THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON

Written by F. Scott Fitzgerald - Read by Alex Wilson

ESL English Listening - Advanced ESL English Listening

 

I

As long ago as 1860 it was the proper thing to be born at home. At
present, so I am told, the high gods of medicine have decreed that the
first cries of the young shall be uttered upon the anaesthetic air of
a hospital, preferably a fashionable one. So young Mr. and Mrs. Roger
Button were fifty years ahead of style when they decided, one day in
the summer of 1860, that their first baby should be born in a
hospital. Whether this anachronism had any bearing upon the
astonishing history I am about to set down will never be known.

I shall tell you what occurred, and let you judge for yourself.

The Roger Buttons held an enviable position, both social and
financial, in ante-bellum Baltimore. They were related to the This
Family and the That Family, which, as every Southerner knew, entitled
them to membership in that enormous peerage which largely populated
the Confederacy. This was their first experience with the charming old
custom of having babies--Mr. Button was naturally nervous. He hoped it
would be a boy so that he could be sent to Yale College in
Connecticut, at which institution Mr. Button himself had been known
for four years by the somewhat obvious nickname of "Cuff."

On the September morning consecrated to the enormous event he arose
nervously at six o'clock dressed himself, adjusted an impeccable
stock, and hurried forth through the streets of Baltimore to the
hospital, to determine whether the darkness of the night had borne in
new life upon its bosom.

When he was approximately a hundred yards from the Maryland Private
Hospital for Ladies and Gentlemen he saw Doctor Keene, the family
physician, descending the front steps, rubbing his hands together with
a washing movement--as all doctors are required to do by the unwritten
ethics of their profession.

Mr. Roger Button, the president of Roger Button & Co., Wholesale
Hardware, began to run toward Doctor Keene with much less dignity than
was expected from a Southern gentleman of that picturesque period.
"Doctor Keene!" he called. "Oh, Doctor Keene!"

The doctor heard him, faced around, and stood waiting, a curious
expression settling on his harsh, medicinal face as Mr. Button drew
near.

"What happened?" demanded Mr. Button, as he came up in a gasping rush.
"What was it? How is she? A boy? Who is it? What--"

"Talk sense!" said Doctor Keene sharply, He appeared somewhat
irritated.

"Is the child born?" begged Mr. Button.

Doctor Keene frowned. "Why, yes, I suppose so--after a fashion." Again
he threw a curious glance at Mr. Button.

"Is my wife all right?"

"Yes."

"Is it a boy or a girl?"

"Here now!" cried Doctor Keene in a perfect passion of irritation,
"I'll ask you to go and see for yourself. Outrageous!" He snapped the
last word out in almost one syllable, then he turned away muttering:
"Do you imagine a case like this will help my professional reputation?
One more would ruin me--ruin anybody."

"What's the matter?" demanded Mr. Button appalled. "Triplets?"

"No, not triplets!" answered the doctor cuttingly. "What's more, you
can go and see for yourself. And get another doctor. I brought you
into the world, young man, and I've been physician to your family for
forty years, but I'm through with you! I don't want to see you or any
of your relatives ever again! Good-bye!"

Then he turned sharply, and without another word climbed into his
phaeton, which was waiting at the curbstone, and drove severely away.

Mr. Button stood there upon the sidewalk, stupefied and trembling from
head to foot. What horrible mishap had occurred? He had suddenly lost
all desire to go into the Maryland Private Hospital for Ladies and
Gentlemen--it was with the greatest difficulty that, a moment later,
he forced himself to mount the steps and enter the front door.

A nurse was sitting behind a desk in the opaque gloom of the hall.
Swallowing his shame, Mr. Button approached her.

"Good-morning," she remarked, looking up at him pleasantly.

"Good-morning. I--I am Mr. Button."

At this a look of utter terror spread itself over girl's face. She
rose to her feet and seemed about to fly from the hall, restraining
herself only with the most apparent difficulty.

"I want to see my child," said Mr. Button.

The nurse gave a little scream. "Oh--of course!" she cried
hysterically. "Upstairs. Right upstairs. Go--_up!_"

She pointed the direction, and Mr. Button, bathed in cool
perspiration, turned falteringly, and began to mount to the second
floor. In the upper hall he addressed another nurse who approached
him, basin in hand. "I'm Mr. Button," he managed to articulate. "I
want to see my----"

Clank! The basin clattered to the floor and rolled in the direction of
the stairs. Clank! Clank! It began a methodical descent as if sharing
in the general terror which this gentleman provoked.

