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

— 3.3 —

Face, wearing the Captain’s uniform, came inside.

Subtle asked him, “How are you now? Did you get a good prize? Did you get a good profit?”

“Good pox!” Face complained. “Yonder costive cheater — Surly — never showed up.”

“Costive” means “constipated.” Face was using the word as an insult.

Subtle asked, “What happened?”

“I walked around the rotunda at the Temple Church until now, and no Surly showed up.”

“And have you quit him?” Subtle asked. “Have you given up on him?”

“Quit him!” Face said, “If Hell would quit — and acquit — him, too, he would be happy. By God’s light! Would you have me stalk like a mill-jade — a horse walking around and around in a circle to grind grain — all day, for one who will not yield us grains of profit? I know him of old — I know his type.”

“Oh, if we had gulled and cheated him,” Subtle said, “it would have shown our mastery — it would be something to boast about!”

“Let him go, black boy!” Face said. “Don’t think about him.”

Subtle’s face was black with soot. Although a philosopher’s stone could never be created, he kept a laboratory stocked with at least a few chemicals and he kept a fire going at least sometimes. A sooty face helped show that he was an alchemist.

Face continued, “Instead, turn your attention to this — here’s some fresh news that may possess and interest you. My dear delicious comrade and my fellow part-time pimp, I need to tell you that a noble count, a Don of Spain, who has come here to England because of his religious convictions as a Protestant, and who has brought munition — money and clothing — with him, six great Dutch slops, aka baggy trousers, bigger than three Dutch hoys, aka small coastal ships, besides round trunk-hose, aka another kind of odd clothing, furnished with pistolets, aka Spanish gold coins, and pieces of eight, aka Spanish dollars, will soon be here, my rogue, to enjoy a bath (that is the reason he gives for coming here) and to make his battery upon our Doll Common, our castle, our Cinque Port, our Dover pier, our what you will.”

Bathhouses were whorehouses, and the Spanish Don intended to sleep with Doll. Face humorously described this as a Spanish Armada making an assault upon England’s ports.

Face continued, “Where is she? She must prepare perfumes, delicate linen, the bath in chief, a banquet, and her wit, for she must milk his epididimas.”

At higher-class brothels, the john received a bath before having sex with a prostitute. An epididimas is a tube carrying sperm from the testicles. Doll was supposed to milk his balls; that is, cause him to ejaculate.

Face asked, “Where is the doxy?”

A doxy is a prostitute.

“I’ll send her to you,” Subtle said. “I need to dispatch my brace of little John Leidens, and come here again myself.”

A brace is a pair, and John Leiden was an Anabaptist. Subtle was referring to Tribulation Wholesome and Ananias.

“Are they inside then?” Face asked.

“Yes,” Subtle said. “They are numbering the sum they will pay for Sir Epicure Mammon’s metal goods.”

“How much?” Face asked.

“A hundred marks, boy,” Subtle said, and then he exited.

Face said, “Why, this is a lucky day. Ten pounds from Mammon! Three from my clerk! A Portuguese gold coin from my grocer/tobacconist! A hundred marks from the brethren! In addition, there will be reversions, aka future profits, and estates to come in with the widow, and additional profits from my Spanish Count! My share of the profits today will not be bought for forty —”

Doll Common entered the room.

“What do you want?” she asked.

“Pounds, dainty Dorothy!” Face said. “I want money! Are you so near?”

He meant, Do you want what I want?

“Yes,” Doll replied. “Say, lord General, how fares our camp?”

Face replied, “As with the few who had entrenched themselves safe, by their discipline, against a world, Doll, and laughed within those trenches, and grew fat with thinking on the booty and profit, Doll, brought in daily by their small raiding parties.”

To “laugh and grow fat” meant “hearty enjoyment” — they laughed until they grew sweaty because their cons were successful at bringing in booty and profit.

Face continued, “This dear hour, a doughty Don is taken with my Doll; and you may make his ransom what you will, my Dousabel.”

“Dousabel” comes from the French “douce et belle,” which means “sweet and pretty.”

Face continued, “He shall be brought here fettered with your fair looks, before he sees you; and he will be thrown on a down-bed, as dark as any dungeon, where you shall keep him awake with your drum — your drum, my Doll, your drum — until he is as tame as the poor blackbirds were in the great frost, or bees are with a basin, and so you throw him in the swan-skin coverlet, and cambric sheets, until he work honey and wax, my little God’s-gift.”

