It was another cold winter morning, the sort my mother would have called ‘brisk’. I had originally intended on waking early, assuming Hemlock would want to continue her investigations in to the Angel of Death, but the lure of my bed had kept me firmly under covers. I was just rolling over for my fourth extra five minutes of dozing when there was a loud knocking on the front door beneath my room, followed by an exceptionally loud, and unmistakably American, holler.
“Hemlark! Hemlark Jownz!”
I rolled out of bed heavy with sleep to stagger, bleary-eyed, to the window while fumbling to put on my replacement spectacles. I pulled back the blind enough to look down on to the street. It was lightly snowing, and Baker Street was white and unblemished, with the exception of a few hoof-prints, the black-grey lines of carriage wheels on the road, and a tall, well-built man in a top hat and long coat who stood on the pavement outside 211, staring up at me. He raised a black-wood cane to the brim of his hat with a gloved hand by way of greeting, and his thin moustache twitched as he smiled knowingly.
I let go of the blind and it swung back across the glass. It was unnerving being caught spying by the very person I was spying upon. I took a moment to wake up a little more, to overcome the discomfort, and pulled back the blind a fraction again.
The American Gentleman was advancing on our front door, cane in hand and ready to rap loudly again.
“Stop spying, Eddie!” Hemlock’s voice carried through my closed bedroom door as she rushed past. “It’s rude. And you’re bad at it!”
I heard her feet drumming on the stairs as she sprinted down them in a typically unladylike way.
I left the window headed to the landing, wondering how she knew I'd been peering out the window, wrapping my dressing gown around me to try and keep out the chill.
Even at the top of the stairs I could feel the winter air as it gusted through the open front door where Hemlock was standing, dressed as ever in a distressing mixture of acceptable ladies’ attire and a gentleman’s waistcoat. Before her, just inside the threshold to the building, stood the American gentleman, still wearing his top hat.
However, what most caught my attention was that, in what I thought was an unprecedented show of affection towards anything, Hemlock Jones appeared to be tentatively hugging the man.
I realized quickly, however, that it was the gentleman who was hugging Hemlock, one arm around her, squeezing her tightly, as she stood in place, looking slightly uncomfortable. In the American’s other hand was a black case, similar to those physicians carried.
“Hemlark, it is so good to see you! Now, aren’t you going to invite me in and introduce me to the young man twitching curtains and staring at us from the top of the stairs?”
I hemmed and hawed as I tied my dressing gown belt around me. “Good, ahem, that is, yes. I mean to say… well… yes. Tea?”
He removed his top hat and stepped in to the hallway. “I’d prefer a cup of good coffee, but I recall that’s a rarity this side of the Atlantic. So, tea it is!”
Upstairs in the main living-and-dining area, a fresh pot of tea was already steaming pleasantly next to the china cups and saucers. Mrs Figgins was nowhere to be seen and I assumed that she had left shortly before this gentleman arrived.
Still feeling somewhat blindsided by early morning visitors from America, I defaulted to the fallbacks of all Englishmen: I immediately went to the teapot and began to pour, while attempting to make small talk about the weather.
“Is it terribly cold out there, Mister…?” I realized Hemlock had failed to introduce me to the man that had followed me up the stairs.
The American placed his hat on the table, hung his cane on the back of a chair and removed his gloves with quick, confident tugs before extending his hand. “Jack T Merryweather, physician.”
Close up, I could see he was a thin but muscular man, with dark hair and a thin moustache, an easy smile and a mischievous twinkle to his dark brown eyes.
I replaced the teapot on the table and shook Doctor Merryweather’s hand. “A pleasure, Doctor. Edward Whitlow.”
“Call me Jack, Master Whitlow… Excuse the curiosity, but would that be Edward Whitlow as in Whitlow’s soaps?”
I blushed uncomfortably as I handed him a full teacup. “Yes. I’m Edward Whitlow the second. My father is also Edward Whitlow, owner of Whitlow’s Soaps and Toiletries.”
“Sounds to me like your father is Edward. You look much more like an Eddie to me, so I hope you won’t mind me calling you Eddie.”
“Uh, well, um… of course,” I stuttered. Hemlock raised an eyebrow in my direction as I failed to assert that my name was Edward, but she mercifully declined to comment.
Jack laughed and clapped me on the shoulder. “Good then! So, how about we all have a cup of tea, while I catch up on what Hemlark has been up to, and get myself more acquainted with the young man she appeyuhs to be living with.”
I was swiftly turning a shade of beetroot red, but Hemlock merely snorted, poured herself a cup of tea and slumped into her usual armchair.
“Or, Uncle Jack, you can tell us why you’re here,” she said.
“He’s your uncle?” I asked.
Jack laughed merrily. “Not exactly. I’m her father's second cousin and an old, old friend of Hemlock’s muthah.” He turned to Hemlock. “And, can’t I visit my favourite almost-niece?”
“It’s quite a journey from New York, Uncle, for a mere visit. It’s been, what, four years?”
Jack sighed. “My deyuh Hemlark, must we fight?”
