home | authors | books | about

Home -> O. Henry -> The Unknown Quantity

The Unknown Quantity

Short Stories


A Bird of Bagdad

A Blackjack Bargainer

A Call Loan

A Chaparral Christmas Gift

A Chaparral Prince

A Comedy in Rubber

A Cosmopolite in a Cafe

A Departmental Case

A Dinner at--------*

A Double-Dyed Deceiver

A Fog in Santone

A Harlem Tragedy

A Lickpenny Lover

A Little Local Colour

A Little Talk about Mobs

A Madison Square Arabian Night

A Matter of Mean Elevation

A Midsummer Knight's Dream

A Midsummer Masquerade

A Municipal Report

A Newspaper Story

A Night in New Arabia

A Philistine in Bohemia

A Poor Rule

A Ramble in Aphasia

A Retrieved Reformation

A Ruler of Men

A Sacrifice Hit

A Service of Love

A Snapshot at the President

A Strange Story

A Technical Error

A Tempered Wind

According to Their Lights

After Twenty Years

An Adjustment of Nature

An Afternoon Miracle

An Apology

An Unfinished Christmas Story

An Unfinished Story

Aristocracy Versus Hash

Art and the Bronco

At Arms With Morpheus

Babes in the Jungle


Between Rounds

Bexar Scrip No. 2692

Blind Man's Holiday

Brickdust Row

Buried Treasure

By Courier

Calloway's Code


Cherchez La Femme

Christmas by Injunction

Compliments of the Season

Confessions of a Humorist

Conscience in Art

Cupid a La Carte

Cupid's Exile Number Two


Dougherty's Eye-Opener

Elsie in New York

Extradited from Bohemia

Fickle Fortune or How Gladys Hustled

Friends in San Rosario

From Each According to His Ability

From the Cabby's Seat

Georgia's Ruling


He Also Serves

Hearts and Crosses

Hearts and Hands

Helping the Other Fellow

Holding Up a Train

Hostages to Momus

Hygeia at the Solito

Innocents of Broadway

Jeff Peters as a Personal Magnet

Jimmy Hayes and Muriel

Law and Order

Let Me Feel Your Pulse

Little Speck in Garnered Fruit

Lord Oakhurst's Curse

Lost on Dress Parade

Madame Bo-Peep, of the Ranches

Makes the Whole World Kin

Mammon and the Archer

Man About Town

Masters of Arts

Memoirs of a Yellow Dog

Modern Rural Sports

Money Maze

Nemesis and the Candy Man

New York by Camp Fire Light

Next to Reading Matter

No Story

October and June

On Behalf of the Management

One Dollar's Worth

One Thousand Dollars

Out of Nazareth

Past One at Rooney's


Proof of the Pudding

Psyche and the Pskyscraper

Queries and Answers

Roads of Destiny

Roses, Ruses and Romance

Rouge et Noir

Round the Circle

Rus in Urbe

Schools and Schools

Seats of the Haughty

Shearing the Wolf



Sisters of the Golden Circle


Sociology in Serge and Straw

Sound and Fury

Springtime a La Carte

Squaring the Circle

Strictly Business

Strictly Business

Suite Homes and Their Romance

Telemachus, Friend

The Admiral

The Adventures of Shamrock Jolnes

The Assessor of Success

The Atavism of John Tom Little Bear

The Badge of Policeman O'Roon

The Brief Debut of Tildy

The Buyer From Cactus City

The Caballero's Way

The Cactus

The Caliph and the Cad

The Caliph, Cupid and the Clock

The Call of the Tame

The Chair of Philanthromathematics

The Champion of the Weather

The Church with an Overshot-Wheel

The City of Dreadful Night

The Clarion Call

The Coming-Out of Maggie

The Complete Life of John Hopkins

The Cop and the Anthem

The Count and the Wedding Guest

The Country of Elusion

The Day Resurgent

The Day We Celebrate

The Defeat of the City

The Detective Detector

The Diamond of Kali

The Discounters of Money

The Dog and the Playlet

The Door of Unrest

The Dream

The Duel

The Duplicity of Hargraves

The Easter of the Soul

The Emancipation of Billy

The Enchanted Kiss

The Enchanted Profile

The Ethics of Pig

The Exact Science of Matrimony

The Ferry of Unfulfilment

The Fifth Wheel

The Flag Paramount

The Fool-Killer

The Foreign Policy of Company 99

The Fourth in Salvador

The Friendly Call

The Furnished Room

The Gift of the Magi

The Girl and the Graft

The Girl and the Habit

The Gold That Glittered

The Greater Coney

The Green Door

The Guardian of the Accolade

The Guilty Party - An East Side Tragedy

The Halberdier of the Little Rheinschloss

