AND FOR ETERNITY
Olive Woolley Burt
SYNOPSIS: Delsa Marriott, jilted by Hugh Temple, decides to “make a play” for Alec Windsor, a marine on furlough. Jeff Holden, principal of the school where Delsa teaches, is interested in Delsa, but she feels that she can save her face better by letting her friends think she has fallen in love with Alec, and has thrown Hugh over for the new attraction.
Delsa’s father got out the pickup truck to take them to the wedding because they had so much “truck,” as he called it. Mrs. Marriott had made two giant freezers of ice cream, for no party was complete without some of this famous confection of hers. Aunt Martha had a huge chocolate cake.
Delsa said, “I’ll walk over and meet you there.”
So they drove off with a clatter. Delsa tossed a shawl over her curls and went through the early dusk toward the hall.
This was to be a real party, as Mrs. Lewis had planned, reminiscent of the parties they had when she was a girl. Lina’s friends would serve while the older women took care of things in the kitchen. Later the girls would slip off home to change to their dancing frocks, while the men cleared the room.
Delsa, of course, had plenty to do, so she was going over early. But others were there ahead of her. The men were putting planks on sawhorses to make long tables in the amusement hall. The women hovered about, white cloths in their hands, hurrying the men on. As soon as a table was set up, the cloth was laid and plates placed.
Delsa smiled. It was a huge undertaking, but the women did not seem aware of that fact as they moved about laughing and talking. But Delsa noticed that there was a big difference between this and the last big party. Now there were no young fellows making a noise, teasing the girls, and doing a big share of the work. The older men sweated as they tugged in the planks, where before, the boys had done this job with a laugh.
Delsa missed Millie, who had been her friend ever since they were children. But she knew that Millie and Alec had gone to the city with Jim and Lina and their parents, and that they would not be back until just in time for the dinner.
Jeff Holden was there, with a crew of eighth grade and high school boys trying to take over the jobs their big brothers normally had. They were laughing and joking with the teen-age girls, and Delsa suddenly felt old as she watched them. She shook her head a little sadly and went out into the kitchen. They had all grown older, skipped a period in their growth, it seemed.
Everything was ready by the time the newly married couple and their parents arrived. After everyone had shaken hands with them and kissed them and wished them happiness, they all went into the long hall and sat down at the laden tables.
There was a great deal of merriment during the meal – a few short speeches and toasts and a lot of wisecracking. Delsa, moving between kitchen and dining room, keeping her eyes on the girls who were serving, seeing that everything went smoothly, found little time to join in the repartee. But she did stop at the head table, where the bridal couple and their families and Alec Windsor sat, and watched them cut the towering wedding cake.
There was an empty chair next to Alec and he said to Delsa, “This is your place, Delsa. Why don’t you make use of it?”
“Yes, Delsa,” Millie cried, “sit here with us. You’ll have to eat, you know, and I had them save this place for you.”
Delsa shook her head.
“I like my job as overseer,” she laughed, “and I get a bigger share eating in the kitchen.”
But Delsa was tired when at last the meal was over, and she was glad that she had earned the respite afforded by having to go home to change to her dancing dress. The Grayson girls, who lived a mile further up the road, offered to take her in their car as they slipped home for the same purpose, and Delsa gratefully accepted the lift. This would give her time to bathe and maybe lie down for fifteen minutes before going back to the dance.
After her bath, though, she felt fresh and gay. She could hear the music coming from the dance hall and she found that she was impatient to get back there to dance with Alec. She was waiting for the Graysons when they stopped to pick her up again.
The dance was in full swing when they entered the hall. The music set Delsa’s nerves tingling, her feet beating time. She loved to dance, and Alec had promised to dance with her. She hoped he would see that she was there and would hurry to her.
Just then he swung past her, dancing with Helen Ball, and seeing Delsa, he smiled and held up his hand in a quick gesture of greeting. As soon as that dance was over, he came across the hall to her, his steps and look eager.
Delsa stepped out on the floor with him – felt his strong young arms about her, smelled the rough woolen fabric of his blouse, saw the band of campaign ribbons, even with her eyes, and she thought, why couldn’t this be Hugh? Her arms tightened instinctively, and Alec’s dark head bent just a little closer to her golden curls.
