Abigail is awoken twice during the night by the sounds of a child “whimpering forlornly” above her own ceiling—she realizes that there must be a child living in the attic above her, and as she hears uneven footsteps on the stairs, she realizes the limping Dovey must be looking after it. Soon, Abigail hears Dovey limping into her own room, and pretends to be asleep. She wants to like Dovey, but does not fully trust her. Granny enters the room as well—both women are in dressing-gowns.
Abigail is still confused and disoriented, unfamiliar with the house she is in and its inhabitants. Strangest of all is the intense fascination Dovey and Granny seem to have with Abigail. Abigail is literally sleeping with one eye open as she attempts to understand her new surroundings.
The two women converse in quiet tones—Dovey tells Granny that Judah, a seaman, left to join the crew of the next ship out, as the evening fog seems to be lifting. Dovey also tells Granny that she gave Gibbie—the child upstairs—a draught to put him to sleep, but is worried about him, as he looks pale and in poor health. Dovey asks Granny whether she has a good or bad feeling about Gibbie’s health, but Granny confesses that she has no clear feelings anymore—she is all mixed up. Dovey asks Granny if she has begun to doubt whether “this little one here”—meaning Abigail—is in truth “the Stranger.”
Granny tells Dovey that she is certain about Abigail—she is the Stranger who will save the Gift for the family. Dovey agrees—she knew by Abigail’s gown that Abigail was the one, and adds that she “almost fainted” when she saw that Abigail’s dress was exactly the same as a pattern the two of them had worked out but not yet sewn.
The conversation Abigail overhears reveals that something wonky is going on with time—apparently Abigail is in possession of a dress that Granny and Dovey will sew together one day.
Abigail is pulled under into sleep, and is afraid that the two women have poisoned or drugged her. When she wakes up in the morning, she is still feeling resentful and skeptical of her hosts, and startled by the unfamiliar noises of the house she’s found herself in. She hears whining from upstairs, which she takes to be Gibbie’s; screams from another room, which she knows are Beatie’s; and lastly she hears Granny’s calming voice, making peace in the house.
Abigail wakes in a state of continued disorientation and even anger, but as she lies still and absorbs her surroundings, she begins to make sense of the noises she hears around her, and understand just a little bit more who these people are and what their relationships to one another are like.
Abigail sits up. Her head feels better, but her ankle still pains her. She looks at it beneath the blankets and sees that it is bruised and hugely swollen. Fresh from sleep, she takes stock of her situation, and realizes that she is indeed, somehow or other, in the last century. She recalls Granny and Dovey’s words from the night before, and wonders what they were talking about when they mentioned her being the Stranger who would help preserve the family’s Gift.
A new day brings a little bit of healing, and Abigail is able to take stock of her situation without the veil of pain and deep confusion previously hung over her. She still doesn’t understand much of what is going on, but she knows one thing for certain—she is not in her own time.
Dovey comes into the room with fresh warm water for Abigail to wash up with. Dovey asks Abigail if she is able to remember anything about who she is or how she got to them. Abigail says that all she remembers is her name, and that she is fourteen. Dovey is surprised—she tells Abigail she’d assumed she was Beatie’s age, as she hasn’t filled out at all. Dovey tells Abigail to get dressed. When Abigail asks for her own clothes, Dovey, looking uncomfortable, tells Abigail that her shift had been so stained with blood and dirt that Granny burnt it. Abigail begins to wail, but reminds herself that she needs to keep a clear and even head.
Clothes in this novel often symbolize a connection between two different time periods. When Abigail is denied her own dress, there is the sense that the connection between her own time and wherever she is now has been disrupted. Getting back is going to be more difficult than she’d assumed.
Granny comes into the room to check on Abigail, and when Abigail asks if she can get up and walk about the house, Granny insists that Abigail needs to stay in bed. Abigail says she’s bored, and asks if there’s anything she can read. Dovey and Granny are pleasantly surprised that Abigail can read, and lament that Beatie and Gibbie have not been able to have a good education in the colonies. As women of the Tallisker family, Granny says, a low education is not good enough for them, though it may be good enough for the Bow family. Dovey chides Granny for looking down on the Bows, reminding her that Uncle Samuel had to go off and fight for his country—he had more important things to worry about than education.
