Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist”: A Retelling — Act 2, Scene 3

— 2.3 —

This was the day the philosopher’s stone was supposed to be completed. Of course, it would not be completed because no such thing as a philosopher’s stone exists or ever will exist. Therefore, Subtle and Face and Doll Common needed to prepare Sir Epicure Mammon for the inevitable failure that would become apparent later. They already knew the excuse they would use, but they had to prepare Sir Epicure Mammon to accept that excuse.

Subtle and Face also needed to keep Sir Epicure Mammon believing in alchemy. They did that by using many alchemical terms as they talked about “creating” the philosopher’s stone. Basically, this was to appear knowledgeable about alchemy and to baffle Sir Epicure Mammon with bullshit.

Much alchemy was about uniting materials, materials often referred to as male and female. In fact, one piece of alchemical equipment — the bolt’s-head flask — was often decorated with illustrations of copulating couples. The alchemist, however, was supposed to be pure and neither greedy nor immorally horny. Purity was important in the production of the philosopher’s stone.

Sir Epicure Mammon said to Subtle the alchemist, “Good morning, father.”

He was addressing Subtle as if he were a priest — a religious father.

Picking up on that, Subtle said, “Gentle son, good morning, and good morning to your friend there. Who is this man who is with you?”

“He is a heretic, whom I brought along with me in hopes, sir, to convert him,” Sir Epicure Mammon said.

Subtle said, “Son, I fear that you are covetous because thus you meet your time in the just point — you are punctual, or actually, more than punctual. This is the day the philosopher’s stone will be completed, but you have come hours before its completion. You anticipate the success that will occur late in the day by appearing here in the morning. This is evidence that makes me fear that you have a burdensome, unrelenting, and carnal appetite.

“Be careful so that you do not cause the blessing of the philosopher’s stone to leave you on account of your ungoverned haste.”

Earlier, Pertinax Surly had stated that the person who got the philosopher’s stone was supposed to be a man of temperance. Such things as greed and lust could cause failure in the attempt to make a philosopher’s stone. Greed could appear in haste to complete the making of the philosopher’s stone.

Subtle continued, “I would be sorry to see my labors, which are now at the point of perfection, got by staying awake and watching long hours during the night and by much patience, not prosper where my love and zeal has placed them.

“My labors in all aims — I call on Heaven along with yourself, to whom I have poured my thoughts, to witness that what I say is true — have looked no way but to the public good, to pious uses, and to dear charity, which men these days regard as an abnormality.

“Regarding my labors in creating the philosopher’s stone, I say that if you, my son, should now prevaricate and wander from the straight and narrow path of virtue, and to your own particular and personal lusts employ so great and catholic, aka universal, a bliss, be sure that a curse will follow, yes, and overtake and strike a blow against your subtle and most secret ways.”

“I know that, sir,” Sir Epicure Mammon said. “You shall not need to fear me. I have come so early only to have you prove this gentleman wrong in his opinion that alchemy is worthless.”

Surly said, “I am, indeed, sir, somewhat constipative when it comes to producing belief in your philosopher’s stone. I am a man who does not want to be gulled.”

Given his choice of words, Surly regarded belief in the philosopher’s stone as shit.

Subtle said to Sir Epicure Mammon, “Well, son, all that I can convince your friend in is this: THE WORK IS DONE. Bright sol is in his robe — the essence of gold is ready to do its work, just as a judge is who has put on his robe. We have a medicine of the triple soul, the glorified spirit. Thanks be to Heaven, and may Heaven make us worthy of it!”

Subtle may have meant the three spirits (vital, a spirit produced in the heart; natural, a spirit produced in the liver; and animal, a spirit produced in the brain) that linked soul to body.

Subtle called for Face, “Ulen Spiegel!”

Till Eulenspiegel is a German trickster figure. By calling Face Ulen Spiegel, Subtle was subtly acknowledging Face as a con man.

Face entered the room and said, “At once, sir!”

Now Subtle and Face began to pile on the alchemical jargon to baffle their visitors with bullshit.

Subtle ordered, “Look well to the register, and let your heat still lessen by degrees, to the aludels.”

Face said, “Yes, sir.”

Subtle and Face began to make it appear that they were running simultaneous operations by using letters to refer to different apparati.

