It was only one dollar and eighty-seven cents. And sixty cents were pennies. Pennies were saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocers, vegetable man, and butcher until the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied burned one’s cheeks. Della counted it three times. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And Christmas would be the next day.
Della had no choice but to curl up on the shabby little couch and howl. So she did. Which prompts the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles dominating.
Take a look at the home. A furnished flat for $8 per week. It didn’t beggar description, but it certainly had the mendicancy squad on their toes.
The vestibule below had a letter-box into which no letter could go, as well as an electric button from which no mortal finger could conjure a ring. A card bearing the name “Mr. James Dillingham Young” also belonged there.
The “Dillingham” had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. When their income shrunk to $20, however, they began considering contracting with an unassuming and modest D. When Mr. James Dillingham Young returned home and reached his flat above, Mrs. James Dillingham Young called him “Jim”, and she hugged him a lot. 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 listlessly 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, but expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many happy hours 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 before. A 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 was slender, so she knew how to do this.
Within twenty seconds, she had lost her color. She pulled her hair down and let it fall freely. She whirled from the window and stood before the glass. Her eyes shone brilliantly, but her face had lost its color.
Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs 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. 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.
Della’s gorgeous hair fell about her, rippling and shimmering like brown water cascades. It reached below her knee and almost made herself a garment for her. And then she did it up nervously and quickly again. As tears splashed down the worn red carpet, she faltered for a minute and stood still.
In a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the stairs.
“Mne. Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds.” A flight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting. Madame, large and too white, looked nothing like the “Sofronie.”
Della asked, “Will you buy my hair?”.
“I buy hair,” said Madame. “Take your hat off and let’s see what you’ve got.”
The brown cascade rippled down.
Madame lifted the mass with a practised hand and said, “Twenty dollars.”.
Della said, “Give it to me as soon as possible.”.
The next two hours flew by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was rummaging through 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 properly be 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.
After Della reached home, her intoxication gave way to prudence and reason. She lit the gas and started rebuilding the ravages created by generosity added to love. This is always a mammoth task, dear friends.
After forty minutes, her head was covered with tiny, close-lying curls that made her look like a truant schoolboy. She examined her reflection in the mirror for quite some time.
“If Jim doesn’t kill me,” she thought to herself, “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?”
On the back of the stove, the frying pan was hot and ready to cook the chops at 7 o’clock.
Della doubled the fob chain in her hand and sat near the door that he always entered. When she heard his footsteps on the first flight of stairs, she turned white for just a moment, and he was never late. Now she whispered: “Please God, make him think I’m still pretty.” She said little silent prayers about the simplest things in life.
Having stepped into the door and closed it, Jim looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two–and with a family to take care of! He needed a new overcoat and gloves.
The smell of quail caused Jim to stop inside the door, as immovable as a setter. Della could not read the expression in his eyes, and it terrified her as she stared at him fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face. He was not angry, nor surprised, nor disapproving, nor horrified. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.
She wriggled off the table and went after him.
“Jim, darling,” she cried. “Don’t look at me that way, darling. In order to give you a present for Christmas, I had my hair cut off and sold. It’ll grow out again–you won’t mind, will you? My hair grows so fast. Let’s be happy. Have a wonderful Christmas!’ Jim, and you’ll know what a lovely gift I got you.”
“You’ve cut off your hair?” Jim asked laboriously, as if he hadn’t yet realized this obvious fact.
“Cut it off and sell it,” said Della. “Don’t you like me just as well without my hair?”
Curious, Jim surveyed the room.
With an air of almost idiocy, he asked, “Your hair is gone?”.
You don’t need to look for it, Della replied. “It’s sold,” she said. “It’s Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, because it went for you. Maybe the hairs on my head were numbered,” she continued with sudden serious sweetness, “but nobody can count the love I have for you. Are you ready for some chops, Jim?”
In his trance Jim seemed to quickly wake up. He embraced Della and gazed at some inconsequential object in the other direction with discreet scrutiny for ten seconds. Eight dollars or a million–what makes a difference? The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on. Mathematicians and wits would not know the difference.
Taking a package from his overcoat pocket, Jim tossed it on the table.
The only thing that could make me like my girl any less is a haircut, a shave, or a shampoo. However, if you unwrap that package, you may understand why I had a hard time getting used to it.”
An ecstatic scream of joy followed, followed by hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate application of all the comforting powers of the flat lord.
There lay The Combs–the set of combs Della worshipped in a Broadway window for years. Those beautiful combs, in tortoise shell, with jewelled rims–just the shade to adorn the beautiful, vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without any hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned them were gone.
As she hugged them to her bosom, she looked up with dim eyes and a smile and said, “My hair grows so fast!”
A little singed cat leaped up and cried, “Oh, oh!”
She held the dull precious metal out to him eagerly upon her open palm. Her bright and ardent spirit seemed to reflect in the dull precious metal.
I hunted all over town to find it. You’ll have to check the time a hundred times a day from now on. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it.”
Jim smiled instead of obeying and tumbled down on the couch.
I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs. And now suppose you wear the chops.” Dell said, “I think we should keep our Christmas presents for a while. They’re too nice for us to use them just now.
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. 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. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.