“The Five White Mice”
Freddie was mixing a cocktail. His hand with the long spoon was whirling swiftly, and the ice in the glass hummed and rattled like a cheap watch. Over by the window, a gambler, a millionaire, a railway conductor, and the agent of a vast American syndicate were playing seven-up. Freddie surveyed them with the ironica
l glance of a man who is mixing a cocktail.
From time to time a swarthy Mexican waiter came with his tray from the rooms at the rear, and called his orders across the bar. The sounds of the indolent stir of the city, awakening from its siesta, floated over the screens which barred the sun and the inquisitive eye. From the far-away kitchen could be heard the roar of the old French chef, driving, herding, and abusing his Mexican helpers.
A string of men came suddenly in from the street. They stormed up to the bar. There were impatient shouts. “Come, now, Freddie, don’t stand there like a portrait of yourself. Wiggle!” Drinks of many kinds and colors—amber, green, mahogany, strong and mild—began to swarm upon the bar, with all the attendants of lemon, sugar, mint, and ice. Freddie, with Mexican support, worked like a sailor in the provision of them, sometimes talking with that scorn for drink and admiration for those who drink which is the attribute of a good barkeeper.
At last a man was afflicted with a stroke of dice-shaking. A herculean discussion was waging, and he was deeply engaged in it, but at the same time he lazily flirted the dice. Occasionally he made great combinations. “Look at that, would you?” he cried proudly. The others paid little heed. Then violently the craving took them. It went along the line like an epidemic, and involved them all. In a moment they had arranged a carnival of dice-shaking, with money penalties and liquid prizes. They clamorously made it a point of honor with Freddie that he too should play, and take his chance of sometimes providing this large group with free refreshment. With bent heads, like football players, they surged over the tinkling dice, jostling, cheering, and bitterly arguing. One of the quiet company playing seven-up at the corner table said profanely that the row reminded him of a bowling contest at a picnic.
After the regular shower, many carriages rolled over the smooth calle, and sent a musical thunder through the Casa Verde. The shop windows became aglow with light, and the walks were crowded with youths, callow and ogling, dressed vainly according to supposititious fashions. The policemen had muffled themselves in their gnome-like cloaks and placed their lanterns as obstacles for the carriages in the middle of the street. The City of Mexico gave forth the deep, mellow organ-tones of its evening resurrection.
But still the group at the bar of the Casa Verde were shaking dice. They had passed beyond shaking for drinks for the crowd, for Mexican dollars, for dinner, for the wine at dinner. They had even gone to the trouble of separating the cigars and cigarettes from the dinner’s bill, and causing a distinct man to be responsible for them. Finally they were aghast. Nothing remained within sight of their minds which even remotely suggested further gambling. There was a pause for deep consideration.
A man called out in the exuberance of creation. “I know! Let’s stake for a box tonight at the circus! A box at the circus!” The group was profoundly edified. “That’s it! That’s it! Come on, now! Box at the circus!” A dominating voice cried: “Three dashes—high man out!” An American, tall, and with a face of copper red from the rays that flash among the Sierra Madres and burn on the cactus deserts, took the little leathern cup, and spun the dice out upon the polished wood. A fascinated assemblage hung upon the bar rail. Three kings turned their pink faces upward. The tall man flourished the cup, burlesquing, and flung the two other dice. From them he ultimately extracted one more pink king. “There,” he said. “Now, let’s see! Four kings!” He began to swagger in a sort of provisional way.
The next man took the cup, and blew softly on the top of it. Poising it in his hand, he then surveyed the company with a stony eye, and paused. They knew perfectly well that he was applying the magic of deliberation and ostentatious indifference, but they could not wait in tranquillity during the performance of all these rites. They began to call out impatiently: “Come, now—hurry up!” At last the man, with a gesture that was singularly impressive, threw the dice. The others set up a howl of joy. “Not a pair!” There was another solemn pause. The men moved restlessly. “Come, now, go ahead!” In the end, the man, induced and abused, achieved something that was nothing in the presence of four kings. The tall man climbed on the footrail and leaned hazardously forward. “Four kings! My four kings are good to go out,” he bellowed into the middle of the mob; and although in a moment he did pass into the radiant region of exemption, he continued to bawl advice and scorn.
