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The Fever Tree


The first indication that her father was unwell had come in June.

Frances woke in the night and stared into the dark, listen- ing. The house held its silence for a moment, then exhaled in a mur- mur 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 see- saw 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 f lame f lickering 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 f loor, 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of his chest was exposed, and she saw that his body was tighter and more compact than she remembered, as though it had withdrawn into itself with age.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 hair cut 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 seri- ous expression she remembered as a child. “Where is Dr. Firth?”

“Dr. Firth is out of town,” Edwin Matthews said with careful articu- lation. Even at sixteen he had sounded as if he were a master giving the lesson at school.

Frances was standing on the f loorboards 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 pri- vate conversation, and the silence of both men seemed to be an invita- tion 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 a long time since she had seen her father, and she wanted to talk to him properly, which meant alone. “Well, now you’re back,” she said to her father, “we will make sure you are well looked after.”

“Frances, I am fine.” He waved his hand, suddenly impatient. “And you must go to bed. I am overworked, that is all, and I called for the doctor to give me something to help me sleep.”

She looked at him for a moment longer. He raised his glass as if to say—that’s enough concern, leave me—but his hand tremored as he brought it to his lips. He hadn’t mentioned a collapse. Perhaps Lotta was exaggerating. Either way, she wouldn’t push him on the subject, not now. She bent down, kissed him again, and went upstairs.

She paused on the landing outside her father’s room. Lotta was turning down the bedcovers. “I would like a few words with the doctor once my father has gone to bed. Would you ask him to wait?”

The window in her bedroom gleamed pale and cold behind the curtains. She drew her shawl from the back of the chair, stepped behind the red damask folds, and stood looking into the street be- low. The rain had stopped. It was perfectly quiet. Too early yet for the butcher boys in their blue aprons. The lamp at the end of the street throbbed a dull yellow through the milky fog, and she watched a lamplighter appear out of the shining gloom, lean his ladder against the crosspiece, and turn off the dial. The f lame shrank to an orange ball, guttered, and went out. He paused, one hand on the post, and gazed along the street behind him as if waiting for the city to stir it- self and shake off sleep.

The candle wax had sealed itself in a smooth, hard film over the back of her hand. When she f lexed her palm it cracked in shards onto the carpet. She trailed her fingers across the burnt skin, to the soft inside of her wrist. Her pulse came in a quick, restless beat, echoing the dull thud which knocked against her stomach. What if he was seriously ill? This was the terror that had kept her awake as a child, when his booming voice and unruff led calm had been the only thing to puncture the gloom and silence of the house after her mother had died.

After a moment she stepped out from behind the curtain and lit the lamp at the dressing table, illuminating an assortment of brushes and combs, bottles of perfume, scented oils, and china powder boxes. She brushed out her hair until it became a crackling, fiery mass of cop- per curls, then dampened it with lavender water and wove it into a long plait. Her ref lection looked back at her from the small mirror on the table. At nineteen years old she had the sense that her life ought to be full of opportunity, but instead she felt as if she were suffocating. She shook her head slightly, running her hand over her plait, and saw, in the ref lection, the two porcelain dolls her father had given her as a child sitting on a chair by the bed. They stared back at her with glassy eyes, silence breathing from between their half-opened lips.

There was a knock at the door. “The doctor is waiting for you, Miss.”

He had been sho wn into the morning room on the ground f loor, and she found him standing at the window with his hat already in his hands, ready to leave.

“How is my father?”

“Sleeping.” Then, walking a little way towards her: “I have looked forward to seeing you again, Miss Irvine, though I might have hoped it would be under better circumstances.” His warmth disconcerted her, and though she couldn’t have said why, she found it threatening. His eyes, she noticed, were very pale, almost gray in the half-light that warmed the green glass at the garden window. They were intent and watchful, and very bright: without them his face would have been a mask. She didn’t think he was a handsome man—perhaps he looked too serious to be handsome—but he had a certain intensity which demanded your attention.

