The Two Old Men
1:02 h Short Stories Lvl 4.5
"Two Old Men" ("Два старика") is a short story by Leo Tolstoy written in 1885. It is a religious piece that was translated to English by Leo Wiener in 1904. It is the story of Efim and Elisha, two neighbors who decide to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem before dying.

The Two Old Men

Leo Tolstoy

The Two Old Men

Therefore, being wearied with his journey, sat thus on the well: and it was about the sixth hour. There cometh a woman of Samaria to draw water: Jesus saith unto her, Give me to drink. (For his disciples were gone away unto the city to buy meat.) Then saith the woman of Samaria unto him, How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans. Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, for the Father seeketh such to worship him. (John iv. 19-23.)


Two old men got ready to go to old Jerusalem to pray to God. One of them was a rich peasant; his name was Efím Tarásych Shevelév. The other was not a well-to-do man, and his name was Eliséy Bodróv.

Efím was a steady man: he did not drink liquor, nor smoke tobacco, nor take snuff, had never cursed in his life, and was a stern, firm old man. He had served two terms as an elder, and had gone out of his office without a deficit. He had a large family, — two sons and a married grandson, — and all lived together. As to looks he was a sound, bearded, erect man, and only in his seventh decade did a gray streak appear in his beard.

Eliséy was neither wealthy nor poor; in former days he used to work out as a carpenter, but in his old age he stayed at home and kept bees. One son was away earning money, and another was living at home. Eliséy was a good-natured and merry man. He liked to drink liquor and take snuff, and sing songs; but he was a peaceable man, and lived in friendship with his home folk and with the neighbours. In appearance he was an undersized, swarthy man, with a curly beard and, like his saint, Prophet Elisha, his whole head was bald.

The old men had long ago made the vow and agreed to go together, but Tarásych had had no time before: he had so much business on hand. The moment one thing came to an end, another began; now he had to get his grandson married, now he was expecting his younger son back from the army, and now he had to build him a new hut.

On a holiday the two old men once met, and they sat down on logs.

“Well,” said Eliséy, “when are we going to carry out our vow?”

Efím frowned.

“We shall have to wait,” he said, “for this is a hard year for me. I have started to build a house, — I thought I could do it with one hundred, but it is going on now in the third. And still it is not done. We shall have to let it go till summer. In the summer, God willing, we shall go by all means.”

“According to my understanding,” said Eliséy, “there is no sense in delaying. We ought to go at once. Spring is the best time.”

“The time is all right, but the work is begun, so how can I drop it?”

“Have you nobody to attend to it? Your son will do it.”

“Do it? My eldest is not reliable, — he drinks.”

“When we die, friend, they will get along without us. Let your son learn it!”

“That is so, but still I want to see things done under my eyes.”

“Oh, dear man! You can never attend to everything. The other day the women in my house were washing and cleaning up for the holidays. This and that had to be done, and everything could not be looked after. My eldest daughter-in-law, a clever woman, said: ‘It is a lucky thing the holidays come without waiting for us, for else, no matter how much we might work, we should never get done.’”

Tarásych fell to musing.

“I have spent a great deal of money on this building,” he said, “and I can’t start out on the pilgrimage with empty hands. One hundred roubles are not a trifling matter.”

Eliséy laughed.

“Don’t sin, friend!” he said. “You have ten times as much as I, and yet you talk about money. Only say when we shall start. I have no money, but that will be all right.”

Tarásych smiled.

“What a rich man you are!” he said. “Where shall you get the money from?”

“I will scratch around in the house and will get together some there; and if that is not enough, I will let my neighbour have ten hives. He has been asking me for them.”

“You will have a fine swarm! You will be worrying about it.”

“Worrying? No, my friend! I have never worried about anything in life but sins. There is nothing more precious than the soul.”

“That is so; but still, it is not good if things do not run right at home.”

“If things do not run right in our soul, it is worse. We have made a vow, so let us go! Truly, let us go!”


Eliséy persuaded his friend to go. Efím thought and thought about it, and on the following morning he came to Eliséy.

“Well, let us go,” he said, “you have spoken rightly. God controls life and death. We must go while we are alive and have strength.”

A week later the old men started.

Tarásych had money at home. He took one hundred roubles with him and left two hundred with his wife.

Eliséy, too, got ready. He sold his neighbour ten hives and the increase of ten other hives. For the whole he received seventy roubles. The remaining thirty roubles he swept up from everybody in the house. His wife gave him the last she had, — she had put it away for her funeral; his daughter-in-law gave him what she had.

