The Rubaiyat of A Scotch Highball
by O. Henry
This document is intended to strike somewhere between a temperance lecture
and the "Bartender's Guide." Relative to the latter, drink shall swell the theme
and be set forth in abundance. Agreeably to the former, not an elbow shall be
Bob Babbitt was "off the stuff." Which means—as you will discover by
referring to the unabridged dictionary of Bohemia—that he had "cut out the
booze;" that he was "on the water wagon." The reason for Bob's sudden attitude
of hostility toward the "demon rum"—as the white ribboners miscall whiskey (see
the "Bartender's Guide"), should be of interest to reformers and saloon-keepers.
There is always hope for a man who, when sober, will not concede or
acknowledge that he was ever drunk. But when a man will say (in the apt words of
the phrase-distiller), "I had a beautiful skate on last night," you will have to
put stuff in his coffee as well as pray for him.
One evening on his way home Babbitt dropped in at the Broadway bar that he
liked best. Always there were three or four fellows there from the downtown
offices whom he knew. And then there would be high-balls and stories, and he
would hurry home to dinner a little late but feeling good, and a little sorry
for the poor Standard Oil Company. On this evening as he entered he heard some
one say: "Babbitt was in last night as full as a boiled owl."
Babbitt walked to the bar, and saw in the mirror that his face was as white
as chalk. For the first time he had looked Truth in the eyes. Others had lied to
him; he had dissembled with himself. He was a drunkard, and had not known it.
What he had fondly imagined was a pleasant exhilaration had been maudlin
intoxication. His fancied wit had been drivel; his gay humors nothing but the
noisy vagaries of a sot. But, never again!
"A glass of seltzer," he said to the bartender.
A little silence fell upon the group of his cronies, who had been expecting
him to join them.
"Going off the stuff, Bob?" one of them asked politely and with more
formality than the highballs ever called forth.
"Yes," said Babbitt.
Some one of the group took up the unwashed thread of a story he had been
telling; the bartender shoved over a dime and a nickel change from the quarter,
ungarnished with his customary smile; and Babbitt walked out.
Now, Babbitt had a home and a wife—but that is another story. And I will tell
you that story, which will show you a better habit and a worse story than you
could find in the man who invented the phrase.
It began away up in Sullivan County, where so many rivers and so much trouble
begins—or begin; how would you say that? It was July, and Jessie was a summer
boarder at the Mountain Squint Hotel, and Bob, who was just out of college, saw
her one day—and they were married in September. That's the tabloid novel—one
swallow of water, and it's gone.
But those July days!
Let the exclamation point expound it, for I shall not. For particulars you
might read up on "Romeo and Juliet," and Abraham Lincoln's thrilling sonnet
about "You can fool some of the people," &c., and Darwin's works.
But one thing I must tell you about. Both of them were mad over Omar's
Rubaiyat. They knew every verse of the old bluffer by heart—not consecutively,
but picking 'em out here and there as you fork the mushrooms in a fifty-cent
steak à la Bordelaise. Sullivan County is full of rocks and trees; and Jessie
used to sit on them, and—please be good—used to sit on the rocks; and Bob had a
way of standing behind her with his hands over her shoulders holding her hands,
and his face close to hers, and they would repeat over and over their favorite
verses of the old tent-maker. They saw only the poetry and philosophy of the
lines then—indeed, they agreed that the Wine was only an image, and that what
was meant to be celebrated was some divinity, or maybe Love or Life. However, at
that time neither of them had tasted the stuff that goes with a sixty-cent
Where was I? Oh, they married and came to New York. Bob showed his college
diploma, and accepted a position filling inkstands in a lawyer's office at $15 a
week. At the end of two years he had worked up to $50, and gotten his first
taste of Bohemia—the kind that won't stand the borax and formaldehyde tests.
They had two furnished rooms and a little kitchen. To Jess, accustomed to the
mild but beautiful savor of a country town, the dreggy Bohemia was sugar and
spice. She hung fish seines on the walls of her rooms, and bought a
rakish-looking sideboard, and learned to play the banjo. Twice or thrice a week
they dined at French or Italian tables d'hote in a cloud of smoke, and
brag and unshorn hair. Jess learned to drink a cocktail in order to get the
cherry. At home she smoked a cigarette after dinner. She learned to pronounce
Chianti, and leave her olive stones for the waiter to pick up. Once she essayed
to say la, la, la! in a crowd but got only as far as the second one. They met
one or two couples while dining out and became friendly with them. The sideboard
was stocked with Scotch and rye and a liqueur. They had their new friends in to
dinner and all were laughing at nothing by 1 A. M. Some plastering fell in the
room below them, for which Bob had to pay $4.50. Thus they footed it merrily on
the ragged frontiers of the country that has no boundary lines or government.
And soon Bob fell in with his cronies and learned to keep his foot on the
little rail six inches above the floor for an hour or so every afternoon before
he went home. Drink always rubbed him the right way, and he would reach his
rooms as jolly as a sandboy. Jessie would meet him at the door, and generally
they would dance some insane kind of a rigadoon about the floor by way of
greeting. Once when Bob's feet became confused and he tumbled headlong over a
foot-stool Jessie laughed so heartily and long that he had to throw all the
couch pillows at her to make her hush.
