Lady Shaw, the aristocratic wife of a High Court Judge widely renowned for his severity towards any form of crime or human indulgence, is caught stealing in a big London department store.
The Judge’s unyielding sternness has been directed not only against criminals but also towards his own family. A young, vivacious daughter, Susan, no longer able to stomach his moral views and demands, has rebelled and, directly against his wishes, married a rather wild, young Bohemian painter, Peter Anthony, thus causing a sharp rift in the family. The Judge cut off his daughter and Lady Shaw was sorrowfully forced to side with her husband.
The stealing incident gathers great newspaper publicity. The daughter, in sympathy, seeks out her stricken fearful mother, now under arrest. The young painter, who is a friend of Dr Jimmy Davis asks him to bring Dr Corder into the case.
Gradually, Corder begins to analyse the family structure and sees that both the daughter and mother have struck back against the Judge out of their own great hostility towards him. In the mother’s case, it is an unconscious hostility since she doesn’t realise yet that she steals only to punish her husband for his almost cruel Spartan-like demands and rules of behaviour.
The Judge is, of course, stricken by his wife’s crime. In great anger, he practically denounces her, and tells the reporters, and the public, that she must undergo the consequences of the law as everyone else should. In his club, he shunts off expressions of sympathy-he is absolutely self-righteous, as ever.
Corder realises that Sir Desmond is really at the root of the family’s troubles, and tries to find out all he can about him. Mother and daughter only vaguely know of some tragic incident in World War I.
Finally Corder learns that Sir Laurence Powell, a famous surgeon is conversant with the Judge’s early life. He goes to see him and discovers that the surgeon still bears a great hatred and contempt for the Judge. He finally tells Corder an unusual story.
Sir Desmond, as a very young lad in the French trenches, had been the gayest, most mischievous, most charming young man in the company -known and loved for his fun-loving frivolity and pleasure-seeking. One night, however, this had led to tragedy – he had recklessly walked off a listening post, to play some prank – there had been a sudden gas attack, and fourteen men had died a ghastly death because of his dereliction. One of the men had been the surgeon’s brother.
Sir Desmond’s comrades covered up for him. He then became an absolutely changed person – stern, grim, self-demanding and absolutely intolerant of weakness, his own and that of others. Thus his life had progressed up till now.
Corder is now convinced that he must help the Judge. This is not easy. At first, the cold, crusty Sir Desmond won’t even talk to him. But Corder persists. Finally, during a heated session with him, the son-in-law arrives, attempting to reason Sir Desmond out of his harsh attitude. In a burst of violent anger, upsetting years of repression, the Judge seizes a poker and nearly injures the younger man with a blow to the head.
Shattered at his own brutal behaviour, the Judge at last begins to crack. Corder seizes the moment and dramatically recapitulates his earlier tragedy and how it has so drastically influenced his life, and that of those around him. The Judge now slowly comprehends the truth.
The wife goes on trial and is given a suspended sentence, but the family is now reunited.