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Chapter 2
The five flights of steps were long and steep and covered with a compound of fabric, grease, and dirt which, today resembling a thin layer of decayed rubber, had once been bright linoleum. There was no light other than a dejected dusk filtering down the wall from a grimy sky-light in the roof, a twilight lacking little of the gloom of night.

On each landing five doors opened—three toward the back, two toward the front of the building: most of them ajar, for purposes of ventilation and publicity. It was a question which was the louder, the clatter of tongues or the conflict of odours from things cooking and things that would doubtless have been the better for purification by fire.

At the top conditions were a little more endurable: and when Joan had shut behind her the door giving access to her home, the clatter and squalling came from below, a familiar and not unpleasant blend of dissonances. And within the smells were individual: chiefly of boiled cabbage and fried pork, with a feebly contending flavour of cheap tobacco-smoke.

She was in the dining-room of the Thursby flat. Behind it lay the kitchen; forward, three small cubicles successively denominated on the architect's plans as "bedchamber," "alcove," and "parlour." They were all, however, sleeping-rooms. The nearest was occupied by Joan's brother; the next, the alcove, contained a double-bed dedicated to Joan and her young sister; while the parlour held a curiosity called a folding-bed, which had long since ceased to fold, and on which slept Anthony Thursby and his wife.

Mrs. Thursby was now in the kitchen, preparing dinner with the assistance of her fifteen-year-old daughter, Edna. "Butch," the son of the house, was not at home.

Anthony Thursby sat at the dining-table, head bent over a ragged note-book and a well-thumbed collection of white and pink newspaper clippings.

It was the sight of him that checked Joan in her explicit intention. She had meant to enter dramatically to her mother, blurt out the news, with the cause, of her misfortune, and abandon herself to the luxury of self-pity soothed by sympathy. But she had also meant to have it understood that nobody was to tell "the Old Man"—at least not until she should have established herself in a new job. In short, she had not thought to find Thursby at home.

Hesitating beside the table, she removed the long pins from her hat while she stared with narrowed eyes at her father. She was wondering whether she hadn't better confess and have it out with him first as last. The only thing, indeed, that made her pause was the knowledge that there would be no living with him until she was once more "earning good money" behind a counter. And she was firmly determined not again to seek employment in a department store.

Regarding fixedly the round but unpolished bald head with its neglected fringe of grey hair, she asked herself if the bitterness in her heart for her father were in truth hatred or mere premonitory resentment of the opposition he would unquestionably set against her plans for the future....

He was a man of nearly fifty, who looked more, in spite of a tendency to genial corpulence. At thirty he had been a fair and handsome man; today his round red face was mottled, disfigured by a ragged grey moustache, discoloured by several days' growth of scrubby beard, and lined and seamed with the imprint of that consuming passion whose sign was also set in his grey, passionate, haunted eyes. Shabbily dressed in a soiled madras shirt and shoddy trousers, he wore neither tie nor collar: his unkempt chin hung in folds upon his chest. Fat and grimy forearms protruded from his rolled-up sleeves; fat and mottled hands trembled slightly but perceptibly as they rustled the pink and white clippings and with a stubby pencil scrawled mysterious hieroglyphics in the battered note-book.

Thursby was intent upon what he, and indeed all his family, knew as his "dope": checking and re-checking selections for tomorrow's races. This pursuit, with its concomitants, its attendant tides of hope and disappointment, was his infatuation, at once the solace and the terror of his declining years.

Now and again he muttered unintelligibly.

There rose a sound of voices in the kitchen. Annoyed by the interruption, he started, looked up, and discovered Joan.

She offered to his irritated gaze a face of calm, with unsmiling features.

"Hello!" he growled. "How the h—how long've you been in?"

"Only a few minutes, pa," the girl returned quietly.

"Well—what're you standing there—staring!—for, anyhow?"

"I didn't mean anything: I was just taking off my hat."

"Well"—his face was now purple with senseless anger—"cut along! Don't bother me. I'm busy."

"I see."

There was a damnable superciliousness in the tone of the girl as she turned away. Thursby meditated an explosion, but refrained at discretion: Joan had taught him that, unlike her browbeaten mother and timid sister and her sleek, loaferish brother, she could give as good as he could send. He bent again, grumbling, over his dope. Instantly it gripped him, obliterating all else in his cosmos. He frowned, moistened the pencil at his mouth, and scrawled another note in the greasy little book.

Joan slipped quietly away to her bedroom. She found it stifling; ventilated solely from the parlour and the open door to Butch's kennel, it reeked with the smell of human flesh and cheap perfume. She noted resentfully the fact that her sister had neglected to make up the bed: its rumpled sheets and pillows, still retaining the impression of over-night, lent the cubicle the final effect of sordid poverty.

Hanging up her hat and coat, she sat for a time on the edge of the bed, thinking profoundly.

Such an existence, she felt, passed human endurance. And a gate of escape stood ajar to her, with a mundane paradise beyond, if only she had the courage to adventure....

In any event, conditions as they were now with the Thursbys could not obtain much longer. If the Old Man continued to follow the races through the poolrooms, he would soon be forced out of his small business and his family dispossessed of their mean lodgings; and there was no longer any excuse for hope that he would ever shake off the bondage of his infatuation. As it was, he gave little enough toward the support of his family, and grudged that little; almost all his meagre profits went to the poolrooms; it was only when he won (or seldom otherwise) that he would spare his wife a few dollars. Furthermore, his business was heavily involved in an intricate meshing of debt.

