The Green Door

SUPPOSE YOU SHOULD be walking down Broadway after dinner, with ten minutes allotted to the consummation of your cigar while you are choosing between a diverting tragedy and something serious in the way of vaudeville. Suddenly a hand is laid upon your arm. You turn to look into the thrilling eyes of a beautiful woman, wonderful in diamonds and Russian sables. She thrusts hurriedly into your hand an extremely hot buttered roll, flashes out a tiny pair of scissors, snips off the second button of your overcoat, meaningly ejaculates the one word, “parallelogram!” and swiftly flies down a cross street, looking back fearfully over her shoulder.

That would be pure adventure. Would you accept it? Not you. You would flush with embarrassment; you would sheepishly drop the roll and continue down Broadway, fumbling feebly for the missing button. This you would do unless you are one of the blessed few in whom the pure spirit of adventure is not dead.

True adventurers have never been plentiful. They who are set down in print as such have been mostly business men with newly invented methods. They have been out after the things they wanted—golden fleeces, holy grails, lady loves, treasure, crowns and fame. The true adventurer goes forth aimless and uncalculating to meet and greet unknown fate. A fine example was the Prodigal Son—when he started back home.

Half-adventurers—brave and splendid figures—have been numerous. From the Crusades to the Palisades they have enriched the arts of history and fiction and the trade of historical fiction. But each of them had a prize to win, a goal to kick, an axe to grind, a race to run, a new thrust in tierce to deliver, a name to carve, a crow to pick—so they were not followers of true adventure.

In the big city the twin spirits Romance and Adventure are always abroad seeking worthy wooers. As we roam the streets they slyly peep at us and challenge us in twenty different guises. Without knowing why, we look up suddenly to see in a window a face that seems to belong to our gallery of intimate portraits; in a sleeping thoroughfare we hear a cry of agony and fear coming from an empty and shuttered house; instead of at our familiar curb a cab-driver deposits us before a strange door, which one, with a smile, opens for us and bids us enter; a slip of paper, written upon, flutters down to our feet from the high lattices of Chance; we exchange glances of instantaneous hate, affection and fear with hurrying strangers in the passing crowds; a sudden souse of rain—and our umbrella may be sheltering the daughter of the Full Moon and first cousin of the Sidereal System; at every corner handkerchiefs drop, fingers beckon, eyes besiege, and the lost, the lonely, the rapturous, the mysterious, the perilous changing clues of adventure are slipped into our fingers. But few of us are willing to hold and follow them. We are grown stiff with the ramrod of convention down our backs. We pass on; and some day we come, at the end of a very dull life, to reflect that our romance has been a pallid thing of a marriage or two, a satin rosette kept in a safe-deposit drawer, and a lifelong feud with a steam radiator.

Rudolf Steiner was a true adventurer. Few were the evenings on which he did not go forth from his hall bedchamber in search of the unexpected and the egregious. The most interesting thing in life seemed to him to be what might lie just around the next corner. Sometimes his willingness to tempt fate led him into strange paths. Twice he had spent the night in a station-house; again and again he had found himself the dupe of ingenious and mercenary tricksters; his watch and money had been the price of one flattering allurement. But with undiminished ardor he picked up every glove cast before him into the merry lists of adventure.

One evening Rudolf was strolling along a cross-town street in the older central part of the city. Two streams of people filled the sidewalks—the home-hurrying, and that restless contingent that abandons home for the specious welcome of the thousand-candle-power table d'hôte.

The young adventurer was of pleasing presence, and moved serenely and watchfully. By daylight he was a salesman in a piano store. He wore his tie drawn through a topaz ring instead of fastened with a stick pin; and once he had written to the editor of a magazine that “Junie's Love Test” by Miss Libbey, had been the book that had most influenced his life.

During his walk a violent chattering of teeth in a glass case on the sidewalk seemed at first to draw his attention (with a qualm), to a restaurant before which it was set; but a second glance revealed the electric letters of a dentist's sign high above the next door. A giant Negro, fantastically dressed in a red embroidered coat, yellow trousers and a military cap, discreetly distributed cards to those of the passing crowd who consented to take them.

