Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1141
Ephraim Tellwright is a miser, one of the wealthiest men in any of the Five Towns, a group of small industrial towns joined by a single road. He is a former Methodist lay preacher and teacher, concerned more with getting congregations in sound financial shape than with their souls. Although he married money and makes more money from rentals and foreclosures, he lives in the most frugal way possible and gives his two daughters nothing but the barest essentials. Both of his wives have died, the first giving him his daughter Anna and the second producing Agnes. Tellwright is usually taciturn. As long as his meals are on time, no money is wasted, and the house is never left alone and unguarded, he pays little attention to his daughters. Anna loves her father, even though she can never feel close to him. Agnes, much younger, follows her sister’s lead. The two girls are unusually close, having no one else in their lives.
On Anna’s twenty-first birthday, her father calls her into his office and tells her that she is inheriting almost fifty thousand pounds from her mother’s estate. He invested the original sum wisely, and it grew to a fortune. Anna, who never owned one pound to call her own, cannot comprehend an amount so large. Accustomed to letting her father handle all business affairs, she willingly gives him control of her fortune. The income from the stocks and rentals is deposited in the bank in her name, but she gives her father her checkbook and signs only when she is instructed to do so. The money makes little difference in Anna’s life; it simply stays in the bank until her father tells her to invest it.
One result of the money, however, creates unhappiness for Anna. Among her properties is a run-down factory owned by Titus Price, who is also a Methodist and superintendent of the chapel’s Sunday school. Because Price is continually behind in his rent, Tellwright forces Anna to keep demanding something on account. Knowing that the property will never rent to anyone else, the old miser never puts Price out but keeps hounding him for as much as the man can pay. Anna usually has to deal with Willie Price, the son, and she always leaves the interview with a feeling of guilt. Although the sight of Willie’s embarrassment leaves her unhappy, she always demands his money, because she is afraid to face her father without it.
A teacher in the Sunday school in which Anna teaches is Henry Mynors, already at the age of thirty a pillar in the chapel and a successful man in the community. Anna is attracted to him, and she tries to join in his religious fervor but cannot quite bring herself to repent or to accept God publicly at the revival meetings. She feels that repentance should be a private matter. Henry is clearly in love with her. When the townspeople say that he is interested mainly in her money, Anna refuses to believe the gossip. Henry begins to call on her occasionally, combining his courtship with business with Tellwright. The miser persuades Anna to invest some of her money in Henry’s business after first arranging for a large share of the profits and a high interest.
After Anna comes in to her fortune, she is invited for the first time to the house of Mrs. Sutton, the town’s social leader. Mrs. Sutton’s daughter Beatrice and Anna becomes friends. Rumors spread that Beatrice and Henry were once engaged. The Suttons take Anna and Henry to the Isle of Man on a vacation, and Anna thinks there can never again be such luxurious living. It was necessary for her to take ten pounds of her own money to get clothes for the trip, but her father berated her violently when she told him what she did. Her time spent with Henry and the Suttons, however, helps her forget his anger. When the vacation is marred by Beatrice’s serious illness, Anna wins a permanent place in the Suttons’ affection by her unselfish and competent nursing.
After Beatrice recovers, Anna and Henry return home. Before they leave the island, Henry proposes to Anna, and she accepts. Later her father gives his consent, because Henry knows the value of money. Young Agnes is enchanted by the romantic aspects of the courtship, and Anna is happy in her quiet love for Henry. The joy of her engagement, however, is immediately clouded by the news that old Mr. Price hanged himself. Anna feels that she and her father are to blame, because they hounded him for his rent. Henry assures her that Mr. Price was in debt to many people and that she need not feel guilty. Nevertheless, Anna worries a great deal about the suicide and about Willie, for whom she has quite maternal feelings.
Later, Willie confesses to her that a bank note he gave in payment was forged. The confession seems to reduce Willie to nothing. Anna realizes that he and his father were driven to desperation, and she tries to protect Willie and Mr. Price’s reputation by taking the forged note from her father’s office. When she tells her father that she burned the note, he is furious with her and never forgives her.
Because Willie is planning to make a fresh start in Australia, Henry arranges to rent the Price house, intending that he and Anna will live there after they are married. Although Anna is sure she can never be happy in a house the miserable Prices owned, she is docile and lets Henry make all the arrangements. When Anna tells her father that she needs one hundred pounds to pay for her linens and her wedding clothes, Tellwright denounces her as a spendthrift. Handing over the checkbook, he tells her not to bother him again about her money. Henry, pleased at the turn of events, is full of plans for the use of Anna’s fortune.
It becomes known that before his death, Mr. Price defrauded the chapel of fifty pounds. Anna tries to keep the information from Willie, but someone tells him just as he is ready to leave for Australia. When he tells Anna good-bye, he looks like a whipped child. As Anna looks into his eyes for the last time, she realizes suddenly that he loves her and that she loves him. She lets him go, however, because she feels bound by her promise to Henry. She was dutiful all her life; it is too late for her to change.
Willie is never heard from again. Had anyone in Five Towns happened to look into an abandoned pitshaft, the mystery of Willie would have been solved. The meek lad found his only way to peace.