The Major, who had seen the key of No. 90 put up on its hook and had heard the conversation of the two young University bloods, was not at a loss to understand that their talk related to Becky. "The little devil is at her old tricks," he thought, and he smiled as he recalled old days, when he had witnessed the desperate flirtation with Jos and the ludicrous end of that adventure. He and George had often laughed over it subsequently, and until a few weeks after George's marriage, when he also was caught in the little Circe's toils, and had an understanding with her which his comrade certainly suspected, but preferred to ignore. William was too much hurt or ashamed to ask to fathom that disgraceful mystery, although once, and evidently with remorse on his mind, George had alluded to it. It was on the morning of Waterloo, as the young men stood together in front of their line, surveying the black masses of Frenchmen who crowned the opposite heights, and as the rain was coming down, "I have been mixing in a foolish intrigue with a woman," George said. "I am glad we were marched away. If I drop, I hope Emmy will never know of that business. I wish to God it had never been begun!" And William was pleased to think, and had more than once soothed poor George's widow with the narrative, that Osborne, after quitting his wife, and after the action of Quatre Bras, on the first day, spoke gravely and affectionately to his comrade of his father and his wife. On these facts, too, William had insisted very strongly in his conversations with the elder Osborne, and had thus been the means of reconciling the old gentleman to his son's memory, just at the close of the elder man's life.
"And so this devil is still going on with her intrigues," thought William. "I wish she were a hundred miles from here. She brings mischief wherever she goes." And he was pursuing these forebodings and this uncomfortable train of thought, with his head between his hands, and the Pumpernickel Gazette of last week unread under his nose, when somebody tapped his shoulder with a parasol, and he looked up and saw Mrs. Amelia.
This woman had a way of tyrannizing over Major Dobbin (for the weakest of all people will domineer over somebody), and she ordered him about, and patted him, and made him fetch and carry just as if he was a great Newfoundland dog. He liked, so to speak, to jump into the water if she said "High, Dobbin!" and to trot behind her with her reticule in his mouth. This history has been written to very little purpose if the reader has not perceived that the Major was a spooney.
"Why did you not wait for me, sir, to escort me downstairs?" she said, giving a little toss of her head and a most sarcastic curtsey.
"I couldn't stand up in the passage," he answered with a comical deprecatory look; and, delighted to give her his arm and to take her out of the horrid smoky place, he would have walked off without even so much as remembering the waiter, had not the young fellow run after him and stopped him on the threshold of the Elephant to make him pay for the beer which he had not consumed. Emmy laughed: she called him a naughty man, who wanted to run away in debt, and, in fact, made some jokes suitable to the occasion and the small-beer. She was in high spirits and good humour, and tripped across the market-place very briskly. She wanted to see Jos that instant. The Major laughed at the impetuous affection Mrs. Amelia exhibited; for, in truth, it was not very often that she wanted her brother "that instant." They found the civilian in his saloon on the first-floor; he had been pacing the room, and biting his nails, and looking over the market-place towards the Elephant a hundred times at least during the past hour whilst Emmy was closeted with her friend in the garret and the Major was beating the tattoo on the sloppy tables of the public room below, and he was, on his side too, very anxious to see Mrs. Osborne.
"Well?" said he.
"The poor dear creature, how she has suffered!" Emmy said.
"God bless my soul, yes," Jos said, wagging his head, so that his cheeks quivered like jellies.
"She may have Payne's room, who can go upstairs," Emmy continued. Payne was a staid English maid and personal attendant upon Mrs. Osborne, to whom the courier, as in duty bound, paid court, and whom Georgy used to "lark" dreadfully with accounts of German robbers and ghosts. She passed her time chiefly in grumbling, in ordering about her mistress, and in stating her intention to return the next morning to her native village of Clapham. "She may have Payne's room," Emmy said.
"Why, you don't mean to say you are going to have that woman into the house?" bounced out the Major, jumping up.
"Of course we are," said Amelia in the most innocent way in the world. "Don't be angry and break the furniture, Major Dobbin. Of course we are going to have her here."
"Of course, my dear," Jos said.
"The poor creature, after all her sufferings," Emmy continued; "her horrid banker broken and run away; her husband — wicked wretch — having deserted her and taken her child away from her" (here she doubled her two little fists and held them in a most menacing attitude before her, so that the Major was charmed to see such a dauntless virago) "the poor dear thing! quite alone and absolutely forced to give lessons in singing to get her bread — and not have her here!"
"Take lessons, my dear Mrs. George," cried the Major, "but don't have her in the house. I implore you don't."
"Pooh," said Jos.
"You who are always good and kind — always used to be at any rate — I'm astonished at you, Major William," Amelia cried. "Why, what is the moment to help her but when she is so miserable? Now is the time to be of service to her. The oldest friend I ever had, and not — "
"She was not always your friend, Amelia," the Major said, for he was quite angry. This allusion was too much for Emmy, who, looking the Major almost fiercely in the face, said, "For shame, Major Dobbin!" and after having fired this shot, she walked out of the room with a most majestic air and shut her own door briskly on herself and her outraged dignity.
"To allude to THAT!" she said, when the door was closed. "Oh, it was cruel of him to remind me of it," and she looked up at George's picture, which hung there as usual, with the portrait of the boy underneath. "It was cruel of him. If I had forgiven it, ought he to have spoken? No. And it is from his own lips that I know how wicked and groundless my jealousy was; and that you were pure — oh, yes, you were pure, my saint in heaven!"
She paced the room, trembling and indignant. She went and leaned on the chest of drawers over which the picture hung, and gazed and gazed at it. Its eyes seemed to look down on her with a reproach that deepened as she looked. The early dear, dear memories of that brief prime of love rushed back upon her. The wound which years had scarcely cicatrized bled afresh, and oh, how bitterly! She could not bear the reproaches of the husband there before her. It couldn't be. Never, never.
Poor Dobbin; poor old William! That unlucky word had undone the work of many a year — the long laborious edifice of a life of love and constancy — raised too upon what secret and hidden foundations, wherein lay buried passions, uncounted struggles, unknown sacrifices — a little word was spoken, and down fell the fair palace of hope — one word, and away flew the bird which he had been trying all his life to lure!