This mode of dentistic advertising was a common sight to Rudolf. Usually he passed the dispenser of the dentist's cards without reducing his store; but tonight the African slipped one into his hand so deftly that he retained it there smiling a little at the successful feat.

When he had traveled a few yards further he glanced at the card indifferently. Surprised, he turned it over and looked again with interest. One side of the card was blank; on the other was written in ink three words, “The Green Door.” And then Rudolf saw, three steps in front of him, a man throw down the card the Negro had given him as he passed. Rudolf picked it up. It was printed with the dentist's name and address and the usual schedule of “plate work” and “bridge work” and “crowns,” and specious promises of “painless” operations.

The adventurous piano salesman halted at the corner and considered. Then he crossed the street, walked down a block, recrossed and joined the upward current of people again. Without seeming to notice the Negro as he passed the second time, he carelessly took the card that was handed him. Ten steps away he inspected it. In the same handwriting that appeared on the first card “The Green Door” was inscribed upon it. Three or four cards were tossed to the pavement by pedestrians both following and leading him. These fell blank side up. Rudolf turned them over. Every one bore the printed legend of the dental “parlors.”

Rarely did the arch sprite Adventure need to beckon twice to Rudolf Steiner, his true follower. But twice it had been done, and the quest was on.

Rudolf walked slowly back to where the giant Negro stood by the case of rattling teeth. This time as he passed he received no card. In spite of his gaudy and ridiculous garb, the Ethiopian displayed a natural barbaric dignity as he stood, offering the cards suavely to some, allowing others to pass unmolested. Every half minute he chanted a harsh, unintelligible phrase akin to the jabber of car conductors and grand opera. And not only did he withhold a card this time, but it seemed to Rudolf that he received from the shining and massive black countenance a look of cold, almost contemptuous disdain.

The look stung the adventurer. He read in it a silent accusation that he had been found wanting. Whatever the mysterious written words on the cards might mean, the black had selected him twice from the throng for their recipient; and now seemed to have condemned him as deficient in the wit and spirit to engage the enigma.

Standing aside from the rush, the young man made a rapid estimate of the building in which he conceived that his adventure must lie. Five stories high it rose. A small restaurant occupied the basement.

The first floor, now closed, seemed to house millinery or furs. The second floor, by the winking electric letters, was the dentist's. Above this a polyglot babel of signs struggled to indicate the abodes of palmists, dressmakers, musicians and doctors. Still higher up draped curtains and milk bottles white on the window sills proclaimed the regions of domesticity.

After concluding his survey Rudolf walked briskly up the high flight of stone steps into the house. Up two flights of the carpeted stairway he continued; and at its top paused. The hallway there was dimly lighted by two pale jets of gas—one far to his right, the other nearer, to his left. He looked toward the nearer light and saw, within its wan halo, a green door. For one moment he hesitated; then he seemed to see the contumelious sneer of the African juggler of cards; and then he walked straight to the green door and knocked against it.

Moments like those that passed before his knock was answered measure the quick breath of true adventure. What might not be behind those green panels! Gamesters at play; cunning rogues baiting their traps with subtle skill; beauty in love with courage, and thus planning to be sought by it; danger, death, love, disappointment, ridicule—any of these might respond to that temerarious rap.

A faint rustle was heard inside, and the door slowly opened. A girl not yet twenty stood there, white-faced and tottering. She loosed the knob and swayed weakly, groping with one hand. Rudolf caught her and laid her on a faded couch that stood against the wall. He closed the door and took a swift glance around the room by the light of a flickering gas jet. Neat, but extreme poverty was the story that he read.

The girl lay still, as if in a faint. Rudolf looked around the room excitedly for a barrel. People must be rolled upon a barrel who—no, no; that was for drowned persons. He began to fan her with his hat. That was successful, for he struck her nose with the brim of his derby and she opened her eyes. And then the young man saw that hers, indeed, was the one missing face from his heart's gallery of intimate portraits. The frank, grey eyes, the little nose, turning pertly outward; the chestnut hair, curling like the tendrils of a pea vine, seemed the right end and reward of all his wonderful adventures. But the face was woefully thin and pale.

The girl looked at him calmly, and then smiled.

“Fainted, didn't I?” she asked, weakly. “Well, who wouldn't? You try going without anything to eat for three days and see!”

