AND FOR ETERNITY
Olive Woolley Burt
SYNOPSIS: Delsa Marriott, jilted by Hugh Temple who is serving in Australia, begins to take an interest in the children of Jeff Holden, widower principal of the school where Delsa teaches. The townsfolk, who do not know of Hugh’s change of heart, think that Delsa is interested in Jeff, and condemn her for her infidelity to Hugh.
The girls came noisily into the house, shaking their long curls, waving letters in their hands, hugging big knitting bags close to their hearts.
Delsa greeted them gaily, with the special little comment that each one merited. These were her chums and playmates since babyhood, they were a familiar to her as if they had belonged to her own family. She knew of their absent sweethearts, their hopes, their dreams and longings.
There’s something very special about a small town – especially a small Utah town, Delsa thought, with everyone belonging to the same Church, knowing everyone else. It was just like one big family.
They settled down to the business of the evening at last. The girls got out their sewing or knitting or crocheting and went to work. And as the others worked, one would read her letters, or bits of them – the bits she cared to share – each girl taking a turn.
Delsa sat back in a corner working on the exquisite tablecloth she was crocheting, thinking, I can’t read them Hugh’s letter – not a word of it. I would break down and cry if I did. And I can’t lie to them and say I haven’t heard from Hugh, for his mother knows I have – and by this time, probably, every one of them knows it, too. What shall I say? Shall I say, ‘Well, girls, I am withdrawing from the War Widows! I no longer have a right to belong? I’m no longer engaged to Hugh Temple!’ Should I say that now and have it over with?
Grace Metcalfe looked at Delsa’s tablecloth and sniffed.
“You’ll never get that done, Delsa Marriott,” she said, “if you don’t hurry. I don’t think it’s grown a stitch since last meeting.”
Delsa made herself laugh. She was sure that Grace had heard that Hugh’s mother was displeased at her going to Jeff Holden’s every day. If nice little Millie Lewis had heard it, surely Grace, who missed nothing in the way of gossip, had heard, also. She was gently baiting Delsa, but Delsa was not going to be drawn into any discussion of her own affairs tonight. She made herself laugh brightly, and reply casually.
Millie rushed to her rescue.
“Delsa’s got a surprise for you all tonight,” she cried. “A big surprise!”
Delsa looked up at her friend in astonishment. Millie had asked her to keep it a secret. Lina caught her breath sharply. She, too, had been made to promise secrecy. But Millie giggled, and would say no more. She had succeeded in diverting their attention.
They began to tease Millie and Delsa to tell them what she had planned, and Delsa was thankful for the minutes wasted in this nonsense, as they delayed the moment when the girls would ask, “And now, what did Hugh say in his last letter, Delsa?”
But the demand came at last and Delsa, scarcely knowing what words she would say, looked at her friends and told them, quietly, “Hugh was lonely, girls. There isn’t a word of his last letter that I can very well share with anyone. It was meant just for me.”
The girls murmured, “Poor Hugh! Delsa, give us his last address and we’ll all write to him! We’ll cheer him up!” And Delsa heard Hugh’s mother sniffle a little in the background, trying to let Delsa know that she felt sorry for her son, away off in Australia, loving, trusting the girl back home.
Delsa glanced at the clock.
“We’ll have to have our refreshments now if we’re going to be ready for the surprise,” she said, and hurried out into the kitchen to prepare the cake and ice cream that was the standard party food.
Her mother came to help her, but Hugh’s mother moved on into the living room with the girls, tacitly taking her stand with them and Hugh and against Delsa.
Delsa felt her lip curving in a bitter smile and shook her head angrily. Sour old maid, already! she thought, and you haven’t even released Hugh yet. What will your lips look like ten years from now?
They had scarcely finished the ice cream when they heard voices on the porch, and Jim Lewis burst into the room.
“Surprise! Surprise!” giggled Millie, and Lina was in Jim’s arms, radiant. “Oh, Jim, I could hardly bear it, waiting for you to come!”
