The Ancient People from Song of the Lark
By Willa Cather, 1915
was breaking over Panther Canyon. The gulf was cold and full of heavy,
purplish twilight. The wood smoke which drifted from one of the cliff-houses
hung in a blue scarf across the chasm, until the draft caught it and
whirled it away. Thea was crouching in the doorway of her rock house,
while Ottenburg looked after the crackling fire in the next cave. He
was waiting for it to burn down to coals before he put the coffee on
They had left the ranch house that morning a little after three o'clock,
having packed their camp equipment the day before, and had crossed the
open pasture land with their lantern while the stars were still bright.
During the descent into the canyon by lantern-light, they were chilled
through their coats and sweaters. The lantern crept slowly along the
rock trail, where the heavy air seemed to offer resistance. The voice
of the stream at the bottom of the gorge was hollow and threatening,
much louder and deeper than it ever was by day--another voice altogether.
The sullenness of the place seemed to say that the world could get on
very well without people, red or white; that under the human world there
was a geological world, conducting its silent, immense operations which
were indifferent to man. Thea had often seen the desert sunrise,--a
lighthearted affair, where the sun springs out of bed and the world
is golden in an instant. But this canyon seemed to waken like an old
man, with rheum and stiffness of the joints, with heaviness, and a dull,
malignant mind. She crouched against the wall while the stars faded,
and thought what courage the early races must have had to endure so
much for the little they got out of life.
At last a kind of hopefulness broke in the air. In a moment the pine
trees up on the edge of the rim were flashing with coppery fire. The
thin red clouds which hung above their pointed tops began to boil and
move rapidly, weaving in and out like smoke. The swallows darted out
of their rock houses as at a signal, and flew upward, toward the rim.
Little brown birds began to chirp in the bushes along the watercourse
down at the bottom of the ravine, where everything was still dusky and
pale. At first the golden light seemed to hang like a wave upon the
rim of the canyon; the trees and bushes up there, which one scarcely
noticed at noon, stood out magnified by the slanting rays. Long, thin
streaks of light began to reach quiveringly down into the canyon. The
red sun rose rapidly above the tops of the blazing pines, and its glow
burst into the gulf, about the very doorstep on which Thea sat. It bored
into the wet, dark underbrush. The dripping cherry bushes, the pale
aspens, and the frosty PINONS were glittering and trembling, swimming
in the liquid gold. All the pale, dusty little herbs of the bean family,
never seen by any one but a botanist, became for a moment individual
and important, their silky leaves quite beautiful with dew and light.
The arch of sky overhead, heavy as lead a little while before, lifted,
became more and more transparent, and one could look up into depths
of pearly blue.
The savor of coffee and bacon mingled with the smell of wet cedars drying,
and Fred called to Thea that he was ready for her. They sat down in
the doorway of his kitchen, with the warmth of the live coals behind
them and the sunlight on their faces, and began their breakfast, Mrs.
Biltmer's thick coffee cups and the cream bottle between them, the coffee-pot
and frying-pan conveniently keeping hot among the embers.
"I thought you were going back on the whole proposition, Thea,
when you were crawling along with that lantern. I couldn't get a word
out of you."
"I know. I was cold and hungry, and I didn't believe there was
going to be any morning, anyway. Didn't you feel queer, at all?"
Fred squinted above his smoking cup. "Well, I am never strong for
getting up before the sun. The world looks unfurnished. When I first
lit the fire and had a square look at you, I thought I'd got the wrong
girl. Pale, grim-you were a sight!"
Thea leaned back into the shadow of the rock room and warmed her hands
over the coals. "It was dismal enough. How warm these walls are,
all the way round; and your breakfast is so good. I'm all right now,
"Yes, you're all right now." Fred lit a cigarette and looked
at her critically as her head emerged into the sun again. "You
get up every morning just a little bit handsomer than you were the day
before. I'd love you just as much if you were not turning into one of
the loveliest women I've ever seen; but you are, and that's a fact to
be reckoned with." He watched her across the thin line of smoke
he blew from his lips. "What are you going to do with all that
beauty and all that talent, Miss Kronborg?"
She turned away to the fire again. "I don't know what you're talking
about," she muttered with an awkwardness which did not conceal
Ottenburg laughed softly. "Oh, yes, you do! Nobody better! You're
a close one, but you give yourself away sometimes, like everybody else.
Do you know, I've decided that you never do a single thing without an
ulterior motive." He threw away his cigarette, took out his tobacco-pouch
and began to fill his pipe. "You ride and fence and walk and climb,
but I know that all the while you're getting somewhere in your mind.
All these things are instruments; and I, too, am an instrument."
