1. It was a dark autumn night. The old banker was pacing from corner to corner of his study, recalling the party he gave in the autumn, fifteen years before. There were many clever people at that party. They talked, among other things, of capital punishment. Some of them thought that capital punishment should be replaced by life-imprisonment. "I don't agree with you," the banker said. "In my opinion capital punishment is more humane than imprisonment. Execution kills instantly, life-imprisonment kills slowly. “
2. Among them was a lawyer, a young man of about twenty-five. He said: "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." The banker, who was then younger and more nervous, suddenly banged his fist on the table, and cried out: "It's a lie. I bet you two million you wouldn't stick in a cell even for five years." "If you mean it seriously," replied the lawyer, "then I bet I'll stay not five, but fifteen." "Fifteen! Done!" cried the banker. "Gentlemen, I stake two million." "Agreed." said the lawyer.
3. It was decided that the lawyer would be imprisoned in a garden wing of the banker's house. It was agreed that during the entire period he was permitted to have a musical instrument, to read books, to write letters, to drink wine and smoke tobacco. He could also communicate with the outside world through a little window through letters, in silence. The least attempt to escape, if only for two minutes before the fifteen years were over, would free the banker from the obligation to pay him the two million.
4. During the first year of imprisonment, the lawyer suffered terribly from loneliness and boredom. From his wing, day and night, came the sound of the piano. 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 so on.
5. 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. Books he did not read anymore. 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. In the space of 7 years, about six hundred volumes were bought at his request. During the last two years of his confinement, the prisoner also read an extraordinary amount. He asks for books about everything: from chemistry, medicine, novels, philosophy to theology.
6. Only a few hours were now left of the 15-year period, and the banker thought: "Very soon he receives his freedom, and I shall have to pay him two million. I will be 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. "That cursed bet," murmured the old man "Why didn't the man die? He's only forty years old. He will take away my last money, marry, enjoy life, 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.
7. In the darkness of that night, trembling, the old banker went to the garden wing that served as the prison of the lawyer. The lawyer himself sat by the table. Only his back, the hair on his head and his hands were visible. The banker cautiously put the key into the lock. He expected instantly to hear a cry of surprise and the sound of steps. Three minutes passed, but it was as quiet inside as it had been before. He made up his mind to enter.
8. Before the table sat a man, unlike an ordinary human being. It was a skeleton, with tight-drawn skin, with long curly hair like a woman's, and a shaggy beard. His hair was already silvering with grey, and no one 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 only have to throw him on the bed, and smother him a moment with the pillow to kill him. But, first, let us read what he has written here."
9. The banker took the sheet from the table and read: "Tomorrow 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.” "For fifteen years I saw neither the earth nor the people, but in your books I drank fragrant wine, sang songs, hunted deer in the forests and loved many women. I saw green forests, fields, rivers, lakes, cities, I even conquered whole countries. Your books gave me wisdom. All human thought created over centuries is compressed to a little lump in my skull. I know that I am now cleverer than you all. I do not want to understand you. And I want to show you my contempt for that by which you live, so I waive the two million of which I once dreamed as of paradise, and which I now despise. Therefore, I shall escape five minutes before the end of my 15 years as a prisoner, and so violate the agreement."
10. When he had read the letter, 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 financial losses, had he felt such contempt for himself as now. He had the hardest time sleeping that night. The next morning, the prisoner’s watchman came running to him and told him that the man who was locked in the wing had disappeared. To avoid unnecessary rumours, the banker took the letter of his ex-prisoner from the table and locked it in his safe.