THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON

Written by F. Scott Fitzgerald - Read by Alex Wilson

ESL English Listening - Advanced ESL English Listening

 


"There's a great future in the dry-goods business," Roger Button was
saying. He was not a spiritual man--his aesthetic sense was
rudimentary.

"Old fellows like me can't learn new tricks," he observed profoundly.
"It's you youngsters with energy and vitality that have the great
future before you."

Far up the road the lights of the Shevlins' country house drifted into
view, and presently there was a sighing sound that crept persistently
toward them--it might have been the fine plaint of violins or the
rustle of the silver wheat under the moon.

They pulled up behind a handsome brougham whose passengers were
disembarking at the door. A lady got out, then an elderly gentleman,
then another young lady, beautiful as sin. Benjamin started; an almost
chemical change seemed to dissolve and recompose the very elements of
his body. A rigour passed over him, blood rose into his cheeks, his
forehead, and there was a steady thumping in his ears. It was first
love.

The girl was slender and frail, with hair that was ashen under the
moon and honey-coloured under the sputtering gas-lamps of the porch.
Over her shoulders was thrown a Spanish mantilla of softest yellow,
butterflied in black; her feet were glittering buttons at the hem of
her bustled dress.

Roger Button leaned over to his son. "That," he said, "is young
Hildegarde Moncrief, the daughter of General Moncrief."

Benjamin nodded coldly. "Pretty little thing," he said indifferently.
But when the negro boy had led the buggy away, he added: "Dad, you
might introduce me to her."

They approached a group, of which Miss Moncrief was the centre. Reared
in the old tradition, she curtsied low before Benjamin. Yes, he might
have a dance. He thanked her and walked away--staggered away.

The interval until the time for his turn should arrive dragged itself
out interminably. He stood close to the wall, silent, inscrutable,
watching with murderous eyes the young bloods of Baltimore as they
eddied around Hildegarde Moncrief, passionate admiration in their
faces. How obnoxious they seemed to Benjamin; how intolerably rosy!
Their curling brown whiskers aroused in him a feeling equivalent to
indigestion.

But when his own time came, and he drifted with her out upon the
changing floor to the music of the latest waltz from Paris, his
jealousies and anxieties melted from him like a mantle of snow. Blind
with enchantment, he felt that life was just beginning.

"You and your brother got here just as we did, didn't you?" asked
Hildegarde, looking up at him with eyes that were like bright blue
enamel.

Benjamin hesitated. If she took him for his father's brother, would it
be best to enlighten her? He remembered his experience at Yale, so he
decided against it. It would be rude to contradict a lady; it would be
criminal to mar this exquisite occasion with the grotesque story of
his origin. Later, perhaps. So he nodded, smiled, listened, was happy.

"I like men of your age," Hildegarde told him. "Young boys are so
idiotic. They tell me how much champagne they drink at college, and
how much money they lose playing cards. Men of your age know how to
appreciate women."

Benjamin felt himself on the verge of a proposal--with an effort he
choked back the impulse. "You're just the romantic age," she
continued--"fifty. Twenty-five is too worldly-wise; thirty is apt to be
pale from overwork; forty is the age of long stories that take a whole
cigar to tell; sixty is--oh, sixty is too near seventy; but fifty is
the mellow age. I love fifty."

Fifty seemed to Benjamin a glorious age. He longed passionately to be
fifty.

"I've always said," went on Hildegarde, "that I'd rather marry a man
of fifty and be taken care of than many a man of thirty and take care
of _him_."

For Benjamin the rest of the evening was bathed in a honey-coloured
mist. Hildegarde gave him two more dances, and they discovered that
they were marvellously in accord on all the questions of the day. She
was to go driving with him on the following Sunday, and then they
would discuss all these questions further.

Going home in the phaeton just before the crack of dawn, when the
first bees were humming and the fading moon glimmered in the cool dew,
Benjamin knew vaguely that his father was discussing wholesale
hardware.

