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The Gift of the Magi
by O'Henry

At the turn of the twentieth century, William Sydney Porter, using the pen name O. Henry, wrote hundreds of stories enjoyed by millions of Americans. "The Gift of the Magi," like many of his stories, was originally published in a New York newspaper in 1905. His readers were the working people of New York City, people like Jim and Della in "The Gift of the Magi."

The title of this story refers to the Three Wise Men of the Bible who, following a mysterious star, were led to the Baby Jesus. According to the New Testament, they offered gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These were valuable presents, but not very useful to a newborn baby.

From the Three Magi, we have the custom of giving gifts at Christmastime.

 

One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.

Della felt so bad she sat down on their shabby little couch and cried, but that didn't help either. Drying her eyes, she walked to the window of the small apartment. The furnished apartment at eight dollars per week was all that she and her husband Jim could afford on his weekly salary of twenty dollars.

But 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 her Jim. She had spent many a happy hour planning to buy something nice for him. If she had only been able to save more money, she could have bought something fine and rare, something that deserved the honor of being owned by Jim.

Whirling from the window, she stood before the mirror. Her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its color. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.

Now, there were two possessions in which they both took great pride. One was Jim's gold watch that had been his father's and his grandfather's. The other was Della's hair.

Della's beautiful hair fell about her, rippling and shining like a cascade of brown water. It reached below her knees and made itself almost a garment for her. Then she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she stopped for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.

She quickly put on her old brown jacket and her old brown hat. With the whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she ran out the door and down the stairs to the street.

She walked down the street until she saw a sign which read: "Madam Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds. Second Floor."  Della ran up the stairs, arriving at the top panting. Entering the small shop on the second floor, she was greeted by a large, pale lady.

"Will you buy my hair?"
asked Della.

"I buy hair," said Madame. "Take your hat off and let's have a look at it."

Down rippled the brown cascade.

"Twenty dollars," said Madame, lifting the mass (of hair) with a practiced hand.

"Give it to me quick," said Della.

She passed the next two hours ecstatically, searching 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 turned all of them inside out. It was a watch chain, simple and clean in design, but of obvious quality. As soon as she saw it, she knew that it must be Jim's. She had often seen Jim look at his watch secretly because he didn't want anyone to see the old leather strap that he used in place of a chain. If Jim had had that chain on his watch, he would have been proud to check the time in any company. They took twenty-one dollars from her for the chain, and she hurried home with the 87 cents change.

Reaching home, Della got out her curling irons and went to work fixing her short hair. Soon her head was covered with tiny, close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a young schoolgirl.

Looking at her reflection in the mirror, she said to herself, "If Jim doesn't kill me 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? I had to cut my hair. If I hadn't cut it, I wouldn't have been able to buy Jim a present."

At seven 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. Clutching the watch chain in her hand, Della sat on the corner of the table near the door. Hearing his step on the stair, she turned white for just a moment. Remembering her short hair, she whispered, "Please, God, make him think I am still pretty."

The door opened and Jim stepped in. 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.

Stopping inside the door, he fixed his eyes on 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. He simply stared at her with a peculiar expression on his face.

Running up to him, Della cried, "Jim, darling, don't look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold it because I couldn't have lived through Christmas if I hadn't given you a present. I just had to do it. It'll grow out again--you won't mind, will you? 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.

"Cut it off and sold it," said Della. "Don't you like me just as well, anyhow? I'm me without my hair, aren'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, darling. Be good to me. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered," she went on with a sudden serious sweetness, "but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the chops on, Jim?"

Jim seemed to wake out of his trance, quickly hugging his Della. He drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it on 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 shave or a shampoo that could make me love you any less. But if you'll unwrap that package, you may see why I was so startled."

Ripping open the package, Della screamed with joy when she saw the present it contained. But then her cry of joy quickly changed to hysterical sobs as she held her husband's gift.

There lay the set of combs that Della had worshipped for so long in a Broadway window. 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 tresses that they were meant for, were gone now.

Hugging them to her bosom, at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: "My hair grows so fast, Jim! I'm sorry I cut it. I never would have done it, if I had known you were giving me the combs, but I had to because...Oh, oh!"

Remembering her present, Della jumped up and held it out to him eagerly in her open hand.

"Isn't it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You'll have to look at your watch a hundred times a day now. Give it to me. I want to see how it looks with the chain on it."

Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands behind his head and smiled.

"Dell," said he, "let's put our Christmas presents away and keep them a while. They're too nice to use just now. I sold my watch to get money to buy your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on."