Now began a movement of the gorgeous particles of that official group which was slow, scarcely perceptible, and yet steady and persistent — a movement such as is observed in a kaleidoscope that is turned slowly, whereby the components of one splendid cluster fall away and join themselves to another — a movement which, little by little, in the present case, dissolved the glittering crowd that stood about Tom Canty and clustered it together again in the neighbourhood of the new-comer. Tom Canty stood almost alone. Now ensued a brief season of deep suspense and waiting — during which even the few faint hearts still remaining near Tom Canty gradually scraped together courage enough to glide, one by one, over to the majority. So at last Tom Canty, in his royal robes and jewels, stood wholly alone and isolated from the world, a conspicuous figure, occupying an eloquent vacancy.
Now the Lord St. John was seen returning. As he advanced up the mid-aisle the interest was so intense that the low murmur of conversation in the great assemblage died out and was succeeded by a profound hush, a breathless stillness, through which his footfalls pulsed with a dull and distant sound. Every eye was fastened upon him as he moved along. He reached the platform, paused a moment, then moved toward Tom Canty with a deep obeisance, and said —
"Sire, the Seal is not there!"
A mob does not melt away from the presence of a plague-patient with more haste than the band of pallid and terrified courtiers melted away from the presence of the shabby little claimant of the Crown. In a moment he stood all alone, without friend or supporter, a target upon which was concentrated a bitter fire of scornful and angry looks. The Lord Protector called out fiercely —
"Cast the beggar into the street, and scourge him through the town — the paltry knave is worth no more consideration!"
Officers of the guard sprang forward to obey, but Tom Canty waved them off and said —
"Back! Whoso touches him perils his life!"
The Lord Protector was perplexed in the last degree. He said to the Lord St. John —
"Searched you well? — but it boots not to ask that. It doth seem passing strange. Little things, trifles, slip out of one's ken, and one does not think it matter for surprise; but how so bulky a thing as the Seal of England can vanish away and no man be able to get track of it again — a massy golden disk — "
Tom Canty, with beaming eyes, sprang forward and shouted —
"Hold, that is enough! Was it round? — and thick? — and had it letters and devices graved upon it? — yes? Oh, NOW I know what this Great Seal is that there's been such worry and pother about. An' ye had described it to me, ye could have had it three weeks ago. Right well I know where it lies; but it was not I that put it there — first."
"Who, then, my liege?" asked the Lord Protector.
"He that stands there — the rightful King of England. And he shall tell you himself where it lies — then you will believe he knew it of his own knowledge. Bethink thee, my King — spur thy memory — it was the last, the very LAST thing thou didst that day before thou didst rush forth from the palace, clothed in my rags, to punish the soldier that insulted me."
A silence ensued, undisturbed by a movement or a whisper, and all eyes were fixed upon the new-comer, who stood, with bent head and corrugated brow, groping in his memory among a thronging multitude of valueless recollections for one single little elusive fact, which, found, would seat him upon a throne — unfound, would leave him as he was, for good and all — a pauper and an outcast. Moment after moment passed — the moments built themselves into minutes — still the boy struggled silently on, and gave no sign. But at last he heaved a sigh, shook his head slowly, and said, with a trembling lip and in a despondent voice —
"I call the scene back — all of it — but the Seal hath no place in it." He paused, then looked up, and said with gentle dignity, "My lords and gentlemen, if ye will rob your rightful sovereign of his own for lack of this evidence which he is not able to furnish, I may not stay ye, being powerless. But — "
"Oh, folly, oh, madness, my King!" cried Tom Canty, in a panic, "wait! — think! Do not give up! — the cause is not lost! Nor SHALL be, neither! List to what I say — follow every word — I am going to bring that morning back again, every hap just as it happened. We talked — I told you of my sisters, Nan and Bet — ah, yes, you remember that; and about mine old grandam — and the rough games of the lads of Offal Court — yes, you remember these things also; very well, follow me still, you shall recall everything. You gave me food and drink, and did with princely courtesy send away the servants, so that my low breeding might not shame me before them — ah, yes, this also you remember."
As Tom checked off his details, and the other boy nodded his head in recognition of them, the great audience and the officials stared in puzzled wonderment; the tale sounded like true history, yet how could this impossible conjunction between a prince and a beggar-boy have come about? Never was a company of people so perplexed, so interested, and so stupefied, before.
"For a jest, my prince, we did exchange garments. Then we stood before a mirror; and so alike were we that both said it seemed as if there had been no change made — yes, you remember that. Then you noticed that the soldier had hurt my hand — look! here it is, I cannot yet even write with it, the fingers are so stiff. At this your Highness sprang up, vowing vengeance upon that soldier, and ran towards the door — you passed a table — that thing you call the Seal lay on that table — you snatched it up and looked eagerly about, as if for a place to hide it — your eye caught sight of — "
"There, 'tis sufficient! — and the good God be thanked!" exclaimed the ragged claimant, in a mighty excitement. "Go, my good St. John — in an arm-piece of the Milanese armour that hangs on the wall, thou'lt find the Seal!"
"Right, my King! right!" cried Tom Canty; "NOW the sceptre of England is thine own; and it were better for him that would dispute it that he had been born dumb! Go, my Lord St. John, give thy feet wings!"