The Twisted Root
Author:Anne Perry

A young bridegroom enlists private investigator William Monk to track down his fiancee, Miriam Gardiner, who disappeared suddenly from a party at a luxurious Bayswater mansion. Monk soon finds the coach in which Miriam fled and, nearby, the murdered body of the coachman, but there is no trace of the young passenger. What strange compulsion could have driven the beautiful widow to abandon the prospect of a loving marriage and financial abundance? Monk and clever nurse Hester Latterly, themselves now newlyweds, desperately pursue the elusive truth - and an unknown killer whose malign brilliance they have scarcely begun to fathom.Chapter One
The young man stood in the doorway, his face pale, his fingers clenched on his hat, twisting it around and around.

"Mr. William Monk, agent of enquiry?" he asked. He looked to be in his early twenties.

"Yes," Monk acknowledged, rising to his feet. "Come in, sir. How can I assist you?"

"Lucius Stourbridge." He held out his hand, coming farther into the room. He did not even glance at the two comfortable armchairs or the bowl of flowers pleasantly scenting the air. These had been Hester's idea. Monk had been perfectly happy with the sparse and serviceable appearance the rooms had presented before.

"How can I help you, Mr. Stourbridge?" Monk asked, indicating one of the chairs.

Lucius Stourbridge sat uncomfortably on the edge of it, looking as if he did so more because he had been instructed to than from any desire. He stared at Monk intently, his eyes filled with misery.

"I am betrothed to be married, Mr. Monk," he began. "My future wife is the most charming, generous and noble-minded person you could wish to meet." He glanced down, then up at Monk again quickly. The ghost of a smile crossed his face and vanished. "I am aware that my opinion is prejudiced, and I must sound naive, but you will find that others also regard her most highly, and my parents have a sincere affection for her."

"I don't doubt you, Mr. Stourbridge," Monk assured him, but he was uncomfortable with what he believed this young man would ask of him. Even when he most urgently needed work he only reluctantly accepted matrimonial cases. And having just returned from an extravagant three-week honeymoon in the Highlands of Scotland, this was rapidly becoming one of those times. He had an agreement with his friend and patron, Lady Callandra Daviot, that in return for informing her of his most interesting cases, and - where she wished -  including her in the day-to-day process, she would replenish his funds, at least sufficiently for his survival. But he had no desire or intention that he should avail himself of her generosity any longer.

"What is it that troubles you, Mr. Stourbridge?" he asked.

Lucius looked utterly wretched. "Miriam - Mrs. Gardiner -  has disappeared."

Monk was puzzled. "Mrs. Gardiner?"

Lucius shook himself impatiently. "Mrs. Gardiner is a widow. She is ..." He hesitated, a mixture of irritation and embarrassment in his face. "She is a few years older than I. It is of no consequence."

If a young woman fled her betrothal it was a purely private matter. If there was no crime involved, and no reason to suppose illness, then whether she returned or not was her decision. Monk would not ordinarily have involved himself. However, his own happiness was so sharp he felt an uncharacteristic sympathy for the anguished young man who sat on the chair opposite him so obviously at his wits' end.

Monk could never before remember having felt that the world was so supremely right. Of course, this was midsummer 1860, and he had no memory, except in flashes, of anything at all before the coaching accident in 1856, from which he had woken in hospital with a mind completely blank. Even so, it was beyond his ability to imagine anything so complete as the well-being that filled him now.

After Hester had accepted his proposal of marriage he had been alternately elated and then beset by misgivings that such a step would destroy forever the unique trust they had built between them. Perhaps they could not satisfactorily be anything more than friends, colleagues in the fierce pursuit of justice. He had spent many bleak nights awake, cold with the fear of losing something which seemed more and more precious with every additional thought of no longer possessing it.

But as it happened, every fear had vanished like a shadow before the rising sun over the great sweeping hills they had walked together. Even though he had discovered in her all the warmth and passion he could have wished, she was still as perfectly willing and capable of quarrelling with him as always, of being perverse, of laughing at him, and of making silly mistakes herself. Not a great deal had changed, except that now there was a physical intimacy of a sweetness he could not have dreamed, and it was the deeper for having been so long in the discovery.

So he did not dismiss Lucius Stourbridge as his better judgement might dictate.

"Perhaps you had better tell me precisely what happened," he said gently.

Lucius took a gulp of air. "Yes." Deliberately, he steadied himself. "Yes, of course. Naturally. I'm sorry, I seem to be a little incoherent. This has all struck me... very hard. I don't know what to think."

So much was quite apparent, and Monk with difficulty forbore from saying so. He was not naturally tolerant. "If you would begin by telling me when you last saw Miss - Mrs. Gardiner, that would be a place from which to proceed," he suggested.

"Of course," Lucius agreed. "We live in Cleveland Square, in Bayswater, not far from Kensington Gardens. We were having a small party in celebration of our forthcoming marriage. It was a beautiful day, and we were playing a game of croquet, when quite suddenly, and for no apparent reason, Miriam - Mrs. Gardiner - became extremely distraught and rushed from the garden. I did not see her go, or I would have gone after her - to find out if she was ill or if I could help..."

"Is she often ill?" Monk asked curiously. Genuine invalids were one thing, but young women subject to fits, of the vapors were creatures with whom he had no patience at all. And if he were to help this unfortunate young man, he must know as much of the truth as possible.

"No," Lucius said sharply. "She is of excellent health and most equable and sensible temperament."

Monk found himself flushing very slightly. If anyone had suggested Hester were the fainting sort he would have pointed out with asperity that she indisputably had more stomach for a fight, or a disaster, than they had themselves. As a nurse on the battlefields of the Crimea she had more than proved that true. But there was no need to apologize to Lucius Stourbridge. It had been a necessary question.

"Who saw her leave?" he asked calmly.

"My uncle, Aiden Campbell, who was staying with us at the time - indeed, he still is. And I believe my mother also, and one or two of the servants and other guests."

