SQUARING THE CIRCLE
by O. Henry
At the hazard of wearying you this tale of vehement
emotions must be prefaced by a discourse on geometry.
Nature moves in circles; Art in straight lines.
The natural is rounded; the artificial is made
up of angles. A man lost in the snow wanders, in
spite of himself, in perfect circles; the city
man's feet, denaturalized by rectangular streets
and floors, carry him ever away from himself.
The round eyes of childhood typify innocence;
the narrow line of the flirt's optic proves the
invasion of art. The horizontal mouth is the mark
of determined cunning; who has not read Nature's
most spontaneous lyric in lips rounded for the
Beauty is Nature in perfection; circularity is
its chief attribute. Behold the full moon, the
enchanting golf ball, the domes of splendid
temples, the huckleberry pie, the wedding ring,
the circus ring, the ring for the waiter, and
the "round" of drinks.
On the other hand, straight lines show that Nature
has been deflected. Imagine Venus's girdle transformed
into a "straight front"!
When we begin to move in straight lines and turn
sharp corners our natures begin to change. The
consequence is that Nature, being more adaptive
than Art, tries to conform to its sterner regulations.
The result is often a rather curious product--for
instance: A prize chrysanthemum, wood alcohol
whiskey, a Republican Missouri, cauliflower
au gratin, and a New Yorker.
Nature is lost quickest in a big city. The cause
is geometrical, not moral. The straight lines of
its streets and architecture, the rectangularity
of its laws and social customs, the undeviating
pavements, the hard, severe, depressing, uncompromising
rules of all its ways--even of its recreation and
sports--coldly exhibit a sneering defiance of the
curved line of Nature.
Wherefore, it may be said that the big city has
demonstrated the problem of squaring the circle.
And it may be added that this mathematical
introduction precedes an account of the fate of a
Kentucky feud that was imported to the city that
has a habit of making its importations conform to
The feud began in the Cumberland Mountains between
the Folwell and the Harkness families. The first
victim of the homespun vendetta was a 'possum dog
belonging to Bill Harkness. The Harkness family
evened up this dire loss by laying out the chief
of the Folwell clan. The Folwells were prompt at
repartee. They oiled up their squirrel rifles and
made it feasible for Bill Harkness to follow his
dog to a land where the 'possums come down when
treed without the stroke of an ax.
The feud flourished for forty years. Harknesses
were shot at the plough, through their lamp-lit
cabin windows, coming from camp-meeting, asleep,
in duello, sober and otherwise, singly and in
family groups, prepared and unprepared. Folwells
had the branches of their family tree lopped off
in similar ways, as the traditions of their country
prescribed and authorized.
By and by the pruning left but a single member
of each family. And then Cal Harkness, probably
reasoning that further pursuance of the controversy
would give a too decided personal flavor to the
feud, suddenly disappeared from the relieved
Cumberlands, baulking the avenging hand of Sam,
the ultimate opposing Folwell.
A year afterward Sam Folwell learned that his
hereditary, unsuppressed enemy was living in
New York City. Sam turned over the big iron
wash-pot in the yard, scraped off some of the
soot, which he mixed with lard and shined his
boots with the compound. He put on his store
clothes of butternut dyed black, a white shirt
and collar, and packed a carpet-sack with Spartan
lingerie. He took his squirrel rifle from its
hooks, but put it back again with a sigh. However
ethical and plausible the habit might be in the
Cumberlands, perhaps New York would not swallow
his pose of hunting squirrels among the skyscrapers
along Broadway. An ancient but reliable Colt's
revolver that he resurrected from a bureau drawer
seemed to proclaim itself the pink of weapons
for metropolitan adventure and vengeance. This
and a hunting-knife in a leather sheath, Sam
packed in the carpet-sack. As he started, muleback,
for the lowland railroad station the last Folwell
turned in his saddle and looked grimly at the
little cluster of white-pine slabs in the clump
of cedars that marked the Folwell burying-ground.
