AND FOR ETERNITY
Olive Woolley Burt
The spring days floated by as lightly as almond blossoms, each one filled with the perfume of growing things and the sweetness of spring breezes – but each one bringing closer the day when Alec’s and Jim’s leave would end.
Now Alec begrudged the hours that Delsa spent with Jeff Holden’s children.
“Don’t go over there tonight, Delsa,” he would beg. “I’ve such a few days left. Let’s go riding up to our boulder.”
Sometimes she would listen to his pleading and would barely glance in on the children and then would hurry home, slip into her rodeo pants and plaid shirt, saddle and bridle Blue Star, and meet Alec. Then they’d ride, galloping along the road, cutting across the brush-covered flat, urging their horses up the steep canyon paths.
Delsa liked these afternoons best of all, because while they were riding Alec looked almost completely happy. Of course, when they stopped, he was bound to look gloomily into the future, but often she could think of places to go that were far enough away so that they had no time for these pensive talks.
At other times Delsa would have to stay at Jeff’s till quite late, taking care of the youngsters, soothing Mrs. Reeder’s ruffled spirits. Davy, though still a baby, was almost more than the tactless and inexperienced woman could handle.
Delsa understood what was wrong with the little boy – no, not wrong with him – but what caused him to act as he did. It was spring. The warm air invited the youngster to come outdoors and play. And he would answer that invitation, playing until he was too weary to mind what he was told, too utterly worn out to obey even the simplest commands, and Mrs. Reeder’s commands were not always simple.
Then again, the spring thaw made many fascinating mud puddles, and Davy could not keep his hands and feet out of the inviting mixture. This made extra work for his guardian, and extra work meant irritability.
So, very often when Delsa went to the little house she found Davy in tears, and Mrs. Reeder scolding. It took time to bring order out of this chaos, and Delsa would forget that Alec was waiting impatiently while she bathed the little boy, gave him warm supper, and got him into bed.
Trudy, still too young to make the mischief her brother made, and yet old enough to care for herself a little, was a different kind of worry to Delsa. Mrs. Reeder would put the baby in her pen and leave her alone for hours. Because she was a good baby and happy under most circumstances, she was left alone too much, and Delsa could think of hundreds of accidents that might happen to the child.
The truth was, Delsa admitted to Alec one night when he was scolding her for neglecting him, the children were becoming so dear to Delsa that she hated to be away from them. She might chafe at the responsibility that included keeping Mrs. Reeder happy, but the care of the children was sheer pleasure.
Between Jeff and Delsa had risen an icy barrier of reserve. Jeff seldom came into the house while Delsa was there, but as it was planting time and he had his farm to care for as well as his job, his staying outside until after she left was excusable. At school he talked to her quietly, friendly enough when there was something that had to be said; the rest of the time he left her to herself.
One afternoon Alec was waiting outside the schoolhouse when Delsa came out on her way to Jeff’s.
“Listen, Delsa,” he said eagerly, “let’s saddle the horses and ride down the valley this afternoon. Jim’s been telling me about an old Indian that lives out about four miles and I want to see him. A real Indian! I don’t know why no one ever told me about him before!”
“Old Chickup!” laughed Delsa. “I guess no one thought he was worth telling about. We never even think of him.”
“Jim says he has a wonderful collection of authentic arrowheads. I do want to see them, Delsa. Let’s go. You can show me the way.”
Delsa shook her head.
“I’d love to, Alec, but I can’t tonight. I promised Davy that if he’d be a good boy today I would show him how to make windmills like the first graders. I can’t disappoint him.”
“You can disappoint me, though,” Alec said sulkily. “Look, Delsa, you’ll have those kids to tend as long as you want them. I think Jeff Holden has imposed on you long enough. He can hire someone to tend his kids for him and not tie you down this way all the time. Tell him you’re not coming tonight.”
“It isn’t Jeff’s fault that I go over there, Alec,” Delsa said soberly. “I really think Jeff would be glad if I didn’t have to come, but I do have to. He can’t get anyone else. You know for yourself how busy everyone is.”
“Don’t I, though!” grumbled Alec, and added angrily, “If I could have found anyone else to show me, I wouldn’t have bothered you, knowing that you’d rather play nursemaid.”
