Miss Martha Meacham kept the little bakery on the corner (the
one where you go up three steps, and the bell tinkles when you open
Miss Martha was forty, her bank-book showed a credit of two
thousand dollars, and she possessed two false teeth and a
sympathetic heart. Many people have married whose chances to do so
were much inferior to Miss Martha's.
Two or three times a week a customer came in in whom she began
to take an interest. He was a middle-aged man, wearing spectacles
and a brown beard trimmed to a careful point.
He spoke English with a strong German accent. His clothes were
worn and darned in places, and wrinkled and baggy in others. But he
looked neat, and had very good manners.
He always bought two loaves of stale bread. Fresh bread was
five cents a loaf. Stale ones were two for five. Never did he call
for anything but stale bread.
Once Miss Martha saw a red and brown stain on his fingers. She
was sure then that he was an artist and very poor. No doubt he
lived in a garret, where he painted pictures and ate stale bread
and thought of the good things to eat in Miss Martha's
Often when Miss Martha sat down to her chops and light rolls
and jam and tea she would sigh, and wish that the gentle-mannered
artist might share her tasty meal instead of eating his dry crust
in that draughty attic. Miss Martha's heart, as you have been told,
was a sympathetic one.
In order to test her theory as to his occupation, she brought
from her room one day a painting that she had bought at a sale, and
set it against the shelves behind the bread counter.
It was a Venetian scene. A splendid marble palazzio (so it
said on the picture) stood in the foreground -- or rather
forewater. For the rest there were gondolas (with the lady trailing
her hand in the water), clouds, sky, and chiaro-oscuro in plenty.
No artist could fail to notice it.
Two days afterward the customer came in.
"Two loafs of stale bread, if you blease.
"You haf here a fine bicture, madame," he said while she was
wrapping up the bread.
"Yes?" says Miss Martha, reveling in her own cunning. "I do so
admire art and" (no, it would not do to say "artists" thus early)
"and paintings," she substituted. "You think it is a good
"Der balance," said the customer, is not in good drawing. Der
bairspective of it is not true. Goot morning, madame."
He took his bread, bowed, and hurried out.
Yes, he must be an artist. Miss Martha took the picture back
to her room.
How gentle and kindly his eyes shone behind his spectacles!
What a broad brow he had! To be able to judge perspective at a
glance -- and to live on stale bread! But genius often has to
struggle before it is recognized.
What a thing it would be for art and perspective if genius
were backed by two thousand dollars in bank, a bakery, and a
sympathetic heart to -- But these were day-dreams, Miss
Often now when he came he would chat for a while across the
showcase. He seemed to crave Miss Martha's cheerful words.
He kept on buying stale bread. Never a cake, never a pie,
never one of her delicious Sally Lunns.
She thought he began to look thinner and discouraged. Her
heart ached to add something good to eat to his meagre purchase,
but her courage failed at the act. She did not dare affront him.
She knew the pride of artists.
Miss Martha took to wearing her blue-dotted silk waist behind
the counter. In the back room she cooked a mysterious compound of
quince seeds and borax. Ever so many people use it for the
One day the customer came in as usual, laid his nickel on the
showcase, and called for his stale loaves. While Miss Martha was
reaching for them there was a great tooting and clanging, and a
fire-engine came lumbering past.
The customer hurried to the door to look, as any one will.
Suddenly inspired, Miss Martha seized the opportunity.
On the bottom shelf behind the counter was a pound of fresh
butter that the dairyman had left ten minutes before. With a bread
knife Miss Martha made a deep slash in each of the stale loaves,
inserted a generous quantity of butter, and pressed the loaves
When the customer turned once more she was tying the paper
When he had gone, after an unusually pleasant little chat,
Miss Martha smiled to herself, but not without a slight fluttering
of the heart.
Had she been too bold? Would he take offense? But surely not.
There was no language of edibles. Butter was no emblem of
For a long time that day her mind dwelt on the subject. She
imagined the scene when he should discover her little
He would lay down his brushes and palette. There would stand
his easel with the picture he was painting in which the perspective
was beyond criticism.
He would prepare for his luncheon of dry bread and water. He
would slice into a loaf -- ah!
Miss Martha blushed. Would he think of the hand that placed it
there as he ate? Would he --
The front door bell jangled viciously. Somebody was coming in,
making a great deal of noise.
Miss Martha hurried to the front. Two men were there. One was
a young man smoking a pipe -- a man she had never seen before. The
other was her artist.
His face was very red, his hat was on the back of his head,
his hair was wildly rumpled. He clinched his two fists and shook
them ferociously at Miss Martha. At Miss Martha.
"Dummkopf!" he shouted with extreme loudness; and then
"Tausendonfer!" or something like it in German.
The young man tried to draw him away.
"I vill not go," he said angrily, "else I shall told
He made a bass drum of Miss Martha's counter.
"You haf shpoilt me," he cried, his blue eyes blazing behind
his spectacles. "I vill tell you. You vas von meddingsome old
Miss Martha leaned weakly against the shelves and laid one
hand on her blue-dotted silk waist. The young man took the other by
"Come on," he said, "you've said enough." He dragged the angry
one out at the door to the sidewalk, and then came back.
"Guess you ought to be told, ma'am," he said, "what the row is
about. That's Blumberger. He's an architectural draftsman. I work
in the same office with him.
