In the sunny morning-room there prevailed an atmosphere of business. Rosemary, at the desk, was rapidly writing notes and addressing envelopes. Theodore, a deep wrinkle crossing his forehead, was struggling to reduce to order a confused heap of crumpled and illegible papers. Before him lay little heaps of silver and small gold, which he moved and counted untiringly, referring now and then to various entries in a large, flat ledger. Mrs. Bancroft, stepmother of these two, was in a deep chair, with her lap full of letters. Now and then she quoted aloud from these as she opened and glanced over them. Lastly, Ann Weatherbee, a neighbor, seated on the floor with her back against Mrs. Bancroft's knee, was sorting a large hamperful of silver spoons and crumpled napkins into various heaps.
"There!" said Ann, presently. "I've finished the napkins--or nearly! Tell me, whose are these, Aunt Nell?"
Mrs. Bancroft reached a smooth hand for them and mused over the monograms.
"B--B--B--?" she reflected. "Both are B's, aren't they? And different, too. This is Mrs. Bayne's, anyway--I was with her when she bought these. But these--? Oh, I know now, Ann! That little cousin of the Potters',--what was her name, Rosemary?"
"Sutter, madam! Guess again."
"No; but her unmarried name, I mean?"
"Oh, Beatty, of course!" supplied Ann. "Aren't you clever to remember that! I'll tie them up. Oh, and should there only be eleven of the Whiteley Greek-borders?" she asked presently.
"One was sent home with a cake, dear,--we had too much cake."
"We always do, somehow," commented Rosemary, absently, and there was a silence. The last speaker broke it presently, with a long sigh.
"At your next concert, mamma, I shall insist upon having 'please omit flowers' on the tickets," said Rosemary, severely. "I think I have thanked forty people for 'your exquisite roses'!"
"Poor, overworked little Rosemary!" laughed her stepmother.
"You can look for a new treasurer, too," said Theodore. "This sort of thing needs an expert accountant. No ordinary brain...! What with some of these women rubbing every item out three or four times, and others using pale green water for ink, nobody could get a balance."
Mrs. Bancroft, smiling serenely, leaned back in her chair,
"Aren't they unkind to me, Ann?" she complained. "They would expect a poor, forlorn old woman--Now, Rosemary!"
For Rosemary had interrupted her. Seating herself upon the arm of her stepmother's chair, she laid a firm hand over the speaker's mouth.
"Now she will fish, Ann," said Rosemary, calmly.
"Fish!" said Ann, indignantly. "After last night she doesn't have to fish!"
"You bet she doesn't," said Theodore, affectionately. "Not she! She got enough compliments last night to last her a long while."
"I was ashamed of myself," confessed Rosemary, with her slow smile; "for, after all, we're only her family! But father, Ted, and I went about the whole evening with broad, complacent grins--as if we'd been doing something."
"Oh, I was boasting aloud most of the time that I knew her intimately," Ann added, laughing. "Just being a neighbor and old friend shed a sort of glory even on me!"
"Oh, well, it was the dearest concert ever," summarized Rosemary, contentedly. "The papers this morning say that the flowers were like an opera first night--though I never saw any opera singer get so many here--and that hundreds were turned away!"
"'Hundreds'!" repeated Mrs. Bancroft, chuckling at the absurdity of it.
"Well, mamma, the hall was packed," Ted reminded her promptly. He grinned over some amusing memory. "...Old lady Barnes weeping over 'Nora Creina,'" he added.
"Ann, I didn't tell you that Dad and I met Herr Muller at the gate this morning," said Rosemary, "shedding tears over the thought of some of the Franz songs, and blowing his nose on his blue handkerchief!"
"And you certainly did look stunning, mamma," contributed Ted.
"Children... children!" protested Mrs. Bancroft. But the pleased color flooded her cheeks.
Another busy silence was broken by a triumphant exclamation from Theodore, who turned about from his table to announce:
"Three hundred and seven dollars, ladies, and thirty-five cents, with old lady Baker still to hear from, and eight dollars to pay for the lights."
"What!" said the three women together. Theodore repeated the sum.
"Nonsense!" cried Rosemary. "It can't be so much."
Mrs. Bancroft stared dazedly.
"Two hundred, Ted...?" she suggested.
