On the second night under the schoolmaster’s roof, Nell starts doing household chores to repay his kindness. He is grateful since his regular housekeeper is nursing his ill pupil. Nell inquires after the boy. The schoolmaster says that he is getting worse. However, as he believes fear magnifies an existent evil, he chooses not to believe it.
Nell prepares breakfast. The schoolmaster notices how exhausted the grandfather looks and invites them to stay a little longer. The grandfather is uncertain, but Nell is happy to accept.
She inquires how many students the schoolmaster has, and whether they are just as clever as his top student. The schoolmaster says he doesn’t have many, and while they are good boys—none are promising scholars. The schoolmaster tells Nell she can stay and observe the lessons.
The students come in. The schoolmaster tries to teach them, but he is distracted by thoughts of his sick pupil. The pupil’s empty desk is very obvious to everyone. The students get more unruly and less attentive—particularly since it is a hot, lazy day. Nell is a little frightened of the boisterous boys, but she watches everything while she does her needlework.
The schoolmaster tells the boys during the writing lesson that their sick friend had wished he was with them. The boys become remorseful and well-behaved, which lasts about two minutes. Finally, the schoolmaster lets them out early after extracting a promise that they will not make noise near the invalid’s house. The boys break their promise as soon as they are outside. The mothers disapprove of him giving them a holiday for no reason. They think he is shirking his duties and should be deducted in his wages. He meekly accepts the criticism without reply.
At nightfall, an elderly woman summons him to the sick pupil’s bed side, telling him he better hurry. Nell accompanies him to the house. The grandmother of the boy says that he is dying, but he wanted to see the schoolmaster. She says this is what his learning has done to him. The schoolmaster says she doesn’t know what she is saying, that she is talking out of grief. She says that she does know what she is saying—if he hadn’t been pouring over his books, he would be well now. The other women in the room silently agree and do not come to the schoolmaster’s defense. The elderly woman who had summoned him takes him to the boy.
The boy tells the schoolmaster that he is his dear friend. The schoolmaster replies he always meant to be. The boy takes Nell’s hand. The schoolmaster says that the garden mourns the boy’s absence, and he must come back to visit it. The boy is too weak to answer, but smiles. He hears his friends playing outside, and he asks the schoolmaster to tie a handkerchief on the lattice outside the window so his friends might think of him if they happen to look over. The schoolmaster holds the child afterwards, even after he has died.