THE GUILTY PARTY
William Sydney Porter (1862-1910), better known by his pen name, O. Henry, was an American writer. His short story, “The Guilty Party,” published in 1909, is a tragic story about a girl named Liz who is engaged to be married.
As you read, take notes on all of the forces that influence Liz’s actions.
“Justice Gavel” by Tori Rector is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
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.1 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 tired?”
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 bother me.”
* * *
“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 register.
“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 around, Mike.”
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 right.”
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, “Champagne, James.”