AND FOR ETERNITY
Olive Woolley Burt
SYNOPSIS: Delsa Marriott, trying to hide from her family and friends the fact that her fiance, Hugh Temple, serving in Australia, wants to break off their engagement, becomes interested in helping Jeff Holden, widower principal of the two-room school where Delsa teaches, take care of his motherless children.
The extra work at Jeff’s every morning and afternoon crowded the days for Delsa so full that she had little time to think of Hugh and of what he wanted to do to her life.
“I won’t release him yet,” she told herself. “I owe it to us both to think this out clearly before I let go. If I decide that I cannot live without Hugh – and oh, how can I? – and I hold on, maybe he will see that this is his life, right here in our own home town with our own home folks – the way we have always planned it. Maybe he will write again and tell me it was all a bad dream – a dream born of loneliness and distance and lost hope.”
So Delsa wasn’t counting the days; she was just living and doing; picking up each task as it presented itself, laying it down when it was done.
She was surprised, therefore, one afternoon to meet Millie Lewis on her way home from school – Millie Lewis with shining eyes and the breath of excitement about her.
“Delsa,” Millie cried, “it’s club tonight. Have you forgotten?”
Delsa stopped. She was on her way to Jeff’s to take care of Trudy as she had been doing each day after school. And she had forgotten that tonight was club night.
She smiled, excusing her forgetfulness.
“I guess it did slip my mind, Millie,” she said. “Where do we meet?”
Millie looked at her in frank astonishment.
“Why, at your place, silly!” she cried. “You don’t mean you really forgot that, do you?”
Delsa nodded, embarrassed.
“I’ve been extra busy this past week,” she defended herself.
The bright, eager look died in Millie’s eyes and something cold and shadowy looked out at Delsa.
“So I’ve noticed,” she said shortly.
“What do you mean, Millie?” Delsa asked.
Millie stood there for a moment, silent, and then she raised her eyes and looked frankly at her friend.
“Don’t you think you’re spending a good deal of time at Jeff Holden’s?” she asked. Then she went on quickly, before Delsa could answer, “Oh, I know he needs help – who doesn’t? But Hugh’s mother doesn’t like it – she’s been saying things, Delsa. Why don’t you let those older women step in and help Jeff out? They can take on an extra job as well as you can, and no one would talk.”
“They didn’t take it on, Millie,” Delsa said slowly. “Little Trudy was half sick.”
She stood looking at the road for a moment and then she said, “I’ve been working with Jeff all winter – in the same building with him all day. No one ever said anything –”
“Of course not! But they might have, if you hadn’t been so very, very proper all the time. But now to add an extra hour every morning and every afternoon – and right in his house, too –”
“People make me sick!” she said. “Let’s forget it, Millie. That wasn’t what made you come running down the road to meet me – as if you had wings on your feet!”
“No, it wasn’t. Listen, Delsa! Jim’s home! He got in on the afternoon bus – has a whole month’s leave. He’s going to marry Lina, Monday – and spend his honeymoon right here at home. Says there’s no place he’d rather spend it!” She paused to draw her breath.
“Oh, Millie, how happy your folks must be! How does Jim look? Is he well? And how glad Lina will be, too!”
Tears came to Delsa’s eyes as she thought of Jim Lewis, her playmate since childhood, back from danger, safe at home. It meant a lot to her – to the whole town – that one of the boys could come back, out of the torment of war, to be himself again. It meant that the war hadn’t yet destroyed the old life utterly.
“But isn’t all, Delsa. That isn’t all! Jim’s brought a buddy home – Alec Windsor – to spend the whole thirty days here. Just think, Delsa – a beautiful man in uniform to dance with and talk to and look at! Oh, I’m so excited!”
Delsa laughed, then.
“You, excited, Millie, over a strange man? And with that diamond on your finger – and your heart snugly tucked under a certain ensign’s jacket?”
“Yes, I am excited, Delsa Marriott, and I’ll bet a dime you are, too. How can the boys blame us? If what the papers and pictures and stories say is true, the boys get excited when they see a girl after they’ve been in the jungles for months!”
Delsa waved her hand, indicating the bare fields about her, now showing the black earth through the snow which was fast melting under the spring sunshine.
“This isn’t exactly a jungle, Millie,” she said. “But I see your point. And what is this Alec Windsor like?”
“He’s like Hugh Temple, Delsa,” Millie said quietly. “It really gave me quite a start when Jim brought him in – the same long, thin darkness that Hugh has – the same intent brown eyes. Oh, Miss Delsa,” she mocked, “you’ll be excited too, when you see him, but it won’t do you any good – nor any of us. He’s spoken for.”
The mention of Hugh’s name had caused Delsa’s heart to jerk, feeling a hurt, empty place at its core. But she assumed a gaiety she couldn’t feel as she asked, “And by whom, please tell me?”
“I don’t know who she is, Delsa. It’s quite sad, in a way. Alec got leave to come to the U.S. to marry his sweetheart. She’s a WAC. But when he and Jim got to San Francisco, his WAC had been shipped out – he doesn’t even know where. So he had no place to go and nothing to do. He was all for going right back to the South Pacific, but Jim persuaded him to come on here and take the rest he needed. Gosh, if it weren’t for Louis I’d certainly undertake to comfort him, poor guy!”
