‘A Retrieved Reformation’ by O. Henry

Eleventh is this story that my father used to read us. (My childhood friends’ enduring memory of my father is of his reading stories to us all in the evenings.) It is hopelessly romantic – a tear-jerker – but I loved it. The protagonist, crack safe-breaker Jimmy Valentine (suitably named, as will be seen) receives news of his pardon for a four-year sentence while working in the shoe-shop of the prison work-place. A recidivist, after being freed he cracks three more impossible-seeming safes, and is pursued by the detective who originally arrested him, Ben Price. He makes for an obscure little town, Elmore; and the first thing that happens is that he sees the girl of his dreams, Annabel Adams, entering the bank. It turns out her father owns the bank. Smitten, Jimmy books into a hotel as Ralph D. Spencer, and soon sets up in the shoe business, and becomes engaged to Annabel. 
His life has turned around, and he plans to bequeath his safe-breaking tools to a pal. He carries them with him in a suitcase on an expedition to buy wedding clothes with his bride-to-be and some of her family, which includes two nieces of Annabel’s, little May and Agatha, aged nine and five. But her father wants first to show off his new state-of-the-art safe in the bank. While the adults are chatting, the older girl locks the younger in the safe, which has not yet been primed with its codes for opening. Hysterical cries rend the air (as O. Henry does not quite write) and Annabel turns in all innocence to Jimmy to do something. Jimmy looks at her “with a queer, soft smile on his lips”, and asks for the rose she is wearing, which he stuffs into his vest pocket. “With that act Ralph D. Spencer passed away and Jimmy Valentine took his place.”
Meanwhile, the detective Ben Price has discovered Jimmy’s whereabouts, and is looking in through the windows of the bank preparing to nab him when he comes out. He watches as Jimmy unpacks his tools, works away at the safe, and in full view of all present, has it open within ten minutes. The little girl is saved!
Jimmy walks out, ignoring a despairing “‘Ralph!’” from Anabel. At the door he finds a big man somewhat in his way – the detective. Jimmy offers himself for arrest, saying nothing now matters to him. But Ben Price behaves rather strangely. “‘Guess you’re mistaken, Mr. Spencer. Don’t believe I recognize you. Your buggie’s waiting for you, ain’t it?’ And Ben Price turned and strolled down the street.”
The wonderful thing is that my father, the most upright citizen you can imagine, was in the shoe business himself.

First published, as ‘A Retrieved Reform‘, in The Cosmopolitan Magazine, April 1903. Collected in Roads of Destiny, 1909

‘The Gift of the Magi’ by O Henry

I first heard this story when I was about eight and a teacher read it during an assembly, and I’ve often thought of it since, maybe because I’m slightly obsessed with the psychology of presents. Why we give them, how we choose them, and how best to receive them, for better and worse… the whole thing is a fascinating minefield, especially since a present usually says much more about the giver’s perception than the receiver’s desires. This story is no different, and while the hook is the tragedy of the ironic resolution, it is at the same time infused with a huge expression of mutual love – surely the ultimate point of all gifts anyway.

First published in The New York Sunday World, December 1905. Widely republished, including here online

Chosen by Alice Furse. Alice works at Four Communications and is the author of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.

‘The Gift of the Magi’ by O Henry

This, by O Henry, is an American classic Christmas story. He wasn’t a fabulous writer, but he was a potent writer, famous for his ‘surprise’ endings. Even as I winced at its clunkiness, I found a little tear forming in my eye at the finish.

First published in The New York Sunday World in 1905 and widely collected. Available to read online here. Chosen by Lee Randall