The Bet – Intermediate Level
It was a dark autumn night. The old banker was walking from one corner of his study to the other, remembering a party he had given in the autumn fifteen years before. There had been many clever men there, and there had been interesting conversations. Among other things they had talked of capital punishment. Most of the guests, all of whom were well educated men, disagreed with the death penalty. They considered this form of punishment out of date, immoral, and unsuitable for Christian States. Some of them thought that the death penalty should be replaced everywhere by life in prison.
“I don’t agree with you,” said the banker. “I have not experienced either the death penalty or life imprisonment. However, if one may judge by logic rather than experience, the death penalty is more moral and kinder than imprisonment. Capital punishment kills a man at once, but lifelong imprisonment kills him slowly. What is better, a punishment that kills you in a few minutes or one that draws the life out of you over the course of many years?”
“Both are equally immoral,” observed one of the guests, “for they both have the same purpose – to take away life. The State is not God. It has no right to take away what it cannot give back should it want to.”
There was a young lawyer of twenty-five among the guests. “The death sentence and the life sentence are equally wrong,” he said when asked his opinion. “However, if I had to choose between them, I would certainly choose life in prison. It is better to live in any way than not to live at all.”
A lively discussion followed. The banker, who often did things without thinking enough about them, suddenly became excited. He hit the table loudly with his hand and, turning to the young lawyer, cried out:
“That’s not true! I’ll bet you two million you wouldn’t stick in a prison cell for even five years.”
“If you mean that seriously,” said the young man, “then I bet I’ll stay not five but fifteen years.”
“Fifteen? Done!” cried the banker. “Gentlemen, I bet two million!”
“Agreed! You put up two million and I put up my freedom!” said the young man.
So this wild, silly bet was carried out! The banker, who was used to getting his own way and had too many millions to count, was very happy with the bet. During dinner he made fun of the young man, and said:
“Think better of it, young man, before it’s too late. To me two million is nothing, but you are losing three or four of the best years of your life. I say three or four, because you won’t stay longer. Don’t forget either, you unhappy man, that being in prison when you don’t have to is much harder than when you are forced to be there. The idea that you can free yourself at any moment will poison the whole of your life in the cell. I am sorry for you.”
And now the banker, walking from corner to corner in his study, remembered all this. He asked himself:
“Why did I make that bet? What’s the good? The lawyer loses fifteen years of his life and I throw away two million. Can it prove that the death penalty is better or worse than imprisonment for life? No, no. It was stupid and meaningless. On my part, it was the silly decision of a well-fed man. On the lawyer’s part, it was greed for gold.”
Then he remembered what followed that evening. They made up an agreement that provided for the smallest details. The lawyer had to spend the years of his imprisonment under close observation in some rooms in the banker’s house facing the garden. For fifteen years he was not allowed to leave the rooms, to see living people, to hear human voices, or to receive letters and newspapers. He was allowed to have a musical instrument, to read books, to write letters, to drink wine and to smoke cigarettes. The only contact he could have with the outside world was by a little window specially built for this purpose. He could have anything he wanted – books, music, wine, and so on – in any quantity by sending a note through the window. The young man had to stay there exactly fifteen years. This was to begin at twelve o’clock on November 14, 1870, and end at twelve o’clock on November 14, 1885. If he tried to break the conditions, to escape as little as two minutes before the time, the banker would not have to pay him the two million.
During the first year of imprisonment, the lawyer, as far as it was possible to judge from his short notes, suffered terribly from loneliness and boredom. From his rooms day and night came the sound of the piano. He would not accept wine or cigarettes, and wrote:
Wine excites desires, and desires are the worst enemies of a prisoner. Besides, nothing is more boring than to drink good wine alone. And cigarettes make the air in the room smell bad.
During the first year the lawyer asked for books that were mostly of a light character; novels that also had a love interest, stories of crime, fantasy, and so on. In the second year the piano was heard no longer and the lawyer asked only for classics.
