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Sir Joseph Wittol, a foolish young country knight, returns to the spot in London where he had been attacked by footpads the night before, a fracas from which the gallant Ned Bellmour had rescued him. Bellmour had told his friend Sharper of the incident, whereupon Sharper, encountering Wittol, pretends to be the man who had rescued him. Having ingratiated himself with his false story, Sharper declares that he lost one hundred pounds in the scuffle, and Wittol promises to make good the loss. Wittol and Sharper are joined by Captain Bluffe, a spurious veteran of campaigns in the Low Countries and Wittol’s mentor in the ways of the city. Bluffe’s boasting and swaggering ways deeply impress the foolish young Wittol.

In her apartment, Araminta is reproved by her cousin Belinda for being devoted to love. A footman announces that Vainlove and Bellmour have arrived to pay their respects to Araminta. Belinda, who is charmed by Bellmour, declares that she will remain to keep Araminta company, even though she had been preparing to go out. The young men having been admitted, Bellmour and Belinda exchange amiable insults. Gavot, Araminta’s singing-master, entertains the group with a song.

Silvia, a prostitute and Vainlove’s discarded mistress, pines for him. Lucy, her maid, suggests that they write a letter filled with foolish protestations of love, sign Araminta’s name to it, and send it to Vainlove. This deception, they are sure, will cool Vainlove’s ardor for Araminta. Meanwhile, Heartwell, a professed woman-hater and a surly old bachelor, is against his will in front of Silvia’s door. Bellmour and Vainlove see him enter.

The masked Lucy encounters Setter, Vainlove’s man. When Setter uses abusive language in speaking to her, she unmasks and demands reparation from her old acquaintance in the form of information about the affair between Vainlove and Araminta. At the same time, Wittol gives Sharper a note of credit for one hundred pounds, to be collected from Fondlewife, a banker. Bluffe rebukes Wittol for his misdirected generosity. When Sharper appears with the cash and thanks Wittol, Bluffe intimates to Wittol that Sharper is a trickster. Sharper rejoins by suggesting that Bluffe is a fraud. When he strikes Bluffe, the braggart is afraid to retaliate, and Sharper thereupon soundly trounces him and departs. Only then does Bluffe draw his sword and rant brave words.

At Silvia’s house, Heartwell entertains the prostitute with hired singers and dancers. When he professes his love for her, she puts him off coyly, asserting that she must be married to a man before he can enjoy her favors. Overcome by passion and by Silvia’s wiles, he at last agrees to marry her. Saying he will return in the evening, he leaves to procure a marriage license.

Fondlewife, the banker, arranges to have a Puritan minister visit his young wife, Laetitia, while he is away on business. At the last minute, however, he grows wary and decides not to leave the city. Vainlove, who had been invited to visit Laetitia during the absence of her ancient, doting husband, sends Bellmour in his place. Vainlove receives the letter, to which Silvia had signed Araminta’s name. The writer pleads for an end to a slight disagreement between them. Disappointed to find the lady so eager, Vainlove announces that his interest in Araminta has waned.

Bellmour, disguised as the Puritan minister, visits Laetitia and in private reveals his true identity. He explains that he had indiscreetly opened her letter to Vainlove and, the intrigue appealing to him, came in Vainlove’s stead. Laetitia, charmed by Bellmour’s gallantry, entertains him in her bedroom.

Vainlove meets Araminta in...

(This entire section contains 1078 words.)

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St. James Park and treats her coolly. Araminta fails to understand when he tosses the letter at her feet and stalks away. A few minutes later, Wittol encounters Araminta for the first time and falls in love with her.

Fondlewife, accompanied by Wittol, who had come to get money from the banker, returns home prematurely, and Bellmour hides in the bedroom. Fondlewife goes to get cash for Wittol. On his return, a frantic Laetitia accuses Wittol of having attempted to rape her. Wittol is asked to leave the house. Laetitia and Bellmour cleverly succeed in keeping Bellmour’s identity from Fondlewife until the cuckolded old gentleman discovers the Scarron novel in the parlor that Bellmour, in his disguise, had carried as a prayer book. Bellmour confesses to evil intentions, but declares that Fondlewife has returned too soon for the couple to have sinned. When Laetitia weeps and declares their innocence, Fondlewife reluctantly accepts Bellmour’s story.

Bellmour, still in his disguise, passes Silvia’s apartment. Lucy, believing him a parson who will marry her mistress and Heartwell, stops Bellmour. Bellmour reveals his true identity to Lucy and tells her that he will provide both her and Silvia with proper husbands if she will agree to no more than a mock marriage of Heartwell and Silvia. Bellmour, practical joker that he is, cannot bear to see his friend Heartwell marry a prostitute. He performs the service; then, during Heartwell’s momentary absence, he tells Silvia of the trick he has played.

Vainlove, meanwhile, learns from Setter that the letter signed by Araminta is probably Lucy’s work, since Lucy had made inquiries about the relationship between Araminta and Vainlove. At the same time, Sharper and Setter fool Wittol into thinking that Araminta has conceived a passion for him. Wittol gives Setter gold to bring Araminta to him. Bluffe privately pays Setter a counter-bribe to convey Araminta to him.

Sharper, pretending no knowledge of Heartwell’s marriage to Silvia, asks Heartwell to join him in a visit to the prostitute. Heartwell, in a predicament, tells of his marriage and warns Sharper not to go near Silvia’s house. Vainlove and Bellmour bring Araminta and Belinda, both masked, to Silvia’s house. Setter has taken Lucy and Silvia, both also masked, to meet Wittol and Bluffe. Finding Heartwell alone, Vainlove, Bellmour, and the young ladies tease him unmercifully about his marriage. Setter returns with Wittol, Silvia, Bluffe, and Lucy. When the ladies all unmask, the foolish knight and his roaring companion admit indulgently that they have been hoodwinked. Heartwell, learning of the mock marriage, thanks Bellmour for his salvation; he vows that if he were to marry, it would be to an old crone. Vainlove and Araminta, and Bellmour and Belinda, plan their weddings for the next day.