The setting is a Russian village on a May evening. The officers of an artillery brigade are invited by a retired general to spend an evening dining and dancing in his residence. During the evening, one of the officers, Ryabovich, an inarticulate conversationalist, graceless dancer, timid drinker, and altogether awkward social mixer, wanders away from the other guests and strays into a semidark room. Shortly afterward, a strange woman enters the room, clasps two fragrant arms around his neck, whispers “At last!” and kisses him. Recognizing her mistake, the woman then shrieks and runs from the room.
Ryabovich also exits quickly and soon shows himself to be a changed man: “He wanted to dance, to talk, to run into the garden, to laugh aloud.” He begins to exercise a lively romantic fancy, speculating which of the ladies at the dinner table might have been his companion.
The artillery brigade leaves the area for maneuvers. Ryabovich tries to tell himself that the episode of the kiss was accidental and trifling--to no avail. His psychic needs embrace it as a wondrously radiant event.
In late August, Ryabovich’s battery returns to the village. He makes his second trip to the general’s estate but this time pauses to ponder in the garden. He can no longer hear the nightingale that sang loudly in May; the poplar and grass no longer exude a scent; he walks a bridge near the general’s bathing cabin and touches a towel which feels clammy and cold; ripples of the river rip the moon’s reflection into bits. Ryabovich now realizes that his romantic dreams have been absurdly disproportionate to their cause: “And the whole world... seemed to [him] an unintelligible, aimless jest.” When the general’s invitation comes, he refuses it.