On Saturday afternoons in winter he carried her skates to Bear Creek and helped her to put them on. After which they skated "partners," holding hands tightly, and were a likely pair of children, no doubt. In The Gilded Age Laura Hawkins at twelve is pictured "with her dainty hands propped into the ribbon-bordered pockets of her apron . . . a vision to warm the coldest heart and bless and cheer the saddest." The author had the real Laura of his childhood in his mind when he wrote that, though the story itself bears no resemblance to her life.
They were never really sweethearts, those two. They were good friends and comrades. Sometimes he brought her magazines--exchanges from the printing--office--Godey's and others. These were a treat, for such things were scarce enough. He cared little for reading, himself, beyond a few exciting tales, though the putting into type of a good deal of miscellaneous matter had beyond doubt developed in him a taste for general knowledge. It needed only to be awakened.
There came into his life just at this period one of those seemingly trifling incidents which, viewed in retrospect, assume pivotal proportions. He was on his way from the office to his home one afternoon when he saw flying along the pavement a square of paper, a leaf from a book. At an earlier time he would not have bothered with it at all, but any printed page had acquired a professional interest for him now. He caught the flying scrap and examined it. It was a leaf from some history of Joan of Arc. The "maid" was described in the cage at Rouen, in the fortress, and the two ruffian English soldiers had stolen her clothes. There was a brief description and a good deal of dialogue--her reproaches and their ribald replies.
He had never heard of the subject before. He had never read any history. When he wanted to know any fact he asked Henry, who read everything obtainable. Now, however, there arose within him a deep compassion for the gentle Maid of Orleans, a burning resentment toward her captors, a powerful and indestructible interest in her sad history. It was an interest that would grow steadily for more than half a lifetime and culminate at last in that crowning work, the Recollections, the loveliest story ever told of the martyred girl.
The incident meant even more than that: it meant the awakening of his interest in all history--the world's story in its many phases--a passion which became the largest feature of his intellectual life and remained with him until his very last day on earth. From the moment when that fluttering leaf was blown into his hands his career as one of the world's mentally elect was assured. It gave him his cue--the first word of a part in the human drama. It crystallized suddenly within him sympathy with the oppressed, rebellion against tyranny and treachery, scorn for the divine rights of kings. A few months before he died he wrote a paper on "The Turning-point of My Life." For some reason he did not mention this incident. Yet if there was a turning-point in his life, he reached it that bleak afternoon on the streets of Hannibal when a stray leaf from another life was blown into his hands.
He read hungrily now everything he could find relating to the French wars, and to Joan in particular. He acquired an appetite for history in general, the record of any nation or period; he seemed likely to become a student. Presently he began to feel the need of languages, French and German. There was no opportunity to acquire French, that he could discover, but there was a German shoemaker in Hannibal who agreed to teach his native tongue. Sam Clemens got a friend--very likely it was John Briggs--to form a class with him, and together they arranged for lessons. The shoemaker had little or no English. They had no German. It would seem, however, that their teacher had some sort of a "word- book," and when they assembled in his little cubby-hole of a retreat he began reading aloud from it this puzzling sentence:
"De hain eet flee whoop in de hayer."
"Dere!" he said, triumphantly; "you know dose vord?"
The students looked at each other helplessly.