The story starts with the moment when Adeline Khulo, a successful baron Hector Khulo’s wife, gets drawn into a scam by a perfumer Celestine Crevel. His passion started when Baron Khulo won the hand of a famous singer Josephine Mirra, who Crevel was in love with too. Khulo’s daughter, Hortense, is looking for a husband, his son Victor is married the Crevel’s daughter Celestine. Madame Khulo rejects Crevel’s attentions, and he steps back.
Madame Khulo’s cousin Bette (also called Lizabeth), held in her heart envy to her successful relatives. Peasant woman, possessing no beauty compared of her cousins, 42-year-old Bette has rejected several offers of marriage from men of the middle class, and is still single.
Once Bette meets a young unlucky sculptor Venislav Shtainbock, who tries to commit suicide in the room next to her dwellings. She brings him back to life, and maternal love awakes in her. She also makes friends with Valerie, the wife of a clerk from the War Department named Marneff. Two women form some kind of a union of mutual love and protection.
Meanwhile, Josephine denies baron Khulo, saying that she has found another man. Baron’s desperation goes flat-out when he meets Valerie and falls in love with her. He bestows her gifts and soon settles for Valerie and her husband, s they work in the same department, a luxury house. These debts, together with the money that he bestowed Josephine, threaten the financial security of the Khulos. Being in panic, he convinces his uncle Yoahann Fischer to squander quietly the funds allocated to the military department of the war in Algeria. Khulo’s adversities come to an end for some time, but Bette’s happiness is broken when Hortense Khulo marries Venislav Shtainbock.
Being in the turmoil of losing Shtinebock, Bette promises to revenge the Khulos. Together with Valerie they secretly try to draw more money from baron Khulo. Valerie also seduces Crevel and watches him competing with Baron for her.
With Bette’s help Valerie switches on Shtainbock and drags him into her bed. When Hortense finds out about her husband's infidelity, she breaks up with him and returns with her son to live with her mother Adeline. Valerie also tells about her relations with a Brazilian baron Henry Montez de Monteyanosh, and swears allegiance to each of the five men.
Baron Khulo’s brother, known as Marshal, hires Bette as a landlady to his house, and an affair begins between them. He learns about his brother’s volatilityv and promises to marry Betty, if she settles everything. She agrees.
Studying the behavior of his brother, Marshall learns about Khulo’s financial affairs with an Algerian company. His indignation has no limits, and his health is getting worth. Bette’s last hope for a happy future dies along with Marshall.
When Valérie gets pregnant, she says each of her lovers that he is a father. She gives birth to a dead child, and her husband dies soon. Khulo and Crevel are happy to hear the news. Each of them believes that he will be her only love. Valérie chooses Crevel for his potential successful future, and they hastily get married. News infuriates baron Montez and he decides to poison the newlyweds. Baron's plan works – both Valerie and Crevel die in an agony. Their bodies have been mutilated by a rare Brazilian poison.
Soon Prince de Wissembourg visits Viktorina Khulo and brings good news. Marshal, before he died, agreed on the payment of all Khulo’s debts. Baron Khulo disappears, and Adeline finds him in a brothel, where he lives with a 15-year-old courtesan. Adelina asks him to return into the family. He agrees, but, getting into the carriage, asks whether he can take the girl with them.
The Khulos’ home is reunited, and Bette's rage at the sight of their happiness provokes her death. One evening, after the funeral, Adeline hears Khulo bothering a maid called Agathe. It blows up her health and she is slowly dying. On her deathbed, Adeline for the first time reproaches her husband: "In a moment you will be free, and then you can make another Baroness Khulo." Shortly after Adeline’s funeral Khulo marries Agatha.