|Deborah Klein, Untitled, 2017, pigmented drawing inks and gouache, 15 x 11 cm|
The recently completed phemograph featured in my previous post was named after the celebrated short story by the American writer, O. Henry (1862 - 1910).
The Gift of the Magi
With Christmas Day a few days hence, it seems timely to share one of O. Henry's equally well-loved tales of the city, arguably his most famous,
The Gift of the Magi. It's one of the stories I grew up with. I've read it countless times through the years and, as with
The Last Leaf, the poignant twist at the tale's end never fails to bring a tear to my eye. I know what's coming, I see it coming, but it gets me every time. It's taken until now, however, to recognise what a profound influence the story has had on much of my own work, including the above image.
One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. She had put it aside,
one cent and then another and then another, in her careful buying of meat and
other food. Della counted it three times. One dollar and eighty-seven cents.
And the next day would be Christmas.
There was nothing to do but fall on
the bed and cry. So Della did it.
While the lady of the home is slowly
growing quieter, we can look at the home. Furnished rooms at a cost of $8 a
week. There is little more to say about it.
In the hall below was a letter-box
too small to hold a letter. There was an electric bell, but it could not make a
sound. Also there was a name beside the door: “Mr. James Dillingham Young.”
When the name was placed there, Mr.
James Dillingham Young was being paid $30 a week. Now, when he was being paid
only $20 a week, the name seemed too long and important. It should perhaps have
been “Mr. James D. Young.” But when Mr. James Dillingham Young entered the
furnished rooms, his name became very short indeed. Mrs. James Dillingham Young
put her arms warmly about him and called him “Jim.” You have already met her.
She is Della.
Della finished her crying and
cleaned the marks of it from her face. She stood by the window and looked out
with no interest. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with
which to buy Jim a gift. She had put aside as much as she could for months,
with this result. Twenty dollars a week is not much. Everything had cost more
than she had expected. It always happened like that.
Only $ 1.87 to buy a gift for Jim.
Her Jim. She had had many happy hours planning something nice for him.
Something nearly good enough. Something almost worth the honour of belonging to
There was a looking-glass between
the windows of the room. Per- haps you have seen the kind of looking-glass that
is placed in $8 furnished rooms. It was very narrow. A person could see only
a little of himself at a time. However, if he was very thin and moved very
quickly, he might be able to get a good view of himself. Della, being quite
thin, had mastered this art.
Suddenly she turned from the window
and stood before the glass. Her eyes were shining brightly, but her face had
lost its color. Quickly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its
The James Dillingham Youngs were
very proud of two things which they owned. One thing was Jim’s gold watch. It
had once belonged to his father. And, long ago, it had belonged to his father’s
father. The other thing was Della’s hair.
If a queen had lived in the rooms
near theirs, Della would have washed and dried her hair where the queen could
see it. Della knew her hair was more beautiful than any queen’s jewels and
If a king had lived in the same
house, with all his riches, Jim would have looked at his watch every time they
met. Jim knew that no king had anything so valuable.
So now Della’s beautiful hair fell about her, shining like a falling stream of
brown water. It reached below her knee. It almost made itself into a dress for
And then she put it up on her head
again, nervously and quickly. Once she stopped for a moment and stood still
while a tear or two ran down her face.
She put on her old brown coat. She
put on her old brown hat. With the bright light still in her eyes, she moved
quickly out the door and down to the street.
Where she stopped, the sign said:
“Mrs. Sofronie. Hair Articles of all Kinds.”
Up to the second floor Della ran,
and stopped to get her breath. Mrs. Sofronie, large, too white, cold-eyed,
looked at her.
“Will you buy my hair?” asked Della.
“I buy hair,” said Mrs. Sofronie. “Take your hat off and let me look at it.”
Down fell the brown waterfall.
“Twenty dollars,” said Mrs. Sofronie, lifting the hair to feel its weight.
“Give it to me quick,” said Della.
Oh, and the next two hours seemed to fly. She was going from one shop to
another, to find a gift for Jim.
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 shops, and she had looked in every shop in
It was a gold watch chain, very
simply made. Its value was in its rich and pure material. Because it was so
plain and simple, you knew that it was very valuable. All good things are like
It was good enough for The Watch.
As soon as she saw it, she knew that
Jim must have it. It was like him. Quietness and value—Jim and the chain both
had quietness and value. She paid twenty-one dollars for it. And she hurried
home with the chain and eighty-seven cents.
