Russian Folk-Tales/The Soldier and Death

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In Afanasyev's Russian Popular Religious Legends there are three related tales, a, b and c, grouped under the title "The Soldier and Death". This is a translation of c, although the mention of the soldier's desertion is apparently added by the translator based on the beginning of a.
This tale has many similarities with one in the Grimm collection: Brother Lustig


Once upon a time there was a soldier who had served God and the Great Sovereign for twenty-five whole years, and had only in the end earned three biscuits, and was journeying back home. And, as he went along, he thought: "Lord! here am I; I have served my Tsar for twenty-five years, have received my food and dress, and what have I lived for after all? I am cold and hungry, and have only three biscuits to eat." So he pondered and thought, and decided to desert and run away whither his eyes might lead him.

As he went along he met a poor beggar who asked alms of him. The soldier gave him one biscuit, and kept two. And, as he trudged on, he soon came across another poor beggar, who bowed down low and asked for alms. So the soldier gave him another biscuit, and had only one left. Again on he went, and met a third beggar. The old fellow bowed low and asked for alms. The soldier got his last biscuit out, and thought: "If I give him the whole, I shall have none left; if I give half, why, this old man will come across brother-beggars, will see they have a whole biscuit, and be offended. Better let him have it all, and I shall get on somehow." So he gave his last biscuit, and had nothing left.

Then the old man asked him: "Tell me, good man, what do you wish? Of what have you need? I will help you."

"God bless you!" the soldier answered. "How should I take anything of you?—you are old and poor."

"Don't think of my poverty," he replied. "Just say what you would like, and I will requite you according to your own goodness."

"I want nothing; but, if you have any cards, give me some as a keepsake."

For the old man was Christ Himself walking on earth in a beggar's guise. The old man put his hand into his breast and drew out a pack of cards, saying: "Take them. With whomsoever you play, you will win the game; and here you have a nosebag. Whatever you meet on the way, whether wild beast or bird that you would like to catch, just say to it: 'Jump in here, beast or bird!' and your wish will be carried out."

"Thank you!" said the soldier, took the cards and the nosebag, and fared forth.

He went on and on, may-be far, may-be near, may-be short, may-be long, and arrived at a lake, on which three wild geese were swimming. Then the soldier suddenly remembered the nosebag and thought: "I'll just test this nosebag"; took it out, opened it, and said: "Hi! you wild geese, fly into my nosebag!" No sooner uttered than the geese flew straight up from the lake into the bag. The soldier grabbed the bag, tied it up, and went on his way.

He travelled on and on and came to a town. He entered an eating-house and told the inn-keeper: "Take this goose and cook it for my supper, and I will give you another goose for your pains. Change me this third one for vódka." So there the soldier sat like a lord in the inn, at his ease, drinking wine and feasting on roast goose.

It occurred to him suddenly he might peer out of the window, and he saw opposite a big palace, but not one pane of glass was whole. "What is this?" he asked the inn-keeper. "What is this palace? Why does it stand empty?"

"Why, don't you know?" the master replied. "Our Tsar built himself this palace, but cannot inhabit it; and, for seven years, it has been standing empty. Some unholy power drives every one out of the place. Every night an assemblage of devils meets there, make a row, dance, play cards, and perpetrate every sort of vileness!"

So off the soldier went to the Tsar. "Your Imperial Majesty," quoth he, "please let me spend one night in your empty palace!"

"What do you mean, fellow?" said the Tsar. "God bless you; but there have been some dare-devils like you who passed a night in this palace, and not one emerged alive!"

"Well, still, a Russian soldier cannot drown in water, or burn in fire. I served God and the Great Sovereign five-and-twenty years, and never died of it; and, for one night's service for you, I am to die! No!"

"But I tell you: a man enters the palace at night alive, and only his bones are found there in the morning!"

But the soldier stood firm: he must be admitted into the palace.

"Well," said the Tsar, "go, and God help you. Stay the night there if you will; you are free, and I won't hinder you!"

So the soldier marched into the palace, and settled himself down in the biggest saloon, took his knapsack off and his sabre, put the knapsack in a corner and the sabre on a hand-peg, sat down on a chair, put his hand into his pocket for his tobacco-pouch, lit his pipe, and smoked at his ease. Then about midnight, I don't know where from, hordes of devils, seen and unseen, scurried up, and made such a turmoil and row, and set up a dance with wild music. "What, you here, discharged soldier!" all the devils began yelling. "Welcome! Will you play cards with us?"

"Certainly; here I have a set ready. Let's start!"

He took them out and dealt round. They began, played a game out, and the soldier won; another, and the same luck; and all the finessing of the devils availed them nothing; the soldier won all the money, and raked it all together.

"Stop, soldier," the devils said. "We still have sixty ounces of silver and forty of gold. We'll stake them on the last game." And they sent a little devil-boy to fetch the silver.

