The Furnished Room

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 depths.

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; hert hroat 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 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 pit below.

“This is the room,” said the housekeeper, from 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 good 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 goes.”

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 tomorrow 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 a corner.

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 women had marched in the throng. Tiny fingerprints 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 savour 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 it?

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, poised 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 moldy 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 mystery.

“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.”


  1. The young man is afraid the girl he is searching for might have gotten married to this Mr. Mooney. That could explain why he has been having such a hard time finding her.

    — William Delaney
  2. Early in "The Furnished Room," O. Henry intimated that it could turn into a ghost story. Here he fulfills his promise by showing that the room is haunted by the ghost of Eloise Vashner. Later it will also be haunted by her lover after he commits suicide in the same way she did.

    — William Delaney
  3. O. Henry's characteristic surprise ending will be delivered through the conversation of these two women in a little vignette. Surprise endings were not only O. Henry's trademark, but he typically presented them in the form of dialogue. For example, in his story "The Last Leaf," Sue will tell Johnsy in a separate little scene: "Didn't you wonder why it never fluttered or moved when the wind blew? Ah, darling, it's Behrman's masterpiece—he painted it there the night that the last leaf fell.” And in O. Henry's famous story "The Gift of the Magi," Jim's arrival is mainly staged to have him deliver the surprise ending in dialogue form: “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 chops on.”

    — William Delaney
  4. These were the days before Prohibition when saloons were everywhere and frequented by men only. Mrs. McCool might have been able to go inside and get a pail of beer, but she would not have been welcome to drink it there. In fact, it was common for parents to send their small children to saloons to bring back a pail of beer, often called "a pail of suds."

    — William Delaney
  5. O. Henry preferred to deliver important information at the end through dialogue. Mrs. Purdy has to have someone to talk to for this purpose. O. Henry therefore creates a Mrs. McCool who is a very similar landlady in a nearby building. They need a purpose for being together, so O. Henry establishes that they are in the habit of sharing a pail of beer in the evenings. The author says it was Mrs. McCools' turn to go and buy the pail that night, which establishes that they know each other well and that this is a custom. Through them we learn that the girl the young man had been seeking had committed suicide a week ago in the same room her lover had just rented, and where he is now in the process of committing suicide by the same means himself.

    — William Delaney
  6. Here and throughout the story the young man displays a very strong motivation to find the girl he loves. This strong motivation creates dramatic interest, even when O. Henry is describing the old building and the furnished room in elaborate detail.

    — William Delaney
  7. No doubt most of the "theatrical people" were vaudeville performers. They would rent furnished rooms because they were "booked" on "circuits" and were always on the move, traveling by train from city to city and from town to town, living out of suitcases and eating in diners. Vaudeville--with its retinue of stand-up comics, singers, tap dancers, acrobats, magicians, trained-dog acts, etc.--was the most popular form of entertainment in America until the arrival of motion pictures, and especially so-called "talking pictures" in 1927, after which it went into a slow but relentless decline, throwing many thousands of people out of work.

    — William Delaney
  8. In Mrs. Purdy's Irish accent the word "told" would sound like "tooled."

    — William Delaney
  9. An accomplished fiction writer will try to draw the reader into the setting by appealing to all five senses--sight, sound, taste, smell, touch. In this paragraph O. Henry focuses on sounds--a scolding voice, rattling dice, a lullaby, someone crying, a banjo tinkling, doors banging, elevated trains roaring past, a cat yowling. Elsewhere the author appeals to the reader's sense of smell, especially with the odors and mignonette and heliotrope. The sense of touch is often implicit, but in at least once instance directly emphasized where he writes that the hall carpeting was "viscid under the foot like organic matter." The visual sense is evoked throughout, including descriptions of reproductions of famous sentimental paintings to be found in furnished rooms everywhere. The sense of taste may seem neglected, but at the end the neighboring landladies are enjoying glasses of draft beer on the steps outdoors, and the story ends with Mrs. Purdy saying: "Do fill up your glass again, Mrs. McCool."

    This lavishly descriptive story makes the reader feel as if he or she has been through the building and spent some time inside the furnished room.


    — William Delaney
  10. This is a literary allusion to Shakespeare's* Hamlet* in which Hamlet is talking to the ghost of his father, who cannot be seen by the astonished and terrified Gertrude. When Hamlet, at the Ghost's behest, asks, "How is it with you, lady?" she replies:

    Alas, how is't with you,
    That you do bend your eye on vacancy
    And with the incorporal air do hold discourse?"




    — William Delaney
  11. Since the rooms in this building are rented furnished, O. Henry amuses himself by imagining that the place to which the imaginary imps and devils have dragged the hypothetical saints' statues is similarly furnished with faded, broken, stained and mismatched pieces.


    — William Delaney
  12. O. Henry hooks the reader's interest by implying that he is going to tell a ghost story. The room actually does appear to be haunted by the ghost of Eloise Vashner, who committed suicide there one week earlier.

    — William Delaney
  13. Women in O. Henry's time wore their hair extremely long, as can be seen in his story about Jim and Della, "The Gift of the Magi." Women needed lots of devices to hold their hair in place when they put it up.

    — William Delaney
  14. This would have still been the days of horses and carriages. Many streets would be unpaved and therefore dirty and dusty. Men all wore hats or caps in those days.

