home | authors | books | about

Home -> O. Henry -> The Fool-Killer

The Fool-Killer

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

Down South whenever any one perpetrates some
particularly monumental piece of foolishness every-
body says: "Send for Jesse Holmes."

Jesse Holmes is the Fool-Killer. Of course he is a
myth, like Santa Claus and Jack Frost and General
Prosperity and all those concrete conceptions that
are supposed to represent an idea that Nature has
failed to embody. The wisest of the Southrons can-
not tell you whence comes the Fool-Killer's name;
but few and happy are the households from the Ro-
anoke to the Rio Grande in which the name of Jesse
Holmes has not been pronounced or invoked. Always
with a smile, and often with a tear, is he summoned
to his official duty. A busy man is Jesse Holmes.

I remember the clear picture of him that hung on
the walls of my fancy during my barefoot days when
I was dodging his oft-threatened devoirs. To me
be was a terrible old man, in gray clothes, with a
long, ragged, gray beard, and reddish, fierce eyes.
I looked to see him come stumping up the road in
a cloud of dust, with a white oak staff in his hand
and his shoes tied with leather thongs. I may
yet --

But this is a story, not a sequel.

I have taken notice with regret, that few stories
worth reading have been written that did not con-
tain drink of some sort. Down go the fluids, from
Arizona Dick's three fingers of red pizen to the in-
efficacious Oolong that nerves Lionel Montressor to
repartee in the "Dotty Dialogues." So, in such
good company I may introduce an absinthe drip --
one absinthe drip, dripped through a silver dripper,
orderly, opalescent, cool, green-eyed -- deceptive.

Kerner was a fool. Besides that, he was an artist
and my good friend. Now, if there is one thing on
earth utterly despicable to another, it is an artist
in the eyes of an author whose story he has illus-
trated. Just try it once. Write a story about a
mining camp in Idiho. Sell it. Spend the money,
and then, six months later, borrow a quarter (or
a dime), and buy the magazine containing it. You
find a full-page wash drawing of your hero, Black
Bill, the cowboy. Somewhere in your story you em-
ployed the word "horse." Aha! the artist has
grasped the idea. Black Bill has on the regulation
trousers of the M. F. H. of the Westchester County
Hunt. He carries a parlor rifle, and wears a mon-
ocle. In the distance is a section of Forty-second
Street during a search for a lost gas-pipe, and the
Taj Mahal, the famous mausoleum in India.

"Enough! I hated Kerner, and one day I met him
and we became friends. He was young and glori-
ously melancholy because his spirits were so high
and life bad so much in store for him. Yes, he was
almost riotously sad. That was his youth. When a
man begins to be hilarious in a sorrowful way you
can bet a million that he is dyeing his hair. Ker-
ner's hair was plentiful and carefully matted as an
artist's thatch should be. He was a cigaretteur, and
be audited his dinners with red wine. But, most of
all, be was a fool. And, wisely, I envied him, and
listened patiently while he knocked Velasquez and
Tintoretto. Once he told me that he liked a story of
mine that he bad come across in an anthology. He
described it to me, and I was sorry that Mr. Fitz-
James O'Brien was dead and could not learn of the
eulogy of his work. But mostly Kerner made few
breaks and was a consistent fool.

I'd better explain what I mean by that. There
was a girl. Now, a girl, as far as I am concerned,
is a thing that belongs in a seminary or an album;
but I conceded the existence of the animal in order
to retain Kerner's friendship. He showed me her
picture in a locket -- she was a blonde or a brunette
-- I have forgotten which. She worked in a factory
for eight dollars a week. Lest factories quote this
wage by way of vindication, I will add that the girl
bad worked for five years to reach that supreme ele-
vation of remuneration, beginning at $1.50 per week.

Kerner's father was worth a couple of millions
He was willing to stand for art, but he drew the
line at the factory girl. So Kerner disinherited his
father and walked out to a cheap studio and lived
on sausages for breakfast and on Farroni for dinner.
Farroni had the artistic soul and a line of credit for
painters and poets, nicely adjusted. Sometimes Ker-
rier sold a picture and bought some new tapestry, a
ring and a dozen silk cravats, and paid Farroni
two dollars on account.

One evening Kerner had me to dinner with himself
and the factory girl. They were to be married as
soon as Kerner could slosh paint profitably. As for
the ex-father's two millions -- pouf!

