On the Gull's Road
by Willa Sibert Cather
IT often happens that one or another of my friends stops before a
red chalk drawing in my study and asks me where I ever found so lovely
a creature. I have never told the story of that picture to any one, and
the beautiful woman on the wall, until yesterday, in all these twenty
years has spoken to no one but me. Yesterday a young painter, a
countryman of mine, came to consult me on a matter of business, and
upon seeing my drawing of Alexandra Ebbling, straightway forgot his
errand. He examined the date upon the sketch and asked me, very
earnestly, if I could tell him whether the lady were still living. When
I answered him, he stepped back from the picture and said slowly:
"So long ago? She must have been very young. She was happy?"
"As to that, who can say about any one of us?" I replied. "Out
of all that is supposed to make for happiness, she had very little."
We returned to the object of his visit, but when he bade me goodbye
at the door his troubled gaze again went back to the drawing, and it
was only by turning sharply about that he took his eyes away from her.
I went back to my study fire, and as the rain kept away less
impetuous visitors, I had a long time in which to think of Mrs.
Ebbling. I even got out the little box she gave me, which I had not
opened for years, and when Mrs. Hemway brought my tea I had barely time
to close the lid and defeat her disapproving gaze.
My young countryman's perplexity, as he looked at Mrs. Ebbling, had
recalled to me the delight and pain she gave me when I was of his
years. I sat looking at her face and trying to see it through his eyes
freshly, as I saw it first upon the deck of the Germania, twenty
years ago. Was it her loveliness, I often ask myself, or her
loneliness, or her simplicity, or was it merely my own youth? Was her
mystery only that of the mysterious North out of which she came? I
still feel that she was very different from all the beautiful and
brilliant women I have known; as the night is different from the day,
or as the sea is different from the land. But this is our story, as it
comes back to me.
For two years I had been studying Italian and working in the
capacity of clerk to the American legation at Rome, and I was going
home to secure my first consular appointment. Upon boarding my steamer
at Genoa, I saw my luggage into my cabin and then started for a rapid
circuit of the deck. Everything promised well. The boat was thinly
peopled, even for a July crossing; the decks were roomy; the day was
fine; the sea was blue; I was sure of my appointment, and, best of all,
I was coming back to Italy. All these things were in my mind when I
stopped sharply before a chaise longue placed sidewise near the stern.
Its occupant was a woman, apparently ill, who lay with her eyes closed,
and in her open arm was a chubby little red-haired girl, asleep. I can
still remember that first glance at Mrs. Ebbling, and how I stopped as
a wheel does when the band slips. Her splendid, vigorous body lay still
and relaxed under the loose folds of her clothing, her white throat and
arms and red-gold hair were drenched with sunlight. Such hair as it
was: wayward as some kind of gleaming seaweed that curls and undulates
with the tide. A moment gave me her face; the high cheek-bones, the
thin cheeks, the gentle chin, arching back to a girlish throat, and the
singular loveliness of the mouth. Even then it flashed through me that
the mouth gave the whole face its peculiar beauty and distinction. It
was proud and sad and tender, and strangely calm. The curve of the lips
could not have been cut more cleanly with the most delicate instrument,
and whatever shade of feeling passed over them seemed to partake of
But I am anticipating. While I stood stupidly staring (as if, at
twenty-five, I had never before beheld a beautiful woman) the whistles
broke into a hoarse scream, and the deck under us began to vibrate. The
woman opened her eyes, and the little girl struggled into a sitting
position, rolled out of her mother's arm, and ran to the deck rail.
After putting my chair near the stern, I went forward to see the
gang-plank up and did not return until we were dragging out to sea at
the end of a long tow-line.
The woman in the chaise longue was still alone. She lay there all
day, looking at the sea. The little girl, Carin, played noisily about
the deck. Occasionally she returned and struggled up into the chair,
plunged her head, round and red as a little pumpkin, against her
mother's shoulder in an impetuous embrace, and then struggled down
again with a lively flourishing of arms and legs. Her mother took such
opportunities to pull up the child's socks or to smooth the fiery
little braids; her beautiful hands, rather large and very white, played
about the riotous little girl with a quieting tenderness. Carin
chattered away in Italian and kept asking for her father, only to be
told that he was busy.
