Stepmother by Kathleen Norris
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
"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
"Now she will fish, Ann," said Rosemary, calmly.
"Fish!" said Ann, indignantly. "After last night she doesn't have
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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,
"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
"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
"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,
"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
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
"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
"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
Rosemary suddenly leaned over to kiss her. Her eyes were curiously
"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