203) Ilyas and His Wife (part one)

ILYAS, a short story by Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)

     There once lived, in the Government of Oufá a Bashkír named Ilyás.  His father, who died a year after he had found his son a wife, did not leave him much property.  Ilyás then had only seven mares, two cows, and about a score of sheep.  He was a good manager, however, and soon began to acquire more.  He and his wife worked from morn till night; rising earlier than others and going later to bed; and his possessions increased year by year.  Living in this way, Ilyás little by little acquired great wealth.  At the end of thirty-five years he had 200 horses, 150 head of cattle, and 1,200 sheep.  Hired laborers tended his flocks and herds, and hired women milked his mares and cows, and made kumiss (Kumiss is a fermented drink prepared from mare’s milk), butter and cheese.  Ilyás had abundance of everything, and every one in the district envied him.  They said of him: ‘Ilyás is a fortunate man: he has plenty of everything.  This world must be a pleasant place for him.’

     People of position heard of Ilyás and sought his acquaintance.  Visitors came to him from afar; and he welcomed every one, and gave them food and drink.  Whoever might come, there was always kumiss, tea, sherbet, and mutton to set before them.  Whenever visitors arrived a sheep would be killed, or sometimes two; and if many guests came he would even slaughter a mare for them.

     Ilyás had three children:  two sons and a daughter; and he married them all off.  While he was poor, his sons worked with him, and looked after the flocks and herds themselves; but when he grew rich they got spoiled and one of them took to drink.  The eldest was killed in a brawl; and the younger, who had married a self-willed woman, ceased to obey his father, and they could not live together any more.  So they parted, and Ilyás gave his son a house and some of the cattle; and this diminished his wealth.  Soon after that, a disease broke out among Ilyás’s sheep, and many died.  Then followed a bad harvest, and the hay crop failed; and many cattle died that winter.  Then the Kirghíz captured his best herd of horses; and Ilyás’s property dwindled away.  It became smaller and smaller, while at the same time his strength grew less; till, by the time he was seventy years old, he had begun to sell his furs, carpets, saddles, and tents.  At last he had to part with his remaining cattle, and found himself face to face with want.  Before he knew how it had happened, he had lost everything, and in their old age he and his wife had to go into service.  Ilyás had nothing left, except the clothes on his back, a fur cloak, a cup, his indoor shoes and overshoes, and his wife, Sham-Shemagi, who also was old by this time.  The son who had parted from him had gone into a far country, and his daughter was dead, so that there was no one to help the old couple.

     Their neighbor, Muhammad-Shah, took pity on them.  Muhammad-Shah was neither rich nor poor, but lived comfortably, and was a good man.  He remembered Ilyás’s hospitality, and pitying him, said:  ‘Come and live with me, Ilyás, you and your old woman.  In summer you can work in my melon-garden as much as your strength allows, and in winter feed my cattle; and Sham-Shemagi shall milk my mares and make kumiss.  I will feed and clothe you both.  When you need anything, tell me, and you shall have it.’

     Ilyás thanked his neighbor, and he and his wife took service with Muhammad-Shah as laborers.  At first the position seemed hard to them, but they got used to it, and lived on, working as much as their strength allowed.  Muhammad-Shah found it was to his advantage to keep such people, because, having been masters themselves, they knew how to manage and were not lazy, but did all the work they could.  Yet it grieved Muhammad-Shah to see people brought so low who had been of such high standing.

     It happened once that some of Muhammad-Shah’s relatives came from a great distance to visit him, and a Mullah came too.  Muhammad-Shah told Ilyás to catch a sheep and kill it.  Ilyás skinned the sheep, and boiled it, and sent it in to the guests.  The guests ate the mutton, had some tea, and then began drinking kumiss.  As they were sitting with their host on down cushions on a carpet, conversing and sipping kumiss from their cups, Ilyás, having finished his work passed by the open door.  Muhammad-Shah, seeing him pass, said to one of the guests:  ‘Did you notice that old man who passed just now?’

     ‘Yes,’ said the visitor, ‘what is there remarkable about him?’

     ‘Only this — that he was once the richest man among us,’ replied the host.  ‘His name is Ilyás.  You may have heard of him.’

     ‘Of course I have heard of him,’ the guest answered.   ‘I never saw him before, but his fame has spread far and wide.’

     ‘Yes, and now he has nothing left,’ said Muhammad-Shah, ‘and he lives with me as my laborer, and his old woman is here too — she milks the mares.’

     The guest was astonished:  he clicked with his tongue, shook his head, and said:  ‘Fortune turns like a wheel.  One man it lifts, another it sets down!  Does not the old man grieve over all he has lost?’

     ‘Who can tell.  He lives quietly and peacefully, and works well.’

     ‘May I speak to him?’ asked the guest.   (to be concluded in tomorrow’s meditation…)


Ecclesiastes 7:10  —  Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?”  For it is not wise to ask such questions. 

Ecclesiastes 2:18-19  —  I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me.  And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool?  Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun.  This too is meaningless.

Proverbs 10:25  —  When the storm has swept by, the wicked are gone, but the righteous stand firm forever.


O God, who by the meek endurance of your Son beat down the pride of the old enemy:  Help us, we pray, rightly to treasure in our hearts what our Lord has, of his goodness, endured for our sakes; that after his example, we may bear with patience whatsoever things are adverse to us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.   —Book of Common Prayer, (alt.)