by O. Henry
[This was the last work of O. Henry. The Cosmopolitan
Magazine had ordered it from him and, after his death, the
unfinished manuscript was found in his room, on his dusty
desk. The story as it here appears was published in the
Cosmopolitan for September, 1910.]
Murray dreamed a dream.
Both psychology and science grope when they would explain to us the
strange adventures of our immaterial selves when wandering in the
realm of "Death's twin brother, Sleep." This story will not attempt
to be illuminative; it is no more than a record of Murray's dream.
One of the most puzzling phases of that strange waking sleep is
that dreams which seem to cover months or even years may take place
within a few seconds or minutes.
Murray was waiting in his cell in the ward of the condemned. An
electric arc light in the ceiling of the corridor shone brightly
upon his table. On a sheet of white paper an ant crawled wildly
here and there as Murray blocked its way with an envelope. The
electrocution was set for eight o'clock in the evening. Murray
smiled at the antics of the wisest of insects.
There were seven other condemned men in the chamber. Since he had
been there Murray had seen three taken out to their fate; one gone
mad and fighting like a wolf caught in a trap; one, no less mad,
offering up a sanctimonious lip-service to Heaven; the third, a
weakling, collapsed and strapped to a board. He wondered with what
credit to himself his own heart, foot, and face would meet his
punishment; for this was his evening. He thought it must be nearly
Opposite his own in the two rows of cells was the cage of Bonifacio,
the Sicilian slayer of his betrothed and of two officers who came
to arrest him. With him Murray had played checkers many a long hour,
each calling his move to his unseen opponent across the corridor.
Bonifacio's great booming voice with its indestructible singing
quality called out:
"Eh, Meestro Murray; how you feel--all-a right--yes?"
"All right, Bonifacio," said Murray steadily, as he allowed the ant
to crawl upon the envelope and then dumped it gently on the stone
"Dat's good-a, Meestro Murray. Men like us, we must-a die like-a men.
My time come nex'-a week. All-a right. Remember, Meestro Murray, I
beat-a you dat las' game of de check. Maybe we play again some-a time.
I don'-a know. Maybe we have to call-a de move damn-a loud to play
de check where dey goin' send us."
Bonifacio's hardened philosophy, followed closely by his deafening,
musical peal of laughter, warmed rather than chilled Murray's numbed
heart. Yet, Bonifacio had until next week to live.
The cell-dwellers heard the familiar, loud click of the steel bolts
as the door at the end of the corridor was opened. Three men came to
Murray's cell and unlocked it. Two were prison guards; the other was
"Len"--no; that was in the old days; now the Reverend Leonard Winston,
a friend and neighbor from their barefoot days.
"I got them to let me take the prison chaplain's place," he said,
as he gave Murray's hand one short, strong grip. In his left hand
he held a small Bible, with his forefinger marking a page.
Murray smiled slightly and arranged two or three books and some
penholders orderly on his small table. He would have spoken, but
no appropriate words seemed to present themselves to his mind.
The prisoners had christened this cellhouse, eighty feet long,
twenty-eight feet wide, Limbo Lane. The regular guard of Limbo
Lane, an immense, rough, kindly man, drew a pint bottle of whiskey
from his pocket and offered it to Murray, saying:
"It's the regular thing, you know. All has it who feel like they
need a bracer. No danger of it becoming a habit with 'em, you see."
Murray drank deep into the bottle.
"That's the boy!" said the guard. "Just a little nerve tonic, and
everything goes smooth as silk."
They stepped into the corridor, and each one of the doomed seven knew.
Limbo Lane is a world on the outside of the world; but it had learned,
when deprived of one or more of the five senses, to make another sense
supply the deficiency. Each one knew that it was nearly eight, and that
Murray was to go to the chair at eight. There is also in the many Limbo
Lanes an aristocracy of crime. The man who kills in the open, who beats
his enemy or pursuer down, flushed by the primitive emotions and the
ardor of combat, holds in contempt the human rat, the spider, and the
So, of the seven condemned only three called their farewells to Murray
as he marched down the corridor between the two guards--Bonifacio,
Marvin, who had killed a guard while trying to escape from the prison,
and Bassett, the train-robber, who was driven to it because the
express-messenger wouldn't raise his hands when ordered to do so.
The remaining four smoldered, silent, in their cells, no doubt feeling
their social ostracism in Limbo Lane society more keenly than they
did the memory of their less picturesque offences against the law.
Murray wondered at his own calmness and nearly indifference. In the
execution room were about twenty men, a congregation made up of prison
officers, newspaper reporters, and lookers-on who had succeeded
Here, in the very middle of a sentence, the hand of Death interrupted
the telling of O. Henry's last story. He had planned to make this story
different from his others, the beginning of a new series in a style
he had not previously attempted. "I want to show the public," he said,
"that I can write something new--new for me, I mean--a story without
slang, a straightforward dramatic plot treated in a way that will
come nearer my idea of real story-writing." Before starting to write
the present story, he outlined briefly how he intended to develop it:
Murray, the criminal accused and convicted of the brutal murder of his
sweetheart--a murder prompted by jealous rage--at first faces the death
penalty, calm, and, to all outward appearances, indifferent to his
fate. As he nears the electric chair he is overcome by a revulsion
of feeling. He is left dazed, stupefied, stunned. The entire scene in
the death-chamber--the witnesses, the spectators, the preparations for
execution--become unreal to him. The thought flashes through his brain
that a terrible mistake is being made. Why is he being strapped to the
chair? What has he done? What crime has he committed? In the few moments
while the straps are being adjusted a vision comes to him. He dreams a
dream. He sees a little country cottage, bright, sun-lit, nestling in
a bower of flowers. A woman is there, and a little child. He speaks
with them and finds that they are his wife, his child--and the cottage
their home. So, after all, it is a mistake. Some one has frightfully,
irretrievably blundered. The accusation, the trial, the conviction,
the sentence to death in the electric chair--all a dream. He takes
his wife in his arms and kisses the child. Yes, here is happiness.
It was a dream. Then--at a sign from the prison warden the fatal
current is turned on.
Murray had dreamed the wrong dream.