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.