English Stories and books

THE GIFT OF THE MAGI by O. Henry(read online)


by O. Henry

One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And

sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two

at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and

the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent

imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied.

Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven

cents. And the next day would be Christmas.

There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the

shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which

instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of

sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.

While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding

from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home.

A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar

description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout

for the mendicancy squad.

In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no

letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal

finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a

card bearing the name “Mr. James Dillingham Young.”

The “Dillingham” had been flung to the breeze during a

former period of prosperity when its possessor was being

paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20,

though, they were thinking seriously of contracting to a

modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham

Young came home and reached his flat above he was called

“Jim” and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young,

already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.

Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with

the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully

at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard.

Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with

which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny

she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a

week doesn’t go far. Expenses had been greater than she had

calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for

Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for

something nice for him. Something fine and rare and

sterling–something just a little bit near to being worthy

of the honor of being owned by Jim.

There was a pier-glass between the windows of the room.

Perhaps you have seen a pierglass in an $8 flat. A very thin

and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a

rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly

accurate conception of his looks. Della, being slender, had

mastered the art.

Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before

the glass. her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face

had lost its color within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled

down her hair and let it fall to its full length.

Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham

Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim’s

gold watch that had been his father’s and his grandfather’s.

The other was Della’s hair. Had the queen of Sheba lived in

the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair

hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her

Majesty’s jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the

janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement,

Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed,

just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.

So now Della’s beautiful hair fell about her rippling

and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below

her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. And then

she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered

for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on

the worn red carpet.

On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown

hat. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle

still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the

stairs to the street.

Where she stopped the sign read: “Mne. Sofronie. Hair

Goods of All Kinds.” One flight up Della ran, and collected

herself, panting. Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly

looked the “Sofronie.”

“Will you buy my hair?” asked Della.

“I buy hair,” said Madame. “Take yer hat off and let’s

have a sight at the looks of it.”

Down rippled the brown cascade.

“Twenty dollars,” said Madame, lifting the mass with a

practised hand.

“Give it to me quick,” said Della.

Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings.

Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores

for Jim’s present.

She found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim

and no one else. There was no other like it in any of the

stores, and she had turned all of them inside out. It was a

platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly

proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by

meretricious ornamentation–as all good things should do. It

was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as she saw it she knew

that it must be Jim’s. It was like him. Quietness and

value–the description applied to both. Twenty-one dollars

they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the 87

cents. With that chain on his watch Jim might be properly

anxious about the time in any company. Grand as the watch

was, he sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the

old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.

When Della reached home her intoxication gave way a

little to prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons

and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages

made by generosity added to love. Which is always a

tremendous task, dear friends–a mammoth task.

Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny,

close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a

truant schoolboy. She looked at her reflection in the mirror

long, carefully, and critically.

“If Jim doesn’t kill me,” she said to herself, “before

he takes a second look at me, he’ll say I look like a Coney

Island chorus girl. But what could I do–oh! what could I

do with a dollar and eighty-seven cents?”

At 7 o’clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was

on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops.

Jim was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her

hand and sat on the corner of the table near the door that

he always entered. Then she heard his step on the stair

away down on the first flight, and she turned white for

just a moment. She had a habit of saying a little silent

prayer about the simplest everyday things, and now she

whispered: “Please God, make him think I am still pretty.”

The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He

looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only

twenty-two–and to be burdened with a family! He needed a

new overcoat and he was without gloves.

Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter

at the scent of quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and

there was an expression in them that she could not read, and

it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor

disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she

had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with

that peculiar expression on his face.

Della wriggled off the table and went for him.

“Jim, darling,” she cried, “don’t look at me that way.

I had my hair cut off and sold because I couldn’t have lived

through Christmas without giving you a present. It’ll grow

out again–you won’t mind, will you? I just had to do it. My

hair grows awfully fast. Say `Merry Christmas!’ Jim, and

let’s be happy. You don’t know what a nice–what a

beautiful, nice gift I’ve got for you.”

“You’ve cut off your hair?” asked Jim, laboriously, as

if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet even after the

hardest mental labor.

“Cut it off and sold it,” said Della. “Don’t you like

me just as well, anyhow? I’m me without my hair, ain’t I?”

Jim looked about the room curiously.

“You say your hair is gone?” he said, with an air

almost of idiocy.

“You needn’t look for it,” said Della. “It’s sold, I

tell you–sold and gone, too. It’s Christmas Eve, boy. Be

good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head

were numbered,” she went on with sudden serious sweetness,

“but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put

the chops on, Jim?”

Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He

enfolded his Della. For ten seconds let us regard with

discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other

direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a year–what is

the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the

wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was

not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated

later on.

Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw

it upon the table.

“Don’t make any mistake, Dell,” he said, “about me. I

don’t think there’s anything in the way of a haircut or a

shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less.

But if you’ll unwrap that package you may see why you had me

going a while at first.”

White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper.

And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick

feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating

the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the

lord of the flat.

For there lay The Combs–the set of combs, side and

back, that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window.

Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled

rims–just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair.

They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had

simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope

of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that

should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.

But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was

able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: “My hair

grows so fast, Jim!”

And then Della leaped up like a little singed cat and

cried, “Oh, oh!”

Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it

out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious

metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and

ardent spirit.

“Isn’t it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find

it. You’ll have to look at the time a hundred times a day

now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it.”

Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and

put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.

“Dell,” said he, “let’s put our Christmas presents away

and keep ’em a while. They’re too nice to use just at

present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your

combs. And now suppose you put the chops on.”

The magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise

men–who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They

invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise,

their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the

privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I

have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two

foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for

each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a

last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of

all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give

and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they

are wisest. They are the magi.

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