A Man of Weight or Chasing out the Devil

( by Nikolay Leskov, 1879.
Abridged. )

( by Petr Shmelkov )

The ritual of chasing out the devil can be observed nowhere else than in Moscow, and then only if you have particularly good luck and special patronage.

I witnessed it from beginning to end thanks to a fortunate concurrence of circumstances, and I wish to record it for the benefit of those who really know and love the serious and sublime aspects of our national customs.

Although on my father’s side I come of gentry stock, on the other side I am close to the ‘people’: my mother’s family were merchants. She came of a wealthy household, but fell in love with my father and eloped with him. My late father was a ladies’ man, and if he set his cap at a girl, usually got his way. So it was with mama, but her parents paid him back for his artfulness by giving her nothing, apart, that is, from a trousseau, some bed linen and the wish that God might show her mercy – all of which she received together with their forgiveness and eternal blessing. My folk lived in Oryol, poorly but proudly, asking no favours of their rich relatives on my mother’s side, indeed having nothing to do with them at all. However, when the time came for me to go to university, mama began to urge me:

“Do go and visit Uncle Ilya Fedoseyevich, and send him my greetings. Don’t think of it as an indignity; one should respect one’s elderly relatives, and he is my brother, a devout man, and a man of weight in Moscow. He is unfailingly hospitable – always goes out first to meet his guests with a dish of bread and salt or an icon, and he has been received by the Governor-General in the company of the Metropolitan… There’s all sorts of useful lessons you could learn from him.”…

I had learned as a child to respect my elders, especially those who hobnobbed both with the Metropolitan and with Governor-Generals. So I roused myself, brushed myself down, and set off to visit Uncle Ilya Fedoseyevich…

I entered the courtyeard: by the front door horses were waiting, regular lions of horses, jet-black, with flowing manes and coats shining like the finest satin; they were harnessed to a carriage.

I climbed the steps to the porch and said my piece: nephew, student, kindly announce to Ilya Fedoseyevich, etc. The servants replied: “The master will be down himself in a moment: he is going for a drive.”

There emerged a very simple, Russian figure of a man, but rather grand; his eyes were very like my mother’s, but the expression was quite different – very much that of what is known as “a man of weight”.

I introduced myself. He heard me out in silence, quietly gave me his hand and said: “Get in, let’s take a drive.”

My first instinct was to refuse, but I somehow faltered and got into the carriage.

“To the park!” he ordered.

Our ‘lions’ immediately jerked forward and set off briskly, setting the back of the carriage gently bouncing up and down: when we left the city behind, they broke into an even sharper pace.

We sat without exchanging a word, but I noticed that my uncle had tipped his top-hat forward over his forehead, and his face wore the sort of pained expression one associates with acute boredom.

He kept looking about him, then fired a glance at me, and out of the blue said:

“I’ve lost all taste of life.”

I could think of no reply to that, so kept silent.

We drove on. I thought: “Where is he taking me?” I began to get the feeling that I had perhaps chanced upon something very interesting.

My uncle meanwhile, as though he had suddenly seen a light, began firing a series of rapid orders at the coachman:

‘To the right; now left. Pull up by the Yar!”

Before my eyes, the staff of the restaurant poured out to meet us, and began bowing and scraping before my uncle. He, without stirring from his seat, sent for the proprietor. Someone ran off to fetch him. A Frenchman appeared, likewise oozing respect. My uncle, still without stirring, tapped his teeth with the ivory knob of his cane and said:

“How many outsiders?”

“Thirty or so in the dining rooms,” replied the Frenchman, “and three private rooms are in use.”

“Get rid of the lot of them!”

“Yes, sir.”

“It’s now seven,” said my uncle, glancing at his watch. “I’ll be back at eight. Will you be ready?”

“No,” came the reply. “Eight will be difficult… many of them have ordered… but if you would care to come back at nine, the whole restaurant will be cleared.”

“Good.”

“What shall I provide?”

“Gypsies, of course.”

“And?”

“An orchestra.”

“One?”

“Better two.”

