October 22, 2012 – The Last Leaf

A long long time ago, I read the story of the last leaf in Reader’s Digest for one reason or another, this story always stays with me.  A story that I have retold many times whenever I think the time is right.  I didn’t remember about the author or even the actual detail of the story.  Not too long  ago, I went searching and found that the original story was a short story written by O Henry, and here is the short version of the short story.  I combined the Wikipedia version with some original text.

The story took place in early 20th century Greenwich Village where there were two young women artists, Sue and Johnsy. Pneumonia was stalking their artist colony in November.”  Johnsy has fallen ill and is dying of pneumonia.  She lay, scarcely making a ripple under the bedclothes, with her face toward the window.  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?”

Old Behrman was a painter who lived on the ground floor beneath them. He was past sixty and was a failure in art. He had been always about to paint a masterpiece, but had never yet begun it. For several years he had painted nothing, drank gin to excess, and still talked of his coming masterpiece. 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.

In the night, a very bad storm comes and wind is howling and rain is splattering against the window. Sue closes the curtains and tells Johnsy to go to sleep, even though there were still four leaves left on the vine. Johnsy protests but Sue insists on doing so because doesn’t want Johnsy to see the last leaf fall. In the morning, Johnsy wants to see the vine, to be sure that all the leaves are gone, but to their surprise, there is still one leaf left.

While Johnsy is surprised that it is still there, she insists it will fall that day. But it doesn’t, nor does it fall through the night nor the next day.

“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 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 today 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.”

Read the original text here: http://www.online-literature.com/donne/1303/

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