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The action takes place at Vanessa's country home in a northern country about 1905.
Over twenty years ago, Vanessa had a lover, Anatol, but the relationship ended. Convinced he would return, she has closed the house to guests and covered the mirrors while she waits. She shares the house with her niece Erika and the old Baroness, who is Vanessa’s mother and Erica’s grandmother. The Old Baroness refuses to speak to Vanessa.
Act I, Scene 1
The drawing room. A night in early winter.
It is winter and outside a storm rages. Vanessa has received word that the long-awaited Anatol will arrive soon. Erika orders the servants to create an elaborate meal. She then attempts to distract Vanessa from her anxiety. Finally, Anatol arrives and Vanessa greets him alone. Before looking at him, she reminds him of the years of waiting she has endured and asks if his love is as it was; if not, he must leave. He answers, and his voice makes Vanessa realize he is not whom she expected. Vanessa rushes out while Erika confronts the stranger who explains he is Anatol’s son. He makes himself comfortable and sits down to eat, asking Erika to join him.
Act I, Scene 2
The same. Sunday morning. A month later.
Erika confesses to the Old Baroness that Anatol seduced her the night he arrived, but she has not accepted his marriage proposal. Vanessa arrives radiant; she has been ice skating with Anatol, and they are joined by the Old Doctor. Vanessa confides to Erika that Anatol seems to be in love with her. The Old Baroness encourages Erika to confront the young man. Anatol once again proposes to Erika but says he cannot offer her eternal love. Their conversation is interrupted by Vanessa, who summons everyone to chapel. After they leave, Erika cries out her answer: she will not marry Anatol.
The entrance hall with the ballroom beyond. New Year’s Eve.
A New Year’s Ball is in progress and the tipsy Doctor looks forward to announcing Vanessa’s engagement to Anatol. Vanessa is disturbed by the absence of her mother and niece. Anatol reassures Vanessa of his love, and they join the guests in the ballroom to hear the Doctor’s announcement. Erika appears at the top of the stairs and faints at the Doctor’s words. When she regains consciousness, she refuses help and when left alone, she opens the door and vanishes into the night. The Old Baroness appears and calls for help, as she has seen Erika running towards the lake.
Act III, Scene 1
Erika’s bedroom. A few hours later.
It is almost dawn. Anatol and others are out looking for Erika. Vanessa waits in anguish with her mother and the Doctor. Anatol returns with the unconscious Erika, saying he found her in a ravine. Vanessa demands to know if it was for love of him that Erika did such a thing. He denies it, and Vanessa asks him to go away with her. Left alone with Erika, the Old Baroness asks why she tried to kill herself. Erika reveals she was with child, but that the child will not be born. Furious, her grandmother leaves the room.
Act III, Scene 2
The drawing room. Late afternoon, a month later.
The newly married Anatol and Vanessa ready themselves to depart for their new home in Paris. Vanessa suspects Erika’s desperate act but readily believes Erika’s attempts to convince her otherwise. Anatol and Vanessa leave. The Old Baroness treats Erika with the same icy silence as Vanessa before her. Erika orders the mirrors covered, and she will not receive visitors. It is her turn to wait.