The Hearts and Hands by O. Henry
A word about the author .. William Sydney Porter (pen name –O. Henry) is perhaps the most widely read short story teller of America. The stories are as gripping as they are spontaneous. However, they end abruptly, with a totally unexpected outcome. This leaves the clueless reader flabbergasted and bemused.
This story .. It is set in a train where a marshal s escorting a convict. The marshal looks ruffled and crabby. His escort, the convict is a handsome young man with a smart exterior. They both enter a train compartment and are seated facing a young urbane lady. The grumpy middle-aged marshal has a golden heart that belies his rough exterior. He has a good presence of mind too. The marshal has handcuffed himself to the young convict in his right hand which is the rule for escorting convicts in transit.
The convict, Easton by name, looks charming and smart. The passenger in front is the young lady who happens to know him. She begins to chat with Easton pleasantly. A little while later, she discovers that Easton is handcuffed to the grubby man at his side. She is horrified to see this. The sense of disgust is palpable in her face. Easton is visibly discomfited.
The escort watches this sudden twist of situation. Being a kind-hearted person, he wanted to save his convict from such a fall from grace in the eyes of the charming lady. He begins to speak as if he is going to serve a 7-year jail term for counterfeiting offence. The lady sighs in relief. Easton feels he has got a huge makeover. He continues his chat with the lady as if nothing has happened. The lady sees Easton the convict as the marshal. Easton emerges as a perfectly honourable gentleman with a marshal’s job. He beams with a new-found dignity and self-assurance.
The clever grumpy marshal begins to complain that he has had no smoke for a long time. That is a perfect alibi for the duo to leave their seats and proceed to the smoking area.
Two passengers were watching the encounter and the conversation from a little distance. One of them has found out the trick played by the real marshal to save his convict from a really embarrassing situation. He tells his friend that the marshal handcuffs the convict in the latter’s right hand. So, the smart young man Easton was the convict, not the marshal.