"And was she ill?"

"I don't know. That is the point, Mr. Monk! No one has seen her since. And that was three days ago."

"And those people who did see her," Monk said patiently, "what did they tell you? Surely she cannot simply have walked out of the garden into the street alone, without money or luggage, and disappeared?"

"Oh ... no," Lucius corrected himself. "The coachman, Treadwell, is missing also, and, of course, one of the coaches."

"So it would appear that Treadwell took her somewhere," Monk concluded. "Since she left the croquet match of her own will, presumably she asked him to take her. What do you know of Treadwell?"

Lucius shrugged slightly, but his face was, if anything, even paler. "He has been with the family for three or four years. I believe he is perfectly satisfactory. He is related to the cook - a nephew or something. You don't think he could have... harmed her?"

Monk had no idea, but there was no purpose in causing unnecessary distress. The young man was in a desperate enough state as it was.

"I think it far more likely he merely took her wherever she wished to go," he replied, and then realized his answer made no sense. If that were the case, Treadwell would have returned within hours. "But it does seem as if he may have taken your carriage for his own purposes." Other far darker thoughts came to his mind, but it was too soon to speak of them yet. There were many other simpler answers of everyday private tragedy which were more likely, the most probable being that Miriam Gardiner had simply changed her mind about the marriage but had lacked the courage to face young Lucius Stourbridge and tell him so.

Lucius leaned forward. "But do you believe Miriam is safe, Mr. Monk? If she is, why has she not contacted me?" His throat was so tight his words were half strangled. "I have done everything I can think of. I have spoken with every one of my friends she might have gone to. I have searched my mind for anything I could have said or done to cause her to mistrust me, and I can think of nothing. We were so close, Mr. Monk. I am as certain of that as of anything on earth. We were not only in love, but we were the best of friends. I could speak to her of anything, and she seemed to understand, indeed, to share my views and tastes in a way which made her at once the most exciting and yet the most comfortable person to be with." He colored faintly. "Perhaps that sounds absurd to you - "

"No," Monk said quickly, too quickly. He had spoken it from the heart, and he was not accustomed to revealing so much of himself, certainly not to a prospective client in a case he did not really want and which he believed impossible to see to a happy solution.

Lucius Stourbridge was gazing at him intensely, his wide, brown eyes deeply troubled.

"No," Monk repeated with less emphasis. "I am sure it is possible to feel such an affinity with someone." He hurried on, away from emotion to facts. "Perhaps you would tell me something of your family and the circumstances of your meeting Mrs. Gardiner."

"Yes, yes, of course." Lucius seemed relieved to have something definite to do. "My father is Major Harry Stourbridge. He is now retired from the army, but he served with great distinction in Africa, and particularly in Egypt. He spent much time there early in his career. In fact, he was there when I was born."

A faint smile touched his face. "I should like to go there someday myself. I have listened to him speak of it with the greatest pleasure." He dismissed the thought ruefully. "Our family comes from Yorkshire - the West Riding. That is where our land is. All entailed on the male line, of course, but most substantial. We go there occasionally, but my mother prefers to spend the season in town. I daresay most people do, especially women."

"Do you have brothers or sisters?" Monk interrupted.

"No. Regrettably, I am an only child."

Monk did not remark that Lucius would thus inherit this very considerable property, but it was evident in the young man's face that he, too, had taken the point, and his lips tightened, a faint flush marked his cheeks.

"My family has no objections to my marriage," the younger man said with a slight edge of defensiveness. He sat perfectly still in the chair, looking straight at Monk, his eyes unblinking. "My father and I are close. He is happy for my happiness, and indeed, he is fond of Miriam, Mrs. Gardiner, himself. He sees no fault in her character or her reputation. The fact that she has no dowry or property to bring to the marriage is immaterial. I shall have more than sufficient for our needs, and physical possessions are of no importance to me compared with the prospect of spending my life in the companionship of a woman of courage, virtue and good humor, and whom I love more than anyone else on earth." His voice cracked a little on the last few words, and the effort it cost him to keep his composure was apparent.

Monk felt the other man's distress with a reality far greater than he could have imagined even a few weeks before. In spite of his intention to concentrate entirely upon Lucius Stourbridge's situation, his mind recreated pictures of himself and Hester walking side by side along a quiet beach in the late-evening sunlight, the color blazing across the northern sky, shadowing the hills purple in the distance and filling the air with radiance. They had not needed to speak to each other, knowing wordlessly that they saw the same beauty and felt the same desire to keep it - and the knowledge that it was impossible. And yet the fact that they had shared it gave the moment a kind of immortality.

And there had been other times: laughter shared at the antics of a dog with a paper bag in the wind; the pleasure of a really good sandwich of fresh bread and cheese after a long walk, the climb to the top of a hill; the gasp of wonder at the view, and the relief at not having to go any farther.

If Lucius had had any such happiness in his life, and lost it for no reason he could understand, no wonder he was at his wits' end to find the answer. However ugly or shattering to his dreams the truth might be, he could not begin to heal until he knew it.

"Then I shall do all I can to discover what happened," Monk said aloud. "And if she is willing to return to you - "

"Thank you!" Lucius said eagerly, his face brightening. "Thank you, Mr. Monk! Cost will be no consideration, I promise you. I have more than sufficient means of my own, but my father is also determined to find out what has happened to Miriam. What may I do to assist you?"

"Tell me the story of your acquaintance, and all you know about Mrs. Gardiner," Monk replied with a sinking feeling inside him.

"Of course." Lucius's face softened, the strain eased out of it as if merely remembering their meeting were enough to fill him with happiness. "I had called upon a friend of mine who lived in Hampstead, and I was walking back across the Heath. It was about this time of year, and quite beautiful. There were several people around, children playing, an elderly couple quite close to me, just smiling together in the sun." He smiled to himself as he described it. "There was a small boy rolling a hoop, and a puppy chasing a stick. I stopped and watched the dog. It was so full of life, bounding along with its tail wagging, and returning the stick, immensely pleased with itself. I found I was laughing at it. It was a little while before I realized it was a young woman who was throwing the stick. Once it landed almost at my feet, and I picked it up and threw it back again, just for the pleasure of watching. Of course, she and I fell into conversation. It all happened so naturally. I asked her about the dog, and she told me it actually belonged to a friend of hers."

