The Guilty Party, An East Side Tragedy by O. Henry
A Red-haired, unshaven, untidy man sat in a rocking chair by a
window. He had just lighted a pipe, and was puffing blue clouds with
great satisfaction. He had removed his shoes and donned a pair of
blue, faded carpet-slippers. With the morbid thirst of the confirmed
daily news drinker, he awkwardly folded back the pages of an evening
paper, eagerly gulping down the strong, black headlines, to be
followed as a chaser by the milder details of the smaller type.
In an adjoining room a woman was cooking supper. Odors from strong
bacon and boiling coffee contended against the cut-plug fumes from
the vespertine pipe.
Outside was one of those crowded streets of the east side, in which,
as twilight falls, Satan sets up his recruiting office. A mighty
host of children danced and ran and played in the street. Some in
rags, some in clean white and beribboned, some wild and restless as
young hawks, some gentle-faced and shrinking, some shrieking rude
and sinful words, some listening, awed, but soon, grown familiar, to
embrace—here were the children playing in the corridors of the House
of Sin. Above the playground forever hovered a great bird. The bird
was known to humorists as the stork. But the people of Chrystie
street were better ornithologists. They called it a vulture.
A little girl of twelve came up timidly to the man reading and
resting by the window, and said:
"Papa, won't you play a game of checkers with me if you aren't too
The red-haired, unshaven, untidy man sitting shoeless by the window
answered, with a frown.
"Checkers. No, I won't. Can't a man who works hard all day have a
little rest when he comes home? Why don't you go out and play with
the other kids on the sidewalk?"
The woman who was cooking came to the door.
"John," she said, "I don't like for Lizzie to play in the street.
They learn too much there that ain't good for 'em. She's been in the
house all day long. It seems that you might give up a little of your
time to amuse her when you come home."
"Let her go out and play like the rest of 'em if she wants to be
amused," said the red-haired, unshaven, untidy man, "and don't
"You're on," said Kid Mullaly. "Fifty dollars to $25 I take Annie to
the dance. Put up."
The Kid's black eyes were snapping with the fire of the baited and
challenged. He drew out his "roll" and slapped five tens upon the
bar. The three or four young fellows who were thus "taken" more
slowly produced their stake. The bartender, ex-officio stakeholder,
took the money, laboriously wrapped it, recorded the bet with an
inch-long pencil and stuffed the whole into a corner of the cash
"And, oh, what'll be done to you'll be a plenty," said a bettor,
with anticipatory glee.
"That's my lookout," said the "Kid," sternly. "Fill 'em up all
After the round Burke, the "Kid's" sponge, sponge-holder, pal,
Mentor and Grand Vizier, drew him out to the bootblack stand at the
saloon corner where all the official and important matters of the
Small Hours Social Club were settled. As Tony polished the light tan
shoes of the club's President and Secretary for the fifth time that
day, Burke spake words of wisdom to his chief.
"Cut that blond out, 'Kid,'" was his advice, "or there'll be
trouble. What do you want to throw down that girl of yours for?
You'll never find one that'll freeze to you like Liz has. She's
worth a hallful of Annies."
"I'm no Annie admirer!" said the "Kid," dropping a cigarette ash on
his polished toe, and wiping it off on Tony's shoulder. "But I want
to teach Liz a lesson. She thinks I belong to her. She's been
bragging that I daren't speak to another girl. Liz is all right—in
some ways. She's drinking a little too much lately. And she uses
language that a lady oughtn't."
"You're engaged, ain't you?" asked Burke.
"Sure. We'll get married next year, maybe."
"I saw you make her drink her first glass of beer," said Burke.
"That was two years ago, when she used to came down to the corner of
Chrystie bare-headed to meet you after supper. She was a quiet sort
of a kid then, and couldn't speak without blushing."
"She's a little spitfire, sometimes, now," said the Kid. "I hate
jealousy. That's why I'm going to the dance with Annie. It'll teach
her some sense."
"Well, you better look a little out," were Burke's last words. "If
Liz was my girl and I was to sneak out to a dance coupled up with an
Annie, I'd want a suit of chain armor on under my gladsome rags, all
Through the land of the stork-vulture wandered Liz. Her black eyes
searched the passing crowds fierily but vaguely. Now and then she
hummed bars of foolish little songs. Between times she set her
small, white teeth together, and spake crisp words that the east
side has added to language.
Liz's skirt was green silk. Her waist was a large brown-and-pink
plaid, well-fitting and not without style. She wore a cluster ring
of huge imitation rubies, and a locket that banged her knees at the
bottom of a silver chain. Her shoes were run down over twisted high
heels, and were strangers to polish. Her hat would scarcely have
passed into a flour barrel.
The "Family Entrance" of the Blue Jay Café received her. At a table
she sat, and punched the button with the air of milady ringing for
her carriage. The waiter came with his large-chinned, low-voiced
manner of respectful familiarity. Liz smoothed her silken skirt with
a satisfied wriggle. She made the most of it. Here she could order
and be waited upon. It was all that her world offered her of the
prerogative of woman.
"Whiskey, Tommy," she said as her sisters further uptown murmur,
"Sure, Miss Lizzie. What'll the chaser be?"
"Seltzer. And say, Tommy, has the Kid been around to-day?"
"Why, no, Miss Lizzie, I haven't saw him to-day."
Fluently came the "Miss Lizzie," for the Kid was known to be one who
required rigid upholdment of the dignity of his fiancee.
