The first twenty years of my life were uneventful. As a boy I played among the crumbling ruins of what must once have been a magnificent city. Pillaged, looted and burned half a hundred times Chicago still reared the skeletons of some mighty edifices above the ashes of her former greatness. As a youth I regretted the departed romance of the long gone days of my fore-fathers when the earth men still retained sufficient strength to battle for existence. I deplored the quiet stagnation of my own time with only an occasional murder to break the monotony of our bleak existence. Even the Kalkar Guard stationed on the shore of the great lake seldom harassed us, unless there came an urgent call from higher authorities for an additional tax collection, for we fed them well and they had the pick of our women and young girls—almost, but not quite as you shall see.
The commander of the guard had been stationed here for years and we considered ourselves very fortunate in that he was too lazy and indolent to be cruel or oppressive. His tax collectors were always with us on market days; but they did not exact so much that we had nothing left for ourselves as refugees from Milwaukee told us was the case there.
I recall one poor devil from Milwaukee who staggered into our market place of a Saturday. He was nothing more than a bag of bones and he told us that fully ten thousand people had died of starvation the preceding month in his Teivos. The word Teivos is applied impartially to a district and to the administrative body that misadministers its affairs. No one knows what the word really means, though my mother has told me that her grandfather said that it came from another world, the moon, like Kash Guard, which also means nothing in particular—one soldier is a Kash Guard, ten thousand soldiers are a Kash Guard. If a man comes with a piece of paper upon which something is written that you are not supposed to be able to read and kills your grandmother or carries off your sister you say: “The Kash Guard did it.”
That was one of the many inconsistencies of our form of government that aroused my indignation even in youth—I refer to the fact that the Twenty-Four issued written proclamations and commands to a people it did not allow to learn to read and write, I said, I believe, that printing was a lost art. This is not quite true except as it refers to the mass of the people, for the Twenty-Four still maintained a printing department, where it issued money and manifestos. The money was used in lieu of taxation—that is when we had been so over-burdened by taxation that murmurings were heard even among the Kalkar class the authorities would send agents among us to buy our wares, paying us with money that had no value and which we could not use except to kindle our fires.
Taxes could not be paid in money as the Twenty-Four would only accept gold and silver, or produce and manufactures, and as all the gold and silver had disappeared from circulation while my father was in his teens we had to pay with what we raised or manufactured.
Three Saturdays a month the tax collectors were in the market places appraising our wares and on the last Saturday they collected one per cent of all we had bought or sold during the month. Nothing had any fixed value—to-day you might haggle half an hour in trading a pint of beans for a goat skin and next week if you wanted beans the chances were more than excellent that you would have to give four or five goat skins for a pint, and the tax collectors took advantage of that—they appraised on the basis of the highest market values for the month.
My father had a few long haired goats—they were called Montana goats, but he said they really were Angoras, and mother used to make cloth from their fleece. With the cloth, the milk and the flesh from our goats we lived very well, having also a small vegetable garden beside our house; but there were some necessities that we must purchase in the market place. It was against the law to barter in private, as the tax collectors would then have known nothing about a man’s income. Well, one winter my mother was ill and we were in sore need of coal to heat the room in which she lay, so father went to the commander of the Kash Guard and asked permission to purchase some coal before market day. A soldier was sent with him to Hoffmeyer, the agent of the Kalkar, Pthav, who had the coal concession for our district—the kalkers have everything—and when Hoffmeyer discovered how badly we needed coal he said that for five milk goats father could have half his weight in coal.
My father protested, but it was of no avail and as he knew how badly my mother needed heat he took the five goats to Hoffmeyer and brought back the coal. On the following market day he paid one goat for a sack of beans equal to his weight and when the tax collector came for his tithe he said to father: “You paid five goats for half your weight in beans, and as everyone knows that beans are worth twenty times as much as coal, the coal you bought must be worth one hundred goats by now, and as beans are worth twenty times as much as coal and you have twice as much beans as coal your beans are now worth two hundred goats, which makes your trades for this month amount to three hundred goats. Bring me, therefore, three of your best goats.”
He was a new tax collector—the old one would not have done such a thing; but it was about that time that everything began to change. Father said he would not have thought that things could be much worse; but he found out differently later. The change commenced in 2017, right after Jarth became Jemadar of the United Teivos of America. Of course, it did not all happen at once. Washington is a long way from Chicago and there is no continuous railroad between them. The Twenty-Four keeps up a few disconnected lines; but it is hard to operate them as there are no longer any trained mechanics to maintain them. It never takes less than a week to travel from Washington to Gary, the western terminus.
