Plot revealed below!
Louis Trevelyan, a handsome, well-connected young man, visits the Mandarin Islands and falls in love with Emily, daughter of the island's governor Sir Marmaduke Rowley.
Although Emily's upbringing as a beautiful, headstrong girl on a tropical island is a world away from the strict formality of London society to which they return, the couple lead an idyllic life with their infant son and Emily's sister, Nora.
But their happiness is disturbed by the appearance of Colonel Osborne, an old friend of Emily's father and a man with a taste for married women. Aware of Osborne's reputation, Louis tries to warn Emily. When she resists, he forbids her to see him. Angry at being suspected of wrongdoing when she is innocent, Emily continues to meet Osborne, refusing to make any promises to her husband that would imply a stain on her character. Neither side will back down and a gulf begins to grow between them, punctuated by increasingly bitter rows and failed attempts at reconciliation.
Nora is in love with Louis's friend Hugh Stanmore, who has become a journalist and as a result has been cut off without a penny by his fearsome Aunt Stanbury, who lives in Wells. Nora receives an approach from the rich and charming Charles Glascock, heir to Lord Peterborough. She knows she has no prospect of marrying the penniless Hugh, and that she must marry for money, but she delays a decision.
The rift between Louis and Emily has deepened to the point where a separation becomes inevitable. Louis sends Emily and Nora to live with Hugh's mother and sister Priscilla at Nuncombe Putney, a small village near Wells. Although initially unsure about living with a disgraced woman, they are soon won over. Meanwhile, Hugh's younger sister, Dorothy, has been summoned to Wells by Aunt Stanbury, who is looking for a companion in her old age.
Hearing of a male visitor to Nuncombe Putney and assuming it must be Osborne, Aunt Stanbury writes a waspish letter to Priscilla, only to have to apologize when she finds out the visitor was Glascock. He has come to propose to Nora who, somewhat to her dismay, finds herself turning him down. Back in London, tormented by his own suspicions, Louis hires a seedy private detective named Bozzle to keep an eye on Emily. Observed by the diligent Bozzle, a mysterious stranger arrives in Nuncombe Putney. This time it really is Osborne.
A few days later, Nora and Emily are visited by Hugh, who tries unsuccessfully to get Emily to apologize to Louis. Emily sees no grounds for apology -- although she did see Osborne, it was at his request and with her sister present. Nora, meanwhile, is upset that Hugh doesn't declare his love for her during this visit. After having seen off the suspicions of Aunt Stanbury, Priscilla feels that she and her mother have been compromised by Osborne's visit, and Louis is furious. It's decided that Emily and Nora will be sent back to London until their parents return, to stay with their uncle, the Reverend Outhouse and his wife in the East End.
Back in Wells, Aunt Stanbury offers Dorothy a dowry to marry Reverend Gibson, a young man whose high opinion of himself is shared by Dorothy's aunt. Hugh visits the rectory on behalf of Louis and takes advantage of being briefly alone with Nora to propose. Her reaction shows Hugh that she loves him, before they are interrupted by an outraged Mrs. Outhouse, who drives him out of the house.
Louis flees to Italy to seek refuge from his memories. Crossing the Alps by coach, he encounters Glascock and two American sisters - Caroline and Olivia Spalding. In Florence, Glascock falls in love with Caroline Spalding, despite the startling difference in their backgrounds.
Aunt Stanbury throws a dinner party to encourage Gibson to propose to Dorothy, to the dismay of the French sisters, Arabella and Camilla, who are already vying for his attentions. Aunt Stanbury's heir, Brooke Burgess, has arrived to stay. Dorothy finds him far more congenial than Gibson, and when the Reverend proposes to Dorothy, she declines. Gibson is angry at the rejection, as Aunt Stanbury has assured him of success. He is also aware that he needs to secure a match before the luster of his eligibility wears off. However, he makes the mistake of criticizing Dorothy to her aunt, who promptly throws him out.
Tensions at the Outhouse's are rising, but Emily is as determined as ever not to admit to any wrongdoing. Osborne, a vain man flattered to be linked to a beautiful young woman, visits the house to enquire after her. Rev. Outhouse turns him away without seeing Emily, but Bozzle, who has been embellishing the evidence of an affair to please his master, nevertheless reports this visit to Louis in Italy. Louis demands that his son be sent to live with him. Gibson has allowed the rumor to spread that it was he who turned down Dorothy, rather than the other way round, and is confronted at the French's by a furious Aunt Stanbury. He fears his reputation has been ruined, but the wily Mrs. French points out that a proposal of marriage to one of her daughters will lend credence to his story. Cornered, he plumps for the younger and prettier Camilla.
Emily has refused to give up her son, and Louis gives Bozzle the authority to seize him. Prompted by the misgivings of his wife, Bozzle begins to worry that his employer is taking things too far. But he needs the job, so he tries to take the boy from the rectory and fails, thanks to a brave stand by the Rev. Outhouse.
Nora sneaks out of the rectory to meet Hugh, who proposes again. This time she joyfully accepts, although any further action must await the arrival in England of her parents. In Italy, Louis learns of the failure of Bozzle's mission. He decides to come back to London and reclaim his son himself.
Louis arrives in London unkempt, disheveled and friendless, driven by his obsession that his wife has betrayed him. When Emily meets him in the hope of a reconciliation she is shocked by the deterioration in his health. They try to resolve their differences, but the attempt founders, and a settlement seems further off than ever.
