(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

After a long illness, from which she was not expected to recover, Anthony’s wife, a woman in her fifties, feels that she has been given another chance to make herself worthy of heaven. To show her gratitude for this second chance, she dresses herself in her wedding gown, which is also to be her shroud, and goes to church the first Sunday morning she is able. Before she goes, she and her daughter Clara have a heart-to-heart talk, during which the mother discloses her fears about her son, Karl, who spends too much time drinking and playing and not enough time working steadily. The mother feels that his attitudes and his conduct are her fault, but still she refuses to believe he is really a bad young man.

The mother also raises the subject of Leonard, a poor young clerk who has visited Clara regularly but has not been seen for a while. Shortly after Clara’s mother leaves for church, Leonard comes to see Clara and explains that he has not seen her for two weeks for a particular reason. During that time he has been attentive to the mayor’s daughter in an effort to get himself a job as clerk for the city. Leonard also accuses her of being in love with another man even though, a very short time before, Clara had given herself to Leonard to prove her love. After they have straightened out the situation, Leonard tells Clara he has come to ask her father for her hand in marriage. Clara assures him that they must soon be married, lest her sin is to show. Even so, she has some misgivings about him when she learns of the chicanery he has executed in securing his position as town clerk.

Clara’s father, when he learns of the proposed marriage and Leonard’s prospects, seems agreeable to the marriage. Then the young man, knowing that old Anthony has loaned out a large sum of money, brings up the question of a dowry. He is surprised to learn, however, that Anthony has called in his money and has used it to help an old man who had befriended him in his youth. When the man had died, Anthony had refused to collect from the widow and had put the dead man’s note in his casket. Leonard begins to think that, pregnancy or no, Clara is not a desirable wife for him.

At that time, the mother comes home from church and tells of having seen a newly prepared grave at the churchyard, a grave the sexton dug as an extra, in case it is needed while he is on a holiday. Anthony views it as an evil omen. Then the talk turns to a jewel robbery at the home of a rich merchant in town. Anthony recalls that his worthless son, Karl, has done some work at the house on the day of the robbery. Bailiffs knock at the door and demand permission to search the house for the stolen goods. The shock is so great that the mother swoons and dies. Leonard, who is already none too eager to marry Clara, seizes upon the charge as an excuse to break his betrothal...

(The entire section is 1164 words.)