Peter Ignátitch, a well-to-do peasant, is forty-two years old and sickly. His second wife, Anisya, is only thirty-two years old. Still feeling young, she starts an affair with Nikita Akimitch Tchilikin, their hired man. Peter considers Nikita a loafer and thinks of dismissing him. As he is explaining his intention to Anisya, they learn that Nikita is talking about getting married and leaving their farm. Anisya complains to Peter that Nikita’s departure will leave her with more work than she can handle.
When Anisya and Nikita are alone, he tells her that in spite of his marriage plans he will always come back to her. Anisya threatens to do violence to herself if Nikita leaves, adding that when her husband dies, Nikita could marry her and become master of the farm. Nikita declares, however, that he is satisfied with his lot. Matryona, Nikita’s mother, comes in and says that Nikita’s marriage is his father’s plan, not her own, and that he need not worry about it. She then asks Nikita to leave the room.
Left alone with Matryona, Anisya confesses her love for Nikita. Matryona, who says that she has known of their affair all along, gives Anisya some poison and advises her to bury her husband before spring; she suggests also that Nikita will make a good master on the farm. Concerning the marriage, she explains that Nikita had an affair with Marina, an orphan girl, and that when Akim, his father, learned about it he had insisted that Nikita marry her. Matryona suggests that they talk the matter over with Peter, who is Nikita’s master. Having explained the situation, Matryona again urges Anisya to use the poison on Peter, who is near death anyway.
At that point Peter and Akim come in, discussing Nikita’s proposed marriage. Peter seems to approve of the match until Matryona tells him that Marina is promiscuous and so has no claim on Nikita. To determine the truth of this charge, Peter sends for Nikita, who falsely swears that there had been nothing between him and Marina. As a result, the marriage is called off. Marina visits Nikita and pleads her love, saying that she has always been faithful to him, but Nikita sends her away, saying that he is no longer interested in her.
Six months later, Anisya and Matryona are worried because Peter is about to die but has not told anyone where his money pouch is hidden. Anisya tells Matryona that she has put the poison into Peter’s tea. As they stand talking in the courtyard, Peter appears on the porch of his house, sees Nikita, who is happening by, and asks his forgiveness, a formal request made by the dying. Nikita is temporarily struck with remorse. Matryona, who then helps Peter back into the house, discovers that the money pouch is hanging by a cord around the sick man’s neck. Anisya goes into the house and comes out again with the money pouch, which she gives to Nikita. She then returns to the house, only to reappear a short time later, wailing a formal lament for Peter, who has just died.
Nine months after Peter’s death, Nikita, who has married Anisya and become the master of the farm, grows tired of his wife and begins an affair with Akoulina, Peter’s daughter by his first marriage. Anisya is afraid to say anything for fear that her murder of Peter will be discovered.
In the following autumn, Matryona arranges a marriage for Akoulina, who has become pregnant by Nikita. Matryona tells the father of the suitor that Akoulina herself cannot be seen...
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because she is sickly; at that moment, in fact, Akoulina is delivering her child in the barn. Nikita cannot decide what to do about the child, but Anisya gives him a spade and tells him to dig a hole in the cellar. Nikita balks at the suggestion, feeling that he is not to blame for all his troubles. Anisya, happy that she can force Nikita into sharing her own guilt, tells him that he is already guilty because he knows that she had poisoned Peter and because he had accepted Peter’s money pouch. At last, Nikita goes to the cellar and digs the hole.
When Anisya brings the baby to him, covered with rags, Nikita is horrified to discover that the infant is still alive. Anisya and Matryona push Nikita into the cellar, where he murders the baby. Nikita reappears in a frenzy, threatening to kill his mother and claiming that he can still hear the baby whimpering. He then goes off to forget his troubles in drink.
Some time later, Akoulina’s wedding feast is held at Nikita’s farm. Nikita sees Marina, who has been able to marry respectably and who is now a wedding guest. Alone and troubled, he tells Marina that his only happiness has been with her. Distraught, Marina leaves Nikita to himself. Then Matryona and Anisya arrive to tell him that the bridal pair awaits his formal blessing. Feeling that it will be impossible to give his blessing, Nikita thinks of committing suicide until Mitritch, a drunken former soldier, appears and begins to talk of his experiences, concluding with the thought that a person should never be afraid of anyone. With this thought in mind, Nikita decides to join the wedding feast.
When Nikita appears before the guests, he is holding Akim by the hand. Suddenly, instead of blessing the bridal pair, he falls on his knees before his father. Proclaiming that he is guilty and wishes to make his confession, he begs forgiveness of Marina, whom he has misused, and of Akoulina, saying that he had poisoned Peter. Akoulina says that she knows who poisoned her father, yet a police officer, who happens to be a guest at the wedding, wants to arrest Nikita immediately. Akim prevents him by saying that his son must attend to God’s business first. Nikita then confesses that he had seduced Akoulina and murdered her child. Finally, turning again to his father, Nikita asks for his forgiveness. Akim tells him that God will forgive him and show him mercy. Nikita is then bound and led away.