Abigail listens to the conversations going on around her, and as she engages with the Bows, she realizes that she holds a power few of the people around her do—an education. This gives her a sense of being in possession of wisdom, but she will soon realize that wisdom and power are all relative in this strange new world.
Granny tells Abigail that all there is to read is the family Bible, but Abigail shakes her head. Granny anxiously asks Abigail if she is “godless,” and Abigail claims that she doesn’t remember. Granny implores Dovey to tell Beatie to read to Abigail from the Bible later that day.
Abigail realizes that religion is especially important in this time and place, and that while she may have a more well-rounded contemporary education, a religious background is what is more highly valued here.
Abigail lies in bed and listens to the sounds of the nineteenth-century Rocks district outside her window. She has to use a chamber pot to relieve herself, which embarrasses her, but she also gets to spend some time with Dovey and learn more about her. Dovey’s real name is Dorcas Tallisker, and she limps because when she was young, she and Judah got into a trundle-cart accident in which Dovey broke her thigh-bone. Dovey tells Abigail all about the beautiful but harsh Orkney isles, north of Scotland, where the Bows and the Talliskers come from.
Abigail’s morning is a bit uncomfortable and certainly unconventional, but as she absorbs more and more of her surroundings, she reacts with a surprising amount of grace and acceptance toward the strange new world she’s found herself in. She cannot remain in a state of shock forever—she is actually living with these people now.
Dovey is brushing Abigail’s hair when the two of them hear footsteps coming up the stairs. Dovey tells Abigail that Uncle Samuel Bow is coming up to apologize to her, and urges Abigail to try to forgive him, as he is a “pitiful man.” Uncle Samuel, when he comes through the door, is stooped and spindly, and his eyes are crossed badly—Dovey whispers to Abigail that it is an effect of a head wound he suffered when he was a soldier, and it is also responsible for his “spells.”
Abigail realizes that the man who waylaid her in the street is indeed part of the Bow family, and is perhaps not responsible for his actions, or thus for Abigail’s accident. The Bow family clearly has a great deal of love and sympathy for this man despite his outbursts and seemingly violent potential.
Uncle Samuel enters the room and apologizes to Abigail, insisting that sometimes he believes he is off fighting the Russians again, and goes into a different world. Abigail assures Mr. Bow that she is fine, and tells him that she forgives him. Mr. Bow tells Abigail that he hasn’t been himself since his wife Amelia died, and he begins talking about Abigail being the Stranger, but Beatie, who has been listening at the door, appears and shushes him. Dovey asks Beatie what she did in school that day, and Beatie replies glumly that she only got to work on curtsying and sewing.
With each exchange she has with the Bows, Abigail learns more about the world she is living in. It’s clear that Mr. Bow fought in a recent war and has wounds—physical and psychological—from which he has not recovered (this seems like a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, but present decades before it was recognized as a real mental health issue). It is also evident that education is vastly different here from what it is in Abigail’s time, as evidenced by Beatie’s dissatisfaction with her school curriculum.
Dovey tells Beatie that Granny wants her to read the Bible to Abigail, and suggests she read her a nice passage before leaving the room with Uncle Samuel. Beatie tells Abigail she’d rather read her the gory, violent parts of the Bible that tell of great battles, but Abigail tells Beatie to save her breath—she wants to talk to her about something else. Abigail asks Beatie if she wants to learn more than just sewing and manners, and Beatie admits that she does, but laments that as a girl she is not permitted to become a scholar. Abigail realizes that Beatie wanted to watch the children playing the game bearing her name because she wanted to know how they learned about her. Abigail tells Beatie that though she doesn’t know the reason the game is named for her, she can guess, and offers to trade Beatie her guess for Beatie’s help in getting back to the place where she time-traveled.
Beatie’s fiery, strange personality is reflected in her desire to focus on the more gory and outlandish parts of the Bible—clearly a transgressive idea in her time and place. Abigail, however, does not want to waste any time on things she has no interest in. She has a clear goal in mind—to get back to her own time—and here she attempts to leverage power over Beatie in service of that goal. She knows that to Beatie, knowledge and wisdom equal power, and she offers Beatie the chance to pursue both knowledge of her future and traditional education in exchange for return passage to her own world.
