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Chapter 4
For a brief moment Joan sat agape, meeting incredulously the keen, contemptuous gaze of her father. Then she pulled herself together with determination to be neither browbeaten nor overborne.

"Where'd you hear that about me?" she demanded ominously.

Thursby shook his ponderous head: "It makes no difference—"

"It makes a lot of difference to me!" she cut in, sharply contentious. "You might's well tell me, because I won't talk to you if you don't."

Butch brushed the brim of his hat an inch above his eyes and threw her a glance of approbation. Thursby hesitated, his large, mottled face sullen and dark in the bluish illumination provided by the single gas-jet wheezing above the table. Then reluctantly he gave in.

"Old Inness was in the store this evening. He said—"

"Never mind what he said! I guess I know. Gussie's been shooting off her face about me at home. And of course old Inness hadn't nothing better to do than to run off and tell you everything he knew!"

"Then you don't deny it?" Thursby insisted.

"I don't have to. It's true. No, I don't deny it," she returned, aping his manner to exasperation.

"How'd you come to lose your job?"

"Mr. Winter insulted me—one of the floor-walkers—if you've got to know."

Thursby's head wagged heavily while he weighed this information, and he regarded his daughter with a baleful, morose glare, his fat hands trembling.

"What did you say to this man, Winter?" he asked presently.

"Told him I'd slap his face if he tried anything like that on me again. So he reported me up to the management—lied about me—and I got fired."

There was a long silence, through which Thursby pondered the matter, his thick lips moving inaudibly, while Joan sat upright, maintaining her attitude of independence and defiance, and Butch, grinning lazily, as if at some private jest, manufactured ring after ring of smoke in the still, close air.

Before her father spoke again, Joan became cognizant of Edna and her mother, like twin ghosts in their night-dresses, stealing silently, barefooted, to listen just within the door of the adjoining bedroom.

"And what do you propose to do now?" asked Thursby at length, lifting his weary, haunted gaze to his daughter's face. "What's this about your going on the stage?"

Joan set her jaw firmly. "That's what I'm going to do."

Thursby shook his head with decision. "I won't have it," he said.

"Oh, you won't? Well, I'd like to know how you're going to stop me. I'm tired slaving behind a counter for a dog's wages—and that eaten up by fines because I won't go out with the floor-walkers. I'm going to do the best I can for myself. I'm going to be an actress, so's I can make a decent living for Edna and ma and myself."

"A decent living!" Thursby mocked without mirth. "You're old enough to know better than that."

"I'm old enough to know which side my bread's buttered on," the girl flashed back angrily. "I'm through living in this dirty flat and giving up every dollar I make to keep us all from starving. God knows what we'd do if it wasn't for me with a steady job, and Edna working during the season. You don't do anything to help us out: all you get goes on the ponies. I don't see any reason why I got to consult you if I choose to better myself."

She rose the better to end her tirade with a stamp of her foot. Thursby likewise got up, if more sluggishly, and moved round the table to confront her.

"You don't go on the stage—no!" he said. "That's settled. Understand?"

"Oh, I get you," she replied, with a flirt of her head, "but I don't agree with you. I'm going down town first thing tomorrow to try for a job with—with," she hesitated, "Ziegfield's Follies!"

"You will do nothing of the sort," he insisted fiercely, congested veins starting out upon his forehead. "You're my daughter, and those are my orders to you, and you'll obey 'em or I'll know the reason why. You...." He faltered as if choking. Then he flung out an arm, with a violent gesture indicating the shrinking woman in the doorway. "You—your mother was an actress when I married her and took her off the stage. She—she—"

"Don't you dare say a word against my mother!" Joan screamed passionately into his louring face. "Don't you dare! You hear me: don't you dare!"

Her infuriated accents were echoed by a smothered gasp and a spasm of sobbing from the other room.

Momentarily abashed by the sheer force of this defiance, the father fell back a pace. An expression of almost ludicrous disconcertion shadowed his discoloured features. Then slowly, as if thoughtfully, he lifted one hand and deliberately tore his collar from its fastening and cast it from him.