The Hand that Riles the World

The Handbook of Hymen

The Harbinger

The Head-Hunter

The Hiding of Black Bill

The Higher Abdication

The Higher Pragmatism

The Hypotheses of Failure

The Indian Summer of Dry Valley Johnson

The Lady Higher Up

The Last Leaf

The Last of the Troubadours

The Lonesome Road

The Lost Blend

The Lotus And The Bottle

The Love-Philtre of Ikey Schoenstein

The Making of a New Yorker

The Man Higher Up

The Marionettes

The Marquis and Miss Sally

The Marry Month of May

The Memento

The Missing Chord

The Moment of Victory

The Octopus Marooned

The Passing of Black Eagle

The Pendulum

The Phonograph and the Graft

The Pimienta Pancakes

The Plutonian Fire

The Poet and the Peasant

The Pride of the Cities

The Princess and the Puma

The Prisoner of Zembla

The Proem

The Purple Dress

The Ransom of Mack

The Ransom of Red Chief

The Rathskeller and the Rose

The Red Roses of Tonia

The Reformation of Calliope

The Remnants of the Code

The Renaissance at Charleroi

The Roads We Take

The Robe of Peace

The Romance of a Busy Broker

The Rose of Dixie

The Rubaiyat of a Scotch Highball

The Rubber Plant's Story

The Shamrock and the Palm

The Shocks of Doom

The Skylight Room

The Sleuths

The Snow Man

The Social Triangle

The Song and the Sergeant

The Sparrows in Madison Square

The Sphinx Apple

The Tale of a Tainted Tenner

The Theory and the Hound

The Thing's the Play

The Third Ingredient

The Trimmed Lamp

The Unknown Quantity

The Unprofitable Servant

The Venturers

The Vitagraphoscope

The Voice of the City

The Whirligig of Life

The World and the Door

Thimble, Thimble


To Him Who Waits

Tobin's Palm

Tommy's Burglar

Tracked to Doom

Transformation of Martin Burney

Transients in Arcadia

Two Recalls

Two Renegades

Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen

Ulysses and the Dogman

Vanity and Some Sables

What You Want

While the Auto Waits

Whistling Dick's Christmas Stocking

Witches' Loaves

The poet Longfellow--or was it Confucius, the inventor of

"Life is real, life is earnest;
And things are not what they seem."

As mathematics are--or is: thanks, old subscriber!--the only just rule
by which questions of life can be measured, let us, by all means,
adjust our theme to the straight edge and the balanced column of the
great goddess Two-and-Two-Makes-Four. Figures--unassailable sums in
addition--shall be set over against whatever opposing element there
may be.

A mathematician, after scanning the above two lines of poetry, would
say: "Ahem! young gentlemen, if we assume that X plus--that is, that
life is real--then things (all of which life includes) are real.
Anything that is real is what it seems. Then if we consider the
proposition that 'things are not what they seem,' why--"

But this is heresy, and not poesy. We woo the sweet nymph Algebra; we
would conduct you into the presence of the elusive, seductive, pursued,
satisfying, mysterious X.

Not long before the beginning of this century, Septimus Kinsolving, an
old New Yorker, invented an idea. He originated the discovery that bread
is made from flour and not from wheat futures. Perceiving that the flour
crop was short, and that the Stock Exchange was having no perceptible
effect on the growing wheat, Mr. Kinsolving cornered the flour market.

The result was that when you or my landlady (before the war she never
had to turn her hand to anything; Southerners accommodated) bought a
five-cent loaf of bread you laid down an additional two cents, which
went to Mr. Kinsolving as a testimonial to his perspicacity.

A second result was that Mr. Kinsolving quit the game with $2,000,000

Mr. Kinsolving's son Dan was at college when the mathematical experiment
in breadstuffs was made. Dan came home during vacation, and found the
old gentleman in a red dressing-gown reading "Little Dorrit" on the
porch of his estimable red brick mansion in Washington Square. He had
retired from business with enough extra two-cent pieces from bread
buyers to reach, if laid side by side, fifteen times around the earth
and lap as far as the public debt of Paraguay.

