After Gene has showered to wash away the sticky residue of the Naguamsett River, Brinker Hadley comes across the hall to visit him. Brinker is nattily dressed, looking like "the standard preparatory school article" in his gray gabardine suit, conservative tie, and cordovan shoes. Making himself at home, Brinker comments jokingly that Gene must wield quite a bit of influence to have a room all to himself, and he facetiously suggests that Gene must have plotted his roommate's demise to achieve this end. Brinker's playful accusations strike too close to the truth, making Gene very uncomfortable. Gene tries to change the subject, suggesting that they go down to the Butt Room for a smoke. The Butt Room, a drab, unpleasant place in the basement of the dormitory, is occupied by about ten smokers, and Brinker continues his joking, pushing Gene ahead of him and announcing that he is turning the "prisoner...over to the proper authorities." As the other boys join in the banter, Gene at first reacts angrily, then tries to play along, but there is an "unsettling current" in the atmosphere. Gene soon leaves, saying that he has to get back to his studies. After he is gone, the boys note that Gene had come "all the way down (there) and didn't even have a smoke."
The incident in the Butt Room is quickly forgotten, as the students become immersed in "classes and sports and clubs...(and) the war." The events occurring in the world encroach upon Devon gradually. First, there is a call for volunteers to help harvest the local apple crop, because the usual workers are all involved in the war effort. Winter arrives, and the boys are asked to help clear the snow at the railroad yard; Gene and most of his classmates volunteer. The exception is Leper Lepellier, who, seemingly oblivious to what is going on around him, goes out skiing, looking for a beaver dam. Gene alone appreciates Leper's innocent devotion to the natural world; the other boys make fun of him, regarding him as odd and completely out of touch. The work at the railroad yard is grueling, and the lightheartedness which had characterized the job at the apple orchard is gone. When the tracks are cleared, a train passes through, and the boys cheer heartily when they discover that the cars are filled with soldiers, "all young...clean and energetic." The experience causes Gene and the other volunteers to evaluate their own situation at Devon, and, finding that their studies seem irrelevant and meaningless in the face of what is going on in the real world, they are seized with longing to move on with their lives and enlist. Brinker in particular is anxious to prove his mettle, declaring that he is going to leave Devon and enlist the very next day. His words thrill Gene to the core. It is "a night made for hard thoughts," and Gene seriously weighs his options, deciding with unfettered enthusiasm and idealism that he, too, will take charge of his life and make that critical decision. As he "bounce(s) zestfully up the dormitory stairs," he notices abstractedly that "a warm yellow light" is streaming from beneath the door of his room. Phineas is back, and everything, instantly, is changed.