This short novel tells the story of two sisters on the margins of life. They make a meager living by running a small shop selling buttons and bows, eked out by the occasional refurbished bonnet. They both live together above the shop. One day a nearby clockmaker enters their life, charms both the sisters and eventually marries the younger. He takes her away to New Orleans where he has a job waiting. The remaining sister is left alone in New to worry about her sister and the increasing silence. Eventually all communication ceases.
The mystery of what happens to the two sisters and the outcome of the marriage makes up the balance of the book. Wharton demonstrates all her skills of observation and storytelling in letting us in on the life of these two sisters.