The Wise Men by Stephen Crane

They were youths of subtle mind. They were very wicked according to report, and yet they managed to have it reflect great credit upon them. They often had the well-informed and the great talkers of the American colony engaged in reciting their misdeeds, and facts relating to their sins were usually told with a flourish of awe and fine admiration.

One was from San Francisco and one was from New York, but they resembled each other in appearance. This is an idiosyncrasy of geography.

They were never apart in the City of Mexico, at any rate, excepting perhaps when one had retired to his hotel for a respite, and then the other was usually camped down at the office sending up servants with clamorous messages. “Oh, get up and come on down.”

They were two lads—they were called the kids—and far from their mothers. Occasionally some wise man pitied them, but he usually was alone in his wisdom. The other folk frankly were transfixed at the splendour of the audacity and endurance of these kids.

“When do those boys ever sleep?” murmured a man as he viewed them entering a café about eight o’clock one morning. Their smooth infantile faces looked bright and fresh enough, at any rate. “Jim told me he saw them still at it about 4.30 this morning.”

“Sleep!” ejaculated a companion in a glowing voice. “They never sleep! They go to bed once in every two weeks.” His boast of it seemed almost a personal pride.

“They’ll end with a crash, though, if they keep it up at this pace,” said a gloomy voice from behind a newspaper.

The Café Colorado has a front of white and gold, in which is set larger plate-glass windows than are commonly to be found in Mexico. Two little wings of willow flip-flapping incessantly serve as doors. Under them small stray dogs go furtively into the café, and are shied into the street again by the waiters. On the side-walk there is always a decorative effect of loungers, ranging from the newly-arrived and superior tourist to the old veteran of the silver mines bronzed by violent suns. They contemplate with various shades of interest the show of the street—the red, purple, dusty white, glaring forth against the walls in the furious sunshine.

One afternoon the kids strolled into the Café Colorado. A half-dozen of the men who sat smoking and reading with a sort of Parisian effect at the little tables which lined two sides of the room, looked up and bowed smiling, and although this coming of the kids was anything but an unusual event, at least a dozen men wheeled in their chairs to stare after them. Three waiters polished tables, and moved chairs noisily, and appeared to be eager. Distinctly these kids were of importance.

Behind the distant bar, the tall form of old Pop himself awaited them smiling with broad geniality. “Well, my boys, how are you?” he cried in a voice of profound solicitude. He allowed five or six of his customers to languish in the care of Mexican bartenders, while he himself gave his eloquent attention to the kids, lending all the dignity of a great event to their arrival. “How are the boys to-day, eh?”

“You’re a smooth old guy,” said one, eying him. “Are you giving us this welcome so we won’t notice it when you push your worst whisky at us?”

Pop turned in appeal from one kid to the other kid. “There, now, hear that, will you?” He assumed an oratorical pose. “Why, my boys, you always get the best that this house has got.”

“Yes, we do!” The kids laughed. “Well, bring it out, anyhow, and if it’s the same you sold us last night, we’ll grab your cash register and run.”

Pop whirled a bottle along the bar and then gazed at it with a rapt expression. “Fine as silk,” he murmured. “Now just taste that, and if it isn’t the best whisky you ever put in your face, why I’m a liar, that’s all.”

The kids surveyed him with scorn, and poured their allowances. Then they stood for a time insulting Pop about his whisky. “Usually it tastes exactly like new parlour furniture,” said the San Francisco kid. “Well, here goes, and you want to look out for your cash register.”

“Your health, gentlemen,” said Pop with a grand air, and as he wiped his bristling grey moustaches he wagged his head with reference to the cash register question. “I could catch you before you got very far.”

“Why, are you a runner?” said one derisively.

“You just bank on me, my boy,” said Pop, with deep emphasis. “I’m a flier.”

The kids sat down their glasses suddenly and looked at him. “You must be,” they said. Pop was tall and graceful and magnificent in manner, but he did not display those qualities of form which mean speed in the animal. His hair was grey; his face was round and fat from much living. The buttons of his glittering white waistcoat formed a fine curve, so that if the concave surface of a piece of barrel-hoop had been laid against Pop it would have touched every button. “You must be,” observed the kids again.

“Well, you can laugh all you like, but—no jolly now, boys, I tell you I’m a winner. Why, I bet you I can skin anything in this town on a square go. When I kept my place in Eagle Pass there wasn’t anybody who could touch me. One of these sure things came down from San Anton’. Oh, he was a runner he was. One of these people with wings. Well, I skinned ‘im. What? Certainly I did. Never touched me.”

The kids had been regarding him in grave silence, but at this moment they grinned, and said quite in chorus, “Oh, you old liar!”

