The Gift of the Magi
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 negotiating hard with the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until your cheeks burned with the embarrassment of poverty 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 makes you think that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles most common.
While the mistress of the home is gradually going through these stages of sadness, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week that said impoverished very effectively.
In the lobby below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and a doorbell that didn’t work. Underneath it was a card bearing the name “Mr James Dillingham Young.”
The “Dillingham” had been included 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 grey cat walking a grey fence in a grey 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 her happiness of being with Jim.
There was a tall, thin piece of mirror, known as a pier-glass, between the windows of the room. Perhaps you have seen a pier-glass in an $8 flat. A very thin and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a rapid sequence of strips, obtain a fairly accurate idea of his looks. Della, being slender, had mastered the art of doing this.
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 things in which both Jim and Della 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, which would have even made the Queen of Sheba envious. And had King Solomon seen Jim’s watch, he would have pulled out his own beard in order to get his hands on such a treasure.
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: “Madame Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds.” One flight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting.
“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 a cloud of excitement. She was searching in all 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 chain simple in design, properly showing its value by substance alone and not by trying to be too fancy — 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 able to confidently check the time no matter who was present. 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 excitement gave way a little to nervousness about how she looked. She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the damage made by her generosity added to love. Which is always a big task, dear friends — a mammoth task.
Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny, close-lying curls. 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 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, I hope he won’t be too upset about my hair.”
The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty–two! He needed a new overcoat and he was without gloves.
Jim stopped inside the door, immovable. 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 fact yet even after the hardest mental labor.
“Cut it off and sold it,” said Della. “Amn’t I 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. Don’t worry though, I did it 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 wrapped his arms around his Della. For ten seconds, let us look away at something insignificant so as not to stare at them as they embraced passionately. Eight dollars a week or a million a year — what is the difference? The Magi, known as the three wise men, brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them.
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 Jim.
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 long locks of hair that should have been adorned by them were gone.
But she hugged them anyway, 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 leapt up 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 warm-hearted 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 let’s put the chops on.”
The magi, as you know, were the three 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. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of a foolish young couple 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.