They danced beautifully together, moving through the crowd with instinctive ease, so that it was almost as if they were alone on the shining dance floor.
“You look like an angel,” Alec whispered, “the kind of angel a fellow dreams about when he’s alone in the jungle with danger all around him. The kind of angel that can make heaven become real with just a smile.”
Delsa laughed up at him.
“What a line!” she said. But the illusion that it was Hugh who was holding her close this way had been shattered. Delsa sighed a little, and drew back, almost imperceptibly.
Alec noticed it, however, and he said gently, “Don’t be offended, Delsa. I mean what I say. But I won’t talk any more,” and he tried to draw her closer again, as she had been before.
Delsa was sorry that she had betrayed her reactions so plainly, and to make up for it, she let him hold her close, and tried to forget that this was Alec Windsor, strange marine, with whom she was dancing.
When Alec took her to her place again, he didn’t leave her, but sat down beside her and watched the other dancers. He told her of the trip to Salt Lake that day, the things he had done, the sights he had seen. When the music started again he said, “May I have another dance, Delsa? Please? It’s been a long time since I have enjoyed dancing so much – and it will have to last me for a long time when I go back.”
So Delsa danced with him again and again. It was wonderfully exhilarating, and she felt her senses tingling with excitement. Then she saw that others were looking at her, watching them together, and she grew a little uneasy. She wondered whether Millie was offended, what Jim was thinking. She wished someone would rescue her, and she began looking about for Jeff Holden. If she could catch his eye –
As if in answer to her secret wish. Jeff came up to them after that dance. Delsa hadn’t seen him since the dinner, but he had evidently been around somewhere in the crowd. Now he smiled down at her and asked in a cool, matter-of-fact voice, “Isn’t this our dance, Delsa?”
Alec said, “I guess I will have to share her, but I hate to. She’s the most wonderful dancer I’ve ever found.”
Jeff laughed good naturedly. “That’s what we all think,” he said, and led her out onto the floor.
Delsa had danced with Jeff Holden hundreds of times. He was a good dancer and she had always enjoyed her dances with him. But as soon as he put his arms about her tonight, she sensed that there was a difference. She prodded her mind, wondering what that difference was.
It wasn’t Jeff’s suit. The neatly pressed gray was as familiar to her as her own father’s. It wasn’t the way he held her, which was just the same as always, gently, tenderly – as if she were something precious, but familiar.
Perhaps that was it, the very familiarity of Jeff’s presence after the exciting strangeness of Alec Windsor’s. At any rate, Delsa smiled to herself. She was relaxed and at peace – scarcely conscious that she was dancing at all.
Jeff wasn’t quite so tall as Alec, and his lips came just above her head. He had only to bend his head a little to bring his cheek against her hair, his lips close to her ear. He was bending his head now, and suddenly Delsa was aware of an urgency that made Jeff’s usually quiet voice vibrant.
“So Windsor likes to dance with you,” he said softly.
Delsa shook her head. “He’s lonely, Jeff. I feel sorry for him.”
Jeff’s arms tightened, ever so slightly, and he whispered, “Delsa, darling! darling!”
Delsa remembered then that Jeff was lonely, too. He had lost his love, just as she had lost hers. He was holding her now, thinking of Lucy, imagining she was Lucy, just as she had thought of Hugh when she had danced with Alec.
She felt tears along her lashes and she thought, what a mess it all is – all of us wanting something we haven’t got – something we can’t have! She wished she could comfort Jeff, but she didn’t know what to say.
They finished the dance in silence, but Delsa was suddenly weary of the party. She didn’t want to dance with Alec again – to feel the excitement racing in her veins after this realization of her own and of Jeff’s utter loneliness. And she didn’t want to dance again with Jeff – to feel his lips against her hair and to know that he held her close, dreaming of someone else.
She turned to him as they walked across the floor. “I’m going home, Jeff. Take me to Dad and Mother, please.”
But her father and mother had already left the hall.
