David Bruce: Ben Jonson’s THE DEVIL IS AN ASS: A Retelling — Act 3, Scene 3

— 3.3 —

Everill entered the room and said,Oh, are you here, sir? Please, let us whisper together.”

He took Merecraft aside so they could talk quietly and privately together.

Plutarchus said to Gilthead, “Father, dear father, trust him, if you love me.”

He had changed his mind about Merecraft. Perhaps the military life appealed to him. Certainly staying in the city did. Merecraft’s description of military life involved staying in the city.

Trusting Merecraft involved trusting Fitzdottrel; Merecraft would do everything possible to make Fitzdottrel responsible for paying back any loans.

“Why, I intend to trust him, boy,” Gilthead said, “but what I do must not come easily from me. We must deal with courtiers, boy, as courtiers deal with us. If I have a business there with any of them, why, I must wait, I’m sure of it, son; and although my lord dispatch me, yet his ‘worshipful’ manservant will keep me for his entertainment a month or two, to show me with my fellow citizens. I must make his train long and full, for one quarter, and help the spectacle of his greatness.”

The “courtier” was Merecraft, and the “lord” was Fitzdottrel. Merecraft did not treat Gilthead well, as could be seen by the way he talked to him. Therefore, although Gilthead was willing to do business with Fitzdottrel, he would hold off a while because Merecraft was the middleman.

Gilthead treated courtiers, including the ones he lent money, the way they treated him. He made them wait to get a loan, and they made him wait to be repaid for the loan. True, he made interest as long as the loan was made, but the courtiers made him jump through metaphorical hoops as he waited to be repaid.

Or, if the lord were the one getting the loan, then the lord’s manservant — the courtier — would make him wait. Gilthead would be joining others in the lord’s retinue as he waited, and the lord — and the courtier — would seem to be a great man because of the retinue.

Gilthead continued, “There nothing is done at once but injuries, boy — and they come headlong! All great men’s good turns don’t move, or they move very slowly.”

“Yet, sweet father, trust him,” Plutarchus said.

“Well, I will think about it,” Gilthead said.

He and his son then talked together quietly.

Meanwhile, Everill said to Merecraft, “Come, you must do it, sir. I’m ruined, otherwise, and your Lady Tailbush has sent for me to come to dinner, and all my clothes are pawned. I had sent out this morning, before I heard you had come to town, some twenty of my epistles, and no one return —”

The epistles were letters begging for money.

Merecraftinterrupted and told Everill about his faults:

“Why, I have told you about this. This comes from wearing fancy clothes of scarlet, gold lace, and cut-works. Your fine gartering! With your blown roses on your shoes, cousin! And your eating pheasant and godwit — another fowl that is a delicacy — here in London. And your haunting the Globes and Mermaids — theaters and taverns — and squeezing in with lords always at the table! And affecting lechery in velvet — you consort with expensive whores who wear velvet!

“Instead, you could have contented yourself with cheese, salt-butter, and a pickled herring in the Low Countries — there you could have worn inexpensive cloth such as fustian! You could have been satisfied with a sexual leap on your host’s daughter in the garrison — a wench you could have bought with the small coin that is called a stoler! Or you could have been satisfied with a sexual leap on your sutler’s wife, in the leaguer, whom you could pay with two small coins that are called blanks!”

A sutler sells provisions to the soldiers in a military camp, aka leaguer.

Merecraft continued, “You never then would have run upon this low point that forced you to write your begging letters and send out your privy seals that thus have frightened off all your acquaintances so that they shun you at a distance, worse than you shun the debt collectors!”

Everill grumbled, “A pox upon you! I didn’t come to you for advice. I lack money.”

“You do not think about what you owe me already?” Merecraft asked.

“I?” Everill said. “They owe you who intend to pay you. I’ll be sworn I never meant it.”

This sounds as if he never meant to repay Merecraft the debt he owed him, but perhaps he meant: I never meant to reach this low point. Most likely, he meant the first one.

Everill continued, “Come, you will make money with a project.”

He then said threateningly, “I shall ruin your practice for this month if you don’t help me. You know me.”

Everill could inform people such as Fitzdottrel that Merecraft was a con man.

“Yes, you have a very ‘sweet’ nature!” Merecraft said.

“Well, that’s all one,” Everill said. “Who cares?”

