Coming at Ten
A new and moving version of the age-old story—two women and a man
ALLEN ROY EVANS
ISAIAH BARNES sat alone in the front room after his wife’s funeral. He had not expected it would be so hard to put Susan away on the hillside among the weatherbeaten wooden headstones. It was strange that the last rites should have been difficult; that a funeral to which almost he had been looking forward should thus affect him.
No neighbor had come home with him from the cemetery. His natural wish to be alone had been respected, or perhaps there was a certain reluctance to encounter the stern Barnes temperament. He remembered how he had suppressed the early attempts of the young farmers to call him “Isa.” Thereafter they had called him “Isaiah,” but with little heartiness in their greetings.
Isaiah had not yet removed his long black coat or his stiff white collar. Somehow it did not seem fitting to put on weekday clothes and finish the day in the fields, not with Susan hardly covered under the dry prairie grass. He sat on in the heat of the afternoon and listened to a fly buzz against the screen door.
He looked through the open door into the empty downstairs bedroom where Susan had rested for so many months; it seemed that she must always be there. Well, she wasn’t there and she would never be there again and Isaiah felt that his own thoughts should now be anticipating the future. But curiously enough the past years crowded in with an insistence he could not resist.
Not the last three or four years so much as the last thirty or forty years pressed upon him. With Susan no longer in the bedroom an episode of his life had closed. It was inevitable that the beginning as well as the end of such a period should revive itself. It was a long period, this fortyyear span of life he had passed with Susan in the house. He knew that no such length of days awaited him again.
Isaiah was surprised at the gloomy mood that possessed him. The knowledge that Freida was coming at ten, just as soon as it was decently dark, should have brought him into a condition of pleasant anticipation.
Freida would come. Of that there was no doubt. She was willing enough. It was hardly possible that she cared for him; scarcely could he, Isaiah Barnes, in his sixtieth year, be attractive personally to a girl of eighteen. Undoubtedly it was his position she thought about, the security of his prosperous acres and comfortable buildings. For this she was willing to exchange her youth and whatever of attraction she possessed.
It was her business and his if they wished to make such an exchange. He supposed he would marry her after a decent interval: rural custom demanded a year. Of course the neighbors would talk; behind his back they would call him a cradle-snatcher and the more religious minded would make veiled allusions to carnal pleasures and quote biblical verses
containing the word “lust.” Well, let them say these things ! His mind was fixed and in time gossip died away.
No objection would come from Freida’s people. The Krantz family were a shiftless, no-account lot, existing on run-down rented acres. No doubt they would look on Freida's alliance as a possible prop to their own nebulous fortunes. They had not protested when F reida began work two years before, in the house of Isaiah Barnes.
' I 'HAT WAS a time near the beginning of Susan’s long -*■ illness. It was remarkable how frail a person had got through the work of the Barnes household—almost forty years of it. Then, like a worn-out machine, the wheels could not turn any longer. The summer season was at its height; there were hired men to cook for, poultry, butter, garden, fruit, preserving-—everything. It liad been a most inconvenient time for Isaiah. In the sudden emergency the Krantz girl had been thought of. The Krantz family never cared about their work anyway; perhaps Freida would come. Freida had come.
And now Freida was coming in the darkness of ten o’clock —the culmination of a strange two years. Isaiah had remembered how little he had noticed the girl at first; a gruff command that this or that should be done. It had been Susan, from her place on a cot in the kitchen, who had given the girl her first knowledge of orderly housekeeping.
Isaiah could not remember when he had first been attracted by the girl. It had been a slow, insidious influence, creeping upon him, taking possession of his senses by imperceptible degrees. If he ever thought of it at all, he had supposed himself beyond such temptations and desires. But in some inexplicable fashion, the black-haired, blackeyed vitality of this Freida had reached him.
There had followed much argument with himself. He had found himself to be a man of two natures—the stern, religious, upright Isaiah, as his neighbors knew him, and the strange Isaiah with the fancies and desires of newly awakened imagination.
