Kansas City, a hot summer evening. Two adults and four children sing psalms and give out brochures of religious content. The older boy clearly does not like what he is forced to do, but his parents are passionately devoted to the work of saving lost souls, which, however, brings them only moral satisfaction. Ace Griffiths, the father of the family, is very impractical, and the family is barely making ends meet.
Young Clyde Griffiths is trying to escape from this dull little world. He arranges an assistant soda seller in a pharmacy, and then a messenger to the hotel “Green Davidson.” Working at the hotel does not require any special skills, but it brings good tips, which allows Clyde not only to contribute to the family budget, but also to buy good clothes and something to put off.
Work associates quickly take Clyde to his company, and he plunges headlong into a new jolly existence. He gets acquainted with a pretty saleswoman Hortense Briggs, who, however, is not over the years prudent and is not going to give anyone favor only for beautiful eyes. She really wants a fashionable jacket that costs a hundred and fifteen dollars, and Clyde is hard pressed to resist her desire.
Soon, Clyde with the company goes on a jaunt in a luxurious “packard.” This machine is one of the young people, Sparser, took without permission from the garage the rich man, whose father serves. On the way back to Kansas City the weather begins to deteriorate, it’s snowing, and it’s very slow to go. Clyde and his comrades are late for work at the hotel and therefore ask Sparser to add speed. He does this, but, having forgotten himself, knocks down the girl, and then, leaving the pursuit, fails to manage. The driver and one of the girls remain unconscious in a broken car, all the others run up.
The next day newspapers publish a report about the incident. The girl died, the arrested Sparser named the names of all the other participants in the picnic. Fearful of arrest, Clyde and some of the other members of the company leave Kansas City. For three years Clyde lives away from home under a false name, performs dirty ungrateful work and receives for her pennies. But one day in Chicago, he meets his friend Raterer, who also was with him in the “Packard.” Reterer arranges it in the “Union Club” messenger. Twenty-year-old Clyde is quite pleased with his new life, but sometime in the club appears Samuel Griffiths, his uncle who lives in the city of Lycurgus, New York, and owns a factory for the production of collars. The result of the meeting of relatives is moving Clyde to Lycurgus. Uncle promises him a place in the factory, although the golden mountains do not promise.
The son of Samuel Gilbert without special joy accepts a cousin and, making sure that he does not possess any useful knowledge and skills, determines it for a fairly heavy and underpaid work in the decaffeination shop located in the basement. Clyde rented a room in a cheap hostel and started, as they say, from scratch, hoping, however, sooner or later to succeed.
A month passes. Clyde does everything that is entrusted to him. Griffiths Sr. is wondering about his son, what that opinion is about Clyde, but Gilbert, who is very wary of the appearance of a poor relative, is cool in assessments. In his opinion, Clyde is unlikely to be able to advance – he has no education, he is not purposeful enough and is too soft. However, Samuel Clyde is cute and he is ready to give his nephew a chance to show himself. Contrary to Gilbert’s desire, Clyde is invited into the house for a family dinner. There he gets acquainted not only with the family of his relative, but also with the charming representatives of the Lycurgus beau monde, the young Bertine Cranston and Sondra Finchley, who quite liked the handsome and educated youth.
Finally, at the insistence of his father, Gilbert finds for Clyde a less difficult and more prestigious job – he becomes a record-keeper. However, Gilbert warns him that he must “observe the decorum in relations with the women workers” and all kinds of liberties will be resolutely stopped. Clyde is ready to fulfill all the orders of his employers and despite the attempts of some girls to get in touch with him, he remains deaf to their advances.
Soon, however, the factory receives an additional order for the collars, and this, in turn, requires the... expansion of the staff. The factory arrives young Robert Alden, before the charm of which Clyde is not easily able to resist. They begin to meet, Clyde’s courtship is becoming more insistent, and brought up in strict rules by Robert it’s harder and harder to remember the girlish prudence. In the meantime, Clyde again meets with Sondra Finchley, and this meeting changes his life drastically. A wealthy heiress, a representative of the local money aristocracy, Sondra shows a genuine interest in the young man and invites him to an evening with dancing, where the lycurgus golden youth gathers. Under the pressure of new impressions, the modest charm of Roberta begins to fade in Clyde’s eyes. The girl feels that Clyde is not so attentive to her, she is afraid to lose his love, and one day she gives in to temptation. Roberta and Clyde become lovers.
Sondra Finchley, however, does not disappear from his life. On the contrary, she introduces Clyde into his circle, and tempting prospects turn his head. This does not go unnoticed by Roberta, and she suffers severe torments of jealousy. To top it all, it turns out that she is pregnant. She admits this to Clyde, and he frantically tries to find a way out of the situation. But the medicine does not bring the desired result, and the doctor, whom they find with such difficulty, categorically refuses to have an abortion.
The only way out – to marry, strongly does not suit Clyde. After all, this means that he will have to give up dreams of a brilliant future, which instilled in him a relationship with Sondra. Roberta in despair. She is ready to tell the story of Uncle Clyde. This would mean for him the end of his career and the cross on the novel with Sondra, but he shows hesitancy, hoping to come up with something. He promises Roberta or find a doctor or, if he does not find one in two weeks, marry her, even formally, and support her for a while until she can work.
But then Clyde comes across a note in the newspaper, telling about the tragedy on Lake Pass – a man and a woman took a boat to ride, but the next day the boat was found inverted, later found and the girl’s body, but the man was never found. This story makes a strong impression on him, especially since he receives a letter from Roberta, who went to her parents: she does not intend to wait any longer and promises to return to Lycurgus and tell Gruffits the elder everything. Clyde understands that he has time to spare and he must make some decision.
Clyde invites Robert to make a trip to the Bolshaya Vypi lake, promising to marry her later. So, it seems that a terrible decision has been made, but he himself does not believe that he will find the strength to carry out his plans. It’s one thing to commit murder in the imagination and quite another – in reality.
So Clyde and Robert go for a boat ride on a desert lake. Clyde’s dark-thoughtful look scares Robert, she cautiously approaches him, asks what happened to him. But when she tries to touch him, he, not remembering himself, strikes her with a camera and pushes him so that she loses her balance and falls. The boat turns over, and its board hits Robert on the head. She begs Clyde to help her, not to let him drown, but he’s idle. What he often thought about was accomplished. He chooses to shore alone, without Roberta.
But both the inverted boat and Roberta’s body are quickly found. Investigator Haight and prosecutor Mason vigorously take up the case and soon go to Clyde. He at first locked, but an experienced prosecutor is not difficult to drive him into a corner. Clyde is arrested – now his fate will be decided by the court.
Samuel Griffiths, of course, is shocked by what happened, yet he hires good lawyers. They fight with all their might, but Mason knows his business. A long and tense trial ends with the imposition of the death penalty. Wealthy relatives stop helping Clyde, and only his mother tries to do something for him.
Clyde is transferred to Auburn prison, called the House of Death. Desperate attempts of the mother to find money to continue the struggle for his son’s life do not bring success. The society has lost interest in the convict, and nothing now will prevent the car of justice from bringing the matter to an end.