“Did you look at the bolt’s-head yet?”

“On which apparatus? On D, sir?”

Subtle replied, “Yes. What’s the complexion?”

Face said, “Whitish.”

“Infuse vinegar, to draw the volatile substance and the tincture, and let the water in glass E be filtered, and put into the gripe’s egg. Lute it well, and leave it closed in balneo.”

“I will, sir.”

Surly said to himself, “What a brave, splendid language is being used here! It’s next to canting.”

“Canting” is using jargon used by thieves; “cant” is thieves’ jargon. Surly meant that the alchemical terms were at least close to being thieves’ terms.

Subtle said to Sir Epicure Mammon, “I have another work going on, son, that you have never seen. Three days since past the philosopher’s wheel, in the lent heat of Athanor this work has become the Sulphur of Nature.”

The Sulphur of Nature is purified sulphur.

“Is it for me?” Sir Epicure Mammon asked.

“What do you need it for?” Subtle asked. “You have enough in that philosopher’s stone, which is perfect.”

“Oh, but —”

Subtle said, “Why, this is covetousness!”

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “No, I assure you that I shall employ it all in pious uses. I will found colleges and grammar schools. I will marry young virgins. I will build hospitals, and now and then a church.”

He probably meant for Subtle to think that he — Sir Epicure Mammon — would get young virgins married by providing dowries for them, but readers can be forgiven if they thought that Sir Epicure Mammon would “marry” young virgins for one night and discard them the following morning.

Face returned.

“What is it?” Subtle asked.

Face said, “Sir, if it pleases you, shall I not change the filter?”

“By the Virgin Mary, yes. And bring me the complexion of glass B.”

Face exited.

“Have you another?” Sir Epicure Mammon asked.

He was asking if they were making a second philosopher’s stone.

Subtle replied, “Yes, son. If I were sure that your piety is firm, we would not lack the means to glorify it, but I hope the best. I mean to tinct C in a bath of sand to diffuse the heat tomorrow, and give it imbibition.”

Sir Epicure Mammon, who had been around Subtle the alchemist long enough to recognize some of the alchemical terms, asked, “Of white oil?”

“No, sir, of red,” Subtle said. “F is come over the helm, too, I thank my maker, in Saint Mary’s bath, and shows lac virginis. Blessed be Heaven!”

Lac virginis is Latin for “milk of the virgin.” Alchemists used it to refer to mercury.

Subtle continued, “I sent you of his sediment there calcined. Out of that calx, I have won the salt of mercury.”

“By pouring on your rectified water?” Sir Epicure Mammon asked.

“Yes,” Subtle replied, “and reverberating in Athanor.”

Face returned.

“What’s the news?” Subtle asked. “What color is it?”

“The ground is black, sir,” Face said.

Sir Epicure Mammon asked, “That’s your crow’s head?”

Surly said to himself, “Your cockscomb, is it not?”

Some professional Fools wear a hat resembling a cockscomb.

Subtle said to Sir Epicure Mammon, “No, it is not perfect. I wish it were the crow! That work lacks something.”

Surly said to himself, “Oh, I looked for this.”

He knew that Subtle and Face were con men and would not be able to produce the philosopher’s stone. He figured that they would say that something had gone wrong in their attempt to make the philosopher’s stone.

Surly said to himself, “The hay’s a pitching.”

A rabbit’s burrow has two holes, two ways to enter and exit. Trappers would pitch (throw) a hay (net) over one of burrow holes and send a ferret down the other hole. To escape the ferret, the rabbit would come out of the hole and be caught in the net. Surly believed that Subtle and Face were preparing a trap for Sir Epicure Mammon.

Subtle asked Face, “Are you sure you loosed them in their own menstrue!”

Face replied, “Yes, sir, and then married them, and put them in a bolt’s-head nipped to digestion, according as you bade me, when I set the liquor of Mars to circulation in the same heat.”

Bolt’s-head flasks can be connected to other pieces of equipment. Marriage was an important concept in alchemy and referred to union of pieces of equipment or to union of materials in a flask.

Subtle said, “The process then was right.”

Face replied, “Yes, by the token, sir, the retort broke, and what was saved was put into the pelican, and signed with Hermes’ seal.”

