Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1086
Mr. James Formal, who made his living in trade with the Spanish and who admired their pride and gallantry to the point of affecting their manners, had confined his fourteen-year-old daughter Hippolita, recently returned from boarding school, to the house for a period of a year. During his absence his sister, the widow Caution, acted the part of a duenna to see that Hippolita’s virtue was protected in the Spanish manner. In spite of the soured old woman’s puritanical wishes—she was adept at sensing sin since it was always on her mind—from her balcony the young girl carried on a flirtation with a young gentleman who frequented a neighboring inn.
Several days before Mr. Formal was due to return, Mr. Paris, his nephew and a suitor for the hand of Hippolita, arrived in London after a brief stay in France which had made of him a slavish imitator of French dress, manners, and idiom without in the least understanding his own ridiculousness. Since only he had access to the young lady’s presence, she made of him a willing dupe in order to make the acquaintance of the tall, handsome Gerrard. As a jest, M. de Paris—as the silly coxcomb called himself—challenged Gerrard to contrive a meeting with the young lady whom he had seen only from a distance but of whom he was enamored.
Accepting the challenge, Gerrard broke into Hippolita’s chamber, proposed a hasty elopement, and was caught in a near-embrace by her returning father. Hippolita, her actions always covered by her resourceful maid, cleverly pretended that Gerrard, who was unable to dance a step, was the dancing instructor hired at the behest of her husband-to-be, who would not have a wife without such French refinement as the ability to dance. The deception was further extended by M. de Paris who, blinded as he was by his own ego and splendor in dress and speech, helped the lovers at every turn. Mrs. Caution, immediately suspicious of the true situation, repeatedly warned the affected Spanish grandee of a father, who proudly protested that he would never permit such an affair to occur under his roof. Mr. Formal, in fact, took a liking to the supposed dancing master and urged him to come three times a day in order that his daughter could learn as rapidly as possible before her imminent marriage. At the same time he took a dislike to his ridiculous nephew and forced that embarrassed but docile young man to change to a Spanish costume and English speech, a calamity in the eyes of the young Gallophile. Meanwhile, Hippolita carried off her flirtation to the point of elopement, a conspiring innocent who allowed herself to be pursued only to become the pursuer. Paris, in turn, had become embroiled in an affair with Mistress Flirt, begun in the inn where he went to scheme against Gerrard.
The dancing lessons were never taken, thanks to the modesty of the young woman who at first would not dance before witnesses and who later plotted to pit her father against her aunt and her betrothed in order to get them all out of the way. The insistence of the suspicious aunt only aroused Mr. Formal’s ire; he was sure that he could protect the honor of his daughter as well as manage family affairs. His dislike for Paris, who ridiculed his Spanish ways, dress, and attitudes, and his admiration for the punctual dancing master further misled the proud father, who postponed the wedding for another day in order that skills might grow apace.
Plans for the elopement were hastened by Gerrard’s interest in Hippolita’s twelve hundred pounds and the hiring of a coach and six, the romantic young girl’s dream of the perfect rig in which to flee with her lover. The young gallant, in spite of his attempts to learn dancing between lessons, felt also that he would soon be discovered as an impostor and would then find himself the victim of Spanish revenge. Confiding in Paris, Hippolita begged him to maintain the deception lest the whole compromising situation be disclosed. Paris, ironically, played the part of the jilted lover without knowing it. Spanish care, prudence, and circumspection were his allies.
Only the slight diversion of family strife protected the lovers on the night of the planned elopement. Mr. Formal, not satisfied with his prospective son-in-law’s loss of French affectations, made him learn Spanish ways as well, to the tune of dance instructions from a blackamoor. The ridiculous young man was so disconsolate that he repulsed even the advances of Hippolita’s maid, the designing Prue, who, being better acquainted with the comforts of love, suffered more than the others did from the household restrictions. Sibling rivalry now reached a climax when Mr. Formal convinced himself that what Mrs. Caution had said all along was true. Furthermore, Hippolita took Gerrard’s haste to elope as an indication he was marrying her only for her money, and she refused to leave with him as they had planned. When Gerrard, believing that the game was lost, revealed to all that his plans had gone awry, his remarks were interpreted to mean only that his pupil would not learn. He then escaped the threat of exposure by breaking the strings of a fiddle which would have proved him unmusical. Reinstated in Mr. Formal’s good graces, he was asked to bring the musicians for the wedding celebration.
When he appeared for the last lesson, Gerrard and Hippolita were reconciled. Convinced that he loved her for herself alone, she assured him that she did, after all, have twelve hundred pounds—a fact she had denied earlier to test his devotion. Gerrard, no longer needing obsequious, dandified Paris as an ally, cuffed him soundly, treatment which the craven fellow did not take amiss, so sure was he that this was his wedding day. In fact, he blunderingly helped the lovers by protecting Hippolita, the parson, and Gerrard from the wrath of the rightfully indignant father and held Mr. Formal off long enough for the marriage ceremony to be performed.
Mr. Formal, unwilling to admit that he had been duped, acted the part of willing collaborator and told his spiteful sister and the effeminate Paris that he planned the wedding especially for their discomfiture.
Paris was outdone a second time when Mistress Flirt bound him to so many illicit promises as to make matrimony seem much less binding by comparison.
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