In this Short Story, ten card-playing men find themselves incarcerated through debt. They work through the issues that caused their doom, finding that it wasn’t so much the Eleventh Man (the banker) who was the problem but the tool by which he enslaved them.
Ten men had played cards for years. They always started with a hundred matches split ten each and each night they always finished with a hundred matches, that is except for one night when they all found themselves in debt. What had happened and what happened from there?
Likewise, all the major countries on the planet are in debt. How can this be? The answer is explained in this short story as the ten men, finding themselves incarcerated ponder this question and find the answer that enslaved them all.
It wasn’t gambling for they had controls in place so that they enjoyed the card game and the vice never ‘got’ to them. It wasn’t the introduction of a banker into the game, for he simply performed a welcome service. It was however the introduction of interest by the banker that created the debt situation, and then the subtle encouragement for their greed that was given opportunity to flourish.
Nobody knew when the card games began. They had always known that the men of the town took Saturday night off for their cards. A small town with a dozen or so leaders had worked their schedules around the weekly game for as long as anyone could remember. Firewood was always on hand in winter. Beer was always plentiful in summer and the lads had enjoyed this like their fathers and grandfathers had done before. The folklore around the weekly game even recorded that wars and famines never intervened.
This Saturday however was different. There was no laughter from the card game, nor smoke from the fireplace. The hall was locked and the men absent from the town routine.
Miles away in a prison, the town’s leaders were mulling over their situation, trying to work out how they had gotten into their predicament. Some stared at the jail walls with glassy eyes unbelieving their fate; others cursed the banker, the judge and/or the jailer; some tried to sleep it off thinking that they’d wake up in the morning just having had a bad dream.
This was no dream however and reality was hitting home.
“Where did we go wrong?” the Mayor eventually asked his friends. “None of us have ever gotten into debt in hundreds of years of playing cards. There’s got to be a reason.”
They thought about it in silence for this was the key question. They were the town’s leaders and it was incumbent upon them to solve their problems but nobody spoke, for they too were asking themselves that very question.
None of them had any answers ready.
“William Southgate!” the call came from outside. “A visitor for you!”
The guard ushered a young man into the cells, a splitting image of his father.
They hugged and cried. “Papa why are you here? What have you done? And why are all your friends here with you?”
The young man had left town “to find himself” as he had said at the time and had just returned home. He was clearly puzzled at seeing the town’s leaders in jail – and his father too, a man he knew to always obey the law, and especially since he had become the Mayor.
“My son, that is the very question we have been asking ourselves, ‘How did this all happen?’ for we have never had this happen in our village for hundreds of years – we are all badly in debt and are simply unable to pay.”
Then the father recounted the events of the preceding months. He recalled how they had always started their card games with ten matches each, and how at the end of the night they had all had a great time, even though some nights there were a few with most of the matches and some with none! Nobody was EVER in debt and there were always 100 matches left at the end of the night.
The Mayor laughed and joked as he remembered the good times and the others chipped in with stories and anecdotes as well. They recalled that sometimes they even helped their brothers out when they ran out of matches, “just to keep ’em in the game, you know!” It sounded crazy to them now, but yes, they used to do that for each other, all the time!
But then things had gotten a little more serious, and the matches turned into coins, then bank notes, cheques and IOUs. That didn’t really seem to be too much of a problem either though because the ones who lost their money early just bowed out of the game and watched the others play on.
The Mayor’s son chipped in and recalled that he had taken part in those games too . . . he was the banker even at his young age. He laughed and became excited when he too recalled the fun times counting all the money and keeping an accurate written record, so as to settle misunderstandings easily and quickly.
The others in the room nodded in agreement and recalled too how the Mayor’s son had taken his banker’s role very seriously and had done a very fine job at it too! Oh, why on earth did he ever tell his son never to be a banker. Perhaps that was the reason that he left the village – to “find himself”?
“But Papa, none of you were ever in debt and we always made sure to pay everyone back on the night.” The young man was still puzzled and kept digging for an answer to his question. “What went wrong? It must have happened after I left?”
The Mayor turned to his friends and spoke, “My son is right isn’t he? We had no problems using matches; nor even with a banker. Even when we started using coins and notes we never had debts beyond the end of the game. It must have happened sometime afterwards. What did we do different?”
The men were now all focused on this question. This time they were motivated to think and to work on the problem. They grouped around a table and worked on their memories, recalling the events of the past few months. It was hard as they soul-searched and dug deep into their actions.
