Aimwell and Archer, two younger sons who are down to their last two hundred pounds, leave London and travel to Lichfield, where they hope that Aimwell will marry an heiress and thus make their fortunes. Aimwell poses as his older brother, Lord Aimwell, and Archer assumes the livery of a servant. Arriving in Lichfield, they go to an inn, where the innkeeper at first mistakes them for highwaymen traveling in disguise.
In Lichfield they learn that Dorinda, sister of Sullen, the local squire, is an heiress in her own right. Aimwell goes to church on Sunday to call himself to her attention and to see her for himself. Back at the inn, Archer makes advances to the innkeeper’s daughter, Cherry. He finds her ready to marry him and bring him a dower of two thousand pounds. Despite the fact that she is pretty and well-dowered, he cannot, as a gentleman, make up his mind to marry her.
After church, Dorinda and her sister-in-law, Mrs. Sullen, talk about the gentleman they saw at the service. Dorinda decides that she is in love with him. Citing her own unhappy marriage to the brutal and drunken Sullen, Mrs. Sullen urges her not to hurry into matrimony. Mrs. Sullen also discloses that she is enjoying a flirtation with Bellair, a French officer held prisoner in Lichfield. Dorinda agrees to help Mrs. Sullen in her flirtation as long as Mrs. Sullen retains her honor.
At the inn, the landlord, who is in league with a gang of robbers, talks with the highwayman Gibbet about Aimwell and Archer. The evasiveness of Archer and Aimwell, when questioned, make the innkeeper and Gibbet even more certain that the two are also highwaymen. The innkeeper’s daughter, overhearing the conversation, resolves to help Archer.
Meanwhile Dorinda and Mrs. Sullen try to learn more about Aimwell. They have their servant invite his supposed servant, Archer, to the house so that they can question him about his master. While the two women make their plans, Gibbet introduces himself to Aimwell and tries to find out who Aimwell might be. They are both introduced to Foigard, who claims to be a French priest but is actually an Irishman in disguise.
At the Sullen house, Dorinda and Mrs. Sullen question Archer about his master. Mrs. Sullen, seeing through his disguise as a servant, becomes infatuated with him. Dorinda and Mrs. Sullen later agree that Aimwell and Archer must be hiding after a duel, since both of them are obviously gentlemen. Later in the day, Bellair comes to the house. While he and Mrs. Sullen talk, Sullen enters and threatens to kill the Frenchman, even though the visitor bears no arms. Mrs. Sullen intervenes, threatening her husband with a pistol.
Late in the afternoon, Aimwell pretends to take ill in front of the Sullen house. Carried inside for treatment, he takes the opportunity to get better acquainted with Dorinda and her sister-in-law. Both Aimwell and Dorinda are soon convinced that they are in love, and Mrs. Sullen finds herself more and more infatuated with Archer. While in the house, Archer discovers from the servants that Foigard, the pretend Frenchman, plotted to introduce Bellair into Mrs. Sullen’s bedroom that night.
On their return to the inn, Aimwell and Archer make Foigard acknowledge his plot against Mrs. Sullen. Rather than be taken to law, he agrees to help them. While they speak, in another part of the inn, the landlord, Gibbet, and other highwaymen are plotting to rob the Sullen house that night. They plan to leave the country afterward.
Early in the evening, Sir Charles Freeman,...
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Mrs. Sullen’s brother, arrives at the inn. Just returned to England, he is furious to learn that his sister is married to Sullen. Sir Charles, knowing what a brute Sullen is, hopes to secure his sister’s release from the marriage.
With the help of Foigard, Archer hides himself in Mrs. Sullen’s bedroom. When he reveals himself to Mrs. Sullen, they talk until the robbers enter the house. Gibbet, entering Mrs. Sullen’s room, is overpowered by Archer, who then goes in pursuit of the other rogues. As he engages two of them, Aimwell, aroused by the innkeeper’s daughter, arrives and aids his friend in subduing the robbers.
Archer, slightly wounded in the fray, is taken away and treated by Mrs. Sullen and her mother-in-law, Lady Bountiful. Aimwell proposes to Dorinda and is accepted. As Foigard is about to begin the impromptu ceremony, Aimwell becomes conscience-stricken at the thought of marrying the girl under false pretenses. When he reveals that he is not Lord Aimwell but only a poor younger brother, the ceremony is postponed.
Sir Charles Freeman arrives from the inn to visit his sister. Archer and Aimwell, who know him well, realize that he will penetrate their disguises immediately. Dorinda puts an end to their worries when she returns to tell Aimwell that his brother died. He is now Lord Aimwell and a rich man. Aimwell cannot believe the news until Sir Charles Freeman confirms the story. Aimwell agrees quickly to give an amount equal to Dorinda’s dower, ten thousand pounds, to Archer, who helped him win her hand.
Sullen, entering on this scene of happiness, demands to be told what Aimwell and Archer are doing in his home. He softens somewhat when told that they rescued his family and property from robbers. Then Sir Charles Freeman questions Sullen and discovers that he is as unhappy as Mrs. Sullen in their marriage. Sullen agrees to a separation, but he refuses to give up her dower. Archer then produces some papers he took from the robbers, including the marriage documents and Sullen’s titles to property, and gives them to Sir Charles Freeman. Faced with the loss of the documents, Sullen agrees to give up both his wife and her dower.
Everyone except Sullen joins hands and dances their celebration of the approaching marriage of Dorinda and Aimwell and Mrs. Sullen’s separation from her husband. Sullen glumly sends for a drink of whiskey.