After Twenty Years Questions and Answers
by O. Henry

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Provide a description for the policeman on the beat.

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The policeman on the beat is made to appear like a typical beat cop in a NYPD uniform. His actions are described, but there is no description of his physical features. O. Henry is adroitly introducing a major character, Jimmy Wells, without actually identifying him. The reader will believe that he stops to talk to Bob because it is just part of his routine to check out anyone who might seem a little suspicious. Bob knows he looks a little suspicious standing in a darkened doorway. He had an appointment to meet his old friend at that location, but he thought it would still be "Big Joe" Brady's restaurant. As the policeman tells him, that restaurant was torn down five years ago.

O. Henry describes the unidentified cop in such a way as to suggest that he has been a beat cop for a long time. The way his handles his billy club suggests that he has been twirling it for many years. 

Trying doors as he went, twirling his club with many intricate and artful movements, turning now and then to cast his watchful eye adown the pacific thoroughfare, the officer, with his stalwart form and slight swagger, made a fine picture of a guardian of the peace. 

Saying that the officer "made a fine picture of a guardian of the peace" is another way of saying that he looked like a typical uniformed beat cop. He is trying doors of closed shops because this is part of his usual routine. The words "stalwart form" suggest that he is overweight, like many beat cops who are approaching middle-age.  O. Henry takes pains to make Jimmy Wells look like a typical cop, so that the reader will have no suspicion that the cop is actually keeping an appointment made twenty years ago and that he is the very man Bob has come a thousand miles to meet.

O. Henry specifies that the streets in the neighborhood are dark because almost all the business establishments have closed for the night. Bob will not be able to recognize Jimmy Wells for several reasons:

  • It is dark.
  • He wouldn't have expected Jimmy Wells to be a cop in uniform.
  • He hasn't seen Jimmy in twenty years, and Jimmy has naturally changed. He was a young man when he and Bob parted; now he is forty years old.
  • When Bob lights his cigar it illuminates his face, but the match is between him and Jimmy. Instead of making it easier to see Jimmy's face, the lighted match actually blinds Bob, so that he can only see a vague figure in a dark uniform.

Jimmy intended to introduce himself, but Bob started talking and didn't give his old friend a chance to speak.

"It's all right, officer,” he said, reassuringly. “I'm just waiting for a friend. It's an appointment made twenty years ago. Sounds a little funny to you, doesn't it? Well, I'll explain if you'd like to make certain it's all straight." 

Bob lights his cigar and Jimmy recognizes him as the man wanted by the Chicago police. He decides not to introduce himself after all. The two men have a short conversation. We can imagine that Jimmy is privately wondering what he should do. He makes the decision to go back to the precinct station and get some other officer to make the arrest. Bob would never have known that the cop he had been talking to was his old friend Jimmy Wells had not Jimmy given the arresting plainclothes officer a note to pass on to Bob when the arrest was made.

Bob: I was at the appointed place on time. When you struck the match to light your cigar I saw it was the face of the man wanted in Chicago. Somehow I couldn't do it myself, so I went around and got a plainclothesman to do the job.  JIMMY.

Just like Bob, the reader has been thoroughly taken in by O. Henry's clever storytelling and is just as surprised as 'Silky' Bob.

 

 

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