This short story provides a snapshot of how two unhappy people meet. Henry, the youth in the story, is with his parents as they travel with his father's choir group to a competition.
Henry's father, Alfred, is the conductor of the Orpheus Male Voice Glee Singers. However, by trade, Alfred is a draper. During the day, Henry tends to the family drapery while Alfred practices songs for upcoming performances. We are told that Henry has a slight build and nervous temperament, the result of years of working in an "ill-ventilated and gloomy shop."
All things considered, Henry is deeply unhappy with his life circumstances. Although he accompanies his parents to choir competitions and performances, he finds little to enjoy in the experience.
At one particular competition, he meets an attractive young woman, Maddalena. However, Maddalena is married to a quarrelsome old man. She has neither the freedom to pursue her own interests nor to form satisfying relationships with others. In the story, we learn that her brother is the only family she has left. Their parents are deceased.
It is Maddalena's brother, Antonio, who plans all of the musical performances on their property. During their chance encounter, Henry discovers the depth of Maddalena's unhappiness. He detects feelings of anger, fear, bitterness, helplessness, and dejection in her.
For his part, Henry is also deeply unhappy. And, since Maddalena is married, Henry knows that he can't pursue a romantic relationship with her. So, in essence, both Henry and Maddalena are trapped in circumstances that promise neither happiness nor deep personal fulfillment.