There were periods when he had sympathized with himself—almost sorrowed for the lost years with Susan. He thought of her smallness and frailty. How passive she was; no color, no life, a drab, methodical machine. She had never been the object of romance, she had never inspired the attention of any of the clumsy farm boys.
She had been Susan Andrews before her marriage to Isaiah. Isaiah remembered now the year he had worked for old Caleb Andrews, her father, a man of wide possessions. That was the year Isaiah had been twenty. At the end of the year he had conceived a bold plan and boldly he had stated it to Caleb Andrews. He would take Susan to wife if a farm went with her and Caleb had agreed. There had been no question of opposition from Susan; she was twenty-nine.
Isaiah sometimes persuaded himself that he had paid a heavy price for his start. He had borne with Susan through the years and no doubt she also had borne with him. There had been no children.
Isaiah had no relatives and sometimes he had wondered briefly what would happen to his fields and barns when the time came to leave them all behind. He was still vigorous, his time was probably far distant, but when such thoughts occasionally assailed him, he felt a vague resentment toward Susan. She had given him no heirs for his land, no sons to help him in his fields.
He did not suppose that Susan deliberately avoided becoming a mother. She was just passive, lifeless about such things. Her natural vigor was not great. It was quite probable she expended all her vitality on farm work; too bad she had not more vitality. And so the years had drifted, drab, work-filled, accumulative years—a partnership of endless labor.
Isaiah felt the heat and stuffiness of the front room where he sat. He must go into the air, catch a breath of wind. Even if a passing neighbor saw him, he could not be blamed for wandering about. He would still wear his Sunday suit; anyone could see then that he was not working on the day of Susan’s funeral.
It was queer how a man’s thoughts jumped around at a time like this. Little tilings he had not remembered for
years, past events mingled in disorder with future plans. Anyway it was pleasanter in the garden, around the barns and sheds than in the stuffy house.
The garden reminded him of Susan; it had been her domain. Years ago she had planted seed, maple and ash, cuttings of poplar and cottonwood. It had seemed futile at the time, but the trees were large now. They sheltered Susan’s currant bushes and raspberries, her gooseberries and tomatoes. These were the things she put in glass jars, rows and rows of them, standing in the dark corner of the cellar. Isaiah wondered if Freida knew how to do this without instruction.
Between the barns he noticed the yards and coops where Susan had cared for various broods of chickens. The chickens were half grown now and sought the cool shade beneath the barns. From the edge of the stubble field he heard the peculiar call of Susan’s turkeys hunting grasshoppers.
The cows stood patiently by the pasture bars and Isaiah let them through to the water trough. He wondered which animals were the best milkers and how much they gave. The milking and the churning and the calf-raising had been Susan’s business for such a long time that he knew little about it. No doubt she must have told Freida how to manage these things.
On all sides were reminders of Susan. He strode through the yards toward the fields. All along the edge of the nearest field ran a strip of citron vines; the half-grown mottled fruit lay thick among the leaves. Susan had told him of this experiment—something about growing the citrons for a cannery. The master of grain fields and hay meadows could not remember all the details of his wide menage.
It was a long time since Isaiah had realized the extent of Susan’s activity; perhaps he had never realized fully. Fie seemed to be reminded of her even more outside than inside the house. He decided to go in again; it must be cooler now.
He would be alone now—alone until Freida came at ten. Mrs. Murcheson, on the next farm, had offered to board Isaiah’s two hired men until he had time to get “straightened around.” When the men came back after supper they would go to their bunks in the shack on the other side of the big barn. This would be the first night they would be alone together, without Susan, without the nurse and the extra housekeeper, without the doctor dropping in—without anyone.
A great moment! A moment long anticipated. Freida understood, of course. Isaiah felt that the sharp-eyed nurse also understood a great deal more than she talked about. Perhaps she had told the doctor. But nurses and doctors were special people; the things they knew were in the nature of confidences, never repeated to others. At least he hoped they did not repeat to others.