".... And what do you think should merit our biggest attention after
hammers and nails?" the elder Button was saying.

"Love," replied Benjamin absent-mindedly.

"Lugs?" exclaimed Roger Button, "Why, I've just covered the question
of lugs."

Benjamin regarded him with dazed eyes just as the eastern sky was
suddenly cracked with light, and an oriole yawned piercingly in the
quickening trees...

6

When, six months later, the engagement of Miss Hildegarde Moncrief to
Mr. Benjamin Button was made known (I say "made known," for General
Moncrief declared he would rather fall upon his sword than announce
it), the excitement in Baltimore society reached a feverish pitch. The
almost forgotten story of Benjamin's birth was remembered and sent out
upon the winds of scandal in picaresque and incredible forms. It was
said that Benjamin was really the father of Roger Button, that he was
his brother who had been in prison for forty years, that he was John
Wilkes Booth in disguise--and, finally, that he had two small conical
horns sprouting from his head.

The Sunday supplements of the New York papers played up the case with
fascinating sketches which showed the head of Benjamin Button attached
to a fish, to a snake, and, finally, to a body of solid brass. He
became known, journalistically, as the Mystery Man of Maryland. But
the true story, as is usually the case, had a very small circulation.

However, every one agreed with General Moncrief that it was "criminal"
for a lovely girl who could have married any beau in Baltimore to
throw herself into the arms of a man who was assuredly fifty. In vain
Mr. Roger Button published his son's birth certificate in large type in
the Baltimore _Blaze_. No one believed it. You had only to look
at Benjamin and see.

On the part of the two people most concerned there was no wavering. So
many of the stories about her fiancé were false that Hildegarde
refused stubbornly to believe even the true one. In vain General
Moncrief pointed out to her the high mortality among men of fifty--or,
at least, among men who looked fifty; in vain he told her of the
instability of the wholesale hardware business. Hildegarde had chosen
to marry for mellowness, and marry she did....

7

In one particular, at least, the friends of Hildegarde Moncrief were
mistaken. The wholesale hardware business prospered amazingly. In the
fifteen years between Benjamin Button's marriage in 1880 and his
father's retirement in 1895, the family fortune was doubled--and this
was due largely to the younger member of the firm.

Needless to say, Baltimore eventually received the couple to its
bosom. Even old General Moncrief became reconciled to his son-in-law
when Benjamin gave him the money to bring out his _History of the
Civil War_ in twenty volumes, which had been refused by nine
prominent publishers.

In Benjamin himself fifteen years had wrought many changes. It seemed
to him that the blood flowed with new vigour through his veins. It
began to be a pleasure to rise in the morning, to walk with an active
step along the busy, sunny street, to work untiringly with his
shipments of hammers and his cargoes of nails. It was in 1890 that he
executed his famous business coup: he brought up the suggestion that
_all nails used in nailing up the boxes in which nails are shipped
are the property of the shippee_, a proposal which became a
statute, was approved by Chief Justice Fossile, and saved Roger Button
and Company, Wholesale Hardware, more than _six hundred nails every
year_.

In addition, Benjamin discovered that he was becoming more and more
attracted by the gay side of life. It was typical of his growing
enthusiasm for pleasure that he was the first man in the city of
Baltimore to own and run an automobile. Meeting him on the street, his
contemporaries would stare enviously at the picture he made of health
and vitality.

"He seems to grow younger every year," they would remark. And if old
Roger Button, now sixty-five years old, had failed at first to give a
proper welcome to his son he atoned at last by bestowing on him what
amounted to adulation.

And here we come to an unpleasant subject which it will be well to
pass over as quickly as possible. There was only one thing that
worried Benjamin Button; his wife had ceased to attract him.

