"Christopher didn't want to be here, you know," Diana whispered. "Father made him. He only got home today in time for supper, and already they've quarreled! Father asked why he couldn't be more like Francis and Percy and Bertram and do better at school, and then Christopher swore he wouldn't go back to university, and after that Father said he was slothful and undisciplined—oh, Gwennie, it was dreadful! They were positively shouting at each other. I was crying like anything and I could barely finish my dessert!"
Diana's eyes filled with tears and Gwendolyn patted her arm, though a little absentmindedly; she was seeing all at once how Christopher's shoulders had a rigid set to them, and how very still he stood, as if the subject of a portrait enclosed by the wooden window frame. If she were to sketch him she would use white paper and black charcoal, and the mood of the drawing would be...bleak. How lonely he looked!
Impulsively she got to her feet and went over to Christopher. "Hullo," she said with a smile. "I haven't seen you in ages. I'm so glad you could come."
He glanced down at her, his dark eyes resting briefly upon her face before turning away his gaze, out into the snowy, inky-black night. "Yes, it's always nice to have a guest who makes your brothers look yet more saintly in all their many accomplishments."
She nearly leaned away from the low, savage-sounding resentment in his tone, but replied stoutly, "Nobody thinks that, at least not in my family."
He shrugged. "If you say so."
That seemed unanswerable, so Gwendolyn turned her head to look out the window as well. How beautiful it was outside with the snow falling in great lazy flakes. How mysterious. Half-mesmerized, after a little while she said, "Christopher, do you remember the time we nearly ran away together? This would be the perfect sort of night to do it."
"In this weather? Don't be ridiculous."
"How odiously practical you are."
"More to the point," he went on, relentless, "even if we'd gone through with it, you still wouldn't have the money. My birthday's not for six months yet."
Gwendolyn was still watching the flakes descend. Dreamily she said, "I wonder what would have happened if we had? Do you suppose we'd be living in a snug little cottage somewhere up in Scotland?"
"If by 'cottage' you mean 'hovel,' then by all means. We'd be poor and unwashed, at each other's throats, and with two or three babies squalling at our knees. Very romantic," he said sardonically.
"Well, what a dreadful husband."
"Without a doubt."
At this surly reply Gwendolyn almost caught the black tenor of Christopher's mood, wanted to snap back angrily, but then, looking up at him, saw in his dark eyes a kind of remote desolation. And she realized, with a sudden sharp ache of sympathy in her heart, that he was hurting.
How could she help him?
Words wouldn't do much, she guessed, and might only make things worse. She wished she could brush aside the dark shaggy lock of hair that fell low onto his forehead, or even put her arms comfortingly around him, but instinctively knew that his pride wouldn't permit it—here in this room filled with other people.
So instead, she took a slow sideways step closer to Christopher, until her skirts brushed up against him, and using this proximity as a kind of concealment, she slid her hand into his and gripped it tightly. She felt him react with a kind of startled ripple throughout his body, as might a wild animal unused to a kind touch.
But he didn't pull his hand away.
They stood there in a silence that felt oddly easy and companionable. It was interesting, Gwendolyn thought, how merely clasping hands could create an instant connection between two people. Maybe, maybe, she and Christopher could become friends now. For years he had merely been Diana's aloof, irascible older brother, and then, during that time of the Penhallows' deep financial distress, someone she'd turned to for help. And he would have, if not for the issue of his age. That alone spoke to an essential kind of goodness within him, didn't it?
Gwendolyn didn't know when he'd have to go back to university—or if he was going back—but now, all at once, she was determined to make the most of his time here. Perhaps they could go riding together, or walk over to the harbor and see Hugo and Mr. Studdart's newest ship, or simply talk. She wondered if Christopher liked poetry.
She was just about to ask him when, from behind them, came a loud, long, shrill cackle.
Their hands came apart as reflexively they both turned to look over toward the perch where the Penhallow parrot sat, comfortably near the hearth and the recipient of its pleasant warmth. Aunt Claudia stood near, talking to him in her vague, amiable way.
"Do try, Rodrigo. Say 'I love you.'" Aunt Claudia held out a sweet rolled wafer and Señor Rodrigo only cocked his sleek green head and looked at it with visible contempt in his beady eyes.
"I love you," cooed Aunt Claudia.
Señor Rodrigo gave another loud extended cackle, then said, "Blimey." "I love you."
"I love you."
Finally Aunt Claudia gave him the wafer, which he accepted in an outstretched claw. Greedily he ate it, scattering crumbs below him with total nonchalance, then fixed her with his gimlet eye. "I love you."
Gwendolyn smiled, and glanced up again into Christopher's face. He might have been looking at Señor Rodrigo but she was quite sure he wasn't seeing him; his expression was intent, arrested, inwardly focused. She said, curious:
"What are you thinking about?"
He didn't respond and Gwendolyn had to repeat her question. Finally he looked at her and slowly answered, "I hadn't thought about our silly little plan in years. But now I'm glad you did."
"Because you've given me an idea." He sketched her a rough little bow. "Thank you—and goodbye."
This excerpt is from the paperback edition.
Monday, February 24th we begin the book The Jerusalem Assassin by Joel C. Rosenberg.