THE GIFT OF THE MAGI
(with apologies to O. Henry a/k/a: William
Sidney Porter, 1862-1910)
Forty-seven dollars. That was all. And
seven dollars of it was in pennies. Pennies saved a few at
a time. Three times Jennifer counted it. Forty-seven dollars. And the
next day would be Christmas.
Jennifer finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with her handkerchief. 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 $47 with which to buy Carsten a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $47 to buy a present for Carsten. Her Carsten. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. She had innocently asked him about the coaches on that page in the Märklin catalog to which he always seemed to turn when he sat down in the drawing-room after supper. "Schürzenwagen," he called them, "skirted cars." A funny name for a railroad coach, she thought, after all, it's girls who wear skirts! And then, Jennifer thought, it's probably just as well those are the kind of skirts Carsten goes longing after, and not the other kind..... But the set of skirted cars cost far more than the $47 Jennifer had scrimped and saved. The dealer had told her so over the telephone. The dealer had told her that the matched set of Schürzenwagen would cost $238.00, including tax.
There was a pier-glass between the windows of the room. Perhaps you have seen a pier-glass. 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. Jennifer, 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 Ramckes in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Carsten's Märklin MS800 electric locomotive, which had been his father's. The other was Jennifer'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, Carsten would have pulled out his MS800 every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from
So now Jennifer'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 carpet.
On went her brown coat; on went her 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: "Mme. Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds." One flight up Jennifer ran, and collected herself, panting. Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the "Sofronie."
"Will you buy my hair?" asked Jennifer.
"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.
"Two hundred dollars," said Madame, lifting the mass with a practised hand.
"Give it to me quick," said Jennifer.
Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was rushing to the Märklin dealer for Carsten's present.
She found them at last, the set of Schürzenwagen. Named after a blonde, one Lorelei, but that was no matter. The set was beautiful. It surely had been made for Carsten, and for no one else. There was no other like it in any of the stores, and she had turned all of them inside out. A limited edition, they told her. One-time only, they said. The set was, in its own way, 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 MS800. As soon as she saw it, she knew that it must be Carsten's. It was like his MS800. Quietness and value--the description applied to both..
Two hundred and thirty-eight dollars they took from her for the set, and she hurried home with the nine remaining dollars.... and with the skirted cars. With that string of cars behind his e-lok, Carsten would be rightly proud and pleased.
When Jennifer reached home her reverie gave way a little to prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons and sat in front of the mirror, 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 Carsten 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 to get Schürzenwagen with only forty-seven dollars?"
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.
Carsten was never late. Jennifer hurriedly wrapped the box of Schürzenwagen, tied a bright bow ribbon on it, 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 for saying little silent prayer about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: "Please God, make him think I am still pretty."
The door opened and Carsten stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious.
Carsten stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail. His eyes were fixed upon Jennifer, 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 his face..
Jennifer wriggled off the table and went for him.
"Carsten, 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!' Carsten, 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 Carsten, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet even after the hardest mental labor.
"Cut it off and sold it," said Jennifer. "Don't you like me just as well, anyhow? I'm me without my hair, aren't I?"
Carsten 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 Jennifer. "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, Carsten?"
Out of his trance Carsten seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Jennifer. For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction. Five hundred 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.
Carsten drew a package from his overcoat pocket and placed it gently upon the table.
"Don't make any mistake, Jenn," 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 Jennifer had worshipped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jeweled 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 fast, Carsten!"
And then Jennifer leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, "Oh, oh!"
Carsten had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held the brightly wrapped box out to him eagerly upon her open palms. The golden ribbon seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit.
"Open it up, Carsten! I hunted all over town to find them. You'll have to look at the layout with these on it a hundred times a day now. And oh, go fetch your e-lok. I want to see how it looks with them."
The last of the tape holding the wrapping paper together gave way just as she said that. There, inside the wrapping paper, were the Schürzenwagen. The ones he had longed for, whose picture in the catalog he had gazed upon, for more than a year. Instead of obeying, Carsten tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.
"Jenn," 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 e-lok 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. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.
John Joseph McVeigh
You can find the original story by O.