At that time Hildegarde was a woman of thirty-five, with a son,
Roscoe, fourteen years old. In the early days of their marriage
Benjamin had worshipped her. But, as the years passed, her
honey-coloured hair became an unexciting brown, the blue enamel of her
eyes assumed the aspect of cheap crockery--moreover, and, most of all,
she had become too settled in her ways, too placid, too content, too
anaemic in her excitements, and too sober in her taste. As a bride it
been she who had "dragged" Benjamin to dances and dinners--now
conditions were reversed. She went out socially with him, but without
enthusiasm, devoured already by that eternal inertia which comes to
live with each of us one day and stays with us to the end.

Benjamin's discontent waxed stronger. At the outbreak of the
Spanish-American War in 1898 his home had for him so little charm that
he decided to join the army. With his business influence he obtained a
commission as captain, and proved so adaptable to the work that he was
made a major, and finally a lieutenant-colonel just in time to
participate in the celebrated charge up San Juan Hill. He was slightly
wounded, and received a medal.

Benjamin had become so attached to the activity and excitement of
array life that he regretted to give it up, but his business required
attention, so he resigned his commission and came home. He was met at
the station by a brass band and escorted to his house.

8

Hildegarde, waving a large silk flag, greeted him on the porch, and
even as he kissed her he felt with a sinking of the heart that these
three years had taken their toll. She was a woman of forty now, with a
faint skirmish line of gray hairs in her head. The sight depressed
him.

Up in his room he saw his reflection in the familiar mirror--he went
closer and examined his own face with anxiety, comparing it after a
moment with a photograph of himself in uniform taken just before the
war.

"Good Lord!" he said aloud. The process was continuing. There was no
doubt of it--he looked now like a man of thirty. Instead of being
delighted, he was uneasy--he was growing younger. He had hitherto
hoped that once he reached a bodily age equivalent to his age in
years, the grotesque phenomenon which had marked his birth would cease
to function. He shuddered. His destiny seemed to him awful,
incredible.

When he came downstairs Hildegarde was waiting for him. She appeared
annoyed, and he wondered if she had at last discovered that there was
something amiss. It was with an effort to relieve the tension between
them that he broached the matter at dinner in what he considered a
delicate way.

"Well," he remarked lightly, "everybody says I look younger than
ever."

Hildegarde regarded him with scorn. She sniffed. "Do you think it's
anything to boast about?"

"I'm not boasting," he asserted uncomfortably. She sniffed again. "The
idea," she said, and after a moment: "I should think you'd have enough
pride to stop it."

"How can I?" he demanded.

"I'm not going to argue with you," she retorted. "But there's a right
way of doing things and a wrong way. If you've made up your mind to be
different from everybody else, I don't suppose I can stop you, but I
really don't think it's very considerate."

"But, Hildegarde, I can't help it."

"You can too. You're simply stubborn. You think you don't want to be
like any one else. You always have been that way, and you always will
be. But just think how it would be if every one else looked at things
as you do--what would the world be like?"

As this was an inane and unanswerable argument Benjamin made no reply,
and from that time on a chasm began to widen between them. He wondered
what possible fascination she had ever exercised over him.

To add to the breach, he found, as the new century gathered headway,
that his thirst for gaiety grew stronger. Never a party of any kind in
the city of Baltimore but he was there, dancing with the prettiest of
the young married women, chatting with the most popular of the
debutantes, and finding their company charming, while his wife, a
dowager of evil omen, sat among the chaperons, now in haughty
disapproval, and now following him with solemn, puzzled, and
reproachful eyes.

"Look!" people would remark. "What a pity! A young fellow that age
tied to a woman of forty-five. He must be twenty years younger than
his wife." They had forgotten--as people inevitably forget--that back
in 1880 their mammas and papas had also remarked about this same
ill-matched pair.

Benjamin's growing unhappiness at home was compensated for by his many
new interests. He took up golf and made a great success of it. He went
in for dancing: in 1906 he was an expert at "The Boston," and in 1908
he was considered proficient at the "Maxine," while in 1909 his
"Castle Walk" was the envy of every young man in town.

His social activities, of course, interfered to some extent with his
business, but then he had worked hard at wholesale hardware for
twenty-five years and felt that he could soon hand it on to his son,
Roscoe, who had recently graduated from Harvard.

