AND FOR ETERNITY
Olive Woolley Burt
SYNOPSIS: Delsa Marriott receives a letter from her fiance, Hugh Temple with the army in Australia, asking her to release him from their engagement so that he can marry an Australian girl. Delsa is broken-hearted, and because her family and friends have long looked forward to this marriage, she hesitates to tell them that she has been jilted, and decides to keep this a secret until she can make up her mind whether or not to release Hugh.
Delsa took especial pains with her looks the next morning. The little children had such sharp eyes, such inquisitive minds, such uninhibited interest in their teacher. Likely as not Rickey Graham would look at her sharply and say, “You been cryin’, teacher? You tell me what’s wrong and I’ll fix it!” Rickey was genuinely fond of her.
And there was Jeff Holden, his gray eyes kindly, penetrating. She didn’t want any questions, even unasked ones.
During the night Delsa had made up her mind to one thing: she would not write to Hugh immediately. She would wait a little, think the matter over before she told him he was free. For she had thought of their engagement as he had done – as something as binding as a marriage vow. She had not gone out once, not even to a town dance, with anyone since Hugh left. She hadn’t even thought of any other boy.
Now, by Hugh’s own word, she was free to think, to look at others. Maybe she would find that she, too, had been blinded by their childhood friendship; maybe she would find that other men existed in this world. But whether she did or not, she would at least give herself time to think of a way to break the news to her family and friends; and she would give Hugh time to realize what he was doing – to realize that his letter had been a devastating thing to her – not a question to be decided lightly.
“But of course,” Delsa whispered into her mirror, “of course, Delsa, you can’t keep him if he wants to be free. But maybe he doesn’t. Maybe, if I play for time, he’ll come back to his senses, his honest, small town senses, and to me!”
Careful as she had tried to be, Delsa had evidently not succeeded in making herself look gay and carefree. She knew this by the anxious look her mother gave her when she came into the big kitchen for breakfast – a searching look, followed by bright, casual remarks, with no reference to last night.
The oatmeal was bubbling in its kettle on the stove, and her mother served her a bowl full of the steaming goodness. She poured over it the thick, yellow pan cream, saying, “You’re lucky, Delsa. You can eat all the cream and mush you want and not put on an ounce. It’s using your brain does it, I always say. If we older women would just use our minds the way we did when we were young –”
“Now, Mom!” Delsa smiled, “maybe it isn’t that. Maybe it just takes oatmeal and cream a long time to work. These breakfasts will be showing on my hips some day.”
“Don’t you get to thinking that, Delsa. You need good food, the way you work and struggle with those kids. You eat that mush now.”
But the mush didn’t look good any longer. Not that she was worried about getting fat – not any more. What difference would it make? She would still be Miss Delsa, the school teacher, and her pupils wouldn’t notice the gradually accumulating heaviness and slowness and dullness.
She threw a soft knit scarf over her light curls and went out into the March morning. She didn’t look again into the mirror or she would have seen that the robin’s egg blue of the scarf had deepened the blue of her eyes, and had deepened, also, the shadows that lay like pale wings below them.
The children ran to meet her, shrieking with joy, holding before them the bright paper pinwheels she had let them make yesterday. She laughed back at them, thinking what a pretty picture they made, running along the country road in the March wind with the red and yellow and green bits of paper whirling in front of them. Maybe, if she were an artist or a poet, she could catch this innocent gaiety and keep it, to remember that she, too, had once run free and gay with the wind and a pinwheel.
Jeff Holden was on the hill back of the school building with the eighth grade boys, flying kites. Jeff was principal of the two-roomed school, and teacher of the upper four grades. He was also scoutmaster, crafts instructor and friend of the adolescent boys, who were feeling the hardness of the war, too, since their older brothers and neighbors – their heroes and companions and instructors in normal times – had been called away.
Jeff saw Delsa and, waving at her, shouted, “Not nine yet!”
She nodded and cried against the wind, “Nearly!”
Jeff came running down the hill, lightly and easily in spite of his twenty-six years. His dark hair was rumpled by the wind and he was laughing, but his eyes, amazingly gray in his tanned face, were tired and serious. He looked at Delsa and said, lightly, “That letter from Hugh – he’s all right, I take it?”
Delsa smiled, “Hugh’s letters should be posted in the post office for all to read,” she began, and then caught her words back, remembering what Hugh had written.
