Cather’s story is about an artist who has hanging in his study the portrait of a beautiful woman he made twenty years earlier. When a visitor notices the picture, the narrator reflects on the time when he made it.
The woman was Alexandra Ebbling. They met onboard a ship crossing from Italy to New York. She was young, blonde, and beautiful, and married to an engineer belonging to the ship. She would spend hours every day in a lounge chair, as they steamed across the Mediterranean, watching the endless blue of the sea. The narrator makes her acquaintance; he asks after her and learns that she is very ill, and in fact may die soon, from a heart defect. They become friends; he asks if he can draw her portrait. She tells him that she is from a small fishing village in Norway, on the Arctic ocean, and that she has always dreamed of the south, and the colors and smells and flowers of the Mediterranean. When they pass Gibraltar, he goes ashore and brings her a bunch of magnolia blossoms.
It is hard to say when the two fall in love, but they do. Her husband neglects her, and infuriates the narrator. Finally, one night he proposes that they run off together, to spend the rest of their days by the sea. She refuses. It would be impossible to start over again, with her illness. He begins to complain, and she says,
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.
When they arrive in New York, she gives him a small box, with the instructions not to open it until he gets word from her. Some months later, he receives a letter informing him that she has died; enclosed in that letter is another, asking him to open the box:
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!
This beautiful story touches on themes that recur in Cather’s fiction: memory, a sense of place, suppressed or illicit desire, self-sacrifice, and the enduring nature of love.