The novel is basically a series of episodes. Some, being only a few chapters long, could well be extracted as short stories. Each episode has Mailly embroiling himself, or becoming embroiled, in an escapade where he must use his wits to survive. Only in two episodes does he come out with more than his life — the episode of the Terrace of the Orangery, where he gains some money, and the final episode, which ends with the promising sentence: “A moment afterward, Mdlle Taranne withdrew into the interior, and the girl with the hair of pale gold and he saw each other perhaps for the first time.”
Despite the US title, the episodes rely far more on the exercise of wits than on swordplay, and the plotting and counterplotting gets extremely involved — hence the length of this summary.
The first episode starts with the Sieur de Jambac, a minor nobleman from the country, visiting a lawyer, Fleurus, in Paris, to see if anything can be done about his predicament: a particularly determined widow is set on marrying him; can anything be done, legally, to stop her? Fleurus tells him there is nothing, and the Sieur leaves.
Sleeping on a bench in Fleurus’s room, however, is the impecunious Monsieur Gaston de Mailly, who wakes shortly afterwards and, after borrowing some money from Fleurus, goes out to see what he can do for the Sieur de Jambac. He finds the Sieur’s nephew, M de Fargues, who is even more incensed about the idea of his uncle marrying, as, being the sole heir, he stands to lose his inheritance should the marriage go ahead. Mailly makes a deal with him, intent on somehow preventing the marriage, but later in the evening they hear how the Sieur was virtually kidnapped by a woman in a carriage who had a priest in tow. The Sieur de Jambac’s fate is evident. Thus ends the first episode, with Mailly still as poor as before.
Some time later, Mailly, in dire need of money, bumps into an old friend, Pierre Mimizan, who is about to go to the court of the King in Versailles with the Marquis de Puy. He suggests Mailly come along to be part of an intrigue: if Mailly can arrange a meeting between Puy and a young beauty of the court, Papiria Molfetti, at a place known as the Terrace of the Orangery, there may be something in it for him.
Upon arrival at the court, Mailly has to walk carefully so as not to appear naive. The court nobles are all too ready to tear each other apart at the least sign of weakness or ignorance, and a newcomer all the more. Mailly is unaware, however, that he has been made the butt of a joke from the start — the Terrace of the Orangery is the sole province of the King, and by trying to arrange a meeting in this place, he is making it plain that he is no better than a country bumpkin. He meets with the young beauty, Molfetti, and her elder companion, who, realising a joke is being played on them, start to use Mailly in a counter-joke. Mailly realises something is amiss when people begin coming up to him sarcastically asking for tickets to the event he is putting on at the Orangery, and eventually he is summoned by the King, who is angry, thinking a joke is being played on him. Mailly explains the situation honestly, and comes up with a plan: if the King were to really put on an event at the Orangery, it would not only defuse the joke on the King, but turn the tables on the pranksters. The King likes this, and says that not only will tickets be sold, but the the profits will be given to Mailly. However, Mailly will have to absent himself from court straightaway, as he will immediately become the target of quite some malice. Thus, Mailly returns to Paris, but is one up at last: he has money, and promptly gets himself a new apartment.
Mailly returns to the lawyer Fleurus to propose a partnership. He suggests that any cases Fleurus cannot see being resolved by the process of law, he pass on to Mailly to see what can be done by less conventional means. Fleurus is sceptical, but presents a case: a woman has come in recently complaining that her husband-to-be has married another woman. Nothing can be done legally, but Mailly knows the husband, the Marquis de Ventailles, who resides at Jussault, as he served under him in the army.
