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ALEXANDER'S BRIDGE by Willa Cather
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Late one brilliant April afternoon Professor Lucius Wilson stood at the
head of Chestnut Street, looking about him with the pleased air of a man
of taste who does not very often get to Boston. He had lived there as a
student, but for twenty years and more, since he had been Professor of
Philosophy in a Western university, he had seldom come East except to take
a steamer for some foreign port. Wilson was standing quite still,
contemplating with a whimsical smile the slanting street, with its worn
paving, its irregular, gravely colored houses, and the row of naked trees
on which the thin sunlight was still shining. The gleam of the river at
the foot of the hill made him blink a little, not so much because it was
too bright as because he found it so pleasant. The few passers-by glanced
at him unconcernedly, and even the children who hurried along with their
school-bags under their arms seemed to find it perfectly natural that a
tall brown gentleman should be standing there, looking up through his
glasses at the gray housetops.
The sun sank rapidly; the silvery light had faded from the bare boughs and
the watery twilight was setting in when Wilson at last walked down the
hill, descending into cooler and cooler depths of grayish shadow. His
nostril, long unused to it, was quick to detect the smell of wood smoke in
the air, blended with the odor of moist spring earth and the saltiness
that came up the river with the tide. He crossed Charles Street between
jangling street cars and shelving lumber drays, and after a moment of
uncertainty wound into Brimmer Street. The street was quiet, deserted, and
hung with a thin bluish haze. He had already fixed his sharp eye upon the
house which he reasoned should be his objective point, when he noticed a
woman approaching rapidly from the opposite direction. Always an
interested observer of women, Wilson would have slackened his pace
anywhere to follow this one with his impersonal, appreciative glance. She
was a person of distinction he saw at once, and, moreover, very handsome.
She was tall, carried her beautiful head proudly, and moved with ease and
certainty. One immediately took for granted the costly privileges and fine
spaces that must lie in the background from which such a figure could
emerge with this rapid and elegant gait. Wilson noted her dress, too,—for,
in his way, he had an eye for such things,—particularly her brown
furs and her hat. He got a blurred impression of her fine color, the
violets she wore, her white gloves, and, curiously enough, of her veil, as
she turned up a flight of steps in front of him and disappeared.
Wilson was able to enjoy lovely things that passed him on the wing as
completely and deliberately as if they had been dug-up marvels, long
anticipated, and definitely fixed at the end of a railway journey. For a
few pleasurable seconds he quite forgot where he was going, and only after
the door had closed behind her did he realize that the young woman had
entered the house to which he had directed his trunk from the South
Station that morning. He hesitated a moment before mounting the steps.
"Can that," he murmured in amazement,—"can that possibly have been
When the servant admitted him, Mrs. Alexander was still standing in the
hallway. She heard him give his name, and came forward holding out her
"Is it you, indeed, Professor Wilson? I was afraid that you might get here
before I did. I was detained at a concert, and Bartley telephoned that he
would be late. Thomas will show you your room. Had you rather have your
tea brought to you there, or will you have it down here with me, while we
wait for Bartley?"
Wilson was pleased to find that he had been the cause of her rapid walk,
and with her he was even more vastly pleased than before. He followed her
through the drawing-room into the library, where the wide back windows
looked out upon the garden and the sunset and a fine stretch of
silver-colored river. A harp-shaped elm stood stripped against the
pale-colored evening sky, with ragged last year's birds' nests in its
forks, and through the bare branches the evening star quivered in the
misty air. The long brown room breathed the peace of a rich and amply
guarded quiet. Tea was brought in immediately and placed in front of the
wood fire. Mrs. Alexander sat down in a high-backed chair and began to
pour it, while Wilson sank into a low seat opposite her and took his cup
with a great sense of ease and harmony and comfort.
"You have had a long journey, haven't you?" Mrs. Alexander asked, after
showing gracious concern about his tea. "And I am so sorry Bartley is
late. He's often tired when he's late. He flatters himself that it is a
little on his account that you have come to this Congress of
"It is," Wilson assented, selecting his muffin carefully; "and I hope he
won't be tired tonight. But, on my own account, I'm glad to have a few
moments alone with you, before Bartley comes. I was somehow afraid that my
knowing him so well would not put me in the way of getting to know you."
"That's very nice of you." She nodded at him above her cup and smiled, but
there was a little formal tightness in her tone which had not been there
when she greeted him in the hall.
Wilson leaned forward. "Have I said something awkward? I live very far out
of the world, you know. But I didn't mean that you would exactly fade dim,
even if Bartley were here."
Mrs. Alexander laughed relentingly. "Oh, I'm not so vain! How terribly
discerning you are."
