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
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
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,
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
"Well, here goes, and you want to look out for your cash
"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
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
"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
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
"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
"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."
"Oh, bet. Bet or else close your trap. That's the way."
"How do you know you can pull off the race? Seen Freddie?"
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
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,
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."
"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
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
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
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
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
"What's the matter, Benson?"
"Somebody pinched my handkerchief. I tied it up in that string. Damn
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
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
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.