The Twisted Root


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