THE FURNISHED ROOM
by O. Henry
Restless, shifting, fugacious as time itself is a certain vast bulk
of the population of the red brick district of the lower West Side.
Homeless, they have a hundred homes. They flit from furnished room to
furnished room, transients forever--transients in abode, transients in
heart and mind. They sing "Home, Sweet Home" in ragtime; they carry
their lares et penates in a bandbox; their vine is entwined
about a picture hat; a rubber plant is their fig tree.
Hence the houses of this district, having had a thousand dwellers,
should have a thousand tales to tell, mostly dull ones, no doubt; but
it would be strange if there could not be found a ghost or two in the
wake of all these vagrant guests.
One evening after dark a young man prowled among these crumbling
red mansions, ringing their bells. At the twelfth he rested his lean
hand-baggage upon the step and wiped the dust from his hatband and
forehead. The bell sounded faint and far away in some remote, hollow
To the door of this, the twelfth house whose bell he had rung, came
a housekeeper who made him think of an unwholesome, surfeited worm
that had eaten its nut to a hollow shell and now sought to fill the
vacancy with edible lodgers.
He asked if there was a room to let.
"Come in," said the housekeeper. Her voice came from her throat; her
throat seemed lined with fur. "I have the third floor, back, vacant
since a week back. Should you wish to look at it?"
The young man followed her up the stairs. A faint light from no
particular source mitigated the shadows of the halls. They trod
noiselessly upon a stair carpet that its own loom would have forsworn.
It seemed to have become vegetable; to have degenerated in that rank,
sunless air to a lush lichen or spreading moss that grew in patches
to the staircase and was viscid under the foot like organic matter. At
each turn of the stairs were vacant niches in the wall. Perhaps plants
had once been set within them. If so they had died in that foul and
tainted air. It may be that statues of the saints had stood there, but
it was not difficult to conceive that imps and devils had dragged them
forth in the darkness and down to the unholy depths of some furnished
"This is the room," said the housekeeper, through her furry throat.
"It's a nice room. It ain't often vacant. I had some most elegant
people in it last summer--no trouble at all, and paid in advance to
the minute. The water's at the end of the hall. Sprowls and Mooney
kept it three months. They done a vaudeville sketch. Miss B'retta
Sprowls--you may have heard of her--Oh, that was just the stage
names--right there over the dresser is where the marriage certificate
hung, framed. The gas is here, and you see there is plenty of closet
room. It's a room everybody likes. It never stays idle long."
"Do you have many theatrical people rooming here?" asked the young man.
"They comes and goes. A proportion of my lodgers is connected with
the theatres. Yes, sir, this is the theatrical district. Actor people
never stays long anywhere. I get my share. Yes, they comes and they
He engaged the room, paying for a week in advance. He was tired, he
said, and would take possession at once. He counted out the money. The
room had been made ready, she said, even to towels and water. As the
housekeeper moved away he put, for the thousandth time, the question
that he carried at the end of his tongue.
"A young girl--Miss Vashner--Miss Eloise Vashner--do you remember such a
one among your lodgers? She would be singing on the stage, most likely.
A fair girl, of medium height and slender, with reddish, gold hair and a
dark mole near her left eyebrow."
"No, I don't remember the name. Them stage people has names they change
as often as their rooms. They comes and they goes. No, I don't call that
one to mind."
No. Always no. Five months of ceaseless interrogation and the inevitable
negative. So much time spent by day in questioning managers, agents,
schools and choruses; by night among the audiences of theatres from
all-star casts down to music halls so low that he dreaded to find what
he most hoped for. He who had loved her best had tried to find her. He
was sure that since her disappearance from home this great, water-girt
city held her somewhere, but it was like a monstrous quicksand, shifting
its particles constantly, with no foundation, its upper granules of
to-day buried to-morrow in ooze and slime.
The furnished room received its latest guest with a first glow of
pseudo-hospitality, a hectic, haggard, perfunctory welcome like the
specious smile of a demirep. The sophistical comfort came in reflected
gleams from the decayed furniture, the ragged brocade upholstery of
a couch and two chairs, a foot-wide cheap pier glass between the two
windows, from one or two gilt picture frames and a brass bedstead in
The guest reclined, inert, upon a chair, while the room, confused in
speech as though it were an apartment in Babel, tried to discourse to
him of its divers tenantry.
