Experiment

Author: Maxwell Struthers Burt

When she had reached that point of detachment where she could regard the matter more or less objectively, Mrs. Ennis, recalling memories of an interrupted but lifelong friendship, realized that Burnaby's behavior, outrageous or justifiable or whatever you choose to call it, at all events aberrational, was exactly what might have been expected of him, given an occasion when his instincts for liking or disliking had been sufficiently aroused. Moreover, there was about him always, she remembered, this additional exceptional quality: the rare and fortunate knowledge that socially he was independent; was not, that is, subject to retaliation. He led too roving a life to be moved by the threat of unpopularity; a grandfather had bequeathed him a small but unshakable inheritance.

As much, therefore, as any one can be in this world he was a free agent; and the assurance of this makes a man very brave for either kindness or unkindness, and, of course, extremely dangerous for either good or evil. You will see, after a while, what I am driving at. Meanwhile, without further comment, we can come directly to Mrs. Ennis, where she sat in her drawing room, and to the night on which the incident occurred.

Mrs. Ennis, small and blond, and in a white evening gown of satin and silver sequins that made her look like a lovely and fashionable mermaid, sat in her drawing room and stretched her feet out to the flames of a gentle woodfire. It was seven o'clock of a late April night, and through an open window to her left came, from the little park beyond the house, a faint breeze that stirred lazily the curtains and brought to the jonquils, scattered about in numerous metal and crystal bowls, word of their brothers in the dusk without. The room was quiet, save for the hissing of the logs; remote, delicately lighted, filled with the subtle odor of books and flowers; reminiscent of the suave personalities of those who frequented it. On the diminutive piano in one corner, a large silver frame, holding the photograph of a man in French uniform, caught here and there on its surface high lights from the shaded wall-lamp above. In the shelter of white bookcases, the backs of volumes in red and tawny and brown gave the effect of tapestry cunningly woven. Mrs. Ennis stared at the logs and smiled.

It was an odd smile, reflective, yet anticipatory; amused, absent-minded, barely disturbing the lines of her beautifully modeled red lips. Had any of Mrs. Ennis's enemies, and they were not few in number, seen it, they would have surmised mischief afoot; had any of her friends, and there were even more of these than enemies, been present, they would have been on the alert for events of interest. It all depended, you see, upon whether you considered a taste for amateur psychology, indulged in, a wickedness or not. Mrs. Ennis herself would not have given her favorite amusement so stately a name; she was aware merely that she found herself possessed of a great curiosity concerning people, particularly those of forcible and widely different characteristics, and that she liked, whenever possible, to gather them together, and then see what would happen. Usually something did—happen, that is.

With the innocence of a child playing with fire-crackers (and it wasn't altogether innocent, either), in her rôle of the god in the machine she had been responsible for many things; several comedies, perhaps a tragedy or two. Ordinarily her parties were dull enough; complacent Washington parties; diplomats, long-haired Senators from the West, short-bearded Senators from the East, sleek young men and women, all of whom sat about discussing grave nonsense concerning a country with which they had utterly lost touch, if ever they had had any; but every now and then, out of the incalculable shufflings of fate, appeared a combination that seemed to offer more excitement. Tonight such a combination was at hand. Mrs. Ennis was contented, in the manner of a blithe and beautiful spider.

Burnaby, undoubtedly, was the principal source of this contentment, for he was a young man—he wasn't really young, but you always thought of him as young—of infinite potentialities; Burnaby, just back from some esoteric work in Roumania, whither he had gone after the War, and in Washington for the night and greatly pleased to accept an invitation for dinner; but essential as he was, Burnaby was only part of the tableau arranged. To meet him, Mrs. Ennis had asked her best, for the time being, friend, Mimi de Rochefort—Mary was her right name—and Mimi de Rochefort's best, for the time being, friend, Robert Pollen. Nowadays Pollen came when Madame de Rochefort came; one expected his presence. He had been a habit in this respect for over six months; in fact, almost from the time Madame de Rochefort (she was so young that to call her Madame seemed absurdly quaint), married these five years to a Frenchman, had set foot once more upon her native land.

