Chapters 3-4 Summary

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Chapter 3

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.

Chapter 4

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 gossip and tall tales in the coffeehouse."

Today the main topic of conversation is the strange illness that cut down Polly and others in the area. Mr. Carris asserts that it is being caused by "the heap of rotting coffee beans on Ball's Wharf" while one of the government clerks suggests that it has been brought to the city by the Santo Domingan refugees who live down by the river.

A doctor at an adjoining table overhears the conversation and interjects that it is not just the refugees who have contracted the fever. Mary Shewall, a fine, upstanding citizen, has succumbed to the malady as well.

The doctor believes that a yellow fever epidemic may be in the making, but the lawyer rebuffs this notion, arguing that the dreaded disease has not been seen in Philadelphia for more than thirty years. The doctor agrees that it is too early to tell but notes that some citizens are sending their wives and children up to the country "to healthful air and cool breezes."

As the workday finally draws to a close, the customers rise from their seats and bid their companions farewell. Mattie is in charge of figuring the bills and collecting the money owed as Mother is hopelessly inept at all things mathematical.

When she is done with her sumptuary duties, Mattie goes to the kitchen to assist with the cleanup that had been Polly's responsibility. When she offers to help Mother put away the clean china, the tired woman snaps, "Don't be ridiculous . . . you're exhausted . . . Polly will do it in the morning."

After a moment of stunned silence, Mother corrects herself, saying that she will finish the task on her own and ordering Mattie to go to bed as she will have to get up early the next day to clean out the fireplace. 

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Chapters 5-6 Summary