The mirrors and oiled woods of the Casa Verde were now dancing with blue flashes from a great buzzing electric lamp. A host of quiet members of the Anglo-Saxon colony had come in for their pre-dinner cocktails. An amiable person was exhibiting to some tourists this popular American saloon. It was a very sober and respectable time of day. Freddie reproved courageously the dice-shaking brawlers, and, in return, he received the choicest advice in a tumult of seven combined vocabularies. He laughed. He had been compelled to retire from the game, but he was keeping an interested, if furtive, eye upon it.
Down at the end of the line there was a youth at whom everybody railed for his flaming ill luck. At each disaster, Freddie swore from behind the bar in a sort of affectionate contempt. “Why this Kid has had no luck for two days. Did you ever see such throwin’?”
The contest narrowed eventually to the New York Kid and an individual who swung about placidly on legs that moved in nefarious circles. He had a grin that resembled a bit of carving. He was obliged to lean down and blink rapidly to ascertain the facts of his venture, but fate presented him with five queens. His smile did not change, but he puffed gently, like a man who has been running.
The others, having emerged unscathed from this part of the conflict, waxed hilarious with the Kid. They smote him on either shoulder. “We’ve got you stuck for it, Kid! You can’t beat that game! Five queens!”
Up to this time the Kid had displayed only the temper of the gambler; but the cheerful hoots of the players, supplemented now by a ring of guying noncombatants, caused him to feel profoundly that it would be fine to beat the five queens. He addressed a gambler’s slogan to the interior of the cup:
Oh, five white mice of chance,
Shirts of wool and corduroy pants,
Gold and wine, women and sin,
All for you if you let me come in—
Into the house of chance.
Flashing the dice sardonically out upon the bar, he displayed three aces. From two dice in the next throw he achieved one more ace. For his last throw, he rattled the single dice for a long time. He already had four aces; if he accomplished another one, the five queens were vanquished, and the box at the circus came from the drunken man’s pocket. All of the Kid’s movements were slow and elaborate. For his last throw he planted the cup bottom up on the bar, with the one dice hidden under it. Then he turned and faced the crowd with the air of a conjuror or a cheat.
“Oh, maybe it’s an ace,” he said in boastful calm. “Maybe it’s an ace.”
Instantly he was presiding over a little drama in which every man was absorbed. The Kid leaned with his back against the bar rail and with his elbows upon it.
“Maybe it’s an ace,” he repeated.
A jeering voice in the background said: “Yes; maybe it is, Kid!”
The Kid’s eyes searched for a moment among the men. “I’ll bet fifty dollars it is an ace,” he said.
Another voice asked: “American money?”
“Yes,” answered the Kid.
“Oh!” There was a general laugh at this discomfiture. However, no one came forward at the Kid’s challenge, and presently he turned to the cup. “Now, I’ll show you.” With the manner of a mayor unveiling a statue, he lifted the cup. There was revealed naught but a ten-spot. In the roar which arose could be heard each man ridiculing the cowardice of his neighbor, and above all the din rang the voice of Freddie berating every one.
“Why, there isn’t one liver to every five men in the outfit. That was the greatest cold bluff I ever saw worked. He wouldn’t know how to cheat with dice if he wanted to. Don’t know the fir
st thing about it. I could hardly keep from laughin’ when I seen him drillin’ you around. Why, I tell you I had that fifty dollars right in my pocket, if I wanted to be a chump. You’re an easy lot!”
Nevertheless, the group who had won in the circus-box game did not relinquish their triumph. They burst like a storm about the head of the Kid, swinging at him with their fists. “ ‘Five white mice’!” they quoted, choking. “ ‘Five white mice’!”
“Oh, they are not so bad,” said the Kid.
Afterward it often occurred that a man would suddenly jeer a finger at the Kid and derisively say: “ ‘Five white mice’!”