When any of the ship's officers passed, they stopped for a word
with my neighbor, and I heard the first mate address her as Mrs.
Ebbling. When they spoke to her, she smiled appreciatively and answered
in low, faltering Italian, but I fancied that she was glad when they
passed on and left her to her fixed contemplation of the sea. Her eyes
seemed to drink the color of it all day long, and after every
interruption they went back to it. There was a kind of pleasure in
watching her satisfaction, a kind of excitement in wondering what the
water made her remember or forget. She seemed not to wish to talk to
any one, but I knew I should like to hear whatever she might be
thinking. One could catch some hint of her thoughts, I imagined, from
the shadows that came and went across her lips, like the reflection of
light clouds. She had a pile of books beside her, but she did not read,
and neither could I. I gave up trying at last, and watched the sea,
very conscious of her presence, almost of her thoughts. When the sun
dropped low and shone in her face, I rose and asked if she would like
me to move her chair. She smiled and thanked me, but said the sun was
good for her. Her yellow-hazel eyes followed me for a moment and then
went back to the sea.
After the first bugle sounded for dinner, a heavy man in uniform
came up the deck and stood beside the chaise longue , looking down at
its two occupants with a smile of satisfied possession. The breast of
his trim coat was hidden by waves of soft blond beard, as long and
heavy as a woman's hair, which blew about his face in glittering
profusion. He wore a large turquoise ring upon the thick hand that he
rubbed good-humoredly over the little girl's head. To her he spoke
Italian, but he and his wife conversed in some Scandinavian tongue. He
stood stroking his fine beard until the second bugle blew, then bent
stiffly from his hips, like a soldier, and patted his wife's hand as it
lay on the arm of her chair. He hurried down the deck, taking stock of
the passengers as he went, and stopped before a thin girl with frizzed
hair and a lace coat, asking her a facetious question in thick English.
They began to talk about Chicago and went below. Later I saw him at the
head of his table in the dining room, the befrizzed Chicago lady on his
left. They must have got a famous start at luncheon, for by the end of
the dinner Ebbling was peeling figs for her and presenting them on the
end of a fork.
The Doctor confided to me that Ebbling was the chief engineer and
the dandy of the boat; but this time he would have to behave himself,
for he had brought his sick wife along for the voyage. She had a bad
heart valve, he added, and was in a serious way.
After dinner Ebbling disappeared, presumably to his engines, and at
ten o'clock, when the stewardess came to put Mrs. Ebbling to bed, I
helped her to rise from her chair, and the second mate ran up and
supported her down to her cabin. About midnight I found the engineer in
the card room, playing with the Doctor, an Italian naval officer, and
the commodore of a Long Island yacht club. His face was even pinker
than it had been at dinner, and his fine beard was full of smoke. I
thought a long while about Ebbling and his wife before I went to sleep.
The next morning we tied up at Naples to take on our cargo, and I
went on shore for the day. I did not, however, entirely escape the
ubiquitous engineer, whom I saw lunching with the Long Island commodore
at a hotel in the Santa Lucia. When I returned to the boat in the early
evening, the passengers had gone down to dinner, and I found Mrs.
Ebbling quite alone upon the deserted deck. I approached her and asked
whether she had had a dull day. She looked up smiling and shook her
head, as if her Italian had quite failed her. I saw that she was
flushed with excitement, and her yellow eyes were shining like two
"Dull? Oh, no! I love to watch Naples from the sea, in this white
heat. She has just lain there on her hillside among the vines and
laughed for me all day long. I have been able to pick out many of the
places I like best."
I felt that she was really going to talk to me at last. She had
turned to me frankly, as to an old acquaintance, and seemed not to be
hiding from me anything of what she felt. I sat down in a glow of
pleasure and excitement and asked her if she knew Naples well.
