Sigebert the physician, who, like Redwald, was in the confidence of the future king, Edwy, came in to see him, and asked what was the matter.
“I am very sick and ill,” gasped Elfric.
“I suppose you have taken something that disagreed with you—too much fish perhaps.” (with a smile).
“No—no—I do not—”
“I understand,” said the leech; “you will soon be better; meanwhile, I will account for your absence at chapel. Here, take this medicine; you will find it relieve you.”
And he gave Elfric a mixture which assuaged his burning thirst, and bathed his forehead with some powerful essence which refreshed him greatly, whereupon the leech departed.
Only an hour later, and Edred, hearing from the physician of Elfric’s sudden illness, came in to see the boy, whose bright cheerful face and merry disposition had greatly attracted him. This was hardest of all for Elfric to bear; he had to evade the kind questions of the king, and to hear expressions of sympathy which he felt he did not deserve.
More than once he felt inclined to tell all, but the fear of the prince restrained him, and also a sense of what he thought honour, for he would not betray his companion, and he could not confess his own guilt without implicating Edwy.
Poor boy! it would have been far better for him had he done so: he had taken his first step downward.
It becomes our painful duty to record that from the date of the feast, described in our last chapter, the character of poor Elfric underwent rapid deterioration. In the first place, the fact of his having yielded to the forbidden indulgence, and—as he felt—disgraced himself, gave Edwy, as the master of the secret, great power over him, and he never failed to use this power whenever he saw any inclination on the part of his vassal to throw off the servitude. It was not that he deliberately intended to injure Elfric, but he had come to regard virtue as either weakness or hypocrisy, at least such virtues as temperance, purity, or self restraint.
The great change which was creeping over Elfric became visible to others: he seemed to lose his bright smile; the look of boyish innocence faded from his countenance, and gave place to an expression of sullen reserve; he showed less ardour in all his sports and pastimes, became subject to fits of melancholy, and often seemed lost in thought, anxious thought, in the midst of his studies.
He seldom had the power, even if the will, to communicate with home. Mercia was in many respects an independent state, subject to the same king, but governed by a code of laws differing from those of Wessex; and it was only when a royal messenger or some chance traveller left court for the banks of the Midland Avon, that Elfric could use the art of writing, a knowledge he was singular in possessing, thanks to the wisdom of his sire.