In 1900, in a small Alabama town, three siblings are attempting to negotiate a lucrative deal that will bring northern manufacturing to the area so that the cotton crop will not have to be sent away for processing. Among these three, the accumulation of wealth takes precedence over family loyalty, decency, honor, and morality.
The two brothers, Oscar and Ben Hubbard, are heirs to their father’s fortune; sister Regina is not named in the will. To ensure that she will be on equal footing with her brothers she marries a man of considerable wealth. Her husband, Horace Giddens, has been in a Baltimore hospital for months, recovering from a serious heart problem. It seems that the deal to bring the cotton mill to town will go through if Regina can come up with her one-third of the collateral within two weeks, money she hopes will come from Horace.
Oscar, the least bright of the siblings, secures his future by marrying Birdie, whose family has the most prosperous cotton fields in the area. Shortly after the wedding, Oscar’s inherent meanness shines through. He accuses his wife of babbling nonsensically, of drinking too much (which is true), and of behaving foolishly. He even slaps her across the face when he feels she is undermining his schemes. Birdie is too timid and subdued to stand up to his abuses. Even her pleas for him to stop shooting small birds for sport are ineffectual. He throws the dead birds away rather than give them to poor and hungry black people. By this time, Birdie’s family land has been bought by the Hubbards, leaving her with nothing but wistful hopes of a return one day to a more genteel South where family comes first. Ben is unmarried and dreams mostly of buying a horse farm with the money.
Addie and Cal, two subservient and powerless, but wise, black servants, comment on the evil around them; still, they continue to serve. Horace wants to name Addie in his will, but she points out that the money would never get to her. Such is the status of blacks in the South. There is no way for them to fight a corrupt legal system. Addie takes on the job of alerting Regina and Horace’s daughter, Alexandra, to the machinations of the family.
Regina hosts a dinner party in honor of Chicago industrialist William Marshall, who is considering building a cotton mill in town. Regina is ruthless in her determination to gain power and wealth and is winning over the guest with her great charm. A major complication arises, though: Regina cannot produce her portion of the needed funds without her husband, Horace, so she sends daughter Alexandra to the hospital to convince her father to return home. Sadly, Horace still holds on to a glimmer of hope that someone may care for him.
Meanwhile, Birdie and Oscar’s son, Leo, disliked even by Birdie, gains access to Horace’s safe deposit box through a friend at the local bank and learns that Horace has more than enough in bonds to meet Regina’s obligation. The plan is to take the bonds long enough to provide good-faith capital and to then return them before Horace has a chance to check the box. By this time, the family is already making plans for Leo and Alexandra, first cousins, to wed, thereby grounding the family in further wealth. Leo and Alexandra, however, do not like each other.
Upon his return from the hospital, Horace catches on to the scheming and changes his will in such a way that his wife will be forever dependent upon her brothers. Horace and Regina quarrel furiously, leading Horace to suffer an attack. In reaching for his life-saving medicine, he sends the bottle crashing to the floor. Regina knows that a second bottle is in the upstairs bedroom, but she sits there passively while Horace struggles out of his wheelchair and heads for the stairs. He collapses and dies half-way up.