"I want to see my child!" Mr. Button almost shrieked. He was on the
verge of collapse.

Clank! The basin reached the first floor. The nurse regained control
of herself, and threw Mr. Button a look of hearty contempt.

"All _right_, Mr. Button," she agreed in a hushed voice. "Very
_well!_ But if you _knew_ what a state it's put us all in this
morning! It's perfectly outrageous! The hospital will never have
a ghost of a reputation after----"

"Hurry!" he cried hoarsely. "I can't stand this!"

"Come this way, then, Mr. Button."

He dragged himself after her. At the end of a long hall they reached a
room from which proceeded a variety of howls--indeed, a room which, in
later parlance, would have been known as the "crying-room." They
entered.

"Well," gasped Mr. Button, "which is mine?"

"There!" said the nurse.

Mr. Button's eyes followed her pointing finger, and this is what he
saw. Wrapped in a voluminous white blanket, and partly crammed into
one of the cribs, there sat an old man apparently about seventy years
of age. His sparse hair was almost white, and from his chin dripped a
long smoke-coloured beard, which waved absurdly back and forth, fanned
by the breeze coming in at the window. He looked up at Mr. Button with
dim, faded eyes in which lurked a puzzled question.

"Am I mad?" thundered Mr. Button, his terror resolving into rage. "Is
this some ghastly hospital joke?

"It doesn't seem like a joke to us," replied the nurse severely. "And
I don't know whether you're mad or not--but that is most certainly
your child."

The cool perspiration redoubled on Mr. Button's forehead. He closed
his eyes, and then, opening them, looked again. There was no
mistake--he was gazing at a man of threescore and ten--a _baby_
of threescore and ten, a baby whose feet hung over the sides of the
crib in which it was reposing.

The old man looked placidly from one to the other for a moment, and
then suddenly spoke in a cracked and ancient voice. "Are you my
father?" he demanded.

Mr. Button and the nurse started violently.

"Because if you are," went on the old man querulously, "I wish you'd
get me out of this place--or, at least, get them to put a comfortable
rocker in here."

"Where in God's name did you come from? Who are you?" burst out Mr.
Button frantically.

"I can't tell you _exactly_ who I am," replied the querulous
whine, "because I've only been born a few hours--but my last name is
certainly Button."

"You lie! You're an impostor!"

The old man turned wearily to the nurse. "Nice way to welcome a
new-born child," he complained in a weak voice. "Tell him he's wrong,
why don't you?"

"You're wrong. Mr. Button," said the nurse severely. "This is your
child, and you'll have to make the best of it. We're going to ask you
to take him home with you as soon as possible-some time to-day."

"Home?" repeated Mr. Button incredulously.

"Yes, we can't have him here. We really can't, you know?"

"I'm right glad of it," whined the old man. "This is a fine place to
keep a youngster of quiet tastes. With all this yelling and howling, I
haven't been able to get a wink of sleep. I asked for something to
eat"--here his voice rose to a shrill note of protest--"and they
brought me a bottle of milk!"

Mr. Button, sank down upon a chair near his son and concealed his face
in his hands. "My heavens!" he murmured, in an ecstasy of horror.
"What will people say? What must I do?"

"You'll have to take him home," insisted the nurse--"immediately!"

A grotesque picture formed itself with dreadful clarity before the
eyes of the tortured man--a picture of himself walking through the
crowded streets of the city with this appalling apparition stalking by
his side.

"I can't. I can't," he moaned.

People would stop to speak to him, and what was he going to say? He
would have to introduce this--this septuagenarian: "This is my son,
born early this morning." And then the old man would gather his
blanket around him and they would plod on, past the bustling stores,
the slave market--for a dark instant Mr. Button wished passionately
that his son was black--past the luxurious houses of the residential
district, past the home for the aged....

"Come! Pull yourself together," commanded the nurse.

"See here," the old man announced suddenly, "if you think I'm going to
walk home in this blanket, you're entirely mistaken."

"Babies always have blankets."

With a malicious crackle the old man held up a small white swaddling
garment. "Look!" he quavered. "_This_ is what they had ready for
me."

"Babies always wear those," said the nurse primly.

"Well," said the old man, "this baby's not going to wear anything in
about two minutes. This blanket itches. They might at least have given
me a sheet."

"Keep it on! Keep it on!" said Mr. Button hurriedly. He turned to the
nurse. "What'll I do?"

"Go down town and buy your son some clothes."

Mr. Button's son's voice followed him down into the hall: "And a
cane, father. I want to have a cane."