“Shall I send for Ryabyka?”

“Of course.”

“French ladies?”

“No!”

“Wines?”

“The lot.”

“And food?”

“Give me the menu!”

The carte du jour was handed to my uncle.

He studied it, apparently without understanding a word, or maybe he had no wish to understand. He tapped the menu with his cane and said:

“All of it – for a hundred persons.”

With that, he rolled up the menu and tucked it into his caftan.

The Frenchman, despite his delight, hesitated.

“I can’t manage everything for a hundred people. Some of the dishes are so expensive that I don’t have enough in the restaurant for more than five or six portions.”

“Well, you can’t expect me to treat some of my guests differently from others. Give all of them what they want. Understood?”

“Understood.”

“Otherwise, my firend, even Ryabyka won’t be able to do anything about it. Drive on!”

Our carriage rolled off, leaving the propiretor and his staff standing at the door.

At this point I became finally convinced that I was completely out of my depth, and made a half-hearted effort to take my leave; but my uncle wasn’t listening. He was very preoccupied. As we drove along we kept stopping people, one after the other; to each of them my uncle said briefly: “Nine o’clock at the Yar.” And every single person he said thsi to – respectable-looking old fellows, the lot of them – doffed his hat and replied, equally laconically: “Delighted, Fedoseyich, delighted.”

I don’t recall precisely how many people we stopped in this way – about twenty, I should think – by which time it was nine o’clock and we were rolling up to the Yar once again. A whole crowd of servants tumbled out to meet us: they gave my uncle an arm on both sides, while the Frenchman waited in the porch to bruch the dust from his trousers with a napkin.

“Have they all gone?” my uncle asked.

“There’s one general,” the restaurateur replied, “Who’s a bit slow, and has specially asked to be allowed to fis\nish his meal in his private room.”

“Out with him at once!”

“He’ll finish very soon.”

“I don’t want him here; I gave him time enough, he can go and finish out on the grass.”

It’s hard to say how this might have ended: fortunately, at that moment the general emerged, accompanied by two ladies, got into a carriage and drove off, just as the guests to whom my uncle had issued invitations in the park began to arrive at the door.

The restaurant was clean, tidy, and empty of clientele. In one of the rooms, however, a giant of a man was sitting; he greeted my uncle without a word, took his cane, and put it away somewhere.

My uncle surrendered the cane without demur, and at the same time handed over to the giant his wallet and his purse.

This massive, greying figure was none other than Ryabyka, the subject of my uncle’s order to the restaurateur – an order which at the time I did not understand. By profession Ryabyka was some sort of ‘schoolteacher’, but he clearly had some particular function here too: he was every bit as necessary as the gypsies, the orchestra and the rest of the paraphernalia, which had appeared as if by magic, and complete to the last detail. I couldn’t fathom the role of this schoolteacher, but I still had a lot to learn.

The brightly lit restaurant was abuzz with activity: music blared, gypsies strolled about, picking up drinks and a bite to eatfrom the buffet. My uncle was inspecting the dining rooms, the garden, the grotto and the gallery, looking for ‘outsiders’. With him went his inseparable companion, the schoolteacher. When they returned to the main hall, however, where the guests were assembled, it was easy to detect a considerable difference between them: their tour of the premises had not affected them equally: for whereas the teacher was as sober as when they had set out, my uncle was completely drunk.

How this could have happened so quickly is a mystery: still, my uncle was in fine spirits. He sat down in the place of honour and the festivities began.

The doors were locked, and as far as the outside world was concerned the order was given: “Let no man cross thence hither, not thither hence.” Between the outside world and ourselves a chasm yawned – a chasm of abundance, of wine and food, above all of revelry; I do not mean debauch, but wild, furious revelry, such as I cannot find words to describe. It would, in any case, be pointless to ask that of me, since, seeing myself trapped here in isolation from the world, I took fright and hastened to get drunk too. I will therefore give no account of the events of that night, because it is beyon the power of my pen to describe it all; I recall only two moments of the battle and its finale – but it was these moments that largely accounted for the sense of awe I felt.

