Had Nina Leeds married her first love, Gordon Shaw, her whole life might be different. Gordon went off to the war in France, however, and when his plane burst into flames and crashed near Sedan, he left Nina with nothing to show for her life.
Before leaving, Gordon urged Nina to marry him, but her father objected. Now Gordon is dead, and Nina has not even the memory of one night alone with him. Instead, she has indiscriminate affairs with one soldier after another, those who like Gordon are going out to die, because she thinks she can give to others what Gordon was denied. When promiscuity fails to ease her sorrow, she returns to her father’s house an embittered and lonely woman. She is particularly bitter toward her father, a professor in the university, for she suspects that her father’s jealousy and irrational desire to keep her with him led to his opposing her marriage with Gordon.
Nina has an admirer in Charles Marsden, the novelist, an old friend of her father. Marsden knew Nina since she was a little girl, and he often thought of marrying her. Since, however, he is attached to his aging mother, who does not entirely approve of Nina, he never proposed. Her half-serious, half-mocking fondness for him annoys him, for it is a reminder of his own failure to accept life.
Nina has an admirer of quite a different nature in Edmund Darrell, an ambitious young physician who took an interest in Nina when she was a nurse in the hospital of which he was a staff member. Although he finds her attractive, Darrell has no intention of endangering his career by getting involved with a neurotic woman. Nevertheless, he realizes that she needs help, and he concludes that a husband and a child would be the logical solution for her difficulties. His choice is Sam Evans, scion of a well-to-do family, who is in love with Nina.
When Nina’s father dies, she turns almost automatically to Marsden as a kind of surrogate. Marsden, taking his cue from Darrell, suggests Evans as a possible husband, and Nina drowsily assents. Evans marries Nina realizing that she is not in love with him, but he lives in the hope that a child will bring them closer together. About seven months after she comes to live on the Evans homestead in northern New York State, Nina finds herself pregnant, but when she confides her condition to her mother-in-law, Mrs. Evans finds it necessary to reveal what she kept hidden even from her own son: Evans’s aunt, hopelessly insane, lives on the top floor of the old house, and Evans’s grandmother and her father before her both died in an asylum. Overwhelmed by the situation in which she finds herself, Nina can think of no way out except to abort her child through an operation and to leave Evans. Mrs. Evans protests, pointing out that Evans needs her, that he needs the confidence a child will give him, even if this child is not his own.
While Nina ponders the situation, she encounters Darrell, just returned from Europe, and tells him about her marriage and the child. She and Darrell at last decide that it would be best for Nina to have another child, of which Darrell will be the father. Evans is delighted when he learns that his wife is to have a child. Unfortunately, Nina and Darrell are unable to proceed as rationally as they planned. Nina falls in love with Darrell, and he, despite the risk to his career, cannot tear himself away from...
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Fatherhood makes a startling change in Evans. The old look of self-conscious inferiority disappears from his face, replaced by a look of determination and confidence. Nina also changes. She becomes noticeably older, but her face wears an expression of peace and calm never seen there before. Marsden, however, changes most of all. His mother dies and he ages. His hair is almost pure white.
When Darrell returns from Europe, ostensibly because of his father’s death but actually because he can no longer stay away from the woman he loves, Nina for the first time in her life feels complete, surrounded as she is by her men—her spiritual father, her husband, her lover, and her son.
The next eleven years bring yet more changes into these linked lives. Darrell and Marsden back Evans in one of his enterprises, and all become wealthy men. Darrell long ago gave up his career in medicine. Marsden, on the other hand, takes to writing genteel novels about dear old ladies and devilish bachelors, stories completely unrelated to real life.
Young Gordon Evans has no use for his real father, whom he calls Uncle Ned, and with whom he quarrels on the slightest provocation. He identifies himself completely with his mother’s stories of Gordon Shaw, built up by Nina into a hero in the boy’s imagination.
As time goes by, Darrell manages to break the stranglehold Nina has on his soul, devoting himself as assiduously to biology as he had formerly done to medicine. He becomes his own firm self again, impervious to all of Nina’s wiles. Nina’s neurotic tendencies increase, however, and she possessively opposes Gordon’s marriage to Madeline, a girl of good family; she even goes so far as to consider informing Madeline of the strain of insanity in the Evans family. She grows to hate Evans and at times actively wishes for his death, a wish that is fulfilled when Evans suffers a stroke while witnessing Gordon’s victory over the Navy crew.
After Evans’s death, Gordon somehow cannot rid himself of the feeling that his mother never loved his father, and he remembers a time in his boyhood when he saw his Uncle Ned kiss his mother. He repressed this memory, but it reemerges one day when Gordon slaps Darrell across the face during an argument. Gordon instantly regrets his act and apologizes, and the matter ends without his realization that Evans was not his real father.
In the end, Nina is really alone. She finally gives her consent to her son’s marriage to Madeline. Her own marriage to Darrell at this late date is out of the question because there are too many regretful memories between them. Nina is left alone with Marsden, who waited patiently all these years until she turns to him at last like a daughter.