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Denis Stone, a shy young poet, goes to a house party at Crome, the country home of Henry Wimbush and his wife. He goes because he is in love with Wimbush’s niece, Anne. Anne looks down on Denis because he is four years younger than she, and she treats him with scorn when he attempts to speak of love. Mr. Wimbush is interested in little except Crome and the histories of the people who lived in the old house. Mrs. Wimbush is a woman with red hair, probably false, and with an interest in astrology, especially since she recently won a bet on a horse with her star-given information. Other guests at the party include Gombauld, an artist who was invited to paint Anne’s picture; the diabolically reasonable Mr. Scrogan; deaf Jenny Mullion; and Mary Bracegirdle, who is worried about her Freudian dreams. Denis and Anne quarrel, this time over their philosophies of life. Denis tries to carry all the cares of the world on his back, but Anne thinks that things should be taken for granted as they come. The quarrel costs Denis his first opportunity to tell Anne that he loves her.

Mary discusses her dreams and repressions with Anne. Having decided to secure either Gombauld or Denis for a husband, she chooses the wrong times to talk with both men. Gombauld is busy painting when Mary comes up to him. Denis is smarting with jealousy over the time Anne and Gombauld spend together.

Ivor Lombard arrives for the party. Ivor, a painter of ghosts and spirits, turns his attentions toward repressed Mary and secretly visits her one night in the tower. He goes away without seeing her again.

At various times, Mr. Wimbush calls the party together while he reads stories of the early history of Crome. These stories are from a history on which Mr. Wimbush worked for thirty years. Denis often wonders if he will ever get a chance to tell Anne that he loves her. Walking in the garden after a talk with Mr. Scrogan, whose cold-blooded ideas about a rationalized world annoy him, he finds a red notebook in which Jenny was writing for the past week. The notebook contains a collection of sharply satirical cartoons of all the people at the house party. Jenny drew him in seven attitudes that illustrate his absurd jealousy, incompetence, and shyness. The cartoons deeply wound his vanity and shatter his self-conception.

He is further discouraged by the fact that there is nothing for him to do at a charity fair held in the park outside Crome a few days later. Mr. Scrogan makes a terrifying and successful fortune-teller; Jenny plays the drums; Mr. Wimbush runs the various races; and Denis is left to walk aimlessly through the fair as an official with nothing to do. Gombauld makes sketches of the people in the crowd, and Anne stays by his side.

The night after the fair, Denis overhears part of a conversation between Gombauld and Anne. Denis is unaware that Anne repulsed Gombauld, for she made up her mind to accept Denis if he ever gets around to asking her; consequently, he spends hours of torture thinking of the uselessness of his life. At last, he decides to commit suicide by jumping from the tower. There he finds Mary grieving, because she received only a brisk postcard from Ivor. She convinces Denis that both their lives are ruined and advises him to flee from Anne. Convinced, Denis arranges a fake telegram calling him back to London on urgent business. When it arrives, Denis realizes with dismay that Anne is miserable to see him go. The telegram is the one decisive action of his life. Ironically, it separates him from Anne.

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