A.P. Chekhov -
IT WAS a dark autumn night. The old banker
was walking up and down his study and remembering how, fifteen
years before, he had given a party one autumn evening. There had
been many clever men there, and there had been interesting
conversations. Among other things they had talked of capital
punishment. The majority of the guests, among whom were many
journalists and intellectual men, disapproved of the death
penalty. They considered that form of punishment out of date,
immoral, and unsuitable for Christian States. In the opinion of
some of them the death penalty ought to be replaced everywhere
by imprisonment for life.
"I don't agree with you," said their host the banker. "I have
not tried either the death penalty or imprisonment for life, but
if one may judge priori, the death penalty is more moral and
more humane than imprisonment for life. Capital punishment kills
a man at once, but lifelong imprisonment kills him slowly. Which
executioner is the more humane, he who kills you in a few
minutes or he who drags the life out of you in the course of
"Both are equally immoral," observed one of the guests, "for
they both have the same object -- to take away life. The State
is not God. It has not the right to take away what it cannot
restore when it wants to."
Among the guests was a young lawyer, a young man of
five-and-twenty. When he was asked his opinion, he said:
"The death sentence and the life sentence are equally immoral,
but if I had to choose between the death penalty and
imprisonment for life, I would certainly choose the second. To
live anyhow is better than not at all."
A lively discussion arose. The banker, who was younger and more
nervous in those days, was suddenly carried away by excitement;
he struck the table with his fist and shouted at the young man:
"It's not true! I'll bet you two millions you wouldn't stay in
solitary confinement for five years."
"If you mean that in earnest," said the young man, "I'll take
the bet, but I would stay not five but fifteen years."
"Fifteen? Done!" cried the banker. "Gentlemen, I stake two
"Agreed! You stake your millions and I stake my freedom!" said
the young man.
And this wild, senseless bet was carried out! The banker, spoilt
and frivolous, with millions beyond his reckoning, was delighted
at the bet. At supper he made fun of the young man, and said:
"Think better of it, young man, while there is still time. To me
two millions are a trifle, 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
voluntary confinement is a great deal harder to bear than
compulsory. The thought that you have the right to step out in
liberty at any moment will poison your whole existence in
prison. I am sorry for you."
And now the banker, walking to and fro, remembered all this, and
asked himself: "What was the object of that bet? What is the
good of that man's losing fifteen years of his life and my
throwing away two millions? Can it prove that the death penalty
is better or worse than imprisonment for life? No, no. It was
all nonsensical and meaningless. On my part it was the caprice
of a pampered man, and on his part simple greed for money. . .
Then he remembered what followed that evening. It was decided
that the young man should spend the years of his captivity under
the strictest supervision in one of the lodges in the banker's
garden. It was agreed that for fifteen years he should not be
free to cross the threshold of the lodge, to see human beings,
to hear the human voice, or to receive letters and newspapers.
He was allowed to have a musical instrument and books, and was
allowed to write letters, to drink wine, and to smoke. By the
terms of the agreement, the only relations he could have with
the outer world were by a little window made purposely for that
object. He might have anything he wanted -- books, music, wine,
and so on -- in any quantity he desired by writing an order, but
could only receive them through the window. The agreement
provided for every detail and every trifle that would make his
imprisonment strictly solitary, and bound the young man to stay
there exactly fifteen years, beginning from twelve o'clock of
November 14, 1870, and ending at twelve o'clock of November 14,
1885. The slightest attempt on his part to break the conditions,
if only two minutes before the end, released the banker from the
obligation to pay him two millions.