His eyes were far away, his memory sharp. "One subject of conversation led to another, and before I realized it I had been talking with her for nearly an hour. I made it my business to return the following day, and she was there again." He gave a very slight shrug of self-mockery. "I don't suppose for a moment she thought it was chance, nor did I feel any inclination to pretend. There was never that between us. She seemed to perceive what I meant as naturally as if she had had the same thoughts and feelings herself. We laughed at the same things, or found them beautiful, or sad. I have never felt so totally at ease with anyone as I did with her."

Monk tried to imagine it. It was certainly not as he had felt with Hester. Invigorated, tantalized, furious, amused, admiring, even awed, but not very often comfortable.

No - that was not entirely true. Now that he had at last acknowledged to himself that he loved her, and had stopped trying to force her into the mold of the kind of woman he used to imagine he wanted, but accepted her more or less as herself, he was comfortable more often than he was not.

And, of course, there had always been the times when they were engaged in the same cause. She had fought side by side with the courage and imagination, the compassion and tenacity, that he had seen in no other woman - no other person. Then it was a kind of companionship which even Lucius Stourbridge could not guess at.

"And so your friendship progressed," he said, going on to summarize what must have followed. "In time you invited her to meet your family, and they also found her most likable."

"Yes - indeed ..." Lucius agreed. He was about to continue but Monk interrupted him. He needed the information that might help in his efforts to find the missing woman, although he held little hope the outcome would prove happy for Lucius, or indeed for any of them. A woman would not flee from her prospective husband and his house, and remain gone for the space of several days without sending word, unless there was a profound problem which she could see no way of solving.

"What do you know of Mrs. Gardiner's first husband?" Monk asked.

"I believe he was somewhat older than she," Lucius answered without hesitation. "A man in a moderate way of business, sufficient to leave her provided for, and with a good reputation and no debts of money or of honor." He said it firmly, willing Monk to believe him and accept the value of such things.

Monk read within the omissions that the late Mr. Gardiner was also of a very much more ordinary background than Lucius Stourbridge, with his inherited lands and wealth, and his father's outstanding military career. He would like to have known Miriam Gardiner's personal background, whether she spoke and comported herself like a lady, whether she had the confidence to face the Stourbridge family or if she was secretly terrified of them. Was she afraid, every time she spoke, of betraying some inadequacy in herself? He could imagine it only too easily. He had been the country boy from a Northumbrian fishing village, down in London trying to play the gentleman. Funny, he only remembered that now, thinking of Miriam Gardiner also trying to escape from an ordinary background and fit in with a different class of person. Every time she sat at the table had she also worried about using the wrong implement or making a foolish observation, of being ignorant of current events or of knowing no one? But he could not ask Lucius such things. If Lucius were capable of seeing the answer, he would not now be staring at Monk so earnestly, his dark eyes full of hope.

"I think I had better begin by visiting your home, Mr. Stourbridge," Monk said aloud. "I would like to see where the event happened which apparently distressed Mrs. Gardiner so much, and with your family's permission, speak to them, and to your servants, and learn whatever they are able to tell me."

"Of course!" Lucius shot to his feet. "Thank you, Mr. Monk. I am eternally grateful to you. I am sure if you can just find Miriam, and I could be certain that she is unhurt, then we shall overcome everything else." Shadows filled his face again as he realized how strong was the possibility that she was not all right. He could think of no reason otherwise why she would not have sent him some message. "When shall you be ready to depart?"

Monk felt rushed, and yet Lucius was right: the matter was urgent - in fact, they might already be too late. If he was going to attempt the job at all, he should do it immediately. He could leave a note for Hester, explaining that he had accepted a case and would return whenever he had made his first assessment of the situation. He could not tell her in person because she was at the hospital working with Callandra Daviot. Of course, it was in a purely voluntary way. He had refused absolutely to allow her to help to support them by earning her own living. The subject was still one of contention between them. No doubt she would return to it sooner or later.

For the moment Monk had a case himself, and he must make himself ready to go with Lucius Stourbridge.

The Stourbridge house in Cleveland Square in Bayswater was handsome in the effortless style of those to whom money is not of concern. Its beauty was restrained, and it had obviously been designed in an earlier and simpler age. Monk found it greatly pleasing and would have paused to admire it longer had not Lucius strode ahead of him to the front door and opened it without waiting for a footman or maid.

"Come in," he invited Monk, standing back and waving his hand as if to urge him to hurry.

Monk stepped inside, but was given no time to look around him at the hallway with its family portraits against the oak panelling. He was dimly aware of one picture dominating the others, a portrait of a horseman in the uniform of the Hussars at the time of Waterloo. Presumably he was some earlier Stourbridge, also of military distinction.

Lucius was walking rapidly across the dark tiled floor towards the farthest doorway. Monk followed after him, no more than glancing up at the finely plastered ceiling or the wide stairway.

Lucius knocked on the door and, after the slightest hesitation, turned the handle and opened it. Only then did he look back at Monk. "Please come in," he urged. "I am sure you will wish to meet my father, and perhaps compare with him all that I have told you." He stood aside, his face furrowed with anxiety, his body stiff. "Father, this is Mr. William Monk. He has agreed to help us."

Monk walked past Lucius into the room beyond. He had a brief impression of comfortable, well-used furniture, not there for effect but for the pleasure of the occupant, before his attention was taken by the man who stood up from one of the dark leather armchairs and came towards him. He was slender, and of little more than average height, but there was a vigor and grace in him which made him commanding. He was of similar build to Lucius, but in no other way resembled him. He must have been in his fifties, but his fair hair was hardly touched with gray and his blue eyes were surrounded by fine lines, as if he had spent years narrowing them against a brilliant light.

