AN UNFINISHED CHRISTMAS STORY
by O. Henry
[Probably begun several years before his death. Published,
as it here appears, in Short Stories, January, 1911.]
Now, a Christmas story should be one. For a good many years
the ingenious writers have been putting forth tales for the
holiday numbers that employed every subtle, evasive, indirect
and strategic scheme they could invent to disguise the Christmas
flavor. So far has this new practice been carried that nowadays
when you read a story in a holiday magazine the only way you
can tell it is a Christmas story is to look at the footnote
which reads: ["The incidents in the above story happened on
There is progress in this; but it is all very sad. There are
just as many real Christmas stories as ever, if we would only
dig 'em up. Me, I am for the Scrooge and Marley Christmas
story, and the Annie and Willie's prayer poem, and the long
lost son coming home on the stroke of twelve to the poorly
thatched cottage with his arms full of talking dolls and
popcorn balls and--Zip! you hear the second mortgage on the
cottage go flying off it into the deep snow.
So, this is to warn you that there is no subterfuge about
this story--and you might come upon stockings hung to the
mantel and plum puddings and hark! the chimes! and wealthy
misers loosening up and handing over penny whistles to lame
newsboys if you read further.
Once I knocked at a door (I have so many things to tell you
I keep on losing sight of the story). It was the front door
of a furnished room house in West 'Teenth Street. I was
looking for a young illustrator named Paley originally and
irrevocably from Terre Haute. Paley doesn't enter even into
the first serial rights of this Christmas story; I mention
him simply in explaining why I came to knock at the door--some
people have so much curiosity.
The door was opened by the landlady. I had seen hundreds
like her. And I had smelled before that cold, dank, furnished
draught of air that hurried by her to escape immurement in
the furnished house.
She was stout, and her face and lands were as white as though
she had been drowned in a barrel of vinegar. One hand held
together at her throat a buttonless flannel dressing sacque
whose lines had been cut by no tape or butterick known to
mortal woman. Beneath this a too-long, flowered, black sateen
skirt was draped about her, reaching the floor in stiff
wrinkles and folds.
The rest of her was yellow. Her hair, in some bygone age,
had been dipped in the fountain of folly presided over by
the merry nymph Hydrogen; but now, except at the roots, it
had returned to its natural grim and grizzled white.
Her eyes and teeth and finger nails were yellow. Her chops
hung low and shook when she moved. The look on her face was
exactly that smileless look of fatal melancholy that you may
have seen on the countenance of a hound left sitting on the
doorstep of a deserted cabin.
I inquired for Paley. After a long look of cold suspicion
the landlady spoke, and her voice matched the dingy roughness
of her flannel sacque.
Paley? Was I sure that was the name? And wasn't it, likely,
Mr. Sanderson I meant, in the third floor rear? No; it was
Paley I wanted. Again that frozen, shrewd, steady study of
my soul from her pale-yellow, unwinking eyes, trying to
penetrate my mask of deception and rout out my true motives
from my lying lips. There was a Mr. Tompkins in the front
hall bedroom two flights up. Perhaps it was he I was seeking.
He worked of nights; he never came in till seven in the
morning. Or if it was really Mr. Tucker (thinly disguised
as Paley) that I was hunting I would have to call between
But no; I held firmly to Paley. There was no such name among
her lodgers. Click! the door closed swiftly in my face; and
I heard through the panels the clanking of chains and bolts.
I went down the steps and stopped to consider. The number
of this house was 43. I was sure Paley had said 43--or
perhaps it was 45 or 47--I decided to try 47, the second
house farther along.
I rang the bell. The door opened; and there stood the same
woman. I wasn't confronted by just a resemblance--it was
the same woman holding together the same old sacque at her
throat and looking at me with the same yellow eyes as if
she had never seen me before on earth. I saw on the knuckle
of her second finger the same red-and-black spot made,
probably, by a recent burn against a hot stove.
I stood speechless and gaping while one with moderate haste
might have told fifty. I couldn't have spoken Paley's name
even if I had remembered it. I did the only thing that a
brave man who believes there are mysterious forces in nature
that we do not yet fully comprehend could have done in the
circumstances. I backed down the steps to the sidewalk and
then hurried away frontward, fully understanding how incidents
like that must bother the psychical research people and the
Of course I heard an explanation of it afterward, as we
always do about inexplicable things.