"Three hundred!" the boy repeated firmly, beaming sympathetically as both the young women threw themselves upon Mrs. Bancroft, and smothered her in ecstatic embraces.
"Oh, Aunt Nell," said Ann, almost tearfully, "I don't know what the girls will say. Why, Rose, it'll all but clear the ward. It's three times what we thought!"
"Your father will be pleased," said Mrs. Bancroft, winking a little suspiciously. "He's worried so about you girlies assuming that debt. I must go tell him." She began to gather her letters together. "Do you know where he is, Ted? Has he come in from his first round?" she asked.
"She's the dearest...!" said Ann, when the door closed behind her. "There's nobody quite like your mother."
"Honestly there isn't," assented Rosemary, thoughtfully. "When you think how unspoiled she is--with that heavenly voice of hers, you know, and every one so devoted to her. She doesn't do a thing, whether it's arranging flowers, or apron patterns, or managing the maids, that people don't admire and copy."
"She can't wait now to tell father the news," commented Theodore, smiling.
"He'll be perfectly enchanted," said Rosemary. "He sent her violets last night, and this morning, when we were taking all her flowers out of the bathtub, and looking at the cards, she gave me such a funny little grin and said, 'I'll thank the gentleman for these myself, Rose!' Ted and I roared at her."
"But that was dear," said Ann, romantically.
"She simply does what she likes with Dad," said Ted, ruminatively. Rosemary, facing the others over the back of her chair, nodded. Ann had her arms about her knees. They were all idle.
"She got Dad to give me my horse," the boy went on, "and she'll get him to let us go off to the Greers' next month--you'll see! I can't think how she does it."
"I can remember the first day she came here," said Rosemary. She rested her chin in her hands; her eyes were dreamy.
"George! We were the scared, miserable little rats!" supplemented Theodore. Rosemary smiled pitifully, as if the mother asleep in her could feel for the children of that long-passed day.
"I was only six," she said, "and when we heard the wheels we ran--"
"That's right! We ran upstairs," agreed her brother.
"Yes. And she followed us. I can remember the rustling of her dress.... And she had roses on--she pinned one on Bess's little black frock. And she carried me down to dinner in her arms, and I sat in her lap."
"And that year you had a party," said Ann. "I remember that, for I came. And the playhouse was built for Bess's birthday."
"So it was," said Rosemary, struck afresh. "That was all her doing, too. She just has to want a thing, and it gets done! I'll never forget Bess's wedding."
"Nor I," said Ann. "It was the most perfect little wedding I ever saw. Not a hitch anywhere. And wasn't the house a bower? I never had so much fun at any wedding in my life. Bess was so fresh and gay, and she and George helped us until the very last minute--do you remember?--gathering the roses and wrapping the cake. It was all ideal!"
"Bess told me the other day," said Rosemary, soberly, and in a lowered tone, "that on her wedding-day, when she was dressed, you know, mamma put on her veil, and pinned on the orange blossoms, and kissed her. And Bess saw the tears in her eyes. And mamma laughed, and put her arm about her and said: 'It is silly and wrong of me, dearest, but I was thinking who might have been doing this for you to-day--of how proud she would have been!' Then they came down, and Bess was married."
"Wasn't that like her?" said Ann. They were all silent a moment. Then the visitor jumped up.
"Well, I must trot home to my deserted parent, my children," she exclaimed briskly. "He rages if he comes in and doesn't find me. But, if you ask me, I'll be over later to help you, Rose. Every one in the world will be here for tea. And, meantime, make her rest, Ted. She looks tired to death."
"I'll see thee home, Mistress," said Ted, gallantly, and Rosemary was left alone. Her brother, coming in again nearly an hour afterward, found her still in the same thoughtful attitude, her big eyes fixed upon space. He knelt, and put his arm about her, and she drooped her soft, cool little cheek against his, tightening her own arm about his neck. There was a little silence.
"What is it?" said the boy, presently.
"Nothing, Teddy. But you're such a comfort!"
"Well, but it's something, old lady. Out with it!"
Rosemary tumbled his hair with her free hand.
"I was thinking of--mother," she confessed, very low.
His eyes were fast on hers for another short silence.
"Well,"--he spoke as if to a small child--"what were you thinking, dear?"
