(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The first-person narrator of the story, Henry Adams, age twenty-seven, is a mining-broker’s clerk in San Francisco. He says at the outset that he intends to make a fortune, although he has nothing but his “wits and a clean reputation.” While sailing one afternoon, he is carried out to sea and eventually rescued by a small brig bound for London. When he arrives in London, he has only a dollar to his name and is soon without shelter and food. Walking around Portland Place, Henry yearns for a pear that a child has tossed into the gutter. He walks back and forth by the pear, waiting for other people to be out of sight.

Suddenly, a window of a nearby house opens and Henry is summoned into the presence of two wealthy old brothers, who have made a bet. Henry does not learn about the bet or its details until later. The bet centers on a one-million-pound bank note that one of the brothers acquires. The other brother, Abel, bets twenty thousand pounds that “a perfectly honest and intelligent stranger, turned adrift in London without a friend and with no money except the note and no way to account for his being in possession of it,” could not live on it. The second brother maintains that “the man would live thirty days, anyway, on that million, and keep out of jail, too.”

The brothers select Henry because he has an honest, intelligent face and because he is obviously a stranger to England. Giving him an envelope with instructions and telling him to open it in his lodgings, they dismiss him. Henry, who is hungry, hurries outside and peers quickly inside the envelope. Seeing that it contains money, he rushes to the nearest restaurant, owned by Harris, a place Henry is to make famous. After eating, Henry tries to pay with the money but discovers that he has a million-pound note that no one could possibly cash. Harris extends credit to Henry, who quickly returns to the house of the brothers. They have left the area for one month, leaving behind an explanatory note saying that they are lending Henry the money for one month without interest and that if the second brother wins his bet, Henry “shall have any situation that is in my gift.”

Henry quickly considers...

(The entire section is 897 words.)