In Wells, Arabella has learnt of Gibson's engagement to her sister and retires to bed, distraught. Aunt Stanbury has fallen ill, and Brooke is sent for as her heir. As she gradually recovers, Brooke and Dorothy become closer, and the night before he leaves, Brooke proposes. Taken by surprise, Dorothy is not sure whether he is serious, and when she tells Aunt Stanbury she is told to write to Brooke and break it off at once. She complies with her aunt's instruction, but they row and she resolves to return to her mother and sister in Nuncombe.
By now Emily and Nora's parents have arrived in London. Weak with relief, the girls set out from the rectory to meet them at their hotel. But despite his misgivings, Bozzle has faithfully carried out Louis's orders. The carriage is diverted to a quiet street and the boy is kidnapped from his mother. Emily is distraught, fearing she will never see her son again. Lady Rowley arranges to meet Louis and makes an unsuccessful plea to him to return the little boy. She is shocked by his condition. Sir Marmaduke consults a QC, who points out that Louis, as the father, is within his rights to seize the boy.
Hugh visits the Rowleys and offers to help track Louis down, but this does nothing to mollify Sir Marmaduke when he learns that his daughter is intending to marry this penniless journalist. He storms off to his club, where he bumps into Osborne and challenges him over his role in the tragedy. Osborne denies any guilt.
Back in Wells, Camilla is relishing her position as the future Mrs. Gibson. She has become unbearably bossy and is spending far too much on her trousseau, to the dismay of her mother and Mr. Gibson, who keeps postponing the wedding. Arabella skillfully contrives to take advantage of the situation from her sickbed.
Hugh's inquiries have led him to Louis's hideout, River's Cottage in the Willesden countryside. He goes there with Emily and Lady Rowley. Emily begs Louis to release their son, but this unexpected visit only hardens Louis's resolve to leave the country and take his son with him.
Louis flees back to Italy with his son, and Sir Marmaduke reluctantly agrees to allow Hugh to try and track him down again.
In Wells, a lonely Aunt Stanbury sends her maid to Nuncombe with a peace offering for Dorothy. She arrives to find Brooke, who has refused to accept Dorothy's letter and has persuaded her to marry him despite her aunt's embargo. Meanwhile, a desperate Gibson confesses to Mrs. French that he cannot go through with his marriage to Camilla. Without missing a beat, she corners him into proposing to Arabella instead.
Hugh goes to see Bozzle and appeals to his conscience. Bozzle, who is coming under intense pressure from his wife over his role in the affair, reveals the postal address he has been using to contact Louis. Armed with this information, the Rowleys follow Louis to Italy. Lady Rowley has the added agenda of bringing Nora and Glascock back together, as Sir Marmaduke still refuses to countenance Hugh as a match for his daughter. However when they arrive in Florence, Lady Rowley is disappointed to find out that Glascock is already engaged to Caroline Spalding.
Dorothy generously agrees to visit her aunt, but insists on telling her the truth. Aunt Stanbury tells her that the marriage cannot go ahead, explaining that the tangled financial history of their two families makes the match impossible. She pleads with Dorothy to give Brooke up, and a devastated Dorothy reluctantly agrees. But Dorothy's grief makes a profound impression on her aunt. She decides to override all the family barriers and give Dorothy and Brooke her blessing.
After breaking off their engagement by letter, Gibson is confronted in person by an enraged Camilla. Returning to the house, she threatens to stab Arabella, and anyone else who comes between her and her trousseau. Mrs. French is forced to call in Uncle Crump. Faced with her formidable uncle, Camilla's resistance collapses and she is carted off to Gloucester, leaving Gibson resigned to his fate with her sister.
With Glascock's help, the Rowleys track Louis down to an isolated farmhouse in the hills. Emily is allowed to visit her son, who seems withdrawn and afraid of his father. She pleads with her husband to release him, and after she leaves, Louis asks the child if he wants to return to his mother. When he hesitantly says yes, Louis's heart is finally broken. Emily, still bound to her husband despite everything and fearful for his welfare, decides to stay in Italy to be near him.
She is overjoyed when Hugh arrives to try and save his old friend, having learned of Louis's worsening condition. His generous response wins over Lady Rowley, although her husband remains skeptical.
Visiting the farmhouse with Emily and Nora, Hugh finds Louis near to collapse but refusing to return to England where he can be properly looked after. In desperation, Emily tells him that the locals are planning to have him committed to an asylum. At last, Louis agrees to be brought home.
Back in England, Louis is installed in River's Cottage with Emily and his son. Nora's future remains uncertain. Although her mother has accepted Hugh, her father is still opposed to the match and intends to take her back to the Mandarins. As the Rowleys pack to return home, Nora announces that she is staying behind to marry Hugh, with or without her father's consent. A major confrontation is avoided by the timely intervention of Lady Rowley, and Sir Marmaduke's discovery that, with Hugh's reputation as a journalist growing, his future prospects are surprisingly bright. He finally gives his consent and Hugh learns the news from a delighted Nora.
Louis's condition has worsened, and he is near to death. Emily is desperate for a reconciliation, but Louis still cannot bring himself to acknowledge that she has never betrayed him, and that it is his delusions that have brought this tragedy upon them. She begs him at least to signal his belief in her innocence with a kiss. As he dies, he gently brushes her hand with his lips.
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