TO BERNICE THE NEXT week was a revelation. With the feeling that people really enjoyed looking at her and listening to her came the foundation of self-confidence. Of course there were numerous mistakes at first. She did not know, for instance, that Draycott Deyo was studying for the ministry; she was unaware that he had cut in on her because he thought she was a quiet, reserved girl. Had she known these things she would not have treated him to the line which began “Hello, Shell Shock!” and continued with the bathtub story – “It takes a frightful lot of energy to fix my hair in the summer – there’s so much of it – so I always fix it first and powder my face and put on my hat; then I get into the bathtub, and dress afterward. Don’t you think that’s the best plan?”
Though Draycott Deyo was in the throes of difficulties concerning baptism by immersion and might possibly have seen a connection, it must be admitted that he did not. He considered feminine bathing an immoral subject, and gave her some of his ideas on the depravity of modern society.
But to offset that unfortunate occurrence Bernice had several signal successes to her credit. Little Otis Ormonde pleaded off from a trip East and elected instead to follow her with a puppy-like devotion, to the amusement of his crowd and to the irritation of G. Reece Stoddard, several of whose afternoon calls Otis completely ruined by the disgusting tenderness of the glances he bent on Bernice. He even told her the story of the two-by-four and the dressing-room to show her how frightfully mistaken he and every one else had been in their first judgment of her. Bernice laughed off that incident with a slight sinking sensation.
Of all Bernice’s conversation perhaps the best known and most universally approved was the line about the bobbing of her hair.
“Oh, Bernice, when you goin’ to get the hair bobbed?”
“Day after to-morrow maybe,” she would reply, laughing. “Will you come and see me? Because I’m counting on you, you know.”
“Will we? You know! But you better hurry up.”
Bernice, whose tonsorial intentions were strictly dishonorable, would laugh again.
“Pretty soon now. You’d be surprised.”
But perhaps the most significant symbol of her success was the gray car of the hypercritical Warren McIntyre, parked daily in front of the Harvey house. At first the parlor-maid was distinctly startled when he asked for Bernice instead of Marjorie; after a week of it she told the cook that Miss Bernice had gotta hold a Miss Marjorie’s best fella.
And Miss Bernice had. Perhaps it began with Warren’s desire to rouse jealousy in Marjorie; perhaps it was the familiar though unrecognized strain of Marjorie in Bernice’s conversation; perhaps it was both of these and something of sincere attraction besides. But somehow the collective mind of the younger set knew within a week that Marjorie’s most reliable beau had made an amazing face-about and was giving an indisputable rush to Marjorie’s guest. The question of the moment was how Marjorie would take it. Warren called Bernice on the ‘phone twice a day, sent her notes, and they were frequently seen together in his roadster, obviously engrossed in one of those tense, significant conversations as to whether or not he was sincere.
Marjorie on being twitted only laughed. She said she was mighty glad that Warren had at last found some one who appreciated him. So the younger set laughed, too, and guessed that Marjorie didn’t care and let it go at that.
One afternoon when there were only three days left of her visit Bernice was waiting in the hall for Warren, with whom she was going to a bridge party. She was in rather a blissful mood, and when Marjorie – also bound for the party – appeared beside her and began casually to adjust her hat in the mirror, Bernice was utterly unprepared for anything in the nature of a clash. Marjorie did her work very coldly and succinctly in three sentences.
“You may as well get Warren out of your head,” she said coldly.
“What?” Bernice was utterly astounded.
“You may as well stop making a fool of yourself over Warren McIntyre. He doesn’t care a snap of his fingers about you.”
For a tense moment they regarded each other – Marjorie scornful, aloof; Bernice astounded, half-angry, half-afraid. Then two cars drove up in front of the house and there was a riotous honking. Both of them gasped faintly, turned, and side by side hurried out.
All through the bridge party Bernice strove in vain to master a rising uneasiness. She had offended Marjorie, the sphinx of sphinxes. With the most wholesome and innocent intentions in the world she had stolen Marjorie’s property. She felt suddenly and horribly guilty. After the bridge game, when they sat in an informal circle and the conversation became general, the storm gradually broke. Little Otis Ormonde inadvertently precipitated it.
