Mrs. Tulliver reminds her husband that Mrs. Glegg might ask for her loan of five hundred pounds back from the Tullivers because of Mr. Tulliver's poor behavior. Mr. Tulliver decides to ride to Basset to see his sister and her husband—the Mosses—and ask them for the three hundred pounds that he has loaned them. Basset is a poor neighboring village, and the Mosses live a poor existence, since Mr. Tulliver's sister married a man of little means against Tulliver's will.
Mr. Tulliver has resolved to be firm and his resolve weakens a little at the sight of his sister and her kind inquiries after Maggie. Mr. Tulliver sympathizes with his sister, since she has four daughters. Mrs. Moss replies meekly that she hopes her four sons will always look after her daughters as Mr. Tulliver has done for her and as Tom should do for Maggie. Mr. Moss comes in from the field, and Mr. Tulliver meets with him in the garden, demanding that Moss find a way to come up with the three hundred pounds. Mr. Tulliver leaves the Mosses but has a change of heart on his way out, provoked by the thought of Maggie being left with no one but Tom to look after her after Tulliver's own death. Mr. Tulliver rides back and relents. He comforts his sister and tells her to try to raise some of the money if she can.
Tom, Maggie, Lucy, and Mrs. Tulliver prepare for a visit to the Pullets. The children are making cardhouses—Lucy and Tom are the most adept. Maggie accidentally knocks Tom's house over, but Tom doesn't believe it was an accident. Tom remains cold to her, walking instead with Lucy to the Pullets'. Mrs. Tulliver and the children arrive at the Pullet's and go upstairs so that Mrs. Tulliver can admire Mrs. Pullet's new hat.
Back downstairs, Mr. Pullet plays his music box, and Maggie sits happily entranced. She hugs Tom, accidentally spilling his wine and is chastised by the adults. While the children go outside to play, Mrs. Tulliver spends time convincing Mrs. Pullet to go to Mrs. Glegg and convince her not to call back her five hundred pounds from the Tullivers. Sally, the Pullets' servant, ushers in Lucy, covered with mud, and the women scream.
We discover the events that lead to Lucy's muddy appearance. Once outside, Tom leads Lucy to see a toad, leaving Maggie behind. Lucy calls Maggie over to see, but Maggie now implicates Lucy in her anger toward Tom and silently refuses. Tom leads Lucy to the pond, farther away than the children were supposed to venture. Maggie follows at a distance, and when Tom sees her near them, he cruelly orders her away. Maggie shoves Lucy in the mud, and Tom slaps Maggie. Maggie remains satisfied that their happiness was spoiled.
Seeing Lucy covered in mud, Mrs. Tulliver goes in search of her two children. She finds Tom and sends him to fetch Maggie from the pond, but Maggie is no longer there. A frantic, unsuccessful search for Maggie ensues. Mrs. Tulliver finally decides to go home, hoping Maggie will be there.
Maggie runs off from the Pullets' with the idea of reaching Dunlow common and joining the band of gypsies that must be there. Maggie meets two beggars in the road and gives them the six pence in her pocket when they ask her for it ungraciously. Maggie travels inside the hedgerow to avoid further meetings. When she reaches a bend in the road she sees a gypsy camp and a tall gypsy woman walking towards her. Maggie tells the woman her wish to live with them and to teach them many things. The woman brings Maggie to sit near the fire, where other gypsy women remove her bonnet and the contents of her pocket. Maggie continues to explain her plans to live with them and perhaps become the queen of the gypsies.
Soon Maggie becomes hungry but refuses to eat the strange food she is offered. Disenchanted by the rude manners of some of the women, and feeling hungry and confused by their strange language, Maggie wishes to be taken home. When the men gypsies return to camp, one of them puts her on his donkey to take her home. Maggie is convinced he wants to kill her and is wary even after she recognizes the road to St. Ogg's. Maggie spots her father riding down the same road on his way home from the Mosses, and the gypsy man returns her to a confused Mr. Tulliver, who rewards the gypsy with five shillings. At home, Mr. Tulliver speaks harsh words to Mrs. Tulliver and Tom on Maggie's behalf, and she never hears of the incident again.
The remaining chapters of Book First feature, in part, Mr. and Mrs. Tulliver's separate and opposite reactions to Mrs. Glegg's argument with Mr. Tulliver and the prospect of her recalling the five hundred pounds lent to the Tulliver's. There is a comic element to Mr. and Mrs. Tulliver's incompatible world views, which has been sustained over many years of marriage and strengthened by contrariness, but it is precisely this dynamic of cross purposes between them that will recur throughout the novel and exacerbate Mr. Tulliver's economic downfall.
These chapters continue on in an examination of the characteristics of the Dodson sisters. They functioned in Chapter VII as a group, as they do often in the novel, but Eliot also draws carefully detailed distinctions between them. Mrs. Pullet, like Mrs. Tulliver, enjoys a love of handsome goods. One of the socio-historical concerns of the setting of The Mill on the Floss is the growing materialism of the middle classes in England in the 1830s and 40s. Material goods, in these chapters, afford women like Mrs. Tulliver and Mrs. Pullet a way of looking at and valuing the world. Details like Mrs. Tulliver's protection of her visiting clothing and Mrs. Pullet's series of shoe scrapers are comic, but they also produce an adult background that increases our sense of Maggie's alienation and also contrasts with the financial position and emotional priorities of Mr. Tulliver's sister and her husband.
The combination of her own insensitivity, bad humor, and bad luck that has plagued Maggie's relations with Tom for the opening chapters of Book First continues to plague her in these chapters, with a new element added—the presence of Lucy Deane, of whom Maggie is jealous. Lucy Deane is everything that Maggie is not—demure, pretty, blond, light-skinned, and doted on by Mrs. Tulliver. Maggie's malicious behavior toward Lucy, especially given Lucy's good humor and love of Maggie, is another instance in which Eliot creates distance, rather than sympathy, between Maggie and the reader. Additionally, if we have been sympathetic to Maggie's tendency toward imagination and invention, her foolish and gross misestimation of gypsy life, while comic, also puts her in danger. Maggie's miserable loneliness after the scene with Lucy and her escape to the gypsies is alleviated only by the unconditionally loving presence of Mr. Tulliver. Mr. Tulliver is aligned with Maggie in the prevalence of emotion over justice in his decision-making, as seen in his relenting treatment of the Mosses in Chapter VIII.
The first several chapters of Book First all took place at Dorlcote Mill. In these chapters, the landscape of the novel is widened—both in geographical and socio-economic terms—as we move both through the parish of Basset and to the gypsy camp. The natural description of the unfertile land in Basset offers reasoning for the impoverished cultural atmosphere of the parish and a subtly rational explanation for the poverty of the Mosses. This variety of detailed settings also serve to develop our understanding of the relative privilege enjoyed by the Tulliver children in their household.