Pop’s voice took on a whining tone of earnestness. “Boys, I’m telling it to you straight. I’m a flier.”

One of the kids had had a dreamy cloud in his eye and he cried out suddenly—”Say, what a joke to play this on Freddie.”

The other jumped ecstatically. “Oh, wouldn’t it though. Say he wouldn’t do a thing but howl! He’d go crazy.”

They looked at Pop as if they longed to be certain that he was, after all, a runner. “Now, Pop, on the level,” said one of them wistfully, “can you run?”

“Boys,” swore Pop, “I’m a peach! On the dead level, I’m a peach.”

“By golly, I believe the old Indian can run,” said one to the other, as if they were alone in confidence.

“That’s what I can,” cried Pop.

The kids said—”Well, so long, old man.” They went to a table and sat down. They ordered a salad. They were always ordering salads. This was because one kid had a wild passion for salads, and the other didn’t care. So at any hour of the day they might be seen ordering a salad. When this one came they went into a sort of executive session. It was a very long consultation. Men noted it. Occasionally the kids laughed in supreme enjoyment of something unknown. The low rumble of wheels came from the street. Often could be heard the parrot-like cries of distant vendors. The sunlight streamed through the green curtains, and made little amber-coloured flitterings on the marble floor. High up among the severe decorations of the ceiling—reminiscent of the days when the great building was a palace—a small white butterfly was wending through the cool air spaces. The long billiard hall led back to a vague gloom. The balls were always clicking, and one could see countless crooked elbows. Beggars slunk through the wicker doors, and were ejected by the nearest waiter. At last the kids called Pop to them.

“Sit down, Pop. Have a drink.” They scanned him carefully. “Say now, Pop, on your solemn oath, can you run?”

“Boys,” said Pop piously, and raising his hand, “I can run like a rabbit.”

“On your oath?”

“On my oath.”

“Can you beat Freddie?”

Pop appeared to look at the matter from all sides. “Well, boys, I’ll tell you. No man is ever cock-sure of anything in this world, and I don’t want to say that I can best any man, but I’ve seen Freddie run, and I’m ready to swear I can beat him. In a hundred yards I’d just about skin ‘im neat—you understand, just about neat. Freddie is a good average runner, but I—you understand—I’m just—a little—bit—better.” The kids had been listening with the utmost attention. Pop spoke the latter part slowly and meanfully. They thought he intended them to see his great confidence.

One said—”Pop, if you throw us in this thing, we’ll come here and drink for two weeks without paying. We’ll back you and work a josh on Freddie! But O!—if you throw us!”

To this menace Pop cried—”Boys, I’ll make the run of my life! On my oath!”

The salad having vanished, the kids arose. “All right, now,” they warned him. “If you play us for duffers, we’ll get square. Don’t you forget it.”

“Boys, I’ll give you a race for your money. Book on that. I may lose—understand, I may lose—no man can help meeting a better man. But I think I can skin him, and I’ll give you a run for your money, you bet.”

“All right, then. But, look here,” they told him, “you keep your face closed. Nobody gets in on this but us. Understand?”

“Not a soul,” Pop declared. They left him, gesturing a last warning from the wicker doors.

In the street they saw Benson, his cane gripped in the middle, strolling through the white-clothed jabbering natives on the shady side. They semaphored to him eagerly. He came across cautiously, like a man who ventures into dangerous company.

“We’re going to get up a race. Pop and Fred. Pop swears he can skin ‘im. This is a tip. Keep it dark. Say, won’t Freddie be hot?”

Benson looked as if he had been compelled to endure these exhibitions of insanity for a century. “Oh, you fellows are off. Pop can’t beat Freddie. He’s an old bat. Why, it’s impossible. Pop can’t beat Freddie.”

“Can’t he? Want to bet he can’t?” said the kids. “There now, let’s see—you’re talking so large.”

“Well, you——”

“Oh, bet. Bet or else close your trap. That’s the way.”

“How do you know you can pull off the race? Seen Freddie?”

“No, but——”

“Well, see him then. Can’t bet with no race arranged. I’ll bet with you all right—all right. I’ll give you fellows a tip though—you’re a pair of asses. Pop can’t run any faster than a brick school-house.”

The kids scowled at him and defiantly said—”Can’t he?” They left him and went to the Casa Verde. Freddie, beautiful in his white jacket, was holding one of his innumerable conversations across the bar. He smiled when he saw them. “Where you boys been?” he demanded, in a paternal tone. Almost all the proprietors of American cafés in the city used to adopt a paternal tone when they spoke to the kids.

