Christian’s weakness wasn’t something that one discussed. In fact, he hadn’t even discussed it with George.
He’d had the weakness since he was a child. It had followed him into adulthood. He was ashamed of it and tried to avoid thinking about it at all costs. And here was Elswita, standing over him, asking him to confront his fear.
“Is it something to do with Margaret?” she asked.
“Is it gambling? Do you owe money to some rake?”
“Gambling is for the weak-hearted,” he said.
“Well, what then?”
“It’s difficult, Elswita.”
Christian tried to sit up, but all of a sudden his previous energy and enthusiasm left him.
“My weakness has nothing to do with the shooting. Like the policeman said, it was probably some silly students playing about with a rifle.”
“Do you really believe that?”
“It could be.”
“And if it’s not?”
Christian was faced with a difficult decision. During a low moment he’d made the fatal mistake of telling her he had a weakness and now she wanted to know what it was. What friend wouldn’t?
“My cousin Edward is my weakness,” Christian admitted in a rush.
Elswita’s expression didn’t change. Did she already know?
“In what way?” she asked.
“It’s a long story,” Christian said.
Elswita sat down on the edge of the bed.
“I have the rest of the evening and into the night, if it takes that long,” she said.
There was no getting away from her. Christian could try to make light of it. He could add a few jokes to the telling, but he suspected Elswita would have none of it.
“He’s been bullying me since I was a child – physically, emotionally,” Christian started. “Aunt Sylvia is my father’s sister. She foolishly eloped with Edward’s father, Horace, over twenty years ago. Suffice it to say, Horace was only after Aunt Sylvia’s money. When her money ran out, he stole jewels from one of Aunt Sylvia’s very dear friends.
“When Horace was caught and imprisoned Edward came to live with us because Aunt Sylvia could barely look after herself with all the additional scandal. Edward would bully me when no-one was looking.
“He tormented me for years and I still have an irrational fear of him. I feel cowardly for not fighting back. You must think less of me now, Elswita.”
“Of course not. What a nasty young man. And he seemed so charming. I instantly took a liking to him.”
“He’s charming, like his father,” Christian said. “So terribly like his father. I avoid him at all costs. You won’t tell anyone, will you? Not even George.”
“Of course not,” Elswita said. “I would never break a confidence.”
* * * *
On her way back to her lodgings, Christian’s confession brought an old saying to Elswita’s mind.
“Hog know where to rub he skin.” Bullies know exactly who they can abuse.
But did Edward shoot Christian, Elswita thought. Even for a bully, that was surely a step too far. If he had a motive, what was it? In all things, it was better to verify than to assume, which was what Elswita intended to do.
Now they had been introduced, Edward smiled at her warmly whenever he saw her, or sent her a friendly wave when they chanced upon each other. They’d even chatted once or twice.
Elswita remembered when she first met him that she’d felt he was a man to trust – he was Christian’s family, after all. But now, she could see the coldness under the warmth. He spoke with a forked tongue. He was not to be trusted. The only thing she could do was wait.