So, Mailly rides out to Jussault and meets with the Marquis, pretending he was just passing. Glad of a sympathetic ear, the Marquis pours out his misery. He was to marry Mdlle Aglaé de Dampierre, but in fact married her twin sister Claire when a double marriage ceremony involving both sisters went wrong. The husband-to-be of Claire didn’t turn up, and neither did the Marquis’ intended, Aglaé, so Claire and her aunt suggested the Marquis marry Claire, which he did, in a fit of pique. Since then, Claire has lived at her family home and refused to visit her husband even once. In addition, it turns out some deception was employed, as Claire’s intended, M de Villary-Loguette, a country gentleman, was sent a false message on the morning of the wedding to go to Claire’s home, which delayed him getting to the ceremony. After this, Villary-Loguette came to visit the Marquis; the two played cards, and the Marquis, obviously in a state of depression, gambled away his title.
Mailly comes up with a plan. He says that it is common for young twin girls to exchange names as a game in childhood, and if such a contrivance can be pretended to have occurred, that the twin girls in fact swapped names when they were children, all that has to happen is that Aglaé adopts the name Claire and she can be instated as the Marquis’ rightful wife. Meanwhile, the scheming Claire only needs to be told that her previously-intended husband now has a title in order for her to see that union as all the more desirable. Meanwhile, Mailly thinks he can get the Marquisiteship back from Villary-Loguette, as it is worthless without the King’s consent, and restore it to the proper Marquis, thus getting a little revenge on Claire.
However, the Marquis hears a supernatural howl, and attributes it to a family legend meaning he will soon die. Mdlle Aglaé turns up demanding an audience with her erstwhile fiancé. Mailly leaves the two alone and Aglaé stabs the Marquis. Mailly enters and prevents the Marquis’ men from capturing Aglaé, as the Marquis’ dying wish is that Aglaé should be spared. Mailly manages to get her away from the angry servants at Jussault and goes home, disappointed that all his clever plotting has again come to nothing.
The final episode is the most intricate, involving a series of people twisting each others’ plots and counterplots to their own ends. Everybody is double-crossing or double-thinking everybody else, and the only truly elucidating summary would probably have to be longer than the work itself. (This episode takes up more than half the novel.) Here goes:
A fortnight passes. Mailly gets a summons from M de Pontchartrain, a minister and head of the Secret Police. It is, however, Pontchartrain’s servant, M Passy, who brings Mailly to Pontchartrain’s residence, and he does this through the backstreets, to a house itself backing onto Pontchartrain’s, so as to gain access unobserved. Inside, Pontchartrain tells Mailly he has a lettre-de-cachet for Mailly’s arrest relating to the Ventailles case (Ventailles was killed, and Mailly fled the scene with Ventailles’ murderer), but Pontchartrain is prepared to waive the order of arrest if Mailly does him a service: he is to challenge a certain Duc de Chastelnoir to a duel, not for the purpose of killing him, but so as to dishonour the Duc in the King’s eyes. As Mailly leaves the house (again, through the back way), Madame Passy tells him his life is in danger, and bids him return in a short time so she can tell him more. Once outside, Mailly discovers that his sword, left outside the room during his interview with Pontchartrain, has been switched for another.
Mailly concludes that his sword must have been switched so as to be used in an assassination for which he will be framed; also, his return to the house was no doubt requested by Mme Passy to ensure his presence on the murder scene soon after the event. He returns to Pontchartrain’s house immediately, evicts Mme Passy before she can call for her husband, and investigates.
He first encounters an unknown woman, and orders her to return to the room she was waiting in. (This turns out to be Mme Passy’s sister, but Mailly does not learn this yet.) Mailly then finds Pontchartrain’s servant Passy, and ties him up. Suddenly, he finds himself fighting a duel with the very Duc de Chastelnoir he was blackmailed into discrediting. The Duc had been hiding in the passage between the servant Passy’s and Pontchartrain’s house, because he thinks his wife the Duchess is having an affair with Pontchartrain. (To complicate matters even further, Pontchartrain also believes he is on the cusp of an affair with the Duchess de Chastelnoir, but in this he, also, is being deceived. This will be revealed much later, though.) The duel spills into Pontchartrain’s house, and the Duc de Chastelnoir turns his assault upon Pontchartrain, who chooses this moment to appear. Mailly rushes to Pontchartrain’s aid. At that moment, M d’Argenson, head of the police, bursts in, saying he has been tipped off about a crime that is to be committed. In the farcical confusion, the Duc de Chastelnoir stumbles onto Mailly’s sword and is killed.
