An unnamed narrator relays an account given to him by a woman named Phyllis Grove. When Phyllis told him the story, he was a teenager and she an old woman. Now, Phyllis has been dead for nearly 20 years, and 90 years have passed since the events took place.
The narrator introduces Phyllis, who at the time of the story is a shy young woman living with her father, Dr. Grove, in the English countryside. Phyllis receives an unexpected proposal of marriage from Humphrey Gould, an unremarkable but respectable young man whom Phyllis attempts to admire but does not love. Humphrey soon leaves for Bath and does not return for a full year. During this time, a legion of German soldiers arrives to camp near Phyllis’s village. She forms a connection with one of the soldiers, Matthäus Tina, after meeting him when he walks past the wall in her garden. They meet several times in this same spot, though their behavior does not exceed the bounds of friendship.
Hearing rumors that Humphrey, who is still in Bath, may be neglecting his engagement with her, Phyllis decides—against the forceful instructions of her father—to become closer to Matthäus Tina. Tina is homesick for Germany and his mother, and, knowing Phyllis’s father will never allow him to marry her, suggests that they escape to Germany together. Phyllis is overwhelmed by the danger and uncertainty of Tina’s plan. Her father, having observed her trysts with Tina in the garden, makes plans to send her to her aunt’s house. Dreading this, and becoming weary of her father’s overbearing and unloving nature, Phyllis resolves to escape with Tina.
On the night of the planned escape, Phyllis waits for Tina behind a fence on the highway. While she’s waiting, a coach pulls up and lets two passengers out. One of the passengers is Humphrey, the other his friend. Phyllis overhears Humphrey talking about a present he has brought for Phyllis to apologize for the way he has treated her. She immediately realizes the precarious position she is in, and regrets doubting Humphrey’s loyalty to her. When Tina arrives, Phyllis explains that she can’t escape with him. Tina leaves anyway, unable to abandon his friend, Christoph, who is waiting at the harbor with the boat for their escape.
Phyllis returns home. The next morning, Humphrey arrives with a gift: an ornate mirror. Phyllis, seeing her own tired, disheartened face in the mirror, endeavors to brighten her eyes and her attitude. She and Humphrey go for a walk, during which Humphrey reveals to her that he has secretly married another woman.
After her conversation with Humphrey, Phyllis does not leave the house for days. When she does, it is to walk to the garden wall where she used to talk with Matthäus Tina. Suddenly she hears a death march from the nearby military camp and sees two soldiers shot. It transpires that they are Matthäus Tina and Christoph, who mistakenly rowed to the British island of Jersey instead of the French coast and were captured as deserters.
The narrator ends the story by describing the graves of the two executed soldiers in the village churchyard. When Phyllis was alive, she tended to the graves. Now, Phyllis herself is buried near them.