Childhood of the hero took place in the small town of Knyazhye-Vieno of the South-Western Territory. Vasya – that was the name of the boy – was the son of a city judge. The child grew, “like a wild tree in the field”: the mother died when the son was only six years old, and the father, absorbed in his grief, paid little attention to the boy. Vasya wandered all day around the city, and pictures of city life left a deep trace in his soul.
The city was surrounded by ponds. In the middle of one of them on the island stood an ancient castle, once belonging to the Count’s family. There were legends that the island was filled with captive Turks, and the castle stands “on the bones of men.” The landlords had long since left this gloomy dwelling, and it was gradually breaking down. Its inhabitants were urban beggars, who had no other shelter. But among the poor there was a split. Old Janusz, one of the former count’s servants, got some right
to decide who can live in the castle and who does not. He left there only “aristocrats”: Catholics and the former count’s servants. The exiles found themselves a refuge in the cave under the ancient crypt at the abandoned Uniat chapel, which stood on the mountain. However, this was their whereabouts to no one knew.
Old Janusz, meeting Vasya, invites him to go into the castle, because there is now a “decent society.” But the boy prefers the “bad society” of the exiles from the castle: Vasya pities them.
Many members of the “bad society” are well known in the city. This half-mad elderly “professor”, who always mumbles something quietly and sadly; The ferocious and pugnacious bayonet-assailant Zausoylov; drunk up retired official Lavrovsky, telling everyone incredible tragic stories about his life. And the general named Turkevich is famous for exposing the venerable citizens (the police captain, the secretary of the district court and others) directly under their windows. This he does in order to get on vodka, and achieves his goal: the “convicted”
are rushing to pay off from it.
The leader of the entire community of “dark personalities” – Tyburcy Drab. His origin and past are not known to anyone. Some suppose that he is an aristocrat, but his appearance is common. He is known for his extraordinary scholarship. At the fairs Tyburcy entertains the public with lengthy speeches from ancient authors. He is considered a sorcerer.
One day Vasya with three friends comes to the old chapel: he wants to look there. Friends help Vasya to get inside through a tall window. But when they saw that there was someone else in the chapel, the friends fled in horror, leaving Vasya to the mercy of fate. It turns out that the children Tyburcy: nine-year-old Valek and four-year-old Marusya. Vasya often comes to the mountain to his new friends, to carry them apples from his garden. But he goes only when Tyburcy can not find him. Vasya does not tell anyone about this acquaintance. Struggling friends, he says that he saw devils.
Vasya has a sister, a four-year-old Sonia. She, like her brother, is a gay and frisky child. Brother and sister love each other very much, but Sonya’s nanny hinders their noisy games: she considers Vasya a bad, spoiled boy. The same view is shared by the father. He does not find in his soul a place to love the boy. The father loves Sonya more, because she looks like her late mother.
Once in a conversation Valek and Marusya tell Vasya that Tyburtsy loves them very much. Vasya speaks of his father with resentment. But suddenly he learns from Valek that the judge is a very fair and honest man. Valek is a very serious and intelligent boy. Marusya is not at all like the frisky Sonya, she is feeble, pensive, “unhappy”. Valek says that “a gray stone sucked life out of it.”
Vasya learns that Valek is stealing food for a hungry sister. This discovery makes a heavy impression on Washuu, but still he does not condemn a friend.
Valek shows Vasya a dungeon, where all members of the “bad society” live. In the absence of adults, Vasya comes there, plays with his friends. During the game in blind man’s buff, Tyburcy suddenly appears. Children are frightened – they are friends without the knowledge of the terrible head of “bad society”. But Tyburtsy allows Vasya to come, taking from him the promise not to tell anyone where they all live. Tyburcy brings food, prepares dinner – according to him, Vasya realizes that the food is stolen. This, of course, embarrasses the boy, but he sees that Marusya is so excited about the food… Now Vasya comes unhindered to the mountain, and adult members of the “bad society” also get used to the boy, they love him.
Autumn comes, and Marusya gets sick. To somehow entertain a sick girl, Vasya decides to ask Sonya for a while a large beautiful doll, a gift from her late mother. Sonia agrees. Marusya is delighted with the doll, and she is even getting better.
To the judge several times comes the old Janusz with denunciations of members of the “bad society”. He tells that Vasya communicates with them. Nurse notices the absence of a doll. Washu is not allowed out of the house, and after a few days he runs away secretly.
Marusya is getting worse. The dungeon dwellers decide that the doll needs to be returned, but the girl will not notice it. But seeing that they want to take the doll, Marusya weeps bitterly… Vasya leaves her a doll.
And again they do not let Vasya out of the house. The father tries to get a recognition from his son, where he went and where the doll went. Vasya admits that he took the doll, but does not say anything more. Father in anger… And then at the most critical moment Tyburcy appears. He carries a doll.
Tyburcy tells the judge about Vasya’s friendship with his children. He is amazed. Father feels guilty before Vasya. Like a wall collapsed, for a long time separating the father and son, and they felt like close people. Tyburcy says that Marusya died. The father lets go Vasya to say goodbye to her, while he passes through Vasya money for Tyburtsiya and a warning: the head of the “bad society” is better to hide from the city.
Soon almost all the “dark personalities” disappear somewhere. There remains only the old “professor” and Turkevich, to whom the judge sometimes gives work. Maroussia is buried in an old cemetery near the collapsed chapel. Vasya and her sister take care of her grave. Sometimes they come to the cemetery with their father. When Vasya and Sonya come to leave their hometown, they pronounce their vows over this grave.