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In the small town of Jordan, Ohio, Minta Hagen returns to her husband Jim with an adopted baby girl at the same time that the wealthy Gateleys quietly bring their daughter Grace home to stay. Partly because of the timing and partly because of the color of the baby's hair and eyes, it is rumored that the baby, whom the Hagens name Mary, is the illegitimate daughter of Grace and her former boyfriend, Tom Bates. To save Tom from the effects of this rumor, his guardian, Judge Merrivale, sends him to study law in another town. Although Tom dismisses the accusation as foolish, Merrivale points out that although Tom can leave, and Grace is too sick to notice, it is the child who will be most affected by gossip. Years later, after Merrivale dies, Tom returns to Jordan. Mary is now a college student and has suffered all her life from the town's disapproval. Tom attends the college dance, where he meets Julia Kane, one of the college professors. Mary briefly leaves to fix a broken shoulder strap, and college student Dewey Koons follows and forces a kiss on her. As usual, Mary is blamed for the incident, and only Julia's intervention saves her from punishment. Mary is baffled by the town's attitude toward her until her friend, Sharon Bailey, tells her the gossip about her parentage, causing the distraught Mary to run away to Chicago. When Mary returns home, she begs her mother to tell her the truth about her background, but Minta will only say that the rumors are untrue. Believing that Mary has artistic talent, Julia convinces her to try out for the school play and assigns her the role of "Juliet" in Romeo and Juliet . To add to Mary's pleasure, Ken Freneau, a well-to-do boy who has always been kind to her, asks her to his fraternity dance. Then Julia is pressured by the school board, which includes Ken's mother, to replace Mary with Christine Delaney, a girl from a more prominent family, and Ken's family insists that he take Christine to the dance. Ken goes along with his mother's wishes, but gets Christine drunk so that she will be too ill to perform in the play. Julia then asks Mary to substitute, and she performs the role to great acclaim. Ken drives her home, and the two become secretly engaged. Later, Minta, who is very ill, dies before she can tell Mary the truth about her background. Mary takes matters into her own hands and visits Tom. He insists that he is not her father, but she does not really believe him. Soon, however, Mary, Tom and Julia spend many afternoons together, and Tom, who has grown fond of Mary, offers to send her to the university. While Tom is away in Washington, D.C., Ken breaks under family pressure and elopes with Christine. On the rebound, Mary dates Dewey, who takes her to a tavern, where he is involved in a fight. Despite Julia's efforts, Mary is expelled. Tom returns home, having received the Order of Merit in Washington for his service during the war. Julia tells him what has happened to Mary and helps him realize that he has fallen in love with the girl. When the school board asks Tom to speak at graduation, he reminds them that of the four students who went to the tavern, only one was expelled and turns down their request. Then Jim arrives with a suicide note from Mary, and Tom finds her just in time to save her from drowning. He then tells Mary that Grace is incurably insane and could never have been her mother. After Tom explains that Mary was adopted from an orphanage in Evanston, Illinois, the couple gets married and leaves town.