Now Delsa had no more fears for her own secret. Everyone was hugging Jim, pouring out eager questions, laughing. Relief was in their voices and their laughter – the same relief Delsa had felt when she had learned that Jim was home.
Then she remembered Jim’s buddy, and would have crowded past the little knot to make him welcome, but Jim saw her and went to her.
“How’s Delsa?” he asked, lifting her chin and kissing her lightly.
“Oh, Jim!” she cried, and didn’t mind the tears that blurred his familiar face. “Jim, it’s so good to see you. You look so well!”
“I brought my buddy along,” Jim found the chance to say. “Back up, girls. I want you all to meet Alec Windsor. Alec, this is my sister’s and Lina’s crowd – shall I tell you their names now, or one by one, so you’ll have half a chance to remember them?”
Delsa’s eyes went to the dark figure now beside Jim. He was like Hugh – that same eager, slanting-into-the-wind look about him; the same dark eyes and hair lifting from a tanned forehead. She held out her hand.
“I’m Delsa Marriott,” she said simply. “I’m glad you could come with Jim.”
Alec took her hand and looked down into her eyes.
“Jim’s told me about you – about all the girls here – I envied him. It was just as if he had a dozen or more sisters waiting here at home to make him happy. You look just as he said you would, Delsa.”
Jim, who had gone over to greet the two older women, now came and extricated Alec from the laughing girls, and took him across the room. Delsa, watching, could see how Hugh’s mother stared at the boy’s resemblance to her son; could see how she bent eagerly to welcome him; how she adopted Alec immediately.
Her own mother said, “I think there’s a little ice cream left, if you boys would like a dish,” and everyone roared with laughter.
It was so like old times – like the high school days, when the same crowd of girls, calling themselves the Merry Old Maids, had met. When it was just about time for them to break up the party, all the boys their age – Hugh and Jim and Louis and the rest – would drop by to walk the girls home. And then Mrs. Marriott would say the same thing, “There’s a little ice cream left,” and would feed the whole crowd again.
Jim and Alec loved the ice cream and cake, and the two mothers beamed tenderly on them as they ate. Delsa thought, “I didn’t realize how much, how dreadfully much, they miss the boys, too!”
When they could eat no more, Jim looked longingly at the record player and said, “I guess we couldn’t have a dance or two, Delsa? I promise we’ll not play favorites – but give you all a whirl, if you’ll only let us. It’s been so long since we had a real dance.”
“Why, of course, Jim!” Delsa cried. “We’d love it! The old records need a little exercise – if they aren’t dimmed with rust and dust from disuse.”
She selected one of the crowd’s favorite discs and set it in place. The girls watched worshipfully as Jim put his arm about Lina and his cheek against her hair and started to dance. Alec went to Millie, and Delsa felt a strange ache in her heart as he began to circle the room with her chum.
Delsa was changing the record when she felt Alec’s tall form beside her. Her hands fumbled, and his firm brown fingers took the disc and placed it in position. He pressed the button and the record began to turn.
“Our dance?” he said, and his arm went about her and she was dancing with him.
Delsa’s first thought was, “It’s heaven to be dancing again!” then she smiled to herself. She had danced many times since the boys left – danced with the men and the older school boys. But it wasn’t the same.
Alec had to bend his head to talk to her above the music, but he said, “I’m glad that I could come with Jim. I’m going to have a good time, I can see that plainly. And I hope you’ll help.”
“Help?” Delsa asked, her straying thoughts not catching his meaning.
“Yes!” he grinned down at her.
“I’d like to,” Delsa smiled, “but I doubt if I’ll get a chance. You’ll have more girls wanting to help you have a good time than you’ll need!”
“But have you ever noticed,” he asked seriously, “that it isn’t always the many that make the much?”
She looked up at him, baffled, and he laughed down at her.
“I’ve found that one companion – the right one – can do more towards providing a good time than any number of miscellaneous folks,” he explained.
They danced in silence for a moment, and then Alec asked, “Do you have horses here? But of course you do! Do you ride?”