For the first year of his confinement, as far as one could judge
from his brief notes, the prisoner suffered severely from
loneliness and depression. The sounds of the piano could be
heard continually day and night from his lodge. He refused wine
and tobacco. Wine, he wrote, excites the desires, and desires
are the worst foes of the prisoner; and besides, nothing could
be more dreary than drinking good wine and seeing no one. And
tobacco spoilt the air of his room. In the first year the books
he sent for were principally of a light character; novels with a
complicated love plot, sensational and fantastic stories, and so
In the second year the piano was silent in the lodge, and the
prisoner asked only for the classics. In the fifth year music
was audible again, and the prisoner asked for wine. Those who
watched him through the window said that all that year he spent
doing nothing but eating and drinking and lying on his bed,
frequently yawning and angrily talking 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
zealously studying languages, philosophy, and history. He threw
himself eagerly into these studies -- so much so that the banker
had enough to do to get him the books he ordered. In the course
of four years some six hundred volumes were procured 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. Let them read them. If
they find not one mistake I implore you to fire a shot in the
garden. That shot will show me that my efforts have not been
thrown away. The geniuses of all ages and of all lands speak
different languages, but the same flame burns in them all. Oh,
if you only knew what unearthly happiness my soul feels now from
being able to understand them!" The prisoner's desire was
fulfilled. The banker ordered two shots to be fired in the
Then after the tenth year, the prisoner sat immovably at the
table and read nothing but the Gospel. It seemed strange to the
banker that a man who in four years had mastered six hundred
learned volumes should waste nearly a year over one thin book
easy of comprehension. Theology and histories of religion
followed the Gospels.
In the last two years of his confinement the prisoner read an
immense quantity of books quite indiscriminately. At one time he
was busy with the natural sciences, then he would ask for Byron
or Shakespeare. There were notes in which he demanded at the
same time books on chemistry, and a manual of medicine, and a
novel, and some treatise on philosophy or theology. His reading
suggested a man swimming in the sea among the wreckage of his
ship, and trying to save his life by greedily clutching first at
one spar and then at another.
The old banker remembered all this, and thought:
"To-morrow at twelve o'clock he will regain his freedom. By our
agreement I ought to pay him two millions. If I do pay him, it
is all over with me: I shall be utterly ruined."
Fifteen years before, his millions had been beyond his
reckoning; now he was afraid to ask himself which were greater,
his debts or his assets. Desperate gambling on the Stock
Exchange, wild speculation and the excitability which he could
not get over even in advancing years, had by degrees led to the
decline of his fortune and the proud, fearless, self-confident
millionaire had become a banker of middling rank, trembling at
every rise and fall in his investments. "Cursed bet!" muttered
the old man, clutching his head in despair "Why didn't the man
die? He is only forty now. He will take my last penny from me,
he will marry, will enjoy life, will gamble on the Exchange;
while I shall look at him with envy like a beggar, and hear from
him every day the same sentence: 'I am indebted to you for the
happiness of my life, let me help you!' No, it is too much! The
one means of being saved from bankruptcy and disgrace is the
death of that man!"
It struck three o'clock, the banker listened; everyone was
asleep in the house and nothing could be heard outside but the
rustling of the chilled trees. Trying to make no noise, he took
from a fireproof safe the key of the door which had not been
opened for fifteen years, put on his overcoat, and went out of
It was dark and cold in the garden. Rain was falling. A damp
cutting wind was racing about the garden, howling and giving the
trees no rest. The banker strained his eyes, but could see
neither the earth nor the white statues, nor the lodge, nor the
trees. Going to the spot where the lodge stood, he twice called
the watchman. No answer followed. Evidently the watchman had
sought shelter from the weather, and was now asleep somewhere
either in the kitchen or in the greenhouse.
"If I had the pluck to carry out my intention," thought the old
man, "Suspicion would fall first upon the watchman."
He felt in the darkness for the steps and the door, and went
into the entry of the lodge. Then he groped his way into a
little passage and lighted a match. There was not a soul there.
There was a bedstead with no bedding on it, and in the corner
there was a dark cast-iron stove. The seals on the door leading
to the prisoner's rooms were intact.
When the match went out the old man, trembling with emotion,
peeped through the little window. A candle was burning dimly in
the prisoner's room. He was sitting at the table. Nothing could
be seen but his back, the hair on his head, and his hands. Open
books were lying on the table, on the two easy-chairs, and on
the carpet near the table.
Five minutes passed and the prisoner did not once stir. Fifteen
years' imprisonment had taught him to sit still. The banker
tapped at the window with his finger, and the prisoner made no
movement whatever in response. Then the banker cautiously broke
the seals off the door and put the key in the keyhole. The rusty
lock gave a grating sound and the door creaked. The banker
expected to hear at once footsteps and a cry of astonishment,
but three minutes passed and it was as quiet as ever in the
room. He made up his mind to go in.