In the fifth year, music was heard again, and the prisoner asked for wine. Those who watched him said that during the whole of that year he did nothing but eat, drink and lie on his bed. He always looked tired and often talked angrily to himself. He did not read books. Sometimes at night he would sit down to write. He would spend hours writing, and in the morning tear up all that he had written. More than once he could be heard crying.
In the second half of the sixth year the prisoner began to study languages, philosophy, and history. He was very interested and excited about these studies, and threw himself so completely into them that the banker had trouble getting the books he ordered. In the space of four years, six hundred books were bought at his request. It was during this period that the banker received the following letter from his prisoner:
My dear Jailer, I write you these lines in six languages. Show them to people who know the languages well. Let them read them. If they find not one mistake, I ask you to fire a shot in the garden. That shot will tell me that my efforts have been successful. The geniuses of all ages and of all countries speak different languages, but the same fire burns in them all. Oh, if you knew my heavenly happiness now that I can understand them!
The prisoner’s wish was granted. The banker ordered two shots to be fired in the garden.
Later on, after the tenth year, the lawyer sat immovable before his table and read only the Christian Bible. The banker found this strange. In the four years before this he had mastered six hundred of the world’s most important and difficult books. How could he spend nearly a year reading one book that was easy to understand and not very thick? The Bible was then replaced by the study of other religions and their history, beliefs and ideas.
During the last two years of his imprisonment the prisoner read a huge number of books of all kinds. At one time he was busy with the natural sciences, then he would ask for Byron or Shakespeare. There were notes in which he asked at the same time for books on chemistry, medicine, philosophy, religion, and a novel. He read as if he were swimming in the sea among pieces of his broken ship and, in trying to save his life, was trying hard to hold on to one piece after another.
The old banker remembered all this, and thought:
“Tomorrow at twelve o’clock he receives his freedom. Under the agreement, I shall have to pay him two million. If I pay, it’s all over with me. I will have nothing left and be poor for the rest of my life.”
Fifteen years before, he had too many million to count. But now he was afraid to ask himself if he had enough left to pay the money he owed. Losses on the Stock Exchange and other risky or foolish investments had slowly reduced his millions. The once fearless, proud man of business who was so sure of himself had become an ordinary banker, frightened by every rise and fall in the market.
“That damned bet!” said the old man quietly to himself. He put his hands to his head, feeling as if his world was coming to an end. “Why didn’t the man die? He’s only forty years old. He will take away everything I own, marry, enjoy life, and make more money on the Stock Exchange. I will look on like a jealous beggar and hear the same words from him every day: ‘Thank you for the happiness of my life. Let me help you.’ No, it’s too much! The only escape from losing everything that I have in the world and the respect of my friends is that the man should die.”
The clock had just struck three. The banker listened. Everyone in the house was asleep. He could hear nothing outside but the movement of the frozen trees in the wind. Trying to make no sound, he took out of his safe the key of the door which had not been opened for fifteen years. He then put on his overcoat and went outside.
The garden was dark and cold. It was raining. A wet, cutting wind blew loudly through the trees. Though he looked carefully, the banker could not see the ground, the door to the room that led to the prisoner’s room, or anything around him. As he approached the prison rooms, he called to the guard twice. There was no answer.
“The guard must have wanted to get out of the weather,” thought the old man. “Perhaps he is asleep in the kitchen or some other warm place. If I am brave enough to do this, people will first think that he was part of it.”
He felt in the darkness for the steps and the door. He found it, entered and lit a match. There was nobody there. He was in a small room. There was an old bed on one side of the room with nothing on it, and an iron stove in a dark corner. The seals on the door to the prisoner’s room had not been broken.
When the match went out the old man, shaking with emotion, looked carefully through the little window. A candle was burning, which provided a small circle of light around the prisoner. He was sitting at the table. Nothing could be seen but his back, the hair on his head, and his hands. Open books were all over the table, on the two other chairs, and on the carpet near the table. Five minutes passed and the prisoner never once moved.