On the route from the dinner to the circus, others of the party often asked the Kid if he had really intended to make his appeal to mice. They suggested other animals—rabbits, dogs, hedgehogs, snakes, opossums. To this banter the Kid replied with a serious expression of his belief in the fidelity and wisdom of the five white mice. He presented a most eloquent case, decorated with fine language and insults, in which he proved that, if one was going to believe in anything at all, one might as well choose the five white mice. His companions, however, at once and unanimously pointed out to him that his recent exploit did not place him in the light of a convincing advocate.
The Kid discerned two figures in the street. They were making imperious signs at him. He waited for them to approach, for he recognized one as the other Kid—the ’Frisco Kid: there were two Kids. With the ’Frisco Kid was Benson. They arrived almost breathless. “Where you been?” cried the ’Frisco Kid. It was an arrangement that, upon meeting, the one that could first ask this question was entitled to use a tone of limitless injury. “What you been doing? Where you going? Come on with us. Benson and I have got a little scheme.”
The New York Kid pulled his arm from the grapple of the other. “I can’t. I’ve got to take these sutlers to the circus. They stuck me for it, shaking dice at Freddie’s. I can’t, I tell you.”
The two did not at first attend to his remarks. “Come on; we’ve got a little scheme.”
“I can’t. They’ve stuck me. I’ve got to take ’m to the circus.”
At this time it did not suit the men with the scheme to recognize these objections as important. “Oh, take ’m some other time.” “Well, can’t you take ’m some other time?” “Let ’m go.” “Damn the circus.” “Get cold feet!” “What did you get stuck for?” “Get cold feet!”
But despite their fighting, the New York Kid broke away from them. “I can’t, I tell you. They stuck me.”
As he left them, they yelled with rage. “Well, meet us, now, do you hear? In the Casa Verde, as soon as the circus quits! Hear?” They threw maledictions after him.
In the City of Mexico, a man goes to the circus without descending in any way to infant amusements, because the Circo Teatro Orrin is one of the best in the world, and too easily surpasses anything of the kind in the United States, where it is merely a matter of a number of rings, if possible, and a great professional agreement to lie to the public. Moreover, the American clown who in the Mexican arena prances and gabbles is the clown to whom writers refer as the delight of their childhood and lament that he is dead. At this circus the Kid was not debased by the sight of mournful prisoner elephants and caged animals, forlorn and sickly. He sat in his box until late, and laughed, and swore, when past laughing at the comic, foolish, wise clown.
When he returned to the Casa Verde, there was no display of the ’Frisco Kid and Benson. Freddie was leaning upon the bar, listening to four men terribly discuss a question that was not plain. There was a card-game in the corner, of course. Sounds of revelry pealed from the rear rooms.
When the Kid asked Freddie if he had seen his friend and Benson, Freddie looked bored. “Oh, yes, they were in here just a minute ago, but I don’t know where they went. They’ve got their skates on. Where’ve they been? Came in here rolling across the floor like two little gilt gods. They wobbled around for a time, and then ’Frisco wanted me to send six bottles of wine around to Benson’s rooms; but I didn’t have anybody to send this time of night, and so they got mad and went out. Where did they get their loads?”
In the first deep gloom of the street the Kid paused a moment, debating. But presently he heard quavering voices: “Oh, Kid! Kid! Come ’ere!” Peering, he recognized two vague figures against the opposite wall. He crossed the street, and they said: “Hello Kid.”
“Say, where did you get it?” he demanded sternly. “You Indians better go home. What did you want to get scragged for?” His face was luminous with virtue.
As they swung to and fro they made angry denials. “We ain’ load’. We ain’ load’. Big chump! Comonangetadrink.”
The sober youth turned then to his friend. “Hadn’t you better go home, Kid? Come on, it’s late. You’d better break away.”
The ’Frisco Kid wagged his head decisively. “Got take Benson home first. He’ll be wallowing round in a minute. Don’t mind me. I’m all right.”
“Ce’r’ly he’s all right,” said Benson, arousing from deep thought. “He’s all right. But better take ’m home, though. That’s ri-right. He’s load’. But he’s all right. No need go home any more ’n you. But better take ’m home. He’s load’.” He looked at his companion with compassion. “Kid, you’re load’.”
The sober Kid spoke abruptly to his friend from San Francisco. “Kid, pull yourself together, now. Don’t fool. We’ve got to brace this ass of a Benson all the way home. Get hold of his other arm.”
