The lecture room had been crowded, the air stifling. Ms. Burke's lecture could hardly be heard over the buzz of flies, the rustle of skirts, and the flapping of paper fans advertising the dress shop down the street. Fortunately the noise also helped to drown out the growling of Rose's stomach. They had advertised free refreshments at the lecture, but so far, Rose had seen nothing, and her empty stomach was distracting her from Ms. Burke's discussion of the rights of the freed Negro. Not that Rose had any particular interest in the subject; her fascination was with the speaker.
Rosemary Burke was a tall woman, with long dark hair and hooded eyes that seemed to hold a great many secrets. She was dressed simply but very fashionably and she spoke with fervor and conviction. Rose thought that her own poise was similar to the upright carriage of Ms. Burke. She wondered if buried in her were fonts of passion such as that which Ms. Burke professed for her cause. She dismissed the fact that they did not look alike. It was probable that Ms. Burke had merely outgrown her own freckles, and as for everything else, it was often commented how much Rose resembled her father, perhaps there was not room for a maternal influence as well.
When the lecture ended there was a swarm of matronly women with large brooches and small hats gathered around Ms. Burke, pressing money into her hands and shaking their heads in pity at the plights of others. Rose waited patiently outside their circle; she had no desire to embarrass Ms. Burke. At last the dowagers left and Ms Burke sighed, began to pull pins from her hair and turned away, intent on clearing her notes from the podium and taking a good long bath back at her hotel.
Rose realized she was shaking and her voice wavered as she called attention to herself, "Excuse me, Ms. Burke?" Ms. Burke turned around slowly and looked at the young girl. Rose was pleased to see she paled some, as if she recognized her. There seemed no reason to avoid the point of her visit and Rose steeled her nerves to speak again, "I'm Rose Hickok, I believe you knew my father."
Rosemary Burke smiled sadly and reached forward to tuck a wayward lock of hair behind Rose's ear with a tender hand. "You look just like him," she whispered.
Rose blushed. It was a comment she was used to hearing but at the same time was never sure how to react to it. She nodded and repeated the important part of her previous statement, "You knew him?"
Ms. Burke recovered and busied herself packing up books and notes, "Yes, I did, once. I was sorry to hear he had passed."
"Did you, ummm, did you also know me, ever?"
"You came along after I'd left, I'd imagine," Rosemary answered with a laugh that teetered between sad and bitter. She continued to gather her things, only looking up again once everything was piled precariously in her arms. "Is there something I can do for you?"
Rose looked puzzled. The discussion was not going the way she'd expected and in the uncharted waters she could not find her bearings. "You didn't…I mean, I was wondering…did you perhaps know my mother too?" she blurted.
Rosemary looked at her for a long moment, her eyebrows knit in concern. "You didn't know her?"
"No. I thought maybe you…"
Ms. Burke set her things back down and leaned back against the table behind her. She regarded Rose with an empty stoicism, part curiosity and part annoyance. Tears trembled in Rose's eyelashes for she was beginning to suspect that she'd played the fool. Ms. Burke spoke gently, "How did you know that I knew your father?"
Rose swallowed back the sob in her throat to answer, "I found your letters to him."
"And you thought perhaps I knew your mother?"
Rose nodded vigorously, unable to admit what she had really thought.
"Perhaps you had thought I might be your mother?"
Again Rose nodded, feeling childish, her cheeks red and burning with embarrassment.
Ms. Burke turned back to her things briskly and continued to gather her books and notes. "Well, I'm very flattered. I'm not your mother, of course. Your father and I were friends, but I cared more for the outcome of the war than for him, I'm afraid. And he cared more for…certain others than he cared for me." She patted Rose's shoulder before hefting the small pile of things into her arms; without an audience of dozens she was awkward and brusque. "Are you here alone?"
Rose clenched her jaw. She hated crying in front of anyone, but a stranger especially. Through a force of will she stopped the tears in her eyes, stuffed the sadness down underneath the anger that she reserved for herself in moments of idiocy. She nodded politely to Ms. Burke, "I should be going, Ms. Burke. I'm sorry to have bothered you." A coldness crept into her tone and she turned to go.
Ms. Burke looked uncertain, "I'm sorry to have disappointed you, but I'm afraid I really didn't stay in touch with your father as well as I might have." Silence stretched between them for a moment and they regarded each other. The quiet had a weight to it, a presence, that was as oppressive as the heat and Rose found herself unable to match Ms. Burke's stare. At last she shifted her eyes away and let her hands fidget with the paper fan she held.
"Thank you for your time, anyways." Rose said politely and forced herself to only walk, not run to the door. She shuddered at the sound of the door shutting behind her but squared her shoulders and resolutely headed towards home. From inside, her eyes broken with regret, Rosemary Burke watched her go.