The Caliph, Cupid and the Clock by O Henry
Prince Michael, of the Electorate of Valleluna, sat on his favourite
bench in the park. The coolness of the September night quickened the
life in him like a rare, tonic wine. The benches were not filled;
for park loungers, with their stagnant blood, are prompt to detect
and fly home from the crispness of early autumn. The moon was just
clearing the roofs of the range of dwellings that bounded the
quadrangle on the east. Children laughed and played about the fine-
sprayed fountain. In the shadowed spots fauns and hamadryads wooed,
unconscious of the gaze of mortal eyes. A hand organ--Philomel by
the grace of our stage carpenter, Fancy--fluted and droned in a side
street. Around the enchanted boundaries of the little park street
cars spat and mewed and the stilted trains roared like tigers and
lions prowling for a place to enter. And above the trees shone the
great, round, shining face of an illuminated clock in the tower of an
antique public building.
Prince Michael's shoes were wrecked far beyond the skill of the
carefullest cobbler. The ragman would have declined any negotiations
concerning his clothes. The two weeks' stubble on his face was grey
and brown and red and greenish yellow--as if it had been made up from
individual contributions from the chorus of a musical comedy. No man
existed who had money enough to wear so bad a hat as his.
Prince Michael sat on his favourite bench and smiled. It was a
diverting thought to him that he was wealthy enough to buy every one
of those close-ranged, bulky, window-lit mansions that faced him, if
he chose. He could have matched gold, equipages, jewels, art
treasures, estates and acres with any Croesus in this proud city of
Manhattan, and scarcely have entered upon the bulk of his holdings.
He could have sat at table with reigning sovereigns. The social
world, the world of art, the fellowship of the elect, adulation,
imitation, the homage of the fairest, honours from the highest,
praise from the wisest, flattery, esteem, credit, pleasure, fame--all
the honey of life was waiting in the comb in the hive of the world
for Prince Michael, of the Electorate of Valleluna, whenever he might
choose to take it. But his choice was to sit in rags and dinginess
on a bench in a park. For he had tasted of the fruit of the tree of
life, and, finding it bitter in his mouth, had stepped out of Eden
for a time to seek distraction close to the unarmoured, beating heart
of the world.
These thoughts strayed dreamily through the mind of Prince Michael,
as he smiled under the stubble of his polychromatic beard. Lounging
thus, clad as the poorest of mendicants in the parks, he loved to
study humanity. He found in altruism more pleasure than his riches,
his station and all the grosser sweets of life had given him. It was
his chief solace and satisfaction to alleviate individual distress,
to confer favours upon worthy ones who had need of succour, to dazzle
unfortunates by unexpected and bewildering gifts of truly royal
magnificence, bestowed, however, with wisdom and judiciousness.
And as Prince Michael's eye rested upon the glowing face of the great
clock in the tower, his smile, altruistic as it was, became slightly
tinged with contempt. Big thoughts were the Prince's; and it was
always with a shake of his head that he considered the subjugation of
the world to the arbitrary measures of Time. The comings and goings
of people in hurry and dread, controlled by the little metal moving
hands of a clock, always made him sad.
By and by came a young man in evening clothes and sat upon the third
bench from the Prince. For half an hour he smoked cigars with
nervous haste, and then he fell to watching the face of the
illuminated clock above the trees. His perturbation was evident, and
the Prince noted, in sorrow, that its cause was connected, in some
manner, with the slowly moving hands of the timepiece.
His Highness arose and went to the young man's bench.
"I beg your pardon for addressing you," he said, "but I perceive that
you are disturbed in mind. If it may serve to mitigate the liberty I
have taken I will add that I am Prince Michael, heir to the throne of
the Electorate of Valleluna. I appear incognito, of course, as you
may gather from my appearance. It is a fancy of mine to render aid
to others whom I think worthy of it. Perhaps the matter that seems
to distress you is one that would more readily yield to our mutual
The young man looked up brightly at the Prince. Brightly, but the
perpendicular line of perplexity between his brows was not smoothed
away. He laughed, and even then it did not. But he accepted the
"Glad to meet you, Prince," he said, good humouredly. "Yes, I'd say
you were incog. all right. Thanks for your offer of assistance--but
I don't see where your butting-in would help things any. It's a kind
of private affair, you know--but thanks all the same."
Prince Michael sat at the young man's side. He was often rebuffed
but never offensively. His courteous manner and words forbade that.
"Clocks," said the Prince, "are shackles on the feet of mankind. I
have observed you looking persistently at that clock. Its face is
that of a tyrant, its numbers are false as those on a lottery ticket;
its hands are those of a bunco steerer, who makes an appointment with
you to your ruin. Let me entreat you to throw off its humiliating
bonds and to cease to order your affairs by that insensate monitor of
brass and steel."
"I don't usually," said the young man. "I carry a watch except when
I've got my radiant rags on."
"I know human nature as I do the trees and grass," said the Prince,
with earnest dignity. "I am a master of philosophy, a graduate in
art, and I hold the purse of a Fortunatus. There are few mortal
misfortunes that I cannot alleviate or overcome. I have read your
countenance, and found in it honesty and nobility as well as
distress. I beg of you to accept my advice or aid. Do not belie the
intelligence I see in your face by judging from my appearance of my
ability to defeat your troubles."
The young man glanced at the clock again and frowned darkly. When
his gaze strayed from the glowing horologue of time it rested
intently upon a four-story red brick house in the row of dwellings
opposite to where he sat. The shades were drawn, and the lights in
many rooms shone dimly through them.