At the table a man unlike ordinary people was sitting
motionless. He was a skeleton with the skin drawn tight over his
bones, with long curls like a woman's and a shaggy beard. His
face was yellow with an earthy tint in it, his cheeks were
hollow, his back long and narrow, and the hand on which his
shaggy head was propped was so thin and delicate that it was
dreadful to look at it. His hair was already streaked with
silver, and seeing his emaciated, aged-looking face, no one
would have believed that he was only forty. He was asleep. . . .
In front of his bowed head there lay on the table a sheet of
paper on which there was something written in fine handwriting.
"Poor creature!" thought the banker, "he is asleep and most
likely dreaming of the millions. And I have only to take this
half-dead man, throw him on the bed, stifle him a little with
the pillow, and the most conscientious expert would find no sign
of a violent death. But let us first read what he has written
here. . . ."
The banker took the page from the table and read as follows:
"To-morrow at twelve o'clock I regain my freedom and the right
to associate with other men, but before I leave this room and
see the sunshine, I think it necessary to say a few words to
you. With a clear conscience I tell you, as before God, who
beholds me, that I despise freedom and life and health, and all
that in your books is called the good things of the world.
"For fifteen years I have been intently studying earthly life.
It is true I have not seen the earth nor men, but in your books
I have drunk fragrant wine, I have sung songs, I have hunted
stags and wild boars in the forests, have loved women. . . .
Beauties as ethereal as clouds, created by the magic of your
poets and geniuses, have visited me at night, and have whispered
in my ears wonderful tales that have set my brain in a whirl. In
your books I have climbed to the peaks of Elburz and Mont Blanc,
and from there I have seen the sun rise and have watched it at
evening flood the sky, the ocean, and the mountain-tops with
gold and crimson. I have watched from there the lightning
flashing over my head and cleaving the storm-clouds. I have seen
green forests, fields, rivers, lakes, towns. I have heard the
singing of the sirens, and the strains of the shepherds' pipes;
I have touched the wings of comely devils who flew down to
converse with me of God. . . . In your books I have flung myself
into the bottomless pit, performed miracles, slain, burned
towns, preached new religions, conquered whole kingdoms. . . .
"Your books have given me wisdom. All that the unresting thought
of man has created in the ages is compressed into a small
compass in my brain. I know that I am wiser than all of you.
"And I despise your books, I despise wisdom and the blessings of
this world. It is all worthless, fleeting, illusory, and
deceptive, like a mirage. You may be proud, wise, and fine, but
death will wipe you off the face of the earth as though you were
no more than mice burrowing under the floor, and your posterity,
your history, your immortal geniuses will burn or freeze
together with the earthly globe.
"You have lost your reason and taken the wrong path. You have
taken lies for truth, and hideousness for beauty. You would
marvel if, owing to strange events of some sorts, frogs and
lizards suddenly grew on apple and orange trees instead of
fruit, or if roses began to smell like a sweating horse; so I
marvel at you who exchange heaven for earth. I don't want to
"To prove to you in action how I despise all that you live by, I
renounce the two millions of which I once dreamed as of paradise
and which now I despise. To deprive myself of the right to the
money I shall go out from here five hours before the time fixed,
and so break the compact. . . ."
When the banker had read this he laid the page on the table,
kissed the strange man on the head, and went out of the lodge,
weeping. At no other time, even when he had lost heavily on the
Stock Exchange, had he felt so great a contempt for himself.
When he got home he lay on his bed, but his tears and emotion
kept him for hours from sleeping.
Next morning the watchmen ran in with pale faces, and told him
they had seen the man who lived in the lodge climb out of the
window into the garden, go to the gate, and disappear. The
banker went at once with the servants to the lodge and made sure
of the flight of his prisoner. To avoid arousing unnecessary
talk, he took from the table the writing in which the millions
were renounced, and when he got home locked it up in the
Byron: George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824) English romantic
Shakespeare: William Shakespeare (1564-1616) great English
playwright and poet
peaks of Elburz: Elbrus, located in Russia, is the highest
mountain in Europe
Mont Blanc: highest peak in the Alps