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- Mrs. General Talboys - 5/5 -
"I wonder whether he took the tickets over-night," said Mackinnon.
"Naples!" she said, as though now speaking exclusively to herself; "the only ground in Italy which has as yet made no struggle on behalf of freedom;--a fitting residence for such a dastard!"
"You would have found it very pleasant at this season," said the unmarried lady, who was three years her junior.
My wife had taken Ida out of the way when the first complaining note from Mrs. Talboys had been heard ascending the hill. But now, when matters began gradually to become quiescent, she brought her back, suggesting, as she did so, that they might begin to think of returning.
"It is getting very cold, Ida, dear, is it not?" said she.
"But where is Mr. O'Brien?" said Ida.
"He has fled,--as poltroons always fly," said Mrs. Talboys. I believe in my heart that she would have been glad to have had him there in the middle of the circle, and to have triumphed over him publicly among us all. No feeling of shame would have kept her silent for a moment.
"Fled!" said Ida, looking up into her mother's face.
"Yes, fled, my child." And she seized her daughter in her arms, and pressed her closely to her bosom. "Cowards always fly."
"Is Mr. O'Brien a coward?" Ida asked.
"Yes, a coward, a very coward! And he has fled before the glance of an honest woman's eye. Come, Mrs. Mackinnon, shall we go back to the city? I am sorry that the amusement of the day should have received this check." And she walked forward to the carriage and took her place in it with an air that showed that she was proud of the way in which she had conducted herself.
"She is a little conceited about it after all," said that unmarried lady. "If poor Mr. O'Brien had not shown so much premature anxiety with reference to that little journey to Naples, things might have gone quietly after all."
But the unmarried lady was wrong in her judgment. Mrs. Talboys was proud and conceited in the matter,--but not proud of having excited the admiration of her Irish lover. She was proud of her own subsequent conduct, and gave herself credit for coming out strongly as a noble-minded matron. "I believe she thinks," said Mrs. Mackinnon, "that her virtue is quite Spartan and unique; and if she remains in Rome she'll boast of it through the whole winter."
"If she does, she may be certain that O'Brien will do the same," said Mackinnon. "And in spite of his having fled from the field, it is upon the cards that he may get the best of it. Mrs. Talboys is a very excellent woman. She has proved her excellence beyond a doubt. But, nevertheless, she is susceptible of ridicule."
We all felt a little anxiety to hear O'Brien's account of the matter, and after having deposited the ladies at their homes, Mackinnon and I went off to his lodgings. At first he was denied to us, but after awhile we got his servant to acknowledge that he was at home, and then we made our way up to his studio. We found him seated behind a half-formed model, or rather a mere lump of clay punched into something resembling the shape of a head, with a pipe in his mouth and a bit of stick in his hand. He was pretending to work, though we both knew that it was out of the question that he should do anything in his present frame of mind.
"I think I heard my servant tell you that I was not at home," said he.
"Yes, he did," said Mackinnon, "and would have sworn to it too if we would have let him. Come, don't pretend to be surly."
"I am very busy, Mr. Mackinnon."
"Completing your head of Mrs. Talboys, I suppose, before you start for Naples."
"You don't mean to say that she has told you all about it," and he turned away from his work, and looked up into our faces with a comical expression, half of fun and half of despair.
"Every word of it," said I. "When you want a lady to travel with you, never ask her to get up so early in winter."
"But, O'Brien, how could you be such an ass?" said Mackinnon. "As it has turned out, there is no very great harm done. You have insulted a respectable middle-aged woman, the mother of a family, and the wife of a general officer, and there is an end of it;-- unless, indeed, the general officer should come out from England to call you to account."
"He is welcome," said O'Brien, haughtily.
"No doubt, my dear fellow," said Mackinnon; "that would be a dignified and pleasant ending to the affair. But what I want to know is this;--what would you have done if she had agreed to go?"
"He never calculated on the possibility of such a contingency," said I.
"By heavens, then, I thought she would like it," said he.
"And to oblige her you were content to sacrifice yourself," said Mackinnon.
"Well, that was just it. What the deuce is a fellow to do when a woman goes on in that way. She told me down there, upon the old race course you know, that matrimonial bonds were made for fools and slaves. What was I to suppose that she meant by that? But to make all sure, I asked her what sort of a fellow the General was. 'Dear old man,' she said, clasping her hands together. 'He might, you know, have been my father.' 'I wish he were,' said I, 'because then you'd be free.' 'I am free,' said she, stamping on the ground, and looking up at me as much as to say that she cared for no one. 'Then,' said I, 'accept all that is left of the heart of Wenceslaus O'Brien,' and I threw myself before her in her path. 'Hand,' said I, 'I have none to give, but the blood which runs red through my veins is descended from a double line of kings.' I said that because she is always fond of riding a high horse. I had gotten close under the wall, so that none of you should see me from the tower."
"And what answer did she make?" said Mackinnon.
"Why she was pleased as Punch;--gave me both her hands, and declared that we would be friends for ever. It is my belief, Mackinnon, that that woman never heard anything of the kind before. The General, no doubt, did it by letter."
"And how was it that she changed her mind?"
"Why; I got up, put my arm round her waist, and told her that we would be off to Naples. I'm blest if she didn't give me a knock in the ribs that nearly sent me backwards. She took my breath away, so that I couldn't speak to her."
"Oh, there was nothing more. Of course I saw how it was. So she walked off one way and I the other. On the whole I consider that I am well out of it."
"And so do I," said Mackinnon, very gravely. "But if you will allow me to give you my advice, I would suggest that it would be well to avoid such mistakes in future."
"Upon my word," said O'Brien, excusing himself, "I don't know what a man is to do under such circumstances. I give you my honour that I did it all to oblige her."
We then decided that Mackinnon should convey to the injured lady the humble apology of her late admirer. It was settled that no detailed excuses should be made. It should be left to her to consider whether the deed which had been done might have been occasioned by wine, or by the folly of a moment,--or by her own indiscreet enthusiasm. No one but the two were present when the message was given, and therefore we were obliged to trust to Mackinnon's accuracy for an account of it.
She stood on very high ground indeed, he said, at first refusing to hear anything that he had to say on the matter. "The foolish young man," she declared, "was below her anger and below her contempt."
"He is not the first Irishman that has been made indiscreet by beauty," said Mackinnon.
"A truce to that," she replied, waving her hand with an air of assumed majesty. "The incident, contemptible as it is, has been unpleasant to me. It will necessitate my withdrawal from Rome."
"Oh, no, Mrs. Talboys; that will be making too much of him."
"The greatest hero that lives," she answered, "may have his house made uninhabitable by a very small insect." Mackinnon swore that those were her own words. Consequently a sobriquet was attached to O'Brien of which he by no means approved. And from that day we always called Mrs. Talboys "the hero."
Mackinnon prevailed at last with her, and she did not leave Rome. She was even induced to send a message to O'Brien, conveying her forgiveness. They shook hands together with great eclat in Mrs. Mackinnon's drawing-room; but I do not suppose that she ever again offered to him sympathy on the score of his matrimonial troubles.
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