"Ten minutes to nine!" exclaimed the young man, with an impatient
gesture of despair. He turned his back upon the house and took a
rapid step or two in a contrary direction.
"Remain!" commanded Prince Michael, in so potent a voice that the
disturbed one wheeled around with a somewhat chagrined laugh.
"I'll give her the ten minutes and then I'm off," he muttered, and
then aloud to the Prince: "I'll join you in confounding all clocks,
my friend, and throw in women, too."
"Sit down," said the Prince calmly. "I do not accept your addition.
Women are the natural enemies of clocks, and, therefore, the allies
of those who would seek liberation from these monsters that measure
our follies and limit our pleasures. If you will so far confide in
me I would ask you to relate to me your story."
The young man threw himself upon the bench with a reckless laugh.
"Your Royal Highness, I will," he said, in tones of mock deference.
"Do you see yonder house--the one with three upper windows lighted?
Well, at 6 o'clock I stood in that house with the young lady I am--
that is, I was--engaged to. I had been doing wrong, my dear Prince--
I had been a naughty boy, and she had heard of it. I wanted to be
forgiven, of course--we are always wanting women to forgive us,
aren't we, Prince?"
"'I want time to think it over,' said she. 'There is one thing
certain; I will either fully forgive you, or I will never see your
face again. There will be no half-way business. At half-past
eight,' she said, 'at exactly half-past eight you may be watching the
middle upper window of the top floor. If I decide to forgive I will
hang out of that window a white silk scarf. You will know by that
that all is as was before, and you may come to me. If you see no
scarf you may consider that everything between us is ended forever.'
That," concluded the young man bitterly, "is why I have been watching
that clock. The time for the signal to appear has passed twenty-
three minutes ago. Do you wonder that I am a little disturbed, my
Prince of Rags and Whiskers?"
"Let me repeat to you," said Prince Michael, in his even, well-
modulated tones, "that women are the natural enemies of clocks.
Clocks are an evil, women a blessing. The signal may yet appear."
"Never, on your principality!" exclaimed the young man, hopelessly.
"You don't know Marian--of course. She's always on time, to the
minute. That was the first thing about her that attracted me. I've
got the mitten instead of the scarf. I ought to have known at 8.31
that my goose was cooked. I'll go West on the 11.45 to-night with
Jack Milburn. The jig's up. I'll try Jack's ranch awhile and top
off with the Klondike and whiskey. Good-night--er--er--Prince."
Prince Michael smiled his enigmatic, gentle, comprehending smile and
caught the coat sleeve of the other. The brilliant light in the
Prince's eyes was softening to a dreamier, cloudy translucence.
"Wait," he said solemnly, "till the clock strikes. I have wealth and
power and knowledge above most men, but when the clock strikes I am
afraid. Stay by me until then. This woman shall be yours. You have
the word of the hereditary Prince of Valleluna. On the day of your
marriage I will give you $100,000 and a palace on the Hudson. But
there must be no clocks in that palace--they measure our follies and
limit our pleasures. Do you agree to that?"
"Of course," said the young man, cheerfully, "they're a nuisance,
anyway--always ticking and striking and getting you late for dinner."
He glanced again at the clock in the tower. The hands stood at three
minutes to nine.
"I think," said Prince Michael, "that I will sleep a little. The day
has been fatiguing."
He stretched himself upon a bench with the manner of one who had
slept thus before.
"You will find me in this park on any evening when the weather is
suitable," said the Prince, sleepily. "Come to me when your marriage
day is set and I will give you a cheque for the money."
"Thanks, Your Highness," said the young man, seriously. "It doesn't
look as if I would need that palace on the Hudson, but I appreciate
your offer, just the same."
Prince Michael sank into deep slumber. His battered hat rolled from
the bench to the ground. The young man lifted it, placed it over the
frowsy face and moved one of the grotesquely relaxed limbs into a
more comfortable position. "Poor devil!" he said, as he drew the
tattered clothes closer about the Prince's breast.
Sonorous and startling came the stroke of 9 from the clock tower.
The young man sighed again, turned his face for one last look at the
house of his relinquished hopes--and cried aloud profane words of
>From the middle upper window blossomed in the dusk a waving, snowy,
fluttering, wonderful, divine emblem of forgiveness and promised joy.
By came a citizen, rotund, comfortable, home-hurrying, unknowing of
the delights of waving silken scarfs on the borders of dimly-lit
"Will you oblige me with the time, sir?" asked the young man; and the
citizen, shrewdly conjecturing his watch to be safe, dragged it out
"Twenty-nine and a half minutes past eight, sir."
And then, from habit, he glanced at the clock in the tower, and made
"By George! that clock's half an hour fast! First time in ten years
I've known it to be off. This watch of mine never varies a--"
But the citizen was talking to vacancy. He turned and saw his
hearer, a fast receding black shadow, flying in the direction of a
house with three lighted upper windows.
And in the morning came along two policemen on their way to the beats
they owned. The park was deserted save for one dilapidated figure
that sprawled, asleep, on a bench. They stopped and gazed upon it.
"It's Dopy Mike," said one. "He hits the pipe every night. Park bum
for twenty years. On his last legs, I guess."
The other policeman stooped and looked at something crumpled and
crisp in the hand of the sleeper.
"Gee!" he remarked. "He's doped out a fifty-dollar bill, anyway.
Wish I knew the brand of hop that he smokes."
And then "Rap, rap, rap!" went the club of realism against the shoe
soles of Prince Michael, of the Electorate of Valleluna.