The first indication that her father was unwell had come in June.
Frances woke in the night and stared into the dark, listening. The house held its silence for a moment, then exhaled in a murmur of low voices which drifted up from the landing below.
She drew a shawl from her bed and pushed open the door.
"Lotta?" she called down. Quiet for a second, then the creaking seesaw of Lotta's weight on the stairs, and the bobbing light of a candle. A billow of white nightgown, and the maid's broad, placid face swam into view.
"It's your father, Miss. He's back but he's not been himself." She pressed past Frances into the bedroom.
"How do you mean?"
Lotta bent to light the candle by the bed, her chest expanding and contracting like bellows, the flame flickering as she breathed.
"What's wrong with him?" Frances demanded, grabbing at her wrist.
Hot wax spilt over their hands and Lotta drew back, wincing in pain. "I don't know exactly. A coachman brought him in. Said he'd had a collapse."
Frances struggled for a moment to imagine this. Her father, the sheer bulk and power of him, didn't seem capable of collapse. He was, in every way, a man of strength. The errand boy, so they said, who had conjured his furniture empire out of shillings like a magician pulling banknotes from the pockets of paupers.
She took the candle from Lotta and went down to the ground floor, her feet sticking on the checkered stone tiles in the hall. Her father was in his study, sitting in an armchair to one side of the cold fireplace. His shirt was unbuttoned and a grizzled beard was beginning to cover the deep grooves that lined his cheeks. He looked pale against the green walls and glossy rosewood furniture, but when he saw her his face broke into an affectionate smile. He was exhausted, she decided with relief, but otherwise fine. A glass of brandy hung casually from one hand. If it tipped any further it would pour out onto the carpet. The breadth of his chest was exposed, and she saw that his body was tighter and more compact than she remembered, as though it had withdrawn into itself with age. She had admired his brute force as a child, the strength of his hands as he drew her wriggling onto his lap.
"Ah, Frances. I asked Lotta not to wake you," he said, holding one hand out to her in apology for not standing up. She took it and smiled, bending to kiss him. He had been away on business, and it was a relief to have him home.
"When did you get back? Are you ill?"
"Not at all, just a little tired."
Then, because it occurred to her that it might all be his fault, "Have you been drinking?"
Her father laughed, a rich, deep sound that soothed the edges of her fear and made her, involuntarily, smile. He glanced at the armchair which sat opposite him. "You see, Matthews, how sharp she is, my daughter?"
Frances turned. She hadn't noticed the man sitting in the chair behind her, on the other side of the fireplace. He had a neat, angular face with a narrow forehead and greased brown haircut close around his ears. It took her a moment to recognize him, but when he stood up and stepped towards her she remembered. "Mr. Matthews."
"You must call him Dr. Matthews now," her father said.
"Of course." He was a cousin on her father's side who had stayed with them for a few months when he was a boy. He had the same serious expression she remembered as a child.
"Where is Dr. Firth?"
"Dr. Firth is out of town," Edwin Matthews said with careful articulation. Even at sixteen he had sounded as if he were a master giving the lesson at school. Frances was standing on the floorboards by her father's chair, her back to the empty grate and her feet nudging against the edge of the carpet. The dark, polished oak was coarse on the soles of her feet, and she rubbed her big toe across the smooth butt of a nail. She was dressed inappropriately and she shivered, too cold to be standing in the study in her nightdress. She had the feeling that she had interrupted a private conversation, and the silence of both men seemed to be an invitation for her to leave. Perhaps she ought to have been grateful to Edwin Matthews for coming out to see her father in the middle of the night, but she felt only frustration. It had been along time since she had seen her father, and she wanted to talk to him properly, which meant alone.
Reprinted by arrangement with Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, a member of Penguin Group(USA) Inc., from The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh. Copyright © 2013 by Jennifer McVeigh.
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