After Twenty Years

by O. Henry

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In "After Twenty Years" by O. Henry, what is the surprise at the end of the story?

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In "After Twenty Years" by O. Henry, the surprise at the end of the story is that the police officer that serial criminal "Silky Bob" has been talking to is actually his old friend Jimmy Wells, the man he came to New York to meet after two decades.

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A serial criminal called "Silky Bob" has come to New York to meet up with his old friend Jimmy Wells. Twenty years earlier, the two men had agreed to meet outside a hardware store. Amazingly, Bob has shown up, but there doesn't appear to be any sign of Jimmy.

While Bob's waiting for Jimmy, he strikes up a conversation with a beat cop. During their chat, we learn about the close bond of friendship that exists between Jimmy and Bob. They'd grown up together but went their separate ways when they were young men; Bob headed out West to seek his fortune, while Jimmy remained in New York.

After a short while, the police officer takes his leave of Bob and continues patrolling the streets. Just then, Bob is approached by a man who introduces himself as his old friend Jimmy Wells, the man he's been waiting for. The men chat pleasantly for a while before Bob realizes, as he sees the man's face illuminated by the light from a drugstore, that this isn't Jimmy.

As it turns out, the man is a police officer, and he places Bob under arrest. He also hands him a note written by none other than Jimmy Wells. It turns out that Jimmy really did meet Bob at the appointed hour outside the hardware store as they'd always planned; he was the beat cop that Bob had been talking to earlier. But as Jimmy didn't have the heart to arrest his old friend himself, he got a plainclothes officer to do it for him.

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Both the reader and "Silky" Bob are doubly surprised by the ending of the story. Both believe that the plain clothes detective who invites Bob to come along and have a drink with him is Jimmy Wells-- although the reader may detect a clue to the detective's identity and purpose when Bob says:

"You've changed lots, Jimmy. I never thought you were so tall by two or three inches."

Bob does not discover the truth until they reach the brightly lighted  corner. Then he says:

"You're not Jimmy Wells. . . .Twenty years is a long time, but not long enough to change a man's nose from a Roman to a pug."

Then the arresting officer hands him a note, and Bob and the reader have a second surprise. The uniformed cop Bob had been talking to a little more than twenty minutes earlier had been his old friend. The note reads:

"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 plain clothes man to do the job. JIMMY."

When Jimmy was about to leave, he said:

"I'll be on my way. Hope your friend comes around all right. Going to call time on him sharp?"

Bob replies:

"I should say not. . . . I'll give him half an hour at least."

Jimmy has only a half-hour in which to go "around" to his station and find another officer to impersonate him. The one he gets is described as "a tall man in a long overcoat, with collar turned up to his ears." He is taller than Jimmy and has an entirely different kind of nose, but he is the best Jimmy can get on such short notice.

According to O. Henry's description, the tall man "hurried across from the opposite side of the street." This shows time is of the essence. Jimmy had to get to his station, explain his problem, and find someone to impersonate him. Then his substitute had to get to the hardware store before Bob left. That is why O. Henry uses the word "hurried."

Bob has a clue that the plain clothes man is not Jimmy when he notices that he is two or three inches taller than his old friend. Was there any clue that the uniformed officer he was talking to before was in fact Jimmy Wells? It is pure coincidence that Jimmy has been assigned to a beat that includes the place where he had agreed to meet Bob twenty years earlier. Jimmy is a bit early for their appointment, so he is doing what he always does on patrol, including trying every shop door to see that it is securely locked. It is this typical policeman's behavior that keeps the reader from suspecting that the cop might be Jimmy Wells himself.

Jimmy doesn't realize that Bob is the man wanted in Chicago until:

The man in the doorway struck a match and lit his cigar. The light showed a pale, square-jawed face with keen eyes, and a little white scar near his right eyebrow.

This is a very good touch. The flame will naturally light up Bob's face but not provide any illumination for Jimmy's. Another nice touch is  that Jimmy is a cop in uniform. Bob would never suspect that his old friend would have joined the force. Jimmy lets Bob do most of the talking. He doesn't want his voice to give him away. Neither the reader nor "Silky" Bob gets a clue that Jimmy is the policeman, although there is a definite clue that the plain clothes detective is not Jimmy Wells.

"After Twenty Years" is a very short story but covers twenty years, two mistaken identities, and two surprise endings. This shows O. Henry's ingenuity at its sharpest.

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