The pelican is a distilling flask with a neck that curves down and joins to itself. It is called a pelican because people thought it resembled a pelican biting itself. People at this time thought that pelicans bit themselves to draw blood to feed their young.

Instead of saying “Hermes’ seal,” we now say “hermetically sealed.”

Subtle said, “I think it was right. We should have a new amalgama.”

Surly said to himself, “Oh, this ferret is as rank and stinky as any polecat.”

Subtle added, “But I don’t care. Let it even die; we have enough besides in embrion. H has its white shirt on?”

“In embrion” means “in the early stages.”

“Has its white shirt on” means “has turned white.”

“Yes, sir,” Face said. “It’s ripe for inceration; it stands warm in its ash-fire. I wish that you wouldn’t let any die now, if I might counsel you, sir, for luck’s sake to the rest. Letting some die is not good.”

“He says the right thing,” Sir Epicure Mammon said.

Surly said to himself, “Have you — Sir Epicure Mammon — bolted from your burrow and been caught in the net?”

Face said, “I know it, sir. I have seen the ill fortune that comes from letting some of it die. What we need is some three ounces of fresh materials.”

“No more than that?” Sir Epicure Mammon asked.

“No more, sir,” Face said. “We need three more ounces of gold to amalgame with some six ounces of mercury.”

“Go and get the materials,” Sir Epicure Mammon said. “How much money do you need?”

“Ask him, sir,” Face said.

Sir Epicure Mammon asked Subtle, “How much?”

“Give him nine pounds,” Subtle said. “No, you better give him ten.”

Surly said to himself, “Yes, give him twenty pounds, and you’ll be cheated, if you do.”

“There it is,” Sir Epicure Mammon said, giving Face the money.

“This is not necessary,” Subtle said, “except that you will have it so, so that you can see the conclusions of all of it: You don’t want to see any of it die.”

He paused and then added, “Two of our inferior works are at fixation, but a third is in ascension.”

As Face knew, he was referring to Dapper and Drugger as the inferior works; they were small fish — and suckers — in comparison to Sir Epicure Mammon, who was the man they were making the most money from.

Subtle then said to Face, “Go,” but he added, “Have you set the oil of luna in kemia?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And the philosopher’s vinegar?”

“Yes,” Face said, and then he exited.

Hearing the references to oil and vinegar, Surly said to himself, “We shall have a salad!”

He was punning. He knew something about alchemy, which is why he knew it is a scam, and he knew that “salad” was a real alchemical term referring to a mixture of certain materials.

Sir Epicure Mammon asked, “When do you make projection?”

Subtle replied, “Son, don’t be hasty. I exalt our medicine, by hanging him in balneo vaporoso, and giving him solution, and then congeal him, and then dissolve him, and then again congeal him.”

Balneo vaporoso is a steam bath in which Subtle would suspend a glass flask.

Subtle continued, “For look, as often as I iterate the work, so many times I add to the philosopher stone’s virtue and strength.”

He was referring to multiplication, which is refining the philosopher’s stone to increase its potency so that a little of the philosopher’s stone will turn a vast quantity of base metal into gold. Multiplication involved, in part, what alchemists referred to “solution.”

Subtle continued, “As, if after one solution one ounce of the philosopher’s stone will convert a hundred ounces of base metal into gold or silver, after its second solution one ounce of the philosopher’s stone will convert a thousand ounces of base metal into gold or silver.

“After its third solution, one ounce of the philosopher’s stone will convert ten thousand ounces of base metal into gold or silver.

“After its fourth solution, one ounce of the philosopher’s stone will convert a hundred thousand ounces of base metal into gold or silver.

“After its fifth solution, one ounce of the philosopher’s stone will convert a thousand thousand ounces of base metal into gold or silver.

“This will be pure gold or silver, as will be shown by all examinations; it will be as good as the gold or silver that comes out of a natural mine.

“Bring your metal stuff here in preparation for this afternoon so that it can be turned into precious metals. Bring here your brass, your pewter, and your andirons.”

Andirons hold the burning logs in a fireplace.

Sir Epicure Mammon asked, “Not those of iron?”

“Yes, you may bring them, too,” Subtle said. “We’ll change all kinds of base metals.”

Sir Epicure Mammon thought that Subtle would change all kinds of base metals into gold or silver.

Surly said to himself, “I believe you when you say that.”

