It was a very strange household that Christmas at Overfield. Mary and her husband came over with their child, and the entire party, with the exception of the duellists themselves, settled down to watch the conflict between Lady Torridon and Beatrice Atherton. Its prolongation was possible because for days together the hostess retired into a fortress of silence, whence she looked out cynically, shrugged her shoulders, smiled almost imperceptibly, and only sallied when she found she could not provoke an attack. Beatrice never made an assault; was always ready for the least hint of peace; but guarded deftly and struck hard when she was directly threatened. Neither would she ever take an insult; the bitterest dart fell innocuous on her bright shield before she struck back smiling; but there were some sharp moments of anxiety now and again as she hesitated how to guard.
A silence would fall suddenly in the midst of the talk and clatter at table; there would be a momentary kindling of glances, as from the tall chair opposite the chaplain a psychological atmosphere of peril made itself felt; then the blow would be delivered; the weapons clashed; and once more the talk rose high and genial over the battlefield.
* * * * *
The moment when Beatrice’s position in the house came nearest to being untenable, was one morning in January, when the whole party were assembled on the steps to see the sportsmen off for the day.
Sir James was down with the foresters and hounds at the further end of the terrace, arranging the details of the day; Margaret had not yet come out of chapel, and Lady Torridon, who had had a long fit of silence, was standing with Mary and Nicholas at the head of the central stairs that led down from the terrace to the gravel.
Christopher and Beatrice came out of the house behind, talking cheerfully; for the two had become great friends since they had learnt to understand one another, and Beatrice had confessed to him frankly that she had been wrong and he right in the matter of Ralph. She had told him this a couple of days after her arrival; but there had been a certain constraint in her manner that forbade his saying much in answer. Here they came then, now, in the frosty sunshine; he in his habit and she in her morning house-dress of silk and lace, talking briskly.
“I was sure you would understand, father,” she said, as they came up behind the group.
Then Lady Torridon turned and delivered her point, suddenly and brutally.
“Of course he will,” she said. “I suppose then you are not going out, Mistress Atherton.” And she glanced with an offensive contempt at the girl and the monk. Beatrice’s eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly, and opened again.
“Why, no, Lady Torridon.”
“I thought not,” said the other; and again she glanced at the two—“for I see the priest is not.”
There was a moment’s silence. Nick was looking at his wife with a face of dismay. Then Beatrice answered smiling.