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Mark Twain > The Gilded Age > Chapter X

The Gilded Age

Chapter X


Only two or three days had elapsed since the funeral, when something
happened which was to change the drift of Laura's life somewhat, and
influence in a greater or lesser degree the formation of her character.

Major Lackland had once been a man of note in the State--a man of
extraordinary natural ability and as extraordinary learning. He had been
universally trusted and honored in his day, but had finally, fallen into
misfortune; while serving his third term in Congress, and while upon the
point of being elevated to the Senate--which was considered the summit of
earthly aggrandizement in those days--he had yielded to temptation, when
in distress for money wherewith to save his estate; and sold his vote.
His crime was discovered, and his fall followed instantly. Nothing could
reinstate him in the confidence of the people, his ruin was
irretrievable--his disgrace complete. All doors were closed against him,
all men avoided him. After years of skulking retirement and dissipation,
death had relieved him of his troubles at last, and his funeral followed
close upon that of Mr. Hawkins. He died as he had latterly lived--wholly
alone and friendless. He had no relatives--or if he had they did not
acknowledge him. The coroner's jury found certain memoranda upon his
body and about the premises which revealed a fact not suspected by the
villagers before-viz., that Laura was not the child of Mr. and Mrs.
Hawkins.

The gossips were soon at work. They were but little hampered by the fact
that the memoranda referred to betrayed nothing but the bare circumstance
that Laura's real parents were unknown, and stopped there. So far from
being hampered by this, the gossips seemed to gain all the more freedom
from it. They supplied all the missing information themselves, they
filled up all the blanks. The town soon teemed with histories of Laura's
origin and secret history, no two versions precisely alike, but all
elaborate, exhaustive, mysterious and interesting, and all agreeing in
one vital particular-to-wit, that there was a suspicious cloud about her
birth, not to say a disreputable one.

Laura began to encounter cold looks, averted eyes and peculiar nods and
gestures which perplexed her beyond measure; but presently the pervading
gossip found its way to her, and she understood them--then. Her pride
was stung. She was astonished, and at first incredulous. She was about
to ask her mother if there was any truth in these reports, but upon
second thought held her peace. She soon gathered that Major Lackland's
memoranda seemed to refer to letters which had passed between himself and
Judge Hawkins. She shaped her course without difficulty the day that
that hint reached her.

That night she sat in her room till all was still, and then she stole
into the garret and began a search. She rummaged long among boxes of
musty papers relating to business matters of no, interest to her, but at
last she found several bundles of letters. One bundle was marked
"private," and in that she found what she wanted. She selected six or
eight letters from the package and began to devour their contents,
heedless of the cold.

By the dates, these letters were from five to seven years old. They were
all from Major Lackland to Mr. Hawkins. The substance of them was, that
some one in the east had been inquiring of Major Lackland about a lost
child and its parents, and that it was conjectured that the child might
be Laura.

Evidently some of the letters were missing, for the name of the inquirer
was not mentioned; there was a casual reference to "this handsome-
featured aristocratic gentleman," as if the reader and the writer were
accustomed to speak of him and knew who was meant.

In one letter the Major said he agreed with Mr. Hawkins that the inquirer
seemed not altogether on the wrong track; but he also agreed that it
would be best to keep quiet until more convincing developments were
forthcoming.

Another letter said that "the poor soul broke completely down when be saw
Laura's picture, and declared it must be she."

Still another said:

     "He seems entirely alone in the world, and his heart is so wrapped
     up in this thing that I believe that if it proved a false hope, it
     would kill him; I have persuaded him to wait a little while and go
     west when I go."

Another letter had this paragraph in it:

