Delsa can’t bear the humiliation of her family and friends learning that her soldier-fiance wants to be released from their engagement — so she doesn’t tell them.
From the Relief Society Magazine, 1946-47 —
AND FOR ETERNITY
Olive Woolley Burt
Delsa came running into the house, her light brown curls flying in the wind, her blue eyes shining, her whole young body eager and confident, for Nellie Gibson, the postmaster’s little girl, had said when she came back to school at noon, “Your ma was in for the mail, and there was a letter from Hugh Temple for you, Miss Delsa.”
Her mother called from the kitchen, “There’s a letter from Hugh on the table, dear!” and Delsa picked up the heavy gray envelope, scrawled across with Hugh’s awkward handwriting.
She tore the envelope open, unfolded the gray sheets, and stood leaning lightly against the table, reading the words Hugh had written.
Her mother came to the kitchen door, interested, persistent, and said, “What does he say, Delsa? His mother’s letter didn’t come today –”
What did he say? Delsa’s eyes stared at the letter in her hand. What could she say he said?
“Oh, nothing much,” and as her mother still stood there waiting, she added, forcing her lips to form the words, forcing her voice up through stiff muscles, “He’s still in Australia – can’t say where or what he is doing, of course. He’s okay – ” She turned and went swiftly from the room, up the stairs, before her mother’s shrewd eyes could read her heart – could see the devastation there.
In her own room, she flung herself on the floor by the window and stared out. Across the lawn she could see Hugh’s house, Hugh’s very window. They’d strung string across the space when they were very small, ring tied to Delsa’s big toe, so that Hugh could yank it and awaken her to go fishing in the little stream that didn’t have any fish in it. Later they’d rigged up a tin-can telephone so they could talk to each other in code.
What had Hugh written?
Nothing much, she had said. Just enough to wreck all the hopes and dreams of her whole twenty years; just enough to make the future a black waste with neither love nor joy in it.
Delsa stared at the envelope on her knees. There was no need to take out the scrawled sheets again; she knew just what they said – “Dear Delsa – I don’t know how to say this – ”
But he had said it. Hugh had said the words that ended everything. He wanted to break off their engagement. He’d found a girl, an Australian – oh, she was different from anything he’d ever dreamed, and his love for her was different. But he wouldn’t marry her unless Delsa would absolve him of the promises he had made to her.
How like Hugh!
I consider those promises as binding as a marriage vow, Delsa. I meant them just as permanently when I made them. Only I didn’t foresee this. And I won’t write to Mom about it. I feel like a heel, putting you in an awkward place like this, and I want you to handle it the way you think best. Tell them anything you wish. Both my Mom and yours are going to feel bad, I know. But they’ll get over it – and so will you, Delsa, long before I have a chance to come home with my bride.
I don’t expect you to forgive me, Delsa, but I hope you will forget, soon. Now I understand that was just a kid love – I still feel it for you – and when you meet someone you’ll be glad this happened. I’ll be waiting for your letter, Delsa. Be kind.
Delsa’s lips grew bitter as she thought, Be kind, Hugh? How can one kill one’s heart kindly?
And forget? Forget all those past years when she and Hugh had played together on the scraggly lawn between the two houses; when they’d eaten either at her place or his, without a thought of which was home; forget the affection that had bound them together, tight and brave against their little world?
As they had grown older and Hugh’s widowed mother had struggled to keep Hugh in school and the little farm going while she cared for his little sister, crippled with polio, and as Delsa’s father, twisted with arthritis had found it difficult to make ends meet even in their small town, the two children had found strength and joy in their companionship. At high school they had gone in for dramatics and the school paper and debate and had made a name and a place for themselves. Hugh had seen to it that Delsa went to all the school dances, had all the fun the other girls had, and Delsa had seen to it that Hugh was never ashamed of his girl.
They’d both worked so hard that they had won scholarships to the state university; and they had both tried to train themselves for worthwhile work in their little community – Delsa as a teacher, Hugh as a farmer.
Then the war had come, interrupting their plans. Hugh had had to leave his school and his home and Delsa.
“We could get married now, Delsa,” he had said, “and have a little time together before I leave. But –” the frown had deepened between his dark brows, and Delsa knew what he must, but hated to say.
“I know,” she had answered. “I know, Hugh.”
“Mom’s always been so poor. She’s had to get along without so many things. I had planned to do some of these for her before we got married – as soon as I finished school. But I can’t now. I can’t do any of them. The only thing I can do, Delsa, is send her my allotment. And if we got married –”
“She wouldn’t want to take your money then, Hugh, and she would hate it as charity if I offered to help. You’re right; we are young and strong. We can wait.”
They had walked along somberly after that, trying to hide the ache in their hearts – the ache of waiting because they were young and strong and others had grown old and weak waiting for them to grow up.
Hugh had come home on furlough before overseas assignment, and Delsa had felt that she could not bear to let him go again without binding him to her irrevocably. And Hugh had felt something of the same desire to cheat the fate that was separating them.
“Let’s get married, Delsa!” he had begged her. “Let’s get married right now. It isn’t fair, it isn’t right for us to wait when we don’t know what will happen.”
Delsa had put her hands on her shoulders and kissed him tenderly.
“We can’t, Hugh, and you know we can’t. We’ve got obligations to others besides ourselves. You have your mother and sister – I’ve got a job teaching. Our love is strong enough to wait, Hugh.”