“Himmel!” exclaimed Rudolf, jumping up. “Wait till I come back.”

He dashed out the green door and down the stairs. In twenty minutes he was back again, kicking at the door with his toe for her to open it. With both arms he hugged an array of wares from the grocery and the restaurant. On the table he laid them—bread and butter, cold meats, cakes, pies, pickles, oysters, a roasted chicken, a bottle of milk and one of red-hot tea.

“This is ridiculous,” said Rudolf, blusteringly, “to go without eating. You must quit making election bets of this kind. Supper is ready.” He helped her to a chair at the table and asked: “Is there a cup for the tea?” “On the shelf by the window,” she answered. When he turned again with the cup he saw her, with eyes shining rapturously, beginning upon a huge Dill pickle that she had rooted out from the paper bags with a woman's unerring instinct. He took it from her, laughingly, and poured the cup full of milk. “Drink that first,” he ordered, “and then you shall have some tea, and then a chicken wing. If you are very good you shall have a pickle tomorrow. And now, if you'll allow me to be your guest we'll have supper.”

He drew up the other chair. The tea brightened the girl's eyes and brought back some of her color. She began to eat with a sort of dainty ferocity like some starved wild animal. She seemed to regard the young man's presence and the aid he had rendered her as a natural thing—not as though she undervalued the conventions; but as one whose great stress gave her the right to put aside the artificial for the human. But gradually, with the return of strength and comfort, came also a sense of the little conventions that belong; and she began to tell him her little story. It was one of a thousand such as the city yawns at every day—the shop girl's story of insufficient wages, further reduced by “fines” that go to swell the store's profits; of time lost through illness; and then of lost positions, lost hope, and—the knock of the adventurer upon the green door.

But to Rudolf the history sounded as big as the Iliad or the crisis in “Junie's Love Test.”

“To think of you going through all that,” he exclaimed.

“It was something fierce,” said the girl, solemnly.

“And you have no relatives or friends in the city?”

“None whatever.”

“I am all alone in the world, too,” said Rudolf, after a pause.

“I am glad of that,” said the girl, promptly; and somehow it pleased the young man to hear that she approved of his bereft condition.

Very suddenly her eyelids dropped and she sighed deeply.

“I'm awfully sleepy,” she said, “and I feel so good.”

Then Rudolf rose and took his hat. “I'll say good-night. A long night's sleep will be fine for you.”

He held out his hand, and she took it and said “good-night.” But her eyes asked a question so eloquently, so frankly and pathetically that he answered it with words.

“Oh, I'm coming back tomorrow to see how you are getting along. You can't get rid of me so easily.”

Then, at the door, as though the way of his coming had been so much less important than the fact that he had come, she asked: “How did you come to knock at my door?”

He looked at her for a moment, remembering the cards, and felt a sudden jealous pain. What if they had fallen into other hands as adventurous as his? Quickly he decided that she must never know the truth. He would never let her know that he was aware of the strange expedient to which she had been driven by her great distress.

“One of our piano tuners lives in this house,” he said. “I knocked at your door by mistake.”

The last thing he saw in the room before the green door closed was her smile.

At the head of the stairway he paused and looked curiously about him. And then he went along the hallway to its other end; and, coming back, ascended to the floor above and continued his puzzled explorations. Every door that he found in the house was painted green.

Wondering, he descended to the sidewalk. The fantastic African was still there. Rudolf confronted him with his two cards in his hand.

“Will you tell me why you gave me these cards and what they mean?” he asked.

In a broad, good-natured grin the Negro exhibited a splendid advertisement of his master's profession.

“Dar it is, boss,” he said, pointing down the street. “But I ’spect you is a little late for de fust act.”

Looking the way he pointed Rudolf saw above the entrance to a theatre the blazing electric sign of its new play, “The Green Door.”

“I'm informed dat it's a fust-rate show, sah,” said the Negro. “De agent what represents it pussented me with a dollar, sah, to distribute a few of his cards along with de doctah's. May I offer you one of de doctah's cards, sah?”

At the corner of the block in which he lived Rudolf stopped for a glass of beer and a cigar. When he had come out with his lighted weed he buttoned his coat, pushed back his hat and said, stoutly, to the lamp post on the corner:

“All the same, I believe it was the hand of Fate that doped out the way for me to find her.”

