AND FOR ETERNITY
Olive Woolley Burt
SYNOPSIS: Delsa Marriott, who has been jilted by Hugh Temple, has been trying to find a way to hide the truth from her friends. At first she showed an interest in Jeff Holden, widower principal of the school, but the people of the town condemned her for being unfaithful to Hugh. Then she tried to fall in love with Alec Windsor, a visiting marine, but when Alec wants to marry her, Delsa is afraid because Alec thinks of marriage as a temporal contract, while to her it is binding for time and for eternity. Appalled at her failure, she decides to tell her friends the truth and resign herself to the thought of a loveless life.
During the days that followed, Delsa constantly gave thanks for her job – for the children grown restless under the spring sunshine and demanding all her energy during the school hours; for the morning and afternoon chores at Jeff’s house; for the spring tasks that absorbed her mother and her Aunt Martha and the neighbors.
She had at last found courage to tell Hugh’s mother of Hugh’s letter; had even let her read it. She had found, then, that she needn’t have worried about the woman’s reaction. In fact, Delsa had felt rather hurt when Hugh’s mother had said, after her first uncomprehending exclamations, “Well, I’m glad that it’s Hugh that has changed, Delsa. I had almost begun to think that you were going to throw him over for, say, Jeff Holden. I couldn’t have borne that, Delsa – having Hugh thrown over while he was out fighting.”
Delsa thought bitterly, no, but she can stand this. She loves me, too, but she loves Hugh more. Hugh’s her son and I’m just the girl he had planned to marry.
And she found it not too difficult to tell the girls. They, too, were astounded at first, but they accepted that fact as they accepted so many others, so many facts that meant infinitely more to them, with an exclamation, a shrug, and then forgetfulness in the busy world they had all entered.
When Delsa said doubtfully, “I suppose now I am ineligible for the War Widows Club,” they laughed and winked at her.
“You’ll probably be eligible again when Alec goes,” they said, “so you might as well keep right in!”
So that’s settled, Delsa thought, and wondered just how much her happiness meant to anyone but herself and her immediate family. Then she shook her head at her bitterness, realizing that there were so many harassing events, so much personal worry and work in the world that each one had all he could do to keep going with his own troubles and had little emotional energy left for other people.
Alec was a godsend, Delsa admitted. True to his promise, he refrained from “rushing” her, but he was constantly on hand to take her to the picture show, to walk home with her from school, to go riding with her after school or on Saturdays.
This helped immeasurably, for instead of pitying her because she had lost Hugh, the other girls envied her because she had a good-looking escort in days when escorts were more highly prized than ever before.
Even Jeff wasn’t too difficult. He’d come into her schoolroom after the children were dismissed on that Monday following her announcement, and had stood looking down at Delsa, his eyes remote, but his smile friendly.
“I want to apologize, Delsa,” he said quietly. “I acted like a fool yesterday. It is none of my business, of course, what you do. I guess I just let my own feelings get the better of me.”
“I was hurt that you would imply that I had so lightly tossed away Hugh,” Delsa answered him, just as seriously, just as honestly.
“You’ll forgive me, Delsa?” his voice was urgent.
Delsa nodded, and went on in spite of herself. “And I’ll tell you this, Jeff. Hugh had asked me to release him from his promise long before I ever saw Alec Windsor.”
Jeff held up his hand as if to stop her.
“It’s none of my business, Delsa. That’s the main thing for me to remember,” he couldn’t keep the bitterness out of his voice.
“If that’s the main thing, Jeff, there is no need for us to discuss it. I had a notion that my happiness – ”
“Oh, Delsa, Delsa, let’s not quarrel. We are adult enough, I hope, to refrain from hurting each other just for the fun of it.”
Delsa looked at him. If that was the way he wanted it, it was all right with her. She was hurt, though, because she had always thought of Jeff as a tower of strength, one to whom she could speak freely. But if he wanted to hide behind this hurt front and let her work out her problem alone, there was nothing she could do about it.
She said, “All right, Jeff. Everything is back to normal.”
She went to the board and began erasing the lesson written there, and Jeff turned silently and left the room.