At this, hastily jerking his cigarette into the air-shaft, Butch got up, removed his hat and carefully placed it on the mantel, out of harm's way.

"You," said Thursby with apparent difficulty, breathing heavily between his words—"you shan't use that tone to me, young woman, and live in this house. More than that, you'll leave it this very night—now!—unless you promise to give up this fool's notion of the stage."

"Tonight!"

Joan paled; her lips tightened; but the glint in her eyes wasn't one of fright.

"Tonight!" her father reiterated with malicious pleasure in what he thought to be evidences of consternation. "And what's more, you're going to apologize to me now."

"Apologize to you!" Joan caught her breath sharply, and her next words came without premeditation; she was barely conscious, in her rage, that she employed them: "I'll be damned if I do!"

With an inarticulate cry, maddened beyond reason, Thursby lifted a heavy hand and stepped toward her.

Simultaneously Butch sprang forward, seized the menacing fist and dragged it down and back, with a movement so swift and deft that its purpose was accomplished and the hand pinned to the small of Thursby's back actually before he appreciated what was happening.

Even Joan was slow to comprehend the fact of this amazing intervention....

Nodding emphatically, "Beat it, kid," Butch counselled in a pleasant, unstrained tone—"beat it while the going's good.... Easy, now, guvner!"

Speechless, Joan slipped out into the hall and slammed the door. Stumbling blindly in the murk, she was none the less quick to find the head of the stairway.

On the ground floor, panting and sobbing, she paused to listen. There came from above no sound of pursuit to speed her on; yet on she went, out of the house, to scurry away through the midnight hush of the squalid street like a hunted thing.

There was no sort of coherence in her thoughts, nothing but shreds and tatters of rage, fear, and despair, all clouded with a faint and vain regret. She gave no heed to the way she went: impulse controlled and blind instinct guided her. But at the corner of Park Avenue she was obliged to pause for breath, and took advantage of that pause to review her plight and plan her future.

Her first concern must be to find a lodging for the night. Tomorrow could take care of itself....

Uttering a low cry of dismay, the girl clutched at the handbag swinging by its strap from her wrist: its latch was broken, its wide jaws yawned. In a breath she had grasped the empty substance of her most dire apprehensions: the slender fold of bills, handed her when she left the store for the last time that evening, was gone. Whether some sneak-thief had robbed her on a surface-car or in the Broadway rabble, or whether the lock had been broken, releasing its poor treasure, during her struggle with Austin on the stairs—or afterwards or before—she could not guess. But she was swift to recognize in its bitter fulness the heart-rending futility of retracing her steps to search for the vanished money—even though it was all that had stood between her and the world, between a common room with food for a week or two and starvation and—the streets.

It was a fact, established and irrefutable in her understanding, that she could never go back....

Diligently exploring the bag, she brought to light a scanty store of small change: three quarters, a nickel, seven coppers—eighty-seven cents wherewith to face the world!

Further rummaging educed a handful of odds and ends, from which, by the light of a corner lamp, she presently succeeded in sorting out a folded scrap of paper bearing a pencilled memorandum, faint almost to illegibility, so that only with some difficulty could Joan decipher its legend: "Maizie Dean (Lizzie Fogarty) 289 W. 45 St."

Slowly conning the address with mute, moving lips, until she had it by heart, the girl trudged on to Madison Avenue and there signalled and boarded a southbound surface-car. It carried few passengers. She had a long seat all to herself, and about fifteen minutes wherein to debate ways and means....

She reckoned it several years since Lizzie Fogarty (predecessor of faithless Gussie Inness, both at the stocking counter and in Joan's confidence) suddenly, and with no warning or explanation, had left the department store and for fully eight months thereafter had kept her where-abouts a mystery to her erstwhile associates—though rumours were not lacking in support of a shrewd suspicion that she had "gone on the stage." The truth only transpired when, one day, she drifted languidly up to the counter behind which she had once served, haughtily inspected and selected from goods offered her by a stupefied and indignant Gussie, and promptly broke down, confessing the truth amid giggles not guiltless of a suspicion of tears. Lizzie was in "vodeveal," partner in a "sister-act"—witness her card—"The Dancing Deans, Maizie & May."