The ’Frisco Kid immediately obeyed his comrade, without a word or a glower. He seized Benson, and came to attention like a soldier. Later, indeed, he meekly ventured: “Can’t we take cab?” But when the New York Kid snapped out that there were no convenient cabs, he subsided to an impassive silence. He seemed to be reflecting upon his state without astonishment, dismay, or any particular emotion. He submitted himself woodenly to the direction of his friend.
Benson had protested when they had grasped his arms. “W’asha doing?” he said in a new and guttural voice. “W’asha doing? I ain’ load’. Comonangetadrink. I—”
“Oh, come along, you idiot,” said the New York Kid. The ’Frisco Kid merely presented the mien of a stoic to the appeal of Benson, and in silence dragged away at one of his arms. Benson’s feet came from that particular spot on the pavement with the reluctance of roots, and also with the ultimate suddenness of roots. The three of them lurched out into the street in the abandon of tumbling chimneys. Benson was meanwhile noisily challenging the others to produce any reasons for his being taken home. His toes clashed into the curb when they reached the other side of the calle, and for a moment the Kids hauled him along, with the points of his shoes scraping musically on the pavement. He balked formidably as they were about to pass the Casa Verde. “No, no! Leshavanothdrink! Anothdrink! Onemore!”
But the ’Frisco Kid obeyed the voice of his partner in a manner that was blind, but absolute, and they scummed Benson on past the door. Locked together, the three swung into a dark street. The sober Kid’s flank was continually careering ahead of the other wing. He harshly admonished the ’Frisco child, and the latter promptly improved in the same manner of unthinking, complete obedience. Benson began to recite the tale of a love affair—a tale that didn’t even have a middle. Occasionally the New York Kid swore. They toppled on their way like three comedians playing at it on the stage.
At midnight a little Mexican street burrowing among the walls of the city is as dark as a whale’s throat at deep sea. Upon this occasion heavy clouds hung over the capital, and the sky was a pall. The projecting balconies could make no shadows.
“Shay,” said Benson, breaking away from his escort suddenly, “what want g’ome for? I ain’ load’. You got reg’lar spool-fact’ry in your head—you N’ York Kid, there. Thish oth’ Kid, he’s mos’ proper—mos’ proper shober. He’s drunk, but—but he’s shober.”
“Ah, shut up, Benson,” said the New York Kid. “Come along, now. We can’t stay here all night.” Benson refused to be corralled, but spread his legs and twirled like a dervish, meanwhile under the evident impression that he was conducting himself most handsomely. It was not long before he gained the opinion that he was laughing at the others. “Eight purple dogsh—dogs! Eight purple dogs! Tha’s what Kid’ll see in the morn’. Look ou’ for ’em. They—”
As Benson, describing the canine phenomena, swung wildly across the sidewalk, it chanced that three other pedestrians were passing in shadowy rank. Benson’s shoulder jostled one of them.
A Mexican wheeled upon the instant. His hand flashed to his hip. There was a moment of silence, during which Benson’s voice was not heard raised in apology. Then an indescribable comment, one burning word, came from between the Mexican’s teeth.
Benson, rolling about in a semidetached manner, stared vacantly at the Mexican, who thrust his lean yellow face forward, while his fingers played nervously at his hip. The New York Kid could not follow Spanish well, but he understood when the Mexican breathed softly: “Does the señor want to fight?”
Benson simply gazed in gentle surprise. The woman next to him at dinner had said something inventive. His tailor had presented his bill. Something had occurred which was mildly out of the ordinary, and his surcharged brain refused to cope with it. He displayed only the agitation of a smoker temporarily without a light.
The New York Kid had almost instantly grasped Benson’s arm, and was about to jerk him away when the other Kid, who up to this time had been an automaton, suddenly projected himself forward, thrust the rubber Benson aside, and said: “Yes.”
There was no sound nor light in the world. The wall at the left happened to be of the common prison-like construction—no door, no window, no opening at al
l. Humanity was enclosed and asleep. Into the mouth of the sober Kid came a wretched, bitter taste, as if it had filled with blood. He was transfixed, as if he was already seeing the lightning ripples on the knife blade.