So a new game commenced; and then the little devil had to pry in every nook and come back and tell the old devil: "It's no use, grandfather—we have no more."

"Off you go; find some gold!" And the urchin went and hunted up gold from everywhere, turned an entire mine inside out and still found nothing: the soldier had played everything away.

The devils got angry at losing all their money, and began to assault the soldier, roaring out: "Smash him up, brothers! Eat him up!"

"We'll see who'll have the last word if it comes to eating," said the soldier, shook the nosebag open, and asked, "What is this?"

"A nosebag," said the devils.

"Well, in you all go, by God's own spell!" And he collected them all together—so many you couldn't count them all! Then the soldier buckled the bag tightly, hung it on a peg, and lay down to sleep.

In the morning the Tsar sent for all his folks. "Come up to me and inform me how does it stand with the soldier. If the unholy powers have destroyed him, bring me his little bones."

So off they went and entered the palace, and there saw the soldier trudging up and down gaily in the rooms and smoking his pipe. "Well, how are you, discharged soldier? We never expected to see you again alive. How did you pass the night? What kind of bargain did you make with the devils?"

"What devils! Just come and look what a lot of gold and silver I won off them. Look, what piles of it!" And the Tsar's servants looked and were amazed. And the soldier told them: "Bring me two smiths as fast as you can. Tell them to bring an iron anvil and a hammer."

Off they went helter-skelter to the smiths, and the matter was soon arranged.

The smiths arrived with iron anvil and with heavy hammers.

"Now," said the soldier, "take this nosebag and beat it hard after the ancient manner of smiths."

So the smiths took the nosebag, and they began to whisper to each other: "How fearfully heavy it is! The devil must be in it."

The devils shrieked in answer: "Yes, we are there, father—yes, we are there! Kinsmen, help us!"

So the smiths instantly laid the nosebag on the iron anvil, and they began to knock it about with their hammers as though they were hammering iron.

Very soon the devils saw that they could not possibly stand such treatment, and they began to shriek: "Mercy on us—mercy on us! Let us out, discharged soldier, into the free world. Unto all eternity we will not forget you, and into this palace never a devil shall enter again. We will forbid everybody—all of them—and drive them all a hundred versts away."

So the soldier bade the smiths stop, and as soon as he unbuckled the nosebag the devils rushed out, and flew off, without looking, into the depths of hell—into the abysses of hell. But the soldier was no fool; and as they were flying out he laid hold of one old devil—laid hold of him tight by his paw. "Come along," he said; "give me some written undertaking that you will always serve me faithfully."

The unholy spirit wrote him out this undertaking in his own blood, gave it him, and took to his heels.

All the devils ran away into the burning pitch, and got away as fast as they could with all their infernal strength, both the old ones and the young ones; and henceforth they established guards all round the burning pit and issued stern ordinances that the gates be constantly guarded, in order that the soldier and the nosebag might never draw near.

The soldier came to the Tsar, and he told him some kind of tale how he had delivered the palace from the infernal visitation.

"Thank you," the Tsar answered. "Stay here and live with me. I will treat you as if you were my brother."

So the soldier went and stayed with the Tsar, and had a sufficiency of all things, simply rolled in riches, and he thought it was time he should marry. So he married, and one year later God gave him a son. Then this boy fell into such a fearful illness—so terrible that there was nobody who could cure it—and it was beyond the skill of the physicians; there was no understanding of it. The soldier then thought of the old devil and of the undertaking he had given him, and how it had run in the undertaking: "I shall serve you eternally as a faithful servant." And he thought and said: "What is my old devil doing?"

Suddenly the same old devil appeared in front of him and asked: "What does your worship desire?"

And the soldier answered: "My little boy is very ill. Do you know how to cure him?"

So the devil fumbled in his pocket, got out a glass, poured cold water into it, and put it over the head of the sick child, and told the soldier: "Come here, look into the water." And the soldier looked at the water; and the devil asked him: "Well, what do you see?"

"I see Death standing at my son's feet."

"Well, he is standing at his feet; then he will survive. If Death stands at his head, then he cannot live another day." So the devil took the glass with the water in it and poured it over the soldier's son, and in that same minute the son became well.

"Give me this glass," the soldier said, "and I shall never trouble you for anything more." And the devil presented him with the glass, and the soldier returned him the undertaking.

Then the soldier became an enchanter, and set about curing the boyárs and the generals. He would go and look at the glass, and instantly he knew who had to die and who should recover. Now, the Tsar himself became ill, and the soldier was called in. So he poured cold water into the glass, put it at the Tsar's head, and saw that Death was standing at the Tsar's head.

The soldier said: "Your Imperial Majesty, there is nobody in the world who can cure you. Death is standing at your head, and you have only three hours left of life."