"Oh, yes! I lived there for a year after I was first married. My
husband has a great many friends in Naples. But he was at sea most of
the time, so I went about alone. Nothing helps one to know a city like
that. I came first by sea, like this. Directly to Naples from Finmark,
and I had never been South before." Mrs. Ebbling stopped and looked
over my shoulder. Then, with a quick, eager glance at me, she said
abruptly: "It was like a baptism of fire. Nothing has ever been quite
the same since. Imagine how this bay looked to a Finmark girl. It
seemed like the overture to Italy."
I laughed. "And then one goes up the country song by song and
wine by wine."
Mrs. Ebbling sighed. "Ah, yes. It must be fine to follow it. I have
never been away from the seaports myself. We live now in Genoa."
The deck steward brought her tray, and I moved forward a little and
stood by the rail. When I looked back, she smiled and nodded to let me
know that she was not missing anything. I could feel her intentness as
keenly as if she were standing beside me.
The sun had disappeared over the high ridge behind the city, and
the stone pines stood black and flat against the fires of the
afterglow. The lilac haze that hung over the long, lazy slopes of
Vesuvius warmed with golden light, and films of blue vapor began to
float down toward Baiae. The sky, the sea, and the city between them
turned a shimmering violet, fading grayer as the lights began to glow
like luminous pearls along the water-front, the necklace of an
irreclaimable queen. Behind me I heard a low exclamation; a slight,
stifled sound, but it seemed the perfect vocalization of that weariness
with which we at last let go of beauty, after we have held it until the
senses are darkened. When I turned to her again, she seemed to have
That night, as we were moving out to sea and the tail lights of
Naples were winking across the widening stretch of black water, I
helped Mrs. Ebbling to the foot of the stairway. She drew herself up
from her chair with effort and leaned on me wearily. I could have
carried her all night without fatigue.
"May I come and talk to you to-morrow?" I asked. She did not reply
at once. "Like an old friend?" I added. She gave me her languid hand,
and her mouth, set with the exertion of walking, softened altogether.
"Grazia," she murmured.
I returned to the deck and joined a group of my countrywomen, who,
primed with inexhaustible information, were discussing the baseness of
Renaissance art. They were intelligent and alert, and as they leaned
forward in their deck chairs under the circle of light, their faces
recalled to me Rembrandt's picture of a clinical lecture. I heard them
through, against my will, and then went to the stern to smoke and to
see the last of the island lights. The sky had clouded over, and a
soft, melancholy wind was rushing over the sea. I could not help
thinking how disappointed I would be if rain should keep Mrs. Ebbling
in her cabin to-morrow. My mind played constantly with her image. At
one moment she was very clear and directly in front of me; the next she
was far away. Whatever else I thought about, some part of my
consciousness was busy with Mrs. Ebbling; hunting for her, finding her,
losing her, then groping again. How was it that I was so conscious of
whatever she might be feeling? that when she sat still behind me and
watched the evening sky, I had had a sense of speed and change, almost
of danger; and when she was tired and sighed, I had wished for night
Though when we are young we seldom think much about it, there is
now and again a golden day when we feel a sudden, arrogant pride in our
youth; in the lightness of our feet and the strength of our arms, in
the warm fluid that courses so surely within us; when we are conscious
of something powerful and mercurial in our breasts, which comes up wave
after wave and leaves us irresponsible and free. All the next morning I
felt this flow of life, which continually impelled me toward Mrs.
Ebbling. After the merest greeting, however, I kept away. I found it
pleasant to thwart myself, to measure myself against a current that was
sure to carry me with it in the end. I was content to let her watch the
sea the sea that seemed now to have come into me, warm and soft,
still and strong. I played shuffleboard with the Commodore, who was
anxious to keep down his figure, and ran about the deck with the stout
legs of the little pumpkin-colored Carin about my neck. It was not
until the child was having her afternoon nap below that I at last came
up and stood beside her mother.
"You are better to-day," I exclaimed, looking down at her white
gown. She colored unreasonably, and I laughed with a familiarity which
she must have accepted as the mere foolish noise of happiness, or it
would have seemed impertinent.