She looked straight at Wilson, and he felt that this quick, frank glance
brought about an understanding between them.
He liked everything about her, he told himself, but he particularly liked
her eyes; when she looked at one directly for a moment they were like a
glimpse of fine windy sky that may bring all sorts of weather.
"Since you noticed something," Mrs. Alexander went on, "it must have been
a flash of the distrust I have come to feel whenever I meet any of the
people who knew Bartley when he was a boy. It is always as if they were
talking of someone I had never met. Really, Professor Wilson, it would
seem that he grew up among the strangest people. They usually say that he
has turned out very well, or remark that he always was a fine fellow. I
never know what reply to make."
Wilson chuckled and leaned back in his chair, shaking his left foot
gently. "I expect the fact is that we none of us knew him very well, Mrs.
Alexander. Though I will say for myself that I was always confident he'd
do something extraordinary."
Mrs. Alexander's shoulders gave a slight movement, suggestive of
impatience. "Oh, I should think that might have been a safe prediction.
Another cup, please?"
"Yes, thank you. But predicting, in the case of boys, is not so easy as
you might imagine, Mrs. Alexander. Some get a bad hurt early and lose
their courage; and some never get a fair wind. Bartley"—he dropped
his chin on the back of his long hand and looked at her admiringly—"Bartley
caught the wind early, and it has sung in his sails ever since."
Mrs. Alexander sat looking into the fire with intent preoccupation, and
Wilson studied her half-averted face. He liked the suggestion of stormy
possibilities in the proud curve of her lip and nostril. Without that, he
reflected, she would be too cold.
"I should like to know what he was really like when he was a boy. I don't
believe he remembers," she said suddenly. "Won't you smoke, Mr. Wilson?"
Wilson lit a cigarette. "No, I don't suppose he does. He was never
introspective. He was simply the most tremendous response to stimuli I
have ever known. We didn't know exactly what to do with him."
A servant came in and noiselessly removed the tea-tray. Mrs. Alexander
screened her face from the firelight, which was beginning to throw
wavering bright spots on her dress and hair as the dusk deepened.
"Of course," she said, "I now and again hear stories about things that
happened when he was in college."
"But that isn't what you want." Wilson wrinkled his brows and looked at
her with the smiling familiarity that had come about so quickly. "What you
want is a picture of him, standing back there at the other end of twenty
years. You want to look down through my memory."
She dropped her hands in her lap. "Yes, yes; that's exactly what I want."
At this moment they heard the front door shut with a jar, and Wilson
laughed as Mrs. Alexander rose quickly. "There he is. Away with
perspective! No past, no future for Bartley; just the fiery moment. The
only moment that ever was or will be in the world!"
The door from the hall opened, a voice called "Winifred?" hurriedly, and a
big man came through the drawing-room with a quick, heavy tread, bringing
with him a smell of cigar smoke and chill out-of-doors air. When Alexander
reached the library door, he switched on the lights and stood six feet and
more in the archway, glowing with strength and cordiality and rugged,
blond good looks. There were other bridge-builders in the world,
certainly, but it was always Alexander's picture that the Sunday
Supplement men wanted, because he looked as a tamer of rivers ought to
look. Under his tumbled sandy hair his head seemed as hard and powerful as
a catapult, and his shoulders looked strong enough in themselves to
support a span of any one of his ten great bridges that cut the air above
as many rivers.
After dinner Alexander took Wilson up to his study. It was a large room
over the library, and looked out upon the black river and the row of white
lights along the Cambridge Embankment. The room was not at all what one
might expect of an engineer's study. Wilson felt at once the harmony of
beautiful things that have lived long together without obtrusions of
ugliness or change. It was none of Alexander's doing, of course; those
warm consonances of color had been blending and mellowing before he was
born. But the wonder was that he was not out of place there,—that it
all seemed to glow like the inevitable background for his vigor and
vehemence. He sat before the fire, his shoulders deep in the cushions of
his chair, his powerful head upright, his hair rumpled above his broad
forehead. He sat heavily, a cigar in his large, smooth hand, a flush of
after-dinner color in his face, which wind and sun and exposure to all
sorts of weather had left fair and clear-skinned.
"You are off for England on Saturday, Bartley, Mrs. Alexander tells me."
"Yes, for a few weeks only. There's a meeting of British engineers, and
I'm doing another bridge in Canada, you know."
"Oh, every one knows about that. And it was in Canada that you met your
wife, wasn't it?"
