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

A gladness like the white flare of burning powder swept over him, and then he became conscious of other, minor sensations—his head ached intolerably from the fall down the stair, and a grinding pain shot through his shoulder, lodging in his torn lower arm at the slightest movement. He slipped the sounding pole into its loops on the cabin and hastily made his way aft to the relief of Poul Halvard.

The sailor was nowhere visible; but, in an intermittent, reddish light that faded and swelled as the cabin door swung open and shut, Woolfolk saw a white figure clinging to the wheel—Millie.

Instantly his hands replaced hers on the spokes and, as if with a palpable sigh of relief, the Gar steadied to her course. Millie Stope clung to the deck rail, sobbing with exhaustion.

“He’s—he’s dead!” she exclaimed, between her racking inspirations. She pointed to the floor of the cockpit, and there, sliding grotesquely with the motion of the seaway, was Poul Halvard. An arm was flung out, as if in ward against the ketch’s side, but it crumpled, the body hit heavily, a hand seemed to clutch at the boards it had so often and thoroughly swabbed; but without avail. The face momentarily turned upward; it was haggard beyond expression, and bore stamped upon it, in lines that resembled those of old age, the agonized struggle against the inevitable last treachery of life.

“When—” John Woolfolk stopped in sheer, leaden amazement.

“Just when you called ‘Three and a quarter.’ Before that he had fallen on his knees. He begged me to help him hold the wheel. He said you’d be lost if I didn’t. He talked all the time about keeping her head up and up. I helped him. Your voice came back years apart. At the last he was on the floor, holding the bottom of the wheel. He told me to keep it steady, dead ahead. His voice grew so weak that I couldn’t hear; and then all at once he slipped away. I—I held on—called to you. But against the wind—”

He braced his knee against the wheel and, leaning out, found the jigger sheet and flattened the reefed sail; he turned to where the jib sheet led after, and then swung the ketch about. The yacht rode smoothly, slipping forward over the long, even ground swell, and he turned with immeasurable emotion to the woman beside him.

The light from the cabin flooded out over her face, and he saw that, miraculously, the fear had gone. Her countenance was drawn with weariness and the hideous strain of the past minutes, but her gaze squarely met the night and sea. Her chin was lifted, its graceful line firm, and her mouth was in repose. She had, as he had recognized she alone must, conquered the legacy of Lichfield Stope; while he, John Woolfolk, and Halvard, had put Nicholas out of her life. She was free.

“If you could go below—” he suggested. “In the morning, with this wind, we’ll be at anchor under a fringe of palms, in water like a blue silk counterpane.”

“I think I could now, with you,” she replied. She pressed her lips, salt and enthralling, against his face, and made her way into the cabin. He locked the wheel momentarily and, following, wrapped her in the blankets, on the new sheets prepared for her coming. Then, putting out the light, he shut the cabin door and returned to the wheel.

The body of Poul Halvard struck his feet and rested there. A good man, born by the sea, who had known its every expression; with a faithful and simple heart, as such men occasionally had.

The diminished wind swept in a clear diapason through the pellucid sky; the resplendent sea reached vast and magnetic to its invisible horizon. A sudden distaste seized John Woolfolk for the dragging death cérémonials of land. Halvard had known the shore mostly as a turbulent and unclean strip that had finally brought about his end.

He leaned forward and found beyond any last doubt that the other was dead; a black, clotted surface adhered to the wound which his pride, his invincible determination, had driven him to deny.

In the space beneath the afterdeck Woolfolk found a spare folded anchor for the tender, a length of rope; and he slowly completed the preparations for his purpose. He lifted the body to the narrow deck outside the rail, and, in a long dip, the waves carried it smoothly and soundlessly away. John Woolfolk said:

“’... Commit his body to the deep, looking for the general resurrection ... through ... Christ.’”

Then, upright and motionless at the wheel, with the wan radiance of the binnacle lamp floating up over his hollow cheeks and set gaze, he held the ketch southward through the night.