     "He is better one day and worse the next, and is out of his mind a
     good deal of the time. Lately his case has developed a something
     which is a wonder to the hired nurses, but which will not be much of
     a marvel to you if you have read medical philosophy much. It is
     this: his lost memory returns to him when he is delirious, and goes
     away again when he is himself-just as old Canada Joe used to talk
     the French patois of his boyhood in the delirium of typhus fever,
     though he could not do it when his mind was clear. Now this poor
     gentleman's memory has always broken down before he reached the
     explosion of the steamer; he could only remember starting up the
     river with his wife and child, and he had an idea that there was a
     race, but he was not certain; he could not name the boat he was on;
     there was a dead blank of a month or more that supplied not an item
     to his recollection. It was not for me to assist him, of course.
     But now in his delirium it all comes out: the names of the boats,
     every incident of the explosion, and likewise the details of his
     astonishing escape--that is, up to where, just as a yawl-boat was
     approaching him (he was clinging to the starboard wheel of the
     burning wreck at the time), a falling timber struck him on the head.
     But I will write out his wonderful escape in full to-morrow or next
     day. Of course the physicians will not let me tell him now that our
     Laura is indeed his child--that must come later, when his health is
     thoroughly restored. His case is not considered dangerous at all;
     he will recover presently, the doctors say. But they insist that he
     must travel a little when he gets well--they recommend a short sea
     voyage, and they say he can be persuaded to try it if we continue to
     keep him in ignorance and promise to let him see L. as soon as he
     returns."

The letter that bore the latest date of all, contained this clause:

     "It is the most unaccountable thing in the world; the mystery
     remains as impenetrable as ever; I have hunted high and low for him,
     and inquired of everybody, but in vain; all trace of him ends at
     that hotel in New York; I never have seen or heard of him since,
     up to this day; he could hardly have sailed, for his name does not
     appear upon the books of any shipping office in New York or Boston
     or Baltimore. How fortunate it seems, now, that we kept this thing
     to ourselves; Laura still has a father in you, and it is better for
     her that we drop this subject here forever."

That was all. Random remarks here and there, being pieced together gave
Laura a vague impression of a man of fine presence, abort forty-three or
forty-five years of age, with dark hair and eyes, and a slight limp in
his walk--it was not stated which leg was defective. And this indistinct
shadow represented her father. She made an exhaustive search for the
missing letters, but found none. They had probably been burned; and she
doubted not that the ones she had ferreted out would have shared the same
fate if Mr. Hawkins had not been a dreamer, void of method, whose mind
was perhaps in a state of conflagration over some bright new speculation
when he received them.

She sat long, with the letters in her lap, thinking--and unconsciously
freezing. She felt like a lost person who has traveled down a long lane
in good hope of escape, and, just as the night descends finds his
progress barred by a bridge-less river whose further shore, if it has
one, is lost in the darkness. If she could only have found these letters
a month sooner! That was her thought. But now the dead had carried
their secrets with them. A dreary, melancholy settled down upon her.
An undefined sense of injury crept into her heart. She grew very
miserable.

She had just reached the romantic age--the age when there is a sad
sweetness, a dismal comfort to a girl to find out that there is a mystery
connected with her birth, which no other piece of good luck can afford.
She had more than her rightful share of practical good sense, but still
she was human; and to be human is to have one's little modicum of romance
secreted away in one's composition. One never ceases to make a hero of
one's self, (in private,) during life, but only alters the style of his
heroism from time to time as the drifting years belittle certain gods of
his admiration and raise up others in their stead that seem greater.

The recent wearing days and nights of watching, and the wasting grief
that had possessed her, combined with the profound depression that
naturally came with the reaction of idleness, made Laura peculiarly
susceptible at this time to romantic impressions. She was a heroine,
now, with a mysterious father somewhere. She could not really tell
whether she wanted to find him and spoil it all or not; but still all the
traditions of romance pointed to the making the attempt as the usual and
necessary, course to follow; therefore she would some day begin the
search when opportunity should offer.

Now a former thought struck her--she would speak to Mrs. Hawkins.
And naturally enough Mrs. Hawkins appeared on the stage at that moment.

She said she knew all--she knew that Laura had discovered the secret that
Mr. Hawkins, the elder children, Col. Sellers and herself had kept so
long and so faithfully; and she cried and said that now that troubles had
begun they would never end; her daughter's love would wean itself away
from her and her heart would break. Her grief so wrought upon Laura that
the girl almost forgot her own troubles for the moment in her compassion
for her mother's distress. Finally Mrs. Hawkins said:

"Speak to me, child--do not forsake me. Forget all this miserable talk.
Say I am your mother!--I have loved you so long, and there is no other.
I am your mother, in the sight of God, and nothing shall ever take you
from me!"

