The Storyteller (1987) s01e01 Episode Script

The Soldier and Death

When people told themselves their past with stories explained their present with stories foretold the future with stories the best place by the fire was kept for The Storyteller.
What's in your bag? I can smell biscuits.
- Imagination.
- Let me see.
Certainly not.
There are important things in this bag.
And besides, I need those biscuits for my story.
Tell your story, then we can eat them.
- Is it an old story? - Ancient.
Stale biscuits then.
It begins 1,000 miles from anywhere.
After 20 years of war, with a soldier, an honest soul with nothing but a shilling in his pocket and three dry biscuits for the long trudge home.
This was his regiment.
The Royal Hussars.
Yes, 1,000 miles the soldier marched whistling his tuneless whistle.
And he spent his shilling and was down to the three dry biscuits when one day, he comes across an old beggar.
And the soldier stopped and joined in with the Beggar's fiddle.
The one couldn't fiddle, the other couldn't whistle and quite happy they both were.
A merry tune.
Isn't it worth a farthing? More, though I can give you nothing.
I do have a biscuit you can have.
Then you're a good man, father, and I'll thank you.
Go on, eat.
You're a good man who deserves a better whistle.
And off the soldier went and took up with his tuneless tune.
But funny, peculiar, and strange indeedy He had a whistle like imagine what rubies would sound like if they whistled.
He kept it up all the way down the road until he met another old boy down on his luck and worn at the edges.
And this old man, he played one, he played knick-knack on his drum.
And the soldier stood and whistled his ruby whistle and did a little jig in his weary boots, a stumble and a-hopping.
And then he swaps a second biscuit.
And now look at his dance.
Yes, a fine Terpsichore good as new, a skip and a hop down the road.
At length he comes to a third old soak worn to a whisper and playing a game of cards by the road.
And the soldier looks as the fellow shuffled the pack and dealt out the cards one after the other, a perfect hand and gave him a huge clap.
- A splendid game.
- Worth a farthing? More, though I have nothing to give you.
Now, the soldier had but a single biscuit in his bag and he was hungry as heck, so he thought on it.
But I have a biscuit you can share with me.
And the soldier held out his last dry biscuit and broke it in two but it didn't feel good, did it, dearies to give the old boy less than the others? So he gave him both halves.
You're a good man.
And deserve more luck than to be on your last biscuit.
Here, take my cards, your honour and may they never lose for you.
Take this sack also an ugly thing, but remarkable.
Order a bird in or a beast or anything you like, and it will be there in a twinkle.
And off he went, a skip and a whistle and a light heart, and an empty sack.
And walked a warm night and a bright day, and came to a river.
Get in my sack.
That's a nice whistle.
I got it off a poor soul down on his luck.
- Home from the war, are you? - Aye.
- With a sack full of spoils? - No.
These are three geese I trapped yesterday.
I want one for my supper.
If you'll cook it for me and give me a bed, you can have the other two.
I like a nice bird.
Be sure to bring back the sack.
And the landlord roasted him the goose in clove and honey and brought it back with a bottle of best wine and the soldier ate it all and sucked the bones and drank the wine, and danced until the morning when he sank, swam flopped into bed.
Three days later, he woke up and looked out of the window.
And there on the hill, he saw a palace.
I thought I heard you.
Slept well, soldier? Not bad.
Whose palace is that? - And why are the windows all smashed? - That's the Tsar's palace.
Was once a place of waltzes and chandeliers and fabulous parties.
Now the devils have it for their card games.
- Devils? - Devils.
Every night they tumble in and scream and shout, and play at cards.
No decent folk go near, they are so devilish.
That's a nice palace.
Someone should deal with those devils.
An army tried.
In the morning, there was nothing left but shadows, and that's the truth.
These are devilish devils and gamblers, too.
- I think I'll take a closer look.
- That's folly.
Folly or not, the soldier goes sack on his shoulder, whistle on his lips into the palace.
And inside, it's very quiet as if the walls were holding their breath and waiting.
We have a visitor.
A guest.
- And he's whistling.
- That's a nice whistle.
- I want to have it.
- Hello.
I hear you like a game of cards.
So - What shall we play for? - His soul? His whistle.
His teeth.
I collect teeth.
Fair enough.
And what will you stake? We've got 40 barrels of gold.
Any good? Very good.
Fetch the coffers.
Let's play then.
And with that they settled down to business.
The soldier dealt the cards and won.
My round, I think.
And won again.
- Is he cheating? - Well, I am.
And I'm still losing.
- Me, too.
- Deal again.
And he did, and he won.
And the devils got into the kind of fume only devils can get in.
He won game after game while the devils cheated to high heaven and low hell, to no avail.
By the first bells of morning the 40 barrels of gold were stacked behind the chair of the soldier who whistled as he won.
Well, my friends I suppose we'd better call it a day.
No, we will not.
We will call it a breakfast and you the meal! First make sure who eats whom.
- What do you call this? - It's a sack.
- Just a sack.
-Is it? Then, by the grace of God, get in it.
- More? - No! - Have mercy.
- Let us out and we promise never to return.
Will that be the end of your mischief in these parts? Let us out, please.
We're bashed to bits.
Let me go.
I won't let you go, my boy, until you swear to serve me faithfully.
- I swear.
- I'll hold you to your promise.
Hey, my foot's come off.
That's right.
Now off you go and remember where you left it.
The devils rushed to hell and slammed the doors for fear of being followed by the soldier and his sack.
And they trembled and quivered and fumed.
But the soldier had no time for devils.