"Yes, at Allway. She was visiting her great-aunt there. A most remarkable
old lady. I was working with MacKeller then, an old Scotch engineer who
had picked me up in London and taken me back to Quebec with him. He had
the contract for the Allway Bridge, but before he began work on it he
found out that he was going to die, and he advised the committee to turn
the job over to me. Otherwise I'd never have got anything good so early.
MacKeller was an old friend of Mrs. Pemberton, Winifred's aunt. He had
mentioned me to her, so when I went to Allway she asked me to come to see
her. She was a wonderful old lady."
"Like her niece?" Wilson queried.
Bartley laughed. "She had been very handsome, but not in Winifred's way.
When I knew her she was little and fragile, very pink and white, with a
splendid head and a face like fine old lace, somehow,—but perhaps I
always think of that because she wore a lace scarf on her hair. She had
such a flavor of life about her. She had known Gordon and Livingstone and
Beaconsfield when she was young,—every one. She was the first woman
of that sort I'd ever known. You know how it is in the West,—old
people are poked out of the way. Aunt Eleanor fascinated me as few young
women have ever done. I used to go up from the works to have tea with her,
and sit talking to her for hours. It was very stimulating, for she
couldn't tolerate stupidity."
"It must have been then that your luck began, Bartley," said Wilson,
flicking his cigar ash with his long finger. "It's curious, watching
boys," he went on reflectively. "I'm sure I did you justice in the matter
of ability. Yet I always used to feel that there was a weak spot where
some day strain would tell. Even after you began to climb, I stood down in
the crowd and watched you with—well, not with confidence. The more
dazzling the front you presented, the higher your facade rose, the more I
expected to see a big crack zigzagging from top to bottom,"—he
indicated its course in the air with his forefinger,—"then a crash
and clouds of dust. It was curious. I had such a clear picture of it. And
another curious thing, Bartley," Wilson spoke with deliberateness and
settled deeper into his chair, "is that I don't feel it any longer. I am
sure of you."
Alexander laughed. "Nonsense! It's not I you feel sure of; it's Winifred.
People often make that mistake."
"No, I'm serious, Alexander. You've changed. You have decided to leave
some birds in the bushes. You used to want them all."
Alexander's chair creaked. "I still want a good many," he said rather
gloomily. "After all, life doesn't offer a man much. You work like the
devil and think you're getting on, and suddenly you discover that you've
only been getting yourself tied up. A million details drink you dry. Your
life keeps going for things you don't want, and all the while you are
being built alive into a social structure you don't care a rap about. I
sometimes wonder what sort of chap I'd have been if I hadn't been this
sort; I want to go and live out his potentialities, too. I haven't
forgotten that there are birds in the bushes."
Bartley stopped and sat frowning into the fire, his shoulders thrust
forward as if he were about to spring at something. Wilson watched him,
wondering. His old pupil always stimulated him at first, and then vastly
wearied him. The machinery was always pounding away in this man, and
Wilson preferred companions of a more reflective habit of mind. He could
not help feeling that there were unreasoning and unreasonable activities
going on in Alexander all the while; that even after dinner, when most men
achieve a decent impersonality, Bartley had merely closed the door of the
engine-room and come up for an airing. The machinery itself was still
Bartley's abstraction and Wilson's reflections were cut short by a rustle
at the door, and almost before they could rise Mrs. Alexander was standing
by the hearth. Alexander brought a chair for her, but she shook her head.
"No, dear, thank you. I only came in to see whether you and Professor
Wilson were quite comfortable. I am going down to the music-room."
"Why not practice here? Wilson and I are growing very dull. We are tired
"Yes, I beg you, Mrs. Alexander," Wilson began, but he got no further.
"Why, certainly, if you won't find me too noisy. I am working on the
Schumann `Carnival,' and, though I don't practice a great many hours, I am
very methodical," Mrs. Alexander explained, as she crossed to an upright
piano that stood at the back of the room, near the windows.
Wilson followed, and, having seen her seated, dropped into a chair behind
her. She played brilliantly and with great musical feeling. Wilson could
not imagine her permitting herself to do anything badly, but he was
surprised at the cleanness of her execution. He wondered how a woman with
so many duties had managed to keep herself up to a standard really
professional. It must take a great deal of time, certainly, and Bartley
must take a great deal of time. Wilson reflected that he had never before
known a woman who had been able, for any considerable while, to support
both a personal and an intellectual passion. Sitting behind her, he
watched her with perplexed admiration, shading his eyes with his hand. In
her dinner dress she looked even younger than in street clothes, and, for
all her composure and self-sufficiency, she seemed to him strangely alert
and vibrating, as if in her, too, there were something never altogether at
rest. He felt that he knew pretty much what she demanded in people and
what she demanded from life, and he wondered how she squared Bartley.