What did they know anyway? Only shadows, suspicions, theories. What could anyone say against his care of Susan? Regular visits from the only doctor he could get; then finally a trained nurse, a housekeeper, and, of course, Freida.
Ah, yes, Freida ! Who could prove that, but for Freida, Susan could still be in the old kitchen or skimming milk in the cellar? There might be vague ideas in the mind of the nurse, but who could really prove anything?
Isaiah moved himself from the seldom used front room to the kitchen where he could feel more at home. Flis thoughts might be more comfortable if he sat in the kitchen. Of course, there was no room, no corner, where he could entirely escape memories of Susan. Fier presence lingered everywhere. He had supposed that once he was freed from her physical nearness, he would be free indeed.
The thing to do was to concentrate on Freida. In an hour and a half she would be back in the house. In ninety minutes. Already the long summer twilight gathered over the fields and Susan’s turkeys were roosting on the shed ridge-pole. The hired men had come back from Mrs. Murcheson’s. Isaiah could see them passing between the barns as they finished the evening chores.
Perhaps he, too, might still be a hired man except for the gift farm that Susan had brought him. It had given him a wonderful start; he admitted that. But he, also, had given something—the years of his young manhood. Fie had lifted
Susan from the certainty of old maidenhood; from the rural reproach which such a condition of life always inspired. That was surely something to his credit. While other young men had taken the vigorous daughters of the country to wed. he had lived on respectably but dully with the almost anaemic Susan. New families sprang into being around other couples, prolific as their fields, but he and Susan drifted down the years, childless.
It had been marvellous how Susan had clung to life. Isaiah remembered how someone had commented on this to Susan and she had said;
"I couldn’t drop out on Isaiah; there’s so much work to do.”
That had been the secret of her long activity; she had held herself to the task with a kind of tremendous will power. No doubt she had been grateful to him. in her silent way, for lilting her to the status of a married woman.
Give her credit for all that, Isaiah argued with himself, but a man must have another side to his life, a side which, a lively girl like Freida understood. He wondered just how she had come to understand. But then normal people—vigorous young people, full of life—understood. They didn’t have to
be told, argued with, bullied. They had instinct, desire, something that had been missing from his life until Freida came into the house.
Yes, it was queer how they knew, even young girls. He remembered how Freida had sat on his knee the first time. How did the ignorant child know that he would not repulse her, perhaps even order her from the house? Yet, somehow, she had known. She had been working all day in the garden and she said: "Oh, but I'm tired!” And suddenly she had sat on his knee almost as if she collapsed from weariness.
Only a moment and then she had gone on with her work. He had said nothing to her, neither reproof nor encouragement. But it had not been an unpleasant experience, perhaps something a daughter might have done, had there been a daughter about the house.
He remembered the day a new horse had crowded him against the stall, shoving a sliver into his elbow. He had gone to the house for a needle and when Freida saw him working awkwardly, she had taken the needle and pried the sliver out. There had been another knee-sitting moment. How could he repulse one who had just done him a favor?
Other incidents followed. It was inevitable that Susan should discover the relationship. But Isaiah had explained gravely :
"She’s like a daughter. Just kind of takes the place of the children we never had.” And Susan had been rebuked into silence.
He thought now that Susan had believed him. He had believed himself—at the time.
With the lather-daughter relationship established, there had been no necessity for anything clandestine. After the day’s work he sat for a time at Susan’s bedside. If Freida came in she sat on his knee quite openly. She began calling him "Uncle Isa.” A happy family!
It was inevitable, too, that neighbors who dropped in unexpectedly to see Susan, should discover Isaiah in his new rôle. There was something peculiar in seeing him play any part indicating affection.
"Isaiah has always been fond of children,” Susan explained to each visitor. "It's like as if Freida was a daughter to us.” It was a good explanation, a brave explanation, really, but it still left those who had observed the phenomenon in something of amazement.
