William III. was seated in a small cabinet, with a table to his right hand on which his elbow rested; an inkstand and paper were beside him; and on the other hand, a step behind, stood a gentleman of good mien, with his hand upon the back of the King’s chair, in an attitude familiar, but not disrespectful. The harsh and somewhat coarse features of the monarch, which abstractedly seemed calculated to display strong passions, were in their habitual state of cold immobility; and Wilton, though he knew his person well, and had seen him often, could not derive from the King’s face the slightest intimation of what was passing in his mind. There was no trace of anger, it is true; the brow was sufficiently contracted to appear thoughtful, but no more; and, at the same time, there was not one touch even of courteous affability to be seen in those rigid lines to tell that the young gentleman had been sent for upon some pleasurable occasion. Dignity, to a certain extent, there must have been in his demeanour, that sort of dignity which is communicated to the body by great powers of mind, and great decision of character—in fact, dignity divested of grace. Nobody could have taken him for a vulgar man, although his person, as far as mere lines and colouring go, might have been that of the lowest artizan; but what is more, no one could see him, however simple might be his dress, without feeling that there sat a distinguished man of some kind.
Wilton had been accustomed too much and too long to mingle with the first people in the first country of the world, to suffer himself to be much affected by any of the external pomp and circumstance of courts, or even by the vague sensations of respect with which fancy invests royalty; but he could not help feeling, as he entered the presence of William, that he was approaching a man of vast mind as well as vast power.
William looked at him quietly for several minutes, letting him approach within two steps, and gazing at him still, even after he had stopped, without uttering a single word. Wilton bowed, and then stood erect before the King, feeling a little embarrassed, it is true, but determined not to suffer his embarrassment to appear.
At length, the King addressed him in a harsh tone of voice, saying, “Well, sir, what have you to say?”
“May it please your majesty,” replied Wilton, “I do not know on what subject your majesty wishes me to speak. I met one of the royal servants in the Park who commanded me to present myself here immediately, and I came hither accordingly, without waiting to inquire for what purpose.”
“Oh! then you do not know?” said the King. “I thought you did know, and most likely were prepared. But it is as well as it is. I doubt not you will answer me truly. Where were you on Friday, the 22d of February last?”
“I cannot exactly say where I was, Sire,” replied Wilton; “for during the greater part of that day I was continually changing my place. Having set out for a small town or village called High Halstow, in Kent, at an early hour in the day, I arrived there just before nightfall, and remained in that place or in the neighbourhood for several hours, indeed, till nearly or past midnight.”