Chapters 15-16 Summary
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 787
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 the barn, where those who are at a more advanced stage of recovery are being housed.
Mattie is overwhelmed with terror at the thought of the unknown future that lies ahead, but Mrs. Flagg wisely urges her to focus only on getting better for the next few days; she can work toward solving "tomorrow's problems" as they come.
Surprisingly, the barn is a well kept, almost cheery place, and Grandfather, who is helping with the organizational aspects of the healing establishment, looks in on Mattie several times a day as she progresses in her recuperation.
Despite Mrs. Flagg's advice not to fret about what is to come, Mattie cannot help but wonder about Mother, from whom there has been no word, and about Eliza, who lives close to the river, where the disease is believed to have originated. She thinks too about Nathaniel and hopes he is well and remembering her.
After six more days, Mattie is visited by a clerk who informs her that now that she is well enough to get about on her own, she will be released and sent to the orphan house. Fortunately, Grandfather steps in and indignantly demands that his granddaughter be remanded to his care. The clerk indifferently assents, and says that the two of them may ride along on a wagon going into the central part of the city tomorrow.
After the official leaves, Grandfather is seized with a coughing fit, but when it has passed, he brushes aside the concerns of Mattie and Mrs. Flagg and proclaims himself more than ready to take on his responsibilities.
Grandfather and Mattie find themselves riding into the city with five fever orphans who are being sent to the orphan house. The children are accompanied by Mrs. Bowles, a kind, capable woman dressed in "Quaker gray."
One of the children in her care, a thin girl with a dirty neck and torn dress, appears to be around Mattie's age. The girl, who has lost her family and whose name is Susannah, is coming to the orphanage both because she has nowhere else to go and to help with the younger children. Mrs. Bowles wonders if Mattie might consider doing the same as she is "young and strong" and has already had the fever, so cannot catch it again. There is a great need for extra hands at the orphanage.
Mattie politely declines, explaining that she must look after her grandfather and wait for her mother, whose whereabouts are unknown. Mrs. Bowles warns the girl that conditions in Philadelphia are dire, as there is little food to be had and "thieves and wild men lurk on every corner."
Mattie asks what will happen to Susannah once the fever crisis has passed. Mrs. Bowles responds quietly that the girl's prospects are not good; she will likely be hired out as a servant or scullery maid and hopefully will eventually find a husband.
Mattie reflects that her own situation is much more fortunate. She has the coffeehouse, which she plans to manage skillfully. In her daydreams, she can imagine Mother's surprise when she returns to see what a good job her daughter has done with the business.
As the wagon enters the city, Mattie sees that conditions are even worse than Mrs. Bowles has described. Philadelphia is a wasteland, with the dead and dying lying in the streets. Death carts trundle by to pick up corpses and dispose of them in mass graves, without ceremony. Coffins are no longer used; some of the deceased are hastily sewn into winding sheets, but most are buried in the clothes in which they died.
The orphan house is an ordinary-looking dwelling that belongs to a gentleman named William Ralston. The wagon stops and the children disembark, shepherded by Susannah. Mrs. Bowles stops to say good-bye to Mattie and reminds her that the home can always use her help. Whatever the girl decides to do, however, the woman exhorts her to "take care."