A polychromatic rug like some brilliant-flowered rectangular, tropical
islet lay surrounded by a billowy sea of soiled matting. Upon the
gay-papered wall were those pictures that pursue the homeless one
from house to house--The Huguenot Lovers, The First Quarrel, The
Wedding Breakfast, Psyche at the Fountain. The mantel's chastely
severe outline was ingloriously veiled behind some pert drapery drawn
rakishly askew like the sashes of the Amazonian ballet. Upon it was
some desolate flotsam cast aside by the room's marooned when a lucky
sail had borne them to a fresh port--a trifling vase or two, pictures
of actresses, a medicine bottle, some stray cards out of a deck.
One by one, as the characters of a cryptograph become explicit, the
little signs left by the furnished room's procession of guests developed
a significance. The threadbare space in the rug in front of the dresser
told that lovely woman had marched in the throng. Tiny finger prints on
the wall spoke of little prisoners trying to feel their way to sun and
air. A splattered stain, raying like the shadow of a bursting bomb,
witnessed where a hurled glass or bottle had splintered with its
contents against the wall. Across the pier glass had been scrawled with
a diamond in staggering letters the name "Marie." It seemed that the
succession of dwellers in the furnished room had turned in fury--perhaps
tempted beyond forbearance by its garish coldness--and wreaked upon
it their passions. The furniture was chipped and bruised; the couch,
distorted by bursting springs, seemed a horrible monster that had been
slain during the stress of some grotesque convulsion. Some more potent
upheaval had cloven a great slice from the marble mantel. Each plank in
the floor owned its particular cant and shriek as from a separate and
individual agony. It seemed incredible that all this malice and injury
had been wrought upon the room by those who had called it for a time
their home; and yet it may have been the cheated home instinct surviving
blindly, the resentful rage at false household gods that had kindled
their wrath. A hut that is our own we can sweep and adorn and cherish.
The young tenant in the chair allowed these thoughts to file, soft-shod,
through his mind, while there drifted into the room furnished sounds
and furnished scents. He heard in one room a tittering and incontinent,
slack laughter; in others the monologue of a scold, the rattling of
dice, a lullaby, and one crying dully; above him a banjo tinkled
with spirit. Doors banged somewhere; the elevated trains roared
intermittently; a cat yowled miserably upon a back fence. And he
breathed the breath of the house--a dank savor rather than a smell--a
cold, musty effluvium as from underground vaults mingled with the
reeking exhalations of linoleum and mildewed and rotten woodwork.
Then suddenly, as he rested there, the room was filled with the strong,
sweet odor of mignonette. It came as upon a single buffet of wind with
such sureness and fragrance and emphasis that it almost seemed a living
visitant. And the man cried aloud: "What, dear?" as if he had been
called, and sprang up and faced about. The rich odor clung to him and
wrapped him around. He reached out his arms for it, all his senses for
the time confused and commingled. How could one be peremptorily called
by an odor? Surely it must have been a sound. But, was it not the sound
that had touched, that had caressed him?
"She has been in this room," he cried, and he sprang to wrest from
it a token, for he knew he would recognize the smallest thing that
had belonged to her or that she had touched. This enveloping scent of
mignonette, the odor that she had loved and made her own--whence came
The room had been but carelessly set in order. Scattered upon the
flimsy dresser scarf were half a dozen hairpins--those discreet,
indistinguishable friends of womankind, feminine of gender, infinite of
mood and uncommunicative of tense. These he ignored, conscious of their
triumphant lack of identity. Ransacking the drawers of the dresser he
came upon a discarded, tiny, ragged handkerchief. He pressed it to his
face. It was racy and insolent with heliotrope; he hurled it to the
floor. In another drawer he found odd buttons, a theatre programme, a
pawnbroker's card, two lost marshmallows, a book on the divination of
dreams. In the last was a woman's black satin hair bow, which halted
him, reached between ice and fire. But the black satin hair-bow also is
femininity's demure, impersonal, common ornament, and tells no tales.