Now though, they felt like a team again – friends in a common predicament with an unknown enemy.
“This is like it was before”, one of the men observed. “You know, like we trust each other and are friends, not out for our own interests!”
The young man recognised the significance of this statement and interrupted, “Before what?” he asked simply.
There was silence.
That was the key to it all wasn’t it? What had caused the change from generations of fun, week after week, to something else – something that had put the ten finest of the village into this debtor’s prison?
“It’s that banker – I told you I don’t trust bankers!” one of the men grizzled. “When he arrived on the scene things all changed, and for the worse.”
“But the Mayor’s son had been a banker and we didn’t have a problem with him as a banker, did we?” someone else reasoned.
They set about discussing the difference between the two bankers and bared some more of their difficult past. They talked about the subtle changes that had occurred on the new banker’s watch. They recalled the words he had used and how he had subtly introduced borrowing and lending – just a little here and there at the outset. They connected the dots to their own decisions and tracked back at how they had changed their attitudes to the game; to the importance of winning; from helping each other in the spirit of brotherliness. They came to see how it was when the stakes were really high that the banker was his most friendliest, offering to ‘help’ the one tempted to bet on what appeared to be a great hand.
They mused at how he had presented his impartiality by lending to all parties alike, favouring no-one, and declaring his neutrality loudly, and yet how he had pocketed “just a little for his risk” by way of interest on his loans. It all sounded so plausible and they knew instinctively that there was something wrong about this new banker and what he was up to.
This banker was the one who put them all into jail for not paying their debts. Week after week the debts seemed to grow and escalate out of control. Nobody seemed to bother about the card-game debts, after all they were just debts between friends and weren’t real . . . or so they had thought up until the time the judge had pronounced them guilty and sentenced them to prison.
“Did you say that the new banker charged you interest on your card debts?”
“Yes, he did”, and the Mayor explained how the new banker had introduced it. “You gave your son a beer for being a banker, but I don’t drink beer – just pay me a little interest for my trouble – that’s all I ask!”
“At the time it sounded reasonable”, another man explained. “We knew that the new banker didn’t drink, so we all agreed.”
Again there was silence as the young man cocked his head and opened both his palms to the sky. The ten village leaders looked at each other as the penny dropped for them all, one by one.
There . . . THAT was the difference between the two bankers. The Mayor’s son had performed a simple bookkeeping function for them and they had paid him for his service with a beer. The new banker had done the unthinkable and got them all into prison with his ‘confounded’, ‘accursed’ and compounding interest.
It was from that point that things had changed between them. The game had become a business for them and no longer an enjoyable part of village life. It was a subtle change and each man had to deal with his own responsibility for entering into a condemned practice that had enslaved them all. They were doing their pondering in silence.
The young man’s silent actions had spoken – as if to say, “Well there you are . . . it’s the introduction of interest charges that put you where you all are now!”
Having condemned them for their stupidity with his shoulder shrug, he spoke. “Dear Papa and leaders of the village, I see now that you have recognised the point at which your troubles started. I now have the answer to my question.”
There was a feeling of flatness in the prison cell, almost like a war had been won but the victory an empty one. It was one thing to know HOW the debt enslavement had been caused; it was even something to behold that the men knew WHY they had gotten tempted. It was though something well beyond their combined capacity to escape the debtor’s prison, so they bid the young man farewell in sadness.
He walked from the prison with a sense of purpose. Not a penny to his name he strode straight to the Judge’s home and knocked firmly at the door. Oh sure, he knew that this was not the done thing but nothing could deter him from his mission. He was going to free his father and the others one way or t’other, and the Judge could see that determination as he opened the door.
After a courteous greeting and short discussion the Judge agreed that the reason that his father and other leaders was in debtors prison was that the new banker had provided evidence to him of the debt. Sure, the Judge knew that there were many others in the village that owed the new banker money but the court case related to only ten village leaders; the new banker produced evidence of the debt and he had asked the Judge to rule.
He responded to the young man’s further questioning, that if there was no evidence then yes, it could be very difficult to keep the men in prison.
The next morning the young man was up early and waiting at the new banker’s house. When they greeted each other there was a chill in the air. The atmosphere was tense, but the young man’s determination to meet and do business with the banker carried the day.
“Sir, my father is in debtor’s prison along with nine other men from our village!”
The banker nodded but said nothing.