We talked at first of a hundred trivial things, and we watched the
sea. The coast of Sardinia had lain to our port for some hours and
would lie there for hours to come, now advancing in rocky promontories,
now retreating behind blue bays. It was the naked south coast of the
island, and though our course held very near the shore, not a village
or habitation was visible; there was not even a goat-herd's hut hidden
away among the low pinkish sand hills. Pinkish sand hills and yellow
head-lands; with dull-colored scrubby bushes massed about their bases
and following the dried water-courses. A narrow strip of beach
glistened like white paint between the purple sea and the umber rocks,
and the whole island lay gleaming in the yellow sunshine and
translucent air. Not a wave broke on that fringe of white sand, not the
shadow of a cloud played across the bare hills. In the air about us,
there was no sound but that of a vessel moving rapidly through
absolutely still water. She seemed like some great sea-animal, swimming
silently, her head well up. The sea before us was so rich and heavy and
opaque that it might have been lapis lazuli. It was the blue of legend,
simply; the color that satisfies the soul like sleep.
And it was of the sea we talked, for it was the substance of Mrs.
Ebbling's story. She seemed always to have been swept along by ocean
streams, warm or cold, and to have hovered about the edge of great
waters. She was born and had grown up in a little fishing town on the
Arctic ocean. Her father was a doctor, a widower, who lived with his
daughter and who divided his time between his books and his fishing
rod. Her uncle was skipper on a coasting vessel, and with him she had
made many trips along the Norwegian coast. But she was always reading
and thinking about the blue seas of the South.
"There was a curious old woman in our village, Dame Ericson, who
had been in Italy in her youth. She had gone to Rome to study art, and
had copied a great many pictures there. She was well connected, but had
little money, and as she grew older and poorer she sold her pictures
one by one, until there was scarcely a well-to-do family in our
district that did not own one of Dame Ericson's paintings. But she
brought home many other strange things; a little orange-tree which she
cherished until the day of her death, and bits of colored marble, and
sea shells and pieces of coral, and a thin flask full of water from the
Mediterranean. When I was a little girl she used to show me her things
and tell me about the South; about the coral fishers, and the pink
islands, and the smoking mountains, and the old, underground Naples. I
suppose the water in her flask was like any other, but it never seemed
so to me. It looked so elastic and alive, that I used to think if one
unsealed the bottle something penetrating and fruitful might leap out
and work an enchantment over Finmark."
Lars Ebbling, I learned, was one of her father's friends. She could
remember him from the time when she was a little girl and he a dashing
young man who used to come home from the sea and make a stir in the
village. After he got his promotion to an Atlantic liner and went
South, she did not see him until the summer she was twenty, when he
came home to marry her. That was five years ago. The little girl,
Carin, was three. From her talk, one might have supposed that Ebbling
was proprietor of the Mediterranean and its adjacent lands, and could
have kept her away at his pleasure. Her own rights in him she seemed
not to consider.
But we wasted very little time on Lars Ebbling. We talked, like two
very young persons, of arms and men, of the sea beneath us and the
shores it washed. We were carried a little beyond ourselves, for we
were in the presence of the things of youth that never change; fleeing
past them. To-morrow they would be gone, and no effort of will or
memory could bring them back again. All about us was the sea of great
adventure, and below us, caught somewhere in its gleaming meshes, were
the bones of nations and navies . . . . . nations and navies that gave
youth its hope and made life something more than a hunger of the
bowels. The unpeopled Sardinian coast unfolded gently before us, like
something left over out of a world that was gone; a place that might
well have had no later news since the corn ships brought the tidings of
"I shall never go to Sardinia," said Mrs. Ebbling. "It could not
possibly be as beautiful as this."
"Neither shall I," I replied.
As I was going down to dinner that evening, I was stopped by Lars
Ebbling, freshly brushed and scented, wearing a white uniform, and
polished and glistening as one of his own engines. He smiled at me with
his own kind of geniality. "You have been very kind to talk to my
wife," he explained. "It is very bad for her this trip that she speaks
no English. I am indebted to you."
