Silly Pebble Story

A friend of mine is taking a class called “Critical Thinking” at a local community college. Good for him!

He had an assignment, and asked me to look it over to make sure he’d formatted it correctly. (Not too used to word processors, y’know. I had to tell him that you don’t need to hit “Enter” at the end of each line….)

The assignment, now, went like this:

Write a one page paper not including a cover page -answer the question the best you can at the end of the story.


Many years ago when a person who owed money could be thrown into jail, a merchant in London had the misfortune to owe a huge sum to a money lender. The money lender, who was old and ugly, fancied the merchant’s beautiful teenage daughter. He proposed a bargain. He said he would cancel the merchant’s debt if he could have the girl instead.

Both the merchant and his daughter were horrified at the proposal. So the cunning money lender proposed that they let Providence decide the matter. He told them that he would put a black pebble and a white pebble into an empty money bag and then the girl would have to pick out one of the pebbles. If she chose the black pebble she would become his wife and her father’s debt would be cancelled. If she chose the white pebble she would stay with her father and the debt would still be cancelled. But if she refused to pick out a pebble her father would be thrown into jail.

Reluctantly the merchant agreed. They were standing on a pebble strewn path in the merchant’s garden as they talked and the money lender stooped down to pick up the two pebbles. As he picked up the pebbles the girl, sharp’-eyed with fright, noticed that he picked up two black pebbles and put them into the money bag. He then asked the girl to pick out the pebble that was to decide her fate and that of her father.

Imagine that you are standing on that path in the merchant’s garden. What would you have done if you had been the unfortunate girl? If you had to advise her what would you have done?

I found this assignment intensely annoying. So, a) because I could, and b) because it wasn’t my grade on the line, I tried the assignment. Seven times. (Because seven is the number of completion.)

Here, then, in no particular order, are my answers:


Nell, for that was the merchant’s daughter’s name, turned to her father. “Dad,” she said, “I’m really sorry that you made some bad decisions in your life. That you over-borrowed isn’t my fault, however, and I don’t see how it’s my problem.”

She turned then to the old money-lender. “I’m not buying into your power-trip fantasy life either,” she said. “You can take your pebbles and your ‘let Providence decide’ shite and blow it straight out your arse. Providence has decided that I’m not going to get into a loveless marriage with a dishonest old goat. I’m going to go to Chicago and get a job.”

To her father the girl said, “I’ll send you a cheese platter in the workhouse as often as I can afford it.”

She leaned close and kissed her father on the cheek. “Good-bye,” she said, and departed.

Or, the merchant’s daughter takes direct action:

The money-lender and the merchant were walking on a path near the merchant’s house. They were expecting the merchant’s daughter to arrive momentarily, for she would determine the merchant’s fate. If she married the money-lender (an old, ugly, and lecherous man), he would forgive the merchant’s debt. If not … the merchant would be thrown into debtor’s prison.

Suddenly, without warning, a spray of blood erupted from the money-lender’s head. He fell to the pebbled path, a thirty-caliber hole in his forehead, the entire back of his skull missing. A moment later the distant echo of a rifle shot came to the merchant’s ear.

Five minutes passed, and the merchant’s daughter came rushing up, one hand holding her bonnet to her head as she ran.

“Am I late?” she cried. “Did I miss anything?”

“No, daughter,” the merchant said, “You didn’t miss … a thing.”

“Goodness!” said the daughter looking down. “Oh, my goodness. I am feeling quite faint. A cup of tea?”

“Yes,” said the merchant, “A cup of tea.”

His daughter took his arm, and together they walked back to the house.

Or this, a bit more elaborate (and it comes with background music):

The black pebble firm in her hand, Nell (for that was the young lady’s name), bowed her head before her fate, an outcome she had foreseen would come to pass. By hook or by crook, the money-lender would have her, she was certain of that. The only thing she could do was be sure her father’s debt was forgiven before she entered a life of servitude to the whims of an evil man.

So the two, the money-lender and Nell, walked away from the place where the choosing had occurred, down a country lane where the primrose lent a sweetness to the air that Nell did not feel in her heart. The hedgerows rose high on either side of the lane, blocking the view of the moors beyond.

Of a sudden, Nell and the money-lender became aware of a black-clad figure before them, a man in a cloak and boots, riding gloves on his hands, a hat with a swooping black plume and a black mask obscuring his features.

Those details they might have noted, but the first thing that took their attention was the muzzle of a flintlock pistol, cocked, and pointed directly at their eyes. The opening of the barrel seemed a yard across. “Your money or your life,” the brigand snarled.

“Alas!” Nell cried. “The infamous Dick Turpin, highwayman! Oh Roger! (for Roger was the money-lender’s name) pray give him your purse at once! I am so afraid!”

Roger did not hesitate, but instead handed over his purse, heavy with gold sovereigns.

