SOLDIER AND DEATH
A RUSSIAN FOLK TALE
TOLD IN ENGLISH BY
THE SOLDIER AND DEATH
A soldier served God and the Great Tzar for twenty-five years,
earned three dry biscuits, and set off to walk his way home. He kissed
his companions with whom he had served so long, and boasted of the
feasting there would be in the village when he should come marching
home with all his wars behind him. Singing at the top of his voice
he was as he set off. But as soon as he was alone on the high road,
walking through the forest he began to think things over. And he
thought to himself: All these years I have served the Tzar and had
good clothes to my back and my belly full of victuals. And now I am
like to be both hungry and cold. Already I've nothing but three dry
Just then he met an old beggar, who stood in the road and crossed
himself and asked alms for the love of God.
The soldier had not a copper piece in the world, so he gave the
beggar one of his three dry biscuits.
He had not gone very far along the road when he met a second beggar,
who leant on a stick and recited holy words and begged alms for the
love of God.
The soldier gave him the second of his three dry biscuits.
And then, at a bend in the road, he met a third old beggar, with
long white hair and beard and loathsome rags, who stood shaking by the
roadside, and he begged alms for the love of God.
"If I give him my last dry biscuit I shall have nothing left for
myself," thought the soldier. He gave the old beggar half of the third
dry biscuit. Then the thought came into his head that perhaps this old
beggar would meet the other two, and would learn that they had been
given whole biscuits while he had only been given a half. "He will be
hurt and affronted," thought the soldier, "and his blessing will be of
no avail." So he gave the old beggar the other half also of the third
of his three dry biscuits. "I shall get along somehow," thought the
soldier, and was for making forward on his way. But the old beggar put
out his hand and stopped him.
"Brother," says the old beggar, "are you in want of anything?"
"God bless you," says the soldier, looking at the beggar's rags, "I
want nothing from you. You're a poor man yourself."
"Never mind my poverty," says the old beggar. "Just tell me what
you would like to have, and I am well able to reward you for your kind
"I don't want anything," said the soldier; "but, if you do happen to
have such a thing as a pack of cards about you, I'd keep them in memory
of you, and they'd be a pleasure to me on the long road."
The old beggar thrust his hand into his bosom among his rags, and
pulled out a pack of cards.
"Take these," says he, "and when you play with them you'll always be
winner whoever may be playing against you. And here's a flour sack for
you as well. If you meet anything and want to catch it, just open the
sack and tell beasts or birds or aught else to get into it, and they'll
do just that, and you can close the sack and do with them what you
"Thank you kindly," says the soldier, throws the sack over his
shoulder, puts the pack of cards in his pocket, and trudges off along
the high road singing an old song.
He went on and on till he came to a lake, where he drank a little
water to ease his thirst, and smoked a pipe to put off his hunger,
resting by the shore of the lake. And there on the lake he saw three
wild geese swimming far away. "Now if I could catch them!" thought
the soldier, and remembered the sack the old beggar had given him. He
opened the sack and shouted at the top of his voice: "Hi! You there,
you wild geese, come into my sack!"
And the three wild geese splashed up out of the water, and flew to
the bank and crowded into the sack one after the other.
The soldier tied up the mouth of the sack, flung it over his
shoulder and went on his way.
He came to a town, and looked for a tavern, and chose the best he
could see, and went in there and asked for the landlord.
"See here," says he, "here are three wild geese. I want one of them
roasted for my dinner. Another I'll give you in exchange for a bottle
of vodka. The third you shall have to pay you for your trouble."
The landlord agreed, as well he might, and presently the soldier was
seated at a good table near a window, with a whole bottle of the best
and a fine roast goose fresh from the kitchen.
When he had made an end of the goose, the soldier laid down his
knife and fork, tipped the last drops of the vodka down his throat, and
set the bottle upside down upon the table. Then he lit his little pipe,
sat back on the bench and took a look out of the window to see what was
doing in the town.
And there on the other side of the road was a fine palace, well
carved and painted. A year's work had gone to the carving of every
doorpost and window-frame. But in all the palace there was not one
whole pane of glass.
"Landlord," says the soldier, "tell me what's the meaning of this?
Why is a fine palace like that standing empty with broken windows?"
"It's a good enough palace," says the landlord. "The Tzar built
the palace for himself, but there's no living in it because of the
"Devils?" says the soldier.
