“Papa’s home!” Gwynn shrieked.
“Papa’s home!” Margaret repeated, and both girls dropped the small bits of cloth each had been “embroidering” and ran to embrace their father.
Little Cynewulf only threw back his curly head and laughed. Everything was a funny joke to him.
Matilda looked up at her husband and smiled a sweet and trembling smile that Alred was sorry he would have to dispel.
He sat beside her on the couch, and listened and admired for a while as his daughters showed him their work, but his mind was on his wife and on his dread of the reaction his news would bring.
“Shall I have supper early?” she asked him brightly when the girls had quieted for a moment. She had grown adorably domestic in the past weeks.
“No, no, I’ve no particular haste to partake of that sort of poison after dining with Sigefrith today. Listen, babies,” he said to his children, “would you kindly go play somewhere else for a little while? I should like to talk with Mama.”
He saw Matilda shudder slightly, as if she could already feel the chill of what he meant to tell.
“What is it?” she asked anxiously after the girls had taken their little brother and gone out.
“Is it so obviously bad news?” he asked, surprised at the fear in her eyes.
“I – yes.”
“Well, so it is.” He took her hand, and that too seemed to surprise her. “Sigefrith had a letter from Theobald today.”
She relaxed slightly, as if the news she had been dreading could not have arrived by way of Theobald.
“Githa had her baby two nights ago, a little girl whom they named Colburga. But it died the following day.”
“Oh!” she gasped, and stared off at the wall behind him.
He sat patiently and watched her face, waiting for her to realize what he had told her.
“But I told her she was too old!” she cried suddenly. “She didn’t believe me!”
“Now, Matilda, I doubt that had any – ”
She fell against his chest and sobbed, “I can’t do it, Alred; I don’t want to do it; I can’t do it.”
“There now,” he sighed and tried to soothe her, “but you know you needn’t if you don’t want to. I only want you to be happy.”
“But what if it’s too late?”
“We shall leave that up to the Lord,” he said, and he stroked her hair down her back as if she were a child.
“But I would die!”
“I wouldn’t let you.”
“But I wish I were dead,” she moaned softly. “I wish I could die. I feel as if nothing will ever make me happy again. What’s wrong with me, Alred?”
He didn’t know, and so he didn’t try to answer her question. It was the reaction he had expected, but that scarcely made it easier to bear.