David Bruce: Ben Jonson’s THE DEVIL IS AN ASS: A Retelling — Act 2, Scene 1

— 2.1 —

Merecraft the projector, Trains (Merecraft’s manservant), and three waiters entered the room, joining Fitzdottrel and Engine. The waiters were possibly the attendants of Merecraft’s clients and were waiting to get instructions from Merecraft. Or possibly they were helping Merecraft to con Fitzdottrel.

Merecraft was accurately named. His name meant “only tricks”: He was a con man who preyed on the greed of his clients. By promising to make them rich, he was able to get their money for himself.

He said to Fitzdottrel, “Sir, money’s a whore, a bawd, a drudge, fit to run out on errands; let her go. Via, pecunia!

This was Latin for “The way or path, the money!” The Italian via, however, meant “away” or “leave” or “onward.”

Merecraft wanted Fitzdottrel to let his money go so he — Merecraft — could possess it.

He continued, “When she’s run and gone, and fled and dead, then I will fetch her again with aqua-vitae — distilled spirits — out of an old barrel. While there are lees of wine, or dregs of beer, I’ll never lack money.”

He would use the lees of wine or dregs of beer to distill aqua-vitae.

He continued, “Coin her out of cobwebs and dust, but I’ll have her! Raise wool upon eggshells, sir, and make grass grow out of marrow-bones to make her come.”

Merecraft said to the first waiter, “Commend me to your mistress. Tell her, let the thousand pounds just be had ready, and it is done.”

The first waiter exited.

Merecraft said, “I would just like to see the creature of flesh and blood, the man, the prince, indeed, who could employ so many millions as I would help him to.”

Fitzdottrel said to Engine, “How he talks! Millions?”

Merecraft said to the second waiter, “I’ll give you an account of this tomorrow.”

The second waiter exited.

Merecraft said, “Yes, I will talk no less, and do it, too, if they were myriads — and without the devil, by direct means; it shall be good in law.”

He was talking about making millions without the help of conjuring. He was claiming to be able to do so legally.

King James I of England opposed conjuring.

“Sir,” Engine said.

Merecraft said to the third waiter, “Tell Master Woodcock I’ll not fail to meet him upon the Exchange at night. Tell him to have the documents there, and we’ll dispatch the business.”

A woodcock is a proverbially stupid bird.

The third waiter exited.

Merecraft turned to Fitzdottrel and said, “Sir, you are a gentleman of a good presence, a handsome man. I have considered you as a fit stock to graft honors upon. I have a project to make you a duke now.

“That you must be one, within so many months as I set down out of true reason of state, you shall not avoid it. But you must listen, then.”

“Listen?” Engine said. “Why, sir, do you doubt his ears? Alas! You do not know Master Fitzdottrel.”

“Do you doubt his ears?” meant 1) “Do you think he is deaf?” and 2) “Do you doubt that he has the ears of an ass?”

“He does not know me indeed,” Fitzdottrel said. “I thank you, Engine, for rectifying and correcting him.”

“Good!” Merecraft said.

He turned to Engine and said, “Why, Engine, then I’ll tell it to you — I see you have credit here, and I’ll not question that you can keep counsel. He shall be only an undertaker — a business partner — with me in a most feasible business. It shall cost him nothing —”

“Good, sir,” Engine said.

“— unless he wants to invest money,” Merecraft said. “But he shall lend his countenance — that I will have — to appear in it to great men, for which I’ll make him one.”

Fitzdottrel would join with him in business, and that support would help impress great men — according to Merecraft. In return for Fitzdottrel’s support, Merecraft would make Fitzdottrel a great man — or so Merecraft said he would do.

Men can be greedy for social status just as they can be greedy for money.

Merecraft continued, “He shall not open his wallet. I’ll drive his patent — execute his commission, his royal license — for him.”

King James I of England gave monopolies to people to perform certain tasks that would result in profit for them and for the Crown.

Merecraft continued, “We’ll take in — include — citizens, commoners, and aldermen to bear the expenses, and blow them off again like so many dead flies when the business is carried.”

He was saying that he and Fitzdottrel would work with other people. The other people would pay the expenses. Sharing the profits was another matter. (“Take in” also means “deceive.”)

Red flag, that.

Merecraft continued, “The thing is for recovery of drowned land, whereof the Crown will have its moiety if it be owner; else, the Crown and landowners will share that moiety, and the recoverers of the drowned land will enjoy the other moiety for their return on their investment.”

