Tom, however, has mysteriously disappeared. As Stephen gave his last instructions to Mr. Gradgrind, Sissy whispered something in Tom's ear, and he vanished before anyone present at Stephen's rescue could do anything. Mr. Gradgrind, searches for his son but cannot find him anywhere, and Louisa tells her father that Tom will never return to town.
Sissy, who loves and protects the Gradgrind family as much as she can, always knows what is best to do for them in times of trouble. She shows compassion to Tom, protecting him from the harsh reach of the law (not to mention Bounderby).
Gradgrind goes into seclusion for a full day, not eating or speaking to anyone, and emerges looking much older and having realized that Tom is the robber. Sissy then reveals that to save Tom from prison she told him to hide with Mr. Sleary's circus company—the circus that Sissy's father used to belong to. Gradgrind, Louisa, and Sissy travel to the circus, which is now near Liverpool. Sissy is greeted with warm hugs by Sleary and all of her former circus-fellows, and Sleary then reveals that Tom is hiding as a clown with his face painted black. They make a plan for Tom to escape the country from a boat headed to either North or South America out of Liverpool's port.
Gradgrind now truly understands the impact of his educational philosophy on his children. Note how, with suffering, he now somewhat resembles Stephen. How ironic that Tom finds safety now in the very place his father dragged him and Louisa away from when they were young. The circus, so "dangerous" to a boy being educated by facts, is the Gradgrinds' only hope now. Note also how the circus folk hug Sissy. The other "fact-based" characters in the novel almost never touch each other, certainly not in friendship or joy. Sleary helps Gradgrind because of Gradgrind's kindness in taking in Sissy—"fact-based" actions do not inspire such loyalty.
Tom meets with his family after the night performance. He confesses to the crime and sheds a few tears at his father's shock and sadness, but mostly he is grumbling and impenitent as ever. He first says that with so many people placed in positions of trust at least some of them will be dishonest. Then when Louisa tries to hug him, he spitefully blames her for the trouble he's in now—for leaving him alone with Mr. Bounderby, and for making his friend Mr. Harthouse leave town.
While Louisa changed for the better, having reached her turning point with Harthouse's proposal and becoming better with Sissy's help, Tom appears to have gone past the point of no return. He blames everything and everyone for his actions but himself.
Tom does agree to their plan for his escape by ship. However, just as he is about to get into the carriage that will take him to the ship, Bitzer shows up, grabs Tom by the collar, and announces that he's going to turn Tom over to the police.
Bitzer, another product of Mr. Gradgrind's education, reappears to foil the plans of his old schoolmaster.