In the meeting of Pollen and Burnaby and Mary Rochefort, Mrs. Ennis foresaw contingencies; just what these contingencies were likely to be she did not know, but that an excellent chance for them existed she had no doubt, even if in the end they proved to be no more than the humor to be extracted from the reflection that a supposedly rational divinity had spent his time creating three people so utterly unalike.

The gilt clock on the mantelpiece chimed half-past seven. The jonquils on the piano shone in the polished mahogany like yellow water-lilies in a pool. Into the silence of the room penetrated, on noiseless feet, a fresh-colored man servant. Despite such days as the present, Mrs. Ennis had a way, irritating to her acquaintances, of obtaining faithful attendance. Even servants seemed to be glad to wait upon her. Her husband, dead these six years, had been unfailingly precise in all matters save the one of drink.

"Mr. Burnaby!" announced the man servant.

Burnaby strode close on his heels. Mrs. Ennis had arisen and was standing with her back to the fireplace. She had the impression that a current of air followed the entrance of the two men. She remembered now that she had always felt that way with Burnaby; she had always felt as if he were bringing news of pine forests and big empty countries she had never seen but could dimly imagine. It was very exciting.

Burnaby paused and looked about the room doubtfully, then he chuckled and came forward. "I haven't seen anything like this for three years," he said. "Roumanian palaces are furnished in the very latest bad taste."

He took Mrs. Ennis's outstretched hand and peered down at her with narrowed eyelids. She received the further impression, an impression she had almost forgotten in the intervening years, of height and leanness, of dark eyes, and dark, crisp hair; a vibrant impression; something like a chord of music struck sharply. Unconsciously she let her hand rest in his for a moment, then she drew it away hastily. He was smiling and talking to her.

"Rhoda! You ought to begin to look a bit older! You're thirty-six, if you're a day! How do you do it? You look like a wise and rather naughty little girl."

"Hush!" said Mrs. Ennis. "I wear my hair parted on one side like a debutante to give me a head-start on all the knowing and subtle and wicked people I have to put up with. While they are trying to break the ice with an ingenue, I'm sizing them up."

Burnaby laughed. "Well, I'm not subtle," he said. He sank down into a big chair across the fireplace from her. "I'm only awfully glad to be back; and I'm good and simple and amenable, and willing to do nearly anything any good American tells me to do. I love Americans."

"You won't for very long," Mrs. Ennis assured him dryly. "Particularly if you stay in Washington more than a day." She was wondering how even for a moment she had been able to forget Burnaby's vividness.

"No," laughed Burnaby, "I suppose not. But while the mood is on me, don't disillusion me."

Mrs. Ennis looked across at him with a smile. "You'll meet two very attractive people tonight, anyway," she said.

"Oh, yes!" He leaned forward. "I had forgotten—who are they?"

Mrs. Ennis spread her arms out along the chair. "There's Mary Rochefort," she answered, "and there's Robert Pollen, who's supposed to be the most alluring man alive."

"Is it doing him any good?"

"Well—" Mrs. Ennis looked up with a laugh.

"You don't like him? Or perhaps you do?"

Mrs. Ennis knit her brows in thought, her blue eyes dark with conjecture. "I don't know," she said at length. "Sometimes I think I do, and sometimes I think I don't. He's very good-looking in a tall, blond, pliable way, and he can be very amusing when he wants to be. I don't know."

"Why not?"

Mrs. Ennis wrinkled her nose in the manner of one who is being pushed to explanation.

"I am not so sure," she confided, "that I admire professional philanderers as much as I did. Although, so long as they leave me alone—"

"Oh, he's that, is he?"

Mrs. Ennis corrected herself hastily. "Oh, no," she protested. "I shouldn't talk that way, should I? Now you'll have an initial prejudice, and that isn't fair—only—" she hesitated "I rather wish he would confine his talents to his own equals and not conjure young married women at their most vulnerable period."

"Which is?"

"Just when," said Mrs. Ennis, "they're not sure whether they want to fall in love again with their own husbands or not." Then she stopped abruptly. She was surprised that she had told Burnaby these things; even more surprised at the growing incisiveness of her voice. She was not accustomed to taking the amatory excursions of her friends too much to heart; she had a theory that it was none of her business, that perhaps some day she might want charity herself. But now she found herself perceptibly indignant. She wondered if it wasn't Burnaby's presence that was making her so. Sitting across from her, he made her think of directness and dependability and other traits she was accustomed to refer to as "primitive virtues." She liked his black, heavily ribbed evening stockings. Somehow they were like him. It made her angry with herself and with Burnaby that she should feel this way; be so moved by "primitive virtues." She detested puritanism greatly, and righteously, but so much so that she frequently mistook the most innocent fastidiousness for an unforgivable rigidity. "If they once do," she concluded, "once do fall in love with their husbands again, they're safe, you know, for all time."

She looked up and drew in her breath sharply. Burnaby was sitting forward in his chair, staring at her with the curious, far-sighted stare she remembered was characteristic of him when his interest was suddenly and thoroughly aroused. It was as if he were looking through the person to whom he was talking to some horizon beyond. It was a trifle uncanny, unless you were accustomed to the trick.

"What's the matter?" she asked. She had the feeling that back of her some one she could not see was standing.

Burnaby smiled. "Nothing," he said. He sank back into his chair. "That's an odd name—the name of this alluring fellow of yours, isn't it? What did you say it was—Pollen?"

"Yes. Robert Pollen. Why, do you know him?"

"No." Burnaby shook his head. He leaned over and lit a cigarette. "You don't mind, do you?" he asked. He raised his eyes. "So he's conjuring this Madame de Rochefort, is he?" he concluded.

Mrs. Ennis flushed. "I never said anything of the kind!" she protested. "It's none of our business, anyway."

Burnaby smiled calmly. "I quite agree with you," he said. "I imagine that a Frenchwoman, married for a while, is much better able to conduct her life in this respect than even the most experienced of us."

"She isn't French," said Mrs. Ennis; "she's American. And she's only been married five years. She's just a child—twenty-six."

"Oh!" ejaculated Burnaby. "One of those hard-faced children! I understand—Newport, Palm Beach, cocktails—"

His voice was cut across by Mrs. Ennis's indignant retort. "You don't in the least!" she said. "She's not one of those hard-faced children; she's lovely—and I've come to the conclusion that she's pathetic. I'm beginning to rather hate this man Pollen. Back of it all are subtleties of personality difficult to fathom. You should know Blais Rochefort. I imagine a woman going about things the wrong way could break her heart on him like waves on a crystal rock. I think it has been a question of fire meeting crystal, and, when it finds that the crystal is difficult to warm, turning back upon itself. I said waves, didn't I? Well, I don't care if my metaphors are mixed. It's tragic, anyhow. And the principal tragedy is that Blais Rochefort isn't really cold—at least, I don't think he would be if properly approached—he is merely beautifully lucid and intelligent and exacting in a way no American understands, least of all a petted girl who has no family and who is very rich. He expects, you see, an equal lucidity from his wife. He's not to be won over by the fumbling and rather selfish and pretty little tricks that are all most of us know. But Mary, I think, would have learned if she had only held on. Now, I'm afraid, she's losing heart. Hard-faced child!" Mrs. Ennis grew indignant again. "Be careful my friend; even you might find her dangerously pathetic."

Burnaby's eyes were placidly amused. "Thanks," he observed. "You've told me all I wanted to know."

Mrs. Ennis waved toward the piano. "There's Blais Rochefort's photograph," she retorted in tones of good-humored exasperation. "Go over and look at it."

"I will."

Burnaby's black shoulders, bent above the photograph, were for a moment the object of a pensive regard. Mrs. Ennis sighed. "Your presence makes me puritanical," she observed. "I have always felt that the best way for any one to get over Pollens was to go through with them and forget them."

Burnaby spoke without turning his head.

"He's good-looking."

"Very."

"A real man."

"Decidedly! Very brave and very cultivated."

"He waxes his mustache."

"Yes, even brave men do that occasionally."

"I should think," said Burnaby thoughtfully, putting the photograph down, "that he might be worth a woman's hanging on to."

Mrs. Ennis got up, crossed over to the piano, and leaned an elbow upon it, resting her cheek in the palm of her upturned hand and smiling at Burnaby.

"Don't let's be so serious," she said. "What business is it of ours?" She turned her head away and began to play with the petals of a near-by jonquil. "Spring is a restless time, isn't it?"

It seemed to her that the most curious little silence followed this speech of hers, and yet she knew that in actual time it was nothing, and felt that it existed probably only in her own heart. She heard the clock on the mantelpiece across the room ticking; far off, the rattle of a taxicab. The air coming through the open window bore the damp, stirring smell of early grass.

"Madame De Rochefort and Mr. Pollen!" announced a voice.

Mrs. Ennis had once said that her young friend, Mimi de Rochefort, responded to night more brilliantly than almost any other woman she knew. The description was apt. Possibly by day there was a pallor too lifeless, a nose a trifle too short and arrogant, lips, possibly, too full; but by night these discrepancies blended into something very near perfection, and back of them as well was a delicate illumination as of lanterns hung in trees beneath stars; an illumination due to youth, and to very large dark eyes, and to dark, soft hair and red lips. Nor with this beauty went any of the coolness or abrupt languor with which the modern young hide their eagerness.

Mary Rochefort was quite simple beneath her habitual reserve; frank and appealing and even humorous at times, as if startled out of her usual mood of reflective quiet by some bit of wit, slowly apprehended, too good to be overlooked. Mrs. Ennis watched with a sidelong glance the effect of her entrance upon Burnaby. Madame de Rochefort! How absurd! To call this white, tall, slim child madame! She admired rather enviously the gown of shimmering dark blue, the impeccability of adolescence. Over the girl's white shoulder, too much displayed, Pollen peered at Burnaby with the vague, hostile smile of the guest not yet introduced to a guest of similar sex.

"Late as usual!" he announced. "Mimi kept me!" His manner was subtly domestic.

"You're really on the stroke of the clock," said Mrs. Ennis. "Madame de Rochefort—Mr. Burnaby—Mr. Pollen." She laughed abruptly, as if a thought had just occurred to her. "Mr. Burnaby," she explained to the girl, "is the last surviving specimen of the American male—he has all the ancient national virtues. Preserved, I suppose, because he spends most of his time in Alaska, or wherever it is. I particularly wanted you to meet him."

Burnaby flushed and laughed uncertainly. "I object—" he began.

The fresh-colored man servant entered with a tray of cocktails. Madame de Rochefort exclaimed delightedly. "I'm so glad," she said. "Nowadays one fatigues oneself before dinner by wondering whether there will be anything to drink or not. How absurd!" The careful choice of words, the precision of the young, worldly voice were in amusing contrast to the youthfulness of appearance. Standing before the fireplace in her blue gown, she resembled a tapering lily growing from the indigo shadows of a noon orchard.

"Rhoda'll have cocktails when there aren't any more left in the country," said Pollen. "Trust Rhoda!"

Mary Rochefort laughed. "I always do," she said, "with reservations." She turned to Burnaby. "Where are you just back from?" she asked. "I understand you are always just back from some place, or on the verge of going."

"Usually on the verge," answered Burnaby. He looked at her deliberately, a smile in his dark eyes; then he looked at Pollen.

"Where were you—the War?"

"Yes—by way of Roumania in the end."

"The War!" Mary Rochefort's lips became petulant. One noticed for the first time the possibility of

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