DEATH OF A CENTURY

Philip Stevenson

NEXT DAY, the reactionary press - there was still a reactionary press in those days - came out and said we'd murdered him. Now I was there and saw the whole thing. Not that it made any difference, unless you take it, like I do, as a typical case. Seems to me that old James T. stands pretty well for his whole time and his whole class. Anyhow, here's the truth. Make what you can out of it.

Old James T. is almost forgotten now. Chances are, our kids never heard of him. So I better remind you.

He was born about the time the factory system began to dominate production in this country. Marx and Engels hadn't written the Manifesto yet, and Lincoln, out in the Illinois Legislature, hadn't yet said, "Any people anywhere have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government and form a new one." The only hurdle between the capitalists and the most ruthless exploitation was the Declaration of Independence, and that had gone into the grave along with Jefferson. Old James T. had grown up with the system and been in his prime when the system was in its prime- at the peak of long hours, low wages, and child labor. As soon as reforms began to weaken the system as a means of getting supreme power, he dropped that tool and went in for high finance instead- combines and trusts and cutthroat competition all over the world. He made more money by this kind of speculation than he ever could have got by sweating a few thousand wage slaves in factories. Then the trusts were busted- or seemed to be- and he retired and began to pave his road to St. Peter's gate with gifts ranging from new Lincoln pennies to million-dollar blocks of bonds. This way the people were fooled into thinking the old skinflint had reformed.

But the whole system was on the down grade. You know how things have been for the past few years- the banks flat busted, riots, dictatorships, compromises, new governments every five minutes. Old James T. seemed out of it- you never heard a thing about him except once a year. Then the tory press would come out with a statement that ran something like this:

Plans are going quietly forward for the celebration of James T. Hamstringer's ninety-sixth birthday tomorrow.
The birthday dinner will be served at eight o'clock as usual, and the guests will in all probability include Mr. Hamstringer's three sons, James T. Jr., Ernest Hamstringer, Frank Lee Hamstringer, and their children, James T. 3rd, Faith, Hope, Charity, and Watt Price Hamstringer. It is rumored that James T. Hamstringer Jr., will blow out the ninety-six candles and cut the ninety-six pound cake for his venerable father.

Then, if you remember, the statement would tell how James T. was going to spend every minute of the day, getting up at six, breakfasting heartily, having telegrams of congratulation read aloud to him by his private secretary, transacting business, getting in a round of golf on his private course at Hamstring Hills, and going for an auto ride through our town, Hamstring Falls, and distributing Lincoln pennies to the kids. After dinner there'd be an organ recital by his old friend Minnie Potbergh, aged 87, playing all James T.'s "classical" favorites, like "The Rosary," "The Old Grey Mare," and "Brighten the Corner Where You Are." There'd be a lot about how vigorous the old guy was at ninety-six, how shrewd he was in business matters and how he made his 9 hole course in eight strokes or something.

Yeah. Well, that year old James T. was going to be a hundred. The statement read about the same, except that on account of "unsettled conditions" and the "protests of the nation against allowing Mr. Hamstringer to expose himself," he wasn't going to appear in public. Matter of fact he hadn't appeared in public, not even in Hamstring Falls, for six years at least.

You remember what happened that day. We took power in New York, Washington, Chicago- and a lot of the smaller towns on the outskirts had baby revolutions. Our town had one. Hamstring Fell, if you get me. As soon as we had the town where we wanted it, the boys suggested we go and take over James T.'s estate as a hospital and sanatorium for sick or wounded workers from the big city.

That sounded fair enough, so we started for Hamstring Hills in commandeered cars. At the gate we had quite a scrap with James T.'s private army, but our farmer boys and workers had the right spirit, and pretty soon the Hessians were on the run and we got in. Later I was told that the Hamstringer family were heading out sixty miles an hour through the gates on the other side of the estate.

The "mansion" had a deserted look. Most of the boys had never been inside the grounds before, and they thought it was something the movies had invented. One or two of them even took off their hats, and I had to remind them that as workers they were good enough for any goddam "mansion" in the cock-eyed world. Then they straightened up and marched through the dozens of rooms like they'd lived there, planning what they'd do with all the space.

By that time we were sure the place was deserted. We went upstairs. I was scribbling figures on a door jamb, estimating we could put a thousand beds in the house, when a kid off the farm came and told me he'd found a locked room. I investigated and found a second door into it, but that was locked too. I told the boys to be ready for trouble, and then we burst the lock with our shoulders.

