Chapters 21-22 Summary

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Chapter 21

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 good distance away and to reach it, she must pass by the dockside taverns, where drunken sailors abound.

As she enters the most dangerous of neighborhoods, Mattie spots two black women carrying baskets on the street ahead of her, walking swiftly as they ignore the bawdy taunts of a rowdy group outside a bar. One of the women looks familiar to Mattie, and as the two turn into an alleyway and disappear from sight, she runs after them, screaming "Eliza!"

A filthy, drunken man tries to grab Mattie as she races by, but Nell, who is being carried in her arms, bites his hand. When Mattie reaches the alley, the two women are nowhere in sight; she frantically searches the area, stopping at the house of a family of fever victims at the direction of a kind woman hanging laundry.

Mattie learns that two women from the Free African Society have just left this home after delivering some bread. They had indicated that they had several other homes left to visit and are likely still in the vicinity.

Mattie runs back out to the street and in desperation sets Nell down and calls "Eliza!" with her hands cupped around her mouth. Her voice echoes and fades as she cries out again and again until finally she hears a faint response, "Who calls there?"

Mattie screams, "Eliza? It's me, Mattie!" and scans the windows anxiously. She hears the sound of a slamming door, then finds herself enveloped in the welcoming arms of her helper and friend.

Chapter 22

The awfulness of the past days hits Mattie all at once, and she cries and cries in Eliza's steady embrace. Eliza asks why she is not at the Ludingtons' with her mother, and when Mattie explains that she and Grandfather never got there, the woman decides that the girl and little Nell will come with her to her brother Joseph's house.

As they walk quickly through the darkening streets, Mattie explains what happened to her and Grandfather after they left for the country that morning three weeks ago. When Mattie asks about Mother, Eliza tells her that the last time she saw her, she had recovered from the fever and was planning to join her daughter and father-in-law at the Ludingtons' farm.

Eliza's brother's wife succumbed to the fever a week ago, and he himself is still recovering from the illness. He and his twin sons, Robert and William, are cared for during the day by Mother Smith, a capable, cantankerous woman Mattie believes is "the oldest person [she] had ever seen."

When Eliza walks into the house with Mattie and Nell, Mother Smith remarks sardonically about having two extra mouths to feed. Realizing that food is scarce, Mattie returns half her portion to the pot so that the others will have more to eat.

After supper, Mattie tells Eliza her story with all its details, about being abandoned by the farmer and his wife because Grandfather was ill, about how she struggled to take care of the old man, about the intruders at the coffee shop and Grandfather's death, about his burial only this morning, and about finding Nell.

Eliza commends the girl for doing her job well and assures her that the way things have turned out is not her fault. She then suggests that Nell and perhaps Mattie too should go to the orphan house, but Mattie begs her not to make her go, arguing that she is no longer a child and can take care of herself. 

Eliza says that they will talk about Mattie's situation again in the morning, then tells her own story. She relates that the famed Dr. Benjamin Rush himself had written to the Reverend Allen, asking for help from the Free African Society. It had been believed that Africans could not catch the fever, and the Reverend Allen, describing the request as an opportunity "for black people to show [they] are every bit as white people," had organized his "folks" to minister to the sick. Eliza proudly affirms that the group, in which she is an active member, has "cared for thousands of people without taking notice of color." Sadly, though, it soon became apparent that the doctors were wrong about the immunity of Africans to the disease, and black people started to sicken, just like everyone else.

Eliza and Mattie sit in silence for awhile, until Mattie asks, "When will it end?" Eliza assures her that the fever will vanish when the first frost arrives, and that until then, they must be strong, have faith, and find a way to endure.

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Chapters 19-20 Summary


Chapters 23-24 Summary