In London in the early eighteenth century, two rollicking young gentlemen, Aimwell and Archer, their money spent and their only alternatives being to marry money or to sell their swords for the wars, conceal their poverty from their gay London friends, and ride into the country to let fate decide their course for them. They are still in possession of their last two hundred pounds, and they have conceived a shrewd plan: by turns one is to play the fine lord, the other his servant, the better to impress the country folk.
They arrive at Litchfield Inn, and Aimwell, taking the first turn at playing the lord, drinks with the garrulous Will Boniface, the landlord, in order to learn of the prospects in the vicinity. The countryside's most notable household, he finds, is that of Lady Bountiful, a wealthy widow whose philanthropy and skill as a healer have made her an idolized figure. She has a young, wealthy and lovely daughter called Dorinda, and a sluggard son, Squire Sullen, who has recently married a comely London lady. Also at the inn are some captive French officers, among them Count Bellair and Foigard, their priest.
Aimwell, to strengthen the impression of his high estate, puts his money in the landlord's strongbox, bidding Boniface to keep it in readiness as he may stay at the inn only a half hour. Boniface, himself in league with the highwaymen, Gibbet, Hounslow and Bagshot, suspects that Aimwell and Archer are theives, and, to betray them and get their money, he tells his pretty daughter, Cherry, to tease what information she can from Archer while he plies Aimwell with drink and subtle questioning. But Boniface is outwitted by Aimwell who reveals nothing, and Cherry only succeeds in falling in love with Archer.
Dorinda and her sister-in-law, Mrs. Sullen, are also curious about the travelers, for Aimwell has gone to church to meet the rich Dorinda. Dorinda immediately becomes deeply interested in the handsome stranger. She and Mrs. Sullen induce Scrub, servant to the Sullens, to invite Archer (still playing Aimwell's servant) to their home for questioning. They too are checkmated in their attempt to get information, but the discontented Mrs. Sullen observes that Archer is not without charm.
When Archer has gone, Mrs. Sullen and Dorinda carry out a ruse to awaken Sullen, who has been derelict in this respect, to his duties as a loving husband. Dorinda has concealed Sullen in a closet in order that he may hear Count Bellair woo his wife and she ridicule her husband. Sullen reacts by rushing out with a drawn sword, but is restrained from attacking Bellair by a pistol leveled at him by his wife. He scores a point, however, when he observes that he does not care if his wife bestows her favors elsewhere if she does so secretly and not to a Frenchman--he detests all Frenchmen. Bellair, whom Mrs. Sullen now informs, with some exaggeration, that her passion has been only feigned, notes that her virtue may be very great but her honesty very little, and invites her to send for him whenever she needs a fool. All in all, the stratagem has not done well, but Mrs. Sullen is still in a reckless mood.
A diversion is created when Archer appears, simulating great concern, to report that his master is outside, suffering from a fit, and he implores the good offices of Lady Bountiful. Aimwell, feigning coma, is borne in, but quickly regains consciousness after violently squeezing the comforting hand of the beautiful Dorinda. When Archer suggests that Aimwell should not yet venture into the open air, Dorinda and her sister-in-law escort the men on a tour of the house. Aimwell and Dorinda stray off by themselves, and only a determined effort of conscience saves Mrs. Sullen from a lapse from virtue when the industrious Archer entices her into her own bedchamber.
As Archer leaves, Scrub tells him that he has overheard Foigard, the priest, bribing Gipsy, the Sullens' maid, to conceal Bellair in Mrs. Sullen's chamber that night. Mrs. Sullen now wonders if, without supernatural gifts, she can do more than simply avoid the temptation of Archer, and Dorinda dreams of marrying "Lord" Aimwell and living a gay life in London. Archer and Aimwell, meanwhile, confront Foigard with a trumped-up charge of treason, and, in exchange for their silence, win the priest's promise that he will conduct Archer, instead of the Count, to Mrs. Sullen's bedroom.
Other developments are in the making for the household that same night. Boniface has arranged that Gibbet, Hounslow and Bagshot, armed to the teeth, shall rob Lady Bountiful. Gibbet has already gotten Sullen well besotted with drink by way of preparation. Sir Charles Freeman, brother of Mrs. Sullen, whom she has summoned to help her get free of her obnoxious husband, now arrives at the inn. Freeman and Sullen, the latter unaware that he is talking with his brother-in-law, fall into conversation. Sullen becomes indignant when Freeman suggests that he should not go home to his wife in his drunken condition. "What!" he exclaims, "not lie with my wife! Sir, do you take me for an atheist or a rake? I'm a justice of the peace, and must do nothing against the law." Since Freeman takes her part, he makes a drunken promise that Freeman shall have his wife in the morning, with a venison pasty to boot.
At two o'clock the next morning, Cherry, unable to find Archer, who by this time is concealed in Mrs. Sullen's closet, runs to Aimwell with the news that the robbers are leaving for Lady Bountiful's home. Mrs. Sullen, sighing languorously, is entertaining disturbing thoughts of Archer: "...Suppose him here, dressed like a youthful, gay and burning bridegroom, with tongue enchanting, eyes bewitching, knees imploring..." She shrieks as she sees Archer, who steals forth from his closet hiding place and faithfully acts out her thought. Again, Mrs. Sullen's conscience comes reluctantly to the rescue, and she is summoning resolution enough to scream when Scrub rushes in with word that the robbers are in the house.
Archer, drawing his sword, hides as Gibbet enters to plunder, then springs upon the bandit and subdues him, summoning Foigard, who is hiding in Gipsy's chamber, to bind the fellow. Meanwhile, Aimwell has arrived and has engaged in combat Hounslow and Bagshot, who are robbing Lady Bountiful and Dorinda. Archer and Mrs. Sullen appear, and soon the bandits are disarmed. Archer, slightly wounded, contrives that Mrs. Sullen show him to a bed-chamber, but this time she is saved by a servant announcing the arrival of Freeman, her brother. It so happens that Freeman is an acquaintance of both Archer and Aimwell. Archer fears that the masquerade will now be spoiled just at the very moment of its almost sure success, for Aimwell is about to propose to Dorinda while she, grateful for her rescue, is sure to be in a softened mood. Aimwell proposes, but under the compunction of his sincere love for Dorinda, confesses that he is a fraud, wearing his brother's title.
Dorinda accepts Aimwell for himself, then hears some good news. As she and Aimwell are about to be married, she tells him that his brother is dead and that he has succeeded to his title and estate. Freeman verifies this report and all are happy, Aimwell with his bride and Archer with Dorinda's ample fortune which Aimwell gives to him.
Bellair arrives to tell them that the inn has also been robbed and Cherry sends to Archer a note disclosing that her father, fearing betrayal by the bandits, has fled. She sends the strongbox, as well as her love, to Archer. The company agrees to seek a pardon for Boniface and to accept Cherry in the service of the Aimwells.
There remains only one problem--the freeing of Mrs. Sullen and her fortune from her husband. This is contrived by Archer, who has recovered from Gibbet all the papers of her estate and, with the consent of Sullen, whose headache from the night before has left him wanting "only a dram," Archer and Mrs. Sullen lead a final dance, joined by everybody but Sullen.
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