In what the narrator sets up as a silly-minded impulsive, though generous, thing to do, Rosemary Fell, after having established her wealth by buying costly trinkets in an antique store, invites an abandoned young woman, who is standing out under a corner street light in the rain, to ride in her car with her to get a cup of tea at her home and wait out the rain. Rosemary has secret ambitions to help the girl, to reform her, really, and shocks her friend Jane and her fiancé Philip by her introduction of the girl into her wardrobe (giving her a blouse, sweater and skirt) and her intimate, inner rooms (her bedroom). Of course, Rosemary's scheme falls apart and havoc is wreaked in three lives.
Events progress in a series when, after Eleanor (the name of the girl "picked up" by Rosemary, Eleanor Smith) has left Rosemary's home--after having turned Philip's head with her raw, uncultivated beauty--Jane chases her down the block to give her a recommendation to employment with a milliner, a friend of Jane's. After getting the job, Eleanor is sent to Miss Wetzel's boarding house, modest but respectable, and meets Josie, an aspiring actress working as a waitress.
Rosemary's life begins to unravel as Philip's words about Eleanor's beauty echo through her thoughts. Philip's life begins to take a new shape as Eleanor's beauty revisits his mind again and again. Eleanor's life begins to be simultaneously shattered and enriched as she finds Philip awaiting her and insisting on her presence with him.
As the complications of history, which make up the backdrop of this interesting but poorly written and weakly crafted story, progress, Philip goes to war. To accommodate his entry in America's armed forces, he is given until two days after his wedding to Rosemary to report for duty. Rosemary is required to move the wedding date up a month to meet the demands of the military.
Eleanor sees the wedding announcement in the papers and, in a somewhat incongruous scene and gesture, throws the paper at Philip's feet, the offending announcement and photograph submerging into the water of a puddle. Later, under cover of a veil and hidden by the crowd gatehred to watch the society event, Eleanor watches the newly married couple leave the church. Watching, she was feeling the distance between them like a physical barrier blockading her from Philip. After two days, Philip goes to war.
It was the first deployment of U.S. troops to Europe. Three military transport ships were leaving and it seemed as if half of New York had turned out. ... Rosemary had gone with Philip to the Hudson Dock to see him off. ... Rosemary held onto Philip's arm tightly, as if she could never let him go.
Philip is taken prisoner by the Germans. His whereabouts are unknown. Eleanor learns she is pregnant with Philip's child. Rosemary doesn't hear from him. Pregnant Eleanor doesn't hear from him. His baby is born to Eleanor and still his whereabouts are unknown.
When Eleanor receives a letter from Philip, she is overwhelmed by emotion as he says that his war flashbacks are flashbacks of his love for her and that, despite duty and honor, he will be coming home to her. Thought for a long time to have died, Philip finally comes home. Eleanor has a dream come true when she is once again sitting beside Philip in his carriage: "It was cold, sitting there without a sweater. Eleanor turned to Philip in the carriage next to her."
Though Rosemary--finally knowing all regarding Philip, Eleanor and their baby--would agree to continue with Philip in their place and role in society, Philip embraces his baby and kisses Eleanor, thus reuniting and rekindling their illicit love and leaving Rosemary alone regretting her impulse of generosity expressed in the cup of tea.