The Land Beyond the Blow, by Ambrose Bierce

The Jumjum of Gokeetle-Guk

Arriving at the capital of the country after many incredible adventures, I was promptly arrested by the police and taken before the Jumjum. He was an exceedingly affable person, and held office by appointment, “for life or fitness,” as their laws express it. With one necessary exception all offices are appointive and the tenure of all except that is the same. The Panjandrum, or, as we should call him, King, is elected for a term of ten years, at the expiration of which he is shot. It is held that any man who has been so long in high authority will have committed enough sins and blunders to deserve death, even if none can be specifically proved.

Brought into the presence of the Jumjum, who graciously saluted me, I was seated on a beautiful rug and told in broken English by an interpreter who had escaped from Kansas that I was at liberty to ask any questions that I chose.

“Your Highness,” I said, addressing the Jumjum through the interpreting Populist, “I fear that I do not understand; I expected, not to ask questions, but to have to answer them. I am ready to give such an account of myself as will satisfy you that I am an honest man — neither a criminal nor a spy.”

“The gentleman seems to regard himself with a considerable interest,” said the Jumjum, aside to an officer of his suite — a remark which the interpreter, with characteristic intelligence, duly repeated to me. Then addressing me the Jumjum said:

“Doubtless your personal character is an alluring topic, but it is relevant to nothing in any proceedings that can be taken here. When a foreigner arrives in our capital he is brought before me to be instructed in whatever he may think it expedient for him to know of the manners, customs, laws, and so forth, of the country that he honors with his presence. It matters nothing to us what he is, but much to him what we are. You are at liberty to inquire.”

I was for a moment overcome with emotion by so noble an example of official civility and thoughtfulness, then, after a little reflection, I said: “May it please your Highness, I should greatly like to be informed of the origin of the name of your esteemed country.”

“Our country,” said the Jumjum, acknowledging the compliment by a movement of his ears, “is called Trustland because all its industries, trades and professions are conducted by great aggregations of capital known as ‘trusts.’ They do the entire business of the country.”

“Good God!” I exclaimed; “what a terrible state of affairs that is! I know about trusts. Why do your people not rise and throw off the yoke?”

“You are pleased to be unintelligible,” said the great man, with a smile. “Would you mind explaining what you mean by ‘the yoke’?”

“I mean,” said I, surprised by his ignorance of metaphor, but reflecting that possibly the figures of rhetoric were not used in that country —“I mean the oppression, the slavery under which your people groan, their bond-age to the tyrannical trusts, entailing poverty, unrequited toil and loss of self-respect.”

“Why, as to that,” he replied, “our people are prosperous and happy. There is very little poverty and what there is is obviously the result of vice or improvidence. Our labor is light and all the necessaries of life, many of the comforts and some of the luxuries are abundant and cheap. I hardly know what you mean by the tyranny of the trusts; they do not seem to care to be tyrannous, for each having the entire market for what it produces, its prosperity is assured and there is none of the strife and competition which, as I can imagine, might breed hardness and cruelty. Moreover, we should not let them be tyrannous. Why should we?”

“But, your Highness, suppose, for example, the trust that manufactures safety pins should decide to double the price of its product. What is to prevent great injury to the consumer?”

“The courts. Having but one man — the responsible manager — to deal with, protective legislation and its enforcement would be a very simple matter. If there were a thousand manufacturers of safety pins, scattered all over the country in as many jurisdictions, there would be no controlling them at all. They would cheat, not only one another but the consumers, with virtual immunity. But there is no disposition among our trusts to do any such thing. Each has the whole market, as I said, and each has learned by experience what the manager of a large business soon must learn, and what the manager of a small one probably would not learn and could not afford to apply if he knew it — namely, that low prices bring disproportionately large sales and therefore profits. Prices in this country are never put up except when some kind of scarcity increases the cost of production. Besides, nearly all the consumers are a part of the trusts, the stock of which is about the best kind of property for investment.”

“What!” I cried — “do not the managers so manipulate the stock by ‘watering’ it and otherwise as to fool and cheat the small investors?”

“We should not permit them. That would be dishonest.”

“So it is in my country,” I replied, rather tartly, for I believed his apparent naïveté assumed for my confusion, “but we are unable to prevent it.”

He looked at me somewhat compassionately, I thought. “Perhaps,” he said, “not enough of you really wish to prevent it. Perhaps your people are — well, different from mine — not worse, you understand — just different.”

