The story begins with Harry Barnfield shown in his accustomed routine: perpetually late, running to catch his commuter train out of London, short, aging, and vaguely clownish, the butt of good-natured jokes by his fellow commuters. The reader soon sees why he is always late: His rural home, lovely as it is, is hardly the sort of place one would make a special effort to reach, for Harry’s wife, Katey, is a more vicious shrew than her namesake, Katherina, in William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.
Rather than try to tame Katey—their marriage has been sour for too long, the reader senses—Harry takes solace in Valerie, a girl he accosts for riding her pony, without permission, across his property. Valerie is everything that Katey is not: young, vivacious, sensitive, and, most of all, caring toward Harry. Harry’s fondness for her is hardly lessened when he learns that her mother, Edna, is the same who many years ago initiated him into the joys of sex. Edna, in fact, would very much like to strike up the match again, Katey notwithstanding.
For more than two months Harry and Valerie meet for walks and horseback rides in the woods, but the situation is too volatile to continue forever. The crisis comes at the Hunt Ball, an autumnal rite involving much dancing and drinking. Edna pressures Harry into taking her and, as an afterthought, Valerie. There, Harry and Valerie’s feelings for each other become evident even to Edna. Edna tells Valerie to go home. Valerie refuses and dances with and openly kisses Harry before her dangerously calm mother. After the ball, Harry drives mother and daughter home. Harry and Edna have a discussion in the car, during which Edna warns that Valerie will have to be told everything about their past. Enraged, Harry strikes Edna and drives wildly off with her down the twisting lanes, screaming that he will kill her. Edna leaps out, shaken but unharmed. The car crashes, and Harry is killed.
The story ends with Harry’s funeral, attended by friends, neighbors, and fellow commuters—but attended by no one who loved him.