I told him curtly that he was mistaken, but my acrimony made no
impression upon his blandness. I felt that I should certainly strike
the fellow if he stood there much longer, running his blue ring up and
down his beard. I should probably have hated any man who was Mrs.
Ebbling's husband, but Ebbling made me sick.
The next day I began my drawing of Mrs. Ebbling. She seemed pleased
and a little puzzled when I asked her to sit for me. It occurred to me
that she had always been among dull people who took her looks as a
matter of course, and that she was not at all sure that she was really
beautiful. I can see now her quick, confused look of pleasure. I
thought very little about the drawing then, except that the making of
it gave me an opportunity to study her face; to look as long as I
pleased into her yellow eyes, at the noble lines of her mouth, at her
splendid, vigorous hair.
"We have a yellow vine at home," I told her, "that is very like
your hair. It seems to be growing while one looks at it, and it twines
and tangles about itself and throws out little tendrils in the wind."
"Has it any name?"
"We call it love vine."
How little a thing could disconcert her!
As for me, nothing disconcerted me. I awoke every morning with a
sense of speed and joy. At night I loved to hear the swish of the water
rushing by. As fast as the pistons could carry us, as fast as the water
could bear us, we were going forward to something delightful; to
something together. When Mrs. Ebbling told me that she and her husband
would be five days in the docks in New York and then return to Genoa, I
was not disturbed, for I did not believe her. I came and went, and she
sat still all day, watching the water. I heard an American lady say
that she watched it like one who is going to die, but even that did not
frighten me: I somehow felt that she had promised me to live.
All those long blue days when I sat beside her talking about
Finmark and the sea, she must have known that I loved her. I sat with
my hands idle on my knees and let the tide come up in me. It carried me
so swiftly that, across the narrow space of deck between us, it must
have swayed her, too, a little. I had no wish to disturb or distress
her. If a little, a very little of it reached her, I was satisfied. If
it drew her softly, but drew her, I wanted no more. Sometimes I could
see that even the light pressure of my thoughts made her paler. One
still evening, after a long talk, she whispered to me, "You must go and
walk now, and don't think about me." She had been held too long and
too closely in my thoughts, and she begged me to release her for a
little while. I went out into the bow and put her far away, at the sky
line, with the faintest star, and thought of her gently across the
water. When I went back to her, she was asleep.
But even in those first days I had my hours of misery. Why, for
instance, should she have been born in Finmark, and why should Lars
Ebbling have been her only door of escape? Why should she be silently
taking leave of the world at the age when I was just beginning it,
having had nothing, nothing of whatever is worth while?
She never talked about taking leave of things, and yet I sometimes
felt that she was counting the sunsets. One yellow afternoon, when we
were gliding between the shores of Spain and Africa, she spoke of her
illness for the first time. I had got some magnolias at Gibraltar, and
she wore a bunch of them in her girdle and the rest lay on her lap. She
held the cool leaves against her cheek and fingered the white petals.
"I can never," she remarked, "get enough of the flowers of the South.
They make me breathless, just as they did at first. Because of them I
should like to live a long while almost forever."
I leaned forward and looked at her. "We could live almost forever
if we had enough courage. It's of our lives that we die. If we had the
courage to change it all, to run away to some blue coast like that over
there, we could live on and on, until we were tired."
She smiled tolerantly and looked southward through half shut eyes.
"I am afraid I should never have courage enough to go behind that
mountain, at least. Look at it, it looks as if it hid horrible things."
A sea mist, blown in from the Atlantic, began to mask the impassive
African coast, and above the fog, the grey mountain peak took on the
angry red of the sunset. It burned sullen and threatening until the
dark land drew the night about her and settled back into the sea. We
watched it sink, while under us, slowly but ever increasing, we felt
the throb of the Atlantic come and go, the thrill of the vast, untamed
waters of that lugubrious and passionate sea. I drew Mrs. Ebbling's
wraps about her and shut the magnolias under her cloak. When I left
her, she slipped me one warm, white flower.
