An Unfinished Story by O Henry
We no longer groan and heap ashes upon our heads when the flames of
Tophet are mentioned. For, even the preachers have begun to tell us
that God is radium, or ether or some scientific compound, and that
the worst we wicked ones may expect is a chemical reaction. This is
a pleasing hypothesis; but there lingers yet some of the old, goodly
terror of orthodoxy.
There are but two subjects upon which one may discourse with a free
imagination, and without the possibility of being controverted. You
may talk of your dreams; and you may tell what you heard a parrot
say. Both Morpheus and the bird are incompetent witnesses; and your
listener dare not attack your recital. The baseless fabric of a
vision, then, shall furnish my theme--chosen with apologies and
regrets instead of the more limited field of pretty Polly's small
I had a dream that was so far removed from the higher criticism that
it had to do with the ancient, respectable, and lamented bar-of-
Gabriel had played his trump; and those of us who could not follow
suit were arraigned for examination. I noticed at one side a
gathering of professional bondsmen in solemn black and collars that
buttoned behind; but it seemed there was some trouble about their
real estate titles; and they did not appear to be getting any of us
A fly cop--an angel policeman--flew over to me and took me by the
left wing. Near at hand was a group of very prosperous-looking
spirits arraigned for judgment.
"Do you belong with that bunch?" the policeman asked.
"Who are they?" was my answer.
"Why," said he, "they are--"
But this irrelevant stuff is taking up space that the story should
Dulcie worked in a department store. She sold Hamburg edging, or
stuffed peppers, or automobiles, or other little trinkets such as
they keep in department stores. Of what she earned, Dulcie received
six dollars per week. The remainder was credited to her and debited
to somebody else's account in the ledger kept by G-- Oh, primal
energy, you say, Reverend Doctor--Well then, in the Ledger of Primal
During her first year in the store, Dulcie was paid five dollars per
week. It would be instructive to know how she lived on that amount.
Don't care? Very well; probably you are interested in larger
amounts. Six dollars is a larger amount. I will tell you how she
lived on six dollars per week.
One afternoon at six, when Dulcie was sticking her hat-pin within an
eighth of an inch of her ~medulla oblongata~, she said to her chum,
Sadie--the girl that waits on you with her left side:
"Say, Sade, I made a date for dinner this evening with Piggy."
"You never did!" exclaimed Sadie admiringly. "Well, ain't you the
lucky one? Piggy's an awful swell; and he always takes a girl to
swell places. He took Blanche up to the Hoffman House one evening,
where they have swell music, and you see a lot of swells. You'll
have a swell time, Dulce."
Dulcie hurried homeward. Her eyes were shining, and her cheeks
showed the delicate pink of life's--real life's--approaching dawn.
It was Friday; and she had fifty cents left of her last week's wages.
The streets were filled with the rush-hour floods of people. The
electric lights of Broadway were glowing--calling moths from miles,
from leagues, from hundreds of leagues out of darkness around to come
in and attend the singeing school. Men in accurate clothes, with
faces like those carved on cherry stones by the old salts in sailors'
homes, turned and stared at Dulcie as she sped, unheeding, past them.
Manhattan, the night-blooming cereus, was beginning to unfold its
dead-white, heavy-odoured petals.
Dulcie stopped in a store where goods were cheap and bought an
imitation lace collar with her fifty cents. That money was to have
been spent otherwise--fifteen cents for supper, ten cents for
breakfast, ten cents for lunch. Another dime was to be added to her
small store of savings; and five cents was to be squandered for
licorice drops--the kind that made your cheek look like the
toothache, and last as long. The licorice was an extravagance--
almost a carouse--but what is life without pleasures?
Dulcie lived in a furnished room. There is this difference between
a furnished room and a boardinghouse. In a furnished room, other
people do not know it when you go hungry.
Dulcie went up to her room--the third floor back in a West Side
brownstone-front. She lit the gas. Scientists tell us that the
diamond is the hardest substance known. Their mistake. Landladies
know of a compound beside which the diamond is as putty. They pack
it in the tips of gas-burners; and one may stand on a chair and dig
at it in vain until one's fingers are pink and bruised. A hairpin
will not remove it; therefore let us call it immovable.
So Dulcie lit the gas. In its one-fourth-candlepower glow we will
observe the room.
Couch-bed, dresser, table, washstand, chair--of this much the
landlady was guilty. The rest was Dulcie's. On the dresser were her
treasures--a gilt china vase presented to her by Sadie, a calendar
issued by a pickle works, a book on the divination of dreams, some
rice powder in a glass dish, and a cluster of artificial cherries
tied with a pink ribbon.
Against the wrinkly mirror stood pictures of General Kitchener,
William Muldoon, the Duchess of Marlborough, and Benvenuto Cellini.
Against one wall was a plaster of Paris plaque of an O'Callahan in
a Roman helmet. Near it was a violent oleograph of a lemon-coloured
child assaulting an inflammatory butterfly. This was Dulcie's final
judgment in art; but it had never been upset. Her rest had never
been disturbed by whispers of stolen copes; no critic had elevated
his eyebrows at her infantile entomologist.
Piggy was to call for her at seven. While she swiftly makes ready,
let us discreetly face the other way and gossip.
For the room, Dulcie paid two dollars per week. On week-days her
breakfast cost ten cents; she made coffee and cooked an egg over the
gaslight while she was dressing. On Sunday mornings she feasted
royally on veal chops and pineapple fritters at "Billy's" restaurant,
at a cost of twenty-five cents--and tipped the waitress ten cents.
New York presents so many temptations for one to run into
extravagance. She had her lunches in the department-store restaurant
at a cost of sixty cents for the week; dinners were $1.05. The
evening papers--show me a New Yorker going without his daily paper!