She was a wonder. Small and half-way pretty,
and as much at her ease in that cheap cafe as though
she were only in the Palmer House, Chicago, with a
souvenir spoon already safely hidden in her shirt
waist. She was natural. Two things I noticed about
her especially. Her belt buckle was exactly in the
middle of her back, and she didn't tell us that a large
man with a ruby stick-pin had followed her up all the
way from Fourteenth Street. Was Kerner such a fool?
I wondered. And then I thought of the quantity of
striped cuffs and blue glass beads that $2,000,000
can buy for the heathen, and I said to myself that he
was. And then Elise -- certainly that was her name
told us, merrily, that the brown spot on her waist
was caused by her landlady knocking at the door
while she (the girl -- confound the English language)
was heating an iron over the gas jet, and she hid the
iron under the bedclothes until the coast was clear,
and there was the piece of chewing gum stuck
to it when she began to iron the waist, and -- well,
I wondered bow in the world the chewing gum
came to be there -- don't they ever stop chewing

A while after that -- don't be impatient, the ab-
sinthe drip is coming now -- Kerner and I were dining
at Farroni's. A mandolin and a guitar were being
attacked; the room was full of smoke in nice, long
crinkly layers just like the artists draw the steam
from a plum pudding on Christmas posters, and a
lady in a blue silk and gasolined gauntlets was be-
ginning to bum an air from the Catskills.

"Kerner," said I, "you are a fool."

"Of course," said Kerner, "I wouldn't let her go
on working. Not my wife. What's the use to wait?
She's willing. I sold that water color of the Pali-
sades yesterday. We could cook on a two-burner gas
stove. You know the ragouts I can throw together?
Yes, I think we will marry next week."

"Kerner," said I, "you are a fool."

"Have an absinthe drip?" said Kerner, grandly.
"To-night you are the guest of Art in paying quan-
tities. I think we will get a flat with a bath."

"I never tried one -- I mean an absinthe drip,"
said I.

The waiter brought it and poured the water slowly
over the ice in the dripper.

"It looks exactly like the Mississippi River water
in the big bend below Natchez," said I, fascinated,
gazing at the be-muddled drip.

"There are such flats for eight dollars a week,"
said Kerner.

"You are a fool," said I, and began to sip the
filtration. "What you need," I continued, "is the
official attention of one Jesse Holmes."

Kerner, not being a Southerner, did not compre-
hend, so he sat, sentimental, figuring on his flat in
his sordid, artistic way, while I gazed into the green
eyes of the sophisticated Spirit of Wormwood.

Presently I noticed casually that a procession of
bacchantes limned on the wall immediately below the
ceiling bad begun to move, traversing the room from
right to left in a gay and spectacular pilgrimage. I
did not confide my discovery to Kerner. The artistic
temperament is too high-strung to view such devia-
tions from the natural laws of the art of kalsomining.
I sipped my absinthe drip and sawed wormwood.

One absinthe drip is not much -- but I said again to
Kerner, kindly:

"You are a fool." And then, in the vernacular:
"Jesse Holmes for yours."

And then I looked around and saw the Fool-Killer,
as he had always appeared to my imagination, sitting
at a nearby table, and regarding us with his reddish,
fatal, relentless eyes. He was Jesse Holmes from top
to toe; he had the long, gray, ragged beard, the
gray clothes of ancient cut, the executioner's look,
and the dusty shoes of one who bad been called from
afar. His eyes were turned fixedly upon Kerner. I
shuddered to think that I bad invoked him from his
assiduous southern duties. I thought of flying, and
then I kept my seat, reflecting that many men bad es-
caped his ministrations when it seemed that nothing
short of an appointment as Ambassador to Spain
could save them from him. I had called my brother
Kerner a fool and was in danger of hell fire. That
was nothing; but I would try to save him from Jesse

The Fool-Killer got up from his table and came
over to ours. He rested his hands upon it, and
turned his burning, vindictive eyes upon Kerner, ig-
noring me.

"You are a hopeless fool," be said to the artist.
"Haven't you had enough of starvation yet? I of-
fer you one more opportunity. Give up this girl and
come back to your home. Refuse, and you must take
the consequences."

The Fool-Killer's threatening face was within a
foot of his victim's; but to my horror, Kerner made
not the slightest sign of being aware of his presence.

"We will be married next week," be muttered ab-
sent-mindedly. "With my studio furniture and some
second-hand stuff we can make out."

"You have decided your own fate," said the Fool-
Killer, in a low but terrible voice. "You may con-
sider yourself as one dead. You have had your last

"In the moonlight," went on Kerner, softly, "we
will sit under the skylight with our guitar and sing
away the false delights of pride and money."

"On your own head be it," hissed the Fool-Killer,
and my scalp prickled when I perceived that neither
Kerner's eyes nor his ears took the slightest cog-
nizance of Jesse Holmes. And then I knew that for
some reason the veil had been lifted for me alone, and
that I bad been elected to save my friend from de-
struction at the Fool-Killer's bands. Something of
the fear and wonder of it must have showed itself in
my face.

"Excuse me," said Kerner, with his wan, amiable
smile; "was I talking to myself? I think it is getting
to be a habit with me."

