Category: Short Stories
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"Ilyás" is a short story by Leo Tolstoy written in 1885. It is the story of the farmer, Ilyas, who grew up successful but loses his fortune through mistake, in the end only finding peace without having property.


Leo Tolstoy


In the Government of Ufá there lived a Bashkir, Ilyás. His father had left him no wealth. His father had died a year after he had got his son married. At that time Ilyás had seven mares, two cows, and a score of sheep; but Ilyás was a good master and began to increase his possessions; he worked to his wife from morning until night, got up earlier than anybody, and went to bed later, and grew richer from year to year. Thus Ilyás passed thirty-five years at work, and came to have a vast fortune.

Ilyás finally had two hundred head of horses, 150 cattle, and twelve hundred sheep. Men herded Ilyás’s herds and flocks, and women milked the mares and cows, and made kumys, butter, and cheese. Ilyás had plenty of everything, and in the district everybody envied his life. People said:

“Ilyás is a lucky fellow. He has plenty of everything, — he does not need to die.”

Good people made Ilyás’s friendship and became his friends. And guests came to him from a distance. He received them all, and fed them, and gave them to drink. No matter who came, he received kumys, and tea, and sherbet, and mutton. If guests came to see him, a sheep or two were killed, and if many guests arrived, he had them kill a mare.

Ilyás had two sons and a daughter. He had got them all married. When Ilyás had been poor, his sons had worked with him and had herded the horses and the cattle and the sheep; but when they grew rich, the sons became spoiled, and one of them even began to drink. One of them, the eldest, was killed in a fight, and the other, the younger, had a proud wife, and did not obey his father, and his father had to give him a separate maintenance.

Ilyás gave him a house and cattle, and his own wealth diminished. Soon after a plague fell on Ilyás’s sheep, and many of them died. Then there was a famine year, the hay crop was a failure, and in the winter many head of cattle died. Then the Kirgizes drove off the best herd of horses. And thus Ilyás’s estate grew less, and he fell lower and lower, and his strength began to wane.

When he was seventy years old, he began to sell off his furs, rugs, saddles, and tents, and soon had to sell his last head of cattle, so that he was left without anything. Before he knew it, all was gone, and in his old age he had to go with his wife to live among strangers. All that Ilyás had left of his fortune was what garments he had on his body, a fur coat, a cap, and his morocco slippers and shoes, and his wife, Sham-shemagi, who was now an old woman. The son to whom he had given the property had left for a distant country, and his daughter had died. And so there was nobody to help the old people.

Their neighbour, Muhamedshah, took pity on them. Muhamedshah was neither rich nor poor, and he lived an even life, and was a good man. He remembered Ilyás’s hospitality, and so pitied him, and said to Ilyás:

“Come to live with me, Ilyás, and bring your wife too! In the summer work according to your strength in my truck-garden, and in the winter feed the cattle, and let Sham-shemagi milk the mares and make kumys. I will feed and clothe you and will let you have whatever you may need.”

Ilyás thanked his neighbour, and went to live with his wife as Muhamedshah’s labourers. At first it was hard for them, but soon they got used to the work, and the old people worked according to their strength.

It was profitable for the master to keep these people, for they had been masters themselves and knew all the order and were not lazy, but worked according to their strength; but it pained Muhamedshah to see the well-to-do people brought down so low.

One day distant guests, match-makers, happened to call on Muhamedshah; and the mulla, too, came. Muhamedshah ordered his men to catch a sheep and kill it. Ilyás flayed the sheep and cooked it and sent it in to the guests. They ate the mutton, drank tea, and then started to drink kumys. The guests and the master were sitting on down cushions on the rugs, drinking kumys out of bowls, and talking; but Ilyás got through with his work and walked past the door. When Muhamedshah saw him, he said to a guest:

“Did you see the old man who just went past the door?”

“I did,” said the guest; “but what is there remarkable about him?”

