Chapters 19-20 Summary

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Chapter 19

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 outside to scare the intruders away.

Before she can execute her plan, however, the tall man takes Grandfather's sword from the mantle. Playfully, he brandishes it wildly, nearly striking Mattie, who screams as she ducks out of the way. In the confusion that follows, the girl runs to the door and manages to undo the lock. She races outside, but the tall man catches her and carries her, writhing, back to the house. He slaps her, demanding that she reveal where the establishment's strongbox is hidden, but Grandfather appears at the door in his nightshirt, with a rifle aimed at the miscreant's heart.

Grandfather shouts, "Get away from my granddaughter!" The tall thief, noticing the old man's frailty, makes light of his threat and again demands to know the whereabouts of the strongbox. Breathing heavily, Grandfather counts to three, then fires, just as the tall man leaps out of the way. Grandfather falls to the floor, and the thief leaps upon him, but Mattie picks up the old man's sword and swings, opening a bloody wound on the attacker's shoulder. The man and his accomplice escape out the window, and Mattie chases them for a block, before she realizes that they will not return.

When she gets back to the house, Grandfather is sitting up, and he smiles at her with loving pride. Mattie turns to fetch a pillow to make him comfortable, but he pulls her toward him and asks her to stay. As the old man's eyes dim, he tenderly apologizes for leaving her alone; tears stream down Mattie's face as she bends to kiss his forehead, and she hears his last words, "My sweet Mattie. Love you."

Realizing that her beloved grandfather is gone, Mattie shrieks to the heavens. Overcome with rage, she again takes the sword and attacks a nearby chair "as if it were Death itself." When her ire is spent, she kneels by Grandfather's body, closes his eyes, and covers him with a clean tablecloth. She passes the rest of the night "kneeling by the side of the finest man [she] had ever known."

Chapter 20

When morning comes, Mattie is awakened by a hoarse voice calling, "Bring out your dead!" Realizing that she cannot hide from what has happened, she runs after a ragged man pushing a death cart, who returns to retrieve Grandfather's body for burial. Mattie accompanies the cart to the burial square, where thirty or forty workers are digging methodically, laying the hordes of dead to rest. Two men take Grandfather's body and roughly sew it into a shroud, but as they are about to sling his remains into an open grave, Mattie shouts at them, "Stop!" She demands to know where the minister is, but she is told that he is overwhelmed with the care of the sick and will come later in the day to pray over the dead all at once. When she continues to insist vehemently on a proper burial for her grandfather, one of the workers hands her a worn copy of the Psalms, and as she reads, the grave diggers pause and bow their heads respectfully, joining their voices with hers as one. 

After burying Grandfather, Mattie wanders the streets, her mind whirling. She could try to get to the Ludingtons' farm, or go to work at the orphan house or at Bush Hill, but in the end, none of these options seems right. She decides to go to the market to get some food but finds that it is deserted, except for the rats running rampant. She is momentarily comforted to find that Mr. Brown is still at work at the newspaper office, but he cannot help her, as he is struggling against all odds to keep the paper open; it is the last mode of communication left in the wasteland that Philadelphia has become.

Mattie continues to wander the streets, passing people weeping in doorways and death carts rattling by. One woman chases her away from a neighborhood with a stick, fearing that she is infected with the fever. As she meanders on, trying to reestablish her bearings, Mattie almost trips over a china-faced doll with a shattered head lying by the curb. Picking up the doll, she hears the sound of whimpering coming from an open doorway; peeking in, she sees a small child huddled in the corner, keening. Mattie offers the child the doll, and the child responds with a single word: "Broken." When Mattie asks where her mama and papa are, the little girl whispers, "Mama's broken too."

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Chapters 17-18 Summary


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