"How do you do, Mr. Monk," he said immediately, offering his hand. "Harry Stourbridge. My son tells me you are a man who may be able to help us in our family misfortune. I am delighted you have agreed to try, and most grateful."

"How do you do, Major Stourbridge," Monk said with unaccustomed formality. He shook Stourbridge's hand, and looking at him a little more closely, saw the anxiety in the older man's face that courtesy could not hide. There was no sign of relief that Miriam Gardiner had gone. For whatever reasons, he was deeply troubled by her disappearance also. "I shall do my best," Monk promised, painfully aware of how little that might be.

"Sit down," Stourbridge said, indicating one of the other chairs. "Luncheon will be in an hour. Will you join us?"

"Thank you," Monk accepted. It would give him an opportunity to observe the family together and to form some opinion of their relationships - and perhaps how Miriam Gardiner might have fitted in as Lucius's wife. "But before that, sir, I should like to speak more confidentially to you. There are a number of questions I need to ask."

"Of course, of course," Stourbridge agreed, not sitting but moving restlessly about the room, in and out of the broad splashes of sunlight coming through the windows. "Lucius, perhaps if you were to call upon your mother?" It was a polite and fairly meaningless suggestion, intended to offer him an excuse to leave.

Lucius hesitated. He seemed to find it difficult to tear himself away from the only thing that mattered to him at the moment. His intelligence must have told him there were discussions better held in his absence, but he could not put his mind or his imagination to anything else.

"She has missed you," the elder Stourbridge prompted. "She will be pleased to hear that Mr. Monk is willing to assist us."

"Yes ... yes, of course," Lucius agreed, glancing at Monk with the shadow of a smile, then going out and closing the door.

Harry Stourbridge turned to Monk, the sunlight bright on his face, catching the fine lines and showing more nakedly the tiredness around his eyes.

"Ask what you wish, Mr. Monk. I will do anything I can to find Miriam, and if she is in any kind of difficulty, to offer her all the help I can. As you can see, my son cares for her profoundly. I can imagine no one else who will make him as happy."

Monk found it impossible to doubt Major Stourbridge's sincerity, which placed upon him an even greater emotional burden. Why had Miriam Gardiner fled their house, their family, without a word of explanation? Had it been one sudden event or an accumulation of small things amounting to a whole too great for her? What could it be that she could not even offer these people who loved her some form of explanation?

And where was Treadwell the coachman?

Stourbridge was staring at Monk, waiting for him to begin.

But Monk was uncertain where to start. Harry Stourbridge was not what he had imagined, and he found himself unexpectedly sensitive to his feelings.

"What do you know of Mrs. Gardiner?" he asked, more brusquely than he had intended. Pity was of no use to Lucius or his father. He was here to address their problem, not wallow in emotions.

"You mean her family?" Stourbridge understood straightaway what Monk was thinking. "She never spoke of them. I imagine they were fairly ordinary. I believe they died when she was quite young. It was obviously a matter of sadness to her, and none of us pursued the subject."

"Someone will have cared for her while she was growing up," Monk pressed. He had no idea if it was a relevant point, but there were so few obvious avenues to follow.

"Of course," Stourbridge agreed, sitting down at last. "She was taken in by a Mrs. Anderson, who treated her with the greatest kindness. Indeed, she still visits her quite frequently. It was from Mrs. Anderson's home that she met Mr. Gardiner, when she was about seventeen, and married him two years later. He was considerably older than she." He crossed his legs, watching Monk anxiously. "I made enquiries myself, naturally. Lucius is my only son, and his happiness is of the greatest importance to me. But nothing I learned explains what has happened. Walter Gardiner was a quiet, modest man who married relatively late. He was nearly forty. But his reputation was excellent. He was rather shy, a trifle awkward in the company of women, and he worked extremely hard at his business - which, incidentally, was the selling of books. He made a modest success of it and left Miriam well provided for. By all accounts she was very happy with him. No one had an ill word to say for either of them."

"Did they have children?" Monk asked.

A shadow crossed Stourbridge's eyes. "No. Unfortunately not. That is a blessing that does not come to every marriage." He drew in his breath and let it out silently. "My wife and I have only the one child." There was a sharp memory of pain in his face, and Monk was very aware of it. It was a subject he himself had considered little. He had no title or estates to leave, and he had no memory of ever considering marriage, far less a family. He felt in no way incomplete without such a thing. But, then, Hester was not an ordinary woman. He had married her with no thought of the comfort of domestic life. She was not the one he would have chosen if he had. The thought made him smile unconsciously. One could not tell what the future might bring. He had already surprised himself by changing as radically as he had. Perhaps in a few years he would think of children. Now he was honest enough to know that he would resent such other demands on Hester's time and emotion as a child would have to be.

Stourbridge was waiting for his attention.

"She is somewhat older than your son," Monk put in as tactfully as he could. "Exactly how much older is she?"

A flash of amusement crossed Stourbridge's face.

"Nine years," he replied. "If you are going to ask if she could give him an heir, the answer is that I do not know. Of course, we would like it if Lucius were to have a son, but it is not our main concern. There is no guarantee of such a thing, Mr. Monk, whomever one marries, and Miriam was never made to believe it was a condition of the marriage."

Monk did not argue, but he would judge for himself whether Mrs. Stourbridge shared her husband's feelings. So far his questions had elicited nothing in which he could see any reason for Miriam Gardiner to have left. He wished he had a clearer picture of her in his mind. Seen through the eyes of Lucius and Harry Stourbridge, she was the model of the ideal woman. Their image gave her no flesh and blood, and certainly no passions. Had they seen anything of the real woman beneath the surface they so much admired? Was it any use asking Harry Stourbridge anything further, except bare facts?

"Was this her first visit to this house?" Monk said suddenly.