"Devils," says the landlord. "Every night they crowd into the
palace, and, what with their shouting and yelling and screaming and
playing cards, and all the other devilries that come into their heads,
there's no living in the palace for decent folk."
"And does nobody clear them out?" asks the soldier.
"Easier said than done," says the landlord.
Well, with that the soldier wishes good health to the landlord, and
sets off to see the Tzar. He comes walking into the Tzar's house and
gives him a salute.
"Your Majesty," says he, "will you give me leave to spend one night
in your empty palace?"
"God bless you," says the Tzar, "but you don't know what you are
asking. Foolhardy folk enough have tried to spend a night in that
palace. They went in merry and boasting, but not one of them came
walking out alive in the morning."
"What of that?" says the soldier. "Water won't drown a Russian
soldier, and fire won't burn him. I have served God and the Tzar for
twenty-five years and am not dead. A single night in that palace won't
be end of me."
"But I tell you: a man walks in there alive in the evening, and in
the morning the servants have to search the floor for the little bits
of his bones."
"None the less," says the soldier, "if your majesty will give me
"Get along with you and God be with you," says the Tzar. "Spend the
night there if you've set your heart on it."
So the soldier came to the palace and stepped in, singing
through the empty rooms. He made himself comfortable in the biggest
room of all, laid his knapsack in a corner and hung his sword on
a nail, sat down at the table, took out his bag of tobacco, filled his
little pipe, and sat there smoking, ready for what might come.
Twelve o'clock sharp and there was a yelling, a shouting, a blowing
of horns, a scraping of fiddles and every other kind of instrument, a
noise of dancing, of running, of stamping, and the palace cram full of
devils making themselves at home as if the place belonged to them.
"And you, soldier?" cried the devils. "What are you sitting there so
glum for, smoking your pipe? There's smoke enough where we have been.
Put your pipe in your pocket and play a round of cards with us."
"Right you are," says the soldier, "if you'll play with my
"Deal them out," shouted the devils, and the soldier put his pipe in
his pocket and dealt out the cards, while the devils crowded round the
table fighting for room on the benches.
They played a game and the soldier won. They played another and he
won again. The devils were cunning enough, God knows, but not all their
cunning could win a single game for them. The soldier was raking in
the money all the time. Soon enough the devils had not a penny piece
between them, and the soldier was for putting up his cards and lighting
his pipe. Content he was, and well he might be, with his pockets
bulging with money.
"Stop a minute, soldier," said the devils, "we've still got sixty
bushels of silver and forty
of gold. We'll play for them if you'll
give us time to send for them."
"Lets see the silver," says the soldier, and puts the cards in his
Well, they sent a little devil to fetch the silver. Sixty times he
ran out of the room and sixty times he came staggering back with a
bushel of silver on his shoulders.
The soldier pulled out his cards, and they played on, but it was all
the same. The devils cheated in every kind of way, but could not win a
"Go and fetch the gold," says the oldest devil.
"Aye, aye, grandfather," says the little devil, and goes scuttling
out of the room. Forty times he ran out, and forty times he came
staggering back with a bushel of gold between his shoulders.
They played on. The soldier won every game and all the gold, asked
if they had any more money to lose, put his cards in his pocket and lit
The devils looked at all the money they had lost. It seemed a pity
to lose all that good silver and gold.
"Tear him to pieces, brothers," they cried, "tear him to pieces, eat
him and have done!"
The soldier tapped his little pipe on the table.
"First make sure," says he, "who eats whom." And with that he whips
out his sack, and, says he, to the devils, who were all gnashing their
teeth and making ready to fall on him, "what do you call this?"
"It's a sack," said the devils.
"Is it?" says the soldier. "Then, by the word of God, get into
And the next minute all those devils were tumbling over each other
and getting into the sack, squeezing in one on the top of another until
the last one had got inside. Then the soldier tied up the sack with a
good double knot, hung it on a nail, and lay down to sleep.
In the morning the Tzar sent his servants.
"Go," says the Tzar, "and see what has happened to the soldier who
spent the night in the empty palace. If the unclean spirits have made
an end of him, then you must sweep up his bones and make all clean."
The servants came, all ready to lament for the brave soldier done to
death by the unclean, and there was the soldier walking cheerfully from
one room to another, smoking his little pipe.
"Well done, soldier! We never thought to see you alive. And how did
you spend the night? How did you manage against the devils?"