“I know that you put them there but I don’t want to beg anything of you. I simply want to do business with you, so that they can be released lawfully.”
Again the banker was silent, but he looked over his glasses, cocked his head and raised his eyebrows a little curious. He’d had many a distraught debtor or representatives beg for mercy in the past and knew how to deal with them easily, but this young man was a little different. He was intrigued.
“My offer is to show you how to make more money faster than you have ever made it in your life!” The young man proceeded to do some calculations from his father’s debt . . . how long it took for the interest to compound and the bankers profit based on his income and actual costs.
The young man continued, fully aware that he had the undivided attention of the banker. This young man did not beg for mercy; he knew the bankers own business inside out but not only that he was offering to teach the master at money-making a trick or two.
“My offer is to show you at no cost to you how to get a return on investment more than ten times greater than you have received from my father’s debt.”
The banker scratched his head and asked the lad half his age what was in it for him – why he would do this. The young man simply replied, “You’ll see!”
The banker asked him how and when and what was required for the demonstration. The young man explained things to what seemed like the satisfaction of the banker.
When agreement was made in principle, the young man pulled out a simple agreement and gave it to the banker, who read it carefully.
Used to legal agreements he was ready for tricks or catches but found none. The agreement was exactly as the young man had offered him verbally.
“So, let me understand this correctly young man . . . you have offered to show me how to make money more than ten times faster than I did by loaning your father at interest. You will do this in my home in front of any witnesses that I want which will include the ten men in debtor’s prison. All you want is the shopkeeper present who will give a valuation of your costs; I will produce the evidence for your father’s debt; and the Judge will present as a witness. The Judge’s decision will be final. You want nothing from me other than my co-operation for the demonstration and the opportunity to speak. That’s all?”
“Yes, that’s all!” the young man confirmed.
They signed the agreements and departed to prepare for the demonstration day.
On the day of the demonstration the village Policeman escorted the ten prisoners to the banker’s home. The Judge was awaiting their arrival and there was an expectation in the air, akin to an announcement from the King.
This had never happened before that the Mayor or the leaders had been put in jail. Neither had anyone been inside the bankers home, nor had the Judge been outside his usual haunts, and the banker’s home was certainly not one of those (at least as far as the people of the village knew, anyway).
The shopkeeper had closed his shop early and posted a notice on the door explaining the reason why. Many people had followed him to the banker’s house but were denied entry for the ‘important’ private event.
The shopkeeper felt privileged and was escorted into an enormous room of luxury that he’d never seem before.
The Judge and the ten prisoners arrived too and were seated.
Half a dozen others (from outside of their village) sat by themselves and alongside of the banker. They wore nice clothes of the same cut as the new banker, so it was obvious who they were – bankers from other villages, no doubt.
With all assembled the young man started:
“I have promised that today I will demonstrate the creation of wealth more than ten times faster than that created by this banker . . .” and he passed his hand casually in the direction of the new banker. It was an offhand motion that embarrassed the new banker in front of his friends. The Judge stiffened a little and one of the ten men coughed, nervously.
Continuing, he said, “Our agreement is . . .” and then he read the entire written agreement.
The banker nodded in approval. The other bankers nodded their assent too in accord with the village banker.
The young man handed his copy to the Judge, “For the record, your Honour!” They both smiled, for they knew that this was no formal court hearing.
“Please now supply each prisoner with the original documents that prove these figures. I now seek the prisoners to state their individual debts owed to the banker; to detail the time it took for the debt to occur and to note the Interest component of their debt to the banker. ”
The banker looked at the Judge who nodded his assent. The banker issued the documents to the prisoners who all read their individual debts, explained how long it took for the interest to compound and how much it had amounted to.
The Mayor was first up, and took his time. Even though he didn’t know what his son was up to, he could sense that this was an important moment, so he drew it out. He emphasised that the original debt was only quite small but that with compounding interest it had ballooned out to something totally unpayable.
The banker squirmed a little, with the spotlight on his business practices exposed in front of the Judge was a little unnerving but he knew that he had the law on his side so readied himself for the other nine prisoners to state their cases.
They did this in style. Taking a lead from the Mayor, the other nine men drew from a wide variety of local idioms and language that presented a merry spectacle of shame on the bankers. At the conclusion of the callover, the bankers were clearly relieved when the young man changed the subject away from their profits and onto the exciting part – how to make wealth and quickly.
“I now ask each of the prisoners please to calculate one tenth of the Interest charges they were liable for and announce it.”