When school was out, Delsa hadn’t known whether to go over to Jeff’s to take care of the children or not. She hesitated just a moment, and then, seeing Jeff busy with his older boys cleaning up the school yard, she thought, why make the babies suffer for our troubles? I’ll just dash over and see what Mrs. Reeder is doing, give the children the once over, and be away before ever Jeff gets home.
When she went into the house she was glad of her decision. Davy had upset a saucepan of boiling water, and while only a little of it had splashed over him, the scalded spots were dreadfully painful. He was sobbing distractedly, his face buried in the pillow. Mrs. Reeder had put some soda and water on the spots and wrapped a cloth over them, but it was clumsily done.
Delsa gathered the little boy close, kissing his tousled head.
“There, there, Davy, don’t cry. Aunt Delsa will fix it up. Aunt Delsa knows where Daddy has some magic salve – it’ll stop the hurt in no time. Come and see.”
She carried him into the bathroom, opened the medicine chest and let him look in it with her. She held up the bottles and tubes, attracting his attention until she found the tube of tannic acid jelly. it was a bright green tube, and she held it up crying, “See, Davy, here it is. This is what Daddy uses.”
Davy looked at her, only slightly curious, but his sobs had ceased. She took some sterilized gauze and said, “Do you want to squeeze the salve out, Davy? It is kind of hard for Aunt Delsa. You have to be real strong to make it come out.”
Davy accepted the challenge and squeezed the end of the tube. When the salve came squiring out onto the gauze he smiled. Delsa made a neat, expert bandage on the chubby little hand, and Davy watched her, half forgetting his pain in the excitement of being done up so prettily.
“Now let’s go show Trudy our bandage, just like a big soldier’s,” Delsa said, and led Davy in to show his sister.
Mrs. Reeder said crossly, “He ought to be spanked, that’s what! He’s always into something. I told him to get away from the stove.”
Delsa understood that the woman was trying to salve her own conscience for her negligence, and she answered coldly, “He’s been punished for his misdeed, but what punishment should be given to the one who was in charge of him?”
“Don’t you threaten me, Miss Delsa!” the woman cried angrily. “I don’t have to work here! I don’t have to stay here day after day, chasing that kid from morning till night for a measly few dollars a week. I can get a war job, I can, and make big money and take no one’s sass!”
Delsa was frightened. What if Mrs. Reeder did take a notion to leave? What would Jeff do then? She went over to the woman, smiling placatingly in spite of her anger.
“Now, now,” she said quietly, “we’re all upset. It hurts us almost as much as it does the child to see him suffer. Sit down, Mrs. Reeder, and let me make you some toast and cocoa. The children are trying, I know.”
So now, Delsa thought, as she waited on the woman, I have Mrs. Reeder to take care of, as well as the babies. Oh, why did I ever get tangled up in this anyway?
But after that night, even though Jeff seldom spoke to her and never let down the bars of reserve he had put up, Delsa went to his house faithfully every night, and took care of the babies.
Jeff acknowledged her kindness – he made it a point to thank her and to tell her how much it meant to the children. But aside from that and from the routine business of the school, they exchanged few words. Jeff was never in the house while Delsa was there, and that made it easier for her.
If Jeff watched her coming and going – if he noted how rapidly she finished her self-appointed chores, he probably laid it to her haste to get through and to meet Alec Windsor, who was usually waiting to walk home with her.
There was a funny old gnarled tree about a block from Jeff’s gate. Alec would sit there on the rough seat made by the roots that had pushed up from the ground, and wait for Delsa. When she came even with him he would leap up, take her arm, and walk along beside her, talking nonsense, making her laugh, making her forget the worries of the day.
And if she was particularly lonely or depressed or weary he would be especially gentle with her, sensing her mood, matching his own temperament to hers.
It was a sweet knack, Delsa thought gratefully. Hugh had had it, too. She caught herself remembering Hugh when she was with Alec, and in spite of the pleasure of being with him there was an ache where happiness had once glowed.
One evening Alec said, “Delsa, darling, ten whole days of my leave have gone. Can you realize it? Ten whole days! There aren’t many left.”
He stopped, waiting for Delsa to acknowledge the unspoken plea behind his words.