Sam Folwell arrived in New York in the night. Still
moving and living in the free circles of nature,
he did not perceive the formidable, pitiless,
restless, fierce angles of the great city waiting
in the dark to close about the rotundity of his
heart and brain and mould him to the form of its
millions of reshaped victims. A cabby picked him
out of the whirl, as Sam himself had often picked
a nut from a bed of wind-tossed autumn leaves, and
whisked him away to a hotel commensurate to his
boots and carpet-sack.
On the next morning the last of the Folwells made
his sortie into the city that sheltered the last
Harkness. The Colt was thrust beneath his coat and
secured by a narrow leather belt; the hunting-knife
hung between his shoulder-blades, with the haft an
inch below his coat collar. He knew this much--that
Cal Harkness drove an express wagon somewhere in
that town, and that he, Sam Folwell, had come to
kill him. And as he stepped upon the sidewalk the
red came into his eye and the feud-hate into his
The clamor of the central avenues drew him thitherward.
He had half expected to see Cal coming down the
street in his shirt-sleeves, with a jug and a whip
in his hand, just as he would have seen him in
Frankfort or Laurel City. But an hour went by and
Cal did not appear. Perhaps he was waiting in ambush,
to shoot him from a door or a window. Sam kept a
sharp eye on doors and windows for a while.
About noon the city tired of playing with its mouse
and suddenly squeezed him with its straight lines.
Sam Folwell stood where two great, rectangular
arteries of the city cross. He looked four ways,
and saw the world hurled from its orbit and reduced
by spirit level and tape to an edged and cornered
plane. All life moved on tracks, in grooves, according
to system, within boundaries, by rote. The root of
life was the cube root; the measure of existence
was square measure. People streamed by in straight
rows; the horrible din and crash stupefied him.
Sam leaned against the sharp corner of a stone
building. Those faces passed him by thousands,
and none of them were turned toward him. A sudden
foolish fear that he had died and was a spirit,
and that they could not see him, seized him. And
then the city smote him with loneliness.
A fat man dropped out of the stream and stood a
few feet distant, waiting for his car. Sam crept
to his side and shouted above the tumult into his
"The Rankinses' hogs weighed more'n ourn a whole
passel, but the mast in thar neighborhood was a
fine chance better than what it was down--"
The fat man moved away unostentatiously, and bought
roasted chestnuts to cover his alarm.
Sam felt the need of a drop of mountain dew. Across
the street men passed in and out through swinging
doors. Brief glimpses could be had of a glistening
bar and its bedeckings. The feudist crossed and
essayed to enter. Again had Art eliminated the
familiar circle. Sam's hand found no door-knob--it
slid, in vain, over a rectangular brass plate and
polished oak with nothing even so large as a pin's
head upon which his fingers might close.
Abashed, reddened, heartbroken, he walked away
from the bootless door and sat upon a step. A
locust club tickled him in the ribs.
"Take a walk for yourself," said the policeman.
"You've been loafing around here long enough."
At the next corner a shrill whistle sounded in
Sam's ear. He wheeled around and saw a black-browed
villain scowling at him over peanuts heaped on a
steaming machine. He started across the street.
An immense engine, running without mules, with
the voice of a bull and the smell of a smoky lamp,
whizzed past, grazing his knee. A cab-driver
bumped him with a hub and explained to him that
kind words were invented to be used on other
occasions. A motorman clanged his bell wildly
and, for once in his life, corroborated a cab-driver.
A large lady in a changeable silk waist dug an
elbow into his back, and a newsy pensively pelted
him with banana rinds, murmuring, "I hates to do
it--but if anybody seen me let it pass!"
Cal Harkness, his day's work over and his express
wagon stabled, turned the sharp edge of the building
that, by the cheek of architects, is modelled upon
a safety razor. Out of the mass of hurrying people
his eye picked up, three yards away, the surviving
bloody and implacable foe of his kith and kin.
He stopped short and wavered for a moment, being
unarmed and sharply surprised. But the keen
mountaineer's eye of Sam Folwell had picked him
There was a sudden spring, a ripple in the stream
of passers-by and the sound of Sam's voice crying:
"Howdy, Cal! I'm durned glad to see ye."
And in the angles of Broadway, Fifth Avenue and
Twenty-third Street the Cumberland feudists shook
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~