Draining a swamp recovered land that could be used for profitable purposes.

A moiety is a share or part.

“The recovery of drowned land will take place throughout England?” Engine asked.

“Yes, which will arise to eighteen millions, seven the first year,” Merecraft said. “I have computed all, and made my survey down to the last acre. I’ll begin at the hollow, the lowest ground, not at the outskirts, the edges — as some have done, and lost all that they wrought, their timber-work, their trench, their banks all borne away, or else filled up with water again by the next winter. Tut, they never went the right and best way; I’ll have it all.”

“A gallant tract of land it is!” Engine said.

“It will yield a pound an acre,” Merecraft said. “We must rent cheap, always, at first.”

He then said to Fitzdottrel, “But sir, this project looks too large for you, I see. Come hither, we’ll have a lesser project.”

He motioned to Trains, his manservant, and said, “Here’s a plain fellow, you see him. He has his papers there, in a black buckram bag, and it will not be sold for the Earldom of Pancridge.”

No Earldom of Pancridge exists.

Merecraft then said to Trains, “Draw one out at random, and give it to me.”

Trains drew a paper out of the bag and gave it to him.

Merecraft said, “Project four. Dog skins? Twelve thousand pounds! Thevery worst, drawn out at first.”

Twelve thousand pounds is a lot of money, but according to Merecraft, this was the worst and least profitable of his moneymaking ideas.

“Please, let’s see it, sir,” Fitzdottrel said.

“It is a toy, a trifle!” Merecraft said.

“A trifle!” Fitzdottrel said. “Twelve thousand pounds for dogs’ skins?”

“Yes,” Merecraft said, “but you must know, sir, by my way of preparing and treating the leather to a height of better-quality goods, like your borachio of Spain, sir —”

A Spanish borachio is a wine bottle made from pigskin or goatskin.

Merecraft continued, “— I can fetch nine thousand for it —”

“From the King’s glover?” Engine asked.

Engine, another con man, was making it sound as if King James I of England was interested in purchasing great numbers of dog-skin gloves.

“Yes,” Merecraft said, “how did you hear that?”

“Sir, I know you can,” Engine said.

“Within this hour I can, and reserve half my secret,” Merecraft said.

He said to Engine, “Pluck another paper. See if thou have a more fortunate hand than Trains.”

Engine plucked out a second paper: one marked “Bottle-ale.”

Merecraft said, “I thought so. The very next worse to it! Bottle-ale. Yet, this is two-and-twenty thousand! Please pull out another two or three papers.”

“Good man,” Fitzdottrel said. “Wait, friend, by bottle-ale, you can make twenty-two thousand pounds?”

“Yes, sir,” Merecraft said. “It’s calculated to a penny-halfpenny-farthing. On the back of the paper, you may see it there. Read it.

“I will not reduce a harrington of the sum.”

A harrington is a farthing; it was named for Lord Harrington, who had a patent from the King that allowed him to coin farthings.

Merecraft continued, “I’ll win the sum in my water for making ale, and my malt, my furnaces, and the hanging of my copper vessels, the barreling, and the subtlety of my yeast, and then the earth — the clay — of my bottles, which I dig, turn up, and steep, and work, and fire in a kiln myself to a degree of porcelain.

“You will wonder at my calculations of what I will put up in seven years! For so long a time I ask for my invention.”

It would take seven years to produce and age the ale.

Merecraft continued, “I will save in cork, in my mere stoppering of the bottles, above three thousand pounds within that period of time, by gouging out the stoppers just to the size of my bottles, and not slicing the cork. There’s infinite loss in slicing the cork.”

Engine drew out another paper, which was marked “Raisins.”

“What have thou there?” Merecraft asked. “Oh, making wine out of raisins; this is in hand, now.”

Engine asked, “Isn’t it strange, sir, to make wine out of raisins?”

“Yes,” Merecraft said, “and as true a wine as the wines of France, or Spain, or Italy. Look at what kind of grape my raisin is, that wine I’ll render perfectly. From the muscatel grape, I’ll render muscatel wine. From the canary grape, I’ll render canary wine. From the claret grape, I’ll render claret wine. This is true of all kinds of grape, and I’ll lessen the prices of wine throughout the kingdom by fifty percent.”

“But, sir, what if you raze — wipe out — the other commodity: raisins?” Engine asked.

He was making a joke: punning on “raze” and “raisin.”

“Why, then I’ll make it out of blackberries, and it shall do the same,” Merecraft said. “It will just take more skill, and the expense will be less.

