The central conflict in this classic novel is between Tressilian and Varney as he struggles to see justice done on Varney. Let us remember how this conflict emerges: Michael Lambourne, who has something of a shady past, has just returned home after his itinerant wanderings. He spends the night at Giles Gosling's inn drinking and boasting, and he bets that he can enter Cumnor Place, a large manor where an old acquaintance is now workign as a steward. A village rumour suggested that Tony Foster had a beautiful young woman kept there. Michael and Edmund go together, and as Tressilian had expected, the woman they find there is his former love, Amy Robsart, who is apparently being kept there as prisoner willingly. They also meet Richard Varney, who they assume to be her seducer, and Tressillian and Varney fight until Lambourne breaks the fight up.
Edmund Tressilian, another guest at the inn, went with Michael to Cumnor Place. As Tressilian had suspected, he found the woman there to be his former sweetheart, Amy Robsart, apparently a willing prisoner. He also encountered Richard Varney, her supposed seducer, and the two men engaged in a sword fight. Michael Lambourne, who had decided to ally himself with his old friend, Tony Foster, intervened.
Even though we realise as the plot develops that things are a lot more complicated than they seem, the rest of the plot is the outplay of this initial conflict, as Tressilian seeks to save his former sweetheart and bring Varney, as he sees it, to justice. What actually happens though is something very different.