Fourteen-year-old Mattie Cook is roused abruptly by her mother on the morning of August 16, 1793. The weather is stifling and a mosquito buzzes annoyingly around her head as she sluggishly responds to her parent's nagging. Polly, the serving girl who helps at the coffeehouse downstairs, is late and there is work to be done. As Mattie dresses, Silas, the family cat, pounces on a mouse and the girl, shooing the angry feline away, retrieves the rodent, now deceased. As she leans out the window which overlooks the teeming Philadelphia street below to dispose of the dead rodent, Mattie hears the sound of the blacksmith's hammer on his anvil and conjectures that Polly is probably late because she has stopped to visit with Matthew, the blacksmith's son.
Mattie herself does not like the blacksmith's shop, with its "roaring furnace [and] sparks crackling in the air." She prefers the waterfront which lies to the east; on a clear day, she can see the masts of the ships tied up at the wharves on the Delaware River from her window. A few blocks south of that lies the Walnut Street Prison; it was there where the French aeronaut Jean Pierre Blanchard had recently launched the first hot-air balloon flown in the United States. Mattie yearns to one day break free of the ties that bind her to her tawdry life, just like that "remarkable balloon" that had risen from the prison courtyard, escaping the confines of earth.
The Cook Coffeehouse had been built by Mattie's father soon after the American War for Independence ended in 1783. The bustling establishment is located in the center of the city, near the corner of Seventh and High Streets, two blocks from the home of President Washington. Mattie's father, a carpenter by trade, had fallen from a ladder and died only two months after the coffehouse had opened. Mattie's paternal grandfather had subsequently moved in, and the three...
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Mattie cannot believe her mother's words. She and Polly had been friends from the cradle and had grown up playing dolls together.
Mother explains that the girl had been taken with a fever only briefly, and three quarters of an hour later had cried out and then died in her own bed. Everyone is mystified as to the nature of the deadly and mysterious malady that had stricken Polly as she had been in robust health and had never been known as sickly.
Mattie closes her eyes, picturing her friend "happy, joking, maybe stealing a kiss with Matthew." Startled, Mother lays a hand on her forehead, asking if she is feeling all right.
Eliza suggests that Mattie should go over to the Logans' house to take some food for the family and pay her respects, but Mother does not want her daughter near there, "not with a sickness in the air." Mother says that Mattie has not played with Polly "for years" and callously adds that "the girl was our servant, not a friend."
Desperately Mattie argues to the contrary and begs to at least attend Polly's funeral, but her mother will not allow even that. Infuriated, the girl shouts, "Why are you so horrid?" causing Mother to demand an apology at once. Mattie complies with words that are dutiful but without feeling.
Although they are forced to work together serving the guests at the coffeehouse that afternoon, things are still strained between Mattie and Mother and each avoids making eye contact with the other.
Mattie goes over to serve Grandfather, who sits at a table in the corner of the crowded room with "two government officials, a lawyer, and Mr. Carris," who is the owner of an export business.
Grandfather, known to his contemporaries as Captain William Farnsworth Cook of the Pennsylvania Fifth Regiment, had been an army officer under General Washington and is "the heart of all...
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By a week later, sixty-four people have succumbed to the mysterious illness in Philadelphia. Rumors abound that the fever originated near the docks and as a consequence, consumers begin avoiding that area and flock instead to the upper end of High Street, where the Cook Coffeehouse is located.
Mattie works from dawn to dusk every day as Mother, Eliza, and she struggle to accommodate the additional customers. The young girl gets no respite from her grueling routine until Grandfather finally convinces Mother to let her go to the market to run errands one day.
The market stalls cover three blocks in the center of the city. Mattie buys eggs, cabbages wilted from the drought, fresh lemons, and some moldy cheese from various vendors.
As she passes the butcher's stall, she is grabbed from behind and spun through the air. Mattie is pleased to recognize her "attacker" as Nathaniel Benson, who looks "much more a man and less a boy than he had a few months earlier" when she had seen him last.
Mother is not happy about Mattie's interest in handsome Nathaniel because he works as a painter's assistant and as such has "no future." Ironically, Mother's own family had essentially disowned her when she had insisted on marrying Mattie's father, a lowly carpenter.