Surly believed that Subtle would change possession of all kinds of base metals from Sir Epicure Mammon to Subtle.

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “Then may I send my spits?”

Subtle replied, “Yes, and your racks.”

Racks support the spits when they are used for roasting meat.

Surly asked, “And shall he bring dripping-pans, and pot-hangers, and hooks?”

Subtle replied, “If he pleases —”

Surly interrupted, “— to be an ass.”

“What do you mean, sir?” Subtle asked.

Sir Epicure Mammon said to Subtle, “You must bear with this gentleman. I told you he had no faith.”

“And little hope, sir,” Surly said. “But much less charity, if I should gull and deceive myself.”

1 Corinthians 13:13 states, “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity” (King James Bible).

Subtle asked Surly, “Why, what have you observed, sir, in our art of alchemy, that seems so impossible?”

Surly replied, “Only your whole work of alchemy, no more. That you should hatch gold in a furnace, sir, just like they hatch eggs in a furnace in Egypt!”

According to the Roman historian Pliny, eggs were incubated in Egypt.

Subtle asked Surly, “Sir, do you believe that eggs are hatched so?”

“What if I do?” Surly asked.

Subtle replied, “Why, I think that the greater miracle is a chicken being produced from — hatching out of — an egg. The lesser miracle is gold being produced from a base metal. An egg is much more different from a chicken than lead is from gold.”

“That cannot be,” Surly said. “The egg’s ordained by nature to that end; the egg is a chicken in potentia.”

In potentia” is Latin for “potentially.”

Subtle said, “We alchemists say the same thing about lead and other metals: They would become gold, if they had enough time.”

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “The art of alchemy is to speed that process up; alchemists change lead into gold much more quickly than it happens naturally.”

Subtle said, “That is true. It would be absurd to think that nature bred perfect gold in the earth in an instant. Gold did not come from nothing. Something existed before gold. Remote matter must have existed.”

According to alchemy, remote matter is what came before gold and everything else. Remote matter is the original indeterminate matter and/or essence from which everything else developed.

Surly asked, “What is that?”

Subtle began, “Indeed, we alchemists say —”

Sir Epicure Mammon interrupted, “— now it heats. Stand, father, pound him to dust.”

Subtle continued, using much alchemical jargon, “It is, of the one part, a humid exhalation, which we call materia liquida, or the unctuous water.”

Materia liquida” is Latin for “liquid matter.”

Subtle continued, “On the other part, a certain crass and viscous portion of earth; both which, concorporate, do make the elementary matter of gold, which is not yet propria materia, but is common to all metals and all stones.”

“Concorporate” means “united in one body.”

Propria material” is Latin for “a particular substance.”

Subtle continued, “For, where it is forsaken of that moisture, and has more dryness, it becomes a stone.

“Where it retains more of the humid fatness, it turns to sulphur, or to quicksilver, which are the parents of all other metals.

“Nor can this remote matter suddenly progress so from extreme to extreme as to grow gold immediately and leap over all the intermediate steps.

“Nature first begets the imperfect, and then she proceeds to the perfect.

“From that airy and oily water, mercury is engendered. From the fat and earthy part, sulphur is engendered.

“The latter, sulphur, supplies the place of male, while mercury supplies the place of female, in all metals. The male is active and acts, while the female is passive and suffers.

“Some alchemists believe in hermaphrodeity — that both do act and suffer.

“But these two make the rest ductile, malleable, extensive.

“And they are even in gold, for we alchemists find seeds of them, by our fire, and gold in them. And we alchemists can produce the species of each metal more perfect, by our fire, than nature does in earth.”

Alchemists thought that it was possible to produce the essence of each metal. This included the essence of gold, which would produce more gold. The philosopher’s stone is the essence of gold, and throwing powdered philosopher’s stone on a base metal would turn the base metal to gold.

Subtle continued, “Besides, who does not see in daily practice that art can beget bees, hornets, beetles, and wasps out of the carcasses and dung of creatures.”

This society believed that carcasses and dung could produce living insects. It was unaware that insects lay eggs on carcasses and dung.

We would say that nature begets bees, hornets, beetles, and wasps out of the carcasses and dung of creatures, but Subtle claimed that art — human intervention — “can beget bees, hornets, beetles, and wasps out of the carcasses and dung of creatures.” In fact, some people believed that the carcasses of cattle could be used to produce bees, while the carcasses of horses and donkeys were good only to produce wasps and hornets.

