BOOK THE THIRD
Sissy goes to Rachael's room every night to comfort her. Most of the Coketown citizens are bored with the topic and assume Stephen is guilty. But Rachael's faith remains strong, helped by Sissy's support.
Rachael begins to wonder if there is someone in Coketown who would be proven guilty by Stephen's return. If so, could Stephen have been murdered on his way back?
One evening as Rachael is walking Sissy home, they pass the Bounderby house. There Mrs. Sparsit is getting out of a carriage, and she insists that the two women come into the house with her. Mrs. Sparsit has found Mrs. Pegler, the woman suspected of being Stephen's accomplice!
Mrs. Sparsit drags the protesting Mrs. Pegler into the house. Bounderby is with Gradgrind and Tom, and instead of being thrilled at Mrs. Sparsit's valiant efforts to find Mrs. Pegler, he condemns Mrs. Sparsit for interfering. As for Mrs. Pegler, she beams and addresses Bounderby as "My darling boy!"
NOTE: You've probably guessed long ago that Mrs. Pegler is Bounderby's mother. The fact that his humiliation happens in front of Gradgrind, Tom, Sissy, Rachael, and Mrs. Sparsit- and an audience of neighbors!- is one of the minor plot conveniences that many find a bit hard to believe.
Mrs. Pegler swears to Bounderby that she told no one he was her son. She agreed to go with Mrs. Sparsit only when the other woman threatened to call the police.
Gradgrind wonders how Mrs. Pegler has the nerve to claim Bounderby as her son after her cruel treatment of him as a boy. Mrs. Pegler is astonished. Bounderby was given every opportunity their poor family could afford, she says. The grandmother who supposedly raised him had actually died before he was born, and Bounderby was apprenticed to a kind master at the age of eight. For many years he has paid his mother a pension to stay out of his life. Her yearly visits to Coketown were her only opportunity to see him- and then only from a distance.
A highly embarrassed Bounderby refuses to discuss any family business with those present. What can he say now that he's revealed as a fraud? And imagine Mrs. Sparsit's feelings! She brought Mrs. Pegler hoping to atone for her failed attempts to prove that Louisa was an adulteress.
NOTE: Dickens's reference to Mrs. Sparsit in the Slough of Despond is taken from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678). The Slough of Despond is an allegorical symbol for the most intense state of despair.
Later, Gradgrind points out that Mrs. Pegler's innocence is a good sign for Stephen. But Louisa worries that Tom is the person who would benefit if Stephen never returned. Sissy shares the suspicion, but the two women never discuss the matter. And the doubt still lingers: if Stephen is innocent, where is he?
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