“Should I be concerned?” she asked, and when he didn’t reply: “Dr. Matthews, tell me—is something wrong with him?”

The doctor stood perfectly still, almost a silhouette against the window, with the fingertips of one cupped hand resting on the corner of her desk. There was something cold-blooded about him. Where the light caught the edge of his face, she could see his skin was sallow and drawn. He must have been up all night. He licked at his lips to moisten them. “I think he is suffering from nervous exhaustion.”

“Nervous exhaustion?” She gave a small laugh. “You’re sure it’s nothing else?”

He didn’t reply.

“I don’t think you know my father, Dr. Matthews. He isn’t the ner- vous type.”

“They often aren’t.”

“And what, in your professional opinion, has brought this exhaus- tion on?”

“Miss Irvine, you should get some sleep.” He touched her lightly on her upper arm. “There is no use in worrying.”

She shivered, shrugging off his hand, which might have been there out of professional concern but seemed to assume an intimacy be- tween them. She regretted not having dressed before coming down. “Thank you, but I’m all right.”

Then after a moment, she said, “Dr. Matthews, what concerns my father concerns me also.”

“I suspect I couldn’t tell you anything about him that you don’t already know.”

Whatever Edwin Matthews might think, this wasn’t necessarily true. There was very little she knew about her father’s life outside the house.

“I should like to know if he said something to you.”

“Your father and I talked—yes—but for the most part about mining in Kimberley.”

“He has investments in coal?”

“No!” He gave a thin, dry laugh. “Diamond mining, and he didn’t mention investments. Kimberley is in South Africa. I live at the Cape.” She f lushed. Of course, Kimberley was the famous diamond-mining town.

“Who painted these?” Edwin had picked up the watercolors of her father’s roses which were laid out on the desk.

“I did.” The weather had kept her indoors, and she had spent most of the past two weeks at her easel in the morning room. There had been few visitors, and the time had been marked out by the tapping of her paintbrush as she cleaned it in the jar and the muff led voices of the tradesmen which drifted up from the kitchen below.

“They’re very good.” He was looking at her closely, as if adjusting some calculation in her favor, and she felt an old annoyance. This was the same arrogance he had had as a child, always judging the world according to his own criteria.

“Were you taught to paint?” he asked.

“A little.” She shrugged. “But always portraits. I prefer to paint plants.” Frances enjoyed the meticulous task of committing every detail—the veins, hairs, and shifts in color which most eyes failed to notice—to the page. The painting was always a compromise. It looked so little like the thing you painted, but its difference—the struggle for representation—was also its beauty. She pointed to the cut blooms in a jar on the table. “My father’s roses. They’re lovely, don’t you think?”

“Perhaps, but I have never liked domesticated plants. There is some- thing excessive in their prettiness.” He paused. “They seem decorative to a fault.”

“But splendid nonetheless.”

“I can’t admire splendor if the cost is sterility.” He gestured to her watercolors. “These roses are either grown from cuttings because they can’t propagate themselves, or they are grafted on to the stronger roots of other plants to help them survive. They have to be nurtured by the careful gardener in a perfectly controlled environment. Mon- strosities, Darwin has called them. Deviations from their true form in nature.”

“And if they were left to grow in the wild?” she asked, curious. “They would either die or revert back to their aboriginal stock.” He put the pictures down and said, “I should leave you to rest.” As he walked past her towards the door, she stopped him, not wanting him to go without some kind of explanation.

“I don’t see what could have brought it on,” she said, insisting. “I have never seen my father under pressure. He isn’t afraid of anything.”

“We are all afraid of something, Miss Irvine,” he said in a quiet voice, his cool gaze flickering over her. “Some of us are just better at hiding it than others.”

His words unlocked a kernel of fear. When he was gone she felt it growing inside her, winding cold tendrils round her ribs, and letting an agony of sadness seep into the edges of her exhaustion.

The Fever Tree
by by Jennifer McVeigh

  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Berkley Trade
  • ISBN-10: 0425264912
  • ISBN-13: 9780425264911