I remembered hearing a woman scream. As we fell through the busted door a blousy wench was unlocking the other door and hustling out. We let her go. We were too dumb to stop her. Because in the middle of the floor was an old guy on his knees, his hands joined, his eyes turned up and streaming tears. He had on a goddam uniform and was trembling so hard that all his gold buttons and doodads clanked like a suit of armor. But the thing that froze us all was at the side of the room. There was a big carved bed with a canopy and curtains and pink silk sheets and pillows. One of the curtains was pulled back and lying against the pillows was something I mistook for a man-sized lizard. It had a crusty skull and a spiky, beaky nose. Oh, it was a man, all right, but all dried up, with thick cracked skin like a turtle's neck, and yellow like old cardboard. His black glasses made him look like something that's gone blind from living in a cave, and he didn't move, except for his mouth. He had no teeth, but his lips kept sucking in and out sunkenly, making weak little whining noises.

We stood dumb for maybe a full minute. It took us that long to work out that the thing we were looking at was human, and then to connect it up with the old robust old man we read about in the papers.

Eventually the guy in buttons decided we weren't going to cut his throat. He got up on his feet and fawned and bowed, calling us "Gen-tul-men" with a Limejuicer's accent and "prayed" us not to "distress the mahster fuhther." That was the way he talked.

Bill- the kid who'd found the locked door- couldn't believe his eyes. "Is that old James T.?" he kept saying. "Is it, honest?"

The lizard in bed must have noticed strange voices, because now his lips began to suck and twist harder. This got old Buttons all excited.

"Gen-tul-men, gen-tul-men ! Ryahly, I beg of you!" he said, crying again and fluttering his old hands. "Ew, dyah me, dyah, dyah me!"

Seems like we were distressing the "mahster" on his hundred "baathday." Seems like the "mahster" had a message to give the world today, but none of the family had been able to get it. Old Buttons had hopes, though. He wanted to be the one to catch the "mahster's handredth baathday message" and give it to posterity. "I appeal to your sense of values, gen-tul-men! Think! if the mewment should pahss and this wisdom be lost to mankiyund!"

One of the boys pooped and we all laughed. Buttons had a fit.

"Gen-tul-men, please! I beg of you! His distress is acute!"

The funny little infant's cry was coming pretty regular now, and a skimpy tear trickled out from under the black glasses. You couldn't feel any pity for it, but I was curious- like you might be curious about anything disgusting- a bearded lady or a man with breastworks.

"How long has he been like that?" I asked.

"Ew dyah, I . . ." Buttons acted embarrassed. But I guess he realized the cat was out of the bag. "Some six yahs now, sir."

"You mean he ain't been out of bed for six years?"

New, sir."

The boys had overheard, and they came crowding round.

"Well, what's all that in the papers about him playin' golf ?"

"What about him doin' business every day?"

"Yeah! How about his bein' so goddam vigorous?"

"Tut, tut, gen-tul-men, tut-tut." Buttons was all diplomatic now- didn't act scared no more. Maybe he thought a long story would keep us busy till help came. Anyhow, he seemed plenty ready to talk. He explained- like we was all kids- how the country couldn't afford to know the truth about James T., how it would cause a panic on the stock market and pervert the youth of America to let out that "our most famous citizen," James T. Hamstringer, had gone into his second childhood, like- "like any common laborer!"

He came close to being shot for that remark. There was a scuffle, and Buttons got out in the hall. But we caught him easy enough, and he forgot to be diplomatic after that. He kept raving that we had interrupted James T. "in the act of partaking of 'is narrishment." He said the old mummy would die and he'd be blamed.

"Well fercrysakes," Bill said, "what can he eat? He ain't got any teeth."

Believe it or not, Buttons blushed to the top of his bold scalp.

"I bet he drinks milk like a goddam baby," another said.

"Yeah, out of some special prize cow, too!"

"Cow, sir?" Buttons was up on his dignity now. "Cow, indeed!"

"Well, goat, then. Ordinary milk ain't good enough for His Royal Majesty, is it."

"Goat, sir!" (He pronounced it Gewt.)

I was getting fed up with this. I grabbed his shoulders and shook him.

"Snap out of it," I said. "It is milk, ain't it?"

"Ew yes, sir!" Buttons squealed, up high like a woman.

"All right, pop out with the mystery, or I'll bust you one!"

Buttons shrieked for mercy and was all for getting down on his knees again, but we held him up.

"Yooman milk, gen-tul-men! God forgive me for betraying the Secret! Yooman milk! For the pahst three yahs !"

I guess we made him say it a dozen times. I was so dumb it took me awhile to put two and two together- the baby whimper, the wench who'd been here when we came, the way the old lizard's lips moved. But when the boys got it, I had a tough time keeping discipline. They were for wringing the old buzzard's neck on the spot. All his life he'd exploited people, and even now, when he was completely helpless, he was exploiting motherhood, babyhood, stealing the very milk out of the mouths of workers' kids.

I'd wasted too much time out there already- you know all the organization work there was to do that day. So as soon as I got the boys quieted down, I locked up Buttons, posted a guard with him and another with the lizard, and hoofed it into Hamstring Falls.