Beyond shadow of doubt she had prospered. Not only was she amazingly and awfully arrayed, but there was in evidence an accomplishment believed to be singular to people of great wealth, an "English accent"—or what Joan and Gussie ingenuously accepted as such. As practised by Miss Maizie Dean this embellishment consisted merely in broadening every A in the language (when she didn't forget) and speaking rapidly in a high, strained voice. Its effect upon her former associates was to render the wake she ploughed through their ranks phosphorescent with envy.

Departing in good time to spare the girls the censure of the floor-walker, she had left with Joan the pencilled address and this counsel: "If ever you dream of goin' into the business, my deah, don't do anythin' before you see me. That ad-dress will always make me, no mattah wheah 'm woikin': and I'd do anythin' in the woild for you. I know you'd make good anywheres—with that shape and them eyes!..."

Of such stuff as this had Joan fashioned her dreams. Confident in the generosity of Lizzie Fogarty, she relied implicitly upon the willingness of Miss Maizie Dean to help her into the magic circle of "the profession." She had no more doubt that Maizie would make it her business, even at cost of personal inconvenience, to secure her an engagement, than she had that tomorrow's sun would rise upon a world tenanted by one Joan Thursby. Or if such doubt entered her mind by stealth, she fought it down and cast it forth with all the power of her will. For in Miss Dean, née Fogarty, now resided her sole immediate hope of friendly aid and advice....

Alighting at Forty-fifth Street, Joan hastened westward, past Fifth Avenue and Sixth to Longacre Square. Here on the corner, she paused to don her coat; for the low-swinging draperies of the painted skies had begun to distil upon the city a gentle drizzle, soft and warm.

Only two hours ago a vortex of vivid animation, the Square now presented a singular aspect of sleepy emptiness. With its high glittering walls of steel and glass, its polished black paving like moiré silk, its blushing canopy of cloud, its air filled with an infinity of globular atoms of moisture, swirling and weltering in a shimmer of incandescence: it was like a pool of limpid light, deep and still. Few moving things were visible: now and again a taxicab, infrequently a surface-car, here and there, singly, a few prowling women, a scattering of predacious men.

Of these latter, one who had been skulking beneath the shelter of the New York Theatre fire-escapes strolled idly out toward Joan and addressed her in a whisper of loathly intimacy. Fortunately she did not hear what he said. Even as he spoke she slipped away from the curb and like a haunted shadow darted across the open space and into the kindly obscurity of the side-street.

Number 289 reared its five-storey brown-stone front on the northern side of the street, hard upon Eighth Avenue. Joan inspected it doubtfully. Its three lower tiers of windows were all dark and lightless, but on the fourth floor a single oblong shone with gas-light, while on the fifth as many as three were dully aglow. The outer doors, at the top of the high, old-style stoop, were closed, and even the most hopeful vision could detect no definite illumination through the fan-light.

Into the heart of Joan a wretched apprehension stole and there abode, cold and crawling. From something in the sedate aspect of the house she garnered grim and terrible forebodings.

Nevertheless she dared not lose grasp on hope. Mounting the stoop, she sought the bell-pull, and found it just below a small strip of paper glued to the stone; frayed and weatherbeaten, it published in letters in faded ink scrawled by an infirm hand the information: "Rooms to let furnished."

For some reason which she did not stop to analyze, this announcement spelled encouragement to Joan. She wrought lustily at the bell.

It evoked no sound that she could hear. Trembling with expectancy, she waited several minutes, then pulled again, and once more waited while the cold of dread spread from her heart to chill and benumb her hands and feet. She heard never a sound. It was no use—she knew it—yet she rang again and again, frantically, with determination, in despair. And once she vainly tried the door.

The drizzle had developed into a fine, driving rain that swept aslant upon the wings of a new-sprung breeze.

A great weight seemed to be crushing her: a vast, invisible hand relentlessly bearing her down to the earth. Only vaguely did she recognize in this the symptoms of immense physical fatigue added to those of intense emotional strain: she only knew that she was all a-weary for her bed.

Of a sudden, hope and courage both deserted her. Tears filled her eyes: she was so lonely and forlorn, so helpless and so friendless. Huddled in the shallow recess of the doorway, she fought her emotions silently for a time, then broke down altogether and sobbed without restraint into her handkerchief. Moments passed uncounted, despair possessing her utterly.

The street was all but empty. For some time none remarked the disconsolate girl. Then a man, with a handbag but without an umbrella, appeared from the direction of Longacre Square, walking with a deliberation which suggested that he was either indifferent to or unconscious of the rain. Turning up the steps of Number 289, he jingled absently a bunch of keys. Not until he had reached the platform of the stoop did he notice the woman in the doorway.

Promptly he halted, lifting his brows and pursing his lips in a noiseless whistle—his head cocked critically to one side.

Then through the waning tempest of her grief, Joan heard his voice:

"I say! What's the matter?"

Gulping down a sob and dabbing hastily at her eyes with a sodden wad of handkerchief, she caught through a veil of tears a blurred impression of her interrogator. A man.... She ceased instantly to cry and shrank hastily out of his way, into the full swing of wind and rain. She said nothing, but eyed him with furtive distrust. He made no offer to move.

"See here!" he expostulated. "You're in trouble. Anything I can do?"

Joan felt that she was regaining control of herself. She dared to linger and hope rather than to yield to her primitive instinct toward flight.

"Nothing," she said with a catch in her voice—"only I—I wanted to see Miss Dean; but nobody answered the bell."

"Oh!" he said thoughtfully—"you wanted to see Miss Dean—yes!"—as though he considered this a thoroughly satisfactory explanation. "But Madame Duprat never does answer the door after twelve o'clock, you know. She says people have no right to call on us after midnight. There's a lot in that, too, you know." He wagged his head earnestly. "Really!" he concluded with animation.

His voice was pleasant, his manner sympathetic if something original. Joan found courage to enquire:

"Do you think—perhaps—she might be in?"

"Oh, she never leaves the house. At least, I've never seen her leave it. I fancy she thinks one of us might move it away if she got out of sight for a minute or so."

Puzzled, Joan persisted: "You really think Miss Dean is in?"

"Miss Dean? Oh, beg pardon! I was thinking of Madame Duprat. Ah ... Miss Dean ... now ... I infer you have urgent business with her—what?"

"Yes, very!" the girl insisted eagerly. "If I could only see her ... I must see her!"

"I'm sure she's in, then!" the man declared in accents of profound conviction. "Possibly asleep. But at home. O positively!" He inserted a key in the lock and pushed the door open. "If you don't mind coming in—out of the weather—I'll see."

Joan eyed him doubtfully. The light was indifferent, a mere glimmer from the corner lamp at Eighth Avenue; but it enabled her to see that he was passably tall and quite slender. He wore a Panama hat with dark clothing. His attitude was more explicitly impersonal than that of any man with whom she had as yet come into contact: she could detect in it no least trace either of condescension or of an ingratiating spirit. He seemed at once quite self-possessed and indefinitely preoccupied, disinterested, and quite agreeable to be made use of. In short, he engaged her tremendously.

But what more specifically prepossessed her in his favour, and what in the end influenced her to repose some slight confidence in the man, was a quality with which the girl herself endowed him: she chose to be reminded in some intangible, elusive fashion, of that flower of latter-day chivalry who had once whisked her out of persecution into his taxicab and to her home. In point of fact, the two were vastly different, and Joan knew it; but, at least, she argued, they were alike in this: both were gentlemen—rare visitants in her cosmos.

