It is late October, and through the two windows at the back one may see a bleak countryside, the grass brown and lifeless, and the bare limbs of the trees silhouetted against a gray sky. Here, in the room that for a hundred years has been the rallying point of the Jordan family, a group of relatives are gathered to await the death of the old woman who is the head of their clan. The room in which they wait is as dull and as drab as the lives of those who have lived within its walls. Here we have the cleanliness that is next to godliness, but no sign of either comfort or beauty, both of which are looked upon with suspicion as being signposts on the road to perdition.
In this group are the following characters: Henry Jordan, a heavy set man of fifty, worn by his business cares into a dull sort of hopeless resignation. Emma, his wife, a stout and rather formidable woman of forty, with a look of chronic displeasure; Nettie, her daughter by a former marriage, a vain and shallow little rustic beauty; Sadie, a thin, tight-lipped woman of forty, a widow and a gossip; Orin, her son, a pasty-faced boy of ten with large spectacles; Ella, a “Maiden lady” of thirty-six, restless and dissatisfied.
Ella and Sadie, true Jordans by birth, are a degree above Emma in social standing, at least they were until Henry’s marriage to Emma made her a somewhat resentful member of the family. In Emma’s dialogue and in her reactions, I have attempted a rather nice distinction between the two grades of rural middle-class folk; the younger characters here, as in most other communities, have advanced one step.
Rise: At rise there is a long silence; the occupants of the room are ill at ease. Emma is grim and frowning. Nettie sits with a simper of youthful vanity, looking stealthily at herself from time to time in a small mirror set in the top of her cheap vanity case. Ella and Sadie have been crying and dab at their eyes a bit ostentatiously. Henry makes a thoughtful note with a pencil, then returns his notebook to his pocket and warms his hands at the stove.
There is a low whistle of a cold autumn wind as some dead leaves are blown past the window. Orin, who has a cold in his head, sniffs viciously; the others, with the exception of his mother, look at him in remonstrance. An eight-day clock in sight, through the door to the hall, strikes four.