Again they were silent.
They had ascended a rough staircase. At the summit a passage led past two or three doors to one made of the strongest plank, and strengthened with iron.
They opened it, thrust him in, showed him, by the light of their torches, a bed of straw in the corner.
“There you can lie and sleep as peacefully as at Carisbrooke,” said one of his guards.
“And let me tell you,” added Higbald, “that it will be certain death to try to get away; for if you could escape me, my dog Wolf, who prowls about by day and night, would tear you in pieces before any one could help you. He has killed half-a-dozen men in his day.”
Like a poor wounded deer which retires to his thicket to die, Alfgar threw himself down upon the bed of straw. His reflections were very, very bitter.
“What would Edmund think of him?”
“He will know I am faithful. He will not think that the lad whose life he saved has deserted him. He will search till he find me even here.”
Thus in alternate hope and despair he sank at last to sleep—nature had its way—even as the criminal has slept on the rack.
A stormy scene had meanwhile taken place in an interior chamber of the palace of the bishop, which had been metamorphosed into a council chamber for the king. There were present Ethelred himself, his irrepressible son, the traitor Edric, the bishop, the sheriff of the shire, and the reeve of the borough, with the captain of the hus-carles, or royal guard.
“We all need Divine guidance at this moment,” said Edric, clasping his hands meekly; “would you, my lord and king, ask the bishop to open our proceedings with especial prayer for the grace of meekness.”
“Hypocrite!” said Edmund, with a sound like the gnashing of teeth.
The bishop, however, said the form generally used at the meetings of council, but omitted to notice the special suggestion of Edric.
“The case before us,” said the king, “is a difficult and trying one, but one which we must discharge in our bounden duty towards our subjects. Perhaps it is well that the accusation so often urged by backbiters against our faithful subject Edric should—”
“Your majesty begs the question when you call that coward ‘faithful.’”
“Silence, Edmund,” said the king, sternly, “you are hardly yet of age, yet you dare to interrupt me. I was going to say that it is a good thing the accusation should at length be plainly made, and not spoken in a corner by men who are afraid to speak out.”
“Lest they should get the reward of Elfhelm of Shrewsbury,” added Edmund.
The bishop here interposed.
“Prince, remember that God has said, ‘Honour thy father.’”
“Has he not somewhere also said, ’Parents, provoke not your children to anger’?”