Father said that most of the railways were destroyed during the wars after the Kalkars overran the country and that as workmen were then permitted to labor only four hours a day, when they felt like it, and even then most of them were busy making new laws so much of the time that they had no chance to work, there was not enough labor to operate or maintain the roads that were left, but that was not the worst of it. Practically all the men who understood the technical details of operation and maintenance, of engineering and mechanics belonged to the more intelligent class of earthmen and were, consequently, immediately thrown out of employment and later killed.
For seventy-five years there had been no new locomotives built and but few repairs made on those in existence. The Twenty-Four had sought to delay the inevitable by operating a few trains only for their own requirements—for government officials and troops; but it could now be but a question of a short time before railroad operation must cease—forever. It didn’t mean much to me as I had never ridden on a train—never even seen one, in fact, other than the rusted remnants, twisted and tortured by fire, that lay scattered about various localities of our city; but father and mother considered it a calamity—the passing of the last link between the old civilization and the new barbarism.
Airships, automobiles, steamships, and even the telephone had gone before their time; but they had heard their fathers tell of these and other wonders. The telegraph was still in operation, though the service was poor and there were only a few lines between Chicago and the Atlantic seaboard. To the west of us was neither railroad nor telegraph. I saw a man when I was about ten years old who had come on horseback from a Teivos in Missouri. He started out with forty others to get in touch with the east and learn what had transpired there in the past fifty years; but between bandits and Kash Guards all had been killed but himself during the long and adventurous journey.
I shall never forget how I hung about picking up every scrap of the exciting narrative that fell from his lips nor how my imagination worked overtime for many weeks thereafter as I tried to picture myself the hero of similar adventures in the mysterious and unknown west. He told us that conditions were pretty bad in all the country he had passed through; but that in the agricultural districts living was easier because the Kash Guard came less often and the people could gain a fair living from the land. He thought our conditions were worse than those in Missouri and he would not remain, preferring to face the dangers of the return trip rather than live so comparatively close to the seat of the Twenty-Four.
Father was very angry when he came home from market after the new tax collector had levied a tax of three goats on him. Mother was up again and the cold snap had departed leaving the mildness of spring in the late March air. The ice had gone off the river on the banks of which we lived and I was already looking forward to my first swim of the year. The goat skins were drawn back from the windows of our little home and the fresh, sun-laden air was blowing through our three rooms.
“Bad times are coming, Elizabeth,” said father, after he had told her of the injustice. “They have been bad enough in the past; but now that the swine have put the king of swine in as Jemadar—”
“S-s-sh!” cautioned my mother, nodding her head toward the open window.
Father remained silent, listening. We heard footsteps passing around the house toward the front and a moment later the form of a man darkened the door. Father breathed a sigh of relief.
“Ah!” he exclaimed, “it is only our good brother Johansen. Come in, Brother Peter and tell us the news.”
“And there is news enough,” exclaimed the visitor. “The old commandant has been replaced by a new one, a fellow by the name of Or-tis—one of Jarth’s cronies. What do you think of that?”
Brother Peter was standing between father and mother with his back toward the latter, so he did not see mother place her finger quickly to her lips in a sign to father to guard his speech. I saw a slight frown cross my father’s brow, as though he resented my mother’s warning; but when he spoke his words were such as those of our class have learned through suffering are the safest.
“It is not for me to think,” he said, “or to question in any way what the Twenty-Four does.”
“Nor for me,” spoke Johansen quickly; “but among friends—a man cannot help but think and sometimes it is good to speak your mind—eh?”
Father shrugged his shoulders and turned away. I could see that he was boiling over with a desire to unburden himself of some of his loathing for the degraded beasts that Fate had placed in power nearly a century before. His childhood had still been close enough to the glorious past of his country’s proudest days to have been impressed through the tales of his elders with a poignant realization of all that had been lost and of how it had been lost. This he and mother had tried to impart to me as others of the dying intellectuals attempted to nurse the spark of a waning culture in the breasts of their offspring against that always hoped for, yet seemingly hopeless, day when the world should start to emerge from the slough of slime and ignorance into which the cruelties of the Kalkars had dragged it.
“Now, Brother Peter,” said father, at last, “I must go and take my three goats to the tax collector, or he will charge me another one for a fine.” I saw that he tried to speak naturally; but he could not keep the bitterness out of his voice.
Peter pricked up his ears. “Yes,” he said, “I had heard of that piece of business. This new tax collector was laughing about it to Hoffmeyer. He thinks it a fine joke and Hoffmeyer says that now that you got the coal for so much less than it was worth he is going before the Twenty-Four and ask that you be compelled to pay him the other ninety-five goats that the tax collector says the coal is really worth.”
“Oh!” exclaimed mother, “they would not really do such a wicked thing—I am sure they would not.”
