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Plain Bernice by Mrs. Cora Webber

The last stroke of the bell was dying away ere Bernice Dahl walked timidly across the schoolroom floor, and sat down in the nearest empty seat.

"O, my, my!" whispered Myrtle Fling across the aisle to her chum. "She is the plainest-looking girl I ever saw."

Elizabeth nodded her head very positively, and two or three others exchanged knowing glances. A moment later a little piece of paper fluttered down at Myrtle's feet from a desk top. On it was written: "She's so plain. She's Rocky Mountainy?all ridges and hubbles."

Meanwhile Bernice sat very still, her great black eyes fixed on the teacher's face.

Have you ever held a frightened bird in your hand, and felt its heart beat? That is the way Bernice's heart was going. She was a stranger. Her father had moved to this place from a distant town, and she had walked to school that morning with a pupil who lived on the same street, but who had fluttered away into a little bevy of children almost as soon as she had shown the new girl the cloak-room; and Bernice, naturally a bit diffident and sensitive, felt very much alone.

This feeling was heightened when the bell struck, and one by one the pupils filed past into the schoolroom, with only a rude stare or indifferent glance, quite as if she were some specter on exhibition. When the last one had passed her, she clasped and unclasped her hands nervously.

"It is because I am so homely!" she thought.

A month or more went by. Somehow Bernice and her schoolmates had not made so much progress in getting acquainted as one would have thought. The new girl was unobtrusive, attended strictly to her studies, and made few demands on those about her; yet it was true that there was among them at least an unacknowledged conspiracy to taboo her, or an understanding that she was to be ignored almost completely. This Bernice attributed to her looks. Ever since she could remember, she had been called "homely," "ugly," "plain," and similar epithets. Now, though she preserved a calm exterior, she could not help being unhappy because she was thus slighted.

One Monday morning a little flurry of excitement was visible among the pupils of the up-town grammar-school. Elizabeth Weston had announced a party to come off later in the week, and several of them had been invited.

"Will you invite Bernice Dahl?" asked Myrtle, bending over her friend.

"I have been thinking about it," Elizabeth answered, slowly. "Miss Somers says she has the best lessons of any one in her class, and then she was so nice to Jimmy Flanders that day he sprained his arm. I have half a mind to." And she really did.

That night when Bernice was telling her mother of the invitation she had received, she said, doubtfully, "I think I shall not go."

"Why not?" was the reply. "It can do no good to stay away, and something may be gained by going."

So it chanced that Bernice found herself at Elizabeth's home on the evening of the party. Her hostess met her smilingly. "She is really glad that I came," thought Bernice. And she felt her soul suddenly warm to life, just as the thirsty earth brightens and glows and sends up little shoots of new green at a patter of summer rain.

The long parlor was decorated in green and white. The bright lights, the gay figures stirring beneath, and the shining faces, half of which were strange to Bernice, formed a pretty picture, and the girl moved here and there in the constantly shifting kaleidoscope with a freedom and happiness she had not known since coming to the town.

At last she found herself, with the others, sitting very quiet and listening to two girls playing a duet on the piano. Then one of them sang a Scotch song. There was warmth and richness, the warbling of birds, the melody of brooks, in the rendering, and Bernice heard a half-sigh close beside her.

"I wish I could sing! O, always I wanted to sing!"

Then for the first time she saw who sat there?a tall, handsome, beautifully gowned girl whom she had noticed several times during the evening, and to whom everybody seemed to defer. She had heard vaguely that this was Elizabeth's cousin, and wondered if it was for her that Elizabeth had given the party.

"And can't you?" she asked, evincing instant interest.

The girl turned toward her with a smile. "Not at all. Sometimes I used to try when no one heard, and once when I was in the hammock with my brother's little girl, I joined her in the song she was singing. She looked at me in a minute with a rueful countenance, and said, 'Aunt Helen, I can't sing when you are making such a noise!'" Bernice laughed. "I haven't tried much since," the tall girl added.

