"Yet was not this all, your Majesty; there is more and worse. Many testified that a witch, since gone from the village, none know whither, did foretell, and speak it privately in their ears, that the sick man WOULD DIE BY POISON — and more, that a stranger would give it — a stranger with brown hair and clothed in a worn and common garb; and surely this prisoner doth answer woundily to the bill. Please your Majesty to give the circumstance that solemn weight which is its due, seeing it was FORETOLD."
This was an argument of tremendous force in that superstitious day. Tom felt that the thing was settled; if evidence was worth anything, this poor fellow's guilt was proved. Still he offered the prisoner a chance, saying —
"If thou canst say aught in thy behalf, speak."
"Nought that will avail, my King. I am innocent, yet cannot I make it appear. I have no friends, else might I show that I was not in Islington that day; so also might I show that at that hour they name I was above a league away, seeing I was at Wapping Old Stairs; yea more, my King, for I could show, that whilst they say I was TAKING life, I was SAVING it. A drowning boy — "
"Peace! Sheriff, name the day the deed was done!"
"At ten in the morning, or some minutes later, the first day of the New Year, most illustrious — "
"Let the prisoner go free — it is the King's will!"
Another blush followed this unregal outburst, and he covered his indecorum as well as he could by adding —
"It enrageth me that a man should be hanged upon such idle, hare-brained evidence!"
A low buzz of admiration swept through the assemblage. It was not admiration of the decree that had been delivered by Tom, for the propriety or expediency of pardoning a convicted poisoner was a thing which few there would have felt justified in either admitting or admiring — no, the admiration was for the intelligence and spirit which Tom had displayed. Some of the low-voiced remarks were to this effect —
"This is no mad king — he hath his wits sound."
"How sanely he put his questions — how like his former natural self was this abrupt imperious disposal of the matter!"
"God be thanked, his infirmity is spent! This is no weakling, but a king. He hath borne himself like to his own father."
The air being filled with applause, Tom's ear necessarily caught a little of it. The effect which this had upon him was to put him greatly at his ease, and also to charge his system with very gratifying sensations.
However, his juvenile curiosity soon rose superior to these pleasant thoughts and feelings; he was eager to know what sort of deadly mischief the woman and the little girl could have been about; so, by his command, the two terrified and sobbing creatures were brought before him.
"What is it that these have done?" he inquired of the sheriff.
"Please your Majesty, a black crime is charged upon them, and clearly proven; wherefore the judges have decreed, according to the law, that they be hanged. They sold themselves to the devil — such is their crime."
Tom shuddered. He had been taught to abhor people who did this wicked thing. Still, he was not going to deny himself the pleasure of feeding his curiosity for all that; so he asked —
"Where was this done? — and when?"
"On a midnight in December, in a ruined church, your Majesty."
Tom shuddered again.
"Who was there present?"
"Only these two, your grace — and THAT OTHER."
"Have these confessed?"
"Nay, not so, sire — they do deny it."
"Then prithee, how was it known?"
"Certain witness did see them wending thither, good your Majesty; this bred the suspicion, and dire effects have since confirmed and justified it. In particular, it is in evidence that through the wicked power so obtained, they did invoke and bring about a storm that wasted all the region round about. Above forty witnesses have proved the storm; and sooth one might have had a thousand, for all had reason to remember it, sith all had suffered by it."
"Certes this is a serious matter." Tom turned this dark piece of scoundrelism over in his mind a while, then asked —
"Suffered the woman also by the storm?"
Several old heads among the assemblage nodded their recognition of the wisdom of this question. The sheriff, however, saw nothing consequential in the inquiry; he answered, with simple directness —
"Indeed did she, your Majesty, and most righteously, as all aver. Her habitation was swept away, and herself and child left shelterless."
"Methinks the power to do herself so ill a turn was dearly bought. She had been cheated, had she paid but a farthing for it; that she paid her soul, and her child's, argueth that she is mad; if she is mad she knoweth not what she doth, therefore sinneth not."
The elderly heads nodded recognition of Tom's wisdom once more, and one individual murmured, "An' the King be mad himself, according to report, then is it a madness of a sort that would improve the sanity of some I wot of, if by the gentle providence of God they could but catch it."
"What age hath the child?" asked Tom.
"Nine years, please your Majesty."
"By the law of England may a child enter into covenant and sell itself, my lord?" asked Tom, turning to a learned judge.
"The law doth not permit a child to make or meddle in any weighty matter, good my liege, holding that its callow wit unfitteth it to cope with the riper wit and evil schemings of them that are its elders. The DEVIL may buy a child, if he so choose, and the child agree thereto, but not an Englishman — in this latter case the contract would be null and void."