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In 1880, while celebrating her one-hundredth birthday, widowed Herries clan matriarch Judith Paris complains of the family's dullness and advises her granddaughter Vanessa to seek "life" instead of mere happiness, which she says is for dull people. Benjamin "Benjie" Herries, the black sheep of the Herries family, is distantly related to and in love with Vanessa, but admits that he is a hedonist and a vagabond and needs an adventure before settling down to love. Despite her strict Cumberland, England upbringing, Vanessa loves the handsome rogue and swears that she would prefer to be miserable with him than be happy with anyone else. Benjie leaves Vanessa for one year in order to "sow his wild oats," but not before securing an engagement to his sweetheart. In his absence, Vanessa takes comfort in her friendship with Barney Newman, one of England's most famous novelists, and thwarts suitor Ellis' attempts to marry her. One year after his departure, and just as Ellis attempts his second proposal, Benjie returns with plans to marry Vanessa in three days. Vanessa's father Adam privately admits to Benjie that he has been suffering from heart trouble, but does not want to worry his daughter with the knowledge of his illness. When Adam suffers a heart attack and accidentally ignites a house fire, Benjie rushes to rescue the family, but can only save Vanessa, who later blames him for her father's death. Upset, Vanessa banishes Benjie, who then goes on the road to drown his sorrows in drink. Marion, a barmaid, takes an interest in Benjie, marries him and becomes pregnant. One day, Vanessa finds Benjie and apologizes to him, but she is told that he is now married and soon to be a father. At first Vanessa begs him to run away with her, but then remembers that he would be deserting his child. Vanessa asks her grandmother for advice and is told to accept an invitation from Ellis' mother to visit them in London. Some time later, a spring marriage between Ellis and Vanessa is announced, and Ellis personally addresses an invitation to his rival Benjie, who is in Egypt fighting in the First Egyptian Cavalry. Following their marriage, Vanessa discovers that Ellis suffers from a mental condition, which he describes as a headache that feels like "spiders in the brain," and which manifests itself in the form of paranoic outbursts. After Barney tells Vanessa that Benjie has lost an arm in battle and plans to call upon her, Ellis, in a fit of jealousy, accuses her of deceiving him and locks her in a room with him. Ellis picks up a knife and threatens to end both their lives, but Vanessa talks him out of it. When Benjie returns to London, he tells her that his wife divorced him and that his child died shortly after it was born. Vanessa brings Benjie home, whereupon the enraged Ellis throws them out. Though she is obligated to remain married to her husband under English law, which forbids divorce under circumstances of insanity, Vanessa returns to Cumberland, where she stays with Judith. Gossip travels fast through the small town, however, and after locals unfairly attack Benjie for having an affair with a married woman, he tells Vanessa that he must leave. She decides to go with him, but when she receives a letter from London summoning her to her husband's deathbed, she goes to him. Barely able to recognize his wife, Ellis takes Vanessa back and forces her to promise that she will not leave until he dies. Ellis finally dies on Christmas Eve, thus freeing Vanessa to resume her romance with Benjie.