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In 1897, at the annual Artists' Ball in Paris' Latin Quarter, Philip Carey meets an American writer named Nora Nesbit, whom he tells that he has failed as an artist and intends to return to London to pursue medical studies. Blaming his clubfoot for his troubles, Philip also reveals that he has never been in love, but longs to be swept away by passion. One day, in London, a friend takes Philip to a tea shop to show him Mildred Rogers, the waitress with whom he is enamored. Although Philip judges Mildred to be rude and vulgar, he is nonetheless strongly attracted to her and returns the following day to invite her to the theater. Mildred breaks their next date, making it clear to Philip that she is repulsed by him and in love with another man. Obsessed by thoughts of Mildred, Philip's studies suffer, and after several months, he returns to the tea shop to speak with her. There he learns that she has married Emil Miller, a traveling salesman. The news frees Philip of his obsession, and when he receives a letter from Nora, along with a copy of her new novel, he contacts her, and the two become close friends. Nora falls in love with Philip, but when a pregnant Mildred reappears in his life, having been abandoned by Miller, who has gone back to his real wife, Philip admits that he has only loved Mildred. After Mildred's baby is born, Philip offers to marry her and rear her child. Bored by Philip's somber approach to life, however, Mildred quickly takes up with his handsome, flirtatious fellow student, Harry Griffiths. When Mildred spitefully proclaims that she will never marry Philip, he again leaves her and concentrates on his studies. One day, Athelny, a patient, asks Philip to his home for dinner. Soon Philip is a frequent visitor at the Athelnys', to the delight of Athelny's seventeen-year-old daughter Sally. This pleasant interlude ends when Philip encounters Mildred on the street, where she is working as a prostitute. He brings her and the baby home to live with him in exchange for housework. Although Mildred calls herself Mrs. Carey, Philip wants nothing to do with her, and when her attempts to seduce him fail, Mildred angrily burns his money and destroys his rooms. Meanwhile, Philip spends Christmas Eve with the Athelnys. Before he leaves, Philip gives Sally a necklace that belonged to his mother. A distraught Philip then wanders the cold, rainy streets and later collapses with pneumonia at Harry's rooming house. Months later, Philip visits the Athelnys, not realizing that they have learned about Mildred and the baby and believe that he is married to her. When Philip understands why Athelny treats him coolly, he returns home, intending to commit suicide. Harry then takes him to the hospital where Mildred lies dying, her baby having already died. The way is now clear for Philip to propose to Sally, who has always loved him.