"We have singing lessons at school twice a week," Bernice said, presently, "but I like the every-day lessons better."

"Do you? I like mathematics, and sloyd, and a hammer and nails and saw.
Mama tells me I ought to be a carpenter."

"But you don't look like one," Bernice smiled, critically; and then continued: "We began physical geography this term. It is so interesting. And Miss Somers makes language beautiful; I can't help liking grammar!"

"I never understood it?it was always so blind!"

But Bernice was laughing again. The tall girl turned toward her inquiringly.

"I was thinking of what Johnny Weeks said down in the primary room the other day," Bernice began in explanation. "The teacher asked him what 'cat' was. I guess he was not paying attention. He looked all around, and finally said he did not know. She told him it was a noun. 'Then,' he said, after some deliberation, 'kitten must be a pronoun.'"

An hour afterward, all the lights but one in the house were out. Elizabeth sat with her cousin talking over the events of the evening.

"And how do you like Bernice Dahl?" she asked, and lent an eager ear; for
Helen's word could make or mar things irretrievably.

"Like her? I have never liked any one better. Perhaps I would not have noticed, had you not spoken particularly about her."

"Well?" said Elizabeth, as her cousin paused.

"She is all life and vivacity. I thought you said she was 'dummified.'"

"But she was. I never saw her like this before."

"Then something woke her. If any seemed ill at ease or lonely, she went to them, and, behold, they chatted like magpies! I saw some of her schoolmates look at her wonderingly, and at least one sneered, but I watched. She had just one thought, and that was to make every one happy. You could have spared any one of the girls better; in fact, any three of them."

Long after Helen had gone to sleep, Elizabeth lay thinking. "Jimmy Flanders," she said, and counted off one finger; another followed, and then another. After all, it was wonderful how many good deeds she could reckon up, and all so quietly done. Strange she had never thought of them en masse before. How could Bernice be gay among so many frowns and slights?

The next forenoon session of the grammar-school was well under way. Bernice opened her history, and in it was a little slip of paper that she had used as a book-mark since that first morning. An odd spirit seized her, and almost before she knew it, she had gone up the aisle, and laid it on Elizabeth's desk. The next instant she would have given much to withdraw it. Elizabeth glanced down and flushed painfully. There it was: "She's so plain. She's Rocky Mountainy?all ridges and hubbles." But Bernice was back at her work again, evidently unruffled.

When the bell tapped for intermission, Elizabeth went to her. "Bernice, I did write it. O, I am so ashamed!" and, bursting into tears, she hid her face on Bernice's shoulder.

One of those smiles that somehow have the power of transforming the harshest features, swept over the girl's face, and, picking up Elizabeth's hand, she kissed it softly again and again. "I won't kiss her face," she thought, "I am so homely!" but from that day she slipped into the queenly place she had a right to occupy, and it was not long before every one forgot her plainness.

And let me whisper you a secret, girls,?for even now Bernice does not seem to know,?as she grew older, the rough lines mellowed and softened, the short figure stretched upward, till she was beautiful as ever her dearest wish had pictured. Was it not lovely spirit within, for Bernice was a Christian, molding and modeling the clay into a fit dwelling-place for itself? That is a beauty that never quite withers away. Its roots are planted in the soul beautiful, and a beautiful soul can never die.


Say "Thank You"

I saw a needy one relieved,
And forth he went, and glad,
But not one word of gratitude
That lightened spirit had.
His benefactor, bent by cares,
Went wearily all day;
While him his kindnesses had served
Went careless on his way.

If you have given aught for me,
Ought not my voice return
One little word of graciousness?
O, breaking spirits yearn
Just for the human touch of love
To cheer the aching heart,
To brighten all the paths of toil,
And take away the smart!

Say "Thank you!" then. 'Tis small enough
Return for help bestowed
Say "Thank you!" You would spurn to slight
The smallest debt you owed;
But is not this a debt??Ah, more!
And honor, if true blue
Your loyal heart of rectitude,
Impels to say "Thank you!"