AND FOR ETERNITY
Olive Woolley Burt
SYNOPSIS: Delsa Marriott, trying to find a way to lessen the stigma when her friends will learn that she has been jilted by Hugh Temple, finds that Alec Windsor, a marine on furlough in the town, is attracted to her. She believes that she can make the people in the town think that she has been the one to break off her engagement with Hugh if she pretends to be in love with Alec. Jeff Holden, father of two motherless children, tells Delsa that he loves her, but Delsa thinks that Jeff is merely lonely for his dead wife.
On Saturday morning Delsa rose early to help her mother do the weekly wash. Sometimes, as this morning, she wished she could lie in bed, warm and safe and far from all the troubles and duties of the world about her. But the wash must be done, and her mother, strong and well as she was, could not be expected to do it alone while Delsa loafed in bed. At least, Delsa couldn’t expect her mother to work while she rested, so she tossed off the covers, dressed quickly in a faded blue gingham, and went downstairs.
“The clothes will dry quickly in this sun and wind,” her mother said happily. “We should be all through by ten o’clock.”
“Oh, if we are, I’m going for a long horseback ride,” Delsa cried. “It will be wonderful up the canyon today – buds just bursting, grass so new and green!”
They worked swiftly, talking of the wedding and of Alec Windsor and of all the neighbors, whose affairs seemed so much a part of their own daily lives.
Long before ten, Delsa was hanging the clothes – the morning sun slanting against her brown curls, turning them to fine gold; the wind whipping her gingham dress about her slim young body. Shaking the sheets like white wings about her shoulders, Delsa gave them a little tug and laughed aloud for the sheer joy of hanging clean clothes in sunlight and wind.
“That does it!”
She was startled at the exclamation and turned to see Alec Windsor on his knee at one side of her, a kodak tipped at a rakish angle, as he swiftly recorded the picture before him.
“Oh, Alec!” Delsa cried, flushing, “I look a sight! Why don’t you wait – ”
“A sight to be remembered – a sight to be recorded in kodachrome!” Alec laughed, getting up from the soft ground and coming close to her. “That was a beautiful picture, Delsa. I think, if you’ll give me permission, I’ll enter it in some nationwide contest. Pick up a little money, and make the world happier at the same time.”
“Better sell it for advertising,” Delsa mocked. “Use Sunny Monday soap chips!”
“It’d make me a fortune,” he said seriously.
He picked up the wicker clothes basket and carried it to the house for her.
“What you going to do once the washing’s all hung?” he asked.
“Oh – nothing much, I guess,” Delsa answered.
Her mother heard the question and said, “I thought you were going for a horseback ride, Delsa. Maybe Alec would like to ride, too. Do you ride, Alec?”
“I’ll say,” he laughed, “have you an extra horse?”
“There’s Hugh’s horse in the barn,” Mrs. Marriott went on happily, thinking she was doing Delsa and Alec and Hugh, too, a good turn.
Delsa was a little annoyed. She’d planned to ride up to hers and Hugh’s “thinking spot” – a big flat boulder that stuck out from the face of the hill east of the ranch, where the two had often sat and pondered on life and death and the weighty problems of youngsters and adolescents. She had wanted to be alone this morning, to think, to plan, to decide. But now she would be with Alec – maybe it would be even more pleasant.
She smiled up at him.
“Why don’t you come with me, Alec? I can show you the whole valley from the hillside up there,” and she motioned toward the east.
“I can put up a few sandwiches and some cake and a thermos of milk,” Mrs. Marriott went on eagerly. “It’s warm enough for a picnic. You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Alec? Most boys love picnics.”
So an hour later, Delsa on her little blue mare and Alec on Hugh’s roan were climbing up through the pale green brush toward the boulder that would give them a view of the valley.
When they reached the spot, Delsa dismounted and let Blue Star’s reins trail. Alec swung down from Beauty’s back, and came and stood beside her. The mid-day sun was warm, and Delsa took off her bandanna and let her hair blow free.
“Isn’t the valley lovely?” she asked. “I don’t believe there’s a more beautiful place in the whole wide world.”
Alec looked out over the scene spread below him. The valley stretched from north to south, like a long tortoise-shell cat stretched on a rock, sunning itself. The plowed farms were the dark spots on her fur; the wheat stubble the lighter blotches. Back of the sunning valley rose another chain of hills, golden in the spring sun.
“It is lovely,” Alec breathed.
Delsa sat down on the boulder, and was grateful for the warmth that the sun had given it and for the peace of the position high above the world.
“This is my favorite spot,” she said dreamily.
Alec sat down beside her, very close.
“You come here often, I guess,” he said.
“Whenever I can’t stand the valley – but that isn’t often,” she murmured.
“Can’t stand the valley?” he asked, inviting her confidence.
“Oh, you know how it is, where you know everyone and everyone knows you. Sometimes you feel that they are too close, too interested. You want to get away.”
“Why didn’t you get a teaching position some other place, then?” The question was gentle.
“If it hadn’t been for the war, I probably would have done so,” Delsa said musingly. “But as it was – well, you see so many parents losing their children because they have to, you don’t feel like bringing that loss upon your own when it isn’t necessary.”
“You’re sweet, Delsa,” Alec whispered.
He picked up her hand, where it lay open beside her, and gently turned it over. The slender golden band that was Hugh’s pledge to her, gleamed upon her slim brown finger, the tiny diamond glistening in the sun. Alec touched it, questioningly.
“Does this means so much to you, Delsa, that you cannot forget it for a moment?”
Delsa looked down at the ring and slowly shook her head.
“It is the symbol of a pledge,” she said softly.
Alec’s voice became urgent.
