The Bet -A Short Story of Wisdom

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A bet between a banker and a lawyer on solitary confinement vs. freedom evolves into a deep reflection on life, values, and human nature. Inspire in The Bet by Anton Chekhov.

It was a chilly fall evening. The elderly banker paced back and forth in his home office, lost in memories of a party he hosted fifteen years ago, on a night much like this one.

That evening had been filled with lively debates among his guests, who were some of the sharpest minds of the time, including journalists and intellectuals.

The conversation had eventually turned to the topic of capital punishment. Most of his guests had voiced their opposition to the death penalty, arguing that it was antiquated, inhumane, and unfitting for modern societies.

Some advocated for the replacement of the death penalty with life imprisonment across the board.

“I don’t agree with you,” the banker had countered. “Though I’ve experienced neither, it seems to me, from a theoretical standpoint, that the death penalty might actually be more ethical and humane than life in prison. Death is instantaneous, while life imprisonment is a slow death. Which is the kinder executioner? The one who ends your life swiftly, or the one who lets you waste away over decades?”

“Both are equally wrong,” one of the guests had argued. “Their end goal is the same—to take life. The government isn’t divine. It shouldn’t take what it can’t give back.”

A young lawyer among them, only twenty-five at the time, shared his view when prompted:

“Both the death sentence and life imprisonment are morally wrong, but given the choice, I’d opt for life in prison. Existing in any form is better than not existing.”

This sparked an intense debate. The banker, more impulsive and passionate in his younger days, slammed his fist on the table and yelled at the young lawyer:

“That’s nonsense! I bet you two million dollars you couldn’t endure even five years in solitary confinement.”

“If you’re serious,” the young lawyer responded, “then I accept your bet. But not for five—I’ll do fifteen years.”

“Fifteen years? It’s a deal!” exclaimed the banker. “Gentlemen, I’m putting two million on the line!”

“Agreed! You risk your millions, and I risk my freedom!” the young man declared.

And so, the irrational bet was made! The banker, wealthy and carefree, with more money than he could ever need, was thrilled by the challenge. At dinner, he teased the young man:

“Reconsider, while you still can. Two million might be nothing to me, but you’re about to waste the prime years of your life. I say ‘waste’ because there’s no way you’ll last. Remember, choosing to be confined is far harder than being forced into it. Knowing you could leave at any moment will haunt you every second you’re locked away. I genuinely pity you.”

Now, pacing his study, the banker reflected on the whole affair, questioning its purpose. “Why did we make that bet? What was the point of him losing fifteen years, and me, two million? It doesn’t prove anything about the death penalty versus life imprisonment. It was all just folly. On my part, the whim of a man too used to getting his way, and on his, merely a chase after money…”

He then recalled the arrangements made that night. The young man would spend his years of isolation under strict surveillance in a small guest house within the banker’s estate.

It was decided that for fifteen years, he couldn’t step outside the guest house, interact with people, hear a human voice, or receive letters and newspapers. He was permitted a musical instrument, books, the ability to write, alcohol, and cigarettes.

His only link to the outside world would be through a specially designed window. He could request anything—books, music, wine—as much as he wished by writing a note, but he would only receive these items through the window.

The contract detailed every aspect of his confinement to ensure it was complete, binding him for exactly fifteen years, starting from noon on November 14, 2000, and ending at noon on November 14, 2015. Any breach of the terms, even two minutes before the deadline, would absolve the banker of any obligation to pay the two million.

In the first year of his confinement, the prisoner struggled greatly with loneliness and depression, as could be inferred from his succinct messages. The sound of his digital piano keyboard echoed from his lodge at all hours.

He abstained from alcohol and tobacco; in his words, alcohol stirred desires, which he deemed a prisoner’s greatest enemy, and nothing felt more melancholic than sipping fine wine in utter solitude.

Tobacco, he felt, only fouled the air of his small space. Initially, he requested mostly light reading material: contemporary novels rich in complex romantic entanglements, thrilling and speculative fiction.

By the second year, the music had stopped, and the prisoner requested only classic literature. In the fifth year, music filled his space once again, and he requested wine.

Observers noted that he spent his days in a cycle of eating, drinking, and resting, often seen in a state of restlessness or speaking to himself in frustration.

He rarely engaged with books. Nights were spent writing fervently, only to destroy his work by morning. His cries of despair were heard on more than one occasion.

Entering the latter half of the sixth year, the prisoner immersed himself in the study of languages, philosophy, and history with intense zeal, so much so that the banker was kept busy supplying the hundreds of volumes requested.

During this period, the banker received a letter from the prisoner written in six languages, a testament to his linguistic prowess. The letter read:

“Dear Guardian of My Solitude, These lines are penned in six languages. Show them to those who understand these tongues. Let them judge my proficiency. If they find not a single error, please signal to me by firing a shot in the garden.

Such a sound will confirm that my endeavors were not in vain. The brilliance of minds from every era and corner of the globe may be expressed in diverse languages, yet a common spark ignites them all. Oh, if only you could comprehend the sublime joy that floods my soul now, as I grasp their meanings!”