The Fool-Killer turned and walked out of Far-

"Wait here for me," said I, rising; "I must speak
to that man. Had you no answer for him? Because
you are a fool must you die like a mouse under his
foot? Could you not utter one squeak in your own

"You are drunk," said Kerner, heartlessly. "No
one addressed me."

"The destroyer of your mind," said I, "stood
above you just now and marked you for his victim.
You are not blind or deaf."

"I recognized no such person," said Kerner. "I
have seen no one but you at this table. Sit down.
Hereafter you shall have no more absinthe drips."

"Wait here," said I, furious; "if you don't care
for your own life, I will save it for you."

I hurried out and overtook the man in gray half-
way down the block. He looked as I bad seen him in
my fancy a thousand times - truculent, gray and
awful. He walked with the white oak staff, and but
for the street-sprinkler the dust would have been fly-
ing under his tread.
I caught him by the sleeve and steered him to a
dark angle of a building. I knew he was a myth, and
I did not want a cop to see me conversing with va-
cancy, for I might land in Bellevue minus my silver
matchbox and diamond ring.

"Jesse Holmes," said I, facing him with apparent
bravery, "I know you. I have heard of you all my
life. I know now what a scourge you have been to
your country. Instead of killing fools you have been
murdering the youth and genius that are necessary to
make a people live and grow great. You are a fool
yourself, Holmes; you began killing off the brightest
and best of our countrymen three generations ago,
when the old and obsolete standards of society and
honor and orthodoxy were narrow and bigoted. You
proved that when you put your murderous mark upon
my friend Kerner -- the wisest chap I ever knew in
my life."

The Fool-Killer looked at me grimly and closely.

"You've a queer jag," said he, curiously. "Oh,
yes; I see who you are now. You were sitting with
him at the table. Well, if I'm not mistaken, I heard
you call him a fool, too."

"I did," said I. "I delight in doing so. It is
from envy. By all the standards that you know he is
the most egregious and grandiloquent and gorgeous
fool in all the world. That's why you want to kill

"Would you mind telling me who or what you think
I am?" asked the old man.

I laughed boisterously and then stopped suddenly,
for I remembered that it would not do to be seen so
hilarious in the company of nothing but a brick

"You are Jesse Holmes, the Fool-Killer," I said,
solemnly, "and you are going to kill my friend Ker-
ner. I don't know who rang you up, but if you do
kill him I'll see that you get pinched for it. That
is," I added, despairingly, "if I can get a cop to see
you. They have a poor eye for mortals, and I think
it would take the whole force to round up a myth mur-

"Well," said the Fool-Killer, briskly, "I must be
going. You had better go home and sleep it off.

At this I was moved by a sudden fear for Kerner to
a softer and more pleading mood. I leaned against
the gray man's sleeve and besought him:

"Good Mr. Fool-Killer, please don't kill little Ker-
ner. Why can't you go back South and kill Con-
gressmen and clay-caters and let us alone? Why
don't you go up on Fifth Avenue and kill millionaires
that keep their money locked up and won't let young
fools marry because one of 'em lives on the wrong
street? Come and have a drink, Jesse. Will you
never get on to your job?"

"Do you know this girl that your friend has made
himself a fool about?" asked the Fool-Killer.

"I have the honor," said I, "and that's why I
called Kerner a fool. He is a fool because he has
waited so long before marrying her. He is a fool
because be has been waiting in the hopes of getting
the consent of some absurd two-million-dollar-fool
parent or something of the sort."

"Maybe," said the Fool-Killer -- " maybe I -- I
might have looked at it differently. Would you mind
going back to the restaurant and bringing your friend
Kerner here?"

"OH, what's the use, Jesse," I yawned. "He can't
see you. He didn't know you were talking to him
at the table, You are a fictitious character, you

"Maybe He can this time. Will you go fetch

"All right," said I, "but I've a suspicion that
you're not strictly sober, Jesse. You seem to be wa-
vering and losing your outlines. Don't vanish before
I get back."

I went back to Kerner and said:

"There's a man with an invisible homicidal mania
waiting to see you outside. I believe he wants to
murder you. Come along. You won't see him, so
there's nothing to be frightened about."

Kerner looked anxious.

"Why," said be, "I had no idea one absinthe
would do that. You'd better stick to Wurzburger.
I'll walk home with you."

I led him to Jesse Holmes's.

"Rudolf," said the Fool-Killer, "I'll give in.
Bring her up to the house. Give me your hand,

"Good for you, dad," said Kerner, shaking hands
with the old man. You'll never regret it after you
know her."

"So, you did see him when he was talking to you
at the table?" I asked Kerner.

"We hadn't spoken to each other in a year," said
Kerner. "It's all right now."

I walked away.

"Where are you going?" called Kerner.

"I am going to look for Jesse Holmes," I an-
swered, with dignity and reserve.

© Art Branch Inc. | English Dictionary