O. Henry is the pseudonym of William Sidney Porter, an American author who was born in 1862 and died in 1910. Many of his short stories, such as “Phoebe,” have surprise endings.
Phoebe, a moon of Saturn, plays a significant role in this story. Significantly, Phoebe was a recent astronomical discovery when O. Henry wrote this story. William Pickering discovered Phoebe in 1898.
O. Henry begins the story in the first person. I believe that the author is injecting himself into the story.
The author was conversing with Captain Patricio Malone in a New Orleans café. He asked the captain whether he believed that good luck or bad luck had played a significant role in his career. In response, the captain told the story of Bad-Luck Kearny.
The captain met Francis Kearny when a cellar door broke as Kearny was rushing over it. He fell into a coal bin, and the captain helped him out. The two then had a drink together.
From the ensuing conversation, the captain learned that Kearny had suffered a string of misfortunes before falling into the coal bin. He had gone to Costa Rica to hunt gold, but found that the government had granted a monopoly to a syndicate. Then he suffered a tropical disease. He also had troubles as he returned to New Orleans.
The captain liked Kearny’s pluck and persuaded him to be his assistant. The captain was about to smuggle rifles to Raphael Valdevia, the Minister of War of a tropical country. Patricio Malone did not give the real name of the country in question. He referred to it by the fictitious name of Esperando, just to give it a convenient label. Raphael Valdevia needed the rifles because he wanted to overthrow President Cruz, whom he considered a cruel dictator.
When they finished their conversation, Kearny accidentally smashed a glass showcase as they were leaving the establishment in which they had bought their drinks. Captain Malone paid for it.
Captain Malone told Kearny that they would sail for Esperando the next day. Kearny warned the captain that he might regret taking him along, since his luck was so bad that everything that he ever got into went up in the air, except a balloon. Moreover, everything that he ever tried to do he ran into the ground except when he tried to plow.
The captain suggested that Kearny’s consistent bad luck must have some cause. Kearny said that he was born under Saturn, an unlucky planet, and that Phoebe one of Saturn’s moons, was directly responsible for his persistent misfortunes. An astrologer named Azrath had read his horoscope and given him this information. Ever since, his life had been an unending series of misfortunes.
He showed the captain where Saturn was located in the sky. Just below was an ugly red star, which Kearny identified as Phoebe.
In reply, the captain suggested that courage and diligence might overcome bad luck. The next day, they sailed for Esperando.
The bad luck started almost immediately. After sailing 50 miles down the Mississippi, the rudder of thee ship broke, and they had to be towed back to New Orleans.
When they finally reached the Gulf of Mexico, they were assailed by a violent storm and had to throw a considerable amount of their cargo overboard. Kearny shook his fist at Phoebe, who was hidden behind the clouds. He called her a red-haired vixen and a one-eyed banshee. He wished that fate had subjected him to a man star because he had to watch his language, since he was addressing a lady.
When they arrived at their destination, they met Carlos Quintana and three hundred patriots encamped by the Río Escondido. The captain told them that he had brought 1,000 Winchester rifles and two Gatlings.
Kearny’s bad luck continued to plague him. He fell into the river, and later Kearny caused one of the heavy Gatlings to sank to the bottom of the water and get buried in the mud as it was being unloaded from the ship.
The captain was irritated because of the loss of the Gatling. He was inclined to attribute the loss to Kearny’s incompetence rather than bad luck. However, Kearny redeemed himself by recovering the Gatling on the following day. The captain decided to give Kearny the rank of lieutenant. He was supposed to drill 100 men and make them combat ready.
Don Raphael Valdevia sent a message to the camp. He said that people were tired of the corrupt government of President Cruz. It was time for action. He suggested that July 18 was a good day to attack.
They began to march to Aguas Frías, the capital of Esperando. On the way, one of the pack mules bolted and ran into the thickets. Kearny intercepted the mule and gave it a kick. The mule fell over and died. The sack it was carrying burst open, and the coffee of the company spilled to the ground. Since coffee was very important to the people of Esperando, the accident had an adverse effect on the morale of the soldiers.
To the captain, this was the last draw. Whether it was Phoebe or some other factor that caused misfortune to follow the footsteps of Kearny, he did not want Kearny to jeopardize his plans. So he gave Kearny some money and told him to return to the seashore, where a ship would soon be sailing to New Orleans. He gave Kearny a handwritten note with instructions to the sailing-master of the ship.
On the evening of July 17, the soldiers camped five miles from Aguas Frías. At midnight, the captain saw Kearny approach. His ragged condition showed that bad luck had continued to dog his footsteps. He was limping and had lost his hat and one of his boots. He wanted to take part in the final action. The captain had deep misgivings, but he readmitted Kearny to the company with the rank of lieutenant.
Kearny thanked the captain and started walking away. Suddenly there was a deafening explosion and a brilliant light. The captain realized that a meteor had fallen.
Kearny noticed that the ugly red star was no longer shining in the vicinity of Saturn. He thought that Phoebe had burst asunder, causing the explosion that he had heard. He triumphantly proclaimed that Phoebe was gone. He was confident that his bad luck had come to an end.
Kearny and the captain entered Aguas Frías, while the company remained outside and waited for word to advance.
When the two men reached the residence of Raphael Valdevia, something seemed to be wrong. When a servant tried to summon him by ringing the bell, he did not answer. The captain and Kearny entered his room. They found that he had been killed by a piece of the meteor that had fallen. Since Kearny thought that the meteor was Phoebe, he thought that Phoebe had killed Raphael.
Raphael Valdevia was irreplaceable. The rebel soldiers quietly disbanded.
After the two men had parted, Captain Malone returned to New Orleans and told the story to a learned professor, who happened to be his friend. The professor informed the captain that it was impossible to see the satellite Phoebe without a powerful telescope.
About a year later, the captain happened to see Kearny once more. He was married to a domineering woman, and her name was Phoebe.
Literature Collection: Phoebe