After Twenty Years Summary

O. Henry's "After Twenty Years" tells the story of Jimmy and Bob, two childhood friends who made a pact to meet again after twenty years.

  • At the appointed meeting time and location, a policeman walks up and asks Bob what he's doing. Bob explains that he is waiting to meet with an old friend, and the officer departs.

  • Later, a man claiming to be Jimmy arrives. However, the man is actually a different policeman sent to arrest Bob, who is a known criminal in Chicago. The original policeman was actually Jimmy, but he didn't have the heart to arrest his old friend.

Summary

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Last Updated on November 6, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 647

It is approaching ten o'clock on a largely deserted avenue in New York. A policeman works his way up the street, carefully checking the locked doors of the businesses that have long since closed for the day. Suddenly, the officer of the peace encounters a man with an unlit cigar,...

(The entire section contains 647 words.)

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It is approaching ten o'clock on a largely deserted avenue in New York. A policeman works his way up the street, carefully checking the locked doors of the businesses that have long since closed for the day. Suddenly, the officer of the peace encounters a man with an unlit cigar, standing in the doorway of a hardware store. Congenially, the man tells the policeman that he is waiting for a friend, whom he had agreed to meet with at that very spot, twenty years ago that day.

The waiting man strikes a match to light the cigar he is holding, and in the brief flash of illumination, the officer notes that the person before him has "a pale, square-jawed face with keen eyes, and a little white scar near his right eyebrow." On his scarf is a large diamond, indicating great wealth. The man explains that he and the friend for whom he is waiting, his "best chum" Jimmy Wells, had been raised in New York like brothers; when they had grown up, Jimmy had remained in the city, but he himself had headed West to make his fortune. Upon taking leave of each other, the two friends had agreed to meet again in exactly twenty years to the hour, "no matter what [their] conditions might be or from what distance [they] might have to come."

The waiting man pulls out a fancy watch, embellished with diamonds. The officer idly comments that he must have done "pretty well out West," and the man responds, "You bet!" and expresses the hope that Jimmy, whom he remembers as having been "a kind of plodder," has done even half as well. He is confident that his old friend will meet him that night if he is alive, no matter what his circumstances may be, because Jimmy always was "the truest, stanchest old chap in the world."

The policeman continues on his way, and the man in the doorway keeps vigil as a fine rain begins to fall. After a short time, a tall character in a long overcoat with the collar turned up to his ears approaches and inquires hesitantly, "Is that you, Bob?" The waiting man exuberantly responds in kind, "Is that you, Jimmy Wells?" and the two grasp hands. The friends exchange pleasantries; then the waiting man proudly asserts that the West has given him "everything [he] asked it for," while his counterpart says, a bit less emphatically, that he has done moderately well at a position in one of the city departments.

The newcomer suggests that the two of them "go around to a place [he] know[s] of" where they can talk, and the men proceed up the street, arm in arm. At the corner, beneath the glare of a drugstore's electric lights, they turn to each other. The man from the West suddenly draws back and snaps, "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." The tall man counters with a gibe of his own, commenting ironically that such a span of time indeed "sometimes changes a good man into a bad one." He then places Bob, the waiting man, under arrest. Before taking Bob in, the tall man hands him a note that he has been asked to give him.

The missive is brief. The writer says that he was "at the appointed place on time," but when the recipient of the correspondence struck the match to light his cigar, the writer recognized his face as that of a notorious criminal wanted in Chicago. The writer did not have the heart to do what needed to be done himself, so he solicited the aid of a plainclothes officer to fill in for him. The note is signed by "Jimmy"—Patrolman Jimmy Wells. 

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