An Odd Character, by O.Henry

Download the mp3

Thursday, 24th November 2011

A Post reporter stood on the Saint Jacinto Street bridge last night. Half of a May moon swam in a sea of buttermilky clouds high in the east. Below, the bayou gleamed dully in the semi-darkness, merging into inky blackness farther down. A steam tug glided noiselessly down the sluggish waters, leaving a shattered trail of molten silver. Foot passengers across the bridge were scarce. A few belated Fifth-Warders straggled past, clattered along the uneven planks of the footway. The reporter took off his hat and allowed a cool breath of a great city to fan his brow. A mellow voice, with, however too much dramatic inflection, murmured at his elbow, and quoted incorrectly from Byron:

"Oh, moon, and darkening river, ye are wondrous strong:
Yet lovely in your strength as is the light of a dark eye in woman."

The reporter turned and saw a magnificient specimen of the genus tramp. He was attired in a garb to be viewed with wonder, and even awe. His coat was a black frock, fallen into decay some years ago. Under it, he wore a jaunty striped blazer, too tight to button, and the ghost of a collar peered above its intricacies. His trousers were patched, and torn, and frayed, and faded away at the bottom into ghostly, indescribably feet shod in shapeless leather and dust.

His face, however, was the face of a hilarious faun. His eyes were brilliant and piercing, and a god-like smile lit up a face that owed little to art or soap.

His nose was classic, and is nostrils thin and nervous, betokening either race or fever. His brow was high and smooth, and his regard lofty and superior, though a bristly beard of uncertain cut and grisly effect covered the lower part of his countenance.

"Do you know what I am, sir?" asked this strange being. The reporter gazed at his weird form and shook his head.

"Your reply reassures me," said the wanderer. "It convinces me that I have not made a mistake in addressing you. You have some of the instincts of a gentleman, because you forebore to say what you know well, namely, that I am a tramp. I look like a tramp and I am one, but no ordinary one. I have a university education, I am a Greek and Latin scholar, and I have held the chair of English literature in a college known all over the world. I am a biologist, and more than all, I am a student of the wonderful book, man. The last accomplishment is the only one I still practice. If I am not grown unskilled, I can read you."

He bent a discriminating look upon the reporter. The reporter puffed at his cigar and submitted to the scrutiny.

"You are a newspaper man," said the tramp. "I will tell yu how I reached the conclusion. I have been watching you for ten minutes. I knew you were not a man of leisure, for you walked upon the bridge with a somewhat rapid step. You stopped and began to watch the effect of the moon upon the water. A business man would have been hurrying along to supper. When you got your cigar out you had feel in three or four pockets before you found one. A newspaper man has many a cigar forced upon him in the course of a day, and he has to distribute them among several pockets. Again, you have no pencil sticking out of your pocket. No newspaper man ever has. Am I right in my conjecture?"

The reporter made a shrewd guess.

"You are right," he said, "and your having seen me going into a newspaper office some time ago assisted you in your diagnosis."

The tramp laughed.

"You are wrong," he said. You were coming out when I saw you yesterday. I like a man like you. You can give and take. I have been in Houston now for three months, and you are the first man to whom I have spoken of myself. You have not offered me money, and by that you have won my esteem. I am a tramp, but I never accept money from anyone. Why should I? The richest man in your town is a pauper compared with me. I see you smile. Come, sir, indulge me for a while. I am afflicted at times with cacoëthes loquendi, and rarely do I meet a gentleman who will give me an ear."

The Post man had seen so many people with the corners rubbed off, so many men who always say and do what they are expected to, that he fell into the humour of listening to this man who said unexpected things. and then he was so strange to look upon.

The tramp was not drunk, and his appearance was not that of a drinking man. His features were refined and clear-cut in the moonlight; and his voice -- well, his voice was queer. It sounded like a man talking plainly in his sleep.

The Post man concluded that his mind was unbalanced.

The tramp spoke again.

"I said I had plenty of money," he continued, "and I have. I will show a few -- a very few of the wonders that you respectable, plodding, well-dressed people do not imagine to exist. Look at this ring."

He took from his finger a curious carved ring of beaten copper, wrought into a design that the moonlight did not suffer to be deciphered, and handed it to the reporter.

"Rub that ring thrice with the thumb of your left hand," said the tramp.

The reporter did so, with a creepy feeling that made him smile to himself. The trampy's eyes beamed, and he pointed into the air, following with his finger the movements of some invisible object.

"It is Artamela," he said, "the slave of the ring -- catch!"

He swept his hollowed hand into space, scooping up something, and handed it to the reporter.

"See!" he said, "golden coins. I can bring them at will in unlimited numbers. Why should I beg?"

He held his empty hand with a gesture toward the reporter, who pretended to accept its visionary contents.

The tramp took off his hat and let the breeze sift through his tangled hair.

"What do you think," he said, "if I should tell you that I am 241 years old?"

"Knock off a couple of centuries," said the reporter, "and it will go alright."

"This ring," said the tramp, "was given me by a Buddhist priest in Benares, India, a hundred years before America was discovered. It is an inexhaustible source of wealth, life and good luck. It has brought me every blessing that man can enjoy. With such fortune as that there is not on earth that I envy. I am blissfully happy and I lead the only ideal life."

The tramp leaned on the railing and gazed down the bayou for a long time without speaking. The reporter made a movement as if to go, and he started violently and faced around. A change had come over him. His brow was lowering and his manner cringing. He shivered and pulled his coat tight about him.

"Wot wuz I sayin'?" he said in a gruf, husky voice. "Wuz I a talkin'? Hello, there, mister, can't you give a fellow a dime to get some supper?"

The reporter, struck by the transformation, gazed at him in silence.

The tramp muttered to himself, and with shaking hands drew from his pocket something wrapped in paper.

He unrolled it, took something from it between his thumb and finger and thrust it into his mouth.

The sickly, faint, sweet odour of gum opium reached the reporter.

The mystery about the tramp was solved.