Stourbridge looked slightly surprised.

"No, not at all. She had been here half a dozen times. If you are thinking we did not make her welcome, or that she felt overwhelmed or less than comfortable with the idea of living among us, you are mistaken, Mr. Monk."

"Would she have lived here, in this house?" Monk asked, envisioning a score of reasons why she might have found the prospect unendurable. Having been mistress of her own home, no matter how ordinary compared with this house, so close to Kensington Gardens, she might find the sheer loss of privacy insupportable. Hester would have! He could not imagine her spending the best part of her life under someone else's roof. When she had nursed privately, as she had since returning from the Crimea, she had always known that any position was temporary and that, whatever its difficulties, it would reach an end. And she'd had a measure of privacy, and of autonomy, in that the care of the patient was in her charge.

A whole new concept of imprisonment opened up to him.

Harry Stourbridge was smiling.

"No, Mr. Monk. I have properties in Yorkshire, and Lucius is very fond of life in the north. Miriam had visited there some months ago - I confess, when the weather was a good deal less clement - but she was charmed by the area and was looking forward to moving there and being mistress of her own household."

So fear of losing a certain freedom was not what had driven Miriam Gardiner away. Monk tried again. "Was there anything different about this visit, Major Stourbridge?"

"Not that I am aware, except that it was a trifle more celebratory." His face pinched with sadness and his voice dropped. "They were to be married in four weeks. They desired a quiet wedding, a family affair. Miriam did not wish large crowds or great expense. She thought it both unseemly and unnecessary. She loved Lucius very deeply, of that I have no doubt whatever." He looked bemused. "I don't know what has happened, Mr. Monk, but she did not leave because she ceased to love him or to know how profoundly he loves her."

It was pointless to argue. The belief in Stourbridge's voice was complete. It was going to be uniquely painful if facts proved him to be mistaken and Monk were to find himself in the position of having to tell him so. He should never have accepted this case. He could not imagine any happy solution.

"Tell me something of your coachman, James Treadwell," he asked instead.

Stourbridge's fair brows rose. 'Treadwell? Yes, I see what you mean. A perfectly adequate coachman. Good driver, knows horses, but I admit he is not a man for whom I have any natural liking." He rested his elbows on the arms of his chair and made a steeple with his fingers. "I knew men like him in the army. They can sit a horse like a centaur, wield a sword, ride over any terrain, but one cannot rely on them. Always put themselves first, not the regiment. Don't stand their ground when the battle's against them."

"But you kept him on?"

Stourbridge shrugged slightly. "You don't put a man out because you think you know his type. Could be wrong. I wouldn't have had him as a valet, but a coachman is a very different thing. Besides, he's a nephew of my cook, and she's a good woman. She's been with the family nearly thirty years. Started as a scullery maid when my own mother was still alive."

Monk understood. Like everything else, it was so easily appreciated, so very normal. It left him little more to ask, except for an account of the day itself on which Miriam Gardiner had fled.

"I can give you a guest list, if you wish," Stourbridge offered. "But it included no one Miriam had not met before -  indeed, no one who was not a friend. Believe me, Mr. Monk, we have all searched our minds trying to think of anything that could have happened to cause her such distress, and we can think of nothing whatever. No one is aware of any quarrel, even any unfortunate or tactless remark." Instinctively, he glanced out of the window, then back at Monk again. "Miriam was standing alone. The rest of us were either playing croquet or watching, when quite suddenly she gasped, went as white as paper, stood frozen for a moment, then turned and stumbled away, almost falling, and ran towards the house." His voice cracked. "None of us has seen her since!"

Monk leaned forward. "You saw this?"

"No, not personally. I would have gone after her if I had." Stourbridge looked wretched, as if he blamed himself. "But it was described to me by several others, and always in those terms. Miriam was standing alone. No one spoke to her or in any other way approached her." He frowned, his eyes puzzled. "I have considered every possibility that common sense suggests, Mr. Monk. We have called you because we can think of nothing further."

Monk rose to his feet. "I shall do all I can, sir," he said with misgiving. When Lucius Stourbridge had first explained his case Monk had thought it an impossible one; now he was even more convinced. Whatever had happened to Miriam Gardiner, it arose from her own emotions, and they would probably never know what it was that had so suddenly precipitated her into flight. But even if they were to learn, it would bring no happiness to them. Monk began to feel an anger against this young woman who had gone so thoughtlessly far along the path which a little consideration would have told her she could not complete. She had hurt deeply at least two decent and honorable people, probably more.

Stourbridge stood also. "Whom would you like to speak with next, Mr. Monk?"

"Mrs. Stourbridge, if you please," Monk replied without hesitation. He knew from working with Hester that women observed each other in a way a man did not; they read expressions, understood what was left unsaid.

"Of course." Stourbridge led the way out into the hall. "She will be in her sitting room at this hour."

Monk followed him up the wide, curving staircase and this time had an opportunity to look more closely at the magnificently plastered ceiling and the carving on the newel post at the top of the banister.

Stourbridge crossed the landing. A long window looked over the smooth lawn, and Monk caught a glimpse of croquet hoops still set up. It looked peaceful in the sun, a place of quiet happiness, family games, and afternoon tea in the summer. Trees sheltered hydrangeas beyond, their last flowers dropping in a blaze of color onto the dark earth beneath.

Stourbridge knocked on the third door along, and at a murmur from inside, opened it, ushering Monk in.

"My dear, this is Mr. Monk," he introduced them. "He has promised to assist us in finding Miriam."

Mrs. Stourbridge was sitting on a large chintz-covered chair, a scrapbook of poetry and photographs spread open on the cherry-wood table beside her where she had apparently laid it when interrupted. Her resemblance to her son was clear even at a glance. She had the same dark eyes and slender line of cheek and throat. Her hair grew from her brow in the same broad sweep. If Lucius had indeed come to see her, as his father had suggested, he had not remained long. She looked at Monk with concern. "How do you do," she said gravely. "Please come in. Tell me how I can help my son."