“No. Just tell me why you’re really here. It’s not a social visit, because our family, including our extended ‘family’, does not socially visit. It’s not a professional visit because, aside from Edward’s potentially medical obtuseness, we are both in fine health. So, Uncle, why are you here?”
Doctor Merryweather met my eyes and smiled wearily at me. I felt very much that he was here with good intentions, but that Hemlock’s suspicions and confrontational attitude were making this harder than it needed to be.
“Hemlock,” I began.
I have rarely seen the look on the demystifier’s face that I saw then. Her eyes were cold and cutting, like frost-coated shards of glass. As she pierced me with that look, I lost my voice completely and looked away.
“It’s fine, Eddie,” the doctor said as he carried his teacup to the table and sat opposite Hemlock, whose face remained so coldly impassive I couldn’t help but shiver.
Jack slid gracefully into the chair. “Very well, I’ll be as honest as I can be. Besides my genuine desire to see you, Hemlock, your father, on hearing I was to be visiting London on business, asked if I would look in on you. He’d look in himself, but it’s quite some way from Scotland. So, he asked that I ensure you are well.”
“Why would he do that?”
“Because he’s your father.”
I began to feel distinctly uncomfortable and considered edging my way to the door. Hemlock’s eyes flicked at me and fixed me in place.
Doctor Merryweather continued. “Come now, Hemlark. You know he loves you. He’s worried about you.”
“No, Uncle Jack, he doesn’t and he isn’t,” she replied with an unbelievable calm. “He paid for me to be in boarding schools far from my ‘family’ the moment he could do so because he couldn’t stand being near me. He said as much. I killed the woman he loved and he will never forgive me.”
“That isn’t true –”
Hemlock leapt to her feet and cried out, “He called me Hemlock! Hemlock! He named me after a poison!”
If Hemlock’s sudden outburst surprised or concerned Jack, he did a very good job of not showing it. He remained seated, calmly sipping his tea, and looked up at his niece.
“Yes he did. But you didn’t kill your mother. No one did. She –”
“Died giving birth to me. You think I don’t know this, Uncle? The fact remains that had I not wailed my way into this world, my father’s one and only love would still be alive. Instead, she died while I screamed and cried in the arms of a man whose only feelings for me were hate and resentment.”
Slowly, she sat back down, regaining her composure. “And, Uncle Jack, nothing –nothing- has changed since that day. I am here because it means I am far away. I am at school because my mother’s mother ensured that the fees would be paid, and I am earning my own money because, even at twelve years of age, I am aware that my father has all but disowned me. So, while it is good to see my father’s second cousin, and while I know that, unlike him, you do have affection for me, I have to ask you again: Why are you here?”
Doctor Merryweather paused. He didn’t blink as he looked at Hemlock across the table. I expected to see something other than the warm, knowing and faintly amused look on his face. I did not see it. He was placid, calm and his expression, if anything, was wry amusement. I on the other hand, was shaking with hurt and anger for my friend. This was the first time I had heard anything about Hemlock’s past, and one of only few times in all the time that I have known her that she has spoken openly about her mother’s death or her childhood.
Nevertheless, when the doctor spoke, he sounded to me very much like a man choked with emotion. “My darlin' Hemlark. I understand your anger, I always have. Your father charged me with coming here to see what you were doing, to ensure that you were well. That’s why I’m heyuh.”
“Then you can tell him I’m well.”
“And you’re working?”
Hemlock nodded. “I’m offering consultative services to the police.”
Doctor Merryweather’s smile twitched at that, revealing very white teeth beneath his thin moustache. “Well, I’m sure your father will be delighted to heyuh that you are supporting yourself by working with the local constabulary. I’ll be sure to pass that on.”
“Please do,” Hemlock replied. “Now, if that is all, Edward and I are working on something at the moment…”
The doctor turned to look at me, as if he had quite forgotten that I was in the room. “Oh, of course. I’ll take my leave.”
He stood and reached out to shake my hand again. “I apologise that you had to see such a difficult conversation. The relationship between Hemlark and her father is mightily… strained as you can see.”
“Not at all, Doctor. I understand. Thank you so much for coming to ensure that Hemlock is well.”
“Of course. I wanted to see Hemlark, and her father really does want to know what she is doing. How she is doing.”
“Well, if I can assist in reassuring Mr. Jones…”
His eyes twinkled. “Thank you, Eddie.”
He turned to Hemlock. “I did want to see you for myself. It’s been a long time and I have missed you. I’m glad that you are well. And now that I am back in London, at least for the foreseeable future, I will hope to visit again. Perhaps for a less fraught conversation.”
Uncle Jack tugged his gloves back on and picked up his cane and hat. Hemlock stood impassively at the door to the living room.
“You can see yourself out, Uncle,” she said.
He paused, before nodding once.
As he stepped on to the landing he turned back to us. He spoke quietly. “It was good to see you again, Hem. I can see you’ve grown into quite the young woman. Fierce and independent.”
He tapped his hat in to place and smiled broadly. It was so warm and infectious that I couldn’t help but return the smile. Hemlock’s icy distance seemed to thaw slightly as well, and I saw the beginnings of a smile on her face, and I thought perhaps this meeting might not mean Hemlock was unhappy for the rest of the day. I was wrong.
“So like your muthah.”