Mrs. Transome, who long held Transome Court together in spite of financial and legal difficulties and an incompetent husband, eagerly awaits the return of Harold, her younger son. Harold, who was building up a fortune in Smyrna for the preceding fifteen years, is called home to take his place as heir to Transome Court after the death of his weak older brother, Durfey. Harold, whose wife is dead, also brings with him a young son.
Mrs. Transome is soon disappointed by Harold. Although he is generous with money and renovates the shabby mansion, he is not willing to respect Mrs. Transome’s wishes for a genteel country life, particularly when he announces that he intends to run for Parliament as a Radical candidate. To his mother, he seems to show a surprising knowledge and shrewdness about contemporary English life. In his campaign, he receives the support of his family’s lawyer, Matthew Jermyn, and his uncle, the Reverend John Lingon. Neither had thought of deserting the Tory colors before his arrival.
More understandably committed to the Radical cause is Rufus Lyon, the local dissenting minister. One day he receives a visit from Mrs. Holt, one of his parishioners, who complains that her son deliberately stopped the business in patent medicines that she and her late husband painstakingly established. Her son, Felix, claims that the business is fraudulent; Mrs. Holt, on the other hand, is convinced that God would not allow a fraudulent business to prosper. The minister later sends for young Felix, whom he finds highly intelligent, energetic, honest, and independent. Although well educated, Felix is working as a watchmaker in order to feel close to the people. The two men soon became close friends. At the Lyons’ home, Felix also meets Rufus’s daughter Esther, a slight, refined girl educated abroad, who is now teaching the daughters of the rich and reading Lord Byron’s poems. The energetic and socially conscious Felix rails at Esther’s refinement and at her reading of romantic fantasies, but as time passes, a strange attraction between the two begins to grow. Esther, although she does not know it at the time, is not the daughter of Rufus Lyon. Her mother was a Frenchwoman, alone and destitute, whom Rufus found wandering the English streets. Her soldier husband sent for her, but he died before she could find him. With her child, she is befriended by Rufus, who gives up a successful post in order to continue to be with her and who later marries her.
Harold, beginning his election campaign, leaves the organizing to his lawyer, Matthew Jermyn. Jermyn hires another lawyer, Mr. Johnson, to go to a workers’ pub and stir the men into active support of the Radical candidate. Felix is in the pub at the time. Although a Radical, he objects strongly to the rabble-rousing technique used by Johnson and carries his protest directly to Harold. Although sympathetic to Felix’s point of view, Harold feels somewhat indebted to Jermyn, who helped his mother retain her property through difficult years and an earlier lawsuit. While walking home through the woods, Felix finds a purse belonging to Christian, one of the Debarry servants; as a practical joke, the purse was stolen from his pocket and tossed away while Christian was asleep in the woods. Along with the purse are some papers belonging to Philip Debarry, the Conservative candidate for Parliament.
When Felix takes the papers to Rufus, his friend is amazed to discover evidence that Christian is the first husband of Rufus’s French wife and the father of Esther. Through Jermyn, however, Rufus learns that Christian is really...
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a scoundrel named Henry Scaddon who, in order to save himself, exchanged identities with Maurice Christian Bycliffe, Esther’s real father, just before Bycliffe’s death. Jermyn also knows that the Bycliffe line established Esther as the real heiress of Transome Court, should an old and senile Transome, who moved to Treby, die. Although Jermyn keeps his information for possible use against the Transome family, Rufus tells his daughter of her origins. Meanwhile, Harold continues campaigning, and the friendship between Esther and Felix grows.
As Felix fears, the workers riot on the day of the election. Felix, hoping to quell the riot, heads it for a time in a futile effort to lead the workers away from the town. Unsuccessful in his purpose, he is charged with killing a constable. The old Transome is also trampled in the riot. Esther is legally the heiress of Transome Court. Harold, who loses the election, now turns his attention to Transome Court. Discovering that Jermyn and Johnson, Jermyn’s henchman, were cheating the estate for years, he decides to get rid of Jermyn at once and sue him. Jermyn tries to avoid the suit by telling Harold that the estate really belongs to Esther but that Jermyn will remain silent if Harold drops proceedings against him. Harold refuses the bribe. Later, he and his mother invite Esther to live with them at Transome Court. Both are charmed with Esther, and Harold courts her, partly to regain the estate through marriage.
Meanwhile, Felix’s case is announced for trial. Rufus, Harold, and Esther testify to Felix’s attempts to quell the riot, but he killed a man, although inadvertently, and so he is sentenced to an imprisonment of four years. Esther’s plea is so powerful that it moves even the arch-Tory, Sir Maximus Debarry, who helps petition Parliament to grant Felix a pardon. Felix is soon released. In the meantime, Mrs. Transome is unhappy that Harold rejected Jermyn thoroughly and is attempting to sue him. Harold, claiming that Jermyn is a thief, intends to carry out the suit. In a final burst of fury, Jermyn tells Harold the truth: He is Harold’s father and, during his long affair with Mrs. Transome, saved the estate during several difficult times. Harold is crushed, and only Esther is able to reconcile him to his unhappy mother. Feeling his illegitimacy keenly, Harold tells Esther that he cannot, as he intended, ask for her hand. This declaration saves Esther much embarrassment, for she already acknowledged her love for Felix. To solve problems for all concerned, Esther signs over her rights to Transome Court to Harold, returns to her father’s house, and soon marries Felix.