Daniel Wilson leads his sick brother away from the battlefield against the Scots and goes in search of food, just as Arabella (Bel) Horden slips back home across the fields wearing breeches which give her the appearance of a fat boy. She ignites a haystack fire for which slow-witted Daniel is blamed and hanged. Nathaniel returns home to break the news to his parents, whereupon his distraught mother places a curse on the Horden family.
Bel is guilty for her behaviour but can tell no one. She feels unwanted by her Catholic mother and sister, who harbour a lustful Catholic priest within the Hall. Impulsively, she commits another transgression against her sister and is promptly despatched to Cranmore House, a Yorkshire school to which the family priest has been appointed.
Bel finds a new friend and ally, but more conflict and tragedy ensue, which leads Bel to a new understanding of herself and to a new direction for her life.
The principal characters were likeable, but although the incidental ones were less credible, the setting and historical facts were skilfully exposed.