“And now,” said Dick Turpin, “Good night, Roger.” He extended the pistol, pointed it at the man’s chest, and pulled the trigger. Faster than thought, Nell leapt in front of the pistol-blast and took the ball in her own bosom. She fell to the dusty ground, the front of her bodice stained deep red with her own heart’s blood.

From around the turn of the lane, a male voice shouted, “Gunfire! Come on, lads!” and the sound of pounding boots filled the air.

The wicked highwayman did not hesitate, but instead stepped forward, pressed the pistol’s butt into the money-lender’s hand, then ducked through the hedge and out of sight. A moment later a squad of grenadier guardsmen rounded the corner and saw the piteous sight: Nell lying in her gore on the dusty ground and the money-lender standing above her, smoking pistol in his hand.

“Got ye, ye bastard!” a sergeant shouted, and in an instant the soldiers were upon the money-lender, twisting his arms up behind his back and securing his wrists with rough cord.

“This isn’t what it seems!” Roger said. “I’m innocent!”

“Yar,” said the sergeant. “Ye can tell it tae the magistrate, me brave lad. On yer feet an’ quick-march!”

The sound of heavy boots grew distant, faded, and died away. Nell rolled to a sitting position, even as Edward, the blacksmith’s boy, pushed back through the hedge, stripping off the cloak, hat, and mask. Nell threw away the sponge of red ink she clasped in her hand, and quickly changed into a fresh blouse.

“Our ship sails with the tide,” Edward reminded her. “I’ve two horses standing by, but we don’t have a minute to waste.”

A moment later they were mounted and riding in the direction opposite from the way the soldiers had taken.

Or this, with added literary allusion!

Bugger all this for a lark, the girl thought. Slimy bastard has no intention of playing fair. Well, if it’s cheating he wants, cheating he’ll get. The first liar doesn’t stand a chance.

She saw the money-lender stoop and pick up two pebbles from the path, both black as she supposed they would be, both as black as his heart, and drop them into the money bag. Smiling, she reached her hand into the sack and drew out her closed fist.

“Whatever happens,” she said, “regardless of the color of the pebble in my hand, white or black, my father’s debt is forgiven, correct?”

“Even so,” said the money-lender, a lecherous leer turning his already ugly mouth into a thing of horror. A dribble of drool hung from his chin. “If you hold the white pebble his debt is forgiven and you are free; if black, his debt is forgiven and you are my bride.”

“By great good fortune, then,” the lass replied, “I have brought with me my close personal friends Jacques, the notary, Edmund, the solicitor, and Maximilian, the judge, as we fulfill the conditions of the bargain. I trust you have no objection?”

“None,” the money-lender said, his eyes fever-bright with lust, as the three named gentlemen stepped forward from nearby paths.

“And here too is his grace the Count de Lorge,” the young lady said then. “To see fair play. I trust you have no objection?”

“None!” the money-lender exclaimed, a hint of impatience in his voice.

“Here is the document forgiving the debt, which I drew up this morning,” Edmund said. “Sign it.”

The money-lender did so; the judge witnessed the signature and the notary sealed it. The Count de Lorge took the document and placed it in his inner pocket.

“Then here is my fortune,” the lady said, and opened her hand. A white pebble lay there, thanks to her superior sleight-of-hand skills and her cunning in guessing the money-lender’s treachery.

“See,” she said, “the black pebble remains inside the bag which you held the entire time.” The Count de Lorge verified that it was even so.

The money-lender! What could he do? Say, “Impossible! I put two black pebbles in that bag!”and admit that he was a cheat, a scoundrel, and a cad in front of the honorable gentlemen who had witnessed the bargain? He was caught.

“Ah,” said Nell (for that was the young lady’s name), “I see you are disappointed. I’m still willing to give you a chance to regain the prize: never let it be said otherwise.” With that she took her glove and threw it into a nearby lion’s cage (for such was the nature of the path where they stood). “You know what to do.”

The Count de Lorge was still laughing a quarter-hour later after the lady and her father, freed of debt, had walked off, leaving the money-lender behind them grinding his teeth in frustration.

That one is even fairly close to the official answer (there’s an official answer, as I learned a few minutes ago whilst Googling “The Pebble Story” + “both the merchant”). This was originally an example from one of the works of Edward De Bono, and is meant as an example of the difference between “vertical thinking” and “lateral thinking,” and the supposed superiority of the latter.

Onward! We come to this, inspired, if you’ll believe it, by Wilkie Collins’ The Woman In White:

The young lady opened her fist, revealing the black pebble.

“Ha ha!” cried the money-lender, “You are mine!”

“So it would seem,” said pretty Nell (for that was the young lady’s name). “But a bargain is a bargain. Forgive my father’s debt now, if you please.”

