He was speaking with a tranquil deliberation; all the emotion and passion seemed to have left his voice; but Mary, from behind, could see his right hand clenched like a vice upon the knob of his chair-arm. It seemed to her as if the two men had suddenly frozen into self-repression. Their air was one of two acquaintances talking, not of father and son.
“And if not, sir?” asked Ralph with the same courtesy.
“Wait,” said his father, and he lifted his hand a moment and dropped it again. He was speaking in short, sharp sentences. “I know that you have great things before you, and that I am asking much from you. I do not wish you to think that I am ignorant of that. If nothing else will do I am willing to give up the house altogether to you and your wife. I do not know about your mother.”
Mary drew her breath hard. The words were like an explosion in her soul, and opened up unsuspected gulfs. Things must be desperate if her father could speak like that. He had not hinted a word of this during that silent strenuous ride they had had together when he had called for her suddenly at Great Keynes earlier in the afternoon. She saw Ralph give a quick stare at his father, and drop his eyes again.
“You are very generous, sir,” he said almost immediately, “but I do not ask for a bribe.”
“You—you are unlike your master in that, then,” said Sir James by an irresistible impulse.
Ralph’s face stiffened yet more.
“Then that is all, sir?” he asked.
“I beg your pardon for saying that,” added his father courteously. “It should not have been said. It is not a bribe, however; it is an offer to compensate for any loss you may incur.”
“Have you finished, sir?”
“That is all I have to say on that point,” said Sir James, “except—”
“Except that I do not know how Mistress Atherton will take this story.”
Ralph’s face grew a shade paler yet. But his lips snapped together, though his eyes flinched.
“That is a threat, sir.”
“That is as you please.”
A little pulse beat sharply in Ralph’s cheek. He was looking with a kind of steady fury at his father. But Mary thought she saw indecision too in his eye-lids, which were quivering almost imperceptibly.
“You have offered me a bribe and a threat, sir. Two insults. Have you a third ready?”
Mary heard a swift-drawn breath from her father, but he spoke quietly.
“I have no more to say on that point,” he said.
“Then I must refuse,” said Ralph instantly. “I see no reason to give up my work. I have very hearty sympathy with it.”
The old man’s hand twitched uncontrollably on his chair-arm for a moment; he half lifted his hand, but he dropped it again.
“Then as to Margaret,” he went on in a moment. “I understand you had intended to dismiss her from the convent?”