Mr. Button banged the outer door savagely....

2

"Good-morning," Mr. Button said nervously, to the clerk in the
Chesapeake Dry Goods Company. "I want to buy some clothes for my
child."

"How old is your child, sir?"

"About six hours," answered Mr. Button, without due consideration.

"Babies' supply department in the rear."

"Why, I don't think--I'm not sure that's what I want. It's--he's an
unusually large-size child. Exceptionally--ah large."

"They have the largest child's sizes."

"Where is the boys' department?" inquired Mr. Button, shifting his
ground desperately. He felt that the clerk must surely scent his
shameful secret.

"Right here."

"Well----" He hesitated. The notion of dressing his son in men's
clothes was repugnant to him. If, say, he could only find a very large
boy's suit, he might cut off that long and awful beard, dye the white
hair brown, and thus manage to conceal the worst, and to retain
something of his own self-respect--not to mention his position in
Baltimore society.

But a frantic inspection of the boys' department revealed no suits to
fit the new-born Button. He blamed the store, of course--in such
cases it is the thing to blame the store.

"How old did you say that boy of yours was?" demanded the clerk
curiously.

"He's--sixteen."

"Oh, I beg your pardon. I thought you said six _hours_. You'll
find the youths' department in the next aisle."

Mr. Button turned miserably away. Then he stopped, brightened, and
pointed his finger toward a dressed dummy in the window display.
"There!" he exclaimed. "I'll take that suit, out there on the dummy."

The clerk stared. "Why," he protested, "that's not a child's suit. At
least it _is_, but it's for fancy dress. You could wear it
yourself!"

"Wrap it up," insisted his customer nervously. "That's what I want."

The astonished clerk obeyed.

Back at the hospital Mr. Button entered the nursery and almost threw
the package at his son. "Here's your clothes," he snapped out.

The old man untied the package and viewed the contents with a
quizzical eye.

"They look sort of funny to me," he complained, "I don't want to be
made a monkey of--"

"You've made a monkey of me!" retorted Mr. Button fiercely. "Never you
mind how funny you look. Put them on--or I'll--or I'll _spank_
you." He swallowed uneasily at the penultimate word, feeling
nevertheless that it was the proper thing to say.

"All right, father"--this with a grotesque simulation of filial
respect--"you've lived longer; you know best. Just as you say."

As before, the sound of the word "father" caused Mr. Button to start
violently.

"And hurry."

"I'm hurrying, father."

When his son was dressed Mr. Button regarded him with depression. The
costume consisted of dotted socks, pink pants, and a belted blouse
with a wide white collar. Over the latter waved the long whitish
beard, drooping almost to the waist. The effect was not good.

"Wait!"

Mr. Button seized a hospital shears and with three quick snaps
amputated a large section of the beard. But even with this improvement
the ensemble fell far short of perfection. The remaining brush of
scraggly hair, the watery eyes, the ancient teeth, seemed oddly out of
tone with the gaiety of the costume. Mr. Button, however, was
obdurate--he held out his hand. "Come along!" he said sternly.

His son took the hand trustingly. "What are you going to call me,
dad?" he quavered as they walked from the nursery--"just 'baby' for a
while? till you think of a better name?"

Mr. Button grunted. "I don't know," he answered harshly. "I think
we'll call you Methuselah."

3

Even after the new addition to the Button family had had his hair cut
short and then dyed to a sparse unnatural black, had had his face
shaved so close that it glistened, and had been attired in small-boy
clothes made to order by a flabbergasted tailor, it was impossible for
Button to ignore the fact that his son was a poor excuse for a first
family baby. Despite his aged stoop, Benjamin Button--for it was by
this name they called him instead of by the appropriate but invidious
Methuselah--was five feet eight inches tall. His clothes did not
conceal this, nor did the clipping and dyeing of his eyebrows disguise
the fact that the eyes under--were faded and watery and tired. In
fact, the baby-nurse who had been engaged in advance left the house
after one look, in a state of considerable indignation.

But Mr. Button persisted in his unwavering purpose. Benjamin was a
baby, and a baby he should remain. At first he declared that if
Benjamin didn't like warm milk he could go without food altogether,
but he was finally prevailed upon to allow his son bread and butter,
and even oatmeal by way of a compromise. One day he brought home a
rattle and, giving it to Benjamin, insisted in no uncertain terms that
he should "play with it," whereupon the old man took it with--a weary
expression and could be heard jingling it obediently at intervals
throughout the day.

