The Land Beyond the Blow, by Ambrose Bierce

An Execution in Batrugia

My next voyage was not so prosperous. By violent storms lasting seven weeks, during which we saw neither the sun nor the stars, our ship was driven so far out of its course that the captain had no knowledge of where we were. At the end of that period we were blown ashore and wrecked on a coast so wild and desolate that I had never seen anything so terrifying. Through a manifest interposition of Divine Providence I was spared, though all my companions perished miserably in the waves that had crushed the ship among the rocks.

As soon as I was sufficiently recovered from my fatigue and bruises, and had rendered thanks to merciful Heaven for my deliverance, I set out for the interior of the country, taking with me a cutlas for protection against wild beasts and a bag of sea-biscuit for sustenance. I walked vigorously, for the weather was then cool and pleasant, and after I had gone a few miles from the inhospitable coast I found the country open and level. The earth was covered with a thick growth of crimson grass, and at wide intervals were groups of trees. These were very tall, their tops in many instances invisible in a kind of golden mist, or haze, which proved to be, not a transient phenomenon, but a permanent one, for never in that country has the sun been seen, nor is there any night. The haze seems to be self-luminous, giving a soft, yellow light, so diffused that shadows are unknown. The land is abundantly supplied with pools and rivulets, whose water is of a beautiful orange color and has a pleasing perfume somewhat like attar of rose. I observed all this without surprise and with little apprehension, and went forward, feeling that anything, however novel and mysterious, was better than the familiar terrors of the sea and the coast.

After traveling a long time, though how long I had not the means to determine, I arrived at the city of Momgamwo, the capital of the kingdom of Batrugia, on the mainland of the Hidden Continent, where it is always twelve o’clock.

The Batrugians are of gigantic stature, but mild and friendly disposition. They offered me no violence, seeming rather amused by my small stature. One of them, who appeared to be a person of note and consequence, took me to his house (their houses are but a single story in height and built of brass blocks), set food before me, and by signs manifested the utmost good will. A long time afterward, when I had learned the language of the country, he explained that he had recognized me as an American pigmy, a race of which he had some little knowledge through a letter from a brother, who had been in my country. He showed me the letter, of which the chief part is here presented in translation:

“You ask me, my dear Tgnagogu, to relate my adventures among the Americans, as they call themselves. My adventures were very brief, lasting altogether not more than three gumkas, and most of the time was passed in taking measures for my own safety.

“My skyship, which had been driven for six moons before an irresistible gale, passed over a great city just at daylight one morning, and rather than continue the voyage with a lost reckoning I demanded that I be permitted to disembark. My wish was respected, and my companions soared away without me. Before night I had escaped from the city, by what means you know, and with my remarkable experiences in returning to civilization all Batrugia is familiar. The description of the strange city I have reserved for you, by whom only could I hope to be believed. Nyork, as its inhabitants call it, is a city of inconceivable extent — not less, I should judge, than seven square glepkeps! Of the number of its inhabitants I can only say that they are as the sands of the desert. They wear clothing — of a hideous kind, ’tis true — speak an apparently copious though harsh language, and seem to have a certain limited intelligence. They are puny in stature, the tallest of them being hardly higher than my breast.

“Nevertheless, Nyork is a city of giants. The magnitude of all things artificial there is astounding! My dear Tgnagogu, words can give you no conception of it. Many of the buildings, I assure you, are as many as fifty sprugas in height, and shelter five thousand persons each. And these stupendous structures are so crowded together that to the spectator in the narrow streets below they seem utterly devoid of design and symmetry — mere monstrous aggregations of brick, stone and metal — mountains of masonry, cliffs and crags of architecture hanging in the sky!

“A city of giants inhabited by pigmies! For you must know, oh friend of my liver, that the rearing of these mighty structures could not be the work of the puny folk that swarm in ceaseless activity about their bases. These fierce little savages invaded the island in numbers so overwhelming that the giant builders had to flee before them. Some escaped across great bridges which, with the help of their gods, they had suspended in the air from bank to bank of a wide river parting the island from the mainland, but many could do no better than mount some of the buildings that they had reared, and there, in these inaccessible altitudes, they dwell to-day, still piling stone upon stone. Whether they do this in obedience to their instinct as builders, or in hope to escape by way of the heavens, I had not the means to learn, being ignorant of the pigmy tongue and in continual fear of the crowds that followed me.

