Margaret Leslie, age seventeen, lives alone with her elderly father Sir Ludovic in Earl's-hall. She is the daughter of a third marriage, and thus her siblings are middle-aged and long away. And her education has been neglected because her father cannot bear to part with her. One day she encounters her old playfellow Rob Glen, a farmer's son, who is now in his early twenties. He had attended University to become a minister, but has made excuses to drop that career and is now loafing at home with his widowed mother.
Rob had always idealized the little girl and now falls quickly in love. When Margaret's father is dying, Rob takes advantage of her vulnerability to meet nightly in the nearby woods. He is truly enamoured, but also has his eyes open to what a step up it would be to marry her, as she is an heiress on her mother's side. Then his mother gets hold of Margaret, and makes her put a promise in writing.
When Margaret leaves Earl's-hall to live with her sister Mrs Bellingham, new problems are encountered; and she remains haunted by her promise. The one friend who might help, Randal Burnside, seems to have withdrawn from her.
Biographical and other notes
The Earl's-hall of this novel is based on Earlshall Castle in Fife. Its Long Gallery ceiling was painted in 1620. The nearby village, Leuchars, has the fine Norman church described in the story, the Church of St. Athernase.
The novel's dedication is to Margaret Oliphant's friend John Tulloch, Principal of St Mary's College at Saint Andrews. Since they were all young, she had been close friends with him and his wife Jane, and visited them in Saint Andrews every year.