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.