The setting is the carriage drive in the park of the house near Richmond. Jack Tanner, dressed in the contemporary costume for motoring, is watching his chauffeur, Henry Straker, who is repairing the automobile. The conversation between the two reveals that Enry (as he is usually called) is one of the new type of servants, one who is quite aware of his superiority in the world of machines. Jack Tanner is undoubtedly right when he wryly observes that the master has become the slave to the car and the chauffeur. Tanner tells Enry that one Mr. Malone, an American gentleman, is driving Octavius down in a new American steam car. Enry expresses his disappointment that he could not have had a race with them but is consoled by the news that both cars will be used for transporting the entire group, which will include Octavius, Violet, Ann, Rhoda, and Jack himself. He is incredulous, however, when he is told that Ann will not ride in Jack's car.
Octavius returns and an amusing colloquy follows when Tanner explains Enry's status as the New Man, a member of the class-conscious engineers. Not disrespectful, the chauffeur is anything but differential. He is aware that he does know more about machines — and women — than does his master.
Left alone with Tanner, Octavius solicits his sympathy. He had proposed to and been rejected by Ann. Jack insists that he has not been rejected at all and that Ann merely is not through playing with him. She is the pursuer, he argues, and Octavius is her marked-out victim. But poor lovesick Octavius rejects this counsel as only another sample of Jack's "eternal shallow cynicism." When Tanner learns that Ann had reproached his friend for not getting his permission to approach her, he pronounces blessings on the two and wishes them happiness. But he adds that Ann is really as free to choose as is Octavius. There follows a disputation on the subject of love as viewed by Tanner and Octavius respectively. When Straker reappears, the conversation shifts to Enry's preoccupation with motor racing.
Octavius gives Jack a note from Rhoda Whitefield, who has written that her elder sister Ann had forbidden her to go on the motor trip with Tanner and even to be in his company at any time on the grounds that he is "not a fit person for a young girl." Octavius sides with Ann, arguing that Jack's views are certainly not proper for the development of a young girl's mind and character.
Ann appears with the news that poor Rhoda cannot join the motoring party because she has one of her headaches. Jack is vastly amused; he has trapped Ann in a lie from which he is sure she cannot extricate herself. But Ann succeeds in doing just that. After sending Octavius to look after his American friend, she explains that she had been only the dutiful daughter carrying out her mother's instructions — another lie, of course. This provides Tanner with the cue for delivering a tirade on the tyranny of mothers and to challenge Ann to show her independence by joining him on a continental motor trip. To his chagrin, she promptly agrees to do so. After all, she explains, no impropriety would be involved, for Jack is her guardian and stands in her father's place.
Mrs. Whitefield arrives, accompanied by Hector Malone, the young American, and followed by Ramsden and Octavius. It is Jack's hope that Mrs. Whitefield will absolutely forbid Ann to go to the Continent with him. He is told that she has not the slightest objection — why should she object? Indeed, Mrs. Whitefield says that she had intended to ask Jack to take Rhoda out for a ride occasionally. So he learns that Ann had lied again. "Abyss beneath abyss of perfidy!" he exclaims. Ann hastily introduces Hector to Jack in order to divert attention from this outburst. In conversation with Tanner and Octavius, Hector reveals his devotion to Violet and is warned that she is a married woman, the identity of her husband unknown. Hector, the soul of chivalry, says that he will respect the lady's wishes but cannot understand why a husband should forbid his wife to reveal his identity. All this leads to a discussion of womanhood and marriage, Tanner as usual voicing unorthodox opinions. Hector asks to have a few words in private with Violet.
Alone on stage, the two exchange kisses, and the audience then learns definitely that they are married. The motivation for their secrecy was the fact that Hector's millionaire father was set on having his son marry a member of the aristocracy, someone with "a handle to her name." Hector urges Violet to let him announce their marriage publicly even if his father disinherits him. But Violet will have none of such "nonsense." Hector must not be romantic about money, she states; she has no intention of facing a struggle and poverty. When Hector says that he can borrow money and then go to work, she is appalled: "Do you want to spoil our marriage?" The young American remains worried about having to live a lie, especially after Jack Tanner had argued that marriage had not ennobled Violet's unknown husband. To Violet, Jack is a hateful beast, but the tolerant Hector is sure that all he needs is the love of a good woman.
Tanner returns with Straker as Violet and her husband leave to inspect the steam car. Jack and Enry discuss the continental trip. In the course of their conversation, the perspicacious chauffeur tells his master that Octavius has no chance of marrying Ann and that it is Jack himself she is after. Tanner is horrified at the thought that he is "the bee, the spider, the marked-down victim" Ann is bent on capturing. Seeking escape, he calls upon Enry to set a new motoring record to get far across the Continent and out of Ann's reach.