O. Henry is one of the great masters of the short story, as you can easily see in this beautiful short titled The Last Leaf. Let’s read The Last Leaf:

 

In a little district west of Washington Square the streets have run  crazy and broken themselves into small strips called “places.” These  “places” make strange angles and curves. One Street crosses itself a  time or two. An artist once discovered a valuable possibility in this  street. Suppose a collector with a bill for paints, paper and canvas  should, in traversing this route, suddenly meet himself coming back,  without a cent having been paid on account!

So, to quaint old  Greenwich Village the art people soon came prowling, hunting for north  windows and eighteenth-century gables and Dutch attics and low rents.  Then they imported some pewter mugs and a chafing dish or two from Sixth  Avenue, and became a “colony.”

At the top of a squatty,  three-story brick Sue and Johnsy had their studio. “Johnsy” was familiar  for Joanna. One was from Maine; the other from California. They had met  at the table d’hôte of an Eighth Street “Delmonico’s,” and found their  tastes in art, chicory salad and bishop sleeves so congenial that the  joint studio resulted.

That was in May. In November a cold,  unseen stranger, whom the doctors called Pneumonia, stalked about the  colony, touching one here and there with his icy fingers. Over on the  east side this ravager strode boldly, smiting his victims by scores, but  his feet trod slowly through the maze of the narrow and moss-grown  “places.”

Mr. Pneumonia was not what you would call a chivalric  old gentleman. A mite of a little woman with blood thinned by California  zephyrs was hardly fair game for the red-fisted, short-breathed old  duffer. But Johnsy he smote; and she lay, scarcely moving, on her  painted iron bedstead, looking through the small Dutch window-panes at  the blank side of the next brick house.

One morning the busy doctor invited Sue into the hallway with a shaggy, gray eyebrow.

“She  has one chance in – let us say, ten,” he said, as he shook down the  mercury in his clinical thermometer. ” And that chance is for her to  want to live. This way people have of lining-u on the side of the  undertaker makes the entire pharmacopoeia look silly. Your little lady  has made up her mind that she’s not going to get well. Has she anything  on her mind?”

“She – she wanted to paint the Bay of Naples some day.” said Sue.

“Paint? – bosh! Has she anything on her mind worth thinking twice – a man for instance?”

“A man?” said Sue, with a jew’s-harp twang in her voice. “Is a man worth – but, no, doctor; there is nothing of the kind.”

“Well,  it is the weakness, then,” said the doctor. “I will do all that  science, so far as it may filter through my efforts, can accomplish. But  whenever my patient begins to count the carriages in her funeral  procession I subtract 50 per cent from the curative power of medicines.  If you will get her to ask one question about the new winter styles in  cloak sleeves I will promise you a one-in-five chance for her, instead  of one in ten.”

After the doctor had gone Sue went into the  workroom and cried a Japanese napkin to a pulp. Then she swaggered into  Johnsy’s room with her drawing board, whistling ragtime.

Johnsy  lay, scarcely making a ripple under the bedclothes, with her face toward  the window. Sue stopped whistling, thinking she was asleep.

She  arranged her board and began a pen-and-ink drawing to illustrate a  magazine story. Young artists must pave their way to Art by drawing  pictures for magazine stories that young authors write to pave their way  to Literature.

As Sue was sketching a pair of elegant horseshow  riding trousers and a monocle of the figure of the hero, an Idaho  cowboy, she heard a low sound, several times repeated. She went quickly  to the bedside.

Johnsy’s eyes were open wide. She was looking out the window and counting – counting backward.

“Twelve,” she said, and little later “eleven”; and then “ten,” and “nine”; and then “eight” and “seven”, almost together.

Sue  look solicitously out of the window. What was there to count? There was  only a bare, dreary yard to be seen, and the blank side of the brick  house twenty feet away. An old, old ivy vine, gnarled and decayed at the  roots, climbed half way up the brick wall. The cold breath of autumn  had stricken its leaves from the vine until its skeleton branches clung,  almost bare, to the crumbling bricks.