“Being locked up for fifteen years must have taught him to sit motionless,” thought the banker. He made a noise on the window with his finger, but the prisoner did not turn around. Then the banker carefully tore the seals from the door and put the key into the lock. The lock, which had not been used for fifteen years, made a loud noise as he turned the key. The door, which had not been opened in fifteen years, also made a noise as he started to open it. The banker stopped, expecting to hear a cry of surprise and the sound of footsteps. Three minutes passed and it was as quiet inside as it had been before. He made up his mind to enter.
At the table sat a man, unlike an ordinary human being. He was a skeleton with the skin pulled tight over his bones. His face was an earthy yellow, and he had long curly hair and a thick poorly kept beard. His hair was already turning grey, and no one who looked at his old-looking face would have believed that he was only forty. The hand on which he rested his head was so thin and looked so weak that it was painful to look at it. On the table in front of him was a sheet of paper on which he had written something in fine handwriting.
“Poor devil,” thought the banker, “he’s asleep and probably seeing millions in his dreams. I have only to take and throw this half dead thing on the bed and hold a pillow over his face. The most careful examination will find no sign that it was an unnatural death. But, first, let me read what he has written here.”
The banker took the page from the table and read.
Tomorrow at twelve o’clock midnight, I will be free again and have the right to mix with other men. However, before I leave this room and see the sun, I think it necessary to say a few words to you. I want to tell you truthfully, before God who looks down on me, that I hate freedom and life, health, and all the other things that your books call the good things of this world.
For fifteen years I have worked hard studying earthly life. Although I did not see the outside world or other people, through your books I drank sweet smelling wine, sang songs, hunted wild animals, and loved women. Beautiful women, created by the genius of your poets, visited me at night. They were light and airy as clouds, and told me such wonderful stories that it was hard to think clearly the next day. In your books I climbed to the top of the highest mountains. From there I saw the sun rise and watched in the evening as it filled the sky, the ocean, and the tops of nearby mountains with color. I saw how lightning cut through the clouds above me. I saw green forests, fields, rivers, lakes, cities. I visited ancient Greece and heard the singing of the Sirens and the god Pan playing his pipes. I touched the wings of beautiful devils who came flying to talk to me about God. In your books I threw myself into a bottomless pit, performed miracles, burned cities, spoke about new religions, and fought wars to rule countries.
Your books gave me wisdom. All that tireless human thought over the centuries has been squeezed into a tiny mass in my brain. I know that I am more clever than you all.
And I hate your books. I hate all the things that you think are good about the world and I hate wisdom. Everything is like a mirage: empty, uncertain, imaginary, a lie. It does not matter how proud, wise or beautiful you are; death will still wipe you from the face of the earth. Your future generations, your history, and the wisdom of your cleverest men will burn or freeze along with the earth we live on.
You are mad and have taken the wrong path. You have taken lies for truth, and ugliness for beauty. You would be surprised if animals suddenly grew on fruit trees, or if flowers began to smell like animals. In the same way, am surprised at you who have traded heaven for earth. I don’t want to understand you.
I will show you by my actions that I care nothing for the things that are important to you. I no longer want the two million. I once dreamed of it, but now hate the thought of getting the money. To make sure, I shall shall break the agreement by coming out from here five minutes before the end of the fifteen year term.
When he had read, the banker put the sheet on the table, kissed the head of the strange man, and began to cry. He went out of the prison rooms. Never at any other time, not even after his terrible losses on the Stock Exchange, had he felt so bad about himself. Coming home, he lay down on his bed. However, his emotions and tears kept him a long time from sleeping.
The next morning the poor guard came running to the banker. He told how the man who lived in the prison rooms had climbed through the window into the garden, gone out the gate and disappeared.
The banker immediately went with his servants to the rooms to make sure that this was true. The man was not there. Before the banker left, he took the sheet of paper from the table. When he got home, he locked it in his safe so that he could show it to anyone who might ask what had happened to the man.