Mirandolina, mistress since her father's death of his prosperous inn in Florence, is remarkable for her lively charm and her deft juggling of innumerable admirers. But now all her wit is challenged by the courting of three men, as well as by the equally interesting indifference of another.
Offering the boasted "protection" of a lordly title is the Marquis di Forlipopoli who remains at the inn solely because of his admiration for its mistress. But the offer of the title is counterbalanced by a poverty and a stinginess incongruous in so snobbish a figure whose most frequent phrase is: "I am who I am and must be shown respect."
Wealth is offered by the Count Albafiorita, also attracted to the inn solely by Mirandolina, upon whom he continually showers costly presents. He loses no opportunity to call attention to his riches and generosity, and to taunt the Marquis upon his thin purse; but he confesses that so far his suit has been without success.
Also in the lists is Fabricus, serving man at the inn, whom Mirandolina's father has suggested as her prospective husband. Fabricus is blandly maintaining his role of a waiter, however, through all of Mirandolina's guileful maneuvering, but he himself never knows whether she favors him or not. The Marquis and the Count are quite aware of his position, and they somewhat favor so respectable and convenient a match for their admired one.
The indifferent guest is the Cavalier di Ripafratta who, jeering at the Marquis and the Count for their worship of Mirandolina, declares: "As far as I am concerned there isn't any danger that I'll get into any dispute with anyone about women. I have never loved them, I have never had any use for them, and I have always thought that woman is an unbearable infirmity for men.... I have been in this hotel three days and I don't see anything especially remarkable about her."
As the three guests chat, Mirandolina appears. The Marquis attempts to lure her to his room, but she demurely informs him that the waiter is available. Equally demurely, she refuses diamond earrings offered by the Count, but finally accepts them "so as not to displease" him. The Cavalier bluntly criticizes the linen provided and Mirandolina, reflecting that she has never seen such a savage man, decides to order him from the inn.
Later, however, she reflects: "... That Cavalier ... why does he treat me so brusquely? He's the first guest ... who hasn't been delighted by my society ... To despise me so is something that makes me angry. He a woman hater? ... Poor fool! Probably he hasn't found the one who knows how to handle him ... I'm going to enter the lists with him. Those who run after me soon bore me ... My whole delight is in seeing myself served, desired and adored ... I treat everyone well, but I'll never fall in love with anyone. I like to make fun of these exaggerated ardent lovers, and I want to use all my skill to conquer, strike down and shake to their depths these cruel and hard hearts which are the enemies of us who are the best thing that beautiful Mother Nature has produced."
So she tells Fabricus that she will deliver the linen, and soothes his jealousy with another intimation that she cares nothing for her guests--Fabricus is to be the favored one. She straightway visits the Cavalier (who has just lost his morning chocolate and a loan to the penniless Marquis), and presents linen so fine that he must admit that she is at least an obliging woman. He is pleased as well by her frankness when she tells him that she listens to the Count and Marquis only to better her inn's business.
A few minutes of Mirandolina's shrewd flattery and the Cavalier is impelled to agree that she is most pleasing, but he is sure that he could never sacrifice his freedom for her. He invites her to return, however, and Mirandolina decides, while accepting more gifts from the Count and Marquis so as not to displease them, that she would rather humble the Cavalier than have the finest of jewels.
For the Cavalier's dinner she sends a delightful and special meal, but he observes that he is leaving tomorrow. "Let her do her worst for today, but she will discover I'm not so weak," he reflects. Mirandolina appears with a ragout made by her own hands, and he soon finds himself--at her hint that she his strangely attracted to him--asking her to share his wine and his meal. They are interrupted by the Marquis--but not until the Cavalier is perilously near his doom. He decides that his safety demands that he flee the inn at once.
He attempts to evade her, but she personally brings him his bill--oddly small. She is weeping. The Cavalier is about to leave in confusion when she employs her chief weapon, a faint. He returns with water, murmuring in surrender: "Courage, courage. I am here, dear. I'll never leave you now." The Count and Marquis arrive to taunt him, and in a rage he throws down the water jug and leaves. Mirandolina recovers and reflects: "My task is done ... All I have to do is to complete my victory, to make my triumph pubic to the discomfiture of presumptuous men and to the honor of my sex."
The Cavalier cannot go. "Dragged by the devil," he finds Mirandolina, after sending to her a gold flask which she returns, much to the pleasure of Fabricus. She has justified her flirtation with the thought that she only wants the Cavalier "to confess the power of women without being able to say that they are self-seeking and venial." She torments him by throwing his gift in a basket, being overly kind to Fabricus in his presence, jeering at his past contempt for women, and, finally, by leaving him. When he has gone, she sends a servant for the flask, but the Marquis has salvaged it already.
The humiliated Count and Marquis, realizing that they have been duped, decide to leave. Now, Mirandolina, alarmed by the Cavalier's fury, thinks that she had better marry Fabricus. She says, reflectively: "After all, with such a marriage I could hope to protect my honor without detriment to my freedom." The Cavalier, whom she had promised to visit in his room at his demand for an explanation, returns, threatening to break down the door. He is restrained from doing so by the arrival of the Count and the Marquis. The Count provokes him, and the Cavalier demands the Marquis' sword to fight, but he finds only half a weapon in the scabbard. Furious, he is about to attack, even with this poor makeshift, when Mirandolina and Fabricus appear.
Mirandolina stops the fight, telling the Count and Marquis: "The Cavalier in love with me? He denies it, and denying it in my presence he mortifies and humiliates me, and makes me recognize his strength and my weakness ... A man who cannot bear the sight of women ... I cannot hope to make love me ... I tried to make the Cavalier fall in love with me, but all to no purpose. Isn't it true, sir! I have done my best, but I have accomplished nothing."
She declares that the Cavalier will prove that he is still heart-whole by approving her marriage to Fabricus. The Cavalier leaves, after stormily declaring: "Yes, curse you, marry whom you will ... I curse your flattery, your tears ... you have made me see what baleful power your sex has over us, and you have taught me to my cost that it isn't enough to despise it--we men must flee from it."
Mirandolina announces that, from now on, Fabricus is to be her only concern. She asks the Count and Marquis to go elsewhere, reminding them: "May you profit by what you have seen ... and whenever you may find yourselves hesitating as to whether you ought to yield or give in, may you think of the tricks you have learned, and remember the Mistress of the Inn."
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