“What is it, dear?” asked Sue.

“Six,”  said Johnsy, in almost a whisper. “They’re falling faster now. Three  days ago there were almost a hundred. It made my head ache to count  them. But now it’s easy. There goes another one. There are only five  left now.”

“Five what, dear? Tell your Sudie.”

“Leaves. On the ivy vine. When the last one falls I must go, too. I’ve known that for three days. Didn’t the doctor tell you?”

“Oh,  I never heard of such nonsense,” complained Sue, with magnificent  scorn. “What have old ivy leaves to do with your getting well? And you  used to love that vine so, you naughty girl. Don’t be a goosey. Why, the  doctor told me this morning that your chances for getting well real  soon were – let’s see exactly what he said – he said the chances were  ten to one! Why, that’s almost as good a chance as we have in New York  when we ride on the street cars or walk past a new building. Try to take  some broth now, and let Sudie go back to her drawing, so she can sell  the editor man with it, and buy port wine for her sick child, and pork  chops for her greedy self.”

“You needn’t get any more wine,” said  Johnsy, keeping her eyes fixed out the window. “There goes another. No,  I don’t want any broth. That leaves just four. I want to see the last  one fall before it gets dark. Then I’ll go, too.”

“Johnsy, dear,”  said Sue, bending over her, “will you promise me to keep your eyes  closed, and not look out the window until I am done working? I must hand  those drawings in by to-morrow. I need the light, or I would draw the  shade down.”

“Couldn’t you draw in the other room?” asked Johnsy, coldly.

“I’d rather be here by you,” said Sue. “Beside, I don’t want you to keep looking at those silly ivy leaves.”

“Tell  me as soon as you have finished,” said Johnsy, closing her eyes, and  lying white and still as fallen statue, “because I want to see the last  one fall. I’m tired of waiting. I’m tired of thinking. I want to turn  loose my hold on everything, and go sailing down, down, just like one of  those poor, tired leaves.”

“Try to sleep,” said Sue. “I must  call Behrman up to be my model for the old hermit miner. I’ll not be  gone a minute. Don’t try to move ’til I come back.”

Old Behrman  was a painter who lived on the ground floor beneath them. He was past  sixty and had a Michael Angelo’s Moses beard curling down from the head  of a satyr along with the body of an imp. Behrman was a failure in art.  Forty years he had wielded the brush without getting near enough to  touch the hem of his Mistress’s robe. He had been always about to paint a  masterpiece, but had never yet begun it. For several years he had  painted nothing except now and then a daub in the line of commerce or  advertising. He earned a little by serving as a model to those young  artists in the colony who could not pay the price of a professional. He  drank gin to excess, and still talked of his coming masterpiece. For the  rest he was a fierce little old man, who scoffed terribly at softness  in any one, and who regarded himself as especial mastiff-in-waiting to  protect the two young artists in the studio above.

Sue found  Behrman smelling strongly of juniper berries in his dimly lighted den  below. In one corner was a blank canvas on an easel that had been  waiting there for twenty-five years to receive the first line of the  masterpiece. She told him of Johnsy’s fancy, and how she feared she  would, indeed, light and fragile as a leaf herself, float away, when her  slight hold upon the world grew weaker.

Old Behrman, with his red eyes plainly streaming, shouted his contempt and derision for such idiotic imaginings.

“Vass!”  he cried. “Is dere people in de world mit der foolishness to die  because leafs dey drop off from a confounded vine? I haf not heard of  such a thing. No, I will not bose as a model for your fool  hermit-dunderhead. Vy do you allow dot silly pusiness to come in der  brain of her? Ach, dot poor leetle Miss Yohnsy.”

“She is very ill  and weak,” said Sue, “and the fever has left her mind morbid and full  of strange fancies. Very well, Mr. Behrman, if you do not care to pose  for me, you needn’t. But I think you are a horrid old – old  flibbertigibbet.”