But the Mexican’s hand did not move at that time. His face went still further forward, and he whispered: “So?” The sober Kid saw this face as if he and it were alone in space—a yellow mask, smiling in eager cruelty, in satisfaction, and, above all, it was lit with sinister decision. As for the features, they were reminiscent of an unplaced, a forgotten type, which really resembled with precision those of a man who had shaved him three times in Boston in 1888. But the expression burned his mind as sealing wax burns the palm, and, fascinated, stupefied, he actually watched the progress of the man’s thought toward the point where a knife would be wrenched from its sheath. The emotion, a sort of mechanical fury, a breeze made by electric fans, a rage made by vanity, smote the dark countenance in wave after wave.
Then the New York Kid took a sudden step forward. His hand was also at his hip. He was gripping there a revolver of robust size. He recalled that upon its black handle was stamped a hunting scene in which a sportsman in fine leggings and a peaked cap was taking aim at a stag less than one-eighth of an inch away.
His pace forward caused instant movement of the Mexicans. One immediately took two steps to face him squarely. There was a general adjustment, pair and pair. The opponent of the New York Kid was a tall man and quite stout. His sombrero was drawn low over his eyes; his serape was flung on his left shoulder; his back was bent in the supposed manner of a Spanish grandee. This concave gentleman cut a fine and terrible figure. The lad, moved by the spirits of his modest and perpendicular ancestors, had time to feel his blood roar at sight of the pose.
He was aware that the third Mexican was over on the left, fronting Benson; and he was aware that Benson was leaning against the wall, sleepily and peacefully eyeing the convention. So it happened that these six men stood, side fronting side, five of them with their right hands at their hips, and with their bodies lifted nervously, while the central pair exchanged a crescendo of provocations. The meaning of their words rose and rose. They were traveling in a straight line toward collision.
The New York Kid contemplated his Spanish grandee. He drew his revolver upward until the hammer was surely free of the holster. He waited, immovable and watchful, while the garrulous ’Frisco Kid expended two and a half lexicons on the middle Mexican.
The Eastern lad suddenly decided that he was going to be killed. His mind leaped forward and studied the aftermath. The story would be a marvel of brevity when first it reached the far New York home, written in a careful hand on a bit of cheap paper, topped and footed and backed by the printed fortifications of the cable company. But they are often as stones flung into mirrors, these bits of paper upon which are laconically written all the most terrible chronicles of the times. He witnessed the up-rising of his mother and sister, and the invincible calm of his hard-mouthed old father, who would probably shut himself in his library and smoke alone. Then his father would come, and they would bring him here, and say: “This is the place.” Then, very likely, each would remove his hat. They would stand quietly with their hats in their hands for a decent minute. He pitied his old financing father, unyielding and millioned, a man who commonly spoke twenty-two words a year to his beloved son. The Kid understood it at this time. If his fate was not impregnable, he might have turned out to be a man and have been liked by his father.
The other Kid would mourn his death. He would be preternaturally correct for some weeks, and recite the tale without swearing. But it would not bore him. For the sake of his dead comrade he would be glad to be preternaturally correct and to recite the tale without swearing.
These views were perfectly stereopticon, flashing in and away from his thought with an inconceivable rapidity, until, after all, they were simply one quick, dismal impression. And now, here is the unreal real: into this Kid’s nostrils, at the expectant moment of slaughter, had come the scent of new-mown hay, a fragrance from a field of prostrate grass, a fragrance which contained the sunshine, the bees, the peace of meadows, and the wonder of a distant crooning stream. It had no right to be supreme, but it was supreme, and he breathed it as he waited for pain and a sight of the unknown.
But in the same instant, it may be, his thought flew to the ’Frisco Kid, and it came upon him like a flicker of lightning that the ’Frisco Kid was not going to be there to perform, for instance, the extraordinary office of respectable mourner. The other Kid’s head was muddled, his hand was unsteady, his agility was gone. This other Kid was facing the determined and most ferocious gentleman of the enemy. The New York Kid became convinced that his friend was lost. There was going to be a screaming murder. He was so certain of it that he wanted to shield his eyes from sight of the leaping arm and the knife. It was sickening—utterly sickening. The New York Kid might have been taking his first sea voyage. A combination of honorable manhood and inability prevented him from running away.
