Due to his infirmity and his love of people-watching, the Narrator has fallen into the habit of taking walks at night—where the traffic in the streets is unhurried and less crowded. He finds night to be kinder too because it doesn’t destroy illusions as quickly as they appear.
The Narrator reflects on how restless the city is, where there are many souls moving about—how unbearable the sounds of traffic are. To him, it is like being condemned to being conscious but dead in a noisy churchyard with no hope of peace. He comments on how people always pause on bridges. Some think how the water flows into a bigger world and connects to an ocean. Others envy the perceived idle life of those on barges. The lower classes often think about how the easiest and best death for a suicide is drowning. He contrasts the floral scent of Covent Garden Market with the debauchery that occurs at night. The birds seem to be dirtied by it and look forward to being washed. People wonder what the birds have seen.
The Narrator is relating a story that began one night on one of his walks into the city, where he encounters a lost child far from her home. The child refuses to tell him her errand, saying it is a secret even to her—though she wasn’t doing anything wrong. Concerned and curious, he offers to escort her back. He wishes to satisfy his curiosity about what she was doing—and fearing she may run off as soon as she sees a familiar road—he takes her through less frequented paths to her destination.
The child takes him to a curiosity shop, which is owned by her grandfather. The Narrator is invited inside by the grateful grandfather. He tells the grandfather he should take better care of the granddaughter, and the grandfather denies that he is negligent. The Narrator notices that it is just the grandfather and Nell (the little girl). Nell seems to be responsible for many of the chores in the house. The grandfather says that Nell is more trustworthy than most adults. The Narrator criticizes how adults often bring children into the responsibilities of life prematurely, and how it destroys their childhood by sharing adult sorrows. The grandfather says this will not happen to Nell, but the childhood of poor children ends quickly. The Narrator is surprised to learn that the man is poor. The grandfather says the mother was poor, and so is he—but he hopes that Nell will be rich one day and become a fine lady. Meanwhile, she enjoys helping him.
The grandfather laments over his poverty, but says his time must come. Nell mentions that she is content. Their dinner is interrupted by Kit, a comical and odd boy who works for the grandfather. He had been sent out on an errand too. The grandfather sends Kit away after dinner. The Narrator asks if the child has anyone else to care for her. The grandfather replies no—and that she wants no other. They take care of each other.
The grandfather is excited and impatient for his guest to leave. He is going out, leaving the child alone until morning. He parts with the Narrator in the streets. Fearing for the child’s safety, the Narrator stays outside of the house for two hours until it starts to rain. He is suspicious of the activities the grandfather is involved in, though he doesn’t doubt the man is genuinely fond of Nell.
The Narrator returns home and muses how an environment can taint one’s impressions. His concern for the child is aggravated more by the exotic items in the shop than if she were alone in a plain room. He goes to bed, dreaming of the saintly child among grotesque objects.