“Oh, been ’round,’” they replied.

“Have a drink?” said the proprietor of the Casa Verde, forgetting his other social obligations. During the course of this ceremony one of the kids remarked—

“Freddie, Pop says he can beat you running.”

“Does he?” observed Freddie without excitement. He was used to various snares of the kids.

“That’s what. He says he can leave you at the wire and not see you again.”

“Well, he lies,” replied Freddie placidly.

“And I’ll bet you a bottle of wine that he can do it, too.”

“Rats!” said Freddie.

“Oh, that’s all right,” pursued a kid. “You can throw bluffs all you like, but he can lose you in a hundred yards’ dash, you bet.”

Freddie drank his whisky, and then settled his elbows on the bar.

“Say, now, what do you boys keep coming in here with some pipe-story all the time for? You can’t josh me. Do you think you can scare me about Pop? Why, I know I can beat him. He can’t run with me. Certainly not. Why, you fellows are just jollying me.”

“Are we though!” said the kids. “You daren’t bet the bottle of wine.”

“Oh, of course I can bet you a bottle of wine,” said Freddie disdainfully. “Nobody cares about a bottle of wine, but——”

“Well, make it five then,” advised one of the kids.

Freddie hunched his shoulders. “Why, certainly I will. Make it ten if you like, but——”

“We do,” they said.

“Ten, is it? All right; that goes.” A look of weariness came over Freddie’s face. “But you boys are foolish. I tell you Pop is an old man. How can you expect him to run? Of course, I’m no great runner, but then I’m young and healthy and—and a pretty smooth runner too. Pop is old and fat, and then he doesn’t do a thing but tank all day. It’s a cinch.”

The kids looked at him and laughed rapturously. They waved their fingers at him. “Ah, there!” they cried. They meant that they had made a victim of him.

But Freddie continued to expostulate. “I tell you he couldn’t win—an old man like him. You’re crazy. Of course, I know you don’t care about ten bottles of wine, but, then—to make such bets as that. You’re twisted.”

“Are we, though?” cried the kids in mockery. They had precipitated Freddie into a long and thoughtful treatise on every possible chance of the thing as he saw it. They disputed with him from time to time, and jeered at him. He laboured on through his argument. Their childish faces were bright with glee.

In the midst of it Wilburson entered. Wilburson worked; not too much, though. He had hold of the Mexican end of a great importing house of New York, and as he was a junior partner, he worked. But not too much, though. “What’s the howl?” he said.

The kids giggled. “We’ve got Freddie rattled.”

“Why,” said Freddie, turning to him, “these two Indians are trying to tell me that Pop can beat me running.”

“Like the devil,” said Wilburson, incredulously.

“Well, can’t he?” demanded a kid.

“Why, certainly not,” said Wilburson, dismissing every possibility of it with a gesture. “That old bat? Certainly not. I’ll bet fifty dollars that Freddie——”

“Take you,” said a kid.

“What?” said Wilburson, “that Freddie won’t beat Pop?”

The kid that had spoken now nodded his head.

“That Freddie won’t beat Pop?” repeated Wilburson.

“Yes. It’s a go?”

“Why, certainly,” retorted Wilburson. “Fifty? All right.”

“Bet you five bottles on the side,” ventured the other kid.

“Why, certainly,” exploded Wilburson wrathfully. “You fellows must take me for something easy. I’ll take all those kinds of bets I can get. Cer—tain—ly.”

They settled the details. The course was to be paced off on the asphalt of one of the adjacent side-streets, and then, at about eleven o’clock in the evening, the match would be run. Usually in Mexico the streets of a city grow lonely and dark but a little after nine o’clock. There are occasional lurking figures, perhaps, but no crowds, lights and noise. The course would doubtless be undisturbed. As for the policeman in the vicinity, they—well, they were conditionally amiable.

The kids went to see Pop; they told him of the arrangement, and then in deep tones they said, “Oh, Pop, if you throw us!”

Pop appeared to be a trifle shaken by the weight of responsibility thrust upon him, but he spoke out bravely. “Boys, I’ll pinch that race. Now you watch me. I’ll pinch it.”

The kids went then on some business of their own, for they were not seen again till evening. When they returned to the neighbourhood of the Café Colorado the usual stream of carriages was whirling along the calle. The wheels hummed on the asphalt, and the coachmen towered in their great sombreros. On the sidewalk a gazing crowd sauntered, the better class self-satisfied and proud, in their Derby hats and cut-away coats, the lower classes muffling their dark faces in their blankets, slipping along in leather sandals. An electric light sputtered and fumed over the throng. The afternoon shower had left the pave wet and glittering. The air was still laden with the odour of rain on flowers, grass, leaves.

