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
bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher
until one's cheeks burned with the silent imputation of
parsimony 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 instigates the
moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles,
with sniffles predominating.
While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the
first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished
flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but
it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy
In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter
would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger
could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card
bearing the name "Mr. James Dillingham Young."
The "Dillingham" had been flung to the breeze during a former
period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30
per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, the
letters of "Dillingham" looked blurred, as 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
gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray 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 the honor of being owned by Jim.
There was 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
longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly accurate conception of his looks.
Della, being slender, had mastered the art.
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 possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs
in which they both 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. Had the queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the
airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some
day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty's jewels and gifts. Had
King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in
the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time
he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.
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: "Mne. Sofronie. Hair Goods
of All Kinds." One flight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting.
Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the "Sofronie."
"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
"Give it to me quick," said Della.
Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the
hashed metaphor. She was ransacking 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 fob chain simple
and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance
alone and not by meretricious ornamentation--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 properly anxious about
the time in any company. 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 intoxication gave way a little to
prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons and lighted
the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by
generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task,
dear friends--a mammoth task.
Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny, close-lying
curls that made her look wonderfully like a truant schoolboy. 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 fob 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 little silent prayers about the simple everyday
things, and now she whispered: "Please God, make him think
I am still pretty."
The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. 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.
Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the
scent of quail. 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
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 patent fact yet even after the hardest
"Cut it off and sold it," said Della. "Don't you like me 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. Be good to me, for it
went 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 enfolded his
Della. For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny
some inconsequential object in the other direction. Eight
dollars a week or a million a year--what is the difference?
A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer.
The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them.
This dark assertion will be illuminated later on.
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 the lord of the flat.
For there lay The Combs--the set of combs, side and back, that
Della had worshipped for 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 tresses that should have adorned the coveted
adornments were gone.
But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able
to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: "My hair grows so
And then Della leaped up like a little singed cat 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 ardent 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
you put the chops on."
The magi, as you know, were 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, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in
case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the
uneventful chronicle of two foolish children 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.
(from "The Four Million" - 1906)