It was an uninspiring bit of street: narrow, paved with cobble; hot and noisy in summer, reeking with unwholesome mud during the drizzling and snow-slimed months of winter. It looked anything this May after noon except a starting-place for drama. But, then, the great dramas of life often avoid the splendid estates and trappings with which conventional romance would equip them, and have their beginnings in unlikeliest environment; and thence sweep on to a noble, consuming tragedy, or to a glorious unfolding of souls. Life is a composite of contradictions--a puzzle to the wisest of us: the lily lifting its graceful purity aloft may have its roots in a dunghill. Samson's dead lion putrefying by a roadside is ever and again being found to be a storehouse of wild honey. We are too accustomed to the ordinary and the obvious to consider that beauty or worth may, after bitter travail, grow out of that which is ugly and unpromising.
Thus no one who looked on Maggie Carlisle and Larry Brainard at their beginnings, had even a guess what manner of persons were to develop from them or what their stories were to be.
The houses on the bit of street were all three-storied and all of a uniform, dingy, scaling redness. The house of the Duchess, on the left side as you came down the street toward the little Square which squatted beside the East River, differed from the others only in that three balls of tarnished gilt swung before it and unredeemed pledges emanated a weakly lure from behind its dirt-streaked windows, and also in that the personality of the Duchess gave the house something of a character of its own.
The street did business with her when pressed for funds, but it knew little definite about the Duchess except that she was shriveled and bent and almost wordless and was seemingly without emotions. But of course there were rumors. She was so old, and had been so long in the drab little street, that she was as much a legend as a real person. No one knew exactly how she had come by the name of "Duchess." There were misty, unsupported stories that long, long ago she had been a shapely and royal figure in colored fleshings, and that her title had been given her in those her ruling days. Also there was a vague story that she had come by the name through an old liking for the romances of that writer who put forth her, or his, or their, prolific extravagances under the exalted pseudonym of "The Duchess." Also there was a rumor that the title came from a former alleged habit of the Duchess of carrying beneath her shapeless dress a hoard of jewels worthy to be a duchy's heirlooms. But all these were just stories--no more. Down in this quarter of New York nicknames come easily, and once applied they adhere to the end.
Some believed that she was now the mere ashes of a woman, in whom lived only the last flickering spark. And some believed that beneath that drab and spent appearance there smouldered a great fire, which might blaze forth upon some occasion. But no one knew. As she was now, so she had always been even in the memory of people considered old in the neighborhood.
Beside the fact that she ran a pawnshop, which was reputed to be also a fence, there were only two or three other facts that were known to her neighbors. One was that in the far past there had been a daughter, and that while still a very young girl this daughter had disappeared. It was rumored that the Duchess had placed the daughter in a convent and that later tire girl had married; but the daughter had never appeared again in the quarter. Another fact was that there was a grandson, a handsome young devil, who had come down occasionally to visit his grandmother, until he began his involuntary sojourn at Sing Sing. Another fact--this one the best known of all--was that two or three years before an impudent, willful young girl named Maggie Carlisle had come to live with her.
It was rather a meager history. People wondered and talked of mystery. But perhaps the only mystery arose from the fact that the Duchess was the kind of woman who never volunteered information about her affairs, and the kind even the boldly curious hesitate to question...
And down here it was, in this unlovely street, in the Duchess's unlovely house, that the drama of Maggie Carlisle and Larry Brainard began its unpromising and stormy career: for, though they had thought of it little, their forebears had been sowers of the wind, they themselves had sown some of that careless seed and were to sow yet more--and there was to be the reaping of that seed's wild crop.