"Y-e-s — methinks I do. (It is not much of a lie — an' I had meddled with the Greek at all, I had not faulted simply thrice, but forty times.) Yes, I do recall it, now — go on."
"The master, being wroth with what he termed such slovenly and doltish work, did promise that he would soundly whip me for it — and — "
"Whip THEE!" said Tom, astonished out of his presence of mind. "Why should he whip THEE for faults of mine?"
"Ah, your Grace forgetteth again. He always scourgeth me when thou dost fail in thy lessons."
"True, true — I had forgot. Thou teachest me in private — then if I fail, he argueth that thy office was lamely done, and — "
"Oh, my liege, what words are these? I, the humblest of thy servants, presume to teach THEE?"
"Then where is thy blame? What riddle is this? Am I in truth gone mad, or is it thou? Explain — speak out."
"But, good your Majesty, there's nought that needeth simplifying. — None may visit the sacred person of the Prince of Wales with blows; wherefore, when he faulteth, 'tis I that take them; and meet it is and right, for that it is mine office and my livelihood."
Tom stared at the tranquil boy, observing to himself, "Lo, it is a wonderful thing, — a most strange and curious trade; I marvel they have not hired a boy to take my combings and my dressings for me — would heaven they would! — an' they will do this thing, I will take my lashings in mine own person, giving God thanks for the change." Then he said aloud —
"And hast thou been beaten, poor friend, according to the promise?"
"No, good your Majesty, my punishment was appointed for this day, and peradventure it may be annulled, as unbefitting the season of mourning that is come upon us; I know not, and so have made bold to come hither and remind your Grace about your gracious promise to intercede in my behalf — "
"With the master? To save thee thy whipping?"
"Ah, thou dost remember!"
"My memory mendeth, thou seest. Set thy mind at ease — thy back shall go unscathed — I will see to it."
"Oh, thanks, my good lord!" cried the boy, dropping upon his knee again. "Mayhap I have ventured far enow; and yet — "
Seeing Master Humphrey hesitate, Tom encouraged him to go on, saying he was "in the granting mood."
"Then will I speak it out, for it lieth near my heart. Sith thou art no more Prince of Wales but King, thou canst order matters as thou wilt, with none to say thee nay; wherefore it is not in reason that thou wilt longer vex thyself with dreary studies, but wilt burn thy books and turn thy mind to things less irksome. Then am I ruined, and mine orphan sisters with me!"
"Ruined? Prithee how?"
"My back is my bread, O my gracious liege! if it go idle, I starve. An' thou cease from study mine office is gone thou'lt need no whipping-boy. Do not turn me away!"
Tom was touched with this pathetic distress. He said, with a right royal burst of generosity —
"Discomfort thyself no further, lad. Thine office shall be permanent in thee and thy line for ever." Then he struck the boy a light blow on the shoulder with the flat of his sword, exclaiming, "Rise, Humphrey Marlow, Hereditary Grand Whipping-Boy to the Royal House of England! Banish sorrow — I will betake me to my books again, and study so ill that they must in justice treble thy wage, so mightily shall the business of thine office be augmented."
The grateful Humphrey responded fervidly —
"Thanks, O most noble master, this princely lavishness doth far surpass my most distempered dreams of fortune. Now shall I be happy all my days, and all the house of Marlow after me."
Tom had wit enough to perceive that here was a lad who could be useful to him. He encouraged Humphrey to talk, and he was nothing loath. He was delighted to believe that he was helping in Tom's 'cure'; for always, as soon as he had finished calling back to Tom's diseased mind the various particulars of his experiences and adventures in the royal school-room and elsewhere about the palace, he noticed that Tom was then able to 'recall' the circumstances quite clearly. At the end of an hour Tom found himself well freighted with very valuable information concerning personages and matters pertaining to the Court; so he resolved to draw instruction from this source daily; and to this end he would give order to admit Humphrey to the royal closet whenever he might come, provided the Majesty of England was not engaged with other people. Humphrey had hardly been dismissed when my Lord Hertford arrived with more trouble for Tom.
He said that the Lords of the Council, fearing that some overwrought report of the King's damaged health might have leaked out and got abroad, they deemed it wise and best that his Majesty should begin to dine in public after a day or two — his wholesome complexion and vigorous step, assisted by a carefully guarded repose of manner and ease and grace of demeanour, would more surely quiet the general pulse — in case any evil rumours HAD gone about — than any other scheme that could be devised.
Then the Earl proceeded, very delicately, to instruct Tom as to the observances proper to the stately occasion, under the rather thin disguise of 'reminding' him concerning things already known to him; but to his vast gratification it turned out that Tom needed very little help in this line — he had been making use of Humphrey in that direction, for Humphrey had mentioned that within a few days he was to begin to dine in public; having gathered it from the swift-winged gossip of the Court. Tom kept these facts to himself, however.
Seeing the royal memory so improved, the Earl ventured to apply a few tests to it, in an apparently casual way, to find out how far its amendment had progressed. The results were happy, here and there, in spots — spots where Humphrey's tracks remained — and on the whole my lord was greatly pleased and encouraged. So encouraged was he, indeed, that he spoke up and said in a quite hopeful voice —
"Now am I persuaded that if your Majesty will but tax your memory yet a little further, it will resolve the puzzle of the Great Seal — a loss which was of moment yesterday, although of none to-day, since its term of service ended with our late lord's life. May it please your Grace to make the trial?"
Tom was at sea — a Great Seal was something which he was totally unacquainted with. After a moment's hesitation he looked up innocently and asked —
"What was it like, my lord?"
The Earl started, almost imperceptibly, muttering to himself, "Alack, his wits are flown again! — it was ill wisdom to lead him on to strain them" — then he deftly turned the talk to other matters, with the purpose of sweeping the unlucky seal out of Tom's thoughts — a purpose which easily succeeded.