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Carrie Snyder lives on the edge of the Louisiana town of Crebillon, whose residents disdain her because of her "scarlet" past. When she is befriended by little Paul Darnley, whose mother is bedridden, his father whips him and forbids him from seeing her again. Having an unusually strong sense of loyalty and responsibility for a boy, Paul continues to see Carrie and trusts her like a mother. Finally, the townspeople drive Carrie out, and she is forced to abandon Paul for his own good. A few years later, she reads that both of Paul's parents have died and he has been adopted by his uncle. News from a friendly cab driver from Crebillon, however, tells her that Paul was miserable at his uncle's and has been living alone on a houseboat. Carrie comes to take Paul to the city with her, and discovers that he has taken in a little six-year-old girl named Lady, whom he rescued from a train accident. Lady had been on her way to her new adopted parents, who won her in a contest, and anticipating the worst, she refused to get back on the train. Carrie unoffically adopts both children and takes them to the city, where she invests in a cleaning business. Over the years, Carrie's business thrives, and by the time of Paul's graduation from college, she has a chain of cleaners throughout New York. Paul returns home and gets a promising job at a literary agency, but one night, the family's happiness is tainted when Paul accidentally pushes a man to his death on the subway. Overcome with remorse, Paul promises to support the man's sister, Lili Eipper, and brings her to Carrie's home. Lady sees Lili as manipulative and becomes jealous, having been in love with Paul since she was a child. Paul is so caught up with Lili that he fails to say goodbye to Lady when she leaves for college. When Lady comes home one winter weekend, she decides that Paul is in love with Lili, and bitterly marries her schoolchum, Mat Burdon. Carrie is determined to right the wrongs that Lili has wrought on her household and goes to see her, armed with the knowledge that Lili is in love with a doctor who was her cohort in a crime. Lili vows she will do anything to get her lover out of jail, even ruin Paul's life, but agrees to give up on Paul if Carrie gives her $50,000 to help the doctor escape. Carrie agrees, but something goes wrong on the night of the escape; Lili is killed and Carrie is arrested. Although her friends promise to get her the best lawyer, Carrie decides to remain in jail, fearing that a trial will bring out her sordid past and ruin her children's opinion of her. When Paul and Lady visit Carrie in jail, the three "runaways" from Crebillon are reunited again.