He looked up in time to intercept a quick, startled glance from Thea.
"Oh, I don't mind," he chuckled; "not a bit. Every woman,
every interesting woman, has ulterior motives, many of 'em less creditable
than yours. It's your constancy that amuses me. You must have been doing
it ever since you were two feet high."
Thea looked slowly up at her companion's good-humored face. His eyes,
sometimes too restless and sympathetic in town, had grown steadier and
clearer in the open air. His short curly beard and yellow hair had reddened
in the sun and wind. The pleasant vigor of his person was always delightful
to her, something to signal to and laugh with in a world of negative
people. With Fred she was never becalmed. There was always life in the
air, always something coming and going, a rhythm of feeling and action,-stronger
than the natural accord of youth. As she looked at him, leaning against
the sunny wall, she felt a desire to be frank with him. She was not
willfully holding anything back. But, on the other hand, she could not
force things that held themselves back.
it was like that when I was little," she said at last. "I
had to be close, as you call it, or go under. But I didn't know I had
been like that since you came. I've had nothing to be close about. I
haven't thought about anything but having a good time with you. I've
blew a trail of smoke out into the breeze and looked knowing.
you drift like a rifle ball, my dear. It's your--your direction that
I like best of all. Most fellows wouldn't, you know. I'm unusual."
They both laughed, but Thea frowned questioningly. "Why wouldn't
most fellows? Other fellows have liked me."
"Yes, serious fellows. You told me yourself they were all old,
or solemn. But jolly fellows want to be the whole target. They would
say you were all brain and muscle; that you have no feeling."
She glanced at him sidewise. "Oh, they would, would they?"
"Of course they would," Fred continued blandly. "Jolly
fellows have no imagination. They want to be the animating force. When
they are not around, they want a girl to be--extinct," he waved
his hand. "Old fellows like Mr. Nathanmeyer understand your kind;
but among the young ones, you are rather lucky to have found me. Even
I wasn't always so wise. I've had my time of thinking it would not bore
me to be the Apollo of a homey flat, and I've paid out a trifle to learn
better. All those things get very tedious unless they are hooked up
with an idea of some sort. It's because we DON'T come out here only
to look at each other and drink coffee that it's so pleasant to --look
at each other."
drew on his pipe for a while, studying Thea's abstraction. She was staring
up at the far wall of the canyon with a troubled expression that drew
her eyes narrow and her mouth hard. Her hands lay in her lap, one over
the other, the fingers interlacing.
Fred came out at length,--"suppose I were to offer you what most
of the young men I know would offer a girl they'd been sitting up nights
about: a comfortable flat in Chicago, a summer camp up in the woods,
musical evenings, and a family to bring up. Would it look attractive
Thea sat up straight and stared at him in alarm, glared into his eyes.
"Perfectly hideous!" she exclaimed.
Fred dropped back against the old stonework and laughed deep in his
chest. "Well, don't be frightened. I won't offer them. You're not
a nest-building bird. You know I always liked your song, `Me for the
jolt of the breakers!' I understand."
She rose impatiently and walked to the edge of the cliff. "It's
not that so much. It's waking up every morning with the feeling that
your life is your own, and your strength is your own, and your talent
is your own; that you're all there, and there's no sag in you."
She stood for a moment as if she were tortured by uncertainty, then
turned suddenly back to him. "Don't talk about these things any
more now," she entreated. "It isn't that I want to keep anything
from you. The trouble is that I've got nothing to keep--except (you
know as well as I) that feeling. I told you about it in Chicago once.
But it always makes me unhappy to talk about it. It will spoil the day.
Will you go for a climb with me?" She held out her hands with a
smile so eager that it made Ottenburg feel how much she needed to get
away from herself.
He sprang up and caught the hands she put out so cordially, and stood
swinging them back and forth. "I won't tease you. A word's enough
to me. But I love it, all the same. Understand?" He pressed her
hands and dropped them. "Now, where are you going to drag me?"
"I want you to drag me. Over there, to the other houses. They are
more interesting than these." She pointed across the gorge to the
row of white houses in the other cliff. "The trail is broken away,
but I got up there once. It's possible. You have to go to the bottom
of the canyon, cross the creek, and then go up hand-over-hand."
Ottenburg, lounging against the sunny wall, his hands in the pockets
of his jacket, looked across at the distant dwellings. "It's an
awful climb," he sighed, "when I could be perfectly happy
here with my pipe. However--" He took up his stick and hat and
followed Thea down the water trail. "Do you climb this path every
day? You surely earn your bath. I went down and had a look at your pool
the other afternoon. Neat place, with all those little cottonwoods.