I felt the blood go into my cheeks and hot words were upon my tongue’s end, but I restrained them; the conditions for a quarrel were not favorable to my side of it. When I had mastered my chagrin and resentment I said:

“In my country when trusts are formed a great number of persons suffer, whether the general consumer does or not — many small dealers, middle men, drummers and general employees. The small dealer is driven out of the business by underselling. The middle man is frequently ignored, the trust dealing directly, or nearly so, with the consumer. The drummer is discharged because, competition having disappeared, custom must come without solicitation. Consolidation lets out swarms of employees of the individual concerns consolidated, for it is nearly as easy to conduct one large concern as a dozen smaller ones. These people get great sympathy from the public and the newspapers and their case is obviously pitiable. Was it not so in this country during the transition stage, and did not these poor gentlemen have to”— the right words would not come; I hardly knew how to finish. “Were they not compelled to go to work?” I finally asked, rather humbly.

The great official was silent for several minutes. Then he spoke.

“I am not sure that I understand you about our transition state. So far as our history goes matters with us have always been as they are to-day. To suppose them to have been otherwise would be to impugn the common sense of our ancestors. Nor do I quite know what you mean by ‘small dealers,’ ‘middle men,’ ‘drummers,’ and so forth.”

He paused and fell into meditation, when suddenly his face was suffused with the light of a happy thought. It so elated him that he sprang to his feet and with his staff of office broke the heads of his Chief Admonisher of the Inimical and his Second Assistant Audible Sycophant. Then he said:

“I think I comprehend. Some eighty-five years ago, soon after my induction into office, there came to the court of the Panjandrum a man of this city who had been cast upon the island of Chicago (which I believe belongs to the American archipelago) and had passed many years there in business with the natives. Having learned all their customs and business methods he returned to his own country and laid before the Panjandrum a comprehensive scheme of commercial reform. He and his scheme were referred to me, the Panjandrum being graciously pleased to be unable to make head or tail of it. I may best explain it in its application to a single industry — the manufacture and sale of gootles.”

“What is a gootle?” I asked.

“A metal weight for attachment to the tail of a donkey to keep him from braying,” was the answer. “It is known in this country that a donkey cannot utter a note unless he can lift his tail. Then, as now, gootles were made by a single concern having a great capital invested and an immense plant, and employing an army of workmen. It dealt, as it does to-day, directly with consumers. Afflicted with a sonant donkey a man would write to the trust and receive his gootle by return mail, or go personally to the factory and carry his purchase home on his shoulder — according to where he lived. The reformer said this was primitive, crude and injurious to the interests of the public and especially the poor. He proposed that the members of the gootle trust divide their capital and each member go into the business of making gootles for himself — I do not mean for his personal use — in different parts of the country. But none of them was to sell to consumers, but to other men, who would sell in quantity to still other men, who would sell single gootles for domestic use. Each manufacturer would of course require a full complement of officers, clerks and so forth, as would the other men — everybody but the consumer — and each would have to support them and make a profit himself. Competition would be so sharp that solicitors would have to be employed to make sales; and they too must have a living out of the business. Honored stranger, am I right in my inference that the proposed system has something in common with the one which obtains in your own happy, enlightened and prosperous country, and which you would approve?”

I did not care to reply.

“Of course,” the Jumjum continued, “all this would greatly have enhanced the cost of gootles, thereby lessening the sales, thereby reducing the output, thereby throwing a number of workmen out of employment. You see this, do you not, O guest of my country?”

“Pray tell me,” I said, “what became of the reformer who proposed all this change?”

“All this change? Why, sir, the one-thousandth part is not told: he proposed that his system should be general: not only in the gootle trust, but every trust in the country was to be broken up in the same way! When I had him before me, and had stated my objections to the plan, I asked him what were its advantages.

“‘Sir,’ he replied, ‘I speak for millions of gentlemen in uncongenial employments, mostly manual and fatiguing. This would give them the kind of activity that they would like — such as their class enjoys in other countries where my system is in full flower, and where it is deemed so sacred that any proposal for its abolition or simplification by trusts is regarded with horror, especially by the working men.’

“Having reported to the Panjandrum (whose vermiform appendix may good angels have in charge) and received his orders, I called the reformer before me and addressed him thus:

“‘Illustrious economist, I have the honor to inform you that in the royal judgment your proposal is the most absurd, impudent and audacious ever made; that the system which you propose to set up is revolutionary and mischievous beyond the dreams of treason; that only in a nation of rogues and idiots could it have a moment’s toleration.’

“He was about to reply, but cutting his throat to intimate that the hearing was at an end, I withdrew from the Hall of Audience, as under similar circumstances I am about to do now.”

I withdrew first by way of a window, and after a terrible journey of six years in the Dolorous Mountains and on the Desert of Despair came to the western coast. Here I built a ship and after a long voyage landed on one of the islands constituting the Kingdom of Tortirra.

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