"Devils?" says the soldier. "I wish all men I have played cards
against had paid their debts so honestly. Have a look at the silver
and gold I won from them. Look at the heaps of money lying on the
The servants looked at the silver and gold and touched it to see if
it was real. But there was no doubt about that. I wish I had more in my
pocket of the same sort.
"Now, brothers," said the soldier, "off with
you as quick as you
can, go and fetch two blacksmiths here on the run. And let them bring
with them an iron anvil and the two heaviest hammers in the forge."
The servants asked no questions, but hurried to the smithy, and the
two blacksmiths came running, with anvil and hammers. Giants they were,
the strongest men in all the town.
"Now," says the soldier, "take that sack from the nail and lay it on
the anvil and let me see how the blacksmiths of this town can set about
The blacksmiths took the sack from the nail.
"Devil take it, what a weight," they said to each other.
And little voices screamed out of the sack: "We are good folk. We
are your own people."
"Are you?" said the blacksmiths; and they laid the sack on the anvil
and swung the great hammers, up and down, up and down, as if they were
beating out a lump of iron.
The devils fared badly in there, and worse and worse. The hammers
came down as if they were going through devils, anvil, earth, and all.
It was more than even devils could bear.
"Have mercy!" they screamed. "Have mercy, soldier! Let us out again
into the world, and we'll never forget you world without end. And as
for this palace.... No devil shall put the nail of the toe of his
foot in it. We'll tell them all. Not one shall come within a hundred
The soldier let the blacksmiths give a few more blows, just
for luck. Then he stopped them,
and untied the mouth of the sack.
The moment he opened it, the devils shot out, and fled away to hell
without looking right or left in their hurry.
But the soldier was no fool, and he grabbed one old devil by the
leg. And the devil hung gibbering, trying to get away. The soldier cut
the devil's hairy wrist to the bone, so that the blood flowed, took a
pen, dipped it in the blood, and gave it to the devil. But he never let
go of his leg.
"Write," says he, "that you will be my faithful servant."
The old devil screamed and wriggled, but the soldier gripped him
tight. There was nothing to be done. He wrote and signed in his own
blood a promise to serve the soldier faithfully wherever and whenever
there should be need. Then the soldier let him go, and he went hopping
and screaming after the others, and had disappeared in a moment.
And so the devils went rushing down to hell, aching in every bone of
their hairy bodies. And they called all the other unclean spirits, old
and young, big and little, and told what had happened to them. And they
set sentinels all round hell, and guards at every gate, and ordered
them to watch well, and, whatever they did, not on any account to let
in the soldier with the flour sack.
The soldier went to the Tzar and told him how he had dealt with the
devils, and how henceforth no devil would set foot within a hundred
miles of the palace.
"If that's so," says the Tzar, "we'll move at once, and go and live
there, and you shall live with me and be honoured as my own brother."
And with that there was a great to do shifting the bedding and tables
and benches and all else from the old palace to the new, and the
soldier set up house with the Tzar, living with him as his own brother,
and wearing fine clothes with gold embroidery, and eating the same food
as the Tzar, and as much of it as he liked. Money to spend he had,
for he had won from the devils enough to last even a spending man a
thousand years. And he had nothing to spend it on. Hens don't eat gold.
No more do mice. And there the money lay in a corner till the soldier
was tired of looking at it.
So the soldier thought he would marry. And he took a wife, and in
a year's time God gave him a son, and he had nothing more to wish for
except to see the son grow up and turn into a general.
But it so happened that the little boy fell ill, and what was the
matter with him no one knew. He grew worse and worse from day to day,
and the Tzar sent for every doctor in the country, but not one of them
did him a half-pennyworth of good. The doctors grew richer and the boy
grew no better but worse, as is often the way.
The soldier had almost given up hope of saving his son when he
remembered the old devil who had signed a promise written in his own
blood to serve the soldier faithfully wherever
whenever there should be need. He remembered this, and said to
himself: "Where the devil has my old devil hidden himself all this
And he had scarcely said this when suddenly there was the little
old devil standing in front of him, dressed like a peasant in a little
shirt and breeches, trembling with fright and asking: "How can I serve
"See here," says the soldier. "My son is ill. Do you happen to know
how to cure him?"
The little old devil took a glass from his pocket and filled it with
cold water and set it on the sick child's forehead.
"Come here, your Excellency," says he, "and look into the glass of
The soldier came and looked in the glass.
