When the dock-hands, leaving off work, scatter along the haven in noisy groups, buying something to eat from the costermonger women and sitting down to their meal in the most shady corners of the macadamized quay, amidst them appears Greg Chelkash, that old wolf of the pastures, well-known to the people of the haven as a confirmed toper and a bold and skilful thief. He is barefooted, in shabby old plush breeches, hatless, with a dirty cotton shirt with a torn collar, exposing his mobile, withered, knobbly legs in their cinnamon-brown case of skin. It is plain from his touzled black, grey-streaked hair and his keen wizened face that he has only just awoke. From one of his smutty moustaches a wisp of straw sticks out, the fellow to it has lost itself among the bristles of his recently shaved left cheek, and behind his ear he has stuck a tiny linden twig just plucked from the tree. Lanky, bony, and somewhat crooked, he slowly shambled along the stones, and moving from side to side his hooked nose, which resembled the beak of a bird of prey, he cast around him sharp glances, twinkling at the same time his cold grey eyes as they searched for someone or other among the dockyard men. His dirty brown moustaches, long and thick, twitched just like a cat's whiskers, and his arms, folded behind his back, rubbed one against the other, while the long, crooked, hook-like fingers clutched at the air convulsively. Even here, in the midst of a hundred such ragged striking tatter-demalions as he, he immediately attracted attention by his resemblance to the vulture of the steppes, by his bird-of-prey like haggardness, and that alert sort of gait, easy and quiet in appearance, but inwardly the result of excited wariness, like the flight of the bird of prey he called to mind.
When he came alongside one of the groups of ragged porters sprawling in the shade beneath the shelter of the coal baskets, he suddenly encountered a broad-shouldered little fellow with a stupid pimply face and a neck scarred with scratches, evidently fresh from a sound and quite recent drubbing. He got up and joined Chelkash, saying to him in a subdued voice:
"Goods belonging to the fleet have been missed in two places. They are searching for them still. Do you hear, Greg!"
"Well!" asked Chelkash quietly, calmly measuring his comrade from head to foot.
"What do you mean by well? They're searching I say, that's all."
"Are they asking me to help them in their search then?"
And Chelkash, with a shrewd smile, glanced in the direction of the lofty packhouse of the Volunteer Fleet.
"Go to the devil!"
His comrade turned back.
"Wait a bit! What are you so stuck-up about? Look how they've spoiled the whole show! I don't see Mike here!"
"Haven't seen him for a long time," said the other, going back to his companions.
Chelkash went on further, greeted by everyone like a man well-known. And he, always merry with a biting repartee, to-day was evidently not in a good humour, and gave abrupt and snappy answers.
At one point a custom-house officer, a dusty, dark-green man with the upright carriage of a soldier, emerged from behind a pile of goods. He barred Chelkash's way, standing in front of him with a challenging pose and seizing with his left hand the handle of his dirk, tried to collar Chelkash with his right.
"Halt! whither are you going?"
Chelkash took a step backwards, raised his eyes to the level of the custom-house officer, and smiled drily.
The ruddy, good-humouredly-cunning face of the official tried to assume a threatening look, puffing out its cheeks till they were round and bloated, contracting its brows and goggling its eyes—and was supremely ridiculous in consequence.
"You have been told that you are not to dare to enter the haven, or I'd break your ribs for you. And here you are again!" cried the guardian of the customs threateningly.
"Good day, Semenich! we have not seen each other for a long time," calmly replied Chelkash, stretching out his hand.
"I wish it had been a whole century. Be off! Be off!"
But Semenich pressed the extended hand all the same.
"What a thing to say!" continued Chelkash, still retaining in his talon-like fingers the hand of Semenich, and shaking it in a friendly familiar sort of way—"have you seen Mike by any chance?"
"Mike, Mike? whom do you mean? I don't know any Mike. Go away, my friend! That packhouse officer is looking, he...."
"The red-haired chap, I mean, with whom I worked last time on board the 'Kostroma,'" persisted Chelkash.
"With whom you pilfered, you ought to say. They've carried your Mike off to the hospital if you must know; he injured his leg with a bit of iron. Go, my friend, while you are asked to go civilly; go, and I'll soon saddle you with him again!"
"Ah! look there now! and you said you did not know Mike! Tell me now, Semenich, why are you so angry?"
"Look here, Greg! none of your cheek! be off!"
The custom-house officer began to be angry, and glancing furtively around him, tried to tear his hand out of the powerful hand of Chelkash. Chelkash regarded him calmly from under his bushy brows, smiled to himself, and not releasing his hand, continued to speak:
"Don't hurry me! I'll have my say with you and then I'll go. Now tell me, how are you getting on?—you wife, your children, are they well?"—and, twinkling his eyes maliciously and biting his lips, with a mocking smile, he added: "I was going to pay you a visit, but I never had the time—I was always on the booze...."
"Well, well, drop that!—none of your larks, you bony devil!—I'm really your friend.... I suppose you're laying yourself out to nab something under cover or in the streets?"
"Why so? Here and now I tell you a good time's coming for both you and me, if only we lay hold of a bit In God's name, Semenich, lay hold! Listen now, again in two places goods are missing! Look out now, Semenich, and be very cautious lest you come upon them somehow!"
Utterly confused by the audacity of Chelkash, Semenich trembled all over, spat freely about him, and tried to say something. Chelkash let go his hand and calmly shuffled back to the dock gates with long strides, the custom-house officer, cursing fiercely, moved after him.
Chelkash was now in a merry mood. He softly whistled through his teeth, and burying his hands into his breeches' pockets, marched along with the easy gait of a free man, distributing sundry jests and repartees right and left. And the people he left behind paid him out in his own coin as he passed by.
"Hello, Chelkash! how well the authorities mount guard over you!" howled someone from among the group of dock-workers who had already dined and were resting at full length on the ground.
"I'm barefooted you see, so Semenich follows behind so as not to tread upon my toes—he might hurt me and lay me up for a bit," replied Chelkash.
They reached the gates, two soldiers searched Chelkash and hustled him gently into the street.
"Don't let him go!" bawled Semenich, stopping at the dockyard gate.
Chelkash crossed the road and sat down on a post opposite the door of a pot-house. Out of the dockyard gates, lowing as they went, proceeded an endless string of laden oxen, meeting the returning teams of unladen oxen with their drivers mounted upon them. The haven vomited forth thunderous noise and stinging dust, and the ground trembled.
Inured to this frantic hurly-burly, Chelkash, stimulated by the scene with Semenich, felt in the best of spirits. Before him smiled a solid piece of work, demanding not very much labour but a good deal of cunning. He was convinced that he would be equal to it, and blinking his eyes, fell thinking how he would lord it to-morrow morning, when the whole thing would have been managed and the bank-notes would be in his pocket. Then he called to mind his comrade Mike, who would have just done for this night's job if he had not broken his leg. Chelkash cursed inwardly that, without Mike's help, it would be a pretty stiffish job for him alone. What sort of a night was it going to be? He looked up at the sky and then all down the street....
Six paces away from him on the macadamized pavement, with his back against a post, sat a young lad in a blue striped shirt, hose to match, with bast shoes and a ragged red forage cap. Near him lay a small knapsack and a scythe without a handle wrapped up in straw carefully wound round with cord. The lad was broad-shouldered, sturdy, and fair-haired, with a tanned and weather-beaten face, and with large blue eyes gazing at Chelkash confidingly and good-naturedly....
Chelkash ground his teeth, protruded his tongue, and making a frightful grimace, set himself to gaze fixedly at the youth with goggling eyes.
The youth, doubtful, at first, what to make of it, blinked a good deal, but suddenly bursting into a fit of laughter, screamed in the midst of his laughter: "Ah, what a character!" and scarce rising from the ground, rolled clumsily from his own to Chelkash's post, dragging his knapsack along through the dust and striking the blade of the scythe against a stone.
"What, brother, enjoying yourself, eh? Good health to you!" said he to Chelkash, plucking his trouser.
"There's a job on hand, my sucking pig, and such a job!" confessed Chelkash openly. He liked the look of this wholesome, good-natured lad with the childish blue eyes. "Been a mowing, eh?"
"Pretty mowing! Mow a furlong and earn a farthing! Bad business that! The very hungriest come crowding in, and they lower wages though they don't gain any. They pay six griveniki in the Kuban here—a pretty wage! Formerly they paid, people say, three silver roubles, four, nay five!"
 A grivenik is a 10 kopeck piece = 1/10th of a silver rouble. A silver rouble = 2s.
"Formerly!—Ah, formerly, at the mere sight of a Russian man they paid up splendidly there. I worked at the same job myself ten years ago. You went up to the cossack station—here am I, a Russian! you said, and immediately they looked at you, felt you, marvelled at you, and—three roubles down into your palm straightway! Those were the days for eating and drinking. And you lived pretty much as you liked."
The lad listened to Chelkash at first with wide-open mouth, with puzzled rapture writ large on his rotund physiognomy; but, presently, understanding that this ragamuffin was joking, he closed his lips with a snap and laughed aloud. Chelkash preserved a serious countenance, concealing his smile in his moustaches.
"Rum card that you are! you spoke as if it were true, and I listened and believed you. Now, God knows, formerly...."
"But I count for something, don't I? I tell you that formerly...."
"Go along!" said the lad, waving his hand. "I suppose you're a cobbler?—or are you a tailor? What are you?"
"What am I?" repeated Chelkash, reflecting a little—"I'm a fisherman!" he said at last.
"A fisherman! really?—you really catch fish?"
"Why fish? The fishermen here don't only catch fish. There's more than that. There are drowned corpses, old anchors, sunken ships—everything! There are hooks for fishing up all sorts...."
"Nonsense, nonsense! I suppose you mean the sort of fishermen who sang of themselves:
"'Our nets we cast forth abroad On the river bank so high, And in storehouse and grain loft so high....'" "And you have seen such like, eh?" inquired Chelkash, looking at him with a smile and thinking to himself that this fine young chap was really very stupid.
"No, where could I see them? But I've heard of them...."
"Like the life, eh?"
"Like their life? Well, how shall I put it?—they are not bothered with kids ... they live as they like ... they are free...."
"What do you know about freedom? Do you love it?"
"Why of course. To be your own master ... to go where you like ... to do what you like. Still more, if you know how to keep straight, and have no stone about your neck ... then it's splendid! You may enjoy yourself as you like, if only you don't forget God...."
Chelkash spat contemptuously, ceased from questioning, and turned away from the youth.
"I'll tell you my story," said the other with a sudden burst of confidence. "When my father died he left but little, my mother was old, the land was all ploughed to death, what was I to do? Live I must—but how? I didn't know. I went to my wife's relations—a good house. Very well! 'Will you give your daughter her portion?' But no, my devil of a father-in-law would not shell out I was worrying him a long time about it—a whole year. What a business it was! And if I had had a hundred and fifty roubles in hand I could have paid off the Jew Antipas and stood on my legs again. 'Will you give Marfa her portion?' I said. 'No? Very well! Thank God she is not the only girl in the village.' I wanted to let him know that I would be my own master and quite free. Heigh-ho!" And the young fellow sighed. "And now there is nothing for it but to go to my relations after all. I had thought: look now! I'll go to the Kuban District. I'll scrape together two hundred roubles—and then I shall be a gentleman at large. But it was only so-so! It all ended in smoke. Now you'll have to go back to your relations, I said to myself ... as a day-labourer. I'm not fit to be my own master—no, I'm quite unfit. Alas! Alas!'"
The young fellow had a violent disinclination to go to his relatives. Even his cheerful face grew dark and made itself miserable. He shifted heavily about on the ground, and drew Chelkash out of the reverie in which he had plunged while the other was talking.
Chelkash also began to feel that the conversation was boring him, yet, for all that, he asked a few more questions:
"And now where are you going?"
"Where am I going? Why, home of course."
"My friend, it is not 'of course' to me. You might be going to kick up your heels in Turkey for ought I know."
"In Tur-tur-key?" stammered the youth. "Who of all the Orthodox would think of going there? What do you mean?"
"I mean that you're a fool!" sighed Chelkash, and again he turned away from the speaker, and this time he felt an utter disinclination to waste another word upon him. There was something in this healthy country lad which revolted him.
A troublesome, slowly ripening irritating feeling was stirring somewhere deep within him, and prevented him from concentrating his attention and meditating on all that had to be done that night.
The snubbed young rustic kept murmuring to himself in a low voice, now and then glancing furtively at the vagabond. His cheeks were absurdly chubby, his lips were parted, and his lackadaisical eyes blinked ridiculously and preposterously often. Evidently he had never expected that his conversation with this moustached ragamuffin would have been terminated so quickly and so offensively.
The ragamuffin no longer paid him the slightest attention. He was whistling reflectively as he sat on the post and beating time with his naked dirty paw.
The rustic wanted to be quits with him.
"I say, fisherman, do you often get drunk?"—he was beginning, when the same instant the fisherman turned round quickly face to face with him and asked:
"Hark ye, babby! Will you work with me to-night? Come!—yes or no?"
"Work at what?" inquired the rustic suspiciously.
"At whatever work I give you. We'll go a fishing. You'll have to row...."
"Oh!... All right!... No matter. I can work. Only don't let me in for something ... You're so frightfully double-tongued ... you're a dark horse...."
Chelkash began to feel something of the nature of a gangrened wound in his breast, and murmured with cold maliciousness:
"No blabbing, whatever you may think. Look now, I've a good mind to knock your blockhead about till I drive some light into it."
He leaped from his post, and while his left hand still twirled his moustache, he clenched his right into a muscular fist as hard as iron, while his eyes flashed and sparkled.
The rustic was terrified. He quickly looked about him, and timidly blinking his eyes, also leapt from the ground. They both stood there regarding each other in silence.
"Well?" inquired Chelkash sullenly, he was boiling over and tremulous at the insult received from this young bull-calf, whom during the whole course of their conversation he had despised, but whom he now thoroughly hated because he had such clear blue eyes, such a healthy sun-burnt face, such short strong arms. He hated him, moreover, because, somewhere or other, he had his native village, and a house in it, and because he numbered among his relatives a well-to-do peasant farmer; he hated him for all his past life and all his life to come, and, more than all this, he hated him because this creature, a mere child in comparison with himself, Chelkash, dared to love freedom, whose value he knew not, and which was quite unnecessary to him. It is always unpleasant to see a man whom you regard as worse and lower than yourself, love or hate the same thing as you do, and thus become like unto yourself.
The rustic looked at Chelkash, and felt that in him he had found his master.
"Well ..." he began, "I have nothing to say against it. I am glad, in fact.... You see I am out of work. It is all one to me whom I work for, for you or another. I only mean to say that you don't look like a working man ... you're so terribly ragged, you know. Well, I know that may happen to us all. Lord! the topers I've seen in my time! No end to 'em! But I've never seen any like you."
"All right, all right! It is agreed then, eh?" asked Chelkash. His voice was now a little softer.
"With pleasure, so far as I am concerned. What's the pay?"
"I pay according to the amount of work done, and according to the kind of work too. It depends upon the haul. You might get a fifth part—what do you say to that?"
But now it was a matter of money, and therefore the peasant must needs be exact and demand the same exactness from his employer. The rustic had a fresh access of uncertainty and suspicion.
"Nay, brother, 'a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush——'"
Chelkash fell in with his humour.
"No more gabble! Wait! come to the pub!"
And they walked along the street side by side, Chelkash twisting his moustaches with the impudent air of a master, the rustic with the expression of a complete readiness to buckle under, yet at the same time full of uneasiness and suspicion.
"What do they call you?" inquired Chelkash.
"Gabriel," replied the rustic.
When they came to the filthy and smoke-black inn, Chelkash, going up to the buffet with the familiar tone of an old habitué, ordered a bottle of vodka, cabbage-soup, a roasted joint, tea; and totting up the amount of the items, curtly remarked to the barmaid: "All to my account, eh?" whereupon the barmaid nodded her head in silence. And Gabriel was suddenly filled with a profound respect for his master, who, notwithstanding his hang-dog look, enjoyed such notoriety and credit.
"Well, now we can peck a bit, and have a talk comfortably. You sit here. I'll be back directly."
Out he went. Gabriel looked about him. The inn was on the ground-floor, it was damp and dark, and full of the stifling odour of distilled vodka, tobacco smoke, tar, and a something else of a pungent quality. Opposite Gabriel, at another table, sat a drunken man in sailor's costume, with a red beard, all covered with coal dust and tar. He was growling, in the midst of momentary hiccoughs, a song, or rather the fragmentary and inconsecutive words of a song, his voice now rising to a frightful bellow, now sinking to a throaty gurgle. He was obviously not a Russian.
Behind him sat two young Moldavian girls, ragged, dark-haired, sun-burnt, also screeching some sort of a song with tipsy voices.
Further back other figures projected from the surrounding gloom, all of them strangely unkempt, half-drunk, noisy, and restless....
Gabriel felt uncomfortable sitting there all alone. He wished his master would return sooner. The din of the eating-house blended into a single note, and it seemed to him like the roar of some huge animal. It possessed a hundred different sorts of voices, and was blindly, irritably, soaring away out of this stony prison, as if it wanted to find an outlet for its will and could not.... Gabriel felt as if something bemused and oppressive was sucking away in his body, something which made his head swim, and made his eyes grow dim as they wandered, curious and terrified, about the eating-house.
Chelkash now arrived, and they began to eat and drink and converse at the same time. At the third rummer Gabriel got drunk. He felt merry, and wanted to say something pleasant to his host who—glorious youth!—though nothing to look at, was so tastefully entertaining him. But the words, whole waves of them, pouring into his very throat, for some reason or other wouldn't leave his tongue, which had suddenly grown quite cumbersome.
Chelkash looked at him, and said with a derisive smile: "Why, you're drunk already! What a milksop! And only the fifth glass too! How will you manage to work?"
"My friend," lisped Gabriel, "never fear, I respect you—there you are Let me kiss you. Ah!"
"Well, well—come, chink glasses once more."
Gabriel went on drinking, and arrived at last at that stage when to his eyes everything began to vibrate with a regular spontaneous motion of its own. This was very disagreeable, and made him feel unwell. His face assumed a foolishly-ecstatic expression. He tried to say something, but only made a ridiculous noise with his lips and bellowed. Chelkash continued to gaze fixedly at him as if he was trying to recollect something, and twirled his moustaches, smiling all the time, but now his smile was grim and evil.
The eating-house was a babel of drunken voices. The red-haired sailor had gone to sleep with his elbows resting on the table.
"Come now, let us go," said Chelkash, standing up.
Gabriel tried to rise, but could not, and cursing, loudly, began to laugh the senseless laugh of the drunkard.
"He'll have to be carried," said Chelkash, sitting down again on the chair opposite his comrade.
Gabriel kept on laughing, and looked at his host with lack-lustre eyes. And the latter regarded him fixedly, keenly, and meditatively. He saw before him a man whose life had fallen into his vulpine paws. Chelkash felt that he could twist him round his little finger. He could break him in pieces like a bit of cardboard, or he could make a substantial peasant of him as solid as a picture in its frame. Feeling himself the other man's master, he hugged himself with delight, and reflected that this rustic had never emptied so many glasses as Fate had permitted him, Chelkash, to do. And he had a sort of indignant pity for this young life; he despised and even felt anxious about it, lest it should fall at some other time into such hands as his. And finally, all Chelkash's feelings blended together into one single sentiment—into something paternal and hospitable. He was sorry for the youth, and the youth was necessary to him. Then Chelkash took Gabriel under the armpits, and urging him lightly forward from behind with his knee, led him out of the door of the tavern, where he placed him on the ground in the shadow of a pile of wood, and himself sat down beside him and smoked his pipe. Gabriel rolled about for a bit, bellowed drunkenly, and dozed off.