She walked along silently, her eyes on the dusky roadway ahead.
“I’ve done everything I could to make you love me,” he went on wistfully, so much like a small, earnest boy that Delsa smiled in spite of herself. “And all you can do is laugh!” he added disconsolately.
“Alec, Alec! I don’t laugh at you. I am too fond of you for that.”
“Fond!” he spit the word out. “Is that all? Fond!”
Again the smile curved Delsa’s lips. She couldn’t make herself believe that Alec was in deadly earnest. She knew he had had letters from Helen, his far-away betrothed, and she couldn’t picture him as one who could actually throw himself into a permanent alliance with one girl while still promised to another. He was too much like Hugh. He would write and ask for a release first. Had he done so?
She said seriously, “Nellie Gibson tells me you write to a WAC, and that you get letters from one. You are not really in earnest with me, Alec. You don’t love me as you love her, do you?”
He was not angry, but he tried to sound so.
“Doesn’t that postmaster know it’s illegal to read a person’s mail?” he asked.
“He has to read the address – or at least that’s permitted, isn’t it? And if he mentions it at dinner, say, why then, Nellie knows it, and she feels obliged to let her teacher know how much she knows.”
Alec kicked at the dust of the sidewalk, like a small boy meditating. Then he said, “Look here, Delsa, you’re in a sort of jam, I know. I’m no more deaf than Nellie Gibson is, and I hear what’s going on. I do love you, too,” he added on a deeper note. “And I may never see Helen again.”
There was such a wistfulness in his words that Delsa laid her hand on his sleeve.
“Listen, Alec,” she said softly. “I know you love me – and I love you, too, really. But neither of us loves as we should love to stand up before God and the world and promise fidelity to each other through time – ”
“And eternity,” Alec breathed softly.
After a moment, he went on, “Maybe you’re right, Delsa. I don’t know. I only know that when I look at you, when I hear your voice, I want to take you in my arms and hold you close. And when I can’t look at you, when I can’t hear your voice, I ache with longing for you.”
Her hand was still on his arm, and she stopped and turned toward him, lifting her face toward his. The early moon shone down through the branches of the trees where small buds were swelling with the urgency of life, and the sweetness of springtime came to them from the hills and the fields.
“I know, I know,” she whispered. “Oh, believe me, Alec, I understand what you feel. I feel it, too.”
His arms went about her and drew her toward him, but she did not yield in his embrace.
She said, “It must be more than that longing, Alec. It must be more than that ache. That may be just loneliness, just the desire for love. If you really loved me there wouldn’t be any Helen – anywhere at all – ”
“There won’t be, if you’ll marry me, Delsa. There won’t be, I promise you.”
But she shook her head against his blouse and felt the ribbons on his breast and remembered what he had gone through and what he was going back to. That remembrance must be a living thing behind all his own thoughts, she knew, and that remembrance was enough to make him cling desperately to any semblance of stability that he could grasp.
Oh, if he really loved me, she thought, I would be tempted to give him that feeling that there was something permanent in the world. But could I? Could I, unless my heart was wholly his? Hugh! Hugh! Dear lost friend crying out, reaching for that sense of reality. Did you grasp it, Hugh? Or did you take in your young eager hands only a shadow? Did you, who had been reared to look for more than this life promises, who had been taught to look far, far into the future, past the grave, past all the seeming realities of this world – did you find the treasure that would fill your heart and your days for ever and ever?
Alec bent his head, but he did not try to kiss her. He laid his cheek against her hair.
“Don’t be troubled, Delsa darling,” he whispered. “Don’t be troubled.” He was silent for a long time and then he went on with a sigh, “I have never known anyone like you, darling – as honest with herself and with the world. Most girls would let themselves forget – especially if they had as much reason to want to forget as you have had.” After a moment, he added bitterly, “Our love would outlast my furlough, anyway, I’m sure it is real enough for that! And what more can we ask, Delsa, what more?”
The spell was broken. Delsa drew away from him, took his arm and started walking slowly beside him.
“You’re asking a childish question, Alec, and I won’t answer it. Come, we must hurry, or we’ll be late for supper – and Mother promised you biscuits, remember?