In the Café Colorado a cosmopolitan crowd ate, drank, played billiards, gossiped, or read in the glaring yellow light. When the kids entered a large circle of men that had been gesticulating near the bar greeted them with a roar.

“Here they are now!”

“Oh, you pair of peaches!”

“Say, got any more money to bet with?” Colonel Hammigan, grinning, pushed his way to them. “Say, boys, we’ll all have a drink on you now because you won’t have any money after eleven o’clock. You’ll be going down the back stairs in your stocking feet.”

Although the kids remained unnaturally serene and quiet, argument in the Café Colorado became tumultuous. Here and there a man who did not intend to bet ventured meekly that perchance Pop might win, and the others swarmed upon him in a whirlwind of angry denial and ridicule.

Pop, enthroned behind the bar, looked over at this storm with a shadow of anxiety upon his face. This widespread flouting affected him, but the kids looked blissfully satisfied with the tumult they had stirred.

Blanco, honest man, ever worrying for his friends, came to them. “Say, you fellows, you aren’t betting too much? This thing looks kind of shaky, don’t it?”

The faces of the kids grew sober, and after consideration one said—”No, I guess we’ve got a good thing, Blanco. Pop is going to surprise them, I think.”

“Well, don’t——”

“All right, old boy. We’ll watch out.”

From time to time the kids had much business with certain orange, red, blue, purple, and green bills. They were making little memoranda on the back of visiting cards. Pop watched them closely, the shadow still upon his face. Once he called to them, and when they came he leaned over the bar and said intensely—”Say, boys, remember, now—I might lose this race. Nobody can ever say for sure, and if I do, why——”

“Oh, that’s all right, Pop,” said the kids, reassuringly. “Don’t mind it. Do your derndest, and let it go at that.”

When they had left him, however, they went to a corner to consult. “Say, this is getting interesting. Are you in deep?” asked one anxiously of his friend.

“Yes, pretty deep,” said the other stolidly. “Are you?”

“Deep as the devil,” replied the other in the same tone.

They looked at each other stonily and went back to the crowd. Benson had just entered the café. He approached them with a gloating smile of victory. “Well, where’s all that money you were going to bet?”

“Right here,” said the kids, thrusting into their waistcoat pockets.

At eleven o’clock a curious thing was learned. When Pop and Freddie, the kids and all, came to the little side street, it was thick with people. It seemed that the news of this race had spread like the wind among the Americans, and they had come to witness the event. In the darkness the crowd moved, mumbling in argument.

The principals—the kids and those with them—surveyed this scene with some dismay. “Say—here’s a go.” Even then a policeman might be seen approaching, the light from his little lantern flickering on his white cap, gloves, brass buttons, and on the butt of the old-fashioned Colt’s revolver which hung at his belt. He addressed Freddie in swift Mexican. Freddie listened, nodding from time to time. Finally Freddie turned to the others to translate. “He says he’ll get into trouble if he allows this race when all this crowd is here.”

There was a murmur of discontent. The policeman looked at them with an expression of anxiety on his broad, brown face.

“Oh, come on. We’ll go hold it on some other fellow’s beat,” said one of the kids. The group moved slowly away debating. Suddenly the other kid cried, “I know! The Paseo!”

“By jiminy,” said Freddie, “just the thing. We’ll get a cab and go out to the Paseo. S-s-h! Keep it quiet; we don’t want all this mob.”

Later they tumbled into a cab—Pop, Freddie, the kids, old Colonel Hammigan and Benson. They whispered to the men who had wagered, “The Paseo.” The cab whirled away up the black street. There were occasional grunts and groans, cries of “Oh, get off me feet,” and of “Quit! you’re killing me.” Six people do not have fun in one cab. The principals spoke to each other with the respect and friendliness which comes to good men at such times. Once a kid put his head out of the window and looked backward. He pulled it in again and cried, “Great Scott! Look at that, would you!”

The others struggled to do as they were bid, and afterwards shouted, “Holy smoke! Well, I’ll be blowed! Thunder and turf!”

Galloping after them came innumerable cabs, their lights twinkling, streaming in a great procession through the night.

“The street is full of them,” ejaculated the old colonel.

The Paseo de la Reforma is the famous drive of the city of Mexico, leading to the Castle of Chapultepec, which last ought to be well known in the United States.

It is a fine broad avenue of macadam with a much greater quality of dignity than anything of the kind we possess in our own land. It seems of the old world, where to the beauty of the thing itself is added the solemnity of tradition and history, the knowledge that feet in buskins trod the same stones, that cavalcades of steel thundered there before the coming of carriages.

