(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1040 words.)