Telling Tales 2
The Soldier’s Mistake
There was a soldier in the tsar’s army. In those days, no one signed up to be in the military. The navy would press gang poor men on the docks and life was so hard some sailors left to become pirates. Parents would settle debts by sending their children to the army, and life was no easier there, let me tell you. So it was with our soldier, the child of poor parents who had once been rich. He now worked for the tsar in exchange for his parents’ livelihood. His parents were not good at business, but they had two other children to exchange if they needed.
The soldier learned how to shoot with a gun and slash with a knife. He was no better or worse than any of his comrades. He would not say “friends,” because he did not have many, but he was loyal and hardworking and in this way he was exceptional, for most people who are given in exchange for service are not so generous. , It must be said that he was more considerate of his fellow soldiers than he was to the tsar’s interests, but in this we cannot fault him.
Not all of his fellow soldiers were as good as he, and some of them were better, but in this instance, the soldier was dealing with one of the worse sort. “Listen,” said the other, “the captain wants a guard to stand here along this wall, but we’re not at war. And even if we were, no one would come from this direction.”
“What you say is true,” said our soldier.
“Do you remember when I loaned you food in the fields? When I gave you money for cards? When I shared my shoes so that you would not get blisters?”
“No,” said the soldier, who went to the fields prepared, did not gamble, and took care of his boots.
“You owe me,” went on the first, “but I will forgive you everything if you will stand here for me and finish my watch.”
Of course, our soldier did not owe his comrade, but to stand and finish someone’s watch is not the worst job in the world and he knew that his comrade wanted to skive off and throw the dice. He also knew the time that the captain would be making his rounds and that he would likely catch the other soldier. So when he said, “Very well,” it was not from the purest and most generous of intentions. He took his place along the wall and marched back and forth to keep warm, for it was a chilly night.
On the stroke of midnight, shortly after the cries of the soldiers who had been lashed for gambling faded into the night, the soldier heard a voice. “Psst. Hey, soldier!”
He looked around but could see no person and continued his watch.
“Hey, soldier!” the hoarse voice whispered again. It came from a chink in the mortar in the tower at the end of the wall.
“Yes?” he asked. “Who are you?”
“I have neither slept, nor eaten, nor drank for these thirty years since I was trapped by a mason. Free me, and I shall be your friend.”
“How do I free you?”
“Take out this brick, nothing more,” said the voice.
The soldier pitied the voice. He took his knife and prised away the mortar and pulled and pulled and pulled at the brick. It popped out like a cork, and what followed was the foulest, meanest, ugliest spirit the soldier had ever imagined.
“Now, you will die,” said the spirit.