What happened to Matilda’s grandfather in Fever 1793? How did Grandpa save Matilda’s life for a second time?
In Fever 1793, Matilda’s grandfather saved her from two men who broke into their house. The men beat grandpa to death before they ran away, leaving Matilda alone to mourn.
Keep reading to learn about Matilda’s grandfather’s final heroic deed.
Matilda and Her Grandfather
What happened to Matilda’s grandfather in Fever 1793? It all started when they returned to their house in Philadelphia. Matilda woke to her cat, Silas, purring in her face. Grandpa was still asleep. She tiptoed down the stairs. In the light of day, she saw how filthy she was. Sweat and dirt covered her skin, and she itched. She hauled and boiled water for a bath, then scrubbed the blood and dirt from every inch of her body and hair.
With her body clean again, she needed clean clothes to wear. But everything she owned was in the trunk the farmer who’d abandoned them stole. The only option was her mother’s clothes, which she was not supposed to wear. She spoke a promise to the memory of her mother not to climb trees or roughhouse in her clean shift and blue-striped skirt. The clothes fit better than she’d thought, and she felt almost regal in them. She twirled so the skirt wooshed around her.
Grandpa was still asleep, and his breaths rattled. His face was pale and yellowed. She wanted to let him rest more, but there was work to be done. She woke him up, and in good Grandpa fashion, he immediately ordered a large breakfast of eggs, bread, and plums.
While Grandpa bathed, Matilda cleaned up the mess and cooked a meager soup. She suggested they look for meat or bread in the community, but Grandpa thought it best to stay indoors. They’d wait the fever out and wait for Lucille to come home.
Matilda doused the garden with water until the ground loosened and a few plants came back to life. She was able to dig out a few potatoes and celebrated like she’d found gold. The potatoes weren’t much, but they satiated them for the night. Between caring for Grandpa and seeing to their survival, Matilda felt herself becoming the woman of the house. She dreamed of the day she would run her own store and be rich enough to buy anything she needed. She tucked Grandpa in, took her blanket downstairs. She opened the shutters for fresh air, then read a Bible verse before bed. It’d been a good day considering. She’d gotten them through one day.
Matilda was deep in dreams of food when she woke up to the sound of two men outside the window. In the glow of the moonlight, she could make out the silhouette of a tall, thin man. The tall man looked around the room but couldn’t see Matilda hidden in the dark corner.
The tall men climbed through the window, followed by a shorter man. The short man seemed nervous and swore he’d seen smoke coming from the chimney earlier. But the tall one assured him no one was there. He instructed the short man to look for silver and pewter or anything else of value. He was going to look for the money.
Matilda held her breath as they dug through cupboards and drawers. The short man moved toward a chest next to where she slept. When he stopped to complain about the lack of light, she slid out of bed and stood against the wall in the shadows.
She didn’t know what to do. She didn’t want to wake Grandpa, knowing the men could overtake them both. She thought about slipping out a window and running for help. But who would she run to, and who would care about a small burglary when the dead were everywhere? She thought she might try to scare them off from outside, but the window was between her hiding spot and the chest the short man was now rummaging through. There was nothing to do, so she froze.
The tall man took Grandpa’s sword down from the wall and play-acted a gentleman’s duel. He lunged and swung the sword, moving closer to Matilda’s hiding spot. Suddenly, the blade just barely missed her throat, and she couldn’t help but scream. She knocked the tall man down and ran through the kitchen. She struggled with the door until the bolt came loose. She sprinted across the yard for the gate but stepped on a sharp stone and yelped loudly. The tall man grabbed her and dragged her into the house.
The short man wasn’t comfortable with the situation, especially after the tall man slapped Matilda across the face. He bound her hands and demanded to know where the money was. She said they were too late, that they’d already been robbed. The tall man was about to punch her when a noise from upstairs stopped him. Matilda tried to convince them the noise was only the cat. Everyone else had died of yellow fever, she said, which made the short man even more anxious. The tall man didn’t believe her and punched her in the face.
Just then, Mattie’s grandfather appeared at the bottom of the stairs in his nightshirt, his rifle aimed at the tall man’s heart. The short man jumped out the window and ran, but the tall man laughed. This old man wasn’t going to shoot him. Grandpa said he was counting to three. Matilda knew from experience that when Grandpa counted to three, he meant business. She was right. At three, Grandpa fired, but the tall man was able to jump out of the way in time.
The force of the blow knocked Grandpa back, and the tall man pounced on him. He punched Grandpa repeatedly. Matilda tried to pull him off, but the man shoved her to the ground. He choked Grandpa, then beat his head against the floor. Matilda saw the sword laying on the floor nearby. She knew how to handle a sword from her soldiering lessons. She raised it and slashed the man in the arm. She chased him halfway down the block before she remembered that Grandpa was hurt.
He was sitting up when she got back. In the hazy moonlight, he apologized to Matilda. His time had come too early. He was leaving her alone. Matilda wouldn’t believe it, couldn’t. After all he’d lived through, it wasn’t possible this was how he would die. She prayed for God to save him, but it was too late. Grandpa smiled and told her he knew she was a fighter. She was strong, and he loved her.
After he died, Matilda stared at the face of one of the best people she’d known, the face always filled with joy, the face that had loved her. She took the sword and demolished a chair until it was in bits. What was she supposed to do now? She pulled some clean linens from the cupboard. A package fell to her feet, but she ignored it and moved toward Grandpa’s body. She placed the sheet around him but didn’t cover his face. She stayed next to his body the whole night, praying that the sun would never rise.
Matilda had hoped the night before was a nightmare, but the sight of Grandpa’s body in the morning told her it wasn’t. Through the window, she heard a man calling for people to bring out their dead. She didn’t want to give Grandpa away, but she knew she couldn’t keep him there. She caught up to the man, and the two put Grandpa on top of a child’s and young woman’s bodies. Before they left, she placed a picture of her grandmother underneath Grandpa’s arm. If he couldn’t be buried next to her at the church, he could at least take her with him.
Matilda helped the man push the cart to the square. She thought about the grand procession Grandpa would have had, with a crowd of friends lining the streets, a white horse pulling the casket. A hero’s farewell for a true hero. Thinking about it was too much, and she started to cry.
At the square, 30 to 40 men were hard at work digging trenches and burying the dead. Two of the men sewed Grandpa into a canvas shroud and prepared to toss him in, but Matilda screamed for them to stop. They couldn’t just toss him in without a prayer. Everyone had to be prayed over before they were buried. The men explained that a preacher would come later and pray over everyone, but she wouldn’t hear it. Her grandfather was a captain and a war hero. He deserved a prayer. The cart man agreed and pulled out a book of Psalms, worn from overuse.
The two men and the rest of the grave diggers stopped working, took off their hats, and bowed their heads. As Matilda read the Lord’s Prayer, the men spoke it with her, some becoming emotional. When it was over, she thanked the men and walked away. There was nothing more she could do for Grandpa now.
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Here's what you'll find in our full Fever 1793 summary:
- What the yellow fever epidemic in 1793 in Philadelphia looked like
- How this epidemic exposed the vulnerability of everyone, including the wealthy
- How an epidemic can impact a young person