Stephen Chisley, having lived beyond his means too long, turned to embezzlement to pay his debts. For this, he was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. On his release, he finds that he has been abandoned by his friends and family. His nearest relation, his cousin Canon (soon to be Bishop) Everard Chisley, pays him a small sum on the condition he change his name and never attempt to contact him again. This money is exhausted quickly, as no one will give Stephen Joyce work when they learn he is a felon.
Starvation looms when Yvonne Latour discovers him. She knew him in his youth and promised his mother (deceased while he was incarcerated) that she would look after him. She’s a widow who supports herself simply but comfortably as a singer. With a little practice, Joyce might be a half-decent baritone. She gets him a job in the chorus, but it all falls apart when another choruser, Annie, discovers his secret and tells everyone.
Joyce flees to South Africa with a barroom acquaintance, both hoping to forge new lives as colonial farmers. The farming does not go well (nor does his acquaintance — he dies of fever), but the book he had been working on, The Wasters (bit meta — the plot is the same as the Derelicts), is picked up by a publisher. On the advance money, he returns to London to find Yvonne.
Yvonne, meanwhile, has married Canon Chisley. Mrs. Winstanley, who had previously exerted great control over the man, is incensed with jealously. When she discovers, accidentally, that Yvonne’s first husband is not actually dead, she at once tells the Canon. The Canon is deeply in love with Yvonne, but proprietary forces them to separate. The Canon accepts a bishopric in New Zealand and leaves Yvonne behind. Yvonne, forced to work despite her delicate health, develops diphtheria and is hospitalized. Joyce finds her quite abandoned and wanting. He writes to the Bishop, but his letter is burned without being opened. He supports her himself with his writing and from the job he’s managed to get at a second-hand bookstore. They live together as siblings, and for the first time in several years, both regain some measure of happiness.
The Bishop learns that Yvonne’s first husband has died (for real, this time) and takes the very next boat back to England. He traces her to Joyce, who tells him of her illness and what has passed since. The Bishop begs his cousin’s forgiveness and asks Yvonne to remarry him. Joyce’s world is shattered. On the street, he sees Annie again. She’s been haunted by what she did to him in the chorus. She turned to drink, lost her friends, lost her job, knew “degradation”, and is now in the workhouse. Joyce sobs himself to sleep that night. Yvonne hears from outside his bedroom door.
Yvonne goes to the Bishop and says that she can’t marry him. She stays with Joyce, content with him, even if in poverty. Joyce reads in the morning paper that Annie drowned herself.