“You know what she said to me, Margaret, dear? It was one of her grandmother’s sayings: ‘If blackbird fly with pigeon he will get shoot.’”
“What on earth does that mean?” Margaret said.
“It means you are judged by the company you keep. But to answer your original question, no, I am not in love with her, Margaret, dear. She’s a friend.”
“Yet you spend a considerable amount of time with her.”
“I wouldn’t say so,” Christian said. “We spend most of our time together in the library. It’s not as if we talk and chat and make merry. Not with Mr Keene’s beady eye and incredibly sensitive ears.”
Margaret shuffled in her seat.
“You have no idea what people are saying, do you?”
“My dear Margaret, do I detect a certain amount of jealousy oozing from those lips of yours?”
Christian fancied Margaret was looking for a husband in him, but she was fishing from the wrong pond. Her father might be a moneyed politician, and she might come from a family that could trace its ancestry back to the Magna Carta, but, though he liked the girl, he did not feel that way about her.
“I’m not at all jealous,” she countered. “It’s just that I find your friendship odd. Whatever do you have in common?”
“Odd? And yet you do not find my long friendship with George odd. I wonder why that is?”
“I didn’t mean . . .”
“I know exactly what you meant,” he said. “I am hugely disappointed by your lack of tolerance.”
“You misunderstand me, Christian,” Margaret said. “It seems an unlikely friendship, is all I’m pointing out. You’ll give that poor girl a bad name.”
Strange how quickly Margaret changed her tune.
“I don’t think she cares one jot what people say,” Christian said. “Now, do leave me alone, Margaret. My head feels as heavy as the Rock of Gibraltar, and I’m in no mood for a scene.”
Margaret stood up abruptly.
“People are already laughing at how smitten you are with her.”
“Let them laugh,” he said flamboyantly.
When Margaret finally departed, George, whom Christian considered was more like the brother he never had, walked over from the far end of the room. He sat on the chair Margaret had vacated. The argument had sobered Christian up somewhat.
George Lawrence was Anglo-Indian. He was also an athlete, taller than Christian, with a physique more defined. He was dark haired and had eyes the colour of dark honey.
He and Christian had both attended Eton. They went around together and had done so since they were fifteen years old. George’s father was high up in the East India Company and spent most of his time abroad.
George confessed to having seen his father only a few times in his life, which he claimed was to his advantage since all minor sins went unchecked.
“What did you say to annoy Margaret?” George asked now.
“She’s convinced herself I am in love with Elswita.”
“She’s jealous,” George said.
Christian sat up straight. The room turned on its side, then settled.
“I wonder if, for Elswita’s sake, I should reduce the amount of time I spend with her,” Christian said.
“Do not even consider letting people pressure you into changing who you are,” George replied firmly. “Elswita is your friend. I happen to like the girl, too.” He laughed. “She has a way of keeping you on the straight and narrow. And that’s something I’ve never been able to do.”
“That’s because you’re just as bad as me.”