After a difficult marriage with a drunken husband that ends in separation, Mrs. Mooney opens a boarding house to make a living. Her son, Jack, and daughter, Polly, live with her in the house, which is filled with clerks from the city, as well as occasional tourists and musicians. Mrs. Mooney runs a strict and tight business and is known by the lodgers as “The Madam.” Polly, who used to work in an office, now stays at home at her mother’s request, to amuse the lodgers and help with the cleaning. Surrounded by so many young men, Polly inevitably develops a relationship with one of them, Mr. Doran. Mrs. Mooney knows about the relationship, but instead of sending Polly back to work in the city, she monitors its developments. Polly becomes increasingly uncomfortable with her mother’s lack of intervention, but Mrs. Mooney waits until “the right moment” to intercede. First she speaks awkwardly with Polly, then arranges to speak with Mr. Doran on a Sunday morning.
Mrs. Mooney looks forward to her confrontation, which she intends to “win” by defending her daughter’s honor and convincing Mr. Doran to offer his hand in marriage. Waiting for the time to pass, Mrs. Mooney figures the odds are in her favor, considering that Mr. Doran, who has worked for a wine merchant for thirteen years and garnered much respect, will choose the option that least harms his career.
Meanwhile, Mr. Doran anguishes over the impending meeting with Mrs. Mooney. As he clumsily grooms himself for the appointment, he reviews the difficult confession to his priest that he made on Saturday evening, in which he was harshly reproved for his romantic affair. He knows he can either marry Polly or run away, the latter an option that would ruin his sound reputation. Convincing himself that he has been duped, Mr. Doran bemoans Polly’s unimpressive family, her ill manners, and her poor grammar, and wonders how he can remain free and unmarried. In this vexed moment Polly enters the room and threatens to end her life out of unhappiness. In her presence, Mr. Doran begins to remember how he was bewitched by Polly’s beauty and kindness, but he still wavers about his decision.
Uneasy, Mr. Doran comforts Polly and departs for the meeting, leaving her to wait in the room. She rests on the bed crying for a while, neatens her appearance, and then nestles back in the bed, dreaming of her possible future with Mr. Doran. Finally, Mrs. Mooney interrupts the reverie by calling to her daughter. Mr. Doran, according to Mrs. Mooney, wants to speak with Polly.