Peter shrugged. “Perhaps they only joked,” he said; “these Kalkars are great jokers.”
“Yes,” said father, “they are great jokers; but some day I shall have my little joke,” and he walked out toward the pens where the goats were kept when not on pasture.
Mother looked after him with a troubled light in her eyes and I saw her shoot a quick glance at Peter, who presently followed father from the house and went his way.
Father and I took the goats to the tax collector. He was a small man with a mass of red hair, a thin nose and two small, close-set eyes. His name was Soor. As soon as he saw father he commenced to fume.
“What is your name, man?” he demanded insolently.
“Julian 8th,” replied father. “Here are the three goats in payment of my income tax for this month—shall I put them in the pen?”
“What did you say your name is?” snapped the fellow.
“Julian 8th,” father repeated.
“Julian 8th!” shouted Soor. “‘Julian 8th!’” I suppose you are too fine a gentleman to be brother to such as me, eh?”
“Brother Julian 8th,” said father sullenly.
“Go put your goats in the pen and hereafter remember that all men are brothers who are good citizens and loyal to our great Jemadar.”
When father had put the goats away we started for home; but as we were passing Soor he shouted: “Well?”
Father turned a questioning look toward him.
“Well?” repeated the man.
“I do not understand,” said father; “have I not done all that the law requires?”
“What’s the matter with you pigs out here?” Soor fairly screamed. “Back in the eastern Teivos a tax collector doesn’t have to starve to death on his miserable pay—his people bring him little presents.”
“Very well,” said father quietly, “I will bring you something next time I come to market.”
“See that you do,” snapped Soor.
Father did not speak all the way home, nor did he say a word until after we had finished our dinner of cheese, goat’s milk and corn cakes. I was so angry that I could scarce contain myself; but I had been brought up in an atmosphere of repression and terrorism that early taught me to keep a still tongue in my head.
When father had finished his meal he rose suddenly—so suddenly that his chair flew across the room to the opposite wall—and squaring his shoulders he struck his chest a terrible blow.
“Coward! Dog!” he cried. “My God! I cannot stand it. I shall go mad if I must submit longer to such humiliation. I am no longer a man. There are no men! We are worms that the swine grind into the earth with their polluted hoofs. And I dared say nothing. I stood there while that offspring of generations of menials and servants insulted me and spat upon me and I dared say nothing but meekly to propitiate him. It is disgusting.
“In a few generations they have sapped the manhood from American men. My ancestors fought at Bunker Hill, at Gettysburg, at San Juan, at Chateau Thierry. And I? I bend the knee to every degraded creature that wears the authority of the beasts at Washington—and not one of them is an American—scarce one of them an earth man. To the scum of the moon I bow my head—I who am one of the few survivors of the most powerful people the world ever knew.”
“Julian!” cried my mother, “be careful, dear. Some one may be listening.” I could see her tremble.
“And you are an American woman!” he growled.
“Julian, don’t!” she pleaded. “It is not on my account—you know that it is not—but for you and our boy. I do not care what becomes of me; but I cannot see you torn from us as we have seen others taken from their families, who dared speak their minds.”
“I know, dear heart,” he said after a brief silence. “I know—it is the way with each of us. I dare not on your account and Julian’s, you dare not on ours, and so it goes. Ah, if there were only more of us. If I could but find a thousand men who dared!”
“S-s-sh!” cautioned mother. “There are so many spies. One never knows. That is why I cautioned you when Brother Peter was here to-day. One never knows.”
“You suspect Peter?” asked father.
“I know nothing,” replied mother; “I am afraid of every one. It is a frightful existence and though I have lived it thus all my life, and my mother before me and her mother before that, I never became hardened to it.”
“The American spirit has been bent but not broken,” said father. “Let us hope that it will never break.”
“If we have the hearts to suffer always it will not break,” said mother, “but it is hard, so hard—when one even hates to bring a child into the world,” and she glanced at me, “because of the misery and suffering to which it is doomed for life. I yearned for children, always; but I feared to have them—mostly I feared that they might be girls. To be a girl in this world to-day—Oh, it is frightful!”
After supper father and I went out and milked the goats and saw that the sheds were secured for the night against the dogs. It seemed as though they became more numerous and more bold each year. They ran in packs where there were only individuals when I was a little boy and it was scarce safe for a grown man to travel an unfrequented locality at night. We were not permitted to have firearms in our possession, nor even bows and arrows, so we could not exterminate them and they seem to realize our weakness, coming close in among the houses and pens at night.
They were large brutes—fearless and powerful. There was one pack more formidable than the others which father said appeared to carry a strong strain of collie and airedale blood—the members of this pack were large, cunning and ferocious and were becoming a terror to the city—we called them the Hellhounds.