And so it was. The debt was forgiven with a legal form sealed with many wax bulls and many ribbons. That very afternoon Nell and the money-lender were away to church, wed, and off on their honeymoon.

The next morning, in the cold light of dawn as mist lay thick in the hedgerows, the merchant, Nell’s father, heard a knock at his door. He hurried to open it, and there, to his surprise, stood his daughter. Her muslin dress was dripping with water; mud smeared its hem. Her hair was plastered to her head and a strand of lake weed hung from her ear.

“Oh father!” she wailed as he opened the door. “A terrible tragedy! I regret to inform you that my sweet darling husband, my love, the money-lender… how can I say it? We were boating (at his insistence) this morning when by ill fortune the boat turned over and … alas! … while I was able to struggle ashore he was lamentably lost.”

“What do you mean?” the merchant said, stupefied, for he had not yet had his coffee.

“I mean he is drowned! Dead! My sorrow is complete! I inherit his house, his lands, his money, but who can replace him?”

“I … I don’t know,” said her father.

“I have no head for business,” Nell continued. “How would you like to take over his dealings? As my proxy,” she hastened to add.

“I suppose…” the merchant said.

“Thank you, father! Thank you!” Nell said, rising on her toes to kiss her father’s cheek. “Now, are there some dry clothes in the house? I’ll catch my death.”

If that seemed too mundane:

The money-lender went to bed that night, chuckling at his own cleverness, at how he had fooled the merchant, and the girl, and gained a beautiful young wife. He slept, and as he slept he dreamed. And in his dream he heard a distant song:

For seven years I’ve sought for thee,
The seven seas I’ve sailed for thee,
The seven hills I’ve climbed for thee,
And yet thou wouldst not lie by me.

He felt his bed rocking, gently, as if it were a boat on a river, crossing from shore to shore. A flicker of light in his dream, like torches streaming. A sigh like rushing wind. The sound of women weeping. And when he woke, he found himself in a rough stone cave, lying on a slanted wooden plank, with his arms chained above his head and his feet chained beneath.

Before him crouched a gnarled and filthy figure, skin covered with sores and boils, lank stringy hair falling from its head. It wore yellowed and torn remnants of what might have been white robes, and it rocked back and forth on its heels. With a start the money-lender realized that this misshapen thing was female, pendulous breasts swaying in the torn garment it wore. She looked up at him and leered and sang:

For seven years I’ve sought for thee,
The seven seas I’ve sailed for thee,
The seven hills I’ve climbed for thee,
And yet thou wouldst not lie by me.

“Who are you?” the money-lender asked, when he found his voice. This dream, for dream it must be, was bizarre; he determined that he would never again eat black pudding and suet pie at the same meal.

“You know me well,” the woman said. “I am your desire. I am your lust. For me you cheated, for me you stole, for me you lied.”

“You are my money?”

“No, far dearer to you. The thing that you thought you did not need, yet here I am at the last. You are mine, but at your own desire. Now I shall replace your eyes with two black pebbles.” She held them up, showing them to him, and he screamed.

While she worked she sang,

For seven years I’ve sought for thee,
The seven seas I’ve sailed for thee,
The seven hills I’ve climbed for thee,
And yet thou wouldst not lie by me.

Which all brings us around to this one. Why does Nell have to be the one at risk, and the one who does the choosing?

The young lady, Nell, saw the wicked money-lender put two black pebbles into the sack. He held it forth to her, saying “Let Providence decide.”

“Before I chose,” said Nell, “allow me to introduce a friend of mine. This is Jack.”

And forth stood a man dressed as a sailor, burly tattooed arms crossed on his broad chest, bell bottomed trousers above sea boots, and a cat o’ nine tails hanging from his belt.

“Jack is boatswain aboard Her Majesty’s Ship Defiance,” Nell continued. “The brave men of the Fleet, the sailors who guard Britannia’s shores, are ever ready to see fair play.” The boatswain’s hand grasped the handle of the cat.

“Aye,” Jack said.

“In a moment,” Nell said, “A pebble will be selected, and it will determine my fate, and my father’s. Sir money-lender, you must reach into the sack and take one of the stones. If it is white, you shall forgive my father’s debt and I shall marry you this very day. But if it is black, then you shall forgive my father’s debt and Jack here will give you a hundred lashes.”

“Miss,” said Jack, “you must know that most times when a man gets a hundred licks o’ the cat, he dies.”

“That’s a risk I’m willing to take,” Nell replied. To the money-lender she said, “Let Providence decide.”

Help save an independent bookstore

One thought on “Silly Pebble Story

  1. The Official answer includes this bit:

    The story shows the difference between vertical thinking and lateral thinking. Vertical thinkers are concerned with the fact that the girl has to take a pebble. Lateral thinkers become concerned with the pebble that is left behind.

    I find both the pebble that is taken and the pebble that is left behind uninteresting. What does that make me?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: