Although Peter Andreitch Grineff is registered as a sergeant in the Semenovsky regiment when he is very young, he is given leave to stay at home until he completes his studies. When he is nearly seventeen years old, his father decides that the time comes for him to begin his military career. With his parents’ blessing, Peter sets out for distant Orenburg in the company of his faithful servant, Savelitch.
One night, the travelers put up at Simbirsk. There, while Savelitch goes to make some purchases, Peter is lured into playing billiards with a fellow soldier, Zourin, and quickly loses one hundred rubles. Toward evening of the following day, the young man and Savelitch find themselves on the snowy plain with a storm approaching. As darkness falls, the snow grows thicker, until finally the horses cannot find their way and the driver confesses that he is lost. They are rescued by another traveler, a man with such sensitive nostrils that he is able to scent smoke from a village some distance away and lead them to it. The three men and their guide spend the night in the village. The next morning, Peter presents his hareskin jacket to his poorly dressed rescuer. Savelitch warns Peter that the coat will probably be pawned for drink.
Late that day, the young man reaches Orenburg and presents himself to the general in command. The general decides that there is a danger that the dull life at Orenburg might lead the young man into a career of dissipation; therefore, he sends him to the Bailogorsk fortress garrison under Captain Mironoff.
The Bailogorsk fortress, on the edge of the Kirghis steppes, is nothing more than a village surrounded by a log fence. Its real commandant is not Captain Mironoff but his lady, Vassilissa Egorovna, a lively, firm woman who sees to the discipline of her husband’s underlings as well as the running of her own household.
Peter quickly makes friends with a fellow officer, Alexey Shvabrin, who has been exiled to the steppes for fighting a duel. Peter spends much time with his captain’s family and grows deeply attached to the couple and to their daughter, Maria Ivanovna. After he receives his commission, he finds military discipline so relaxed that he is able to indulge his literary tastes.
The quiet routine of Peter’s life is interrupted by an unexpected quarrel with Shvabrin precipitated by his having shown his friend a love poem he wrote to Maria. Shvabrin criticizes the work severely, and when he makes derogatory remarks about Maria they quarrel and Peter finds himself challenged to a duel for having called him a liar. The next morning, they meet in a field to fight but are stopped because Vassilissa Egorovna learns of the duel. Peter and Shvabrin, although ostensibly reconciled, nevertheless intend to carry out their duel at the earliest opportunity. Discussing the quarrel with Maria, Peter learns that she once rejected Shvabrin.
Having assured themselves that they are not watched, Shvabrin and Peter fight their duel the following day. Wounded in the breast, Peter lies unconscious for five days after the fight. When he begins to recover, he asks Maria to marry him. Shvabrin is jailed. Peter’s father writes to say that he disapproves of a match with Captain Mironoff’s daughter and that he intends to...
(The entire section is 1349 words.)