Mattie and Nathaniel engage in innocent banter for a while until the bell at Christ Church begins to toll. The marketplace falls silent as the denizens count twenty-one peals; every time someone in the city dies, the bell rings once for each year the unfortunate person had lived.
The sobering sound of the bell brings Nathaniel to wonder if the deceased had been another fever victim, and Mattie, thinking of Polly, begins to cry. Nathaniel comforts her by putting a hand on her shoulder, and in the awkwardness that follows, Mattie takes her leave.
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At the Oglivie mansion, Mattie and her mother are escorted to "a drawing room as large as the entire first floor of the coffee shop" by a maid. After a short time Penilla Oglivie "sails" in, complaining that the summer has been the "worst of [her] life" and declaring that she is counting on her visitors to "lighten [her] mood."
Mrs. Oglivie's outfit glimmers with richness in contrast to the old clothes Mother has pieced together for herself and Mattie. The house itself exudes opulence; the fixtures and furnishings are lavish and expensive.
Colette and Jeannine, the two Oglivie daughters, join the gathering. Colette, the older of the two, is pale and has dark rings under her eyes; Jeannine's cheeks "[shine] pink and chubby as a baby pig's."
The younger sister takes an instant dislike to Mattie and surreptitiously makes sure that the delicate desserts served remain out of the reach of her visitor. When Mattie's mother, determined to find a future marriage partner for her daughter in the well-heeled household, indelicately persists in trying to turn the conversation to the subject of the Oglivie sons, Jeannine perceives her intent.
When it is clear that Penilla Oglivie, who is prattling on about the "gross injustice" that her plans for summer partying are being ruined "because the lower class [is falling] ill," does not share her daughter's insight, Jeannine rudely exclaims, "Mama, must you be so thick-headed? Mrs. Cook is asking if you might consider Miss Cook as a wife for one of our brothers."
At that point Colette, who is obviously ill, crumples to the floor in a faint. While Mrs. Oglivie shrieks, Mother goes over and lays her hand against the stricken girl's forehead. Colette is burning with fever.
The church bells toll incessantly from that day as scores of Philadelphia's denizens succumb to the mysterious...
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Unbelievably, Mother is alive, and Grandfather and Mattie struggle to carry her inside. With Eliza's help they put her to bed, where she sleeps fitfully, hot but shivering, for the rest of the afternoon.
Grandfather, who insists that Mother has just been overcome by the heat, consults with Mr. Rowley, who is "not a proper physician, but . . . sees sick folk and prescribes medicines." Eliza, who has just returned from a meeting at the Free African Society about the fever, says that all the "real doctors" are down on Water Street, where things are so bad that "bodies are piling up like firewood."
Mr. Rowley examines Mother and proclaims that she does not have yellow...
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The passengers are tormented by hoards of mosquitoes as the half-starved horse pulls the wagon laboriously out of the city. Mattie makes a wry joke, and Grandfather's laughter brings on a coughing spell of such severity that his face reddens alarmingly.
The old man quickly recovers, however, and begins to drill his granddaughter on "soldiering lessons" to help pass the time. After Mattie dutifully and accurately answers his question about "three things [a soldier] needs to fight," he settles back for a nap and Mattie rests against her beloved grandfather's chest, lulled by the rhythmic beating of his heart.
A short time later, four horsemen armed with muskets stop the...
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Two days later, Grandfather and Mattie are still stranded in the vicinity of the stream, subsisting on a meager diet of berries and water. Mattie knows that her grandfather needs a doctor, but she has no idea how to get him to one.
As the minutes pass, she grows increasingly frightened and discouraged. After bathing in the stream that day, Mattie fashions a makeshift net out of her petticoat and tries to catch some fish, but her attempt is futile.
Grandfather exhibits symptoms of a bad cold, and although the weather is stifling, he shivers and complains that he is cold. Mattie is afraid to leave him alone, but he convinces her to go off in search of help.
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Mattie has survived the most critical part of her illness, but she still has a long road ahead of her to wellness. As she lies in the hospital regaining her strength, she hears endless stories of the chaos that reigns in Philadelphia. Small children have been found huddled by the corpses of their parents, and many victims have been abandoned by their loved ones, left to die alone in empty houses. Thieves rove unchecked in the city, stealing valuables off the bodies of the dead and dying.