The Spanish Don would come here, and Doll would bed him. She would use her “drum” to keep him awake until he ejaculated and became tame. “To work honey” means “to use his penis to engage in sticky sexual caresses” and the “wax” he produced would be semen. Wax is a substance secreted by bees, but “to wax” means “to grow,” and the Spanish Don’s penis would grow.

During winters that were so cold that the Thames River was covered with ice, blackbirds became so hungry that they were “tame” — they would take food from the hands of a human. According to folklore, bees would return to the hive if a basin were drummed.

Doll’s “drum” was used in a rhythmic sexual pounding.

“Doll” is a nickname for “Dorothy,” which is derived from the Greek Dorothea, which means “God’s-gift.”

“Who is this man, General?” Doll asked.

Face replied, “He is an adalantado, a grandee, girl.”

An adalantado is a Spanish grandee; a grandee is a Spanish nobleman of the highest rank.

Face asked, “Hasn’t my Dapper been here yet?”

“No,” Doll replied.

“Nor my Drugger?”

“He has not, either,” Doll replied.

“A pox on them!” Face said. “They are taking so long to collect money to give to us! Such stinkards should not be seen upon these festival days.”

Subtle entered the room.

Face asked, “How is everything? Have you finished with the Anabaptists?”

“All is done,” Subtle said. “They are gone. The sum of money they paid is put away safe and sound, my Face. I wish we knew another businessman now who would buy Mammon’s metal objects outright. I have sold them once, but if I sold them twice we would have twice the profit.”

Face said, “By God’s eyelid, Nab shall buy them in the expectation that he will marry the widow. He will buy the metal items in order to furnish his household.”

“Excellent idea,” Subtle said. “Good thinking. I pray to God he comes here soon.”

Face said, “I pray that he keeps away until our new business with the Spanish Don is over and done.”

Subtle asked, “But, Face, how did you come to learn about this secret Don?”

Another meaning of “secret” is “pertaining to mystical, occult matters.”

Face replied, “A spirit brought me the intelligence in a paper here, as I was conjuring yonder in my circle for Surly; I have my personal spiritual attendants abroad. Your bath is famous, Subtle, by my means.”

He was referring to the rotunda of Temple Church as a magician’s circle, but all that had happened was that while he was walking in the rotunda looking for Surly, someone handed him a note. The note was about finding a whore to have sex with.

Face continued, “Sweet Doll, you must go tune your virginals without losing any time. Listen. Give good action. Firk like a flounder. Kiss like a scallop, close. And tickle him with your mother tongue.”

Virginals was a musical instrument like the harpsichord, but Face was using the word in a sexual sense: He wanted Doll to get ready to have sex with the Spanish Don.

“Firk” is to “fuck” as “dern” is to “damn.” Flounders undulate when they swim. A scallop is a shellfish; the two pieces of the shell are close together. “Tickle him with your mother tongue” is fellatio.

Face continued, “His great Verdugoship has not a jot of the English language; this will make him so much the easier to be cheated, my Dolly.”

The Spanish word “verdugo” means either “hangman” or “a young shoot of a tree.” The second meaning may mean that Face thinks the Spanish Don is young and naïve and so will be easy to cheat. The first meaning is simply an insult.

Face continued, “He will come here in a hired coach, in secret, accompanied by our own coachman, whom I have sent as guide, and no one else.”

Knocking sounded at the door.

Face asked, “Who’s that?”

Doll exited to find out.

Subtle asked, “Isn’t that the Spanish Don?”

Face replied, “Oh, no. It’s too early for it to be him.”

Doll returned.

“Who is it?” Subtle asked.

“Dapper, your clerk,” Doll replied.

“This is God’s will then,” Face said.

He said to Doll, “Queen of Fairy, put your costume on.”

Doll exited.

Face said to Subtle, “And, Doctor, put on your academic robes. Let’s get this business over and done with, for God’s sake.

“It will take some time,” Subtle said.

“That’s true,” Face said. “Take the cues I give you, and the time shall be brief enough.”

Face went to the window, looked out, and said, “By God’s light, here are two more! I see Abel Drugger, and I think he has with him the angry boy, the heir, who wants to learn how to quarrel.”

“Is the widow with them?” Subtle asked.

“No, not that I see,” Face said. “Leave and get dressed.”

Subtle exited.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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