“Take out another paper.”

Fitzdottrel said, “No, good sir. Save yourself the trouble. I’ll neither look nor hear about any project but your first, there — the drowned land — if it will do as you say.”

Merecraft said, “Sir, there’s no place to give you demonstration of these things. They are a little too subtle.”

Red flag, that.

He continued, “But I could show you that the recovery of drowned land is so necessary that you must end up being what you want to be: a duke.

“You will become a duke despite the popular misconception that England bears no dukes.”

For many years in England there were no dukes, but with the accession of King James I, dukes had again appeared in England.

Merecraft said to Fitzdottrel, “If you will keep the land, sir; the greatness of the estate shall throw a dukedom upon you.

“But if you prefer to turn the estate to money instead of keeping the land, what may not you, sir, purchase with that wealth? Say you should part with two of your millions, to be the thing you would be — a duke — who would not do it?

“I say that I myself will, out of my dividend, bid for some pretty principality in Italy, outside the jurisdiction of the church.

“Now you, perhaps, fancy the mists of England rather? But — do you have a private room, sir, for us to withdraw to, to talk in more detail about this project?”

“Oh, yes,” Fitzdottrel said.

He called, “Devil!”

Merecraft said, “These, sir, are businesses that need to be carried out with caution, and in a cloud of secrecy.”

Red flag, that.

“I apprehend that they need to be done so, sir,” Fitzdottrel replied.

Pug entered the room, and Fitzdottrel asked, “Devil, where is your mistress?”

“She is above, sir, in her chamber,” Pug replied.

“Oh, that’s well,” Fitzdottrel said.

He then said to Merecraft, “Then go this way, good sir.”

“I shall follow you,” Merecraft said.

He then said, “Trains, give me the bag, and go immediately to commend my service to my Lady Tailbush. Tell her I have come from court this morning; say that I’ve got our business moved, and well. Entreat her to give you the fourscore angels — eighty coins — and see that they are disposed of to my counsel, the lawyer Sir Paul Eitherside. Sometime today I’ll wait upon her Ladyship and give her my report.”

Trains exited quickly.

Engine said, “Sir, how quickly Trains acts. Do you see?”

Merecraft asked, “Engine, when did you see my cousin Everill? Does he still stay at your quarter in the Bermudas?’

The Bermudas were a bad part of London.

“Yes, sir,” Engine said. “He was writing this morning very intensely.”

“Don’t let him know that I have come to town,” Merecraft said. “I have arranged some business for him, but I would take the business to him before he has time to think about it.”

Red flag, that.

“Is it past?” Engine asked.

“Not yet,” Merecraft said. “It is well on the way.”

“Oh, sir!” Engine said. “Your Worship takes infinite pains.”

“I love friends to be active,” Merecraft said. “A sluggish nature puts off man and woman.”

“And such a blessing follows it,” Engine said.

“I thank my fate,” Merecraft said.

He then said to Fitzdottrel, “Please, let’s go somewhere private, sir —”

“In here,” Fitzdottrel said.

“— where none may interrupt us,” Merecraft said.

He and Engine went into the private room.

Fitzdottrel said to Pug, “Listen, Devil. Lock the street doors fast, and let no one in — unless they are this gentleman’s followers — to trouble me.

“Have you been paying attention? You’ve heard and seen something today, and by it you may gather that my wife is a fruit that’s worth the stealing, and therefore she is worth the watching.

“Be sure, now, that you’ve all your eyes about you; and let in no lace-woman, nor bawd who brings French masks and cut-work embroidery.

“Do you understand? Let in no old crones who sell wafers and convey letters. Let in no youths disguised like country wives with cream and marrow-puddings. Much knavery may be conveyed in a pudding, much bawdy intelligence; they’re shrewd ciphers.

“Do not turn the key to any neighbor’s need, whether it be only to kindle fire, or beg a little fire — put the fire out, instead. Put it all out, to ashes, so that they may see no smoke.

“Or if neighbors need water, spill it; knock on the empty tubs, so that by the sound the neighbors may be forbidden entry.

“Say that we have been robbed if anyone comes to borrow a spoon, or something else.

“I will not have ‘good fortune’ or ‘God’s blessing’ let in while I am busy.”

Beggars would say, “Good fortune” or “God’s blessing,” while begging.

Pug said, “I’ll take care of it, sir. They shall not trouble you, even if they want to.”

“Well, do what I tell you to do,” Fitzdottrel said.

He joined Merecraft and Engine in the private room.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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