From the Straits of Gibraltar we dropped into the abyss, and by
morning we were rolling in the trough of a sea that drew us down and
held us deep, shaking us gently back and forth until the timbers
creaked, and then shooting us out on the crest of a swelling mountain.
The water was bright and blue, but so cold that the breath of it
penetrated one's bones, as if the chill of the deep under-fathoms of
the sea were being loosed upon us. There were not more than a dozen
people upon the deck that morning, and Mrs. Ebbling was sheltered
behind the stern, muffled in a sea jacket, with drops of moisture upon
her long lashes and on her hair. When a shower of icy spray beat back
over the deck rail, she took it gleefully.
"After all," she insisted, "this is my own kind of water; the kind
I was born in. This is first cousin to the Pole waters, and the sea we
have left is only a kind of fairy tale. It's like the burnt out
volcanoes; its day is over. This is the real sea now, where the doings
of the world go on."
"It is not our reality, at any rate," I answered.
"Oh, yes, it is! These are the waters that carry men to their work,
and they will carry you to yours."
I sat down and watched her hair grow more alive and iridescent in
the moisture. "You are pleased to take an attitude," I complained.
"No, I don't love realities any more than another, but I admit
them, all the same."
"And who are you and I to define the realities?"
"Our minds define them clearly enough, yours and mine, everybody's.
Those are the lines we never cross, though we flee from the equator to
the Pole. I have never really got out of Finmark, of course. I shall
live and die in a fishing town on the Arctic ocean, and the blue seas
and the pink islands are as much a dream as they ever were. All the
same, I shall continue to dream them."
The Gulf Stream gave us warm blue days again, but pale, like sad
memories. The water had faded, and the thin, tepid sunshine made
something tighten about one's heart. The stars watched us coldly, and
seemed always to be asking me what I was going to do. The advancing
line on the chart, which at first had been mere foolishness, began to
mean something, and the wind from the west brought disturbing fears and
forebodings. I slept lightly, and all day I was restless and uncertain
except when I was with Mrs. Ebbling. She quieted me as she did little
Carin, and soothed me without saying anything, as she had done that
evening at Naples when we watched the sunset. It seemed to me that
every day her eyes grew more tender and her lips more calm. A kind of
fortitude seemed to be gathering about her mouth, and I dreaded it. Yet
when, in an involuntary glance, I put to her the question that tortured
me, her eyes always met mine steadily, deep and gentle and full of
reassurance. That I had my word at last, happened almost by accident.
On the second night out from shore there was the concert for the
Sailors' Orphanage, and Mrs. Ebbling dressed and went down to dinner
for the first time, and sat on her husband's right. I was not the only
one who was glad to see her. Even the women were pleased. She wore a
pale green gown, and she came up out of it regally white and gold. I
was so proud that I blushed when any one spoke of her. After dinner she
was standing by her deck-chair talking to her husband when people began
to go below for the concert. She took up a long cloak and attempted to
put it on. The wind blew the light thing about, and Ebbling chatted and
smiled his public smile while she struggled with it. Suddenly his
roving eye caught sight of the Chicago girl, who was having a similar
difficulty with her draperies, and he pranced half the length of the
deck to assist her. I had been watching from the rail, and when she was
left alone I threw my cigar away and wrapped Mrs. Ebbling up roughly.
"Don't go down," I begged. "Stay up here. I want to talk to you."
She hesitated a moment and looked at me thoughtfully. Then, with a
sigh, she sat down. Every one hurried down to the saloon, and we were
absolutely alone at last, behind the shelter of the stern, with the
thick darkness all about us and a warm east wind rushing over the sea.
I was too sore and angry to think. I leaned toward her, holding the arm
of her chair with both hands, and began anywhere.
"You remember those two blue coasts out of Gibraltar? It shall be
either one you choose, if you will come with me. I have not much money,
but we shall get on somehow. There has got to be an end of this. We are
neither one of us cowards, and this is humiliating, intolerable."