All barriers fell, before this appeal. Laura put her arms about her
mother's neck and said:

"You are my mother, and always shall be. We will be as we have always
been; and neither this foolish talk nor any other thing shall part us or
make us less to each other than we are this hour."

There was no longer any sense of separation or estrangement between them.
Indeed their love seemed more perfect now than it had ever been before.
By and by they went down stairs and sat by the fire and talked long and
earnestly about Laura's history and the letters. But it transpired that
Mrs. Hawkins had never known of this correspondence between her husband
and Major Lackland. With his usual consideration for his wife, Mr.
Hawkins had shielded her from the worry the matter would have caused her.

Laura went to bed at last with a mind that had gained largely in
tranquility and had lost correspondingly in morbid romantic exaltation.
She was pensive, the next day, and subdued; but that was not matter for
remark, for she did not differ from the mournful friends about her in
that respect. Clay and Washington were the same loving and admiring
brothers now that they had always been. The great secret was new to some
of the younger children, but their love suffered no change under the
wonderful revelation.

It is barely possible that things might have presently settled down into
their old rut and the mystery have lost the bulk of its romantic
sublimity in Laura's eyes, if the village gossips could have quieted
down. But they could not quiet down and they did not. Day after day
they called at the house, ostensibly upon visits of condolence, and they
pumped away at the mother and the children without seeming to know that
their questionings were in bad taste. They meant no harm they only
wanted to know. Villagers always want to know.

The family fought shy of the questionings, and of course that was high
testimony "if the Duchess was respectably born, why didn't they come out
and prove it?--why did they, stick to that poor thin story about picking
her up out of a steamboat explosion?"

Under this ceaseless persecution, Laura's morbid self-communing was
renewed. At night the day's contribution of detraction, innuendo and
malicious conjecture would be canvassed in her mind, and then she would
drift into a course of thinking. As her thoughts ran on, the indignant
tears would spring to her eyes, and she would spit out fierce little
ejaculations at intervals. But finally she would grow calmer and say
some comforting disdainful thing--something like this:

"But who are they?--Animals! What are their opinions to me? Let them
talk--I will not stoop to be affected by it. I could hate----.
Nonsense--nobody I care for or in any way respect is changed toward me,
I fancy."

She may have supposed she was thinking of many individuals, but it was
not so--she was thinking of only one. And her heart warmed somewhat,
too, the while. One day a friend overheard a conversation like this:--
and naturally came and told her all about it:

"Ned, they say you don't go there any more. How is that?"

"Well, I don't; but I tell you it's not because I don't want to and it's
not because I think it is any matter who her father was or who he wasn't,
either; it's only on account of this talk, talk, talk. I think she is a
fine girl every way, and so would you if you knew her as well as I do;
but you know how it is when a girl once gets talked about--it's all up
with her--the world won't ever let her alone, after that."

The only comment Laura made upon this revelation, was:

"Then it appears that if this trouble had not occurred I could have had
the happiness of Mr. Ned Thurston's serious attentions. He is well
favored in person, and well liked, too, I believe, and comes of one of
the first families of the village. He is prosperous, too, I hear; has
been a doctor a year, now, and has had two patients--no, three, I think;
yes, it was three. I attended their funerals. Well, other people have
hoped and been disappointed; I am not alone in that. I wish you could
stay to dinner, Maria--we are going to have sausages; and besides,
I wanted to talk to you about Hawkeye and make you promise to come and
see us when we are settled there."

But Maria could not stay. She had come to mingle romantic tears with
Laura's over the lover's defection and had found herself dealing with a
heart that could not rise to an appreciation of affliction because its
interest was all centred in sausages.

But as soon as Maria was gone, Laura stamped her expressive foot and
said:

"The coward! Are all books lies? I thought he would fly to the front,
and be brave and noble, and stand up for me against all the world, and
defy my enemies, and wither these gossips with his scorn! Poor crawling
thing, let him go. I do begin to despise thin world!"

She lapsed into thought. Presently she said:

"If the time ever comes, and I get a chance, Oh, I'll----"

She could not find a word that was strong enough, perhaps. By and by she
said:

"Well, I am glad of it--I'm glad of it. I never cared anything for him
anyway!"

And then, with small consistency, she cried a little, and patted her foot
more indignantly than ever.

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