IT was a dark autumn night. The old banker was pacing
from corner to corner of his study, recalling to his mind
the party he gave in the autumn fifteen years ago. There
were many clever people at the party and much interesting
conversation. They talked among other things of capital
punishment. The guests, among them not a few scholars and
journalists, for the most part disapproved of capital
punishment. They found it obsolete as a means of punishment,
unfitted to a Christian State and immoral. Some of them
thought that capital punishment should be replaced
universally by life-imprisonment.
"I don't agree with you," said the host. " I myself have
experienced neither capital punishment nor
life-imprisonment, but if one may judge
then in my opinion capital punishment is more moral and more
humane than imprisonment. Execution kills instantly,
life-imprisonment kills by degrees. Who is the more humane
executioner, one who kills you in a few seconds or one who
draws the life out of you incessantly, for years ? "
"They're both equally immoral," remarked one of the
guests, " because their purpose is the same, to take away
life. The State is not God. It has no right to take away
that which it cannot give back, if it should so desire."
Among the company was a lawyer, a young man of about
twenty-five. On being asked his opinion, he said :
"Capital punishment and life-imprisonment are equally
immoral ; but if I were offered the choice between them, I
would certainly choose the second. It's better to live
somehow than not to live at all."
There ensued a lively discussion. The banker who was then
younger and more nervous suddenly lost his temper, banged
his fist on the table, and turning to the young lawyer,
cried out :
"It's a lie. I bet you two millions you wouldn't stick in
a cell even for five years."
"If that's serious," replied the lawyer, " then I bet
I'll stay not five but fifteen."
"Fifteen! Done!" cried the banker. "Gentlemen, I stake
"Agreed. You stake two millions, I my freedom," said the
So this wild, ridiculous bet came to pass. The banker,
who at that time had too many millions to count, spoiled and
capricious, was beside himself with rapture. During supper
he said to the lawyer jokingly :
"Come to your senses, young man, before it's too late.
Two millions are nothing to me, but you stand to lose three
or four of the best years of your life. I say three or four,
because you'll never stick it out any longer. Don't forget
either, you unhappy man, that voluntary is much heavier than
enforced imprisonment. The idea that you have the right to
free yourself at any moment will poison the whole of your
life in the cell. I pity you."
And now the banker pacing from corner to corner, recalled
all this and asked himself:
"Why did I make this bet? What's the good ? The lawyer
loses fifteen years of his life and I throw away two
millions. Will it convince people that capital punishment is
worse or better than imprisonment for life. No, No ! all
stuff and rubbish. On my part, it was the caprice of a
well-fed man ; on the lawyer's, pure greed of gold."
He recollected further what happened after the evening
party. It was decided that the lawyer must undergo his
imprisonment under the strictest observation, in a
garden-wing of the banker's house. It was agreed that during
the period he would be deprived of the right to cross the
threshold, to see living people, to hear human voices, and
to receive letters and newspapers. He was permitted to have
a musical instrument, to read books, to write letters, to
drink wine and smoke tobacco. By the agreement he could
communicate, but only in silence, with the outside world
through a little window specially constructed for this
purpose. Everything necessary, books, music, wine, he could
receive in any quantity by sending a note through the
window. The agreement provided for all the minutest details,
which made the confinement strictly solitary, and it obliged
the lawyer to remain exactly fifteen years from twelve
o'clock of November 14th 1870 to twelve o'clock of November
14th 1885. The least attempt on his part to violate the
conditions, to escape if only for two minutes before the
time freed the banker from the obligation to pay him the two
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 wing day and
night came the sound of the piano. He rejected wine and
tobacco. " Wine," he wrote, " excites desires, and desires
are the chief foes of a prisoner ; besides, nothing is more
boring than to drink good wine alone," and tobacco spoils
the air in his room. During the first year the lawyer was
sent books of a light character ; novels with a complicated
love interest, stories of crime and fantasy, comedies, and
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 was
only eating, drinking, and lying on his bed. He yawned often
and talked angrily to himself. Books he did not read.
