The Wager, Part 1

Adapted and abridged for Chat format from The Bet,  by Anton Chekhov.

Me
That is a very amusing point of view!
Simeon
Again I don’t think it’s an amusing subject.
Me
Well, young man, explain! Tell me, Simeon, why is it not an amusing subject?
Simeon
Well it is murder for anyone to take a man’s life.
Me
Yes, for the individual private citizen. Yet for the state to take a man’s life, that is another matter!
Simeon
Is it?
Me
Now are you going to try to tell us that when a criminal is convicted in a fair trial by a court of justice and is ordered to be killed by the state’s executioners, that it is murder?
Simeon
The state is not God. It has no right to take away something that it can’t give back, and for that reason, I insist that it’s wrong for the state to take away a man’s life.
Me
So, my friend, you would allow murderers to wander in the streets unmolested? Are there no prisons?
Simeon
There are prisons, though!
Me
True, but is not the prison the means of taking away life? The result is the same: execution kills instantly, imprisonment kills by degrees.
Me
Now 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?
Simeon
Well, then, they’re both wrong, but if I were offered my choice between capital punishment and life imprisonment I would certainly choose the prison, for it’s better to live somehow than not to live at all.
Me
Is life so priceless? A thousand men take their own lives every day.
Simeon
Well then they’re fools!
Me
Perhaps not!  You see, Simeon, I am a very wealthy man; if you were to ask me how many millions I am worth, I could not tell you. Everything that has meaning in my life has been purchased by these millions. My houses, my wardrobe, my carriages, my stables, the good food and drink you’ve enjoyed with me tonight. Now take away my fortune, and I would as soon you took away my life, as well.
Simeon
I’m sorry for you!
Me
All your empty talk about life in a prison! Now tell me, can you imagine what it’s like? The dismal, dreary days, the nights without end, the gray walls blending into the gray earth, and the gray sky? You would prefer such a life to the repose of the grave?
Simeon
You speak as one who has seen the inside of a prison!
Me
And you speak as one who has neither manners nor common sense! I’ll tell you what I’ll do, I will bet two million dollars that you could not endure even five years in a prison cell! The most ridiculous bet
Simeon
Are you serious? Can it be you mean this seriously!
Simeon
I’ll bet that I can stay in the confinement of a prison not five years but fifteen!
Me
Fifteen?
Simeon
Yes?
Me
Done! I stake two million, you stake your freedom, Stukovich!
Simeon
Done!
Me
This is absurd, this is insanity!
Simeon
It’s agreed: you stake two million dollars, I, my freedom. If I remain confined in one room, a cell, completely alone, no one to see, no one to talk to, in solitary confinement, then, for 15 years, you will pay me two million!
Me
The most ridiculous bet I’ve ever heard!
Simeon
We’re both gentlemen of honor!  There’s no need to put this in writing. Your servant is our witness.
Servant
Seriously, I want no part of this matter!
Simeon
It is already settled and agreed!
Me
All right. Now here is how we do it: there is a brick hut at the foot of my garden, a one-room cottage where we keep some of the gardening tools. Now this will be your prison.
Simeon
Agreed.
Me
You will be under strict observation.  The door will not be locked, but if you so much as set one foot outside the threshold, you will have lost the bet.
Servant
Gentlemen, you cannot mean to go through with it!
Simeon
Wait! I must have books, pen and ink, writing paper!
Me
All right, all right! You may write letters, but you may not receive any, and can require no letters, no newspapers. What’s more, you are not to see any living people.  Nor are you to hear a human voice.
Me
The terms need not be quite so harsh. Make it your prison, however, you may have any books you wish, whatever food you like, a musical instrument to play!
Simeon
A piano! I should like a piano!
Me
Granted! Deprivations
Simeon
But if I can speak with no one, how shall I make my wishes known?
Me
I believe there is one window in the hut?
Servant
Yes sir, high up on the garden side.
Me
You will write a note with your requests!  Leave it on the windowsill: the books you want, the food, these will be left for you by my servants on the same windowsill.
Simeon
When shall this begin?
Me
Whenever you say!
Simeon
As soon as possible!
Me
Midnight tomorrow, the 19th of May, and at midnight on the 19th of May in fifteen years I will pay you two million dollars if you’ve remained in constant confinement, which of course you will not!
Servant
Gentlemen, come to your senses!  This is a joke, my friends, let it pass as one!
Simeon
No, I have made an agreement! I intend to abide by it!
Me
No, seriously, my servant is right!  Two million is nothing to me, but you stand to lose three or four years of your life!   I say three or four because you’ll never stick it out any longer.
Me
And don’t forget, young fellow, that voluntary imprisonment is much harder to endure when it is unforced. You will be your own jailer. a simple muscular movement, a few footsteps, and you can be as free as any other man. How are you foolish enough to think you could keep this bargain, even for two million dollars?
Simeon
I shall be at the gardener’s cottage ten minutes before midnight tomorrow, according to the terms of the bet. Something enormous
Me
Why did I make this bet? What is the good? My young friend loses fifteen years of his life, and I throw away two millions. For what? Will it convince people that the gallows is any worse or better than imprisonment? No, no it’s all foolishness on my part! It was a cruel joke of a well-heeled man.
Simeon
But why did I accept it? Why did I make this bet? The answer is simple: is there anything a man in my destitute position would not do for two million dollars?
Simeon
But no, it’s not the money alone, it’s not the promise of wealth and complete independence when I’m free again. It was a challenge that was beyond my power to refuse! Something enormous, something irresistible forced me to set this bet!
Me
The moments are fleeting: three minutes until midnight, three minutes to live, Simeon, to see stars overhead to smell the wind fresh off the meadow. Three minutes and in you go, to your death, a slow, torturous death-in-life. That little hut is going to be your grave, my young friend, but an open grave, one that you can leave anytime and rejoin the living. Winning this thing
Me
You think you will remain; you think you have the faintest chance of winning this thing? There are but two minutes before midnight, Simeon. Consider, I am NOT pleading with you because I wish to save paying you two millions; that is only two grains of wheat, and the residue of my fortune, but I cannot bear to be the instrument of this useless, destructive gesture!
Me
Simeon, how old are you? Thirty, twenty-eight, twenty nine? If fifteen years from tonight you come up through that door, how do you think you will look and feel, my friend? One minute to go, but wait, Simeon, I cannot let you do this thing! You were young and foolish but you were my friend. If it’s money you need, I will give you twenty thousand dollars, and we will forget this foolish bet!
Simeon
Huh?
Me
Thirty then, thirty thousand if you will not go through that door, all right? I cannot have it on my conscience! Thirty thousand!
Simeon
No, the bet has begun!
]

Look for Part 2!