Summary: Chapter Twenty-Three: September 28th, 1793

Matilda stays at Eliza’s overnight and helps Eliza and her family with cleaning and caring for the children. Mother Smith, a tiny elderly woman who visits Joseph’s house often, warns Matilda not to love Nell because then she’ll never be able to give her up. Matilda knows that Mother Smith speaks the truth. Knowing she is not equipped to take care of a child, Matilda decides to bring Nell to the orphan house. When they arrive at the orphan house, the woman who answers the door says they are unable to take in any more children. So, Matilda and Nell stay with Eliza’s family, and Matilda begins helping Eliza with her work at the Free African Society. 

Summary: Chapter Twenty-Four: October 1st, 1793

Several days have passed since Matilda started staying at Eliza’s. Matilda visits sick patients with Eliza and remembers when she suffered with the fever. One night, Matilda and Eliza return home to find that Robert, William, and Nell are sick with the fever. Knowing that they need fresh air to cool them down in order to recover, Matilda suggests moving the sick to the coffeehouse.

Summary: Chapter Twenty-Five: October 14th, 1793

Matilda and Eliza transport the children to the coffeehouse in a wagon. They spend several days caring for the children, and eventually Eliza suggests finding a doctor who will bleed them. Matilda urges Eliza against this, saying bleeding a patient with yellow fever is more likely to kill them than make them better. Eliza accepts Matilda’s warning but doesn’t know what else to do for the sick children. Matilda goes outside to get more water and, overwhelmed with despair and sorrow, falls asleep on the ground in the garden.

Analysis: Chapters 23–25

Matilda demonstrates her maturity in the way she faces new challenges in these chapters. She embraces the role of caretaker with Nell, but when Mother Smith tells Matilda she should give Nell to the orphanage, Matilda struggles with putting aside her own interests and doing the right thing. In the end, Matilda does take Nell to the orphanage, confirming her maturity. Matilda continues to show growth when she pushes through emotionally painful images as she cares for fever victims and takes on extra work. When the children get sick and Eliza becomes emotional, clouding her judgment, Matilda’s calm resourcefulness emerges again. While Matilda cares for Nell, she knows that she must put emotion aside to care for her in the best way possible. Matilda had previously described her own mother as emotionless, but Lucille had been caring for Matilda this same way, and Matilda now realizes why. As Eliza starts to cry about the sick children, Matilda takes control, further demonstrating her transition into a competent adult. Caring for the twins proves Matilda’s toughest challenge yet, but all her hardships have led her to and prepared her for this moment.

This section of the novel explores the confusing and contradictory medical approaches during the yellow fever epidemic. Dr. Rush, a major proponent of bloodletting to treat yellow fever, remerges with more faulty advice. Eliza explains that the Free African Society was called upon to help as Dr. Rush suggested that Black people couldn’t catch the fever. As Black people volunteered to treat the sick, the fever took hold of them, too, showing again that the disease does not discriminate based on class or race. In a demonstration of how much Matilda has learned, she makes a life-saving decision about the treatment of the children. When Eliza suggests they find a doctor to apply bloodletting to the children, Matilda argues that it could do more harm than good.  As Eliza exits the pharmacy, she contemplates yet another perspective on the epidemic, that of the pharmacist who profits from suffering, in addition to the rats, thieves, and coffin makers. In tragedy, there is always someone willing to profit for themselves. Juxtaposed with Eliza’s generosity and refusal to accept payment from the sick, Matilda learns more difficult lessons about the different ways people deal with human suffering.