Part 3 out of 3
nevertheless she spoke so loud that all heard her who were still
clustered round the spot on which we had dined.
"What has become of Mr. O'Brien?" a lady whispered to me.
I had a field-glass with me, and, looking round, I saw his hat as he
was walking inside the walls of the circus in the direction toward the
city. "And very foolish he must feel," said the lady.
"No doubt he is used to it," said another.
"But considering her age, you know," said the first, who might have
been perhaps three years younger than Mrs. Talboys, and who was not
herself averse to the excitement of a moderate flirtation. But then
why should she have been averse, seeing that she had not as yet become
subject to the will of any imperial lord?
"He would have felt much more foolish," said the third, "if she had
listened to what he said to her."
"Well, I don't know," said the second; "nobody would have known
anything about it then, and in a few weeks they would have gradually
become tired of each other in the ordinary way."
But in the meantime Mrs. Talboys was among us. There had been no
attempt at secrecy, and she was still loudly inveighing against the
grovelling propensities of men. "That's quite true, Mrs. Talboys,"
said one of the elder ladies; "but then women are not always so
careful as they should be. Of course I do not mean to say that there
has been any fault on your part."
"Fault on my part! Of course there has been fault on my part. No one
can make any mistake without fault to some extent. I took him to be a
man of sense, and he is a fool. Go to Naples indeed."
"Did he want you to go to Naples?" asked Mrs. Mackinnon.
"Yes; that was what he suggested. We were to leave by the train for
Civita Vecchia at six to-morrow morning, and catch the steamer which
leaves Leghorn to-night. Don't tell me of wine. He was prepared for
it!" And she looked round about on us with an air of injured majesty
in her face which was almost insupportable.
"I wonder whether he took the tickets overnight," 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 the
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 a
while 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 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
"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
"By heavens, then, I thought she would like it," said he.
"And to oblige her you were content to sacrifice yourself," said
"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 so 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 blessed if she didn't give me a knock in the
ribs that nearly sent me backward. 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.