He suddenly knew that it was possible to draw his own revolver, and by a swift maneuver face down all three Mexicans. If he was quick enough he would probably be victor. If any hitch occurred in the draw he would undoubtedly be dead with his friends. It was a new game. He had never been obliged to face a situation of this kind in the Beacon Club in New York. In this test the lungs of the Kid still continued to perform their duty:
Oh, five white mice of chance,
Shirts of wool and corduroy pants
Gold and wine, women and sin,
All for you if you let me come in—
Into the house of chance.
He thought of the weight and size of his revolver, and dismay pierced him. He feared that in his hands it would be as unwieldy as a sewing machine for this quick work. He imagined, too, that some singular providence might cause him to lose his grip as he raised his weapon; or it might get fatally entangled in the tails of his coat. Some of the eels of despair lay wet and cold against his back.
But at the supreme moment the revolver came forth as if it were greased, and it arose like a feather. This somnolent machine, after months of repose, was finally looking at the breasts of men.
Perhaps in this one series of movements the Kid had unconsciously used nervous force sufficient to raise a bale of hay. Before he comprehended it, he was standing behind his revolver, glaring over the barrel at the Mexicans, menacing first one and then another. His finger was tremoring on the trigger. The revolver gleamed in the darkness with a fine silver light.
The fulsome grandee sprang backward with a low cry. The man who had been facing the ’Frisco Kid took a quick step away. The beautiful array of Mexicans was suddenly disorganized.
The cry and the backward steps revealed something of great importance to the New York Kid. He had never dreamed that he did not have a complete monopoly of all possible trepidations. The cry of the grandee was that of a man who suddenly sees a poisonous snake. Thus the Kid was able to understand swiftly that they were all human beings. They were unanimous in not wishing for too bloody a combat. There was a sudden expression of the equality. He had vaguely believed that they were not going to evince much consideration for his dramatic development as an active factor. They even might be exasperated into an onslaught by it. Instead, they had respected his movement with a respect as great even as an ejaculation of fear and backward steps. Upon the instant he pounced forward, and began to swear, unreeling great English oaths as thick as ropes, and lashing the faces of the Mexicans with them. He was bursting with rage because these men had not previously confided to him that they were vulnerable. The whole thing had been an absurd imposition. He had been seduced into respectful alarm by the concave attitude of the grandee. And after all there had been an equality of emotion—an equality! He was furious. He wanted to take the serape of the grandee and swaddle him in it.
The Mexicans slunk back, their eyes burning wistfully. The Kid took aim first at one and then at another.
After they had achieved a certain distance, they paused and drew up in a rank. They then resumed some of their old splendor of manner. A voice hailed him in a tone of cynical bravado, as if it had come from between high lips of smiling mockery: “Well, señor, it is finished?”
The Kid scowled into the darkness, his revolver drooping at his side. After a moment he answered: “I am willing.” He found it strange that he should be able to speak after this silence of years.
“Good night, señor.”
When he turned to look at the ’Frisco Kid, he found him in his original position, his hand upon his hip. He was blinking in perplexity at the point where the Mexicans had vanished.
“Well,” said the sober Kid, crossly, “are you ready to go home now?”
The ’Frisco Kid said: “Where they gone?” His voice was undisturbed, but inquisitive.
Benson suddenly propelled himself from his dreamful position against the wall. “ ’Frisco Kid’s all right. He’s drunk’s fool, and he’s all right. But you New York Kid, you’re shober.” He passed into a state of profound investigation. “Kid shober ’cause didn’t go with us. Didn’t go with us ’cause went to damn circus. Went to damn circus ’cause lose shakin’ dice. Lose shakin’ dice ’cause—what make lose shakin’ dice, Kid?”
The New York Kid eyed the senile youth. “I don’t know. The five white mice, maybe.”
Benson puzzled so over this reply that he had to be held erect by his friends. Finally the ’Frisco Kid said: “Let’s go home.”
Nothing had happened.
1 thought on “Read Stephen Crane’s story “The Five White Mice””
Reblogged this on THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON….