While Marjorie was breakfasting
late next day Bernice came into the room with a rather formal good morning, sat down opposite, stared intently over and slightly moistened her lips.
"What's on your mind?" inquired Marjorie, rather puzzled.
Bernice paused before she threw her hand-grenade.
"I heard what you said about me to your mother last night."
Marjorie was startled, but she showed only a faintly heightened color and her voice was quite even when she spoke.
"Where were you?"
"In the hall. I didn't mean to listen - at first."
After an involuntary look of contempt Marjorie dropped her eyes and became very interested in balancing a stray corn-flake on her finger.
"I guess I'd better go back to Eau Claire - if I'm such a nuisance." Bernice's lower lip was trembling violently and she continued on a wavering note: "I've tried to be nice, and - and I've been first neglected and then insulted. No one ever visited me and got such treatment."
Marjorie was silent.
"But I'm in the way, I see. I'm a drag on you. Your friends don't like me." She paused, and then remembered another one of her grievances. "Of course I was furious last week when you tried to hint to me that that dress was unbecoming. Don't you think I know how to dress myself?"
"No," murmured Marjorie less than half-aloud.
"I didn't hint anything," said Marjorie succinctly. "I said, as I remember, that it was better to wear a becoming dress three times straight than to alternate it with two frights."
"Do you think that was a very nice thing to say?"
"I wasn't trying to be nice." Then after a pause: "When do you want to go?"
Bernice drew in her breath sharply.
"Oh!" It was a little half-cry.
Marjorie looked up in surprise.
"Didn't you say you were going?"
"Oh, you were only bluffing!"
They stared at each other across the breakfast-table for a moment. Misty waves were passing before Bernice's eyes, while Marjorie's face wore that rather hard expression that she used when slightly intoxicated undergraduates were making love to her.
"So you were bluffing," she repeated as if it were what she might have expected.
Bernice admitted it by bursting into tears. Marjorie's eyes showed boredom.
"You're my cousin," sobbed Bernice. "I'm v-v-visiting you. I was to stay a month, and if I go home my mother will know and she'll wah-wonder----"
Marjorie waited until the shower of broken words collapsed into little sniffles.
"I'll give you my month's allowance," she said coldly, "and you can spend this last week anywhere you want. There's a very nice hotel----"
Bernice's sobs rose to a flute note, and rising of a sudden she fled from the room.
An hour later, while Marjorie was in the library absorbed in composing one of those non-committal, marvellously elusive letters that only a young girl can write, Bernice reappeared, very red-eyed and consciously calm. She cast no glance at Marjorie but took a book at random from the shelf and sat down as if to read. Marjorie seemed absorbed in her letter and continued writing. When the clock showed noon Bernice closed her book with a snap.
"I suppose I'd better get my railroad ticket."
This was not the beginning of the speech she had rehearsed up-stairs, but as Marjorie was not getting her cues - wasn't urging her to be reasonable; it's all a mistake - it was the best opening she could muster.
"Just wait till I finish this letter," said Marjorie without looking round. "I want to get it off in the next mail."
After another minute, during which her pen scratched busily, she turned round and relaxed with an air of "at your service." Again Bernice had to speak.
"Do you want me to go home?"
"Well," said Marjorie, considering, "I suppose if you're not having a good time you'd better go. No use being miserable."
"Don't you think common kindness----"
"Oh, please don't quote `Little Women'!" cried Marjorie impatiently. "That's out of style."
"You think so?"
"Heavens, yes! What modern girl could live like those inane females?"
"They were the models for our mothers."
"Yes, they were - not! Besides, our mothers were all very well in their way, but they know very little about their daughters' problems."
Bernice drew herself up.
"Please don't talk about my mother."
"I don't think I mentioned her."
Bernice felt that she was being led away from her subject.
"Do you think you've treated me very well?"
"I've done my best. You're rather hard material to work with."
The lids of Bernice's eyes reddened.
"I think you're hard and selfish, and you haven't a feminine quality in you."
"Oh, my Lord!" cried Marjorie in desperation. "You little nut! Girls like you are responsible for all the tiresome colorless marriages; all those ghastly inefficiencies that pass as feminine qualities. What a blow it must be when a man with imagination marries the beautiful bundle of clothes that he's been building ideals round, and finds that she's just a weak, whining, cowardly mass of affectations!"
Bernice's mouth had slipped half open.
"The womanly woman!" continued Marjorie. "Her whole early life is occupied in whining criticisms of girls like me who really do have a good time."
Bernice's jaw descended farther as Marjorie's voice rose.
"There's some excuse for an ugly girl whining. If I'd been irretrievably ugly I'd never have forgiven my parents for bringing me into the world. But you're starting life without any handicap--" Marjorie's little fist clinched. "If you expect me to weep with you you'll be disappointed. Go or stay, just as you like." And picking up her letters she left the room.
Bernice claimed a headache and failed to appear at luncheon. They had a matinée date for the afternoon, but the headache persisting, Marjorie made explanation to a not very downcast boy. But when she returned late in the afternoon she found Bernice with a strangely set face waiting for her in her bedroom.
"I've decided," began Bernice without preliminaries, "that maybe you're right about things - possibly not. But if you'll tell me why your friends aren't --aren't interested in me I'll see if I can do what you want me to."
Marjorie was at the mirror shaking down her hair.
"Do you mean it?"
"Without reservations? Will you do exactly what I say?"
"Well nothing! Will you do exactly as I say?"
"If they're sensible things."
"They're not! You're no case for sensible things."
"Are you going to make - to recommend----"
"Yes, everything. If I tell you to take boxing-lessons you'll have to do it. Write home and tell your mother you're going to stay another two weeks."
"If you'll tell me----"
"All right--I'll just give you a few examples now. First, you have no ease of manner. Why? Because you're never sure about your personal appearance. When a girl feels that she's perfectly groomed and dressed she can forget that part of her. That's charm. The more parts of yourself you can afford to forget the more charm you have."
"Don't I look all right?"
"No; for instance, you never take care of your eyebrows. They're black and lustrous, but by leaving them straggly they're a blemish. They'd be beautiful if you'd take care of them in one-tenth the time you take doing nothing. You're going to brush them so that they'll grow straight."
Bernice raised the brows in question.
"Do you mean to say that men notice eyebrows?"
"Yes - subconsciously. And when you go home you ought to have your teeth straightened a little. It's almost imperceptible, still----"
"But I thought," interrupted Bernice in bewilderment, "that you despised little dainty feminine things like that."
"I hate dainty minds," answered Marjorie. "But a girl has to be dainty in person. If she looks like a million dollars she can talk about Russia, ping-pong, or the League of Nations and get away with it."
"Oh, I'm just beginning! There's your dancing."
"Don't I dance all right?"
"No, you don't - you lean on a man; yes, you do - ever so slightly. I noticed it when we were dancing together yesterday. And you dance standing up straight instead of bending over a little. Probably some old lady on the side-line once told you that you looked so dignified that way. But except with a very small girl it's much harder on the man, and he's the one that counts."
"Go on." Bernice's brain was reeling.
"Well, you've got to learn to be nice to men who are sad birds. You look as if you'd been insulted whenever you're thrown with any except the most popular boys. Why, Bernice, I'm cut in on every few feet - and who does most of it? Why, those very sad birds. No girl can afford to neglect them. They're the big part of any crowd. Young boys too shy to talk are the very best conversational practice. Clumsy boys are the best dancing practice. If you can follow them and yet look graceful you can follow a baby tank across a barb-wire sky-scraper."
Bernice sighed profoundly, but Marjorie was not through.
"If you go to a dance and really amuse, say, three sad birds that dance with you; if you talk so well to them that they forget they're stuck with you, you've done something. They'll come back next time, and gradually so many sad birds will dance with you that the attractive boys will see there's no danger of being stuck - then they'll dance with you."
"Yes," agreed Bernice faintly. "I think I begin to see."
"And finally," concluded Marjorie, "poise and charm will just come. You'll wake up some morning knowing you've attained it, and men will know it too."
"It's been awfully kind of you - but nobody's ever talked to me like this before, and I feel sort of startled."
Marjorie made no answer but gazed pensively at her own image in the mirror.
"You're a peach to help me," continued Bernice.
Still Marjorie did not answer, and Bernice thought she had seemed too grateful.
"I know you don't like sentiment," she said timidly.
Marjorie turned to her quickly.
"Oh, I wasn't thinking about that. I was considering whether we hadn't better bob your hair."
Bernice collapsed backward upon the bed.
Bernice Bobs Her Hair II Bernice Bobs Her Hair Bernice Bobs Her Hair IV