"The Furnished Room" is a short story by the American author William Sydney Porter, who wrote under the pseudonym of O. Henry. It was first published in the New York World on August 14, 1904 and was later republished in the 1906 anthology The Four Million.
The story takes place in the lower West Side district of New York City. A young man searching for his lover rents a furnished room near the theaters where the girl, an aspiring singer, may be working. Weary from months of searching, he sits down to rest when the room suddenly fills with the sweet fragrance often worn by the girl. Convinced that she has been there, he begins to search the room for any traces she may have left behind.
One of the most popular stories by O. Henry, "The Furnished Room" is included in most "best of" collections of his works. The story is also found in many ghost-story anthologies.
The lower West Side of Manhattan offers many boardinghouses with furnished rooms for all the transients who come through the area. One evening, a young man walks from one building to the next looking for a room. At the twelfth, the unwholesome-looking housekeeper informs him she has the back room on the third floor available. She leads him up the dark and dank stairway to the room. She claims it is a good and convenient room, very popular and not often vacant. Being in the theater district, however, she gets many lodgers connected with the stage who tend not to stay for long. The room opened up a week ago.
He takes the room and pays for a week in advance. As the housekeeper is leaving, he asks if she remembers a young girl, an aspiring singer named Eloise Vashner. The girl is fair, of medium height and slender, with reddish gold hair and a mole near her left eyebrow. The housekeeper does not recall such a girl, and points out that stage people change names as often as they change rooms.
The young man has been making inquiries for five months, questioning managers and agents during the day and theater audiences at night. Sitting down after another fruitless day, he surveys the furnished room with its decayed furniture. He can picture the previous tenants from the traces left in the room. A worn rug tells the story of a woman marching in front of the dresser. Splattered stains on the wall recall a hurled glass or bottle. There is a woman's name scratched on the mirror. The room has been abused, as if in rage, by its previous dwellers. The furniture is chipped, the couch springs are bursting, and the marble mantel is missing a chunk. He rests in the chair listening to various noises inside and outside the building, smelling the cold and musty air.
Suddenly, the room fills with the strong, sweet fragrance of mignonette. The rich odor blows in like a wind, entering the room like a living visitor. The young man answers "What, dear?" as if he is being called. He springs up and turns around, and is enveloped by the rich scent. It is the fragrance she loved and wore, and he cries out "She has been in this room."
He begins to search the room for any items left behind by the girl. He is too consumed in the search to perceive that she is there all around him, clinging and calling to him. Finally his senses are overwhelmed by the presence and he answers again, "Yes, dear!" He turns around and gropes in the air in confusion, wondering how odors can have a voice. He then resumes his search. He finds remnants and small records of many lives but nothing belonging to his lover. He runs downstairs to find the housekeeper and asks for information on previous occupants of the room. Going back a full year, there have been no lodgers resembling the girl he loves.
The young man returns to his room and finds it dead. The perfume and the spirit have gone, replaced by the musty odor and the stale atmosphere. Drained of his hope and his faith, he sits down and stares at the gas light. Then he walks over to his bed and begins to tear the sheets into strips. He fills the gaps around the door and the windows with the strips then turns out the light. Turning the gas back on full, he lies down on the bed.
Meanwhile, the housekeeper chats with a friend over a glass of beer. She tells her friend that she has a new renter for the room. Her friend asks if she told him, and the housekeeper replies that she has not, so as not to scare away his business. It was exactly a week ago that the last lodger killed herself with the gas in the room – a young girl who would have been called handsome but for a mole by her left eyebrow.