When the Tsar heard this speech, he was furious with the soldier. "What, what!" he shrieked at him. "You who have cured so many boyárs and generals, cannot do anything for me! I shall instantly have you put to death."

So the soldier thought and thought what he should do. And he began to beseech Death. "O Death," he said, "give the Tsar my life and take me instead, for it doesn't matter to me whether I live or die; for it is better to die by my own death than to suffer such a cruel punishment."

And he looked in the glass, and saw that Death was standing at the Tsar's feet. Then the soldier took the water and sprinkled the Tsar, and he recovered completely. "Now, Death," said the soldier, "give me only three hours' interval in order that I may go home and say farewell to my wife and my son."

"Well, you may have three hours. Go," Death replied.

So the soldier went away home, lay down on his bed, and became very ill.

And when Death was standing very near him, she said, "Now, discharged soldier, say good-bye quickly—you have only three minutes left to live in the bright world."

So the soldier stretched himself out, took his nosebag from under his head, opened it, and asked: "What is this?"

Death answered: "A nosebag."

"Well, if it is a nosebag, then jump into it!"

And Death instantly jumped straight into the bag. And the soldier, ill as he was, jumped up from his bed, buckled the nosebag together firmly, very tightly, threw it on his shoulder, and went into the Bryánski Woods, the slumbrous forest. And he went there, and he hung this bag on the bitter aspen, on the very top twig, and he went back home.

From that day forward nobody died in that kingdom: they were born, and they kept on being born, and they never died. And very many years went by, and the soldier never took his nosebag down. One day he happened to go into the town. He went, and on his way he met such an old, old lady, so old that on whichever side the wind blew, she inclined. "Oh, what an old lady!" the soldier said. "Why, it is almost time she died."

"Yes, father," the old dame replied. "The time has come and gone long since. At the time when you put Death into the nosebag I had only one hour left in which to live in the white world. I should be very glad to have some rest; but unless I die, earth will not take me up; and you, discharged soldier, are guilty of an unforgivable sin in God's eyes. For there is no single soul left on earth who is tortured as I am."

Then the soldier stayed and began to think. "Yes, yes; it would be better to let Death out; perhaps I, too, might die. And beyond this, too, I have many sins on my conscience. Thus it is better now whilst I am still strong and I bear pain on this earth; for when I shall become very old then it will be all the worse for me to suffer anything."

So he got up and he went up into the Bryánski Woods, and he went up to the aspen, and saw there the nosebag was hanging very high, shaking in the winds to all sides. "Oh, you Death," he says, "are you still alive?"

A faint voice came out of the nosebag: "Yes, father, I am alive."

So the soldier took the nosebag, opened it, and he let out Death.

And he himself lay down on his bed, bade farewell to his wife and son, and he begged Death that he might die. And she[1] ran outside the door with all the strength in her feet. "Go!" she cried. "It is the devils who shall slay you—I shall not slay you!"

So the soldier remained alive and healthy. And he thought: "Shall I go straight into the burning pitch, for then the devils will throw me into the seething sulphur until such time as my sins shall have been melted from off me." And he bade farewell from all, and he went with the knapsack in his hand straight into the burning pitch.

And he went on: may-be near, may-be far, may-be downhill, may-be uphill, may-be short, may-be long; and he at last arrived in the abyss, and he looked, and all round the burning cauldron there stood watchmen. As soon as he stopped at the gate a devil asked who was coming.

"A guilty soul to be tortured."

"Why do you come? What are you carrying with you?"

"Oh, a nosebag."

And the devil shrieked out of his full throat and made a tremendous stir. All the infernal powers roused themselves and looked out of the gates and windows with their unbreakable bolts.

And the soldier went all round the cauldron, and he called out to the master of the cauldron: "Let me in, please; do let me into the cauldron. I have come to you to be tortured for my sins."

"No, I will not let you in. Go away wherever you will—there is no room for you here."

"Well, if you will not let me in to be tortured, at least give me two hundred souls. I will take them up to God, and perhaps the Lord will pardon my faults."

And the master of the cauldron answered: "I will add fifty more souls to the lot; only do go away!" So he instantly ordered two hundred and fifty souls to be counted out and to be taken to the rear gates in order that the soldier might not see him.

So the soldier gathered up the guilty souls, and he went up to the gates of Paradise.

The Apostles saw him, and said to the Lord: "Some soldier or other has come up here with two hundred and fifty souls from hell!"

"Take them into Paradise, but do not let the soldier in."

But the soldier had given up his nosebag to one guilty soul, and had told it: "Just look here. When you enter the gates of Paradise, say at once: 'Soldier, jump into the nosebag!'"

Then the gates of Paradise opened, and the souls began to go in; and this guilty soul also went in, and for sheer joy forgot all about the soldier.

Thus the soldier was left behind, and could not find any home in either place, and for long after that he still had to live and go on living in the white world. And after very many days he died.

This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

  1. Death is feminine in Russian.