On Saturday nights, well-to-do country clubs host summer dances, which are “pleasantly warm and exciting” for all ages. The partygoers break off into groups according to age, gender, and marital status—most notably, the older ladies, unable to understand “the drama of the shifting, semicruel world of adolescence,” maintain a judgmental distance from the teenagers on the veranda. They feel that unless the young people are watched, they will get up to lewd or indecent activities. Meanwhile, handsome young “stags” like Warren McIntyre feel that the party is, on the whole, too tame. The 19-year-old takes a break from the dance to smoke a cigarette and wander the grounds, reminiscing about those in attendance.
The positioning of the partygoers reflects the social rift between young and old that opened up in the 1920s, as teenagers began to assert their own culture and values against those of their parents. The older generation sits up high in a position of authority—but it is also a position of some distance. They can observe the veranda, but they cannot hear, feel, or truly understand what is happening down below. Even so, this atmosphere is enough to dampen the ambitions of young men like Warren, who are eager for something more intimate and exciting than just a dance. “Stag” is a term for a young bachelor, with connotations of manliness and sexual availability; in the 1920s, and still today in the United Kingdom, a bachelor party was called a “stag party.”
Warren’s thoughts come to rest on his longtime childhood friend, Marjorie Harvey, whose “fairylike face” and “dazzling, bewildering tongue” had long won the crowd’s admiration and Warren’s desire. To win favor with her, Warren has made a habit of dancing with her cousin Bernice, who has been visiting all month, when asked—Bernice’s socially awkward ways have always left her neglected and unpopular. Marjorie approaches Warren and makes this very request of him, saying that Bernice has been “stuck with little Otis Ormonde for almost an hour.” Disappointed, Warren nonetheless agrees, feeling that Marjorie’s approval is worth the trouble.
This early section establishes the main relationships at play in this story: Warren to Marjorie, Warren to Bernice, and the two girls to each other. It also illustrates the social hierarchy of this group of teenagers. Marjorie is clearly popular because she can afford to refuse Warren. They both stand over 16-year-old Otis, and Bernice sits beneath even him.
Warren finds Otis waiting for Bernice, making jokes to the crowd at her expense while she fixes her hair in the bathroom. Otis even remarks that he’ll use a stick he has found to club Bernice on the head, in order to avoid dancing with her any more. Warren “howl[s] with glee,” then informs Otis that he will be relieving him as Bernice’s dance partner.
This passage highlights how teenagers can be vicious, especially when social standing is at stake. Otis seems to be motivated in part by his desire to earn approval from the older boys, but Warren is simply cruel. His laughter at Bernice is his most intense—and most authentic—display of emotion throughout the entire story, and it speaks to his true character.
Warren and Bernice take the next full dance together. The conversation is limited to small talk—the weather, Bernice’s schedule, and so on—and the atmosphere between them is generally tense. In “a sudden charitable impulse,” he tries a pickup line that has proven successful for him in the past: “You’ve got an awfully kissable mouth.” Far from succeeding, the line makes her blush “an ungraceful red.” Embarrassed and offended, she calls him “fresh,” realizing too late that she should play amused instead. Irked, Warren changes the subject, and Bernice feels “a faint regret mingled with her relief,” as she is unaccustomed to men flirting with her. She bumbles through small talk for the rest of the dance with Warren, inadvertently coming across as snobbish.
The narrator looks into Bernice’s thoughts as well as Warren’s, allowing the reader to see the miscommunication between them as it happens. Even when she does not mean it, Bernice defaults to the social vocabulary of a middle-aged woman because it’s all she knows.