In such wise life was speeding for them on the day when Bob Babbitt first
felt the power that the giftie gi'ed him.
But let us get back to our lamb and mint sauce.
When Bob got home that evening he found Jessie in a long apron cutting up a
lobster for the Newburg. Usually when Bob came in mellow from his hour at the
bar his welcome was hilarious, though somewhat tinctured with Scotch smoke.
By screams and snatches of song and certain audible testimonials of domestic
felicity was his advent proclaimed. When she heard his foot on the stairs the
old maid in the hall room always stuffed cotton into her ears. At first Jessie
had shrunk from the rudeness and favor of these spiritual greetings, but as the
fog of the false Bohemia gradually encompassed her she came to accept them as
love's true and proper greeting.
Bob came in without a word, smiled, kissed her neatly but noiselessly, took
up a paper and sat down. In the hall room the old maid held her two plugs of
cotton poised, filled with anxiety.
Jessie dropped lobster and knife and ran to him with frightened eyes.
"What's the matter, Bob, are you ill?"
"Not at all, dear."
"Then what's the matter with you?"
Hearken, brethren. When She-who-has-a-right-to-ask interrogates you
concerning a change she finds in your mood answer her thus: Tell her that you,
in a sudden rage, have murdered your grandmother; tell her that you have robbed
orphans and that remorse has stricken you; tell her your fortune is swept away;
that you are beset by enemies, by bunions, by any kind of malevolent fate; but
do not, if peace and happiness are worth as much as a grain of mustard seed to
you—do not answer her "Nothing."
Jessie went back to the lobster in silence. She cast looks of darkest
suspicion at Bob. He had never acted that way before.
When dinner was on the table she set out the bottle of Scotch and the
glasses. Bob declined.
"Tell you the truth, Jess," he said. "I've cut out the drink. Help yourself,
of course. If you don't mind I'll try some of the seltzer straight."
"You've stopped drinking?" she said, looking at him steadily and unsmilingly.
"It wasn't doing me any good," said Bob. "Don't you approve of the idea?"
Jessie raised her eyebrows and one shoulder slightly.
"Entirely," she said with a sculptured smile. "I could not conscientiously
advise any one to drink or smoke, or whistle on Sunday."
The meal was finished almost in silence. Bob tried to make talk, but his
efforts lacked the stimulus of previous evenings. He felt miserable, and once or
twice his eye wandered toward the bottle, but each time the scathing words of
his bibulous friend sounded in his ear, and his mouth set with determination.
Jessie felt the change deeply. The essence of their lives seemed to have
departed suddenly. The restless fever, the false gayety, the unnatural
excitement of the shoddy Bohemia in which they had lived had dropped away in the
space of the popping of a cork. She stole curious and forlorn glances at the
dejected Bob, who bore the guilty look of at least a wife-beater or a family
After dinner the colored maid who came in daily to perform such chores
cleared away the things. Jessie, with an unreadable countenance, brought back
the bottle of Scotch and the glasses and a bowl of cracked ice and set them on
"May I ask," she said, with some of the ice in her tones, "whether I am to be
included in your sudden spasm of goodness? If not, I'll make one for myself.
It's rather chilly this evening, for some reason."
"Oh, come now, Jess," said Bob good-naturedly, "don't be too rough on me.
Help yourself, by all means. There's no danger of your overdoing it. But I
thought there was with me; and that's why I quit. Have yours, and then let's get
out the banjo and try over that new quickstep."
"I've heard," said Jessie in the tones of the oracle, "that drinking alone is
a pernicious habit. No, I don't think I feel like playing this evening. If we
are going to reform we may as well abandon the evil habit of banjo-playing,
She took up a book and sat in her little willow rocker on the other side of
the table. Neither of them spoke for half an hour.
And then Bob laid down his paper and got up with a strange, absent look on
his face and went behind her chair and reached over her shoulders, taking her
hands in his, and laid his face close to hers.
In a moment to Jessie the walls of the seine-hung room vanished, and she saw
the Sullivan County hills and rills. Bob felt her hands quiver in his as he
began the verse from old Omar:
"Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly—and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing!"
And then he walked to the table and poured a stiff drink of Scotch into a
But in that moment a mountain breeze had somehow found its way in and blown
away the mist of the false Bohemia.
Jessie leaped and with one fierce sweep of her hand sent the bottle and
glasses crashing to the floor. The same motion of her arm carried it around
Bob's neck, where it met its mate and fastened tight.
"Oh, my God, Bobbie—not that verse—I see now. I wasn't always such a fool,
was I? The other one, boy—the one that says: 'Remould it to the Heart's Desire.'
Say that one—'to the Heart's Desire.'"
"I know that one," said Bob. "It goes:
"'Ah! Love, could you and I with Him conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire
Would not we—'"
"Let me finish it," said Jessie.
"'Would not we shatter it to bits—and then
Remould it nearer to the Heart's Desire!'"
"It's shattered all right," said Bob, crunching some glass under his
In some dungeon below the accurate ear of Mrs. Pickens, the
landlady, located the smash.
"It's that wild Mr. Babbitt coming home soused again," she said.
"And he's got such a nice little wife, too!"