"He's been working hard for three months drawing a plan for a
new city hall. It was a prize competition. He finished inking the
lines yesterday. You know, a draftsman always makes his drawing in
pencil first. When it's done he rubs out the pencil lines with
handfuls of stale bread crumbs. That's better than India
"Blumberger's been buying the bread here. Well, to-day --
well, you know, ma'am, that butter isn't -- well, Blumberger's plan
isn't good for anything now except to cut up into railroad
Miss Martha went into the back room. She took off the
blue-dotted silk waist and put on the old brown serge she used to
wear. Then she poured the quince seed and borax mixture out of the
window into the ash can.
About the author
O. Henry (1862 - 1910) was born under the name William Sydney
Porter in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1862. This Amercian Short
Story writer has a rich canon and his short stories are well known
throughout the world; noted for their witticism, clever wordplay,
and unexpected twist endings.
Like many other writers, O. Henry's early career aspirations
were unfocused and he wandered across different activities and
professions before he finally found his calling as a short story
writer. He started working in his uncle's drugstore in 1879 and
became a licensed pharmacist by the age of 19. His first creative
expressions came while working in the pharmacy where he would
sketch the townspeople that frequented the store. The customers
reacted warmly to his drawings and he was admired for his artistry
and drawing skills.
O. Henry moved to Texas in March of 1882 hoping to get rid of
a persistent cough that he had developed. While there, he took up
residence on a sheep ranch, learned shepherding, cooking,
babysitting, and bits of Spanish and German from the many migrant
farmhands. He had an active social life in Austin and was a fine
musician, skilled with the guitar and mandolin. Over the next
several years, Porter -- as he was still known -- took a number of
different jobs, from pharmacy to drafting, journalism, and
Here's where the twists and turns really started. Banking, in
particular, was not to be O. Henry's calling; he was quite careless
with his bookkeeping, fired by the bank and charged with
embezzlement in 1894. His father-in-law posted bail for him, but he
fled the day before the trial in 1896, first to New Orleans, then
to Honduras, where there was no extradition treaty. He befriended a
notorious train robber there, Al Jennings, who later wrote a book
about their friendship. O. Henry sent his wife and daughter back to
Texas, after which he holed up in a hotel to write Kings and
Cabbages. He learned his wife was dying of tuberculosis and could
not join him in Honduras, so he returned to Austin to be with them
and turned himself in to the court. His father-in-law again posted
his bail so he could remain with his wife until her death in 1897.
We was sentenced and served in Federal prison in Ohio for five
years from 1989-1902. During his jail time, he returned to
practicing pharmacy and had a room in the hospital, never having to
live in a cell.
O. Henry was always a lover of classic literature, and while
pursuing his many ventures, O. Henry had begun writing as a hobby.
When he lost his banking position he moved to Houston in 1895 and
started writing for the The Post, earning $25 per month (an average
salary at this time in American history was probably about $300 a
year, less than a dollar a day). O. Henry collected ideas for his
column by loitering in hotel lobbies and observing and talking to
people there. He relied on this technique to gain creative
inspiration throughout his writing career; which is a fun fact to
keep in mind while reading an imaginative masterpiece of a story
like Transients in Arcadia. The many twists and turns of his own
life, including his travels in Latin America and time spent in
prison, clearly inspired his stories' twists and wordplay.
O. Henry's prolific writing period began in 1902 in New York
City, where he wrote 381 short stories. He wrote one story a week
for The New York World Sunday Magazinefor over a year. Some of his
best and least known work is contained in Cabbages and Kings, his
first collection of published stories, set in a central American
town, in which sub-plots and larger plots are interwoven in an
engaging manner. His second collection of stories, The Four
Million, was released in 1906. The stories are set in New York
City, and the title is based on the population of the city at that
time. The collection contained several short story masterpieces,
including The Gift of the Magi, The Cop and the Anthem, and many
others. Henry had an obvious affection for New York City, a
reverence that rises up through some of these stories.
O. Henry's trademark is his witty, plot-twisting endings, and
his warm characterization of the awkward and difficult situations
and the creative ways people find to resolve them. His most famous
short story, The Gift of the Magi, epitomizes his style. It's a
story about a young married couple, short on money, who wish to buy
each other Christmas gifts. That problem -- their lack of funds --
finds a famously endearing and ironic resolution.
The Cop and the Anthem is about A New York City hobo with a
creative solution for dealing with the cold city streets during
winter. Another story, A Retrieved Reformation, is about a
safecracker Jimmy Valentine, fresh from prison, whose life takes an
unexpected turn while casing his next crime scene. The Ransom of
Red Chief, a story about two hapless kidnappers that snatch the
wrong boy. All of these stories are highly entertaining and they
are read for pleasure and used in classrooms around the
In 1952 Marilyn Monroe and Charles Laughton starred in O.
Henry's Full House, a film featuring five stories of O. Henry's
short stories. The film included The Cop and the Anthem and four
other O. Henry stories: The Clarion Call, The Last Leaf, The Ransom
of Red Chief (starring Fred Allen and Oscar Levant), and The Gift
of the Magi.
Unfortunately, O. Henry's personal tragedy was heavy drinking
and by 1908 his health had deteriorated and his writing dropped off
accordingly. He died in 1910 of cirrhosis of the liver,
complications of diabetes, and an enlarged heart. The funeral was
held in New York City, but he was buried in North Carolina, the
state where he was born. He was a gifted short story writer and
left us a rich legacy of great stories to enjoy.