The figures even at one tenth the value were all huge – still hundreds and thousands of dollars each. The young man took the smallest figure and announced this as his goal. Anything less than this to create wealth equal to the debts of the prisoners and his demonstration would be complete.
He turned to the shopkeeper and asked him a question. “Earlier today I bought from you ten items. Can you please confirm that this is your receipt for that purchase and advise us of the price of each item?”
The shopkeeper looked at the receipt; confirmed that it was legitimate and that the total price for the ten items was only a dollar or so.
The young man had everyone’s attention as he reached into his pocket and pulled out ten boxes of matches. Casually, he tossed them one by one to the prisoners . . .
“No!” the banker screamed immediately fearing the worst. “No! No! You cannot do that it is against the law . . . those are my documents . . . you simply cannot burn them . . . Judge?” and he turned pleading to the Judge.
The Judge recalled the young man’s visit to him a few days before and smiled knowingly. Indeed it would be hard for him to prolong the ten men’s imprisonment if there was no evidence for the debt.
The young man however was not willing to risk matters getting out of hand so he carried on quickly before the Judge could speak.
“Your honour, is it true that I asked you if there was no evidence of debt that it would be difficult to imprison a debtor?”
“Yes, you did!”
“And is it true that you agreed?”
“Yes I did!”
The banker however was beside himself and was quick to speak. “But your honour this is not allowed. Those documents are mine. This was not in the agreement. You have to stop this right away. This will be a crime if it occurs. These debtors cannot just burn the evidence for their debt!”
The young man and the Judge looked at each other and the Judge smiled. The young man let the banker carry on with his panic attack until he ran out of words.
The Judge then reached over to the copy of the agreement the young man had given him and read it again. “Mr Banker, I sympathise with your predicament but I do have in front of me a signed agreement from you stating that you will cooperate with this young man’s demonstration. At first blush it does indeed appear that if he wishes to demonstrate the creation of wealth in your presence with a match to your evidence of debts that you must surely co-operate with him.”
The bankers were now talking amongst themselves. “Please your honour, can you hold proceedings for a moment while we discuss this matter?”
The Judge replied, “This is not a court. You will need to ask that of the man you have agreed to have demonstrate wealth creation to you”.
“Please, young man can we have a minute?” the village banker asked very politely.
The bankers buried themselves in deep discussion and you could see the consternation in their faces. The village banker was sweating profusely and another gripped his chair handles so tightly that you could see his white knuckles.
The young man turned slightly so that the bankers couldn’t see his hands and he motioned to his watch. At 50 seconds he started the countdown secretly with his fingers, 10, 9, 8, . . . and at exactly one minute he gave the thumbs up to the ten prisoners. The Judge’s eyes were flicking backward and forward watching the ten prisoners, then the young man, then the bankers and out of the corner of his eye he could see the shopkeeper with his eyes wide open like saucers.
It took a little while for the bankers to realise what was happening but by then it was way too late: burning paper; burned, discarded and broken matchsticks; smoke all through the room; ten dancing happy men and screaming bankers all made a cacophony of sound. High fives circled around the room while the bankers sat stunned.
The village banker tried pleading with the Judge that the young man had given them time to talk about it but had renegged on his deal, but the Judge disagreed. “You asked for a minute and he gave it to you! I watched him count it down with my own eyes!” was his matter-of-fact reply.
Wounded, the bankers reconvened their impromptu meeting and didn’t take long to pronounce their findings.
“Your honour, you’ve heard the debtors in their own words confirm before you their individual debts. Even though they have burned the evidence, we all know that the debts still remain!”
The Judge agreed. “Of course the moral aspects of the debt remain but as I explained to the young man when he visited me previously, if a Judge cannot see evidence, it would be a very hard thing to keep a man in jail!”
The Judge paused a little and gathered his thoughts. “I think that you may have been outwitted somewhat here today by a committed, enterprising and creative young man. May I suggest that you have a little discussion among yourselves and come to some agreement so that we don’t have a scene in my Courtrooms next week?”
The young man nodded in assent and the bankers reconvened.
Eventually the bankers agreed to waive the ten debts that had been burned as long as all present agreed to keep the details of the demonstration totally confidential. Each party was free to summarise the agreement reached at the meeting in their own way but the details of the demonstration had to remain a secret, forever.