If you need a symbol,” he began, “the pledge must not be real to you.”
“But I have the symbol,” she pointed out quietly.
“If I slipped it from your finger – let it roll own there among the rocks and brush below us – what of the pledge then?”
Delsa lifted her eyes to his and the question he had asked was repeated in the clear blue irises. Then she shook her head wonderingly.
“Would it be as easy as that?” she asked softly.
“Delsa!” Alec cried, “Delsa! You don’t love him!”
“Oh, I do! I do! I’ve loved him all my life long, Alec. I’ll love him as long as I have life.”
“I love you like that, Delsa,” Alec whispered, “and I’ve known you only for days. Delsa, darling, I want to marry you. I want to have a little happiness – I want something to cling to – Who knows whether your Hugh will ever come back? Who knows whether I will ever come back? You deserve happiness, Delsa. We could find it together.”
“Hugh must come back, some day,” Delsa said, and her throat ached, knowing that when he came he would bring his wife with him, “and so must you, Alec,” she added softly.
“I’d want to, more than ever, if I had you to come back to.”
“Alec, Alec! You are pledged, too!”
Alec’s mouth grew hard and bitter.
“Yes, I’m pledged. but when can I keep that pledge? I didn’t ask Helen to marry me just so that I could have the pleasure of being engaged. I wanted to be married. I hurried home to marry her. But she was gone. I may never see her again.”
Delsa shook her head sadly. What could she answer? She knew how he felt – young and eager and lonely. He wanted arms about him; he wanted love. She felt strangely older than this boy beside her. She understood so well that he was crying, not to her as a sweetheart, so much as to her as a woman – a woman who could take his mother’s place, and, holding him in her arms, comfort his loneliness, wipe away his fears.
“I’d return to you, Delsa. I’d love you all my life long,” he pleaded.
“And after that?” she asked.
“After that?” he shrugged, “well, we take our chances.”
Delsa shook her head. “Not with us, Alec,” she said.
He looked at her, the urgency still bright in his eyes.
“What do you mean?”
“If you married me, Alec, it would have to be as we marry in our Church, for time and for eternity. Would you want me for eternity, Alec, if Helen were there, too, not separated by distance and time as she is here?”
Alec’s arms went about her and drew her close and his importunate lips were pressed upon her mouth. When she drew back, he said, “You love me, Delsa, I can feel it. let’s not worry about tomorrow, or the hereafter, or anything else. Let’s take what we can take – we’ll have that much, anyway, and nothing – neither time nor eternity – can rob us of it once it is ours.”
But Delsa’s yielding, sympathetic mood had passed, and she withdrew from his arms, rising lithely.
“We came for a picnic, Alec,” she said. “Let’s see what Mom put in our lunch?”
She went over to Blue Star and took the canvas bag from the saddle. Alec sat moodily staring out over the valley while she laid a cloth and placed sandwiches and cake and the thermos of milk before him. He looked like an unhappy small boy, and she could not refrain from stooping as she passed him, and laying a light kiss upon his frowning brow.
He looked up then, and a smile as bright as sunshine chased the dark look from his eyes.
“Right!” he cried, and set to work on the lunch.
Delsa laughed with him and talked lightly as they ate and later as they rode down the trail together. But she was not happy. The little dialogue there on the boulder, high above the valley, had showed her many things. What these were she couldn’t tell just yet – she would have to be alone, she would have to take out the thoughts that were so jumbled now, smooth them out, and examine them, and find out just what they meant.
She didn’t get an opportunity to do this until she went to her room that night. There, kneeling in her accustomed place by the window, so that she could look out and see Hugh’s old window gleaming in the moonlight, she tried to think.
She took Hugh’s ring from her finger and looked at it.
Was it true that she needed a symbol of her pledge to Hugh and his pledge to her? Was it easier for Hugh to break that pledge because he had no ring to remind him? If that was true, then the thing she had been telling herself all along was not true – that their engagement was binding as a marriage vow, that Hugh had no more right to break it than he would have to violate his marriage pledge.
“Yes,” she whispered at last, “I have been wrong. If we had married, Hugh and I, it would have been a sacred rite, in God’s temple – a vow taken before him, and never to be broken. Our promises to each other were not the same – they required this ring, this shining diamond to remind me of them. Hugh, Hugh, forgive me! I know in my heart that if you had taken those other vows, you would have been true to them. It was my fault, perhaps, for not marrying you before you left. Or maybe it was so intended. But however it came to be, you were free to change, Hugh. You had that right. And you acted honorably in writing to me as you did. Oh, Hugh, I see now that I can write to you at last and release you from your promise to me.”
She laid her forehead against the window sill and held Hugh’s ring in her hand, watching it, while the sense of being wronged and cheated slowly dissolved in her heart.
I still love Hugh, she thought wonderingly. I think I love him even more than I did before. I love him so much that I want him to be happy – I don’t want him to feel lost and afraid as Alec feels right now. And if that Australian girl can comfort him – if her real arms mean more to him than the memory of mine – then I want him to have them.
She shook her head slowly. I hope she loves you, Hugh, truly loves you. I hope she isn’t marrying you because she feels the compassion for you that I felt for Alec today –
She stopped on that thought, “compassion”; then she repeated it softly, “compassion. Is that all I feel for Alec? Is that all that his need awakens in me? Compassion? Could that sustain us through time – and through eternity?”
She sat there a long time after that, looking out into the night, not even thinking. But at last she rose and went slowly across the room to her dressing table. She carefully put Hugh’s ring in a small box and put this in the top drawer, and shut the drawer slowly, surely.
Then she went to her bed, and the smooth white pillow was not cooler nor more quiet than her own cheek against it.