One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents
of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by
bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until
one's cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such
close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and
eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.
There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little
couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral
reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with
While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first
stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8
per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly
had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad. In the
vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and
an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring.
Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name "Mr. James
Dillingham Young." The "Dillingham" had been flung to the breeze
during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being
paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, the
letters of "Dillingham" looked blurred, as though they were thinking
seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever
Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he
was called "Jim" and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young,
already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.
Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder
rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a grey cat
walking a grey fence in a grey backyard. Tomorrow would be Christmas
Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. She had
been saving every penny she could for months, with this result.
Twenty dollars a week doesn't go far. Expenses had been greater than
she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present
for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for
something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling--
something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honour of
being owned by Jim.
There was a pier-glass between the windows of the room. Perhaps you
have seen a pier-glass in an $8 flat. 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. Della, 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 colour
within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it
fall to its full length.
Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in
which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim's gold watch that
had been his father's and his grandfather's. The other was Della'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,
Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see
him pluck at his beard from envy.
So now Della'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 worn red carpet.
On went her old brown jacket; on went her old 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 Della ran, and collected herself, panting.
Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the "Sofronie."
"Will you buy my hair?" asked Della.
"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. "Twenty dollars," said Madame,
lifting the mass with a practised hand.
"Give it to me quick," said Della.
Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the
hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores for Jim's present.
She found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim and no one
else. There was no other like it in any of the stores, and she had
turned all of them inside out. It was a platinum fob chain 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 Watch. As soon as she saw it
she that it must be Jim's. It was like him. Quietness and value--
the description applied to both. Twenty-one dollars they took from
her for it, and she hurried home with the 87 cents. With that chain
on his watch Jim might be properly anxious about the time in any
company. Grand as the watch was, he sometimes looked at it on the
sly on account of the old leather strap that he used in place of a
When Della reached home her intoxication gave way a little to
prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons and lighted the
gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added
to love. Which is always a tremendous task, dear friends--a mammoth
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
"If Jim 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 with a dollar and eighty-
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.
Jim was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her hand 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 prayers about the simplest everyday things, and now she
whispered: "Please God, make him think I am still pretty."
The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and
very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two--and to be
burdened with a family! He needed a new overcoat and he was without
Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of
quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, 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.
Della wriggled off the table and went for him.
"Jim, 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!' Jim, 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 Jim, 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 Della. "Don't you like me just as
well, anyhow? I'm me without my hair, ain't I?"
Jim 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 Della. "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, Jim?"
Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della.
For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some
inconsequential object in the other direction. Eight 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.
Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the
"Don't make any mistake, Dell," 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 Della
had worshipped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure
tortoise shell, with jewelled 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, Jim!"
And them Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, "Oh,
Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him
eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious metal seemed to flash
with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit.
"Isn't it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You'll
have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your
watch. I want to see how it looks on it."
Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands
under the back of his head and smiled.
"Dell," 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 watch
to get the money to buy your combs. And now suppose you put the
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. Of all who give and
receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest.
They are the magi.