The time of the novel is 1797-1812, fifteen years after the failed uprising of Tadeusz Kosciuszko and the third partition of Poland between Prussia, Austria and Russia. In the center of the narrative is the young Rafal Olbromsky, the son of a poor old nobleman. At the carnival in the house of his father, he accidentally gets acquainted with Mrs. Helena. Then the vacation ends, and he returns to Sandomierz, where he studies at the Austrian gymnasium. There he and his friend and relative Krzysztof Zedro come to mind to ride along the river to the ice drift. They miraculously survive, and Rafala is expelled from the gymnasium. He lives in his father’s estate in Tarnin, his father is angry with him. But hardly comes the possibility of reconciliation, as Rafal commits another offense – secretly meets with Helen. After a date, wolves attack him, he survives, but loses his horse. Geden is taken either to Warsaw or to Paris, and Rafada is expelled from the house. He goes to his elder brother Peter, whom his father cursed long ago. Peter, a participant in the Kostyushko uprising, is slowly dying from his injuries. Conflict with his father arose on his political grounds; Peter left home when his father wanted to flog him.
His former comrade-in-arms, and now the rich landowner Prince Gintult, come to visit Peter. After arguing with him about politics, Peter does not stand the tension and dies. Soon after the funeral, Rafal receives an invitation from the prince to settle
Prince Gintult, from boredom, goes to the Venetian Republic to the court of the Pala, where he is caught by military actions between Napoleonic France and the rest of Europe. On the side of France, the Polish legions are fighting: the Poles hope that France will help their homeland regain its independence. In Paris, Gintult meets many famous Poles, including General Dombrowski and Prince Sulkowski, Napoleon’s adjutant. It turns out that the Napoleonic army plans to go to Egypt instead of liberating Poland.
Meanwhile, Rafal, graduating from the Lyceum, gets the right to enter the academy and is enrolled in a class of philosophy. Living in Krakow, almost unattended, he behaves lightly, playing cards. In the end, he gets tired of studying, and he returns home. There he is greeted in spite of expectations, and he immerses himself in agricultural work, trying to forget his love for Gehlen.
Having managed to visit Egypt, Palestine and Greece during this time, Prince Gintult is in Mantua, hoping to get home soon, but fighting in the very heart of Europe is stopping him, and he is forced to join the Polish legion in the rank of gunner. Soon he becomes the adjutant of General Borton, the commander of artillery, and then he is sent to General Yakubovsky’s headquarters. However, Mantua, which the Poles defended so valiantly, still has to be surrendered. According to the conditions of surrender, the garrison receives the right of free exit, and only Polish soldiers, most of them from Austria’s lands, are subject to extradition to the Austrian command, and officers to imprisonment in the fortress.
Only in the autumn of 1802 the prince returns at last to his homeland. Upon learning of this, Rafal writes to him, and Gintult invites him to his secretaries. Rafal moves to Warsaw. The prince leads a closed way of life, and Rafala is burdensome, as well as a squalid provincial costume. Having met on the street the former comrade in the class of philosophy of Jarzhimsky, he happily begins to burn his life in the company of “golden youth” who has forgotten the ideals of Polish patriotism.
Soon it turns out that Prince Gintult is a mason, and thanks to him Rafala is accepted into the Polish-German society “At the Golden Lamp”. Once there is a joint meeting of men’s and women’s boxes, where Rafal meets Gehlen. She now bears the surname de Wit and is the wife of the master of the lodge. It turns out that she does not like her husband and still yearns for Rafal.
Rafal proposes to flee, and she and Gelena settle in a peasant hut high up in the mountains. But their happiness suddenly comes to an end: after spending a night in a mountain cave, they become victims of robbers. Gehlen is raped in front of Rafal, and she, unable to endure shame, rushes into the abyss. Lost, a young man is wandering the mountains. in the hope of meeting people and stumbling upon a detachment of Lorraine cuirassiers, who take him for a robber and throw him into the dungeon.
He leaves there only in early September 1804, only because the soldiers found his documents in the house where Rafal lived. Asked where the woman with whom he, according to the owner, lived, the young man declares that this is a prostitute from Krakow, which he drove out.
