(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

In the London shop of Yellowhammer, the goldsmith, a family discussion was taking place, a sharp, even quarrelsome exchange. Maudlin, the goldsmith’s wife, was finding fault with Moll, her daughter. Moll, opposed to the distasteful marriage into which her parents were trying to inveigle her, was not attracted to the elderly libertine, Sir Walter Whorehound, whose suit the parents had encouraged. Nevertheless, her final consent was being taken for granted by her mother, who railed against Moll for her lack of enthusiasm for the match. So anxious were the Yellowhammers to achieve that connection with Sir Walter that they proposed to cement the family alliance in still another way. As a bride for their son Tim, a bemused student at Cambridge, they had approved Sir Walter’s supposed niece, reportedly a Welsh heiress owning nineteen mountains. Actually, the Welshwoman was Sir Walter’s mistress, whom he was conveniently preparing to discard as a preliminary to his marriage to Moll.

As the Yellowhammers argued, Sir Walter entered their shop, accompanied by his “niece.” From all except Moll, the newcomers received a warm welcome. In the festivities which followed, the younger Touchwood made a casual entrance and, under the very nose of her father, slipped a note to Moll. To the latter, Touchwood posed as a customer, in the shop for the purpose of ordering a wedding ring. He said that he had forgotten the correct size, but he was sure that it would be satisfactory if it would fit the finger of the goldsmith’s daughter.

In another household, that of Allwit and his wife, Sir Walter was also held in high esteem, but for very different reasons. Allwit, the nominal master of the household without being its breadwinner, was an arrant but satisfied cuckold whose wife had been Sir Walter’s mistress for many years and the mother of Sir Walter’s six children. At the time, in fact, she was expecting the imminent birth of a seventh. Allwit, anxiously awaiting Sir Walter’s arrival and complacently reviewing the advantages of his singular situation, gloated over the fact that Sir Walter maintained the house, kept it stocked with food, begot Allwit’s brood for him, and even—by being jealous of Mistress Allwit—relieved the husband of that irksome prerogative. The only cloud on the Allwit horizon was the possibility that Sir Walter might eventually grow restive and drift into marriage with someone younger and more attractive. Allwit had spiked such disastrous prospects before by making judicious hints to those rich widows and landed virgins who had found favor with Sir Walter. He intended to do the same again before parting with such a prize as his treasured benefactor.

Elsewhere in London, the older of the Touchwood brothers was persuading his disconsolate but understanding wife that they must separate from each other for a while. Touchwood Senior’s infallible gift for acquiring paternity had...

(The entire section is 1198 words.)