“What is remarkable is that he used to be our richest man. Ilyás is his name; maybe you have heard of him?”

“Of course I have,” said the guest. “I have never seen him, but his fame has gone far abroad.”

“Now he has nothing left, he lives with me as a labourer, and his wife is with him, — she milks the cows.”

The guest was surprised. He clicked with his tongue, shook his head, and said:

“Evidently fortune flies around like a wheel: one it lifts up, another it takes down. Well, does the old man pine?”

“Who knows? He lives quietly and peaceably, and works well.”

Then the guest said:

“May I speak with him? I should like to ask him about his life.”

“Of course you may,” said the master, and he called out of the tent: “Babay!” (This means “grandfather” in the Bashkia language.) “Come in and drink some kumys, and bring your wife with you!”

Ilyás came in with his wife. He exchanged greetings with the guests and with the master, said a prayer, and knelt down at the door; but his wife went to a back curtain and sat down with the mistress.

A bowl of kumys was handed to Ilyás. Ilyás saluted the guests and the master, made a bow, drank a little, and put down the bowl.

“Grandfather,” the guest said to him, “I suppose it makes you feel bad to look at us and think of your former life, considering what fortune you had and how hard your life is now.”

But Ilyás smiled and said:

“If I should tell you about my happiness and unhappiness, you would not believe me, — you had better ask my wife. She is a woman, and what is in her heart is on her tongue: she will tell you all the truth about this matter.”

And the guest spoke to her behind the curtain:

“Well, granny, tell us how you judge about your former happiness and present sorrow.”

And Sham-shemagi spoke from behind the curtain:

“I judge like this: My husband and I lived for fifty years trying to find happiness, and we did not find it; but now it is the second year that we have nothing left and that we live as labourers, and we have found that happiness and need no other.”

The guests were surprised and the master marvelled, and he even got up to throw aside the curtain and to look at the old woman. But the old woman was standing with folded hands, smiling and looking at her husband, and the old man was smiling, too. The old woman said once more:

“I am telling you the truth, without any jest: for half a century we tried to find happiness, and so long as we were rich, we did not find it; now nothing is left, and we are working out, — and we have come to have such happiness that we wish for no other.”

“Wherein does your happiness lie?”

“In this: when we were rich, my husband and I did not have an hour’s rest: we had no time to talk together, to think of our souls, or to pray. We had so many cares! Now guests called on us, — and there were cares about what to treat them to and what presents to make so that they should not misjudge us. When the guests left, we had to look after the labourers: they thought only of resting and having something good to eat, but we cared only about having our property attended to, — and so sinned. Now we were afraid that a wolf would kill a colt or a calf, and now that thieves might drive off a herd. When we lay down to sleep, we could not fall asleep, fearing lest the sheep might crush the lambs. We would get up in the night and walk around; no sooner would we be quieted than we would have a new care, — how to get fodder for the winter. And, worse than that, there was not much agreement between my husband and me. He would say that this had to be done so and so, and I would say differently, and so we began to quarrel, and sin. Thus we lived from one care to another, from one sin to another, and saw no happy life.”

“Well, and now?”

“Now my husband and I get up, speak together peaceably, in agreement, for we have nothing to quarrel about, nothing to worry about, — all the care we have is to serve our master. We work according to our strength, and we work willingly so that our master shall have no loss, but profit. When we come back, dinner is ready, and supper, and kumys. If it is cold, there are dung chips to make a fire with and a fur coat to warm ourselves. For fifty years we looked for happiness, but only now have we found it.”

The guests laughed.

And Ilyás said:

“Do not laugh, brothers! This is not a joke, but a matter of human life. My wife and I were foolish and wept because we had lost our fortune, but now God has revealed the truth to us, and we reveal this truth to you, not for our amusement but for your good.”

And the mulla said:

“That was a wise speech, and Ilyás has told the precise truth, — it is so, too, in Holy Writ.”

And the guests stopped laughing and fell to musing.

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