John Fenwick is an artist in a small town in the north of England. At home, his prospects are limited. He wants nothing more than to go to London and make a name for himself in the art world. One of his patrons makes him a loan that will take him there, but his wife (Phoebe) and young child (Carrie) will have to stay behind — if only for the first year, until he finds an income.
The first few months are rough. Fenwick is hotheaded and didactic, not at all easy to get along with, but at his core, he’s deeply unsure of himself and is embarrassed by what Londoners must think of his country ways. Through an artist acquaintance, he’s introduced to a potential patron, Lord Findon. Findon is a talkative man and the conversation turns to marriage — Findon, assuming Fenwick is single, warns against marrying young and to never think of a wife before being firmly established in a career. Fenwick, terrified of losing his only prospect, says nothing to correct him.
Findon commissions a portrait of his daughter, Eugénie de Pastourelles, and during the time she spends sitting for it, she and Fenwick become good friends. She sees through Fenwick’s pompous exterior to the insecurities beneath it and patiently helps him find his footing in London society. All the while, Fenwick has kept quiet about Phoebe — afraid that if he told Findon now, he’d be offended at not being told earlier. He’s told Phoebe all about Findon and his daughter, though, but Phoebe — always a bit jealous and distrustful — becomes convinced that de Pastourelles is trying to beguile Fenwick.
As the year nears its end, Fenwick finds success, and at last, his paintings begin to sell. He’s out of his studio when Phoebe arrives unannounced. She’s convinced herself that her husband has been having an affair. In the studio, she finds sketches of de Pastourelles and several of her letters, which infuriate her for talking about art and books beyond her intellect, but it’s a reference to Fenwick being a bachelor that sets her off — now she knows that Fenwick cares no more about his simple, rustic wife. She leaves a note telling him that she’s left him and has taken Carrie with her.
Twelve years pass. Fenwick’s brief accession ends with a quick decline into dire straits — his drive is gone, and his art has suffered. All that keeps him going is his friendship with de Pastourelles, which comes to an end when her father discovers that he’s married — he, also, had suspected there was love growing between the two, and was offended by what he thought were Fenwick’s false intentions. The search for Phoebe begins anew, but once more leads nowhere. He prepares to kill himself before he’s interrupted by de Pastourelles, who brings word that Phoebe has been found and wants to see him.
She had fled to Canada and realized her mistake almost at once, but like Fenwick, the momentum of it kept her from changing course, and as the years pressed on, while she deeply regretted it, the momentum only grew stronger. At last, after learning conclusively of Fenwick’s innocence and hearing of his recent condition, she decided to return. The meeting is, to neither’s surprise, difficult. What’s passed can’t be forgotten or ignored. It’s Carrie, who of course shares none of the blame and Fenwick has longed for many years to have back, who really reconciles her parents. It helps that she’s thoroughly Canadian and has none of the English repression that the others are stifled by.
Inscription: On the front flyleaf is written “M. L. Harris, 5/17/06” in ink, in a somewhat small, almost timid-looking hand. A more confident “M. L. Harris” had also been written on the front endpaper in pencil, but was carefully erased, leaving only a faint indentation behind.