Subtle continued, “Yes, and scorpions can be produced from the herb basil, being ritely and rightly placed.

“And these are living creatures, which are far more perfect and excellent than metals.”

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “Well said, father!”

He then said to Surly, “If he take you in hand, sir, with an argument, he’ll bray — pound and crush — you to powder in a mortar.”

Proverbs 27:22 states, “Though thou shouldest bray a fool in a mortar among wheat with a pestle, yet will not his foolishness depart from him” (King James Version).

Surly said, “Please, sir, wait a moment. Rather than I’ll be brayed, sir, I’ll believe that alchemy is a pretty kind of game, somewhat like tricks of the cards, to cheat a man with magic.”

“Sir?” Subtle said.

Surly said, “What else are all your terms, whose meaning no one of your writers agrees with another!”

Often, what an alchemist calls mercury is not what we call mercury. We are likely to refer to the element mercury, which is found in nature, but an alchemist may or may not be referring to philosophic or philosophical mercury. Many alchemical terms have more than one meaning or are used differently by different alchemists. Many alchemists don’t even agree on the steps needed to produce the philosopher’s stone. After all, alchemy is false science.

Surly continued, “What else are your elixir, your lac virginis, your philosopher’s stone, your great medicine, and your chrysosperme?

“What else are your sal, your sulphur, and your mercury?

“What else are your oil of height, your tree of life, your blood, your marchesite, your tutie, your magnesia, your toad, your crow, your dragon, and your panther?

“What else are your Sun, your Moon, your firmament, your adrop?

“What else are your lato, azoch, zernich, chibrit, heautarit?

“And then what else are your red man, and your white woman, with all your broths, your menstrues, and materials of piss and eggshells, women’s terms (menses), man’s blood, hair of the head, burnt rags, chalk, merds (turds, aka shit), and clay, powder of bones, scalings of iron, glass, and worlds of other strange ingredients that would burst a man to name?”

All these things Surly had named were used in the production of the philosopher’s stone, which is the essence of gold and is used to produce more gold. Therefore, we can say that if alchemy were true, then gold is literally made of such things as piss, menstrual discharge, and shit. (All of these things are natural and the result of valuable and necessary human biological functions, but they are not the sorts of things we value for themselves.)

Of course, alchemy cannot produce a philosopher’s stone. Instead, con men deal in the greed for gold. The con men are greedy for the gold, aka wealth, of other people, and the people the con men cheat are greedy for the gold that they think possession of the philosopher’s stone will give them. We may want to say that the greed for gold is like piss, menstrual discharge, and shit.

1 Timothy 6:10 (the first of Saint Paul’s letters to Timothy) states, “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (King James Version).

Subtle replied, “All these names and terms were created with one intention: Our alchemical writers used them to obscure their art. They wrote about secret things, and they wrote in such a secret way so that the uninitiated would not understand the alchemical writings.”

Sir Epicure Mammon said to Subtle, “Sir, I told him that. The alchemists wrote that way because the simple idiot should not learn the art of alchemy and make it vulgar and commonplace.”

Subtle asked Surly, “Wasn’t all the knowledge of the Egyptians written in the mystic symbols of the hieroglyphs? Don’t the scriptures often speak in parables? Aren’t the choicest fables of the poets, fables that are the fountains and first springs of wisdom, wrapped in perplexing allegories?”

Sir Epicure Mammon said to Subtle, “I made that argument to him, and I explained to him that Sisyphus was damned to roll the ceaseless stone only because he would have made our stone — the philosopher’s stone — common.”

Sisyphus was condemned in the Land of the Dead to roll a stone eternally up a hill, only to have the stone roll down again before it reached the top. According to Sir Epicure Mammon, this was Sisyphus’ punishment for attempting to reveal the secret of how to make the philosopher’s stone.

Just as Sir Epicure Mammon said the word “common,” a well-dressed Doll Common appeared at the door.

Seeing her, Sir Epicure Mammon asked, “Who is this?”

Pretending to be upset, Subtle cursed, “By God’s precious blood!”

He then said to Doll Common, “What do you mean by coming here? Go inside the other room, good lady — please!”