He and his son were, in fact, often mistaken for each other. This
pleased Benjamin--he soon forgot the insidious fear which had come
over him on his return from the Spanish-American War, and grew to take
a naïve pleasure in his appearance. There was only one fly in the
delicious ointment--he hated to appear in public with his wife.
Hildegarde was almost fifty, and the sight of her made him feel
absurd....

9

One September day in 1910--a few years after Roger Button & Co.,
Wholesale Hardware, had been handed over to young Roscoe Button--a
man, apparently about twenty years old, entered himself as a freshman
at Harvard University in Cambridge. He did not make the mistake of
announcing that he would never see fifty again, nor did he mention the
fact that his son had been graduated from the same institution ten
years before.

He was admitted, and almost immediately attained a prominent position
in the class, partly because he seemed a little older than the other
freshmen, whose average age was about eighteen.

But his success was largely due to the fact that in the football game
with Yale he played so brilliantly, with so much dash and with such a
cold, remorseless anger that he scored seven touchdowns and fourteen
field goals for Harvard, and caused one entire eleven of Yale men to
be carried singly from the field, unconscious. He was the most
celebrated man in college.

Strange to say, in his third or junior year he was scarcely able to
"make" the team. The coaches said that he had lost weight, and it
seemed to the more observant among them that he was not quite as tall
as before. He made no touchdowns--indeed, he was retained on the team
chiefly in hope that his enormous reputation would bring terror and
disorganisation to the Yale team.

In his senior year he did not make the team at all. He had grown so
slight and frail that one day he was taken by some sophomores for a
freshman, an incident which humiliated him terribly. He became known
as something of a prodigy--a senior who was surely no more than
sixteen--and he was often shocked at the worldliness of some of his
classmates. His studies seemed harder to him--he felt that they were
too advanced. He had heard his classmates speak of St. Midas's, the
famous preparatory school, at which so many of them had prepared for
college, and he determined after his graduation to enter himself at
St. Midas's, where the sheltered life among boys his own size would be
more congenial to him.

Upon his graduation in 1914 he went home to Baltimore with his Harvard
diploma in his pocket. Hildegarde was now residing in Italy, so
Benjamin went to live with his son, Roscoe. But though he was welcomed
in a general way there was obviously no heartiness in Roscoe's feeling
toward him--there was even perceptible a tendency on his son's part to
think that Benjamin, as he moped about the house in adolescent
mooniness, was somewhat in the way. Roscoe was married now and
prominent in Baltimore life, and he wanted no scandal to creep out in
connection with his family.

Benjamin, no longer _persona grata_ with the débutantes and
younger college set, found himself left much done, except for the
companionship of three or four fifteen-year-old boys in the
neighbourhood. His idea of going to St. Midas's school recurred to
him.

"Say," he said to Roscoe one day, "I've told you over and over that I
want to go to prep, school."

"Well, go, then," replied Roscoe shortly. The matter was distasteful
to him, and he wished to avoid a discussion.

"I can't go alone," said Benjamin helplessly. "You'll have to enter me
and take me up there."

"I haven't got time," declared Roscoe abruptly. His eyes narrowed and
he looked uneasily at his father. "As a matter of fact," he added,
"you'd better not go on with this business much longer. You better
pull up short. You better--you better"--he paused and his face
crimsoned as he sought for words--"you better turn right around and
start back the other way. This has gone too far to be a joke. It isn't
funny any longer. You--you behave yourself!"

Benjamin looked at him, on the verge of tears.

"And another thing," continued Roscoe, "when visitors are in the house
I want you to call me 'Uncle'--not 'Roscoe,' but 'Uncle,' do you
understand? It looks absurd for a boy of fifteen to call me by my
first name. Perhaps you'd better call me 'Uncle' _all_ the time,
so you'll get used to it."

With a harsh look at his father, Roscoe turned away....

