'For man walketh in a vain shadow ... he keepeth up riches and cannot tell who shall gather them' - these words are spoken at the funeral service for old Colonel Winthorpe who does not bequeathe much except worldly goods to any gathered there - except his granddaughter, Joanna. This novel is concentrated on the four days which attend his death; on the many proprieties and pretenses which shroud its reality (the arrangements, his immediate and permanent disposition, the formalities from the church to the crematorium, and finally the less mortal remains - the will). The Colonel leaves a widow whose marriage to him had been loveless to begin with and joyless to the end; three sons of middle age. None mourn him but his presence is everywhere as they drink his port, usurp his chair. Only Joanna is left with the desire and capacity to live more fully.