The shopkeeper led the procession out of the banker’s house to a huge crowd of curious onlookers. “They’re all free!” But, “No comment!” was all he would then say further, even though pressed by his own family and friends.
The Judge was next to exit the banker’s house and he shared a little more information with the curious people. Speaking very carefully, he explained to the village simply that he had witnessed an agreement that included the release of the ten village leaders from all their debts and that this would be formalised in court the next sitting day.
The young man followed the Judge and accepted the applause and adoration for a little bit before stilling the crowd. He waited at the top of the steps for his father the Mayor to emerge and gave him a big hug. The other men then all rolled on out and down the steps and into the arms of their family and friends. The village was back to what it had always been – a small but happy one.
At the top of the steps the Mayor spoke.
“We have agreed with the bankers not to discuss the details of what has transpired but our agreement today has freed all of us from all debts to the bankers. My son deserves a medal for what he has done. As the Judge said in there, he is indeed a committed, enterprising and creative young man. He now has a few words for you . . . ”
The young man had a tear in his eye as he spoke, for he loved his father and was overjoyed to see him free. He kept it simple, as he knew that everyone would be listening hard to hear and memorise his words:
“TEN MEN PLAYED CARDS FOR GENERATIONS BUT ONE DAY THEY WERE ALL IN DEBTOR’S PRISON. OBSERVE THE ELEVENTH MAN CAREFULLY.”
“Who is the Eleventh Man?”
“What do you mean ‘Observe him carefully’?”
The young man never answered the village but simply told the story again . . .
“Ten men were playing cards and at the end of the night they still had the same amount of matchsticks or coins on the table as they started with. Some players had a little more and some had less but they all enjoyed the game.
“One day they were all in debt. From that point trouble began. How can this be?
“How can ten people who always played cards every week without debt suddenly all be in debt? Think about it. There must be . . . ” and he paused.
“An Eleventh Man?” someone suggested.
“Observe him carefully!” the young man cautioned the crowd. “Observe the Eleventh Man carefully”.
The bankers were in hiding and refused to come out of the house while the crowd was still there. The crowd was agitated but eventually they disbursed. When the crowd had gone, the door opened a fraction and a head poked out to sneak a look. With the all clear given, surreptitiously, the bankers filed out of the house and off into the night. It had been a hard day at the office for one of them and the others were glad to be free of the stress.
The young man turned to the cameraman beside him in the bushes and asked him if he’d got the photos. “As clear as daylight!” the cameraman replied. “Video and stills with night-vision!”
The newspapermen had a field day the next week. They had traced the bankers and got their IDs and towns of operations. The headlines in the morning papers all screamed the young man’s words, “Observe the Eleventh Man Carefully”. “Who is the 11th man?” and more.
One photo depicted the face and distinctive nose of the village banker peeking out his door to see if the coast was clear. Cartoonists went crazy over the next week or so and the subject of bankers charging Interest was headlines for a week.
The town was toast of the media for a week until the dust settled and things returned to normal. The entire village seemed to be present on the Saturday for the card game. It seemed like everybody wanted to check that each player only had ten matches, and that there was indeed one hundred matches at the end of the night.
The Mayor’s son was the banker for the night again and made doubly sure that NO-ONE was in debt at the end of the night. The village people had brought him gifts and food and presents galore.
When the Mayor lost a bundle of matches and was cleaned out, nine other players couldn’t get their matchstick donations to help out their friend fast enough – to keep him in the game.
It was just like old times but at the end of the night the Major stood to address his village . . . “Observe the Eleventh Man carefully!” was all he said. They counted the matches with the banker, counted each others’ matches and all agreed . . . “one hundred exactly and no debts!”
A cheer went up as they disbanded and head home, all a lot wiser, and happier.
“Why borrow at interest from a banker when we have the capital ourselves?” one philosopher was heard muttering as he walked home.
“Everything changed when he charged us Interest didn’t it?” one of the ten was heard teaching his family.
“I had no idea how insidious this Interest thing is”, the shopkeeper was heard saying to a friend. “Making fast money really sucks you into a horrible black hole of greed! Who’d want to be a banker?”
The young man spoke up, “I do!” he said, and they all laughed because they knew that he was the only banker that didn’t charge Interest but he was the one that got all the toasts, gifts and praise!
“It pays to be a banker doesn’t it?” the young man was heard saying to his father.
“You don’t have to be that good to be better than the rest eh?” his father quipped.
The young man smiled for he knew what his career would now be – a banker!