Thursby, at least, persisted in calling it a business; though Joan's lips shaped scornfully at mention of that mean and insignificant newspaper shop, crowded in between a saloon and a delicatessen shop, in the shadow of the Third Avenue Elevated Railway. In her understanding it was chiefly remarkable as the one place where one could be certain of not finding Thursby during the afternoon or Butch at night. They were seldom there together: it was as if father and son could not breathe the same atmosphere for long at a time.

Nominally, Butch was his father's assistant; actually, he alone kept the business alive; had it not been for his supervision of the morning and evening paper deliveries, it would long since have wasted inconspicuously away. By way of compensation, Butch, shrewdly alive to signs of a winning day, would now and again wheedle a dollar or two out of the Old Man. Wages he neither received nor expected, being well content with a nominal employment which served to cover many an hour of unlicensed liberty; and he seemed to have access to some mysterious if occasionally scanty fund, for he was never without some little money in pocket. After dinner, if Butch elected to eat the evening meal at home, he invariably disappeared; and his return was a matter of his personal convenience. He had been known not to sleep at home at all; his favourite bedtime was between one and two in the morning—after the saloons had closed. Yet no one had ever seen him drunk.

He was younger than Joan by a year. Born to the name of Edgar, he had been dubbed Butch in the public schools, and the name had stuck; even his mother and father employed it. And yet it could not be said to suit him; rather, the boy suggested a jocky. He was short, slender, and wiry; with a strong, emaciated nose flanked by small eyes sunk deep in sallow cheeks—his mouth set in a perpetually sardonic curve. He dressed neatly, whatever the straits and necessities of the family (to the mitigation of which he contributed nothing whatever) and had a failing for narrow red neckties and flashy waistcoats. His hard, thin lips were generally tight upon a cigarette; they were forever tight upon his personal affairs: if he opened them at home it was to "kid" the girls, which he did with a slangy, mordant wit, or to drop some casually affectionate word to his mother. His conversation with his father, whom he seemed always to be watching with a narrow, grim suspicion, was ordinarily confined to monosyllables of affirmation or negation.

He went his secret ways, self-sufficient, wary, reserved; a perpetual subject of covert speculation to the women of his family.

Joan had heard it whispered that he was a member of the "Car-barn Gang." But she never dared question Butch, though she trembled every time she came upon newspaper headlines advertising some fresh hooliganism on the part of the gang—a policeman "beaten up," a sober citizen "held up and frisked" in the small hours, or a member of some rival organization found stabbed and weltering on the sawdust floor of a grisly dive.

Between this girl and her brother there existed a strange harmony of understanding, quite tacit and almost unrecognized by either. Joan's nearest approach to acknowledgment of it resided in infrequent admissions to friends that she could "get on with Butch," whereas "the rest of the bunch made her weary."

Almost all the vigour and vitality of the mother seemed to have been surrendered to Butch and Joan; there had been little left for Edna. The girl was frail, an?mic, flat-chested, pretty in an appealing way: fit only for one of two things, tuberculosis or reconstruction in the country. As it was, in the busy seasons she found underpaid employment in the workrooms of Sixth Avenue dressmaking establishments; between whiles she drudged at housework to the limits of her small strength.

As for Mrs. Thursby.... It was singularly difficult for Joan to realize her mother. There was about the woman something formless and intangible. She seemed to fail to make a definite impression even upon the retina of the physical eye. She had the faculty of effacing herself, seemed more a woman that had been than a woman who was. The four boundary walls of the flat comprehended her existence; she seldom left the house; she never changed her dress save for bed. It might have been thought that she would thus dominate her world: to the contrary, she haunted it, more a wraith than a body, a creature of functions rather than of faculties. She had a way of being in a room without attracting a glance, of passing through and from it without leaving an impression of her transit.

When Joan made herself look directly at her mother, she was able to detect traces of ravaged beauty. A living shell in which its tenant lay dormant, her subjective will to live alone kept this woman going her sempiternal rounds of monotony. Capacity for affection she apparently had none; she regarded her children with as little interest as her husband. Nor had she the power to excite or sustain affection.

Joan believed she loved her mother. She did not: she accepted her as a convention in which affection inhered through tradition alone....

Seated on the edge of the bed, her face flushed with the heat of the smouldering evening, sombre eyes staring steadfastly at the threadbare carpet, the girl shook her head silently, in dreary wonder.

She stood at crossroads. She could, of course, go on as she had gone—bartering youth and strength for a few dollars a week. But every fibre of her being, every instinct of her forlorn soul, was in vital mutiny against such servitude. In fact, doubt no longer existed in Joan's mind as to which way she would turn: dread of the inevitable rupture alone deterred her from the first steps.

From the rear of the flat Edna called her fretfully: "Joan! Jo-an! Ain't you coming to eat?"

Joan rose. She answered affirmatively in a strong voice. Her mind was now made up: she would tell them after supper—after the Old Man had gone back to the shop.

She posed before a mirror, touching her hair with deft fingers while she stared curiously at the face falsified in the depths of the uneven sheet of glass.

Then placing her hands on her hips, at the belt-line, thumbs to the back, she lifted her shoulders, at one and the same time smoothing out the wrinkles in her waist and settling her belt into place.

"Oh," she said, as casually as if there had been any one to hear, "I guess I'll do, all right, all right!"


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