“You can see the giants toiling away up there in the sky, laying in place the enormous beams and stones which none but they could handle. They look no bigger than beetles, but you know that they are many sprugas in stature, and you shudder to think what would ensue if one should lose his footing. Fancy that great bulk whirling down to earth from so dizzy an altitude! . . .

“May birds ever sing above your grave.

“JOQUOLK WAK MGAPY.”

By my new friend, Tgnagogu, I was presented to the King, a most enlightened monarch, who not only reigned over, but ruled absolutely, the most highly civilized people in the world. He received me with gracious hospitality, quartered me in the palace of his Prime Minister, gave me for wives the three daughters of his Lord Chamberlain, and provided me with an ample income from the public revenues. Within a year I had made a fair acquaintance with the Batrugian language, and was appointed royal interpreter, with a princely salary, although no one speaking any other tongue, myself and two native professors of rhetoric excepted, had ever been seen in the kingdom.

One day I heard a great tumult in the street, and going to a window saw, in a public square opposite, a crowd of persons surrounding some high officials who were engaged in cutting off a man’s head. Just before the executioner delivered the fatal stroke, the victim was asked if he had anything to say. He explained with earnestness that the deed for which he was about to suffer had been inspired and commanded by a brass-headed cow and four bushels of nightingales’ eggs!

“Hold! hold!” I shouted in Batrugian, leaping from the window and forcing a way through the throng; “the man is obviously insane!”

“Friend,” said a man in a long blue robe, gently restraining me, “it is not proper for you to interrupt these high proceedings with irrelevant remarks. The luckless gentleman who, in accordance with my will as Lord Chief Justice, has just had the happiness to part with his head was so inconsiderate as to take the life of a fellow-subject.”

“But he was insane,” I persisted, “clearly and indisputably ptig nupy uggydug!”— a phrase imperfectly translatable, meaning, as near as may be, having flitter-mice in his campanile.

“Am I to infer,” said the Lord Chief Justice, “that in your own honorable country a person accused of murder is permitted to plead insanity as a reason why he should not be put to death?”

“Yes, illustrious one,” I replied, respectfully, “we regard that as a good defense.”

“Well,” said he slowly, but with extreme emphasis, “I’ll be Gook swottled!”

(“Gook,” I may explain, is the name of the Batrugian chief deity; but for the verb “to swottle” the English tongue has no equivalent. It seems to signify the deepest disapproval, and by a promise to be “swottled” a Batrugian denotes acute astonishment.)

“Surely,” I said, “so wise and learned a person as you cannot think it just to punish with death one who does not know right from wrong. The gentleman who has just now renounced his future believed himself to have been commanded to do what he did by a brass-headed cow and four bushels of nightingales’ eggs — powers to which he acknowledged a spiritual allegiance. To have disobeyed would have been, from his point of view, an infraction of a law higher than that of man.”

“Honorable but erring stranger,” replied the famous jurist, “if we permitted the prisoner in a murder trial to urge such a consideration as that — if our laws recognized any other justification than that he believed himself in peril of immediate death or great bodily injury — nearly all assassins would make some such defense. They would plead insanity of some kind and degree, and it would be almost impossible to establish their guilt. Murder trials would be expensive and almost interminable, defiled with perjury and sentiment. Juries would be deluded and confused, justice baffled, and red-handed man-killers turned loose to repeat their crimes and laugh at the law. Even as the law is, in a population of only one hundred million we have had no fewer than three homicides in less than twenty years! With such statutes and customs as yours we should have had at least twice as many. Believe me, I know my people; they have not the American respect for human life.”

As blushing is deemed in Batrugia a sign of pride, I turned my back upon the speaker — an act which, fortunately, signifies a desire to hear more.

“Law,” he continued, “is for the good of the greatest number. Execution of an actual lunatic now and then is not an evil to the community, nor, when rightly considered, to the lunatic himself. He is better off when dead, and society is profited by his removal. We are spared the cost of exposing imposture, the humiliation of acquitting the guilty, the peril of their freedom, the contagion of their evil example.”

“In my country,” I said, “we have a saying to the effect that it is better that ninety-nine guilty escape than that one innocent be punished.”

“It is better,” said he, “for the ninety-nine guilty, but distinctly worse for everybody else. Sir,” he concluded with chilling austerity, “I infer from their proverb that your countrymen are the most offensive blockheads in existence.”

By way of refutation I mentioned the English, indignantly withdrew from the country and set sail for Gokeetle-guk, or, as we should translate the name, Trustland.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31