“You’ll leave this empire one day,” Merecraft said. “You will not ever have this tribute paid, despite your scepter of the sword!”

He was saying that he would not be intimidated. Everill was ordering him around as if Everill were an emperor, but he was gaining his power with a sword — threats — instead of with a scepter — rightful rule.

“Tie up your wit,” Everill said, “and don’t provoke me —”

“Will you, sir, help me in doing what I shall provoke another to do for you?” Merecraft asked.

Merecraft did not want to give Everill money, but he was willing to con someone into giving Everill money. To do so, he needed Everill’s help.

“I cannot tell; try me,” Everill said. “I think I am not so utterly of an ore un-to-be-melted, but I can do myself good on occasions.”

“Strike in then, and do your part,” Merecraft said.

Merecraft and Everill then went over to Fitzdottrel.

Merecraft said to him, “Master Fitzdottrel, if I transgress in point of manners, give me your best interpretation of my conduct. I must beg for my freedom from your affairs this day.”

Merecraft began to gather his coat and hat and papers.

“What is it, sir?” Fitzdottrel said.

“I need to leave to help in this gentleman’s affairs. He is my kinsman —”

“You’ll not do me that affront, sir,” Fitzdottrel said.

He was eager to quickly rise in society and to quickly become very wealthy.

“I am sorry you should so interpret my action as an affront,” Merecraft said. “But, sir, it has to do with his being invested in a new office he has stood for a long time: Master of the Dependences!”

A dependence was a quarrel that needed to be settled. Many quarrels were settled through duels, which King James I of England opposed.

As he would now say, Merecraft wanted to set up an Office of Dependency, in which Everill would be the chief official. According to Merecraft, as he would soon say, this was one of his projects: Like other of his projects, it sounded somewhat plausible but had little chance of actually being set up and little chance of actually working.

Merecraft said, “The Office of Dependency is a place of my own design, too, sir, and it has met with much opposition; but the state, now, sees the great necessity of it, as after all their writing and their speaking against duels, they have erected it.”

Merecraft continued, “Everill’s official charter has been drawn up — for since there will be differences daily, between gentlemen, and since the roaring manner has grown offensive, with the result that those few we call the civil men of the sword abhor the vain and foolish bragging, they shall refer now hither for their process. And such as trespass against the rule of court are to be fined —”

Roaring boys were young men — bullies — who engaged in much arguing and dueling. Many roaring boys were in London.

Presumably, rather than settling quarrels through illegal dueling, which King James I had outlawed, gentlemen who had disagreements would go to the Office of Dependency and have their quarrels legally settled there. Fitzdottrel would learn that he must settle his affairs before settling his quarrel, so likely the way to settle quarrels was through legal duels approved by the Office of Dependency.

“Truly, a pretty place!” Fitzdottrel said.

“A kind of arbitrary court it will be, sir,” Merecraft said.

“I shall have a case for it, I believe, before long,” Fitzdottrel said. “I had a distaste.”

His distaste was his quarrel with Wittipol.

“But now, sir,” Merecraft said, “my learned counsel, they must have a feeling — a bribe. They’ll part, sir, with no books — written grants of privileges — unless the hand-gout be oiled, and I must furnish the oil.”

The hand-gout is a tight fist.

Merecraft continued, “If it concerns money, they come to me straightaway: I am a precious-metal mine, mint, and treasury, and I supply all.”

He asked Everill, “How much is it? A hundred pounds?”

It was time for Everill to play his part in conning Fitzdottrel.

He replied, “No, the greedy harpy now insists on a hundred pieces.”

A hundred pieces was ten percent more than a hundred pounds. A pound is twenty shillings; a piece is twenty-two shillings.

“Why, he must have them, if he insists,” Merecraft said.

He then said to Fitzdottrel, “Tomorrow, sir, will equally serve your needs, and therefore let me obtain your consent that you will yield me time to help a poor gentleman in his distresses because of his affairs’ urgency—”

“By no means!” Fitzdottrel said.

“I must get him this money, and will —” Merecraft said.

“Sir, I protest, I’d rather stand as the guarantor for the money myself than you should leave me,” Fitzdottrel said.

“Oh, good sir,” Merecraft said, “do you think so coarsely of our manners that we would, for any need of ours, be pressed to take it, although you would be pleased to offer it?”

