(Abridged and adapted)
One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies, the smallest pieces of money. She saved the pennies by negotiating at the vegetable market. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.
There was nothing to do except fall down on the little sofa and cry. So Della did. While she was crying she thought that life was made up of tears and smiles, with more tears than smiles.
Della lived with her husband Jim in a poor flat. They rented it for eight dollars per week and Jim was paid only twenty dollars per week. That was not enough. They did not have money to buy simple things for themselves.
Della finished her crying and dried her face. She stood by the window and looked at a gray cat walking on the fence. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only one dollar and eighty-seven cents to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, and could not save more. Twenty dollars a week doesn't go far. They spent more than they had expected. There were only one dollar and eighty-seven cents to buy a present for Jim - her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him.
There was a mirror between the windows of the room. She looked at herself in the mirror. Her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its color within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.
There were two possessions which Della and Jim were proud of very much. One was Jim's gold watch (the old type that could hang from a chain) that had been his father's and his grandfather's. The other was Della's hair. Indeed, her hair looked gorgeous.
So now Della's beautiful hair fell about her, moving and shining like a powerful waterfall. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a piece of clothing for her. And then she did it up again nervously and quickly. She was standing and thinking for a minute, and while she was standing and thinking, a tear or two fell on the carpet.
She quickly put on her coat and her hat and went out into the street. She stopped outside a shop with a sign which read: "Madame Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds. " She entered the shop.
"Will you buy my hair?" asked Della.
"I buy hair," said the lady. "Take your hat off and let's have a look at it."
The powerful waterfall went down.
"Twenty dollars," said Madame, lifting the mass with a skillful hand.
"Give it to me quick," said Della.
The next two hours went fast. She went to the stores for Jim's present.
She found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim and no one else. There was no other like it in any of the stores. It was a platinum chain simple and plain in design. It was perfect. It would be a perfect match for Jim’s gold watch, which could hang from it. It was like him – with great value. Twenty-one dollars they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the eighty-seven cents left to her.
When Della came home, she started repairing her hair. Within forty minutes her head was covered with small curls that made her look like a schoolboy. She looked at her reflection in the mirror long, carefully, and critically.
"If Jim doesn't kill me," she said to herself, "before he takes a second look at me, he'll say I look like a schoolgirl. But what could I do--oh! What could I do with a dollar and eighty-seven cents?"
At 7 o'clock the coffee was made, and the frying-pan was on the stove hot and ready to cook the dinner.
Jim was never late. Della took the chain and sat on the corner of the table near the door. Then she heard his steps on the stair, and she turned white for just a moment. She had a habit of saying a little silent prayer about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: "Please God, make him think I am still pretty."
The door opened, and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two--and had to take care of his family! He needed a new coat, and he was without gloves.
Jim stopped inside the door, his eyes fixed upon Della. There was an expression in his eyes that she could not read. It worried her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor terror, nor any of the feelings that she had. He merely looked at her directly with a strange expression on his face.
Della stood up and went to him.
"Jim, darling," she cried, "don't look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold because I couldn't have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. It'll grow out again. I just had to do it. My hair grows very fast. Say ‘Merry Christmas!’ Jim, and let's be happy. You don't know what a nice -- what a beautiful, nice gift I've got for you."
"You've cut off your hair?" asked Jim, slowly and carefully, as if his brain had not worked hard enough to accept the facts.
"Cut it off and sold it," said Della. "Don’t you like me just as well, anyhow? I’m me without my hair, right?" I’m the same Della as I was before.
Jim looked about the room in a strange way.
"You say your hair is gone?" he said.
"You needn't look for it," said Della. "It's sold, I tell you--sold and gone, too. Be good to me, because I did it for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered," she went on with sudden serious sweetness, "but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I start cooking dinner, Jim?"
Jim took a package from his coat pocket and threw it upon the table.
"Don't make any mistake about me, Dell," he said. "I don't think there's anything in the world that could make me like my girl any less. But if you'll open that package you will see why I was silent when I entered the room."
Della’s white fingers quickly opened the package. And then she gave a scream of joy; and then – tears; and Jim was trying to calm her.
Inside the package were beautiful combs made of expensive jewels. The combs that she had always wanted to have. She had seen these combs in a window of an expensive Broadway store.
She held them close to her heart. Then she looked up at Jim with a smile and said, "My hair grows so fast, Jim!"
And then Della jumped up like a little burned cat and cried, "Oh, oh!"
Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She gave it to him with a happy smile on her face. The chain looked so bright and attractive.
"Isn't it great, Jim? I looked for it everywhere. You'll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it."
Instead of obeying, Jim sat down on the sofa, put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.
"Dell," said he, "let's put our Christmas presents away and keep them for some time. They're too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs. And now, let’s start cooking dinner."
Wise men brought gifts to the Baby Jesus. They started the tradition of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones too. And here I have told you the amazing story of two foolish children in a flat who unwisely sold the greatest treasures of their home. However, in many ways these two young people were also wise – each gave what they treasured most for the one they most loved.
Abridged and adapted from the original version by Dr. Algirdas Makarevicius:
Original version: The Gift of the Magi, by O'Henry