An exciting and romantic night is anticipated at the English country home of Kate Hardcastle. Kate is to be visited by her father's choice of a husband for her--young Marlow, the son of Charles Marlow, Mr. Hardcastle's oldest friend. Kate has not yet seen her intended. With him is to come young Mr. Hastings to call on his sweetheart Constance Neville, Mrs. Hardcastle's niece and Kate's dearest friend. Mrs. Hardcastle hopes for a match between her son, Tony Lumpkin, Kate's half-brother, and Constance, though both Constance and Tony detest each other.
Marlow and Hastings, having lost their way during the post-chaise trip from the city, stop for directions at the Three Pigeons Tavern--where Tony, as usual, is whiling away the evening with drink, flirtations and practical jokes. On hearing the travelers' destination, Tony gets the inspiration for what he conceives to be a great prank: he tells Marlow and Hastings that they can never reach the Hardcastle home at night over the dangerous path that lies before them, and that, since the Three Pigeons is crowded, they had best go a mile farther to Buck's Head, easily identified by a pair of horns on the door. He advises them to drive into the yard "and call stoutly about you." The young men thank him and leave, unaware that Tony has, in reality, sent them to the Hardcastles' home.
Upon arrival, Marlow and Hastings believe Mr. Hardcastle to be the innkeeper, and they order him brusquely about, demanding supper and ignoring his attempts at a host's affability. Marlow insists upon going upstairs to inspect his bed personally, and while he is absent, Constance walks into the room. When Hastings asks what she is doing at the "inn," she exposes the hoax. Hastings warns Constance that the sensitive Marlow must not be allowed to learn the truth, for he might leave at once, humiliated because of his rude conduct, and so spoil their plans.
These plans provide for the elopement of Hastings and Constance--just as soon as she can get possession of her fortune in jewels which Mrs. Hardcastle has carefully locked up. Until she does so, they decide to continue to carry out Tony's fraud, Hastings telling Marlow that, by chance, Constance and Kate also are guests at the inn. But the meeting of Marlow and Kate is hardly auspicious, for the bashful Marlow blushes and stammers stupid compliments. Kate later tells her father that she will have none of him: "His awkward address, his bashful manner, his hesitating timidity, struck me at first sight."
Her father is amazed at her words. Says he: "Then your first sight deceived you, child, for I think him one of the most brazen sights that ever astonished my senses. He met me with a loud voice, a lordly air, and a familiarity that made my blood freeze." He and Kate agree to await further developments before pronouncing judgment on Marlow's true nature, and Kate disguises herself as a maid. Marlow, looking at her closely for the first time, assumes her to be "a female of the other class" with which he has never been ill at ease, and he becomes the assured gallant. He tries to kiss her.
Kate protests: "Pray, Sir, keep your distance ... I'm sure you did not treat Miss Hardcastle that was here a while ago in this obstropalous manner." Marlow replies airily: "Who cares for Miss Hardcastle? A mere awkward, squinting thing!... But you--" He tries again to embrace her. Kate escapes, but not before the irate Mr. Hardcastle has arrived to see the scuffle. He demands that Marlow leave his house at once. Marlow tells him to bring his bill and make no more words about it.
Mr. Hardcastle replies: "Young man, from your father's letter to me, I was taught to expect a well-bred, modest man, but now I find you no better than a coxcomb and a bully! But Sir Charles will be down here presently and you shall hear more of it!" In bewilderment, Marlow calls to the "barmaid," Kate, to clear up the muddle. She tells him that he is, indeed, in the Hardcastle home, and that she lives there as "a poor relation." Marlow, covered with mortification, is prepared to leave at once, but begins to realize his love for the maid, and Kate begins to suspect that he is, after all, quite bearable.
In the meantime, the romance of Hastings and Constance is not doing well. To clear the path for their elopement, the helpful Tony, who wants Constance out of the way because she is a threat to his liberty, has stolen her jewels from Mrs. Hardcastle and has given them to Hastings. For safekeeping, Hastings has passed them along to Marlow. Marlow, who has thought Mrs. Hardcastle only the landlady of the inn, has turned them over to her to take care of. She thus learns of Constance's intended elopement.
To put an end to this plan and forward her hope that Tony shall be Constance's husband, Mrs. Hardcastle orders Constance off to her Aunt Pedigree's, summoning Tony to drive Constance and herself there at once. Tony agrees, and the three start off into the night.
Then Sir Charles arrives. He joins with Mr. Hardcastle in a hearty laugh over his son's bewilderment, though they assume that the youth, by now, is wholly aware of the truth. But young Marlow still thinks the maid and Kate are different persons, and when twitted by Mr. Hardcastle over his ardent behavior toward his daughter, replies: "By all that's just and true, sir, I never gave Miss Hardcastle the slightest mark of my attachment." He leaves the room, and now the fathers are completely bewildered. They ask Kate if Marlow has made love to her. "I must say he has," she declares. The fathers decide to watch when the young folk meet again, and they hear Marlow, still believing Kate to be the poor relation, declare his love for her and offer marriage.
The two men come forward to reproach him for his hypocrisy, and Hardcastle says: "What have you to say for yourself now, young man?... You can address a lady in private and deny it in public; you have one story for us and another for my daughter."
Marlow then learns that the maid, in reality, is Kate. He can say only: "Oh, the devil!" The tangle now unraveled, the young people are happily betrothed.
Good fortune also comes to Hastings and Constance. The irrepressible Tony, instead of taking the party to Aunt Pedigree's, has driven them for hours around the Hardcastle grounds, jouncing through every mud-hole to make the trip more miserable, before finally bringing the carriage to a halt at the end of the Hardcastle garden. The exhausted Mrs. Hardcastle is in no mood to reproach Tony or even to oppose the match between Hastings and Constance, although she does insist upon retaining Constance's jewels.
A condition of the custody of Constance's fortune, however, is that the jewels shall be released to her if Tony, upon coming of age, refuses to marry her. Mr. Hardcastle then tells Tony: "While I thought concealing your age was likely to conduce to your improvement, I concurred with your mother's desire to keep it secret. But since I find that she turns it to a wrong use, I must now declare that you have been of age these three months."
"Then," says Tony, "you'll see the first use I'll make of my liberty." He formally renounces Constance, removing the last barrier to the double match.
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