Someone came to say that a certain Ivan Stepanovich was at the door – I subsequently discovered that he was one of Moscow’s leading factory-owners and merchants.

This caused a slight interruption.

“I said, did I not, that no one was to be admitted,” was my uncle’s response.

“His honour is very insistent.”

“Tell him to clear off back to wherever he came from.”

The servant went away, but timidly returned.

“Ivan Stepanovich,” he said, “asked me to tell you that he begs you most humbly to admit him.”

“No, I don’t want him.”

One or two of the others said: “Let him pay a fine.”

“No, send him packing. I’m not interested in fines.”

The servant came back once more and even more timidly announced.

“His honour is prepared to pay any fine you like: it’s just that his honour says it’s very sad for him, at his age, not to keep pace with his fellows.”

My uncle rose to his feet, eyes flashing. At this moment Ryabyka also stood up, towering between my uncle and the servant. With his left hand he tossed the latter to one side, as though plucking a feather from a chicken; with his right hand he eased my uncle back on to his chair.

From among the guests voices were raised in support of Ivan Stepanovich: they asked that he be admitted on payment of a hundered roubles for the musicians.

“The old fellow is one of us, he’s a pious man, how can we turn him away? He might feel rejected and cause a scene in front of the common folk. We should take pity of him.”

My uncle listened carefully and said:

“If it can’t be done my way, it won’t be done your way either. Let is be done God’s way. I’ll let Ivan Stepanovich in, but only if he plays the kettle-drum.”

A messenger was despatched and returned with the words:

“His honour asks that you should rather make him pay a fine.”

“He can go to the devil! If he won’t play the drum, it’s up to him – he can clear off wherever he pleases.”

It wasn’t long before Ivan Stepanovich gave in and sent to say that he agreed to play the kettle-drum.

“Let him in.”

The man who entered was trying hard to put on an imposing and dignified air. His appearance was austere, his eyes lacklustre, his back bent, his beard unkempt and streaked with green. He made as if to exchange greetings and pleasantries with the company, but was quickly checked.

“Later, later, we’ll have that later,” my uncle shouted at him, ” but now, beat your drum.”

“Beat your drum!” the others chorused.

“Give us some music – for the ketttle-drum!”

The orchestra struck up something noisy. Our stately old man took up the wooden drumsticks and began beating the kettledrum, half in time, half out of time with the music.

The shouting and the din were positively infernal. The whole company was yelling in delight:

“Louder!”

Ivan Stepanovich did his best to drum harder.

“Louder, louder, still louder!”

The old man hammered for all he was worth, like the Moorish king in Freiligrath’s poem, and finally things reached their desired climax. The drum emitted a desperate rending sound, the drumskin split, everyone burst into laughter, the din reached unimaginable proportions, and Ivan Stepanovich was fined five hundred roubles to compensate the musicians for the ruined drum.

He paid up, wiped his mouth, and sat down. Only then, as everyone was drinking his health, did he notice, to his considerable dismay, that his own son-in-law was sitting among the guests.

The laughter and the din started up again and went on until I finally srifted into a stupor. I remembered in my few lucid moments seeing the gypsy girls dancing, and my uncle sitting in his chair, jerking his legs in time to the music. Then he got up to confront someone, but the figure of Ryabyka immediately rose to separate them, and someone was sent flying, and my uncle sat down, while in front of him two forks stood with their prongs driven into the table top. I now understood what Ryabyka was there for.

Then at last the freshness of a Moscow morning was wafting in through the window, and I returned vaguely to consciousness, though, it seemed, only in order to question whether I had lost my reason entirely. A battle was in progress, a forest was being felled: I heard a cracking and a crashing; trees was swaying, exotic virgin forest, while behind them swarthy faces huddled together in a corner; near me, down at the roots, there was the terrifying gleam of axe blades; my uncle was chopping, the old man Ivan Stepanovich was chopping… A scene straight from the Middle Ages.