The prisoner’s request was honored. The banker ordered two shots to be fired in the garden, signaling acknowledgment of the prisoner’s achievement.
In the years following the tenth, the prisoner devoted himself entirely to the study of the Gospels, a choice that baffled the banker.

It seemed incongruous that someone who had digested six hundred dense volumes across four years would now spend almost an entire year engrossed in a relatively straightforward text. Following the Gospels, he delved into theology and the history of various religions.

In his final years of confinement, the prisoner’s reading habits became eclectic in the extreme. He immersed himself in the natural sciences, then abruptly switched to the poetry of Byron or the plays of Shakespeare. His requests became increasingly varied, spanning chemistry, medical textbooks, contemporary fiction, and philosophical or theological discourses.

His eclectic reading mirrored the desperation of a man adrift at sea, clutching at any piece of debris in the hopes of survival.

Reflecting on these developments, the banker was consumed with dread:

“Tomorrow at noon, he will be free, and per our agreement, I owe him two million. Paying him will ruin me.”

Fifteen years earlier, his wealth seemed inexhaustible. Now, he feared to even tally his debts against his assets. Reckless stock market gambles and speculative investments, combined with an inability to temper his impulses with age, had eroded his fortune.

The once formidable millionaire had been reduced to a mid-tier banker, haunted by every fluctuation in the market. “This cursed bet,” he groaned, despair gripping him, “Why did he have to survive? He’s only forty, poised to claim every last cent from me, to enjoy a life I once knew—marriage, enjoyment, speculative trading, while I languish in envy, destitute, subjected to his pity and the repeated offer: ‘You gave me the best years of my life, let me help you.’ No, it’s unbearable! The only escape from bankruptcy and humiliation is his death.”

At the table, there sat a figure scarcely recognizable as a man. He resembled a living skeleton, his skin taut over his bones, with long, unkempt hair and a thick beard. His complexion had a sallow, almost earthy hue, his cheeks sunken, his frame gaunt.

The hand propping up his head was alarmingly thin, almost translucent. Strands of silver ran through his hair, and his face bore the marks of premature aging, making it hard to believe he was only forty. He was asleep… Before him, a piece of paper bore words written in a neat script.

“Poor soul,” the banker thought, observing the sleeping figure, who likely dreamt of the wealth he was about to claim. “It would be easy to end his life now, quietly, leaving no trace of foul play. But first, what has he written?”

The banker read the note:

“Tomorrow at noon, I will be free to join the world again, yet before I step out into the daylight, I feel compelled to share a few thoughts. I declare, with a clear conscience and as if before the divine itself, that I have grown to despise the freedom, life, and health that your world so cherishes.

“For fifteen years, I have delved deep into the essence of life on earth, not through direct experience but through the lens of your literature. I have not walked among people nor have I breathed fresh air, yet through your writings, I have tasted fine wines, sung with passion, tracked beasts through dense forests, and experienced love… Ethereal beings, born from the imagination of your artists, have visited me, sharing tales that stirred my soul.

I have scaled mountains, witnessed sunrises that painted the heavens in gold and crimson, observed storms split by lightning. I’ve seen lush landscapes, vibrant cities, felt the enchantment of music and myths; I’ve brushed against beings of lore, debating the nature of divinity… Through your stories, I have lived countless lives, performed feats beyond imagining, kindled revolutions, and ventured into realms unfathomable…

“Your books have equipped me with wisdom. The collective achievements of human thought, condensed into the expanse of my mind, have made me realize that I possess a wisdom surpassing all. Yet, I find myself looking down on your revered texts, the so-called wisdom, and the material blessings you chase.

They are but fleeting shadows, illusions that dissipate upon closer inspection, mirages that promise fulfillment but offer emptiness. You may consider yourselves distinguished and enlightened, but death regards none, erasing existence as effortlessly as it would a colony of ants beneath the soil.

And the legacy you leave behind, the history you cherish, and the geniuses you revere will perish with the earth, either scorched beyond recognition or frozen in time.

“Your logic has failed you, leading you astray. You’ve mistaken falsehoods for truth, ugliness for beauty. If the natural order were so disrupted that reptiles hung from the branches of fruit trees, or roses reeked of decay, you would be aghast. Similarly, I am bewildered by your willingness to trade the sublime for the mundane. I refuse to understand this choice.

“To manifest my contempt for all you hold dear, I renounce the two million dollars that once symbolized my ultimate aspiration but now represent nothing more than disdain to me. To invalidate my claim to this wealth, I will depart from this confinement five hours before our agreed time, thereby voiding our agreement.”

After reading these words, the banker placed the letter on the table, tenderly kissed the forehead of the man he had imprisoned, and left the lodge in tears. Never before had he felt such self-loathing, not even when faced with financial ruin. Back at his home, he lay awake, tormented by his emotions and unable to find rest.

The next morning, his staff arrived, visibly shaken, to report that the man had been seen leaving the lodge through the window, making his way to the gate, and then vanishing into the early dawn.

The banker, accompanied by his servants, confirmed the escape. To prevent any gossip, he took the renunciation letter and secured it in his safe, a decision that would weigh heavily on him, yet remain a secret guarded behind the steel door of his vault.

Also Read: The Man Who Planted Trees

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