“All the boys’ letters should, I maintain!” Jeff agreed gaily, apparently not noticing the break in Delsa’s sentence. “In a town this size, where every boy is sort of neighborhood property, the letters from all parts of the world sort of belong to us all, don’t you think?”
“Well, the town does hear most of them,” Delsa defended. “They’re read in Church – all that are proper to read. Even in a town like this, the boys ought to be allowed to write some private news.”
Jeff laughed, “Granted!” He looked at his watch, whistled sharply. Henry lake ran into the school building and brought out the big, old-fashioned bell and began to ring it with all his might. The children trooped down from the hillside, in from the road. Delsa went inside, sat down at the piano in the “big room,” and began to play a march. The pupils filed in, sedate and orderly in contrast to their actions outdoors.
Going to her own room, she passed Jeff in the tiny hall that ran between the two classrooms.
She paused a moment.
“You look tired, Jeff,” she said. “Anything wrong at home?”
He smiled at her.
“Trudy was sick last night,” he explained. “I don’t know what is wrong with her all the time. Mrs. Reeder seems to know about babies and Davy’s okay. But Trudy gets thinner and thinner.”
“I’ll run over after school,” Delsa promised. “I’m no child expert, but maybe I can discover what’s wrong. I don’t think Mrs. Reeder’s too bright, anyway, with babies.”
“No I have something else to think of,” Delsa thought with relief. “Poor little Trudy!”
And poor Jeff! Struggling as he was with two children and a housekeeper who was neither smart nor very conscientious. It wouldn’t have been so bad before the war. If Jeff’s wife, Lucy, had died in normal times, there would have been a dozen capable women in the town ready to help him out with his babies and his house. But now they had all gone to work at the phosphate plant in the next valley. A big bus picked them up every morning and brought them home every night – good wages and clean work, different from the familiar drudgery of housekeeping. You couldn’t blame them for taking the jobs, drawing the good pay, especially when they felt that they were helping win the war, too. Jeff’s problem was a minor one in their opinion.
Only Mrs. Reeder was left to help him. Mrs. Reeder, who had proved too inept for a job at the plant. But Jeff made the best of it, running his household with one hand while he managed the school with the other.
Delsa knew that Jeff had been deferred officially on account of his farm, which was large enough and important enough to win him exemption. But he was going an even more essential work, in the school, and for less pay. The woman who had been principal had left to take a job in a war plant at more than twice her teacher’s salary. The big boys had been getting obstreperous, the larger girls becoming a problem – adolescents with the maturity of country children and the freedom and intimacy of a small town and a lack of supervision due to their disrupted home lives.
So Jeff had stepped in and taken over the school and the whole town had felt the benefit – and would feel it for a generation or more, Delsa admitted to herself. But few of the townspeople seemed to realize what Jeff was doing. Oh, some of them reached out a friendly hand when they had time, but for the most part he was limping along practically unaided. Delsa decided to take more time from her own problems and her own activities to take a look at Trudy now and then.
She was shocked when she entered Jeff’s little house. Lucy had always kept it so sparkling and bright that Delsa had thought of it as a doll’s house. Now the doll’s house was in disorder – and dirty. Windows were unwashed, curtains hung limp. In a soiled bed Trudy lay whimpering. Mrs. Reeder was rocking and reading.
“Don’t do no good to pick her up, Delsa,” Mrs. Reeder complained. “She just likes to bawl, seems like.”
“She’s wet and cold,” Delsa said sharply. “Where’s Davy?”
“Outside.” Mrs. Reeder wasn’t bothered by Delsa’s implied criticism. “He won’t stay indoors, even if he has a cold.”
“Call him in,” Delsa ordered.
She put a kettle of water on the stove, where the fire was burning brightly enough to keep Mrs. Reeder comfortable, and picked up Trudy. Anger surged through her at sight of the little girl. She was almost a year old – should have been roly-poly and smiling and rosy, but she was thin and whining. What was the town thinking of to let a lovely baby like this – Jeff’s and Lucy’s baby – get into this shape? What had she herself been thinking?
Delsa shrugged. She had been working on her trousseau. Every afternoon and evening, sewing, crocheting, making things for her’s and Hugh’s comfort and pleasure. The other women had been at their own personal activities, too. They were all to blame, she, perhaps, more than the rest. Why hadn’t Jeff complained? Why hadn’t he shaken some sense into her?
Davy came in, his muddy shoes making tracks across the dirty floor.
