In a little while the measured tread of military men was heard approaching, and the culprits entered the presence in charge of an under-sheriff and escorted by a detail of the king's guard. The civil officer knelt before Tom, then stood aside; the three doomed persons knelt, also, and remained so; the guard took position behind Tom's chair. Tom scanned the prisoners curiously. Something about the dress or appearance of the man had stirred a vague memory in him. "Methinks I have seen this man ere now . . . but the when or the where fail me." — Such was Tom's thought. Just then the man glanced quickly up and quickly dropped his face again, not being able to endure the awful port of sovereignty; but the one full glimpse of the face which Tom got was sufficient. He said to himself: "Now is the matter clear; this is the stranger that plucked Giles Witt out of the Thames, and saved his life, that windy, bitter, first day of the New Year — a brave good deed — pity he hath been doing baser ones and got himself in this sad case . . . I have not forgot the day, neither the hour; by reason that an hour after, upon the stroke of eleven, I did get a hiding by the hand of Gammer Canty which was of so goodly and admired severity that all that went before or followed after it were but fondlings and caresses by comparison."
Tom now ordered that the woman and the girl be removed from the presence for a little time; then addressed himself to the under-sheriff, saying —
"Good sir, what is this man's offence?"
The officer knelt, and answered —
"So please your Majesty, he hath taken the life of a subject by poison."
Tom's compassion for the prisoner, and admiration of him as the daring rescuer of a drowning boy, experienced a most damaging shock.
"The thing was proven upon him?" he asked.
"Most clearly, sire."
Tom sighed, and said —
"Take him away — he hath earned his death. 'Tis a pity, for he was a brave heart — na — na, I mean he hath the LOOK of it!"
The prisoner clasped his hands together with sudden energy, and wrung them despairingly, at the same time appealing imploringly to the 'King' in broken and terrified phrases —
"O my lord the King, an' thou canst pity the lost, have pity upon me! I am innocent — neither hath that wherewith I am charged been more than but lamely proved — yet I speak not of that; the judgment is gone forth against me and may not suffer alteration; yet in mine extremity I beg a boon, for my doom is more than I can bear. A grace, a grace, my lord the King! in thy royal compassion grant my prayer — give commandment that I be hanged!"
Tom was amazed. This was not the outcome he had looked for.
"Odds my life, a strange BOON! Was it not the fate intended thee?"
"O good my liege, not so! It is ordered that I be BOILED ALIVE!"
The hideous surprise of these words almost made Tom spring from his chair. As soon as he could recover his wits he cried out —
"Have thy wish, poor soul! an' thou had poisoned a hundred men thou shouldst not suffer so miserable a death."
The prisoner bowed his face to the ground and burst into passionate expressions of gratitude — ending with —
"If ever thou shouldst know misfortune — which God forefend! — may thy goodness to me this day be remembered and requited!"
Tom turned to the Earl of Hertford, and said —
"My lord, is it believable that there was warrant for this man's ferocious doom?"
"It is the law, your Grace — for poisoners. In Germany coiners be boiled to death in OIL — not cast in of a sudden, but by a rope let down into the oil by degrees, and slowly; first the feet, then the legs, then — "
"O prithee no more, my lord, I cannot bear it!" cried Tom, covering his eyes with his hands to shut out the picture. "I beseech your good lordship that order be taken to change this law — oh, let no more poor creatures be visited with its tortures."
The Earl's face showed profound gratification, for he was a man of merciful and generous impulses — a thing not very common with his class in that fierce age. He said —
"These your Grace's noble words have sealed its doom. History will remember it to the honour of your royal house."
The under-sheriff was about to remove his prisoner; Tom gave him a sign to wait; then he said —
"Good sir, I would look into this matter further. The man has said his deed was but lamely proved. Tell me what thou knowest."
"If the King's grace please, it did appear upon the trial that this man entered into a house in the hamlet of Islington where one lay sick — three witnesses say it was at ten of the clock in the morning, and two say it was some minutes later — the sick man being alone at the time, and sleeping — and presently the man came forth again and went his way. The sick man died within the hour, being torn with spasms and retchings."
"Did any see the poison given? Was poison found?"
"Marry, no, my liege."
"Then how doth one know there was poison given at all?"
"Please your Majesty, the doctors testified that none die with such symptoms but by poison."
Weighty evidence, this, in that simple age. Tom recognised its formidable nature, and said —
"The doctor knoweth his trade — belike they were right. The matter hath an ill-look for this poor man."