Maria works at the Dublin by Lamplight laundry, a charitable institution run by protestants. The laundry is for fallen women and alcoholics, and busies them with useful work; Maria is not one of its charity cases, but is a regular worker who helps keep things together. She is known as a peacemaker and a thoroughly competent woman. She boards there, and she enjoys her work; she has even come to like the Protestants who work there. She got the work through the help of her friends, Joe and Alphy, two brothers whom she helped to raise.
Tonight is All Hallow's Eve, or Hallowe'en. She is going over to Joe's to enjoy an evening of fun and singing with Joe and his family. When work is finished, she's happy to go and get ready for the celebration. In her little bedroom, she gets dressed. She also remembers that tomorrow is a holy day of obligation, so she sets her alarm for six instead of seven. She notes to herself that her body is still trim and in shape despite her age, and sets off.
She looks forward to the evening, and reflects on the simple joy of her independence. She also reflects sadly on Joe and Alphy: though they are brothers and were once the best of friends, they are no longer speaking to each other. For the children, she buys some penny cakes at Downe's. Then she goes to a shop in Henry Street, where she fusses over getting a perfect slice of plum cake as a special treat. It costs two shillings and four pence, a princely sum for Maria. On the tram, she fears she is going to have to stand; the young men simply stare at her. But finally an older gentleman lets her have his seat. They chat about Hallow Eve and the treats.
At Joe's house she is greeted warmly, and she gives the children their cakes. But in a panic she realizes she cannot find the plum cake. She asks the children if they have taken it and eaten it by mistake, and the children resentfully reply that they haven't. Finally, she accepts that she must have left it on the tram. When she thinks of the expense and the surprise she wanted to give them, she nearly cries.
Joe and Maria sit by the fire. He is exceedingly nice to her, playing host and pressing her to drink. She tries to bring up the matter of Alphy, but Joe becomes very angry. Mrs. Donnelly also tries to put in a word in favor of reconciliation, but this nearly starts a fight until Joe calms himself and insists on dropping the subject.
They start to play the traditional Irish divination games of Hallowe'en, where one is led blindfolded to a table and made to pick out an object. The girls from next-door put out the objects. The chosen object predicts the future. When Maria takes her turn, she feels something wet and slippery. She hears some muffled words, and Mrs. Donnely says crossly that the object is not appropriate. She insists that it be thrown out. Maria chooses again, and gets a prayer book.
After that, the children move on to another game. Joe presses Maria to drink, and Mrs. Donnelly says lightly that Maria will enter a convent because she chose the prayer book. Soon, Joe and Mrs. Donnelly pressure Maria to sing. Maria shyly sings I Dreamt that I Dwelt. She sings the first verse twice, but no one corrects her. The song moves Joe to tears.
Joyce's portrait of Maria is one of his most skilful accomplishments in the collection. Certainly, she is one of the book's most appealing characters.
She is a hard-working, good-hearted old woman. She is tolerant, not unwilling to work among Protestants or social outcasts. She works hard at the shelter, helping fallen women to begin a new life. Her Protestants are tolerant of her religion, but will not make allowances for her religious obligations: we see her setting the alarm for six in the morning, so that she can attend mass before work the next day.
Poverty, as before, is a theme. Maria's loss of the cake is especially painful because the price was such an exorbitant one, considering her modest means. Here we see a character trying to treat her loved ones despite her limited funds. Her loss of the cake is especially sad in this light.
Subtle hints about previously higher socio-economic status are dropped. For one thing, these two brothers she nursed seem well off enough, though not wealthy. And the song that she sings, repeating the first verse twice, comes from a work about a woman who moves from riches to rags. When Joe cries, he may be weeping because Maria's own situation is mirrored by the song.
But there are other reasons to weep. The tone of much of the story is poignant, sweet and sad at once, which is somewhat rare in this collection. Most of the stories have a much harder edge. This story is yet another tale dealing with relationships between generations, and Joe may be weeping because his beloved Maria is not long for this world. She is an old woman, whose life has not been easy. And the object she chooses during the divination game is clay: traditionally, this object was the omen of approaching death.