Monk accepted and sat in the chair opposite her. It was more comfortable than its straight back would have suggested, and the bright, warm room would, in any other circumstances, have been restful. Now he was searching his mind for questions to ask this woman which could help him to understand what had driven Miriam Gardiner to such extraordinary flight.

Stourbridge excused himself and left them.

Verona Stourbridge looked at Monk steadily, waiting.

There was no time for skirting around the edges of meaning.

"Would you please describe Mrs. Gardiner for me?" he asked. He wanted a picture in his mind, not only to allow him to imagine her himself but to know how Mrs. Stourbridge saw her.

She looked surprised. "Where will you look, Mr. Monk? We have no idea where she could have gone. Obviously, we have already tried her home, and she has not returned there. Her housemaid had not heard from her since she left to come here."

"I would like a woman's view of her," he explained. "Rather less romantic, and perhaps more accurate."

"Oh. I see. Yes, of course." She leaned back. She was slender, probably in her mid-forties, and there was a natural elegance in the way she held her hands and in the sweep of her huge skirts over the chair. Looking at her face, Monk thought her observation of Miriam Gardiner would be clear and unsentimental, perhaps the first that might offer some genuine insight into her character. He watched her attentively.

"She is of average height," Verona began, measuring her words. "Perhaps a trifle plumper than would be the choice for a young woman. I daresay my son has already told you she was at least nine years older than he?"

"At least?" he questioned. "You mean she admitted to nine but you personally think it might be more?"

She shrugged delicately without answering. "She has excellent hair, fair and thick and with a becoming natural wave," she continued. "Blue eyes, quite good complexion and teeth. Altogether a generous face indicating good nature and at least averagely good health. She dressed becomingly, but without extravagance. I should imagine well within a moderate income."

"She sounds a paragon of virtues, Mrs. Stourbridge," Monk remarked a little dryly. "I do not yet see a woman of flesh and blood - indeed, a real woman at all - merely a recital of admirable qualities."

Her eyebrows rose sharply. She stared at him with chill, then as he stared back, gradually she relaxed.

"I see," she conceded. "Of course. You asked me what she looked like. She was most pleasing. Her character was also agreeable, but she was not incapable of independent thought. You are asking me if she had faults? Of course. She was stubborn at times. She had some strange and unsuitable views on certain social issues. She was overfamiliar with the servants, which caused difficulties now and then. I think she had much to learn in the running of a house of the size and standard my son would have required." She kept her eyes steadily on Monk's. "Very possibly, she would not have been our first choice of wife for him. There are many more suitable young women of our acquaintance, but we were not unhappy with her, Mr. Monk, nor could she have imagined that we were."

"Not even if she failed to give him an heir?" It was an intrusive and intimate question, and a subject upon which emotions were often deep. Women had been abandoned because of it throughout history.

She looked a little pale, but her hands did not tighten in her lap.

"Of course, anyone would wish an heir, but if you accept a person, then you must do so wholeheartedly. It is not something she could help. If I thought she would have deliberately denied him, then I would blame her for it, but one thing I am perfectly sure of, and that is that she loved him. I do not know where she has gone, or why, Mr. Monk. I would give a great deal for you to be able to find her and bring her back to us, unharmed and as gentle and loving as she was before."

Monk could not doubt her. The emotion in her voice betrayed a depth of distress he could feel, in spite of the fact they had met only moments before and he knew nothing of her beyond the little that was obvious.

"I will do all I can, Mrs. Stourbridge," he promised. "I believe you did not see her leave the croquet party?"

"No. I was speaking to Mrs. Washburne and my attention was engaged. She is not an easy woman."

"Was Mrs. Gardiner apprehensive before the party?"

"Not at all. She was extremely happy." There was no shadow in her face.

"Did she know all the guests?"

"Yes. She and I made up the list together."

"Did anyone come who was uninvited? Perhaps a companion to one of the invited guests?"


"Was there any disagreement or unpleasantness, unwished-for attention?"

"No." She shook her head slightly, but her eyes did not leave his. "It was a most enjoyable day. The weather was perfect. No one spoiled it by inappropriate behavior. I have questioned all the servants, and no one saw or heard anything except the usual trivial talk. The worst that anyone knew of was a disagreement between Mr. Wall and the Reverend Dabney over a croquet shot's being rather poor sportsmanship. It did not concern Miriam."

"She didn't play?"

She smiled very slightly, but there was no criticism in it.

"No. She said she preferred to watch. I think actually she never learned and did not like to admit it."

He changed the subject. "The coachman, Treadwell. He has not reappeared, and I am told no one knows what happened to him either."

Her face darkened. "That is true. Not entirely a satisfactory young man. We employed him because he is the nephew of the cook, who is a most loyal and excellent woman. We cannot choose our relatives."

"And, of course, your coach is still missing, too?"


"I shall ask your groom for a description of it, and of Treadwell." That was a more hopeful line to pursue. "Was there a maid who particularly looked after Mrs. Gardiner while she stayed here?"

"Yes, Amelia. If you wish to speak with her I shall send for her."

"Thank you. And your cook as well. She may know something of Treadwell."

There was a knock on the door, and it opened before she had time to answer. The man who came in was tall and broad-shouldered, a trifle thick about the waist. His features were strong, and the family resemblance was marked.

"This is my brother, Mr. Monk," Mrs. Stourbridge said.

"You must be the agent of enquiry Lucius fetched in," the man said. He looked at Monk with gravity, and there was a note of sadness in his voice that could almost have been despair. "Aiden Campbell," he introduced himself, offering his hand. "I am afraid you are unlikely to have any success," Campbell continued, glancing at his sister in half apology, then back to Monk. "Mrs. Gardiner left of her own free will. In the little we know of the circumstances, that seems unarguable. Possibly she was experiencing severe doubts which up to that moment she had managed to conceal. We may never know what suddenly caused her to realize her feelings." He frowned at Monk. "I am not convinced that seeking her will not lead to further unhappiness." He took a deep breath. "We, none of us, desire that. Please be very careful what you do, Mr. Monk. You may be led, in sincerity, to make discoveries we might be better not knowing. I hope you understand me?"

