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In the 1860's, on the day of Delia Lovell's wedding to the stuffy but socially prominent Jim Ralston, the impulsive Clem Spender, to whom Delia had been engaged, reappears after a two-year absence. Delia's cousin Charlotte, who has always loved Clem, takes pity on the young man and slips away to console him, returning home very late at night. The next day, Clem enlists in the Union army and soon after dies on the battlefield. Four years later, Charlotte has opened a home for war orphans, among whom is Tina, Charlotte and Clem's own daughter. Charlotte hides her disgraceful secret until the day she is to wed Jim's brother Joe, when she confesses her motherhood to Delia. Delia, who still loves Clem, spitefully destroys Charlotte's chance to marry Joe, and Charlotte retreats into seclusion. She reappears six months later, after Jim has died in a riding accident, and accepts Delia's invitation to move into the Ralston mansion with Tina. Fifteen years later, Tina, now grown, considers the kind and loving Delia to be her mother, while Charlotte has developed into a sullen and miserable woman who is constantly critical of her daughter. When Tina falls in love with a boy from a socially prominent family, Delia adopts her legally to provide her with a name and station in life, but on the eve of the wedding, Charlotte insists upon disclosing Tina's true identity. However, as she goes to Tina, Charlotte discovers that she cannot bring herself to destroy her daughter's happiness and remains content to stand in the background with her motherhood forever hidden.