This novel opens with a story of the older generation: how Catherine Vernon became head of Vernon's Bank in Redborough. She and her cousin John had inherited the bank, which was considered "safer than the Bank of England"; and for years John had run it alone. Then one day it is discovered that a great amount of money is gone, and John is gone - and the bank will be ruined if a huge sum of money is not found that night. Catherine saves the bank by sacrificing her inheritance from her mother; and from that day she takes the helm, and the bank prospers.
John's foolish wife had joined him on the Continent, never understanding why they were suddenly poor. Now twenty or so years later, she is a widow and has returned to Redborough with her daughter Hester, age 14. The intelligent, active Hester takes care of her helpless mother, and would like to make a living teaching foreign languages. Instead she is held down by convention, as they accept a home through Catherine's charity, in an old house divided into units alloted to various poor relations. Hester has an instinct of opposition to Catherine, feeling somehow that she is the enemy, and perhaps even responsible for her father's banishment.
About the same time, Catherine has brought two young men into the Bank, Edward and Harry, who are each related to her. Edward finds himself living at Catherine's house, and resents being under her thumb, while Harry has his own life in a large house with his sister Ellen. But Edward hides his feelings well and resembles a dutiful son. He befriends the lonely Hester, and as she grows up, their mutual attraction becomes stronger.
This coming-of-age novel centers on Hester, but has several additional story lines of the people in her world and in Catherine's world. These two women, so alike in their intelligence and strength, continue to be antagonistic to each other until a startling event draws them closer.