Dan shook hands with his father, and hurried over to Greenwich Village
to see his old high-school friend, Kenwitz. Dan had always admired
Kenwitz. Kenwitz was pale, curly-haired, intense, serious, mathematical,
studious, altruistic, socialistic, and the natural foe of oligarchies.
Kenwitz had foregone college, and was learning watch-making in his
father's jewelry store. Dan was smiling, jovial, easy-tempered and
tolerant alike of kings and ragpickers. The two foregathered joyously,
being opposites. And then Dan went back to college, and Kenwitz to his
mainsprings--and to his private library in the rear of the jewelry shop.

Four years later Dan came back to Washington Square with the
accumulations of B. A. and two years of Europe thick upon him. He took a
filial look at Septimus Kinsolving's elaborate tombstone in Greenwood
and a tedious excursion through typewritten documents with the family
lawyer; and then, feeling himself a lonely and hopeless millionaire,
hurried down to the old jewelry store across Sixth Avenue.

Kenwitz unscrewed a magnifying glass from his eye, routed out his parent
from a dingy rear room, and abandoned the interior of watches for
outdoors. He went with Dan, and they sat on a bench in Washington
Square. Dan had not changed much; he was stalwart, and had a dignity
that was inclined to relax into a grin. Kenwitz was more serious, more
intense, more learned, philosophical and socialistic.

"I know about it now," said Dan, finally. "I pumped it out of the
eminent legal lights that turned over to me poor old dad's collections
of bonds and boodle. It amounts to $2,000,000, Ken. And I am told that
he squeezed it out of the chaps that pay their pennies for loaves of
bread at little bakeries around the corner. You've studied economics,
Dan, and you know all about monopolies, and the masses, and octopuses,
and the rights of laboring people. I never thought about those things
before. Football and trying to be white to my fellow-man were about the
extent of my college curriculum.

"But since I came back and found out how dad made his money I've been
thinking. I'd like awfully well to pay back those chaps who had to give
up too much money for bread. I know it would buck the line of my income
for a good many yards; but I'd like to make it square with 'em. Is there
any way it can be done, old Ways and Means?"

Kenwitz's big black eyes glowed fierily. His thin, intellectual face
took on almost a sardonic cast. He caught Dan's arm with the grip of a
friend and a judge.

"You can't do it!" he said, emphatically. "One of the chief punishments
of you men of ill-gotten wealth is that when you do repent you find that
you have lost the power to make reparation or restitution. I admire
your good intentions, Dan, but you can't do anything. Those people were
robbed of their precious pennies. It's too late to remedy the evil. You
can't pay them back"

"Of course," said Dan, lighting his pipe, "we couldn't hunt up every one
of the duffers and hand 'em back the right change. There's an awful lot
of 'em buying bread all the time. Funny taste they have--I never cared
for bread especially, except for a toasted cracker with the Roquefort.
But we might find a few of 'em and chuck some of dad's cash back where
it came from. I'd feel better if I could. It seems tough for people to be
held up for a soggy thing like bread. One wouldn't mind standing a rise
in broiled lobsters or deviled crabs. Get to work and think, Ken. I want
to pay back all of that money I can."

"There are plenty of charities," said Kenwitz, mechanically.

"Easy enough," said Dan, in a cloud of smoke. "I suppose I could give
the city a park, or endow an asparagus bed in a hospital. But I don't
want Paul to get away with the proceeds of the gold brick we sold Peter.
It's the bread shorts I want to cover, Ken."

The thin fingers of Kenwitz moved rapidly.

"Do you know how much money it would take to pay back the losses of
consumers during that corner in flour?" he asked.

"I do not." said Dan, stoutly. "My lawyer tells me that I have two

"If you had a hundred millions," said Kenwitz, vehemently, "you couldn't
repair a thousandth part of the damage that has been done. You cannot
conceive of the accumulated evils produced by misapplied wealth.
Each penny that was wrung from the lean purses of the poor reacted a
thousandfold to their harm. You do not understand. You do not see how
hopeless is your desire to make restitution. Not in a single instance
can it be done."

