Leaving the church and feeling good about the town’s decision, Anna encounters Maggie Cantwell, the Bradfords’ cook. The Bradfords have summarily fired her and ordered her to leave the house, meaning she has no livelihood or place to live. Anna agrees to go to Bradford Hall to help Maggie collect her belongings. When they arrive, everything is chaos; the Bradfords require their servants to pack up their many belongings, but they refuse to take anyone with them as they flee the plague.
This scene reinforces how awful the Bradfords are. Their refusal to care for the people who have always cared for them, and who have nowhere else to live, shows them at the height of callousness. Anna’s poignant description of the distraught servants shows that while she is of low class status, she has an emotional refinement and sensibility that her “superiors” lack.
Mompellion arrives on his horse and excoriates Colonel Bradford for his cowardice. However, Colonel Bradford is totally impervious to Mompellion’s rhetoric of selflessness and believes himself justified in “safeguarding what is mine,” regardless of the consequences to others. He dismisses Mompellion’s arguments that as the local gentry they have an obligation to aid the common people of the village, saying he doesn’t want Elizabeth to “play wet nurse to a rabble.” The Colonel says that the villagers have only agreed to the quarantine because they have no resources to flee, and the sermon was just empty rhetoric to make them feel better. Mompellion prophesies that in the future the Bradfords will suffer God’s “terrible vengeance.”
Even the most draconian class systems rely on the assumption that the elite will use their privileges to steward and take care of the lower classes. The Bradfords totally abdicate the responsibilities they have as gentry, showing how an unchecked embrace of class distinctions can lead to social disasters. Colonel Bradford’s callous pragmatism is contrasted here with Mompellion’s altruistic religiosity. At this point in the novel, it seems like a lack of religion corresponds with low morality.
The Bradfords leave, refusing even to allow their servants to take shelter in the empty house or the stables. The servants are taken into other households, except for Maggie and the pantry boy, Brand, who are from the neighboring town of Bakewell and decide to return to their families. Everyone else resigns themselves to their new isolation. Anna says that this is mostly a mental adjustment, since she rarely leaves the village boundaries. Mompellion supervises the construction of designated holes in which to receive supplies and send letters and news of the dead.
Although Anna says the town is effectively unchanged by the quarantine, some major shifts occur. Most importantly, the Bradfords’ exodus means everyone is on a much more equal class footing. This will allow the villagers to experiment with forming a society less rigidly defined by class; but it also underscores the fact that there’s no local ruler or government, and that it would be very easy to slip into chaos and anarchy.
When Anna arrives at the rectory the next day, Elinor greets her with the news that Mary Daniels is in labor. Since the Gowdies are dead, Anna and Elinor have to deliver the baby. Anna tells Elinor that when she was young, her mother suffered a difficult labor and eventually died at the hands of a barber-surgeon who dismembered her and the stillborn baby. With no experience except in birthing livestock, Anna is reluctant to undertake the job and perhaps hasten Mary’s death, but there is no other option.
Anna performs her first act as a healer. This is enormously important for her, because it leads to a new occupation that gives her a sense of purpose after her sons’ death. Anna associates medical procedures with superstition and brutality because of the traumatic event of her mother’s death. However, she’ll soon distance herself from the barber surgeons’ brand of medicine in order to train herself in healing using science and reason.
Examining Mary Daniels, Anna realizes that the baby is crosswise, meaning the birth is dangerous and perhaps fatal. She starts to panic, but Elinor reminds her that unlike the surgeon from her youth, who “knew nothing of women’s bodies,” she has intuition, her own childbirth experiences, and her “mother-hands” to aid her. Cautiously, Anna manipulates the baby into a better position and it is born safely. Anna is glad to saved a life in a time marked by death, but she knows she has to return to her lonely cottage and the memories of her own dead children. As she leaves, she pockets a vial of poppy oil Elinor had brought for Mary.
Although she lacks the training and reputation of a barber surgeon, her intuition and experiences as a woman and mother allow her to reason her way through the situation. This episode sets up a paradigm wherein Anna and Elinor’s “female” medicine is based on science and reason, while the male barber surgeons are ineffective butchers. In a male-dominated society, medicine and midwifery are one of the few areas in which women come to the fore and exercise a power which men don’t have.