Sometimes at nights he would sit down to write. He would
write for a long time and tear it all up in the morning.
More than once he was heard to weep.
In the second half of the sixth year, the prisoner began
zealously to study languages, philosophy, and history. He
fell on these subjects so hungrily that the banker hardly
had time to get books enough for him. In the space of four
years about six hundred volumes were bought at his request.
It was while that passion lasted that the banker received
the following letter from the prisoner : " My dear gaoler, I
am writing these lines in six languages. Show them to
experts. Let them read them, if they do not find one single
mistake, I beg you to give orders to have a gun fired off in
the garden. By the noise I shall know that my efforts have
not been in vain. The geniuses of all ages and countries
speak in different languages ; but in them all burns the
same flame. Oh, if you knew my heavenly happiness now that I
can understand them ! " The prisoner's desire was fulfilled.
Two shots were fired in the garden by the banker's order.
Later on, after the tenth year, the lawyer sat immovable
before his table and read only the New Testament. The banker
found it strange that a man who in four years had mastered
six hundred erudite volumes, should have spent nearly a year
in reading one book, easy to understand and by no means
thick. The New Testament was then replaced by the history of
religions and theology.
During the last two years of his confinement the prisoner
read an extraordinary amount, quite haphazard. Now he would
apply himself to the natural sciences, then would read Byron
or Shakespeare. Notes used to come from him in which he
asked to be sent at the same time a book on chemistry, a
text-book of medicine, a novel, and some treatise on
philosophy or theology. He read as though he were swimming
in the sea among the broken pieces of wreckage, and in his
desire to save his life was eagerly grasping one piece after
The banker recalled all this, and thought : "To-morrow at
twelve o'clock he receives his freedom. Under the agreement,
I shall have to pay him two millions. If I pay, it's all
over with me. I am ruined for ever . . ."
Fifteen years before he had too many millions to count,
but now he was afraid to ask himself which he had more of,
money or debts. Gambling on the Stock-Exchange, risky
speculation, and the recklessness of which he could not rid
himself even in old age, had gradually brought his business
to decay ; and the fearless, selfconfident, proud man of
business had become an ordinary banker, trembling at every
rise and fall in the market.
"That cursed bet," murmured the old man clutching his
head in despair ..." Why didn't the man die ? He's only
forty years old. He will take away my last farthing, marry,
enjoy life, gamble on the Exchange, and I will look on like
an envious beggar and hear the same words from him every
day : ' I'm obliged to you for the happiness of my life. Let
me help you.' No, it's too much ! The only escape from
bankruptcy and disgrace is that the man should die."
The clock had just struck three. The banker was
listening. In the house everyone was asleep, and one could
hear only the frozen trees whining outside the windows.
Trying to make no sound, he took out of his safe the key of
the door which had not been opened for fifteen years, put on
his overcoat, and went out of the house. The garden was dark
and cold. It was raining. A keen damp wind hovered howling
over all the garden and gave the trees no rest. Though he
strained his eyes, the banker could see neither the ground,
nor the white statues, nor the garden-wing, nor the trees.
Approaching the place where the garden wing stood, he called
the watchman twice. There was no answer. Evidently the
watchman had taken shelter from the bad weather and was now
asleep somewhere in the kitchen or the greenhouse.
"If I have the courage to fulfil my intention," thought
the old man, " the suspicion will fall on the watchman first
In the darkness he groped for the stairs and the door and
entered the hall of the garden- wing, then poked his way
into a narrow passage and struck a match. Not a soul was
there. Someone's bed, with no bedclothes on it, stood there,
and an iron stove was dark in the corner. The seals on the
door that led into the prisoner's room were unbroken.
When the match went out, the old man, trembling from
agitation, peeped into the little window.
In the prisoner's room a candle was burning dim. The
prisoner himself sat by the table. Only his back, the hair
on his head and his hands were visible. On the table, the
two chairs, the carpet by the table open books were strewn.
Five minutes passed and the prisoner never once stirred.
