The Law and the Man Who Laughed (1913)

by Gertrude Nafe (1883-1971)

LML.1 Once upon a time there was a good king – a king so good that he spent all his days and half his nights thinking up good laws to make. And he had the most efficient of Parliaments (for he would not have thought of ruling except in the most constitutional manner) who made laws all the time, so that the people never lacked for a large supply of laws on every subject.
LML.2 But one day when the king was out of the country attending a Peace and Morals Conference, his Secretary of State came to him in the greatest terror. “Your Majesty,” he stammered, “last night, at midnight, the law which regulates the number of times a minute the people should breathe ran out!”
LML.3 The king stared at him with a face from which all the color was gone. “My unhappy people!” he groaned, “so last night at midnight every person in my realm stopped breathing. Order our train for home. We must have the stupendous funeral for the whole country, before I commit suicide.”
LML.4 On the journey home, the king’s hair turned white with horror and remorse. At the boundary of the country they began to look anxiously along the road for the thousands of corpses strewing the way. At last they saw, far off, a man who appeared to be standing up and working. They hastened to him and examined him carefully. “He is breathing with absolute regularity,” said the State Physician, “in spite of the law –”
LML.5 “Is there a law against it?” said the man, respectfully but somewhat stolidly. “You see, I am so busy, and there are so many laws –”
LML.6 By this time a large crowd had gathered. “The reason he breathes,” said the priest, “is because of religion. The constant teaching of the church –”
LML.7 “Education,” said the teacher primly, “is what has done it. The spread of enlightenment –”
LML.8 And then a man laughed.
LML.9 It was a sunny, happy, quick laugh, as though he had plenty of breath to waste in laughing. The priest scowled, the teacher trembled with anger, the court shook as though they had heard their death warrant. “Seize that man,” shouted the king, “he is a dangerous citizen.”
LML.10 He was ordered out to execution immediately. The captain of the soldiers who were to execute him rode by his side and looked upon his face. And as he looked at him he loved him, for in his laugh there had been the one thing the captain felt would have made his life worth living.
LML.11 “Why do you laugh at our laws which we need to protect our life?” he asked wistfully.
LML.12 The man smiled, and the friendly comradeship of his smile was more beautiful than his laugh. “Partly because you are going to stop my breathing to help breathing continue in the world.”
LML.13 They had come to the place of execution. The captain covered his face with his hands. He would have given his soul to exchange places with the man – to have kept that golden laugh in the world which so needed it. But yet this man’s laugh would undermine the law about breathing, and he conjured up before his eyes the thousands of people who would stop breathing if there was no law about it – a happy country desolated of its people – a world like a lost battlefield.
LML.14 He saw his duty. With a nod of his head he gave the order. Then the brave, happy, gentle smile broke into a look of agony and the lawless man was dead.
LML.15 The captain rode home alone. He had done his duty.

Mother Earth 8, no. 4 (June 1913), pp. 123-124.

Back to online library