"Oh, I was just thinking, Ted, that it's not fair. It isn't fair," said Rosemary, with a little difficulty. "Not only Dad and Bess and the maids, but you and I, too, we can't help idolizing mamma. And sometimes we never think of mother--our own mother!--except as tired and sick and struggling--that's all I remember, anyway. And mamma is all strength and sweetness and health."
"I--I know it, old lady."
"Oh, and Ted!--to-day, and sometimes before, it's hurt me so! I can't feel--I don't want to!--anything but what I do to mamma, but sometimes--"
She struggled for composure. Her brother cleared his throat.
"She was so wistful for pretty things and good times, even I can remember that," said Rosemary, with pitiful recollection. "And she never had them! She would have loved to stand there last night, in lace and pearls, bowing and smiling to every one. She would have loved the applause and the flowers. And it stings me to think of us, you and I, proud to be mamma's stepchildren!"
"Dad worshipped mother," submitted the boy, hesitatingly.
"Yes, of course! But he was working day and night, and they were poor, and then she was ill. I don't think she managed very well. Those frightful, sloppy servants we used to have, and smoky fires, and sticky summer dinners--and three bad little kids crying and leaving screen doors open, and spilling the syrup! I remember her at the stove, flushed and hot. You think I don't, but I do!"
"Yes, I do, too," he assented uncomfortably, frowningly.
"And do you remember the Easter eggs, Ted?"
Theodore nodded, wincing.
"She forgot to buy them, you know, and then walked two miles in the hot spring weather, just to surprise and please us!"
"And then the eggs smashed, didn't they?"
"On the way home, yes. And we cried with fury, little beasts that we were!" said Rosemary, as if unable to stop the sad little train of memories. "I can remember that awful Belle that we had, making her drink some port. I wouldn't kiss her. And she said that she would see if she couldn't get me another egg the next day. And then Dad came in, and scolded us all so, and carried her upstairs!"
She suddenly burst out crying, and clung to her brother. And he let her cry for a while, patting her shoulder and talking to her until control and even cheerfulness came back, and she could be trusted to go upstairs and bathe her eyes for lunch.
When the lunch bell rang, Rosemary went downstairs, to find her stepmother at the wide hall doorway with a yellow telegram in her hand.
"News from Bess," said Mrs. Bancroft, quickly. "Good news, thank God! George wires that she and the little son are doing well. The baby came at eleven this morning. Dad's just come in, and he's telephoning that you and I will come over right after lunch. Think of it! Think of it!"
"Bess!" said Rosemary, unsteadily. She read the telegram, and clung a little limply to the firm hand that held it. "Bess's baby!" she said dazedly.
"Bess's darling baby--think of holding it, Aunt Rose!"
Rosemary's sober eyes flashed joyously.
"Oh, I am--so I am! An aunt! Doesn't it seem queer?"
"It seems very queer to me," said Mrs. Bancroft, as they sat down on a wide window-seat to revel in the news, "for I went to see your mother, on just such a morning, when Bess herself was just a day old--it seems only a year ago! Bless us, how old we get! Your mother was younger than I, you know, and I remember that she seemed to me mighty young to have a baby! And now here's her baby's baby! Your mother was like an exquisite child, Rosey-posy, showing off little Bess. They lived in a little playhouse of a cottage, with blue curtains, and blue china, and a snubnosed little maid in blue! I passed it on my way to school,--I had been teaching for seven years or so, then,--and your mother would call out from the garden and make me come in, and dance about me like a little witch. She wanted me to taste jam, or to hold Teddy, or to see her roses--I used to feel sometimes as if all the sunshine in the world was for Rose! Your father had boarded with my mother for three years before they were married, you know, and I was fighting the bitterest sort of heartache over the fact that I liked him and missed him--not that he ever dreamed it! Perhaps she did, for she was always generous with you babies--loaned you to me, and was as sweet to me as she could be." Mrs. Bancroft crumpled the telegram, smiled, and sighed. "Well, it all comes back with another baby--all those times when we were young, and gay, and unhappy, and working together. Bess will look back at these days sometime, with the same feeling. There is nothing in life like youth and work, and hard times and good times, when people love each other, Rose."
Rosemary suddenly leaned over to kiss her. Her eyes were curiously satisfied.
"I see where the fairness comes in--I see it now," she said dreamily. But even her stepmother did not catch the whisper or its meaning.