She exited.

Still pretending to be upset, Subtle then shouted, “Where’s that varlet?”

Face entered the room and said, “Sir.”

Subtle said, “You complete knave! Is this how you treat me!”

“What do you mean, sir?” Face asked.

Pointing at the door where Doll had appeared, Subtle said, “Go in that room and see, you traitor. Go!”

Face exited.

Sir Epicure Mammon asked, “Who is she, sir?”

“No one, sir; no one,” Subtle replied.

“What’s the matter, good sir?” Sir Epicure Mammon asked. “I have not seen you this upset. Who is she?”

Subtle attempted to resume the argument about alchemy: “All arts have always had, sir, their adversaries, but ours are the most ignorant —”

Face returned.

“What now?” Subtle said.

“It was not my fault, sir,” Face said. “She wants to speak with you.”

“She wants to, does she, sir!” Subtle said. “Follow me.”

He exited through the door where had been.

Face started to follow him, but Sir Epicure Mammon said to him, “Stay, Lungs.”

“I dare not stay, sir,” Face replied.

“Stay, man,” Sir Epicure Mammon repeated. “Who is she?”

“She is a lord’s sister, sir,” Face said.

“She is!” Sir Epicure Mammon said.

Face attempted to exit, but Sir Epicure Mammon said, “Please, stay.”

Face said, “She’s mad, insane, sir, and she was sent here — but I need to leave or Subtle will be mad, too.”

“I will protect you from his anger,” Sir Epicure Mammon said, and then he asked, “Why was she sent here?”

“Sir, to be cured,” Face said.

Subtle called from the other room, “Why, where are you, you rascal?”

“Look, you. I said this would happen,” Face said to Sir Epicure Mammon.

He then called, “Coming, sir!”

He exited.

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “Before God, I say that she is a Bradamante, a splendid piece.”

Bradamante was a female Christian Knight in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, a popular epic. She possessed a spear that made her invincible.

Knowing Sir Epicure Mammon, he meant that Doll Common was both a splendid masterpiece and a splendid piece of ass.

Surly said, “By God’s heart, this is a bawdy house! I am willing to be burnt as a heretic if that is not the case.”

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “Oh, by this light, no — this is not a bawdy house. Do not wrong Subtle the alchemist by saying that. He’s very scrupulous to avoid such things: It is his vice.

“No, he’s a splendid physician, so do him right. He is an excellent Paracelsian, and he has done remarkable cures with mineral medicine. He deals all with spirits, he; he will not hear a word of Galen, or his tedious recipes.”

A Paracelsian is a follower of Paracelsus, who rejected the teachings of the Greek physician Galen. This was a good thing because many physicians blindly followed Galen, who lived many centuries earlier. Paracelsus advocated finding new knowledge about how to cure patients. He was right to do this, but many of his ideas were incorrect and not scientific. The spirits dealt with could be either distilled spirits or supernatural spirits or both.

Face entered the room.

Seeing him, Sir Epicure Mammon asked, “What’s going on, Lungs?”

Face replied, “Quietly, sir. Speak quietly. I meant to have told your worship everything you want to know about the woman.”

He indicated Surly and said, “This man must not hear.”

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “No, he can listen. He will not be ‘gulled.’ Let him alone. He can listen.”

“You are very right, sir,” Face said. “The woman is a most splendid scholar, and she has gone mad by studying the works of Hugh Broughton, one of whose challenging and controversial works is about Hebrew genealogy. If you but name a word touching the Hebrew, she falls into her fit, and she will discourse so learnedly of genealogies that you would run mad, too, to hear her, sir.”

Sir Epicure Mammon asked, “What might one do to have conference with her, Lungs?”

“Conference” meant a conversation, but knowing Sir Epicure Mammon, we have to think that he wanted to have “conference” with her in bed.

Face replied, “Oh, many men have run mad upon the conference. I do not know, sir. I have been sent to quickly fetch a vial.”

Surly said, “Don’t be gulled, Sir Mammon. Don’t be a fool.”

“Gulled in what?” Sir Epicure Mammon said. “Please, be calm.”

“Yes, as you are,” Surly said. “Be calm and trust confederate knaves and bawds and whores.”

Sir Epicure Mammon said to Surly, “You are too foul, believe it.”

