The Five White Mice by Stephen Crane
Freddie was mixing a cock-tail. 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 ironical glance of a man who
is mixing a cock-tail.
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
colours, amber, green, mahogany, strong and mild, began to swarm
upon the bar with all the attendants of lemon, sugar, mint and ice.
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 bar-keeper.
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 honour with Freddie that
he should play and take his chance of sometimes providing this large
group with free refreshment. With bended 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
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 superstitious 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 organ-mellow 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 dinners, 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 in sight of their minds which
even remotely suggested further gambling. There was a pause for deep
A man called out in the exuberance of creation. "I know! Let's shake
for a box to-night 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 in 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 foot-rail 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
cock-tails. 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 shoulders.
"We've got you stuck for it, kid! You can't beat that game! Five
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 non-combatants, 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 the kid's movements were slow and elaborate. For the last
throw he planted the cup bottom-down 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 genial 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 neighbour, and above all the din rang the voice of Freddie
be-rating 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
first 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 theatre-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 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
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 a 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
"I can't. They 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 'em 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 on 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! Com'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
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 around in a minute. Don't mind me. I'm all right."
"Cerly, 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. "Washa doing?"
he said in a new and guttural voice. "Washa doing? I ain' load'.
"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 kerb 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 gome for? I ain't load'. You got reg'lar spool-fact'ry in your
head—you N' York kid there. Thish oth' kid, he's mos' proper shober,
mos' proper shober. He's drunk, but—but he's shober."
"Ah, shup 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. Thas 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 semi-detached manner, stared vacantly at
the Mexican, who thrust his lean 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 seņor
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 all. 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 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. This 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 bended 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
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 eying 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 travelling in a straight line
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 uprising 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
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 honourable manhood and inability prevented
him from running away.
He suddenly knew that it was possible to draw his own revolver, and
by a swift manoeuvre 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 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
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 splendour of manner. A voice hailed him in a tone of cynical
bravado as if it had come from between lips of smiling mockery. "Well,
seņor, 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.
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 from whence 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
Benson suddenly propelled himself from his dreamful position against
the wall. "Frishco 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,
The New York kid eyed the senile youth. "I don't know. The five white
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.