When the Americans tumbled out of their cabs the giant bronzes of Aztec and Spaniard loomed dimly above them like towers. The four roads of poplar trees rustled weirdly off there in the darkness. Pop took out his watch and struck a match. “Well, hurry up this thing. It’s almost midnight.”

The other cabs came swarming, the drivers lashing their horses, for these Americans, who did all manner of strange things, nevertheless always paid well for it. There was a mighty hubbub then in the darkness. Five or six men began to pace the distance and quarrel. Others knotted their handkerchiefs together to make a tape. Men were swearing over bets, fussing and fuming about the odds. Benson came to the kids swaggering. “You’re a pair of asses.” The cabs waited in a solid block down the avenue. Above the crowd the tall statues hid their visages in the night.

At last a voice floated through the darkness. “Are you ready there?” Everybody yelled excitedly. The men at the tape pulled it out straight. “Hold it higher, Jim, you fool,” and silence fell then upon the throng. Men bended down trying to pierce the deep gloom with their eyes. From out at the starting point came muffled voices. The crowd swayed and jostled.

The racers did not come. The crowd began to fret, its nerves burning. “Oh, hurry up,” shrilled some one.

The voice called again—”Ready there?” Everybody replied—”Yes, all ready. Hurry up!”

There was a more muffled discussion at the starting point. In the crowd a man began to make a proposition. “I’ll bet twenty—” but the crowd interrupted with a howl. “Here they come!” The thickly-packed body of men swung as if the ground had moved. The men at the tape shouldered madly at their fellows, bawling, “Keep back! Keep back!”

From the distance came the noise of feet pattering furiously. Vague forms flashed into view for an instant. A hoarse roar broke from the crowd. Men bended and swayed and fought. The kids back near the tape exchanged another stolid look. A white form shone forth. It grew like a spectre. Always could be heard the wild patter. A scream broke from the crowd. “By Gawd, it’s Pop! Pop! Pop’s ahead!”

The old man spun towards the tape like a madman, his chin thrown back, his grey hair flying. His legs moved like oiled machinery. And as he shot forward a howl as from forty cages of wild animals went toward the imperturbable chieftains in bronze. The crowd flung themselves forward. “Oh, you old Indian! You savage! Did anybody ever see such running?”

“Ain’t he a peach! Well!”

“Where’s the kids? H-e-y, kids!”

“Look at him, would you? Did you ever think?” These cries flew in the air blended in a vast shout of astonishment and laughter.

For an instant the whole tragedy was in view. Freddie, desperate, his teeth shining, his face contorted, whirling along in deadly effort, was twenty feet behind the tall form of old Pop, who, dressed only in his—only in his underclothes—gained with each stride. One grand insane moment, and then Pop had hurled himself against the tape—victor!

Freddie, fallen into the arms of some men, struggled with his breath, and at last managed to stammer—

“Say, can’t—can’t—that old—old—man run!”

Pop, puffing and heaving, could only gasp—”Where’s my shoes? Who’s got my shoes?”

Later Freddie scrambled panting through the crowd, and held out his hand. “Good man, Pop!” And then he looked up and down the tall, stout form. “Hell! who would think you could run like that?”

The kids were surrounded by a crowd, laughing tempestuously.

“How did you know he could run?”

“Why didn’t you give me a line on him?”

“Say—great snakes!—you fellows had a nerve to bet on Pop.”

“Why, I was cock-sure he couldn’t win.”

“Oh, you fellows must have seen him run before.”

“Who would ever think it?”

Benson came by, filling the midnight air with curses. They turned to jibe him.

“What’s the matter, Benson?”

“Somebody pinched my handkerchief. I tied it up in that string. Damn it.”

The kids laughed blithely. “Why, hello! Benson,” they said.

There was a great rush for cabs. Shouting, laughing, wondering, the crowd hustled into their conveyances, and the drivers flogged their horses toward the city again.

“Won’t Freddie be crazy! Say, he’ll be guyed about this for years.”

“But who would ever think that old tank could run so?”

One cab had to wait while Pop and Freddie resumed various parts of their clothing.

As they drove home, Freddie said—”Well, Pop, you beat me.”

Pop said—”That’s all right, old man.”

The kids, grinning, said—”How much did you lose, Benson?”

Benson said defiantly—”Oh, not so much. How much did you win?”

“Oh, not so much.”

Old Colonel Hammigan, squeezed down in a corner, had apparently been reviewing the event in his mind, for he suddenly remarked, “Well, I’m damned!”

They were late in reaching the Café Colorado, but when they did, the bottles were on the bar as thick as pickets on a fence.

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