What was happening was the the gypsy girls, who had hidden behind the trees in the grotto, were being ‘taken captive’. Their menfolk were not defending them, but had left them to their own devices. How much of this was in fun and how much in earnest, I could not tell: plates, chairs, and stones from the grotto were flying through theair, while the wood-choppers continues with the frenzied labours, with Ivan Stepanovich adn my uncle hacking away even more zealously than the rest.

At last the fortress fell: the gypsy girls were seized, embraced, smothered in kisses: each captor stuffed a hundred-rouble note into his captive’s corsage – and that was the end of the affair.

Yes, suddenly everything went quite… it was all over. There was nothing to stop it going on, but they had had enough. Just as they had felt that, without this, ‘they had no more taste for life’, so now they felt satisfied.

There had been plenty for everyone, and everyone had had his fill. The fact that the teacher announced that it was ‘time for school’ might also have had something to do with it – but then, perhaps it didn’t. Walpurgis-night had passed, and life could now begin to be lived again. The guests did not take their leave and go their separate ways, they simply vanished. The musicians and the gypsies had already gone. The restaurant was a total wreck; no drape was untorn, no mirror intact, even the central chandelier lay shattered on the floor, where its cut-glass prisms were trodden beneath the dragging feet of the exhausted servants. My uncle sat alone in the middle of a sofa, drinking kvass. Every now and then some memory of the night would come back to him and his legs would twitch. Beside him stood Ryabyka, waiting to hurry off to school.

The bill was presented: it was short and all-inclusive.

Ryabyka studied it carefully and demanded a reduction of fifteen hundred roubles. After a brief argument, they arrived at a total of seventeen thousand roubles. Ryabyka, maintaining his watching eye, pronounced it fair. My uncle said curtly: “Pay!”, put on his hat and with a nod motioned to me to follow him.

To my dismay I saw that he had forgotten nothing, and there was no hiding from him. I was absolutely in awe of him, and could not imagine how I might remain alone in the company of this man in his present state of euphoria. He had taken me along with him without a word of explanation, now he was dragging me off somewhere else and I couldn’t get away. What would become of me? Even my Dutch courage had now completely evaporated. I was, quite simply, afraid of this dreadful wild beast with his extravagant fancies and terrifying energy. In the meantime, we were about to leave. In the lobby we were besieged by a crowd of lackeys. My uncle ordered: “Five each”, and Ryabyka paid out the money. The yard-porters, watchmen, constables and members of the gendermerie who had rendered us some service were also paid, though a smaller sum. All these demands were satisfied: but it added up to a tidy sum, and out in the park, as far as the eye could see, the coachmen were waiting. There were colossal numbers of them, and they too were waiting for us, waiting for the good gentleman Ilya Fedoseyevich ‘in case his honour should require anything to be fetched’.

They were counted, and the sum of three roubles for each of them was handed over. my uncle and I then got into our carriage, and Ryabyka handed back my uncle’s wallet.

Ilya Fedoseyevich took out a hundred-rouble note and handed it to Ryabyka.

He turned the note over in his hands and said curtly: “Too little”.

My uncle added two more twenty-fives.

“It’s still not enough: remember, there wasn’t a single ugly scene.”

My uncle added another twenty-five, whereupon the teacher handed him his cane and, with a bow, took his leave.

Left to each other’s company, we dashed back towards Moscow, while behind us the rag-tag gang of coachmen whooped and rattled along at breakneck speed. I couldn’t fathom what it was they wanted, but my uncle knew well enough. It was an outrage: they hoped he would hand over another tip, just to persuade them to go away; and so, under the guise of doing Ilya Fedoseyevich special honour, they were deliberately exposing this most worshipful person to public humiliation.

Moscow lay immediately before us in full view. It lay bathed in the glorious morning light and the fine haze of chimney smoke, through which came the peaceful sound of church bells, summoning the faithful to prayer.

On both sides of the road, stretching up to the city gates, stood rows of chandlers’ shops. My uncle pulled up at the first of them, walked over to a limewood tub standing by the entrance and asked:

“Honey?”

“Yes.”

“How much for the tub?”

