding and interest over the Gar. Her attention was attracted to the beach, and, following her gaze, John Woolfolk saw the bulky figure of Nicholas gazing at them from under his palm. A palpable change, a swift shadow, enveloped Millie Stope.

“I must go back,” she said uneasily; “there will be dinner, and my father has been alone all morning.”

But Woolfolk was certain that, however convincing the reasons she put forward, it was none of these that was taking her so hurriedly ashore. The dread that for the past few hours had almost vanished from her tones, her gaze, had returned multiplied. It was, he realized, the objective fear; her entire being was shrinking as if in anticipation of an imminent calamity, a physical blow.

Woolfolk himself put her on the beach; and, with the tender canted on the sand, steadied her spring. As her hand rested on his arm it gripped him with a sharp force; a response pulsed through his body; and an involuntary color rose in her pale, fine cheeks.

Nicholas, stolidly set with his shoes half buried in the sand, surveyed them without a shade of feeling on his thick countenance. But Woolfolk saw that the other’s fingers were crawling toward his pocket. He realized that the man’s dully smiling mask concealed sultry, ungoverned emotions, blind springs of hate.