"Back up, philosopher!" said Dan. "The penny has no sorrow that the
dollar cannot heal."

"Not in one instance," repeated Kenwitz. "I will give you one, and let
us see. Thomas Boyne had a little bakery over there in Varick Street.
He sold bread to the poorest people. When the price of flour went up he
had to raise the price of bread. His customers were too poor to pay it,
Boyne's business failed and he lost his $1,000 capital--all he had in
the world."

Dan Kinsolving struck the park bench a mighty blow with his fist.

"I accept the instance," he cried. "Take me to Boyne. I will repay his
thousand dollars and buy him a new bakery."

"Write your check," said Kenwitz, without moving, "and then begin to
write checks in payment of the train of consequences. Draw the next one
for $50,000. Boyne went insane after his failure and set fire to the
building from which he was about to be evicted. The loss amounted to
that much. Boyne died in an asylum."

"Stick to the instance," said Dan. "I haven't noticed any insurance
companies on my charity list."

"Draw your next check for $100,000," went on Kenwitz. "Boyne's son fell
into bad ways after the bakery closed, and was accused of murder. He was
acquitted last week after a three years' legal battle, and the state
draws upon taxpayers for that much expense."

"Back to the bakery!" exclaimed Dan, impatiently. "The Government
doesn't need to stand in the bread line."

"The last item of the instance is--come and I will show you," said
Kenwitz, rising.

The Socialistic watchmaker was happy. He was a millionaire-baiter by
nature and a pessimist by trade. Kenwitz would assure you in one breath
that money was but evil and corruption, and that your brand-new watch
needed cleaning and a new ratchet-wheel.

He conducted Kinsolving southward out of the square and into ragged,
poverty-haunted Varick Street. Up the narrow stairway of a squalid brick
tenement he led the penitent offspring of the Octopus. He knocked on a
door, and a clear voice called to them to enter.

In that almost bare room a young woman sat sewing at a machine. She
nodded to Kenwitz as to a familiar acquaintance. One little stream of
sunlight through the dingy window burnished her heavy hair to the color
of an ancient Tuscan's shield. She flashed a rippling smile at Kenwitz
and a look of somewhat flustered inquiry.

Kinsolving stood regarding her clear and pathetic beauty in
heart-throbbing silence. Thus they came into the presence of the last
item of the Instance.

"How many this week, Miss Mary?" asked the watchmaker. A mountain of
coarse gray shirts lay upon the floor.

"Nearly thirty dozen," said the young woman cheerfully. "I've made
almost $4. I'm improving, Mr. Kenwitz. I hardly know what to do with so
much money." Her eyes turned, brightly soft, in the direction of Dan. A
little pink spot came out on her round, pale cheek.

Kenwitz chuckled like a diabolic raven.

"Miss Boyne," he said, "let me present Mr. Kinsolving, the son of the
man who put bread up five years ago. He thinks he would like to do
something to aid those who where inconvenienced by that act."

The smile left the young woman's face. She rose and pointed her
forefinger toward the door. This time she looked Kinsolving straight in
the eye, but it was not a look that gave delight.

The two men went down Varick Street. Kenwitz, letting all his pessimism
and rancor and hatred of the Octopus come to the surface, gibed at the
moneyed side of his friend in an acrid torrent of words. Dan appeared to
be listening, and then turned to Kenwitz and shook hands with him

"I'm obliged to you, Ken, old man," he said, vaguely--"a thousand times

"Mein Gott! you are crazy!" cried the watchmaker, dropping his
spectacles for the first time in years.

Two months afterward Kenwitz went into a large bakery on lower Broadway
with a pair of gold-rimmed eyeglasses that he had mended for the

A lady was giving an order to a clerk as Kenwitz passed her.

"These loaves are ten cents," said the clerk.

"I always get them at eight cents uptown," said the lady. "You need not
fill the order. I will drive by there on my way home."

The voice was familiar. The watchmaker paused.

"Mr. Kenwitz!" cried the lady, heartily. "How do you do?"

Kenwitz was trying to train his socialistic and economic comprehension
on her wonderful fur boa and the carriage waiting outside.

"Why, Miss Boyne!" he began.

"Mrs. Kinsolving," she corrected. "Dan and I were married a month ago."

© Art Branch Inc. | English Dictionary