It was mostly through fatigue and helpless bewilderment, however, that she at length yielded and consented to precede him into the vestibule. Here he opened the inner doors, ushering Joan into a hallway typical of an old order of dwelling, now happily obsolescent. The floor was of tiles, alternately black and white: a hideous checker-board arrangement. A huge hat-rack, black walnut framing a morbid mirror, towered on the one hand; on the other rose a high arched doorway, closed. And there was a vast and gloomy stairway with an upper landing lost in shadows impenetrable to the feeble illumination of the single small tongue of gas flickering in an old-fashioned bronze chandelier.

Listening, Joan failed to detect in all the house any sounds other than those made by the young man and herself.

"If you'll be good enough to follow me—"

He led the way to the rear of the hall, where, in the shadow of the staircase, he unlocked a door and disappeared. The girl waited on the threshold of a cool and airy chamber, apparently occupying the entire rear half of the ground floor. At the back, long windows stood open to the night. The smell of rain was in the room.

"Half a minute: I'll make a light."

He moved through the darkness with the assurance of one on old, familiar ground. In the middle of the room a match spluttered and blazed: with a slight plup! a gas drop-light with a green shade leapt magically out of the obscurity, discovering the silhouette of a tall, spare figure bending low to adjust the flame; which presently grew strong and even, diffusing a warm and steady glow below the green penumbra of its shade.

The man turned back with his quaint air of deference. "Now, if you don't mind sitting down and waiting a minute, I'll ask Madame Duprat about Miss—ah—your friend—"

"Miss Dean—Maizie Dean."

"Thank you."

With this he left the girl, and presently she heard his footsteps on the staircase.

She found a deeply cushioned arm-chair, and subsided into it with a sigh. The intensity of her weariness was indeed a very serious matter with her. Her very wits shirked the labour of grappling with the problem of what she should do if Maizie Dean were not at home....

Wondering incoherently, she stared about her. The rich, subdued glow of the shaded lamp suggested more than it revealed, but she was impressed by the generous proportions of the room. The drop-light itself stood on a long, broad table littered with a few books and a great many papers, inkstands, pens, blotters, ash-trays, pipes: all in agreeable disorder. Beyond this table was one smaller, which supported a type-writing-machine. Against the nearer wall stood a luxurious, if worn, leather-covered couch. There were two immense black walnut bookcases. The windows at the back disclosed a section of iron-railed balcony.

Joan grew sensitive to an anodynous atmosphere of quiet and comfort....

Drowsily she heard a quiet knocking at some door upstairs; then a subdued murmur of voices, the closing of a door, footsteps returning down the long staircase. When these last sounded on the tiled flooring, the girl spurred her flagging senses and got up in a sudden flutter of doubt, anxiety, and embarrassment. The man entering the room found her so—poised in indecision.

"Please do sit down," he said quietly, with a smile that carried reassurance; and, taking her compliance for something granted, passed on to another arm-chair near the long table.

With a docility and total absence of distrust that later surprised her to remember, Joan sank back, eyes eloquent with the question unuttered by her parted lips.

Her host, lounging, turned to her a face of which one half was in dense shadow: a keen, strongly modelled face with deep-set eyes at once whimsical and thoughtful, and a mouth thin-lipped but generously wide. He rested an elbow on the table and his head on a spare, sinewy hand, thrusting slender fingers up into hair straight, not long, and rather light in colour.

"I'm sorry to have to report," he said gently, "that 'The Dancing Deans, Maizie and May,' are on the road. So I'm informed by Madame Duprat, at least. They're not expected back for several weeks.... I hope you aren't greatly disappointed."

Her eyes, wide and dark with dismay, told him too plainly that she was. She made no effort to speak, but after an instant of dumb consternation, moved as if to rise.

He detained her with a gesture. "Please don't hurry: you needn't, you know. Of course, if you must, I won't detain you: the door is open, your way clear to the street. But what are you going to do about a place to sleep tonight?"

She stared in surprise and puzzled resentment. A warm wave of colour temporarily displaced her pallor.

"What makes you so sure I've got no place to sleep?" she asked ungraciously.