10

At the termination of this interview, Benjamin wandered dismally
upstairs and stared at himself in the mirror. He had not shaved for
three months, but he could find nothing on his face but a faint white
down with which it seemed unnecessary to meddle. When he had first
come home from Harvard, Roscoe had approached him with the proposition
that he should wear eye-glasses and imitation whiskers glued to his
cheeks, and it had seemed for a moment that the farce of his early
years was to be repeated. But whiskers had itched and made him
ashamed. He wept and Roscoe had reluctantly relented.

Benjamin opened a book of boys' stories, _The Boy Scouts in Bimini
Bay_, and began to read. But he found himself thinking persistently
about the war. America had joined the Allied cause during the
preceding month, and Benjamin wanted to enlist, but, alas, sixteen was
the minimum age, and he did not look that old. His true age, which was
fifty-seven, would have disqualified him, anyway.

There was a knock at his door, and the butler appeared with a letter
bearing a large official legend in the corner and addressed to Mr.
Benjamin Button. Benjamin tore it open eagerly, and read the enclosure
with delight. It informed him that many reserve officers who had
served in the Spanish-American War were being called back into service
with a higher rank, and it enclosed his commission as brigadier-general
in the United States army with orders to report immediately.

Benjamin jumped to his feet fairly quivering with enthusiasm. This was
what he had wanted. He seized his cap, and ten minutes later he had
entered a large tailoring establishment on Charles Street, and asked
in his uncertain treble to be measured for a uniform.

"Want to play soldier, sonny?" demanded a clerk casually.

Benjamin flushed. "Say! Never mind what I want!" he retorted angrily.
"My name's Button and I live on Mt. Vernon Place, so you know I'm good
for it."

"Well," admitted the clerk hesitantly, "if you're not, I guess your
daddy is, all right."

Benjamin was measured, and a week later his uniform was completed. He
had difficulty in obtaining the proper general's insignia because the
dealer kept insisting to Benjamin that a nice V.W.C.A. badge would
look just as well and be much more fun to play with.

Saying nothing to Roscoe, he left the house one night and proceeded by
train to Camp Mosby, in South Carolina, where he was to command an
infantry brigade. On a sultry April day he approached the entrance to
the camp, paid off the taxicab which had brought him from the station,
and turned to the sentry on guard.

"Get some one to handle my luggage!" he said briskly.

The sentry eyed him reproachfully. "Say," he remarked, "where you
goin' with the general's duds, sonny?"

Benjamin, veteran of the Spanish-American War, whirled upon him with
fire in his eye, but with, alas, a changing treble voice.

"Come to attention!" he tried to thunder; he paused for breath--then
suddenly he saw the sentry snap his heels together and bring his rifle
to the present. Benjamin concealed a smile of gratification, but when
he glanced around his smile faded. It was not he who had inspired
obedience, but an imposing artillery colonel who was approaching on
horseback.

"Colonel!" called Benjamin shrilly.

The colonel came up, drew rein, and looked coolly down at him with a
twinkle in his eyes. "Whose little boy are you?" he demanded kindly.

"I'll soon darn well show you whose little boy I am!" retorted
Benjamin in a ferocious voice. "Get down off that horse!"

The colonel roared with laughter.

"You want him, eh, general?"

"Here!" cried Benjamin desperately. "Read this." And he thrust his
commission toward the colonel.

The colonel read it, his eyes popping from their sockets.

"Where'd you get this?" he demanded, slipping the
document into his own pocket.

"I got it from the Government, as you'll
soon find out!"

"You come along with me," said the colonel with a
peculiar look. "We'll go up to headquarters and talk this over. Come
along."

The colonel turned and began walking his horse in the
direction of headquarters. There was nothing for Benjamin to do but
follow with as much dignity as possible--meanwhile promising himself a
stern revenge.

But this revenge did not materialise. Two days later,
however, his son Roscoe materialised from Baltimore, hot and cross
from a hasty trip, and escorted the weeping general, _sans_
uniform, back to his home.