Delsa smiled at her chum.
“We’ll all undertake to cheer him up,” she promised. “There’s safety in numbers – for him as well as for us – so we can do a good job of it, without any of us running into danger.”
“And guess what?” Millie went on irrelevantly. “I told Jim to bring him to club tonight, when he came to pick Lina up. Then I’ll introduce him to the crowd. Won’t that be a honey of a surprise?”
“O-oh!” Delsa exclaimed, “The club! I’ll have to dash, Millie, if I get Trudy cared for and get home in time to get anything ready. And I must. I don’t want the girls to know I forgot –”
She gave Millie a quick hug and hurried on down the street, Millie calling after her, “Your mother and Aunt Martha are getting things ready. I came past there.”
Delsa hurried on.
Of course her mother and Aunt Martha would be getting things ready. They always helped her when it was her turn to entertain the War Widows.
Delsa smiled to herself, thinking of their club name. Of course they were none of them widows – they were none of them even married, but they had felt so bereft when the boys all left that they had taken this somber name for their little group that met every two weeks to work on things for the homes they would have “some day.” The truly married women had a club of their own and they met to comfort each other and to make baby things. Lina, Delsa thought suddenly, Lina would soon join that other club – the first one of her crowd to break away.
She looked about her quickly, critically, as she entered Jeff’s house, and she smiled with satisfaction. Mrs. Reeder wasn’t half bad when she knew someone was watching her. She was really doing a creditable job now, caring for Trudy and Davy and cooking the foods Delsa told her to cook. The house was neat and clean, and little Trudy, laughing and happy, didn’t look much like the dirty, crying child Delsa had found there only a week before.
The baby saw Delsa and laughed, holding up her arms to the girl. Delsa picked her up and cuddled her for a moment, and then set to work checking what had been done and what was to be done.
“I can’t stay to bathe Trudy tonight, Mrs. Reeder,” she explained. “I have company coming this evening and I’ve got to rush on home. But you know how to do it.”
Davy came running into the house and flung his arms about Delsa’s knees. She stooped and hugged him, and said, “You be a good boy, Davy, and mind Mrs. Reeder. Delsa’s got to hurry home tonight.”
But in spite of her haste, the March twilight was falling before she could get away, and as she went swiftly up the walk to the house she could see, through the lighted windows, her mother and Hugh’s mother, moving about the rooms.
She opened the kitchen door and went into the big room, feeling the warmth from the stove upon her cool cheeks, smelling the fragrance of the cooking supper, feeling happy that this was her home. These good feelings made her forget her slight embarrassment at being late and at forgetting about the party.
But she had no sooner closed the door behind her than she remembered and her happiness shriveled up. For her mother, busy at the stove, did not greet her with her usual cheerful, “Hello, Delsa!” and Hugh’s mother’s silence was like a cold wind across her.
She tried to shake it off.
“Hello, folks!” she cried gaily, and went and put her arms about her mother, giving her a squeeze.
“You’re a darling to get things ready, Mom. I hurried – ”
There was no answer, no yielding in the stiffness with which her mother’s body answered her caress.
Delsa turned to Hugh’s mother, trying to ignore the rebuff.
“How are you, Aunt Martha?” She couldn’t for the life of her make her voice sound light and casual.
When Hugh’s mother didn’t answer, going about her work with stiff-lipped silence, Delsa turned to them and said quietly, “You are both angry with me. Why?”
“I guess you have a hint,” her mother said, and Delsa felt almost like smiling, noticing how her mother couldn’t bear to maintain the angry silence between them.
“I know I shouldn’t have forgotten the club meeting,” Delsa said contritely. She thought, I can’t stand it to have them angry. Then, determined to ignore their disapproval she went on, knowing her news would distract them. “Jim Lewis is home – but it’s supposed to be a secret till tonight. Millie’s going to have him call for Lina – and guess what! He’s brought his buddy home with him!”
That caught their attention, and with the slight encouragement of lifted eyebrows and stopped movements, Delsa told about Alec Windsor and how he had come to return home with Jim, and of Jim’s plans to get married.
Hugh’s mother sniffed audibly at this.
“Jim’s smart to grab Lina while he can,” she said, “not that Lina ever would look at anyone else. She’s a mighty loyal little soul, is Lina.”
Delsa knew what Hugh’s mother meant – she wondered, shall I drag her suspicions out into the open? Shall I try to clear them up? Or will that only confirm them? Deciding on ignoring the silent accusations, she went briskly about eating her supper, clearing up and preparing for the club.
But she was acutely aware that Hugh’s mother was displeased with her – that something dear and intimate had gone out of their relationship, and she thought bitterly how easy it was for distrust to tear down in one week what years of love and trust had built up.
And she thought determinedly, I won’t stop helping Jeff! That’s silly – that would be admitting to myself that they are right. But I will do something, something to show them that a small, neighborly gesture doesn’t mean anything. I’ll have to do something – but it won’t be leaving Trudy and Davy to the mercy of Mrs. Reeder’s unsupervised laziness.
And the thought of Trudy brought the thought of Hugh and the aching knowledge that giving him up would mean giving up the hope of some day holding his baby and hers against her heart.