Which conclusion, under the circumstances, certainly admits Rudolf Steiner to the ranks of the true followers of Romance and Adventure.


  1. No doubt O. Henry frequently roamed the streets of New York himself seeking ideas for his many short stories about the city. For years he was turning out one story a week for the Sunday supplement of a newspaper. "The Green Door" is probably based entirely on the man he saw passing out cards advertising the dentist and his "parlor" in the building before which the man in the ornate uniform was standing. This method of advertising businesses is still used sometimes today, especially to advertise shops that are situated on upper floors and not at the street level. 

    — William Delaney
  2. Evidently he is a regular employee of the dentist, who cleans and polishes his teeth as part payment for his services. His shining teeth serve as an unspoken and unwritten advertisement for the dentist (his master).

    — William Delaney
  3. O. Henry must have liked the word "specious." He uses it again when he describes the dentist's card with "specious promises of 'painless' operations." The word "specious" means plausible but false or illogical. The author's use of it shows he is a worldly wise skeptic. That skepticism is one of the interesting things about O. Henry's short stories, especially the stories that take place in New York. In the case of "the specious welcome of the thousand-candle-power table d'hote", the author is suggesting that the quality of the food does not measure up to the gaudy way in which it is presented.

    — William Delaney
  4. "Dental parlors" was a common term in O. Henry's day but is not heard any longer. The word "parlor" may have been commonly used because many dentists practiced their profession in their own home parlors. In Frank Norris's novel McTeague, the hero is an unlicensed dentist who works in his own apartment on Polk Street in San Francisco. It was not until the twentieth century that dentists began to be required by state laws to be licensed. 

    — William Delaney
  5. The word "specious" means plausible but illogical or false. The dentist's operations might be "painless" with simple cases but could be very painful with more serious ones such as extractions.

    — William Delaney
  6. There were no refrigerators in O. Henry's day. Many people had ice boxes which maintained cool interiors by having a big fifty-pound block of ice put in the top compartment where it slowly melted into water that was collected in a pan at the bottom. But those who could not afford to buy the ice every week, or those whose apartments did not come with ice boxes, or who lived in furnished rooms without kitchens, would customarily put such things as milk, cream, butter, and eggs out on the window sill to keep them as cool as possible. 

    — William Delaney
  7. Inhabitants of a big city like New York would have heard too many hard-luck stories to be very interested in another one about the misfortunes of a shop girl who had lost her job and was starving and faced with eviction for not being able to pay her rent.

    — William Delaney
  8. Rudolf assumes that the girl made up the cards and paid to have them handed out on the sidewalk in front of the building. This is what he considers to be "the strange expedient," or attempted solution to a problem, or experiment, "she to which she had been driven by her great distress." At this point Rudolf thinks hers is the only green door in the building. It certainly would look like a strange and even an immoral expedient for a young girl to be passing out cards on the street.

    — William Delaney
  9. O. Henry's New York stories always paint interesting pictures of that great cosmopolitan city in its earlier days. Reading O. Henry's admittedly old-fashioned stories is like traveling back in a time machine. "The Green Door" captures the sense of restless activity in a city that was colossal even in his day. It was a city full of strangers and newcomers, a city where anything could happen. O. Henry loved the place and became identified with it, although he only spent the latter part of his life there.

    — William Delaney
  10. This entire first paragraph is a parody of the kind of purely commercial stories written by hacks and published in the newspapers and magazines of O. Henry's day. Such stereotyped fiction was also parodied in the nineteen-twenties and nineteen-thirties by the top humorists of the time, S. J. Perlman and Robert Benchley.

    — William Delaney
  11. "in tierce" is a position in fencing taken to parry the opponent's blade. When the opponent makes a thrust that is parried, he is in an awkward position and vulnerable to a "thrust in tierce" from the other's sword. O. Henry uses the expression "a new thrust in tierce" as a metaphor to describe some modern city dweller who is thinking about how to get back at somebody who has played a dirty trick on him in the office.

    — William Delaney
  12. This is a wonderful description of how a really hungry girl might eat.