She sat looking down at her hands, and I pulled her chair
impatiently toward me.
"I felt," she said at last, "that you were going to say something
like this. You are sorry for me, and I don't wish to be pitied. You
think Ebbling neglects me, but you are mistaken. He has had his
disappointments, too. He wants children and a gay, hospitable house,
and he is tied to a sick woman who can not get on with people. He has
more to complain of than I have, and yet he bears with me. I am
grateful to him, and there is no more to be said."
"Oh, isn't there?" I cried, "and I?"
She laid her hand entreatingly upon my arm. "Ah, you! you! Don't
ask me to talk about that. You " Her fingers slipped down my coat
sleeve to my hand and pressed it. I caught her two hands and held them,
telling her I would never let them go.
"And you meant to leave me day after tomorrow, to say goodbye to me
as you will to the other people on this boat? You meant to cut me
adrift like this, with my heart on fire and all my life unspent in me?"
She sighed despondently. "I am willing to suffer whatever I must
suffer to have had you," she answered simply. "I was ill and so
lonely and it came so quickly and quietly. Ah, don't begrudge it to
me! Do not leave me in bitterness. If I have been wrong, forgive me."
She bowed her head and pressed my fingers entreatingly. A warm tear
splashed on my hand. It occurred to me that she bore my anger as she
bore little Carin's importunities, as she bore Ebbling. What a circle
of pettiness she had about her! I fell back in my chair and my hands
dropped at my side. I felt like a creature with its back broken. I
asked her what she wished me to do.
"Don't ask me," she whispered. "There is nothing that we can do. I
thought you knew that. You forget that that I am too ill to begin my
life over. Even if there were nothing else in the way, that would be
enough. And that is what has made it all possible, our loving each
other, I mean. If I were well, we couldn't have had even this much.
Don't reproach me. Hasn't it been at all pleasant to you to find me
waiting for you every morning, to feel me thinking of you when you went
to sleep? Every night I have watched the sea for you, as if it were
mine and I had made it, and I have listened to the water rushing by
you, full of sleep and youth and hope. And everything you had done or
said during the day came back to me, and when I went to sleep it was
only to feel you more. You see there was never any one else; I have
never thought of any one in the dark but you." She spoke pleadingly,
and her voice had sunk so low that I could scarcely hear her.
"And yet you will do nothing," I groaned. "You will dare nothing.
You will give me nothing."
"Don't say that. When I leave you day after tomorrow, I shall have
given you all my life. I can't tell you how, but it is true. There is
something in each of us that does not belong to the family or to
society, not even to ourselves. Sometimes it is given in marriage, and
sometimes it is given in love, but oftener it is never given at all. We
have nothing to do with giving or withholding it. It is a wild thing
that sings in us once and flies away and never comes back, and mine has
flown to you. When one loves like that, it is enough, somehow. The
other things can go if they must. That is why I can live without you,
and die without you."
I caught her hands and looked into her eyes that shone warm in the
darkness. She shivered and whispered in a tone so different from any I
ever heard from her before or afterward: "Do you grudge it to me? You
are so young and strong, and you have everything before you. I shall
have only a little while to want you in and I could want you forever
and not weary." I kissed her hair, her cheeks, her lips, until her head
fell forward on my shoulder and she put my face away with her soft,
trembling fingers. She took my hand and held it close to her, in both
her own. We sat silent, and the moments came and went, bringing us
closer and closer, and the wind and water rushed by us, obliterating
our tomorrows and all our yesterdays.
The next day Mrs. Ebbling kept her cabin, and I sat stupidly by her
chair until dark, with the rugged little girl to keep me company, and
an occasional nod from the engineer.
I saw Mrs. Ebbling again only for a few moments, when we were
coming into the New York harbor. She wore a street dress and a hat, and
these alone would have made her seem far away from me. She was very
pale, and looked down when she spoke to me, as if she had been guilty
of a wrong toward me. I have never been able to remember that interview
without heartache and shame, but then I was too desperate to care about
anything. I stood like a wooden post and let her approach me, let her
speak to me, let her leave me. She came up to me as if it were a hard
thing to do, and held out a little package, timidly, and her gloved
hand shook as if she were afraid of me.