He was the toast of the town and the star of the Tsar.
Howsoever life smiles on us the last laugh is reserved for death.
Yes everything is dandy with our friend the good soldier and his magic sack.
Rewarded by the Tsar, he's a rich gentleman now a husband and a father.
Lives in the castle.
Blessed, caressed and couldn't be better.
Until one day because fate is fickle one day, because fortune is cruel his son falls into a terrible fever.
He's worse.
And they calls for quacks and apothecaries and healers and soon the boy's room is full with grey beards and shaking of heads.
But still the fever rages and the boy passes into a swoon.
And, oh, dear, the grey beards are replaced by priests mumbling and praying.
And a man in black comes to measure a coffin.
What shall we do? My lips are sore with praying and my knees are weary of kneeling.
And I have lost my whistle from worrying.
It's the very devil, I say.
The very devil.
Now, where the devil's that devil of mine? - I'm here, Your Excellency.
- Where've you sprung from? Not so much sprung, as hopped, sir.
You have my foot.
Cure my son and you can have it back.
This is my good wife, by the way, and this is my devil.
How do you do? - How do you do? - Yes, I saw your son was ill.
Let me have a look at him.
Look in here, Your Excellency.
I see a small creature.
That's Death, Excellency.
Where does he stand? At my son's feet.
He will recover.
It's when he comes to the head you must worry.
Now, sprinkle some of the water from the glass on your child.
You're a marvel.
We do our best.
- Could I have my foot back then? - Most certainly.
Thank you.
Will there be anything else, sir? Give me that glass and I'll release you from your promise.
Really? Thank you.
Quite nice, black flowers.
And so the soldier set up in his new trade as miracle man, and travelled the world on a camel with his magic glass.
Show him a sick man and he would hold up the glass.
If Death sat at the foot of the bed a quick splish-splash, and up the invalid would sit pouring out blessings.
If death stood staring at the other end the soldier would shake his head solemnly and depart and the relatives would mutter, "What a pity he came too late.
" And pay him all the same.
But as often as not he left with all happy and amazed and praising him.
And it went well for the soldier until one day far from anywhere, he gets a message from home to say the old Tsar has fallen ill and sends for him.
I've come too late.
You save beggars and thieves and cats and dogs.
Yet you won't save your master.
If Death needs a new friend I cannot fight him.
Then let me go in his place.
The Tsar has been my friend and father.
If anyone should go it should be me.
Sir take me and spare the Tsar, I beg you.
Praise be.
Praise be.
Husband, is it all up with you? Do you know what this is? A sack.
If this is a sack then get in it.
I caught Death in my sack! Wife.
Do you see? I've caught Death in my sack! What about that? Good, eh? Death, a prisoner.
The news, whispered from one of the Tsar's 50 wives to the other spread through the town as fast as gossip.
Which is what it was and nothing spreads faster.
And within four and a half minutes the whole town knew.
And within 17 minutes the whole country knew.
And by the following morning it was the talking point of a 1,000 languages.
Death, a prisoner.
I forgot the Greek.
And the soldier, to be on the safe side, set off with Death in his sack and found the thickest forest and the highest tree and clambered up it and hung Death from the longest branch and promptly fell off.
But there's nothing like death off duty to cushion a fall.
So nothing died? Nothing.
The oddest battles.
There were wars going on in most places and they were very strange.
At the end of a day's carnage, flashing swords, and explosions the air thick with arrows and savage swoosh of axes nobody had died.
The armies would look at each other, exhausted and intact.
Duels at dawn went on till midnight when the rivals would go home confused.
Crossed lovers would throw themselves off cliffs and have a long climb back.
And my friend the soldier was the most famous man in the world because suddenly everyone could live for ever.
He sat in his palace and whistled his ruby whistle.
And then, one day, looking down from his window he sees his courtyard full of poor souls wandering old scrags of folk barely held together.
They were waiting, waiting for death for death's release and it would not come.
And the soldier could not bear their sorrow.
Back he went to the forest.
Death? I've led you a merry dance but now you must have me and set the world to rights.
Come back.
But Death had fear of the soldier and his sack and would not come back.
He was condemned to watch while others aged and died but Death would not come for him.
No, the soldier old kipper, dried beef lived on and on and on, until he could stand it no longer.
And dragged his dust and fragments across to the edge of the earth and slowly down to hell.
Yes? A sinful soul comes to surrender his life.
What's that you're carrying? Nothing, an old sack.
A sack! Let me in.
I beg you.
Go away.
Go on.
And take that horrible sack with you.
But where can I go? We don't care, just jigger off.
I won't go unless you give me a map to heaven and a way in.
And 200 souls you've no further use for.
- Do you know what this is? - Don't wave that sack around.
All right, 200.
Follow the map until you can go no further and then go directly up until you get the sensation of standing on your head.
That's the edge of heaven.
After that follow the church music.
Who approaches the gates of heaven? I am the soldier who took Death prisoner and I have brought 200 souls from hell in the hope that God will forgive me, and let me in with them.
The souls may enter but alone.
Go then and be blessed.
Take this, friend and once inside call me into the sack.
Remember, I delivered you from the furnace.
But you see, there is no memory in heaven.
Souls forget.
The soldier waited and waited, an inch from paradise.
Until after a long time forgotten he turned and walked slowly back to earth.
And for all I know, he wanders still.
So sad.
No, he is a rare boy, my friend, the soldier.
He's somewhere, about his business.
You sure? Come on.
You can have your biscuit.
- Do you know what this is? - A sack.
Well, if it's a sack, then get in it.
Just checking.