A 25-year-old young man, a graduate of the Institute of Railway Transport, appears before the reader, for whom “what for fourteen years he strove with a risk of many thousands to fall through” happened. After graduation, Kartashev wants to find a job “where they do not take bribes.” Full of such noble and utopian dreams, escorted by Shatsky, with whom they no longer meet, he leaves St. Petersburg, six years of life in which “flashed like six pages of a book read.” Returning home did not refresh Kartashev: the relationship with his mother feels taut; too much has changed in the house during his absence. On the political case in the dock was Manja Kartasheva, the quarrels with her husband’s older sister Zina constantly affect the life of the family, in which even the youngest, Anya and Seryozha, finish the gymnasium. Because of the difficult financial situation, Kartashevs do not live in the old spacious house, but rent a small apartment in one mansion with the family of Istomin, the chairman of the military court, who took part in the fate of Mani.
The theme tries to enter into the adjusted life of the family, not opposing itself to religious principles, participates in the solution of family problems, again it is accepted to write. At the same time, Kartashev gets acquainted with a relative of Istomin’s Adelaide Borisovna Voronova, who will be his bride. Kartashev’s stay with his family was not too long. At the insistence of his uncle, he is preparing for a trip “to the theater of operations” as an authorized delivery agent for the front. However, being in Bender, Kartashev, by patronage, is arranged by a trainee on the construction of a local railway.
For the main character, the days of “continuous, hard work” come. At the same time Kartashev shows such zeal that his colleagues have to “cool the ardor” of the newly-made road builder. Self-love, as well as the satisfied consciousness that he can work, triples the strength of the protagonist. During the construction of the road, he meets the family of his former schoolmate Sikorski, also a railway engineer, educated in Ghent and much more experienced than Kartashev. In the engineering environment, they take the topic for their own – “red”, although he “had nothing to do with revolutionary circles, and even less so.” While traveling between Bender and Odessa on official business, Kartashev decides to keep in touch with Maney, studying the program of the party with which she still cooperates. He learns that the sister is a member of the “
But while Kartashev continues to work so hard that “there is not enough time.” And mentally he is directed to the beautiful memories... of Adelaide Borisovna. Kartashev’s career has been particularly successful: he is being increased by his salary, he finds a sand pit that is so necessary for the construction of the road. This find strengthens his reputation as a “sensible and intelligent worker.” After the end of the construction of the road section located in the Bender district and completed in an incredibly short time – within forty-three days – Kartashev gets a prestigious business trip to Bucharest, which, however, did not justify the ambitious hopes of the hero. From Bucharest, he follows in Reni, where he continues to participate in the construction. At first, he has complicated relations with the construction manager. Spilling the Danube,
He takes energy with even greater energy: he develops a ballast quarry, manages the renovation of sleepers decayed as a result of the flood, which deserves the final confidence of the construction chief, who shares his vast experience with him. After long, painful reflections under the pressure of Sister Kartashev’s fabric, she makes a “written proposal” to Adelaide Borisovna, written in “florid expressions.”
Having received a response telegram from Delhi, Kartashev goes to Odessa with an emergency train, “full of happiness and terrible fear,” thinking of the one “that seemed unattainable to him,” but now condescended to “carry away for ever to the bright, pure world of love, truth, of good”. But while the heroes are waiting for a three-month separation: Delhi leaves to rest, and Kartashev “fiddles with contractors,” travels along the line, busy with correspondence with his superiors and petty records, but above all this – his future life with Delhi and the need to go to St. Petersburg, where he hopes “penetrate into the mysterious management of road structures.” At the insistence of her mother, on a St. Petersburg trip to “protect from harmful influences” Kartashev is accompanied by Manya, who has her own plans related to her political activities. She is not going to return home and have any future contacts with her family. Having left in Tula, they after ten days last meet in Petersburg. Manya tells Kartashev about the formation of the People’s Liberation Party, whose activities are aimed at “fighting the regime.” His brother’s interest in radical ideas, however, does not mean for him a choice in favor of violent methods of social and political reorganization.
Thus, the fate of the hero who appeared in the final of the story as if at a crossroads, most likely in the spirit of destructive ideas prevailing in the public mind, should be formed in accordance with the predictions of Aglaida Vasilievna Kartasheva: “If in the French Revolution such a prominent role was played by lawyers, our, I’m sure, engineers will play. “