“You are just like a woman!” yelled Behrman.  “Who said I will not bose? Go on. I come mit you. For half an hour I haf  peen trying to say dot I am ready to bose. Gott! dis is not any blace  in which one so goot as Miss Yohnsy shall lie sick. Some day I vill  baint a masterpiece, and ve shall all go away. Gott! yes.”

Johnsy  was sleeping when they went upstairs. Sue pulled the shade down to the  window-sill, and motioned Behrman into the other room. In there they  peered out the window fearfully at the ivy vine. Then they looked at  each other for a moment without speaking. A persistent, cold rain was  falling, mingled with snow. Behrman, in his old blue shirt, took his  seat as the hermit miner on an upturned kettle for a rock.

When  Sue awoke from an hour’s sleep the next morning she found Johnsy with  dull, wide-open eyes staring at the drawn green shade.

“Pull it up; I want to see,” she ordered, in a whisper.

Wearily Sue obeyed.

But,  lo! after the beating rain and fierce gusts of wind that had endured  through the livelong night, there yet stood out against the brick wall  one ivy leaf. It was the last one on the vine. Still dark green near its  stem, with its serrated edges tinted with the yellow of dissolution and  decay, it hung bravely from the branch some twenty feet above the  ground.

“It is the last one,” said Johnsy. “I thought it would  surely fall during the night. I heard the wind. It will fall to-day, and  I shall die at the same time.”

“Dear, dear!” said Sue, leaning  her worn face down to the pillow, “think of me, if you won’t think of  yourself. What would I do?”

But Johnsy did not answer. The  lonesomest thing in all the world is a soul when it is making ready to  go on its mysterious, far journey. The fancy seemed to possess her more  strongly as one by one the ties that bound her to friendship and to  earth were loosed.

The day wore away, and even through the  twilight they could see the lone ivy leaf clinging to its stem against  the wall. And then, with the coming of the night the north wind was  again loosed, while the rain still beat against the windows and pattered  down from the low Dutch eaves.

When it was light enough Johnsy, the merciless, commanded that the shade be raised.

The ivy leaf was still there.

Johnsy lay for a long time looking at it. And then she called to Sue, who was stirring her chicken broth over the gas stove.

“I’ve  been a bad girl, Sudie,” said Johnsy. “Something has made that last  leaf stay there to show me how wicked I was. It is a sin to want to die.  You may bring a me a little broth now, and some milk with a little port  in it, and – no; bring me a hand-mirror first, and then pack some  pillows about me, and I will sit up and watch you cook.”

And hour later she said:

“Sudie, some day I hope to paint the Bay of Naples.”

The doctor came in the afternoon, and Sue had an excuse to go into the hallway as he left.

The Last Leaf the best short stories o henry

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“Even  chances,” said the doctor, taking Sue’s thin, shaking hand in his.  “With good nursing you’ll win.” And now I must see another case I have  downstairs. Behrman, his name is – some kind of an artist, I believe.  Pneumonia, too. He is an old, weak man, and the attack is acute. There  is no hope for him; but he goes to the hospital to-day to be made more  comfortable.”

The next day the doctor said to Sue: “She’s out of danger. You won. Nutrition and care now – that’s all.”

And  that afternoon Sue came to the bed where Johnsy lay, contentedly  knitting a very blue and very useless woollen shoulder scarf, and put  one arm around her, pillows and all.

“I have something to tell  you, white mouse,” she said. “Mr. Behrman died of pneumonia to-day in  the hospital. He was ill only two days. The janitor found him the  morning of the first day in his room downstairs helpless with pain. His  shoes and clothing were wet through and icy cold. They couldn’t imagine  where he had been on such a dreadful night. And then they found a  lantern, still lighted, and a ladder that had been dragged from its  place, and some scattered brushes, and a palette with green and yellow  colors mixed on it, and – look out the window, dear, at the last ivy  leaf on the wall. 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.”

 

 

If you enjoyed The Last Leaf, you should continue reading: The World as a Mirror from The Alchemist, The Gift of Understanding by Paul Villiard and the story of a father who left 17 camels as an asset for his three sons.