"I'm lookin' for 'm," said Liz, after the chaser had sputtered under
her nose. "It's got to me that he says he'll take Annie Karlson to
the dance. Let him. The pink-eyed white rat! I'm lookin' for 'm. You
know me, Tommy. Two years me and the Kid's been engaged. Look at
that ring. Five hundred, he said it cost. Let him take her to the
dance. What'll I do? I'll cut his heart out. Another whiskey,
"I wouldn't listen to no such reports, Miss Lizzie," said the waiter
smoothly, from the narrow opening above his chin. "Kid Mullaly's not
the guy to throw a lady like you down. Seltzer on the side?"
"Two years," repeated Liz, softening a little to sentiment under the
magic of the distiller's art. "I always used to play out on the
street of evenin's 'cause there was nothin' doin' for me at home.
For a long time I just sat on doorsteps and looked at the lights and
the people goin' by. And then the Kid came along one evenin' and
sized me up, and I was mashed on the spot for fair. The first drink
he made me take I cried all night at home, and got a lickin' for
makin' a noise. And now—say, Tommy, you ever see this Annie Karlson?
If it wasn't for peroxide the chloroform limit would have put her
out long ago. Oh, I'm lookin' for 'm. You tell the Kid if he comes
in. Me? I'll cut his heart out. Leave it to me. Another whiskey,
A little unsteadily, but with watchful and brilliant eyes, Liz
walked up the avenue. On the doorstep of a brick tenement a
curly-haired child sat, puzzling over the convolutions of a tangled
string. Liz flopped down beside her, with a crooked, shifting smile
on her flushed face. But her eyes had grown clear and artless of a
"Let me show you how to make a cat's-cradle, kid," she said, tucking
her green silk skirt under her rusty shoes.
And while they sat there the lights were being turned on for the
dance in the hall of the Small Hours Social Club. It was the
bi-monthly dance, a dress affair in which the members took great
pride and bestirred themselves huskily to further and adorn.
At 9 o'clock the President, Kid Mullaly, paced upon the floor with a
lady on his arm. As the Loreley's was her hair golden. Her "yes" was
softened to a "yah," but its quality of assent was patent to the
most Milesian ears. She stepped upon her own train and blushed,
and—she smiled into the eyes of Kid Mullaly.
And then, as the two stood in the middle of the waxed floor, the
thing happened to prevent which many lamps are burning nightly in
many studies and libraries.
Out from the circle of spectators in the hall leaped Fate in a green
silk skirt, under the nom de guerre of "Liz." Her eyes were
hard and blacker than jet. She did not scream or waver. Most
unwomanly, she cried out one oath—the Kid's own favorite oath—and in
his own deep voice; and then while the Small Hours Social Club went
frantically to pieces, she made good her boast to Tommy, the
waiter—made good as far as the length of her knife blade and the
strength of her arm permitted.
And next came the primal instinct of self-preservation—or was it
self-annihilation, the instinct that society has grafted on the
Liz ran out and down the street swift and true as a woodcock flying
through a grove of saplings at dusk.
And then followed the big city's biggest shame, its most ancient and
rotten surviving canker, its pollution and disgrace, its blight and
perversion, its forever infamy and guilt, fostered, unreproved and
cherished, handed down from a long-ago century of the basest
barbarity—the Hue and Cry. Nowhere but in the big cities does it
survive, and here most of all, where the ultimate perfection of
culture, citizenship and alleged superiority joins, bawling, in the
They pursued—a shrieking mob of fathers, mothers, lovers and
maidens—howling, yelling, calling, whistling, crying for blood. Well
may the wolf in the big city stand outside the door. Well may his
heart, the gentler, falter at the siege.
Knowing her way, and hungry for her surcease, she darted down the
familiar ways until at last her feet struck the dull solidity of the
rotting pier. And then it was but a few more panting steps—and good
mother East River took Liz to her bosom, soothed her muddily but
quickly, and settled in five minutes the problem that keeps lights
burning o' nights in thousands of pastorates and colleges.
It's mighty funny what kind of dreams one has sometimes. Poets call
them visions, but a vision is only a dream in blank verse. I dreamed
the rest of this story.
I thought I was in the next world. I don't know how I got there; I
suppose I had been riding on the Ninth avenue elevated or taking
patent medicine or trying to pull Jim Jeffries's nose, or doing some
such little injudicious stunt. But, anyhow, there I was, and there
was a great crowd of us outside the courtroom where the judgments
were going on. And every now and then a very beautiful and imposing
court-officer angel would come outside the door and call another
While I was considering my own worldly sins and wondering whether
there would be any use of my trying to prove an alibi by claiming
that I lived in New Jersey, the bailiff angel came to the door and
"Case No. 99,852,743."
Up stepped a plain-clothes man—there were lots of 'em there, dressed
exactly like preachers and hustling us spirits around just like cops
do on earth—and by the arm he dragged—whom, do you think? Why, Liz!
The court officer took her inside and closed the door. I went up to
Mr. Fly-Cop and inquired about the case.
"A very sad one," says he, laying the points of his manicured
fingers together. "An utterly incorrigible girl. I am Special
Terrestrial Officer the Reverend Jones. The case was assigned to me.
The girl murdered her fiance and committed suicide. She had no
defense. My report to the court relates the facts in detail, all of
which are substantiated by reliable witnesses. The wages of sin is
death. Praise the Lord."
The court officer opened the door and stepped out.
"Poor girl," said Special Terrestrial Officer the Reverend Jones,
with a tear in his eye. "It was one of the saddest cases that I ever
met with. Of course she was"—
"Discharged," said the court officer. "Come here, Jonesy. First
thing you know you'll be switched to the pot-pie squad. How would
you like to be on the missionary force in the South Sea Islands—hey?
Now, you quit making these false arrests, or you'll be
transferred—see? The guilty party you've got to look for in this
case is a red-haired, unshaven, untidy man, sitting by the window
reading, in his stocking feet, while his children play in the
streets. Get a move on you."
Now, wasn't that a silly dream?