Monk understood very well. He shared the view. He wished now he had been wise enough to follow his original judgment and refuse the case when Lucius had first asked him.

"I am aware of the possibilities, Mr. Campbell," he answered quietly. "I share your opinion that I may not be able to find Mrs. Gardiner, and that if I do, she still might wish to stand by her decision. However, I have given my word to Mr. Stourbridge that I would look for her, and I will do so." Then, sensing the sharpness in Campbell's face, he added, "I have informed him of my opinion as to the chances of success, and I shall continue to be honest with him as to my progress or lack of it"

Campbell remained silent, pushing his hands into his pockets and staring at the floor.

"Aiden," Verona said gently. "I know you believe that she will not return and that only more disillusion and unhappiness will follow from seeking her, but neither Harry nor Lucius will accept that. They both feel compelled to do all they can to find out where she is, if she is unhurt, and why she left. Harry almost certainly for Lucius's sake, of course, but he is nonetheless resolved. I believe we should help them, rather than make them feel isolated and as if we do not understand."

Campbell raised his eyes and looked at her steadily. "Of course." He smiled, but the effort behind it was apparent to Monk. "Of course, my dear. You are perfectly right. It is something which must run its course. How can I assist you, Mr. Monk? Let me take you to the stables and enquire after James Treadwell. He may be at the heart of this."

Monk accepted, thanking Verona and excusing himself. He followed Campbell down the stairs and out of the side door to the mews. The light was bright as he stepped outside. The smells of hay, horse sweat and the sharp sting of manure were strong in the closed heat of the yard. He heard a horse whinnying, and stamping its feet on the stones.

A ginger-haired boy with a brush in one hand looked up at him with curiosity.

"Answer Mr. Monk's questions, Billy," Campbell instructed. "He's come to help Major Stourbridge find Treadwell and the missing carriage."

"Yer in't never goin' ter see them again, I reckon," Billy replied, pulling his mouth into a grimace of disgust. "Carriage like that's worth a fair bit."

"You think he sold it and went off?" Monk asked.

Billy regarded him with contempt. " 'Course I do. Wot else? 'E lit outta 'ere like 'e were on fire! Nobody never told 'im ter. 'E never came back. If 'e din't flog it, w'y in't 'e 'ere?"

"Perhaps he met with an accident?" Monk suggested.

"That don't answer w'y 'e went in the first place." Billy stared at him defiantly. "Less 'e's dead, 'e should 'a told us wot 'appened, shouldn't 'e?"

"Unless he's too badly hurt," Monk continued the argument.

Billy's eyes narrowed. "You a friend of 'is, then?"

"I've never met him. I wanted your opinion, which obviously was not very high."

Billy hesitated. "Well - can't say as I like 'im," he hedged. "On the other 'and, can't say as I know anythink bad abaht 'im, neither. Just that he's gorn, like - which is bad enough."

"And Mrs. Gardiner?" Monk asked.

Billy let his breath out in a sigh. "She were a real nice lady, she were. If 'e done anythink to 'er, I 'ope as 'e's dead - an' 'orrible dead at that."

"Do you not think she went with him willingly?"

Billy glanced at Campbell, then at Monk, his face registering his incredulity. "Wot'd a lady like 'er be wantin' with a shifty article like 'im? 'Ceptin' to drive 'er abaht now an' then, as wot is 'is job!"

"Did she think he was a shifty article?"

Billy thought for a moment. "Well, p'haps she din't. A bit too nice for 'er own good, she were. Innocent, like, if yer know wot I mean?"

"Mrs. Gardiner was a trifle too familiar with the servants, Mr. Monk," Campbell clarified. "She may well have been unable to judge his character. I daresay no one told her Treadwell was employed largely because he was a relative to the cook, who is highly regarded." He smiled, biting his lip. "Good cooks are a blessing no household discards lightly, and she has been loyal to the family since before my sisters time." He looked around the stable towards the empty space where the carriage should have been. "The fact remains, Treadwell is gone, and so is a very valuable coach and pair, and all the harness."

"Has it been reported to the police?" Monk asked.

Campbell pushed his hands into his pockets, swaying a little onto his heels. "Not yet. Frankly, Mr. Monk, I think it unlikely my brother-in-law will do that. He makes a great show, for Lucius's sake, of believing that Mrs. Gardiner had not met some accident, or crisis, and all will be explained satisfactorily. I am afraid I gravely doubt it. I can think of no such circumstance which would satisfy the facts as we know them." He started to walk away from the stable across the yard and towards the garden, out of earshot of Billy and whoever else might be in the vicinity. Monk followed, and they were on the gravel path surrounding the lawn before Campbell continued.

"I very much fear that the answer may prove to be simply that Mrs. Gardiner, who was very charming and attractive in her manner, but nonetheless not of Lucius's background, realized that after the first flame of romance wore off she would never make him happy, or fit into his life. Rather than face explanations which would be distressing, and knowing that both Lucius and Major Stourbridge, as a matter of honor, would try to change her mind, she took the matter out of then-hands, and simply fled."

He looked sideways at Monk, a slightly rueful sadness in his face. "It is an action not entirely without honor. In her own way, she has behaved the best. There is no doubt she is in love with Lucius. It was plain for anyone to see that they doted upon each other. They seemed to have an unusual communion of thought and taste, even of humor. But she is older than he, already a widow, and from a very ... ordinary... background. This way it remains a grand romance. The memory of it will never be soured by its fading into the mundane realities. Think very carefully, Mr. Monk, before you precipitate a tragedy."

Monk stood in the late-morning sun in this peaceful garden full of birdsong, where perhaps such a selfless decision had been made. It seemed the most likely answer. A decision like that might be hysterical, perhaps, but then Miriam Gardiner was a woman giving up her most precious dream.

