A locomotive engine comes chugging along the tracks, pulling seven loaded cars behind it. It is late afternoon in the autumn, nearing dusk, in England’s coal country. The locomotive pulls into the colliery’s loading area, as various miners make their way home. Nearby is a low cottage with a tiled roof and a garden, a sparse apple orchard, and a brook beyond. Elizabeth Bates emerges from the chicken coop, watching the miners walk along the railroad. She turns and calls her son, John, who emerges from the raspberry patch. She tells him that it is time to come in. The locomotive her father is driving appears in the distance. As John makes his way to the house, she chides him for tearing off the petals of the chrysanthemums and scattering them on the path. She picks a few of the flowers and, after holding them against her cheek, sticks a sprig in her apron.
The train comes to a stop near the gate, and Elizabeth brings her father tea and bread and butter. He tells Elizabeth that it is time he remarried. He also informs her that her husband, Walter, had gone on another drinking binge and was heard bragging in the local pub about how much he was going to spend. Done with his tea, the old man drives off. Elizabeth enters the kitchen, where the table is set and awaiting Walter’s return so that the family can have their tea. With no sign of Walter, Elizabeth continues preparing the meal. Her daughter, Annie, enters the room, and Elizabeth mildly scolds her for being late. She asks Annie whether she has seen Walter; she has not. Elizabeth fears that Walter is again at the pub, and at Annie’s urging, they start to eat. Annie is transfixed by the slowly dying fire. Eating little, Elizabeth grows increasingly antsy and angry.
Elizabeth goes to get coal and drops a few pieces on the fire, which snuffs out almost all the light in the room. John repeatedly complains about the darkness, and Elizabeth lights the overhead lamp, revealing for the first time that she is pregnant. Annie exclaims at the sight of the chrysanthemums in Elizabeth’s apron. She removes them and puts the flowers to her lips, enthralled by their scent. Looking at the clock, Elizabeth realizes that Walter will not get home until he is again carried in, intoxicated, by his friends. She vows not to clean him after his day of work and to leave him lying on the floor.
The children play quietly, afraid of angering Elizabeth, who sews in her rocking chair. After a while, she sends them to bed, although Annie protests, as Walter has not come home yet. Elizabeth states that when he does appear he will be all but unconscious from drinking. Putting the children to bed, she angrily and fearfully resumes her sewing. At eight o’clock, she leaves the house. She makes her way to a row of dwellings and enters a passage between two of the houses, asking Mrs. Rigley whether her husband is at home. Mrs. Rigley answers that he has had his dinner and then gone briefly to the pub and that she will go find him. Mrs. Rigley soon returns, with her husband in tow. He tells Elizabeth that he last saw Walter at the coal pit, finishing a job. Elizabeth suggests that Walter is simply at another pub, and Mr. Rigley offers to go and find out. He walks her home, as Mrs. Rigley runs immediately to her neighbor’s house to spread the fresh gossip.
After Elizabeth has waited for another forty-five minutes, her mother-in-law enters the cottage, crying hysterically. Elizabeth asks whether Walter is dead, but all her mother-in-law tells her is that he has been in a serious accident. As the mother-in-law laments and defends her son’s gradual slide into debauchery, a miner arrives to inform the women that Walter has been dead for hours, smothered after a cave-in. Elizabeth’s mother-in-law dissolves into tears, and Elizabeth quickly silences her, afraid that her wailing will wake the children. She moves into the parlor to clear a space on the floor where the body can be laid. She spreads cloths on the floor to protect the carpet, takes out a clean shirt to air it, and then waits in the pantry.
Shortly, the pit manager and another man arrive with the body on a stretcher. As they bring Walter into the parlor and lay him on the floor, one of the men accidentally tips over a vase of chrysanthemums. Elizabeth quickly cleans up the water and broken glass. Annie, who has woken up, calls from upstairs, and Elizabeth rushes up to comfort her. The men try to silence Walter’s mother, who is still sobbing loudly. With Annie finally calmed and the men gone, Elizabeth and her mother-in-law prepare to undress, clean, and lay out the body. Elizabeth embraces the body, trying to make a connection to her husband’s still-warm corpse. She and Walter’s mother wash the body. Elizabeth presses her cheek against the body but is repulsed by the dead flesh. She laments her marriage and the hand she had in its failure. Walter’s mother rouses Elizabeth from her musing. Elizabeth, unable to weep, goes to fetch a shirt. With difficulty, she dresses Walter. Covering him in a sheet and locking the parlor door, she tidies the kitchen, afraid and ashamed of the harsh realizations she has come to as a result of Walter’s death.