Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 720
After an irrelevant introduction about station-masters in general, the narrator tells about one in particular. Samson Vyrin, a widower, is the harried station-master at a remote location visited by the narrator. The operation runs smoothly because his beautiful fourteen-year-old daughter, Dunya, knows how to calm irritated customers, organize the business of the station, and keep her father on an even keel.
The weary narrator presents his papers to the station-master, who copies them in a log book, a bureaucratic necessity in czarist Russia. As the narrator looks around the station during this process, he notes the presence of paintings on the wall depicting the tale of the prodigal son. The first painting portrays the leave-taking of the son, the second his dissolute behavior as he wastes his inheritance, the third his subsequent poverty and tending of swine, and the fourth the joyous reception of the son by the father as the boy returns to the paternal home. As the station-master completes the recording of the orders, Dunya enters the room with a samovar; the three sit down for a chat and tea. The narrator is very impressed by Dunya and, when he is ready to leave, he asks for a kiss. The narrator remembers this kiss even to this day.
A few years later, the narrator is again in the area and stops at the same station. The paintings depicting the parable of the prodigal son are still on the wall, but the station is unkempt and the master has aged. After a few preliminary remarks, Samson tells the narrator what has happened since their last meeting.
A young officer, a certain Minsky, stopped at the station and fell in love with Dunya. In order to prolong his visit, he feigned an illness and Dunya served as his nurse. When Minsky had apparently recovered and was ready to leave, he offered to drive Dunya to church; Dunya was reluctant, but her father, who liked the young officer, persuaded her to accept the ride. When Dunya did not return later in the morning, Samson went to the church and discovered that Dunya had not been there. Going on to the next station, his fear was confirmed; his daughter had run away with Minsky, according to the master of that station. Samson returned home and fell ill.
When he had recovered, Samson decided to travel to St. Petersburg and try to rescue his daughter from a life of shame. The station-master was sure that the officer meant only to use his daughter and then discard her, thus forcing her to become a prostitute in the large city. He found Minsky and implored him to return his daughter; the officer, however, replied that he and Dunya were in love, what was done was done, and, having handed the old man a sum of money, pushed him out into the street.
In a state of despair, Samson walked around St. Petersburg in a daze and accidentally discovered Minsky’s coach before a house. Correctly surmising that his daughter lived there, he told a maid that he had a message for her mistress, brushed past her, and found his daughter in a beautifully appointed room. Dunya was sitting next to Minsky, looking at him tenderly and winding her fingers through his hair. When she saw her father, Dunya fainted and Minsky expelled Samson from the house. The old man returned to his station, took to drink, and wallowed in self-pity. He concludes his story by telling the narrator that he has not heard from Dunya, but he is sure that she has wound up like other women in her position: poor and discarded, living off the streets. He had punctuated this sad tale with frequent sobbing and glasses of rum. The narrator leaves the station, but he has been deeply touched by the story.
Many years later, the narrator is again in the vicinity of the station. He discovers that the station is closed and that Samson has died of drinking. He also learns that the master’s grave was visited by a beautiful lady with three children, a nurse, and a dog. The lady arrived in a beautiful carriage, cried over the old man’s grave, and tipped the little boy who told her of her father’s death. Dunya had finally come home.