“My Lord Cromwell—” he began.
“My Lord Cromwell has my son Ralph under him,” interrupted his wife. “Perhaps you did not know that, Mistress Atherton.”
Margaret again looked quickly up; but there was still no sign of wincing on those scarlet lips, or beneath the black eyebrows.
“Why, of course, I knew it,” said Beatrice, looking straight at her with large, innocent eyes, “that was why—”
She stopped; and Lady Torridon really roused now, made a false step.
“Yes?” she said. “You did not end your sentence?”
Beatrice cast an ironically despairing look behind her at the servants.
“Well,” she said, “if you will have it: that was why I would not marry him. Did you not know that, Mistress?”
It was so daring that Margaret caught her breath suddenly; and looked hopelessly round. Her father and brother had their eyes steadily bent on the table; and the priest was looking oddly at the quiet angry woman opposite him.
Then Sir James slid deftly in, after a sufficient pause to let the lesson sink home; and began to talk of indifferent things; and Beatrice answered him with the same ease.
Lady Torridon made one more attempt just before the end of supper, when the servants had left the room.
“You are living on—” she corrected herself ostentatiously—“you are living with any other family now, Mistress Atherton? I remember my son Ralph telling me you were almost one of Master More’s household.”
Beatrice met her eyes with a delightful smile.
“I am living on—with your family at this time, Mistress Torridon.”
There was no more to be said just then. The girl had not only turned her hostess’ point, but had pricked her shrewdly in riposte, three times; and the last was the sharpest of all.
Lady Torridon led the way to the oak parlour in silence.
* * * * *
She made no more assaults that night; but sat in dignified aloofness, her hands on her lap, with an air of being unconscious of the presence of the others. Beatrice sat with Margaret on the long oak settle; and talked genially to the company at large.
When compline had been said, Sir James drew Chris aside into the star-lit court as the others went on in front.
“Dear lad,” he said, “what are we to do? This cannot go on. Your mother—”
Chris smiled at him, and took his arm a moment.
“Why, father,” he said, “what more do we want? Mistress Atherton can hold her own.”
“But your mother will insult her.”
“She will not be able,” said Chris. “Mistress Atherton will not have it. Did you not see how she enjoyed it?”
“Why, yes; her eyes shone.”
“Well, I must speak to her,” said Sir James, still perplexed. “Come with me, Chris.”
Mr. Carleton was just leaving the parlour as they came up to its outside door. Sir James drew him into the yard. There were no secrets between these two.