    — William Delaney
  15. O. Henry makes these two women seem ghoulish. By "the third-floor back," Mrs. McCool means the tenant. They apparently have a habit of referring to their tenants by floors and rooms rather than by their names. By "lay out," Mrs. McCool evidently means that she and Mrs. Purdy prepared the dead girl's corpse to be picked up by men from the coroner's department who would transport it to the morgue. Both women sound as if they have had prior experience in dealing with death. There is something very morbid about Mrs. Purdy. O. Henry writes that she made the young protagonist "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." This decaying former mansion must have seen many tenants who died of illness, old age, murder, and suicide. It is the end of the line, a house of death. 

    — William Delaney
  16. O. Henry's stories are sprinkled with allusions to classics, usually unattributed. This is an allusion to the words of Jesus as recorded in Matthew 18:7-9 of the King James Version of the Bible.

    And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

    What Jesus meant is that the worms that devour people after they are buried will continue to gnaw at them throughout eternity when they go to hell. What O. Henry means by "the worm dieth seldom" is a little harder to understand. He is suggesting that the "subterreanean retreats where housekeepers foregather" are like places in hell and probably that these women deserve to be there because they are partly responsible for the misery of their tenants. The worm must die "seldom" because some of these housekeepers must have redeeming qualities. We picture Mrs. Purdy and Mrs. McCool sitting outside on stairs leading down into basement rooms. As women who pretend to be respectable, they would probably prefer not to be seen sharing a pail of beer. Mrs. Purdy showed great concern about Sprowls and Mooney being legally married when they shared a room for three months. Her furry voice may be a sign that she does her best to sound refined and ladylike. Another possible meaning for "the worm dieth seldom" is that the "worm" is a craving for alcohol which seldom leaves any of the women who manage hell holes such as the one where the two young people have committed suicide--and no doubt where many others have preceded them by the same means.

    — William Delaney
  17. When Mrs. Purdy shows the room to the young man she tells him it has been vacant for one week. This dialogue unmistakably identifies the girl who committed suicide a week ago as the one the young man is seeking.

    O. Henry frequently uses dialect in his stories. (In "The Last Leaf," for example, he creates a character with a broad German accent.) In this case the dialect is Irish-American. One wake ago, of course, is Mrs. McCool's way of saying one week ago. Unfortunately, the use of dialect in fiction has gone out of popularity, helping to make O. Henry seem dated. One reason dialect has gone out of fashion is that it makes for harder reading. The two women in this scene must have both emigrated from Ireland.

    — William Delaney
  18. The cabinet has lost one of its legs and seems to be reeling like a drunkard.

    — William Delaney
  19. What this means is that the hairpins have existed in the same form for many years and therefore do not reveal anything about how long ago they may have been left there.

    — William Delaney
  20. These mansions were either three or four stories tall. The room the young man rents is on the third floor rear. Since someone is playing a banjo "above him," this must be a four-story building. No doubt the original family's many household servants had tiny rooms on the top floor, which were the least desirable because of the long climb and the heat in summer.

    — William Delaney
  21. This building had once been a beautiful mansion. The rooms still hold traces of its former splendor. Evidently each bedroom had a fireplace with a marble mantel. All the fireplaces would now be defunct. The rooms, though decayed and damaged, would be spacious and high-ceilinged. 

    — William Delaney
  22. This suggests that Eloise Vashner was a small-town girl who left home with the hope of finding success as an actress or entertainer in New York, where opportunities and competition were greatest.

    — William Delaney
  23. There is no front office, and certainly no front desk or desk clerk. The bell sounds in the housekeeper's room somewhere. She gets free rent and a small salary for looking after the building and collecting the rents for the absentee owners. Mrs. Purdy is probably a lonely widow like Mrs. Bell in Ernest Hemingway's famous story "The Killers." From the way Mrs. Purdy talks about past tenants, it is apparent that she has tried to cope with her lonely existence by forming short-term relationships with the transients who passed through her life. Many women existed like Mrs. Purdy and Mrs. Bell because there was very little employment available to women in those days. Another such landlady-type is Mrs. Hudson who appears in so many of the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

    — William Delaney
  24. O. Henry has said in the first paragraph of the story that this is "the red brick district of the lower West side." Many years earlier this district was populated by the wealthiest families of New York, but the original owners have died and their big homes have been cut up into smaller and smaller units as the buildings deteriorated and the district declined. At first the big houses were mostly composed of apartments and finally of furnished rooms. Eventually they would all be torn down as the property became too valuable for the small incomes to be derived from such humble sources. Most of the buildings would be owned by big holding companies that were only waiting for real estate values to rise and had no interest in maintaining the existing ugly, old-fashioned red-brick monstrosities. Vestiges of the mansions' former glory are to be seen in the interiors, including niches where plants and statues would have been placed by the original owners. The mansions were all three stories or four stories high. The room rented by the young man in "The Furnished Room" has a broken marble mantle, which indicates that there must have once been fireplaces to heat the individual rooms. 

    O. Henry was especially gifted in describing settings, and his description of the interior of this particular building, focusing on a single bedroom which tells its own history to the discerning eye, is magnificent. No doubt O. Henry is writing from his own personal experience of such low-rent transient rooming houses.

    — William Delaney
  25. The description of the building shows that it was once a three- or four-story mansion. As the original wealthy owners of these mansions died off, their heirs did not want to take on the expense of living in them and having to maintain a large staff of servants. The mansions in New York, as in many other cities, were gradually converted to apartment buildings or rooming houses. The absentee owners of such buildings typically were only concerned about draining the maximum profits from their investments, which meant that they spent as little as possible on management, repairs and maintenance. Eventually the buildings would be torn down.

    — William Delaney