“We sell it loose, by the pound.”

“Well, sell me the lot. Work out the price.”

As I recall, it came out at about seventy or eighty roubles.

My uncle casually handed over the money.

Meanwhile our cortege had caught up with us.

“Well, my fine lads, coachmen of this city, and do you love me?”

“How can you ask, sir? We are always at your honour’s…”

“And do you have warm feelings for me?”

“We do, sir, we do.”

“Then take off your wheels.”

They stared at him in bewilderment.

“Come on, come one!” my uncle ordered.

The sharper once, some twenty of them or so, jumped down, fished out spanners from under the coach-box and began loosening the wheel nuts.

“Right,” said my uncle, “now smear the axles with honey.”

“But sir!”

“Get on with it!”

“To use such good stuff… it would be better to put it in our mouths.”

“Get on!”

Without further ado, my uncle got back int oour carriage and we charged off again, while the coachmen, the whole gang of them, were left with their wheels off, standing over a tub of honey – which they doubtless did not use to grease the axles, but either divided up amongst themselves, or sold back to the chandler. In any case, we were rid of them, and promptly drew up at the publicbaths. I thought my end had come; I sat immersed in a marble bathtub, more dead than alive. My uncle meantime had stretched himself out on the floor, not in the simple way men ordinarily lie, but in a pose which had something of the apocalyptic about it. The enormous bulk of his massive frame was entirely supported upon the very tips of his fingers and his toes; his pink body, propped up on these slender fulcra, quivered beneath a well-directed spray of icy water; he was making that sort of subdued bellowing noise that is made by a bear when it tries to tear out its nose-ring. This went on for half an hour or so, during which time he continued to tremble all over like a jelly on a wobbly table, until finally he leapt to his feet and demanded some kvass. We dressed and set off for the ‘Frenchman’s’ establishment on the Kuznetsky Most.

Here our hair was lightly trimmed, waved and dressed; we then continued on foot into the city, to my uncle’s store.

While all this was going on, he neither spoke to me nor let me from his side. Only once did he break silence to say: “Be patient, don’t expect everything at once. What you don’t understand now, you will, as you grow older.”

At the shop, he surveyed all present with a proprietorial eye, prayed awhile, and went to his desk. The outside of the vessel had been cleansed, but inside there still stirred some profound abomination, demanding to be purged.

I saw this, and was no longer afraid. I was intrigued. I wanted to see how he would come to terms with himself – by some act of self-denial or by an act of grace?

At about ten o’clock he became desperately fidgety, waiting and looking out forthe owner of the shop next door, so that the three of us could go and take tea together – that way it was five kopecks cheaper. The neighbour did not appear; he had, it emerged, suddenly died.

My uncle crossed himself and said: “It comes to all of us.”

He was not in the least put out, despite the fact that they had been going to the Novotroitsky tavern together to drink tea for forty years.

He invited the owner of the shop on the other side: during the day we went out several times for a bite to eat, but we did not touch strong drink. I spent the whole day with him, either at the shop or out and about the city: as evening approached, my uncle ordered a carriage to take us to the Vsepetaya icon.

There too he was immediately recognized and afforded the same respectful welcome as at the Yar.

“I wish to make obeisance before the Vsepetaya and weep for my sins. And this – allow me to introduce him – is my nephew, my sister’s boy.”

“Please be welcome,” said the nuns, “for from whom should the Madonna rather accept penance than from you, who are such a benefactor of this, her cloister? You have chosen the most appropriate time to approach her – for it is vespers.”

“Let it finish. I prefer to be alone: and please be so goos as to arrange a reverential darkness for me.”

The lighting was duly dimmed; everything was extinguished except for one or two small icon lamps and the large lamp with a deep green glass base which hung before the Vsepetaya icon itself.

My uncle not so much fell as crashed to his knees, hurled himself prostrate, uttered a single sob, and seemed to lapse into total stillness.

