Maggie escapes Stephen by remaining at aunt Glegg's each day after her return to St. Ogg's, but she is forced to see him each evening. He has taken to dining with the Deanes, despite his resolution to keep away. Maggie is tempted by her desire for Stephen, but she will not let herself inflict pain on Lucy and Philip. But because they are soon to part, both Maggie and Stephen feel that small signs of mutual love are harmless. Philip comes infrequently, but he is there one evening when Lucy suggests that Maggie would like to go boating more often. She persuades Philip to come rowing with them the next day. Stephen moodily declines to come, for he does not wish to share Maggie's company. Philip senses this and offers not to come, but Stephen says he will row the day after.
Philip does not like to doubt Maggie, but when he sees Maggie blush at a word from Stephen, he finds it impossible to resist his suspicion. He comes to the belief that Maggie is planning to go away in order to escape from her love for Stephen. A night of worry leaves him too ill for boating the next day. He sends a note to Stephen asking that Stephen take his place.
Lucy meanwhile has arranged "a charming plan" to throw Philip and Maggie together. She decides to go to a neighboring town to make "important purchases." Maggie is content to be alone with Philip. She is startled when Stephen comes instead. She first refuses to go with him, but he persuades her at last. The river carries them swiftly downstream with little effort. They speak little until Maggie sees that they have passed Luckreth, their destination. She is frightened then, for they will be unable to get home for hours. Stephen then asks Maggie to continue with him and be married. He says that "everything has concurred" to help them. Maggie refuses, saying that Stephen has taken advantage of her thoughtlessness. He denies that he intended it, but says that he can send her home from here, so that the blame will be all his. Maggie feels that she has been too harsh, and he feels "all the relenting in her look and tone." He moves to her side and lets the boat drift, while Maggie is content in "having everything decided for her."
Stephen sees a vessel coming downriver, and he proposes that they board it and land at Mudport "or any convenient place on the coast." Maggie does not refuse, for "one course seemed as difficult as another." Stephen hails the boat and tells them he and his wife have come out too far and are fatigued. They are taken up. Then it is too late for Maggie to do anything but wait for tomorrow. Stephen is triumphant, for he now believes that they will never be parted. But Maggie falls asleep with the sense that "the morrow must bring back the old life of struggle."
Maggie is borne along by the tide both literally and metaphorically. Note the continual references to the drift being due to a power beyond Maggie and Stephen's control. To Maggie, Stephen is "this stronger presence that seemed to bear her along without any act of her own will." They "glided rapidly along . . . helped by the backward-flowing tide." The boat "glided without his help." Maggie's emotional drift is of the same nature. She is "yearning . . . that she might glide along with the swift, silent stream, and not struggle any more." Comparing her emotional drift to an unstoppable action makes the love affair, and her capitulation, seem more reasonable. At the same time, she knows that an act of will can overcome this: she is reminding herself that this is "cruel selfishness." Her first thoughts are of others — she is in agony over what Lucy will think. When she does yield, it is to alleviate Stephen's suffering "because it was less distinguishable from that sense of others' claims which was the moral basis of her resistance." She is yearning for a life "in which affection would no longer be self-sacrifice." This is an attempt to turn a dream to reality, like her attempt to run away to the gypsies. She wants to "annul the wretched facts."
Still another characteristic of Maggie's early life is used to make this situation more believable. "At all times she was so liable to fits of absence, that she was likely enough to let her way-marks pass unnoticed." This has been demonstrated several times.
A remark of Philip's foreshadows this occurrence: he says that if Maggie loves rowing too much she will be "selling her soul to that ghostly boatman who haunts the Floss — only for the sake of being drifted in a boat forever." This is what she wants — to give up "the old life of struggle," and be "lulled to steep with that soft stream still flowing over her . . . ."
Philip's jealousy is used to control the direction of the reader's thoughts and fears. He recognizes that Maggie is "banishing herself," and he raises the possibility that Stephen will not give her up, knowing "that she was made half helpless by her feeling towards him." Philip's own actions here are based on the self-sacrifice which Maggie holds to be the basis of moral conduct; but he acts in a more sensible way than she does. "He would not trust himself to see her, till he had assured himself that he could act from pure anxiety for her, and not from egoistic irritation."