And then he traversed the room like a hound on the scent, skimming the
walls, considering the corners of the bulging matting on his hands and
knees, rummaging mantel and tables, the curtains and hangings, the
drunken cabinet in the corner, for a visible sign, unable to perceive
that she was there beside, around, against, within, above him, clinging
to him, wooing him, calling him so poignantly through the finer senses
that even his grosser ones became cognizant of the call. Once again he
answered loudly: "Yes, dear!" and turned, wild-eyed, to gaze on vacancy,
for he could not yet discern form and color and love and outstretched
arms in the odor of mignonette. Oh, God! whence that odor, and since
when have odors had a voice to call? Thus he groped.
He burrowed in crevices and corners, and found corks and cigarettes.
These he passed in passive contempt. But once he found in a fold of the
matting a half-smoked cigar, and this he ground beneath his heel with a
green and trenchant oath. He sifted the room from end to end. He found
dreary and ignoble small records of many a peripatetic tenant; but of
her whom he sought, and who may have lodged there, and whose spirit
seemed to hover there, he found no trace.
And then he thought of the housekeeper.
He ran from the haunted room downstairs and to a door that showed a
crack of light. She came out to his knock. He smothered his excitement
as best he could.
"Will you tell me, madam," he besought her, "who occupied the room I
have before I came?"
"Yes, sir. I can tell you again. 'Twas Sprowls and Mooney, as I said.
Miss B'retta Sprowls it was in the theatres, but Missis Mooney she was.
My house is well known for respectability. The marriage certificate
hung, framed, on a nail over--"
"What kind of a lady was Miss Sprowls--in looks, I mean?"
"Why, black-haired, sir, short, and stout, with a comical face. They
left a week ago Tuesday."
"And before they occupied it?"
"Why, there was a single gentleman connected with the draying business.
He left owing me a week. Before him was Missis Crowder and her two
children, that stayed four months; and back of them was old Mr. Doyle,
whose sons paid for him. He kept the room six months. That goes back a
year, sir, and further I do not remember."
He thanked her and crept back to his room. The room was dead. The
essence that had vivified it was gone. The perfume of mignonette
had departed. In its place was the old, stale odor of mouldy house
furniture, of atmosphere in storage.
The ebbing of his hope drained his faith. He sat staring at the yellow,
singing gaslight. Soon he walked to the bed and began to tear the sheets
into strips. With the blade of his knife he drove them tightly into
every crevice around windows and door. When all was snug and taut he
turned out the light, turned the gas full on again and laid himself
gratefully upon the bed.
* * * * * *
It was Mrs. McCool's night to go with the can for beer. So she fetched
it and sat with Mrs. Purdy in one of those subterranean retreats where
housekeepers foregather and the worm dieth seldom.
"I rented out my third floor, back, this evening," said Mrs. Purdy,
across a fine circle of foam. "A young man took it. He went up to bed
two hours ago."
"Now, did ye, Mrs. Purdy, ma'am?" said Mrs. McCool, with intense
admiration. "You do be a wonder for rentin' rooms of that kind. And
did ye tell him, then?" she concluded in a husky whisper, laden with
"Rooms," said Mrs. Purdy, in her furriest tones, "are furnished for
to rent. I did not tell him, Mrs. McCool."
"'Tis right ye are, ma'am; 'tis by renting rooms we kape alive. Ye
have the rale sense for business, ma'am. There be many people will
rayjict the rentin' of a room if they be tould a suicide has been
after dyin' in the bed of it."
"As you say, we has our living to be making," remarked Mrs. Purdy.
"Yis, ma'am; 'tis true. 'Tis just one wake ago this day I helped
ye lay out the third floor, back. A pretty slip of a colleen she
was to be killin' herself wid the gas--a swate little face she
had, Mrs. Purdy, ma'am."
"She'd a-been called handsome, as you say," said Mrs. Purdy,
assenting but critical, "but for that mole she had a-growin'
by her left eyebrow. Do fill up your glass again, Mrs. McCool."
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~