"I have already told Major Stourbridge that if I find Mrs. Gardiner I would not attempt to persuade her to return against her will," Monk answered. "Or report back to him anything beyond what she wished me to. That would not necessarily include her whereabouts."

Campbell did not reply for several minutes. Eventually, he looked up, regarding Monk carefully, as if making some judgment which mattered to him deeply.

"I trust you will behave with discretion and keep in mind that you are dealing with the deepest emotions, and men of a very high sense of honor."

"I will," Monk replied, wishing again Lucius Stourbridge had chosen some other person of whom to ask assistance, or that he had had the sense to follow his judgment, not his sentimentality, in accepting. Marriage seemed already to have robbed him of his wits!

"I imagine they will be serving luncheon," Campbell said, looking towards the house. "I assume you are staying?"

"I still have to speak to the servants," Monk answered grimly, walking across the gravel. "Even if I learn nothing."

ester shifted from foot to foot impatiently as she stood in the waiting room in the North London Hospital. The sun was hot and the closed air claustrophobic. She thought with longing of the green expanse of Hampstead Heath, only a few hundred yards away. But she was here with a purpose. There was a massive amount to do, and as always, too little time. Too many people were ill, confused by the medical system, if you could call it by so flattering a word, and frightened of authority.

Her desire was to improve the quality of nursing from the manual labor it usually was to a skilled and respected profession. Since Florence Nightingale's fame had spread after the Crimean War, the public in general regarded her as a heroine. She was second in popularity only to the Queen. But the popular vision of her was a sentimental image of a young woman wandering around a hospital with a lamp in her hand, mopping fevered brows and whispering words of comfort, rather than the reality Hester knew. She had nursed with Florence Nightingale and had experienced the despair, the unnecessary deaths brought on by disease and incompetence rather than the injuries of battle. She also knew Miss Nightingale's true heroism, the strength of her will to fight for better conditions, for the use of common sense in sanitation and efficiency in administration. Above all, she fought to make nursing an acceptable profession which would attract decent women and treat them with respect. Old-fashioned ideas must be got rid of, up-to-date methods must be used, and skills rewarded.

Now that Hester was no longer solely responsible for her own support, she could devote some of her time to this end. She had made it plain to Monk from the outset that she would never agree to sit at home and sew a fine seam and gossip with other women who had too little to do. He had offered no disagreement, knowing it was a condition of acceptance.

They had had certain differences, and would no doubt have more. She smiled now in the sun as she thought of them. It was not easy for either of them to make all the changes necessary to adapt to married life. Deeply as she loved him, sharing a bedroom - let alone a bed - with another person was a loss of privacy she found not as easy to overcome as she had imagined. She was not especially modest - nursing life had made that impossible - but she still reveled in the independence of having the window open or closed as she wished, of putting the light out when she chose, and of having as many or as few blankets over her as she liked. In the Crimea she had worked until she was exhausted. Then she had lain on her cot hunched up, shaking with cold, muscles too knotted up to sleep, and had to arise in the morning when she was still almost drunken with tiredness.

But to have the warmth, the gentleness, of someone beside her who she knew without question loved her, was greater than all the tiny inconveniences. They were only pinpricks. She knew Monk felt them, too. She had seen flashes of temper in his face, quickly smothered when he realized he was thinking only of himself. He was used to both privacy and independence as much as she was.

But Monk had less to forfeit than Hester. They were living in his rooms in Fitzroy Street. It made excellent sense, of course. She had only sufficient lodgings to house her belongings and to sleep in between the private nursing cases she had taken after being dismissed from hospital service for insubordination. He was developing a good practice as an agent of enquiry for private cases after his own dismissal from the police force - also for insubordination!

For him to have moved would have been unwise. People knew where to find him. The house was well situated, and the landlady had been delighted to allow them an extra room to make into a kitchen, and to give up having to cook and clean for Monk, a duty she had done only from necessity before, realizing he would probably starve if she didn't. She was very pleased to have both the additional rent and more time to devote to her increasingly demanding husband - and whatever other pursuits she enjoyed beyond Fitzroy Street.

So Hester was, with some difficulty, learning to become domestic and trying to do it with a modicum of grace.

Her real passion was still to reform nursing, as it had been ever since she had come home from the Crimea. Lady Callandra Daviot shared her feelings, which was why Hester was standing in the North London Hospital now waiting for Callandra to come and recount the success or failure of their latest attempt.

She heard the door opening and swung around. Callandra came in, her hair sticking out in tufts as if she had run her fingers through it, her face set tight and hard with anger. There was no need to ask if she had succeeded.

Callandra had dignity, courage and good humor, but not even her dearest friend would have said she was graceful. In spite of the best efforts of her maid, her clothes looked as if she paid no regard to them, merely picking up what first came to her hand when she opened the wardrobe door. Today it was a green skirt and a blue blouse. It was warm enough inside the hospital for her not to wear whatever jacket she had chosen.

"The man is a complete idiot!" she said furiously. "How can anyone see to diagnose what ails a person for any of a hundred diseases and still be blind as a bat to the facts before his face?"

"I don't know," Hester admitted. "But it happens frequently."

The door was still wide open behind Callandra. She turned on her heel and marched out again, leaving Hester to follow after her.

"How many hours are mere in a day?" Callandra demanded over her shoulder.

"Twenty-four" Hester replied as they reached the end of the passage and went through the now-empty operating theater with its table in the center, benches for equipment, and the railed-off gallery on three sides for pupils and other interested parties to observe.

"Exactly," Callandra agreed. "And how much of that time can a surgeon be expected to care for his patient personally? One hour if the patient is important - less if he is not. Who cares for him the rest of the time?" She opened the farther door into the wide passageway that ran the length of the entire ground floor.

"The resident medicine officer - " Hester began.

"Apothecary!" Callandra said dismissively, waving her hand in the air.