There can be no doubt, though, that the rattle bored him, and that he
found other and more soothing amusements when he was left alone. For
instance, Mr. Button discovered one day that during the preceding week
he had smoked more cigars than ever before--a phenomenon, which was
explained a few days later when, entering the nursery unexpectedly, he
found the room full of faint blue haze and Benjamin, with a guilty
expression on his face, trying to conceal the butt of a dark Havana.
This, of course, called for a severe spanking, but Mr. Button found
that he could not bring himself to administer it. He merely warned his
son that he would "stunt his growth."

Nevertheless he persisted in his attitude. He brought home lead
soldiers, he brought toy trains, he brought large pleasant animals
made of cotton, and, to perfect the illusion which he was
creating--for himself at least--he passionately demanded of the clerk
in the toy-store whether "the paint would come oft the pink duck if
the baby put it in his mouth." But, despite all his father's efforts,
Benjamin refused to be interested. He would steal down the back stairs
and return to the nursery with a volume of the Encyclopedia
Britannica, over which he would pore through an afternoon, while his
cotton cows and his Noah's ark were left neglected on the floor.
Against such a stubbornness Mr. Button's efforts were of little avail.

The sensation created in Baltimore was, at first, prodigious. What the
mishap would have cost the Buttons and their kinsfolk socially cannot
be determined, for the outbreak of the Civil War drew the city's
attention to other things. A few people who were unfailingly polite
racked their brains for compliments to give to the parents--and
finally hit upon the ingenious device of declaring that the baby
resembled his grandfather, a fact which, due to the standard state of
decay common to all men of seventy, could not be denied. Mr. and Mrs.
Roger Button were not pleased, and Benjamin's grandfather was
furiously insulted.

Benjamin, once he left the hospital, took life as he found it. Several
small boys were brought to see him, and he spent a stiff-jointed
afternoon trying to work up an interest in tops and marbles--he even
managed, quite accidentally, to break a kitchen window with a stone
from a sling shot, a feat which secretly delighted his father.

Thereafter Benjamin contrived to break something every day, but he did
these things only because they were expected of him, and because he
was by nature obliging.

When his grandfather's initial antagonism wore off, Benjamin and that
gentleman took enormous pleasure in one another's company. They would
sit for hours, these two, so far apart in age and experience, and,
like old cronies, discuss with tireless monotony the slow events of
the day. Benjamin felt more at ease in his grandfather's presence than
in his parents'--they seemed always somewhat in awe of him and,
despite the dictatorial authority they exercised over him, frequently
addressed him as "Mr."

He was as puzzled as any one else at the apparently advanced age of
his mind and body at birth. He read up on it in the medical journal,
but found that no such case had been previously recorded. At his
father's urging he made an honest attempt to play with other boys, and
frequently he joined in the milder games--football shook him up too
much, and he feared that in case of a fracture his ancient bones would
refuse to knit.

When he was five he was sent to kindergarten, where he initiated into
the art of pasting green paper on orange paper, of weaving coloured
maps and manufacturing eternal cardboard necklaces. He was inclined to
drowse off to sleep in the middle of these tasks, a habit which both
irritated and frightened his young teacher. To his relief she
complained to his parents, and he was removed from the school. The
Roger Buttons told their friends that they felt he was too young.

By the time he was twelve years old his parents had grown used to him.
Indeed, so strong is the force of custom that they no longer felt that
he was different from any other child--except when some curious
anomaly reminded them of the fact. But one day a few weeks after his
twelfth birthday, while looking in the mirror, Benjamin made, or
thought he made, an astonishing discovery. Did his eyes deceive him,
or had his hair turned in the dozen years of his life from white to
iron-gray under its concealing dye? Was the network of wrinkles on his
face becoming less pronounced? Was his skin healthier and firmer, with
even a touch of ruddy winter colour? He could not tell. He knew that
he no longer stooped, and that his physical condition had improved
since the early days of his life.

"Can it be----?" he thought to himself, or, rather, scarcely dared to
think.

He went to his father. "I am grown," he announced determinedly. "I
want to put on long trousers."

His father hesitated. "Well," he said finally, "I don't know. Fourteen
is the age for putting on long trousers--and you are only twelve."

"But you'll have to admit," protested Benjamin, "that I'm big for my
age."

His father looked at him with illusory speculation. "Oh, I'm not so
sure of that," he said. "I was as big as you when I was twelve."

This was not true-it was all part of Roger Button's silent agreement
with himself to believe in his son's normality.