Delsa put Trudy in the big kitchen rocking chair, so that Mrs. Reeder would not have a place to sit, and said, “You watch her, Davy.”
She set Mrs. Reeder to scrubbing the kitchen floor while she unmade Trudy’s bed, hung the blankets and mattress on the line in the clean March wind, and hunted about for clean sheets and pillow case and clothing for the baby.
When Trudy was bathed and warm and cooing with satisfaction, Delsa set her in her crib and started on Davy. He was a sturdy little fellow, evidently able to get the things he needed in spite of Mrs. Reeder’s indolence. But he reveled in the hot, soapy bath. Delsa laughed at the little fellow, whose dark hair began to curl under her brisk toweling till it looked exactly like his father’s.
Jeff came in and whistled when he saw the activity. As teacher of the “big room” and principal, he hadn’t been able to leave as early as Delsa had – he generally was at the building till nearly five – so the floor was scrubbed, Trudy was gurgling and Davy was laughing, rosy and clean in his faded blue coveralls, when Jeff stepped into the room.
He smiled at Delsa, and there was more than appreciation in that smile.
“Wonder woman!” he grinned, and went on gaily. “‘And the touch of her deft fingers turned a shack into a home, ‘unquote.’”
Delsa smiled back, but a little grimly.
“You’ve got to put your foot down with Mrs. Reeder,” she said firmly. “She must just sit here all day long and let these babies take care of themselves. Davy, bless his heart, is a capable little fellow, and hasn’t suffered too much. But Trudy is going to be ill, Jeff, really ill, unless she gets proper care.”
“I’ve been afraid of it,” he said wearily, “but what can I do? I do bathe them and feed them at night, but I just don’t have time in the mornings. There are the chores to do –”
“Aren’t there any of the older boys that could help with those?” Delsa asked.
Jeff shook his head. “They’ve all got more to do than they can manage. Why, that little romp on the hill this morning – fifteen minutes, all told, will have to be paid for by every one of us with extra work tonight.”
He walked into the bedroom and picked up Trudy and held her close, rubbing his cheek against the soft down of her hair.
“Daddy’s girl!” he whispered. “Daddy’s girl can take it, even if she shouldn’t be asked to. And he’ll make it up to her some day, Trudy. That’s a promise.”
Delsa felt the tears, sudden and sharp, behind her lashes.
“Jeff,” she said seriously, “it’s all right to promise, but you can’t keep that promise, you know. You can’t ever make up to a baby for lack of care in its first few years. It’s now or never.”
He sighed. “Then it’ll have to be never, Trudy baby, because it simply can’t be now. I can’t do any more.”
Delsa replied, “Look, Jeff. If you won’t think I’m butting in where I have no right to be, I’ll run over here for a half hour before school every morning and drop in again at night. I can tell Mrs. Reeder exactly what to do and see that she does it. If she thinks anyone is checking on her, she’ll probably work all right. Would you mind?”
“Would I mind? she asks,” Jeff said with wonder in his voice.
“It’s a deal, then,” Delsa said briskly. “Now get your clothes changed and get those chores done. Mrs. Reeder will have your supper ready soon. I’ll feed Trudy and then you’ll be all right for tonight.”
Jeff handed her the baby and Delsa began to feed her hot oatmeal with whole milk and sugar. Trudy ate it greedily, making little hungry sounds as she mouthed the rich, warm food.
Jeff, in his overalls now, came and stood in the doorway, watching them.
“I’ve never seen her eat like that,” he said.
“She’s a funny little chick,” Delsa said, holding the warm body closer to her. “She wants love and cuddling, Jeff, more than most babies do. She just has to have it –”
Delsa stopped, suddenly remembering that Trudy had been robbed of her natural source of comfort and love. And not only Trudy, but Davy and Jeff, too.
Delsa glanced up at Jeff, and her heart constricted.
Hugh! Hugh! She thought, why can’t it be you leaning there in the doorway, watching? Why must I, too, be robbed of my love?
She bent her head low over Trudy to hide her tears from Jeff. He turned slowly and went outside, and Delsa held the baby close, close for a moment.
“That is what I’ve wanted all the time,” she whispered to herself. “Hugh’s baby on my lap – Hugh watching me – And I can have it if I only hold on – Hugh will come back!”
She got up and laid Trudy in her crib, kissed Davy lightly on his dark curls, and went out into the March twilight. And suddenly she was running down the road, swiftly, to the shelter of her home and her room and her thoughts of Hugh.