The old soldier leaned against his spear and looked down at the young recruits.
“Right then, men,” he barked. “We have discussed the dangers of swordplay, chariot wheels and Philistine giants. But there is one final danger that I need to make you aware of. A danger that may well make the difference between you surviving the next battle or meeting an untimely end. And that, lads, is the danger of going to the toilet.”
The recruits looked round at one another, trying hard not to giggle.
The old soldier had seen this before.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “And, yes, laughing at my remarks would also be dangerous. For, as you will see, this is no laughing matter.”
He fixed each of them with a serious look and carried on.
“There are considerable dangers. Perhaps one of you could offer an example.”
The recruits sat in silence, thinking. Then one of them put up his hand.
“There is the potential for great danger, sir, if one chooses the wrong kind of leaf to… er… you know… wipe. My brother did that once, sir, with a poisonous ivy, and he was unable to sit for days. He couldn’t bear to ride a horse, either. And if he had been a soldier, the constant itching might well have distracted him from what he had to do in battle.”
“Well answered,” said the old soldier. “But there is a danger even greater than the choice of leaf or stick or bark. And that, lads, is the choice of location. To put it simply, where one chooses to do one’s business can mean the difference between life and death.”
The old soldier stood tall, for a moment, as if he was remembering some noble past battle.
“I had the privilege of serving with our good King David before he took his throne,” he said.
The recruits gasped in amazement.
“Saul was king in those days. He was jealous of David’s victories and feared that David would, one day, replace him. So he and his army pursued David across the land.
“Saul received word that we were in the desert of En Gedi, so he and 3,000 of his men came looking for us.
“We were hiding in a cave, right at the back, hoping they wouldn’t find us there. That’s when the unthinkable happened. King Saul himself walked into that cave!
“We were sure that his army would follow him, certain that they would discover us. Every man had a hand on his sword. The tension was unbearable.
“And then King Saul took off his robe and answered the call of nature.”
The recruits tried to contain themselves. Their faces turned red as they choked back the laughter. But the old soldier wasn’t smiling. He simply returned to his tale.
“Slowly, carefully, silently, David drew his sword. One of my fellow soldiers whispered, ‘God promised that he would deliver your enemy into your hand. And this is the day!’
“David crept up behind Saul and raised his sword. We thought he was going to strike Saul down, but he sliced off the corner of Saul’s robe and crept quietly back to us.
“‘That was your chance!’ we whispered. Every one of us volunteered to finish him off, but David just shook his head.
“‘No,’ he said. ‘Saul is still God’s anointed king. I shouldn’t even have cut off that piece of his robe.’
“Now, personally, lads, I thought that was a load of... well... poo. But David was my commander and I was there to follow his orders. So I did.
“Saul finished his business, put on his robe and left. David followed at a distance, and when Saul was well on his way David held the piece of robe in the air and called to him.
“‘King Saul!’ he cried. ‘They say that I want you dead. But look, here is the corner of your robe. I cut it off while you were in the cave. And I could have cut your throat, as well, if I was the man you think I am. But I’m not. And I’m happy to let God sort things out between us. So hurt me all you want. I shall not lift a finger against you.’”
“What did Saul do?” asked one of the recruits. “Did he send his 3,000 men after you?”
“Do you think I would be standing here if he had?” the old soldier grinned. “No, I believe that Saul was genuinely moved by David’s words. Saul wept. That’s what he did. He admitted that David had treated him with kindness in return for his hatred. He accepted that David would one day be king. And he asked David to spare his family when he died. Then off he went, defeated not by David’s sword but by his mercy.”
Then the old soldier reached into the bag that hung from his side.
“You won’t read this in any of the accounts,’ he said, ‘but David left those of us closest to him with a little souvenir of that day.”
He pulled out a shiny bit of cloth.
“Is that the...?” asked one of the recruits.
“A tiny bit,” the old soldier nodded. “And a reminder. A reminder that mercy is more powerful than murder.”
Then, at last, he smiled.
“And that you’d better be careful where you go to the toilet.”