"I want to give you something," she said. "You will not want it
now, so I shall ask you to keep it until you hear from me. You gave me
your address a long time ago, when you were making that drawing. Some
day I shall write to you and ask you to open this. You must not come to
tell me goodbye this morning, but I shall be watching you when you go
ashore. Please don't forget that."
I took the little box mechanically and thanked her. I think my eyes
must have filled, for she uttered an exclamation of pity, touched my
sleeve quickly, and left me. It was one of those strange, low, musical
exclamations which meant everything and nothing, like the one that had
thrilled me that night at Naples, and it was the last sound I ever
heard from her lips.
An hour later I went on shore, one of those who crowded over the
gang-plank the moment it was lowered. But the next afternoon I wandered
back to the docks and went on board the Germania . I asked for the
engineer, and he came up in his shirt sleeves from the engine room. He
was red and dishevelled, angry and voluble; his bright eye had a hard
glint, and I did not once see his masterful smile. When he heard my
inquiry he became profane. Mrs. Ebbling had sailed for Bremen on the
Hobenstauffen that morning at eleven o'clock. She had decided to return
by the northern route and pay a visit to her father in Finmark. She was
in no condition to travel alone, he said. He evidently smarted under
her extravagance. But who, he asked, with a blow of his fist on the
rail, could stand between a woman and her whim? She had always been a
wilful girl, and she had a doting father behind her. When she set her
head with the wind, there was no holding her; she ought to have married
the Arctic Ocean. I think Ebbling was still talking when I walked away.
I spent that winter in New York. My consular appointment hung fire
(indeed, I did not pursue it with much enthusiasm), and I had a good
many idle hours in which to think of Mrs. Ebbling. She had never
mentioned the name of her father's village, and somehow I could never
quite bring myself to go to the docks when Ebbling's boat was in and
ask for news of her. More than once I made up my mind definitely to go
to Finmark and take my chance at finding her; the shipping people would
know where Ebbling came from. But I never went. I have often wondered
why. When my resolve was made and my courage high, when I could almost
feel myself approaching her, suddenly everything crumbled under me, and
I fell back as I had done that night when I dropped her hands, after
telling her, only a moment before, that I would never let them go.
In the twilight of a wet March day, when the gutters were running
black outside and the Square was liquefying under crusts of dirty snow,
the housekeeper brought me a damp letter which bore a blurred foreign
postmark. It was from Niels Nannestad, who wrote that it was his sad
duty to inform me that his daughter, Alexandra Ebbling, had died on the
second day of February, in the twenty-sixth year of her age. Complying
with her request, he inclosed a letter which she had written some days
before her death.
I at last brought myself to break the seal of the second letter. It
You may open now the little package I gave you. May I ask you to
keep it? I gave it to you because there is no one else who would care
about it in just that way. Ever since I left you I have been thinking
what it would be like to live a lifetime caring and being cared for
like that. It was not the life I was meant to live, and yet, in a way,
I have been living it ever since I first knew you.
"Of course you understand now why I could not go with you. I would
have spoiled your life for you. Besides that, I was ill and I was
too proud to give you the shadow of myself. I had much to give you, if
you had come earlier. As it was, I was ashamed. Vanity sometimes saves
us when nothing else will, and mine saved you. Thank you for
everything. I hold this to my heart, where I once held your hand.
The dusk had thickened into night long before I got up from my
chair and took the little box from its place in my desk drawer. I
opened it and lifted out a thick coil, cut from where her hair grew
thickest and brightest. It was tied firmly at one end, and when it fell
over my arm it curled and clung about my sleeve like a living thing set
free. How it gleamed, how it still gleams in the firelight! It was warm
and softly scented under my lips, and stirred under my breath like
seaweed in the tide. This, and a withered magnolia flower, and two pink
sea shells; nothing more. And it was all twenty years ago!