When Petulant arrives he tells Betty to send the coach away, even if the women inside snivel and cry. Mirabell and Fainall of course, begin to tease him about his ill treatment of the three unknown women. Petulant doesn’t seem to understand their subtle jokes, and talks about the women as if they were his former lovers. Witwoud periodically interrupts to clarify Petulant’s meaning and supply him with more elegant words to use. Petulant, then, jokes that the three women are Witwoud’s cousins and aunt: Mrs. Fainall, Millamant, and Wishfort, respectively. Rather than being offended, Witwoud laughs off Petulant’s insult toward his family.
Petulant doesn’t realize that Mirabell and Fainall know his secret, which makes him feel bold enough to mistreat the women. He has mistaken ideas about what it takes to be in gentlemanly society. Petulant takes the joke too far by insulting Witwoud’s family and Fainall’s wife. He doesn’t know how to imitate a wit’s personality and betrays his foolishness and crass nature instead. Meanwhile, Witwoud acts as Petulant’s “translator,” which he thinks makes him look intelligent. Everyone is trying to be witty, but only some people actually are.
Mirabell, however, half-jokingly, warns Petulant to stay away from Millamant. In response, Petulant suggests that he’s not the biggest threat to Mirabell’s courtship of Millamant. Mirabell presses Petulant for details. Petulant explains that at Wishfort’s “cabal” the night before, he learned that Mirabell’s uncle is coming to stay at Wishfort’s and is the favored contender for Millamant’s hand. He adds that Millamant’s marriage to this uncle, who already has a bad relationship with Mirabell, would lead to Mirabell’s disinheritance should the marriage produce a child.
At this point, things look bad for Mirabell, as he seems to be finding out more and more information that now threatens not just his chances with Millamant but his own wealth. Wishfort seems to favor this “contender” precisely because it would be most harmful to Mirabell.
Mirabell wants even more details, and tells Petulant that he will regard him as wittier than Witwoud, if Petulant reveals what he knows. Petulant demands that Mirabell admit, in public, that he, Petulant, has common sense. Mirabell promises to do what he can. Fainall, remarks that Mirabell seems worried about Petulant and Witwoud as competitors for Millamant’s affections.
Mirabell knows that gossip operates by principles of trade: you have to give something to get something. Petulant wants Mirabell’s stamp of approval because he thinks it will be more effective than his other schemes for gaining a reputation. Mirabell thinks it’s just one more harebrained scheme. Fainall, meanwhile, enjoys what he thinks is Mirabell’s discomfort.
Witwoud comforts Mirabell, though, explaining that Millamant laughs at Petulant’s advances and that his own interest in Millamant is not serious. Though he admires her beauty, he claims that he cannot love Millamant because she’s so inconsistent in her loyalties. For instance, she expressed interest in Mirabell’s uncle at the cabal. Witwoud also reveals that Wishfort knows that Mirabell and his uncle don’t get along and is planning to use this fact to develop a plot against Mirabell.
Fainall is trying to undermine Mirabell and make him feel insecure. Though Witwoud tries to reassure Mirabell by reminding him that he and Petulant are in fact bad matches match for Millamant, his comment about Millamant’s inconstancy raises the possibility that she actually isn’t a match for anyone.
After Witwoud’s report, Mirabell invites Fainall to leave the chocolate house with him and go for a walk in the Mall. When Witwoud invites himself and Petulant along, Mirabell wonders aloud whether Witwoud should instead stay and wait for his half-brother. Witwoud responds that Wilfull is going to arrive at Wishfort’s house that evening, at which point Mirabell gets to the point: he doesn’t want to walk with Witwoud or Petulant at the Mall. He doesn’t approve of the way they try to make female passersby blush with their suggestive and rude remarks. Petulant defends himself, arguing that the women who blush are either guilty of knowing too much about sex or are ill-bred.
Witwoud and Petulant lack the social graces to understand when they are or aren’t invited along. Meanwhile, Petulant’s defense about his suggestive remarks to women reveal two things: 1) his vulgarity; 2) more importantly, it captures the difficulties that women face socially with men, who both want them for sex and blame them for being anything other than completely innocent about sex.