I didn't get back till late that night. On my way I made up my mind old James T. would have to find a new diet. I didn't want to kill him; I'd already decided to let him keep his bed for the time being, though he'd have to share the room with the wounded who would arrive tomorrow. But if the only way he could keep alive was by using mother's milk, then it was time he kicked off. If the wench gave more milk than her own kid needed, there were always plenty of undernourished workers' babies to feed. I was choosing between a useless old mummy and the kids of the generation that would build a decent society in America, and I was sure that not even the most hard-boiled capitalist journal, if it knew the facts, would object.

I arrived at Hamstring Hills with a truckload of bed and bedding and found a terrible rumpus going on.

It seemed that Buttons had gone cuckoo. At first he'd pleaded with the boys to go to the phone and call up the wench and get her to come out and finish her job. Then he'd call us murderers and threatened that we'd all be shot some day for this. The boys hadn't exactly weakened, but they were farm boys, soft-hearted, and didn't want the responsibility of old James T. kicking out on them against my orders. They tried to get me by phone, but you know what the phone service was that day.

Meanwhile the lizard was raising his particular feeble kind of hell, whimpering and crying, till his guard, a young farmer with a baby of his own, got nervous and called in the others to discuss in committee what ought to be done.

Jesus! when I think of the energy wasted that day over an old parasite that ought to been butchered years ago! I wish I'd let the boys "wring the buzzard's neck" like they wanted.

Well, the committee decided not to send for the wench. One of them went out and milked one of the Hamstring herd of jerseys and brought in a can of milk, all foaming and fresh, and started to feed the lizard through a funnel.

I expect you won't believe this, but it's true. The old devil knew the difference. He wouldn't take cow's milk. He gagged and spit and wailed so loud you could almost hear him in the next room. But he wouldn't swallow a drop.

Then the boys thought maybe if Buttons fed him he'd take it. So they brought Buttons in and made him wheedle James T. into making a swallow or two. But it wasn't no more than that- just a couple of swallows. James T. had another tantrum, and not all Buttons' diplomacy could make him take a drop more.

That was when the boys' patience gave out.

It seems that somewhere in the 21-car Hamstringer garage they found a brand new pressure grease-gun, never used. They brought that in, filled it with milk, struck the tube down the lizard's throat, and pumped milk into him.

It worked fine. Of course Buttons yowled like a maniac, and they had to tie him to the radiator, but afterwards old James T. seemed a lot stronger and began to try to talk. When I came in he was making all kinds of funny noises, interrupted by sucking smacks of those dry papery lips, and Buttons had his ear within an inch of the lizard's mouth, straining to catch the words.

"It's the same!" he yelled at me. "The same thing he's been saying all day!" His face was all lit up like he'd seen the Queen Sheba in her step-ins. "Once more, sir! Oh, just once more!" he said, bending down to the pink silk pillow again.

"Ah O oo O."

That's all I could make out of it, though the old mummy seemed to be trying awful hard to make sense, twisting his mouth into knots and following up with a couple of sucking smacks- Mff! Mff!

"Ah O oo Ah ig guee ungd !"

And damned if he didn't try to smile!

Old Buttons' eyes were almost falling out of his head by this time. "It's on the tip of my tang!" he yelled. "Once more, Mr. Hamstringer sir! Your faithful owld retainer prays you! Just once more- Ah!"

A kind of spasm had shaken the lizard just then and he'd belched right in Buttons' ear. Apparently the prize Jersey's milk wasn't so good. Buttons jumped like he'd been shot, wiped his ear, and screamed at us:

"'E's dying! You've killed him! Ah, my sewl, I must try a-gain! Please, Mr. Hamstringer! For the lavv of Gawd and your cantry-- once more!"

For a while it didn't look like old James T. would ever do anything again except puke and gag and belch. He made a terrible mess. The old lizard was going out, all right. But Buttons, smeared with filth and sweating like a cart-horse, was bound he wouldn't give up. He kept wiping his ear on the pink silk sheet and "praying" for a repeat of the Message to Posterity.

When James T.'s face suddenly went three shades yellower and the gagging and belching quit, I thought it was over. But it seemed the old boy had one more surprise for the world up his sleeve. Just as we were sure he'd stopped breathing for good, he filled his lungs to the limit and bellowed- at least it was so much louder than his earlier noises that it sounded like a bellow:

"Ah hole you ho! Ah hole you. Ah hib guee a humb'd!"

He ended with a cracked cackly laugh that used up the air in his lungs, and he never filled them again.

I doubt if Buttons realized for five minutes that the old buzzard was dead. His face was- well, like if the Queen of Sheba had took off her step-ins. He was down on his knees again, his arms stretched up and out, his eyes rolled up to the whites, saying over and over in a strangled voice:

"I tewld you sew! I tewld you I'd live to be a handred!- Ew mahster, mahster! Thenk Gawd, I understood!"

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