Delsa’s heart had felt crushed and sore, but she had known that she must be the strong one. She had planned it out so many times, and had always come back to the fundamental fact that Hugh’s pitiful allowance was not enough to split between two families.
So at last, Hugh had had to give in, and that had hurt Delsa, too, even worse than it had the boy. But she had accepted the teaching job right here at home so she could still help her mother and Hugh’; with her companionship and gaiety. And Hugh had gone back to camp and then across the ocean to a far, strange land.
Delsa had been afraid of the war, of the danger and hardship Hugh must suffer, but she had never once been afraid of this. She had never once thought that anything, except death, could separate them.
Oh, Hugh! Hugh!
How could she tell her mother? Hugh’s mother? They both counted on this marriage, had never thought of any other possibility. If they knew what Hugh had done, they’d be hurt and shamed, and Delsa couldn’t bear to think of those two women whom she loved averting their eyes, apologizing to each other and to her.
Delsa crept into bed; and when her mother, solicitous and loving, came to see what was wrong, she said, “I’ve got a headache, Mother. I gave examinations today and tried to correct the papers at noon and recess. I’ll be all right.”
Mrs. Marriott folded the coverlet closer about her daughter, and laid a testing palm against her brow.
“It’s Hugh,” she said. “Oh, the times are so hard on you young people. But don’t worry, Delsa, Hugh will be all right. You have to keep that faith or you have nothing.”
Delsa reached up and pressed her mother’s hand.
“I know,” she whispered. “I’m not worrying, really. Just tired.”
Her mother went out, closing the door softly.
Delsa closed her eyes against the darkening room. A March wind blew fiercely about the house, shaking the trees outside Delsa’s window, shaking the walls that needed repairing, rattling the windows, loose in their frames. So much still needed to be done about the place, Delsa thought wearily; her small checks helped only a little with the ever-recurring bills.
She heard her father come into the kitchen below her, stamping his feet on the porch, wiping the mud of the March thaw from his shoes before he stepped onto the clean kitchen floor. She could almost see the pails, foaming to the brim with the fresh, warm milk, and her mother, holding the strainer while her father poured the milk into the pan.
Her mother was talking, and though Delsa couldn’t hear the words, she knew she was telling her father about Hugh’s letter and how it had worried Delsa because he was so far away and in danger.
Delsa thought, What if she were telling him the truth, now? What would Dad say? What would he do? He wouldn’t believe it – Why do I believe it all at once like this? Why do I know without the slightest doubt that it is true?
It wasn’t only her father who would be incredulous. There were all her friends, the girls she had grown up with – her crowd and Hugh’s. She might meet Millie Lewis on the street and say, “Hello, Millie. Have you heard the news? Hugh’s marrying an Australian girl – someone he’s met down there.”
There was a soft knock on her door and her mother came in very quietly so as not to awaken her if she was sleeping.
Delsa said, “What is it, Mother?”
“Hugh’s mother is downstairs. Gibson told her you got a letter from Hugh, and she wondered what he said. She didn’t get one today, and she’s worried.”
Delsa said, forcing her voice to sound firm and bright. “Come on up, Aunt Martha. I’m just resting – had a horrible day – exams and all.”
Hugh’s mother came into the darkened room and Delsa explained lightly, “My head aches from correcting papers. I can’t bear the light, Aunt Martha. But Hugh’s all right. He said he was feeling fine and he expects to be right there in the same place for some time. He’s not in danger right now – You know Hugh. He won’t say anything the censor could object to, but he sounded safe and – and happy.”
Why was she such a coward? She had to tell them sometime – unless, unless she could go away, somewhere, and never see them or Hugh again.
Mrs. Temple sat down beside Delsa’s bed.
“You work too hard with those kids, Delsa. Heavens, they never had a teacher before that put in so much time with them. Even Jeff Holden, good as he is as a principal, doesn’t kill himself, you’ll notice. But you’ve told me what I wanted to know, Delsa, that Hugh’s all right. I give thanks every day that it’s you he writes to, so I can get a crumb now and then when my own letters don’t come. Not that Hugh doesn’t write to me often – you know he does – but he can’t always write to both of us, now can he? So it’s a good thing we’re so close and can share and share alike. He’s not been sick?”
“No, he didn’t say anything about being sick, Aunt Martha. he sounded right well.”
Share and share alike! Aunt Martha wouldn’t like a strange Australian daughter-in-law. But she would have to, if Hugh brought one home.
Aunt Martha went on, “Guess what I did today, Delsa? I finished piecing that quilt for you – the double bridal ring, you know – and is it pretty! I guess I’ll have to have a quilting bee to get it quilted. But I reckon it won’t be difficult to get folks to help with a quilt for your hope chest.”
She patted the coverlet and rose.
“You get a good night’s sleep, Delsa. You take things easier. I don’t want Hugh coming home and blaming us for letting you work yourself to a shadow. You wait till I see Jeff Holden and I’ll give him a bit of my mind. I daresay he puts more than half the work on you because you’re young and willing. Don’t you let him do it, Delsa. You stick up for your rights.”
She went slowly out of the room, leaving the door ajar, and Delsa thought, It doesn’t matter. I can’t sleep anyway. All I can do is lie here and think of Hugh and of what I can never have.”
She turned her head on the pillow and the tears came softly and silently from under her closed lids and drenched the white case. And Delsa didn’t know when sleep came and dried her tears and stopped the endless, futile questioning of her heart.