Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1021
Henry Earlforward owns a bookstore left to him by his uncle, T. T. Riceyman. It is cluttered, dusty, and badly lit. Earlforward lives in a back room of the shop; the upstairs of the building is filled with old books. Elsie, his cleaning woman, comes into the shop one night. She tells Henry that she also works for Mrs. Violet Arb, who owns the confectioner’s shop next door, and that Mrs. Arb has sent her for a cookbook. Henry finds one containing recipes for making substantial meals out of practically no food at all. A little later, Elsie returns and says that Mrs. Arb thanks him, but the book is too expensive.
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Henry’s curiosity is aroused, and he goes to Mrs. Arb’s shop. Even though he marks down the price of the book, Mrs. Arb still refuses to buy it. Henry becomes more interested, for it is clear that Mrs. Arb is no spendthrift. The following Sunday, they go for a walk, and from then on, they are close friends. Violet soon sells her shop and agrees to marry Henry. When Violet asks him about a wedding ring, he seems surprised, for he had supposed the one she already owns would do. He gets a file, saws off the ring, sells it, and buys another, all without really spending a penny. They are married one morning, and for a honeymoon spend the day in London.
They visit Madame Tussaud’s Waxworks and the Chamber of Horrors. Henry, who had thought the wedding breakfast expensive enough, is distressed at being forced to spend more money. He wonders if he had been deceived, if Violet were not a spendthrift after all. He begins to complain about his lame foot. Violet is dismayed; she wants to see a motion picture. Henry cannot be persuaded to change his mind. He does not, he says, want a painful leg on his wedding day.
When they pass by the shop this same night, Henry thinks the place is on fire. It is glowing with light, and men are working inside. Violet explains that the men had been engaged to clean the dirty, cluttered shop. She had planned the work as her wedding gift to him, but he had spoiled the surprise by coming home before the men had finished their task. Henry shows Violet a safe that he had bought to safeguard her valuables and her money.
Violet soon discovers that miserly Henry will not light a fire, that he will not use electric light, and that he eats practically nothing. On their first morning together, she cooks an egg for him, but he refuses to eat it. Later, Elsie eats it in secret. At another time, Violet has Elsie cook steaks, but Henry will not touch them. There is an argument in which Violet calls him a miser who is starving her to death. He leaves the room, and his steak. That night, Elsie eats it.
When Violet discovers that Elsie has eaten the steak, another row ensues; but Elsie begins to eat more and more when nobody is there to observe her. She is half-starved in the miserly household. To stop Elsie’s thefts of food, Henry goes to bed, calls Elsie to his room, announces he is seriously ill, and asks if she thinks it right to steal food while he lies dying. Elsie is glum and frightened.
A short time later, Henry actually becomes ill. In defiance of the Earlforwards, Elsie manages to get Dr. Raste to examine Henry. The doctor says that the sick man will have to go to the hospital. Then the doctor discovers that Violet also is ill. At first, Henry refuses to go, but Violet finally persuades him. When the doctor calls the next morning, it is Violet, however, who goes to the hospital. Henry stays at home in the care of Elsie.
In the meantime, Elsie is hoping for the return of Joe, her sweetheart. He had been employed by Dr. Raste, gotten sick, and then wandered off. Elsie is sure he will return some day.
One night, Elsie wants to send a boy to the hospital to inquire about Violet. When she asks Henry for sixpence for the messenger, he says she can go to the hospital herself. Not wanting to leave him, she picks up his keys, goes downstairs, and opens the safe. Amazed to find so much money there, she borrows sixpence and puts an IOU in its place. Then she dashes out to find a boy to carry her note. When she comes back, she finds Joe waiting for her. He is shabbily dressed and sick.
Elsie quietly carries Joe up to her room and takes care of him, taking pains so that Henry will not suspect his presence in the house. When Joe begins to improve, he tells her he had been in jail. Elsie does not care. She continues to take care of Henry and promises him that she will never desert him. The hospital informs them that Violet needs an operation. That night, Elsie goes next door to the confectioner’s shop. Mrs. Belrose, the wife of the new proprietor, telephones the hospital and is told that Violet died because her strength had been sapped through malnutrition.
Henry seems to take the news calmly enough, but he grows steadily worse. Dr. Raste returns to visit Henry and says that he must go to a hospital, but Henry refuses. Without Elsie’s knowledge, Henry gets up and goes downstairs, where he discovers with dismay Elsie’s appropriation of the sixpence. He sits down at his desk and begins to read his correspondence.
Elsie is in her room taking care of Joe. To the neighbors, the house seems quite dark. Accordingly, Mrs. Belrose insists that her husband go over to inquire about the sick man. He discovers Henry’s body lying in the shop. A relative comes from London and sells the shop to Mr. Belrose. Joe recovers and returns to work for Dr. Raste. Elsie intends to marry Joe, so she also goes to work for Dr. Raste.