John Amherst, clever, idealistic and poor, is assistant manager of a cotton mill and has the makings of a working-class leader. While visiting a worker in hospital he encounters a young nurse, Justine, compassionate and principled, a woman who shares his dreams and aims. But Amherst is fatally distracted when he meets Bessy. A widow of great wealth, Bessy is charming, beautiful – and the new owner of the mill. The lives of all three become strangely interwoven as Amherst is forced to choose between sense and sentiment, between his care for the working classes and his infatuation with Bessy – a woman made for passion, but not for its aftermath.