The most conspicuous signpost in "A Retrieved Reformation" is Jimmy Valentine's suit-case. O. Henry keeps reminding the reader of the existence of this suit-case because it will play such an important role in the story at the climax.
When Jimmy gets out of prison he goes to his rented room and immediately retrieves his most valued possession.
Pulling out from the wall a folding-bed, Jimmy slid back a panel in the wall and dragged out a dust-covered suit-case.
O. Henry describes the contents in some detail. They are a set of custom-made safecracking tools which enable Jimmy to break into any safe ever invented. When Jimmy leaves his room, O. Henry makes sure to mention his suit-case.
In half an hour Jimmy went downstairs and through the cafe. He was now dressed in tasteful and well-fitting clothes, and carried his dusted and cleaned suit-case in his hand.
Jimmy is not coming back. He has already decided that this whole area is getting too hot for him. He travels all the way from Indiana to Arkansas.
One afternoon Jimmy Valentine and his suit-case climbed out of the mail-hack in Elmore, a little town five miles off the railroad down in the black-jack country of Arkansas.
Jimmy checks into a hotel in Elmore and asks the clerk a lot of questions about business in town, particularly about the shoe business. Jimmy is thinking of opening a shoe business as a "front," but he intends to continue to operate as a safecracker in this new region. He registers as Ralph Spencer.
Mr. Spencer thought he would stop over in the town a few days and look over the situation. No, the clerk needn't call the boy. He would carry up his suit-case, himself; it was rather heavy.
Having fallen in love with Annabel Adams, Jimmy decides to go straight and make the shoe business his real occupation rather than just a front. He senses that Ben Price, his nemesis, must be on his trail and that he would be wise to go straight and assume a whole new identity. But his suit-case full of burglar tools is becoming a liability rather than an asset. He would like to get rid of it because it links him to his former identity, along with linking him to the three safecracking jobs he pulled after his release from state prison.
Jimmy has to go to Little Rock to order some clothes for his wedding to Annabel. He plans to get rid of his incriminating suit-case at the same time by shipping it to an old pal. Annabel's whole family comes to take him to breakfast.
They came by the hotel where Jimmy still boarded, and he ran up to his room and brought along his suit-case.
The whole party stops at Annabel's father's bank briefly, and Jimmy is forced to carry his suit-case right inside the bank with him. Now it is becoming a truly heavy burden. It might be said to symbolize the old identity he cannot shake as well as the life of crime which could send him to prison and ruin his "reformation."
Annabel, whose heart was bubbling with happiness and lively youth, put on Jimmy's hat, and picked up the suit-case. “Wouldn't I make a nice drummer?” said Annabel. “My! Ralph, how heavy it is. Feels like it was full of gold bricks.”
When one of Annabel's two little nieces gets accidentally locked in her father's brand-new burglar-proof bank-vault, Jimmy, alias Ralph Spencer, has to make a tough decision. He is basically too good a man to let that little girl die inside the vault.
He set his suit-case on the table, and opened it out flat. From that time on he seemed to be unconscious of the presence of any one else. He laid out the shining, queer implements swiftly and orderly, whistling softly to himself as he always did when at work.
Ben Price, the bank detective, has come inside and is waiting in the outer room to arrest Jimmy. Now the suitcase full of specialized burglar tools will give the detective all the proof he needs to put Jimmy in prison for many years. Price can use the tools to prove they were used in the three safecracking jobs Jimmy performed in Indiana right after getting out of prison. Price had said at the time he was investigating those jobs:
“That's Dandy Jim Valentine's autograph. He's resumed business. Look at that combination knob—jerked out as easy as pulling up a radish in wet weather. He's got the only clamps that can do it."
Price can link Jimmy's tools to the marks on the burglarized safes. But Jimmy doesn't seem to care. Having exposed himself as a professional safecracker to his fiancee and all her relatives, he feels he has nothing to live for anyway. He has no intention of resisting arrest or lying about his true identity. The suit-case which has been his pride and job is now like a millstone that is going to drag down to the depths.
Ben Price, his nemesis, has seen and understood everything that has just happened. He realizes that Jimmy has indeed become a new man because of his love for Annabel. When Jimmy offers to go with him, Price replies:
“Guess you're mistaken, Mr. Spencer,” he said. “Don't believe I recognize you. Your buggy's waiting for you, ain't it?”