“You never did tell me how your experiment turned out.”

“It is quite a story. I will relate it to you now, since we still have some time before the train arrives. It must have been on a Monday morning that I made my way up the hill to the U— Asylum. The weather was clear and comfortable. By the time I reached the front gate, the sun had pleasantly warmed my scalp. I was greeted by the warden, with whom I had previously consulted. He led me to a bare room on the far end of the terrain, in which he had assembled three male patients.

I was left alone, except for a sturdy orderly who remained in case the patients should become agitated. I explained the nature of the task to the three men. They were to respond to a word written on a piece of cardboard, which I would show them individually, in the corner of the room opposite to which they were sitting, so as to afford as much privacy as possible.

The first patient was in his forties and marked by tufts of prematurely grey hair and deep wrinkles around the eyes. He rose compliantly, and sat down in the corner of the room on a wooden stool between the whitewashed walls. When I showed him the cardboard, his whole body shook with laughter. Hysterical high-pitched squeals escaped him with increasing violence. He clutched his belly as if to prevent the next hee-hee-ha-ha-ha, but his twitching mouth revealed how powerless he was against the force that roared inside him. The wrinkles around his eyes dampened, and his voice became hoarse. His body seemed unable to withstand more. Realizing this, the orderly stepped in and, with a firm grip on the man’s shoulders and a few stern shushes, managed to calm him down.

After the first patient had returned to the other side, I called over the second and urged him to take place on the wooden stool. He was in his late twenties and owned a morose look behind bloodshot eyes. As soon as I showed him the cardboard, he burst into a frenzy of tears. He cried in the manner of a child, with absolute abandon. His face turned beet red and his mouth, wet from weeping, formed pitiful wah-ah-ahs until my heart was struck with such sorrow for the young man that I signaled to the orderly to take action. It took a long time before the last little sobs and sighs were suppressed, but he finally regained composure and retreated to the other side of the room.

I was about to summon the third patient, when I noticed that he was writing on a sheet of paper with a pencil. I do not know how he managed to sneak in these tools, but I realized that he must have been writing throughout the previous interviews, for he had covered a significant portion of the sheet. I spoke to him, but he did not respond. I walked over to him in order to direct his actions more forcibly. When I came closer, I was surprised by the fever with which he scribbled. Such pressure was exerted on the pencil tip that it had pierced the paper in several places. I addressed him once more, but still he neither answered nor ceased his incessant writing.

Standing over him now, I decided to confront him with the cardboard then and there. I held it up in front of him, square in his face. He did not immediately see it, but when his eyes did fall upon the cardboard, he simply pointed at the other patients – first to the one who laughed, next to the one who cried – and continued writing.”

“Interesting. I hear the train coming, so tell me, quickly, what was written on that piece of cardboard?”

“Life.”