“You’re being childish, Alec,” Delsa said quietly. “I’ve really got to hurry!”
“Well, hurry then; nothing’s stopping you!” he answered shortly, and turned and walked swiftly away.
Delsa felt as if he had actually slapped her, and her face burned with anger and resentment and shame as she ran down the road to Jeff’s house.
Davy hadn’t been a good boy, she found when she entered the house, and Mrs. Reeder, exasperated beyond her forbearance, had taken matters into her own hands. Delsa found Davy sobbing as if his heart would break, and when she went to pick him up she cried out in anger and surprise. He was tied to the table leg with a short length of rope – tied so tightly that the rope cut into his fat little middle, obviously hurting him.
Delsa’s hands were shaking as she undid the rope, and, with the child in her arms, went to the kitchen to face Mrs. Reeder,.
Delsa was so angry that she took no pains to hide her feeling, and Mrs. Reeder, evidently chagrined at the justice of Delsa’s complaint, took refuge in her old challenge.
“You ain’t my boss, Miss Delsa, and you can’t talk to me that way. I got along all right with Jeff till you came buttin’ in, and I don’t aim to stand and listen to you any longer. I’m quitting!”
She grabbed her shawl from its peg and threw it over her head and walked majestically out of the house.
Delsa sat down in the kitchen rocker and held Davy close. She had butted in. And now she had lost Jeff’s only help. Well, there was nothing she could do about it just yet, though she would have to find a way to make things right later.
She comforted Davy and picked up Trudy from her play pen to find the baby wet and cold and unhappy. Delsa set to work in her usual brisk way and almost forgot her anger at Mrs. Reeder and at Alec as she held the tiny body close and whispered comforting words to the whimpering child.
She was so busy that when she heard the door open she thought only that Jeff had come in. She started in surprise when she heard Alec’s voice, “Delsa, I’m sorry. I’ve come to apologize.”
“That’s all right, Alec,” Delsa said. “I suppose you do think it’s unnecessary for me to put so much time in over here, but if you only knew the truth of it! If you only knew Mrs. Reeder!”
Alec came across the room, and Delsa was so absorbed in her task that she didn’t think how strange it was for the marine to be using Jeff’s house so freely.
“Where’s Jeff?” Alec asked, and Delsa said without looking up, “He’s outside plowing, I guess. I hardly ever see him,” she added, scarcely knowing she did so.
Delsa put the last spoonful of mush into Trudy’s mouth, wiped the baby’s face and hands on a damp napkin, untied her bib, and sat back in the low rocker to cuddle the little girl for a moment or two before putting her into her crib.
Alec stood above her, looking down, smiling in a queer sort of way.
“You look like a madonna, sitting there, Delsa,” he said huskily.
“I don’t feel much like one. I have been so angry – I’ve scared Mrs. Reeder clear away, and I’m afraid it’s for good.”
She rose and carried Trudy into the bedroom and laid her down gently.
“Go to sleepy-bye, darling,” she whispered, and turned to leave the room.
Alec had followed Delsa in, and now he said, putting his arms about her, “Delsa, darling, now the kid’s asleep, you can break away, can’t you?”
Delsa drew back sharply, saying, “Don’t, Alec!”
He looked at her and anger began to burn in his eyes again.
“What’s the matter?” he asked gruffly. “What so horrible about me putting my arms around you? I’ve done it often enough, haven’t I?”
Delsa had been surprised at her own reaction. She had never before felt the dislike toward Alec that she felt at that moment. It was almost as if he had asked her to be unfaithful … Delsa caught her breath at the thought that had sprung into her mind. She looked up at Alec and the wonder of her discovery gave a special glow to her eyes.
“Delsa!” he cried, forgetting his anger in the radiance of that look.
“Please go, Alec!” she said, and there was such finality about the request that Alec turned slowly, unquestioningly, and left the house.
Delsa went into the kitchen. She wanted to sing and dance. She caught Davy up from the chair where he had been busy making his pinwheel, and held him close, kissing him. Then she set him down again, took Mrs. Reeder’s abandoned apron from the nail behind the door and set to work to get Jeff’s and Davy’s supper.