I sat with the two nuns in a dark nook behind the door. Time passed. My uncle lay without either raising his voice in prayer or making any act of contrition. It looked to me as though he had fallen asleep, and I even put his notion to the nuns. The elder sister thought awhile, shook her head, and lit a slender candle. Clutching it in her hand, she stole quietly up to the penitent. After tiptoeing right round him, she whispered excitedly:

“It’s working… She’s turning him.”

“How can you tell?”

She bent down low. motioning to me to do the same, and said:

“Look, just beyind the lamp – look at his legs.”

“Yes, I see.”

“See, what a struggle!”

Straining my eyes, I was indeed able to detect a slight movement. As my uncle lay in his reverential attitude of prayer, his legs resembled two squabbling cats: each in turn would pounce, causing the other to leap into the air.

“Sister,” I said, “where have those cats come from?”

“It only looks to you like cats,” she replied. “What you see is not cats, but temptations: you see, his spirit is burning to reach heaven, while his feet are treading the path to hell.”

I could see that my uncle’s feet were certainly still dancing the trepak (a Russian folk dance) of the night before: but was his spirit now burning to reach heaven?

As though in answer to my question, he suddenly heaved a sigh and yelled out:

“I’ll not rise to my feet until you forgive me! For thou alone art holy, while we are accursed devils! – and he burst into sobs.

So heartfelt was this sobbing that the three of us began sobbing too: “Oh Lord, do unto him as he beseecheth!”

We failed to notice that he was already standing next to us, saying to me in a low, devout voice: “Come on, it’s time to take our leave.”

The nuns enquired: “And were you so privileged as to see the holy radiance?”

“No,” he replied, “I was not so honoured, but it was… like this.”

He clenched his hand and raised it, as one would pull a small boy to his feet by his hair.

“You were raised?”

“I was.”

The nuns crossed themselves, as did I. My uncle explained:

“Now are my sins forgiven! Straight from above my head, from the dome of the church His open right hand reached down, took me by the hair, and lifted me straight on to my feet…”

No longer did he feel cut off from the world; he was happy. He made a generous gift to the nunnery where his prayer had wrought this miracle: once again he felt the lust for life. He sent my motehr the whole of her marriage portion, and as for me – he converted me to the good honest faith of the people.

Since that time I have come to understand the popular urge to fall and rise again… And this is that mystery which is known as chasing out the devil ‘which casteth out the demon of discontent’. I must repeat, however, that one may have the honour of witnessing it nowhere else than in Moscow, and then only if one is particularly lucky, or if one enjoys the special patronage of the city’s most dignified elders.

( by Petr Shmelkov )

* * *

Tycoon (2002 film)

The film “Oligarch”(‘Tycoon: a new Russian) is loosely based on the infamous life of Mr Berezovsky, a mathematician-turned-powerbroker who fled to London amid corruption charges in Russia.

Oligarchs were the group of powerful Russians who gained massive influence in the unseemly scramble for wealth and power during the 1990s. The film is based on a book about those times written by a businessman close to Mr Berezovsky.

The film was released in the West as New Russians, and many of the scenes reflect the opulence associated with that term. At a no-expense-spared birthday party thrown in the grounds of his country palace, screen oligarch Platon Makovsky arrives on an elephant and is given Miss Universe as a present.

Director Pavel Loungine says the film is an attempt to understand recent Russian history through the rise – and fall – of the oligarchs.

“An oligarch has the power to change not only their personal life but laws and the nature of the state,” he told BBC News Online from Paris.

“But they have also paid for their position. And we have all paid in some sense over the last 15 years. Our attitude to love, friendship, money – everything was turned upside down.”

The director claimed that the era of the oligarchs was finished.

“They became dinosaurs in front of our eyes. That epoch has passed,” said the film-maker.

“I can’t agree with that,” the businessman responded. “It has only just begun.”

( from “Billionaire’s tale is Russian hit” )

THE END.

 

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2 thoughts on “A Man of Weight or Chasing out the Devil

  1. yasniger says:

    Reblogged this on yasniger and commented:
    Can’t help myself: I am hooked!

  2. […] A Man of Weight or Chasing out the Devil […]

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