Jeff said, “Wait here, Delsa. I’ll get your coat.”
Delsa sat down on the bench that ran around the wall and looked at the dancers. They were still merry and noisy and she couldn’t imagine why she was so tired, so utterly worn out.
Jeff came back with her coat and held it while she slipped her arms into the sleeves. Then he took hold of one arm, turned Delsa gently toward the door, and walked out with her.
“Don’t you leave, too, Jeff,” she remonstrated. “It’s just a few steps. And thanks.”
But Jeff didn’t let go of her arm. He walked along beside her, holding to her.
“I’ve got to talk to you, Delsa,” he said quietly. “I’m sorry, but it’s got to be done. I’m in love with you, Delsa, deeply and truly in love with you, and I can’t help showing it. Heaven knows I don’t mean to. I know you don’t like it – I can see you flinch, actually, and withdraw from me every time I come a little too close. You’re thinking of Hugh Temple – and you’re thinking that I’m pretty low to step in and try to take you away from Hugh when he’s off fighting and unable to protect what is his. But I’m not trying to take you away from Hugh – I’m not going to take you away. I just want to explain so that you won’t think too little of me.”
He stopped, as if at an end, and Delsa walked along slowly, wondering whether she should tell him about Hugh. It would be such a relief to tell someone. Jeff would understand; he would help her cover up the way Hugh had deserted her.
Jeff went on, almost desperately. “I can’t help loving you, Delsa. I’ve tried to help it and I can’t. Since you’ve been coming in to look after the children, what was just deep affection has grown into ardent love. But don’t worry, darling, please. Now that you know, maybe you won’t mind – maybe you’ll overlook –”
Delsa turned to him and laid her hand on his arm. “Jeff,” she whispered, softly, and before either of them knew what was happening, Jeff had her in his arms, holding her close, his cheek pressed deeply against the soft luster of her hair.
“Darling! Darling! Darling!” he whispered, but he didn’t raise her face to his, nor try to kiss her.
Delsa stood quiescent in the circle of Jeff’s arms. She wanted to put her arms around him, to lift her face to his lips, to say, “Jeff, I’m lonely – and I am alone. Love me, Jeff; heal the wound Hugh has made.” But she couldn’t do that. Up to this minute Jeff and all her world had thought she was betrothed to Hugh. How could she say suddenly, “It’s all right? I’ve just been keeping it a secret, but Hugh and I are no longer engaged. Hugh wants to marry someone else.”
If Jeff wouldn’t be shocked out of his love for her, he would at least be doubtful of her honesty. He would not be able to comprehend her silence, her deviousness.
At last, Jeff’s arms dropped from around her and he stood back, silent and contrite.
“You’re lonely, Jeff,” Delsa said miserably, “and I’m lonely. And I’m to blame. Coming to the house, being with the children, I’ve reminded you –” Somehow Delsa’s lips wouldn’t go on. She was suffering at the thought that she was merely a reminder of his dead wife.
Jeff shook his head slowly. “No, Delsa,” he said. “Let’s not fool ourselves. I am lonely, lonelier now than I have ever been. but you do not remind me of anyone or anything. You are you, Delsa, and I love you – not because of a memory, but because of a dream of what might someday be.”
They were at her gate now, and Delsa said soberly, “I am lonely, too, Jeff. I am so lonely that I would find it easy to take comfort in your arms. but I won’t do it. You’re too good for that, Jeff – you’re too good for what I could offer you. Let’s forget what you have said and be good friends, just as we were.”
He said, “I can’t forget, but I will let you.”
“Maybe I’d better stop coming into your house so freely as I have done – ”
“And make the babies suffer for my clumsiness? No, Delsa, come, please. I’ll keep out of your way.” He laughed a little bitterly. “Go in, darling. Go to bed and dream of Hugh and when you awaken in the morning, think of this as part of a dream – a dream fostered by the warm spring breeze and the smell of growing things and the madness that comes with the awakening of the earth.”
She went up the walk and onto the porch. At the door she turned and Jeff was still standing there in the moonlight, watching her. She shut the door softly, and was glad that she was indoors and out of the reach of the spring night.