Meantime the morning of Christmas Day grew. The light came and filled the house. The sleepers slept late, but at length they stirred. Alice awoke last--from a troubled sleep, in which the events of the night mingled with her own lost condition and destiny. After all Polly had been kind, she thought, and got Sophy up without disturbing her.
She had been but a few minutes down, when a strange and appalling rumour made itself--I cannot say audible, but--somehow known through the house, and every one hurried up in horrible dismay.
The nurse had gone into the spare room, and missed the little dead thing she had laid there. The bed was between her and Phosy, and she never saw her. The doctor had been sharp with her about something the night before: she now took her revenge in suspicion of him, and after a hasty and fruitless visit of inquiry to the kitchen, hurried to Mr. Greatorex.
The servants crowded to the spare room, and when their master, incredulous indeed, yet shocked at the tidings brought him, hastened to the spot, he found them all in the room, gathered at the foot of the bed. A little sunlight filtered through the red window-curtains, and gave a strange pallid expression to the flame of the candle, which had now burned very low. At first he saw nothing but the group of servants, silent, motionless, with heads leaning forward, intently gazing: he had come just in time: another moment and they would have ruined the lovely sight. He stepped forward, and saw Phosy, half shrouded in blue, the candle behind illuminating the hair she had found too rebellious to the brush, and making of it a faint aureole about her head and white face, whence cold and sorrow had driven all the flush, rendering it colourless as that upon her arm which had never seen the light. She had pored on the little face until she knew death, and now she sat a speechless mother of sorrow, bending in the dim light of the tomb over the body of her holy infant.
How it was I cannot tell, but the moment her father saw her she looked up, and the spell of her dumbness broke.
"Jesus is dead," she said, slowly and sadly, but with perfect calmness. "He is dead," she repeated. "He came too early, and there was no one up to take care of him, and he's dead--dead--dead!"
But as she spoke the last words, the frozen lump of agony gave way; the well of her heart suddenly filled, swelled, overflowed; the last word was half sob, half shriek of utter despair and loss.
Alice darted forward and took the dead baby tenderly from her. The same moment her father raised the little mother and clasped her to his bosom. Her arms went round his neck, her head sank on his shoulder, and sobbing in grievous misery, yet already a little comforted, he bore her from the room.
"No, no, Phosy!" they heard him say, "Jesus is not dead, thank God. It is only your little brother that hadn't life enough, and is gone back to God for more."
Weeping the women went down the stairs. Alice's tears were still flowing, when John Jephson entered. Her own troubles forgotten in the emotion of the scene she had just witnessed, she ran to his arms and wept on his bosom.
John stood as one astonished.
"O Lord! this is a Christmas!" he sighed at last.
"Oh John!" cried Alice, and tore herself from his embrace, "I forgot! You'll never speak to me again, John! Don't do it, John."
And with the words she gave a stifled cry, and fell a weeping again, behind her two shielding hands.
"Why, Alice!--you ain't married, are you?" gasped John, to whom that was the only possible evil.
"No, John, and never shall be: a respectable man like you would never think of looking twice at a poor girl like me!"
"Let's have one more look anyhow," said John, drawing her hands from her face. "Tell me what's the matter, and if there's anything can be done to right you, I'll work day and night to do it, Alice."
"There's nothing can be done, John," replied Alice, and would again have floated out on the ocean of her misery, but in spite of wind and tide, that is sobs and tears, she held on by the shore at his entreaty, and told her tale, not even omitting the fact that when she went to the eldest of the cousins, inheriting through the misfortune of her and her brother so much more than their expected share, and "demeaned herself" to beg a little help for her brother, who was dying of consumption, he had all but ordered her out of the house, swearing he had nothing to do with her or her brother, and saying she ought to be ashamed to show her face.
"And that when we used to make mud pies together!" concluded Alice with indignation. "There, John! you have it all," she added. "--And now?"
With the word she gave a deep, humbly questioning look into his honest eyes.
"Is that all, Alice?" he asked.
"Yes, John; ain't it enough?" she returned.
"More'n enough," answered John. "I swear to you, Alice, you're worth to me ten times what you would ha' been, even if you'd ha' had me, with ten thousand pounds in your ridicule. Why, my woman, I never saw you look one 'alf so 'an'some as you do now!"
"But the disgrace of it, John!" said Alice, hanging her head, and so hiding the pleasure that would dawn through all the mist of her misery.
"Let your father and mother settle that betwixt 'em, Alice. 'Tain't none o' my business. Please God, we'll do different.--When shall it be, my girl?"
"When you like, John," answered Alice, without raising her head, thoughtfully.
When she had withdrawn herself from the too rigorous embrace with which he received her consent, she remarked--
"I do believe, John, money ain't a good thing! Sure as I live, with the very wind o' that money, the devil entered into me. Didn't you hate me, John? Speak the truth now."
"No, Alice. I did cry a bit over you, though. You was possessed like."
"I was possessed. I do believe if that money hadn't been took from me, I'd never ha' had you, John. Ain't it awful to think on?"
"Well, no. O' coorse! How could ye?" said Jephson--with reluctance.
"Now, John, don't ye talk like that, for I won't stand it. Don't you go for to set me up again with excusin' of me. I'm a nasty conceited cat, I am--and all for nothing but mean pride."
"Mind ye, ye're mine now, Alice; an' what's mine's mine, an' I won't have it abused. I knows you twice the woman you was afore, and all the world couldn't gi' me such another Christmas-box--no, not if it was all gold watches and roast beef."
When Mr. Greatorex returned to his wife's room, and thought to find her asleep as he had left her, he was dismayed to hear sounds of soft weeping from the bed. Some tone or stray word, never intended to reach her ear, had been enough to reveal the truth concerning her baby.
"Hush! hush!" he said, with more love in his heart than had moved there for many months, and therefore more in his tone than she had heard for as many;--"if you cry you will be ill. Hush, my dear!"
In a moment, ere he could prevent her, she had flung her arms around his neck as he stooped over her.
"Husband! husband!" she cried, "is it my fault?"
"You behaved perfectly," he returned. "No woman could have been braver."
"Ah, but I wouldn't stay at home when you wanted me."
"Never mind that now, my child," he said.
At the word she pulled his face down to hers.
"I have you, and I don't care," he added.
"_Do_ you care to have me?" she said, with a sob that ended in a loud cry. "Oh! I don't deserve it. But I will be good after tins. I promise you I will."
"Then you must begin now, my darling. You must lie perfectly still, and not cry a bit, or you will go after the baby, and I shall be left alone."
She looked up at him with such a light in her face as he had never dreamed of there before. He had never seen her so lovely. Then she withdrew her arms, repressed her tears, smiled, and turned her face away. He put her hands under the clothes, and in a minute or two she was again fast asleep.