This novel is set in a Midlands engineering firm, Lang’s, which is being run by the two sons of the founder: Gustavus, the Chairman, and Walter, his half-brother and the Managing Director. Gustavus, the elder of the two, is a kindly old soul who believes in treating the workers like human beings (“I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody who can put nineteenth century paternalism more beautifully in a nutshell.”). By contrast, Walter is a hard-nosed, insensitive businessman who considers profits to be far more important than people and who lives solely for his job:
“His favourite music was the sound of presses. His favourite picture was a rising sales curve. His favourite reading was last month’s production figures…”
At the annual works party, Walter’s attractive eighteen-year-old daughter, Rosamund, dances with a young press-shop worker named Jack Partridge having inflamed his libido by wearing an eye-catching and revealing yellow dress. Gustavus collapses and dies as soon as he arrives home after the party. Walter realizes that he can now become the principal shareholder in Lang’s if he can get his hands on the shares that his brother was holding. But when he makes an offer for them he is swiftly rebuffed by the trustees, to his considerable annoyance.
Lang’s are very short of steel and so an agreement is reached whereby a company run by Sir Francis Proudfoot—a friend of Henry Spellman, one of the directors of Lang’s—will supply them with some. At a meeting with Proudfoot, Lang explains that he wishes to move the firm away from the fabricating work on which much of the business depends and towards making its own products, but that as he is not the majority shareholder he cannot force through this change. Proudfoot expresses an interest in buying Gustavus’s shares and Walter is very keen on the idea, sensing that with a like-minded progressive businessman in his corner he will be able to implement his scheme. The trustees agree to sell Gustavus’s shares to Proudfoot and in return one of Proudfoot’s men, Winter, is seconded to Lang’s and joins the board. Although Walter sees the new board member as his henchman, Winter has ideas of his own and is soon making a nuisance of himself around the factory.
Angry that Winter is not cooperating with his plans, Walter quarrels with him—“You were sent here to implement my policy, not to criticise it.”—and then visits Proudfoot to ask him to recall his man. Proudfoot springs a surprise on Walter, telling him that Henry is thinking of retiring and is likely to sell his shares to Proudfoot. Outmanoeuvred, Walter sees that if Proudfoot buys Henry’s shares then he, not Lang, will be the majority shareholder and will be able to absorb Lang’s into his own combine.
Unbeknown to Walter, Jack has been carrying on with Rosamund ever since the works party. Tipped off about their relationship, and knowing that Rosamund is on holiday, Walter guesses that she may be with Jack. He drives to the South Coast in pursuit of his daughter, finds her and Jack together and rounds on Rosamund’s paramour:
“You’re a dirty skulking young blackguard who ought to be given a damn good hiding…”
When Walter threatens to wreak revenge on Jack’s family as payback for his impudence in courting his daughter (“I’ll put the whole lot of you in the gutter”), a scuffle ensues. Walter falls, hits his head on the bumper of his car and is knocked unconscious. After a spell in a sanatorium, the businessman returns home.
Several days later Walter wakes up at seven feeling much better and decides to go to his office in case there is still time to prevent Henry from selling his shares to Proudfoot. However, he has unwittingly slept the clock around and it is in fact evening not morning. The book ends with Walter lurking in his beloved press shop in the dark, the likelihood being that he is dead.