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The narrator stands on a bridge over the Floss next to Dorlcote Mill. The narrator peacefully watches a little girl and her white dog that stand on the bank of the river, watching the mill. The narrator can see the light of a fire burning inside the little girl's house.
It is decades later and the narrator has been dozing in her armchair, dreaming of that past afternoon outside Dorlcote Mill. The narrator proceeds to tell the story of what Mr. and Mrs. Tulliver were discussing in their house, in front of the fire on that afternoon.
Mr. Tulliver explains to Mrs. Tulliver his wish to send their young son Tom for further education, so that Tom might have a lucrative career and enough scholarly knowledge to help Mr. Tulliver with confusing legal processes. Stout, blond Mrs. Tulliver submissively does not object but wants to have her sisters to dinner to hear their thoughts on the matter. Mr. Tulliver refuses to ask his sister-in-laws' advice.
Mrs. Tulliver prattles on about her wish that Tom not be sent to a school too far away so that she can still do his washing. Mr. Tulliver, using analogy about not hiring a waggoner because of only a mole on his face, warns her not to set herself against a perfectly good school if they can only find one farther away. Mrs. Tulliver takes his analogy literally, and Mr. Tulliver tries to explain, but then gives up—"it's puzzling work, talking is." Bessy Tulliver continues talking about laundry while Mr. Tulliver resolves to himself to ask Mr. Riley's advice about a good school. Mr. Tulliver brings up his only doubt over Tom's education—that Tom is a bit slow, taking after Bessy's family. Mr. Tulliver laments the fact that his daughter instead of his son takes after his own family in her cleverness.
More than happy to concede Maggie's likeness to the Tulliver family line, Mrs. Tulliver calls her a "wild thing" and complains of her messiness, absentmindedness, and "brown skin as makes her look like a mulatter." Mr. Tulliver dismisses his wife's complaints, citing Maggie's ability to read "almost as well as the parson." Mrs. Tulliver wishes Maggie's dark hair would curl, like that of her pretty cousin Lucy Deane.
At this moment, Maggie enters the room and throws off her bonnet and refuses her mother's injunctions to work on her patchwork for Mrs. Glegg, whom Maggie doesn't like. Mr. Tulliver chuckles at her honesty as she leaves the room.
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