Efím Tarásych left all his affairs in the hands of his eldest son: he told him where to mow, and how many fields to mow, and where to haul the manure, and how to finish the hut and thatch it. He considered everything, and gave his orders. But all the order that Eliséy gave was that his wife should set out the young brood separately from the hives sold and give the neighbour what belonged to him without cheating him, but about domestic affairs he did not even speak: “The needs themselves,” he thought, “will show you what to do and how to do it. You have been farming yourselves, so you will do as seems best to you.”

The old men got ready. The home folk baked a lot of flat cakes for them, and they made wallets for themselves, cut out new leg-rags, put on new short boots, took reserve bast shoes, and started. The home folk saw them off beyond the enclosure and bade them good-bye, and the old men were off for their pilgrimage.

Eliséy left in a happy mood, and as soon as he left his village he forgot all his affairs. All the care he had was how to please his companion, how to keep from saying an unseemly word to anybody, how to reach the goal in peace and love, and how to get home again. As Eliséy walked along the road he either muttered some prayer or repeated such of the lives of the saints as he knew. Whenever he met a person on the road, or when he came to a hostelry, he tried to be as kind to everybody as he could, and to say to them God-fearing words. He walked along and was happy. There was only one thing Eliséy could not do: he wanted to stop taking snuff and had left his snuff-box at home, but he hankered for it. On the road a man offered him some. He wrangled with himself and stepped away from his companion so as not to lead him into sin, and took a pinch.

Efím Tarásych walked firmly and well; he did no wrong and spoke no vain words, but there was no lightness in his heart. The cares about his home did not leave his mind. He was thinking all the time about what was going on at home, — whether he had not forgotten to give his son some order, and whether his son was doing things in the right way. When he saw along the road that they were setting out potatoes or hauling manure, he wondered whether his son was doing as he had been ordered. He just felt like returning, and showing him what to do, and doing it himself.


The old men walked for live weeks. They wore out their home-made bast shoes and began to buy new ones. They reached the country of the Little-Russians. Heretofore they had been paying for their night’s lodging and for their dinner, but when they came to the Little-Russians, people vied with each other in inviting them to their houses. They let them come in, and fed them, and took no money from them, but even filled their wallets with bread, and now and then with flat cakes. Thus the old men walked without expense some seven hundred versts. They crossed another Government and came to a place where there had been a failure of crops. There they let them into the houses and did not take any money for their night’s lodging, but would not feed them. And they did not give them bread everywhere, — not even for money could the old men get any in some places. The previous year, so the people said, nothing had grown. Those who had been rich were ruined, — they sold everything; those who had lived in comfort came down to nothing; and the poor people either entirely left the country, or turned beggars, or just managed to exist at home. In the winter they lived on chaff and orach.

One night the two old men stayed in a borough. There they bought about fifteen pounds of bread. In the morning they left before daybreak, so that they might walk a good distance before the heat. They marched some ten versts and reached a brook. They sat down, filled their cups with water, softened the bread with it and ate it, and changed their leg-rags. They sat awhile and rested themselves. Eliséy took out his snuff-horn. Efím Tarásych shook his head at him.

“Why don’t you throw away that nasty thing?” he asked.

Eliséy waved his hand.

“Sin has overpowered me,” he said. “What shall I do?”

They got up and marched on. They walked another ten versts. They came to a large village, and passed through it. It was quite warm then. Eliséy was tired, and wanted to stop and get a drink, but Tarásych would not stop. Tarásych was a better walker, and Eliséy had a hard time keeping up with him.

“I should like to get a drink,” he said.

“Well, drink! I do not want any.”

Eliséy stopped.

“Do not wait for me,” he said. “I will just run into a hut and get a drink of water. I will catch up with you at once.”

“All right,” he said. And Efím Tarásych proceeded by himself along the road, while Eliséy turned to go into a hut.

Eliséy came up to the hut. It was a small clay cabin; the lower part was black, the upper white, and the clay had long ago crumbled off, — evidently it had not been plastered for a long time, — and the roof was open at one end. The entrance was from the yard. Eliséy stepped into the yard, and there saw that a lean, beardless man with his shirt stuck in his trousers in Little-Russian fashion was lying near the earth mound. The man had evidently lain down in a cool spot, but now the sun was burning down upon him. He was lying there awake. Eliséy called out to him, asking him to give him a drink, but the man made no reply. “He is either sick, or an unkind man,” thought Eliséy, going up to the door. Inside he heard a child crying. He knocked with the door-ring. “Good people!” No answer. He struck with his staff against the door. “Christian people!” No stir. “Servants of the Lord!” No reply. Eliséy was on the point of going away, when he heard somebody groaning within. “I wonder whether some misfortune has happened there to the people. I must see.” And Eliséy went into the hut.


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