Touchstone, a goldsmith, has two daughters, Gertrude, a flutter-brained social climber, and Mildred, a modest, gentle girl. He also has two apprentices, Francis Quicksilver, a fellow as unstable as his name, and Golding, who is steady and conscientious. Caught while trying to slip away from the shop, Quicksilver makes a spirited defense of his way of life, especially of his prodigality among the town gallants. Touchstone answers with a severe moral lecture and points out the exemplary behavior of his fellow apprentice. The lecture is interrupted by a messenger from Sir Petronel Flash, who wishes to make arrangements to marry Gertrude. As soon as Touchstone is out of hearing, Quicksilver abuses the old citizen; Golding defends his master and warns and rebukes Quicksilver.
Mildred, with the help of a tailor and a maid, attires Gertrude elegantly to receive her knight, while Gertrude rattles away, full of herself and contemptuous of her bourgeois family. Touchstone brings in Sir Petronel and concludes the arrangements for the wedding, warning both Gertrude and the knight that they need not expect any gifts beyond the agreed dowry. Gertrude treats him impudently and leaves with the knight, with Mistress Touchstone fluttering in attendance on her soon-to-be-married daughter. After their departure, Touchstone proposes a match between Mildred and Golding.
From the wedding feast Quicksilver returns to the shop drunk, hiccuping and quoting lines from popular plays. Touchstone, losing patience with the fellow, releases him from his indenture and discharges him. After Quicksilver’s defiant and staggering exit, Touchstone tells Golding that he, too, will no longer be an apprentice, but a full-fledged member of the guild and his master’s son-in-law. At the home of old Security, where Quicksilver and his mistress Sindefy live, the old usurer plots with them to trap Sir Petronel and to gain possession of Gertrude’s property. Quicksilver is to encourage the knight to borrow money for a proposed voyage to Virginia, and both Quicksilver and Sindefy, who is to become Gertrude’s maid, are to encourage the bride to put up her land to cover the debt. Before leaving to set his plans in motion, Security delays to bid farewell to his pretty young wife, Winifred.
Sir Petronel confesses to Quicksilver that he has no castle, but that he intends to send his bride on a wild goose chase to an imaginary castle in the country in order to get her out of the way while he carries off old Security’s young wife on the Virginia voyage. Security brings in Sindefy and places her with Gertrude as a maid, then takes Sir Petronel to his home for breakfast. Captain Seagull, Scapethrift, and Spendall join Sir Petronel there to make the final plans for the voyage.
As Gertrude prepares for her ride into the country to see her husband’s nonexistent castle, Touchstone enters with his other daughter and his new son-in-law, Golding. Gertrude heaps contempt on all three, and Sir Petronel makes disparaging remarks about the groom’s lack of nobility. Touchstone distributes a few ironical barbs and leads away the newlyweds. After their departure, Security presents Gertrude with papers, supposedly to cover a loan for new furnishings for the country castle. At Sir Petronel’s request she signs the papers without even reading them and sets out in her coach after urging the knight to follow as soon as possible. Sir Petronel and Quicksilver convince Security that the knight is planning to elope with a lawyer’s wife; and Security, maliciously delighted at the chance to injure another man, promises to lend them his wife’s gown as a disguise. He also feels that lending the gown will be...
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a good way to make certain that his wife does not leave home.
Sir Petronel, the disguised Winifred, Quicksilver, and the other adventurers ignore storm warnings and set out in their boats for the ship. Security discovers his wife’s absence and tries to follow them. Slitgut, a butcher coming to Cuckold’s Haven to set up a pair of horns, sees from his elevated vantage point a boat overturned in the waves. A few minutes later old Security crawls ashore, bemoaning the appropriateness of his place of shipwreck. As soon as he creeps away, the butcher sees a woman struggling in the waves and a boy plunging in to save her. The boy rescues a very repentant Winifred, brings her ashore, and offers her shelter and dry clothes. A third victim of the storm is washed ashore at the foot of the gallows—a bad omen, Slitgut thinks. The man is Francis Quicksilver, who passes by cursing his fate. Finally, Sir Petronel and Captain Seagull reach shore and meet Quicksilver. Sir Petronel, losing his money in the water, has no hope of saving his ship, which he expects to be confiscated. Winifred, now dry and freshly dressed, convinces Security that she did not leave home until she began to worry about him. Slitgut makes a few wry remarks about marriage and goes home, unobserved by any of the adventurers.
Touchstone, thoroughly angered by the knight’s desertion and by his wife’s and daughter’s foolishness, turns out Gertrude and Sindefy to shift for themselves, but, bearing his wife as a cross for thirty years, he feels he should continue to do so. Golding, made an alderman’s deputy on his first day in the guild, reports that Sir Petronel and Quicksilver are under arrest and the ship is attached. Mistress Touchstone learns her lesson; Gertrude, in spite of her mother’s entreaties that she beg forgiveness, treats her father with her customary contempt. Sir Petronel and Quicksilver are brought in by a constable, and Quicksilver is charged with the theft of five hundred pounds, a capital offense. A warrant is also sent out for old Security for his share in the business. Sir Petronel and Quicksilver reach a peak of repentance that makes them the talk of the prison. Golding and the jailer join Mistress Touchstone and her daughters in pleading with Touchstone to show mercy to the offenders; Touchstone is adamant. Finally Golding has himself arrested, sends for Touchstone to come to release him, and arranges for the latter to overhear Quicksilver’s ballad of repentance, sung for the edification of other prisoners to the tune of “I Wail in Woe, I Plunge in Pain.” Touchstone’s heart is moved, and he offers forgiveness to his prodigal son-in-law and prodigal apprentice. Old Security, hearing that a song of repentance works such wonders, rushes up howling a lamentable song in a most lamentable voice; he, too, receives mercy. At Golding’s urging, Quicksilver agrees to marry Sindefy. Security returns to Winifred. Even Gertrude forgives her erring husband and asks forgiveness from her father. Thus all differences are reconciled.