Beatie tells Abigail she does not want to go against Granny, since Granny thinks Abigail is the Stranger, and wants to keep her around. Abigail tells Beatie to go away, and turns her back to the girl. Beatie relents, and tells Abigail she will help her, but that if Granny finds out, there will be trouble. Abigail tells Beatie that she believes that the children were using Beatie’s name in their game because Beatie, somehow, is going to be famous. She makes Beatie promise to keep the secret of what she is about to tell her, and then confides that it is not Elfland she comes from, but the future.
Beatie has a strong and deep sense of duty to her family, and is reluctant to go against Granny, who she knows has powers both mystical and concrete within the family. Abigail nonetheless knows how to get Beatie’s goat, and bribes the girl with exactly what she wants: enticing bits of information about the future she is so scared of actually seeing.
Beatie asks if people still die of fever and smallpox in the future, and when Abigail tells her they do not, Beatie cries, lamenting that her mother and the baby she lost would still be alive, and that Gibbie wouldn’t be so sick. Abigail lets Beatie cry, feeling very sorry for her. When Beatie calms down, she asks Abigail to promise once more that she wasn’t lying about where she came from. Abigail promises, and Beatie agrees to uphold her end of the bargain.
Abigail did not realize that hearing about the future would impact Beatie so profoundly, but again forgot how strong Beatie’s sense of familial duty and love is. Abigail feels sorry that she has brought Beatie such sadness, and guilt that she did so in the name of furthering her own agenda.
Over the course of the next two days, Abigail learns a lot about the Bows and the Talliskers from Beatie herself. Dovey Tallisker is a cousin of the Bows, and she was raised by her father and his mother, who is Granny Tallisker. After Dovey’s father’s death, Granny and Dovey came to New South Wales to live with Granny’s daughter, Amelia—Samuel’s late wife—but when the two of them arrived, they found everyone deathly ill with typhoid fever.
As Abigail learns more about the Bows and the Talliskers, she realizes how long and arduous their family’s journey has been. They have had to contend with miserable factors that Abigail has never even had to consider, and as she realizes the depths of their pain, she finds herself feeling more deeply for them.
Abigail asks Beatie to tell her next about the mysterious Gift, but Beatie says it’s a family secret. Abigail insists that as she is the Stranger, and therefore connected to the secret of the Gift, she has a right to know about it—if Beatie won’t tell her what it is, she says, she’ll ask Granny. Beatie pleads with Abigail not to go to Granny, saying that all she wants is to be a scholar—she doesn’t want to “see things and know things a mortal body [shouldn’t] know.” Abigail realizes that the Gift must be some kind of second sight, and that Beatie is terrified of having it.
As Abigail sees the practical aspects of what the Bows and Talliskers have had to contend with, she also comes to understand the stranger aspects of their family’s peculiar burden. She realizes that there is something mystical going on in the family—something that Beatie is deathly afraid of, and that Granny seems to be the proprietor of.
On the third day, Abigail is allowed to get dressed and have Mr. Bow carry her downstairs. The clothing Abigail must wear is complicated and uncomfortable, but knowing she must pretend to fit in, she puts it on anyway. Catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror, Abigail sees that between her ugly clothes, her dirty hair, and her head wound, she looks awful, but Dovey insists that “beauty does not matter.”
Abigail consents to wear the ugly clothes that not only make her feel drab, but to some extent sever the hope she felt about getting back to her own world any time soon.
As Mr. Bow carries Abigail downstairs, she thinks he looks strange, and wonders if another “spell” is coming on. Abigail sits in the small front room of the house in a rocking chair near the fireplace. On the other side is a small boy, who introduces himself as Gilbert Samuel Bow. He tells Abigail that he is “in decline,” and that if he lives to his next birthday, he will be ten years old. “Why bother,” Abigail thinks, but does not say anything aloud.
Abigail is already so bored and fearful of life in the 19th century that she does not even see the point in trying to stay alive here—a very dark, macabre sentiment indeed, and a sensibility that she will soon realizes she shares with the seemingly sick Gibbie.