He added, “Come here, Ulen. One word.”

Face said, “I dare not stay, in good faith.”

He attempted to leave, but Sir Epicure Mammon said, “Stay, knave.”

A knave is a servant who ranks well below a knight. Sir Epicure was a knight.

Face said, “Subtle the alchemist is extremely angry that you saw her, sir.”

Mammon gave him some money and said, “Drink that.”

He then asked Face, “What is she like when she’s out of her fit — when she’s sane?”

Face replied, “Oh, she is the most affable woman, sir! So merry! So pleasant! She’ll mount you up, like quicksilver, over the helm, and she will circulate like oil, a true stimulant.”

Face’s words had a double meaning. He was using alchemical terms that stated that Doll Common was a volatile substance. His words also had a bawdy interpretation. Doll would mount a man and be on top over the helmet-shaped tip of his penis, and she would be slippery like oil and circulate and move and be a stimulant to the man.

Face added, “She will discourse about politics, about mathematics, about bawdry, about anything.”

This interested Sir Epicure Mammon: She was willing to talk about bawdry and to perform it.

He asked Face, “Is she in any way accessible? Can I meet her? Is there any means, any trick to give a man a taste of her … intelligence … or so?”

Subtle called from the other room, “Ulen!”

Face said to Sir Epicure Mammon, “I’ll come back to you again, sir.”

Face exited.

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “Surly, I did not think one of your breeding would speak badly about personages of worth.”

Surly replied, “Sir Epicure, I am your friend and I am at your service, yet always I am loath to be gulled: I do not want to be cheated. I do not like your philosophical bawds. Their philosopher’s stone is lechery enough to pay for without this bait.”

At this time, “lechery” meant “luxurious pleasure” in addition to “lewd indulgence.” The philosopher’s stone would give many people luxurious pleasure. The bait — sexual, of course — was Doll Common.

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “You abuse yourself; you are wrong.”

He then lied, “I know the lady, and her friends, and her means. I know the origin of this disaster. Her brother has told me everything.”

Surly, who knew that Sir Epicure Mammon had not recognized Doll Common, said, “And yet you never saw her until just now!”

Sir Epicure Mammon lied, “Oh, yes, I have seen her before, but I forgot. I have, believe it, one of the most treacherous memories, I think, of all Mankind.”

Surly asked, “What is her brother’s name?”

“My lord —” Sir Epicure Mammon began.

He thought for a moment and then said, “He will not have his name known, now I think about it.”

Surly said, “You certainly do have a very treacherous memory!”

Sir Epicure Mammon began, “By my faith —”

Surly interrupted, “Tut, if you have it not about you, forget it, until we next meet.”

The “it” could mean “faith” or “the brother’s name.”

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “I swear by this hand of mine that it is true. Her brother is a man whom I honor, and he is my noble friend, and I respect his family.”

Surly said, “Can it be that a grave sir, a rich man, who has no need, a wise sir, too, at other times, should thus with his own oaths and arguments work so hard to gull himself? I am talking about you.

“If this is your elixir, your lapis mineralis, and your lunary, give me your honest trick yet at primero, or gleek — and you can have your lutum sapiensis, your menstruum simplex! I’ll have gold before you, and with less danger of the quicksilver or the hot sulphur.”

Surly used many alchemical terms, but his meaning was that if this is alchemy, then he would prefer to take his chances gambling at the card games primero or gleek. A trick is a hand of cards, but Surly’s use of it included the meaning of cheating. Card sharping, to Surly, was a more honest way of being cheated than paying money for the creation of the philosopher’s stone. In a card game with a card sharp, there is still a chance of being lucky with cards and walking away a winner. Therefore, Surly would have gold before Sir Epicure Mammon would. (And Surly himself might be the card sharp.) Also, considering the absence of Doll Common, Surly would have less chance of contracting a venereal disease that would need to be treated with quicksilver or a contagious skin disease that would need to be treated with hot sulphur.

Face returned.

Face said to Surly, “A messenger has come from Captain Face, sir, to tell you that Captain Face wants you to meet him in the Temple Church, approximately a half hour from now, upon earnest business.”

Face handed Surly a note, and as Surly read it, Face whispered to Sir Epicure Mammon, “If you please to leave us for now, and come back again in approximately two hours, my master Subtle will be busy examining the alchemical works, and I will steal you in, in private, to the woman, so that you may see her converse.”