Sometimes Susan had seemed to revive and only a matter of time might be needed for complete recovery. In the evening of the day when she had been able to leave her bed all the afternoon, they sat beside her as usual. Her recovery was expected as a matter of course. When the moment came for Freida to go she had said: "Good night,
Uncle Isa,” and .she had thrown her arms about his neck and kissed him. The next day Susan had not left her bed.
When the doctor called on his rounds he shook his head : “Sometimes these diseases without a name are very baffling.” He left a new tonic but he was an inexperienced young doctor with little psychology.
rT'HE MEMORY of Freida’s kiss remained vivid all day. Isaiah found himself anticipating the coming of evening with a strange impatience. He no longer deluded himself with the paternal fiction. His thoughts were not paternal. Freida must be sent
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home. A man must preserve the respectability of his own household. He would speak to Freida at once; find a middle-aged woman from the village to take her place and resume his own tranquil, upright way of life.
As he kicked off his heavy boots in tike kitchen, Freida had come to him with open arms. She looked so young, pathetic, helpless. He had gathered her to him and they had clung together without words. Fie remembered now how he had felt the beating of her heart. He thought, almost angrily, that Susan’s heart had never pounded like that. He had not sent Freida home.
It was difficult now to remember every incident. But first experiences had a way of imprinting themselves indelibly. He had gone about the fields thinking of himself as a man desired, a man for whom someone waited with longing. Surely he could not yet be the oldish man he had supposed. A new sprightliness came into his step, a touch of heartiness in his greetings to Susan.
He remembered now how her eyes had searched him. After forty years in the same house, his every unusual movement, even the tones of his voice must convey a meaning. But she said nothing. That was the strange part of the affair. They had had words about other disagreements—the location of chicken coops, a pump for the sink, wallpaper for the front room, many things. But no word of himself and Freida had ever passed between them. He felt as if they had entered into a wordless contest of will.
Some weeks later the doctor had insisted on a nurse. He himself had secured her, a calm, experienced woman. Isaiah felt as if a clean, chill wind had suddenly blown upon himself and Freida. A new efficiency made itself apparent in the sick room, even Susan seemed to feel a definite stimulation as if some intangible force had suddenly allied itself with her. The doctor noticed a slight rallying of his patient. He spoke to Isaiah about it, commending the skill of the nurse . . .
Little incidents had a way of standing out significantly after the turmoil of conflict had passed. That there had been a definite conflict Isaiah knew now—a conflict between Freida and the nurse. And Freida had won. It was a bald, crude way of thinking about it, but it was the way of fact. He snapped his big silver watch; nine thirty and Freida would come at ten.
He knew she would come at ten ; she had too much at stake not to come. She would not throw away her chance of becoming mistress of the Barnes’s establishment. It had looked better for her to go to her father’s house after Susan’s funeral. To come back with Isaiah to the lonely house before the curious eyes of neighbors might have caused unpleasant gossip. He had whispered to her: “Come back at ten,” and she had understood.
There were no prying eyes or censoring tongues in the house now. Only himself and Freida. Ina day or two the neighbors would discover her. She would be in his house, doing his work as she had done it for two
years. A man with a large farm must have a i housekeeper; nothing wrong about that, j Some whispering might arise but he could ! live it down. He had lived down other ; comment. He would allow no chill of disj approval to keep him from Freida. Before others they must be circumspect; he might even put on a show of gruffness toward Freida. He would explain to her the difficulties of their position.
With the coming of Freida there would come to him a second springtime—to him who had really never experienced a first spring.
TUTE LIGHTED the lamp and turned it
Jlow and sat on as the minutes dragged. He closed his eyes, recalling Freida as she sat on his knees, feeling again her strong arms and the fire of her kisses. There was satisfaction in the thought that they should still have years together. He wondered idly how she would come to him now—boldly, confidently, or might there be something of timidity in her consciousness of their new relationship. Either way would yield its own satisfaction.
Freida had always acted with a certain boldness, but always Susan had been present; sometimes Susan and the nurse. The nurse ! Even now the thought of that stern, sharp-eyed, disapproving face brought him discomfort. She had been paid to do her work, not to regulate the conduct of others. A cold, sexless creature, with no spark of romance in her narrow mind.
