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

Again on the ketch the inevitable reaction overtook him. He had spoken of Ellen’s death to no one until now, through all the years when he had been a wanderer on the edge of his world, and he bitterly regretted his reference to it. In speaking he had betrayed his resolution of solitude. Life, against all his instinct, his wishes, had reached out and caught him, however lightly, in its tentacles.

The least surrender, he realized, the slightest opening of his interest, would bind him with a multitude of attachments; the octopus that he dreaded, uncoiling arm after arm, would soon hold him again, a helpless victim for the fury Chance.

He had made a disastrous error in following his curiosity, the insistent scent of the wild oranges, to the house where Millie had advanced on the dim portico. His return there had been the inevitable result of the first mistake, and the rest had followed with a fatal ease. Whatever had been the déficiences of the past twelve years he had been free from new complications, fresh treacheries. Now, with hardly a struggle, he was falling back into the old trap.

The wind died away absolutely, and a haze gathered delicately over the sea, thickening through the afternoon, and turned rosy by the declining sun. The shore had faded from sight.

A sudden energy leaped through John Woolfolk and rang out in an abrupt summons to Halvard. “Get up anchor,” he commanded.

Poul Halvard, at the mainstay, remarked tentatively: “There’s not a capful of wind.”

The wide calm, Woolfolk thought, was but a part of a general conspiracy against his liberty, his memories. “Get the anchor up,” he repeated harshly. “We’ll go under the engine.” The sudden jarring of the Gar’s engine sounded muffled in a shut space like the flushed heart of a shell. The yacht moved forward, with a wake like folded gauze, into a shimmer of formless and pure color.

John Woolfolk sat at the wheel, motionless except for an occasional scant shifting of his hands. He was sailing by compass; the patent log, trailing behind on its long cord, maintained a constant, jerking register on its dial. He had resolutely banished all thought save that of navigation. Halvard was occupied forward, clearing the deck of the accumulations of the anchorage. When he came aft Woolfolk said shortly: “No mess.”

The haze deepened and night fell, and the sailor lighted and placed the port and starboard lights. The binnacle lamp threw up a dim, orange radiance on Woolfolk’s somber countenance. He continued for three and four and then five hours at the wheel, while the smooth clamor of the engine, a slight quiver of the hull, alone marked their progress through an invisible element.

Once more he had left life behind. This had more the aspect of a flight than at any time previous. It was, obscurely, an unpleasant thought, and he endeavored—unsuccessfully—to put it from him. He was but pursuing the course he had laid out, following his necessary, inflexible determination.

His mind for a moment turned independently back to Millie with her double burden of fear. He had left her without a word, isolated with Nicholas, concealing with a blank smile his enigmatic being, and with her impotent parent.

Well, he was not responsible for her, he had paid for the privilege of immunity; he had but listened to her story, volunteering nothing. John Woolfolk wished, however, that he had said some final, useful word to her before going. He was certain that, looking for the ketch and unexpectedly finding the bay empty, she would suffer a pang, if only of loneliness. In the short while that he had been there she had come to depend on him for companionship, for relief from the insuperable monotony of her surroundings; for, perhaps, still more. He wondered what that more might contain. He thought of Millie at the present moment, probably lying awake, steeped in dread. His flight now assumed the aspect of an act of cowardice, of desertion. He rehearsed wearily the exténuations of his position, but without any palpable relief.

An even more disturbing possibility lodged in his thoughts—he was not certain that he did not wish to be actually back with Millie again. He felt the quick pressure of her fingers on his arm as she jumped from the tender; her magnetic personality hung about him like an aroma. Cloaked in mystery, pale and irresistible, she appealed to him from the edge of the wild oranges.

This, he told himself again, was but the manner in which a ruthless Nature set her lures; it was the deceptive vestment of romance. He held the ketch relentlessly on her course, with—now—all his thoughts, his inclinations, returning to Millie Stope. In a final, desperate rally of his scattering resolution he told himself that he was unfaithful to the tragic memory of Ellen. This last stay broke abruptly, and left him defenseless against the tyranny of his mounting desires. Strangely he felt the sudden pressure of a stirring wind upon his face; and, almost with an oath, he put the wheel sharply over and the Gar swung about.

Poul Halvard had been below, by inference asleep; but when the yacht changed her course he immediately appeared on deck. He moved aft, but Woolfolk made no explanation, the sailor put no questions. The wind freshened, grew sustained. Woolfolk said:

“Make sail.”

Soon after, the mainsail rose, a ghostly white expanse on the night. John Woolfolk trimmed the jigger, shut off the engine; and, moving through a sudden, vast hush, they retraced their course. The bay was ablaze with sunlight, the morning well advanced, when the ketch floated back to her anchorage under the oleanders.