of theft and collected the payment for it, and consequently was pleased with himself. He was also interested in her story of the trichobezoar.

“Why?” he said with amazement. “Why would anyone do something so . . . so self-destructive?”

“If she knows, she can’t or won’t tell us,” she answered, ladling mutton stew into bowls and smelling the fragrance of it. “More probably, she doesn’t know herself. Some pain too terrible for her to look at, even to acknowledge.”

“Poor creature!” he said with sudden, uncharacteristic pity, as if he had remembered suffering of his own and could too easily imagine drowning in it. “Can you help her?”

“Kristian will try,” she said, picking up the bowls to carry them to the table. “He has the patience, and he doesn’t dismiss all hysterics as hopeless, in spite of Fermin Thorpe.”

Monk knew the history of Kristian and Fermin Thorpe, and he said nothing, but his expression was eloquent. Silently, he followed her to the table and sat down, hungry, cold and ready to eat.

In the morning, Hester went back to the hospital, and found Mary Ellsworth in a great deal of pain as the laudanum wore off. But the wound was clean, and she was able to take a little beef tea and to rest with some ease of mind.

In the early afternoon, Hester returned home and changed from her plain blue dress into the best afternoon gown she owned. The weather was mild, so she did not need any kind of coat or cape, but a hat was absolutely necessary. The dress was a soft shade of bluish green and very becoming to her, although it was certainly not fashionable. She had never kept up with exactly how full a skirt should be, or how a sleeve or a neckline should lie. She had neither the money nor, to be honest, the interest, but now it was an issue of pride not to visit her sister-in- law looking like some poor relation, even though that was exactly what she was. Perhaps that was why it mattered.

It was also possible that Imogen might very well have other callers, and Hester would not wish to be an embarrassment to her. For one thing, it would get in the way of her purpose in being there.

She went out into the dusty street and walked the short journey to Endsleigh Gardens. She did not look at the facades along the London streets. She was barely aware of the sounds of hooves, of the passing traffic or the rattle of wheels over the cobbles and the clink of harness, the shouts of irate drivers, or peddlers calling their wares. Her whole attention was inward, wondering how she could do anything at all to help Charles and not seriously risk actually making the matter worse. She and Imogen had once been close, before Hester’s professional interests had separated them. They had shared many hours together, laughter and gossip, beliefs and dreams.

She had still come to no useful decision when she reached the house and went up the steps to pull the doorbell. She was admitted by the maid, who showed her into the withdrawing room. She had not been there for some time, but this was the house she had grown up in, and every detail was familiar, as if she had walked straight into the past. The opulent dark green curtains seemed not ever to have been moved. They hung in exactly the heavy folds she remembered, although that must be an illusion. In the winter, at least, they would be drawn every evening. The brass fender gleamed, and there was the same Staffordshire pottery vase with late roses on the table, a few petals fallen onto the table’s shiny surface. The carpet had a worn patch in front of the armchair her father had used, and now Charles.

The door opened and Imogen came sweeping in, her skirts fashionably full, a beautiful pale plum-pink which only someone of her dark hair and fair skin could have worn well. Her jacket was a deeper shade and perfectly cut to flatter her waist. She looked radiant and full of confidence, almost excitement.

“Hester! How lovely to see you!” she exclaimed, giving her a swift, light hug and kissing her cheek. “You don’t call often enough. How are you?” She did not wait for an answer, but whirled around and picked up the fallen petals, crushing them in her hand. “Charles said you went to America. Was it awful? The news is all about war, but I suppose you’re used to that. And the train crash in Kentish Town, of course. Sixteen people were killed, and over three hundred injured! But I suppose you know that.” A frown flickered across her face, then disappeared.

She did not sit down, nor did she offer Hester a seat. She seemed restless, moving around the room. She rearranged the roses slightly, collapsing one altogether and having to pick up more petals. Then she shifted one of the candlesticks on the mantelpiece to align it with the one at the opposite end. She was quite clearly in the last sort of mood for a confidential discussion of any kind, let alone on a subject so intimate as a love affair.

Hester realized what an impossible task she had undertaken. Before she could learn anything at all she would have to reestablish the friendship they had had before Hester had met Monk. Where on earth could she begin without sounding totally artificial?

“Your dress is lovely,” she said honestly. “You always had a gift for choosing exactly the right color.” She saw Imogen’s quick look of pleasure. “Are you expecting someone special? I should have written before I came. I’m sorry.”

Imogen hesitated, then rushed on, speaking rapidly. “Not at all. I’m not expecting anyone. Actually, I’m going out. It’s I who should apologize, leaving so soon after you have arrived. But of course I’m delighted you came! I really should call upon you; it’s just that I’m never sure when it will be convenient.” There was too much enthusiasm in her voice, but she met Hester’s eyes only momentarily.

“Please do,” Hester responded. “Let me know, and I shall make certain I am at home.”

Imogen started to say something, then stopped, as if she had changed her mind. In a way they were like strangers, and yet the bond that tied them together made it more uncomfortable than had they known nothing of each other.

“I’m pleased you called,” Imogen said suddenly. Now she looked directly at Hester. “I have a gift for you. I thought of you as soon as I saw it. Wait, and I shall fetch it.” And in a swirl of skirts she was gone, leaving the door open, and Hester heard her feet lightly cross the hall.

She returned within minutes, carrying an exquisite trinket box of dark wood inlaid with gold wire and mother- of-pearl. She held it out in both hands. It looked vaguely Oriental, perhaps Indian. Hester could think of no reason why it should have made anyone think of her. She hardly ever wore trinkets, and she had no particular connection with the East. But then, perhaps to Imogen the Crimea was close enough. Regardless, it was a charming thing, and certainly expensive. She could not help wondering where Imogen had come by it. Had it been a gift from another man, and so she dared not keep it? It was hardly a thing she would buy for herself, and it was certainly not Charles’s taste, nor his extravagance.

“It’s beautiful,” she said, trying to put a warmth of enthusiasm into her voice. She took it from Imogen’s outstretched hands and turned it slowly so the light shone on the inlaid pattern of leaves and flowers. “I can hardly imagine the time it must have taken someone to make it.” She looked up at Imogen. “Where does it come from?”

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