Mr. Tanner and his family are leaving New Zealand, and so he tries to explain (to an unseen character) how they ended up with a lawyer in the family who will take care of the legal necessities that accompany the process. To explain this, though, Mr. Tanner says that he will first have to tell the story of his grandfather, Tanner.
In the flashback, Tanner is an orphan in Stamford, England who is sent to apprentice for a wealthy family in Auckland, New Zealand. When he arrives, he finds out he is treated more like a servant than an apprentice. He soon meets Kitty, who has also come from England and is in a similar situation: she thought she would be a governess (a kind of private tutor) for a wealthy family but is instead also treated as a servant. Tanner and Kitty hit it off, and they decide to get married in three years, which will give Tanner time to save up money.
After Kitty and Tanner marry, they move to a more remote part of New Zealand called Hiruharama. Two years later, Kitty tells Tanner that she is pregnant. Tanner goes to see the closest doctor, who lives miles away in the town of Awanui. The doctor says that Tanner will have to send for him when Kitty goes into labor, but since Awanui is so far away, the baby will probably be born before he arrives. On his way out of Awanui, Tanner borrows racing pigeons from Parrish, who has the last homestead on the road out of town. Tanner plans to use the pigeons to send for the doctor when Kitty goes into labor.
A few months later, when Kitty goes into labor, Tanner releases the pigeons and calculates that it will take the doctor over three hours to arrive. At six o’clock, Kitty and Tanner hear someone coming down the road but not from Awanui. The person turns out to be their closest neighbor from the other direction, Brinkman, who has shown up for the half-yearly dinner they share, which has become an informal kind of tradition. Brinkman enters, and Tanner tells him that Kitty is in labor. “Then she won’t be cooking dinner this evening, then?” Brinkman responds. He then sits down and begins to smoke, hoping that the Tanners will still serve dinner at some point.
The doctor then arrives along with his wife’s widowed sister, who is or used to be a nurse. Tanner has already delivered the baby and greets the doctor and his sister-in-law “covered in blood, something like a butcher.” Tanner tells the doctor that everything went smoothly and that he already threw away the afterbirth in the garbage. The doctor goes to inspect. When he comes back, he announces that what Tanner had thrown out wasn’t afterbirth at all; it was “a second daughter, smaller, but a twin.”
This daughter, Mr. Tanner tells his conversation partner, eventually became a lawyer in Wellington and “did very well.” Meanwhile, back at Mr. Tanner’s grandparents’ homestead, Brinkman continues to sit and smoke, hoping that he might one day get married and, moreover, that the Tanners will eventually serve him dinner—after all, he figures, they’ll have to eat at some point.