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

Whether he returned or fled, Woolfolk thought, he was enveloped in an atmosphere of defeat. He relinquished the wheel, but remained seated, drooping at his post. The indefatigable Halvard proceeded with the efficient discharge of his narrow, exacting duties. After a short space John Woolfolk descended to the cabin, where, on an unmade berth, he fell immediately asleep.

He woke to a dim interior and twilight gathering outside. He shaved—without conscious purpose—with meticulous care, and put on the blue flannel coat. Later he rowed himself ashore and proceeded directly through the orange grove to the house beyond.

Millie Stope was seated on the portico, and laid a restraining hand on her father’s arm as he rose, attempting to retreat at Woolfolk’s approach. The latter, with a commonplace greeting, resumed his place.

Millie’s face was dim and potent in the gloom, and Lichfield Stope more than ever resembled an uneasy ghost. He muttered an indistinct response to a period directed at him by Woolfolk and turned with a low, urgent appeal to his daughter. The latter, with a hopeless gesture, relinquished his arm, and the other vanished.

“You were sailing this morning,” Millie commented listlessly.

“I had gone,” he said without explanation. Then he added: “But I came back.”

A silence threatened them which he resolutely broke: “Do you remember, when you told me about your father, that you wanted really to talk about yourself? Will you do that now?”

“Tonight I haven’t the courage.”

“I am not idly curious,” he persisted.

“Just what are you?”

“I don’t know,” he admitted frankly. “At the present moment I’m lost, fogged. But, meanwhile, I’d like to give you any assistance in my power. You seem, in a mysterious way, needful of help.”

She turned her head sharply in the direction of the open hall and said in a high, clear voice, that yet rang strangely false: “I am quite well cared for by my father and Nicholas.” She moved closer to him, dragging her chair across the uneven porch, in the rasp of which she added, quick and low:

“Don’t—please.”

A mounting exasperation seized him at the secrecy that veiled her, hid her from him, and he answered stiffly: “I am merely intrusive.”

She was seated above him, and she leaned forward and swiftly pressed his fingers, loosely clasped about a knee. Her hand was as cold as salt. His irritation vanished before a welling pity. He got now a sharp, recognized happiness from her nearness; his feeling for her increased with the accumulating seconds. After the surrender, the admission, of his return he had grown elemental, sensitized to emotions rather than to processes of intellect. His ardor had the poignancy of the period beyond youth. It had a trace of the consciousness of the fatal waning of life which gave it a depth denied to younger passions. He wished to take Millie Stope at once from all memory of the troublous past, to have her alone in a totally different and thrilling existence.

It was a personal and blind desire, born in the unaccustomed tumult of his newly released feelings.

They sat for a long while, silent or speaking in trivialities, when he proposed a walk to the sea; but she declined in that curiously loud and false tone. It seemed to Woolfolk that, for the moment, she had addressed someone not immediately present; and involuntarily he looked around. The light of the hidden lamp in the hall fell in a pale, unbroken rectangle on the irregular porch. There was not the shifting of a pound’s weight audible in the stillness.

Millie breathed unevenly; at times he saw she shivered uncontrollably. At this his feeling mounted beyond all restraint. He said, taking her cold hand: “I didn’t tell you why I went last night—it was because I was afraid to stay where you were; I was afraid of the change you were bringing about in my life. That’s all over now, I—”

“Isn’t it quite late?” she interrupted him uncomfortably. She rose and her agitation visibly increased.

He was about to force her to hear all that he must say, but he stopped at the mute wretchedness of her pallid face. He stood gazing up at her from the rough sod. She clenched her hands, her breast heaved sharply, and she spoke in a level, strained voice:

“It would have been better if you had gone—without coming back. My father is unhappy with anyone about except myself—and Nicholas. You see—he will not stay on the porch nor walk about his grounds. I am not in need of assistance, as you seem to think. And—thank you. Good night.”

He stood without moving, his head thrown back, regarding her with a searching frown. He listened again, unconsciously, and thought he heard the low creaking of a board from within. It could be nothing but the uneasy peregrination of Lichfield Stope. The sound was repeated, grew louder, and the sagging bulk of Nicholas appeared in the doorway.

The latter stood for a moment, a dark, magnified shape; and then, moving across the portico to the farthest window, closed the shutters. The hinges gave out a rasping grind, as if they had not been turned for months, and there was a faint rattle of falling particles of rusted iron. The man forced shut a second set of shutters with a sudden violence and went slowly back into the house. Millie Stope said once more:

“Good night.”

It was evident to Woolfolk that he could gain nothing more at present; and stifling an angry protest, an impatient troop of questions, he turned and strode back to the tender. However, he hadn’t the slightest intention of following Millie’s indirectly expressed wish for him to leave. He had the odd conviction that at heart she did not want him to go; the evening, he elaborated this feeling, had been all a strange piece of acting. Tomorrow he would tear apart the veil that hid her from him; he would ignore her every protest and force the truth from her.

He lifted the tender’s anchor from the sand and pulled sharply across the water to the Gar. A reddish, misshapen moon hung in the east, and when he had mounted to his deck it was suddenly obscured by a high, racing scud of cloud; the air had a damper, thicker feel. He instinctively moved to the barometer, which he found depressed. The wind, that had continued steadily since the night before, increased, and there was a corresponding stir among the branches ashore, a slapping of the yacht’s cordage against the spars. He turned forward and half absently noted the increasing strain on the hawser disappearing into the dark tide. The anchor was firmly bedded. The pervasive far murmur of the waves on the outer bars grew louder.

The yacht swung lightly over the choppy water, and a strong affection for the ketch that had been his home, his occupation, his solace through the past dreary years expanded his heart. He knew the Gar’s every capability and mood, and they were all good. She was an exceptional boat. His feeling was acute, for he knew that the yacht had been superseded. It was already an element of the past, of that past in which Ellen lay dead in a tennis skirt, with a bright scarf about her young waist.

He placed his hand on the mainmast, in the manner in which another might drop a palm on the shoulder of a departing faithful companion, and the wind in the rigging vibrated through the wood like a sentient and affectionate response. Then he went resolutely down into the cabin, facing the future.

John Woolfolk woke in the night, listened for a moment to the straining hull and wind shrilling aloft, and then rose and went forward again to examine the mooring. A second hawser now reached into the darkness. Halvard had been on deck and put out another anchor. The wind beat salt and stinging from the sea, utterly dissipating the languorous breath of the land, the odors of the exotic, flowering trees.