d’Argenson launches an immediate inquiry. It is a delicate situation, and there is more going on than meets the eye. Mailly is quickly absolved of murder, as it is revealed that Pontchartrain’s servant Passy has been making arrangements to buy a very expensive (and far beyond his means) house outside of the country, having embezzled a large sum from his employer. Mme Passy turned him in, as she didn’t realise at first that her husband was also planning to assassinate Pontchartrain before fleeing to this illicitly-bought house. It is implied (but never explicitly said) that Pontchartrain was to be lured into the Duc de Chastelnoir’s clutches — the situation Mailly found himself in — under the pretence of an assignation with the Duc’s wife. The Duc’s doctor is summoned, and is persuaded to say that the Duc died of a heart attack rather than at the point of Mailly’s sword, thus dissipating a potential scandal. In return for his silence, the doctor asks that a relative of his who is in the army gain some sort of advance in rank. Mailly is chosen to be employed as Pontchartrain’s agent to go to where this relative is posted and return with a report on his abilities (thus getting Mailly out of the city till the whole business of the Duc’s death blows over). Everyone leaves, except Mailly, whom Pontchartrain asks to remain. He wants Mailly to become his informer. Pontchartrain knows that the head of police, d’Argenson, hates him, so he believes d’Argenson will use this situation to in some way harm Pontchartrain. Pontchartrain believes Mailly will be of some help, and backs up the offer with payment and threats.
In the early hours, Mailly returns home to find a woman waiting for him. It is the unknown woman he saw in the Passy’s house, Mme Passy’s sister. She, it turns out, arrived unexpectedly at the Passy’s house that night, and wants to know what is going on. Mailly has to tell her that her sister and brother-in-law have been arrested, and tries to convince her that, should she go to see her sister, she will be implicated in the whole plot and arrested. (He finds her very attractive, and so, in this, is not plotting or counter-plotting, but acting out of concern for her.) However, when he wakes the next morning, she’s gone.
First off this next day, Mailly has an interview with the Duc’s doctor about the relative that he is to assess for advancement. Mailly manages to talk a large amount of money out the doctor as expenses for the trip.
d’Argenson then appears. This is a dangerous interview. Mailly knows he has a potential enemy in both d’Argenson and Pontchartrain, who hate each other. He is caught like a pawn between two aggressive knights. He thus proceeds to play a game of deception in pretending to be of more value to each man than he actually is. First off, he tells d’Argenson (truly) that he has been hired by Pontchartrain, but adds that he can be persuaded to disappear on this mission about the doctor’s relative for a large sum of money, thereby not interfering with d’Argenson’s plans. With a deceptive trick, Mailly gets d’Argenson to sign a document that promises him immunity from prosecution, plus gets the large payment of money from d’Argenson, which becomes his protection — though he knows d’Argenson will use whatever means he can to get the signed paper back.
Mailly then procures two bravos as bodyguards for his trip to meet with Pontchartrain later that day. They are attacked, but win through. Mailly meets with Pontchartrain, and uses the signed paper he gained from d’Argenson as “evidence” that he is valuable to d’Argenson. He sells the paper to Pontchartrain for another large sum — or, preferably, a high position in the army.
Mailly then arranges for Mme Passy and her sister to be freed, and arranges to accompany Passy’s sister to her home in Caen. He is summoned to one final meeting — with a woman close to the Duchess. This is Mdlle Taranne, who was to appear in the Passy’s house pretending to be the Duchess (the whole affair between Pontchartrain and the Duchess was a sham, though Pontchartrain was fooled). Taranne looks favourably on Mailly, and agrees to chaperone him while he escorts Passy’s sister, Mdlle Antoinette, back to her home. The novel ends with the implication that Mailly and Mdlle Antoinette’s relationship is to be a significant one.