On the tenth morning of her stay at Bush Hill, Mattie is visited by the famed Dr. Deveze himself. The good physician declares that after one more night, she will be strong enough to be moved to...
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The wagon finally delivers Grandfather and Mattie to the coffee shop. The two are dismayed to find that the place has been looted and that the first floor is in a shambles. The second floor apparently has been untouched, but while the stench of illness lingers, Mother is not there.
The air in the dwelling is stifling, and although Mattie opens all the windows and doors, there is no fresh breeze to be had. Grandfather, whose face has taken on an alarmingly red hue, manages to find a place to sit among the wreckage. He conjectures that Mother must have somehow gone to the Ludingtons' farm with Eliza.
Mattie thinks that he may be right about Mother, but she knows that...
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Mattie is jolted awake by heavy footsteps at the window, as two men, one tall and the other short, climb in through the open shutters. As the intruders rummage through the house, searching for valuables, Mattie, undetected in the shadows, holds down her rising panic, trying to decide what to do. If she screams, she will wake Grandfather, and the thieves might kill them both. She can try to escape through the open window and run for help, but the neighborhood is virtually deserted, and besides, it is unlikely that anyone will bother with "a trifling robbery when there [is] death at every door." Mattie decides that her best chance is to try to slip through the window and cause a commotion...
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The little girl, whose name is Nell, shows Mattie the body of her mother, who has clearly died of yellow fever, then she speaks no more. Mattie does not know what to do; she knows she cannot provide for Nell, and the mother needs burying.
She appeals to the neighbors for help, but none who answers the door knows the family, and all have more than enough trouble of their own. Someone refers her to "Reverend Allen's group," the Free African Society. They are known for ministering to the sick, and two of their members have just been seen in the area.
Mattie hoists Nell on her hip and heads over to Fifth Street, where the group holds their meetings. Her destination is a...
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When she awakens the next day, Mattie finds that Eliza already has gone out to minister to the sick and that Mother Smith has come to care for Joseph and the children. Mattie diligently does the housework—cooking, scrubbing, and cleaning—although her efforts largely fail to meet the old woman's exacting standards.
When evening falls, Mother Smith tells the little children a story and then sends them off to bed. The twins retire to their mattress without protest, but Nell climbs into Mattie's lap and falls asleep, sucking her thumb.
As she prepares to leave, Mother Smith warns Mattie not to fall in love with the little girl; she points out...
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Using a mule cart secured by Mother Smith, Eliza and Mattie transport the children in the dead of night from Joseph's home to the coffeehouse. The city is darker than Mattie has ever seen as the lamplighters have all either fled Philadelphia or died.
After they settle the children in the downstairs room as comfortably as possible on a mattress, Eliza sits beside them with her head bowed in prayer.
Mattie finds that caring for the children is much more difficult than ministering to the patients they had visited; just as one tot would fall asleep, having had his or her needs met, another would abruptly awaken, vomiting and crying.
Eliza gently treats the...
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As word of the first frost spreads, hundreds of people who had fled Philadelphia during the epidemic come back to the city. In contrast to those who had stayed, these returnees are healthy and well fed; their seeming obliviousness to the suffering their old neighbors have endured makes it difficult for Mattie not to look upon them with a touch of bitterness.
Nathaniel Benson is a frequent visitor at the coffeehouse during these days of transition, and he and Mattie walk outside together as often as they can, watching as Philadelphia begins to regain an appearance more in keeping with its stature as the capital of the United States. The young man thinks that he would like to paint...
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Mattie dashes across the street to embrace her mother, who feels like "a frail bird" in her arms. The woman introduces her good friend Mrs. Ludington and then, smiling weakly, says that she needs to sit down.
Nathaniel steps forward and greets Mrs. Cook, who remembers him by name. Mattie waits for her to make a "sharp-tongued remark" about the young man's presence, but to her surprise, Mother says nothing.
As Mrs. Cook, aided by Mattie and Mrs. Ludington, steps into the coffeehouse, the room falls silent. Initially shocked by the woman's wasted appearance, the customers soon remember their manners and rise as one to show their respect.
Eliza rushes forward...
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