He was pretending not to want Fitzdottrel to be the guarantor for the loan.

“Why, by heaven, I mean it!” Fitzdottrel said.

“I can never believe less,” Merecraft said. “But we, sir, must preserve our dignity, as you do publish — make public — yours. By your fair leave, sir.”

He pretended to start to leave.

“AsI am a gentleman,” Fitzdottrel said, “if you intend to leave me now, or if you refuse me, I will not think you love and respect me.”

“Sir, I honor you,” Merecraft said. “And with just reason, for these noble notes of the nobility you pretend to.”

The “noble notes” included the offer to be the guarantor of the money that Merecraft said that Everill needed.

The word “pretend” means “has a claim to,” in addition to its regular meaning. Merecraft knew that Fitzdottrel had no real chance of becoming a duke; all he had was a real chance of losing his wealth.

Merecraft continued, “But sir, I would like to know why you would do this — he is a stranger. What is your reason for helping him?”

Everill whispered to Merecraft, “You’ll mar all with your fineness.”

Everill wanted to take the money and run, but Merecraft was prolonging the time that he would accept Fitzdottrel’s offer to be the guarantor of the loan.

“Why, sir, that’s all one — it wouldn’t matter if it were only my fancy,” Fitzdottrel said. “But I have a business that perhaps I’d have brought to his office.”

“Oh, sir!” Merecraft said. “I have no objections to your being guarantor, then, if he can be made profitable to you.”

“Yes, and it shall be one of my ambitions to have it the first business,” Fitzdottrel said. “Can I do that?”

“As long as you intend to make it a perfect business,” Everill said.

The word “business” meant “a private quarrel.”

“I’ll do that, I assure you,” Fitzdottrel said. “Show me immediately what to do.”

“Sir, it is important that the first be a perfect business, for Everill’s own honor,” Merecraft said.

Everill said, “Yes, and for the reputation, too, of my office.”

The legal term “perfect” meant “enforceable by law.” The private business, aka enforceable-by-law quarrel, would have to be one that was clearly suitable to be resolved — and would be resolved — by the Office of Dependency. That way, people would see that the Office of Dependency worked, and King James I and other VIPs would support it.

“Why, why do I take this course otherwise?” Fitzdottrel said. “I am not altogether an ass, good gentlemen. Wherefore should I consult you? Do you think to make a song and dance of it? Get to the point. What’syour procedure for resolving quarrels? Tell us.”

“Do, satisfy him,” Merecraft said to Everill. “Tell him the whole course of action.”

“First,” Everill said, “by request, or otherwise, you offer your business to the court, wherein you crave the judgment of the Master and the Assistants.”

“Well, that’s done,” Fitzdottrel said. “Now what do you do next?”

“We straightaway, sir, have recourse to the source of the business,” Everill said. “We visit the ground — that is, we examine the root causes of the quarrel, and so we see whether or not it is suitable for resolution by the Office of Dependency. If we find by our estimate that it is likely to prove to be a sullen and black business, that it is incorrigible and the parties are unable to negotiate a resolution, then we file it as a dependence.”

Fitzdottrel said, “So, it is filed. What follows? I love the order of these things.”

Everill said, “We then advise the party, if he is a man of means and possessions, that forthwith he settle his estate and put his affairs in order — or if he does not, at least that he says that he intends to do it. For by that the world takes notice that it now is a dependence. And this we call, sir, publication.”

“Publication” means “public notification.” In this society, however, “publication” also meant “confiscation.” Merecraft and Everill would love to confiscate Fitzdottrel’s wealth for their own use.

“Very sufficient!” Fitzdottrel said. “After publication, what’s next?”

Everill said, “Then we begin our legal process, which can be done in different ways: either by chartel, sir, or by ore-tenus — that is, either by written challenge or by word of mouth. Then the challenger and challengee, or — using Spaniard words — your provocador and provocado, have theirdifferent courses of action —”

“I have enough information about it,” Fitzdottrel said. “For a hundred pieces? Yes, for two hundred underwrite me, do. Your man will take my bond?”

“That he will, to be sure,” Merecraft said.

Merecraft said quietly to Fitzdottrel, “But these same citizens, they are such sharks! There’s an old debt of forty pounds I gave my word as guarantor — I did it for one who has run away to the Bermudas, and he will hook in that or he will not take your bond.”