The landlady was Mrs. Kannon; and she leased three adjoining
houses, which she made into one by cutting arched doorways
through the walls. She sat in the middle house and answered
the three bells.
I wonder why I have maundered so slowly through the prologue.
I have it! it was simply to say to you, in the form of
introduction rife through the Middle West: "Shake hands with
For, it was in her triple house that the Christmas story happened;
and it was there where I picked up the incontrovertible facts
from the gossip of many roomers and met Stickney--and saw the
Christmas came that year on Thursday. And snow came with it.
Stickney (Harry Clarence Fowler Stickney to whomsoever his
full baptismal cognominal burdens may be of interest) reached
his address at six-thirty Wednesday afternoon. "Address" is
New Yorkese for "home." Stickney roomed at 45 West 'Teenth
Street, third floor rear hall room. He was twenty years and
four months old, and he worked in a cameras-of-all-kinds,
photographic supplies and films-developed store. I don't know
what kind of work he did in the store; but you must have seen
him. He is the young man who always comes behind the counter
to wait on you and lets you talk for five minutes, telling
him what you want. When you are done, he calls the proprietor
at the top of his voice to wait on you, and walks away whistling
between his teeth.
I don't want to bother about describing to you his appearance;
but, if you are a man reader, I will say that Stickncy looked
precisely like the young chap that you always find sitting in
your chair smoking a cigarette after you have missed a shot
while playing pool--not billiards but pool--when you want to
sit down yourself.
There are some to whom Christmas gives no Christmassy essence.
Of course, prosperous people and comfortable people who have
homes or flats or rooms with meals, and even people who live
in apartment houses with hotel service get something of the
Christmas flavor. They give one another presents with the cost
mark scratched off with a penknife; and they hang holly wreaths
in the front windows and when they are asked whether they prefer
light or dark meat from the turkey they say: "Both, please,"
and giggle and have lots of fun. And the very poorest people
have the best time of it. The Army gives 'em a dinner, and the
10 A. M. issue of the Night Final edition of the newspaper with
the largest circulation in the city leaves a basket at their
door full of an apple, a Lake Ronkonkoma squab, a scrambled
eggplant and a bunch of Kalamazoo bleached parsley. The poorer
you are the more Christmas does for you.
But, I'll tell you to what kind of a mortal Christmas seems
to be only the day before the twenty-sixth day of December.
It's the chap in the big city earning sixteen dollars a week,
with no friends and few acquaintances, who finds himself with
only fifty cents in his pocket on Christmas eve. He can't
accept charity; he can't borrow; he knows no one who would
invite him to dinner. I have a fancy that when the shepherds
left their flocks to follow the star of Bethlehem there was
a bandy-legged young fellow among them who was just learning
the sheep business. So they said to him, "Bobby, we're going
to investigate this star route and see what's in it. If it
should turn out to be the first Christmas day we don't want
to miss it. And, as you are not a wise man, and as you couldn't
possibly purchase a present to take along, suppose you stay
behind and mind the sheep."
So as we may say, Harry Stickney was a direct descendant of
the shepherd who was left behind to take care of the flocks.
Getting back to facts, Stickney rang the doorbell of 45. He
had a habit of forgetting his latchkey.
Instantly the door opened and there stood Mrs. Kannon, clutching
her sacque together at the throat and gorgonizing him with her
opaque, yellow eyes.
(To give you good measure, here is a story within a story. Once
a roomer in 47 who had the Scotch habit--not kilts, but a habit
of drinking Scotch--began to figure to himself what might happen
if two persons should ring the doorbells of 43 and 47 at the same
time. Visions of two halves of Mrs. Kannon appearing respectively
and simultaneously at the two entrances, each clutching at a side
of an open, flapping sacque that could never meet, overpowered
him. Bellevue got him.)
"Evening," said Stickney cheerlessly, as he distributed little
piles of muddy slush along the hall matting. "Think we'll have
"You left your key," said--
[Here the manuscript ends.]