With that chain on his watch, Jim
could look at his watch and learn the time anywhere he might be. Though the
watch was so fine, it had never had a fine chain. He sometimes took it out and
looked at it only when no one could see him do it.
When Della arrived home, her mind
quieted a little. She began to think more reasonably. She started to try to
cover the sad marks of what she had done. Love and large-hearted giving, when
added together, can leave deep marks. It is never easy to cover these marks,
dear friends— never easy.
Within forty minutes her head looked
a little better. With her short hair, she looked wonderfully like a schoolboy.
She stood at the looking-glass for a long time.
“If Jim doesn’t kill me,” she said
to herself, “before he looks at me a second time, he’ll say I look like a girl
who sings and dances for money. But what could I do—oh! What could I do with a
dollar and eighty- seven cents?”
At seven, Jim’s dinner was ready for
Jim was never late. Della held the
watch chain in her hand and sat near the door where he always entered. Then she
heard his step in the hall and her face lost color for a moment. She often said
little prayers quietly, about simple everyday things. And now she said: “Please
God, make him think I’m still pretty.”
The door opened and Jim stepped in.
He looked very thin and he was not smiling. Poor fellow, he was only
twenty-two—and with a family to take care of! He needed a new coat and he had
nothing to cover his cold hands.
Jim stopped inside the door. He was
as quiet as a hunting dog when it is near a bird. His eyes looked strangely at
Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not understand. It
filled her with fear. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor anything she had been
ready for. He simply looked at her with that strange expression on his face.
“Jim, dear,” she cried, “don’t look
at me like that. I had my hair cut off and sold it. I couldn’t live through
Christmas without giving you a gift. My hair will grow again. You won’t care,
will you? My hair grows very fast. It’s Christmas, Jim. Let’s be happy. You
don’t know what a nice—what a beautiful nice gift I got for you.”
“You’ve cut off your hair?” asked
Jim slowly. He seemed to labor to understand what had happened. He seemed not
to feel sure he knew.
“Cut it off and sold it,” said
Della. “Don’t you like me now? I’m me, Jim. I’m the same without my hair.”
Jim looked around the room.
“You say your hair is gone?” he said.
“You don’t have to look for it,” said Della. “It’s sold, I tell you— sold and
gone, too. It’s the night before Christmas, boy. Be good to me, because I sold
it for you. Maybe the hairs of my head could be counted,” she said, “but no one
could ever count my love for you. Shall we eat dinner, Jim?”
Jim put his arms around his Della.
For ten seconds let us look in another direction. Eight dollars a week or a
million dollars a year— how different are they? Someone may give you an answer,
but it will be wrong. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among
them. My meaning will be explained soon.
From inside the coat, Jim took
something tied in paper. He threw it upon the table.
“I want you to understand me, Dell,”
he said. “Nothing like a haircut could make me love you any less. But if you’ll
open that, you may know what I felt when I came in.”
White fingers pulled off the paper.
And then a cry of joy; and then a change to tears.
For there lay The Combs—the combs
that Della had seen in a shop window and loved for a long time. Beautiful
combs, with jewels, perfect for her beautiful hair. She had known they cost too
much for her to buy them. She had looked at them without the least hope of
owning them. And now they were hers, but her hair was gone.
But she held them to her heart, and
at last was able to look up and say: “My hair grows so fast, Jim!”
And then she jumped up and cried,
Jim had not yet seen his beautiful
gift. She held it out to him in her open hand. The gold seemed to shine softly
as if with her own warm and loving spirit.
“Isn’t it perfect, Jim? I hunted all
over town to find it. You’ll have to look at your watch a hundred times a day
now. Give me your watch. I want to see how they look together.”
“Della,” said he, “let’s put our
Christmas gifts away and keep them a while. They’re too nice to use now. I sold
the watch to get the money to buy the combs. And now I think we should have our
The magi, as you know, were wise
men—wonderfully wise men—who brought gifts to the newborn Christ-child. They
were the first to give Christmas gifts. Being wise, their gifts were doubtless
wise ones. And here I have told you the story of two children who were not
wise. Each sold the most valuable thing he owned in order to buy a gift for the
other. But let me speak a last word to the wise of these days: Of all who give
gifts, these two were the most wise. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as
they are the most wise. Everywhere they are the wise ones. They are the magi.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The Last Leaf, visit
Moth Woman Press HERE. Following the story you'll find a link to a short biography of O. Henry accompanied by links to an extensive number of his stories.
Enjoy the stories. Merry Christmas, everyone.