Davy laughed in delight at her.
“You look funny in that apron!” he said. “You look like a – a – ” he couldn’t think of a word.
“A good old witch!” Delsa said, laughing back at him. “A good old witch that’s going to get supper now for Davy and his daddy. Do you want to help, Davy?”
It was growing dark in the kitchen and Delsa lighted the kerosene lamp, smiling to think that Jeff’s house was so old-fashioned. Then she remembered that it was off the main line and she thought, as soon as the war’s over, he can have a line run up here, I guess.
Davy was putting the knives and forks on the table and Delsa was at the stove with her back to the door when Jeff came in. She heard the door shut and turned, but she was in the shadow and Jeff hardly looked at her.
Davy ran to his father.
“Daddy! Daddy!” he cried, “Aunt Delsa’s here. She’s getting supper! I’m helping her!”
Jeff turned then, and looked at Delsa, as she stood there in front of the stove with Mrs. Reeder’s apron almost hiding her.
“Delsa!” he said. “What’s the matter? Where’s Mrs. Reeder?”
Delsa thought his voice was harsh, and her own voice caught a little as she went toward him.
“Oh, Jeff! I’m so sorry! But I got angry at Mrs. Reeder and she left – for good, I’m afraid.”
Jeff looked at her blankly.
“I’ll help, Jeff, until she comes back or we find someone else. That’s why I stayed tonight to get your supper. It’s all ready.” She was trying to appear nonchalant, calm, but there was a strange radiance in her heart.
Jeff turned without a word and went into the bathroom to wash.
When he came out, Delsa was leaning over Davy, putting some hot scrambled eggs onto his plate. She straightened up, the serving dish still in her hands.
Jeff stood just inside the doorway. He looked at her with such a strange intensity that Delsa set down the dish she was holding and went across the room and stood in front of him.
“Delsa,” Jeff said quietly, “I appreciate all you have done. But you had better go now.” His voice broke suddenly. “I can’t bear to have you here like this and not – ”
Suddenly his arms went around her and he was holding her tight against him. He bent his head, pressing his lips against her hair.
“Delsa! Delsa! I love you so! I can’t bear to have you near me and know that you do not love me!”
Delsa lifted her face to his and the same wonder that had dazzled Alec an hour before now shone out, unafraid.
“But I do love you, Jeff! Oh, I do!”
Jeff’s arms dropped to his sides and he leaned back against the door frame, as if he needed some support to steady him in what he was going to do.
“No, Delsa,” he said firmly, “you don’t love me. You feel sorry for me, maybe, and I know you love the children – but not me!”
Delsa put her hands on his shoulders, lifted herself on tiptoe, her lips raised.
“Kiss me, Jeff! Kiss me, and you’ll know that I love you – truly, deeply, as a woman should love the man she marries.”
Unbelief stood stark in his eyes as he whispered, “You don’t mean – you can’t mean – ”
“Jeff, listen. You need so much convincing. Alec was here a little while ago. He put his arms about me, here in your house, and I felt so alarmed – I thought to myself, it is just as if he had asked me to be unfaithful to my husband – because I was thinking of you, Jeff, though I didn’t know it. I do want to marry you, Jeff – I’ve loved you so long, only I didn’t know it, Jeff! I didn’t know it!”
Jeff didn’t need any more convincing. His arms went close around her, he kissed her upturned face and she answered his kisses and he knew then that her whole heart was his.
And Delsa, standing in the circle of his arms, feeling Jeff’s kisses, was at last content. Gone were her doubts and fears, her anxiety over what others might say or think. There was only Jeff – Jeff and the babies, and later, of course, other babies of her own. This was what she wanted, above everything else in life and in eternity.
Her hands went to Jeff’s head, felt the soft, thick hair, pressed his head down toward her. Her lips were on his. They were oblivious to everything but this moment of surrender.
Then Davy ruthlessly startled them, crying, “Supper’s getting cold, Aunt Delsa! Come ‘n eat!”
Laughing, hand in hand, Delsa and Jeff went to the table and sat down in the circle of light from the little lamp.