We look in on a couple named the Veneerings, who are what you everyone calls "new money." In other words, they aren't part of the established upper class of Britain, but are people who have come into wealth only recently. They also have a new baby and a new house, so everything about them is brand spanking new.
These newcomers to high society like to host dinners whenever they can because they want to get to know the other folks in their new income bracket. There's always this other old guy they invite to their parties named Twemlow.
When there isn't much of a crowd, Twemlow gets to sit close to the Veneerings. But whenever someone important shows up, he gets bumped down to the end of the table.
We look in on one particular dinner when the guests are arriving. There are all kinds of people from high British society. But Dickens talks about all of them with pure sarcasm and makes them all seem deluded about how important they are. Twemlow can barely tell them apart, especially two men named Boots and Brewer who have no clear personalities to distinguish them.
As the boring conversation unfolds, a woman named Lady Tippins asks a man named Mortimer about a story that's been going around the town. Apparently, a guy named John Harmon is returning to town after a long time away.
He is the son of a local rich man who made all of his money by owning a garbage dump—or what people politely called "dust piles" in Dickens' time. Aww, that's like calling the stuff under your dresser "dust bunnies" instead of "gross piles of lint and hair."
The rich old dump-man had both a son and a daughter. But the daughter married a poor man and the father cut her out of his life. The son (John) tried to step in and make a case for her, but the father would have none of it.
Eventually, the daughter died without reconciling with her dad. The dad was also mad at the son. So the son (John Harmon) hopped a ship and left England in search of his own fortune.
As Mortimer tells us, local authorities have tracked John Harmon down and he is currently on his way back to England. His father (Old Man Harmon) has died and people need to figure out the boy's inheritance, since there's a lot of money at stake.
Here's the catch, though. According to the old man's will, John Harmon can only inherit his money if he marries a local young woman who's been named in the will. Otherwise, all the estate goes to the old man's most trusted servant, Mr. Boffin.
At this point, another man at the table slides Mortimer a note. Mortimer glances at it and tells the table that there won't be a story after all, since the son (John Harmon) has drowned on his way back to England.