Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist”: A Retelling — Act 5, Scene 2

— 5.2 —

Lovewit said, “I will.”

A freshly shaven Face appeared on the scene outside Lovewit’s house. Face was wearing his butler’s livery.

Face asked, “What are you doing, sir?”

Some of the neighbors recognized him and said, “Oh, here’s Jeremy the butler!”

Face said to Lovewit, “Good sir, go away from the door.”

“Why, what’s the matter?” Lovewit asked.

“Move away farther,” Face said. “You are still too close.”

Lovewit said, “In the name of wonder, what does the fellow mean?”

“The house, sir, has been visited,” Face said.

“What, with the plague? In that case, you stand further away from me.”

“Don’t worry, sir,” Face said. “I didn’t catch the plague.”

“Who had it then?” Lovewit asked. “I left no one other than you in the house.”

“Yes, sir, my fellow, the cat that kept the buttery, had it on her a week before I spied it, but I got her conveyed away in the night —”

Domestic cats can catch the three major kinds of plague: bubonic, septicemic, and pneumonic.

Face continued, “— and so I shut the house up for a month —”

“What!” Lovewit said. This contradicted what the neighbors had told him.

Face said, “I intended to fumigate the house by burning treacle, tar, and vinegar infused with rose petals, which would have made the house sweet, so that you would never have known that plague had visited here because I knew the news would only upset you, sir.”

“Breathe less toward me, and from farther away! Why this is stranger: The neighbors here all tell me that the doors have always been open —”

“What, sir!” Face said, pretending to be shocked.

Lovewit said, “Gallants, men and women, and people of all sorts, rag-tag, have been seen to flock here in threaves, these ten weeks, as to a second Hogsden in the days of Pimlico and Eye-bright.”

By “threaves,” Lovewit meant “crowds.” A “threave” of corn is twenty-four sheaves of corn. Hogsden was a popular resort; now it is named Hoxton. Pimlico and Eye-bright were popular taverns.

“Sir, their wisdoms will not say so,” Face said.

Lovewit replied, “Today they speak of coaches and gallants. A woman in a French hood went in, they tell me, and another woman was seen in a velvet gown at the window.”

The woman in a French hood was Dame Pliant; the woman in a velvet gown was Doll.

Lovewit continued, “Many other people were seen to pass in and out.”

“They passed through the doors then, or the walls, I assure their eyesights and their spectacles,” Face said, “for here, sir, are the keys, and here they have been, in this my pocket, now more than twenty days, and as for before, I kept the fort alone there.

“Except that it is not yet late in the afternoon, I would believe that my neighbors had seen double through the black pot of beer, and created these apparitions in their minds! I swear on my Christian faith to your worship that for these three weeks and upwards, the door has not been opened.”

“This is strange!” Lovewit said.

Neighbor #1 said, “In good faith, I think I saw a coach outside here.”

Neighbor #2, “And so did I, I’d have been sworn.”

“Do you think it now?” Lovewit asked. “And was it only one coach?”

Neighbor #4 said, “We cannot tell, sir. Jeremy is a very honest fellow.”

Face asked, “Did you see me at all?”

Neighbor #1 said, “No; that we are sure of.”

Neighbor #2 said, “I’ll be sworn to that.”

Lovewit said, “You are fine rogues to have your testimonies built on!”

Neighbor #3, the blacksmith, returned with his tools.

Seeing Face, he asked, “Has Jeremy come!”

Neighbor #1 said, “Oh, yes; you don’t need your tools. We were deceived, he says.”

Neighbor #2 said, “He has had the keys, and the door has been shut these three weeks, he says.”

Neighbor #3 said, “That is likely enough.”

Lovewit said, “Peace, be silent, and go away from here, you changelings.”

Some of the neighbors exited.

Lovewit called the neighbors changelings because they had changed their testimony so quickly. Changelings were also idiots; according to folklore, fairies would sometimes steal an intelligent, healthy human child and leave a stupid child of their own in its place.

In the theater, “changeling” was a clever clue for some of the neighbors to leave. Some of the actors performing as neighbors doubled other roles and needed to leave to get into the costumes of Kastril, Ananias, and Tribulation Wholesome.

Surly and Sir Epicure Mammon entered the scene.

Face said to himself, “Surly has come! And he has acquainted Mammon with all the facts! They’ll tell everything to my master. How shall I beat them off? What shall I do? Nothing’s more wretched than a guilty conscience.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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