Must be very becoming."
"Think so?" Thea said over her shoulder, as she swung round
"Yes, and so do you, evidently. I'm becoming expert at reading
your meaning in your back. I'm behind you so much on these single-foot
trails. You don't wear stays, do you?"
"I wouldn't, anywhere, if I were you. They will make you less elastic.
The side muscles get flabby. If you go in for opera, there's a fortune
in a flexible body. Most of the German singers are clumsy, even when
they're well set up."
Thea switched a PINON branch back at him. "Oh, I'll never get fat!
That I can promise you."
Fred smiled, looking after her. "Keep that promise, no matter how
many others you break," he drawled.
The upward climb, after they had crossed the stream, was at first a
breathless scramble through underbrush. When they reached the big boulders,
Ottenburg went first because he had the longer leg-reach, and gave Thea
a hand when the step was quite beyond her, swinging her up until she
could get a foothold. At last they reached a little platform among the
rocks, with only a hundred feet of jagged, sloping wall between them
and the cliff-houses.
Ottenburg lay down under a pine tree and declared that he was going
to have a pipe before he went any farther. "It's a good thing to
know when to stop, Thea," he said meaningly.
"I'm not going to stop now until I get there," Thea insisted.
"I'll go on alone."
Fred settled his shoulder against the tree-trunk. "Go on if you
like, but I'm here to enjoy myself. If you meet a rattler on the way,
have it out with him."
She hesitated, fanning herself with her felt hat. "I never have
"There's reasoning for you," Fred murmured languidly.
Thea turned away resolutely and began to go up the wall, using an irregular
cleft in the rock for a path. The cliff, which looked almost perpendicular
from the bottom, was really made up of ledges and boulders, and behind
these she soon disappeared. For a long while Fred smoked with half-closed
eyes, smiling to himself now and again. Occasionally he lifted an eyebrow
as he heard the rattle of small stones among the rocks above. "In
a temper," he concluded; "do her good." Then he subsided
into warm drowsiness and listened to the locusts in the yuccas, and
the tap-tap of the old woodpecker that was never weary of assaulting
the big pine.
Fred had finished his pipe and was wondering whether he wanted another,
when he heard a call from the cliff far above him. Looking up, he saw
Thea standing on the edge of a projecting crag. She waved to him and
threw her arm over her head, as if she were snapping her fingers in
As he saw her there between the sky and the gulf, with that great wash
of air and the morning light about her, Fred recalled the brilliant
figure at Mrs. Nathanmeyer's. Thea was one of those people who emerge,
unexpectedly, larger than we are accustomed to see them. Even at this
distance one got the impression of muscular energy and audacity,--a
kind of brilliancy of motion,--of a personality that carried across
big spaces and expanded among big things. Lying still, with his hands
under his head, Ottenburg rhetorically addressed the figure in the air.
are the sort that used to run wild in Germany, dressed in their hair
and a piece of skin. Soldiers caught 'em in nets. Old Nathanmeyer,"
he mused, "would like a peep at her now. Knowing old fellow. Always
buying those Zorn etchings of peasant girls bathing. No sag in them
either. Must be the cold climate." He sat up. "She'll begin
to pitch rocks on me if I don't move." In response to another impatient
gesture from the crag, he rose and began swinging slowly up the trail.
It was the afternoon of that long day. Thea was lying on a blanket in
the door of her rock house. She and Ottenburg had come back from their
climb and had lunch, and he had gone off for a nap in one of the cliff-houses
farther down the path. He was sleeping peacefully, his coat under his
head and his face turned toward the wall.
Thea, too, was drowsy, and lay looking through halfclosed eyes up at
the blazing blue arch over the rim of the canyon. She was thinking of
nothing at all. Her mind, like her body, was full of warmth, lassitude,
physical content. Suddenly an eagle, tawny and of great size, sailed
over the cleft in which she lay, across the arch of sky. He dropped
for a moment into the gulf between the walls, then wheeled, and mounted
until his plumage was so steeped in light that he looked like a golden
bird. He swept on, following the course of the canyon a little way and
then disappearing beyond the rim. Thea sprang to her feet as if she
had been thrown up from the rock by volcanic action. She stood rigid
on the edge of the stone shelf, straining her eyes after that strong,
tawny flight. O eagle of eagles! Endeavor, achievement, desire, glorious
striving of human art! From a cleft in the heart of the world she saluted
it. . . . It had come all the way; when men lived in caves, it was there.
A vanished race; but along the trails, in the stream, under the spreading
cactus, there still glittered in the sun the bits of their frail clay
vessels, fragments of their desire.