--came to six cents; and two Sunday papers--one for the personal
column and the other to read--were ten cents. The total amounts to
$4.76. Now, one has to buy clothes, and--
I give it up. I hear of wonderful bargains in fabrics, and of
miracles performed with needle and thread; but I am in doubt. I hold
my pen poised in vain when I would add to Dulcie's life some of those
joys that belong to woman by virtue of all the unwritten, sacred,
natural, inactive ordinances of the equity of heaven. Twice she had
been to Coney Island and had ridden the hobby-horses. 'Tis a weary
thing to count your pleasures by summers instead of by hours.
Piggy needs but a word. When the girls named him, an undeserving
stigma was cast upon the noble family of swine. The words-of-three-
letters lesson in the old blue spelling book begins with Piggy's
biography. He was fat; he had the soul of a rat, the habits of a
bat, and the magnanimity of a cat. . . He wore expensive clothes; and
was a connoisseur in starvation. He could look at a shop-girl and
tell you to an hour how long it had been since she had eaten anything
more nourishing than marshmallows and tea. He hung about the
shopping districts, and prowled around in department stores with his
invitations to dinner. Men who escort dogs upon the streets at the
end of a string look down upon him. He is a type; I can dwell upon
him no longer; my pen is not the kind intended for him; I am no
At ten minutes to seven Dulcie was ready. She looked at herself in
the wrinkly mirror. The reflection was satisfactory. The dark blue
dress, fitting without a wrinkle, the hat with its jaunty black
feather, the but-slightly-soiled gloves--all representing self-
denial, even of food itself--were vastly becoming.
Dulcie forgot everything else for a moment except that she was
beautiful, and that life was about to lift a corner of its mysterious
veil for her to observe its wonders. No gentleman had ever asked her
out before. Now she was going for a brief moment into the glitter
and exalted show.
The girls said that Piggy was a "spender." There would be a grand
dinner, and music, and splendidly dressed ladies to look at, and
things to eat that strangely twisted the girls' jaws when they tried
to tell about them. No doubt she would be asked out again. There
was a blue pongee suit in a window that she knew--by saving twenty
cents a week instead of ten, in--let's see--Oh, it would run into
years! But there was a second-hand store in Seventh Avenue where--
Somebody knocked at the door. Dulcie opened it. The landlady stood
there with a spurious smile, sniffing for cooking by stolen gas.
"A gentleman's downstairs to see you," she said. "Name is Mr.
By such epithet was Piggy known to unfortunate ones who had to take
Dulcie turned to the dresser to get her handkerchief; and then she
stopped still, and bit her underlip hard. While looking in her
mirror she had seen fairyland and herself, a princess, just awakening
from a long slumber. She had forgotten one that was watching her
with sad, beautiful, stern eyes--the only one there was to approve or
condemn what she did. Straight and slender and tall, with a look of
sorrowful reproach on his handsome, melancholy face, General
Kitchener fixed his wonderful eyes on her out of his gilt photograph
frame on the dresser.
Dulcie turned like an automatic doll to the landlady.
"Tell him I can't go," she said dully. "Tell him I'm sick, or
something. Tell him I'm not going out."
After the door was closed and locked, Dulcie fell upon her bed,
crushing her black tip, and cried for ten minutes. General Kitchener
was her only friend. He was Dulcie's ideal of a gallant knight. He
looked as if he might have a secret sorrow, and his wonderful
moustache was a dream, and she was a little afraid of that stern yet
tender look in his eyes. She used to have little fancies that he
would call at the house sometime, and ask for her, with his sword
clanking against his high boots. Once, when a boy was rattling a
piece of chain against a lamp-post she had opened the window and
looked out. But there was no use. She knew that General Kitchener
was away over in Japan, leading his army against the savage Turks;
and he would never step out of his gilt frame for her. Yet one look
from him had vanquished Piggy that night. Yes, for that night.
When her cry was over Dulcie got up and took off her best dress, and
put on her old blue kimono. She wanted no dinner. She sang two
verses of "Sammy." Then she became intensely interested in a little
red speck on the side of her nose. And after that was attended to,
she drew up a chair to the rickety table, and told her fortune with
an old deck of cards.
"The horrid, impudent thing!" she said aloud. "And I never gave him
a word or a look to make him think it!"
At nine o'clock Dulcie took a tin box of crackers and a little pot
of raspberry jam out of her trunk, and had a feast. She offered
General Kitchener some jam on a cracker; but he only looked at her
as the sphinx would have looked at a butterfly--if there are
butterflies in the desert.
"Don't eat it if you don't want to," said Dulcie. "And don't put on
so many airs and scold so with your eyes. I wonder if you'd he so
superior and snippy if you had to live on six dollars a week."
It was not a good sign for Dulcie to be rude to General Kitchener.
And then she turned Benvenuto Cellini face downward with a severe
gesture. But that was not inexcusable; for she had always thought
he was Henry VIII, and she did not approve of him.
At half-past nine Dulcie took a last look at the pictures on the
dresser, turned out the light, and skipped into bed. It's an awful
thing to go to bed with a good-night look at General Kitchener,
William Muldoon, the Duchess of Marlborough, and Benvenuto Cellini.
This story really doesn't get anywhere at all. The rest of it comes
later--sometime when Piggy asks Dulcie again to dine with him, and
she is feeling lonelier than usual, and General Kitchener happens to
be looking the other way; and then--
As I said before, I dreamed that I was standing near a crowd of
prosperous-looking angels, and a policeman took me by the wing and
asked if I belonged with them.
"Who are they?" I asked.
"Why," said he, "they are the men who hired working-girls, and paid
'em five or six dollars a week to live on. Are you one of the
"Not on your immortality," said I. "I'm only the fellow that set
fire to an orphan asylum, and murdered a blind man for his pennies."