Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1040
Thomas Mendip wants to be hanged, but he can get no one to take an interest in his case because everyone in Cool Clary is interested in a woman accused of witchcraft—specifically, of having turned old Skipps, the rag and bone man, into a dog. Thomas begs the mayor’s clerk, Richard, to get him an audience with the mayor so that he can confess his crime, but Richard has other things on his mind. The mayor’s nephew, Humphrey Devize, has been betrothed to Alizon Eliot, and the girl is due to arrive any minute. No one has time for a fool who wants to be hanged.
Alizon is one of six daughters, and her father had feared that he had too many girls to marry off. He had placed Alizon in a convent, but after he married off his other daughters easily enough, he changed his mind about her, and now he has promised her to Humphrey. Humphrey’s brother Nicholas has read in the stars that Alizon belongs to him, however, and so he knocks his brother down, hoping to kill him and take Alizon for himself. Humphrey, although not dead, lies still—he has not knocked himself down, so he will not pick himself up. Their mother, Margaret Devize, sister of the mayor, sometimes thinks motherhood is too much for any woman. Since the boys have become untidy from lying in the rain and mud, she fears that Humphrey’s appearance might discourage Alizon, which it does.
When Mayor Hebble Tyson finds Thomas waiting to be hanged, he is very much upset. Hebble is tired of strangers dropping into town with such ridiculous requests; it is all very irregular. Suspecting that someone is making a mockery of his authority, he threatens to have Thomas tortured if he does not go away and stop his bother. Thomas, however, holds out for hanging. He confesses to killing old Skipps and a worthless pander. He does not expect to get the favor of hanging for nothing; he knows the rules, all right.
Thomas’s interview with Hebble is interrupted by an announcement from Nicholas that a witch is waiting to see the mayor. Poor Hebble, upset at the news, insists that he will not have his dignity mocked. The witch is a beautiful young woman named Jennet Jourdemayne, a wealthy orphan whose property will be confiscated if she is condemned for witchcraft. Jennet thinks the accusations against her are a joke; she has been accused of turning old Skipps into a dog and of other evil deeds. She has come to Hebble for the protection of his laughter at the crimes of which the mob outside accuses her. Hebble, not amused, sends for the constable to arrest her. Thomas tries to divert attention from Jennet to himself by insisting that he murdered Skipps and the pander, but no one pays any attention to him; he is poor and decidedly strange. He even tells all assembled that the end of the world will come that night. All he gets for his pains is to be thrown into the cellar with Jennet, to await her burning the next day.
Hebble and his associates have a problem on their hands: Jennet will admit nothing, and Thomas will not stop confessing. Thomas is a poor former soldier, and Jennet has property; she has to be the guilty one. At last Hebble has an idea. Hebble and his associates will leave Jennet and Thomas alone together while Hebble and the others listen at an open door. Hebble expects that, thinking themselves alone, the unfortunate pair will confess—she to witchcraft and he to innocence. The two are brought forth from the cellar, Thomas still wearing the thumbscrews that have been used to try to make him stop confessing. When they are left alone, Jennet tells Thomas of her father, a scientist who gave his life to his dreams. She will have no such nonsense. Facts and facts alone will rule her life—until tomorrow, when she will be burned. Fancy and imagination, she says, have caused her present trouble. Overhearing this conversation, Hebble is convinced that Jennet is a witch. At any rate she is wealthy, and her property will go to the city when she is burned.
From the conversation Hebble also learns that Thomas wants to be hanged because he finds life mean and dull. Therefore his punishment is to be to spend the night in joy and revelry at the party celebrating the betrothal of Humphrey and Alizon. Thomas will not agree to attend the party, however, unless Jennet is allowed to go with him. Dressed in one of Margaret’s old gowns, Jennet is sent to the party, where Humphrey, the bridegroom-to-be, no longer wants Alizon. Since Humphrey will not claim her, neither will Nicholas. Unknown to them both, Alizon has found that she loves Richard and that Richard returns her love. They slip away and are married by the priest who found Richard in the poor box when he was just a tiny baby.
Unhappily for Thomas, he has fallen in love with Jennet and she with him. He has no wish to be in love; life is miserable enough. Jennet, on the other hand, does not want to renounce her factual world for one of love and fancy. Jennet knows that Thomas has not committed murder, that he heard the mobs accusing her of turning Skipps into a dog and said he murdered the ragman only to divert suspicion from her. Humphrey goes to Jennet and offers to get her free from the charge of witchery if she will entertain him in her cell that night. Although her body loves the thought of living, her mind and heart rebel, and she turns down his offer. She loves Thomas too much to take life at such a price.
Fortunately for all, old Skipps is found alive. Hebble, still coveting Jennet’s property, will not be satisfied, but a softhearted justice allows Thomas and Jennet to slip out of town in the dark. Thomas hates to face living again, but he decides to forgo the pleasure of dying for another fifty years and spend the time waiting with Jennet.