He then said out loud to Surly, “Sir, shall I say that you’ll meet Captain Face?”

“Yes, sir, I will meet him,” Surly replied.

Surly thought to himself, I will meet him, but by attorney, and for a second, different purpose than his.

“By attorney” meant “not in his own person.” Surly was already forming a plan to expose the con men.

Surly thought to himself, Now I am sure it is a bawdy house. I’d swear to it if the Marshal were here to thank me. The naming of this commander confirms it. Don Face! Captain Face! Why, he’s the most authentic dealer in these commodities, the superintendent to all the quainter traffickers in town!

In this society, the word “quaint” also meant “cunt.” The “commodities” Captain Face was known to deal in were prostitutes. “Quainter traffickers” are bawds and pimps.

Surly thought to himself, Captain Face is the Visitor, and he appoints who lies with whom, and at what hour, at what price, and which gown and smock and other clothing.

A Visitor in this context is an inspector or superintendent who makes sure that everything is running smoothly.

Surly thought to himself, I will test him, by a third person — myself in disguise — in order to find the subtleties, by which I mean tricks and deceits, of this dark labyrinth.

Alchemists often described the search for the philosopher’s stone as a kind of labyrinth.

Surly thought to himself, If I do discover these subtleties, dear Sir Mammon, you’ll give me, your poor friend, permission, although I am no philosopher, to laugh, for you who are a philosopher, it is thought, shall weep.

Democritus was known as the laughing philosopher, and Heraclitus was known as the crying philosopher. Democritus laughed at human follies, while Heraclitus cried over human follies.

Face said to Surly, “Sir, he asks you to please not forget to meet him.”

Surly replied, “I will not forget, sir.”

He then said, “Sir Epicure, I shall leave you.”

As Surly exited, Sir Epicure Mammon said, “I will follow you quickly.”

“Do so, good sir, to avoid suspicion that you will meet with the woman later,” Face said. “This gentleman Surly has a parlous head.”

Surly’s mind was dangerous because it was sharp.

Sir Epicure Mammon asked, “But will you, Ulen, keep your promise?”

“I will be as careful to keep my promise as I am careful to keep my life, sir.”

“And will you insinuate what I am, and praise me, and say that I am a noble fellow?”

“Oh, what else, sir?” Face said. “And I’ll tell her that you’ll make her royal, an Empress, with the philosopher’s stone, and that you’ll make yourself the King of Bantam, capital of the very wealthy island Java.”

“Stone” meant the philosopher’s stone, but the word was also slang for “testicle.” Sir Epicure Mammon would use the wealth that he got from the philosopher’s stone to make her royal, and he would use his stones to treat her another way.

Sir Epicure Mammon asked. “Will you do that?”

“I will, sir,” Face replied.

“Lungs, my Lungs! I love and respect you.”

Face said, “Send your metal stuff, sir, so that my master may busy himself about projection and turning them into gold.”

Sir Epicure Mammon said affectionately, “You have bewitched me, rogue. Take this money, and go.”

He gave Face some money.

Face said, “Bring your jack, and all your other metal, sir.”

A jack was an iron mechanism using metal weights on chains to turn the spit in a fireplace.

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “You are a villain. I will send my jack, and the weights, too. Slave, I could affectionately bite your ear. Go away, you do not care for me.”

“Don’t I, sir?” Face asked.

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “Come, I was born to make you, my good weasel, sit on a bench, and have you twirl a chain with the best lord’s vermin of them all.”

The chain was an insignia of office; the steward of a wealthy household had a chain. Lords wore ermine trimming on their robes; the ermine trimming was jokingly called vermin. Sir Epicure Mammon was saying that he was born to make Face rise in the world. (Earlier he had said that he would castrate Face and put him in charge of Sir Epicure’s harem.)

“Leave now, sir,” Face said.

Sir Epicure Mammon began, “A Count — no, a Count Palatine —”

A Count Palatine had more power and status than a mere Count.

Face interrupted, “Good sir, go.”

Sir Epicure Mammon finished, “— shall not advance you in life better, nor faster, than I will.”

He exited.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce

All Rights Reserved

This entry was posted in Books, Funny, Retellings and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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