"I forbid you to set the crown of England upon that forfeited head. I am the King!"
In an instant several indignant hands were laid upon the boy; but in the same instant Tom Canty, in his regal vestments, made a swift step forward, and cried out in a ringing voice —
"Loose him and forbear! He IS the King!"
A sort of panic of astonishment swept the assemblage, and they partly rose in their places and stared in a bewildered way at one another and at the chief figures in this scene, like persons who wondered whether they were awake and in their senses, or asleep and dreaming. The Lord Protector was as amazed as the rest, but quickly recovered himself, and exclaimed in a voice of authority —
"Mind not his Majesty, his malady is upon him again — seize the vagabond!"
He would have been obeyed, but the mock-King stamped his foot and cried out —
"On your peril! Touch him not, he is the King!"
The hands were withheld; a paralysis fell upon the house; no one moved, no one spoke; indeed, no one knew how to act or what to say, in so strange and surprising an emergency. While all minds were struggling to right themselves, the boy still moved steadily forward, with high port and confident mien; he had never halted from the beginning; and while the tangled minds still floundered helplessly, he stepped upon the platform, and the mock-King ran with a glad face to meet him; and fell on his knees before him and said —
"Oh, my lord the King, let poor Tom Canty be first to swear fealty to thee, and say, 'Put on thy crown and enter into thine own again!'"
The Lord Protector's eye fell sternly upon the new-comer's face; but straightway the sternness vanished away, and gave place to an expression of wondering surprise. This thing happened also to the other great officers. They glanced at each other, and retreated a step by a common and unconscious impulse. The thought in each mind was the same: "What a strange resemblance!"
The Lord Protector reflected a moment or two in perplexity, then he said, with grave respectfulness —
"By your favour, sir, I desire to ask certain questions which — "
"I will answer them, my lord."
The Duke asked him many questions about the Court, the late King, the prince, the princesses — the boy answered them correctly and without hesitating. He described the rooms of state in the palace, the late King's apartments, and those of the Prince of Wales.
It was strange; it was wonderful; yes, it was unaccountable — so all said that heard it. The tide was beginning to turn, and Tom Canty's hopes to run high, when the Lord Protector shook his head and said —
"It is true it is most wonderful — but it is no more than our lord the King likewise can do." This remark, and this reference to himself as still the King, saddened Tom Canty, and he felt his hopes crumbling from under him. "These are not PROOFS," added the Protector.
The tide was turning very fast now, very fast indeed — but in the wrong direction; it was leaving poor Tom Canty stranded on the throne, and sweeping the other out to sea. The Lord Protector communed with himself — shook his head — the thought forced itself upon him, "It is perilous to the State and to us all, to entertain so fateful a riddle as this; it could divide the nation and undermine the throne." He turned and said —
"Sir Thomas, arrest this — No, hold!" His face lighted, and he confronted the ragged candidate with this question —
"Where lieth the Great Seal? Answer me this truly, and the riddle is unriddled; for only he that was Prince of Wales CAN so answer! On so trivial a thing hang a throne and a dynasty!"
It was a lucky thought, a happy thought. That it was so considered by the great officials was manifested by the silent applause that shot from eye to eye around their circle in the form of bright approving glances. Yes, none but the true prince could dissolve the stubborn mystery of the vanished Great Seal — this forlorn little impostor had been taught his lesson well, but here his teachings must fail, for his teacher himself could not answer THAT question — ah, very good, very good indeed; now we shall be rid of this troublesome and perilous business in short order! And so they nodded invisibly and smiled inwardly with satisfaction, and looked to see this foolish lad stricken with a palsy of guilty confusion. How surprised they were, then, to see nothing of the sort happen — how they marvelled to hear him answer up promptly, in a confident and untroubled voice, and say —
"There is nought in this riddle that is difficult." Then, without so much as a by-your-leave to anybody, he turned and gave this command, with the easy manner of one accustomed to doing such things: "My Lord St. John, go you to my private cabinet in the palace — for none knoweth the place better than you — and, close down to the floor, in the left corner remotest from the door that opens from the ante-chamber, you shall find in the wall a brazen nail-head; press upon it and a little jewel-closet will fly open which not even you do know of — no, nor any soul else in all the world but me and the trusty artisan that did contrive it for me. The first thing that falleth under your eye will be the Great Seal — fetch it hither."
All the company wondered at this speech, and wondered still more to see the little mendicant pick out this peer without hesitancy or apparent fear of mistake, and call him by name with such a placidly convincing air of having known him all his life. The peer was almost surprised into obeying. He even made a movement as if to go, but quickly recovered his tranquil attitude and confessed his blunder with a blush. Tom Canty turned upon him and said, sharply —
"Why dost thou hesitate? Hast not heard the King's command? Go!"
The Lord St. John made a deep obeisance — and it was observed that it was a significantly cautious and non-committal one, it not being delivered at either of the kings, but at the neutral ground about half-way between the two — and took his leave.