The citizen was Gilthead. Merecraft was trying to con Fitzdottrel into being the guarantor of the debt of forty pounds by saying that Gilthead would not lend Fitzdottrel any money unless Fitzdottrel also assumed the debt of forty pounds. This was Merecraft’s way of hedging the debt — Fitzdottrel’s credit was much better than his.

Fitzdottrel said quietly, “Why, let him. That and the ring, and a hundred pieces, will all just make two hundred pounds?”

Merecraft said quietly, “No more, sir.”

In his mind, Merecraft may have thought, No. More, sir.He wanted to take Fitzdottrel for more than two hundred pounds.

He added, “What ready arithmetic you have!”

He then said to Gilthead, “Do you hear? A pretty morning’s work for you, this! Do it. You shall have twenty pounds out of it.”

Twenty pounds would be ten percent interest on a loan of two hundred pounds.

“Twenty pieces?” Gilthead asked.

He wanted more interest.

“Good father, do it,” Plutarchus urged.

“You will hook still?” Merecraft said. “You will fish for more money? Well, show us your ring. You could not have done this now with gentleness at first? If you had, we might have thanked you. But instead of dealing with gentleness, you groan as if you were having a painful defecation, and your courtesies come from you as if you were passing a hard stool, and they stink!

“A man may draw your teeth out easier than your money.

“Come, if little Gilthead here did not have a better nature than you” — he squeezed Plutarchus’ lips, which in this society was a friendly gesture — “I would never love him, I who could squeeze his lips off, now.”

He then asked Plutarchus, “Wasn’t thy mother a gentlewoman?”

“Yes, sir,” Plutarchus replied.

“And she went to the court at Christmas and St. George’s tide?And she lent the lords’ men necklaces?” Merecraft asked.

“Of gold, and pearl, sir,” Plutarchus replied.

“I knew thou must take after somebody other than your father,” Merecraft said. “That could not be otherwise. You don’t look like a shopkeeper. I’ll have thee made Captain Gilthead, and have thee march up and take in Pimlico, and have thee kill the bush at every tavern.”

Pimlico was a resort town. “Take in” meant 1) capture as a soldier, and 2) tour as a tourist.

Tavern signs originally showed ivy plants, and so a tavern sign came to be known as a “bush.” “To kill the bush” meant “to drink heavily.”

Merecraft continued, “Thou shall have a wife if smocks will mount, boy.”

Smocks can mount — that is, be lifted. The word “smock” also meant “woman,” and women can mount men.

Merecraft turned to old Gilthead, the father, and said, “What do you have? You have there now some Bristol-stone or Cornish counterfeityou’d put upon us?’

Fitzdottrel was in the market for a diamond ring, but Merecraft was asking Gilthead if he had brought a diamond substitute rather than a real diamond.

Gilthead showed him a jewel and said, “No, sir, I assure you that this is a real diamond. Look at its luster! The luster will speak for itself! I’ll give you permission to put it in the mill for grinding.”

Diamond substitutes were softer than real diamonds. Gilthead was saying that this was a real diamond that would survive grinding in a mill.

Gilthead continued, “It is not a great, large stone, but it is a true paragon of a diamond. This has all its corners — it has been perfectly cut. View it well.”

“It’s yellow,” Merecraft said.

The color yellow indicated impurities in the diamond.

“Upon my faith, sir, it is of the right black luster, and very deep,” Gilthead said. “It’s set without a foil, too.”

A foil is a thin sheet of metal placed under the diamond to show off its luster.

Gilthead displayed another jewel and said, “Here’s one of the yellow luster that I’ll sell cheap.”

Merecraft said, “And what do you value this at? Thirty pounds?”

“No, sir,” Gilthead said. “It cost me forty before it was set.”

Forty what? Pounds? Something else?

“Turnings, you mean?” Merecraft said.

Turnings are actions that chip off the bad parts of the diamond.

Merecraft continued, “I know your equivocations. You’re grown the better fathers of them lately.”

He meant that Gilthead and other Jews had learned how to equivocate better than the Jesuit fathers.

He continued, “Well, where it must go, it will be judged, and therefore look that it is right. You shall have fifty pounds for it. Not a denier more!”