When Delsa nodded he went on, “Well, then, I appoint you chief guide and pointer-outer to show me the wonders of this valley. Jim will have no time, what with a wedding and a bride to look after, so I’ll be left high and dry unless you take care of me.”
“Wait and see,” she said.
Their dance over, Delsa sat beside Hugh’s mother while the two boys danced with every girl in turn.
Delsa said, her voice troubled, “Do you think he’s like Hugh, Aunt Martha?”
“A little,” Hugh’s mother said judiciously, “only not nearly so good looking, of course, and not so tall. And his shoulders aren’t broad like Hugh’s.”
Suddenly Delsa felt the tension inside her dissolve and she smiled and gave Hugh’s mother a quick, affectionate hug.
“That just what I thought,” she said.
Hugh’s mother returned her friendliness. She patted Delsa’s hand and said softly, “Poor boy! I feel so sorry for him – no mother, no family, no town full of friends waiting for him. I can’t help thinking how it must be with Hugh – away off there in Australia. He’s a stranger there, just like Alec is here, Delsa, not knowing anyone. I hope somebody is trying to make him happy.”
Bitterness twisted Delsa’s lips again, and she turned her head so that Hugh’s mother wouldn’t see it, as she answered, “Someone is, Aunt Martha! Surely someone has taken Hugh under her wing!”
At last the evening was over and the crowd was leaving. Jim and Alec and the girls said their goodbyes and went laughing out into the clear, cool night – Jim with Lina, of course, and Alec Windsor walking with Millie.
Delsa stood in the open doorway, watching them go down the walk and turn into the road, going in different directions toward their homes. Then with a sigh she went back into the house and started picking up the things, straightening the rooms.
Hugh’s mother said, “Don’t do that tonight, Delsa. You’re tired. Let’s just leave everything, and I’ll come over tomorrow morning and help your mother clear up.”
Delsa was surprised at the gentleness in the woman’s voice. After the disapproval of the early evening, this kindness seemed suddenly sweet and dear. Delsa smiled gratefully and said, “I hate to do that – leave my party things for you two to clean up!”
But her mother said, “You have to go to school tomorrow, Delsa, and we have the whole day to putter about it. Go on to bed.”
“You’ll maybe want to show that nice boy some of the sights around here,” Hugh’s mother suggested, insinuatingly, “the old mill up the canyon, or that abandoned mine, or the spot where the Indians held their powwows in pioneer days. So you go to bed now, it’s late.”
Delsa kissed the two women good-night and went slowly upstairs. So that was it! They were holding out a very definite olive branch – she could take it and be in their good graces again, or she could ignore it and have that ugly bar of disapproval between them.
She smiled sadly, she understood them so well. Alec Windsor looked something like Hugh; he was a service man like Hugh; he was a stranger like Hugh – therefore, he was good and dear like Hugh. Also, and very important to them, he was betrothed to a WAC, a romantic figure beside whom Delsa, country school teacher, was colorless and ineffective.
So they would have her show Alec the sights, ride horseback with him, talk to him – even flirt with him if he wanted to do a little harmless flirting on his month’s furlough. Then he would go away, and Hugh’s Delsa would be safe and wholly Hugh’s again. She would have shaken off her interest in Jeff Holden and Jeff’s children.
Well, Delsa thought, as she lay staring out of the window, across the dark toward Hugh’s old room, why not? She had no interest in Jeff, except to help him out because he so desperately needed help. And she had no interest in Alec, either. But if they wanted her to take their medicine she would take it – and with a vengeance.
She sat up in bed with sudden resolution. Maybe they were, unwittingly, giving her the answer to her own secret problem! She could be nice to Alec at first, as if just to please them. Then she could let them think that she had fallen in love with him – the nebulous plan in her mind began to take shape – furtive and secret, but definite.
Maybe she could make Alec think she was in love with him – what if he did belong to another? Hadn’t a stranger stolen Hugh from her? She could get even with them all this way – and what did it matter what her own feelings were?
With her plan slowly growing in her mind, Delsa lay back on her pillow and slept.