Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 990
When Justine Brent, a nurse who is visiting Mrs. Harry Dressel at Hanaford, volunteers to care for Dillon, an operator who was injured at Westmore Mills, she is approached by John Amherst, the assistant manager of the mills. Amherst deplores the miserable living and working conditions of the mill workers and, since Dillon’s accident was a result of these conditions, he wants to use his case to show the need for improvement to Bessy Westmore, the newly widowed owner of the mills who is due to make an inspection tour the following day.
The next day, Amherst conducts Bessy through the mills. Touched by Dillon’s case, Bessy decides to stay at Hanaford for a while. She recalls that she and Justine attended school together before Justine’s parents lost their wealth.
Bessy and Amherst make plans to improve the living conditions of the workers, and this association finally leads to their marriage. Amherst, hoping to make Westmore Mills a model of humanitarianism, is disillusioned to learn that Bessy is not willing to sacrifice the time or the money to accomplish this end.
Some time later, Justine comes to Lynbrook, the Amherst country house, to be a companion to Bessy, who is not feeling well. Amherst, meanwhile, spends most of his time at the mills in Hanaford. Bessy, to compensate for Amherst’s long absences, begins to entertain lavishly, at the same time confiding her bitterness and loneliness to Justine. Later, Amherst decides to manage a friend’s cotton mill in the South.
Justine writes to Amherst saying that Bessy needs him. Amherst replies that he will not return and, in a postscript, asks her not to permit Bessy to ride a particularly spirited horse they own. Bessy, learning of his request, later takes the horse out into the frost-covered countryside. There Bessy suffers an accident that seriously injures her spinal cord. She is taken home and looked after by Dr. Wyant, a local doctor whose proposal Justine refused some time before. A surgeon and various other consultants are also summoned. Bessy remains paralyzed after an operation; Justine knows that Bessy will never recover. By this time, Amherst is on a business trip into a remote part of South America, and Bessy’s father is in Europe.
One day, while Justine is caring for her, Bessy regains enough consciousness from her opiated state to plead with Justine to relieve her pain. Justine, convinced that she is doing the right thing, later gives Bessy an overdose of morphine. When Dr. Wyant comes into the room, Justine tells him that Bessy is dead. Dr. Wyant seems to sense what happened.
A year and a half later, Amherst is back at the Westmore Mills. Bessy left half her fortune to Cicely, her daughter by her first marriage, and the other half to Amherst. He lives at Hanaford and continues his plans of reconstruction. In the meantime, Justine is taking care of Cicely and an intimate friendship develops between the two. Later, when she goes to visit Mrs. Dressel in Hanaford, Justine meets Amherst again, a romance develops between them, and they are married. Cicely goes to live with her grandfather. Justine takes an active part in Amherst’s work.
Dr. Wyant, who left Lynwood and married, now needs money, and he comes to Justine and threatens to expose her mercy killing of Bessy unless she arranges to have Amherst write him a letter of recommendation to Mr. Langhope, who can give him a responsible hospital post. Justine, realizing that Dr. Wyant is a narcotics addict, cannot in her conscience arrange a recommendation for him. When she goes out of the room, Amherst comes in. Learning that Dr. Wyant is in financial straits, Amherst writes him a letter of recommendation in gratitude for his services to Bessy. On her return, Justine tells her husband that Dr. Wyant is not qualified for the hospital post. Dr. Wyant, in retaliation, charges Justine with the mercy killing and leaves. Intellectually, Amherst approves of Justine. Emotionally, he is horrified at what she did. Their relationship becomes strained.
When Dr. Wyant is appointed to the hospital post, Amherst remembers the letter of recommendation. He knows that if Mr. Langhope is told about Dr. Wyant’s addiction to narcotics, the doctor will in turn disclose Justine’s crime. Amherst tells Justine that if Mr. Langhope thinks that she was in love with Amherst when she killed Bessy, he and Justine will have to give up the mills, go away, and start a new life. Justine secretly goes to New York to see Mr. Langhope and tells him the truth about Dr. Wyant and herself. She then promises to disappear if Mr. Langhope will continue on his former terms with Amherst. Mr. Langhope agrees.
Justine, returning to Hanaford, tells Amherst that Mr. Langhope took the news very well. In the course of the following months, Amherst’s horror of Justine’s crime causes their relationship to deteriorate even more. At last, Justine goes to Michigan to resume her nursing career, thus fulfilling her promise to Mr. Langhope.
A year later, Cicely becomes ill. Mr. Langhope, realizing that she needs Justine’s love, asks Justine to come back to Amherst so that she can be close to Cicely. When Amherst learns why Justine left him, he feels love for her and remorse for his attitude. They continue, however, to feel somewhat estranged.
About a year later, Amherst, speaking at the dedication of the mill workers’ new recreational center, gives a stirring tribute to Bessy who, he says, drew up the plans herself. Justine realizes that Amherst is referring to the plans for a gymnasium that Bessy intended for her own pleasure at Lynbrook, in open defiance of Amherst’s wishes. Although angry, Justine keeps Bessy’s secret.
As they leave the dedication, Amherst tells Justine how good he feels about improved conditions at the mill. They walk away hand in hand.