Fifteen years' confinement had taught him to sit motionless.
The banker tapped on the window with his finger, but the
prisoner gave no movement in reply. Then the banker
cautiously tore the seals from the door and put the key into
the lock. The rusty lock gave a hoarse groan and the door
creaked. The banker expected instantly to hear a cry of
surprise and the sound of steps. Three minutes passed and it
was as quiet behind the door as it had been before. He made
up his mind to enter.
Before the table sat a man, unlike an ordinary human
being. It was a skeleton, with tight- drawn skin, with a
woman's long curly hair, and a shaggy beard. The colour of
his face was yellow, of an earthy shade ; the cheeks were
sunken, the back long and narrow, and the hand upon which he
leaned his hairy head was so lean and skinny that it was
painful to look upon. His hair was already silvering with
grey, and no one who glanced at the senile emaciation of the
face would have believed that he was only forty years old.
On the table, before his bended head, lay a sheet of paper
on which something was written in a tiny hand.
"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, smother him a
moment with the pillow, and the most careful examination
will find no trace of unnatural death. But, first, let us
read what he has written here."
The banker took the sheet from the table and read :
"To-morrow at twelve o'clock midnight, I shall obtain my
freedom and the right to mix with people. But before I leave
this room and see the sun I think it necessary to say a few
words to you. On my own clear conscience and before God who
sees me I declare to you that I despise freedom, life,
health, and all that your books call the blessings of the
"For fifteen years I have diligently studied earthly
life. True, I saw neither the earth nor the people, but in
your books I drank fragrant wine, sang songs, hunted deer
and wild boar in the forests, loved women . . . And
beautiful women, like clouds ethereal, created by the magic
of your poets' genius, visited me by night and whispered me
wonderful tales, which made my head drunken. In your books I
climbed the summits of Elbruz and Mont Blanc and saw from
thence how the sun rose in the morning, and in the evening
overflowed the sky, the ocean and the mountain ridges with a
purple gold. I saw from thence how above me lightnings
glimmered cleaving the clouds ; I saw green forests, fields,
rivers, lakes, cities ; I heard syrens singing, and the
playing of the pipes of Pan ; I touched the wings of
beautiful devils who came flying to me to speak of God : . .
In your books I cast myself into bottomless abysses, worked
miracles, burned cities to the ground, preached new
religions, conquered whole countries . . .
"Your books gave me wisdom. All that unwearying human
thought created in the centuries is compressed to a little
lump in my skull. I know that I am more clever than you all.
"And I despise your books, despise all worldy blessings
and wisdom. Everything is void, frail, visionary and
delusive like a mirage. Though you be proud and wise and
beautiful, yet will death wipe you from the face of the
earth like the mice underground ; and your posterity, your
history, and the immortality of your men of genius will be
as frozen slag, burnt down together with the terrestrial
"You are mad, and gone the wrong way. You take lie for
truth and ugliness for beauty. You would marvel if by
certain conditions there should suddenly grow on apple and
orange trees, instead of fruit, frogs and lizards, and if
roses should begin to breathe the odour of a sweating horse.
So do I marvel at you, who have bartered heaven for earth. I
do not want to understand you.
"That I may show you in deed my contempt for that by
which you live, I waive the two millions of which I once
dreamed as of paradise, and which I now despise. That I may
deprive myself of my right to them, I shall come out from
here five minutes before the stipulated term, and thus shall
violate the agreement."
When he had read, the banker put the sheet on the table,
kissed the head of the strange man, and began to weep. He
went out of the wing. Never at any other time, not even
after his terrible losses on the Exchange, had he felt such
contempt for himself as now. Coming home, he lay down on his
bed, but agitation and tears kept him long from sleep . . .
The next morning the poor watchman came running to him
and told him that they had seen the man who lived in the
wing climbing through the window into the garden. He had
gone to the gate and disappeared. Together with his servants
the banker went instantly to the wing and established the
escape of his prisoner. To avoid unnecessary rumours he took
the paper with the renunciation from the table and, on his
return, locked it in his safe.