"And what does your Excellency see?" asked the little old devil, who
was so much afraid of the soldier that he trembled and could hardly
"I see Death, like a little old woman, standing at my son's
"Be easy," says the little old devil, "for if Death is standing at
your son's feet he will be well again. But if Death were standing at
his head then nothing could save him."
And with that the little old devil lifted the glass and splashed
the cold water over the sick child, and the next minute there was the
little boy crawling about and laughing and crowing as if he had never
been sick in his life.
"Give me that glass," says the soldier, "and we'll cry quits."
The little old devil gave him the glass. And the soldier gave back
the promise which the devil had signed in his own blood. As soon as
the little old devil had that promise in his hand he gave one look at
the soldier and fled away as if the blacksmiths had only that minute
stopped beating him on the anvil.
And the soldier after that set up as a wise man and put all the
doctors out of business, curing the boyars and generals. He would just
look in his glass, and if Death stood at a sick man's feet, he threw
the water over him and cured him. If Death stood at the sick man's
head, he said: "It's all up with you," and the sick man died as sure as
All went well until the Tzar himself fell ill and sent for the
soldier to cure him.
The soldier went in, and the Tzar greeted him as his own brother,
and prayed him to be quick, as he felt the sickness growing upon him as
he lay. The soldier poured cold water in the glass, and set it on the
Tzar's forehead, and looked and looked again, and saw Death standing at
the Tzar's head.
"O Tzar," says the soldier, "it's all up with you. Death is waiting
by your head, and you have but a few minutes left to live."
"What?" cries the Tzar, "you cure my boyars and generals and you
will not cure me who am Tzar, and have treated you as my own born
brother. If I've only a few minutes to live I've time enough to give
orders for you to be beheaded."
The soldier thought and thought, and he begged Death:"O
Death," says he, "give my life to the Tzar and kill me instead. Better
to die so than to end by being shamefully beheaded!"
He looked once more in the glass, and saw that the little old woman
Death had shifted from the Tzar's head and was now standing at his
feet. He picked up the glass and splashed the water over the Tzar, and
there was the Tzar as well and healthy as ever he had been.
"You are my own true brother after all," says the Tzar. "Let us go
and feast together."
But the soldier shook in all his limbs and could hardly stand, and
he knew that his time was come. He prayed Death: "O Death, give me just
one hour to say good-bye to my wife and my little son."
"Hurry up!" says Death.
And the soldier hurried to his room in the palace, said good-bye to
his wife, told his son to grow up and be a general, lay down on his bed
and grew iller every minute.
He looked, and there was Death, a little old woman, standing by his
"Well, soldier," says Death, "you have only two minutes left to
The soldier groaned, and, turning in bed, pulled the flour sack from
under his pillow and opened it.
"Do you know what this is?" says he to Death.
"A sack," says Death.
"Well, if it is a sack, get into it!" says the soldier.
Death was into the sack in a moment, and the soldier leapt from his
bed well and strong, tied up the sack with two double knots, flung it
over his shoulder and set out for the deep forest of Brian, which is
the thickest in all the world. He came to the forest and made his way
into the middle of it, hung the sack from the topmost branches of a
high poplar tree, left it there and came home singing songs at the top
of his voice and full of all kinds of merriment.
From that time on there was no dying in the world. There were births
every day, and plenty of them, but nobody died. It was a poor time for
doctors. And so it was for many years. Death had come to an end, and it
was as if all men would live for ever. And all the time the little old
woman, Death, tied up in a sack, unable to get about her business, was
hanging from the top of a tall poplar tree away in Brian forest.
And then, one day, the soldier was walking out to take the air, and
he met an ancient old crone, so old and so ancient that she was like to
fall whichever way the wind blew. She tottered along, blown this way
and that, like a blade of withered grass.
"What an old hag," said the soldier to himself. "It was time for her
to die a many years ago."
"Yes," says the old crone, with her toothless gums numbling and
grumbling over her words. "Long ago it was time for me to die. When
you shut up Death in the sack I had only an hour left to live. I had
done with the
world, and the world had done with me, and I would have
been glad to be at peace. Long ago my place in heaven was made ready,
and it is empty to this day for I cannot die. You, soldier, have sinned
before God and before man. You have sinned a sin that God will not
forgive. I am not the only soul in the world who is tortured as I am.
Mine is not the only place that is growing dusty in heaven. Hundreds
and thousands of us who should have died drag on in misery about the
world. And but for you we should now be resting in peace."