He lifted his shoulders slightly and dropped his hand to the table.

"Perhaps I was impertinent," he admitted. "I'm sorry.... But you haven't—have you?"

"No, I haven't," she said sharply. "But what's that—"

"As you quite reasonably imply, it's nothing to me," he interrupted suavely. "But I'd be sorry to think of you out there—alone—in the rain—when there's no reason why you need be."

"No reason!" she echoed, wondering if she had misjudged him after all.

Without warning the man tilted the green lamp-shade until a broad, strong glow flooded her face. A spark of indignation kindled in the girl while she endured his brief, impersonal, silent examination. Sheer fatigue alone prevented her from rising and walking out of the room—that, and curiosity.

He replaced the shade, and got out of the chair with a swift movement that seemed not at all one of haste.

"I see no reason," he announced coolly. "I've got to run along now—I merely dropped in to get a manuscript. I think you'll be quite comfortable here—and there's a good bolt on the door. Of course, it's very unconventional, but I hope you'll be kind enough to overlook that, considering the circumstances. And tomorrow, after a good rest, you can make up your mind whether it would be wiser to stick to your first plan or—go home."

He smiled with a vague, disinterested geniality, and added a pleading "Now don't say no!" when he saw that the girl had likewise risen.

"How do you know I've left home?" she demanded hotly.

"Well"—his smile broadened—"deductive faculty—Sherlock Holmes—Dupin—that sort of tommyrot, you know. But it wasn't such a bad guess—now was it?"

"I don't see how you knew," she muttered sulkily.

He ran his long fingers once or twice through his hair in a manner of great perplexity.

"I can't quite tell, myself."

"It wasn't my fault," she protested with a flash of passion. "I lost my job today, and because I said I wanted to go on the stage, my father put me out of the house."

"Yes," he agreed amiably; "they always do—don't they? I fancied it was something like that. But there isn't really any reason why you shouldn't go home tomorrow and patch it up—or is there?"

She gulped convulsively: "You don't understand—"

"Probably I don't," he conceded. "Still, things may look very much otherwise in the morning. They generally do, I notice. One goes to bed with reluctance and wakes up with a headache. All that sort of thing.... But if you'll listen to me a moment—why, then if you want to go, I shan't detain you.... My name is John Matthias. My trade is writing things—plays, mostly: I know it sounds foolish, but then I hate exercise. I live—sleep, that is—ah—elsewhere—down the street. This is merely my work-room. So your stopping here won't inconvenience me in the least...."

He snatched up a mass of papers from the table, folded them hastily and thrust them into a coat pocket.

"That manuscript I was after. Good night. I do hope you'll be comfortable."

Before the amazed girl could collect herself, he had his hat and handbag and was already in the hallway.

She ran after him.

"But, Mr. Matthias—"

He glanced hastily over his shoulder while fumbling with the night-latch.

"I can't let you—"

"Oh, but you must—really, you know."

He had the door open.

"But why do you—how can you trust me with all your things?"

"Tut!" he said reprovingly from the vestibule—"nothing there but play 'scripts, and they're not worth anything. You can't get anybody to produce 'em. I know, because I've tried."

He closed the inner door and banged the outer behind him.

Joan, on the point of pursuing to the street, paused in the vestibule, and for a moment stood doubting. Then, with a bewildered look, she returned slowly to the back room, shut herself in, and shot the bolt....

On the platform of the stoop, Mr. Matthias delayed long enough to turn up his coat-collar for the better protection of his linen, and surveyed with a wry grin the slashing rush of rain through which he now must needs paddle unprotected.

"Queer thing for a fellow to do," he mused dispassionately....

"Daresay I am a bit of an ass.... I might at least have borrowed my own umbrella.... But that would hardly have been consistent with the egregious insanity of the performance....

"I wonder why I do these awful things?... If I only knew, perhaps I could reform...."

Running down the steps, he set out at a rapid pace for the Hotel Astor; which in due time received and harboured him for the night.


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