    — William Delaney
  13. O. Henry made a special effort to appeal to all the reader's five senses in his stories. This is a way that good writers make their settings, situations, and characters seem vivid and real, and draw the reader in. The author's description of the food provided by Rudolf is an excellent example of the way O. Henry appeals to the reader's sense of taste.

    — William Delaney
  14. O. Henry specified early in the story that Rudolf worked as a piano salesman. That was big business in the days before radio and phonographs. Upright pianos were to be seen in a great many homes, and they provided live entertainment for the family as well as for guests. The players were usually the housewives or their daughters. They often accompanied men and women who sang.

    — William Delaney
  15. O. Henry has to explain that the hallway is dimly lighted to account for the fact that Rudolf does not notice that all the other doors are also painted green.

    — William Delaney
  16. Grand opera is mostly sung in Italian, French, or German, occasionally in Russian.

    — William Delaney
  17. O. Henry uses dialect in many of his stories, including German dialect in "The Last Leaf." Dialect was popular with American readers and theater goers of the time, but it has fallen out of favor for many reasons. For one thing, radio and television have tended to homogenize or standardize the way Americans talk. Also, dialect makes hard reading and is not worth the effort, and it really doesn't seem funny anymore.

    — William Delaney
  18. This man's job reflects the economic privations of black Americans because of racial prejudice. Blacks worked at menial jobs such as shining shoes and doing janitorial labor. Black women found employment as housemaids and not much else. The best jobs for black men in those days were working on trains as porters and dining-car cooks and waiters.

    — William Delaney
  19. There would be many pedestrians on the streets at that time of night, but few horse-drawn wagons or carriages. The draymen would have finished making their deliveries and gone back to the stable. There would be a few horse-drawn cabs cruising the streets and an occasional private carriage. The first New York subway did not open until 1904, the same year that O. Henry published his first collection of short stories, Cabbages and Kings. The dentist in "The Green Door" is able to use that form of advertising because there there is a continual stream of pedestrians passing in front of his place of business.

    — William Delaney
  20. O. Henry is comparing Steiner to a knight of the Middle Ages who went forth seeking adventure and glory. Jousting tournaments were usually held on a field in close proximity to a castle called the "Lists." It was common for flirtatious ladies to drop their gloves "accidentally" into the jousting field as a sign that they were not adverse to having an affair with a particular knight, who would indicate his interest, sometimes at considerable personal risk from a jealous husband, by picking up the glove in order to return it at a propitious moment.

    — William Delaney
  21. "Hall bedchamber" suggests that Rudolf Steiner lives in a rooming house that had once been a private home. There would be a long hallway with doors opening into bedrooms on both sides. No doubt the tenants would all share a single bathroom and would usually be seen in robes and slippers.

    — William Delaney
  22. Steam heat was a common form of heating in O. Henry's day. The steam was generated in a boiler in the basement and carried through pipes to all the rooms. Some tenants in hotels and apartment buildings got more heat than others. The individual heaters were apt to malfunction, and tenants often pounded on their heaters trying to signal to the janitor to send up more heat. 

    — William Delaney
  23. This is an unusual way to open a story. O. Henry is using the "second person singular," that is, "you." It is not often seen in short stories, but it seems like a good way to draw the reader into the setting and the plot. The author does not continue with it beyond the second paragraph because it might be asking too much of the reader to assume that all the events were actually happening to him. Eventually the reader is told that the incident happened to a man named Rudolph Steiner, and the story proper is told in the conventional third- person past tense. When an author writes in the past tense there is an implication that he knows what is going to happen and that when it does happen that will be the end and the "point" of the story; that will be his reason for telling it. With O. Henry the point is often a surprise experienced by the reader along with the protagonist.

    — William Delaney
  24. This is intended to be funny. There was never anything serious in a vaudeville show. On the contrary, there was much comedy and audience laughter.

    — William Delaney
  25. The only kind of entertainment in O. Henry's day was live entertainment. Vaudeville was popular all over the United States. It consisted of a variety of acts, and there were live musicians on the stage or in a pit in front of the stage. In big cities there would be a whole orchestra and often a number of chorus girls. The shows almost always had a stand-up comedian who also served as the master of ceremonies who introduced each act and called for fanfares and rounds of applause. The acts included tap dancers, acrobats, trained-dog acts, magicians, slapstick comic teams. singers, and others.

    — William Delaney