Finally a compromise was reached. Benjamin was to continue to dye his
hair. He was to make a better attempt to play with boys of his own
age. He was not to wear his spectacles or carry a cane in the street.
In return for these concessions he was allowed his first suit of long
trousers....

4

Of the life of Benjamin Button between his twelfth and twenty-first
year I intend to say little. Suffice to record that they were years of
normal ungrowth. When Benjamin was eighteen he was erect as a man of
fifty; he had more hair and it was of a dark gray; his step was firm,
his voice had lost its cracked quaver and descended to a healthy
baritone. So his father sent him up to Connecticut to take
examinations for entrance to Yale College. Benjamin passed his
examination and became a member of the freshman class.

On the third day following his matriculation he received a
notification from Mr. Hart, the college registrar, to call at his
office and arrange his schedule. Benjamin, glancing in the mirror,
decided that his hair needed a new application of its brown dye, but
an anxious inspection of his bureau drawer disclosed that the dye
bottle was not there. Then he remembered--he had emptied it the day
before and thrown it away.

He was in a dilemma. He was due at the registrar's in five minutes.
There seemed to be no help for it--he must go as he was. He did.

"Good-morning," said the registrar politely. "You've come to inquire
about your son."

"Why, as a matter of fact, my name's Button----" began Benjamin, but
Mr. Hart cut him off.

"I'm very glad to meet you, Mr. Button. I'm expecting your son here
any minute."

"That's me!" burst out Benjamin. "I'm a freshman."

"What!"

"I'm a freshman."

"Surely you're joking."

"Not at all."

The registrar frowned and glanced at a card before him. "Why, I have
Mr. Benjamin Button's age down here as eighteen."

"That's my age," asserted Benjamin, flushing slightly.

The registrar eyed him wearily. "Now surely, Mr. Button, you don't
expect me to believe that."

Benjamin smiled wearily. "I am eighteen," he repeated.

The registrar pointed sternly to the door. "Get out," he said. "Get
out of college and get out of town. You are a dangerous lunatic."

"I am eighteen."

Mr. Hart opened the door. "The idea!" he shouted. "A man of your age
trying to enter here as a freshman. Eighteen years old, are you? Well,
I'll give you eighteen minutes to get out of town."

Benjamin Button walked with dignity from the room, and half a dozen
undergraduates, who were waiting in the hall, followed him curiously
with their eyes. When he had gone a little way he turned around, faced
the infuriated registrar, who was still standing in the door-way, and
repeated in a firm voice: "I am eighteen years old."

To a chorus of titters which went up from the group of undergraduates,
Benjamin walked away.

But he was not fated to escape so easily. On his melancholy walk to
the railroad station he found that he was being followed by a group,
then by a swarm, and finally by a dense mass of undergraduates. The
word had gone around that a lunatic had passed the entrance
examinations for Yale and attempted to palm himself off as a youth of
eighteen. A fever of excitement permeated the college. Men ran hatless
out of classes, the football team abandoned its practice and joined
the mob, professors' wives with bonnets awry and bustles out of
position, ran shouting after the procession, from which proceeded a
continual succession of remarks aimed at the tender sensibilities of
Benjamin Button.

"He must be the wandering Jew!"

"He ought to go to prep school at his age!"

"Look at the infant prodigy!"

"He thought this was the old men's home."

"Go up to Harvard!"

Benjamin increased his gait, and soon he was running. He would show
them! He _would_ go to Harvard, and then they would regret these
ill-considered taunts!

Safely on board the train for Baltimore, he put his head from the
window. "You'll regret this!" he shouted.

"Ha-ha!" the undergraduates laughed. "Ha-ha-ha!" It was the biggest
mistake that Yale College had ever made....

5

In 1880 Benjamin Button was twenty years old, and he signalised his
birthday by going to work for his father in Roger Button & Co.,
Wholesale Hardware. It was in that same year that he began "going out
socially"--that is, his father insisted on taking him to several
fashionable dances. Roger Button was now fifty, and he and his son
were more and more companionable--in fact, since Benjamin had ceased
to dye his hair (which was still grayish) they appeared about the same
age, and could have passed for brothers.

One night in August they got into the phaeton attired in their
full-dress suits and drove out to a dance at the Shevlins' country
house, situated just outside of Baltimore. It was a gorgeous evening.
A full moon drenched the road to the lustreless colour of platinum,
and late-blooming harvest flowers breathed into the motionless air
aromas that were like low, half-heard laughter. The open country,
carpeted for rods around with bright wheat, was translucent as in the
day. It was almost impossible not to be affected by the sheer beauty
of the sky--almost.

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