“When you going back to kindergarten, Otis?” some one had asked.
“Me? Day Bernice gets her hair bobbed.”
“Then your education’s over,” said Marjorie quickly. “That’s only a bluff of hers. I should think you’d have realized.”
“That a fact?” demanded Otis, giving Bernice a reproachful glance.
Bernice’s ears burned as she tried to think up an effectual come-back. In the face of this direct attack her imagination was paralyzed.
“There’s a lot of bluffs in the world,” continued Marjorie quite pleasantly. “I should think you’d be young enough to know that, Otis.”
“Well,” said Otis, “maybe so. But gee! With a line like Bernice’s–”
“Really?” yawned Marjorie. “What’s her latest bon mot?”
No one seemed to know. In fact, Bernice, having trifled with her muse’s beau, had said nothing memorable of late.
“Was that really all a line?” asked Roberta curiously. Bernice hesitated. She felt that wit in some form was demanded of her, but under her cousin’s suddenly frigid eyes she was completely incapacitated.
“I don’t know,” she stalled. “Splush!” said Marjorie. “Admit it!”
Bernice saw that Warren’s eyes had left a ukulele he had been tinkering with and were fixed on her questioningly. “Oh, I don’t know!” she repeated steadily. Her cheeks were glowing.
“Splush!” remarked Marjorie again.
“Come through, Bernice,” urged Otis. “Tell her where to get off.”
Bernice looked round again – she seemed unable to get away from Warren’s eyes.
“I like bobbed hair,” she said hurriedly, as if he had asked her a question, “and I intend to bob mine.”
“When?” demanded Marjorie.
“No time like the present,” suggested Roberta.
Otis jumped to his feet.
“Good stuff!” he cried. “We’ll have a summer bobbing party. Sevier Hotel barber-shop, I think you said.”
In an instant all were on their feet. Bernice’s heart throbbed violently. “What?” she gasped.
Out of the group came Marjorie’s voice, very clear and contemptuous.
“Don’t worry – she’ll back out!”
“Come on, Bernice!” cried Otis, starting toward the door.
Four eyes – Warren’s and Marjorie’s – stared at her, challenged her, defied her. For another second she wavered wildly.
An eternity of minutes later, riding down-town through the late afternoon beside Warren, the others following in Roberta’s car close behind, Bernice had all the sensations of Marie Antoinette bound for the guillotine in a tumbrel. Vaguely she wondered why she did not cry out that it was all a mistake. It was all she could do to keep from clutching her hair with both hands to protect it from the suddenly hostile world. Yet she did neither. Even the thought of her mother was no deterrent now. This was the test supreme of her sportsmanship; her right to walk unchallenged in the starry heaven of popular girls.
Warren was moodily silent, and when they came to the hotel he drew up at the curb and nodded to Bernice to precede him out. Roberta’s car emptied a laughing crowd into the shop, which presented two bold plate-glass windows to the street.
Bernice stood on the curb and looked at the sign, Sevier Barber-Shop. It was a guillotine indeed, and the hangman was the first barber, who, attired in a white coat and smoking a cigarette, leaned nonchalantly against the first chair. He must have heard of her; he must have been waiting all week, smoking eternal cigarettes beside that portentous, too-often mentioned first chair. Would they blindfold her? No, but they would tie a white cloth round her neck lest any of her blood – nonsense – hair – should get on her clothes.
“All right, Bernice,” said Warren quickly.
With her chin in the air she crossed the sidewalk, pushed open the swinging screen-door, and giving not a glance to the uproarious, riotous row that occupied the waiting bench, went up to the first barber.
“I want you to bob my hair.”
The first barber’s mouth slid somewhat open. His cigarette dropped to the floor.
“My hair – bob it!”
Refusing further preliminaries, Bernice took her seat on high. A man in the chair next to her turned on his side and gave her a glance, half lather, half amazement. One barber started and spoiled little Willy Schuneman’s monthly haircut. Mr. O’Reilly in the last chair grunted and swore musically in ancient Gaelic as a razor bit into his cheek. Two bootblacks became wide-eyed and rushed for her feet. No, Bernice didn’t care for a shine.
Outside a passer-by stopped and stared; a couple joined him; half a dozen small boys’ noses sprang into life, flattened against the glass; and snatches of conversation borne on the summer breeze drifted in through the screen-door.
“Lookada long hair on a kid!”
“Where’d yuh get ‘at stuff? ‘At’s a bearded lady he just finished shavin’.”
“All right,” she said swiftly, “I don’t care if I do.”
But Bernice saw nothing, heard nothing. Her only living sense told her that this man in the white coat had removed one tortoise-shell comb and then another; that his fingers were fumbling clumsily with unfamiliar hairpins; that this hair, this wonderful hair of hers, was going – she would never again feel its long voluptuous pull as it hung in a dark-brown glory down her back. For a second she was near breaking down, and then the picture before her swam mechanically into her vision – Marjorie’s mouth curling in a faint ironic smile as if to say:
“Give up and get down! You tried to buck me and I called your bluff. You see you haven’t got a prayer.”
And some last energy rose up in Bernice, for she clinched her hands under the white cloth, and there was a curious narrowing of her eyes that Marjorie remarked on to some one long afterward.
Twenty minutes later the barber swung her round to face the mirror, and she flinched at the full extent of the damage that had been wrought. Her hair was not curly, and now it lay in lank lifeless blocks on both sides of her suddenly pale face. It was ugly as sin – she had known it would be ugly as sin. Her face’s chief charm had been a Madonna-like simplicity. Now that was gone and she was – well, frightfully mediocre – not stagy; only ridiculous, like a Greenwich Villager who had left her spectacles at home.
As she climbed down from the chair she tried to smile – failed miserably. She saw two of the girls exchange glances; noticed Marjorie’s mouth curved in attenuated mockery – and that Warren’s eyes were suddenly very cold.
“You see” – her words fell into an awkward pause – “I’ve done it.”
“Yes, you’ve – done it,” admitted Warren. “Do you like it?”
There was a half-hearted “Sure” from two or three voices, another awkward pause, and then Marjorie turned swiftly and with serpent-like intensity to Warren.
“Would you mind running me down to the cleaners?” she asked. “I’ve simply got to get a dress there before supper. Roberta’s driving right home and she can take the others.”
Warren stared abstractedly at some infinite speck out the window. Then for an instant his eyes rested coldly on Bernice before they turned to Marjorie.
“Be glad to,” he said slowly.
Bernice did not fully realize the outrageous trap that had been set for her until she met her aunt’s amazed glance just before dinner.
“I’ve bobbed it, Aunt Josephine.” “Why, child!”
“Do you like it?”
“I suppose I’ve shocked you.”
“No, but what’ll Mrs. Deyo think tomorrow night? Bernice, you should have waited until after the Deyos’ dance – you should have waited if you wanted to do that.”
“It was sudden, Aunt Josephine. Anyway, why does it matter to Mrs. Deyo particularly?”
“Why, child,” cried Mrs. Harvey, “in her paper on `The Foibles of the Younger Generation’ that she read at the last meeting of the Thursday Club she devoted fifteen minutes to bobbed hair. It’s her pet abomination. And the dance is for you and Marjorie!”
“Oh, Bernice, what’ll your mother say? She’ll think I let you do it.”
Dinner was an agony. She had made a hasty attempt with a curling-iron, and burned her finger and much hair. She could see that her aunt was both worried and grieved, and her uncle kept saying, “Well, I’ll be darned!” over and over in a hurt and faintly hostile tone. And Marjorie sat very quietly, intrenched behind a faint smile, a faintly mocking smile.
Somehow she got through the evening. Three boys called; Marjorie disappeared with one of them, and Bernice made a listless unsuccessful attempt to entertain the two others – sighed thankfully as she climbed the stairs to her room at half past ten. What a day!
When she had undressed for the night the door opened and Marjorie came in. “Bernice,” she said, “I’m awfully sorry about the Deyo dance. I’ll give you my word of honor I’d forgotten all about it.”
“‘Sall right,” said Bernice shortly. Standing before the mirror she passed her comb slowly through her short hair.
“I’ll take you down-town to-morrow,” continued Marjorie, “and the hairdresser’ll fix it so you’ll look slick. I didn’t imagine you’d go through with it. I’m really mighty sorry.”
“Oh, ‘sall right!” ￼
“Still it’s your last night, so I suppose it won’t matter much.”
Then Bernice winced as Marjorie tossed her own hair over her shoulders and began to twist it slowly into two long blond braids until in her cream-colored negligée she looked like a delicate painting of some Saxon princess. Fascinated, Bernice watched the braids grow. Heavy and luxurious they were, moving under the supple fingers like restive snakes – and to Bernice remained this relic and the curling-iron and a to-morrow full of eyes. She could see G. Reece Stoddard, who liked her, assuming his Harvard manner and telling his dinner partner that Bernice shouldn’t have been allowed to go to the movies so much; she could see Draycott Deyo exchanging glances with his mother and then being conscientiously charitable to her. But then perhaps by to-morrow Mrs. Deyo would have heard the news; would send round an icy little note requesting that she fail to appear – and behind her back they would all laugh and know that Marjorie had made a fool of her; that her chance at beauty had been sacrificed to the jealous whim of a selfish girl. She sat down suddenly before the mirror, biting the inside of her cheek.
“I like it,” she said with an effort. “I think it’ll be becoming.” Marjorie smiled.
“It looks all right. For heaven’s sake, don’t let it worry you!” “I won’t.”
“Good night, Bernice.”
But as the door closed something snapped within Bernice. She sprang dynamically to her feet, clinching her hands, then swiftly and noiselessly crossed over to her bed and from underneath it dragged out her suitcase. Into it she tossed toilet articles and a change of clothing. Then she turned to her trunk and quickly dumped in two drawerfuls of lingerie and summer dresses. She moved quietly, but with deadly efficiency, and in three-quarters of an hour her trunk was locked and strapped and she was fully dressed in a becoming new travelling suit that Marjorie had helped her pick out.
Sitting down at her desk she wrote a short note to Mrs. Harvey, in which she briefly outlined her reasons for going. She sealed it, addressed it, and laid it on her pillow. She glanced at her watch. The train left at one, and she knew that if she walked down to the Marborough Hotel two blocks away she could easily get a taxicab.
Suddenly she drew in her breath sharply and an expression flashed into her eyes that a practised character reader might have connected vaguely with the set look she had worn in the barber’s chair – somehow a development of it. It was quite a new look for Bernice and it carried consequences.
She went stealthily to the bureau, picked up an article that lay there, and turning out all the lights stood quietly until her eyes became accustomed to the darkness. Softly she pushed open the door to Marjorie’s room. She heard the quiet, even breathing of an untroubled conscience asleep.
She was by the bedside now, very deliberate and calm. She acted swiftly.
Bending over she found one of the braids of Marjorie’s hair, followed it up with her hand to the point nearest the head, and then holding it a little slack so that the sleeper would feel no pull, she reached down with the shears and severed it. With the pigtail in her hand she held her breath. Marjorie had muttered something in her sleep. Bernice deftly amputated the other braid, paused for an instant, and then flitted swiftly and silently back to her own room.
Down-stairs she opened the big front door, closed it carefully behind her, and feeling oddly happy and exuberant stepped off the porch into the moonlight, swinging her heavy grip like a shopping-bag. After a minute’s brisk walk she discovered that her left hand still held the two blond braids. She laughed unexpectedly – had to shut her mouth hard to keep from emitting an absolute peal. She was passing Warren’s house now, and on the impulse she set down her baggage, and swinging the braids like pieces of rope flung them at the wooden porch, where they landed with a slight thud. She laughed again, no longer restraining herself.
“Huh!” she giggled wildly. “Scalp the selfish thing!”
Then picking up her suitcase she set off at a half-run down the moonlit street.
Excerpt from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story published in Flappers and Philosophers in 1922.
Text accompanied by images of the characterful Edith Bouvier Beale, or Little Edie as she was known and featured in the documentary Grey Gardens from 1975, directed by Ellen Hovde, Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Muffie Meyer.