Depravity and deceit have been among the crops on the farm of the well-to-do but sickly old Peter. His second wife, the young and restless Anisya, is secretly consorting with Peter's young farmhand, Nikita, who loves girls and drinking but not his work. Now Nikita has compounded his sin by seducing Marina, an orphan, and his simple but honorable old father, Akim, has insisted that he marry the girl.
Anisya is reproaching Nikita, demanding that he refuse to wed Marina. She declares she will kill herself if he deserts her. Nikita promises that he won't, although he would prefer to go on with the ceremony and only return to Anisya as his mood dictates. Anisya is embracing him in gratitude when Nikita's mother, Matryona, enters.
Matryona is a stranger to the scruples of Akim; she merely crosses herself before the icon ... if Nikita has won the wife of a rich man, so much the better. Sending her son out, she suggests to Anisya a simple way to forward her romance: old Peter is going to die soon anyhow, and she has a powder that administered in seven small doses in his tea, will soon free Anisya. Anisya pays well for the powders and agrees to the plan.
Old Akim takes Nikita to task for wronging Marina. "I want to start--what d'you call it?--to start you honest ... If my son has offended against her--I mean, if he now refuses--and she, what d'you call it?--an orphan--I mean it's all wrong. You can hide it from men, but not from God, Nikita ... Don't lie. Did anything happen?" he asks him. Nikita swears that he has not seduced the girl. Old Akim, deceived also by his wife, subsides. Nikita, however, begins to feel uneasy. Says he: "I'm sweet as honey on the girls, but when you've sinned against 'em and then have to swear to a lie, it ain't so good..."
Six months later, Anisya has given Peter two of the powders. He is near death, but neither she nor Matryona can find his money and he has sent for his sister. They are discussing the possibility that the old man will turn over his money to her when he appears in the doorway, moaning: "I'm burning inside. It's so hard to die!" Matryona helps him back to bed, and as she does so, feels his moneybag around his neck. She tells Anisya where his treasure is. She urges that he be wholly poisoned at once, before his sister comes.
Nikita comes in from the fields. His mother directs him to seize the money--and to let Anisya keep none, since "women are such bad managers." He is reluctant, but agrees as Anisya rushes from the house, wailing: "My dear, lovely, darling husband is gone!" Matryone, rolling up her sleeves, goes to prepare the body for burial.
Nine months later, Nikita has married Anisya but has continued his affairs with other women, notably Akoulina, Peter's daughter by his first wife. This is no secret from Anisya, but she fears to appeal to the law to strip him of her money. Akim learns the tragic history of the match when he comes for money to buy the horse that Nikita promised him. His son, drunk, returns from town, gives Akim the promised sum and then displays presents he has bought for Akoulina.
Anisya berates him for buying the presents with her money, and Akoulina, who has accompanied Nikita, retorts: "Your money indeed! You wanted to steal it, but couldn't get away with it!... You're a bitch who murdered her own husband!" Anisya threatens to murder her, too, and Nikita tells his wife to be silent or he will throw her out of the house. Old Akim tosses his gift on the table, leaving with this warning to Nikita: "Take your money back. It's filthy!... You're stuck fast, Nikita--stuck fast in sin.... Come to your senses ... It's the soul that God wants."
Nikita's new affair continues until the following autumn, when a neighboring peasant courts Akoulina. The girl, however, keeps to her house with "pains in the stomach," and gossip moves the prospective bridegroom's father to ask Matryona if there is "something wrong." Matryona heartily assures him that Akoulina is sound as a bell; that she is a lovely and virtuous bride with a generous dowry. The father is won over, and Matryona reminds him not to forget her after the wedding--that she has been to much trouble in making the match.
But as the wedding plans are made, Akoulina is furtively delivered of a child. Nikita pleads with Anisya to take it to a foundling hospital to avoid a scandal. His wife refuses: "It's your dirt and it's up to you to clean it up.... You take that child down cellar and dig a hole." She is seconded by Matryona who offers to hold a light, cautioning her son not to forget to baptize the infant before it is buried.
The wedding day comes, but now Nikita, tortured by his sins, avoids the party. He is trying to hang himself in the barn when Anisya and Matryona come upon him. He cries: "Mother, what have you done to me? I'm a lost soul ... I hear it whimpering--whimpering--all the time!" They talk reassuringly to him, and he agrees to follow them back to the wedding party. But when he enters alone he is barefooted, and calls out: "Father Akim, are you here? Men of the village, are you here? Well, here am I, a sinner!"
Anisya and Matryona frantically try to silence him, but, sinking to his knees, he continues his confession: "I have sinned against you, Akoulina! Your father died no natural death! He was poisoned ... I poisoned him!" Akoulina cries: "He's telling lies! I know who did it!" Nikita goes on: "I poisoned him, Akoulina. And I seduced you. Forgive me in Christ's name!"
Old Akim urges him on: "Speak, my son! Tell everything, make your soul--what d'you call it?--clean! Don't be afraid of men; God--God--He's the one to talk to!"
Nikita rushes on: "I poisoned the father, dog that I am, and I ruined the daughter ... Her and her baby ... I crushed out the baby's life with a board ... I sat on it and I heard the bones crunch ... and then I buried it. I did it, all alone ..." He begs the forgiveness of Akoulina and Old Akim. His father answers joyfully: "God will forgive you, my own son! You didn't have mercy on yourself; God will have mercy on you. God, God, He is the One to trust!"
Akoulina, protesting that it was she who asked Nikita to dispose of the baby, exclaims: "I will tell the truth! Ask me!"
But Nikita concludes: "No need to ask ... I planned it all, and I did it all, myself. I am ready for my punishment ... There is nothing more to say ..."