He remembered how she had tried to prevent him from seeing Susan ; how she had manipulated that he and Freida should not visit Susan at the same time. Interrupting their old custom. But she had not been able to supervise their every going and coming. Part of the time she had to sleep, not often, but sometimes.
It was natural and necessary that Freida should take the nurse’s place in the sick room during the intervals. He wondered now if Freida and Susan had ever talked together in their periods alone. He remembered the grimness of the nurse as she inspected Susan after Freida’s times of watching. Once, near the end, Freida had said to him:
“Aunt Susan says she wants me to look after you when she—” And Freida had been apparently so stricken with grief she could not finish the message.
He wondered now if Freida’s affection for Susan had really been so overwhelming. Strange how a man’s new emotions tangled up his old loyalties, his sense of duty—overshadowed everything so that he could hardly tell what he was thinking or see significance in the acts of others.
Perhaps if he could remember, analyze, piece together clearly, the incidents of the j night when the doctor pronounced the crisis at hand, there might come to him a better j understanding of himself. He remembered j the long consultation of the doctor and the I nurse, and when the doctor went away he | had said :
“This is the important night,” but he had not seemed altogether hopeless.
The doctor had gone and the nurse had closed herself in with Susan. He and Freida sat quietly in the kitchen turning the leaves of magazines. Isaiah could not remember anything significant that might have happened for a long time.
Freida had gone up to her room as usual, but after a time she came down.
“I’m kind of anxious,” he remembered she had said that, and how she had sat by the window as if waiting for some answer or message.
He had been out in the fields all day and undoubtedly he must have dozed off at times. He next recalled Freida on his knee and how almost frantically she had clutched him around the neck. She had whispered to him:
“I’m awful nervous. I think I’m goin’ to faint.”
He had been half asleep but as he felt her slip from his knees as if to fall, he supposed he must have put his arm around her.
As they had sat thus for a moment he had looked at the bedroom door. Fie remembered being surprised that the door was open. Fie had a glimpse of Susan’s face turned toward him. Undoubtedly she could see him and Freida, where they sat with arms about each other in the lamplight. That was the instant when Susan had turned her face to the wall. The turn had been a slow, discouraged movement as if Susan hoped she might never see him again.
The nurse must have been upstairs for a few moments. At that instant she came down. When she saw the door she whispered :
“Who opened that!”
Her whisper had sounded loud and sibilant in the silent house. Something like a snake, if it could whisper, Isaiah thought. And that was the kind of look she had given
them as she went in to Susan and shut the door.
The next night Susan had died.
C TRANGE how clearly the whole confused business could arrange itself when a man sat down quietly and thought about it ! Flis long, unsatisfactory years with Susan and the sudden aggressiveness of the voluptuous Freida had become such a turmoil in his mind that he had drifted, on and on. Flis imagination had played with him; he had floated in a crazy cloud world, shutting out the solid facts of life.
Weakly he had allowed himself to dream dreams. At the beginning when Susan’s sickness had not been serious, he had gone adventuring lightly, thoughtlessly. Somehow the adventure seemed to have carried him beyond control of himself. At first he had contemplated nothing—nothing but adventure, the kind of harmless adventure he had missed in his youth.
Again he saw Susan’s white face watching him, the old face he had known for forty years. She had not seemed angry, only hopeless, as she turned slowly and finally to the wall with the knowledge that he had not needed her any longer.
Isaiah was startled from his bitter memories by the sudden striking of the kitchen clock, and as if she had been waiting for the signal, the latch lifted and Freida stood in the doorway. She smiled and began to come in. Isaiah rose to his full height but his shoulders were newly bowed. Fie pointed a crooked finger and his voice was hoarse and terrible:
“Get out! Get out!”
Freida turned uncertainly but the gaunt figure kept on coming toward her:
“Get out! Get out!”
She ran down the path to the barn and the cries followed her through the darkness of her retreat.