John turned his head to see at what the King was staring. There was a movement in the crowd. Men were being elbowed forward. A noise of harsh voices arose, and to the platform crowded three figures in rags and tatters.
They forced their way directly in front of the platform, and stood staring up. John stepped forward to see what it meant, and in a moment fell back with a cry of dismay. He was looking into the eyes of Cecco, Tonio and the Giant!
“Hi! Master Gigi!” cried Tonio’s hateful voice; “so here we find you setting up as a tumbler on your own account. Your Majesty,” he cried, appealing to the King, who was listening with a wicked grin on his face, “this is our boy. We own him. He ran away, but he belongs to us. Give him to us again!”
The little Princess screamed and clung to the Hermit’s arm; but he sat motionless, watching. The people began to murmur and jostle the three strangers. But the King raised his hand, and they listened to him.
“We will hear these men,” he said. Then, turning to John, he added smoothly, “And after that, sirrah, you shall answer for yourself.”
The Hermit rose and took a step forward, still holding the little Princess by the hand. Brutus broke away from the page who held him, and crouched growling at John’s side.
Then Tonio raised his voice, and cried louder, pointing at John with his skinny hand. “He is our boy,” he said. “We taught him his trade; let him deny it. Now he is robbing us of our fair dues. He is a runaway. Give him back to us!”
Still John stared at him, too dazed to answer. But the Hermit took another step forward, and said sternly:—
“He is your boy, you say. How did you come by him?”
“We bought him for a gold piece,” they said in chorus. “That was years ago. For ten years he traveled with us. And then he ran away. His life is ours; let him deny it if he can!”
John stood silent, horrified at the fate which seemed to confront him. For in those days children who were bought and sold in this cruel way were the slaves of the masters who had purchased them.
The Prince had fallen back, pale and trembling. But the King now spoke again, gazing with malicious eyes upon the two wood-folk whom he hated.
“What have you to say for yourselves?” he asked. “You who do not deny that you are a runaway; you, old man, who stole the lad and must be punished most severely therefor, have you any reason why I should not give the one of you up to these mountebanks, his lawful masters, and the other of you to punishment and death? Speak!” The King’s voice was harsh and cruel. His eyes glittered fiercely.
Still John was silent.
“Seize him!” commanded the King. “Seize them both! Off with them to prison!”