The ladies retired at last, and Edwy followed them. Elfric was on the point of rising too, but a hint from his companions restrained him. The wine cup still circulated, the conversation, now unrestrained, initiated the boy into many an evil secret he had never known earlier; and so the hours passed on, till Edwy, himself much flushed, came in and said that it was time to depart, for midnight had long been tolled from the distant towers of London.
He smiled as he saw by Elfric’s bloodshot eyes and unsteady gait, as he rose, upsetting his seat, that his companion was something less master of himself than usual; he felt, it need hardly be said, no remorse, but rather regarded the whole thing as what might now be termed “a jolly lark.”
“Shall you require bearers, or can you walk to the boat? I do not wonder you are ill, you have eaten too much fish today; it is a shame to make the knees weak through fasting in this style.”
“I—I—am all right now.”
“You will be better in the air.”
So, bidding a farewell of somewhat doubtful character to his entertainers, Elfric was assisted to the boat. The air did not revive him, he felt wretchedly feverish and giddy, and could hardly tell how he reached the river.
Reach it, however, he did, and the strong arms of the watermen impelled the boat rapidly down the tide, until it reached the stairs near the palace.
Here Redwald was in waiting, and assisted them to land.
“You are very late, or rather early,” he said.
“Yes,” said Edwy, “but it has been a jolly evening, only poor Elfric has been ill, having of course weakened himself by fasting.”
Redwald smiled such a scornful smile, and muttered some words to himself. Yet it did not seem as if he were altogether displeased at the state in which he saw Elfric. It may be added that Edwy was but little better.
“You must keep silent,” said Redwald; “I believe the king and Dunstan are hearing matins in the chapel: it is the festival of some saint or other, who went to the gridiron in olden days.”
The outer gate of the palace was cautiously opened, and, taking off their shoes, the youths ascended the stairs which led to their apartments as lightly as possible.
“Send the leech Sigebert to us in the morning—he must report Elfric unwell—for he will hardly get up to hear Dunstan mumble mass.”
“Perhaps your royal highness had better rest also.”
“And bring suspicion upon us both? No,” said Edwy, “one will be enough to report ill at once; Dunstan is an old fox.”
Poor Elfric could hardly get to bed, and, almost for the first time since infancy, he laid himself down without one prayer. Edwy left him in the dark, and there he lay, his head throbbing, and a burning thirst seeming to consume him.
Long before morning he was very sick, and when the bell was sounded for the early mass it need hardly be said that he was unable to rise.