The soldier began to think. And he thought of all the other old men
and women he had kept from the rest that God had made ready for them.
"There is no doubt about it," thinks he; "I had better let Death loose
again. No matter if I am the first of whom she makes an end. I have
sinned many sins, not counting this one. Better go to the other world
now and bear my punishment while I am strong, for when I am very old it
will come worse to me to be tortured."
So he set off to the forest of Brian, which is the thickest in all
the world. He found the poplar tree, and saw the sack hanging from the
topmost branches, swinging this way and that as wind blew.
"Well, Death, are you alive up there?" the soldier shouted against
And a little voice, hardly to be heard, answered from the sack:
"Alive, little father!"
So the soldier climbed up the tree, took down the sack, and carried
it home over his shoulder.
He said good-bye to his wife and his son, who
was now a fine young lad. Then he went into his own room, opened the
bag, lay down upon the bed, and begged Death to make an end of him.
And Death, in the form of a little old woman, crept trembling out of
the sack, looking this way and that, for she was very much afraid. As
soon as she saw the soldier she bolted through the door, and ran away
as fast as her little old legs could carry her. "The devils can make an
end of you if they like," she shrieked, "but you don't catch me taking
a hand in it."
The soldier sat up on the bed and knew that he was alive and well.
Troubled he was as to what to do next. Thinks he: "I'd better get
straight along to hell, and let the devils throw me into the boiling
pitch, and stew me until all my sins are stewed out of me."
So he said good-bye to everybody, took his sack in his hands and set
off to hell by the best road he could find.
Well, he walked on and on, over hill and valley and through the deep
forest, until he came at last to the kingdom of the unclean. There were
the walls of hell and the gates of hell, and as he looked he saw that
sentinels were standing at every gate.
As soon as he came near a gate the devil doing sentry go calls
"Who goes there?"
"A sinful soul come to you to be stewed in the boiling pitch."
"And what is that you've got in your hand?"
And the devil yelled out at the top of his voice and gave the alarm.
From all sides the unclean rushed up and began closing every gate and
window in hell with strong bolts and bars.
And the soldier walked round hell outside the walls, unable to get
He cried out to the Prince of Hell:
"Let me into hell, I beg you. I have come to you to be tormented,
because I have sinned before God and before man."
"No," shouted the Prince of Hell, "I won't let you in. Go away. Go
away, I tell you. Go away, anywhere you like. There's no place for you
The soldier was more troubled than ever.
"Well," says he, "if you won't let me in, you won't. I'll go away
if you will give me two hundred sinful souls. I will take them to God,
and perhaps, when he sees them, he will forgive me and let me into
"I'll throw in another fifty," says the Prince of Hell, "if only
you'll get away from here."
And he told the lesser devils to count out two hundred and fifty
sinful souls and to let them out quickly at one of the back doors of
hell, while he held the soldier in talk, so that the soldier should not
slip in while the sinful souls were going out.
It was done, and the soldier set off for heaven with two hundred
and fifty sinful souls behind him, marching in column of route, as the
soldier made them for the sake of order and decency.
Well, they marched on and on, and in the end they came to heaven,
and stopped before the very gates of Paradise.
And the holy apostles, standing in the gateway of Paradise, said:
"Who are you?"
"I am the soldier who hung Death in a sack, and I have brought two
hundred and fifty sinful souls from hell in hope that God will pardon
my sins and let me into Paradise."
And the apostles went to the Lord, and told him that the soldier had
come, and brought with him two hundred and fifty sinful souls.
And God said: "Let in the sinful souls, but do not let in the
The apostles went back to the gateway, and opened the gates and told
the souls they might come in. But when the soldier tried to march in
at the head of his company they stopped him, and said: "No, soldier!
There's no place for you here."
So the soldier took one of the sinful souls aside and gave that
soul his sack, and told him: "As soon as you are through the gates of
Paradise, open the sack and shout out "Into the sack, soldier!" You
will do this because I brought you here from hell."
And the sinful soul promised to do this for the soldier.
But when that sinful soul went through the gates into Paradise,
for very joy it forgot about the soldier, and threw away the sack
somewhere in Paradise, where it may be lying to this day.
And so the soldier, after waiting a long time, went slowly back
to earth. Death would not take him. There was no place for him in
Paradise and no place for him in Hell. For all I know he may be living
Printed for the Author at The
Westminster Press, London
W. and published by
John G. Wilson at
77 Queen Street