Earlier, Gilthead had talked to his son about Merecraft’s summons: Gilthead would sell a ring for forty pounds that was not worth thirty pounds.

Merecraft then said to Fitzdottrel, “And because you would have things dispatched quickly, sir, I’ll go immediately and find and talk tothis Spanish lady. If you think it is good, sir, since you have a hundred pieces ready, you may part with those now, to serve my kinsman’s turns, so that he may wait upon you at once the freer. And you will then take the hundred pieces when you havesigned and sealed the agreement with Gilthead.”

“I don’t care if I do,” Fitzdottrel said. “I agree.”

“And dispatch all together,” Merecraft said.

Fitzdottrel handed over the hundred pieces, saying, “There, they’re exactly the right number: a hundred pieces! I have counted them twice a day for the past two months.”

“Well, go and sign your agreement, sir, and then make your return here as speedily as you can.”

He showed Fitzdottrel, Gilthead, and Plutarchus to the door, through which they exited.

Merecraft then began to split the money.

“Come, give it to me,” Everill said.

“Quiet, sir —” Merecraft began.

“Indeed, and fair, too, then!” Everill said. “I’ll permit no delaying in getting my share, sir.”

“But you will listen to me?” Merecraft asked.

“Yes, when I have received my dividend,” Everill said.

“There’s forty pieces for you,” Merecraft said.

“What is this for?” Everill said.

He expected more.

“It’s your half,” Merecraft said. “You know that Gilthead must have twenty pieces.”

“And what about your ring there?” Everill said. “Shall I have none of that?”

“Oh, that’s to be given to a lady,” Merecraft said.

“Is that so?” Everill asked.

“By that good light, it is,” Merecraft said.

“Come, give me ten pieces more, then,” Everill said.

“Why?” Merecraft asked.

“Twenty pieces for Gilthead?” Everill said. “Sir, do you think I’ll allow him to have any such share?”

“You must.”

“Must I?” Everill said. “You do your musts, sir, and I’ll do mine. You will not part with the whole, sir? Will you? Bull! Give me ten more pieces!”

“By what law do you do this?” Merecraft asked.

“Even lion-law, sir, or else I must roar.”

Everill meant that unless he received more money he would tell people about Merecraft’s cons.

“Good!” Merecraft said, meaning that Everill could yell and complain if he wanted to.

“You’ve heard how the ass made his divisions ‘wisely’?” Everill asked.

An ass, a fox, and a lion made a partnership and went hunting. After they had killed prey, the ass divided the prey into three equal shares: one each for the ass, the fox, and the lion. The lion, however, was not happy with an equal share and so it killed the ass and added it to the slaughtered prey and asked the fox to divide the prey. The fox divided the prey into three equal shares and gave the lion two of the shares, making the lion happy so it would not kill the fox.

“And I am he, I thank you,” Merecraft said.

He had equally and fairly divided the money.

“Much good may it do you, sir,” Everill said, meaning that it would not do Merecraft any good.

He took ten extra pieces.

“I shall be rid of this tyranny one day!” Merecraft said.

“Not while you eat and lie about the town here, and cheat in your bullion-hose — your padded trousers,” Everill said, “and not while I stand beside you and give you the benefit of my reputable name, and conduct your business, adjourn your beatings every term by postponing your trials in which you would face your creditors, and find new parties whom you can con with your projects.”

Everill helped Merecraft in his cons by seeming to be a reputable man about town whom people could trust and then introducing them to Merecraft.

He continued, “I have now a pretty task of it, to hold you in with your Lady Tailbush. But the trick will be how we shall both come off without paying for what we will commit?”

“Leave off your doubting,” Merecraft said, “and do your part — do what’s assigned to you. I have never failed yet.”

Everill said, “Give some credit to your aides, such as myself. You’re always unthankful.

“Where shall I soon meet you? You have some feat to do alone now, I see. You wish me to leave. Well, I will find you out, and bring you afterward to the audit — the reckoning.”

He exited.

“By God’s light!” Merecraft said. “There’s Engine’s share, too. I had forgot!”

Engine should have received a share of the hundred pieces. So Merecraft, in fact, had notequally and fairly divided the money.

Merecraft continued, “This reign is too-too-unsupportable! I must relieve myself of this vassalage to Everill.”

He heard a noise, looked up, and said, “Engine! Welcome.”

***

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

***

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