After ten years she must know him; and however one took him, however much
one admired him, one had to admit that he simply wouldn't square. He was a
natural force, certainly, but beyond that, Wilson felt, he was not
anything very really or for very long at a time.
Wilson glanced toward the fire, where Bartley's profile was still wreathed
in cigar smoke that curled up more and more slowly. His shoulders were
sunk deep in the cushions and one hand hung large and passive over the arm
of his chair. He had slipped on a purple velvet smoking-coat. His wife,
Wilson surmised, had chosen it. She was clearly very proud of his good
looks and his fine color. But, with the glow of an immediate interest gone
out of it, the engineer's face looked tired, even a little haggard. The
three lines in his forehead, directly above the nose, deepened as he sat
thinking, and his powerful head drooped forward heavily. Although
Alexander was only forty-three, Wilson thought that beneath his vigorous
color he detected the dulling weariness of on-coming middle age.
The next afternoon, at the hour when the river was beginning to redden
under the declining sun, Wilson again found himself facing Mrs. Alexander
at the tea-table in the library.
"Well," he remarked, when he was bidden to give an account of himself,
"there was a long morning with the psychologists, luncheon with Bartley at
his club, more psychologists, and here I am. I've looked forward to this
hour all day."
Mrs. Alexander smiled at him across the vapor from the kettle. "And do you
remember where we stopped yesterday?"
"Perfectly. I was going to show you a picture. But I doubt whether I have
color enough in me. Bartley makes me feel a faded monochrome. You can't
get at the young Bartley except by means of color." Wilson paused and
deliberated. Suddenly he broke out: "He wasn't a remarkable student, you
know, though he was always strong in higher mathematics. His work in my
own department was quite ordinary. It was as a powerfully equipped nature
that I found him interesting. That is the most interesting thing a teacher
can find. It has the fascination of a scientific discovery. We come across
other pleasing and endearing qualities so much oftener than we find
"And, after all," said Mrs. Alexander, "that is the thing we all live
upon. It is the thing that takes us forward."
Wilson thought she spoke a little wistfully. "Exactly," he assented
warmly. "It builds the bridges into the future, over which the feet of
every one of us will go."
"How interested I am to hear you put it in that way. The bridges into the
future—I often say that to myself. Bartley's bridges always seem to
me like that. Have you ever seen his first suspension bridge in Canada,
the one he was doing when I first knew him? I hope you will see it
sometime. We were married as soon as it was finished, and you will laugh
when I tell you that it always has a rather bridal look to me. It is over
the wildest river, with mists and clouds always battling about it, and it
is as delicate as a cobweb hanging in the sky. It really was a bridge into
the future. You have only to look at it to feel that it meant the
beginning of a great career. But I have a photograph of it here." She drew
a portfolio from behind a bookcase. "And there, you see, on the hill, is
my aunt's house."
Wilson took up the photograph. "Bartley was telling me something about
your aunt last night. She must have been a delightful person."
Winifred laughed. "The bridge, you see, was just at the foot of the hill,
and the noise of the engines annoyed her very much at first. But after she
met Bartley she pretended to like it, and said it was a good thing to be
reminded that there were things going on in the world. She loved life, and
Bartley brought a great deal of it in to her when he came to the house.
Aunt Eleanor was very worldly in a frank, Early-Victorian manner. She
liked men of action, and disliked young men who were careful of themselves
and who, as she put it, were always trimming their wick as if they were
afraid of their oil's giving out. MacKeller, Bartley's first chief, was an
old friend of my aunt, and he told her that Bartley was a wild,
ill-governed youth, which really pleased her very much. I remember we were
sitting alone in the dusk after Bartley had been there for the first time.
I knew that Aunt Eleanor had found him much to her taste, but she hadn't
said anything. Presently she came out, with a chuckle: `MacKeller found
him sowing wild oats in London, I believe. I hope he didn't stop him too
soon. Life coquets with dashing fellows. The coming men are always like
that. We must have him to dinner, my dear.' And we did. She grew much
fonder of Bartley than she was of me. I had been studying in Vienna, and
she thought that absurd. She was interested in the army and in politics,
and she had a great contempt for music and art and philosophy. She used to
declare that the Prince Consort had brought all that stuff over out of
Germany. She always sniffed when Bartley asked me to play for him. She
considered that a newfangled way of making a match of it."
When Alexander came in a few moments later, he found Wilson and his wife
still confronting the photograph. "Oh, let us get that out of the way," he
said, laughing. "Winifred, Thomas can bring my trunk down. I've decided to
go over to New York to-morrow night and take a fast boat. I shall save two