It is dark in Tom-all-Alone’s, a filthy slum in the city. Politicians argue over how to fix this area, which is rife with crime and disease. As morning breaks on the slum, Mr. Woodcourt wanders through the streets and looks around. He comes upon a woman with a bruised forehead who crouches in a doorway. He stops and, speaking to her as an equal, offers to bandage and clean her wound.
Politicians often speak about fixing slums such as Tom-all-Alone’s, but few of them have practical ideas about how to help the inhabitants in tangible, productive ways. Mr. Woodcourt, however, offers practical help because he views the people there as human beings and offers them one-to-one help based on their individual needs.
Mr. Woodcourt asks the woman if her husband gave her the bruise, and the woman begins to cry and looks away. Mr. Woodcourt asks if her husband is a brickmaker, because she has clay on her clothes, and the woman says yes. He finishes dressing the cut and then offers her money for a place to stay. The woman holds out a handful of coins, however, to prove that she has her own, and Mr. Woodcourt kindly bids her good day.
Mr. Woodcourt understands and tries to empathize with the position of the woman, without imposing on her. His help is effective and unobtrusive.
As Mr. Woodcourt leaves Tom-all-Alone’s, he passes a scrawny, sick looking boy who stumbles along the narrow streets. A few moments later, he is startled by a scream of “stop him!” and sees the woman he has treated chasing the boy. He thinks the boy has robbed her and gives chase, but he cannot catch him until the boy runs into a dead end and collapses, exhausted, in a corner.
Mr. Woodcourt is reluctant to knock the boy down because he is so sick and must wait for him to exhaust himself or hit a dead end in a street, as he does.
The woman draws up beside Mr. Woodcourt and exclaims that she has found the boy at last. Mr. Woodcourt asks what he has done, and the woman replies that he has been kind to her. The woman explains that the boy, Jo, has been ill and was staying at her house until a young lady very kindly took him home. Jo, however, ran away in the night and Jenny, the woman, has been looking for him ever since. Jenny begins to cry and shouts at Jo that the young lady who took him in has been ill and disfigured because of him and that he has been ungrateful.
Jo has been missing since the night he escaped from Esther’s home and has likely had no treatment or care since that evening. Jenny feels that he has treated Esther ungratefully because she thinks he ran away, and Esther became ill with the smallpox as a result of her kindness to Jo.
Mr. Woodcourt has a sudden realization and turns away from the boy in horror. He calms himself and, after a moment, asks the boy where he has come from and why he left the lady’s house in the night. Jo says that he does not know where he comes from but that he hangs around the area because Mr. Snagsby gives him money. As for leaving the lady’s house, Jo says that he was “took” in the night by a gentleman who is everywhere and who sees everything.
Mr. Woodcourt is angry with the boy at first because he realizes that Jo is the child who gave a dangerous illness to Esther. However, he quickly remembers that it is not the boy’s fault and helps him despite his feelings. Jo explains that he did not run away but was taken away. It seems that he is referring to Mr. Bucket, the private investigator, who always seems to know where Jo is.
Jo says he was put in hospital but, when he was released, he was told to “move on” and now, he says, he will “move on” to the cemetery. Mr. Woodcourt says that he will find a better place for Jo and, after letting him say goodbye to Jenny, he leads him out of Tom-all-Alone’s.
In saying that he’s going to “move on” to the cemetery, Jo implies that the authorities will move him on so often that eventually, he will grow exhausted and will die.