Rafal goes to Krakow and on the way goes into the inn, where he eats lunch, for which he has nothing to pay. His friend at the Sandomierz Gymnasium Krzysztof Zedro helps him, who came to the tavern to change horses. Tsedro invites a friend to his estate in Stocklosa. He himself lives in Vienna, where he seeks ties to achieve chamberlaincy. In Stocklos, Rafal acquainted with Szepan Nekanda Trepka, who was ruined by a nobleman, who lives on the estate as a manager. Here the spirit of enlightenment and Polish patriotism reigns, the rejection of Prussian rule. Inspired by the story of a former soldier who accidentally comes into the estate, about Napoleon, Rafald and Krzysztof go to war. They are not stopped either by the persuasion of old Tsedro, nor the execution of three young men for trying to get over “to the Poles” …
Once in Mysłowice, where the French detachment is stationed, they get a road trip to Siewierz, whose commandant is captain Jarjimsky. He invites them to stay, promising officer ranks in the near future, but young people want to rise to officers from rank and file, so they join militia in the Krakow cavalry.
Here the paths of Rafal and Tsedro diverge: Tsedro remains in Krakow, and Rafal enlists in the selected equestrian regiment of Dzevanowski and goes north, occupied by Prussian and Russian troops. He participates in the battle of Tchev, in the capture of Gdansk. The victory over Russian troops under Friedland on June 14, 1807, leads to the conclusion of the Peace of Tilsit, along which part of the Polish lands the Grand Duchy of Warsaw is created, while Galicia and southern Poland remain with Austria.
Before participating in only small fights of Cedro, a dilemma arises: whether to return to peaceful rural labor, or to remain in Kalisz as an officer of peacetime and burn life. Then, together with the sergeant-major Goykosem, he goes to the Uhlans to remain in the Napoleonic army, and takes part in the Spanish campaign of Bonaparte. November 23, 1808, for the victory at Tudela, Tsedro received an officer’s rank, and under Kalatayud he was concussed. Wounded, he listens to the manifesto of Napoleon, abolishing the rights of feudal lords and church privileges, as well as the “holy” Inquisition. The young man understands that he fought not in vain. Suddenly, past the stretcher passes the emperor, who talks to him. After uttering the last strength of “Vive la Pologne!”, Tsedro loses consciousness. After recovery, he returns to his regiment.
In 1809, a new campaign begins – between France and Austria. April 19 Raphael takes part in the battle of Rashin. However, despite the victory, the Poles retreat: the Saxons abandoned their allied obligations. The wounded Rafal falls into the infirmary, arranged in the palace of Gintulta. The prince changed beyond recognition; his Friend de Wit died, fighting on the side of the enemy. From Gintulta, Rafal learns that under a treaty between France and Austria Warsaw was surrendered to the Austrians.
After such betrayal, a confusion ensues in the camp of the generals. General Zayonchek proposes to leave the principality of Warsaw and go to Saxony to join with the emperor, counting onwards afterwards. Dombrovsky proposes to attack the Austrians, until they crossed the Vistula and built a bridge, to seize the whole of Galicia, to raise the people… Everyone accepts this plan.
Polish troops cross Wisdu and go to Galicia. After the failed defense of Sandomierz, Hintult falls into the hands of the Austrians, but he is rescued by Mihtsik, the servant of Peter Olbromsky. Gintult and Rafal do not give artillery to destroy the church of St. Jacob to stop the advance of the Austrians, and they have to flee. So Rafal becomes a traitor, excluded from the regimental lists, and forced to hide in the estate of his father. In the same place are wounded Gintult, and soldier Mihtsik.
However, the Austrian cavalry approaches the Tarnin, and Rafal and Mihtsik are again forced to flee. Rafal returns to his regiment to his previous position, and only thanks to a rapid change of events he manages to avoid trial, demotion or other repression. The Polish army is again performing, this time to the south. Passing through the estate of his uncle, Rafal finds a farm burned, and Pan Nardzevsky hacked. Rafal becomes a full-fledged heir of the uncle’s estate, gradually rebuilds the house, sows the bread…
Comes in 1812. On a visit to Rafada comes Krzysztof Zedro, who speaks of a “great war” – he is going to participate in the campaign of Napoleon to Russia. In mid-August, the corps under the command of General Poniatowski goes to the junction with the Napoleonic army. Tsedro and Rafal see with their own eyes the emperor. They are full of heroic hopes.