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The novel begins with Virgil Adams confined to bed with an unnamed illness. There is tension between Virgil and his wife over how he should go about recovering, and she pressures him not to return to work for J. A. Lamb once he is well. Alice, their daughter, attempts to keep peace in the family (with mixed results) before walking to her friend Mildred Palmer's house to see what Mildred will wear to a dance that evening.
After Alice's return, she spends the day preparing for the dance, going out to pick violets for a bouquet, as she cannot afford to buy flowers for herself. Her brother, Walter, initially refuses to accompany her to the dance, but as Alice cannot go without an escort, Mrs. Adams prevails upon Walter, and he rents a "Tin Lizzie" to drive Alice to the dance.
Walter's attitude towards the upper class is one of obvious disdain—he would rather spend his time gambling with the African-American servants in the cloakroom than be out in the ballroom at the dance. Alice forces him to dance with her at first, as it will be a grave embarrassment for her to stand alone, but Walter eventually abandons her. Alice uses every trick in her book to give the impression that she is not standing by herself, before dancing with Frank Dowling (whose attentions she does not welcome) and Arthur Russell (a rich newcomer to town who is rumored to be engaged to Mildred), who she believes danced with her out of pity and at Mildred's request. She leaves the dance horribly embarrassed after Arthur discovers Walter's gambling with the servants.
The next day, Alice goes on an errand for her father into town, passing Frincke's Business College on the way with a shudder (as she sees it as a place that drags promising young ladies down to "hideous obscurity"). On the walk back home, she encounters Arthur Russell, who shows an obvious interest in her. As she assumes he is all but spoken for, she doesn't know how to handle the conversation—while warning him not to believe the things girls like Mildred will say about her, she tells a number of lies to obscure her family's relatively humble economic status.
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