II

In 1920 Roscoe Button's first child was born. During the attendant
festivities, however, no one thought it "the thing" to mention, that
the little grubby boy, apparently about ten years of age who played
around the house with lead soldiers and a miniature circus, was the
new baby's own grandfather.

No one disliked the little boy whose fresh, cheerful face was crossed
with just a hint of sadness, but to Roscoe Button his presence was a
source of torment. In the idiom of his generation Roscoe did not
consider the matter "efficient." It seemed to him that his father, in
refusing to look sixty, had not behaved like a "red-blooded
he-man"--this was Roscoe's favourite expression--but in a curious and
perverse manner. Indeed, to think about the matter for as much as a
half an hour drove him to the edge of insanity. Roscoe believed that
"live wires" should keep young, but carrying it out on such a scale
was--was--was inefficient. And there Roscoe rested.

Five years later Roscoe's little boy had grown old enough to play
childish games with little Benjamin under the supervision of the same
nurse. Roscoe took them both to kindergarten on the same day, and
Benjamin found that playing with little strips of coloured paper,
making mats and chains and curious and beautiful designs, was the most
fascinating game in the world. Once he was bad and had to stand in the
corner--then he cried--but for the most part there were gay hours in
the cheerful room, with the sunlight coming in the windows and Miss
Bailey's kind hand resting for a moment now and then in his tousled
hair.

Roscoe's son moved up into the first grade after a year, but Benjamin
stayed on in the kindergarten. He was very happy. Sometimes when other
tots talked about what they would do when they grew up a shadow would
cross his little face as if in a dim, childish way he realised that
those were things in which he was never to share.

The days flowed on in monotonous content. He went back a third year to
the kindergarten, but he was too little now to understand what the
bright shining strips of paper were for. He cried because the other
boys were bigger than he, and he was afraid of them. The teacher
talked to him, but though he tried to understand he could not
understand at all.

He was taken from the kindergarten. His nurse, Nana, in her starched
gingham dress, became the centre of his tiny world. On bright days
they walked in the park; Nana would point at a great gray monster and
say "elephant," and Benjamin would say it after her, and when he was
being undressed for bed that night he would say it over and over aloud
to her: "Elyphant, elyphant, elyphant." Sometimes Nana let him jump on
the bed, which was fun, because if you sat down exactly right it would
bounce you up on your feet again, and if you said "Ah" for a long time
while you jumped you got a very pleasing broken vocal effect.

He loved to take a big cane from the hat-rack and go around hitting
chairs and tables with it and saying: "Fight, fight, fight." When
there were people there the old ladies would cluck at him, which
interested him, and the young ladies would try to kiss him, which he
submitted to with mild boredom. And when the long day was done at five
o'clock he would go upstairs with Nana and be fed on oatmeal and nice
soft mushy foods with a spoon.

There were no troublesome memories in his childish sleep; no token
came to him of his brave days at college, of the glittering years when
he flustered the hearts of many girls. There were only the white, safe
walls of his crib and Nana and a man who came to see him sometimes,
and a great big orange ball that Nana pointed at just before his
twilight bed hour and called "sun." When the sun went his eyes were
sleepy--there were no dreams, no dreams to haunt him.

The past--the wild charge at the head of his men up San Juan Hill; the
first years of his marriage when he worked late into the summer dusk
down in the busy city for young Hildegarde whom he loved; the days
before that when he sat smoking far into the night in the gloomy old
Button house on Monroe Street with his grandfather-all these had faded
like unsubstantial dreams from his mind as though they had never been.
He did not remember.

He did not remember clearly whether the milk was warm or cool at his
last feeding or how the days passed--there was only his crib and
Nana's familiar presence. And then he remembered nothing. When he was
hungry he cried--that was all. Through the noons and nights he
breathed and over him there were soft mumblings and murmurings that he
scarcely heard, and faintly differentiated smells, and light and
darkness.

Then it was all dark, and his white crib and the dim faces that moved
above him, and the warm sweet aroma of the milk, faded out altogether
from his mind.